redux: “time is your material”

Note: It’s always about time, always about finding it and using it well.



In the night I had to stop myself from getting up to come down to work on my current essay “blueprint”. thinking that it was high time I had a proper sleep. I didn’t go back to sleep right away but listened to the mouse that was making tiny sounds in the sunroom just off my bedroom and to the sleeping sounds of the cat (who brought the mouse in to show us the previous night and then dropped it in his excitement). I thought about the essay with a deep curiosity for where it might take me, and how. I know some things about it, of course, but I don’t know how they will come together. Because it’s partly a piecing together of how the plans for our house were imagined and made, I’ve made a little set of questions for John to answer, as he drew the plans. I’m not sure I remember exactly how I did the plans, he said yesterday as we sat by the fire after lunch. That’s ok, I assured him. Your not remembering is important too. He thought he’d done a lot of drafts on lined yellow paper and I’m hoping those turn up somewhere.

Our life here was never really planned. We met, married, wondered where we might live. There was a lovely old rented house but it was falling down around us and the owner had plans. We looked briefly at houses in Vancouver and realized it would be huge debt and we didn’t really want to live there anyway. We bought this land, thinking we’d camp on it, maybe forever. And then we realized that we could build something. And one thing led to another.

We had a baby and I enrolled in the MFA program at UBC. It didn’t work for me for a lot of reasons. I’d thought I could get that degree and perhaps teach. But that didn’t happen. I love Ann Hamilton‘s essay, “Making Not Knowing”, for its wise musings about how artists find their way into their true work:

You may set out for New York, but you may find yourself, as I did, in Ohio. You may set out to make a sculpture and find that time is your material.

I thought I’d teach, and write poetry. Instead, I helped to build a house and wrote prose. I’m still writing prose and although I sometimes miss the brief quick heat of writing a poem, I’ve learned that prose, particularly the essay, has a wide and generous capacity to hold everything you ever wanted it to. Everything you ever needed it to. Like the expandable string bags I first saw in France, pulled from a pocket in a market and filled with cheese, a head of chicory, a little pot of stoneground mustard, a baton or two, some butter wrapped in greaseproof paper, a melon, a bottle of wine, an essay will gladly perform the same function.

It’s important to me right now to think about my work and why it matters to me. I spent many years just finding time to write and now I have all the time in the world, though maybe not enough of it. I feel both urgency and patience. In a way it’s a perfect combination. I know what I want to do won’t go away if I let myself stay in bed rather than coming downstairs in the dark to write a page by lamplight. I used to think I wasn’t a real writer because I didn’t make outlines and didn’t work in a particular way. I’ve seen the photographs of sticky notes on bulletin boards and I know that it must provide terrific guidance for some writers but it’s not my process and I’m relieved to acknowledge to myself that I don’t have to do it that way. It’s a good thing I never taught writing, apart from a few workshops here and there, because I don’t have a system to pass along.

Imagine those bags, though. You hold one, wondering what you will choose at the market under the bright umbrellas. You didn’t make a list. But following your nose, you find the heaps of freshly-picked basil, a tumble of tomatoes so ripe you can imagine their juices puddling on the cutting board, little rounds of cheeses wrapped in vine leaves, spices from North Africa, brown eggs laid that morning, a tablecloth of brilliant yellow cotton printed with irises, branches of blossoming thyme that have brought bees from the hillsides with them, and somehow, somehow it all fits in your string bag.

But not knowing, waiting and finding—though they may happen accidentally—aren’t accidents. They involve work and research. Not knowing isn’t ignorance. (Fear springs from ignorance.) Not knowing is a permissive and rigourous willingness to trust, leaving knowing in suspension, trusting in possibility without result, regarding as possible all manner of response.

“But this is all in the future.”

floor plan

My current essay-in-progress is one I’m calling “Blueprint”. I made some notes towards it a few months ago and then it sat around as I worked on other essays, finished a novella, made a quilt, moped a bit during the cold winter. But the other night I woke just after midnight, came down to my desk, and it suddenly called. I have a few things to try to bring together in this piece and I won’t say much about that now but this morning I got out the house-plans John worked on so labouriously in the winter and spring of 1980-81. I remember how he’d set up a workspace in his study on the second floor of the house we rented in North Vancouver. He had the most amazing view: Burrard Inlet, the city lights of Vancouver laid out beyond his window, and on clear days he could see over to Point Grey. He had a few drafting implements and a copy of the building code and somehow he drew plans for a house. I know that the process for reproducing the plans wasn’t actually blueprinting at that time– I think these plans were actually xerographed– but people still called them blueprints. Do they now? Probably not.

So I’m writing about those plans as well as the beautiful Czech modrotisk, or block-printed indigo fabric, also called blueprint. I’m writing about Anna Atkins and her early 19th c. cyanotypes of British algae, ferns, and flowering plants. And I’m writing about time. Because honestly it’s on my mind almost always. As I look at John’s plans and remember the whole hullabaloo of moving our lives here (at least part of the time) to a tent, with a few cooking pots, a Coleman stove, so that we could build a house (we were poets; how on earth did we imagine we could build a house? Well, we imagined it…), I realize it was almost exactly 38 years ago. Our first baby was two weeks old when we drove up the newly-constructed driveway and he will turn 38 in 8 days. When I write about that time, I am there in body and soul. I am listening to loons nesting on Sakinaw Lake and asking again, as we frame the opening for the window above the kitchen sink, if we can make the sill deep enough for a pot of geraniums.

from a work-in-progress:

What also happened as we planned the rectangles and how high the windows, how wide the doors, was that we had a baby. While we built the first two rectangles, he lived with us in our blue tent set up on a plywood (two sheets; 8×8) platform with a tarp extending over it for added protection from coastal rain. He slept with us under our down sleeping bag in its duvet cover. I bathed him in the one enameled tin basin we had in our camp kitchen (a homemade table under the tarp with a Coleman stove and a few battered saucepans), which was also our salad bowl, in water from Ruby Lake, brought up to the building site in a 10 gallon container. The well had yet to be drilled. The baby, who was Forrest, wore a toque at night because he had almost no hair.

And what happened before we moved in to the three rectangles (because a square is also a rectangle) with their bare plywood floors and no doors to the bedrooms, is another baby, not quite born as we lugged our furniture and boxes of books and the entire contents of a kitchen into the house, but arriving soon after. The first baby was a toddler by then, eager to climb ladders, find abandoned nails in corners, and not careful enough around the woodstove so that a corral had to be constructed from offcuts of 2x4s.

But this is all in the future. I am putting the house and its life before the drawings that conceived it. I want to write about the blueprints. How John drew rooms onto big sheets of paper, using special rulers and other measures, representing lintels, top-plates, the distances between windows, how a door might open in, or out, and how a life unfolds from what a pencil projects.


dad on bike.jpg

My father, on his small tricycle, c. 1929, his dog watching the road. I think of him often, particularly when I see photographs of my grandchildren. How certain gestures, features, remain over time, in the intricate mathematics of inheritance.

I consider the ghost of a child’s hand in an ultrasound image, another of a baby’s spine,my father on a tricycle,in a little metal car, grey, grey, the propped coffin on a bench in 1923, on the stair by a house I am uncertain is the one my father spent his
childhood in or an earlier one that burned. Is it the house built by Joseph Yopek or a later house?

—from “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices”, published in Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2019

This morning, 3 of my grandchildren in a cafe in Ottawa (the 4th still too small to sit on a stool unassisted). They remind me of their own fathers (my sons) and they remind me of my brothers as children, twirling on stools in cafes as we drove across Canada to Halifax, and back. Twirling and twirling until, dizzy with movement, they’d fall or be forcibly removed from the stool, and scolded.

at Bobby's Table

A coda to watering the Melba

In May, I wrote about our Ottawa family planting a Melba apple tree in their yard.

watering the melba

The entry ended this way:

The younger man in the photograph is my grandson, who is two, the same age his father was when we brought home our Melba. In “Ballast”, in Euclid’s Orchard, I wrote, “I’m interested in how plants travel, how they are carried to new places, how they are botanical palimpsests, in a way. And how they hold stories,some plain and true, and some cryptic.” The first thing I thought of when I woke this morning was the Melba in Ottawa, newly planted, newly watered, with a young family to care for it (another grandson is anticipated in July) and to enjoy its beautiful fruit.


And now, in early August, some photos arrived of my grandson picking apples! His brother was born a month ago and the season is turning just a little—our heat wave has broken and the lake this morning was cooler than it’s been for weeks—so it’s a good time to eat apples from a tree planted in memory of an earlier tree, now gone. And good to sit at my desk and look at the image while my Edmonton grandchildren shout and play in the other rooms. They have been helping me water the tomatoes, the basil, the lilies on the upper deck, and later we’ll go out to see if the Merton Beauties are ripe enough to pick.


keeping time

Yesterday I was returning to my car after a meeting in Madeira Park and I stood at the school fence for a few moments, watching children race around the field in a kind of wild disarray. Sports Day! I remember the same field, the same June sunlight, more than 25 years ago, as my own children completed the obstacle race, the relay, then lined up for hot dogs and dixie cups. As I turned from the field, I heard someone — a mother almost certainly — call to another, Who’s keeping time?

Good question. Who keeps it, tries to keep it, where does it go? I’m reading The Siesta and the Midnight Sun: How Our Bodies Experience Time, by Jessa Gamble. It’s a clearly-written examination of the biological clock and circadian rhythms and I’m hoping it can help me to figure out the notion of metaphysical time — its accumulation, its disappearance, reappearance, its questions and riddles. I think about it and then I don’t. But last night, after putting the book aside, I was awake for ages, trying to puzzle my way through an essay I’m currently working on. Family history again, ancient history, with its clutter of names and dates and missing elements. A passage from a recent New Yorker article has found its way into my consciousness and at times it feels like a guide:

“Scientists have sought for centuries to explain how animals, particularly migratory species, find their way with awesome precision across the globe…Dragonflies and monarch butterflies follow routes so long that they die along the way; their great-grandchildren complete the journey.” (from “How Do Animals Keep from Getting Lost?” M. R. O’Connor, May 28, 2016 New Yorker)

In Drumheller in April, I thought I’d be able to find my way to the very place where my grandmother stood in the doorway, children around her feet, to look out at her new surroundings, buckets waiting to be filled. I thought I’d know the smell of the earth, the soil that my father ran through in bare feet, and whose dust rose in summer to settle on laundry hung out to dry, on the surfaces of tables by open windows. I thought I’d know it. Recognize the wind. But instead we drove each wide street as though in a foreign country. Following clear and detailed instructions, we missed the turn to the cemetery and had to ask an Asian woman in the uniform of a fast food outlet, walking home with her head down. She was helpful with her hands, though her English was poor. As my grandparents’ English was rudimentary, even after 40 years in Canada. How many generations of dragonflies and monarch butterflies? How many generations of children buried among their own babies in the Drumheller Cemetery (that whoosh of time again), which we eventually found, decoding the map and the narrow lanes among the dead. How many buried until the language of grief flowed smooth and clear in the vowels of the new country? Gone, the palatalizations, fricatives, and trills of Central and Eastern Europe, the stops, the lost aspirates. Did I ever speak to them, apart from the urgings of my parents to thank them for gifts or to tell my age yet again, a girl among her brothers, arranged by height, each of us self-conscious in the summer heat, the long drive behind us and the promise of our cousins ahead. The promise of the Exhibition, each with a dollar in our pockets.

Who’s keeping time? Who is this woman — a photo found in my grandfather’s travel documents (the passbook that said he was travelling alone and had no right of return) —  and where did the last chapter of her own migration complete itself? If it ever did?

single woman