the dark considerations

pacific rim

77 years ago today, Virginia Woolf walked into the River Ouse with her pockets filled with stones to weigh her down, to facilitate her drowning. She left us with such a body of writing: novels, essays, letters, diaries, glimpses of her in the work of others. I was 19 when I first read The Waves. I remember rationing it out because I didn’t want it to end. I wanted those voices, those characters to stay in my life. And what I know now of course is that they have. Bernard with his stories, and maybe Rhoda most of of all, she who looks into water, searching for herself.

“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”

In my early 20s, I spent a few years trying to figure out how to be a writer in a world that kept asking something else of me. I certainly wasn’t unique in this. And at the time I was pretty self-absorbed. I was porous. Everything I experienced and felt needed to be contemplated, written about, worked through. There was a lot of drama. In a recent essay, “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”, I found myself writing about that young self. I wrote about a specific moment on a bridge over Englishman River and when I finished the section, my immediate thought was to delete it. Oh, who needs to know this, I wondered. But then I realized that I am so grateful that the moment passed, that the dog I was caring for reminded me to cross the bridge and continue on with the trip we had undertaken. And it’s good to remember these things, particularly now, at this point in my life, when I can make a place for those dark considerations in the daily light, the beautiful precious years I have somehow been gifted.

When I was a young woman sad enough to consider ending my life, I stood on the bridge in November. I was driving by myself to Long Beach after a series of humiliating events during the first term of my 4th year at the University of Victoria; I had permission to take a week away from classes. I’d borrowed my father’s red Datsun pickup truck. It had a canopy, which leaked, and a canvas hammock, sewn by my father with his big careful stitches, strung diagonally across the bed of the truck. I rigged up a plastic bag over the vent in the ceiling of the canopy to catch the drips and smoothed my sleeping bag into the narrow hammock and walked out to the bridge. I had my family’s dog with me, a crazy Samoyed/Lab cross. He bit people if he was allowed off his leash but he liked me and he was warm. He strained at his leash on the bridge and I thought about jumping off into the deep green water. I didn’t want to think about what would happen to my body but I also couldn’t imagine what would happen to the dog on his leash if I died at Englishman River where no one knew I’d gone and wouldn’t think to look for me. The dog was my wavering. I also wanted to give him the gift of wild running on the empty beaches I knew we’d find that time of year. We returned in the rain to the truck and I heated soup for myself on the little blue Optimus stove and scooped some Gravy Train into the dog’s bowl. I ate my soup on the tailgate in my rain jacket while the dog huddled under the picnic table. Then we both made ourselves as comfortable as we could in the damp canopy and slept while the rain pounded on the roof, near enough to touch.

(A woman, hand inside her rain jacket, tenderly taking her pulse, the drama of her heart pushing blood, whoosh, into her circulatory system, the drama of her life, whoosh, at wrist, at neck. She wonders if she will move forward to the other side of the river, or back, into the wreckage of the past weeks while her dog pants at her feet, eager for more walking. Not this, not the dark considerations of life or death.)



“…an irrational tenderness”

from underground

“It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself.”  — Virginia Woolf, from To the Lighthouse

“Here again is the usual door.”

bucket list

A winter visit from my family, a run of mild days, and time by water: these are some of my favourite things to help with the dark days. These, and re-reading essays I’ve always loved, finding in them passages to serve as signposts for the years ahead.

Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting: A London Adventure”, for example, in which Woolf offers a kind of walking guide for exploring the evening streets.

How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley.

When the familiar, in other words, becomes something other, luminous and shimmering, because of a walker’s altered perspective.

Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it and the china bowl and the brown ring on the carpet.

We’ve been doing things we usually do in summer, walking to Francis Point to look at crabs,

francis point

and taking coffee and muffins down to Ruby Lake in the unexpected warmth of a January morning:

by water

And in winter, they are unexpectedly sweet for all that is contained of other seasons, other excursions to beloved places, for swimming and the sight of ducklings, for long sunsets and the evening calls of the common loons.

At bedtime last night I was reading Orwell’s wonderful “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”, which I first read as a teenager, and which still feels true:

Is it wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money…

My grandson keeps me company when I’m at my desk and he opens the baskets I have all around me, the ones with feathers, with ancient notes to self, stones, the emptied egg case of a skate (or mermaid’s purse, we always called them), a bit of charred embossed tin ceiling panel from the old townsite of Granite Creek, a few fossils from the Great Salt Lake in Utah. He opens the baskets and each thing is new to him, and to me, who looks at it as a child looks at a stone or feather, curious and enthralled. After he leaves this weekend, I’ll hear his voice calling out in huge excitement as his father carefully overturned rocks to reveal the tiny crabs scuttling for cover, and his delight as he crept into a hollow in a huge cedar on one side of the trail down to the water. None of this cost us a penny, not for the light or the water or the sound of his voice in the surprising warm air. And when we drove* home in darkness, after a meal at the pub, there was moonlight on the driveway, a scattering of stars, smoke in the air from our fire. “Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it.

*ok, so we had to pay for gas….





a summer book shelf

morning visitor.jpg

A summer book shelf. Doesn’t that sound lovely? The truth is, well, messier. I’ve been trying to organize the shelves in our book room (or library, as we grandly call it). Yes, we have one. It used to be a playroom (and before that, a bedroom for the one child we had when we first built our house; by the time we moved in, another was due in two weeks….). The rooms we needed to accommodate the three children who eventually formed our family elbowed their way off that original bedroom/playroom and it seemed like a good idea to set up banks of shelves for the books that accumulated in the way books do. You think you have a few. You realize you have twice that many. Then three times that many. And so on. It’s like one of those math puzzles that hurt your brain. And if you’re like us, or at least like me in particular, you like to look things up in books rather than depending on the Internet exclusively. There’s something about taking one of the volumes of The Complete Gardener’s Collection to sit with as you drink your morning coffee, looking up one thing but then finding yourself reading something else with great interest.

So as I tried to find shelf room for some of the books in the piles that have grown against each wall in my bedroom, the surfaces in my study, some of those in the teetering columns against the bookcases themselves, I found myself thinking, Did I read that? Putting it aside to take upstairs to join the others on my bedside table. And there were others that I’ve bought and put on the lower stairs, waiting until I’d read my library books or the books I was using to research a particular thing in the novella I’m currently writing. I’ve also been gathering books about music for an essay I’ve been asked to write.

This morning, I realized the stairs were clear. The library shelves are as jammed full as they can possible be, several boxes are packed up for the thrift store or the book sale at the local library, and I’ve been thinking about what I’ve read in the last week. For some reason, the selection felt memorable. One title talked to another. A long gorgeous novel set in Ireland actually entered my dreams and I watched the two main characters diving off rocks into glittering water. Another made me laugh and cringe and worry about how the story would end. One or two were unsatisfying in ways that made me wonder why I seem to be outside the tide of current thinking.

Barbara Gowdy’s Little Sister, for instance: very well-plotted, well-written, but I found the whole thing kind of preposterous. I respect this author but can’t warm to her work. And I’m perfectly willing to take the blame for this. I never finish one of her books and think, Oh, I’ll need to read that again one day because I’ll want the story to unfold again, taking me along. I wasn’t taken along.

A book that was the antithesis of Little Sister was At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill. Not a new book – it was published in 2001 – but rich and timeless. O’Neill uses language like his shadow-brother, James Joyce; and it’s no coincidence that the novel takes place mostly around Sandycove, with its Martello tower haunted by that earlier James. There’s so much in this book. The life of a community with its rich and its poor, swimming, fatherhood and its gaps and tenderness, young men learning what their bodies are capable of, in the ocean as they swim towards the Muglins, and in the awkwardness of love. The complicated politics of Ireland in 1915-16 and its heroes and martyrs. The Church. I can easily imagine finding this novel in a stack waiting to find a place on the shelves and thinking, Oh, I’ll put it by my bed because I want to read it again.

The two books that spoke to one another were an unlikely pair at first. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life by Julia Briggs is a wonderful guide to Woolf’s writing process. Briggs studies the material evidence of this and provides a fascinating exploration of the context of each of Woolf’s books. What she was reading, what she was thinking, her health, her friendships, what she hoped to do as she found her way into the deep work. An Aftermath section follows each chapter, detailing the critical responses to the books and– this is so interesting!– the sales information, the reprinting schedules, and how Woolf responded to the reviews and both the successes and failures of her books. Her schemata for To the Lighthouse is particularly enlightening. “She found herself with that ‘quick decisive stroke’ writing the words ‘To the Lighthouse’ at the top of a fresh page of her notebook, and following it with a diagram rather like a letter ‘H’– the ‘two blocks joined by a corridor’, which would make up the structure of the novel – the longer ‘Window’ and ‘Lighthouse’ sequences joined by ‘Time Passes’”. It made me want to pick up To the Lighthouse again, a novel I re-read every four or five years, always with a sense of rediscovery and pleasure. Of all Woolf’s novels, this one drew its author back into the idyllic days of her childhood summers and the beauty of that, the resonance, is palpable.

I loved finding To the Lighthouse at the heart of Kerry Clare’s delightful Mitzi Bytes. Sarah Lundy’s book club meets to eat good food (even a cake decorated with a lighthouse), drink some wine, and engage in a spirited discussion about the novel. Which becomes a discussion about much more, some of it coded and allusive. As Sarah’s life is coded and (in some ways) allusive. And elusive. How many of us don’t live multiple lives? Those of us who are parents know this. Those of us in relationships (of any kind, really). I read this book in two afternoons, on a long wicker lounge in our sunroom, not wanting to finish but hoping for a happy ending. At some points, that didn’t seem possible. The book is described as “a grown-up Harriet the Spy for the digital age”. I confess I never read Harriet the Spy. (Nancy Drew was the girl detective of my childhood though I suspect she wouldn’t work in the digital age. Her roadster? Her reluctance to kiss her boyfriend on the porch for fear the neighbours would see. Her sleek outfits and perfect diet, made possible by a kindly housekeeper?) But in some ways, To the Lighthouse is the shadowy H haunting these pages, bridging the before and the after, time passing, even as the computer crashes and the digital files are lost (but not the photos on her phone!):

The kids were changing all the time, so fast so often that from one morning to the next, they seemed like entirely different people. Sarah needed the pictures as proof of where the time went, but all the rest of it, everything else that mattered, were stories she kept filed away on her brain. It was an unreliable filing system, nothing ever turning up at the right moment and so much at the wrong time, but it worked. And it was possible that she didn’t need an archive, that she could go forward now.

after the champagne corks flew

If you heard champagne corks popping yesterday, around 4 p.m., it was us, celebrating the good results of my latest scan. We’d met with my specialist in North Vancouver and he was very clear in his assessment that the nodules under scrutiny are not metastases as first suspected. That scan, a little harrowing, was thorough. So we left his office and went into a bar nearby, ordering two small bottles (the single-size serving) of sparkling wine and to be honest, the bottles had screw tops, not corks. But it was lovely to touch glasses and breath huge sighs of relief.

There’s so much to do. My publisher and I are beginning the process of thinking about a cover image for Euclid’s Orchard., due out in September. I believe that the book will be designed by Setareh Ashrafologhalai, who also designed Patrin. I love her sense of space, her ideas for both cover and page, and look forward to seeing what she does with this collection of essays. I put the manuscript together in the fall, when I was recovering from double pneumonia and was undergoing all sorts of tests for other possible things. I knew it was important not to waste time so I set myself the task of finishing four essays in various stages of completion after Mona at Mother Tongue asked me for a nonfiction manuscript. One of the essays, the title piece, was ready, thanks to Josh MacIvor-Andersen who edited it for Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction, available in April. But the others were scrappy, messy, shapeless. Many nights I got out of bed and came down to my desk to sit in the absolute quiet and puzzle away at what it was I wanted the essays to do. I wanted them to explore territory, to shine small lanterns onto dark pathways threading through the lost landscapes of my family’s history. They’re personal and sometimes I wondered — still wonder — at the value of writing that terrain into being. But I also believe that we do the work we’re called to do and that was the material agitating to be noticed and shaped.

Today is Virginia Woolf’s birthday. I began reading her in high school and I remember how much I loved her novels, Mrs. Dalloway in particular. There was everything in it. Later I discovered A Writer’s Diary and lost myself in it. Each generation has its Woolf biography, or two; and for mine, it was Quentin Bell’s. He was her nephew and his sense of her time, her relationships, her houses — so intimate, and beautifully circumspect at the same time. I’ve read later biographies, notably Hermione Lee’s, and other books about Woolf. But I like best her diaries, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, and her letters.

Whenever we go to London, we stay in Bloomsbury, where Woolf often lived, and we walk from the little flat we rent at Cartwright Gardens to Marchmont Street for coffee. I love the street, with its bookstores, small hardware shop with pots of flowers for local gardeners to buy, cafes, stream of people…I remember this bit from the diaries, when Woolf returned to Bloomsbury from Hogarth House:

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?

There’s a pub we pass on our way back to the flat from dinners or concerts or plays and in March, the evenings are often mild enough for people to take their drinks to the outside tables. Walking by late, there’s a hum of conversation as one passes and I think of her then, hearing the same sound, on the same street, the air just beginning to smell of green from the nearby St. George’s Gardens.

on marchmont street.jpg

I wonder what she would have made about our current world? She would have had no time for the machinations of a pompous self-aggrandizing man tweeting his tiny vicious thoughts, I feel quite sure. It was a man like that who led her to believe that the world was not worth living in, I think. Her own demons were the world’s demons. On her last birthday, two months before her suicide in March, 1941, she recorded this is her diary:

Its the cold hour, this, before the lights go up. A few snowdrops in the garden. Yes, I was thinking: we live without a future. Thats whats queer, with our noses pressed to a closed door. Now to write, with a new nib, to Enid Jones.

“…the book will return…”

leaves from Hallowell Road

I woke up this morning with all kinds of ideas about form, how it finds us rather than the opposite, how for some of us, our life’s work is all of a piece, an ongoing composition that allows for — even encourages — continous engagement. I’d read a review of Jorie Graham’s From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, by Ange Mlinko and I think I was dreaming of Graham’s poetry, heard its music and wild intelligence all through my sleep. She is a poet who mines the deep seams of Western culture from a personal perspective, always questioning and questing. And the way she positions her lines on a page, challenging the space and accomodating them to its imperfections — no one else does that in the same way. Mlinko has her reservations about some of Graham’s later work but says, “Her long-lined long poems expand into time like a lyric version of manifest destiny.”( She is an unabashed Modernist and I suppose that one of the reasons I find her work so persistently exciting and congenial is because those are my values too. I go to the great Modernist writers of the 20th century as often as I look for something new. And reading, say, Virginia Woolf or Katherine Mansfield, Basil Bunting or James Joyce, I find the world made new again and again. And then again. In The Second Common Reader, Woolf proposes the ideal way to read, which is an ideal guide to her own work of course as well as those books we return to over and over again:

The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgement upon those multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus that Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. (from “How Should One Read A Book?”)

I wrote down those early thoughts this morning and then promptly lost the post into some Internet fog. And the day happened, with some housework, a long walk in search of mushrooms (only two chanterelles worth keeping and several pines too sodden to bring home), the rescue of a tiny rough-skinned newt from the road where it had crept out and then lost too much body heat to move any further, and listening to, then seeing, a kingfisher above the marsh between Hallowell Road and Sakinaw Lake, where Ruby Creek swirls in its autumn fullness, and where I hoped to see cutthroat but instead only found long streaks of white guano where eagles had feasted on their bodies. The day happened and the sun has set, though there was such a glow of late sun in the cascara just beyond my window. Everything full of everything else, shape-shifting.

What is the light
at the end of the day, deep, reddish-gold, bathing the walls,
the corridors, light that is no longer light, no longer clarifies,
illuminates, antique, freed from the body of
that air that carries it. What is it
for the space of time
where it is useless, merely

(from “Salmon” by Jorie Graham)



the faces

Each day, a new one —



— and also an old one, but in new colours:


Some mornings, looking out, I am at a loss for words to tell of how beautiful this world is — the flowers, the visitors, small and large:

P1100368I’m reading Alison MacLeod’s Unexploded right now, a novel set during the second World War, in Brighton, and it’s full of the heat of summer as well as Virginia Woolf — the main character is reading The Waves and even attends a lecture by Woolf.  My own writing is at a standstill for reasons I am attempting to parse — the density of the materials I’m trying to bring together, my own unwillingness to go as deeply as I need to. I sit at my desk with a box of family papers and maps, photographs, messages written in languages I don’t understand. So I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf this morning and hoping for some inspiration from that most graceful of muses.

“In solitude we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us.”

And there it is.


Commonplace, from the Latin locus communis and the Greek tópos koinós

I spend a lot of time thinking about what is common to a particular place and how to gather these elements, how to commemorate them (somehow: in language, mostly, but increasingly in textiles, in hoards that resemble the nests of inquisitve birds or pack-rats). I used to keep an actual commonplace book but the habit fell away and I’m not sure I could devote myself to the practice again; my days are often completed filled with, well, the dailiness of my life. Yet I love to discover my old books in the drawer of my desk and read through them, amused or appalled what I chose to note down. Nothing quite as lovely as this passage from Virginia Woolf’s “Hours in A Library”: “[L]et us take down one of those old notebooks which we have all, at one time or another, had a passion for beginning. Most of the pages are blank, it is true; but at the beginning we shall find a certain number very beautifully covered with a strikingly legible hand-writing…”

Just now I took a little walk around the garden and realized how there were small things I wanted to record. The poppies I saw burst into bloom yesterday —

P1100189P1100196— one snake of the two I saw mating earlier by the garlic bed:

P1100191and a tree frog in an empty pot:

P1100187I spent a few minutes smelling the roses in what I call the “rose garden” but which is really a collection of potted roses on the upper deck (out of range of deer):

P1100181Then I paused to admire the progress John is making with the trellis/gate he’s building at the entrance of the vegetable garden (I requested this because the deer fence is so severe; I wanted something a bit more whimsical!):

P1100186And into the vegetable garden itself to think about picking lettuce for dinner:

P1100199and maybe some of the great peppery perennial arugula to spice it up:


notes from a work-in-progress

Anyone expecting to see regular updates on my Euclid’s Orchard quilt and essay must be thinking I am very lazy indeed. And in a way I am. It’s been a long process to figure out how to translate the material I am working on in the form of this essay to actual tangible quilt blocks. I’m not much a seamstress although I’ve been sewing since grade eight when we made aprons and jumpers in Home Economics. I was careless then, in a hurry to finish so I could have an actual made object in my hands, and I’m careless still. I’ve made more than 25 quilts and the sewing has never progressed to the point where anyone looking at them ever comments on the actual stitching. But never mind. I love the process and if you kind of squint when you look at one of my quilts, you might mistake it for something accomplished.

The problem with this quilt is that I am using images from textbooks, many of them graphic representations of particular mathematical theorems or ideas. I’d thought of simply trying to draw them onto white cotton and then embroidering them to highlight the parts that are relevant to the ideas I’m pursuing in my essay. But when I tried to do the drawings, they were lopsided and I knew that every step along the way would compound this problem. And let’s face it: a person who is careless at sewing isn’t going to be any better at embroidery.

I’ve seen quilts with computer-printed images on them so that seemed like a good solution. I thought I could design the blocks on my computer and then take the files somewhere to be printed. That didn’t work. The place I thought would do it, wouldn’t. So then I planned to print them myself, backing cotton with freezer paper which supposedly makes it possible to use it in a printer. But ours is a  a laser printer, a good one, and those won’t work. (They generate too much heat, apparently.) Finally, after some more weighing and pondering, I ordered an ink-jet printer (which seems like the height of self-indulgence) and bought four packages of specially prepared ink jet printable fabric.

Then I looked at my images again and they seemed awfully busy. I wanted one element to travel from one block to another, to provide continuity. But what could that be? Because this is an essay about mathematics and ideas but also about a real orchard, ours, which is fenced with chicken wire, and because one section of the essay is about bees and how they construct their honeycombs in hexagonal cells (which Pappus of Alexandria attributed to “a certain geometrical forethought”), I decided to use a simple model of those cells which echo the pattern of chicken wire. So here’s one block, just printed, the one I chose to accompany the section of the essay which meditates on inheritance. This uses a graphic representation of dominant and recessive phenotypes:



Something else will happen to this block when the entire quilt top is completed — and so think of it  bordered with Moravian blueprint cotton, brought back from Brno two years ago, and maybe embellished with beads and gold thread among those cells. There will be 14 blocks altogether and I hope I have enough of the blueprint for the top. If not, there will have to be more improvisation…

 When I first began to work on this essay, I wrote this little aria, which I think I posted ages ago. But it’s still at the heart of this work I’m doing, so I will conclude with it.

Aria leading to summer

“Yes, but what can I say about the Parthenon – that my own ghost met me, the girl of 23, with all her life to come…” (Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, April 21, 1932) How I felt that as I looked at our photographs of White Pine Island – Brendan and Angie in their little bathing suits, Lily on a log, Forrest rowing the boat away from us, my parents smiling the summer of their 40th wedding anniversary. All the years of our family, the warm days, the smell of pine, the silken texture of dry grass flattened under our towels, taste of lemonade from the River Trails thermos jug, all of them collapsed into an hour, a moment, held in my hands, water falling through my fingers. How do I keep my memories intact, how apart from this, a brief time in the middle of the night, darkness pressed to the window by my desk, myself reflected in glass as I sit in my white nightgown, every cell in my body yearning for those I have loved, still love, though the only one left in the sleeping house is John. Whom I have loved, still love.

Emboldened by Virginia, I think of what I want to say, not what form it must take. There will moments when I embellish, or downright invent; there will be brief arias, phrases of poetry, the instructions for making a quilt, for working out the puzzle of Mendelian genetics.

The Years

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.