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Every day these days — Time and the Pandemic

I get out of bed an hour or so later than my partner. Sometimes she gets up even earlier. I sleep in with the dog, Rubee Tuesday. It’s useless to count from 10 to 0 and get out of bed at zero. It’s easy to play tricks with numbers (9.9, 9.8…) So I’ve taken to setting my alarm for 8 a.m. and getting up up up when it rings.

My partner has made coffee. I ask a question right away. It used to be: “Is it over yet?” When that yellowed it was: “Any really bad news?” Now, this morning: “Is this still just a dream?”

I look at the dog who has followed me out of the bedroom. I tell her I’m very happy she doesn’t know there’s a pandemic corralling us in. She always puts her head at an angle, trying to glimpse my meaning; but mainly she just wants her stomach rubbed and for me to throw her ball. I’m teaching her a larger vocabulary. I’m teaching her my name. My partner teaches me not to rough-house with Rubee because otherwise she’ll just be like every other needy, uncontrollable dog, when actually she’s a god-dog. I absolutely comply when I remember.

We listen to the news on the cell phone. We use the cell phone so the news will seem smaller, the voices less consequential, the shocks buffered. Or maybe it’s some distant memory of gathering around the large console farm radio (which looked like it could house a church organ) listening to something to which the adults paid their attention like nothing else, like the news of war.

The present is stalled. The news seems to be stuck in a loop. Every day the same startling revelations of the same things. But maybe I’ve stopped lis-tening. My hearing is getting worse. I have to ask my partner to bring me up to date. Sometimes she yells at the cell phone, calls the speaker “stupid” “a bozo.” I like when she does that.

I used to spend all day reading the New York Times. I don’t do that any more. It crushes me.

People continue to die of causes other than Covid 19. It’s surprising. I thought the virus had taken up all the room there is for death but it hasn’t. Death has always been abundant and greedy. These other causes keep slipping into the pleats of reality and falling and dying at my feet: my friend’s lover; an elder I worked with.

We’re all in a state of shock. If reality is discontinuous, discordant, baf-fling, the trauma isn’t. I am wired into shocks of earlier times. My brother-in-law, a financial consultant, fell ill with cancer just before the stock market crash in 2008. The cancer metastasized. He said, “I don’t have enough time to fix this.” And he didn’t. We are there again, especially those of us who were there then.

I think of my mother who was a teenager in the Great Depression. They were farmers in Saskatchewan. My mother and grandmother went door to door, selling eggs. My mother wasn’t allowed to mention this to her father. He would have been furious, humiliated. I understand more, now, what she went through. For a decade. She was very careful with her money, except she loved to spend lots on herself. The month before she died she bought herself a stylish suede coat that costs $2000. I wear it now.

We always hope to fix things. This car of our civilization is spinning out of control, hitting the gravel, circling, banging into cardboard coffins on the side of the road, not coming to a halt. And all in a motion so slow it downs time, like an event horizon.

Time is in a great mix up. It seems not to be moving at all, the hours are endless, and then suddenly it moves forward “with God’s reckless wobble.” It’s dark and, oh joy, it’s time to go to bed. The day has lost its structure; its bones are broken. My heart is broken.

I cry a lot. Although I always have. But more now. There’s nothing to do about it. My partner doesn’t cry. I say to her “If not now, when?” She smiles. I cry.

I’ve been perplexed that I get so little accomplished during the day. My friends say the same thing. Is it the looping of time and events? The stuckness of it all? Are we grieving? I don’t think the logic of the soul enables us to expe-rience grief for what is still upon us, a death that hasn’t finished dying. That doesn’t seem quite right. Rather, some misalignment is surfacing; some way in which we have been living, out of sorts with who we are. Everyone has been exhausted by this for years. Now, we are sleeping. I am sleeping. I sleep ten hours a day. I’d sleep more except I set the damn alarm.

In the early days, I started to recognize my reluctance (or my withdraw-al), from telling my partner some things that were on my mind. Eventually I tried to broach these subjects which were in hiding. Such as my fear that this pandemic would require a courage and generosity of me which I simply do not have. I am still worried about that.

And then there’s eros: a decided shrinkage, a desiccation, a distracted-ness. Pandemics are not sexy, the physical becoming associated with a source of potential contagion, even if that contagion is not a danger between us. At the best of times, eros needs to overcome a point of static friction, or some-thing, but these days it requires a more concerted effort. And it’s an antidote.

I speak to friends on the phone. The phone is having a come-back.

One friend, who lives alone, said, “If I’d had a daughter, I know she would call me every day. But I have a son, and he doesn’t call me.”

“I’ll call you every day,” I tell her.
“Would you? Just to say ‘Are you okay?’”

I hear a lot of women worrying about the state of their hair. Like Sam-son, our identity is entangled in our hair. But I don’t look in the mirror much these days. In the morning, if I do, I see that I’m like Michael Gambon. In the evening, if I look, I am still Michael Gambon. He’s a great actor, but he looks terrible.

Yesterday I spoke to my beloved friend of fifty years. I’d lost track of her because she doesn’t often answer her phone. But I found her, through her daughter who called me after a dream I’d had that she’d called me.

My friend said, “This is right, what’s happening. The world needed to be stopped. It’s a divine hand.” I don’t really believe that, but I do when she says it and don’t when she stops talking. She’s very happy these days, happier than I.

This was written in May, 2020, three months into the pandemic. Much has changed since then; nothing has changed — except the bright hope of a vaccine

They steal what I was meant to fix

Two poems I wrote, both pretty accessible: 1 for change; 1 for rickety love

Which way do I go?

Did I already tell you this?
It was when I visited you last.
Were you there the last time I visited you?
Or maybe it was the time before.
I think it was actually the time before that.

I was in the subway station, on the middle floor.
One set of stairs went down to the trains.
The other went up to outside.

I couldn’t remember if I should be going down
or up.
Had I just visited you?
Or was I on my way?
If I had visited you, it was past and I should go down because I was going home.
If I hadn’t, then my visit was future, and I should go up

and out, to see you.

I was stuck there, in the in-between space, trying to remember

carefully, logically

figuring it out.

Up is future. Down is past.
Down has already happened.
Up is my anticipation.

My imagination begins to slip on a slick surface, as though my legs
stretch away from one another
stretch me

It’s quite fascinating unless you’re actually trying to do the right thing,
I mean to go up or down
choosing past or future.

When I entered the room,
my father was there with all these photographs spread out on the table
He leaned over them.
I thought: he’s looking at the pictures of his family. How sweet.
“What’s happening, Dad? What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to figure out who all these people are.
I have some responsibility
for them.
I think I might even have to look after them.
But I don’t know who they are.”

Later, he was at a stop sign and he got tired of waiting
So he turned left, into the on-coming traffic.

If that happens to me, I’ll…
I don’t know.
Maybe I’ll be spared.
(with LW)

Firepit before dawn

The Card

You gave me a birthday card,
slipped it through the mailbox while I was away.
It ends with the words “I remain committed,”
then “Yours,”
then your initials.

I feel the old engine of desire start to crank and turn its wheels,
steel scraping on steel,
a reluctant, screaming sound.
Engines don’t like to be left unworked for so long. 

I imagine a smithy hefting the machine into action
using something impure and quickly hot,
like coal,
stoked for rapid light and heat.

The engine works deep down inside the earth’s crust,
or deeper, inside my self.
Groaning, emitting sparks
that flash and die,
as the smithy,
my hopeless hoper,
stokes the fire:
Come on; come on.

My heart grinds.

Sparks, almost igniting, don’t.

A dark and profound fire might not, again, rekindle.

“Come on; come on.”

The machine which propelled our vessel, can it do it again?
I listen.
Can it?
“… remain committed.”

It was a terrible thing,
to leave the machinery of my love
shut off for so long.
I listen. 
Not long ago this heart could boat us across all inlets
all reaches
until we were deep inside every urge.
And now… and now…
Come on.
Come on.

A dull sound sounds,
the engine failing, the spark ungoing and — 
I call out: “Take it. Ignite.”

Finding Home

A cartoon in the New Yorker many years ago showed two men talking at a cocktail party. One says to the other, “I come from Cincinnati, but that’s not where I’m coming from.”

That’s how I felt about Saskatchewan.

When I was sixteen, I drove my grandmother in her white Studebaker from Saskatoon to Vancouver so she could visit her daughter. Saskatchewan was still entombed in mounds of dirty hard snow; we arrived in British Columbia to, good heavens, green grass. I said to myself: I’m going to live here. Why doesn’t everyone live here? It took me five years to achieve my resolve. I still don’t know the answer to the question, though.


Finding home is like going through a series of promising portals. Although Vancouver was the first, I learned there was another more enduring one.

Over a decade ago, sight unseen, a friend made an offer on 10 acres of island property, “subject to inspection.” The realtor arranged for a water taxi to take her to see the land, and she invited me to go along.

The property she’d found was forested waterfront, very lovely. She was going to confirm the offer.

We decided to walk along the shoreline for a while. Putting one foot down, we’d jiggle the rock in front to make sure it would hold, then step on it. Gradually, we rounded a corner where the shoreline descended into a bay.

My boot slipped, my pack flew off, and I fell sideways into shallow, frigid water. As I scrambled back onto the rocks, unhurt, soaked to my waist, the shock of the fall woke me to where I was.

The bay was in the shape of a wishbone. The wind cinched its breath and ribbons of waves urged each other to shore. After the chaos of driftwood on the beach, grey-trunked trees ascended like masts, reaching a crescendo at the top, where a spray of green light firecrackered into the sky. I was claimed by the place.

Although minutes earlier I’d had no desire to own more property, I was now smitten. My friend could see this.

We made our way to the top of the wishbone and into a clearing. The ancient forest floor was dense with moss, so many kinds and colours. I had no names for what I saw.

I better understood my native clients’ views that to own a piece of land was somehow wrong, and a little absurd. Nevertheless, my friend and I bought this part of paradise together.

Later that summer, I decided the next adventure in my romance would be a three-week sleep-over. Although I’m not much of a camper, I had all the gear (an old two-person tent, Coleman stove, large cooler, solar shower bag).

The skipper of the water-taxi took me back to the place where I’d fallen in the water. I stepped out of the boat onto rocks that looked like sleeping sea-lions. After hauling my food and gear to the clearing and setting up the tent, I went exploring.

An opening wound through the woods like smoke. I followed it.

A narrow path was trampled to hardened ground.


Ahead was a deer with twin fawns. The fawns were ripping at the bushes with their tiny mouths. With skittish head movements, the doe took in my shape, but as though she couldn’t quite make me out. She smelled rather than saw me. The deer held, tense and still; the babies felt it, stopped eating, looked up. Then ran. I had never seen such a spring-loaded departure; the mother followed.

I had a strange yearning to live at the edge between the wild and the habitable, without lockdown.

As I walked back along the beach, I noticed a bank of exposed earth about five feet high and ten feet long, filled with broken bits of clams. It was a midden, made by natives through hundreds of years. There must be clams in the bay.

I didn’t have a tide book, but concluded that it rose about six inches every hour. I had to pay attention so I would know when I could walk out on the ocean floor and get clams.

Compelled by my newness and the place itself, I began the task of the first Adam and named the body of water in front of me Wishbone Bay.

As the tide continued to climb, a piece of land which had been attached to the shore became an island. I named it Sometimes Island.

A sound catches my attention; I cock my head the way an animal does, listening, discerning, sorting — for safety or danger or intrusion. It’s the wind. And then it’s the cessation of sound I notice, as the wind calms.

I remembered some lines from Middlemarch: If we had a keen vision and feeling, we could hear the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

I heard a rush of sound, not a roar. I felt certain if I stayed here long enough, I would learn to take in the other side of silence.

In the warmth of my sleeping bag that night, I skimmed across the surface of sleep rather than tuck into it. I was roused from that surface by a twig breaking, a branch falling, the wind picking up. Sleep was a figure of speech. In the city, no noise has anything to do with me; here I was connected to every sound.

In the morning, everything bristled, awake. The gulls made their scattered paper display of whirling and settling, whirling and rising up. The sun on the water glistened like money and rolled like tossed fate. The top of a log bobbed, then dove, a seal.

Some sounds were created by very large wings: the raven above me. I was amazed to hear its effort in flying. The bird then landed on a nearby tree and made a knocking sound in his throat. Knock knock, who’s there? Who, indeed.

At about 9 a.m. it started. Wind here wasn’t like the city’s wind. I didn’t feel it as a pressure against my face. Instead it tossed everything around, making me think of where it originated, a cave where the gods were causing a commotion. Still, the place was not set over against me; it was related to me in every way. I didn’t feel lonely, or even frightened.

The wind moved on the surface of the water like a flock of mergansers taking to the air.

I had an intimation of some possible peace within. It seemed to be a beginning, before we had started to wreck the earth.

I watched a bee land on a dandelion, its weight bending the stalk low. The bee drew in nectar, and then flew to the next dandelion, as the flower wanded and was still. I thought of memory being like that: my past bowed and settled into now.


I ate six Oreo cookies as the sun made its red way down the sky in quantum leaps, inch by inch.

The night seeped in.

Eventually, I made a fire. Sparks streamed up and burned tiny holes in the black sky, thousands upon thousands of them, letting light in.

I turned on my flashlight and followed the beam down to Wishbone Bay.

In a seated position, I moved gingerly to the end of a log which protruded into the water.

Even as a child I could never understand the desire to name the constellations, but I tried to play the game, as though searching for street-signs in a wilderness. I only recognized the Big and Little Dipper, yet was happy to find their reliable, domestic shapes.

And then a falling star. And another. The stars were being routed from their orbits. I wondered where they would land.

Days and nights passed in this way, the rush of silence penetrating and reorganizing my sense of self. I had never felt such consciousness in tranquility. Everything mattered here: that I figured out the tides, that I knew where the weather was coming from. The sun came up more or less in the same place every day, but the moon did whatever it wanted, rising here or there and sometimes not showing up at all. None of this was a strain, but rather a sense of cause and effect which paid out my attention, like a forge-linked chain — an essential, unmediated relationship between myself and place.

Three weeks later, I returned to Vancouver. Having a hot shower was a revelation. I decided that people who shower more than twice a week should pay a shower tax.

In the middle of the night, I awoke and sat up in bed. I recognized where I was: in my bedroom, in Kitsilano. Yet I was looking into this room from Hardy Island. In some strange way, I had ingested the geography of the island. I had become it.

When the same thing happened three nights in a row, I called a real estate agent and put my house up for sale. I was going to build a home on Hardy. The confusion of geographies stopped.

Pursuing the Desert Tracking Urge: Part 2

Catch plump stars - 1

Two of the students taking the course on tracking animals in the desert were former members of the LAPD drug squad. I speak to Dennis, the older of the two. He tells me he was an only child in a poor family. They lived in a wooded area far from town. He loved the outdoors, but his father wasn’t a sportsman. “I asked my dad for a certain kind of fishing rod for my birthday. He didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. But he saved up. When I finally got it, I went to the trout stream near by. But I never fished. Every day I’d stand in the stream and, wearing goggles, put my head under water, and watch the fish, studying what they did, how they moved, what they went after for food. At the end of the summer, I tied my own lure and cast the rod. I caught my first fish. I still never miss.”
I wonder if this was the beginning of his path to becoming an effective detective. The subtext.
Dennis was intriguing, and very sweet. Perhaps because I liked him, I couldn’t bear to ask how he could possibly make a living looking for lost dogs in L.A.
“Are you going to be writing a story about this weekend?” he asked me. I said I didn’t know. “You kind of talk in riddles,” he said.
“I can’t really disappear desert animals.”
“I know you can’t.”

It turns out I don’t sleep very well in the same room with a stranger named Doris. At 3 a.m. I finally decide to make my way to the washrooms which are 50 yards away. Because the centre is run on solar power, all the lights are switched off at 10 p.m. It doesn’t matter that I’ve forgotten my flashlight: the pitch black sky is charged with plump stars throbbing above me, so near I could reach up and haul them down to send them skipping off the lily-pad-pond. The stars, too, are like tracks, left by light rather than animals. Some of the stars might even be burned out by now, their light still travelling although the source is extinguished. This sky puts paid to such a strange, sad idea. Everything is incandescent. In such a place, under such a sky, it seems worthwhile to have the washrooms 50 yards away.
John Updike said there didn’t need to be so many stars in the sky to get us to understand how humble we should be. For some reason, I don’t feel humble. I belong.
Orion, the Hunter, strides mightily overhead, as I return to my room and the sleeping Doris.

Class starts early. Jimmy says “You need to get used to the subtlety of animal tracks; you need to develop your sense of discernment. Figure out an hypothesis about what you are seeing, and then check the evidence. And always consider that the tracks might be of a domestic dog. People take their dogs to weird places.” We are all intense; we are learning.
I crouch over what could be a smudge in the sand and declare “these are the tracks of a grey fox.” My teacher nods. Catch fox stole - 1
I remember as a little girl staring at what my grandmother was wearing. She had a fox around her neck. Down one side of her chest hung its head and down the other was its tail. One of its front and hind paws joined at the space between her bosoms. (That’s what my sister and I called them. We couldn’t call them breasts.) Because my grandmother wasn’t that friendly, I thought she had killed the fox.
And my mother’s astute personal observations were often couched within sayings. (Maybe that’s where my riddling nature came from.). Many sayings involved foxes. Her brother was “shy like a fox”. The neighbour was “clever like a fox.” Our small town was peopled with foxes.
The subtext of my family emerges in this desert place.
And then I remembered Ted Hughes’s poem “The Thought-Fox” and the lines:
“Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.”

Jimmy sets the next task. Each team is assigned a category of animals; we’re to make a track box. It’s not really a box but a location we’ve chosen in the desert because we figure our assigned animals will walk over the square of sand we’ve smoothed and prepared.
My two friends and I are supposed to track predators. The drug squad is assigned rabbits. They seem happy with their assignment. With perfect acuity, Jimmy will have them shift from tracking heroin addicts to tracking rabbits.
Jimmy says, “Some of you might find the tracks of shrews.”
I can only think of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. “What are shrews?” I ask.
Jimmy says, “They are like long-nosed mice, but they aren’t rodents, they’re more like moles. You could put 8 shrews in a package and mail them for 49 cents.”
I have a feeling he’s done that.
“A white-tailed deer, when they run, spread their toes and then the dew claws hit the ground.” He holds up the hoof of a white-tailed deer. It looks like an evening glove. He goes to a green tote bin of hooves and holds up another. “But caribou alway show their dew claws even if they’re not running. And remember, the fox will have its nose to the ground, so its front feet are going to dig in a little deeper… A domestic dog, scuffles. It isn’t moving efficiently. Not like a wolf or a coyote.” I look to make sure Dennis of the drug squad is paying attention. He is.

Hoof of a white-tailed deer

Hoof of a white-tailed deer

We learn about the gates of animals: bounding, diagonal, gallop, lope, pace, trot. We watch a film showing all of these different ways of moving.
The younger member of the drug squad pipes up. “Why don’t people just use dogs to find these animals.”
I laugh out loud. Because, as I’ve learned, these are lessons in looking at the evidence of gods who seem to have disappeared. They are lessons which back up faith, or perhaps show us how to find it in the first place.

I see you’ve been
standing outside my bedroom window
all night long.
But I don’t know who you are.
I wonder why you’ve come.
I want to know.

In the rocky cliffs near home base, my team decides this is where a bobcat would go to raise her young. We prepare the box on a path leading to the cliffs. We also create another box near a mesquite grove, where foxes might like to sleep.
The next morning we go to the locations where the teams have set their boxes. Doris and her friend walked five kilometres from our base camp to set their box. We drive there.
We are in the scrub desert, barren, full of hidden life, each of us walking slowly, looking, scorched under our hats by the hot, dry sun. “It’s somewhere around here,” Doris says. I’m hoping for her, yet it seems quite difficult to find where Doris’s team went the previous day.
Finally she finds it. “Here, this is where we set the box. We were aiming to get kangaroo rats.”
There are paw marks in the sand.
Jimmy falls on all fours to examine what’s there. “Yes, there were kangaroo rats here. And a coyote.”
We all cheer.
When we get to my team’s boxes, the tracks have an evanescent quality, as though they’ve come up from beneath the sand. There are the marks of a coyote, but not a bobcat. At the mesquite grove, there were foxes. It’s like being found by these animals, rather than finding them.
Back in the classroom, we are given various plaster casts of footprints and asked to identify them. As I stare at one, the teacher comes over and says, “There’s something very special about this print. If you don’t see it, you aren’t paying attention. The track will tell you.”
I think back to the subtext of my declaration at the beginning of the weekend, that I want to see things but they disappear on me. My statement was blind. I thought we were going to track the animals to find them. This is a different kind of engagement. We’re not looking at the tracks in order to find something in the present. We’re looking at the tracks in order to know something about the past, and, perhaps, a promise for the future.
Most important for me, I have the sense that there is a presence in the world which has not disappeared. It’s not even invisible; it’s there for me to know.

Miro "Person under the sun"

Miro “Person under the sun”

The urge to track animals in the desert

Catch Desert 1 - 1Catch Desert 2 - 1Catch Desert 4 - 1

Two friends invited me to go to the Mojave Desert in California, to take a weekend course on tracking animals. I said yes right away, even though it seemed a little harebrained to want to acquire such a skill. My cottage is in the midst of the rainforest. Despite my going there for the last ten summers, I don’t ever remember seeing the tracks of animals. Perhaps I haven’t been paying enough attention.
But the idea of being able to notice things currently invisible to me was appealing. I did hope, however, that the tracks we found were of fairly small, friendly animals.
I have no idea what pleases a tracker, what infuriates a tracker, or what keeps her awake at night. What does a tracker do?
I was going to find out.
We drove east from Los Angeles on a hectic freeway with six lanes of traffic going our direction. As the landscape became rougher, the lanes reduced and the traffic thinned. After three hours, we turned off into the bleak and barren beauty of the desert. We travelled for a few miles along a newly paved one lane highway, black like a robber’s glove, when suddenly the road was broken up and the gouged asphalt overtaken by sand.
The indomitable weather, which seemed so still, was moving in hidden sheets of effort, reclaiming the road.
For some reason it pleased me, this patch of taken-back ground. It seemed to reveal the truth about all our endeavours.
Even in the desert, water grinds stone, drop by drop. To prevail, it only requires time.
On the distant horizon, sunlight reflected off the watery surface of a vast lake. How curious its presence was in the midst of the desert. My friend said, “Wait. You don’t know what you’re seeing.”
As we got closer, the lake became what it was: a dried up bed of white salts.
Starting in the 1880’s, and for decades, mule teams, comprised of twenty animals each, hauled out this borax. Fortunes were made in places named for the difficulty of the endeavour: Death Valley, Funeral Mountain, Furnace Creek, Badwater..…

We eventually arrived at a place of sturdy, ambiguous mystery. It could have been an isolated munitions base. Some signs said “keep out” and others said “keep right.” I didn’t know if we belonged or if we were intruders. The history of the Desert Studies Centre was present in all its layers.
We kept right.
In front of low scattered buildings was what appeared to be a small pond. Having just been tutored by the empty soda lake, I was wary. Yet as we got closer, I saw lily pads.
A few miles back was a salt bed which had been a lake. In front of me, now, a lake which would become a salt bed. It was like a running gag, this dried up lake business; and a great joy, because I think I’m never going to see the same thing twice. Of course, I might be wrong about that.
We pulled in to the parking lot and got out.
A man wearing green army fatigues, the same colour as his jeep, drives up. He consults his clipboard, tells us our room numbers, and informs me that my roommate’s name is Doris. I don’t know Doris.Catch Desert Tracks - 1

There are two small beds in my spartan accommodation. I don’t want to sleep in the same room as Doris. I want to be in a fancy hotel and order room service and drink from the mini-bar.
We don’t have plumbing, and by that I mean no sink, toilet, or shower. Nor pictures on the whitewashed walls.
An inner voice says “My dear, your roommate’s name is Doris. And this is where you’ll be, for three days. Think of Pioneer Ranch Camp when you were fourteen. You survived Pioneer Ranch Camp.”
Barely. God help me.
Inside the entrance to our classroom, a table is set with vegetables and dip, water and juice. My fellow students arrive. Everyone wears a hat.
There are twelve of us in the class: four women (myself, my two friends and I assume that’s Doris slouched in a chair in the corner) and eight men. The men, except for one, look like thugs: broad shouldered, beefy, tanned. They scare me. The different one is soft and fleshy; I could touch his cheek and it would keep the mark.
Our teacher, Jimmy, stands at the front of the room. He’s elfin: fine featured, size 5 ½ shoes, short greying hair. He’s the kind of guy who would put his pen in the pocket of his new shirt, with the cap off, and ruin it. And be forgiven by his partner.
As we introduce ourselves, I learn that two of the men had been members of the Los Angeles Police Department drug squad. The older man has a craggy face, deeply lined, as if someone had taken a sculpting knife and done their worst. The younger man is heading to the same facial destiny. They now run a business looking for owners’ lost pets.
The soft-fleshed man, dressed in desert gear purchased from Value Village, is a retired pastor.
Doris teaches autistic children.
I identify myself as a novelist. The drug squad looks alarmed. I add that if a friend points at a rare species of bird in the nearby tree, when I look the bird disappears. “So, there might not be many animals around us this weekend.” What I say is true, but I’m just trying to be clever. And because this seems also to be a course in subtext, I realize I’m saying I have power but it’s a gimped kind of power. I want to see things, and they disappear on me.
In one way or another, everyone has come here because they want something new in their lives.
Our teacher hands each of us a bright yellow 6” ruler, and a sheet of paper with paw marks. I’m particularly fond of the ruler.
Jimmy tells us we will learn a methodology for understanding which animals have been in our environment. “All of this is knowable, as long as you learn it and apply it — as long as you are aware and have focus.” “You have to learn how an animal moves. A coyote never moves like a bobcat.” As I try to picture these animals, I drift off into imagining I’ll be able to tell someone: “there was a red fox right outside your bedroom window all night long.”

Catch Desert Palms - 1Eventually we follow our teacher outside and across the road to the rilled sand-waves in front of a grove of palm trees. Suddenly, Jimmy is no where to be seen. I look for him. He has fallen to the ground, and, on all fours, his head is inches from an animal track. He pulls the yellow ruler out of his pocket, and begins to measure.
The first time this happened it was so endearing I decided I did want to stay for the weekend. I promised myself I would be a gracious roommate for Doris.

“It’s a coyote,” our teacher says. We gather around and stare at what appears to be a smudge mark in the sand. “A track is a window into an otherwise invisible world,” Jimmy says. “You can see how the animal is walking, its mood, its posture, its personality, whether the animal feels safe. Where is it coming from? Where is it going to? I’ll teach you how to assess the age of a track. That’s important. I once found the tracks of a bobcat. They were very fresh. When I looked up, he was staring at me from about 30 feet away.”
When class concluded that first night, I decided to approach the older member of the drug squad, so I wouldn’t be afraid of him.

Milo's White Glove

Miro’s The White Glove

[To be continued 🐎🐎🐗]

Bye Bye Brazil

T. has come down with the flu.

Trouper takes me to a fairly remote area quite far from where we are living. He stays back as I walk the long beach.

No one is around; no tables with umbrellas and someone serving coconut juice, a straw stuck into the shell; no one to roast cheese skewered on a stick. Just the vast, empty sand stretching for miles, and the ocean’s relentless pounding.

Catch The Lightbulb 2 - 1

I watch, mesmerized, as the waves come in; I could watch them for hours. Their action, their beauty, replaces thought — puts in its place something else, some yearning, without effort, to grasp this material world, in its supreme forcefulness and power. It has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with me. It created us.

It’s not that I feel humble, or anything of the sort. I’m not even sure I have a sense of awe. It’s like watching something godlike from a safe distance, wondering how it is that I can possibly be safe.

And yet it also has a correlative in me, something I know and almost understand. I distract myself by judging which wave will come and cover my feet, or come up to my knees, or perhaps pull me down and out. As the monumental volumes of water advance towards shore, there’s a kind of stillness above the turmoil of the grey blue ocean — and then the waves break. But it’s like one wave, stretching for a mile, breaking in one piece that curls and rolls with such release of power.

It’s the forcefulness of it, the strength that could tear me to pieces, that could rip my arms off and shred my skin. The wave rolls and rolls towards me, and I am perched on its lips, almost in its mouth, watching, waiting, and it spills itself forward and dissipates and spreads on the sand, and withdraws, to be hit by another coming at its back.

There’s some fingering in all of this of my place on Hardy Island, so far away in British Columbia; but how calm the ocean is there.

Mainly, I am looking out. When I look down, I see a brown bottle being tossed on shore, and then it’s pulled back to drowning. I watch its movement. I lean forward, and I get it.

It looks like a large medicine bottle, with a metal cap. It’s empty; there’s no message. How is it that, wherever it came from, it came to me, unbroken and undamaged?

I walk along the shore, carrying the bottle, amused at this blatant offering in the midst of my bewildered thoughts.

Catch The Ocean - 1

About 300 feet further on, bouncing in the foam boiled up by the waves, is something round. I do the same as with the bottle: I wait, watch the thing go out – is it a jelly fish? – watch it come back to me – I pick it up. It’s a lightbulb. A lightbulb has been tossed up by this crushing forbidding ocean whose time depth is the beginning of the world. Its being, its presence, the way it works and looks, has not changed since then. The next land mass I would find, if I could follow my gaze, would be Africa. The water which touches me, touches Africa, unhindered. The ocean offers, unbroken, a lightbulb at my feet, delivered by, or from, this force which is so great and grand, yet responsive enough to answer to the pull of the moon. This pulverizing element, which changes rock into minute grains of sand, holds up a lightbulb and delivers it at my feet.

There is some joke here. I don’t get it, but it seems to be a divine joke.

I’m returning home with a medicine bottle and a lightbulb, and wondering what this waking dream is all about.

Brazil Interrupted by Robins

As I’m about to post the final catch about Brazil, I am interrupted by robins. 

In the midst of my habit of looking down, I look up.

On the second storey of my cottage, resting against the gutters, is a nest.

I climb out my bedroom window to the roof. There are three eggs. Their readiness presses the air.Hardy Nest - 1

The next day, on the rough ground outside my back door, there’s the jagged half shell of an empty blue egg. So, it’s happened.

I go to the roof again. They’ve hatched. To my surprise, they’ve survived.

The birds, if I could even call them that, don’t have an outside but only a bloody transparency. Are they ready for life, with their huge black and unseeing eyes?

And the following day they have skin and a skiff of feathers. How beginning they are. And are there only two? And if two, where’s the other?

The birds’ eyes make up most of their unwieldy heads. And they seem to open their entire selves to gasp the air in search of food.

These new things stabbed their shells, kicked them off, determined to get out. And they did. Their heads are cleft figs. The mother looks around, furtive, and then pierces the food into their mouths. She is feeding a beating heart.

Six days later, as I climb back inside the window, my foot catches on the sill. I am smashed down against a chair. Breathless with pain, I can’t raise my left arm.

I fell into my house, a nest. I damaged my arm, a wing.

I have to go back to the city for a few days. When I return, walking to the cottage, I see what I didn’t want to see: the desiccated body of a baby robin in front of me on the path. I have more sorrow than sight. I cannot imagine what happened. The bird couldn’t have tried to fly, because it had only bones for wings. It wasn’t eaten by a predator. It must have fallen from the nest.

I am confined by belief and disbelief. I believe when I look in the nest again, the remaining birds will be dead. I disbelieve that there is a through-line of life between then and now.

Off the path there is a large stone within the salal and ferns. I dig a hole and place the bird’s body in it, and cover it with earth. The first dead bird has a headstone.

Reluctantly, I go back out through the window to the roof.

But two of them are there. My shadow over the nest makes the birds think I am its winged mother. Their mouths are the gape of an open crocus, gold-vermillion, gashed.Hardy Birds are Hungry - 1

Three days later, the nest is empty. It’s coming apart now, strewing and slurring down the side of the house.

My friend, who is far away, tells me that today a robin sat on her windowsill, pecking at the glass, as though wanting to build a nest within.

Hope takes wing.

There’s No One to Take You Home

In my last post, I was in Salvador, Brazil, watching the entrancing spirit-possession ceremony called the candomblé. I continue watching.

Candomblé dancer

Candomblé dancer

A somewhat pasty-faced man dances in the circle closest to the centre. He is tall, wearing an off-white cotton top and pants. His curly grey hair could be a wig. He looks a little like a newly frocked monk, soft and pliant, or perhaps the clerk in a bank. Or, because of the wig, a grandmother. He’s singing the songs – each song is to a different god – and I watch his small mouth sound out the words.
Although he is by no means attractive, wherever I look, my eyes eventually come back to him. He is dutifully circling in the dance, self-contained, singing.
A dancer passes in front of me whom I believe is a woman, because her wrists and arms are tiny. I can’t see her face because she’s wearing the traditional candomblé costume with the straw headdress covering her eyes and obscuring her face.
There are older woman, in all-white long dresses, moving their arms out from their bodies and back. It’s almost a rowing action. They look old and vulnerable.
As the music changes tempo, everyone bows, touching the floor and then putting their hands to their faces, as though blessing themselves. Then they straighten and continue to circle in the dance.
A man passes by. He probably weighs 250 pounds. He is wearing a sleeveless top which reveals his broad shoulders and tight muscled arms. In one hand he holds a silver vanity mirror which he presses against his chest. Below his midriff are the voluminous skirts with acres of cloth all bloused out and uplifted by crinolines. His eyes look closed. As with the others, he has a kind of bracelet, thick, silver, which grips his forearms high up, near his shoulders.
His face is round, like a cherub’s; his cheeks puff out as if blowing on a cornet.
What a contrast to the anemic banker circling closer to the centre. The banker and the large-skirted man are like planets in vastly different orbits.
There are now about 150 people crammed into the room, all standing. Some of them are singing.
Another man goes by, dressed similarly to the large man, but instead of a mirror he holds a stylized red sabre which he directs to his heart.
Weaving between the circles is a middle-aged woman carrying a towel. She puts the towel on a dancer’s back, drying the sweat. She clears the face of another dancer. She lifts strands of the straw headdress, and helps the frail woman inside. Then she tosses the towel over her shoulder, the way you would if you had just patted down a horse.
And that’s the description given by Ruth Landes in 1939: that sometimes the god descends into the dancer’s head “and rides her” as if she is his horse. “Then through her body he talks and dances.”
It’s hot in the room. I can feel the sweat gathering on my forehead; it drips down my face. I don’t know why I don’t mind. Lisa asks me if I want to go outside – it’s a rougher conversation than that, because we don’t speak the same language, but I seem to understand her question. In any event, I say no.



Three little girls are in front of me, sitting on the bench behind which I am now standing. They aren’t watching the dancing, they are watching me. One of them, bright faced and eager, starts to talk to me. Lisa explains to her that I don’t understand Portuguese. At least I hear the word “Portuguese” and she shakes her head. The little girl seems to find this somewhat astonishing. She continues to chatter away to me. I look at her, listen, and shake my head just as Lisa did. Then Lisa says something like, “She wants you to talk to her in English.” So I say, “Hello,” and I put out my hand, “I am happy to meet you. My name is Leslie. What is your name?” Lisa gets enough of the sense of this to be able to translate. She is Sophie, and Sophie continues to talk to me in Portuguese. Lisa explains, “She wants you to say what it’s like to fly in a plane,” or something like that. I use my hand to imitate a plane, then sign out 24 with my fingers, trying to tell her how long it took me to get here from Canada. On we go in this way. But I want to watch the dancing. I leave her to Lisa. Yet it’s not easy to ignore a young, engaging child. She talks to me, then pulls on my sleeve. I lower my head. She whispers loudly in my ear something in Portuguese. She thinks my problem is with hearing, not with understanding. I try to share the real difficulty by whispering in her ear, “But you see, I don’t understand you. And it’s just like this. You don’t understand me.” The girl is delighted by my gibberish.
I look up again, watching the dancing, as Sophie watches me. Sophie says something to Lisa, who translates. “You are beautiful.”
Ah, linda, I say, and don’t get the pronunciation quite right. I point to her. Linda.
And I abandon her, once again, to Lisa.

There is hardly a break between songs, barely a seam of silence separating one from the next. Ruth Landes refers to a singer “pulling the songs for the drummers to take up.” Without the verb “pulled” I wouldn’t have understood as clearly as I do what I am experiencing. Amidst the dancers, I am able to pick out the voice of the singer who stands near the central edifice. He is the one who starts the songs, and stops them. He is the one who pulls the songs for the drummers.
I am drawn back to the anemic banker. He’s moved out of the inner most circle and is on the outside, close to me. Suddenly, his head goes back and his knees buckle, his body like a table collapsing. The woman with the towel is there to catch him and hold him up. She must have been watching out for him, she’s so close at hand. An older man is there, too. They don’t let the dancer go. He stands and starts to move again around the circle. They follow him; they watch him; they take care of him. I have a sense that they want him to be able to carry this god who has come into him, without crumbling from its force. And he does. As he dances again, in the outer circle now, he is changed. His face is chiseled, angular, hardened. He doesn’t mouth the words of the song. He is taken to an inner dance.
I yield to the temptation to close my eyes so that I can hear these rhythms without sight. My head becomes a drum, vibrating with this music. Around and around. I am emptied out, except for this. The pounding pulverizes my anxiety, my fears, my obsessions. It even vanishes my fatigue.
When I open my eyes again, the woman with the straw headdress is whirling in fast circles on the floor, and then strides forward — more like a speed-skater, than a horse — stops and turns again. It’s a ferocious, muscular movement which seems to press into her and spin her like a top. Suddenly, she is propelled through the curtained doorway and disappears. The two helpers follow her.
“Where has she gone?” I ask Lisa, but she frowns and shrugs.
Luke taps me on the shoulder and I jump, as though he’s touched me with an electric charge. “We have to go now,” he says.
“Lisa and I are going to a concert. You can come if you’d like.”
“Can I stay here?”
“No, not by yourself, and anyway, there’s no one to take you home.”

From Tough to Inspiring – Dancing in Honour of the Gods

The streets of Salvador, Brazil, are narrow and difficult to negotiate at the best of times (often it involves facing an on-coming car and backing up for a few blocks). On Saturday night it’s worse. There are people everywhere, carrying glasses of beer in plastic cups, herding about on the sidewalks, on the roads, unconfined by any bar or restaurant. They’ve taken over the streets.
Luke picks me up to go to the ceremony. He is wearing ordinary street clothes, a sweatshirt and kaki pants. Around his neck is a long string of large beads which declare his status as a member of the candomblé.
Candomblé means “a dance in honour of the gods.” He explains that the religion originated in Africa and was developed in Brazil in the 1500’s, when thousands of slaves were brought to work in the sugar industry. For years, the candomblé was exclusively practiced by women, and men were not allowed to participate. The basis of the religion is spirit possession. Remarkably, concepts of good and evil have no part in the beliefs; rather, each person has their own destiny to fulfil. And, as Ruth Landes notes, “their gods love a certain amount of trouble.”*
Fittingly, Luke says, “I’m attracted to all religions. I can’t help it. I just wish they wouldn’t fight.”
We pick up Lisa in front of the catholic church.Building in Bahia

Our route takes us away from the crowds and into dark and serpentine streets. We park in a cul-de-sac, walk half a block, and then descend between cinder block buildings. A plastic bag is animated by the wind and flutters ahead of us.

Along the steep alley-way, children are leaning out between the bars of tall iron fences. They are looking at us and they are looking down towards the bottom of the street.
In one enclosure there’s a doll, four feet high, with chocolate dark skin and bulging eyes, as though frightened by what it is seeing. The doll is dressed as a candomblé dancer, its skirts billowed by crinolines.
We’re entering an underworld.
I think of Rilke’s “Orpheus, Euridice and Hermes”: “That was the deep uncanny mine of souls… Like veins of silver ore, they silently moved through its massive darkness.”
Except we are not silent. Lisa is in the lead, occasionally erupting in inexplicable laughter.
For me, superimposed on the sight of Lisa is the presence of that room which is her home. [See previous Catch]
More children peer out from between iron bars as we descend. They live along this alley-way, the avenue to a place where the gods can enter a dancer’s body.
Finally we are at the bottom. In an open courtyard people are sitting on chairs, drinking beer and smoking. Women are cooking food over charcoal grills.
Although we are two hours late, Luke speaks to someone and then tells me that the ceremony hasn’t started yet. Spirit is always late, I think.
We pass through a corridor of people standing on either side of a doorway, and enter the terreiro, the cult centre. It’s a large rectangular room, perhaps 35’ x 40’. There are wooden benches around the periphery of the space, the women on the right, the men on the left. All the places are occupied by people sitting still, quietly waiting. At the centre of the room is a round structure, almost like a small bandstand, decorated with large shimmering swaths of blue and yellow fabric fashioned into a bow at the top and then flowing down to the ground. The cloth half covers two large dolls, both with bulging terrified eyes. In a corner there is another array of offerings on a stand: more dolls, a bottle of champagne, I don’t know what all.
Against one of the walls are three drums of different sizes.Candomblé drums
Luke says he is going to sit with the men, and directs me to the women’s side of the room. Lisa has found a small space on a bench for me, and, somewhat reluctantly, I sit down. She stands behind me. I’m the only gringa in the room.
A man comes through the cloth covering a doorway on the wall opposite me. He is wearing what might be, if you were to design such a thing, pyjamas for a prison inmate. They are square and baggy with wide blue and white stripes. His body is large and egg-shaped; he’s perhaps thirty-five years old, and he has a mincing swish in the way he walks, in the way he kisses the hands of the men and women he greets. He is the queen. We are his subjects.
Then another man is there, in pyjamas of the same cut but with a floral design. He is even taller and larger than the inmate, and has similar Truman Capote affectations, although slightly grander.
This is a liminal space at the entrance to many worlds. Ambiguities of all sorts find a purchase here.
A procession now comes into the room, men and woman dressed mostly in white. People clap, just a little, and everyone stands. The drums start, and the dancers form into two circles, an inner one and an outer one, moving around the central stand. They strike me as being on a divine merry go round, each dressed so differently, because they are dressed for their gods. And there are many gods.
As I look at the feet of the dancers, I am conscious of my own. I am wearing red shoes, like desert boots; my toes are curled inside, as though I am gripping onto a branch.
In the next Catch, I’ll describe what happened when I let go of that tentative grip.

*Landes (1908-1991) was in Salvador, Brazil, in the late 1930s, studying the candomblé. Her work was eventually published as The City of Women. She was mentored by Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas, her teachers.

More From Brazil: Beneath Appearances

IMG_0616The water problem has been solved to the extent that we have water coming into the first floor. Cold water, but no one is complaining. The bar lowers.
We go to the beach. A young boy comes along selling cheese on skewers. He carries a small metal container on a chain which has burning coals in it. We buy three skewers, which he roasts over the coals. The cheese is delicious. T. says, “This is what Luke was doing when I met him twenty-five years ago. He was nine years old, supporting his entire family by selling things on the beach.”
T. has an extraordinary ability to identify, and support, the potential in others.
Now, at 34, Luke runs a business employing people to make high-end purses and bags out of the tabs from pop and beer cans. He was recently featured in Vogue Magazine. He’s gay, part of the candomblé religion and entirely charming. Luke was one of the people T. helped when she ran the charitable organization to assist women and children to get housing and schooling; she’s still in contact with many of the people she helped; they are her friends.
One of them is Lisa. She comes every day to cook and clean for us. She is twenty-five years old, with three children. She is always stylishly dressed, generally with dangling earrings, and pearl jewelry around her neck. We have a small lap pool at our casa; one day she brings her older son to swim. Like his mother, he is well dressed, sparklingly clean, and loving.
T. asked if I would like to walk Lisa home, to see where she lives.
We make our way through the narrowing streets of the barrio. We stop for a short visit with Mike and Anna. They’ve just finished building their house. Mike is a writer, originally from New York, and Anna is a social worker from Brazil. Mike says pleasantly, without any complaint in his voice, “We have five phones. Most of them don’t work. I think we’re down to one now. Because of the salt. And sometimes the phone doesn’t work if it rains.”
When we arrive at Lisa’s, her drunken mother, now physically deformed from being beaten so often, is just stepping into the street. T. told me that the mother goes to the beach and trades sex for food from the fishermen.
Lisa unlocks the door. Across the barred gate there appears a small barking dog. A man comes out, Lisa’s partner; he’ll take the dog for a walk, because otherwise there won’t be room for all of us. Still there isn’t enough room.
How and where Lisa lives with her partner and her three children is burned into my brain. It’s a room no larger than the bedroom I have in the rented house: maybe 8’ x 12’, with a bathroom behind a curtain. In the room there’s a stove, fridge, bunkbed, and a dresser with a television set on it.
It’s hard not to avoid the thought that whatever they have, including their poverty, is somehow, through no fault of their own, contagion.

Mural in the barrio

Mural in the barrio

When Lisa isn’t there, or her sister isn’t babysitting, the children are locked in that room, otherwise Lisa is afraid they’ll be abused or killed. In the afternoons, after school, and sometimes all day long, they sit in the semi-dark, hunched over because to see the television they crouch on the bottom bunk, and the cross bar is low and hits their heads. Gradually they will diminish, in one way or another.
I had no idea. I saw Lisa every day, always well-dressed like a fashionable 25 year old, with her pearl jewelry. The oldest child spent the day with us. I had no idea they came from this place.