“the house shelters day-dreaming”

grandma's house and fields

In a dreamy moment yesterday, I found this photograph of my grandmother’s house online. She came from a village in the Beskydy Mountains, in what’s now the Czech Republic. In 2012, I was lucky enough to see her house, in snow, when a friend took John and I to her village, Horni Lomna. I wrote about that visit here. Hers is the house at the back of the photo, the one at the foot of the hills. That looks like an orchard behind the house, doesn’t it? A few years ago a kind woman in Horni Lomna sent me other photographs of the house and the garden directly behind it. She told me that she thinks the house is only used in summer and it’s owned by several people, one of whom has my grandmother’s mother’s surname, the surname I gave my character Patrin in my novella of the same name. Unfortunately those photographs and the other information the kind woman sent were filed on my old computer, the one that died suddenly. Some stuff was stored on Google Drive but not that. (Oh, the lessons we learn.)

I’ve been looking at this photograph, thinking about it and a girl growing up in it. My grandmother had two sisters whose names are recorded in Horni Lomna’s town hall and I suspect she also had a brother, the man with her original surname who showed up as one of the residents in the squatters’ community my grandmother lived in when she first came to Canada in 1913, the subject of “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices” in my last book, Euclid’s Orchard. That man, Josef Klus, arrived in Canada a month or so after my grandmother and on the ship’s manifest, in the category detailing reason for travel, it’s noted that he was joining his sister in Drumheller. Josef died in the Spanish flu epidemic, the one that also took my grandmother’s first husband.

So this photograph is compelling to me for all it says and doesn’t say. The landscape is so verdant. An orchard. Sheep probably. Pigs. She left that place for this one:

julia's funeral

This is 1923, the funeral of Julia, the first child of my grandmother’s second marriage. (There were 8 living children from her first marriage as well as a daughter who died in infancy, of diphtheria.) I have no idea if this house still exists. I’ve tried to find out the history of her houses in Drumheller—the one listed as a “shack” in the materials related to the squatters’ community she settled in with her first husband (and 5 children, 4 more quickly arriving); the one that replaced another (the shack?) that burned to the ground. And this is the last house she owned in Alberta, the house my grandfather build in the 1940s. It’s the subject of something I’m working on now. My father inherited this house and sold it after my grandmother’s death. I have one or two memories of staying here, not in this house specifically, but in a smaller house on the same property (I believe it was a house my grandfather bought from the Prins family and had moved to this property either before he built this one or just after.)


What does a house contain, what memories does it hold? Gaston Bachelard tells us what a house allows us: “I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” But are we also contained in its continued space, the corner of a street in Beverly, Alberta, near a park where children play, as we played, on the long summer days? And is my grandmother still a shadow among those trees in Horni Lomna or remembered in the small panes of glass gazing out towards the road?


“…all the more wonderful for its mysterious provenance”

the stray

For readers of the blog, the recurrence of plants, coyotes, frog-song, births, deaths, phrases of poetry (sometimes the same poetry), musings about dandelion pizza, the various rivers I love, the growth of grandchildren (and even a fourth one due in July), swimming, must get, well, a little tired. Yesterday I was driving to a meeting and I saw that the coltsfoot at Misery Mile is in bloom and I thought, oh, I should write about that (remembering my own young horse and how the leaves reminded me of his feet), and then almost immediately realized that I already had, in my essay collection Phantom Limb.

I stop on the roadside and carefully lift a plant of the coltsfoot to bring home to my own garden. Petasites palmatus, butterburr, sweet coltsfoot. There are the blooms on their fleshy stalks and the broad leaves with fine hairs on the underside. And there is one small inrolled leaf-shoot, not yet opened, the foot of that colt I hold as I once held the entire weight of his delicate ankles in my hands.

(The plant I lifted didn’t survive.)

And just now, looking out the glass door to the deck, I saw the buds on the volunteer apple tree growing in the rocks on the bank leading down to where our orchard used to be, the orchard I celebrate and mourn in Euclid’s Orchard.

Did this tree sprout from a seed spit over the side of the deck or excreted by birds or even seeds from the compost into which I regularly deposited cores and peelings from apples given us by friends in autumn? Belle of Boskoops from Joe and Solveigh, for instance, which make delectable fall desserts and cook up into beautiful chutney. Or else a seed from the few rotten apples from the bottom of a box bought from the Hilltop Farm in Spences Bridge, their flavor so intense you could taste dry air, the Thompson River, the minerals drawn up from the soil, faintly redolent of Artemesia frigida. This stray is all the more wonderful for its mysterious provenance, its unknown parents, and its uncertain future, for it grows out of a rock cleft, on a dry western slope. I won’t dig it up since I have no doubt its roots are anchored in that rock, but I will try to remember to water it occasionally and maybe throw a shovel of manure its way this spring.

It all comes around again. That’s what I’m saying, I guess. (Even the meeting I was driving to was to work on details for the upcoming—14th!—Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, one of the pleasures of summer; I’ve been part of the organizing committee, off and on, since the beginning.) We sit on the deck at the end of the afternoon with a glass of wine and we notice that the big-leaf maples are heavy with incipient leaves and blossoms. And that means warblers and other songbirds drawn to both the nectar and to the small insects gathered on the blossoms. And as the leaves unfurl, we’ll watch for the western tanagers who nest either in the maple canopy or near it because we see them going back and forth during the nesting season, a flash of red and yellow, brilliant in summer sunlight.

My noticing, if I may call it that, is part of the way I remember, the way I try to keep intact the world I cherish. I am as political a creature as many or most; I have issues I follow, organizations I support, and lives beyond my own family and friends that I advocate for and with. But what I can do daily is record the place I have lived on and in for nearly 40 years—its cycles, its weather, its rich and ordinary earth. So the coltsfoot, the stray apple tree, the tanagers, even the samaras that fall from the maple in autumn and echo in the middle name of my first grandchild. Not only my home but what surrounds it, holds it. That people want to read these things never ceases to astonish me and I am grateful to you. And to Gaston Bachelard, who feels like a lifelong companion in his wise book about space—both the architectural space we inhabit but also how it fits into its environment, in our actual experience and how we recall it, how it influences our dreams and memories.

We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images. Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.
                                     —from The Poetics of Space


“I’m in a big hole!”

Kelly's new bike

The other evening, my son in Edmonton phoned from a small park near his home to arrange a Skype call for later that evening. He’d walked to the park with his little daughter who turned two a couple of weeks ago. “Do you want to say hello to Grandma?” he asked her and held out his phone. “I’m in a big hole!” she shrieked excitedly. “How will you get out?” I asked. And her reply, even louder: “I’m in a big hole!”

Her dad quietly confided to me that the hole was a slight depression in the sandbox. What I loved about her communication was that it was a complete sentence. Maybe she’d used sentences before but not in our conversations via Skype or during our last visit in May. She knew lots of words but I hadn’t heard them put together so confidently. Or with such joy.

And I loved that her sentence was about location, about geography, about herself in relation to the earth. There’s a metaphysical mystery inherent in it. I thought of Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos, as marvelous as his Poetics of Space for its explorations of how dreams, memory, and our capacity for wonder are integral to how we experience the world. And that the language of poetry is best suited to our apprehension of these things.

“Poetry is one of the destinies of speech. In trying to sharpen the awareness of language at the level of poems, we get the impression that we are touching the man whose speech is new in that it is not limited to expressing ideas or sensations, but tries to have a future. One would say that poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language.”

“I’m in a big hole!” Yes, we all are. How we experience that, how we relate to its dimensions, how we remember them, how our body felt in the cool sand, how we looked up and out, how we find language to describe this, how we dream of it all our lives…and how those first words came to us as we expressed our joy to someone we couldn’t even see but whom we believed was there, connected to us in thin air: “Reverie helps us inhabit the world, inhabit the happiness of the world.” I wish this for my grandchildren, for all of us.

“If we return to the old home as to a nest”

I’ve been hard at work on an essay about my father’s family and the discoveries I made on a recent trip to Alberta. 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.

This morning I walked out to the garden to pick some kale for my morning smoothie and heard robin song. It was coming from the huge crabapple tree, given us 35 years ago by John’s mother; it’s now in full bloom. It’s so beautiful that you don’t even notice that the top branches were broken last fall by a bear. If you’re not familiar with this tree, you see only the deep pink blossoms, alive with bees and robins, and you don’t know that the fruit is small and scabby. And you won’t know that Vera Grafton once climbed its lower branches to gather fruit for jelly. That was the visit when she told me that her father had courted her mother by canoe, across Georgia Strait. Her mother lived in Nanaimo and her father was a member of the Shishalth Nation. How many years ago was that? Vera was in her 80s, I believe, when she picked the crabapples; and that was in 1997 or 1998. So think back, back, to the early days of the 20th century.

Coming back from the garden, I saw one robin fly to the nest under the eaves by the side porch and another quickly settle itself on the nest. This is the tree where they wait for the exchange to take place:

nest (2).JPG

This nest site is not the best place from our perspective. The side porch is where the woodbox is and on weekends like this one — wet and cool — we still use our woodstove. When we left for Alberta, there was nest building in an elbow of grapevine on the south side of the house. Dry grass, moss, lichens, small twigs. Then returning last week, I looked up as I was bringing in stuff from the car and there was a almost-completed nest under the eaves by the porch. No sign of the builders but next morning one of them at least was back at work. And we’re bringing wood in the front door, enough for one fire at a time. But watching the robins is worth a little inconvenience. Some years three clutches of young have fledged from this location. I often wonder if each year’s parents are the original parents or else subsequent generations who return and return and return. The song returns, the blossoms return, and that bear will return (alas).

nest (1).JPG

We have pleasure to look forward to over the next few weeks. The sound of chicks, then the occasional glimpse of them — or their open beaks! — as the parents work to keep them fed. The diligence of the parents as they swoop in and out with worms and other delicacies. And if we’re lucky, the sight of the young leaving the nest, flapping ungracefully on their first flight, often careening briefly through the air and landing in the lilacs. The parents scold and encourage. Some mornings we’ll see the family entire in the blue air as the young literally exercise their wings and learn to feed themselves.

Of course by now you will know that I am talking about my own family == three children raised in our homemade house, nurtured and loved, and coaxed easily from the nest with every hope for their long survival. Oh, and their return! “So there is also an alas in this song of tenderness. If we return to the old home as to a nest, it is because memories are dreams, because the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy.” — from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, with thanks to Gaston Bachelard.

There are ghosts, and ghosts. The blurry moments in the old photographs of my grandparents’ home in Drumheller as a funeral is recorded or a young boy — my father — rides his tricycle over the hard earth. The scratchy signature of my grandmother’s first husband on a petition to Ottawa, begging to be allowed to stay in the shack he’d built on land he didn’t own. It’s all mine, if I can only record it and commemorate it in all its difficult details.

“…the house protects the dreamer…”

It was a row of houses and no one else could see them. I’d returned to the neighbourhood where my family lived when I was in primary school and I recognized many streets, the old houses from the early part of the 20th c., the cemetery where we rode our bikes down leafy lanes between the mausoleums and small gated graves. The high narrow coloured houses in the row I was describing were near Government House, off Rockland, and they were perched on the edge of a high rock face, a cliff. I was wondering how they could have been there all those years without me ever noticing them before, above a street we drove frequently, an arrow pointing to a small road leading upward, towards the houses, and I was longing to know more about them. The yellow one, with its fancy gingerbreading, painted like buttercream; and the blue one, the deep pink one. At a little corner store with ice-cream posters in the window and a case filled with jars of penny candy, a woman thought for a moment and asked me to repeat where I’d said the houses were. She thought again. She called to someone in the back, behind a curtain, and that person was puzzled too. A line of houses, with turrets and high windows, a widows walk on the roof of the yellow one? No one else could see them. When I woke up, I could still trace the route I’d taken in the dream and I thought about the road we’d often driven along; as far as I can recall, there’s no cliff, no houses painted the colours of summer.

This has happened to me before, in dreams. A house never noticed before, an attempt to find out about it, walking through a maze of streets leading further and further inward. Or a place so familiar that I recognize tiny details – the shape of the sky through leaves, the scent of the grass under my feet, how a field stretching from the road rises to a hill where a horse grazes, oblivious. Once I was so sure I’d been to the place I’d awoken from that I tried to track it down, parsing each element to determine the relationship of the parts of the dream-grammar. And discovered it was like a slightly different dialect, one I could understand completely when dreaming but not very well in my waking hours. I’ve read a little about dream theory and it seems that the house represents the self. The size of the house indicates one’s own sense of self, the possibilities of growth, of showing your face to the world (if the front of the house is primary in the dream) or turning inward (if the back of the house is presented). I think of the doors, gracious and brightly painted in the row on the cliff, and the abundance of high windows, shining and clear.

When I travel, I often dream my way into houses seen from train windows. Last March in Portugal I saw a small farm nestled among citrus trees, cork oaks and feathery pines, a few black pigs in its fields, and it seemed that every part of me yearned to live there, to know that space and that weather, the dry air and the weight of oranges from those trees in my hands. It was, I suppose, day-dreaming but it’s also the kind of recognition that often precedes writing for me. A novel about someone like me, or not, living on that farm, and looking out to see the train passing on its way to Evora?

A book important to me as a young writer (and later on, too, when I was thinking about memory as I was writing Mnemonic) was Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space: “If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. ”

I don’t often dream of my own house, though John does; he sometimes dreams we’ve lost it and he wakes up with such relief that it’s still here, that we’re still living in it with all our stuff, all our memories. When I do dream of our house, it’s always years ago and the children are still small and there are dogs. Dogs mean companionship, I think, and loyalty; they are repositories of deep emotion. And waking, I feel sorrow for the ones we’ve lived with and whose lives mirrored our own and who died here – this one in the photograph died on that very deck, after a long life with us. She died of old age and John held her for her last moments of life. She’s buried in our woods, with an earlier dog (and this one’s mentor).