Sunday, May 29, 2022

snow melt and sunsets galore / gaspésie May 2022

I'll warn you right now. When the sun starts to go down over water, I grab my camera and dash outside, even if only onto the porch with the road between me and the sea. (R groans.) Whether the sky is clear, whether there are clouds--even when it's completely overcast and you don't think there's a slice where colour will get through--there is almost always a sunset of note. 

I was stunned the first time we came to the Gaspé in the winter and I was waiting for the magic over ice, and the sun set HOURS EARLIER BEHIND THE HILLS. It's by coming to the coast where land and sea meet that I've learned more about the way the Earth tilts than any lesson taught in school. I'm a hands-on learner. 

There was extraordinary snowfall in the hills this past winter and when the spring sun melts the snow, water tumbles down down down to the sea. It gushes streams, it carves the sand, it turns our yard into a sodden mat. I sit outside and hear gurgling and chuckling. We lost power for about 12 hours because the snow melt caused a rock slide. We went for a walk and found the path washed out. 

There were so many streams--getting broader and deeper every day--that I didn't do my usual rock-clambering walk along the shore because I couldn't get across them. I walked by the road, and so saw a car parked at the cemetery where there are usually only gravestones. A man was slicing squares of grass with edge of his shovel, putting the chopped pieces aside in a neat mound, making a coffin-shaped rectangle. I assumed he was a cemetery employee, but no, he told me, there is no staff. Family dig each others' graves. He was digging his aunt's grave. He'd already buried six aunts and had two more to go. Next, he said, it's my turn. He laughed. He was very cheerful. 

I do not want my body buried, but I find it fitting that a loved one, whoever that may be, should dig the grave if there is going to be a grave. I asked what happened if there is no family. He said a volunteer would do it. He dug quickly--the experience of six aunts already? he didn't mention his parents--and on my return an hour later, although his car was still there, I didn't see him. Until I noticed the shovelfuls of soil flying out of the hole. He was digging a proper grave.  

I've noticed before--in other cities, in other countries--that the dead always get prime real estate. In Montreal, the large Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish cemeteries are on the mountain. In this small village, the dead have a view on the wide horizon of sea. 

I also had a conversation of sorts with a man whose French I only half understood because he didn't quite form his consonants. They were like shadows around his vowels. In English the way he spoke would have sounded like... 'I on no ut yoooouuu 'ink' for 'I don't know what you think'. We were talking about the environment, by which I thought he meant climate change. He said you had to pay attention to the environment because if not, the environment would come back to haunt you, and what you had to do then was going to be worse than doing the right thing now. It took a while before I realized he meant the Ministry of the Environment and government rules and fines.


Where was R? He'd driven farther northeast, almost to the tip of the peninsula, to work on another old house for a few days. A back addition which we knew was collapsing had collapsed even more and the municipality had asked for it to be fixed or demolished. I haven't visited the house for a couple of years but this is what it looked like then. 

R knocked down the walls and took apart the tin roof. It wasn't easy. The construction was solid. The joints were dovetailed, the nails six inches long.  Each nail in the tin roof had been individually caulked. 28 rows of 10 nails = 280 nails. He counted in the way one counts when a task seems like it might last forever unless you define it. 

The house still contained a lot of the previous owner's abandoned furniture. R carried a lot out to the side of the road for Big Garbage Day. Jour de la collecte des objets volumineux. A washing machine, a double porcelain sink, 1960s style lamps and armchairs. I should say that on Big Garbage Day, it's understood that people driving by will stop and see if there's anything they might like to take--and they do. The sink was soon gone. One fellow began talking to R and asked if he could look through whatever was still in the house. He liked a medicine cabinet. R told him it was his. 

R kept a box of handsome brass drawer handles, spools of 100% wool for weaving, an Omega sewing machine which I'm having cleaned and repaired, an alabaster bust he found wrapped in canvas and tied in twine and wondered if there might be a dead person inside. 

For now the house is boarded up tight again. 

When we arrived in the Gaspé, there was still a bank of snow beside the deck. For the two weeks that we were there, the snow shrunk and melted, and the buds of the trees began to unfurl. Driving 800 k to Montreal was a time-lapse trip into early spring, mid to late spring, and bingo! Summer full on in Montreal. 


Sunday, April 24, 2022

last of the chillies / inner-city gardening

Actually, no. These aren't the last. I still have chilli peppers in glass jars in the freezer, but they don't begin to compare to the fieriness of the ones I hung to dry in the window. 

They seem not to have minded their view onto the neighbours' fire escape. Well, hey, this is the city. 

I grew them in my plot in the community garden next to the train tracks. The grumble/shriek/heave to a stop of the freight trains en route from the Prairies. The VIA train shuttling along the Quebec-Windsor corridor. I also grew chillies with the green beans climbing the fence in the back alley. 

A deeply fond chilli memory is the sriracha a friend made. Delicious green chilli paste too. Hot hot hot! 

After years of trying different simple ways to preserve chillies so they retain maximum heat, I've decided that threading them onto string and hanging them to dry is the best. Next year I will be hanging them in every window.

Monday, March 28, 2022

snow wind tide / gaspésie march 2022

We spent a couple of weeks in the land where wind and snow rule. Except for when the ice starts to break up along the shore and the tide starts to swell again. 

The kitchen window was covered to the top with snow when we arrived and R dug it out, only to have to dig it out again two days later. 

We had wind gusting up to 75k/hr, we had one whole day of no wind to disturb the snow falling on the trees, we had magnificent sunsets. 

In the woods we snowshoed across moose tracks so deep that we couldn't see the bottom of their steps. How long their legs must be! 

I tripped on my snowshoe, fell forward with my pole jabbed up to my wrist in snow, and as I pushed to get up, the pole dug deeper. 

There were chickadees and crows and one robin feeding on a bush of winter-shrivelled berries. There were songbirds trilling about spring that was supposed to be coming if you looked at the light in the sky. There were a lot of last year's nests covered in snow. This one was so small that even heaped with snow it would have fit in my palm. 

We snowshoed a lot. 

Every day? 

Every day. In the woods when it was windy, along the shore when it wasn't too windy. 

Monday, January 10, 2022

knitting lesson

He holds a coffee cup out to drivers stopped at the light. Some roll down their windows and give him money or hand him a half-smoked cigarette, a pastry, a bagel, the pinched end of a joint. I see him most days because he works the crossroad at the head of our street. He's slender with a gentle way of moving between cars. He could be a dancer in baggy clothes. How old is he? Maybe 30? He's from St. Vincent. He has thick dreadlocks.

I know his name, but I won't say it here. When we walk by, R calls out Yaar! which is something he does and there's no discussing it. Once the fellow said to me, I don't know that French word. I told him it wasn't French, just something R liked to say. Pirate talk. So he started saying it back. 

Last fall I wanted to knit R a hat using up different colours of scrap yarn. I didn't have a pattern and it turned out ENORMOUS. Not a hat to fit the head of anyone I knew. I made another one that fit R, but never threw away the ENORMOUS hat away because because because. 

A few days ago R told me the fellow said he really liked the hat. R told him I'd made it. Then I saw him when I was out walking and he said, Oh, how I wish I could have a hat like that, I would be so happy. 

Today when I went out for a walk I grabbed the ENORMOUS hat, because I thought that with his head of hair, it would fit. It's not always you get the chance to make someone really happy. 

He gave a dance step when he saw me coming down the street, waving the hat. I explained how it was I had an extra hat that was ENORMOUS. Except he couldn't pull it over his head, hard as he tried--and I forgot all about distancing in my efforts to help him tug the hat down. A couple of motorists wondered what was going on and didn't move along when the light changed. I didn't know what to say. He still wanted to keep the hat.

Later, when R was returning from his walk, the fellow yelled, Yaar! She come by but the hat don't fit! R told him his hair was probably warmer. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

that time of year cookies

Recreating taste memories. Does it ever say in Proust who baked the excellent madeleines that sent him into 3000 pages of memory? 

R often refers to the Austrian cookies that my mother baked at Christmas. He has no way of knowing what the original cookies that I remember from my childhood tasted like. She used to make Haselnußsterne, Rumkeks, Vanillekipferl, Lebkuchen, Krapferl...

In later years, she made only one or two kinds per Christmas. With the years, too, she adapted the recipes to accommodate her tastes and an intolerance to wheat flour. 

I rarely eat sweets. I don't need to make cookies for myself. But R has delirious memories of the time he feasted on a platter of what he calls sandwich cookies. As he remembers them, there were two cookies with a jam filling and iced with chocolate. Every year, when the holiday approaches and I ask if he would like me to make Austrian Christmas cookies, he rhapsodizes about those sandwich cookies. 

I assumed he meant Krapferl--two cookies with an apricot jam middle and iced with chocolate--but no, he says sadly, that's not them. 

I leaf through the disintegrating pages of the Viennese cookbook that my great grandmother gave to my grandmother who gave it to my mother when she emigrated to Canada. There is no recipe for 'sandwich cookie'.

Among the recipes, I see that my mother made an X next to a recipe called Haselnußkücherl--little hazelnut cakes. They have a top and a bottom with a filling of ground hazelnuts and rum. When I was a child, she iced them with rum glaze.  

By the time R was coming to my parents' house for the holidays, she filled them with red currant jam and iced them with chocolate. 

So these might be what he's calling sandwich cookies, but that doesn't help me much since by R's time, she was substituting ground oats, ground almonds and ground hazelnuts for wheat flour. But in what proportion? 

I made a few guesses and baked the cookies. Good, R says, but they should be puffier. 

I've told him Austrian cookies aren't puffy. I remember, though, that my mother often added baking powder to recipes that didn't call for any. 

It's possible that R will never get the cookie he wants since he's fixated on a memory of a variation that cannot be repeated. I should also add that the challenge is entirely in my own head. It doesn't matter to him whether I make the cookies or not. But if I make them, he will offer an opinion. That is our dynamic. 

I made another small batch with baking powder--and although they still aren't exactly as he remembers them, he finds them pretty good. He must. There are only three left, even though I haven't iced them yet. They taste like ground oatmeal and ground hazelnut shortbread. Homemade raspberry jam filling.

I might now make another batch and ice them.

I wish you all happy holidays, however you celebrate the time off. Be careful. Stay safe. Today is the shortest day of the year. As of tomorrow, there will be more light. 

ps I did not make all the cookies above this year, but I've made them other years. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

solidified narrative / one way to recycle paper

What does a writer do with all those draft pages? That assumes you write on paper as I do. 

I can but don't like writing first draft on the computer, because I can't stop rereading what I've written, second-guessing myself. I move forward more efficiently when I write first draft longhand. And although I can write with ballpoint or rollerball or pencil on newsprint, I have my precious routines about using a particular format of hard-cover notebook and my Lamy fountain pen, even though the Lamy leaks unless I use a certain ink (not Lamy). 

For a writer, what's important aren't the tools but the words--except that I'm also a human animal who likes her creature comforts. I like the smoothness of ink and nib when I'm writing on good paper. I like the bound notebooks because I only write on one of the facing pages and keep the other free for notes and arrows.  

After a couple of hours, I dictate what I've written into the computer. From then on, I print pages of hard copy that I revise--again, by hand. I revise a lot. When I hear people boast that they've done five revisions, I have no idea what they mean. That would be me getting started. I use a lot of paper, but too many hours of looking at a computer screen give me migraines, and too many hours of typing aggravate my hands. Paper is a luxury I allow myself. When it's filled with sentences and scribbles, I dutifully drop it in the recycling bin.

And now R has begun making paper. A friend gave me a few sheets of paper she'd made and he was so pleased with the effect when he painted on it--how the paper took the paint, how the paint bled, how vividly the colours dried--that he decided to make some himself. He set up a table in the far corner of the cellar behind the water heater.

He needed a secondhand blender, a screen and a shallow tub. The blender took a while to find because they seem to get snapped up immediately in Montreal. For a few weeks we stopped at Renaissance, l'Armée de bon salut, the Good Shepherd, etc. He finally found a blender in a thrift shop on our recent visit to family in Ontario. He made the frame and screen he needed from a window screen I spotted in sidewalk garbage. Ditto the tub. He's set himself up in a far corner of the cellar. 

This is one of the first pieces he made.

I have a dim memory of watching an artist years ago, cooking torn rags in a cauldron. Now it seems one speeds up the process of making pulp by buzzing it in a blender--and that the easiest way to get pulp is by using old paper. 

Except R doesn't want to use old envelopes. He's asked for paper from my recycling bin. He wants story ideas. He says he's making "solidified narrative". 

He's been adding different bits to the pulp for texture and colour. This one has parsley. It's the paper he used for the Pink Flamingos up top. 

Why Pink Flamingos? No idea. That's his story. I had my chance when I wrote words on the paper.

 Here he's adding dried Xmas cactus flowers...

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

place names / my version

Of the many places where I have set fiction, I am delighted to have my short story, "Our Ladies", which takes place in the Gaspé, published in the current issue of Prairie Fire

Ladies is a word that has fallen out of fashion--with good reason--but the title is a nod to the many places in Quebec called Notre Dame de [whatever]. Our Lady of… It is not a nod to the religion that named them, except in an ironic sense as I believe is made clear. 

The story is set in a village called Notre Dame des Quatres Douleurs. Our Lady of Four Sorrows. A fictional name for a string of houses in a landscape of hills and sea that I assure you exists. Place--physical, social, cultural--plays an intregal role in my writing. What is a character without place? Even if it's a place as small as a room or a country where the character does not feel she belongs. I am interested in the relationship--whether rootedness or tension--between character and place. It's fitting that this story appears in an issue exploring Roots & Routes.

When writing, I have sometimes used real place names, sometimes invented names. I don't have a rule about this. Even when I use a real place name, it's likely that I've manipulated the layout of the streets. Zadie Smith has a note in the Acknowledgements of her novel, Swing Time: "North London, in these pages, is a state of mind. Some streets may not appear as they do in Google Maps." Other writers of fiction have similar notes on the copyright page. For a writer, this makes sense. You use what you need for the narrative. A novel is not a photographic picture. 

However, I have discovered that some readers struggle with this. It has nothing to do with intelligence or level of education. A friend told me once that her father, who was a college professor, had grown up in Newark, New Jersey where Philip Roth had also grown up and set his fiction. Her father was angry that Roth had made up details about Newark. He didn't "get it right". In vain she tried to explain to him that Roth was writing fiction.

While I was writing the novel Five Roses, I debated using the name of the Montreal neighbourhood where I imagined it taking place. There are so many objectifiably recognizable markers. The Lachine canal with its history, the FIVE ROSES sign that marks Montreal's southern horizon, cycling by the St. Lawrence River, the dépanneur on my street corner, so many scenes that I documented, photographed, and used as source material. That was where my characters, albeit fictional, lived--in the Pointe aka the Point aka Pointe St-Charles aka Point St. Charles. 

When I began working on the novel, I had lived in the Pointe for 10 years. Long enough, I felt, to be able to describe it. Certainly as a newcomer. I never pretended to be someone with great-grandparents who dug the Lachine Canal.

Six years later Five Roses was published. I met with a generous response from readers who found that my portrayal of the Pointe was just and who appreciated the novel.

But there were also those who objected. They challenged my right to set a novel here. One belligerently asked why I hadn't told the "good, old stories"? The hardscrabble toughness of life when the factories closed and neighbours helped each other, the horse-drawn delivery carts, the family of the West End Gang driving up and down the streets at Christmas with a flatbed truck handing out gifts for children. Hadn't I heard those stories?

Indeed I had. But they weren't my stories.

Another neighbour--another sidewalk confrontation--said I wasn't allowed to make up stories about where she lived. 

But I live here too now. 

Writing fiction in the realist tradition is a balance between consensual reality (assuming a common ground can be found), the emotional/ethical truth of the story, the imaginative process. I don't write about a place unless I feel I know it well enough to adopt the point of view I've chosen. And as a writer, yes, I claim that right. 

The Gaspé is a landscape I've been visiting for almost 40 years. The protagonist of this story, "Our Ladies", is seeing it for the first time. It was delight to experience it with him.

We were last in the Gaspé in late September and early October. Moose-hunting season had just started so we weren't able to walk in the woods. We stayed by the shore. Mountain ash trees were heavy with berries. We saw a flock of snow geese, who don't normally fly so far east when they're migrating, wheel from the sky to land in the river. The sight and sound was so magnificent that I didn't even think of pulling out my camera until they had almost all landed. 

Even when I return to Montreal, part of my heart stays behind with the waves and the hills.