we are stardust


I’m at the point in my years when, looking back, I can see that my life has been an accumulation. I live in a place I love, I have a partner of 40 years who interests me and who I love dearly, I have wonderful children, and now the joy of grandchildren too. By my desk is a shopping bag containing the reading copies of my books, dense with small coloured stickies to indicate possible passages and themes for public presentations. There are 13 books, 15 if you include chapbooks, and there’s another due next year. And another in progress. Some mornings I wake with such excitement to get to my desk. (In truth, I am often up in the wee hours to take advantage of the dark and quiet, a working time that I’ve come to cherish.) There were long periods when it didn’t feel this way, I know. When my children were small, I didn’t write much. Well, to be honest, there were years of this. The man who’d been my mentor when I was in my early 20s used to ask me what I was working on—he was a lovely generous man, a good friend, but his life was organized around his work: he had a tireless wife who took care of the details, she drove him to work and she picked him up, she cooked, she managed their active social life, organized huge memorable parties and trips. He’d ask, and I’d think of the house we were extending to make more room for our expanding family, the garden I was growing to feed us well, the bread rising, the laundry that never seemed to go away, the changing needs of those I was caring for, and I’d feel sort of hopeless. About writing anyway. and I do remember days of sadness, of despair, when I felt time was passing, tides changing, and I was flotsam. It’s important for me to remember this clearly and accurately. That a life contains paradoxes. A shopping bag of books and a memory of despair.

rainy day

I’m glad I came of age as a writer in a time before social media. I’m particularly glad that the years I spent immersed in motherhood and domestic life were what I needed to carry and sort out privately, to remember, to make use of as I could. There were lonely times. A letter to a far-flung writer friend, wanting reassurance that one day I might have time again for my own work, well, it would take a week to arrive and then a response might take another week. We didn’t use the phone the way we would now. Long-distance calls were expensive! I wonder if it’s easier now for someone struggling with the difficulties of an artistic practice? I see people on various social media platforms announce their successes and I wonder about those who are wondering (who must be, because some things don’t change. Small children and their needs, households, work, etc., and the knowledge that there are years of this ahead…) if they will ever write a novel, a collection of poems, paint, sing. How it must feel to watch from the sidelines, the very public sidelines, and wonder.

When the poet who’d been my mentor asked, What are you writing?, and I had to confess, Nothing, I wish I’d known that what was actually happening was that I was accumulating an archive. Like the scraps of cloth I hoarded with the intention of using them one day in a quilt or a braided rug, the details of my life were gathering in my memory, a codex of weather, recipes, observations of how my children learned to walk, speak, how one dog died and another arrived, how our summer camping trips took us to remote rivers, groves of Ponderosa pines, small museums in dusty towns where artifacts spoke to us (or to me at least) with such poignancy. What are you writing, he’d ask. Nothing. But just wait, I wish I’d known to answer. He once confided to a friend that he predicted a very successful writing career for me. If he was alive, I wonder what he’d think now. My “career” has been (continues to be) a modest one. No agent. Books published by small literary presses (to whom I am hugely grateful, not just because they’ve taken my work but because they’ve made a place for other books like mine, small lively currents a little outside the mainstream). But it’s a life I wouldn’t have lived any other way, if I knew then what I know now. If I could reach back and tell the young woman who wondered if she would ever write again, if I could tell her anything, it would be this: Planetary scientists tell us that 100% of the elements in our bodies have their origins in stardust. We are stardust, all of us.


In Victoria on the weekend, I spent a happy half-hour in Russell Books on Fort Street. It was hard to know where to start so I simply browsed at random and came away with a bag of unexpected treasures, one of them Anne Truitt’s Prospect: The Journal of an Artist.

When my third child, Angelica, was born in 1985, I wondered if I’d ever write again. I’d published two collections of poetry in my twenties, and a chapbook, and when my sons were tiny, I somehow found time to slowly but steadily write enough poems for a third book. John and I were building a house in those years and the word “busy” doesn’t even begin to describe the days but poems would begin, often in the night, and bit by slow bit I’d work on them, gradually complete drafts, and revise. It may be the rosy glow of memory that has me remembering that I often thought of my life as seamless, moving from washing diapers to making soup to cobbling together lines of poetry.

A third child tipped the balance, though. In part this was because there were added elements to the domestic routine beyond simply childcare and daily household work. Forrest began to attend a pre-school in our small community and that entailed driving back and forth  several days a week from our home at the north end of the Sechelt Peninsula to the village where all the services are located. And when he began kindergarten a year or so after Angie’s birth, then Brendan went to pre-school; and somehow there was never enough time to sit at my desk and find my way to writing. Yet I was quite certain that elements of daily life were potent elements of what could be art, if I could only find a way to put them together. The smell of fresh laundry, the act of making bread, the transformation of homely vegetables into soup, the basket of cottons crying out to be quilts, the beauty of my sleeping children, my husband, the way moonlight illuminated our dark trees or stars pierced the night sky over Sakinaw Lake – I wanted so much to do them justice. Somehow. Someday. And I wanted to engage in the physicality of art and its potential materials, though I didn’t know quite how to begin.

I can’t remember when I bought Anne Truitt’s Daybook but it was certainly during those early years of motherhood. She was an American painter and sculptor (1921-2004) and she wrote beautifully, powerfully, of the sources of her work and her own process of making art.

“I sat for a long while in one of the rectangular courtyards, listening to the fountain. Feeling the artists all around me, I slowly took an unassuming place (for two of my own sculptures were somewhere in the museum) among the people whose lives, as all lives do, had been distilled into objects that outlasted them. Quilts, pin cushions, chairs, tables, houses, sculptures, paintings, tilled and retilled fields, gardens, poems—all of validity and integrity. Like earthworms, whose lives are spent making more earth, we human beings also spend ourselves into the physical. A few of us leave behind objects judged, at least temporarily, worthy of preservation by the culture into which we were born. The process is, however, the same for us all. Ordered into the physical, in time we leave the physical, and leave behind us what we have made in the physical.

She wrote honestly and convincingly of the difficulties of balancing art and motherhood while convinced that the two had areas of compatibility and were connected to the reservoirs of her creativity. Every couple of months, I’d reach for Daybook and read a page at random, finding in it both wisdom and solace. I’d like to say that I always had faith I’d begin to write again once my children were all in school but in truth I had nights of despair when I couldn’t imagine ever knowing how to make a sentence, let alone a paragraph, a chapter, or (oh how?) a book.

I’ve been reading Prospect this week. Written when the artist was in her seventies, preparing for a series of important retrospectives of her work, it is as rich and intelligent as Daybook. Truitt remembers the process of making her early sculptures and she captures so marvellously the moments when one conceives of a work, in this instance her wooden sculpture First:

“And, suddenly, the whole landscape of my childhood flooded into my inner eye: plain white clapboard fences and houses, barns, solitary trees in flat fields, all set in the wide winding tidewaters around Easton. At one stroke, the yearning to express myself transformed into a yearning to express what this landscape meant to me, not for my own emotional release but for the release of a radiance illuminating it behind and beyond appearance. I saw that I could trust that radiance, could rely on its presence, even in the humblest object.”

There are many thousands of books in Russell Books. It would take weeks to go through the shelves properly and a more methodical person would work out a system which would involve using those ladders which leaned against the tall columns of books. But somehow on Saturday morning, in between the flurry of activities leading up to Brendan and Cristen’s wedding that afternoon, I found the one book that I needed to remind me of those early years and to offer some guidance for the work ahead.