“When I look behind…”

snow angel

Yesterday John and I celebrated the 39th year of our meeting. (I know I’ve written about it before.) We always have a special dinner—last night it was duck breasts with a port and dried cherry sauce, followed by little molten chocolate cakes with raspberries and creme fraiche. A bottle of lovely Vacqueyras from the Rhone Valley, full of cherry and red currant.

But before dinner, a friend dropped by. She saw the quilt I was working on and said it reminded her of seeing the Northern Lights on a recent flight back from England. I said I felt at this point in the quilting that I was seeing snow angels. Those too, she exclaimed. She wanted to know how we met and John told her the story of the poetry reading at Open Space Gallery in Victoria, with bill bissett, and how we’d had dinner together with a mutual friend who was hosting John overnight (though he ended up staying with me instead!). And how the ferry he’d taken to the Island that afternoon was the only sailing that day because of high winds. We almost didn’t meet at all. Would he have remained with the woman he was with then? Would I have returned to Ireland to the nice man I’d left behind while I sorted out my life to try to find a way to go back? My friend said, But if you hadn’t met, then all this—she indicated the gallery of photographs taped to the fridge: our children, their children; and by extension, the whole of our life together—would never have happened. I looked at the photographs of my beautiful children. And the three grandchildren I adore (soon to be four). I would have been another person if none of this had occurred. Another life, another man (or not), other children (or not). But not these beloved people.

This morning, folding towels and looking out at the snow that fell last night, I kept hearing this poem. It’s one of my favourites. If anyone knew about time and its strange metaphysics, it was Stanley Kunitz.

The Layers
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
So maybe they’re scavenger angels too. Maybe they’re birds taking flight. But somehow I see the little children who were here last winter in snow and then in Edmonton last summer in sunlight, and who, but for a twist of fate, might not have been here at all. Or anywhere.
weeds and grandma's shadow.JPG