Wading across the rising creek, I suddenly spotted an unusually large shell on the bottom, partly obscured by eelgrass. Curious, I lifted it out and put it in my bucket among the frilly oysters; it rang against the side of the galvanized bucket like a bell. Not a shell, then, but what? By now the tide was surging in and I made my way over the rocks to the place where the rest of my family had finished filling their bucket with butter clams and littlenecks.
It was Thanksgiving weekend, circa 1991. (My son Forrest just told me he thought it was the year after we returned from a winter in Utah, the year after we bought our little boat, and that we’d taken my parents with us down the lake to where it almost meets the ocean in order to gather some clams and oysters for Thanksgiving dinner. So 1991 sounds right.)
Remembering my strange disc, I took it out of my bucket and showed the others. Holding it up to the light, turning it this way and that, we could tell it was a plate but so covered in mud and algae and even a little group of barnacles fastened to the rim, that we couldn’t tell what colour it was. I scraped away a corner of the algae with my oyster knife and was started to see brilliant yellow showing through.
Those were wonderful years. My children were growing, I was finding my way back to writing after a long period of diapers, babies waking in the night, the pre-school years with all the driving back and forth to the village nearest us to drop off and pick up children. I wanted to write poetry but found that particular voice and focus had abandoned me. This other thing—I didn’t know what to call it but the prose lines could carry a little poetry, they could hold images intact, but somehow they didn’t need to be shaped into stanzas—anyway, this other form presented itself to me, encouraging me to at least try. And I did.
To our right as we walked, there was an abandoned fish-counting shack between us and the creek.
I learned to pay attention in a different way. I also learned that this form was as open and as shapely as poems had ever been to me. Maybe these were essays I was trying to write but the pages themselves were also hoping there’d be room for some music, lists of plants, notes for quilts, a recipe or two, a family tree, and real trees too, with all their leaves and cambium and root systems; they were hoping for weather and birdsong and what it felt like to be damaged, what it felt like to enter a river and plunge forward.
There was broken glass around the door and old tins and a midden of shells. Half in, half out, an iron bedframe leaned against the door and the floor had rotted through, sword ferns growing into the room in one place, shattered window glass and bottles all over.
I wrote one, and then I wrote another. I realized I could keep doing this without ever coming to the end of what I wanted to do, what I wanted to try to do. It wasn’t poetry (my first love) but it was generous, it was forgiving, and here it was, inviting me to at least try.
A rough shelf hung partly off one wall and on the shelf were four dusty yellow plates, the only things in the shack that were unbroken. They were waiting, as the first plate waited, in a dark corner, not underwater, but fallen the same, five suns from a flying heaven.
“Yellow Plates” was the second essay I wrote, after “Morning Glory”, and then there was another, and another, until I had a collection of them, Red Laredo Boots, published in 1996 as part of the Transmontanus series (so brilliantly conceived by Terry Glavin). The five yellow plates graced our table for years, one for each of us. Then, as plates do, one broke, then another, until there were two left, one for John and one for me, because our children grew up and moved to other cities. One of the plates was cracked and chipped but not quite enough to make it unusable. The other day, doing dishes, I dropped the last fully intact plate onto our tile floor and two big chips were the result. We’re going to retire both plates, worn and scarred, to the sunroom where they can serve as saucers for plants overwintering by the south windows.
We each said a grace before eating, something to be thankful for—food, family, the peace of the big trees around us and the weather bringing rain, wind, the brilliance of sunlight in October, sometimes streaming from the great sun above and sometimes hidden in creekbeds, shacks, flawed under dust and barnacles, waiting to be found and praised.
I wish you a good Thanksgiving wherever you are and I wish our country, our planet, the peace and care they deserve.
*Note: Red Laredo Boots is out of print but I have some copies here. If you’re interested in buying a copy ($16 plus $3 shipping within Canada), just let me know.