One of the great gifts of having studied literature is the number of poems I carry with me from memory. Yesterday, walking toward the cliffs at Dallas Road in Victoria, I was practically blinded by sunlight that had seemed so muted only days before.
Wow, I thought—just one month beyond the winter solstice, and the light is really changing. I thought of the first lines of one of my favorite poems, by Theodore Roethke, and it seemed so apt.
The light comes brighter from the east; the caw Of restive crows is sharper on the ear A walker at the river’s edge may hear A cannon crack announce an early thaw.
Yes, the light does come brighter now. And in so many ways.
First, spring is on the way. That means so many more opportunities to explore this beautiful island in the months ahead.
Second, the United States will get considerably brighter once the scourge has been removed from the White House.
Third, I just finished the first draft of my second play. It’s not good enough yet, but it exists.
Fourth, I have gotten my first cruise assignment==not until 2022, but a sign that it looks as if that part of my life will resume.
Yes, the light comes brighter. I turn my face to greet it.
The first time I tried to explore Swan Lake in Victoria was a collection of mishaps. I thought I knew how to get there and spent about a half hour unintentionally touring several neighborhoods in Victoria. When I finally got there, I took the wrong path and dead-ended. By the time I was on the right path it was starting to rain, and the only washroom, which by that point I desperately needed, was in the Nature Center, locked up tight on Sundays.
I vowed to return, and I did so today, one week later, for a lovely amble around the perimeter of the lake. The name Swan Lake conjures up images of dancers in tutus, and of course there were none of those, but sadly no swans either. I had to settle for a number of very friendly ducks, and a variety of birds hopping and perching in the thickets along the path.
The sun hugs the horizon at the winter solstice this far north for the eight hours between sunrise and sunset, and even on a day free of rain, the light remains low all day. Perhaps it the drama of sky and shadow that sets the mood for thoughts about beginnings and ends and how, just as the Dao teaches, each contains the seed of the other.
Fall lasts a long time here, but at some unnoticed juncture it was over. The trees are bare now and their fallen leaves are brown with the rain that has left them limp and flattened on the ground. In the past I have found this mass of slippery, gluey detritus quite unappealing, but today my mind opened to a greater appreciation of the season one of my favorite poets Gerard Manley Hopkins described as the time when “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.”
It is hard to square those exquisite, perfect words with something naturalists call “leaf litter” and gardeners give the quintessentially unpoetic name “mulch.” But it is only our species that needs words for it at all. For the tiny creatures that call it home, and for the plants that produced it and will use it again in a never ending cycle of transformations, it is simply what the moment offers before moving on to something else.
If I felt poetic today I might write an “Ode to Mulch,” to give it the honor it deserves. Instead, I will acknowledge that we exist in different realms, one in which I struggle to find meaning and to set it down in words, and the other, which just is. As Hopkins says in another poem, “these things were here and but the beholder wanting.” Of course it wouldn’t be poetry if it didn’t suggest more than one way of thinking about it. The beauty he describes in the poem couldn’t care less if any human being beholds it. But from the human perspective, we have all probably said a million times, when we just stop to watch and listen, “wow! I never noticed that before.”
And so it is with the wanwood that leafmeal lies. Now, at the solstice, at a time where time cracks open to allow rebirth, personal vows take on potency. Mine is to be a better beholder, starting quite literally with what is under my feet.
Tomorrow marks the end of my two weeks here in Emily Carr’s studio. I will move to more contemporary accommodations a few minutes away on the other side of her ( and now my) beloved Beacon Hill Park.
It has been an eventful two weeks, highlighted by finishing a fairly good draft of the first play of my new trilogy of one-act plays, EX3 (Emily Times Three), and a first pass at about half of the second play. All three take place in her studio, and I have had the unusual experience of actually being on the set as I write.
Of course, it isn’t “hers” anymore in many ways. The layout of the rooms has changed, and the clutter of her work environment, which also had to serve as the dining room for her boarders, and indoor residence of her many pets, is gone. Still the feel of the area where she painted is very real, and I have marveled that so many of her major paintings were propped up drying against these walls after being at first a blank canvas on an easel right where one stands today.
I think what I will remember most vividly, in part because I couldn’t take pictures and just have to burn it into my mind, is the attic. Peter Willis, whose grandmother bought the house long ago, and who now owns and manages it, gave me access to it while I was here.
Emily used to climb up a ladder and crawl through a tiny door that is still there close to the ceiling in the living room of her studio, but now, thankfully, there’s another entrance through a door in the hallway outside. From there, you ascend to find yourself in a place where her presence is still palpable.
There is a small room where Emily used to live when she was so broke she had to rent out her own rooms. It is only a few steps across, and under a sloping roof . The ceiling and walls are rough hewn lumber, as is the creaky floor. To one side there is a long crawl space going to the other end of the house, which would have been where she came in from the studio. There, in a space only about three feet high, she had her bed and space for her pet monkey, who left scratch marks in the wood. She would have had to crawl, even in her fifties and very overweight, to get to the small room in the attic I could access. There, she created what I am sure will be for me the most indelible memory of my time here.
Painted on the ceiling boards on each side of the steeply sloped roof are two eagles with their wings outspread to a length of about ten feet, the entire length of the room. They are painted in black in a design typical of the indigenous people of Vancouver Island. Below the eagles on both sides is a running border of red frogs also done in a typical indigenous style. I know archival photos exist of the eagles, but there are none I could find online, and I did honor my word that I would not take any. I did find this one of a single frog, so you can picture the style.
Tonight I made my last trip to the attic. I sat in the semi-darkness with the protecting power of the eagles overhead, letting thoughts about the many dimensions of time play in my mind. Emily has been dead for 75 years, yet her paintings live so vividly both in their material form and the eternal nature they capture. The eagles are in designs so ancient even the indigenous people don’t know their origins. Out the little window in the attic, Emily would have looked at fields and gardens where houses now stand, their Christmas lights twinkling in this ephemeral season. I left the attic tonight knowing that this was an ending, that I will most likely never be here again. Time as a river . Emily understood that well.
I talk to Emily a lot. I went to her grave yesterday on her 149th birthday,. I pass by a sculpture of her in the Inner Harbour regularly and stop to whisper a thing or two to her. But it is in her attic that I have felt her most.
I tell her I am trying to do justice to her. That though I have to invent my version of her, I am doing my best to hear her speak through the noise of my own voice, my own life, when I write. That I hope I get it right. That I wish I had known her. That every time I step into a forest I will bring her with me. And though she hasn’t told me so, I hope she is glad I am here.
I wrote last time that I hoped the ghost of Emily Carr would visit me here in her studio. I’m sorry to report there has been no sign of her. Still, every day the place begins to mean a little more to me as I continue my research and write the first part of my play.
I touch door knobs she touched and slide my bare feet along the wood floor she walked, I stand at the big window that let in light for her painting and tell myself this is where she stood, although what she saw through it is different.
There’s a beautiful cedar that fills most of the view, and since she lived here a century ago now, I have no idea whether it was here in much smaller form, or has been planted since. The neighboring houses would not have been here either, as Emily’s lot was a carve-out from her family’s large property in James Bay. In fact, her conservative and very proper father exacted a promise from one purchaser that he would not build a tavern on any of the Carr’s land, which he promptly went and did anyway. It’s gone now and Christmas lights twinkle from the balconies of the condos that were built in its place.
Emily isn’t here, although perhaps it is she who is prompting many of the changes that have made my flat first draft richer and more satisfying in revision than I thought it would be at this point. With anything I write, my first draft is just to get it down, and it’s only at that point that I can start seeing the real potential in the story and the greater depth of the characters. Now it feels full and rounded, and respectful of what Emily was going through when, at 56, she was basically a charwoman in the boarding house she ran, trying to find time to paint at all, and still little known and underappreciated as an artist.
That was about to change, though, when she was invited to exhibit some paintings she had done of totems and Indian villages to represent the Canadian West in an all-Canada art exposition in Toronto. Her exposure there to the Group of Seven, and especially Lawren Harris, changed her vision, her approach to painting, and her life.
At that point, she began the decade that produced most of her major works, and what is blowing me away right now as I inhabit her studio, is that she painted them all right here. They would have been on her easel bathed by the light from the window I now look through. I stand on the spot where when she painted them. Dozens of painting that now hang in galleries would have been stacked against these walls. Paintings like this one
And this one
Here. Where’s I am right now. I am just in awe of that.
Emily hasn’t visited me, but other presences have. I’m not much for astrology or New Age ideas, but a friend who is big on these things told me that this is a time for one’s past to be coming up in unexpected ways, around issues that are unresolved. I can’t say I’ve seen anything like a ghost, but I have found myself suddenly ambushed by memories of those I have loved who are now gone. One such memory, something that happened over forty years ago and I haven’t thought of for years, is the last day of my father’s life. He was going into surgery to correct a problem causing congestive heart failure and we were told that he would either die on the table or recover and live with a healthy heart. His only other option was spending the rest of his life slowly dying in a hospital bed, and he chose to take the risk.
The surgery was early in the morning, and we got up before dawn to be there to talk to him before he went in. When we got there we were stunned to hear he had already gone into the operating room. No kisses on the cheek, no squeezes of the hand, no “I love you”s. No, they said, it wouldn’t be possible to go in and see him because he was in a sterile area.
Well, we all thought, we’ll do all that when he comes out. A few hours later the surgeon came out and said the repair had gone well but his heart was too weak and they could not get it started again. I remember asking if I could go in to sit with him, and the doctor said yes, but that it would require a lot of preparation. The rueful expression on his face made me understand that what he was saying is that it wasn’t a pretty sight. My father was unconscious and so deeply sedated there would be no way he would know. I decided not to, though my heart was breaking that I couldn’t hold his hand.
I think I know what happened that morning. My parents were both very gentle, very private people, not good with expressing emotions. I think he simply couldn’t handle seeing us. Or maybe he thought he was sparing us pain. I can see it either way. It must be one or both of those, because the staff knew we were on the way, and they would have waited if he wanted to.
I could go on about that day, about how some evangelical type came over to my mother, sister and I, while we were waiting for the doctor to come back and say it was over, asking if he could pray with us. I guess he meant well, but he could have seen we weren’t praying but were just crying quietly together. A complete stranger burst into that private moment wanting to turn our experience into something that comforted him. I could talk about how, at twenty weeks pregnant, I first felt my baby move within a few minutes of my father’s death. How I called my husband and told him if it was a boy he would have my father’s name, Ivan. How when we left the hospital my mother leaned against the car and said in disbelief, “I’m a widow.”
How a few weeks later I had a vivid dream in which my father came in my room and told me he was fine. How I woke up to both terrible disappointment but also elation that I had heard his voice again, seen how he walked and sat, smiled and laughed. Been with him one last time.
I could talk about honoring my son Adriano’s memory on his birthday two days ago, which was especially raw in this liminal place, between confinement and freedom, between the present and the past.
But the rest is too private, and requires more bravery than I have. So I will just say yes, the dead are here. Emily’s studio is haunted after all.
“I can’t wait to quarantine!” Said no one ever, except maybe me to a few San Diego friends this last month.
This quarantine has actually been delightful. I just spent a week in a wonderful woodsy setting that made me miss nothing about being able to go out in the world (see photo below). The path of wet leaves and rustling cedars on the property made for beautiful outings, and inside I had four seasons of The Crown to binge watch while I had access to Netflix.
Today, I switched places for the second half of my two-week isolation, necessitated by the fact that I came back a week early and couldn’t go immediately to the quarantine spot I originally booked—the spot that had me, honest to goodness, telling friends how I couldn’t wait for the chance to quarantine.
Why? Drum roll, please, and settle in for a little background. Earlier in the year, I got the urge to write a play. It’s done now, and I was looking around for an idea for a second one. There is a very active theatre culture here in Victoria, and what looks like a lot of support for playwrights. I thought perhaps it would be good to find a topic that might resonate well here, but more important, suit the kinds of female-centered stories I love to write.
“How about Emily Carr?” I asked myself. Emily Carr (1871-1945), for those outside Canada, is one of the most important 20th century Canadian artists, who along with Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven, defined a uniquely Canadian approach to painting. The fact that few outside Canada have heard of her is the fault of their schooling, not her achievement. Probably the closest equivalent among American artists would be Georgia O’Keeffe.
Her most acclaimed works focus on the vanishing world of the indigenous people of coastal British Columbia, including many powerful representations of totems in their context. It’s her paintings of forest interiors that to me are her true masterpieces, though, capturing the life force and spiritual energy of the forest. There isn’t room here for more than one example, but please look her up and gorge yourself on her work!
Emily received little recognition even in Canada until she was in her fifties and for a number of years ran a boarding house to make ends meet. I came up with an idea for a trilogy of one-act plays set in this boarding house, and focusing on the transition points women go though in life. As I began to think through how this play might work, I looked up what years she had been running the boarding house, to know exactly how old my character would have to be. To my surprise, I saw a link to a site offering rental lodging there. Excited, I wrote to the agent, asking if by any outside chance there was anything available the first half of December, and he wrote back saying he was sorry, but the only thing available was Emily’s studio. Sorry??? Emily’s studio???
And now here I am, for two weeks in the space she custom built for herself on the second floor over the rental units. There’s a wall that is almost all window, with an empty easel next to it (in background of this photo) where she struggled to paint in her vanishingly little free time When she was here, the whole place would have been crowded floor to ceiling with canvases, animal cages ( she kept quite a menagerie, including a cherished monkey, Woo) but now it is a tidy, shabby-chic little nest, with mostly period furniture of the sort that might have been buried under all her clutter.
I felt a change come over me as I settled in, almost a metabolic slowing, so that all I want to do right now is sit and stare out the window. I’ve set up my laptop in a small day room overlooking the street, but work can wait. I am living in the room where my play is set. I can act it out as I write, see the door the actors will come in through, sit in a chair where she will sit, see her at her easel, sleep in her bedroom. The words will come. Maybe she will too.
Do I miss travel? Yes, but not with the aching emptiness it appears some people do. Unless Facebook reminds me, I spend almost no time thinking about where I was on this day in past years, nor do I dwell on where I am supposed to be right now or in the months to come. What I thought would happen simply didn’t, and that’s that.
Yesterday I had an interesting experience when I wore a pair of pants I haven’t put on in a very long time. I felt something in the pocket and when I fished it out, I saw it was a Euro coin. I know I didn’t taken these pants last summer to the Baltic, so the coin must go back several years.
”What am I going to do with this?” I wondered. It’s useless clutter in a coin dish, and I have no idea where my leftover foreign money is at the moment so I can’t stash it there. I did the only thing I could think of: I put it back in my pocket, where it will stay, zipped in, through the washer and dryer, hikes, beach walks, and whatever other use I put these pants to until travel begins again.
I am going to treat it as an amulet, a good luck charm. One day I will take these pants to Europe and there it will be, awaiting its chance to be once more out in the world. What will it buy me? A metro ride, a bottle of water on a hot day? Wait— I know! I will give it to the first person I see who needs it more than I do. I rub my fingers in circles over its outline as I write, invoking it as a blessing for better days to come.
The most memorable quotation from Gerald Ford (well maybe second to his claim that Poland was not a Communist country) was his announcement that Richard Nixon had been excised from the presidency. Ford’s statement that “our long national nightmare is over” was perfect. The Watergate hearings felt like a slow motion train wreck with an unraveling conductor at the controls.
Many people are probably remembering Ford’s words this morning, as it appears the current president is headed for an ignominious departure as well. This time, however, it is hard to know exactly what has been resolved. Yes, we won’t have to worry about his ability to abuse presidential powers. Beyond that, little is clear. I am a terrible prognosticator, but when I tell the story of the future, here is some of what I predict.
1) Biden will win decisively in the end, both in popular and electoral votes. That will not stop Trump from continuing his preordained strategy of suing right and left over dubious claims of fraud.
2) This will result in an effort to get a stacked Supreme Court to rule in his favor. Roberts and the three Trump justices recognize how badly the reputation of the court would suffer if a decision appeared to be partisan. To avoid putting the three justices on the spot, the court would like nothing more than to deny hearing the appeal by claiming there is no constitutional issue at stake. If there is one that requires them to get involved, I think it would hinge not on the balloting itself but on whether a competing slate of electors contradicting the results of the vote was a violation of the voters’ constitutional rights. If they cannot avoid a hearing, the Trump justices will not all vote in his favor, to keep the appearance of being above partisanship, and Trump will not be successful in the end
3) Meanwhile Trump will use the interregnum to damage the country as much as he can. He will lose the popular vote by such a margin that the entire country must be punished, with the possible exception of those states who voted for him, if he can figure out a way to selectively reward and punish. This means no stimulus. To hell with us
4) He will also fire and/or begin prosecution of anyone he perceives as an enemy. Fauci and Wray are as good as gone, and I suspect Barr will be out fairly quickly as well, because he will not go far enough to satisfy Trump.
4) Trump will move quickly to use his pardon power for his children and son-in-law, but will not go much further than that, because he doesn’t really care about even his most loyal toadies. Hey, if he is hurting, nobody else’s predicament matters.
5) He will stop doing the job altogether. Other than doing hurtful things, he will thumb his nose openly, and just play golf and tweet. Meanwhile, Melania and Barron will decamp for New York because she has no interest in helping with Jill Biden’s transition. Unless her prenup (which she renegotiated before agreeing to move from New York to the White House) makes it worth her while to stay married, she will file for divorce soon.
6) Once either his malice and/or energy for vengeance has run out of targets or he has run out of time ( more likely the latter), he will arrange with Pence for a pardon, then resign. This will get around the issue of whether he can pardon himself and will get him out of all the trappings of the transition—welcoming the Bidens to the White House and standing on the stage while Biden takes the oath of office.
7) On Inauguration Day, instead of letting Biden have his day, he will hold a rally announcing the launch of his 2024 campaign. This will enable him to use other people’s money to keep going around the country doing what he loves best: sowing division, undermining his “enemies,” and basking in adoration.
No, we will not wake up from this nightmare nearly so easily.
I’d be satisfied if over the course of my life I have nudged even a few people one step forward on their own paths to transformation. Now, as I embrace a new chapter here in Canada, I owe a big nudge in my own thinking to Howard Thurman, one of the great Americans of the Civil Rights Movement, who served quietly as mentor to Dr. King and other movement leaders, and as an author and theologian over the course of a long, distinguished life. In reply to some earnest soul who had asked him how to become a change agent for a better world, he said, “Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”
No ink blot, no inventory, no personality typing can give more meaningful insight to who we really are than the answer to that question. It’s easy to cheat a little and say another person does that for us, but I’m talking about something we have all by ourselves, that we make, or express, or do. Having lived away from the people I am closest to for much of the last few years, I can say without a doubt that many things I have experienced would be great to have done with them. With many of my wonderful new experiences, I wish this or that person were there to share it with me. The thing I’m talking about here, though, is what we embrace and love with only ourselves for company.
The best answers to this point-blank question about our lives go far deeper than lists of things that are fun to do. The saddest answer is none at all. To come up with nothing that makes you feel alive is, well, kind of close to being dead. A deeply thoughtful answer to that question will serve as the pathway to the best possible life. Maybe some people don’t really want their best life all that badly and would find such questions irrelevant to how they choose to spend their time, but I’m not one of them.\
I have learned, or relearned a few things recently. The first is I love to write. I lost track of that because I came to dislike the publishing and marketing process so much. I wrote a play earlier this year, and I really loved doing it. Maybe it will get a reading, a workshop, or even a production, and maybe not, but I felt alive doing it and I am deeply satisfied with what I produced. I am circling around a second play, looking for the way in, and I recognize the signs I am almost there. I feel the tingle of exhilaration when characters start to talk in my head, when they reveal who they are, and I know that something that exists only in my head now will come to exist on the page.
I have rediscovered how much the outdoors makes me feel present and alive. I lost track of that living in San Diego full time after selling my mountain home in Lake Arrowhead. It’s not that there aren’t lots of places to go in Southern California, but I never felt much of an urge to make the drive out of town, and the parks, crowded beaches, and harbor fronts don’t grab me like the forest or a rocky shore.
Overall, the thing that makes me feel most alive is change. I am happiest when I’m moving, whether it’s a life of cruising, or since then, a multi day car trip, a new neighborhood for a month or two, a sense that today is a great day to go do something I haven’t done before. That’s how I picture this chapter, full of spontaneity, listening to the spirit in me that is so much wiser than many of my conscious thoughts.
I spent most of my life thinking that to make the most of life I had to have a plan. I should set goals. When I look back on my life I see so many of the most pivotal decisions I made were not because I had a plan, but because I needed to stop feeling wasted where I was. Changing jobs (even careers), homes, relationships, happened because on some inchoate level I knew I was dying, shriveling to less than what my authentic self wanted me to be. Now I’m 70. I’m healthy of mind and body, so I probably still have ample time for a lot of things, but no more time to waste. Now my heart’s demands are loud and insistent, and with joy and gratitude for all that life offers someone as fortunate as I am, I rise up to meet them.
A couple of stories about Canada popped up in my feed today, one from the Rough Guide, saying it was a close second behind Scotland ( where I have also been fortunate to live), as the most beautiful country in the world. It is also, according to US News and World Report, the best country in the world in which to live.
Contrary to the story of American Exceptionalism, and the loud, mind-numbing shows of “patriotism” that flag wavers never seem quite able to put quiet, thoughtful words to, the US isn’t even in the top ten for either. It is a magnificently beautiful country, to be sure, and a great place to be part of the white, employed (with benefits) middle class, especially if you can block out thoughts of how it isn’t so great for others. Maybe it is better as a nation than the last four years have suggested. I hope so, but this era of the president I can’t bring myself to call by name, is like getting in a car accident. Yes, perhaps one is lucky enough to survive relatively unscathed, but the dents are still there.
Yesterday was Canadian Thanksgiving, and it got me to thinking about this country and the ways it has seemed different to me. One thing I’ve noticed is crosswalks, how pedestrians wait for the walk signal even if no cars are coming. Another is how, if a car stops inside the crosswalk for a red light, the driver will back up to make sure pedestrians aren’t inconvenienced by having any of the crosswalk blocked. Another is how drivers stop for pedestrians even before it’s clear they want to cross the street. Checking your phone on a street corner? Expect to look up and see a car stopped, waiting for you. No honking. No frown, despite the little bit of bother you’ve caused.
The other day I had the thought that people here wear masks because there isn’t Covid and in the US people wear them because there is. I think in a way, this can serve as the exemplar of so much I have observed here. American unwillingness to come together in the fight against Covid has created a dynamic where people are on the defensive, and even on the attack, against each other. The first week I was out of quarantine I overheard a Sidney shopkeeper chatting with a customer about the fact that there had been a case or two of Covid in two separate restaurants in town. Both venues had voluntarily closed for a few days for more staff training, disinfection, and just to wait out the life of any virus the cleaning might have missed. “Well,” said one, “with a couple of cases, I guess they’ll soon be telling us to wear our masks wherever we go.” The other woman laughed cheerfully. “I suppose so!” No eye rolling, no grumbling. It’s just what you do. And it is why, according to the last news I heard, no one on Vancouver Island is hospitalized with Covid. For more eye-opening statistics, see the table below.
Does this mean Canadians are sheep? Automatons? Not at all. They just get it that they have a responsibility to others. That order breaks down when people make their own decisions about the rules. That certain behavior is required to make life work better for others. That what goes around comes around, and rules create a better society for oneself too. As many of my new friends have put it, being “nice”—and following the rules— is a big part of what makes them Canadian. “How do you get a group of Canadians out of the pool?” a joke goes. Simple. You say, “would everyone please get out of the pool?”
I have been toying with the idea that one difference between the two countries is the national narrative about how the country came to be. I can’t speak to what Canadians absorb as their national mythology, but surely it has to be very different from one in which love of “freedom” is sold as a birthright that must be continually fought for. A War of Independence begins the tale. As the country grew, when societal restraints stood in the way of individualism, a new set of heroes set out for the territories and beyond. And of course, in a tragic irony, the Civil War was at its heart about the freedom to enslave others. The militias and gangs of thugs showing up on the streets and steps of government buildings are the twisted inheritors of an ethos we were taught in school. How else could refusal to wear a mask become elevated in their minds to something akin to heroism in the defense of liberty?
I have been learning how important it is for me to watch for signs—not just the intangible ones, but real ones, in unexpected places. Like the one on a loop trail in Ucluelet saying that because of Covid, everyone must do the trail in one direction to avoid running into people going the other way. I wasn’t tracking the possibility there would even be directions of that sort, and traipsed off the wrong way. Not until after about a mile, when I came to another trailhead and saw the signs there, did I realize my mistake, and that indeed everyone else had been going the other way I felt like a real jerk, and stored away the information that I must be far more observant if I want to fit in here. And yes, I turned around, because I do want that.
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