a cautionary tale


We have a metal roof. Our original roof was cedar shakes but when it needed replacing 10 or so years ago, given the increasing number of weeks without rain in summer and our proximity to the forest, it seemed prudent to replace the shakes with metal. Our bedroom, with a small bathroom and John’s study, is the entire second-storey of our house. On the western edge, we removed the eaves-trough last summer when we had some of the eaves troughs replaced with seamless lengths. The ones John had attached many years ago, and caulked, developed leaks. On the eaves just above our bed, the drips were annoying and it was hard to get to that eaves trough to clean it out. Proximity to forest + many Douglas firs and western cedars = gunk in the gutters. The water running down that western slope of second-storey roof ends up on a lower roof that empties, in summer, into a big rain barrel; we use the water for potted plants and vines that grow up the posts and rails of the decks.

When it snows, and then warms up a bit, the snow on the high second-storey roof begins to slide down the metal. It slides over the edge, where the eaves trough was, and it hangs for a few days in front of the window like a curtain. Mostly the bedroom is very light. The curtains (seldom drawn in winter) are white linen. So for the past couple of days, I’m always taken aback at first when I go upstairs and see the shadowy light in the bedroom. I’ve been having some trouble with my retinas, damaged after a fall in late November. One hole was repaired in early December but then two more developed. They were detected last week and repaired but my ophthalmologist was very insistent that I pay attention to any changes in my vision. Watch for a curtain-like shadow over your visual field, he warned, and if that happens, come to me immediately. I forget about the snow-curtain over the windows upstairs and then I wonder why the room is so dim.

I think of this poem, by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. How beautifully she captures the condition of not knowing if the way you are seeing is true or dream or both. “…the interval shaken loose.” That’s it, exactly.


I laid myself down and slept on the map of Europe,
It creaked and pulled all night and when I rose
In a wide hall to the light of a thundery afternoon
The dreams had bent my body and fused my bones
And a note buzzed over and again and tuned for the night.

We advanced to the window: the square frame showed us
Everything, where we had washed up, above rolling domes,
A splash of talk reaching us; behind us we could not hear
How the dark oil-paint slid down the wall
Wiping out the way we had come. The measure changed,

The warped foot staggered, I thought
Of the yelping music, the interval shaken loose,
I will not hear again. The red-haired bard
Rehearsed the bare words that make the verse hang right,
The skewed weights holding in their place like feathers.

blue windows


Yesterday I had a laser procedure to mend a retinal tear in one of my eyes; the other eye is being monitored because of suspected vitreous detachment. This is probably a result of my fall on ice in Edmonton last week. I thought I had a badly bruised and possibly cracked coccyx (my doctor confirmed that either or both are likely) but then developed some visual, well, not problems exactly because the experience was very beautiful but apparently beauty is not a consideration when your retina is torn. You need to have it repaired, and as quickly as possible. I’m lucky.

Yesterday I asked my (new to me) ophthalmologist about some things I’d seen while being examined in the Royal Alexandra Hospital’s Eye Institute on Sunday evening (another lucky thing, because there just happened to be a young ophthalmologist in the Institute who was willing to examine me and who alerted me to the necessity of immediate action once we were back on the Coast) and he told me I’d experienced “entoptic phenomena”, visual effects within my eye. I won’t detail those right now because they fit so beautifully into an essay I am writing called “The Blue Etymologies”, an exploration of the colour blue, my work with indigo dye (the image at the beginning of this post is cotton dyed last year), some old blueprints associated with my grandparents in the 1940s Beverly (then a small mining community just outside Edmonton but now part of the city), some cyanotype prints by the 19th century English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, and some other elements a little too complicated to explain just now.

The world of our senses is extraordinary and profound. We see, and then we realize how that happens. We have intense lights directed into our eyes and we see images so beautiful that we weep. Maybe a little because of the discomfort of a cracked tailbone as we sit on the examining chair and the pressure of the ophthalmologist’s tools. But maybe we have been given something else. When I was trying to describe this sensation to my son Forrest on the phone the other evening, he wondered if I’d read Oliver Sacks’s essay, “Altered States”, in which he sees indigo. No, I hadn’t. But yesterday, before my medical appointment, I found a copy at our library and read the essay last night before sleep.

I had long wanted to see “true” indigo, and thought that drugs might be the way to do this. So one sunny Saturday in 1964, I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed, “I want to see indigo — now!”

And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture. It was the colour of heaven…

His methodology sounds a little more interesting than mine (a hard fall on the butt and a torn retina) but yes, that was it. The colour of heaven. Right before, or rather inside, my eye. He never found it again.