“five suns from a flying heaven”

yellow plate

Wading across the rising creek, I suddenly spotted an unusually large shell on the bottom, partly obscured by eelgrass. Curious, I lifted it out and put it in my bucket among the frilly oysters; it rang against the side of the galvanized bucket like a bell. Not a shell, then, but what? By now the tide was surging in and I made my way over the rocks to the place where the rest of my family had finished filling their bucket with butter clams and littlenecks.

It was Thanksgiving weekend, circa 1991. (My son Forrest just told me he thought it was the year after we returned from a winter in Utah, the year after we bought our little boat, and that we’d taken my parents with us down the lake to where it almost meets the ocean in order to gather some clams and oysters for Thanksgiving dinner. So 1991 sounds right.)

Remembering my strange disc, I took it out of my bucket and showed the others. Holding it up to the light, turning it this way and that, we could tell it was a plate but so covered in mud and algae and even a little group of barnacles fastened to the rim, that we couldn’t tell what colour it was. I scraped away a corner of the algae with my oyster knife and was started to see brilliant yellow showing through.

Those were wonderful years. My children were growing, I was finding my way back to writing after a long period of diapers, babies waking in the night, the pre-school years with all the driving back and forth to the village nearest us to drop off and pick up children. I wanted to write poetry but found that particular voice and focus had abandoned me. This other thing—I didn’t know what to call it but the prose lines could carry a little poetry, they could hold images intact, but somehow they didn’t need to be shaped into stanzas—anyway, this other form presented itself to me, encouraging me to at least try. And I did.

To our right as we walked, there was an abandoned fish-counting shack between us and the creek.

I learned to pay attention in a different way. I also learned that this form was as open and as shapely as poems had ever been to me. Maybe these were essays I was trying to write but the pages themselves were also hoping there’d be room for some music, lists of plants, notes for quilts, a recipe or two, a family tree, and real trees too, with all their leaves and cambium and root systems; they were hoping for weather and birdsong and what it felt like to be damaged, what it felt like to enter a river and plunge forward.

There was broken glass around the door and old tins and a midden of shells. Half in, half out, an iron bedframe leaned against the door and the floor had rotted through, sword ferns growing into the room in one place, shattered window glass and bottles all over.

I wrote one, and then I wrote another. I realized I could keep doing this without ever coming to the end of what I wanted to do, what I wanted to try to do. It wasn’t poetry (my first love) but it was generous, it was forgiving, and here it was, inviting me to at least try.

A rough shelf hung partly off one wall and on the shelf were four dusty yellow plates, the only things in the shack that were unbroken. They were waiting, as the first plate waited, in a dark corner, not underwater, but fallen the same, five suns from a flying heaven.

“Yellow Plates” was the second essay I wrote, after “Morning Glory”, and then there was another, and another, until I had a collection of them, Red Laredo Boots, published in 1996 as part of the Transmontanus series (so brilliantly conceived by Terry Glavin). The five yellow plates graced our table for years, one for each of us. Then, as plates do, one broke, then another, until there were two left, one for John and one for me, because our children grew up and moved to other cities. One of the plates was cracked and chipped but not quite enough to make it unusable. The other day, doing dishes, I dropped the last fully intact plate onto our tile floor and two big chips were the result. We’re going to retire both plates, worn and scarred, to the sunroom where they can serve as saucers for plants overwintering by the south windows.

We each said a grace before eating, something to be thankful for—food, family, the peace of the big trees around us and the weather bringing rain, wind, the brilliance of sunlight in October, sometimes streaming from the great sun above and sometimes hidden in creekbeds, shacks, flawed under dust and barnacles, waiting to be found and praised.

I wish you a good Thanksgiving wherever you are and I wish our country, our planet, the peace and care they deserve.

*Note: Red Laredo Boots is out of print but I have some copies here. If you’re interested in buying a copy ($16 plus $3 shipping within Canada), just let me know.

redux: family pictures

In July, 2015, I was reading Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still, and I was thinking about how writers and visual artists make use of their families in their work. I’m writing something now with that in mind, taking strands of my own personal family history and fictional versions of it, trying to make something both new and true and also fabricated. I don’t know the formula for a truly balanced methodology but that’s not going to stop me…

_________________________

“As ephemeral as our footprints were in the sand along the river, so also were those moments of childhood caught in the photographs. And so will be our family itself, our marriage, the children who enriched it and the love that has carried us through so much. All this will be gone. What we hope will remain are these pictures, telling our brief story.”(Sally Mann, writing in the New York Times about the furor around the publication of her book, Immediate Family, in 1992.)

I’ve begun American photographer Sally Mann’s new book, Hold Still, a memoir, and every page so far has me making a mental note. She is such a congenial writer and I keep thinking, Yes, oh yes — someone who shares my sense of family history (even if hers is much more, well, illustrious than mine), of how a book can include visual elements that so many publishers would be reluctant to include. Unless of course you’re Sally Mann.

And thank goodness she is. I’ve loved her images in the past. I remember the extraordinary flutter of attention when she published Immediate Family, a collection of ravishing photographs of her children alive in the world of their Virginia farm. Some of the images portray the children at play, in the river, on a long wooden porch — and in many of them, the children are naked. As children living in a rural area with a healthy sense of themselves often are. I remember my own children here on our rural property running under sprinklers in summer and rolling in the grass, clothing abandoned. When they became socialized, well, to be honest, once they began school, that carefree joie de vivre evaporated.

I remember criticism of her book coming from surprising sources. Mary Gordon, for example, who responded to one photograph, “The Perfect Tomato”, this way:

“The application of the word ‘tomato’ — sexual slang for a desirable woman — to her daughter insists that we at least consider the child as a potential sexual partner. Not in the future but as she is. The fact that the children are posed by their mother, made to stand still, to hold the pose, belies the idea that these are natural acts — whatever natural may be.”

That photograph, in the Guggenheim Museum , breaks my heart with its beauty. And proves that people see the world the way they want to see the world. It’s innocent or radiant or potentially dangerous — or all of these. Art can make us uncomfortable, I suppose, even as it celebrates the layers of what it means to be a child balanced on a cluttered table, with tomatoes just picked arranged on its surface, in a shaft of ethereal light, perhaps about to fall. It’s what is. I, for one, wouldn’t want it any other way.

So the book will be my companion over the next week. And companions often provoke one to look back, to remember, as part of the series of responses they elicit from you as you accompany them through their own memory grove. In my first book of essays, Red Laredo Boots, I wrote about my family. They were young and they were at the centre of my daily life. I also wrote about my extended (and inherited) family. There’s an essay in that book, “The Tool Box”, which meditates on family history by itemizing the contents of a wooden box John had been given by his mother. The box was a gift to his father from his paternal grandfather when John’s parents emigrated to Canada in 1953. We received it in the mid-1990s. I found it so potent, somehow. That a grandfather who John had hardly known would make a box for a son — John’s father — without any sort of building desire or ability; yet John and I built our own house. The box seemed (in the way objects can) to be emblematic of that mystery. John’s mother was horrified that I would write about such a thing and she was hugely offended by the essay. Although she had been separated from John’s father for decades when my book came out, she felt I had overstepped my privilege as her daughter-in-law by writing an essay which referred to what she called “her story”. We were estranged for several years and came to a kind of impersonal truce eventually. I realized then how dangerous personal material could be — not just to the writer who plunged into it but to those who felt a sense of ownership. Those boundaries, the borders — they are fluid of course and about as capricious as anything can be. But I’ve always felt I needed to try to figure them out. Would I intrude on territory others felt was off-limits or somehow sacred? Yes. Was I willing to take the chance that I might offend members of my family — immediate or extended? Well, I never begin a piece of writing with that intention. But I recognize the potential in almost everything I do. In my case, it’s not photographing my children in all their naked beauty — not for their nakedness alone but for the moment when the image transcends the ordinary to become something else: “The fact is that these are not my children; they are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle tension, mood, wind and shade. These are not my children at all; these are children in a photograph.” Which is so sensible somehow and gets to the heart of the artistic impulse. Mine is to examine the multiplicity of memory and my — our — relationship to it. What might be made of that, in all honesty but also in service to artifice itself.

On the wall above my desk is a drawing my daughter Angelica made when she was about six. I believe (and this is the way I remember it) that she gave it to me as an apology for something she’d done or said. It is something I cherish — and parsing it from this day, 24 years later, is interesting: she’s under a rain-cloud and I’m under the sun. She’s small. I’m large and extravagant in what I remember as my party-dress from those days  — a two piece Moroccan confection with beads along the shoulders and the hem of the skirt which clicked deliciously when I walked. Her blond hair. My red hair. (I’m not a red-head but maybe that was the time I tried the Body Shop’s henna rinse. A mistake but here it is commemorated on a piece of paper from the recycling box. Remember the old printer paper from the dot-matrix printers where you had to tear off the perforated edges which held the paper in place on the printer?) I have no hands — mothers could perform magic in those days. I’m smiling. She’s grimacing. My name’s in bold black and hers (note the lower-case a) is scanty (though it comes first!). We are pretty much the same size now and she is about as accomplished as a young woman can be. Whatever happened to occasion this drawing makes me grateful for the discords in families because I have the record of it in all its childish iconography. One day I’ll write about it. Or wait. Maybe I just have.

after the argumentSome of us write about our families because they continue to beguile us, to confuse us, to provide mysterious paths to the past and to the future. Sometimes when I give public readings, people ask if my children mind being present in my work. Sometimes they do, I think. But theirs — ours — is the world I inhabit. It’s our brief story. Or part of it at least.

“I certainly knew that the context of place was important in my family pictures, but I also knew that I was creating work in which critical and emotional perception can easily shift.” That’s Sally Mann again and all I can say is that I am so looking forward to the rest of this book.

redux: “The blues were annual…”

Note: In Ottawa a few days ago, I was conscious of all our earlier visits, the one where we helped to build a deck for Forrest and Manon, then the next year a pergola. The year we ate prime rib at their table with the rest of our family, all tucked into rooms in the house in Vanier, and how each year there was a new baby, a new paragraph in the family story. Sometimes a new chapter entire. Three years ago on this day we were building that pergola and hoping that the wisteria I’d brought (from John’s grandmother’s garden in Suffolk) would thrive there. (It didn’t. But grapes have!)

reading

Sometimes memory plays its own strange tricks, so that a moment like this brings back all the times I read books to my children, all the books (even this book, Curious George) , all the weight of their bodies on my knees, in my heart. How can the years have gone so quickly, how is it that I hardly noticed them passing? I think of that beautiful Kate Wolf song, “Across the Great Divide”, appropriate to where I am now (Ottawa, far from home):

I’ve been walking in my sleep
counting troubles instead of counting sheep,
where the years went, I can’t say.
I just turned, and they’ve gone away.

I’ve been sifting through the layers
of dusty books and faded papers.
They tell a story I used to know
and it was one that happened so long ago.

 

And yesterday, hiking the Eagle Nest Trail above Calabogie Lake, the scent of pines (though not Ponderosas), the sound of chipmunks, and I was back in the Nicola Valley with my children, my husband, on one of our family camping trips, the dry air and pollen making our skin mysterious to the touch. Passing the little graveyard in Burnstown, I thought of the Murray churchyard in the old Nicola townsite, the stories I could almost understand as I wrote down the inscriptions, the epitaphs. They were tangled up with my own family stories, the houses we’d lived in, my mother’s attempts to make each one a home as quickly as possible.

In my notebook, “Morning glory” and the date, July 10, 1989. In later gardens, my mother planted a cultivar of morning glory called Heavenly Blue, perhaps forgetting what the white form had done to the roses and peonies. The blues were annual and I don’t remember if they were invasive. Seeds of wild flowers come in the droppings of birds and mammals, hair and fur, the clothing of those passing through. In one corner of the graveyard at Nicola, a tendril of pink field bindweed among the small stinging cacti. In an enclosure of while pickets, a woman who died in childbirth and the daughter who survived her for nineteen days, dying on her mother’s birthday, October 31, 1881, wild iris spreading over their little field of sadness. A young boy nearby, sleeping under the gentle cover of traveller’s joy. God speed them all.

–from “Morning Glory”, in Red Laredo Boots (New Star Books, 1996)

Pioneer jacket

Maybe it’s the light, the grey light, and the sound of rain on the metal roof. Maybe it’s the time of year, the maples turning, the scent of elk in the air, and the last of the apples turned into pies. But there are ghosts everywhere. Looking out my window just now, I saw…my father? in the woodshed. No. It’s my husband, sorting out kindling.

pioneer jacket

As he was heading out earlier, we were talking about how time seems to be moving backwards for us. We hear our parents, their sayings—our mothers and their habitual frugalities, our fathers and how their notions of the world were shaped (inevitably) by their experiences of the war. So we laughed and then John came back into the kitchen, laughing. “I’m still wearing his jacket,” he said.

My dad loved Pioneer rainwear. I don’t know if it’s even available any longer. But he always had a green jacket, replaced perhaps once in his life. And when he bought the one new one I remember him buying, he passed along his old one to John. My father hasn’t worn the jacket since at least the early 1990s (and he’s been dead since 2009) but it still smells like him. More than him, it smells like my life with him, as a child camping, or walking some evenings with the family dog.

So the jacket reminds me. The air reminds me. The scent of elk. Apples with wrinkled skins on the counter. The way the rain sounds its own soft music until you don’t hear it anymore but it’s in your blood, your heart.

And I’ve been here before, I thought, my father’s old jacket taking me back as surely as anything can. In the mid-1990s, I wrote about his jacket, published in Red Laredo Boots, my first collection of essays. So I found my copy of the book and yes, here’s the passage:

rlb

The fire is warm, soup is simmering, and all the old ghosts are waiting in the grey light. Listen, listen, rain on the roof, the return of the Steller’s jays, the rustle of the jacket as my husband returns it to its hook.

after the Solstice

day after Solstice.jpg

So now we wait for the light. In our house, there are little strings of fairy lights draped around picture frames, windows, even the iron wine rack hanging in one corner of the dining area (with a sign saying It’s Five’O’Clock Somewhere). Last night we went to the Grasshopper Pub for supper and watched the carol ships making their way around the harbour below, small pleasure boats with lights outlining every possible angle. Years ago we used to watch the carol ships from our friend Edith Iglauer’s deck. In those days the boats were fish boats — the local trawlers, gill-netters, seiners — and working and charter boats. We’d all bring food and we’d stand in the darkness while the boats came into each small bay, those on board singing and those watching joining in. I wrote about it my book, Red Laredo Boots:

We sing, of course we sing, whatever song comes to mind, and no one is self-conscious in the dark. My children love “The Huron Carol” and we are usually the only ones whoknow more than one verse so we sing of the hunters and the babe wrapped in rabbit skins and the humble lodge, and I think I’ve never believed more in the nativity than at those moments, singing with them in the cold night. This holy child of earth and heaven is born today for you. The boats move slowly, like winter constellations, and we watch until they disappear.

So I have to confess that I’m not a Christian. If anything, I’m a pagan. But these moments call to us from somewhere deep and the language we use for that call is redolent of what we knew in our childhoods. And mine was within the Judeo-Christian tradition so the miracles of the season are of birth, special foods, music, candlelight, and the stories told by stars. Which, come to think of it, are among the miracles of other traditions too. The Midwinter Yule. Hanukkah. The cycles of birth and death, light in the darkness, the horned god marking the return of life to the earth.

In our house, there’s a 14 month old boy, grandson Arthur, to keep the noise level high. He has words: ball, owl, Mama, Daddy. And he likes nothing better this morning than the task of removing the alphabet letters from the fridge and then replacing them. He likes to dance. He laughs beautifully. It’s good to have children in the house at Christmas, to keep the old habits alive — the carol ships, the little lights, listening for bells as the old year winds to a close.

silver dagger, boots of spanish leather

kelly's quilt.jpg
Quilt, basting stitches not yet snipped out.

I’ve been in the kitchen for part of the day, finishing up a quilt for my granddaughter’s second birthday. I stitch and think, think and sew. Her dad said he’s building bunkbeds in her room — another baby is expected in late August — and so it’s kind of serendipitous that I’ve made a quilt for one of those beds: the one she will sleep in. When I see her, I love the times when her parents go out in the evenings and I get to put her to bed. I wrap her in a blanket and sing old ballads to her. She never takes her eyes off my face while I’m singing. Her serious blue eyes, the tiny collection of curls at the nape of her neck (this is most of her hair; she has very little anywhere else): well, there’s something deeply lovely about these times. And what do I sing? Mostly the Child Ballads, the wonderful old songs of England and Scotland collected by Francis Child in the second half of the 19th century. I’ve loved them ever since I heard early recordings of Joan Baez singing “Mary Hamilton” and Pentangle’s version of that murder ballad, “The Cruel Sister”. I don’t have a great voice but Kelly doesn’t know that. And she’s a captive audience, a child in her grandmother’s arms.

We have a satellite system supplying our internet connection and our television reception. I don’t know how to turn the television on — I don’t quite see the point of televsion unless it’s used for movies I know I’ll love; otherwise I’d rather be in my bed reading. But the days when I’m quilting are perfect days for the Folk Roots channel. And today for some reason the old ballads kept coming on. And oh, they take me back. To my university years when I was listening to folk music as carefully as I was reading Milton. Those songs educated my heart while Donne’s Holy Sonnets educated my mind. Just now, Nanci Griffith singing “Boots of Spanish Leather”, which I know isn’t exactly ancient; but surely Bob Dylan had those rich songs in mind when he wrote it. It inspired the title essay of my book, Red Laredo Boots. We had Other Voices, Other Rooms on our stereo system in our old GMC pickup truck the winter we drove up into the Fraser and Thompson Canyons in search of history, our children in the backseat. And so it inflected the drive:

On the Ferry From Horseshoe Bay to Langdale, That Same Day

While the children walk the decks to stretch their legs after a long day’s drive, I am sitting with this notebook to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. Of course I have because I see I haven’t mentioned trying on a Lee jean jacket in the Fields store in Merritt or looking at the photograph in the Ashcroft Museum of the couple from the Upper Hat Creek Valley, he holding a cigarette and she, a cat in her arms. Who were they and where did they end up? Behind them you can see the evidence of hayfields and tall cottonwoods to picnic under when the work is finished. They look so young and proud in the air of 1913, before the War, before the fire that burned down most of Ashcroft, before the young men left nearby Walhachin for battles they’d never return from. We’ve taken lots of photographs, of course, and will put them in our album to tell something of this ramble. The truck still smells of sage, though the sprig hanging from the mirror is withered and dry. And every time I hear Nanci Griffith sing, I’ll regret that I didn’t at least try on the red Laredo boots:

Take heed, take heed of the western wind.
                           Take heed of stormy weather.
                           And yes, there is something you can send back to me.
                           Send me boots of Spanish leather.

from Red Laredo Boots, New Star Books, 1996.

Just now, “Silver Dagger”:

Don’t sing love songs, you’ll wake my mother
She’s sleeping here right by my side
And in her right hand a silver dagger,
She says that I can’t be your bride.

It’s one I’ll have to work on for singing Kelly to sleep. Maybe under the new quilt, a friendly patchwork for a child to dream under. And the songs are cautionary, in all the right ways.

My daddy is a handsome devil
He’s got a chain five miles long,
And on every link a heart does dangle
Of another maid he’s loved and wronged.

the blues were annual

reading

Sometimes memory plays its own strange tricks, so that a moment like this brings back all the times I read books to my children, all the books (even this book, Curious George) , all the weight of their bodies on my knees, in my heart. How can the years have gone so quickly, how is it that I hardly noticed them passing? I think of that beautiful Kate Wolff song, “Across the Great Divide”, appropriate to where I am now (Ottawa, far from home):

I’ve been walking in my sleep

counting troubles instead of counting sheep,

where the years went, I can’t say.

I just turned, and they’ve gone away.

 

I’ve been sifting through the layers

of dusty books and faded papers.

They tell a story I used to know

and it was one that happened so long ago.

 

And yesterday, hiking the Eagle Nest Trail above Calabogie Lake, the scent of pines (though not Ponderosas), the sound of chipmunks, and I was back in the Nicola Valley with my children, my husband, on one of our family camping trips, the dry air and pollen making our skin mysterious to the touch. Passing the little graveyard in Burnstown, I thought of the Murray churchyard in the old Nicola townsite, the stories I could almost understand as I wrote down the inscriptions, the epitaphs. They were tangled up with my own family stories, the houses we’d lived in, my mother’s attempts to make each one a home as quickly as possible.

In my notebook, “Morning glory” and the date, July 10, 1989. In later gardens, my mother planted a cultivar of morning glory called Heavenly Blue, perhaps forgetting what the white form had done to the roses and peonies. The blues were annual and I don’t remember if they were invasive. Seeds of wild flowers come in the droppings of birds and mammals, hair and fur, the clothing of those passing through. In one corner of the graveyard at Nicola, a tendril of pink field bindweed among the small stinging cacti. In an enclosure of while pickets, a woman who died in childbirth and the daughter who survived her for nineteen days, dying on her mother’s birthday, October 31, 1881, wild iris spreading over their little field of sadness. A young boy nearby, sleeping under the gentle cover of traveller’s joy. God speed them all. –from “Morning Glory”, in Red Laredo Boots (New Star Books, 1996)