redux: where my limbs are in space

Last year I was dreaming of this lane. And looking at it this morning, I am remembering the Olson line, “…is it not a heart which has gone lazy?” Is it? Sometimes. But not this morning.


I woke in the night from a dream of Ireland, where I lived in my early 20s. I lived on an island and I’ve written about it, first in a novella, Inishbream, and in an essay in Phantom Limb. In the dream I was walking down the boreen that crossed the island. I was wearing the old sandals I had then, even though it was raining. I was swinging my arms and my shoulders ached a little. I knew where I was, knew the air my arms were swinging through, misty, smelling a little of turf-smoke and dung. This was the path the cattle took when they were moved from one field to another and it was the trail leading up from the quay so that when the turf was brought from the mainland by currach and loaded into a donkey pannier, the donkey walked to its owner’s cottage along its rocky ground.

I wonder if I had the dream because I was reading yesterday about proprioception? It’s a term I remember from the American poet Charles Olson whose work on projective verse, field composition, the guiding breath of the poet dictating form, and so forth was an important influence for the poets I was reading as a young woman.

And the threshing floor for the dance? Is it anything but the LINE? And when the line has, is, a deadness, is it not a heart which has gone lazy, is it not, suddenly, slow things, similes, say, adjectives, or such, that we are bored by? — Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”

Proprioception is the knowledge of where your limbs are in space and in relation to each other. It’s sometimes called a sixth sense, a sense of self. It’s the thing that allows us to move in a room without bumping into people, to descending stairs in the darkness without falling (I do this often, reaching forward with my foot and trusting my own body) and without really thinking about it. I remember when our dog Friday, towards the end of her life, lost the use of her hind legs. When we took her to the vet, he said she’d lost her sense of proprioception and it was the first time I’d heard the word used outside of poetics.

In my dream last night, I knew how it felt to walk that boreen. I knew the effort needed to avoid the stones, to make sure my swinging arms didn’t graze the stone walls on either side of the path, I knew how I would feel as I approached the side path leading to my cottage (which was just behind the rise you see to the left in the photograph). I knew to be quiet as I walked past the school (that building on the right) because I loved to hear the children’s voices through the open window. Sometimes they were having their Irish lesson and the words sounded like music: gualainn, lámh, béal…Sometimes there was even music, one of the men playing a tin whistle at a gate you can’t see just beyond where the path curves away. Sometimes I’d try a few dance steps as I approached my house with the music all quavery in the wind.

Soft is the grass, my bed is free.
Ah, to be back now in Carrickfergus
On that long road down to the sea.

But even in the dream, I knew I was dreaming. I knew my shoulder was sore because of my swim yesterday when I didn’t get my usual lane for the first half and so I had to keep turning my head when I was doing the back-stroke to make sure I didn’t crash into the end of the pool. (In the water, in my usual lane, I know exactly where I am by how it feels to stretch out under a particular section of ceiling, and how many arm strokes it takes to get me from the shallow end to the deep.)

This morning I am looking at some recent work, my body still wistful for that walk on an Irish lane. Maybe it’s the rhythm I’m hoping for in the writing, the careful foot, a swinging arm, my ear listening for new words on an old wind.

This is so long ago now but thinking of it brings back the music of Miceal’s tin-whistle as clear as anything and I ache to walk out to the boreen and learn to play along. — from “The One Currach Returning Alone” in Phantom Limb


pipe band

For more than a few years, we’ve been away over the May long weekend. Last year it was to Edmonton where we helped Brendan and Cristen replace a porch and build a deck under a leafy maple in one corner of their Strathcona yard. For several years before that, it was to Ottawa to help Forrest and Manon build a deck, then a pergola the next year to provide support for grape vines to shade their summer dinners.

But for the first, oh, twenty years we lived here, we always went to the May Day parade in Madeira Park. When I was a child, my mum always took us to the Victoria parade and it went on for ages—every school band in the city and maybe even the province marching, floats, old cars, banners, clowns throwing candy, and is it just my imagination or was it always hot? My mum never bought us pop or cotton candy and we’d walk home afterwards, cranky and sun-burnt.

The Pender Harbour parade was always just long enough. A single marching RCMP officer in parade dress, a single band (a pipe band, with one black piper with dreadlocks providing the only diversity in those days), a couple of floats, kids on bikes with crepe paper threaded through the spokes, the volunteer fire crew sounding the sirens as they drove the firetruck, hoses spraying those unlucky enough to be within range. And yes, throwing candy. Some years the snow plow would be festooned with balloons. One year an eccentric woman marched alone, a hood covering her head, a papier mâché head carried under her arm, and a sign on her back reading, “Ann Boleyn can be found at the library.” After the parade, everyone went to the school field where a May Pole waited for the dance. And there was a basketball tournament my son Brendan waited for. Booths with games my daughter loved. Cotton candy. A beer garden adjacent to the barbeques set up by the local fishermen and where a plate of halibut and potato salad cost 5 bucks. You saw everyone you knew there. Grown children came back for the parade and the dance that evening.

This year we’re home. And Angelica is here. When John picked her at the seaplane yesterday, she asked if we could go to the parade. So we did. It hasn’t changed much, apart from the fact that old cars opened it, vintage ones I guess you’d call them, and then the lone RCMP officer who had to stamp in place for a bit as people took pictures of the old cars. One or two more floats. Fewer kids on the May Queen float because the demographic of this small community has shifted. Fewer young families and more retired people. But we bought fudge and watched the little kids next to us scramble for candy tossed by the firefighters. There was even a Volvo driven by an older couple who’d somehow entered the fray inadvertently and were simply driving ahead of the last float, trying to find their way out of the procession.  And I remembered every other parade, or maybe just one (because they were all so similar), the one where the playschool kids were dressed as Care Bears and the mothers had to paint a backdrop of trees and bears or maybe the one where the kids were a school of fish and we had to make cardboard fish for them to hang from their shoulders with suspenders. One year, when Angelica was in grade 6, she rode the May Queen float as one of the attendants. And it meant work for the mothers. I was writing about bears then, a long essay, “month of wild berries picking”, and I used the occasion as a postscript.

It’s nearing the long weekend when my daughter will join girls of her age to ride on a parade float as queens and princesses of May in our community. For this they need dresses, or gowns really, and a willing group of mothers to help plan and decorate the float.

My daughter’s gown is finished, a blue so true to nature that I keep seeing it around me—in the opening buds of pulmonaria and scilla, the intense spring sky, the carpet of a flower I’m not familiar with in an abandoned homestead by Sakinaw Lake where we go to collect long lengths of ivy to garland the sides of the flatbed truck that the mothers are transforming into a spring grove for their daughters.

The bear has been around this spring. We haven’t seen him yet although the dogs have been barking and running into the woods in the early mornings and we’ve seen the piles of excrement on our walks for the past two weeks. I’ve been studying them, wondering at the diet of the bear, how he can sustain himself on grasses and what appear to be shoots of thimbleberry and primeval horsetails. Wondering too, when I find piles on the trail that is one of our property boundaries, whether he was entering out woods or leaving them when he left his mark.

—from “month of wild berries picking”, Phantom Limb (Thistledown Press, 2007)

Today, watching the girls on the boat trailer their mothers had turned into a pirate ship, Angelica said, I remember that we were shown how we had to wave. Like this…” and she slowly passed her hand back and forth, like a young queen. For a moment, I was there in that time of wild berries, bears, draping ivy over the plastic lawn chairs arranged on a fern-strewn truck bed, imagining the girls enacting again the spring rituals of gowns and flowers, anticipating the dance.

may queens


“My husband went on a trip…and returned with a gift for me, a hand-blown paperweight with a beautiful sea anemone inside. There are five tentacles of pink and blue glass. I believe it was made with rods of glass, like in millefiore, but the rods have been hollowed or opened rather than stretched. I know that sea anemones are carnivorous — we see them on the local beaches, at the intertidal zone, waving their tentacles in the air for prey. Touching them with a finger, we feel the faint suction, then see them retract. I know they are territorial and can clone themselves so that often a colony will develop which consists of genetically identical anemones; when another colony encroaches, those on the periphery engage in battles to defend their little area of rock. Maybe they are defending their genetic integrity. Looking at my paperweight, I imagine that something has been captured inside it, something precious and rare.” (from Phantom Limb, published by Thistledown Press in 2007)

I’ve returned to work on a memoir about my mother and my paternal grandmother. My mother was given up at birth — she was born on Cape Breton Island — and put into a foster home where she lived until adulthood. She kept the surname of her biological father, MacDonald, and she knew the surname name of her biological mother, McDougall. But everything else is a mystery. She insisted she never wanted to know about her birth parents because she felt she’d been abandoned and any loyalty she felt was directed to her foster mother and sister. But when she died in 2010, I felt compelled to try to find something about her origins. I have some papers but nothing leads to me to anything like a source. Vital Statistics in Halifax, where she was raised, have told me that I have no right to a copy of her birth certificate (which she knew about and which she said included the names of both her parents) until 100 years after her birth — that will be February 8, 2026. I’ve posted queries on genealogy websites in Nova Scotia and I’ve tried a few other things as well. But so far, nothing.

The paperweight John gave me when I was first musing about my mother and everything I didn’t know about her background sits on my desk, to the left of my computer. Most days I pick it up, look at it, use it to hold down bits of paper or file cards. This morning I looked into it, wondering if family secrets can ever be truly solved or understood. I have a renewed interest in pursuing my mother’s mysterious story, the sensitive tentacle of her connection to Cape Breton Island and further back, Scotland.