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Perpetual Vacation

A few days ago I left the place I was staying and settled in for one week on Vancouver island’s west coast, about ninety minutes north of Victoria, so I could explore this area without the need to make the trip back and forth from the city.

As I settled in on yet another sofa in yet another living room, my mind flashed on the years before I retired, when such an experience would mean I was at the start of a vacation.

Then, just as suddenly I realized, “I am on a perpetual vacation!”  Indeed I am.  I go from one place to another to mix up my routine, to keep my life fresh, to experience new things.

I love this chapter of my life.  Not since childhood have I experienced such a light burden of responsibility.  I am not charged with doing more in the places I live than keeping them tidy and doing my best with Victoria’s ultra-complicated recycling.  Repairs, maintenance, all those kinds of things are not my problem.  The only thing I have to take full care of is my car.

It is mind boggling to me that I really can go anywhere whenever I want—well, after travel restrictions are lifted, that is.  All I have to do is wait until whatever contract I have for lodging runs out, then go.  I have a storage locker where everything fits when all I need is a suitcase.  I have thought recently about leaving here for a while and going to Greece or the British Isles for a month or two.  Make that both Greece and the British Isles—why not?  Same trip or separate ones?  Either will do nicely.  Rent something there, or just drive from place to place.  I have to pay to sleep somewhere.   Might as well be on the road, or tucked into some place I have really wanted to spend some time.

This life isn’t for everyone.  Maybe it’s not for most people. The one key difference between my life and vacation is that I have no place to return to. I think that might be too much for many, but for me my condo in San Diego had become more of a convenience than a genuine attachment, and since paying for it ate up all the money I have for my adventures, it had to go.
  I don’t tend to worry about (or even plan much for) the future, but rather revel in the possibilities.  Still, much as I have enjoyed so many of the chapters in my life, it has always worked out, sometimes by force and sometimes by choice, that I have needed to move on. Sometimes that is joyous, and sometimes it is very hard and vary painful, but I have mastered a state of readiness for change that is serving me well now.

Knowing myself, I will probably at some point come to a screeching halt and say this lifestyle isn’t for me anymore.  Then what?  Buy entirely new furniture in my seventies?  Buy a place to live that I will mostly just pay the interest on for the rest of my life?  Sit still happily in one place?  I simply can’t imagine it now, but that’s because I haven’t arrived there yet.  My only hope is that my next chapter will begin in as much joy as this one has.

And maybe I won’t have any such life-altering epiphany.  Maybe this will just keep working out fine, and I will remain healthy and competent until the day I evaporate into the universe from wherever I happen to be at the time.  It’s a great life, and I am in my element.  That’s all that matters now.  

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A Month of Sunrises

My blog has been produced in spurts over the years— long silences followed by a flurry of posts. For the last month I have been in a silent stretch, not because nothing is happening, but because so much is.

I am an extremely private person, and though I share my thoughts freely in this blog, there’s a lot I keep secret about what is going on in my life. Usually this is because I am just not ready to talk about something, or because it involves others who might prefer not to be discussed. Whatever the reason—and both of the above apply here—I have kept my fingers off the keyboard for a while. Still, there’s a bit to share, a bit I won’t feel jinxed if I talk prematurely about, a bit of dreaming aloud I can do (if this counts as aloud).

Covid vaccinations are slow in coming to Vancouver Island. That’s the bad news, but the good news is that responsible government and citizenry have kept the number of cases low enough that I’m not worried. It has put the brakes on my plans to go down to San Diego to drive back with my remaining possessions—mostly books, important papers, and the last bits of memorabilia I can’t bear to let go.

One of the things on my plate, then, is a trip south as soon as I have gotten my first (and if I’m lucky, only) shot. My plan is to drive my car across the border into Washington State, then leave it at an airport (Seattle, or possibly Portland) and fly the rest of the way. I would then drive back in a rental with my things, transfer them to my own car where I left it, return the rental and be on my way back to Victoria. A third option would be to make a leisurely round-trip in my car. I don’t know. No need to decide now, but I am getting a lot of pleasure out of planning routes, especially because I have so many friends I would like to see along the way—and maybe even hug! Wouldn’t that be grand!

I also have been planning a summer road trip exploring British Columbia and a bit of Alberta. I am thinking of taking a month to drive as far as the edge of the prairie, east of the Rockies, just to catch a glimpse of one of the central facts about Canada, spending time in Banff, Jasper, and the other national parks on my route. My lan is to start out on a southern route through British Columbia, returning more northerly to Prince Rupert, where I can catch a ferry back to Vancouver Island.

A third road trip I hope to make before the end of this year is to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, possibly ending either in Montreal or Toronto. I have visited the Atlantic coast of Canada several times on cruise assignments, but I have not been able to stray far from port or spend the night ashore, and in this case the adage that cruises give you an idea of where you want to go back to spend more time is indeed true.

And then again, I have more ambitious plans as well. I am hot on the idea of returning to the UK. I am hoping to get cruise assignments later in the year and beyond. And there is still so much to see here on Vancouver Island.

I am so happy that I took the plunge—sold my condo and shed most of my possessions. This plan to be mobile has really worked well. I can visit, or even live anywhere, because I can use the money I was putting into mortgage and other home ownership costs, and spend it on temporary housing wherever a new adventure calls. There’s a huge trade off, of course, and this way of life isn’t for everyone, but it sure works for me.

I am calling this post “A Month of Sunrises” because my current rental for this life adventure is right on the bluffs above Dallas Road in Victoria, looking out over the Juan de Fuca Strait, where the sun rises. I could never, with my resources, have afforded a home with a view like this any place I have lived, so there’s another wonderful plus, if only for a short time.

More later, as I wrap my head around a few other things, and wait for some other developments to play out. For now, here’s one of a month of sunrises:

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Snowfeathers

Even the snow seems different here. Today, as I walked back from coffee with a friend, the flakes clumped and drifted down like small feathers. I am hardly the first to make this comparison, as i remember Robert Frost noticing the “easy wind and downy flake” as he stopped by woods on that famous snowy evening. Now, helped along by my astigmatism, they look like little whirligigs or dandelion fluff drifting down on a windless afternoon.

It’s the kind of snow that comes when it’s not really all that cold outside, barely above freezing, but it gives the snow a lot of interesting things to do and shapes to take. It isn’t cold enough for it to stick to the sidewalk, but cold enough so it doesn’t instantly melt, and today, when a gust of breeze came up, the little clumps of flakes were rolled into tiny balls the size of pillbugs, and went racing down the street for a few feet before disappearing. I had never seen that before, despite a number of winters in snowy climes.

It’s a peaceful afternoon, rather like being inside a snow globe while the outside world is rushing about its business. I am not watching the impeachment on TV because it feels like inviting an assault. I am recovering from a rather calamitous mishap with the file of my second play, which required me to hire someone to retype it from scratch, so it’s now someone else’s problem. I no longer spend much time fretting about vaccines, or border restrictions, or even Covid itself very much, since the answer to everything is “who knows?”

And yet, I feel ill at ease in the same way I always do when finishing a project. I don’t have anything to do, and I am not good at that. I am nowhere near ready to take anything else on, so I guess I just have to sit with a case of the jitters for a while.

Or maybe a better expression for me would be “walk with it.” Here in Victoria every walk is restorative. So why am I sitting here typing this, when I could bundle up and go see what their world looks like with feathers falling from the sky? Good question! Where are my gloves?

Well, I’m back. Here is the world I walked through, although snowfall is so devilishly hard to capture with a camera that I had to settle for “snow fell.” I’m rosy cheeked and ready for a glass of wine by the fire, practicing gratitude as snowfeathers drift down outside in the gray light of this winter afternoon.

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The Light Comes Brighter

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.

Exploring

Swan Lake at Solstice

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.

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Emily’s Attic

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.



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Not Exactly Ghosts

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.

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I Hope It’s Haunted

“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.



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A Euro in My Pocket

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.