“I would not think to touch the sky…”

sky text

While swimming today, I watched a particular cloud gather and then disperse. At one point it resembled nothing so much as a fragment of papyrus and I thought of Sappho, how her poems turn up from time to time on pieces of cartonnage, the linen or papyrus used in ancient Egyptian funerary wrappings.

In John Berger’s essay, “On Vigilance” (the one I referred to yesterday), he recounts his own experiences swimming and contemplating the texts of trees and sky seen from the windows of a pool. He floats and gazes and realizes that he is also being read:

The curls of the white cirrus are observing a man afloat on his back with his hands behind his head. I’m no longer observing them; they are observing me.

I recognized that moment as I swam on my back, arms reaching up and over my head in my awkward back-stroke, watching, watching the clouds gather and fraying in a blue sky, and thinking for a moment of Sappho:

I would not think to touch the sky with two arms.

September song, with boom box

As we were walking down to the lake this morning, to the area where we swim most days before the beach-goers arrive, we could see a young couple just coming out of the water. You beat us to it, I told them, and the woman said quietly, It’s beautiful. They both had the look. I know it. The way you feel after a swim in water that is full of weather somehow, lit green by sun and reflected cedars, pierced with dragonflies, shadowed by the mountain we live under, and wrinkled by light air movement this morning. You are never more yourself but you don’t even begin to think that while you are there. For a few moments, there was the sound of a boom box somehere and then it was replaced by a loon warbling near the little islands half-way across the lake.

(Yesterday, a video of my Edmonton grandchildren showed them clutching new music boxes, exactly like the one I have on my desk, the one that plays Für Elise, that I bought at Mouat’s store on Salt Spring Island a few years ago, and my granddaughter told us proudly that she has a boom box. She turned the handle and across the mountains I heard the faint and familiar notes of Beethoven.)

grandma's boom box

I finished reading John Berger’s Confabulations last night. In the essay “On Vigilance”, he wrote about swimming. He is in a pool, doing lengths, and he watches a tree he can see through the glass walls surrounding the pools. It’s a maple. Drawing it later, he realizes that what he has made is a text, “…a text of a silver maple tree.” I think we are always wanting a code for the moments of our lives that are numinous. I swim. I try to tell you how it feels to be in a lake made of weather, to come out the water with the muscular memory of it on my legs and my shoulders, to carry its scent home with me so that later in the day I stop, touch my hair, realize that I can smell the lake in the braid on my back.

When I was a child, my family camped on St. Mary’s Lake on Salt Spring Island. I lived in the water. It was green, it was light-filled, it held a girl’s body as tenderly as a mother cradles a baby before sleep. When I bought the music box in a store we’d visit on those camping trips so that my father could pick up fishing lures or kerosene, I knew I had found part of the code of those summers. How the canvas smelled when we woke to fun filtering through the trees around our campsite, the sticky sap on our fingers when we brought wood for the fire, the sound of my mother scraping burned fish off the old iron skillet.

Such texts belong to a wordless language which we have been reading since early childhood, but which I cannot name.
— from “On Vigilance”

redux: where we meet

I wrote this on January 3, 2017, the day after John Berger died. It’s interesting this morning to remember his piece on the Chauvet Cave because I’m writing about that now, as part of a long essay on blue and visual phenomenon. John Berger was a fine guide, in so many ways.

__________________________________

bricks.jpg

Some writers are companions, though you never meet them in person. Their books sit on your desk, your shelves, your bedside table, ready for conversation. For solace. And for advice. Often the advice is oblique. But when you’ve read their books for years, decades even, you are familiar with the codes.

John Berger died yesterday. He’s been one of those writers for me, though of course I know I’m not alone (and that feels comforting). Sometimes when I’ve struggled with boundaries in my work — prose? poetry? fiction? not? — I’ve turned to his books. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, for example: love, loss, absence, and the spaces in between, written in the most beautiful elliptical language possible. And the one I keep close to hand, always: Here Is Where We Meet. A fiction, the cover tells us. But is it? The narrator, John, meets his mother on a park bench in Lisbon. She has been dead fifteen years. “I’ve learned a lot since my death,” she tells John. “You should use me while you are here. You can look things up in a dead person like a dictionary.”

I take that to heart. My mother comes to me quite often, though she died in 2010. And in surprising places (though perhaps I should not be surprised at all):

In Toulouse, in March, I dreamed of my mother. I’d been thinking a great deal about geographical loneliness. Not only for a place one has left, often forever (my grandmother never returned to Europe and as far as I know, she had only very sporadic contact with her family there), but also the loneliness we feel when we try to follow the traces our ancestors made across a landscape. A field loved by a child for its birdsong, the scent of plum blossom after a long winter, a tree planted to celebrate a wedding, a birth, an occasion long-forgotten. So the dream of my mother surprised me. She was on a tour, just before heart surgery. I always wanted to travel to France, she said, her eyes glowing as she jostled and joked with her new friends, but no one would ever go with me. She had photographs – a long road leading down to the sea, a restaurant filled with sunlight, a plate of sausage. I held her hand and thought, I have another chance. We went to the restroom together and she was running. Please, Mum, don’t run, I pleaded with her, only half in fun. Please. I don’t want you to die on me!

No one wrote about food like John Berger. The feast in To The Wedding! And the preparation of the wild sorrel soup in Here Is Where We Meet! No one wrote about art in such an inclusive and democratic way. I’ve never forgotten his piece in the Guardian on the Chauvet caves. He went in to see the drawings, 25,000 – 32,000 years old, the animals, the hand-prints in red ochre and the stencils of hands in dark pigment, and he wrote so evocatively of the place and those who came to work there, to enter the mystery.

How frequently did they come? Did generations of artists work here? No answers. Perhaps there never will be. Perhaps we have to be content with intuiting that they came here to experience, and to carry away with them in memory, special moments of living a perfect balance between danger and survival, fear and a sense of protection. Can one hope for more at any time?

a street in Toulouse.jpg

re-enter the wind-rush of time passing

venus-de-laussel

The other day I had a lengthy scan at the B.C. Cancer Agency, part of a strange series of tests and diagnostics I’ve been engaged in for the past four and a half months. For this one, I was injected with radioactive glucose. I sat in a chair with a warmed flannel blanket over me, listening to Bach — the nursing team are kindness incarnate — while the glucose was distributed through my body. I wasn’t allowed to read. So I thought instead. Having heard this morning’s Quirks and Quarks show on meditation, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t meditating. I thought of the Venus of Laussel, a limestone bas-relief sculpture I saw a few years ago in Bordeaux. She dates from 29000-22000 B.C.E. and has traces of red ochre on her breasts and abdomen. When I saw her, I knew her. There’s nothing pop about her body. She’s full and abundant. She’s one of a group of female figures from the Paleolithic period and although there’s some debate about what she’s holding — a horn of plenty? A symbol of a woman’s lunar cycles (there are 13 lines inscribed in the shape)? — I think it’s clear that she’s a fertility symbol. A woman who has likely born children and has known good meals, who has probably even provided them, from her own body and her own ingenuity.

She was a good companion for me during that part of the procedure. And when I had to lie on the narrow plank and enter the long cylinder for the scan itself — it took 20 minutes — I closed my eyes and thought of her again. It helped immensely to have her present. I brought to my mind’s eye my husband and my children, their partners, my 3 grandchildren. Then I visualized each of my books, counting them by genre — 3 collections of poetry, 3 novellas, 3 novels, 2 collections of essays, and 1 memoir. I concentrated on their covers. Each image. Could I remember the fonts used for the titles? My eyelids fluttered with effort and I almost cried. I was afraid if I opened my eyes, I would be nothing. I would be someone with radioactive glucose in her body and possibly something worse. But the goddess, her face absent of features but her body so complex and whole, stayed with me the whole time.

And when I came ouf of the cylinder, it was like being reborn. Sort of. I thought of John Berger’s observations about the Chauvet Cave:

Step outside the cave and re-enter the wind-rush of time passing. Reassume names. Inside the cave everything is present and nameless. Inside the cave there is fear, but the fear is in perfect balance with a sense of protection.

where we meet

bricks.jpg

Some writers are companions, though you never meet them in person. Their books sit on your desk, your shelves, your bedside table, ready for conversation. For solace. And for advice. Often the advice is oblique. But when you’ve read their books for years, decades even, you are familiar with the codes.

John Berger died yesterday. He’s been one of those writers for me, though of course I know I’m not alone (and that feels comforting). Sometimes when I’ve struggled with boundaries in my work — prose? poetry? fiction? not? — I’ve turned to his books. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, for example: love, loss, absence, and the spaces in between, written in the most beautiful elliptical language possible. And the one I keep close to hand, always: Here Is Where We Meet. A fiction, the cover tells us. But is it? The narrator, John, meets his mother on a park bench in Lisbon. She has been dead fifteen years. “I’ve learned a lot since my death,” she tells John. “You should use me while you are here. You can look things up in a dead person like a dictionary.”

I take that to heart. My mother comes to me quite often, though she died in 2010. And in surprising places (though perhaps I should not be surprised at all):

In Toulouse, in March, I dreamed of my mother. I’d been thinking a great deal about geographical loneliness. Not only for a place one has left, often forever (my grandmother never returned to Europe and as far as I know, she had only very sporadic contact with her family there), but also the loneliness we feel when we try to follow the traces our ancestors made across a landscape. A field loved by a child for its birdsong, the scent of plum blossom after a long winter, a tree planted to celebrate a wedding, a birth, an occasion long-forgotten. So the dream of my mother surprised me. She was on a tour, just before heart surgery. I always wanted to travel to France, she said, her eyes glowing as she jostled and joked with her new friends, but no one would ever go with me. She had photographs – a long road leading down to the sea, a restaurant filled with sunlight, a plate of sausage. I held her hand and thought, I have another chance. We went to the restroom together and she was running. Please, Mum, don’t run, I pleaded with her, only half in fun. Please. I don’t want you to die on me!

No one wrote about food like John Berger. The feast in To The Wedding! And the preparation of the wild sorrel soup in Here Is Where We Meet! No one wrote about art in such an inclusive and democratic way. I’ve never forgotten his piece in the Guardian on the Chauvet caves. He went in to see the drawings, 25,000 – 32,000 years old, the animals, the hand-prints in red ochre and the stencils of hands in dark pigment, and he wrote so evocatively of the place and those who came to work there, to enter the mystery.

How frequently did they come? Did generations of artists work here? No answers. Perhaps there never will be. Perhaps we have to be content with intuiting that they came here to experience, and to carry away with them in memory, special moments of living a perfect balance between danger and survival, fear and a sense of protection. Can one hope for more at any time?

a street in Toulouse.jpg

books along the way

Sometimes I wish I read less. I panic when I have nothing to read, no pages to turn in my bed at night, my own  bed or a strange one. I brought Lilac and Flag by John Berger along with me but finished it two days into this ten-day (thus far) journey. I’d read the other novels in the trilogy, Into Their Labours, but somehow not this one. And JB is probably my favourite non-fiction writer or maybe I just mean favourite writer. Period. You forget what genre you’re reading — and it doesn’t matter, though universities are debating the fine points of creative non-fiction, the lyrical essay, documentary journalism, et. al. What is legitimate, what isn’t. What you can say and what you can’t. So there was Lilac and Flag for the first three days and then a visit to a bookstore in Santa Fe for Linda Hogan’s The Woman Who Watches Over the World, which is wonderful. And (because we were on our way to Taos) a biography of Mabel Dodge Luhan, which I’m reading right now. I walked over to her house last night and tried to imagine DH Lawrence in its garden, listening to the same magpies I was listening to.

A little while ago, we went into Tome on the Range, here in Las Vegas, and wow, there were tables and shelves of books I had to restrain myself from buying — because of space, mostly. My suitcase is already bulging and we will be going to Edmonton from here for five more days, which means more stuff (though I try to resist; but who could resist the Acoma pot from Sky City Mesa or the linen dress from Santa Fe?). But then I saw a beautiful edition of When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, by Terry Tempest Williams, a writer I’ve always loved for her rich sense of the natural world and how our bodies respond to it (and our minds, too). So I bought it, of course. And couldn’t walk by a Willa Cather I haven’t yet read, The Song of the Lark — because I have had her Death Comes for the Archbishop in my head over the past ten days, travelling this landscape which Father Jean Marie Latour travelled through in 1851.

The Next Big Thing

My friend Barbara Lambert has “tagged” me in “The Next Best Thing”, a lively literary relay making the rounds of Canadian writers. The idea is that we answer a series of set questions about our current work-in-progress and then tag (ideally) five other writers, providing links to their websites or blogs. Barbara’s own answers can be found here (and if this also leads you to her recent novel, The Whirling Girl, you won’t be disappointed!): http://barbaralambert.com/writer/author/books/177-Blog+Tour+That+Ran+Itself

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

— What is your working title of your book?


I am half-way through a novella – working title is Patrin (a Romani word for “leaf” or to indicate a trail marked by sticks, leaves, etc.). It will be a companion-piece to a recently-completed novella, Winter Wren.

— Where did the idea come from for the book?


Patrin grew out of research I am doing for an extended non-fiction work based on the life of my grandmother, born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1881. She was poor and it turns out poor people don’t leave a huge material record. I said to someone, “I might just have to imagine her early life as a work of fiction.” About a week later, I began to write a novella based on the life of a woman who turns out NOT to be my grandmother but who has allowed me to imagine another world, a woman who is as far away from my own life as my grandmother was, who came to Canada under similar circumstances but with a very different background. I am also interested in how material objects  can hold family history, often undecoded, so when I saw Patrin opening a box containing a tattered quilt with a curious pattern of loden leaves, connected by trails of grey wool, I knew it was a map directing me to the heart of the story.

— What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction.

— Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Someone dark and willowy for Patrin, the 20-something woman at the heart of the novella-in-progress. The young Juliette Binoche from The Unbearable Lightness of Being? A young Adrien Brody for Petr, her guide in Prague and further afield. And if anyone has a suggestion for Patrin’s grandmother, a woman in her late eighties, heavy-set, rugged, and with dark-ish skin (she is a Kalderash woman from eastern Moravia), do let me know so I can tell the studios when they come calling.

— What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?


Victoria, British Columbia and the forests of the Beskydy Mountains in the Czech Republic form the backdrop for a brief lyrical narrative about a young woman in search of her family’s mysterious past.

— Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have never been able to interest agents in my writing, alas. But I’ve been lucky enough to have placed my books with lively small(ish) presses over the years and have nothing but praise for the presence of these presses on the literary landscape. They keep the cultural conversation diverse and authentic.

— How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?


I haven’t yet finished Patrin. Winter Wren took me a year. I anticipate that Patrin will take about the same time.

— What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m not finished yet and don’t want to suggest relationships that might not survive the writing. But I admire the novels of John Berger for their fiercely idiosyncratic structure, the consummate story-telling of Louise Erdrich, the intelligent trajectory of anything by John Banville…


– Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I partly answered this in the second question but of course who ever knows where, exactly, the inspiration for a book truly comes from? As well as family history, I’ve also been immersing myself in Czech cultural history and look daily at the photographs of Josef Sudek who has given me entrance to the Beskydy Mountains where my grandmother lived as a child. And I’ve been listening to Roma music, both the styles of Central Europe as well as Macedonia.

— What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?


Joe Fassler wrote a wonderful piece on the novella, published last April in The Atlantic. (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/04/the-return-of-the-novella-the-original-longread/256290/) He mentions Dennis Loy Johnson, co-founder of Melville House Publishing and its “Art of the Novella” series: “He was daunted by the genre’s limited viability—and yet the idealistic prospect of novella-writing pleased him. ‘It always struck me very romantically,’ he said. ‘A pure writerly exercise that was only for the love of writing. We had no expectations our novellas would ever circulate.”

Maybe this is part of the pleasure of the novella. Years ago I wrote Inishbream, a brief narrative set on an island off the west coast of Ireland. It was published by the Barbarian Press in a beautiful edition, illustrated by the American wood-engraver John DePol; and then given a second life a few years later by Goose Lane Editions. Yet when I wrote it, I had no expectation that anyone would ever want to publish it at all. The thing about getting older is that you come to terms with what’s possible and what’s unlikely. I’m probably never going to write a block-buster, a best-seller which will be sold to Hollywood (I hate to disappoint Juliette Binoche and Adrien Brody), but every morning I can come into my study, turn on my desk-light, and write for the sake of the language and the story. What a privilege.

I’ve tagged five writers and so far can tell you that Anik See, Catherine Owen, and Don Gayton will carry the baton forward in the near future. I can’t wait to see what they write!

www.aniksee.com

http://blackcrow2.wordpress.com/

www.dongayton.ca