Wednesday, January 22, 2020

nicknames freefall

Nicknames that bully, nicknames that tease, nicknames that coddle. They underline a particular, not always flattering trait, and reduce the whole of you to that.

The first I recall is Four Eyes. That would have been a taunt in Grade Two or later, since it was in Grade Two that I had a teacher who decided we should sit in alphabetical order regardless of height or good sense. That put me (very short) in the last seat at the back of the class, at which point it was discovered that I couldn't see the blackboard. I laughed at what I thought was a joke when the teacher asked me to read from the board. Didn't everyone see it as a blur? Apparently not. I got sent to the school nurse for my insolence. I got glasses and dubbed Four Eyes.

Another schoolyard name for me was Zorro, which the other kids thought hilarious because I was anything but the masked and dashing swordsman in the TV show. Being called Zorro over and over again made me hate my name for years to come. When I got married, I was glad to be able to rid myself of Zorn and be able to take my husband's surname. I can hardly believe I did that now. When we separated, it was hard to get my name back. I've kept it since.

Then there was the Grade Five teacher who called me Little Alice because I was the shortest in the class. He liked to pick me up by my armpits and carry me, legs dangling, up and down the rows between the desks. I was terrified the other kids could see my underpants. I was mortified to be paraded like that. I couldn't do anything about being short. There was no way to protest. He used to crack the ruler on the boys' hands. He was the teacher that the principal (a nun) got to strap the big boys. I think he thought it was cute that he called me Little Alice.

In high school I was dubbed Mole when a classmate observed that my eyes were usually half-closed. They were. They still are. Light is too bright for me. It goes into my eyes and into my brain where it fingers about in an evil way that can give me a migraine. Still: that that fellow called me Mole was funny considering his eyes. He was stoned most of the time.

I worked for many years on a surgical floor in a hospital. Every three months we got a new roster of  doctors. They had a lot to remember, but I still expected them to remember MY NAME if they expected me to answer their many questions. To help them, I said I was Alice as in Alice in Wonderland. In French that's Alice au pays des merveilles. For farther-flung socio-cultural context I offered Ali Baba. Most of them remembered that I was Alice. A few called me Wonderland. That was all right. The job felt like Wonderland.

Ten years ago I went to a writing residency where I discovered that I was called Eeyore at faculty meetings. I enjoyed my time there, but maybe I don't seem to enjoy myself as visibly as some do. I have a tendency to articulate problems. So yeah, sure, Eeyore.

Nicknames aren't always mean-spirited. R has one for me. It's private.

These days, when I go to a café where they ask for my name, I say Zorro.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

fresh snow glassy river dry marsh grass

Walking after a fresh snowfall for the textures. The cold, the white, the arch of the straw-dry grasses against the dark mirror of the river... I know these aren't all texture words. I'm also not trying to write poetry. I'm hungry and want to get to the kitchen to start supper.

But I also wanted to write this now while I'm still cold from coming home and before it gets dark. We were walking in the late afternoon-becoming-dusk, as you can see by the light.

R is wearing a hat I made when I tried a technique of knitting different colours with the strands of yarn held in both hands. It was fun, but I haven't tried to do it again.

The seedpods look delicate--shivering a little even though there's no wind--but they're tough enough not to be whipped from the branches during a winter storm. I could say the foreground is deliberately blurry but it's the background I wanted in soft focus. There's only so much an automatic can do (especially when you haven't read the manual).

More textures: a moist dog's muzzle in the palm of my hand; the velvety sumac cones against the sky; the snow melting inside my boots because we crashed through snow to get from the path on the bluff down to the long grasses by the shore of the river. Two pairs of socks, long underwear and jeans, how did the snow even find my skin?

Crossing the park, heading home, R says that this morning at seven there were no footsteps. His were the first.

I'm off to the kitchen...

Sunday, January 12, 2020

New Year 2020 in Manitoba

Who goes to Winnipeg in the winter? We did. Fortunately it was balmy. (On our last winter visit temps dipped to -40C.)

Tops for an outdoor adventure was a walk at Beaudry Provincial Park with the trees covered in hoarfrost. I don't have an expensive camera and couldn't capture the effect of... walking through a vault of crystallized trees. You'll have to believe me that the whole forest looked like these winter grasses in the foreground.

Tops for the younger boys--the one who wanted to drill a hole through the thick ice of Lake Winnipeg, the one who loves to skate--was a trip to Gimli.

The ice was clear, mirroring the sky at a slant-and-stop that water doesn't. We were there for a few hours--and no, I wasn't cold, because there was no wind, and we also took a walk through the town of Gimli to visit the Klean-All Laundry where R had heard that there was a Poet in Residence. Story about that follows below.

Sadly, for the boy who was hoping to catch fish, none were caught, though he said that it was the trying that mattered. Nor was he the only one sitting by a couple of holes in the ice waiting.

The laundromat. A couple of years ago, R's alter ego, Dr. Alphoneyous Nitpicker, who works as a surgeon at the medical faculty and fast food diner at the University of Gimli, discovered that the Klean-All Laundry in Gimli had a Poet in Residence. He was excited at the thought that he and the poet might share a similar taste for the absurd and he tried to contact him. No response.

There we were in Gimli and of course R had to go looking for the Klean-All Laundry. I went with him so that I could stop at Tim's for tea, having by then spent a couple of hours on the ice. A woman kindly directed us to the laundromat. It had a small Christmas tree in the window and many washing machines and dryers. At the back of the room sat four men with mugs of coffee. They stopped talking and one peered around the machines to see who had walked in. We weren't carrying any dirty laundry. He asked if he could help us.

R said he had heard that there was a Poet in Residence. Without a smidgen of a pause the man said, Oh, that was a couple of years back. He's at the library now. But the library's closed today.

R thanked him and turned to leave, but I grew up in a small place and knew that the man's courteous answer deserved a few words in turn. I told him we were from Montreal and had heard about the Poet in Residence. The men nodded. Sure, everyone in Montreal knows about the Poet in Residence in Gimli, Manitoba. I said we were visiting friends in Winnipeg and they had a boy who was crazy about ice fishing. The young fella, the first man said. I passed you in my pickup a while ago.

Back at the house there was much cooking and baking: a range of Sri Lankan, British, Prairie and European cuisine.

On one of our hikes in the snow we heard--and avoided--the thunks of an axe-throwing competition.

We also went to the Manitoba Museum where I found another bird foot sewing bag. I'm on the lookout for these. The ones I've seen at the McCord Museum in Montreal are made by the Innu and Dene people, the leathery skin of a swan or a duck's foot is shaped into a drawstring bag to hold sinew and bone needles for sewing. This one is made from an eider duck. Note that the claws are still intact.

We relaxed a lot too.

In the various ways that we liked to relax.

Bonne année! Happy New Year!

Monday, November 4, 2019

Gaspé Sept Oct, 2019

Although it was a suprise to return to Montreal, and the leaves were still green on the trees after we'd seen the hills by the sea turn orange and bronze with a few flaming red maples--the autumn colours heightened by the fir trees looking all the more green, even black, in contrast--the trees in Montreal are now bare. Most of them. Which is a roundabout way of saying that time has passed, but yes, a month ago we were by the sea.

Some days the sky was wide, open blue, others we had clouds and mist. Some dawns were pale mauve, some tangerine, some grey. Every sunset is different. We walked by the shore--sometimes rocky, sometimes sandy. We walked in the hills.

We worked on the house some more. I painted the small bedroom floor while R sanded the larger bedroom floor which we decided to varnish. (Furniture still to come.) Both of these bedroom had to be made--walls, insulation, drywall, plastering. I've always wanted a red floor.

Our neighbours, who live elsewhere but come to the Gaspé as we do, are gifted gardeners. They grow even fruit trees in a climate* that's generally thought too short for anything but lettuce and green beans. This year they had to return to their winter home before they could harvest the plum tree. Two huge sacks of plums, so I made Zwetschgenmus or plum butter. I've always thought fruit butter was hard to make but it's easier than jam. It gets baked in a slow oven (200F) for 20 hrs. It only needs to be stirred every few hrs and uses minimal sugar. At such low heat, you can ignore it. 

*The climate in the Gaspé is changing as it is everywhere. This past summer there was hardly any rain and the temperatures have been higher for longer periods than previously recorded. That is not good news, since in the winter the Gulf of St. Lawrence doesn't freeze as it used to and the violence of the water is eroding shorelines, low-lying villages, the highway.

Here's me on my birthday. The pic is already outdated since I now have very short hair. We had brunch in Mont Louis, then climbed Mont St. Pierre (430 m/1400 ft). R made supper to have by the fire.

The first pic below is from our porch, which is called a gallery in Quebec. The second is a house up the road that has looked like that for  ten years, including the car. The third is in Percé where we spent a night on our way home.

Here, we were on the way back to Montreal... Picture on the go, from the car.

Monday, October 28, 2019

walking from Kahnawà:ke to Montreal

What are you going to say about today? she asked. Pink blue mauve sky. End of a long day.

We had walked from Kahnawà:ke, a Mohawk Territory First Nation reserve on the shore of the St. Lawrence River southwest of Montreal. We'd just crossed the last bridge to get us back to Montreal. (Adding a few kilometres to the approx 25 we'd already walked.) The others had taken a cab for that last stretch but we lived close enough that it made more sense to keep walking.

She had blonde hair looped in a bun. Earlier in the day her hair was braided. Her background was Hungarian and, also earlier in the day, we'd talked about dumplings. Bread dumplings, spätzle, cottage cheese and plum dumplings. My background is Austrian. One hundred years ago our forebears lived in the shadow or in the glory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Either way, I guessed we shared traditional dishes as conquerors/settlers/indigenous/survivors often do. You can get excellent curry in England. French food in Algeria, Algerian food in France. The destruction of war and bulldozers versus the persistence of kitchens.

My companion was familiar with the dumplings I quizzed her on, but she said she couldn't make cottage cheese dumplings in Canada. The cheese was too wet. I told her Adonis sold dry, pressed cottage cheese. That was the right kind.

Backtrack to dawn: we took a cab to Kahnawà:ke from Montreal. The sun hadn't risen yet. We were going to walk across land from which the Mohawk had been expropriated--in some cases forcibly dragged from their houses--in the 1950s. Why? So that the St. Lawrence Seaway could be built.

The walk was organized by a friend, Matthew Anderson, who is a long-time pilgrim, committed to "bodily territorial acknowledgement", including a 350-k trek across Saskatchewan. See his blog for countless tales, photos, and documentation of long-distance trekking with a pilgrim's sensibility.

Except for birds, Kahnawà:ke didn't seem to be awake yet. Few cars, no people in the streets. A Husky appeared, gave us a once-over, maybe saw we had maps--maps?--decided to be our guide. He made sure we stayed together, kept an eye on the laggards snapping pics. He only left us when we stopped for breakfast.

Our path took us under the Mercier bridge, which I had only ever seen from the Montreal side as a bridge. If you've never had a look under the structures that support what we take for granted, give it a try. That applies to more than bridges.

For the first part of the walk we were eleven, then only seven--and for a while a cyclist bearing apples and trail mix joined us. Where people used to live, now ships the size of apartment buildings drifted by. When we were having breakfast, a ship larger than the diner loomed past. That's how close the Seaway is.
At Friend's (which is how it's spelled on the sign) you get a big old-style breakfast with eggs, home fries, toast, sausage, ham, bacon and beans. If you're looking for it, on Google Maps it's called SunnySide Diner. Kahnawà:ke real life versus Google reality. They have pancakes and French toast too. Real maple syrup.

We each had different, though often similar reasons for doing this walk. By being there, I felt I was showing my awareness that land had been taken--and that ownership of part of the land we were walking on was still disputed. As someone else in the group said, she was there as an ally. It's a small gesture but one I was making with my body. Walking walking walking. Bearing witness with my steps.

For years I've cycled on the bike path along this narrow strip of land that divides the St. Lawrence River and the St. Lawrence Seaway without knowing that once upon a time--not so long ago--there were houses here. People were taken from their homes. Houses were bulldozed. Families were resettled to live within the smaller borders allotted to them. Allotted to them by what power?

My family wasn't in Canada when this happened, but the ones who took the land made it possible for all our families to come here. None of us have clean hands.

As we walked, we talked, formed loose groups, drifted apart, walked alone, formed new groups. Stories were told, some very private. I suspect the meditative pace of walking was making them surface. There were no distractions. Just us, scuffing, ambling, walking along. Polite chitchat has no weight when the land is still, the city is far away--across the water, as we could see--and you have to get there with your feet, your knees, your hips. No wheels, no engines. The trees were having their last burst of glory before winter. It was a time to say what would be said. So that was an interesting experience too--how a sense of companionship is knit between people who have agreed to walk from sunrise to sunset together.

The moment that stayed with me throughout the walk--and still now--was at the beginning when one of our party led a smudge. She had sage leaves in a large, beautiful shell, lit them and stood before each of us so that we could draw the smoke into our hearts, over our heads, our shoulders. We could smell the sage smouldering in the crisp air just as the first long rays of the sun cleared the peaks of the houses of Kahnawà:ke. Light touched the iridescent mother of pearl in the shell, gleamed along its rim like a blessing.

That was my experience of the walk. Those are my feet up top--when I was lying on my back after lunch.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

finishing a manuscript

I took a break from blogging because I was deep into the final edits of a manuscript. I've now done what I can do with it and sent the pages away.

Slowly I've been getting around to all the things I let pile up. Top on the list is clean my desk. Lots of scraps of paper with sentences, scenes, details that were cut and that I never did figure out where to put but was loath to throw away. They've now been swept into the recycling bin. I don't write in pencil so I don't know why there are drifts of eraser rubbings. Or maybe that's what dust looks like when it's been left to accumulate and gets shoved around. I believe I only use one pen--a fountain pen--though there are dozens of pens and coloured markers when I finish picking them all up.

My desk is a boardroom table that I inherited from a friend when he left Montreal. The shelf structure up top is adapted from the design of the desk I used at the Banff Writing Studio in 2007. I was working on a novel with nine points of view. The shelves helped me keep the paper narrative chunks separate. I came home and asked R to build me something similar.

The shelves look sparse now but I've packed away the notebooks and research material I was using. Before long they'll be full again as I start toying with ideas for what I want to work on next. There are already a couple of notebooks and folders. A tantalizing book with "object-based research" in its subtitle.

For a while now I've been wanting to sew some pockets inside my knapsacks. They're never the right size or where I want them. Easier to add them myself. I cut up squares of funky upholstery material, silk, velvet, corduroy.

A friend gave me one of his mother's sarees since she cannot wear them anymore. He thought I might make myself something with the silk, but it's very fine and I worried that my sewing machine would chew it. Ideal would be as little stitching as possible. I backed it with cotton to make a duvet cover.

His mother made the best flaked shark curry. Once we spent a morning alone together when I'd been there overnight. She was unsure what to give me for breakfast. She had no bread. We finally settled on sliced mango.

Dr Alphoneyous Nitpicker needed a new beard since he will be exhibiting paintings at an upcoming group show in October. Originally from Greenland, Dr Nitpicker had an illustrious career as a surgeon and short order cook at the Hospital/Snackbar at the University of Gimli, Manitoba. He's now put his scalpel aside and left Gimli in order to live in Montreal and paint. He is known for his many inventions including a barbecue that also works as a respirator in the ICU, as well as his chickenless nugget machine. The chickens feed chick peas into it. (I am not responsible for Dr Nitpicker. I only make the beards.)

I haven't gone through my filing cabinets for years and thought I would try to thin them. Among the stack of folders I found two would-be novels that I wrote in the 90s. It's been interesting to read them and see what I thought made a story when I was younger. They're mostly interconnected character studies that progress along a faint narrative arc. One is set in Toronto in the mid-80s, details taken from when I lived there as a grad student and later worked in restaurant kitchens on Queen St West. The writing reminds me of the places and the people I knew then. Annex apartments, restaurant kitchens, bars, Queen St W in the 80s, trying to teach bored students who hadn't read the material. I may end up keeping all the folders for nostalgic value.

Another task I'm slowly getting to is painting my very small sewing room. You would think a small room would take no time at all to paint but there are two doors and one long window and wood trim around the ceiling and baseboards. The ceiling is 11' high so there's a lot of climbing up and down the ladder. Rolls and rolls of masking tape. I'm painting the walls pale winter straw. That was the colour I was looking for. The paint name is something else. The pic is before I started.

The list of things-to-do is still longer. Eventually I'll hear about the manuscript I sent off.