deeper

deeper

John and I were the only people at the lake this morning, the only people swimming in light rain. It was satisfying, swimming my lengths across the beach area, back and forth, although I noticed how I stray when I swim on my back, always heading for deeper water. (I swim outside the line of floats demarcating the safe area anyway because I like to begin and end my laps beyond its boundaries.) I laugh about this, my erratic sense of direction, but to be honest, I have a good inner compass. On return visits to cities, I’ve guided us to favourite restaurants, little corners where we’d bought good bread, churches, museums, a square where we sat and simply soaked up the sun. So when I find myself swimming out into deep water, I have to wonder what it is I’m hoping for.

I looked to the sky and the spring rain fell
I saw the water from a deeper well

On the beach side of the floats, the water is green and lovely. The sand on the lake bottom is white and the beach is fringed with cedars, hardhack, and some maples, so the water reflects their green. Beyond, the dark water begins. This morning, because it was grey and misting (more than raining), I looked up to grey sky. A noisy gang of ravens was whooping it up in the woods. I swam, back and forth, and when I’d turn at the end of a lap, I wondered how far down I’d go if I simply sank. What it would mean to sink.

Found I had a thirst that I could not quell
Lookin’ for the water from a deeper well

On Tuesday I spent time working on some recent essays. I have most of a collection of them and some days I think they’re finished and other days I wonder. I was fixing a small problem with tenses in an essay called “The Blue Etymologies”, about indigo dye and how an accident leading to damaged retinas resulted in a kind of rich visual experience I hadn’t anticipated. I remember writing the essay in December and January and waking most mornings with such excitement to be plunged into its pages again. But now when I read it, I think I might have avoided some of the reality of my situation. I didn’t write about the pain of the accident (I fractured my tailbone), nor the wonder I felt when my ophthalmologist  told me how I dodged a bullet.  Wonder that so much that I took for granted — reasonably good eyesight, the prospect of years of seeing the things I love on a daily basis, without difficulty — was in jeopardy, even briefly. So I tried to take myself deeper into the experience, back into the fear and the beauty.

     To locate a place and to mark it with images so close to gods that they breath still, after 30,000 years, or longer…this impulse, the shudder in the shoulders as the shapes appear out of the darkness at the tips of your fingers, your charcoal or ground pigments so carefully prepared: is this what we hope too with our powders and threads, our jar of ink, of leaves made into paste? When I hang our new cloth on a line in sunlight and press my face to its beauty? Breathing in the swampy scent of indigo, heady as grass clippings, oxygen, while above me the blue sky arches over the world. The cloth is a tent to hold me damp inside it. Inside indigo, as Dr. Sacks found another route to inhabit, however briefly.

Colour the little wall maps of the universe you are making. The sapphire colour for the spheres of the world. It would be useful not just to look at it, but to reflect on it in the soul. Deep inside your house you might set up a little room and mark it with these figures and colours. (Ficino, Three Books on Life, from Derek Jarman’s Chroma)

     (When I sew my spirals, I am finding my way into darkness, hopeful that I will find my way back. I am walking a path worn to the bare earth. It’s one way I know to hear myself think. I sew small shell buttons to the ends of each trail, a place-marker, shining as the light shone by my face in an Edmonton room where I lay in intense pain, but also in joy as I heard my grandchildren singing. Two little dicky birds sitting on a wall, one named Peter, the other named Paul.)

lake water

Deeper, I wanted to swim deeper this morning, to stroke into black water and find out what was there. Far away, two men were fishing from a small boat and the ravens were up to something. What was there. Logs, fish, the drowned bodies never recovered, fresh water clams, lost objects from the wrists and fingers of swimmers, turtles in the mud, the reflected heat of the sun.

I took my troubles down a dead-end trail
Reachin’ out a hand for a holier grail

 

Note: the passages of song are taken from “Deeper Well”, co-written by Emmylou Harris, David Olney, and Daniel Lanois and worth listening to here.

redux: the ghosts of Christmas past

In the spirit of Christmas music and memories, and because I am an inveterate recycler, I am reposting a little meditation from December of 2015. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

__________________

I loved the moment in A Christmas Carol (which might have been my father’s favourite movie) when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Ebenezer Scrooge’s hand and flies with him over London, out into the countryside where Scrooge sees his younger self, lonely and abandoned at boarding school, then rescued by his beloved sister. There’s a joyous party with the portly and kind Mr. Fezziwig. Scrooge sees himself falling in love with a young penniless woman and then extracting himself from that early relationship when he becomes more interested in commerce than love.

Dickens knew something about Christmas. It is truly a time of ghosts. The gatherings of the years, over the years, the parties, the sad occasions when the recently-dead were more present than anyone else (it seemed so to me, at least), the sound of bells in the night (which turned out to be the windchime near our bedroom window but which had its own magical moment as we listened and wondered), the arrival of guests in snow, the bringing in of the tree to dress in all the finery hidden away for the rest of the year, the scent of oranges, bowls of nuts and foil-wrapped chocolates,  the stockings miraculously filled overnight and waiting by the woodstove, the music  — Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin, Bruce Cockburn, silvery harp versions of all the old carols, Stephen Chatman’s A Chatman Christmas for choral splendor, Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, Light of the Stable with the transcendent Emmylou Harris, oh, and  so many more…more songs, more ghosts. I love the season but know that there are always moments when a shade casts its shadow in the bright kitchen and the Christmases of the past crowd into my heart. making me sit for a moment to honour their memory. “These are the shadows of things that have been,” the Ghost tells Scrooge and I always cried, because it seemed so deeply true. No matter how the years accumulate with their rich promises, their gifts (an early morning Skype date with my grand-daughter Kelly: when I was saying goodbye, I recited a line from a book I gave her the last time I saw her — “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!” — and her dad said, “She’s going to her bookshelf to get the book…”), there are always the losses, the boy in the classroom with his book, abandoned. The love cast aside for whatever reason. The darkness.

This morning I’ve been preparing jars of marinated olives, Gaeta and Cerignola olives with slivers of our own garlic, Meyer lemons (from the tree in the sunroom), branches of rosemary and thyme from the garden, red wine vinegar and lovely green olive oil. Oh, and little dried chilies. When I finished all this and cut some paper for labels, I thought how the olives looked so beautiful in their clear jars, ready to be gifted, and opened by friends in their own time. This will be the first year olives find their way into the Christmas bags but so many people don’t eat gluten or sugar these days so these at least are free of those particular additives. But this afternoon I’ll bake the shortbread with rosemary (for remembrance) and the gingerbread boys with their Smartie buttons and dragee eyes, the same ones I’ve made for the last 30 years. Because there are ghosts and there are ghosts, the shadows of things that have been, and when I listen to Burgess Meredith recite the spine-tingling Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil” (“I sing of a night in Bethlehem,/A night as bright as dawn./I sing of that night in Bethlehem/The night the Word was born.”) followed by Kevin Conneff singing it in Irish, I’ll want shortbread and a glass of sherry, the memory of lying in my bed in darkness, waiting for morning and the stockings and carols, and hearing bells as clear as anything.

olives

the decades

lino

I looked out just now to see if there’s the first snow on the mountain because it feels cold enough down here. There isn’t yet, but I bet it’ll come by next week. I love the cold nights, stars, that beautiful scimitar moon in the mid-November dark sky.

I just made a (clumsy) linocut for this year’s Christmas card. A winter wren, with a slightly foreshortened beak and awkward legs. (The lino was brittle this year, even when warmed by the woodstove.) I’ve chosen a short passage from my novella, Winter Wren, and John will print later this week.

Every year I make a linocut and he sets type and prints a card. I remember the first one we created, in the basement of the house we rented in North Vancouver before moving here in December of 1982, after a year and a half of living first in a tent here, then the shell of our house while we made it comfortable enough to live in. That first card used some old wooden type that came with the press and we had enough to print just two words: LOVE&JOY, all in caps, with the beautiful ampersand.

How the years accumulate. I listened to Emmylou Harris while I worked on the lino and realized I’ve been one of her biggest fans, boots and all, since grade 11. 1972. But I don’t think I ever paid much attention to this beauty, the one that caught my heart this afternoon.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll go to Edmonton (speaking of cold) to spend time with our family there. Emails arrive, asking would we like to go for a sleigh ride on Whyte Avenue, would we like to go to an abbreviated Nutcracker (our grandchildren are 2 and 4), and what about a Dickens tea? I remember carving lino in the early year with an audience, my own children, young enough to be impressed by a small knife making images in a piece of lino warmed by the woodstove. Young enough to listen to any music I played, and yes, there was a lot of Emmylou Harris even then. I wanted to preserve time in the images I cut with my little box of tools. I still do. John’s been sorting the decades of Christmas cards to make sure we have a full collection for the High Ground Press archive and there they are—a house on a hill with a moon overhead; a cat in a window with a star by its ear; a tree by the front door; a gingerbread person; a snowflake; a pinecone; the two fish undulating under stars (the image Anik and I appropriated for our Fish Gotta Swim Editions pressmark); a fishing boat with bright lights on its rigging (inked in by hand); and more that I can’t remember right now.

Sometimes I forget what’s to come. In late summer, preserving fruit and vegetables, I forget that I’ll be here in the house on a cold day in November, wondering what might make a card image for this coming Christmas. Or that listening to a cd heard hundreds of times over the years, I’ll stop as Emmylou sings,

So blind I couldn’t see
How much she really meant to me
And that soon she would always be
On my mind, in my heart,
I was blind from the start

Notes from the past: from a work-in-progress

I’ve been in the past, and in the Interior, for the last week, working away on a novella. I’ve posted little snippets here before. This comes from about the middle-point of the narrative, when the main character recalls a road-trip with her brother in the mid-1970s. I didn’t have a date to begin with but then as phrases of songs began to sing their way into the novella, I realized that it had to be after 1975 when Joan Baez first released “Diamonds and Rust”. (Another song, Emmylou Harris’s “Boulder to Birmingham”, was also released that year, and it echoes through the first part of the book.) As for the other sacred texts that form what I think of as calls and responses in the novella, they range from Hetty Dorval (1947), Swamp Angel (1954), The Double Hook (1959), to the much older Egyptian funerary texts — The Book of the Dead and The Books of Breathing. Is this too much literary weight for a small story to carry? Time will tell, as it always does. Here’s a photograph of the road to Pavilion so you can imagine the wind, the grass, the prospect of horses.

near Pavilion.JPG

from The Marriage of Rivers, a work-in-progress….

Once we were driving to a wedding in Clinton – a guy James went to university with was marrying the daughter of a local rancher – and we’d taken the Duffy Lake Road, through Lillooet, then to Pavilion where we stopped for ice-cream. Our plan had been to continue on 99 until it met 97 at the Hat Creek Ranch north of Cache Creek. We were looking forward to taking some photographs at Marble Canyon. A Shuswap guy James knew said that the high white pinnacle everyone called Chimney Rock was really Coyote’s Penis and James couldn’t resist. –I’ll have postcards made, he said. While we were leaning on one of the poles holding up the roof overhanging the entrance to the store, James suddenly said, I’ve changed my mind. Forget Marble Canyon and that penis. Let’s drive up over the mountain and go past Kelly Lake. Remember the time Dad took us camping there and all he wanted to do with fish until finally Mum said she was on strike so we had slices of bread with ham and nothing else and we thought it was a feast?

Did I remember? I’ve never forgotten how we camped on what I thought was the most beautiful lake in the world and how good those ham sandwiches were. We dipped our tin cups into the lake and drank its mineral water. And how we drove back to the coast with our windows open as we came down off Pavilion Mountain, down the crazy road (“Count the switchbacks, kids, and the one’s who’s right gets ice-cream at the store.” Then, “Who got 8? All of you? (None of us even knew what a switchback was or when we were on one.) That’s ice-cream all around!”).

–Have you got the map?

–We don’t need a map, James. It’s that road there – look, you can see the switchbacks from here. Remember when we didn’t even know what a switchback was?

We always argued about maps. James liked them to be folded just so and he liked to know distances. –How far, how far? And I’d try to estimate by using the scale but it was easier to wing it. –Oh, as far as Vancouver to Hope. Or, about the same as Kamloops to Salmon Arm.

I decided it was more about gender than temperament. I knew how to find our way by landmarks. It was hard to explain but I felt them more than I saw them. I knew how it felt in my body to drive up and get out of the car at what our father had called Carson’s Kingdom, explaining to us that a man called Carson had acquired the land in 1866 and his family had owned it until Colonel Spencer bought it in the 1940s, bought a few ranches both up the mountains and down in the valleys and on the lower benches. Spencer like the department store on Government Street, he reminded us; the store where our mother took us for back-to-school clothing, preferring it to other stores because of the quality and because she knew, slightly, a painter who lived out on Ardmore Drive, also a Spencer. Same family. We all got out of the car to watch how he opened the gate across the road while some cattle watched and we walked along a bit while he drove through, then closed the gate again. Country etiquette, he told us. So we were taking that same route, but backwards; we were driving up Pavilion Mountain rather than down and we were heading north to Kelly Lake, then east to Clinton. But my body felt the road’s contours, the rich feathery growth of the pines, the tickle of those soft grasses. I could relate these things to a map but I didn’t use the map to see how to get from one place to another. I used it as a literary text of its own. I used it to remind me how my body responded to the hills, the low-lying lakes to one of the road, the sight of a hawk gliding along the shoulder, another on a fencepost, and wind, sunlight on my arm resting on the car-door. My shoulders ached for the dry air, a few ripe Saskatoon berries in my palm. That was my map.

Roads went from this to that. But the hill led up to the pines and on to the rock rise which flattened out and fell off to nowhere on the other side. (DH, 33)

Up and up, the grass waving, the finished heads of balsamroot rustling. Crack me a beer, my brother requested, and I did, taking a long pull myself before handing him the bottle. When James was too involved with his beer and keeping us from leaving the edge of the road (the long fall to the far green valley), I let the map drop from the window on my side of the car to the ground where it floated away. Later, I thought, later I could explain that I would never forget a single contour of this landscape, not a single blade of grass, not a square inch of the blue sky above; my body was the map with its wild topography, its legends of distance and scale. In my throat, the bitter taste of hops. Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there.

 

 

 

boots in winter

It’s no secret among my family and friends that I love boots. Not Uggs or slim high-heeled ones but, well, western boots. I have other boots too and enjoy wearing them. But cowboy boots? With dresses? That’s me, a style sense I learned early from Emmylou Harris, whose early albums feature her in boots. Gorgeous ones. The late Bronwen Wallace knew this and wrote so beautifully of Emmylou and her boots in Keep That Candle Burning Bright:

Another thing I like about Emmylou Harris is how

the boots she’s wearing on the album cover always fit

her songs: sleek and expensive on Elite Hotel, fringed

and slightly sleazy on Evangaline, white with sleek

black toes on White Shoes. And when she favours

pink, it’s not just any pink. The boots she’s wearing

on Angel Band are what I think of as old-fashioned,

spiritual pink, almost mauve, like those unspectacular,

but heavenly-scented roses country gardens used to

grow, while the ones on The Ballad of Sally Rose

shimmer with the surprising incandescence of Bob

Dylan’s hat when he walks in stage in The Last

Waltz or that split-second of sunset in early July, if

you catch it from a canoe, in the middle of a lake,

with a thermos of good coffee beside you.

And yes, is what I have to say to that. (And as a side-note, John watched The Last Waltz on New Year’s Eve while I slept off the last of the noro-virus visited upon our house over the holiday and he said it was as wonderful as ever.)

So no surprise that one of my Christmas gifts (from John) is a calendar featuring 18 months’ worth of boots. He hung it for me this morning by the porch door and I look forward to the months turning so I can laugh out loud at each new portrait of spectacular boots.

bootsI own one pair of three-toned brown cowboy boots from the Red Barn in Kamloops, bought with the honorarium for an essay in Lake, a journal published for a time at UBC-Okanagan. I happened to be in Kamloops when the acceptance email arrived in my box and so I knew exactly what I wanted to spend the money on. (I’d already tried on the boots and decided it would be frivolous to buy them. That is, until writing money happened my way…) And I have the most beautiful red roping boots, made of deerskin, which gave me the title of my first collection of essays: Red Laredo Boots. And again, I saw them, decided I couldn’t afford them, but returned to buy them when the essay I’d written with them as a centrepiece was sold for exactly what the boots cost. It was February, 1994 or 5, and we’d gone on a family road trip:

We drive out to Quilchena in the late afternoon. Nanci Griffith still sings, though the kids ask for something else. But this song suits me fine — Oh, I might be gone a long old time, and it’s only that I’m asking. Is there something I can send you to remember me by, to make your time more easy passing? By now a cold wind is blowing off the lake but the kids still want ice cream in the general store. And I want something, too, though I don’t know what it is. I buy an enamelled blue coffeepot because the copper one at home has lost its handle — and I lose my heart to boots. These are no ordinary boots but red Laredo boots, sitting on the shelf with the purple ones, the green ones, the regular browns and blacks. If there weren’t $175 I’d try them on in a minute, but as it is they are just a fancy. Oh I could do things in these boots, do anything, climb, dance, walk for miles. The lady who works in the store asks us where we’ve come from and seems surprised that we are so familiar with the area. We tell her we come very summer and we just wanted to see the country in winter. We talk about the changes over the years and then she asks me if I like Ian Tyson. Out of the blue.

      “He comes to Douglas Lake every summer, you know.”

      I assure her that I love Ian Tyson, particularly “And Stood There Amazed.”

      “Then I’ll give you the Douglas Lake number and you should phone early for tickets. The barn only holds eight hundred and the tickets go fast.”

      I thank her and we drive back to Merritt, two children asleep in the back and the other quiet. I am thinking of the boots. I could wear them to the Ian Tyson dance and maybe waltz in the arms of a cowboy.

I bought the boots but I never went to the dance. Never waltzed in the arms of a cowboy. Though now, in my kitchen, with the boots hanging on the wall, a new pair each month, it might be time.

red boots

the ghosts of christmas past

I loved the moment in A Christmas Carol (which might have been my father’s favourite movie) when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Ebenezer Scrooge’s hand and flies with him over London, out into the countryside where Scrooge sees his younger self, lonely and abandoned at boarding school, then rescued by his beloved sister. There’s a joyous party with the portly and kind Mr. Fezziwig. Scrooge sees himself falling in love with a young penniless woman and then extracting himself from that early relationship when he becomes more interested in commerce than love.

Dickens knew something about Christmas. It is truly a time of ghosts. The gatherings of the years, over the years, the parties, the sad occasions when the recently-dead were more present than anyone else (it seemed so to me, at least), the sound of bells in the night (which turned out to be the windchime near our bedroom window but which had its own magical moment as we listened and wondered), the arrival of guests in snow, the bringing in of the tree to dress in all the finery hidden away for the rest of the year, the scent of oranges, bowls of nuts and foil-wrapped chocolates,  the stockings miraculously filled overnight and waiting by the woodstove, the music  — Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin, Bruce Cockburn, silvery harp versions of all the old carols, Stephen Chatman’s A Chatman Christmas for choral splendor, Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, Light of the Stable with the transcendent Emmylou Harris, oh, and  so many more…more songs, more ghosts. I love the season but know that there are always moments when a shade casts its shadow in the bright kitchen and the Christmases of the past crowd into my heart. making me sit for a moment to honour their memory. “These are the shadows of things that have been,” the Ghost tells Scrooge and I always cried, because it seemed so deeply true. No matter how the years accumulate with their rich promises, their gifts (an early morning Skype date with my grand-daughter Kelly: when I was saying goodbye, I recited a line from a book I gave her the last time I saw her — “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!” — and her dad said, “She’s going to her bookshelf to get the book…”), there are always the losses, the boy in the classroom with his book, abandoned. The love cast aside for whatever reason. The darkness.

This morning I’ve been preparing jars of marinated olives, Gaeta and Cerignola olives with slivers of our own garlic, Meyer lemons (from the tree in the sunroom), branches of rosemary and thyme from the garden, red wine vinegar and lovely green olive oil. Oh, and little dried chilies. When I finished all this and cut some paper for labels, I thought how the olives looked so beautiful in their clear jars, ready to be gifted, and opened by friends in their own time. This will be the first year olives find their way into the Christmas bags but so many people don’t eat gluten or sugar these days so these at least are free of those particular additives. But this afternoon I’ll bake the shortbread with rosemary (for remembrance) and the gingerbread boys with their Smartie buttons and dragee eyes, the same ones I’ve made for the last 30 years. Because there are ghosts and there are ghosts, the shadows of things that have been, and when I listen to Burgess Meredith recite the spine-tingling “ Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil” (“I sing of a night in Bethlehem,/A night as bright as dawn./I sing of that night in Bethlehem/The night the Word was born.”) followed by Kevin Conneff singing it in Irish, I’ll want shortbread and a glass of sherry, the memory of lying in my bed in darkness, waiting for morning and the stockings and carols, and hearing bells as clear as anything.

olives

the scent of aging stone

Last night I dreamed of Venice. (Three nights ago, I dreamed my dad met the 14th Dalai Lama in a campsite in the Nicola Valley but that’s another story.) In the Venice dream, we were crossing a canal via a small stone and brick bridge. It seemed very potent — the green water, the grey light, the scent of aging stone. I often have very vivid dreams and I think of them as a kind of story-telling, a continuation of the narratives that shape how I live. But last night’s dream had something to tell me. It felt like that. I did a little dream research this morning to find out what bridges and water mean. One source tells me this: Bridges represent a transitional period in your life where you will be moving on to a new stage. If the bridge is over water, then it suggests that your transition will be an emotional one.

Well, the bridge was one we used regularly during the two weeks we spent in Venice in November, 2009. We walked for hours every day, stopping occasionally for small cups of espresso or glasses of prosecco (which cost the same as the coffee and which was just as restorative).

from the dreamI loved everything about those two weeks, which had begun as one, with the idea that we’d travel a little more through that part of Italy before returning to Paris where we’d begun that particular trip and where we’d end it. But after the first week, we decided we simply didn’t want to leave. Couldn’t leave. The production of La Traviata we saw, not in La Scala, but an ancient scuola. The wine bar we went to for simple suppers of pumpkin ravioli and salads of bitter greens. Dim churches filled with sad-eyed Madonnas and the odour of candlewax. The patron of our small pensione and his parrot Piero — Piero quickly learned how to imitate John’s laugh and we’d hear him chuckling in the reception area after we’d gone up to our room, an eerie echo.

Today it’s raining too hard to do any of the garden work that I’ve put off — putting things in the cold-frame and the sunroom, planting the last of the spring bulbs, mulching the garlic bed with bigleaf maple leaves. The house smells of roasted butternut squash from the garden and apples from Spences Bridge, ready for soup. I’m listening to Emmylou Harris singing “Hickory Wind” and thinking about those weeks in Venice. A dream’s symbolism can be complex, perhaps, or maybe it can also be a visual longing. If I close my eyes, I can hear Piero calling Ciao as we walked out for the day and the sound of our feet on the little bridge that took us into the beauty of La Serenissima.