“And who will you become…”

morning swim

You wake, heart-sick because of a mass shooting, inspired by the ugly discourse (if one can dignify it with the term) of the far-right government to the south of your own country, and then you read that there was another shooting, more innocent people gunned down, also inspired by the awful president and his casual hateful language.

You try to gather what’s good. Deadhead the roses, geraniums.  You listen to Hilary Hahn playing The Lark Ascending over and over again. One son sends a photograph of your beloved grandson eating raspberries and ice-cream in a big bowl. Your daughter talks of a swim with your other son and his family. When they were here last week, you’d wake in the night and come quietly downstairs to work at your desk, the darkness huge around you.

Night is a cistern. Owls sing. Refugees tread meadow roads
with the loud rustling of endless grief.
Who are you, walking in this worried crowd.

Digging in the compost for usable material to mulch some arugula seedlings, you keep one eye out for the weasel. You keep one eye out for tree frogs. When the grandkids were visiting, a tree frog clung to your leg like a child’s hand.

One day your grandchildren were playing in your study and they ran out, screaming, There are ghosts in there! It was part of a game (you think), but yes, there are. (You didn’t tell them this.) Right this minute, you remember how your long-dead family—parents, grandparents, and as far back as you could go—stood behind you as you tried to write their story, in the night (again), when you thought you might have a fatal illness. Well, it didn’t occur to you that you might have that particular condition until a doctor pointed out evidence on a screen in a big hospital, taking you deep into your own lungs, and talking about margins, metastases, biopsies, and you said to him, I never knew my lungs were so beautiful. They’re like contour maps! (He was taken aback, but only for a moment.)

And who will you become, who will you be
when day returns, and ordinary greetings circle round.

In the night, the ghosts still gather. They are people still living (you feel your granddaughter’s hand on your arm, wanting the glitter paints, the tiny wooden bead with the second “l” in her name), they are the children you gave birth to and loved so fiercely that you can’t believe they weren’t wounded by your love (and maybe they were, are, but they still come back to this house and your table, they still tell you they love you), they are the young couple in their celebratory clothes (your white gauze dress, his Harris tweed jacket and impossibly wide-legged corduroy trousers) standing in front of a fireplace, just married. They are your own parents, whose 69th wedding anniversary it would have been, is, today.

Night is a cistern. The last pairs dance at a country ball.

Last night, awake, thinking about how a city mourns its dead, you heard an owl calling quite near to your window. When you got up and went for your swim, the sand at the lake was dense with deer prints and you thought of them coming to drink cool water at dawn, unaware that the world was filled with madmen who shoot children in their mother’s arms, goaded to the action by another madman.

An unknown hand draws the dawn’s first stroke.
Lamps fade, a motor chokes.
Before us, life’s path, and instants of astronomy.

But what do the stars tell us of the violence of men and what they’ll do for their moment of immortality? The stars are indifferent to us. And that might be our salvation.

*The passages of poetry are from “Night is a Cistern”, by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavanagh.


of larks and genocide

Every year I buy at least one new rose and this year’s is an airy David Austin called “The Lark Ascending”. While I was watering this morning, I leaned in to smell the open blossoms, so fresh and lovely. What’s in a name? So much. The name led me to thinking about war and about violence and the whole week of noise.


A week when the airwaves were filled with sound and memories of the Normandy landings 75 years ago and also a week when the report on the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls was released. I  haven’t read the report yet although I’ve been working through the Executive Summary, itself 121 pages. The introduction discusses the use of the term “genocide” to describe the acts of violence against women, girls, and other First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people. The term was coined by Raphael Lemkin in his book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1943). His definition includes psychological and other non-physical acts to undermine and destroy the foundational structures of race and culture.

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.

Last year I read East West Street, by Philippe Sands. It’s a stunning exploration of family history set against the backdrop of the Second World War and also a detailed account of the legal foundations of the Nuremberg trial. I found the information about the actual resistance to using Lemkin’s word genocide fascinating. The resistance was to the concept of group identity in the law versus the individual.

Every newspaper columnist and every politician has an opinion, of course. And it seems that most of them are uncomfortable with the term “genocide”. But history catches up with us. It does. And we’ve learned some lessons about our country and ourselves in it. While I was a child walking to school along Fairfield’s mild and tree-lined streets, Indigenous kids were being forcibly taken from their homes to schools that had been established to educate them in ways that ignored their family systems, their culture, their languages. Listen to Duncan Campbell Scott in his role as a bureaucrat in the Department of Indian Affairs:

I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. . . . Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.

Lemkin argued that the term genocide was appropriate and vitally important during the Nuremberg trial not because individual rights were less important than group rights but because the reality of what happened in Nazi Germany was that individuals were killed because they were members of targeted groups.The prevailing ethos of the trial was that it was about crimes against humanity, individuals.

So yes, we’re uncomfortable with the notion that genocide can happen within our borders, in our communities, on the long highways of our country, in its rivers where so many young women were thrown, in its courtrooms where an Indigenous woman’s torn vaginal tissues can be shown to all as evidence of supposedly consensual rough sex. Would we be any more comfortable if the MMIWG Report suggested that our country was guilty of crimes against humanity rather than genocide? Words are important but so are deep-seeded (and nurtured) attitudes, embedded in our culture like weeds.

Listening to elderly men talk of their experiences on the beaches of Normandy, I kept hearing “The Lark Ascending”, the beautiful tone poem by Ralph Vaughan Williams, composed against the military maneuvers of the First World War. One story is that he was vacationing at Margate and saw the fleet exercises in preparation for embarkation. I have several recordings but I think my favourite is Hilary Hahn. Her bow takes us over the fields of England and France, lets us hear the transcendent notes of a lark’s song, but in it we also hear loss. We are in the presence of beauty haunted by violence.

A rose is a rose is a rose. A word, well, not so simple.






“notes, notes on a long line”

mum and dan

I am wrestling with the final draft of an essay on grief, on the geography of grief, for an anthology. I’ve written about it before, the difficulty I’ve had in finding a rhythm, a tempo, for this piece. I’ve used Bach as a template, specifically the Partita No. 2 in D Minor BWV 1004. This morning I’m thinking about the gigue. The tempo is so crisp and lively, yet there is also something ominous in its structure. I keep listening to Hilary Hahn and in her playing, I relive my mother’s last days.

4. Gigue, in Victoria, your final days

I can’t keep up. My pulse races in the offices where we learn how quickly a life comes to its end. I hold your hand. Notes on a clipboard, blood pressure, the number of tumours gathered in a body. You refuse the treatments, remembering the needle through your chest wall, the first discovery of the malignant pleural effusion.

How quickly the years passed, how quickly we grew apart, too late the return, the counterpoint of our footwork, you holding my arm as we walked to the x-ray room, my boots brisk on the polished floor. Your chest on the screen made the technician come to me and say how sorry she was, how sorry. And you in the changing room, unable to lift your arms to put on your camisole, your scar uncovered, a vine of stitches like brambles covering where your breast had been, notes, notes on a long line, nicked with rests, yours, mine, how quickly the years do pass.

a Sunday ciaconna


I’ve spent the morning thus far working on an essay for an anthology about the locations of grief. The essay has given me a lot of trouble, or I’ve given it the trouble, for who can say which came first? If you think of the form as capacious, if you believe (as I do) that an essay can explore anything and can adapt its language, its rhythms, its torque (if you like), to allow any subject as its current beloved, perhaps then the difficulty must be mine, not the essay’s. In any case, I’ve felt my linguistic agility to be challenged as I try to shape my own subject to the forms and gorgeous music of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor BWV 1004.

Why this music? It’s what I listened to after my mother’s death and I listen to it still, finding in it such expression of everything I’ve ever wanted to say about living and dying. I’ve tried to use the movements—based on dances—to carry my thinking, my enactments of memory and sorrow. I’m not there yet. I printed a draft this morning and see where the clunky moments are. I also see where I’ve done something close to what I hoped to.

Right now I’m listening to Itzhak Perlman play the partita. It’s glorious. I have several recordings—the very young Hilary Hahn, Lara St. John, Arnold Steinhardt (two versions)—and don’t have a favourite (though maybe right this minute? Perlman). Each violinist brings something different to the performance and Steinhardt wrote in Violin Dreams of the texture and sound he understood each of his violins also contributed to his own interpretations, in youth, and later in his life. I’ve also been reading about the Baroque bow and its outward bend and how it suited the dance movements of Bach’s compositions.

What I’ve loved about this work is that it’s encompassing, it’s richly absorbing, and I’m learning how receptive an essay can be to the interests of its maker.

“Work was something that thrived on fire”

Smoke again, from the Interior fires. The sun that eerie pink-gold when you can see it at all. And the world dry, dry. I was at my desk, finishing the first draft of a long essay on grief and music. I told John the reason why I am playing Bach partitas and sonatas for solo violin over and over again is because I need to understand the rhythm of the movements; they correspond with dances of the time. Well, they do, and they don’t. But I listen — Hilary Hahn, who recorded the partitas at the age of 17; Arnold Steinhardt, who recorded the particular partita I’m obsessed with these days twice, as a young man and as an older man, and I can’t say which I prefer (there is such depth and colour in both recordings); Lara St. John; Joshua Bell….In my essay, I am trying to replicate something of that stately music. Only the dancers are old and dying; they’re people for whom this music would have been as foreign as poetry; but they’re mine and somehow I believe they can dance an allemande or a gigue with the best of them.

It’s my youngest grandchild’s birthday in two days and somehow the music reminds me of how rich my life is with him and his sister and his cousin in the world. We won’t be there to help him celebrate but I expect he will like the box I sent to him, filled with little gifts; he will no doubt like the paper and ribbons best. Though in time he will come to the books, the other things. And he will crawl and walk (unsteadily, maybe just a step at a time) in the grass, his beautiful face as expressive as any I’ve ever loved. Sometimes he dances. And he’s in the essay too.

beautiful henry

I’ve been thinking of poetry, of poems about families, and the one that comes to mind is Philip Levine’s gorgeous “Smoke”. Here’s a passage…

Go back to the beginning, you insist. Why
is the air filled with smoke? Simple. We had work.
Work was something that thrived on fire, that without
fire couldn’t catch its breath or hang on for life.

He alludes in the poem to “the mythology of the family” and in an interview in The Atlantic in 1999, he explained what he meant: “When I speak of “the mythology” in that poem, I really mean a way of losing someone.” Which is exactly what I’m writing about in this essay on music and sorrow—in the smoke, in the heart-breaking Chaconne of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, the dance of the one(s) left behind, as the sun retreats from us, and we move into autumn.

Continue reading ““Work was something that thrived on fire””

Playlist for summer

After weeks of rain, a time when the province’s rivers flooded, when cherry growers mourned the condition of this year’s crop, when the berry growers in the Fraser Valley prayed for sun, when the roses lost their petals in sodden clumps, when driving home in darkness meant being alert for frogs on the highway, when the slugs (I swear) grew to the size of mice, well, yesterday afternoon the sun came out. And we are promised weeks of it. The UV index this morning is 7. Or maybe 8.

So it’s time to bring out the summer music. I confess I’m not really sure what a playlist is. I don’t have any of the latest technology, I still play cds and have only once or twice downloaded a song. What I’ve always loved about vinyl records and then cassette tapes and compact discs is the sense of narrative in the playing of them. You start at the beginning and you listen to the whole thing (mostly). You realize that the musician had a particular kind of listening in mind as he or she decided on the sequence of pieces. There’s a trajectory and the listener is part of that.

Last night friends came for dinner and we listened to a collection of Romska balada, a cycle of Roma songs that are individually beautiful but form an extraordinary extended expression of longing, sorrow, prayer, and joy. Somehow this was perfect music for sitting under grape leaves while the sapsuckers flew from tree to tree and we talked of absent children, gardens, and waited for the lamb to finish grilling.

So what would my summer playlist sound like? Some Dylan, Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”, played by the marvellous Hilary Hahn, Steve Earle singing “Jerusalem” (and not Blake’s Jerusalem, though maybe I’d want that too), two “Four Strong Winds” – Ian Tyson and Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris singing “Boulder to Birmingham”, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Drew Minter  singing “Son nata a lagrimar” from Giulio Cesare, a duet that gives me goose bumps just typing the title, Dire Straits (“Wild West End”), Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in its entirety, and then maybe Jean Redpath singing the songs of Robbie Burns. I’m sure I’ve left out key elements but it looks like I’ll have the whole summer to perfect my list.