“A blown-away leaf, the composer said, could be heard as ‘a love song’.”

morning-visitor

My family left yesterday morning, in a rush of activity, one group heading to Earls Cove to cross Jervis Inlet and the other south, to Langdale, to cross Howe Sound. (Angelica flew home on Wednesday, across Georgia Strait.) On our way back from Langdale yesterday, John and I stopped for a swim at the little pebble cove we swam at on Wednesday. It was lovely but melancholy to sit on the logs after the swim, drying in the sun, everything quiet. Families fill such space with their needs, their complications, their various personalities, the sheer energy of their lives. I’m sure there is an equation for what happens when 11 people gather, who were once 5, and who have lived away from the home they shared (1 of them) for longer than they were in residence there, who left and returned more times than a single person could count. What is the mathematics of love in this situation?

I have been a mother for more years than I wasn’t. I didn’t expect to be. I wasn’t much interested in dolls when I was a child and didn’t create elaborate family structures in any kind of play. Yet now I see the possibilities of those structures everywhere. It’s after 1 a.m. where I am now. I’ve come down to my desk to do some work and my study window is wide open to the night. There are coyotes vocalizing in the woods as I write this. They’re farther away then they were the first night all of my children and their partners and their own children were here, when the song was one harmonic tangle. I’m listening tonight and wondering. Did one parent just bring back meat? Has one youngster strayed? Those quick sharp yips—am I right in hearing anxiety? Urgency? The harmony is missing. They’ve lost the song, at least temporarily. Maybe the parents are too busy for simple music.

And now? Silence.

I came down tonight to do some work on a collection of essays I’ve recently finished. Or almost finished. I have one more to write, after I visit Ivankivtsi, my grandfather’s village, in September. But for the most part, Blue Portugal is complete. It rambles, it investigates blue, retinal damage, aging, textile work, ventures into ampelography, into family history, it attempts to learn the dance movements of Bach’s Violin Partita in D Minor, BWV 1004, it listens to Janáček:

                                              Listening to the young pianist playing “The Madonna of Frydek”, I am in the fields of barley, soft grasses, poppies. A blown-away leaf, the composer said, could be heard as “a love song”. The children are running ahead, a bag of apples slung over the back of the oldest.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of writer I would have been if I’d never met my husband, been a mother, never lived the life I do? Would I have pursued a PhD in classical literature, would I have learned to play a cello, would I have settled in a little house at Ballynakill, the one a man I loved was thinking of buying? Would I have been more systematic in my thinking? If my desk is a reflection of the state of my mind, then woe is me: there are worry dolls, a tray of shells and fossils, a line of books ranging from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey at one end to Exploring Victoria’s Architecture by Segger and Franklin at the other, bracketing poetry, natural history, a Greek grammar, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, a few Loeb editions, and Margaret Ormsby’s British Columbia: A History. The other day my older grandson asked me about the bones on my desk and I told him they were the pelvic bones of our middle dog, Lily. (I wrote about her pelvis years ago and then again in an essay in Blue Portugal. So I’m not actually finished with any of this material yet. That’s why I keep it to hand.)

I wonder if the coyotes have gone to sleep? I can hear something else. It might be the weasel who has her nest under the compost and who I’ve seen several times now, looking up at me from one corner of it. And a tree frog is creaking out in the grapes. The other night, as we finished our last meal together on the deck, I felt something on my bare leg. Was it Eddy’s hand? He is one and was crawling under the table. But no. It was a frog, making its way from the table pedestal to the jade tree under the eaves. The other children crowded under the table to look at the small beautiful creature clinging to my leg. Later, in bed, I had to wonder if that had actually happened, the whole dinner, the frog, the gathering of children under the French tablecloth.

                                             Listening to the young pianist playing Janáček’s “In the Mists”, I close my eyes and imagine the landscape where you were born. Foothills of the Beskids, near Janáček’s home village. He was a folklorist as well as a musician and gathered the songs and spoken tales of Moravia-Silesia. Did you sing? Did your family have its own musicians? Did you listen to the bells on the sheep and imagine them into simple tunes? Listening, I am in Moravia, I am in a village of white buildings painted with ultramarine flowers by Anežka Kašpárková, I am myself a babička, stitching blue cloth in long red stitches, my four grandchildren running in the tall grass.

“Having lived for none of these Etruscan things, we learned the text by heart.” (Ann York)

in memory

These warmer days as we approach the vernal equinox (I believe it’s March 20, at 21:58) are a gift. On Saturday we spread compost over the raspberry beds (“Long Barrow” and “Raspberry Beret”) and the garlic bed (“Wild Lilies”). John saw a bee. I didn’t. But yesterday I heard tree frogs as I tidied the herbs and potted roses and bulbs on the west-facing deck. The past few nights have been loud with owls, two barred owls calling back and forth, and a saw-whet just beyond the bedroom window, its insistent too-too-too-too-too-too an indication that the mice are plentiful and the temperatures just right.

I planted agapanthus yesterday, remembering as I did the beautiful title poem of an old friend’s second book. She has disappeared from my life but her poem lingers, particularly on nearly-spring days when poetry is what my heart longs for:

War. Piracy. Trade. Industry. Agriculture. Having lived
for none of these Etruscan things, we learned the text by heart.
Afternoons, when the Australian sun poured down its spears of heat,
we studied in the shade:
some beneath the eucalyptus tree,
more against the wall by the madonna-lily bed…

–Ann York, “Agapanthus” from Agapanthus (Sono Nis, 1987)

I was awake early. When I went to pee, I saw two bright stars above Mount Hallowell to the east. One of them was Saturn, I think, and the other smaller one possibly one of Saturn’s moons. A little later, John and I were talking in bed and we saw Jupiter in the southern sky, framed by Douglas fir boughs. Silent wishes were made. A few weeks ago, none of this would have been possible—planting agapanthus (the soil still frozen), watching planets in a velvet sky (everything was overcast), hearing tree frogs sing their joy. Though the owl operas began in January, I guess, and they were joined by coyotes who are quiet, now that they’ve mated.

The other thing I did this weekend is finish the essay I think will be the title piece of the collection I’m working on: “Blue Portugal”. I began it some time ago but put it aside while I wrote other essays and finished a novella. There was something missing, I thought, and I figured if I waited, I’d learn what it was. It was music. I should have known. So over the weekend I listened to Janáček, his folk-song arrangements and the piano cycle “On an Overgrown Path” and found a way to write what I needed to write. And when I added the essay to those I’ve already written, I see that I have most of a possible book. This surprises me because when I look back, I see all the times I’ve come away from my work without any sense of accumulation. Yet there’s almost enough for a book this morning. How does this happen? You get up in the night or find time during the day, you write, you wait, you put things aside, wondering if you’ll ever know how to finish them, you listen, you hope.

The world feels dangerous to me these days. Not the world out my window, with its owls, the bright planets passing my house, tree frogs waiting for the right moment to lay their eggs in the old cast-iron bathtub I made into a pond for them, even the coyotes passing close enough to smell. But the violence, the ugly rhetoric, the strongmen muscling their way to power on every continent: some days it’s hard to imagine a way for us to simply live our lives, and help others to do the same, with tolerance and peace.

Today, more gardening, more writing. More poetry. A little Janáček, “here is the narrow path, as winds through the vineyards,” and the sound of tree frogs if I listen, the sound of possibilities.

from a work-in-progress

grandma's house and fields

Listening to the young pianist playing Janáček’s “In the Mists”, I close my eyes and imagine the landscape where you were born. Foothills of the Beskids, near Janáček’s home village. He was a folklorist as well as a musician and gathered the songs and spoken tales of Moravia-Silesia. Did you sing? Did your family have its own musicians? Did you listen to the bells on the sheep and imagine them into simple tunes? Listening, I am in Moravia, I am in a village of white buildings painted with ultramarine flowers by Anežka Kašpárková, I am myself a babička, stitching blue cloth in long red stitches.

Listening to the young pianist playing “In the Mists”, I hear birdsong, the brittle canes of winter roses brushing against my house, the sounds you would not have noticed in your daily work (a house without roses), feeding chickens, washing the laundry of a family of 10, then 9, then 8, then rising again, the deaths and births echoing the seasons, the river freezing, thawing, the return of green leaves on the cottonwoods in Drumheller, on the beeches of your childhood home in Moravia-Silesia, all of it hidden in mist, morning mist coming down off the Beskydy Mountains, frozen mist in your final years in Beverly, a stone’s throw from the North Saskatchewan River.

Listening to the young pianist playing “The Madonna of Frydek”, I am in the fields of barley, soft grasses, poppies. A blown-away leaf, the composer said, could be heard as “a love song”.

Listening to the young pianist playing “The Madonna of Frydek”, I remember the sign for Frydek as we drove to your village. We drove on, drove on, through snow, past the church with the spring of eternal waters (said to have cured those suffering cholera), past the graveyard inaccessible in snow, the miracles of Mary, and a road ghosted by the footsteps of my grandmother’s family, her two sisters, the brother who no one remembers, who died in his dugout house in a squatters camp in Drumheller during another epidemic, hearing them somehow in the snow, the light wind, and now in the penultimate chord as the pianist completes his encore. Now, now, now. I am applauding and I am brushing tears from my eyes in the dark hall.

 

 

“The path to my mother’s house…”

lomna_1913.jpg

This is my grandmother’s village in the Czech Republic, the year she left for Canada. She was born in small house still standing on a road along the Lomna River, this river. My current work-in-progress is about her, the Czech Republic, wine, and what we know and don’t know about the past. A few weeks ago, John and I were gifted with tickets to a wonderful recital by the young Hungarian pianist Zoltán Fejèrvári, a beautiful programme of Schumann, Bartók, and Janáček. The short encore was one of the pieces from the cycle, “On an Overgrown Path”. It made me cry. I thought I was hearing something close to my family story and in a way I was. Janáček was born in Hukvaldy, not very far from my grandmother’s village. “On an Overgrown Path” is based on Moravian folk-songs and the title comes from one song with the opening line, “The path to my mother’s house is grown over with weedy clover.” It’s a bride’s song, a young woman remembering her life before marriage. I’m listening to the cycle now,  played beautifully by Radoslav Kvapil. I’m hearing my grandmother’s story, her memories of her mother’s house, the anguish she must have felt at the deaths of two children (two pieces allude to the death of Janáček’s daughter Olga), the sound of the little night owl in the Mionsi forest. I wonder if she passed this part of the river as she left Horni Lomna forever with her five children, on her way to Antwerp, then Saint John, and eventually Drumheller where her husband was waiting. When I look at her mother’s house, I imagine it in her dreams, as it is in mine.

my grandmother's house
Hers was the house at the top right of this photo.