Friday, January 5, 2018

How the ghosts of memory lie


A place that resembles a place where once I lived: Google Street View of 3 rue de la Fointaine au Roi, Paris

I have almost forgotten my neighbour already.
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, 171.

Some years before he died, my friend Elisabeth's father began to lose his memory. He became concerned to organize his memorabilia, and so he set about filling binders with photographs of and details about voyages he recalled. Where he did not possess photos or postcards of his own, he clipped images from magazines and added them to his files. He captioned these images, and developed an increasingly complex system of cross-references to other binders and notebooks, so that the true and full versions of his memories could be told. The trouble is that any number of these memories, supplemented by material excerpted from travel magazines, were not of places or events where he had ever been. Increasingly, his voyages were imagined versions of trips to places where his daughters, both inveterate travelers who also lived abroad for extended periods, had gone. When they came to visit, or so Elisabeth tells me, he would proudly show them one or another of his notebooks, and begin to recount his exploits. But Papa, they would protest, you've never been there! You've just made that up!  And if they looked in his notebooks, or tried to follow out his meticulously cross-referenced lists,  his "memories" petered out into dusty webs of broken links and absent binders.  In frustration, and overcome by the quantities of stuff to be disposed of in his house in the outskirts of Paris, the sisters tossed out all those notebooks and files when their father died. This saddens me: I like to imagine them as the ghost architecture of a strange and wonderful novel that, had I imagination enough (the imagination of Monsieur Poirault?) I might write.

But perhaps that novel already exists, in various guises. Georges Perec might have authored it, or else Andre Breton or Gertrude Stein or Carole Maso or Jorge Luis Borges or Sophie Calle or Valeria Luiselli or Julio Cortazar or Madeleine Thien, to name just a handful of among the hosts of semi-autobiographical fabulists whose stories thematize complicated relationships between memory, imagination and displacement. Sometimes deliberate falsification isn't necessary; movement along the lines of faulty memory alone will suffice to open the door to a fiction that doesn't quite seem like one.


3ème arrondissement, Plan de Paris

For example, in assembling images to accompany this text, I got out my old Plan de Paris and peered at the map of the 3ème arrondissement, where my first apartment in the city had been: a cold water one room walk-up at the top of the building with a single hotplate and a hole in the wall. Many evenings, my boyfriend of those days, his brother and I fought for a seat closest to the heater, which was on the outside wall beneath the window, and right next to the hole in the wall, over which I had taped a postcard, in a useless effort to make the bitterest winter in Paris in 100 years somewhat warmer. We had lived not far from the République metro, near Boulevard du Temple, on a street with a long name that contained the word Temple...Or maybe Fontaine. Or maybe both names. As I squinted at the map--for I now require reading glasses in order to see such tiny print, there it was, strobing in and out of sight,  a long street name containing both the words Fontaine and Temple, just around from the Blvd du Temple: rue des Fountaines du Temple. Hurrah! I felt a surge of familiarity. If only I could remember the number.....It was a very low number I seemed to recall. Number 3 perhaps? Or 13? Or 17? I noodled around on Google Street View, wandering up and the down the virtual streets until I thought I could see the square visible from the apartment where a shivering woman sometimes sold roasted chestnuts; if I had enough francs, which wasn't often, I'd race down the stairs and go buy a bag of steaming chestnuts from her and peel back the split skins, the first time in days my fingers would be warm.  There was the narrow street view the other way, the battered door we hustled in and out of. Yes, yes; that was it. I looked at the address: 3, rue de la Fontaine au roi. Was that right? I looked again. Had to be! I took a screenshot and posted it at the head of this story. Hurrah for the internet, which solves all problems.



What you think you see isn't what you always get: drawing on old map of Paris by Granjabiel

Trouble is, that wasn't the right place, and the internet not only doesn't solve all problems, sometimes it creates new ones.  Never mind that what you think is true, and what you think you remember are also often not very reliable guides to the past. Not only was my old Plan de Paris not really mine (my friend Elissa Marder's name is inscribed on the flyleaf next to the faintly penciled price of 40 francs--sorry Elissa!), but in fact Tom and I never lived at 3 rue de la Fontaine au roi.  (Now I can say it: I knew something wasn't right about that streetscape.) When I finally decided to consult the square ruled Glatigny notebook in which I kept my journal from those days (on papier scolaire surfin 80 g) I saw that we'd lived at 1, rue des Fontaines du Temple 75003 Paris. What Google Street View gave me when I entered that address did seem slightly more familiar, but to be honest, was it? The building where I once lived has been renovated, probably more than once; there certainly weren't plants hanging out of window boxes when we lived there.


1, rue des Fontaines du Temple is on the right

Weirder still is what I discover in the notebook I've consulted to find this address. I'd remembered writing repeatedly in it; I see certain rooms--the library at rue d'Ulm from the angle of the desk--for example, or remember the cold, as cramped and miserable and huddled on the bed, I wrote from beneath a blanket as darkness fell over the city. Now 32 years later, I'd imagined the journal full of entries about Paris, but what I find are oddly generalized internal monologues, then the plan of an early short story in which a few characters I'd seen at a distance in Paris enter; the whole concerned with memory (I was sure I would remember these things forever) and the pointlessness of writing things down if you were going to remember anyway...As I page through the ramblings of my 22 year old self, a shivering, anxious young person who desperately wanted to be a writer, yet who didn't record anything worth writing about, I am annoyed. I talk back to her: All around you were details, and what did you record? Drivel about the pointlessness of writing anything down.....for hundreds of pages! How stupid could you be! What a missed opportunity! 

Finally, I come across an entry that is descriptive and precise; the way it talks about the how hard the winter, how painful not being able to speak the language fluently, how out of place I feel seems more or less true.  Suddenly, having utterly forgotten the moment of this writing, I can nevertheless see it all clearly again: The cold seeps into you like a kind of moisture. It settles, leaving everything uncomfortable, a little deadening, soggy. All over Paris the cold is like that. Even inside it clamps your head like a vise, hollows it out with dull thudding and pale grey light. Winter kills and so does the silence, words marching over my ears like hieroglyphics, and all sense or definition or sound sucked from my tongue. Some days it is as if everything passes in a veil of snow--but it never snows in Paris. Or if it does the snow doesn't stick. Perhaps that's some weak--or precipitous--consolation. 

A silly pun, but at last some interesting details follow that account of winter: In the inner courtyard of the old building at ENS [Ecole normale superieure], at the level of the second floor, a statue stands between each window. Together they form a square, twenty heads to a side, all of them great fathers of government, of law, of history, of philosophy; all of them white, in white stone, darkened by years of exposure, so that some of the faces are streaked like zebras.  Most of them are French. They stare solemnly. The faces of some of them have been dug into troughs by rocks thrown by vandals or acid rain, the backs of their heads to what is outside of the school.  They are its image: steadfast; pitted; stone dead. And cold, so cold, you'd never want to touch them.

This entry is dated 5 February 1986, WednesdayI feel suddenly foolishly joyful, outlandishly so, given the sadness of the record; I congratulate my miserable former self on the carefulness of her observations.  Finally, I say to her; now this, this is some usable stuff!

Other interesting fragments follow, describing how a crippled bird, lifted from the street by a woman, flops on the sidewalk and lodges itself under the wheel of a temporarily stationary truck; I note too the sound of an air raid siren; bomb scares in a bookstore, the books exploding into flame. I don't think I actually saw the blast at the Gilbert Jeune bookstore on Place St Michel--I can't remember if I did.  Newspaper accounts report that customers were in the store when the bomb went off.  I suppose I might have seen smoke from across the street or nearby--that feels almost like a memory, but is it? In any case, I certainly liked to stop at that bookstore, and although I could never afford to purchase much, I had bought the notebook in which I was making these observations there. 

The notes continue, intimating proximity to catastrophe: a cadre of policemen passes by, gesturing with their white-gloved hands; a helicopter drops so low its propellers seem as if they will shatter the windows.  But then that youthful worldly place-less voice sighs out again: It's strange, bombs blowing up all over Paris.  I doubt I communicated that detail to my mother, although now and then she did hear about what seemed like nearly daily scares on the news, and was worried. (In fact, if a wikipedia entry on the 1985-86 Paris bombings is accurate, the threats made by the Hezbollah-linked Committee for Solidarity With Arab and Middle Eastern Political Prisoners, a cell aimed at the French capital and apparently sponsored by Iran, Syria and Libya, were not daily, but numerous and always nearby. I seem to remember that we were evacuated from a museum once, and Tom's brother, Alan, narrowly missed getting on a train that blew up in March.)

I turn the page in my fading journal and am surprised by a drawing of the single window in that tiny apartment:


Beneath it I have written: I seem to be unable to get past the window, which doesn't seem to be able to avoid, in its turn, collapsing back in on itself by some inversion of my poor attempt at perspective. If I could do it, I would tell you about the streaks, lights, darks and yellows that sketch the roof across the way.  And how the television antenna doesn't jut into the sky as it seems to do from the ground, but falls away in a completely other plane, so that the sky seems to peel back before it.

Oh I am pleased by this sad girl who writes on Friday, February 14, 1986. Do I have a recollection of making that drawing? No, in truth I do not. And I definitely don't remember writing the bit about the television antenna in its alternate plane.  But I do recall the greys of the buildings stitched across my view from that window; the red roofs; the strange angles of the walls and narrow streets. I looked out at that view for hours thinking here I am in Paris; why am I so sad?  In this, I am something like the restless despairing narrator of Rilke's The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge who writes I am in Paris; those who learn this are glad, most of them envy me. They are right. It is a great city; great and full of strange temptations.... Rather like me in those days he doesn't really enumerate these temptations, but arrives, as if by non sequitur, at one thing that cannot be gotten in Paris:

Would it not be possible for once to get a glimpse of the sea? (68)

 *

Rilke's only novel, a book that is something like a memoir of a foreigner's sojourn in Paris, The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, begins with a question:

People come here, then, to live?

He continues, I should rather have thought that they came here to die.

I don't think at the time I was writing my journal entries that I'd read The Notebook--but perhaps I had, and was self-consciously imitating its disjointed style. More likely, I was influenced by H.D. Or Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. I'd certainly read those things, and I wanted to find a way to write, dramatically and as if fictionally, about my [until then quite short] life. My mistake was to imagine that my tortured existential thoughts were more interesting than any of the things I had witnessed and could describe, or more necessary topics for writing. 

Rilke's autobiographical fiction, first published in 1910, also reads like a series of diary entries, 71 to be exact.  The narrator--the ostensible writer of those entries--is a young poet, the sole impoverished survivor of a once aristocratic Danish family.  He has put his earthly goods into storage and come to Paris to learn a new way of seeing: everything and everyone is astonishing; at the same time, nothing and no one is surprising. As soon as he arrives, the new world, like the old, is suffused with illness, fever, death and dying. What of his experiences emanate from observations, what bubble up as memories, and what emerge from fever dreams? The narrator struggles to separate these elements and cannot, for, as the old joke goes, wherever he is, he carries himself along, and so never really can see anew. As he puts it:

[O]ne travels about the world with a trunk and a case of books, and really without curiosity.  What sort of life is it really: without a house, without inherited possessions, without dogs? If only one had one's memories! But who has them?

More than 75 years later, I traveled to Paris with considerably less tangible baggage: a few books, some clothing, very little money and no dogs--dogs had not yet come again into my life.  Perhaps I brought as many hopes, without knowing what I dared imagine might happen. A sprawling, dirty, noisy city opened at my feet; fishmongers shouted at me because my French was too poor, or I said stupid things, and going to and from the metro, men banged into me on the street and grabbed hold of my breasts, as if to steady themselves, but really to cop a feel. I felt cold and hungry often. Isolated. Lost. Whatever I thought I might feel, I didn't quite think it would be like this. Dark. Alone. Sirens wailing everywhere.

--That, at least, is what I think I remember.   

But of what matter are memories made--is it always and surely our own recollections? If photos or drawings or journal entries or letters (or Facebook, Wikipedia and Google Street View,) make us recall what we didn’t know, or help us to invent alternate realities, is that memory? If not, what is?  

As you now know, thanks to my confessions of ineptitude, almost nothing of what I have written or visually reproduced here has been “remembered” clearly or simply by me.  It has had to be made up, researched and reinvented, quite a bit like the memories that populated Monsieur Poirault’s notebooks.  It might be more accurate to say that like him, I have here assembled not memories so much as sensations that feel like memory, ghosts of memory. Unlike M. Poirault, I have ways of both researching and publishing, which is to say proving or improving my memories--or is that “memories”? Does this capacity make them more “real”? More true? More long lasting? Less likely to be contested or rubbished? Perhaps not if I don’t live to his 99 years, or, as is also quite likely, the encoding of this blog entry becomes quite soon obsolete, which is to say, illegible; forgotten.   


For whom am I making such gestures of preserving these fragments, these bits of inexact memory anyway? For myself? For others?  And why?

There's a phrase that is current that I detest, although perhaps it is more honest than I've heretofore imagined. You often hear parents invoking it, as they're planning or doing interesting voyages with their children; we're making memories, they say as they pack the car or line the ducklings up and take a snapshot, turning to march away in a row of receding multi-coloured backpacks. As if making memories is work, something that must be done, not something that just happens. As if intention, and not just accident, are necessary to the right accomplishment of recollection-worthy impressions.   

M. Poirault surely believed this: intention and inventiveness were critical aspects of his commemorative work. So too archiving, indexing, tabulating....In the end the system overtook his memories; the library became more important than the individual recollections....Thus in making memories, he was also, at some speed, unmaking them. 

And why not? Don't most of us build our memory palaces thus? We add our trillions of photographs, our letters and postings and journals and books.  But as time runs on and we turn our attention to new things, we forget whole rooms, wings and estates in these our stately domiciles; they moulder and tumble into ruin.   

We think making memories might be about permanence, or at least perdurance, but perhaps it's simply practice; exercise; a way of keeping moving, which is to say, staying alive. If this is true, then the question why do we remember becomes as important (and as wildly nonsensical) as the question why do we breathe. The answer to the latter is simple: to go on breathing. So too to the former: to go on remembering.   

Does it matter if our memories lie? Probably not if we're not in the witness box; indeed, if one takes psychoanalysis, Nietzsche or fiction seriously, what really matters is how our memories lie, not that they do so, for of course they do.


Some things never change: white heads facing inward, Rue d'Ulm
 
Notes Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. John Linton, trans. (1930). London: The Hogarth Press, 1978: https://archive.org/stream/TheNotebooksOfMalteLauridsBrigge/TheNotebooksOfMalteLauridsBrigge_djvu.txt  

On the Paris attacks of 1985-86:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1985%E2%80%9386_Paris_attacks and  http://www.nytimes.com/1986/02/05/world/blast-wounds-4-in-paris-bomb-at-tower-defused.html   

Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory. London: RKP, 1966.  

Karin Cope, "Somebody's watching you" http://visiblepoetry.blogspot.ca/2017/12/somebodys-watching-you.html

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Somebody's watching you


Don't look now: someone is almost certainly watching you.

This year alone, according to estimates published by Business Insider, we humans--at least those of us able to afford some kind of camera--will take some 1.2 trillion photos, the majority of them with smartphones. That's an average of 500 photos for every one of the nearly 2.3 billion smartphone owners in the world, or approximately 133 images for each person on the planet. We add this number of digital records to the 1.1 trillion photos we took in 2016, the 1 trillion we took in 2015, the 800 billion we took in 2014 and so on. 

I've written about trillions before on this blog--see "Counting Trillions"--and 1,000,000,000,000 remains an almost unimaginably large number, whether we're talking about debt, stars, digital images or intestinal flora, all notions that we currently measure in the trillions.  For example, 1 trillion seconds ago was 31,546 years ago, which is to say well before the end of the last ice age, and possibly before humans lived on or in the Americas, although new evidence suggests that humans or humanoids just might have been cracking mastodon bones along the Pacific coast around 1 billion hours or 115,000 years ago. But 1 trillion hours, which is to say nearly 115 million years ago, dinosaurs were roaming the earth, and some 43 trillion hours ago, the earth was a spinning, gaseous lump.

I am, of course, doing my part to contribute to the global glut of digital data: I estimate that in the last six or seven years, I am personally responsible, for some 10,000s of photos, most not taken with a smart phone, but with that now apparently obsolescing instrument, a stand-alone camera.  The majority of these thousands of photos reside on my (various) hard-drives, and will never be seen by anyone.  Why keep them then? Because they are? Because I think I can? Because they might matter? Because I haven't had time to look at them yet long enough to decide if I will keep them--and I think that someday I will?!

Time may do its work and corrupt these drives, or make the file systems in which the photos are recorded unreadable if I don't do something else to fix or translate them. This has already happened to videos I shot less than a decade ago.  I feel a pang of loss all out of proportion to the content of those files; memories of dozens of 8mm home movies of my mother, as a baby, being bathed, fill my head, valuable proxies for the sort of content that might be lost when such files disappear.  If I am being honest, however,  I must note that I only once watched a few minutes of that apparently endless maternal footage, much to my mother's relief; I suspect that no one has any idea where those reels are now. My own files recorded walks along the Nova Scotia coast and up to the summit of Coronados Island in the Sea of Cortes. I remember these walks well; why isn't that enough?


Why do we need to capture ghosts of ourselves and our experiences everywhere we go? What are we preserving thus? What losses do we imagine we might forestall with our clicking and posting or filing? Do we really think we're so evanescent that all traces of us will disappear when we die, leaving behind our mountains of stuff, our digital data, our gyres of plastic and debris? Perhaps it's simply a fear that we will (or do) disappear when others don't see us--that certainly seems to be what facebook and the other organs of social media would like us to believe. And so we continue to log our lives, at greater and greater pace, arriving at the point where the logging very nearly coincides with, or even sometimes replaces the living.

But think about this: we now live in such a ubiquitously recorded world that surely, often, many of us regularly show up, ghosts in a host of records we know nothing about.  Not only are we billions snapping anything and everything and everyone, but cities, shops and work places are full of closed circuit cameras; certain professionals now regularly wear bodycams; many people set up web surveillance of their houses and yards;  and of course there are ever more versions of Google Street View.  Sometimes we know we are being captured by these cameras; often we do not.  Often we live our lives utterly unaware of the cameras all around us.

Would we live it differently if we noticed them? I wave sometimes to the surveillance cameras on neighbours' houses, or jump out of the way of a tourist's lens along the Halifax waterfront, but most of the time I remain blissfully ignorant of any record of my passing. I think I prefer it that way, although perhaps I ought to smarten up.



I always feel like somebody's watching me.
And I have no privacy.

Rockwell, Somebody's Watching Me 1984


For a time in the late 1980s, in Baltimore, not long after a friend had been found bludgeoned to death in her own apartment, I was subjected to some sort of watching. Often, as I entered my apartment, after a run or a day at school, the phone would ring.  If I answered,  someone who clearly knew I'd just come in would say something to me about my arrival. My watcher never explicitly threatened me, but they clearly meant to be menacing.  I found them very terrifying, particularly in the wake of my friend's unsolved murder.  I contacted the police; they put a trace on the line, but never discovered who was stalking me.  I ultimately paid to have an unlisted phone number, although I worried sometimes that this meant that whoever had been watching might have to confront me then to reach me. Within a year or two I'd moved away, and I forgot the whole incident. Until yesterday, when I was thinking about just how many cameras are clicking and clacking and recording all around us.

My friend Martha, from whom I'd rented a room in Halifax in the fall, wrote to tell me that she'd seen something peculiar on Google Street View:




Eventually I got around to taking a look. Yes, there it was, my car in Martha's drive.  But I didn't think that's what she meant, so I zoomed in for a closer inspection. Yes, there I was, at the door, bag in hand, coming or going.  It was a warm day; September; I'm wearing a crumpled white blouse, open at the neck. Google has blurred my eyes, just as they'd blurred my license plate, still I recognize myself, or a version of myself: faded, blurry, unselfconscious, but recorded. How many millions and billions of these sorts of photos exist of we billions as we wander about in our daily lives? 

In 2015, Rose Eveleth set out to try to figure out the answer to that question for the Atlantic magazine; what she found is that no one knows. No one even knows how to estimate how many such "accidental" portraits exist. Apparently many. As I began to talk about my image with others, the stories began to pour back about this or that friend, snapped while walking the dog, or mowing the lawn. Weird, because when I've seen Google Street View, it's almost always been like Daguerre's early images, streetscapes devoid of humans. And yet here, in the photographic shadows, we are...




Notes

Caroline Cakebread, "People will take 1.2 trillion digital photos this year--thanks to smartphones" http://www.businessinsider.com/12-trillion-photos-to-be-taken-in-2017-thanks-to-smartphones-chart-2017-8

Number of smartphone users world wide from 2014-2020: https://www.statista.com/statistics/330695/number-of-smartphone-users-worldwide/

Karin Cope, "Counting Trillions," http://visiblepoetry.blogspot.ca/2009/07/counting-to-trillions.html 

Jessica Schladebeck, "Humans may have arrived in America 100,000 years earlier than thought,"
http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/humans-america-115-000-years-previously-thought-article-1.3104096 

Carrie Sylvester, "2017 Camera wrap-up: where have all the cameras gone?" http://blog.infotrends.com/ 

Rose Eveleth, "How Many Photographs of You are Out There In the World?" The Atlantic 2 November 2015: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/11/how-many-photographs-of-you-are-out-there-in-the-world/413389/
 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Unusually warm again: on the peculiarly temporary sensation of enjoying climate change





I wrote this on October 28, but it is still true in November, this humid unseasonable weather that clings to the days and makes our nights sweaty and confusing.

A band of clouds gathers over the outermost islands, but here, closer inland, the sky is blue and the sun warm, the air sweet and gentle, hot even, if you're in the lee of the breeze. Dragonflies fall into the sea; you notice them because they spin in the water in their death throes, their wings still revolving. The great blue herons still fish from the pond and at the backs of the coves, and the loons still gather and linger, floating silently some distance offshore.

It's still so warm that some of the lupines have burst into bloom again; likewise the thistles, and at night, here and there, we can hear a few frogs creaking and singing from the mud, as if we might skip winter and it were spring all over again. Mosquitoes still gather and slow moving flies bumble into our hair as we walk at the forest edge. Meanwhile, the apples ripen and drop from the trees, the cranberries redden and sweeten,  and the ferns have turned brown and begun to crumble.  Wild rosebushes gleam yellow and scarlet; rose hips jewel along the path by the shore. The tamaracks (or larches, as they are called in the US,) yellow and begin to drop their needles. These are all sure signs of autumn; nevertheless, no one can be sure that it has arrived.

We walk and stretch and snooze in the afternoon sun, eat carrot salad for lunch, sip green tea. Golden light halos the yellowing leaves still clinging to the trees, and porcupines mumble in the underbrush.  The dog flushes pheasants and young grouse; deer droppings pebble the yard. The grass is still green. We sit on the porch and read, stare out over the water, and puzzle over when the cold will come. A spate of warmest, record-breaking days unfolds week over week. Every denies it, but we all love it. I think Canadians like climate change, says Elisabeth, who at nearly 83 is our household elder.

And so do we, even as the dwindling numbers of returning ducks and strange and sudden appearance of exotic fish in the water and razor clams along the beach alarm us. We all catch what feel like summer colds, but enjoy walking barefoot through the house and wearing t-shirts and shorts at the end of October. Where will it all end?

We don't want it to end, but this ongoing spate of warm weather makes us nervous.  It is as if we are holding our collective breath: the world has gone unpredictable, and we do not know what will come next. 

Meanwhile, the usual rapaciousness of superextractive industries continues and everything we touch turns to waste.  Every day brings idiot pronouncements from Washington, along with increasing rollbacks of environmental protections. The poor are ever poorer, the rich richer.  Insects are dying in unprecedented numbers; new wars break out nearly every day, and the number of global refugees tops 65 million. Nothing we have thoughts immutable is going to stay the same and we here, we privileged denizens of the global north, are largely to blame: this is the truth from which we frantically turn, as we thumb through our facebook feeds, liking, liking, loving, weeping, again and again.  (Look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.)


Friday, October 20, 2017

Poem trying to get in out of the rain


Autumn rattles at the windows of the night, rips
leaves from looping trees, punches
gustily against the wall.
I waken to creaking roofbeams, peer
sightless into blacklit night. Nothing
to see, but everything that is is sounding:
such a rush and crash of waves on rocks;
the clothesline sings a one-note samba,
the chimney turns to didgeridoo.
Only the dog sleeps, silent, beside me.
If I open the door to let the poem in,
it can sleep all night on the bench by the fire and
I'll return to bed then to wake you, slipping
frigid feet behind your knees.


Photos are of Usnea, or "Old man's beard" lichens in British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Journey's End, or Reflections As One Thing Passes Into Another


Sky passes into sea, Rose Harbour, Kunghit Island, Gwaii Hanaas

4:30 am Atlantic Daylight Savings Time Sunday 27 August, 2017  West Quoddy, Nova Scotia

Just a week ago we were in British Columbia, preparing for our last day on the boat for the year.  We'd moved into the launch slip, for the boat was to be hauled for some repairs, and eaten a quiet meal in the cockpit as darkness dropped over the Fraser River.  Overhead, dozens of airplanes streamed in on the same route: a sharp turn over the towers of the Alex Fraser Bridge, and then the lock onto a final approach over the river; they rumbled overhead to the airport, lights like a searching beam coming right at us. Our bags were half packed; the next morning I'd strip the bed, wash the sheets, defrost the freezer and scrub down the remainder of the living spaces on the boat, while Marike stowed lines and investigated the persistent and worrying flow of water over the top of the rudder, among dozens of other vital details. Cushions were clean and stacked in the salon, bedding and blankets bagged, charts rolled up, guidebooks put away. And just like that, the journey, which had unfolded gradually across time and space, embedding landscapes and experiences in our flesh and memories for months, rumpled closed; its urgencies began to dissipate.


Rising tide. Hakai Luxvabalis Recreation Area, Queen Charlotte Sound

Did it happen? Of course it did--finally, we'd made it to Haida Gwaii and back--but the marks the voyage left on our bodies, the habits of vigilance and care that it instilled in the rhythm of our days, had begun to disperse.  Before long we would be embedded in the life of the land again, unconscious of each fluctuation in barometric pressure, unconcerned about the exact times of the tides or the force and direction of the wind. Before long we'd be in another geography, on another coast, in our house. Then the question in the middle of the night would no longer be 'how strong is the wind? or 'does the anchor hold?' but something more diffuse and existential: 'who am I; where am I; and what must I do that matters next?' 

A lengthy and demanding voyage relieves us of such questions in many ways by giving us a trajectory and many clear parameters: the goal each day is to make good enough judgments about when, where and how to go a certain distance, that we may arrive safely. The consequences of failing to do this are fairly immediate and significant. Why one goes is not at issue: the meaning of life is to be alive and to stay alive, to become a resonating body, attuned to the wind and waves, other creatures, the landscape, the tides, and to the sounds of the boat. You ask, 'did we make the right call there?' 'is the raw water pump working?' not 'who am I and why do I exist?' You move from chart to chart, asking how best to get from here to there; such efforts, for the time one makes them, seem to preclude the feeling that one has gone astray--above all these days, for thanks to the extreme precision of Global Positioning Systems, it is almost never necessary, while underway, to puzzle out painstakingly where you are. 


Fog lifts and smoke remains. Entering Johnstone Sound from Blackney Passage.

But back on land, reinserted (however fitfully) into the news cycle and various pressing human concerns as we attend to the circuitry--the communications, the appliances, the vehicles, the yard work and habits of cleanliness and order--that sustains our carbon-rich lives, the absence of charts, of an evident trajectory across the repetitions that structure each day, makes existence itself feel heavy, tenuous, puzzling.  Without a map to mark the way, questions about the meaning of life surface: "why am I doing what I am doing? Is it worth it? What am I building as we move from day to day?" Bare existence seems never enough.

And it isn't--not for anyone, and certainly not as a meaningful narrative about living. Elaboration is crucial. So too, a sense of direction. Somehow, always, we want the sense and unfolding self-evidence of the journey, even if that can only be played, on the one hand, as risk, and on the other, as retrospection.

Stars spangle the night sky and a thick dew settles over every surface. Sometime in the day to come, it will rain and we will sit indoors at our computers, writing, searching, replying, seeking contact, affirmation, revelation. But for now, to look out at the Milky Way just might be enough. The dog curls at my feet. I drink a glass of water and go back to bed.  

Grey light of early morning rises, blotting out the stars. I know that another night soon, I'll be up again to weigh the anchor of my soul, and find it wanting.


Carved cedar mortuary pole returns to the earth, K'uuna Llnagaay (Skedans), Haida Gwaii.
Notes

All photographs were taken in British Columbia during the course of a voyage to Haida Gwaii aboard Quoddy's Run (June 3-20 August 2017).

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Today I will different




You wake, you say
today will be different, today
I will do what I do what I must what I will
today I will          efficient        today
tasks completed      today       organized    today
my desk in order.
Today I will          different.
Do today as if some other un-waylaid by wind
or whim or want.  Someone of will, not wanton
wondering. What song will you sing then when
samba flings you circumsolar when
lightslant leaps across your foot when
urgency, like sucking sand, slips seaward and
beckons you to swim?

 Notes
This poem was written for my friend, Gary Markle; I've rewritten it for Poem in Your Pocket day.
The photo is of a cardon cactus blooming near Salinas Bay, on Isla Carmen, Baja California Sud, Mexico in early April 2017. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

How beautiful the snow blasted world



Snow falls quietly at twilight
gathering flakes whisper as they hit the window

How beautiful the snow blasted world. 

After dinner the snow stops falling and the dog and I go out to walk the territory. The moon glows faintly behind a scrim of clouds; clumps of snow cling to every branch and bush and the tops of the flattened grasses.  The apple trees thrust their branches at the sky like so many gnarled and knobby fists; there's a gaping hole where the barn door has blown off--better call for help to fix that one. 

We circle the gardens, step through the weeds to the pond's edge, where a fallen tree covered in snow casts strange shadows on the ice.  No footprints but ours anywhere to be seen. 

We walk along the dyke at the sea edge, each rose hip a huge ball of snow on a spindly branch. There's just enough wind that we can hear the water ripping and rushing into the shore and out again.

The wind is biting. It nips my cheek, hurries the dog to the door, slips through the stitching in my gloves to freeze my fingers. But I'm not ready to go in yet.

Clouds scud across the sky.  I look out over the grey water towards the islands, invisible in the darkness, then turn to scrape off the cars and clear the drive in front of the garage, savouring the sharpness of the air, stamping my feet to keep them warm.  Why must every pair of boots leak? Time to goop them up again.



I am remembering one night when I was about nine. The snow had been falling all evening. The streets were quiet and huge drifts covered the yard.  My siblings and I were sure that when our mother came into the room, she was going to tell us to get ready for bed. It's time, she said, pausing as we started to moan, then all in a rush--to get your coats on and go play in the snow! Shrieking with delight, we tumbled out into the darkness and the drifts, the world magical and thick with surprise and permission. 

It wasn't until I moved to Montreal and learned to cross-country ski twenty years after that--and more than twenty years ago--setting out across the fields of the Chateauguay Valley beneath a full moon, that falling snow occasioned such delight and anticipation again. But now it does.  

I watch the snow mount up higher and higher and hope the thermometer drops, rather than rises, so that I can ski across the bog, over top of the little lakes and streams, the sheepskill and the insect-eating pitcher plants onto the bushy ledges where the coyotes circle and sing.  There, I'll clamber up to a point where I can stand and look out at the sea rolling unimpeded over the horizon; from there, it rolls all the way to Spain. 

I can only ever get to that place on skis, when the bog is frozen and overlaid with deep snow.  How glorious it will be if that's what tomorrow brings.



Notes
Photos taken 3 January 2017 in West Quoddy, Nova Scotia