quotidian

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.

reading Virginia Woolf on a grey Saturday morning in August

a writer's diary

Last night I had to force myself to stay in bed when I woke after midnight, wondering about the work I have in progress. The night is often such a wide and generous space for thinking and writing but I forced myself to stay in bed because I have a bit of a cold, a rough throat, and two weeks from today I will be in Kyiv and want to be healthy for that. Instead of getting up and coming down to my desk, I thought about the way the story I am writing is unfolding. It’s not as I imagined it. I thought it would be more of a piece somehow. Instead, there are sections told in the first person, there are sections that are simply calls and responses, there are overheard conversations, and there are lists. This may change of course. Right now I’m trying not to second-guess myself but simply to write. Later I can figure out if there’s a better way to arrange the sections, to tell the story and all its backstories. Its understories. At the chamber music festival last weekend, I was particularly intrigued by Timothy Corlis’s “Raven and the First Men”, a tone poem based on the Bill Reid sculpture of the same name. It’s a series of brief movements. The composer writes that, “The shortest movements titled “Bird Sanctuary I-III” are like the post-and-beam structure of the piece.” And yes, they served as structural shelters almost, where we could sit and hear rain, the waves, the sound of birds. In my work-in-progress, I think the equivalent structural element is the table. If it is to work as I hope it does, then linear time won’t be as important as what happens around it. Yes, the story will move forward but it will also linger around the table, hover over place-settings, ask a person to lean to their companion and ask for something to be passed. Meanwhile, the sun sets, the moon rises, and (this is becoming an ominous note in the story), the owls begin to call.

Speaking of companions, it is lovely to have A Writer’s Diary at hand. When I opened it this morning, to August 20th, 1930, I find this:

The Waves is I think resolving itself (I am at page 100) into a series of dramatic soliloquies. The thing is to keep them running homogeneously in and out, in the rhythm of the waves. Can they be read consecutively? I know nothing about that. I think this is the greatest opportunity I have yet been able to give myself; therefore I suppose the most complete failure. Yet I respect myself for writing this book—yes—even though it exhibits my congenital faults.

It gives me solace to read Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on her work. Lately I’ve heard young writers talk about their frustration with the “industry” they find themselves in and I’m glad to remember that it doesn’t need to be that. It can be that, of course, if people choose that. Lord knows there’s little enough money in the way I’ve chosen to do things! But for a little while yet, there’s room for other books and writers in the cultural conversation. We don’t need to write for markets, we don’t need to be guided by trends and fashions. Of course we probably won’t find ourselves popular fixtures on the reading circuits, on the bestseller lists, or in demand in a host of other ways. There’s still a place, a quiet place, for the books that don’t aspire to Big.

“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.

“Let me then…”

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“Let me then, like a child advancing with bare feet into a cold river, descend again into that stream.” (from ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Virginia Woolf)

Yesterday, using the new printer that arrived on Friday (old one, perfectly serviceable, would no longer talk to the aging computer it was linked to and of course there are no longer drivers available, etc.), I printed the first full draft of Blue Portugal & Other Essays, a collection I’ve been working on for the past two years. In fact, it’s not quite finished. There’s a place holder, a title, for the final essay: “Museum of the Multitude Village”. This last essay I hope to write after a trip to my grandfather’s village in Bukovina in September. In trying to locate more Kishkans in that area, I discovered a museum in a neighbouring village, founded by one Vasily Kishkan, described as a writer and teacher.

museum

This collection surprises me and it doesn’t. I wanted to pursue some threads and I did that. I also found myself revisiting landscapes with new information, trying to make sense of what I already knew, or thought I knew. If I was trying to write a book to fit the current market, I’d be very disappointed now because this isn’t that kind of book. I have my touchstones for what I do and thank goodness they are always close at hand. Last night I was re-reading Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, by Julia Briggs, a book in which the author explores Woolf’s life through her writing, including diaries, letters, and unpublished work. She invites the reader to follow Woolf as she writes, edits, faces both uncertainty and the true possibilities of her work. Last night I was particularly interested in the chapter on the writing of Roger Fry’s biography, a book she began with hope and excitement and concluded with something like despair as the machinery of war sounded everywhere around her (the book was published in 1940). As solace, she wrote some autobiographical sketches, including “A Sketch of the Past”, the most beautiful essay about her childhood at Talland House in St. Ives. I remember walking to the road above Talland House on a trip to England in 2005, entranced by its views and garden. Could I hear voices from where I stood on the road? Coming from the trees? Maybe.

Yesterday, with my newly printed manuscript in hand, I sat outside with my red pen. I’ve already edited most of the essays but one I finished recently, “Mapping, an Unknown Place”, was still pretty rough. I didn’t realize how rough until I had the actual pages in hand. I’m still that old 20th century writer, the one who needs to see the pages following one another in actual time and space, not on a screen. So I scribbled and made notes to myself and spent time at my computer entering the changes.

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And realized this morning that I was writing to my father. The essay tries to find him (again) in the place where he was a child. I’ve gone there before but this time I had more information, as though that would allow me to be closer to him. Did it? I don’t know. But it made me feel remorse for how our relationship left too much unsaid. On this day, of all days, I want to give myself a second chance with him and one of the opportunities that writing gives us is just that. Let me then, Virginia Woolf said, descend again into that stream. And oh, yes, that’s what I hope for.

The map I have been trying to draw eludes me. I look and look again. Was it here the washtubs were stored, in full view of the singular hill, was that the river beyond the cottonwoods, the road with its little haze of dust? Yearning is a cloudy overlay. As much as I want to see the thing clear and definite, the land, the house, the road leading to town, and away to the places my father walked, looking for bones, I am lost in the contours of paper and dirt. My thumb rasps old paper. Wandering down the gravel road alongside the barren ground with its tufts of tough grass, broken bottles at the edge, a few brave grasshoppers clicking, I keep my face averted from the truck with the Canadians Against the Temporary Foreign Workers Program sign painted across its side. I will it away. Away. On the map I can’t draw or annotate but keep clear in my imagination, I can find the exact location where my Canadian family (all foreign workers, domestic, miners, subsistence farmers) began. The cone-shaped hill holds more than its layers of mudstone, sandstone, shales, and seams of dark coal. Within the hill, the fossilized bodies of dinosaurs large and small, later mammals, reptiles, fish, trees as unlikely as giant redwoods and mulberries in that dry land. On its steep slope, my father lingers. My finger traces the road, the place where Michichi Creek enters the Red Deer River, its elbows of ice and the pike and walleye resting in the shadows. I smell the mineral scent of the waters, far off rain in the clouds. My father is riding towards me, hell-bent for town. He is 3 years old. He is 13. He a man bent by the news that his brother died. I open my arms to him, full of questions, full of love.

late swimmer

“The lake of my mind, unbroken by oars…” (Virginia Woolf, from The Waves)

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I learned to swim at the age of 6 and as a child, I lived for water. Summers in lakes, the ocean, the shallows of Englishman River where my family camped. Lived for the clarity of immersion, the moment when you release your attachment to ground and push off into water. Later, as a teenager, I used to ride my horse to Island View Beach on the Saanich Peninsula. I’d take off his saddle and ride him into the water. Sometimes I thought we could push right on to James Island. He loved the chuck as much as I did.

But for years I didn’t swim much. The lake near us where we took our children daily in summer is lovely but the little wild beach became tame and the local regional district trucked in sand, expanded the parking lot, and it was harder and harder for me to want to join my husband on his daily swim in late afternoon. I didn’t like the changes. I missed parting the hardhack and mint to enter the water, missed finding a clump of grass or a warm rock to sit on after a swim. When my children came home in summer, they headed down to the lake each day, sometimes twice, and while I didn’t join them very often (except when we took our little boat out to one of the islands for a picnic), I felt that the planets were all properly aligned when I saw the towels draped on railings and smelled the wild scent of the lake on their skin when they hugged me.

But then I had some health issues that prevented me from taking my regular walk and I missed the exercise. I’d already sent John to the local pool–this was November of 2016– because I knew he was worried and I wanted him to channel the stress into something relaxing. I didn’t want to swim in the pool for some of the same reasons I gave up the lake. I don’t like crowds. But then I did join him, in January of 2017, and discovered there are seldom crowds at the Pender Harbour pool in winter. I swam 3 times a week, a kilometer each time, and found myself more and more attached to the experience. A few people would ask me, How much do you do?, meaning, how far, how long, and when I told them 50 lengths, they were impressed. Imagine! I liked the sense of myself as a swimmer. My mum loved to swim and one of my favourite photographs of her was taken by my dad on Gonzales Beach in Victoria where they rented a little house and learned to be parents.

mum on gonzales beach

Once I’d become habituated to regular swimming, I wanted to go the lake again. But not in late afternoon when the beach area is filled with people and reckless young men who bring their jet skis to the shore and others who ignore the signs saying No Boats and tie theirs up to branches of cedar. Well, what about mornings, said John. What an idea. So we began to go down around 8:00 or 8:30 when no one was there except the friendly man hired by the regional district to collect garbage and clean the outhouse and rake the sand. I don’t have a device to tell me how far I swim but I think it’s about 3/4 of a km. And we go almost every day in summer.

This morning was so lovely. It’s not sunny, except in fits and starts. But the water was so green and clear, the air clean, the cedars laden with cones, and not a single boat on the lake. A cutthroat trout jumped 3 times right in front of us and swallows dipped over the surface of the water, probably feeding on the same hatch as the trout. Later in summer, we’ll see tracks in the sand when we come down — deer, even a bear last year, wanting what we want: solitude, the old sense of the lake before the crowds, its cool welcoming licks against the shore.

lake2 (2).jpg

redux: The Years

Note: every year, I revisit the books of Virginia Woolf. This year is no exception. The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse…Reading these books, I am taken with the beauty of sentences that unravel backwards, backwards, through the years, to my younger self, alone in a room, wanting to write my own sentences. Reading this post, from June, 2012, 7 years ago, I am reminded again of those urgencies.

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It might seem that I don’t read much. These entries focus on my garden, or mushroom gathering, or encounters with lizards, snakes, and bees. Or recount a meal with friends, or a brief (or extended) trip to destinations near and far. But in fact I read all the time. I don’t have what I think of as a television metabolism. Ditto for dvds, unless I know ahead of time that I’m going to love the film and not resent the two hours taken from books. Each evening I go up to my bed, settle all four pillows behind me, and take up a book from the stack beside my bed. This week the stack is composed of Ian McEwan’s Solar, William Boyd’s new novel (which I’ve just begun and which takes place in Vienna), a travel book by Frances Mayes which is beautifully written but almost unbearably self-congratulatory.

Lately I’ve been thinking a fair bit about my early twenties, when I was finding myself as a writer. Or beginning to: this is perhaps more accurate. I felt so vulnerable, almost porous: the world seemed to enter my body in every breath of wind, each unfolding hill ahead of me on the walks I took regularly with my family’s dog. I knew I had to find a way to express and contain my experience of the world and poetry was that gift to me. For me.

And books too, particularly biographies and collections of what is now called creative non-fiction. (What was it called then, I’m wondering? I think of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for example, which I read shortly after it was published in 1974, when I was 19.) When I first began to read Virginia Woolf, it was such a revelation. Her work was so precise, yet lyrical too, closer to poetry sometimes than other prose I was reading. I devoured her novels and then discovered her essays. The Common Reader was so engaging and encouraging, somehow, to a young woman on the west coast of Canada; I felt emboldened to take myself a little more seriously. I loved A Writer’s Diary, too, which led me to the complete diaries, edited so intelligently by Anne Olivier Bell; and then Quentin Bell’s wonderful biography. Over the years I read many other Woolf biographies and their focus shifted as the times changed. Lyndall Gordon’s, for example, and Hermione Lee’s – they explored Woolf’s sexual abuse and looked at the arc of her life from a feminist perpective; useful and important scholarship.

I thought of Virginia Woolf a lot during the week we spent in Bloomsbury in early March. On Marchmont Street, for instance, where we drank coffee on stools looking out at the sunlight and ate pastries from a wonderful bakery, I recalled her diary entry: “Can I collect any first impressions? How Marchmont Street was like Paris… Oh the convenience of the place and the loveliness too… Why do I love it so much?”  When I came home, I reread The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway, I reread The Years, and the diaries, wanting her voice in my head as I went about my days. I need her courage these days, feeling a little as though my writing is a little too old-fashioned for these hyped-up times.

Yesterday we were in Vancouver to see a play and I thought I’d check out the Woolf shelf at Macleod’s Books. And there was Quentin Bell’s biography, in two volumes, in a slipcase with that gorgeous photograph of Virginia as a girl, soft and dreamy, on one side and a later photograph, still dreamy but also older, haunted, on the other, a fourth printing of the Hogarth Press Edition. I looked to see how much it cost and was delighted to see that Volume 1 was inscribed by Quentin Bell to one Elisabeth Jenson. And the price? About what a lunch would cost, with a glass of wine. So I bought them and they’re on my bedside table.

“And all the lives we ever lived”

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“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees
and changing leaves.” — Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Yesterday I surprised myself and finished the novella I’ve been working on. I knew I was somewhere near the conclusion but as I didn’t know what would ultimately happen, I didn’t see the end coming until I was actually there.
(When I say I “finished”, what I mean is that I completed a first draft. The next step is to print it out because I can never do a substantial edit before I see what the work looks like as a physical text. Some people can scroll through pages on a screen and understand where they are in the work as a whole and how each chapter (or section, in my case) relates to the others. But I can’t. I like to sit with an actual draft and a pen and scribble on paper as I read.)
I’ve noted before that this is probably a novella that will not be published. It’s a strange sort of meta thing. The narrator is writing a thesis on the work of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson and she frequently refers to their writing. She is notating a map with places and moments in their fiction and the reader imagines a map with actual passages from various books. A scholar writing a thesis wouldn’t have to worry (I don’t think) about securing permission to use the quoted material because it’s considered fair use for critical purposes. But as this is a work of fiction, the situation is a bit more complicated. And potentially prohibitively expensive. That’s what I mean by “meta”. Or maybe I don’t. This novella is a strange sort of hybrid. And I loved every minute of its creation.

Last week I met with the Special Collections librarian and archivist at the University of Victoria about papers (mine, and John’s) and they showed me one of the Margaret Peterson works held by the Legacy Gallery at UVic. It’s a huge tempera on panel and when I saw it, I thought two things. One is that Margaret Peterson belongs in this novella and so now she’s there. (There’s that meta idea again: in my own life, I met her and her husband Howard O’Hagan once. The narrator of the novella is, in a way, the person I would have been if I’d pursued a degree in Canadian Literature instead of becoming a writer.) The other is that the painting would make a perfect cover image.

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At this point in my life, I am grateful to be able to sit at my desk and construct a work in which worlds are superimposed on one another, the real and the imagined. Grateful to spend time in the grace and beauty of language and rivers, bluebunch wheatgrass and Ponderosa pines. Where coyotes appear out of folds in the hills and history glosses the landscape like a weathered homestead where someone still makes a daily fire and tends to the animals.
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” — Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
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