“we’ll do the best we know…”

firewood gate2
An hour ago, while swimming, I caught a thread of autumn in the morning air. That slightly winey scent of leaves, a riffle of cool breeze unheard of a week ago when there was sun on the sand at 8:30. Maybe I noticed it because earlier I’d been reading the Autumn section of Bruce Hutchison’s A Life in the Country with my first cup of coffee. I’ve always loved his books and I found this copy at the Friends of the Sechelt Library book sale a few weeks ago. 2 bucks. It’s an elegant memoir of the author’s home-building in North Quadra near Victoria (the same neighbourhood my parents lived in), garden-making, renovations at the cabin he owned at Shawnigan Lake. He wrote so elegantly and beautifully of the dailiness of keeping a place intact, of welcoming visitors, of the strange and wonderful cast of characters who peopled his world. But back to Autumn. His meditations on the woodshed rang a familiar bell.
….If, occasionally, our politicians turned from rhetoric to reality and grasped an axe instead of a debating point or photo opportunity much social damage might be avoided.
   For those who can read its message, the woodshed rebukes such errors. Neatly piled (a high skill in itself), the contents, unlike all paper assets and printed money, are real wealth, an honest measure of value never diminished by the legal counterfeiting known as inflation. And when the chopper inspects the drying wood for next spring’s fire, he must be a little surprised by his own morality. His work, his sweat, his muscle and ache have created that wealth, or at least preserved it. He has asked no wages and he has toiled while his guests revelled in summer idleness.
   There is a darker side to the lesson of the woodshed. A moral chopper should ask himself what right he has to nature’s generosity when multitudes of human beings are cold in winter and hungry in all seasons. A nice question, especially for Canadians who, possessing a transcontinental treasure, grossly mismanage it by defying the woodshed principle.
   The moral question remains, and it has baffled philosophers of every faith since mankind left its caves—how much of nature’s yield does any nation or individual deserve? What volume of wealth are we entitled to hoard for our own use in woodshed or written contract?
We burn a lot of wood over the fall, winter, and spring. We buy some now that we’re past middle age and we cut what we can on our own land. We’re eyeing the dead young cedars, victims of two years of hot dry summers, and once it’s safe to take a saw into the woods, we’ll spend some time taking down what we can. When our older son visits in October, he may be conscripted for some woodcutting too. It’s good work, if hard on the muscles. But it also makes you grateful for a warm fire made with logs you’ve cut, split, and stacked yourself. Last year, in November, we had a load of dry pitchy fir delivered to supplement what we’d brought in ourselves. And the delivery coincided with two things: an emergency surgical procedure for John; and the visit of our Edmonton family. While he convalesced, I stacked wood in the shed; and Cristen, Kelly, and Henry filled the woodbox and kindling bucket in the porch as needed. Mostly John does these jobs and it was good for the rest of us to take them on, to know the luxury of a fire afterwards.
Yesterday was the first day of the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival. I’ve been involved since the beginning season, 14 years ago, with a break of a couple of years in the middle. It’s always a fabulous weekend of intimate chamber music in the most beautiful setting—a restored Forestry building on a little hill above the harbour, surrounded by big trees. The opening event was this year’s Rising Tide, our annual celebration of young performers; the concert is a gift to the community. We were treated to a programme ranging from John Dowland to Leonard Bernstein. It was during the duet “Make Our Garden Grow”, from Bernstein’s operetta Candide, that I reached for my husband’s hand and squeezed it. It was our life, in a way, in the way that music can reach into your heart, play it as deftly as any instrument, in the words of Richard Wilbur, the poet who wrote the lyric for this particular version of the libretto:
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow…
And make our garden grow.

“The soul descends once more in bitter love…”

When you’ve been married a long time (in my case, almost 39 years), your partner becomes accustomed to aspects of your personality that might baffle another person. I often wake early and think about stuff. Sometimes it’s what I’ve dreamed about or else thought about the previous day but somehow didn’t have a chance to finish figuring out. Yesterday it was the soul. We talk about our souls, we understand what we mean, and yet, I wondered aloud as soon as John opened his eyes, “Does anyone have proof of the soul?” I saw his eyes flutter a little as if he thought he might want to go back to sleep but he was willing to talk about it with me. Is the soul an actual entity, does it have weight and presence, does it have a location in our corporeal bodies?
When I got up, I couldn’t stop thinking about the soul. Mine. Yours. How we know it’s our soul that responds to something that we ourselves might not otherwise acknowledge. I think my soul might be in my ribcage because I swear I feel it expand when I experience something that is beyond my usual experience of the world, something that replaces language, although I try to find words for it.
When I was in my second year of university, in 1974, my mentor Robin Skelton lent me his copy of Anthony Ostroff’s The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic. In it, a poem is discussed by three poets and then the author of the poem responds to them. (I have a copy of the book somewhere but I think I’ve lent it.) It was new to me, the notion of people talking about the mechanics of writing a poem, from the perspective of readers and as writers. Theodore Roethke’s “In A Dark Time”. Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”. And the wonderful Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us To The Things Of This World”. A line of laundry is a gathering of angels. “Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,/Some are in smocks…”  I thought of the poem just now as I hung out the first full load of laundry this year, on Earth Day. The vintage sheet with whitework and hemstitching at the top. Pillowcases filling with air. My favourite nightdress, moving in wind so gracefully, turning this way and that, as I am unable to move because of, well, self-consciousness. And the great weight of being human. The cottons will have their day in the sun and I’ll remember how my ribcage pressed against my skin as I stood back to look at the line of laundry, remembering what happens at the end of the day.
 “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body…

But what about the soul? Is it real? Does it have weight? I read an interesting article at The Conversation, “Whatever the soul is, its existence can’t be proved or disproved by natural science.” Well, it was reassuring, somehow:

We recognize as fully real many things that completely lack physicality.

Mathematics, for example, clearly provides deep insights into the nature of reality, but the ideas of number and quantity cannot be grasped in anyone’s hand. The same might be said for a variety of human emotions, including despair and joy, neither of which alters a person’s weight to the slightest degree. The very desire to know in the first place cannot be weighed, measured or located.

kelly's daffodils

Maybe what happens in my ribcage isn’t my soul at all but there’s no real proof that it isn’t. No algorithm. That the sight of daffodils planted with my granddaughter in November carries joy but does not alter weight; early 20th century scientists believed the soul weighed about 3/4 oz. (Rufous hummingbirds, the ones that are buzzing around the daffodils these days, weigh about 3.2 grams or 0.112877 ounces.) I’ve held a hummingbird, dazed from an encounter with the cat, and know exactly what that feels like in my hand.

I haven’t finished thinking about this yet. Sometimes ideas wait for a portal, a moment, to enter our consciousness; sometimes they leave quietly, unwelcome, and sometimes they find a place to settle and be home. Coming in from hanging out the laundry, I turned to see it on the line and behind it, the gate to the garden where all day I’ll be entering and departing, with compost and seeds, a shovel, string to tie up the roses. alert for angels:

They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember…

garden gate

In the honeysuckle, in the round iron disk, the beams of cedar, the light.

“…deeper than anyone knows.”

P1100565We know autumn is coming. The sun comes over Mount Hallowell an hour and a half later than it did when we drank our coffee on the upper deck and thought about all the things we would accomplish in summer. So much of it is still undone, at least from my perspective. Garden unweeded, relationships untended, some of them. But the pantry shelves are lined with preserves, the tomato plants are still producing their beautiful red fruits, I’ve filled a basket with squash,
and the flowers bloom as though frost was simply a rumour — as it is at this point in the year.
The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.
                                               (from “The Beautiful Changes” by Richard Wilbur)
On Long Beach the other day, I thought of the way I wanted to write the novella I’ve recently begun, a reflective (and reflexive) book about a brother and a sister and a river. It will pay homage to writers who’ve explored the same territory — Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson. I’m thinking of Lytton and the place where the Thompson River meets the Fraser, how it looks this time of year, the sumac turning red and the rabbitbrush vivid yellow on the roadside between Lytton and Spences Bridge. The beautiful changes. It’s always exciting to be at the start of something — a season, a story. And to feel the cadences of both begin to pull me in.