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