another postcard, the stray apple, after weeks without rain

stray

I know that apples don’t come true from seed. Blossom from a Merton Beauty, say, is pollinated by an insect bearing reciprocal pollen from another apple—here,it would be a crabapple—and although the resulting apples would be true to their tree, their seeds would be the children of the Merton Beauty and the crabapple. One in ten thousand of those seeds might produce something worth eating. Who are the parents of this stray apple tree? It started growing before the Merton Beauty began its small production of fruit. 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.

—from Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

Summer postcard

towels

And now it’s time, the sundial showing itself beneath a tangle of green leaves smelling of lemon and loud with bees, the yellow-faced, orange-rumped, Sitka, and western. The table is set; time to come up from the lake. Old songs play on the stereo, the ones we’ve sung all these years in summer. You can’t hurry love. Come along, your bodies cool, duck-itchy, the baby fat turned to muscle, your own children in your arms as you scatter damp towels and hang bathing suits on the railings.

—from “Love Song”, included in The Summer Book, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017

“…we made campfires in rings of stones…”

Maker:S,Date:2017-10-11,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-Y

A photograph arrived the other day, two grandchildren in new hats at an Alberta campsite, and it brought back memories of our summers, our camping trips, the scent of woodsmoke and the sting of mosquitoes. Time to pull out last year’s The Summer Book, an anthology of wonderful essays and reflections on sunlight and swimming and the passing of time.

The light is our clock. We talk quietly in bed, listening to the birds. In the night, there were loons, and we’re glad they’ve chosen the bay below us for nesting. One of us remembers a summer when the house was filled with children. Another remembers waking in the tent to face a day of house-building, framing and lifting walls, running out of nails, measuring and measuring again the bird’s mouth notches so that the rafters would rest snugly on the wall plates. One baby slept in a basket on the sleeping bag in the blue tent. (The others were still unborn, waiting to be dreamed into being.) One baby slept in a crib in the new wing of the house, in a room next to the one with bunk beds, while I walked in the garden in a cotton nightdress, coaxing the peas to attach themselves to wire. Three children didn’t sleep as the sun set later and later, long past bedtime, and we made campfires in rings of stones, sat on a cedar plank while the smoke rose to the stars. In the garden, the sundial (Grow Old With Me, The Best Is Yet to Come) was smothered by lemon balm.

—from “Love Song”, in The Summer Book, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017

the day after

at the book prizes

Last night was the B.C. Book Prizes gala. I was glad to be there, glad to be nominated for a prize, though I didn’t “win”. (Here’s the link to the winning titles!) It was lovely to see old friends, meet some new people, and to realize again what a vital literary community we have in this province on the far edge of the country, west of the Rocky Mountains. People put so much effort into the event, from the jurors (and how nice it was to spend a bit of time with Jean Barman, a historian I believe to be a national treasure) to the organizing committee to the librarians, booksellers, and everyone else who gathered to honour the nominated writers.

I want to commend my own publisher, Mona Fertig, at Mother Tongue Publishing. She is so supportive, so enthusiastic, and she runs her business out of an old heritage house near Ganges on Salt Spring Island. She celebrates the unsung artists of our province, the writers who are working in forms not part of the best-seller culture, and she insists on their importance. Not “instead of” but “as well as”. It’s harder to do this work, I know, with financial constraints and reluctance on the part of much of the media to embrace what might not seem popular. Last night Mona was her bounteous generous self and I was glad to be there for the reception and dinner as well as the awards ceremony for the opportunity to share a glass or two of wine and to know that my book, Euclid’s Orchard, was possible because of her encouragement, her faith.

“…will the voices come to us again?”

euclid
Euclid’s arrival at Mona’s place

This morning the B.C. Book Prizes announced the 2018 shortlists and I am so thrilled to see Euclid’s Orchard nominated for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize.

Awarded to the author(s) of the best original work of literary non-fiction. Topics such as philosophy, politics, biography, history, belles lettres, etc. Quality of research and writing along with insight and originality are major considerations in the judging of this prize. (from the Book Prizes website)

I’ve always admired Hubert Evans. When John and I first moved to the Sechelt Peninsula, Hubert was still alive, living at Roberts Creek. I met him once and told him how much I loved his Mist on the River and O Time In Your Flight. In the way that these things happen in small places, his granddaughter, a nurse at the hospital in Sechelt, helped to deliver my son Brendan. Brendan, for those of you who’ve read Euclid’s Orchard, is the mathematician who inspired the title essay. When my publisher Mona Fertig and I were making decisions on images for the book, I had to call on Brendan several times to help with something I had in mind: a photograph of a tree in our old orchard with Euclid’s algorithm hanging over it like mist. Another layer of meaning. I remember my relief when Mona sent a photograph of the spread for that essay, relief that both Brendan’s work and the wonderful eye of designer Setareh Ashrafologhalai helped to bring my vision alive.

page

My other children are in these pages too. Son Forrest, a historian, helped with the work of decoding a whole complicated knot of information about a squatters’ community in Drumheller in the early 20th century, the first place my grandmother lived when she came to Canada. My daughter Angelica is always the first person I ask about classical texts (she has an M.A. in Greek and Roman Studies and can read Latin with an impressive fluency). And my husband John, well, he makes so much of what I do possible. The beautiful young women who are the mothers of my grandchildren are also in these pages, entering the family story with grace and humour.

I dedicated Euclid’s Orchard to those grandchildren and my late parents. They bracket my specific time on earth and the stories in my book are theirs. Ours. No one knows when they might need to know something and when I was undergoing medical tests in the fall of 2016, I needed to know how the pieces of particular family stories fit together, both within our own ecology and also the larger picture. How a squatters’ community on the banks of the Red Deer River echoed much of the immigrant experience, the languages of loss and grief and deprivation. How a child dazzled by patterns and numbers might grow up in a family of dreamers and poets and how a mother might try to parse the meaning of those patterns late in life. How letters might be written to the dead.

Migratory, like monarchs, we find our own urgent way to a place where the sun and earth greet us, give us rest.We find our place among wild plants on a roadside, we hear beetles and the lazy drone of bees. If we sit on the grass and let the dry wind ruffle our hair, will the voices come to us again? — from “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices”

today

Today I’m expecting my new book to arrive. It’s my thirteenth book and I should be blasé about it but I have to confess that this never gets old—the anticipation, the greediness to simply hold the book in my hands. To read what I wrote in a form that is not a computer screen or pages from my printer. Will the cover really look as lovely as I hope it will? Did I leave anyone out in the acknowledgements? Did I miss any major spelling errors? (I have the excellent Mother Tongue team behind me…)

A year ago this week, John and I went to Vancouver for a couple of reasons. He was scheduled for a biopsy and we were meeting Forrest, Manon, and Arthur at a hotel near the airport; their flight was going to be late and because we had to be in town the day before, we booked a room at the hotel where they’d be staying so we could bring them back home with us the next day. John had already had a biopsy a few years earlier and thought this one would be like that one—a little uncomfortable but not so big a deal. Somehow the fasting was more difficult this time around and by the time we drove down the Coast, took the ferry across Howe Sound, made our way over to the hospital, and waited, waited, for the procedure, he was pretty woozy and depleted. It didn’t seem like the time to tell him that I could barely breathe.

After a belated breakfast, we went to Richmond to the hotel and had a long nap, followed by dinner nearby. If I sat up straight, it was better. Lying down was painful. I quietly wondered if it was something to do with my heart. Or what? But then a text came to say that our young’uns were enroute to the hotel and there we were in the parking lot as the shuttle pulled in, hugging them, helping them up to their room with all the stuff you need when you travel with a baby. (Arthur was not yet a year old.) Though I have to say they travel quite light. And we have a big basket of cloth diapers, covers, shelves of clothing bought at thrift stores, in varying sizes because there are three grandchildren. We have a crib, a highchair, toys, and books.

And then it was morning and we were in our car heading home, Arthur in the car seat we’d recently bought. We were driving home, singing to the baby (though I had a hard time catching my breath), and stopping here and there for snacks, a bit of a break.

That night, just as we were getting ready for bed, I told John I thought he better take me to Emergency in Sechelt, a 45 minute drive from us. I couldn’t breathe and the pain in my chest was phenomenal. He was feeling a little grim himself but raced us down the Coast and the rest is the story of the year between then and now. Double pneumonia, which shouldn’t have been such a big deal—antibiotics worked quickly and well—but the first chest x-ray was disturbing apparently, full of weird stuff, and a second was scheduled for two weeks later.

But before the second x-ray, somehow the week of my family’s visit was memorable. Angelica came for part of it and everyone helped to make beautiful meals. After a day or two of the antibiotics, my breathing improved and the pain went away. We went up to the Laughing Oyster restaurant one day for lunch (it took the whole day because there was the ferry between Earls Cove and Saltery Bay, the long drive to Desolation Sound…) and it was wonderful to sit by the weathered wooden rails and look out to Okeover Inlet, drinking lovely cool white wine (I’m not one of those people who eschews wine while on medication…), watching seals in the water below us.

okeover.jpg

The second x-ray led to a CAT scan 6 weeks later, then a second hurriedly arranged (I was driving home from the first scan as the radiologist was frantically trying to call me) because that one showed not only a pulmonary embolism but also strange shadowy areas in my lungs which were thought to be metastases. There were tests, more tests, blood thinners to keep more clots from forming (and not rat poison but something new and very expensive that made me grateful again for Tommy Douglas and our health system), doppler scans of my legs, a visit to a specialist who showed me images of my lungs that were like maps of deep water, with areas I thought resembled amoebas. No, not amoebas, he assured me very formally. But maybe metastases. He used a pointer to describe the margins. He spoke of biopsies, gold standards of treatment, and so forth. He also scheduled a PET scan at the Cancer Clinic. He hoped this could happen before Christmas but it was possible I’d have to wait until shortly after.

So that was the fall. John’s biopsy results were negative, a huge relief, but the poor man was so worried about me that other issues developed. I insisted he swim to relieve some of the stress and he went off three mornings a week to our local pool (where our children learned to swim three decades ago). And what did I do? I wrote most of a book. In late summer, around the time that I was developing double pneumonia (though I’m not implying the two are linked!), Mona Fertig of Mother Tongue Publishing wondered if I might have a non-fiction manuscript she could consider for fall of 2017. I didn’t think I did. I’d written a long essay called “Euclid’s Orchard” and I had two other short essays in something like final draft form. Masses of notes, masses of fragments, all of which I hoped to eventually turn into essays or maybe even something longer, of a piece. These had to do with research I was doing into my family’s history in Canada. In the spring of 2016, John and I were in Alberta and I spent a little time at the Archives in Edmonton, thinking I’d find one thing and instead discovering a whole chapter of my grandmother’s early years in Drumheller that I hadn’t known and I suspect my father hadn’t known either. We drove down to Drumheller that spring, hoping to find out more. And it might sound strange to say this but there were ghosts everywhere, some of them mine.

In the nights while John slept, I came down to my desk and turned on the little lamp to make a small light to work by and I wrote about three quarters of the work in the manuscript that I did send Mona in late November and that she liked enough to say, Let’s do it! It wasn’t in finished shape in the fall and winter but I felt that I needed to do what was required to make it as good as I was able to. I didn’t know if I’d have more time, more seasons, and there was no one else who cared enough about the material to do anything with it. Maybe “care” is the wrong word. My brothers care and my children care but somehow I felt that I was called to do the work. I saw my ancestors everywhere in the winter. Looking out to the patio, they were just leaving, wispy in the cold air. Before sleep, they were around my bed, holding the edges of the sheet. I felt their hands on my shoulders. I felt them in me. I can’t say I regret the strangeness of that time, the uncertainty. I learned things. I was given things. I was welcomed into the odd embrace of people dead a hundred years. They spoke to me, though I couldn’t understand their language; and they sang to me. In the darkness, I might have felt alone but thanks to my ghosts, I was never so surrounded by love and continuity. This is true for my living family as well.

I wrote about the post-Christmas PET scan here and was relieved a few weeks later to learn that there was no sign of cancer after all. A final scan in June was also negative. My specialist says he doesn’t need to see me again. A happy ending certainly, though there are still mysteries: if not metastases, then what? And the embolism? Who knows. I joined John at the pool three mornings a week and all summer we’ve been going down to Ruby Lake around 8:30 and swimming for half an hour. Some mornings there are kingfishers. Always crows. Some mornings there are bear tracks in the damp sand. Ghosts there too but more familiar ones. My children from infancy to adulthood, and their children. When Forrest, Manon, and Arthur were here last month, they came down to the lake  with us and I loved hearing their voices as I swam back and forth in the green water under the old cedars.

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Someone recently said to me, “I didn’t think you’d have another book out so soon.” Well, no. I didn’t either. But sometimes the stars conspire, they spark and set off fierce events in our lives, and we respond. I felt like a door opened. What was beyond was a little frightening but also mysterious and beautiful. Some days I still feel as I felt on the winter day when John and I listened to Christy Moore singing an arrangement of the Yeats poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus”.

We held each other and wept, for the uncertainty of our future, and for everything we loved, and when the song finished, I went downstairs, looking up to an old portrait of me, painted when I was 22, another of the ghosts who gave me comfort on those dark nights. Who is still alive to me. (I couldn’t photograph her well because she’s in a stairwell and so you see everything else reflected in the glass but maybe that’s appropriate.)

me, in the last century

…someone called me by my name:

It had become a glimmering girl

With apple blossom in her hair

Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air.

And look, apple blossoms in her hair.

Some days, she was Mrs. Nobody.

with mum on stoop

Thinking of my mum this morning, dead seven years.

Some days, she was Mrs. Nobody. How airily she’d say that, and of course it meant nothing to me. I never parsed the sentence, her too-bright smile. And some days, the Girl From Sooke, also said airily, a person who washed dishes in the one sink, putting them in the blue plastic rack, then dried them one by one with a linen cloth printed with lobsters from Peggy’s Cove or wild roses from Alberta. The Girl From Sooke, who lugged the laundry bag downstairs to sort and wash our clothing. And who polished the wood furniture with Pledge.

Mrs. Nobody sat at the kitchen table with her cup of instant coffee and an Export-A, wondering why the house never stayed clean, why it was so hard to make ends meet, why the dollars never stretched far enough. Her Redbook magazine helped her prioritize—put so many dollars aside for food, shop in bulk, can this marriage be saved?

—from “Tokens”, an essay in Euclid’s Orchard, forthcoming September, Mother Tongue Publishing

same old

We drove from Creston to Osoyoos today, along the Salmo Creston Road where there was snow at the summit, and a frozen lake. Part of the road washed away, simply collapsed down the side of the mountain, and a crew working hard to replace it. Same situation at Bonanza Pass, the whole side of the highway washed down the ravine. The Kettle River was higher than I’ve ever seen it. Along a stretch of highway just past Bridesville, road repairs from water that had uprooted small pines and taken down pasture fences. And today of course the American president has pulled out of the Paris Accord. The world begins to look like a place I don’t want to remain alive in forever, though I want my grandchildren to have a safe and healthy planet. Their parents are doing the right things, one of them a climate scientist who must despair when she reads the headlines. But still she walks everywhere with her babies, feeds them well, reads to them, and doesn’t own a car, preferring public transit and a bicycle when possible.

But some things are reassuringly the same. The house I always stop to photograph at the foot of Anarchist Mountain? It’s still there. I didn’t stop today but can use the photograph from last fall because other than the fact that the grass was green rather than golden this afternoon, the house is beautiful and serene in its age and resilience.

lawless house, anarchist mountain

As we head for home—tomorrow!—I think of the summer ahead, the prospect of visitors (Forrest, Manon, and Arthur in late July, Angie and her beau overlapping I hope, and others here and there), the chamber music festival I help to organize, a new book arriving in early September, a garden (which will be overgrown when we arrive after two weeks away), birdsong from all those nesting near the house, swims in the lake, cool wine in late afternoon, the first sockeye on the barbeque.

An essay of mine is included in Mother Tongue Publishing’s spectacular The Summer Book and in it I remember everything I’ve ever loved about summers and my family. How time doesn’t pass, how it accumulates, how everything is contained in a single memory that takes a whole life to celebrate.

There are calzones in the basket and tins of sparkling lemonade; later, bottles of cider, cool from the shallows where they’ve been corraled with rocks. How long can a girl dive before her father accords her a perfect score, how many times can a boy circumnavigate the island with the throttle on low? Another practices the dead man’s float. Three years, or six. Drift on a raft under the low-growing spirea and bog laurel, count turtles on logs, crush a few leaves of wild mint in your hands while the years accumulate. Nine years, or twelve.

I called my essay “Love Song”. And it is.

for my mum, Shirley MacDonald Kishkan, 1926-2010

tokens2.jpg

From “Tokens”, an essay included in Euclid’s Orchard, forthcoming from Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

What do I do with a bottle of fifty-year-old perfume? I am 57 myself. It’s not something I’d wear. I discovered Chanel 19 in 1972 and never have found any reason to change. I don’t even know if this bottle is still viable. Does perfume turn to vinegar, as an opened bottle wine will if not used within a reasonable time? When I sniff the bottle cap, I say that I smell my mother but how can that be? She wore perfume so seldom — ¼ of a bottle over 48 years. Maybe she knew she would never have another bottle of French perfume, maybe she wanted to ration it to keep the memory of my father’s return fresh. What I am smelling is the way I would like to remember her, in a rustling cocktail dress one or two evenings only, her feet wiggling into pretty shoes, checking her seams in the bedroom mirror, her eyes bright with anticipation of dancing! Not the old disappointments, a daughter who didn’t visit often enough, the house sold, her husband dead, the days growing shorter and shorter as the year approached the longest night, the bottle of French perfume forgotten in the camphorwood chest, among the gloves and her one cashmere sweater, an old silk square from Zanzibar folded neatly on the bottom.