Do tables remember the weight of platters and flowers?

your table is ready

After a grey morning, a swim in water at least two degrees cooler than last week, an unsettling encounter with the corpse of a shrew on the deck by my bedroom, I thought it might be time for a little divination, via A Writer’s Diary. I have the lovely Persephone Books edition, with Vanessa Bell’s endpapers, and this morning I looked at September 7th, 1924, as Virginia Woolf was working on the final pages of Mrs. Dalloway.

There I am now–at last at the party, which is to begin in the kitchen, and climb slowly upstairs. It is to be a most complicated, spirited, solid piece, knitting together everything and ending on three notes, at different stages of the staircase, each saying something to sum up Clarissa. Who shall say these things?

I’ve been thinking of parties lately. Will we have them again? Will friends drive up our gravel driveway, parking in the rough area we call Wood Lane, by the little vernal pool where flag irises grow and where the elk stand up to their knees in early summer, eating the green tops? Will we push tables together and drape them with cloth, setting them with plates and silver—our family silver combined with the junk store collection we bought in Falkland some years ago, along with a silver candelabra out of an Ian Tyson song:

Does the wind still blow In New Mexico?
Do the silver candelabras yet shine?
Is Kathrine still queen of El Paso?
Never to be yours, never to be mine.
Out of reach like the pale moon that shines,
On the road to Las Cruces.

I think it was 2014 that we drove on the high desert near Las Cruces and I kept singing the song, watching for cattle and cowboys and hoping to return to a landscape so deeply storied that I wanted to spend more time listening and taking the side-roads into dry arroyos:

The line of desire, seven strands of barbed wire,
Will hold back the on rushing tide.
Many dreams have been brought to the border…


We ate tacos in small towns and slept in an old hotel in Las Vegas, not the city of lights and casinos, but a wonderful little city,  with leafy trees, saddle shops, and young men and women walking around the park across from our room. For dinner there was trout with pinon nuts and cold beer. Will we do that again?
Writing is a solace. I was at my desk in the night, trying to find my way into something new. I made notes and sat with my chin in my hands while the moon approached full in the tangle of firs. The corn, barley, and fruit moon, the moon of the hungry ghosts. Mine aren’t hungry, exactly, but they’re wondering if we will ever polish every wine glass we own and fill the galvanized tub with ice. If we will slip our feet out of summer sandals and dance on the grass. If, if, if. When I wrote the final scene of my Virginia Woolf inspired novella in March, just a day after our local pool closed, the same day we drove to Egmont for supper at the Backeddy Pub and realized it would be the last meal out for…well, we didn’t know for how long, when I wrote that scene (to wrangle this sentence back into its fenced enclosure), a meal to celebrate finishing, even though it was in the shadow of something scary and unknown, I somehow thought there might be a party this summer. We had some of our family here and that was lovely but we didn’t have a party. Do tables remember the weight of platters and flowers, do the owls wonder where everyone has gone? Why the firepit is cold, the little lights unlit?

Someone has brought out the old jar I filled with dragonfly lights and they flicker from the nest of ferns where the jar is nestled. Nick is a little drunk and his eyes are shining as he looks into mine. Listen, Alice, it’s the Old Country Fairytale. Let’s just dance and forget that a former friend came up our driveway with a knife. It’s hidden away now and she’s talking to Alex. There is a brief passage, near the end of the Fairytale, when Tom’s cello sobs with a low vibrato. We stop dancing and just hold each other, on the edge of the darkness. Tea-lights in their mason jars are golden, some glittering in a small firework of burning wax as they gutter out. The scent of burning cedar is intoxicating. I love watching the children around the fire, the girls dancing behind those in chairs, and the boys leaning on skinny legs to angle their marshmallow sticks over the glowing coals.

the scent of apples

merton beauties

Some mornings, I use Virginia Woolf’s diaries as a form of divination. I’ve been reading her since I was 16 (that’s nearly 50 years!) and I return to her diaries over and over for a glimpse of her mind at work. Some mornings, I dip in to see what she was thinking around this time of year. I suspect I’ve posted this before but here’s what she was writing in late August, 1930, about The Waves, perhaps my favourite of her books.

The Waves is I think resolving itself (I am at page 100) into a series of dramatic soliloquies. The thing is to keep them running homogeneously in and out, in the rhythm of the waves. Can they be read consecutively? I know nothing about that. I think this is the greatest opportunity I have yet been able to give myself; therefore I suppose the most complete failure. Yet I respect myself for writing this book—yes—even though it exhibits my congenital faults.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I finished writing a novella loosely based on Mrs. Dalloway. I loved working on it, creating an ideal day (which of course contained a lot of history) in the life of the narrator Alice and her family, who are gathered for a party. It will be a final party for reasons known only to Alice and her husband Nick. It’s every party we’ve ever had in high summer, the table laid with the best crockery and silver, wine chilling in the big galvanized wash tub, salmon on the barbecue, jugs of flowers at every turn, someone whipping cream for the blackberry pies, and….see what happened there? I gave away the story’s source. And that might be the problem with this particular novella. Too much of us, not enough fiction. Though there is certainly fiction in it. The house has more bedrooms than ours, the family has one more child than we do (and the children are composites, they’re not equivalents), and when the former friend comes up the driveway carrying a knife, well, maybe she’s fictional too.

Right now it feels like something to tuck away in a drawer, maybe forever. Some of the people I was commemorating in the novella are dead and some aren’t. Some never existed in the first place. But given what’s happened with the world and how we don’t know how our lives will unfold in the mysterious future that we hope is still possible, I’m very happy to have written it. There are soliloquies in it, cello solos, a series of calls and responses. The writing of it felt very much like an opportunity and yes, a failure in some ways. I’d hoped for more originality, more depth to the actual work. I had so much to say and I wonder why I didn’t manage to say it all.

In the meantime, summer is almost over. This morning, walking into the lake for our swim, we noticed bear tracks in the sand. I’d better pick the apples when we get back, John said, and he did. Exactly 60 pounds of Merton Beauties, from a small tree he thinned by a third when the little apples were forming. Whatever else the unfolding future holds, there will be pies and crumbles and French apple cake flavoured with rum. In the Before Times, these would have been desserts for parties, served on the plates John’s family brought from England in 1953, with the little silver dessert forks. People would laugh and eat and not mind how close they were sitting to their neighbour. We’d hug (hug!) at the end of the evening and walk our guests to their cars under stars so beautiful I’d dream of them.

Yet I respect myself for writing this book—yes—even though it exhibits my congenital faults.

90 years ago, Virginia Woolf was finishing a book and I think of her so often, her troubled and radiant life. I’m sitting at my desk, with the scent of apples finding their way to me, grateful to have opened her diary for this message about doing what we need to do.

Now we are going out to the long table


Late yesterday afternoon, I surprised myself by writing the final page of my novella, The Occasions. I didn’t expect to finish it. Not yet. I was sort of caught up in the whole ecosystem of the story and I knew it could go one way, with particular consequences, or it could take a turn that would lead, well, I wasn’t sure quite where.

But it ended up in one of my favourite places, around the fire circle near my vegetable garden, late at night, after a party. When I say, “my vegetable garden”, I mean something like it. I’ve set the novella somewhere very similar to where I live and some of the characters resemble people I know and love. But they’re not those people, in significant ways. They fit together in ways the people I know don’t. But I loved writing something set in this part of the world, even if the house was a little bigger, the family differently configured, and the trajectory of both the plot and the narrator’s life very different from my own.

The central event is a party. The narrator wants to do the flowers for it herself. Does that sound familiar?

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Mrs. Dalloway is a book I read once a year. I think it’s a brilliant distillation of marriage, friendship, a changing world, how we remember and reconcile the past, and how we carry important values forward. The flowers. Friendships. How we reconcile ourselves to our aging bodies, the uncertainty of the world around us, where returned soldiers cope or don’t cope with shell-shock, and how we try to preserve what we love.

Like Mrs. Dalloway, The Occasions takes place on a single summer day. Children have returned to the family home, friends are expected, and everyone is preparing for a party. There are not chapters but sections, some of them very brief, some of them arranged as calls and responses

Now we are going out to the long table by the garden, glasses in hand, Rosie racing ahead, Tom playing the prelude from the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G minor. Now we are finding our places, with the help of Anna who holds the seating plan in her hand by the head of the table. Just there, she says, her hand on Molly Kovac’s back, and the children a little farther down, we’ve mixed you up a bit! Alex helps the children to their chairs and squats to talk to them quietly.

Now we are all seated and Rob is taking bottles of white wine around, Gareth the red. We’ll pour your first glass and then you’re on your own, says Gareth to Sunnera Bhatt, who smiles her wide smile. Adam and Arden are placing platters on the bright French cloths, the bowls of salad, baskets of bread. Water is poured for those not drinking wine. Rosie has been chased away. Twice. Now Nick is rising, asking for a moment to share a poem he considers the appropriate invitation to the evening. I’d like to have printed this for you, with a woodcut or something, he says, but somehow it didn’t happen. The first stanza has us all quiet:

It is not far to my place:
you can come smallboat,
pausing under shade in the eddies
or going ashore
to rest, regard the leaves

We listen to the poem, its simple mysterious language, and we want to be at the place described. We want to be there, “the river…muscled at rapids with trout”, and then we are there, here, as the poem reaches its conclusion:

                       there is little news:
I found last month a root with shape and
have heard a new sound among
the insects: come.

                                                     (lines of poetry from “Visit” by A.R. Ammons)

The party in The Occasions takes place outside, at long tables laid for dinner under the honeysuckle, and after the meal, there is dancing on the grass—one son plays a cello and his wife, an oud—and chairs are pulled close to the fire when the sun goes down. I began it on July 3, 2019, and I finished yesterday afternoon, and all fall and winter I spent time smelling the honeysuckle, smelling the cedar smoke from the fire. A summer day, in both memory and in imagination. A summer evening. The people gathered and the owls calling (not in Greek, not in Sanskrit, but simply their own sound). I’d thought there might be a late swim but then I realized everyone had had wine, and there were children to consider. Instead, there’s music, and Laphroaig.

So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too ‘that is all’. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.

                                 –from Mrs. Dalloway

“The walks in the field are corridors…”

your table is ready

When I was about 21 and figuring out how to be a writer, I sometimes helped at an antiquarian bookstore on Fort Street in Victoria. I liked being there. There were old Persian carpets on the floor and shelves filled with treasures. The owner, who was a friend, gave me books instead of money and that was perfect. Once he presented me (there is no other word) with a copy of a first UK edition (though possibly not a first printing) of Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, with a cover design by Vanessa Bell. He made a little speech about her being a good model for me as a young writer and that he knew I would love the book. He’d enclosed a sweet card that I used as a bookmark, and yes, I did love the book. A year or two later I was teaching a writing course at the Y, the one across from Christ Church Cathedral, and I loaned books to the students in that way you do when you are very trusting. I think every book came back except A Writer’s Diary. I’ve borrowed it from the library many times but for some reason I’ve never replaced it. Well, let’s be honest. That particular volume, given in those circumstances, couldn’t be replaced.

A week or two ago, I needed the book. I’m writing a novella (I think it will be a novella, though there’s a chance it might be longer…) that takes as its template Mrs. Dalloway. An anticipated party, the preparations, and of course the flowers. The party in my book will be site-specific and the site is here, though the characters are not us and the house is a bit bigger (to accommodate all the guests who are arriving by ferry, car, plane) and there is even a little guest house, a tiny house on wheels, and that is something I’d love to have here but I don’t think we will take on the work at this point in our lives. My book will be called The Occasions. Even during the busy whirl of the past month, with visiting children and their children, with visiting musicians for the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, I was awake many nights working at my desk. I didn’t want to lose momentum. I wanted the guidance of someone who knew how a book can take over both the waking life and the dreaming one.

I ordered a copy of A Writer’s Diary, the very elegant Persephone edition, and it arrived in today’s mail. I’m so happy to see that the end papers are based on the original Vanessa Bell cover! I opened to August, 1924, when I knew Virginia Woolf was working on Mrs. Dalloway.

For I see that Mrs. Dalloway is going to stretch beyond October. In my forecasts I always forget some most important intervening scenes: I think I can go straight at the grand party and so end; forgetting Septimus, which is a very intense and ticklish business, and jumping Peter Walsh eating his dinner, which may be some obstacle too. But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; and the walks in the fields are corridors; and now today I’m lying thinking.

Mine is a tale in which I know the place and thought I knew how the events would unfold but something dark is happening and I think I wanted to know that it didn’t need to take over my life. Someone isn’t invited to the party for a whole lot of complicated reasons and she has begun to haunt the proceedings. I’m not quite sure what to do about it. About her. In the meantime, the narrator is surrounded by loved ones, the flowers arranged in big jugs for the long table that is being set with French cloths on the grass by the vegetable garden, and someone is tuning her oud. Yes, her oud. I know nothing about these beautiful pear-shaped instruments but a woman has brought it out to the big rock to the south of the house and I can see the rosettes on its soundboard from where I sit. Or at least I’d be able to see them if she really existed and if an oud was truly being tuned for the party. The walks in the fields are corridors, Virginia wrote, and I am walking them, walking them, listening to music.

The Occasions

sweet peas in small jug

This summer I began to write a novella set more or less where I live and it takes place on a single day and it begins with flowers. If that sounds familiar, if you are hearing an echo of Mrs. Dalloway as you read this, then I’m happy. Because this is in some ways a retelling of that beautiful book. No plot, not really, but a group of people brought together for an occasion. Or rather a celebration of a number of events. I didn’t have a title in mind but then as I was working yesterday, one of the characters was talking to another about someone not invited to the party, someone who’d become increasingly difficult and remote, who’d finally abandoned a long friendship. “For years she’d celebrated the occasions,” one character says to the other, and I immediately saw the title. The Occasions.

Writing a book in homage to Mrs. Dalloway means rereading that book, thinking about it, taking a little time to plunge back into other books by Virginia Woolf. To enter those sentences and those rhythms and that vivid imagination. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” And in my story, Alice goes up the mountain to cut the flowers for her party. Hardhack, chrome-yellow tansy, airy Queen Anne’s lace. An occasion for flowers, huge jugs of them on every surface.






Last Friday, in Edmonton, we wandered over to La Boule for coffee and a pastry (the best hazelnut croissant ever) and then to Alhambra, a bookstore nearby. I chose a couple of books for my Edmonton grandchildren and then saw Gratitude, by Oliver Sacks. A year or so ago, I read The River of Consciousness and wrote about it here. I haven’t read all his books but many, perhaps more than half. Recently I went back to his Hallucinations to figure out some stuff about perception and brain function as a result of a retinal injury suffered in November when I fell on ice in Edmonton. I have curiosity and a little intelligence but Oliver Sacks had a truly fine mind. I bought Gratitude and on our second night in Edmonton, sleepless, I got up to read it. It’s not a long book but it’s full of wisdom and beauty. And the prose is so interesting, the way it takes the reader into the writer’s life, into his childhood, into his understanding of his own nature and sexuality, his devotion to, then reliance on, psychotropic drugs (for a time), and his acceptance of his own death.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

It’s a brief book but complete. You read it and you realize that you must do what you need to do. Not wait for the next week or two when you can get away to do your work, preferably in a remote cabin with meals brought to the door in a basket. Not after you’ve cleaned the house or finished reconciling your finances or dealt with the latest fiasco in your love life. Sure, those things take up a lot of space but I agree with Dr. Sacks that we don’t get these years back.

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

And the thing is, it doesn’t matter if you have a month left to live or a decade. Or three. These are the years. These are the days. If I had my younger self to talk to, to console (as I wish I had this older self to talk to in the years when I wondered if I’d ever have time to write), to advise and encourage, I’d tell her that the years pass so quickly that she shouldn’t wait for what she might think is adequate time. I am in that river of consciousness now, at this point in my life, deep in its waters, sometimes chilly and in danger of losing balance in the current, sometimes so utterly joyous that I have to pull myself back to the shore by force of will. Everything feels available to me, or worth pursuing if it’s not right at hand:

If a dynamic, flowing consciousness allows, at the lowest level, a continuous active scanning or looking, at a higher level it allows the interaction of perception of memory, of present and past.

A few weeks ago, I woke with a novel (or maybe novella) in mind, a riff on Mrs. Dalloway, and I began to write it. I put it aside because I have some work to finish but I know it’s waiting. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Yes, she will. Or she will grow them.

tulips at home