I just went outside to get away from the news. I know I could turn the morning radio off and soon I will but it seems that world news is everywhere, dominated by a man who is ugly in body and soul. Yeats had it right when he noted that “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
So I went out to get away from the news and found solace in green. In 6 weeks, every spare corner of this particular world has filled with green. The big-leaf maples with their broad canopies, their moss-draped branches, the licorice ferns making small forests on the trunks. The salal. Douglas firs dropping so many pollen cones that every surface is dense with them. There’s a tub of salad greens by the sliding doors and I just pinched off some arugula, a few pebbled leaves of lacinato kale. My breakfast was strawberries purchased at the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal on our return from a night in Vancouver to watch a production of “Peter Grimes” and the greens were a delicious footnote. And speaking of footnotes, I don’t grow strawberries any longer but I do let the wild ones grow on the paths in my vegetable garden. There’s a wonderful moment in The Alice B.Toklas Cook Book when Alice comments on how long it took to pick a small basket of wood strawberries for Gertrude Stein’s breakfast and that “young guests were told that if they cared to eat them they should do the picking themselves.” This would be a good time of year for grandchildren to visit because they could sprawl on the paths and feast on the tiny succulent berries but alas, they’re coming later in summer.
But we do grow greens, many different kinds. A solace. The world news is full of that awful man and the damage he leaves in his wake, his “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”, but yesterday when we returned from Sechelt, late-ish because of appointments, I wondered what on earth I’d make for dinner. And then realized we could have pesto—a head of nearly-ripe garlic, a bowl of basil cut from its tub in a warm protected corner, a handful of parsley. DeCecco pappardelle, wide enough to hold the sauce. A glass (or two) of the most beautiful wine, Desert Hills Pinot Gris from a recent order. And a handful of strawberries for dessert. News turned firmly off.
Today I’m expecting my new book to arrive. It’s my thirteenth book and I should be blasé about it but I have to confess that this never gets old—the anticipation, the greediness to simply hold the book in my hands. To read what I wrote in a form that is not a computer screen or pages from my printer. Will the cover really look as lovely as I hope it will? Did I leave anyone out in the acknowledgements? Did I miss any major spelling errors? (I have the excellent Mother Tongue team behind me…)
A year ago this week, John and I went to Vancouver for a couple of reasons. He was scheduled for a biopsy and we were meeting Forrest, Manon, and Arthur at a hotel near the airport; their flight was going to be late and because we had to be in town the day before, we booked a room at the hotel where they’d be staying so we could bring them back home with us the next day. John had already had a biopsy a few years earlier and thought this one would be like that one—a little uncomfortable but not so big a deal. Somehow the fasting was more difficult this time around and by the time we drove down the Coast, took the ferry across Howe Sound, made our way over to the hospital, and waited, waited, for the procedure, he was pretty woozy and depleted. It didn’t seem like the time to tell him that I could barely breathe.
After a belated breakfast, we went to Richmond to the hotel and had a long nap, followed by dinner nearby. If I sat up straight, it was better. Lying down was painful. I quietly wondered if it was something to do with my heart. Or what? But then a text came to say that our young’uns were enroute to the hotel and there we were in the parking lot as the shuttle pulled in, hugging them, helping them up to their room with all the stuff you need when you travel with a baby. (Arthur was not yet a year old.) Though I have to say they travel quite light. And we have a big basket of cloth diapers, covers, shelves of clothing bought at thrift stores, in varying sizes because there are three grandchildren. We have a crib, a highchair, toys, and books.
And then it was morning and we were in our car heading home, Arthur in the car seat we’d recently bought. We were driving home, singing to the baby (though I had a hard time catching my breath), and stopping here and there for snacks, a bit of a break.
That night, just as we were getting ready for bed, I told John I thought he better take me to Emergency in Sechelt, a 45 minute drive from us. I couldn’t breathe and the pain in my chest was phenomenal. He was feeling a little grim himself but raced us down the Coast and the rest is the story of the year between then and now. Double pneumonia, which shouldn’t have been such a big deal—antibiotics worked quickly and well—but the first chest x-ray was disturbing apparently, full of weird stuff, and a second was scheduled for two weeks later.
But before the second x-ray, somehow the week of my family’s visit was memorable. Angelica came for part of it and everyone helped to make beautiful meals. After a day or two of the antibiotics, my breathing improved and the pain went away. We went up to the Laughing Oyster restaurant one day for lunch (it took the whole day because there was the ferry between Earls Cove and Saltery Bay, the long drive to Desolation Sound…) and it was wonderful to sit by the weathered wooden rails and look out to Okeover Inlet, drinking lovely cool white wine (I’m not one of those people who eschews wine while on medication…), watching seals in the water below us.
The second x-ray led to a CAT scan 6 weeks later, then a second hurriedly arranged (I was driving home from the first scan as the radiologist was frantically trying to call me) because that one showed not only a pulmonary embolism but also strange shadowy areas in my lungs which were thought to be metastases. There were tests, more tests, blood thinners to keep more clots from forming (and not rat poison but something new and very expensive that made me grateful again for Tommy Douglas and our health system), doppler scans of my legs, a visit to a specialist who showed me images of my lungs that were like maps of deep water, with areas I thought resembled amoebas. No, not amoebas, he assured me very formally. But maybe metastases. He used a pointer to describe the margins. He spoke of biopsies, gold standards of treatment, and so forth. He also scheduled a PET scan at the Cancer Clinic. He hoped this could happen before Christmas but it was possible I’d have to wait until shortly after.
So that was the fall. John’s biopsy results were negative, a huge relief, but the poor man was so worried about me that other issues developed. I insisted he swim to relieve some of the stress and he went off three mornings a week to our local pool (where our children learned to swim three decades ago). And what did I do? I wrote most of a book. In late summer, around the time that I was developing double pneumonia (though I’m not implying the two are linked!), Mona Fertig of Mother Tongue Publishing wondered if I might have a non-fiction manuscript she could consider for fall of 2017. I didn’t think I did. I’d written a long essay called “Euclid’s Orchard” and I had two other short essays in something like final draft form. Masses of notes, masses of fragments, all of which I hoped to eventually turn into essays or maybe even something longer, of a piece. These had to do with research I was doing into my family’s history in Canada. In the spring of 2016, John and I were in Alberta and I spent a little time at the Archives in Edmonton, thinking I’d find one thing and instead discovering a whole chapter of my grandmother’s early years in Drumheller that I hadn’t known and I suspect my father hadn’t known either. We drove down to Drumheller that spring, hoping to find out more. And it might sound strange to say this but there were ghosts everywhere, some of them mine.
In the nights while John slept, I came down to my desk and turned on the little lamp to make a small light to work by and I wrote about three quarters of the work in the manuscript that I did send Mona in late November and that she liked enough to say, Let’s do it! It wasn’t in finished shape in the fall and winter but I felt that I needed to do what was required to make it as good as I was able to. I didn’t know if I’d have more time, more seasons, and there was no one else who cared enough about the material to do anything with it. Maybe “care” is the wrong word. My brothers care and my children care but somehow I felt that I was called to do the work. I saw my ancestors everywhere in the winter. Looking out to the patio, they were just leaving, wispy in the cold air. Before sleep, they were around my bed, holding the edges of the sheet. I felt their hands on my shoulders. I felt them in me. I can’t say I regret the strangeness of that time, the uncertainty. I learned things. I was given things. I was welcomed into the odd embrace of people dead a hundred years. They spoke to me, though I couldn’t understand their language; and they sang to me. In the darkness, I might have felt alone but thanks to my ghosts, I was never so surrounded by love and continuity. This is true for my living family as well.
I wrote about the post-Christmas PET scan here and was relieved a few weeks later to learn that there was no sign of cancer after all. A final scan in June was also negative. My specialist says he doesn’t need to see me again. A happy ending certainly, though there are still mysteries: if not metastases, then what? And the embolism? Who knows. I joined John at the pool three mornings a week and all summer we’ve been going down to Ruby Lake around 8:30 and swimming for half an hour. Some mornings there are kingfishers. Always crows. Some mornings there are bear tracks in the damp sand. Ghosts there too but more familiar ones. My children from infancy to adulthood, and their children. When Forrest, Manon, and Arthur were here last month, they came down to the lake with us and I loved hearing their voices as I swam back and forth in the green water under the old cedars.
Someone recently said to me, “I didn’t think you’d have another book out so soon.” Well, no. I didn’t either. But sometimes the stars conspire, they spark and set off fierce events in our lives, and we respond. I felt like a door opened. What was beyond was a little frightening but also mysterious and beautiful. Some days I still feel as I felt on the winter day when John and I listened to Christy Moore singing an arrangement of the Yeats poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus”.
We held each other and wept, for the uncertainty of our future, and for everything we loved, and when the song finished, I went downstairs, looking up to an old portrait of me, painted when I was 22, another of the ghosts who gave me comfort on those dark nights. Who is still alive to me. (I couldn’t photograph her well because she’s in a stairwell and so you see everything else reflected in the glass but maybe that’s appropriate.)
All morning the news was of the marches in cities across the world. A form of protest, a series of statements about justice and democracy, the moving sight of rivers of people holding signs, crossing bridges. A group of people on a research boat in Antarctica, holding up their signs. The hundreds of thousands in Grant Park, Chicago, a number considered too many for a march. Closer to me, just across Georgia Strait, in Nanaimo, a thousand. One for the history books, for certain
It’s interesting how we record history, the stories that are included, abandoned, neglected, overlooked, revised. I was talking to my older son this morning — well, talking to his family! His wife Manon and their son Arthur, who remembered his grandparents from his Christmas visit and who blew kisses cheerfully — about the stories remembered and handed down by Indigenous people in British Columbia. Forrest is teaching a survey course in B.C. history and I wondered if he knew a story recorded by Imbert Orchard in 1966, collected in Robert Budd’s Voices of British Columbia, in which Lizette Hall, a member of the Dakelh First Nation, remembers an incident from 1828 involving James Douglas, working then as a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk at Fort St. James, and Lizette’s great-grandfather, Chief Kwah. It’s a story her family kept intact because of her great-grandfather’s involvement. She acknowledges that the story she tells has been “retold so many times, and a thing added here and a thing added there. Well, this is the true story of what, just what did happen.”
We sometimes think that because things weren’t written down, well, then they can’t be reliable. Good stories, maybe. But history? Lizette tells her story so emphatically and clearly that I have every faith that her version is “the true story”. And remember the “discovery” of Franklin’s ships in Nunavut, in a place where Inuit people had said they were located? An oral tradition held the story of the ships carefully and accurately but not many “experts” believed the validity of something not written down. I’ve read that the Inuit called the area on Queen Maud Gulf where the Erebus was found “the Ship Place”. (What would have happened if archaeologists paid attention to such names a hundred years ago? Had paid attention to generations who told essentially the same story?) Louie Kamookak is an Inuit historian and it’s fascinating to read about his expedition to visit areas remembered by his great-grandmother Humahuk:
Humahuk’s father took one item that he later made into an ice chisel (in later years she learned it had been a dinner or butter knife). As they were looking for more objects they noticed a man-made mound the length of a full-grown person. At the end of it was a stone with strange markings on it. Seeing this, her father became afraid and they made their way down to the shore.
Once at the shore they found more strange objects: wood and a metal chain going into the sea.
The world is an intricate collection of stories, if we learn how to hear them, read them, hold them in our hands and decode their own particular language. I keep two rocks on my desk, pieces of conglomerate dense with fossils from the Sooke Formation, a geologic formation on the west coast of Vancouver Island, dating from the Oligocene, about 20-25 million years ago. The stones are heavy enough to hold paper down, literal enough to contain their own pages of marine history. I can read a little of it, recognize the marine fossils of gastropods, pelecypods, and oysters in the stones:
That tiny remnant of oyster on the top of the stone — it’s as beautiful as any pearl. And the other stone, with its ridge of bivalve — a clam? I run my thumb along its edge. 20 million years of calcite seamed into rock.
Instead of marching in Vancouver, we hiked the Cedar Bridge Trail. (We have to be in Vancouver twice next week, and it’s several hours each way, including a ferry…) Watery sunlight, pink buds on the alders, the sound of water running down the mountain (snow-melt!), the unsettling sight of a dead coyote in a creek by the highway, and as we came down off the trail, I had a sudden idea for a quilt. I’ve been working on one that somehow didn’t end up being as beautiful as I’d hoped. Strips of deep red, various dark blue plains and prints, and white damask from old tablecloths too worn for the table (but still with usable areas). Sashing of Japanese-inspired red and white prints. The backing is a big piece of Japanese cotton, indigo-dyed. It should be beautiful but instead it’s like a whole lot of French flags. I’ll finish it of course — I’m too thrifty not to. But I’ve been wondering about starting something that I’ll love as a process and as a finished quilt. I have two vintage linen sheets, found in a thrift store some years ago, and I thought today that instead of cutting them, I’ll batik salmon on one of them, making a whole life-cycle with varying sizes of fish, and even shell buttons for the eggs. Then I’ll dye the sheet using one of the shibori techniques I tried on smaller pieces of fabric last summer. This arashi, maybe, done with an old damask cloth.
Arashi means “storm” and if I can figure out how to do it with a large (single-bed sheet-sized) length of fabric, then I think it might be lovely. When I did this batch of indigo, I loved the process but wondered afterwards about the actual colour. I think this time I’ll use more indigo and do more immersions than I did last summer. I want a deeper blue. The fish will look something like this:
Now the snow has melted and I can be outside (if it’s not raining) with my dye vat and stick for stirring the tied lengths of fabric. I imagine them hanging on the clothesline to dry. It will be a story, told in dye and image, detailed in thread. Fish swirling and swimming, water rippling, shell buttons catching the light. A story open to interpretation.
When I was a university student, in the last century, I began to read the work of William Butler Yeats. The girl in me loved the early poems with their Celtic mysticism and their languorous, well, Romanticism:
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
But the scholar in me was perhaps more drawn to the late poems. In them I found political engagement, a sense of regret at the passing of time, and an extraordinary piercing summing up: “Now that my ladder’s gone, / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
But this morning I found this beautiful setting of his poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus”(from the 1899 collection, The Wind Among the Reeds), and I was that girl again, briefly. But also someone who recognizes how ghosts do visit, girls with apple blossom in their hair, or long-lost friends, parents, even the golden dog I see out my window, sniffing the new logs in the woodshed (and who has been dead for 7 years), and how it can be comforting to welcome them back, even for a brief moment. And given how I am feeling these days — reminded every minute of my own mortality — I want those old ghosts to visit, want all the memories to fill my house (and woodshed), and so I will listen to Christy Moore over and over again:
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.