“I felt I was writing my way through the pandemic myself.”

laid out

A few days after the pandemic required us to stay home, to keep to ourselves, I began an essay I called “The River Door”. It was a phrase that came to me out of thin air when I woke up one morning in mid-March, just after I’d finished the draft of a novella. What did it mean, that phrase? I waited for a bit to see. I waited for the door to open to show me what I needed to do next.

For the past year or so, intermittently, I’d been thinking about my family’s experience of the Spanish flu outbreak in Drumheller in 1918. I knew a few things but not the whole story. I still don’t know it. But as I delved into the material I’d been gathering, as the enormity of our own public health crisis became evident, I realized that the door opening in front of me was the story of my grandmother and her first husband in their shack on the Red Deer River. I began to write a series of passages, not quite knowing how they would fit together. There was the squatters’ camp my grandmother lived in, there was the death of her husband, her brother, her infant daughter; and then there was the rough house she lived in on the other side of the river with her new husband (my grandfather). I wanted to find out more about the squatters’ camp. I’ve wanted to know more ever since spring of 2016 when I discovered that the homestead I’d always believed my grandmother’s first husband owned was a fiction. A family fiction. Instead of a quarter-section, he had a shack on School Lands near Drumheller. I researched the saga of the camp, tried to find out more, and yes, I did find out a lot, thanks to my older son who sent me the digital version of a microfilm devoted to the bureaucratic wrangling surrounding the camp itself, those who lived there, and the future of the land.

How to write about this? How to organize the passages? I decided I’d do it in 3 parts. I’d have sections set on the south side of the Red Deer River, where the squatters’ camp was located (I thought, although I hadn’t been able to locate a good map of it), sections set on the north side of the river, where my family lived after leaving the camp, and sections serving as doors into the Spanish flu pandemic, doors opening and closing, doors used as stretchers, doors abandoned.

I felt I was writing my way through the pandemic myself. I woke so many nights and came downstairs to work on the essay, slowly, because, well, there was—there is—so much I don’t know. Not just about history but about writing, about the best way to remember people whom I barely knew, or never knew at all. The thing I wanted most of all was a map of the squatters’ camp. Somehow I thought that would give me ballast in the current of this work. I’d search online, I’d send emails into the unknown (and it truly was the unknown because replies never arrived), but then I did find a wonderful librarian at the University of Calgary, Peter Peller, who works in Spatial and Numeric Data Services, who told me that the library had acquired some maps from the Glenbow Collections and he thought there might be something there. But the holdings were restricted because of COVID-19. When it was safe to access them, he would see what he could find. I felt I was writing my way through the pandemic, yes, and part of what I was learning was patience. Eventually, after I’d forgotten I was even expecting maps, Peter sent me scanned copies of a number of maps and one of them was exactly what I needed. I knew this because I’d read correspondence detailing a survey of the School Lands where the squatters’ camp was located so that the land could be subdivided and sold. The map gave me such a door into the past, my grandmother and her first husband in their shack on the south side of the river, with their big garden on land adjacent to a creek. I looked through the door, saw them in their industry, surrounded by their children, the youngest asleep in a basket as my grandmother hung out laundry.

This morning I laid out the essay on the table. Because it doesn’t follow a simple narrative arc, I am trying to see how best to arrange the sections so that they allow a reader to share my sense of discovery and also sorrow. This story does not have a happy ending. Well, it doesn’t end, not in the usual way, because of course this was a century ago, more children were born, including my father, and here I am studying the pattern of pages on a pine table, moving a page here, another there. I know now that I need at least two more sections. One will be called “The Starland Fonds”. The other will look carefully at the map. The world is still not safe in the way it used to feel safe. It wasn’t safe then, when my grandmother buried her husband, her brother, and her infant daughter. I move the pages of her story which has become my story, our story, the doors both welcoming and forbidding. A phrase came to me as I woke one morning in mid-March and the pages are laid out, incomplete still, insubstantial, but with some promise in them, the words a kind of palimpsest, my time to hers, to ours.


“I go to meet it”

deer, looking out

Some mornings I wake and forget that we are living through a pandemic. I lie in my bed, listening to birds that never sounded as sweet as they do this spring. Some mornings I wonder when we might feel that we are safe again. Will we? Will the world return to its old paradigm? Next month? The fall? Never, I suppose. I don’t think it should. We are not the same, are we? The news we’ve followed, the numbers, the charts, the models — those have guided us, like cryptic maps, to a place of no return. We need to abandon some of our old habits and expectations and we’ll need new ways to do things.

My daughter Angelica sent this photograph today, an image from her walk along Dallas Road in Victoria. When I was a child, you never saw deer in the city of Victoria. Out on Saanich peninsula, yes. I’d ride my horse on Island View Beach and there’d be deer nosing the tide line, nibbling the wind-shaped trees beyond. In the old orchards near the house where I spent my teen years, there were deer feeding on ancient wrinkled apples in fall. This photograph struck me as emblematic somehow. The new world, where deer claim the cemetery where I rode my bike, where peahens strut along the city streets, and where coyotes boldly walk the main thoroughfares in many major urban centres (though not yet on Vancouver Island).  For those of you who don’t know Victoria, Dallas Road follows the shoreline along the city’s southern boundary. On a clear day you can see the Olympic Peninsula on the other side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hurricane Ridge, and the lights of Port Angeles at night.

In early January I bought a small datebook for 2020 and until the second week in March, its pages are filled with scribbled notes of appointments, meals with friends, planned trips to Vancouver. The last actual thing is swimming on March 14, 1.3 kilometers, and I remember the lifeguard assuring us that the pool would remain open for the foreseeable future. It was (at that point) deemed “safe”. What is safe anymore? The glove-box of our car holds sanitizer, masks, single-use gloves.

Yet the days are not without beauty or utility. There are lovely things that happen. My grandchildren call on WhatsApp. I lie on my bed (because it’s close to the modem; otherwise the video connection is erratic) and read them stories. They tell me about frogs in the ravine near where they live, and a porcupine they watched waddle along the path, and they chant We want buttercrunch, we want buttercrunch. This morning I made a double batch to send to three cities where those I love more than anything live their own modified lives. Life goes on, some of it the same (a gin and tonic on a deck in Ottawa, in sunlight; the visit to the frogs in Mill Creek Ravine; walks along Dallas Road), and some of it still working itself out. One grandson in Ottawa told me about the ambulance video he’d seen (suddenly ambulances are everywhere!) and the truck that vacuumed out the storm drains.

We’re adapting. We didn’t want to. I’d rather be swimming those 1.3 kilometers three times a week and I’d rather be setting my table for a group of friends for a dinner stretching into the darkness of these spring evenings when owls would call as we walked our guests out to their cars at midnight. John was anticipating (with some anxiety but also with relief) hip surgery about now. When that will happen is anyone’s guess. But this is what is. What we have. And we are privileged to have the safety we do have, the good food, the bottles of wine from Wild Goose in Okanagan Falls delivered to our door. (Or not quite to our door but close enough.)

The last few nights I’ve up for a couple of hours, not because of insomnia but because I’ve begun a piece of writing that calls me, through the darkness, the anxiety, the little knot of fear that is hard to shake, calls me to pay attention to details about two shacks on the Red Deer River during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. The shacks held members of my family, one of them unknown to even my father before he died in 2009, and the others known but never talked about. They died in such sad circumstances and what happened afterwards was unimaginable at first to those left behind. Here I am, though, able to sit at my desk with my desk lamp glowing in the dark. I began the research for this before the virus changed our daily lives and now I have to acknowledge that I feel as though I’ve given a sacred task. Maybe that’s why the photograph of the deer feels so potent to me.

When I tidied my desk a week or two ago, getting ready to really plunge into writing after a couple of months of gathering, accumulating, thinking about the materials at hand, I found a copy of Gary Snyder’s No Nature: New and Selected Poems tucked under something else. I’ve long considered him a guide, having discovered his work when I was 18. I held the book in my hands and it fell open to this:

How Poetry Comes To Me

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light