redux: “Once I told them, You look like goddesses, all of you, there in the water, so graceful as you raise your arms.”

Note: this was 4 years ago and this morning, re-reading, I was surprised to realize I was revising “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”,  an essay that is central to my Blue Portugal & Other Essays. I didn’t know then that the collection would be finished, would be published, and that a copy would sit on my desk to remind me of how the thinking and writing I do gradually accumulates until, voila, a book….

morning swim

Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This has a wonderful post this morning, a review of Swell: A Waterbiography, by Jenny Landreth. It’s a book I’d like to read, and will. I’ve been reading books about water lately, about swimming, about various kinds of immersion. Jessica Lee’s Turning: A Swimming Memoir was so beautiful and so brave that I began to plot ways of swimming in winter. Wait, I do swim in winter, though in a pool, not the lakes Jessica has found near Berlin, where she lives. I swim daily in Ruby Lake from June to late September and then it’s the Pender Harbour Aquatic Centre, where my children learned to swim more than 30 years ago, and where the lifeguards do their best to save my lane for me, the one closest to the big windows and on the side of the pool because otherwise I can’t keep straight.

I’ve been revising a long essay on rivers and the venous system, mostly because it keeps getting rejected and I return to it with a nervous eye, wondering what to do to make it something more attractive to readers. I loved writing the early drafts. I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before, not in prose, so I used both margins to justify different parts of the text. I wanted the typography to echo the text. I wanted the text to meander on the page as a river meanders through a landscape and our veins and arteries carry our blood through our bodies. (Writing this description, or justification, I realize how this might be the reason no one wants to publish it. It looks odd. It uses space in an unexpected way. But who wants to keep doing the same old, same old?)

Here’s a little of the essay, a section justified to the right margin (though some sections move back and forth between margins, as a swimmer moves through water):

8. Deep Venous drainage system

The fibular vein. Anterior tibial vein. Posterior tibial vein. The three become the popliteal vein at the knee; and then that vein enters the thigh, via a passageway called the adductor canal, as the femoral vein. These are the veins where the thrombosis formed, a clot poised like a temporary island, breaking free, travelling into my pulmonary system where it lodged as an embolism, threatening my heart.

My heart never knew it was threatened. My heart grew large with love that time, in anticipation of a third grandchild, surrounded by other family members, hearing their voices, sitting with them at the long table we’d eaten at for more than three decades. My heart, unaware, as I tried to catch my breath. It never knew it was threatened. It was filled with love, it was heavy with love.

And other minor veins drain into the femoral vein, like small creeks. The femoral vein graciously receives its tributaries as rivers receive theirs, the threads of mountain courses, of run-off, of bog-dark sweet creekwater, limestone, gritty, clear as mirror glass, dense with salmon, lively with mayflies and dragonflies catching fire, of rivulets, right-bank, left-bank, forked, streamlet, greater saphenous vein, which usually receives the external pudendal vein as well as the superficial epigastric vein, and the superficial circumflex iliac vein.

When I go for my swim at the local pool, I see the older women whose class is finishing just as I enter the water for my laps. They are thin, large, stooped, high-stepping, and lame. On their legs, the story of their lives thus far. Varicose veins, spider veins, venous insufficiency, superficial phlebitis, swellings and dark bruisings, lymphedema: some of them use walkers or canes to help them into and out of the water, to the hot-tub where they are helped down the stairs. But in the pool—sometimes I arrive early enough to see this—they raise their arms, they float, they are light as birds in the clear water while gentle music plays and the instructor leads their movements from the walkway at the edge. In the hot-tub after, their heads above the warm froth, they are beautiful, talking among themselves as the music continues and I swim my laps, listening to them.

…listen to your suppliants voice, come, and benignant in these rites rejoice;
Give plenteous Seasons, and sufficient wealth, and pour; in lasting streams, continued Health.

Once I told them, You look like goddesses, all of you, there in the water, so graceful as you raise your arms. Join us, one of them says, smiling, using her cane to walk unsteadily to the change room. My own legs are uncertain rivers, uncertain streams, their courses changing, islands forming of my own blood, its platelets and fibrins turned semi-solid.

“Before the slide and before bank erosion and flooding…”

frozen fog

Last night I snipped the basting threads that once held together the 3 layers of my most recent quilt. It felt ceremonious. I’ve been trying to make a list of the quilts I’ve made over the years, the 34 years I’ve been doing this kind of sewing, and this is 36. At least. There might be ones I’ve forgotten. And while I was sewing this quilt, I was working on the edits of my forthcoming Blue Portugal and Other Essays, filled with rivers and quilts and the colour blue; and I was listening to news of one climate or health emergency after another. The world felt dangerous and sad. I sewed, thought of how time has lost its reliability (in a way), that rivers flood in spring, that summers are warm, autumns are crisp and cool and good for road trips in my favourite parts of the province—Highway 8, between Spences Bridge and Merritt; the area around Lytton and Lillooet; the golden grasslands of the southern Interior— winters mild-ish and wet, with some frosty nights and maybe a skiff of snow. Spring again, everything in its order. I sewed and thought and my quilt became a palimpsest. A bedcover, yes, but also a record of how I felt about the floods, the rivers, the state I find myself in as an aging woman, attentive to my own heart-beat.

corner rabbit

In spring, a snowshoe hare grazes behind our house, eating dandelion leaves, clover, and hovering by the (rabbit-proof) fence around the vegetable garden. In summer, we swim in the lake near us and in the ocean as often as we can, sometimes beyond the eel-grass with its communities of infant fishes, its blue carbon, wading heron, crabs. In fall, we watch for the salmon to enter the creek near our house, and all the birds associated with that process—the dippers, the mergansers at the mouth of the creek, hoping for stray eggs to wash downstream, eagles waiting for spawned-out carcasses to feed on—as well as the waiting coyotes and bears. And in winter, I work on projects indoors, sewing the year into cotton, this year as near-record snow drifted around my house.

eel grass corner

It feels a little desperate to be sewing this year, a little sad, as though I am somehow hoping that by paying this attention to such small things, we might be spared fires, floods, drought, that I can keep the world safe. I suspect it’s too late. But last night as I snipped the basting threads, I knew I’d made a record, a praise song, an archive of thread, cotton, memory, and a few tiny buttons to anchor the beginnings and the ends of the red lines of river that act as a map of what was, what I loved, and love still.

Turn the page quickly. Remember the rivers you have walked along, and into, and how you were held by water green and lovely. How your grown sons still remember the Nicola River, your grown daughter the ride you took by horseback to Salmon River and its memory of the sockeye runs before the Hell’s Gate slide in 1914, a river you have also driven along on your way to Salmon Arm, its silvery riffles so beautiful in sunlight. Before the slide and before bank erosion and flooding, agricultural run-off and the heavy feet of cattle making their way to water. (So many fish on this page, its wide waters.) How you stop at Lytton each trip to marvel again at the marriage of rivers, your husband’s arm around your shoulders.
                           (from ‘How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, University of Alberta Press, forthcoming, 2022)

back in the river

“We are flotsam…”

magnetic north

My Edmonton family gave me Jenna Butler’s Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard for my birthday a few weeks ago. It’s a beautiful book, brief in the way a book can be when it knows exactly what it wants to do. This one takes you on a (brief) voyage on a sailing ship carrying researchers, artists, and writers along one coast of Spitsbergen Island, in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. The island was a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Svalbard is a land of traces: what dies, lingers. The bone beds of the
whaling stations, the outposts with their ragged timbers overlooking
the straits. Each thing that lives its space on the island casts some small
shadow, a sundial arm of birth and death. Only humans in this place
foreshorten the clock, turn away those about to die, to be born.

I’ve thought a lot about this book since I read it last week. It straddles genre in a way. It’s given this classification on the publisher’s page:

Subject(s): TRAVEL / Essays & Travelogues, SCIENCE / Global Warming & Climate Change, SCIENCE / Life Sciences / Ecology, Climate change, The North / Environment / Travel / Women’s Studies, Ecological science, the Biosphere, LITERARY COLLECTIONS / Canadian

Yes, it’s all those things. Jenna notes the signs of climate change, the geology of Spitsbergen, the tiny Arctic willows, saxifrage, the kittiwakes, the weather; and hers is an ardent eye: “To watch a glacier calve is to watch time run in both directions at once.”

It’s also poetry. Some might call it prose-poetry but I’d suggest the line breaks are important in a lyric context. The language is taut and transparent as ice. You see through the lines into the air and water, where a minke whale breaches, and where midden heaps are visible from sea. Each short section contains sufficient observation and imagery to allow the imagination to expand in the long hours of daylight.

In a way, this book is almost perfect and its beauty is in the restraint of its author. I think that another writer, another publisher might well have wanted more. A travelogue/essay collection of 100 pages is the literary equivalent of a novella, a suite of poems, and how often we are told that such books are simply not cost-effective? I never thought as I was reading Magnetic North that it should have been longer. Yet I was surprised (and delighted) with the physical qualities of the book itself, the attention given it by a designer (the pages are uncluttered and open, the sections feature black and white photographs that elegantly take the reader into the text, there are French flaps, a beautiful cover). It’s not that I think all travel books (or essay collections) should be this size, with the elegant brevity of this narrative; but I’m so glad that the University of Alberta Press gave this particular book such a classy presentation.

We carry this space with us when we go.

In photographs and recordings, etchings and climate data, we carry
the feel of a Svalbard summer. On the sun-brittled carapaces of prairie
sailboats, I’ll find my feet and bear down; I’ll cast back to Antigua’s
decks, the come-from-away skeletons of the whaling stations under
endless noonhour sun.

The way of all expeditions: at the end, a slow fragmenting, everyone
compassed towards home. Pyongyang and Halifax, Seattle and
Sacramento, London, the Alberta bush. We are flotsam, travelling
greedy tides back to our own small spaces of dark. Our own
welcome nights.