redux: what does a carrier bag hold?

Note: this was from December 1, 2014. Yet it’s still true, still ongoing. I did finish both the essay and the quilt. The essay was published first in Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction, edited by Josh MacIvor-Andersen, and then it became the title essay of a collection of my work, published by Mother Tongue Publishing. The quilt went to Forrest and Manon for their March birthdays. And it’s all happening again—essays in progress, quilts inspired by them, and my bedrock belief that it’s part of a continuum.

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For the past month or so, I’ve been trying to work on a long essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, which is loosely about mathematics, wine, love, horticulture, and genetics. It’s a hodgepodge, yes, but I know that there’s also a coherence there, a pattern, and I’m a little at a loss right now to see it. (I’ve also begun a novella which is taking my attention, though not all of it.) The essay has a quilt to accompany it; the quilt is a textural meditation on the mathematics in the essay and the essay also details the making of the quilt. The individual parts of the quilt are all designed and made and now I need to piece it together, to find a pattern for the individual squares (though in fact they’re rectangles!) to echo the elements in the essay. This is where I’m puzzled and can’t see or think my way through it.

I don’t like being idle. And I think best when I have some sort of hand work to do. I am a terrible knitter but sometimes I knit just to feel the accumulation of yarn making itself into a scarf or a blanket, a kind of magic emerging from the needles. And my quilting skills are only a little better but I love to see the possibilities of colour, harmonies, even narratives in fabric and to find ways to work with those. My brain is not logical and I can’t follow directions so the quilts I’ve made over the years (more than 25 — years and quilts) are very much my own. And they’re explorations.

Maybe they’re also carrier bags. Years ago I visited a class of students studying my novel, Sisters of Grass, and when I met their instructor before the class, he told me that he thought of my work in the tradition of Ursula LeGuin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, from her essay collection, Dancing at the Edge of the World. As it turned out, I’d brought along a basket of objects central to the novel — a sampler, some Ponderosa pine cones, photographs taken by the ethnographer James Teit — so I noticed the instructor (a very congenial man) smiling as I unpacked my basket, reading a little from my novel, and passing around objects for interested students to look at.

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again-if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all.

A carrier bag holds more than food, of course. It holds anything you want it to and sometimes it holds ideas, simple ones and more adventurous ones. It holds scraps of fabric and pine needles for baskets and memories of campfires and the sweet scent of a baby sleeping.

This weekend I had such an urge to make something, my hands yearning for work. But I’m still weighing and pondering the final pattern of “Euclid’s Orchard” and wasn’t able to take that any further. I went into the trunk holding my stash of fabrics and pulled out a whole passle of scraps, bits and pieces left from other quilts but too pretty to throw away. There wasn’t enough to anything big or elaborate so I decided to cut what I had into five-inch squares and find a pleasing way to piece them together. It took two mornings to cut out all the squares — 168 of them — and then an afternoon and a morning to get to the point I’m at now: ten courses of the eventual fourteen pieced together. The cottons have no relationship other than the one I’ve imposed on them. Some of them are French prints, some scraps from intricate quilts I’ve made in the past, and some of the fabric comes from an unfinished dress begun by a friend and passed along to me because she thought I’d like the print and might want to cut up some of the usable areas.

This morning, as I sewed lengths of squares together, I found myself thinking about “Euclid’s Orchard” and I think I might be ready to work on the essay again.  Something about the quiet labour of fitting pieces together, aligning their edges, trying to make the seams even, looking for a way to highlight a colour — the punch of yellow in this simple patchwork quilt has me remembering the sunlight on the orchard that is central to the essay…

If you haven’t got something to put it in, food will escape you–even something as uncombative and unresourceful as an oat. You put as many as you can into your stomach while they are handy, that being the primary container; but what about tomorrow morning when you wake up and it’s cold and raining and wouldn’t it be good to have just a few handfuls of oats to chew on and give little Oom to make her shut up, but how do you get more than one stomachful and one handful home? So you get up and go to the damned soggy oat patch in the rain, and wouldn’t it be a good thing if you had something to put Baby Oo Oo in so that you could pick the oats with both hands? A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A recipient.

And wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a bright quilt to keep away winter’s chill? Blues, yellows, and a long diagonal of red, bright as berries and necessary as blood.

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redux: “I wish to be with you in any way I can.” — Ovid, Tristia 5 79-80

Two things: Autumn means (in part) the return of the coho here on the north end of the Sechelt Peninsula. And today I am feeling gratitude that the health issue of 2016 didn’t end up being what my specialist thought it was. Another thing: apparently the Google ad that pops up on my site is a scam so don’t click it. (WordPress says to click the report button and they’ll investigate…)

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coho.jpg

On the weekend, friends came to dinner and after we’d eaten, just as they were preparing to leave, one friend asked me if I believed in an afterlife, a consciousness after this one. The way he looked at me, I knew that he knew what my answer would be. Not that I have a clear answer or a sense of an afterlife that corresponds with the Christian one I was raised to believe in — though I found myself quite firmly rejecting that Christian belief system when I was ten and spent an afternoon looking at photographs of the liberation of Belsen. I remember asking my parents how a just god could allow such things to happen — the Shoah as well as other events in human history — and they were at a loss to answer. And I knew that the god I had been raised to believe in didn’t — or couldn’t possibly — exist. (Not as I was taught he existed. And in those years, it was clear that god was male.) Because my friend is a poet as well as a commercial fisherman, I knew that he would understand me if I used the language of metaphor and the cycles of nature to try to explain what I thought happened after we die. Every year, about this time, we go to the salmon-bearing creek near us to watch the coho salmon excavate their redds and lay their eggs. They have come so far to do this and they find the creek — a small one, emptying into a long lake eventually draining into the ocean — they were born in. After the females have laid their eggs and the males have fertilized those eggs, the salmon die and eagles, coyotes, bears, wolves, and other animals feed on what’s left of the bodies. To see the live bodies hover in the water where generations of fish have undulated, expelled eggs or milt, died, and then emerged from the gravel to develop into an organism capable of swimming as far as Alaska, only to return again,purposefully and deliberately, is to think of life as everlasting. Not necessarily our own but what outlives us is part of us. We’re part of what goes forever. We’ve done our best to both damage these cycles (I’d like to think we haven’t done it willfully but that’s perhaps generous) and to ensure their vitality and endurance.

This is not a post about religion or dogma. It’s about how we live and how we accommodate death and rebirth. I’m just home from yet another test to determine how long I will continue on the earth in this state — sentient, lively, alert; and the news today was reasonably good — and when I open a file of the work I am currently revising, I see that my own preoccupations have been with consciousness and what it means for some time now. My whole life. And the lives that came before me and those that will continue after me. Fish, faithful dogs, beloved family members, the tiny remnants of birds who’ve hit the windows, friends who departed in joy or in pain…I told my friend I believed in ghosts and that I saw them regularly. I do. And I’m grateful for that.

(from “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices” (Euclid’s Orchard, 2017)

“I wish to be with you in any way I can.” — Ovid, Tristia 5 79-80

On my desk, folders and envelopes of papers, some of them in pieces – the remains of my grandmother’s life in Alberta, before she met my grandfather and after. She married him in 1920, a widow with 8 children and another buried in the cemetery where her first husband and her younger brother are also buried. It’s a sad process, in a way. I think of them in their bleak house in Drumheller with its legacy of death and illness — the Spanish flu, diphtheria. The graves in the nearby cemetery, the marked ones and the unmarked. In the photographs I’ve been studying, there are blurry moments when I suspect I’m seeing ghosts. A hat on a chair. A dog watching an empty road, as though in anticipation. But those ghosts are also my ghosts so it’s work I need to do. My grandmother is in my hands, my body, the way I peg sheets to the line on a summer morning, or chop garlic for my own version of česnečka. I am the mother of sons and a daughter who are her great-grandchildren, though they only know her through a couple of photographs, some stories, a long folk-song of food they hear when I sing her praises: her soup, her striky, her rich perogies, cabbage rolls tender as butter.

 

 

“What are years?” (cont.)

mum on gonzales beach

What are years, that they accumulate, that you hardly notice them, and then you do. I wrote about time yesterday and this morning I had the feeling that I was forgetting something. Something important. I looked in my datebook: no appointments. And then I remembered. 9 years ago today my mother died. 10 years ago yesterday my father died. (A sad synchronicity.) My father was difficult and I’ve written about him in “Herakleitos on the Yalakom”, an essay in Euclid’s Orchard. My mother wasn’t so difficult. I’ve written about her too, in “Tokens”. If you’ve read “Tokens”, you will know something of her story: that she was born to an unwed mother on Cape Breton Island in 1926, that she was given up at birth, raised in a foster home. She’d grown up knowing her biological father’s surname; it was the one she was given at birth. But she was kind of ambivalent about finding out about her biological parents. I think I understand that but I wanted to do some sleuthing after she died, and I did, and for years, I followed clues with no success. Then I did Ancestry’s DNA test and voila, I found her father. Well, I figured out who provided the sperm. He was in no way a father to her. In truth, I believe he was already engaged to the woman he married, a very accomplished doctor who became the chancellor of a large university. They had children who were my mother’s half-brothers, though she never knew this. I haven’t been able to figure out who my mother’s mother was. She is not even a footnote in the life of the man who impregnated her.

My favourite photograph of my mum shows her in all her beauty on Gonzales Beach with my older brother, her first-born. She and my father and my brother lived in a small cottage above the beach, now long-gone. She loved water, she loved the sun, and it must have been heaven in summer to walk down the stairs to the beach. In later years, when we lived on Eberts Street, she would walk with us to Gonzales Beach (because the whole waterfront along Dallas Road was contaminated with raw sewage; this would be the early 1960s), with a picnic, and we would swim and build sand castles. Did she remember the earlier house, the earlier walks to the shore, when she sat in the sand with her infant son, not knowing what the years would bring? Do any of us ever know?

Under Cape Breton’s rocky soil, under the parks in Halifax with their views of the sea, the sound of gulls, of commerce, of pianos and fiddles from open windows, under the earth the buried creeks hide their secrets. And you can hear something, a murmuring, a rill of original water, of origins, of fish in their lost habitats, eels, amphibians entering their dark waters,and in memory, birds at the vanished banks, their beaks poised, and secrets, secrets, my mother’s buried history in the damp ground where water longs for the sky.

I expected to find her parents, expected to solve the mystery of her birth, and instead I’m left with questions. Different ones than the ones I began with, and maybe unanswerable, but I understand some things more completely now. Her capacity for love, her generosity, her lack of self-regard, which made my own seem like vanity. I remember visiting the Foundling Museum in London and realizing how stories like hers still draw us to their mysteries.

At the Foundling Museum, a spyglass, a hairpin, the handle of a penknife. Padlocks, a tiny black hand pierced with a hole for a ribbon, a handful of coins, pierced, notched, worn thin by thumbs stroking, stroking, stored in the archives. I have My Sin, a tweed coat, a memory of Mrs.Nobody on her chair in the kitchen. I have a hole on my sleeve the shape of a heart but no scrap to match it with and the sound of a creek running underground on its way to the sea,with everything of my mother in it, and nothing. I have every regret for the way her life began, and ended, a motherless child, so far, so far from her home, no one looking for her in the listservs, among the dry records of Vital Statistics, no one, no one but me, my face against the glass case of all those unclaimed tokens, those stories begun perhaps in love and ending in sorrow.

the waning buck moon

girls and prosecco

I didn’t sleep much last night. I’d wake and realize my entire family was sleeping in this house where we raised our children and to which they’ve returned with their own children or (as with Aunty Angie) on her own, by small plane across Georgia Strait, and I felt so excited at the prospect of swimming today, watching the kids play elaborate games with a soccer ball and badminton racquets and frisbees. Would the huge prime rib roast be enough for all of us? Which Desert Hills red wine would pair with it? Would the kids like the dinosaur pinata we are going to hang from the clothesline later today? I could smell the smoke from our campfire (or firecamp, as Francophone Manon calls it) last evening where we roasted hotdogs wrapped in bannock and ate blueberry and peach galette. Smoky hair on the pillow reminds me of our summer camping trips across the province when my children were small, sleeping in the tent and hearing my family breathing like a single organism.

The waning buck moon was just passing our bedroom when suddenly the entire coyote family began to howl and yip just on the bank below the house. Were they hunting? And (oh!) where was Winter the cat? (Hidden, on the upper deck, listening too.) The sound was a tangle of harmonies, low voice, high voice, and (almost certainly the mother’s) middle vibrato. John and I held hands in the moonlight, while the song briefly followed the moon to the west. stopping as suddenly as it began.

And listen: the coyotes are singing, the deep voice of the father,the rather more shrill voice of the mother—anxious that all her offspring eat well and learn to hunt, to care for their safety in the forest beyond the orchard—and the lilting joyous youngsters unaware that a life is anything other than the moment in moonlight, fresh meat in their stomachs, the old trees with a few apples and pears too small and green for any living thing to be interested in this early in the season.

—From Euclid’s Orchard (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017)

“But you must not pronounce its name.”

common pink moss

June is a month for roses and ours have been just glorious. Every few days I cut big bowls full and I can smell the nicest ones from a room away. This morning, the common pink mosses, from a huge sprawling bush given me years ago by an elderly woman in our community, now long-dead. She was odd. One year she walked in the local May Day parade, her head covered with a hood, carrying a papier-mâché head under her arm, with a sign on her back: Anne Boleyn is alive and well in the library. (She volunteered in the library and I guess she wanted to remind us that history was alive and all around us. Maybe.) Yet she lives in my garden and in many others, I know. That’s the way plants so often find us.

pillars

Another rose grows up the railings just beyond the kitchen. It came from a spring plant sale decades ago, unnamed, but when I was writing one of the essays in Euclid’s Orchard, I got out my big dictionary of roses and kept turning the pages until I found it. Did it matter? Would it be any less (more) beautiful named than unnamed?

The rose came from one of the annual spring plant sales at the Community Hall when we first lived here; you brought your box with you, and you got there early because everyone wanted the tomatoes or irises or Muriel Cameron’s dahlia tubers or bits of Vi Tyner’s roses. I’m not sure this one came from Vi Tyner, who did give me moss roses, a soft pink one and another one deeper pink in colour. But it grows everywhere—old homesteads, seaside gardens, along fences in semi-industrial areas as if remembering a former house, ancient care. It grows across from the Post Office in Madeira Park, for example, and I don’t know if it ever gets pruned or watered. And there’s a place on the highway, near Middlepoint, where one grew for years and years, until it was absorbed by the forest taking over the site of a cabin that I believed burned to the ground before we arrived in 1981.
I’d thought a little about trying to identify it but somehow never did. And somehow today was the day, so I took my rose encyclopedia and a cup of coffee out to the table and went through, page by page. Until I came to ‘American Pillar.’ Bred by Dr.Van Fleet in 1902. A very prolific and widespread rose,and yes, it will survive any kind of neglect, it seems.

June is about roses and water. It’s about birds, the ones I hear at dawn, the robins that follow me in the garden for the worms they know will turn up as I pull weeds, and even the stunned orange-crowned warbler that hit John’s study window a few hours ago. I picked her (it was a female, missing the orange crown) up in a tea-towel and carried her around in one hand as I filled the bird bath, watered some vines. She blinked, looked at me with a steady gaze, closed her beak, and after about half an hour, she flew off.

Some mornings when I go out to water, I watch the hummingbirds in the roses and it feels as though my life is passing too quickly. Do you feel this? That you want the days to pass as slow as honey, that you want the birdsong to go on forever, the roses too, and you want it all, the scent of common mosses, water cool from the hose, the tendrils of cucumbers, the taste of sharp mizuna and arugula, how the light goes on into the evening so that you look up from your book and it’s 10.00. I was reading poetry last night and these lines surprised me to tears for the way they spoke to the moment. (I tucked them away to use as an epigraph for my next collection of essays because this is exactly what I meant on every page):

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

             --Robert Penn Warren, "Tell Me a Story"

 

striated

dad in metal car

I’m at work on (yet) another essay about family history and am trying to puzzle through something that is both about place and about the public record. In Euclid’s Orchard, in an essay titled “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices”, I wrote about my discovery that the homestead I’d believed my grandmother’s first husband had taken out in the Drumheller area prior to her arrival in Canada in 1913 didn’t exist. Instead, she arrived to a squatters community.  In spring of 2016 I’d gone to the Provincial Archives in Edmonton to make a copy of a few documents I thought would help me to find the 1/4 section of land I’d always believed my grandmother’s first husband owned and was surprised to find instead the whole long file of maps, letters, petitions, directives, etc. On that day in 2016, I didn’t have time to do anything more than make one or two copies of pages I thought might be useful. Later, my son Forrest sent me a pdf of the microfilm detailing the difficulty the residents of the community had in petitioning the federal government for permission to buy the individual plots they’d settled on. Instead of a copy of the homestead grant and a map, I had 398 pages to decode and try to understand. I don’t believe that my grandmother and her first husband bought the plot they were living on when a portion of the land was subdivided in 1918. Their names don’t show up on the list of purchasers and anyway in 1918 that husband died in the Spanish flu epidemic and my grandmother had a new baby, her 9th, who was to die just a few months later.

In 1920 my grandmother remarried. She married my grandfather John Kishkan. They show up on the 1921 Census (though I didn’t find them at first because my grandfather’s surname was misspelled) and again in 1926, living on the north side of the river, near the Midland Mine. I suspect my grandfather worked there. A few weeks ago in Drumheller, John and I took the two photographs we have of my father as a child and tried to find the location of the small farm he lived on by matching the hills in the photographs with the hills near Michichi Creek above the Dinosaur Trail, formerly Midland Road (the address given on the Census forms). That process is what I’m writing about now.

It gets complicated and in many ways it’s a useless exercise. What can I possibly learn by looking at striated hills and barren ground? Maybe something. I’ve discovered that the actual section of land where the squatters community was and where my grandparents had their farm is the same. The records are confusing. It was School Land. It was owned by someone called James Edward Trumble and maybe it was owned by someone else. Maybe my grandparents owned a little piece. Or maybe they rented a piece. I hope to figure it out.

On this map (which asks to be a quilt, doesn’t it?), you can see Range 20 on both sides of the Red Deer River.

map of range 20.png

Imagine the small farm tucked against the flank of hill. Imagine waking to the striations, walking out to the morning in the shadow of those layers. My father once wrote a letter to me when I was living in Ireland, so it must have been 1978, and he mentioned he’d been to the funeral of his last living (half)brother, Paul Yopek. He’d driven to Drumheller after that funeral and wrote that he saw the hills where he’d walked as a boy but had never found anything worth keeping in his life. I thought he meant fossils but perhaps his comment was more ontological. Looking at the sedimentary layers exposed by weather, the mudstone, sandstone, the coal seams, and shale, all softly coloured and shimmering in the light, I wondered if they might take up a large space in the physical topography of a boy growing in their shadows. Paleontologists were at work in the 1930s when my father was a boy and perhaps he encountered one on his forays into the hills. Maybe he’d been asked to keep his eyes open and maybe he had and nothing ever showed up. The long rib of a creature as old as time. An ammonite. A nest of fossilized eggs. In his rough house, his mother made noodles, his father came home dark with coal dust.

          — from a work-in-progress

redux: the Passable Builders at work

Note: this was two years ago today. I’ve been out on my own deck, planting zinnia seeds and moving pots around, remembering the pleasure of watching my sons and their father work together, making jokes, adjourning for beer at the end of the day. And somehow during those days in Edmonton, inbetween walks with the children, making food with my daughters-in-law, driving out to the Ukrainian Village Museum,  I proof-read the final galleys of Euclid’s Orchard with those same men and their lives on almost every page.

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One plan for our time in Edmonton, if weather and time conspired congenially, was to help Brendan and Cristen replace a rotting porch at the back of their house in Strathcona and to build a new free-standing deck under the leafy maples in one corner of their back yard. It’s the place where outdoor tables go for summer meals and so plans have passed back and forth between John and Brendan for a few months. Best size? Lumber dimensions? John loves a project like this. It’s been a long time since two neophytes (poets!) built a house on the Sechelt peninsula and though many projects have arisen since then—adding rooms to accommodate a growing family; replacing the original decks —I have to say that my husband loves construction. I told him once that I thought humans had vestigial building knowledge in their hands and when the need arose to call on that knowledge, it would be there. (I know you’re rolling your eyes!)

Forrest, Manon, and Arthur planned to spend a week in Edmonton too. Five of our days overlapped with theirs. (I just took them to the airport.) All week John and his sons measured wood, hammered joists, screwed down long lengths of lumber for the decking. They joked that they were the Passable Builders (their surname being Pass). This morning, after breakfast, I asked them to sit on the porch (which may or may not see railings and perhaps a bench or two):

passable builders, with foreman

The old porch is waiting to have its nails removed:

old porch.JPG

And here’s the deck where we’ll eat our dinner tonight (the remaining two Passable builders are out buying the last two pieces of lumber to finish it as well as stair materials):

deck under maple

While details were being weighed and pondered (“Measure twice, cut once.”), I looked over to see how weeds thrive in sunlight:

weed thrive in sunlight