In the hubbub of a weekend…

…crowd in Ganges, on Salt Spring Island, we took refuge in Mouat’s Store. Located in the heart of the village, Mouat’s has been serving customers since 1907. When I was a child, camping at St. Mary’s Lake with my family, I used to love going to the store with my father. He’d been looking for a lure, a hook, a new reel of fishing line. Or a part for a pot — he was nothing if not resourceful. He’d spend hours in hardware stores, looking (it seemed) at each nut and bolt, each small hook, determined to find its weak point or flaw. If he found none, he’d buy it, taking money out of a worn brown wallet. If we were lucky, we got a quarter. There was always something in Mouat’s to spend money on. Or dream of buying.

I never would have had enough money to buy a music box. But yesterday I did and so when I spotted this beautiful tin box with a little handle and painted with Jemima Puddleduck, Peter Rabbit, and that rogue Pigling Bland, I knew I had to have it. When you turn the handle, it plays Für Elise in a hesitating way. I love it. At first I thought I was buying for a grandchild but no. It’s for that little girl who wanted to play piano, who wanted something to transport her occasionally far from the world she knew.

music box

We were on Salt Spring for an event at the library. I was to read with Sarah De Leeuw and we were going to talk a bit about the essay—I’ve just published Euclid’s Orchard and Sarah’s Where it Hurts came out in spring from NeWest Press. But then Sarah wasn’t able to come and so Mona Fertig and my husband John read a little from Sarah’s work. Then I read passages and answered a few questions and we drove back to Peter and Mona’s in a drizzle of rain. We had drinks with an old friend Diana Hayes and her Pete and slept in a room overlooking the ocean, window open to the rain. Driving down to Fulford Harbour to take the ferry back to Vancouver Island, I felt (rather than thought) the beginning of a, well, a long essay, maybe even a book about the old coast. The coast I knew as a girl and still find traces of, on Salt Spring, on Vancouver Island, on the shore of Okeover Inlet or at Earls Cove, at Egmont, in places where the wood is weathered, the boats are useful, and people still know where they are. They’re not busy plotting for bridges from one island to another, for fancy forms of governance, for a billion dollar highway to blast its way from Squamish to Gibsons. They aren’t interested in sidewalks in rural fishing villages or buried power lines (because that’s how it’s done in Montreal). A bucket of clams is a dinner, a sockeye salmon a feast.

This morning we ate slivers of the most beautiful smoked salmon as we talked and then Mona poured tiny glasses of crabapple liqueur she’d made last year. I thought of Crete when I lived there and how sometimes the father of the man I was in love with poured Metaxa from a bottle he kept on his boat and we toasted the morning and our collective health. His son, who owned a taverna, took home a string of fish to gut and fillet for the evening crowd. I thought of my old friend Charles Lillard and his lines from “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek”:

This is the old west where a secret cove with an old house
is called history, a raven cackling on a limb, mythology…

Where a music box playing Für Elise summons it all back. For now. Until I can write it all down.

Bedtime Reading

bedtime reading, approaching summer

I always have a stack of books on my bedside table and I’m often reading three or four simultaneously. Sometimes that’s because a certain mood requires a certain book. Human Acts by Han Kang is so devastating that I can only read a few pages at a time. The prose is quiet and even lyrical and it takes a few moments to realize that you are reading about bodies putrefying in the wake of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea. It’s an important book, an important record. But difficult to absorb in many ways. How an army can massacre its own citizens. Mutilate them. Refuse the bodies the right to burial by those who loved them.

And Katherena Vermette’s The Break is extraordinary. The way the narrative unfolds is like a rich and beautifully embellished textile unfolding and when you look closely, read the details closely, you realize how dark the tale. And yet there’s light—as soft and quiet as moonlight across snow or the glowing stones in a sweatlodge fire. There’s hope too, for all the characters, almost indistinguishable from love.

Birth of a Theorem by Cedric Villani was a birthday gift from my mathematician son. I’ve read it once and it bears re-reading. As any of you who read my essay “Euclid’s Orchard” will learn, math was a subject that terrified me and still gives me nightmares. Or at least it did until I decided to find out why and how that happened and what I could do to find my way into its beautiful mysteries. Birth of a Theorem takes the reader into the process of developing a theorem and in many ways it’s not unlike the process of working out a quilt design or the pattern a collection of essays should take. I loved the correspondences even if the intricacies of the mathematics are completely beyond my thinking.

And The Summer Book is the new anthology of essays about the season we are just approaching (if we use the notion of astronomical summer to define the beginning…). 24 B.C. writers contributed pieces to this book and there’s huge range in the writing. Last night I read Sarah De Leeuw’s “Beige Corduroy Coat Worn Over Turquoise Bathing Suit”. A caption from a fashion magazine? Only in the imagination of a girl living in a remote town the summer before she enters grade six: “I imagine myself on a catwalk, perfect posture. The waves roll and crash on the beach north of Port Clements. The coat rides up over my bottom as I walk, an eyelid of turquoise bathing suit winking out.” My own contribution to the anthology is “Love Song”, 35 summers remembered into an essay about lakes and duck itch and picnics and birdsong. It’s an essay that gathers all my loved ones, the living and the dead,  together for a grand dinner, even the dogs.

Here they are, with their dishes of tomatoes, prawns, skewers of chicken, the familiar brownies dusted with icing sugar. They are standing on the patio where the young robins are learning to fly, where the lizards cross from woodshed to stones in the blink of an eye.



In Victoria for a few days. A wonderful event at Russell Books last night where Sarah de Leeuw and my husband John Pass gave gorgeous readings from their new books and where I distinguished myself by whacking my head on a low beam as I opened the event with my own reading. But a warm and generous crowd, old friends among them.

I was a child, then a young woman, in this city. Returning is always a little fraught, an object lesson in the twinned powers of memory and nostalgia. I think it’s true that nostos, the root of nostalgia, carries in it not only the notion of return (in epic poetry, from war or extensive journeys on the part of the hero) but also the sense of the restoration of one’s central identity. A longing for home and who you were there.

So here, in Fairfield, where my daughter and her boyfriend live, I can almost see the annex of Sir James Douglas Elementary School where I attended for two years — grades one and two — and where I learned to take such joy in books. Yesterday we walked downtown and I saw the old library on the corner of Yates and Blanchard where I received my first library card the summer before grade one. My older brothers taught me to write my name (I could already read) and most Saturdays my family visited the library for our week’s quota of books.

Walking back to this apartment yesterday, I recocgnized the tiled road signs set in the sidewalk and remembered my delight in them as a child. I could sound out their letters and know where I was.

I’m still doing that.