Now we are going out to the long table


Late yesterday afternoon, I surprised myself by writing the final page of my novella, The Occasions. I didn’t expect to finish it. Not yet. I was sort of caught up in the whole ecosystem of the story and I knew it could go one way, with particular consequences, or it could take a turn that would lead, well, I wasn’t sure quite where.

But it ended up in one of my favourite places, around the fire circle near my vegetable garden, late at night, after a party. When I say, “my vegetable garden”, I mean something like it. I’ve set the novella somewhere very similar to where I live and some of the characters resemble people I know and love. But they’re not those people, in significant ways. They fit together in ways the people I know don’t. But I loved writing something set in this part of the world, even if the house was a little bigger, the family differently configured, and the trajectory of both the plot and the narrator’s life very different from my own.

The central event is a party. The narrator wants to do the flowers for it herself. Does that sound familiar?

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Mrs. Dalloway is a book I read once a year. I think it’s a brilliant distillation of marriage, friendship, a changing world, how we remember and reconcile the past, and how we carry important values forward. The flowers. Friendships. How we reconcile ourselves to our aging bodies, the uncertainty of the world around us, where returned soldiers cope or don’t cope with shell-shock, and how we try to preserve what we love.

Like Mrs. Dalloway, The Occasions takes place on a single summer day. Children have returned to the family home, friends are expected, and everyone is preparing for a party. There are not chapters but sections, some of them very brief, some of them arranged as calls and responses

Now we are going out to the long table by the garden, glasses in hand, Rosie racing ahead, Tom playing the prelude from the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G minor. Now we are finding our places, with the help of Anna who holds the seating plan in her hand by the head of the table. Just there, she says, her hand on Molly Kovac’s back, and the children a little farther down, we’ve mixed you up a bit! Alex helps the children to their chairs and squats to talk to them quietly.

Now we are all seated and Rob is taking bottles of white wine around, Gareth the red. We’ll pour your first glass and then you’re on your own, says Gareth to Sunnera Bhatt, who smiles her wide smile. Adam and Arden are placing platters on the bright French cloths, the bowls of salad, baskets of bread. Water is poured for those not drinking wine. Rosie has been chased away. Twice. Now Nick is rising, asking for a moment to share a poem he considers the appropriate invitation to the evening. I’d like to have printed this for you, with a woodcut or something, he says, but somehow it didn’t happen. The first stanza has us all quiet:

It is not far to my place:
you can come smallboat,
pausing under shade in the eddies
or going ashore
to rest, regard the leaves

We listen to the poem, its simple mysterious language, and we want to be at the place described. We want to be there, “the river…muscled at rapids with trout”, and then we are there, here, as the poem reaches its conclusion:

                       there is little news:
I found last month a root with shape and
have heard a new sound among
the insects: come.

                                                     (lines of poetry from “Visit” by A.R. Ammons)

The party in The Occasions takes place outside, at long tables laid for dinner under the honeysuckle, and after the meal, there is dancing on the grass—one son plays a cello and his wife, an oud—and chairs are pulled close to the fire when the sun goes down. I began it on July 3, 2019, and I finished yesterday afternoon, and all fall and winter I spent time smelling the honeysuckle, smelling the cedar smoke from the fire. A summer day, in both memory and in imagination. A summer evening. The people gathered and the owls calling (not in Greek, not in Sanskrit, but simply their own sound). I’d thought there might be a late swim but then I realized everyone had had wine, and there were children to consider. Instead, there’s music, and Laphroaig.

So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too ‘that is all’. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.

                                 –from Mrs. Dalloway


blue cups

Shall I now continue this soliloquy, or shall I imagine an audience, which will make me describe…We had tea from bright blue cups under the pink light of the giant hollyhock. We were all a little drugged with the country; a little bucolic I thought. It was lovely enough—made me envious of the country peace; the trees all standing securely—why did my eye catch the trees? The look of things has a great power over me. Even now, I have to watch the rooks beating up against the wind, which is high, and still I say to myself instinctively “What’s the phrase for that?”…
–from A Writer’s Diary, Saturday, August 12th, 1928

It’s always that, isn’t it? The phrase. And the dailiness of life. Today John is putting new glass into an old window, a blue-framed window from a derelict summerhouse in the yard of the house where we lived in North Vancouver before we came to live here. The summerhouse and big house were demolished after we left and we were given permission to take windows and other bits and pieces. The windows are at least a hundred years old and every few years some of them require work. Not usually new glass but new putty, areas of dry-rot scraped out, the frames repainted with the blue I chose 37 years ago at a paint store on Lonsdale Avenue (a sort of Wedgwood blue; I’ve never seen any reason to change it). The windows have old hardware that creaks a little as you wind the windows open and some of the panes are old warbly glass that make you woozy when you look through them.

As for me, I will making pies to freeze for the winter, using Merton Beauty apples and either blackberries or blueberries. I’ll freeze them unbaked but maybe I’ll make a small one for us. Maybe we’ll have a slice with cups of tea from those bright blue cups.

And I’ll continue to work at my desk, finishing up some small edits of an essay coming out in Brick later in the fall, finding my way into The Occasions, and changing into my bathing suit once it warms up enough for a swim. The light has changed. It has the faint golden promise of fall in it. This morning I looked out at the dog rose surrounding my bedroom window and noticed that the hips are red. What’s the phrase for this little hinge in the year, not yet autumn but creaking a little on summer’s axis, asking us to prepare, to replace old glass, to fill the freezer with the season’s abundance, to take the time to look at the trees.

“The walks in the field are corridors…”

your table is ready

When I was about 21 and figuring out how to be a writer, I sometimes helped at an antiquarian bookstore on Fort Street in Victoria. I liked being there. There were old Persian carpets on the floor and shelves filled with treasures. The owner, who was a friend, gave me books instead of money and that was perfect. Once he presented me (there is no other word) with a copy of a first UK edition (though possibly not a first printing) of Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, with a cover design by Vanessa Bell. He made a little speech about her being a good model for me as a young writer and that he knew I would love the book. He’d enclosed a sweet card that I used as a bookmark, and yes, I did love the book. A year or two later I was teaching a writing course at the Y, the one across from Christ Church Cathedral, and I loaned books to the students in that way you do when you are very trusting. I think every book came back except A Writer’s Diary. I’ve borrowed it from the library many times but for some reason I’ve never replaced it. Well, let’s be honest. That particular volume, given in those circumstances, couldn’t be replaced.

A week or two ago, I needed the book. I’m writing a novella (I think it will be a novella, though there’s a chance it might be longer…) that takes as its template Mrs. Dalloway. An anticipated party, the preparations, and of course the flowers. The party in my book will be site-specific and the site is here, though the characters are not us and the house is a bit bigger (to accommodate all the guests who are arriving by ferry, car, plane) and there is even a little guest house, a tiny house on wheels, and that is something I’d love to have here but I don’t think we will take on the work at this point in our lives. My book will be called The Occasions. Even during the busy whirl of the past month, with visiting children and their children, with visiting musicians for the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, I was awake many nights working at my desk. I didn’t want to lose momentum. I wanted the guidance of someone who knew how a book can take over both the waking life and the dreaming one.

I ordered a copy of A Writer’s Diary, the very elegant Persephone edition, and it arrived in today’s mail. I’m so happy to see that the end papers are based on the original Vanessa Bell cover! I opened to August, 1924, when I knew Virginia Woolf was working on Mrs. Dalloway.

For I see that Mrs. Dalloway is going to stretch beyond October. In my forecasts I always forget some most important intervening scenes: I think I can go straight at the grand party and so end; forgetting Septimus, which is a very intense and ticklish business, and jumping Peter Walsh eating his dinner, which may be some obstacle too. But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; and the walks in the fields are corridors; and now today I’m lying thinking.

Mine is a tale in which I know the place and thought I knew how the events would unfold but something dark is happening and I think I wanted to know that it didn’t need to take over my life. Someone isn’t invited to the party for a whole lot of complicated reasons and she has begun to haunt the proceedings. I’m not quite sure what to do about it. About her. In the meantime, the narrator is surrounded by loved ones, the flowers arranged in big jugs for the long table that is being set with French cloths on the grass by the vegetable garden, and someone is tuning her oud. Yes, her oud. I know nothing about these beautiful pear-shaped instruments but a woman has brought it out to the big rock to the south of the house and I can see the rosettes on its soundboard from where I sit. Or at least I’d be able to see them if she really existed and if an oud was truly being tuned for the party. The walks in the fields are corridors, Virginia wrote, and I am walking them, walking them, listening to music.

The Occasions

sweet peas in small jug

This summer I began to write a novella set more or less where I live and it takes place on a single day and it begins with flowers. If that sounds familiar, if you are hearing an echo of Mrs. Dalloway as you read this, then I’m happy. Because this is in some ways a retelling of that beautiful book. No plot, not really, but a group of people brought together for an occasion. Or rather a celebration of a number of events. I didn’t have a title in mind but then as I was working yesterday, one of the characters was talking to another about someone not invited to the party, someone who’d become increasingly difficult and remote, who’d finally abandoned a long friendship. “For years she’d celebrated the occasions,” one character says to the other, and I immediately saw the title. The Occasions.

Writing a book in homage to Mrs. Dalloway means rereading that book, thinking about it, taking a little time to plunge back into other books by Virginia Woolf. To enter those sentences and those rhythms and that vivid imagination. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” And in my story, Alice goes up the mountain to cut the flowers for her party. Hardhack, chrome-yellow tansy, airy Queen Anne’s lace. An occasion for flowers, huge jugs of them on every surface.