“Live in the layers/not on the litter.”

the layers

The other afternoon, as we were driving on Highway 10X from Rosedale to Wayne, Alberta, anticipating lunch at the Last Chance Saloon, where we stayed (memorably) in April, 2016, I was commenting on the hills on either side of the Rosebud River, the striations so beautiful in sunlight, and my husband (a poet) recited two lines of Stanley Kunitz:

“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

I aspire to the layers. I aspire to finding out where I fit in the silt and rock and dry paper records of land purchase and settlement, in the names on the 1926 census where I found my father’s parents (before his birth a few months later) on Midland Road, Michichi (which I first thought must mean the small village of Michichi but then realized was Michichi Creek, in Drumheller on the north side of the Red Deer River). In the mud along the river where I walked yesterday morning, finding other footprints made before my own, on the dry wide main street on Drumheller where I explored with two of my grandchildren yesterday and the day before. I felt porous in that landscape, every bit of light and scent of sage and mineral tang of water entering my body. In the cemetery where we went to pay respects to the two babies who would have been my aunts (Julia and Myrtle), my grandson Henry, age 2, told his mum that he loved his grandparents. You should tell them, she said, and he turned to me, said, I love my grandparents. He is the age Julia was when she died. He is as alive as any child I’ve ever known. When I showed him the bear skin on the ceiling of the Last Chance Saloon, just above our table as we ate grilled cheese sandwiches and hamburgers, he said delightedly, A star bear! A star bear! (It was, in a way — its skin spreadeagled against the low ceiling…)

Yes, I felt porous, the generations coming to rest in my cheekbones, the small ache in my knees as I unfolded myself from the seat of the rental car in front of the renovated miners cottage where we stayed just a block from the river, its kitchen lit by Benjamin nonexplosive lamps that might once have lit the entrance to a shaft, maybe even the shaft of a coalmine where my grandfather earned a small living for his 10 dependents on a farm near Michichi Creek. My granddaughter Kelly wanted the old story of the mermaid at bedtime, not the Disney version but the heartbreaking story written by Hans Christian Andersen in the book I bought for her in Edmonton and which we read over several days, her questions so sensible: Why does the mermaid have to give up her tail? It’s so beautiful. And her voice? Why couldn’t she keep half her voice?

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

Did the little girls buried in the Drumheller Cemetery love stories? Did anyone have time to read to them or hold them and sing, as we sang, the old songs, the ones John remembered, the ones I recalled? It was a hundred years ago that Myrtle died of diphtheria, 95 since Julia died of the same disease.I want nothing more right now than to live in the layers, folded into the place and the remnant lives of those who lived before me, lit by the soft light of those old lamps.

the lamp

“When I look behind…”

snow angel

Yesterday John and I celebrated the 39th year of our meeting. (I know I’ve written about it before.) We always have a special dinner—last night it was duck breasts with a port and dried cherry sauce, followed by little molten chocolate cakes with raspberries and creme fraiche. A bottle of lovely Vacqueyras from the Rhone Valley, full of cherry and red currant.

But before dinner, a friend dropped by. She saw the quilt I was working on and said it reminded her of seeing the Northern Lights on a recent flight back from England. I said I felt at this point in the quilting that I was seeing snow angels. Those too, she exclaimed. She wanted to know how we met and John told her the story of the poetry reading at Open Space Gallery in Victoria, with bill bissett, and how we’d had dinner together with a mutual friend who was hosting John overnight (though he ended up staying with me instead!). And how the ferry he’d taken to the Island that afternoon was the only sailing that day because of high winds. We almost didn’t meet at all. Would he have remained with the woman he was with then? Would I have returned to Ireland to the nice man I’d left behind while I sorted out my life to try to find a way to go back? My friend said, But if you hadn’t met, then all this—she indicated the gallery of photographs taped to the fridge: our children, their children; and by extension, the whole of our life together—would never have happened. I looked at the photographs of my beautiful children. And the three grandchildren I adore (soon to be four). I would have been another person if none of this had occurred. Another life, another man (or not), other children (or not). But not these beloved people.

This morning, folding towels and looking out at the snow that fell last night, I kept hearing this poem. It’s one of my favourites. If anyone knew about time and its strange metaphysics, it was Stanley Kunitz.

The Layers
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
So maybe they’re scavenger angels too. Maybe they’re birds taking flight. But somehow I see the little children who were here last winter in snow and then in Edmonton last summer in sunlight, and who, but for a twist of fate, might not have been here at all. Or anywhere.
weeds and grandma's shadow.JPG

“And look! she comes…”

after fog

The fog has lifted. On a walk to scout out possible Christmas trees, the prints of wolves (we thought) on the track. And rosehips, bare trunks of alders. Everything so beautiful and so finely-wrought.

The Muse

All that I am hangs by a thread tonight
as I wait for her whom no one can command
Whatever I cherish most—youth, freedom, glory–
fades before her who bears the flute in her hand.

And look! she comes…she tosses back her veil,
staring me down. serene and pitiless.
“Are you the one,” I ask, “whom Dante heard dictate
the lines of his Inferno?”She answers: “Yes.’

— Anna Akhmatova (Translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward)

I forgot…

…what colour tulips I planted in these tubs last October. Forgot — and then yesterday, coming up the stairs to the west-facing deck, there they were, in bloom.


The hummingbirds have discovered them too, pausing over the open ones, and darting in, then out, a blur of wings. It happens at once, it seems. Spring, I mean. Up the mountain yesterday, the flowering currant out, the robins and warblers singing, hummingbirds, a red-tailed hawk rising up from a boggy area under some alders and scolding us for disturbing its courtship. On Friday, it was so warm and summery that the snakes were out in great numbers, come from their hidden winter places under the rocks, sunning themselves on dry moss, or else curled up together in the old familiar routine. I thought of Stanley Kunitz’s poem, “Touch Me”, and its lines,

What makes the engine go?

Desire, desire, desire.

The longing for the dance

stirs in the buried life.

One season only,

                                and it’s done.

“my tribe is scattered”

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feasts of losses?
–Stanley Kunitz, from “The Layers”

I’ve begun an essay I’m calling “Ballast”. It’s a companion-piece to “Euclid’s Orchard”, a long rambling meditation on mathematics, family history, genetics, quilting, and, oh, love; “Ballast” will explore the notions of what was carried to the New World by those leaving not just a country but a whole tangled netting of community, horticultural knowledge, embedded memory of landscape, history (family history as well as the extended histories of place). I’m in the process of accumulating and thinking about materials. It’s a little like quilt-making, or at least my version of it: the fabrics collect, wait, and I look at them daily. Then for whatever reason they suggest a pattern. They speak out of their colours and textures and I begin to listen to what they have to say.

Recently I’ve learned, through the magic of online genealogical lists, that my paternal grandmother had two younger sisters. My father didn’t know this. Two very kind women in the Czech Republic have been sending me information about how my grandmother might be related to others in Horni Lomna, the village where she was born. The little run of names I have — her family name, her mother’s family name — are connected now to others and I realize that the futility I’ve felt about finding out what happened to those who stayed in Moravia when my grandmother emigrated to Canada might just lift.

In a way, “Ballast” began in March, in the National Archaeological Museum in Belem, Portugal. We went to see a wonderful exhibit, “Time Salvaged from the Sea”, focussing on underwater archaeology in Portugal over the past thirty years. There were displays of artefacts ranging from pre-Roman materials to fairly contemporary finds, all well-catalogued and with such intelligent descriptions. And it turned my mind to the trip my grandmother took from Antwerp to Saint John in 1913 with her five children. What did she take with her? What did she consider to be indispensable for a new life? To my knowledge (which is admittedly scant), she didn’t send for anything after she’d settled in Drumheller. Even letters were rare. A phrase in the catalogue of “Time Salvaged from the Sea” has haunted me ever since I read it and I know it is at the heart of this writing I’m about to embark on. “During the crossing, for hundreds of men and, in this case, some women and children, stern and bow,deck, poop deck, topsail or hold, became opposite poles of a small world saturated with divisions between social classes and geographical loneliness.”


into the morning

Yesterday the nestling stood in the safety of its woven basket and looked to the world as though it was something foreign and too far away for any effort it might make.


And this morning, it was still there, standing on the edge of its nest, while the parents called — as they did yesterday — insistently from trees not too far from the house. It’ll fly today, I said, knowing that it was thirteen days old.

Ten minutes later, we were drinking coffee in the kitchen, when we saw a clumsy bird kind of careening by the big windows. And of course the nest was empty. All day it’s been fluttering around, with the parents scolding and encouraging — well, I have to imagine this is what they’re doing. At one point, Angie saw it on the driveway, pecking at something on the ground. Going over, she found a tiny snake, dead, and who knows whether the parents brought it for their gangly offspring or whether said offspring caught it on its own.

At my desk, I reached for poetry. Stanley Kunitz. There is so much of the world in his work — gardens, the textures of summer, the small and large deaths, and the rich language of the human heart. The book opened, not surprisingly as I’ve read it so many times, at my favourite Kunitz poem, “The Layers”:

Oh, I have made myself a tribe

out of my true affections,

and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled

to its feasts of losses?

In the meantime, Brendan is here for two nights and I listen to him and his sister laugh in another part of the house while I sit and think about a single surviving nestling and how it hovered in our lives for the past two weeks. Our table is set for dinner guests, our roses finally deadheaded — we hadn’t wanted to do it for fear of disturbing the small family living in their tangle — and summer accumulates in every hour of sunlight.


One of my favourite poems about fathers (and sons) is by the late Stanley Kunitz. I encountered this poem in the last century, as an undergraduate, and it both confounded and thrilled me. Its dreamlike quality and its mythic power were immediately apparent and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. They still do.  Those last two lines… Yet there is quotidian detail to anchor the poem — the odor of ponds, the information about the speaker’s sister, even the turtles and the lilies, so familiar to me from my walks over to the marsh on Hallowell Road where turtles bask on logs among yellow pond lilies. And the biblical echo, so haunting: “I lived on a hill that had too many rooms…”

Father and Son

Now in the suburbs and the falling light
I followed him, and now down sandy road
Whiter than bone-dust, through the sweet
Curdle of fields, where the plums
Dropped with their load of ripeness, one by one.
Mile after mile I followed, with skimming feet,
After the secret master of my blood,
Him, steeped in the odor of ponds, whose indomitable love
Kept me in chains. Strode years; stretched into bird;
Raced through the sleeping country where I was young,
The silence unrolling before me as I came,
The night nailed like an orange to my brow.

How should I tell him my fable and the fears,
How bridge the chasm in a casual tone,
Saying, “The house, the stucco one you built,
We lost. Sister married and went from home,
And nothing comes back, it’s strange, from where she goes.
I lived on a hill that had too many rooms;
Light we could make, but not enough of warmth,
And when the light failed, I climbed under the hill.
The papers are delivered every day;
I am alone and never shed a tear.”

At the water’s edge, where the smothering ferns lifted
Their arms, “Father!” I cried, “Return! You know
The way. I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothes;
No trace, I promise, will remain. Instruct
Your son, whirling between two wars,
In the Gemara of your gentleness,
For I would be a child to those who mourn
And brother to the foundlings of the field
And friend of innocence and all bright eyes.
0 teach me how to work and keep me kind.”

Among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me
The white ignorant hollow of his face.

–Stanley Kunitz

Did I feel like this about my own father — that he was absent from my life (Stanley Kunitz’s father committed suicide 6 weeks before his son was born so he truly was absent), that I would do anything to connect with him (“I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothes…”), that finally he was in my life only as a deathly detached presence? No, I don’t feel like that, exactly. But of course my father was a mystery to me, as I know I was to him. He didn’t know me as I wanted to be known — but perhaps this is always true of our relationships with our parents. When he died I was in Venice. I learned of his death in a phone booth on a dark canal. It wasn’t unexpected but it was sad. I regretted not being there, not having told him the things I was grateful for: camping trips in childhood with his buckwheat pancakes for breakfast, burned on one side and undercooked on the other; the books he introduced me to (I still have his copy of Frederick Niven’s Wild Honey, easily the most evocative book I know about the Thompson Canyon and the small communities of the Boundary country); the patience he demonstrated when teaching my sons to fish. He surprised me once by telling me how much he’d liked Robert Kroetsch’s novel Badlands and that one day he wanted to drift down the Red Deer River on a raft. I told him if he did that, I’d join him. I wish we had. Would we have talked of things that matter and shared a sundowner of good whiskey? Who knows.

Here’s my dad, aged 2 or 3, outside his home in the middle of the badlands. Maybe it’s never too late to say thank you.