… is invisible to the eye. Both scriptural and found in the eloquent pages written by Antoine de St. Exupery, these words resonate with me on this seeming ordinary April day.
As the world’s citizens gasped in horror while the spire of Notre-Dame Cathedral fell to the ravages of fire, I not only grieved the loss/damage to such an iconic structure, but I immediately connected with my own memory and what the sense of place meant to me and my own family. I can not possibly know all of what Notre-Dame has meant over history, nor can I know the myriad of treasured moments shared there by other people just like me, from all over the world.
Instead, I think of my own three children and my, at-the-time, soon-to-be son-in-law. I think of the utter joy at the early morning surprise of a plane ticket from London to Paris, a subway ride into the core from the airpoirt and the magical events that unfolded, all of them shared as family.
Over the past ten years, if one runs just a few searches on the internet, one will find out how many of civilization’s greatest monuments have fallen, destroyed in natural catastrophes or through the mindless and hateful ravages of war. The destruction of the most cherished landmarks in human history shatters us, somehow, to the core. These are places captured in the minds and imaginations of all of us, places written about and found in movies, settings that we assume will always remain stable and present in those same imaginations.
I think we need to think about the fragility/the ephemera of our lives and our planet. This morning, again, I reflect upon what is essential. I’m hoping that through the damage done to such a seemingly permanent icon as Notre-Dame Cathedral, our human family might combine their efforts in creating a better world. Let us take pause and go into this day, empowered to make a difference.
Off the top…a great book recommendation made by Bill MacDonnell, Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama.
From the section of Streams of Consciousness Chapter 5…this preface by Gaston Bachelard.
“I was born in a country of brooks and rivers, in a corner of Champagne, called Le Vallage for the great number of its valleys. The most beautiful of its places for me was the hollow of a valley by the side of fresh water, in the shade of willows…My pleasure still is to follow the stream, to walk along its banks in the right direction, in the direction of the flowing water, the water that leads life towards the next village…Dreaming beside the river, I gave my imagination to the water, the green, clear water, the water that makes the meadows green. …The stream doesn’t have to be ours; the water doesn’t have to be ours. The anonymous water knows all my secrets. And the same memory issues from every spring.”
― Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter
These summarize my general sense of landscape and more specifically, place.
Just as I think that our narratives inhabit objects, and without materialism, contain our affections and memory, I believe that particular places do the same.
On Labour Day, my son and I headed to Magrath, Alberta to say good-bye to a house…my Auntie Ruth’s home…because on September 15, it will be possessed by a new family after all of these years. James and I listened to CBC radio programming all the way south to Lethbridge. It seems to me that a story on whistle blowers in places of employment kept us engaged for most of the journey. The miles, as is usual, went by quickly. Once traveling the 23 across from Claresholm, Barons was just around the corner and then, with coulees in sight, I felt as though I was home.
Rolling into Magrath, the first stop was the old house. My cousins have been sorting and downsizing and cleaning…a very difficult experience, as I recall from the days when my parents went through the same process. As I stepped into the house, all of the memories of childhood and adulthood rushed back to the surface. There’s just no stopping that particular experience. I snapped a few photographs…while Auntie Ruth had already moved…she was still absolutely present to my experience of memory and love.
Last week, my cousin wrote that he had found a package of negatives in among Ruth’s things…and much like I do at such discoveries, he set out and had them developed. Here, is a scan of one of those photographs. My parents, in 1954, brother John, a year old and one, a photograph of my Grandfather, John Moors, with his dog at Greg Lake.
“His use of architectural phenomenology lets the mind loose to make its way, always ready for what might emerge in the process. The house is ‘the topography of our intimate being’, both the repository of memory and the lodging of the soul – in many ways simply the space in our own heads. He offered no shortcuts or routes of avoidance, since ‘the phenomenologist has to pursue every image to the very end’.”
If one does not move carefully through a house/home, one might not capture these bits of magic or ephemera that remain silenced by time and circumstance. I’m grateful to my cousin who discovered those negatives, flattened amid the bric-a-brac.
Our footsteps echoed in the house, as James and I traveled room to room. And while memories flooded my walk, my son James had a completely different experience of place and quietly uttered the words, “This is so sad.”
I remember the front door always being open or unlocked. Family came and went.
My father asked me to take a photograph of the front door. Several times repaired or renovated, my father had recollection of an incident from his childhood in this part of the house. I’m publishing that recollection, here, as it was written.
“Well the problem is Kath this new door had the hole above it fixed. Anyway my dad and his buddies came home from hunting birds one day in Magrath Alberta . Of course they were half cut (as dad told me years later”if you are going to drink just drink good scotch and you will never have a hang over”. Well that day Dad left a shell in his single barrel 12 gauge shot gun. I being an inquisitive young lad wanted them all to know ( Mom and the whole family was in that little living room); anyway I lined up the duck flying above the door cocked the gun and pulled the trigger.. BAM you should have heard the screems and the shot about knocked me on my butt but there was a neat round hole firght through trim at the top of the door which appeared just seconds after a big guy way over 6 feet had walked in. Dad was the only one who got supreme heck for having a loaded gun in the house. Now I have bared my soul to all those interested.PS I was about 7 or so when this happened..”
I remember fried eggs and bacon cooking….the smell of toast freshly-popped. I remember my mother’s laughter in this kitchen. I will always remember where my Auntie sat.
The back room…I remember the ceiling being lined with cardboard egg cartons. I remember my cousins and drumming and laughter. I remember the door from this room out to the back, always open. I remember summer.
I remember Linda. I remember sleepovers. I remember lots of quilts and pillows.
I remember food supply.
Objects of the every day.
I remember the gardens…the lilies…the geraniums…the hanging baskets.
More than anything, I remember my Auntie sitting on the front porch.
From the house, James and I went for visits with both his Great Aunties…Ruth and then Eleanor. We are so blessed to have these women in our lives, as well as my Auntie Jackie and Auntie Mary. I lift up prayers for all…for their health and their safety and that we keep memories such as I enjoyed with my son, close to our hearts.
Just this morning, and the reason for this post, I interviewed Auntie Ruth over the telephone, about her home.
Back in early 1940s, my Gramma and Grampa moved to Magrath, mostly in an effort to help their young daughter, Ruth, fight the symptoms of asthma. The humid air in Ontario seemed to really irritate her breathing and my grandparents were willing to try anything.
The first home they lived in was rented from a Ukrainian family. I am in the process of researching their name. Water was manually pumped from a well on the property. There was an outhouse and bathing happened in the middle of the kitchen floor in a round tub. Auntie Ruth remembers the water being heated in a kettle on a wood/coal stove.
Magrath had two stores at the time, the Trading Company and Louis Stevenson’s store. There was a black smith shop on main street, as well as a show house. There were no sidewalks in the town.
When Ruth turned 16, she remembers that the family moved into a white stucco house, the very house that James and I visited on September 1 of this year. She remembers that Eleanor, Margaret and Johnny went off to school in the town, located where today’s school stands but, of course, a much smaller building. During the war, Ruth worked at one of the blanket-making machines in the Golden Fleece Woolen Mill. I’m posting a photograph of that particular mill here…it is not to be confused with the Woolen Mill that my grandfather opened up some years later.
Many contracts came in to the Magrath Golden Fleece Woolen Mill during World War II 1939-1945. My Auntie remembers working there.
A booklet published by the Magrath History and Museum Association and written by John Balderson, explains…
“When in full operation, the Golden Fleece Woolen Mill ran three 8 hour shifts, 24 hours a day. Twenty-five men and women were on each shift making seventy-five individuals in total. Two hundred and twenty five army blankets were made each day using 1,000,000 lbs of wool each year.”
Whenever my Auntie speaks about that time, she mentions the Canadians of Japanese descent who shared her machines with her. She also talks about the shame she feels at how they were treated. She explained to me this morning that eight Japanese-Canadian women were pulled off the Sugar Beet fields, to work in the mill. They were all University educated and lovely, however, shy women. Auntie Ruth said that their housing was comprised of sheds lined up on the far edge of town, rows and rows of sheds where these beautiful and hard-working people were treated as prisoners-of-war. My Auntie will never forget the women she worked with on her shifts.
In terms of the house, my Auntie remembers very good and also, difficult times. She dated my Uncle Roy for four months when they got married and moved to Lethbridge, Uncle Roy worked for Western Drilling. Ruth was 20 at the time. Auntie Ruth will always tell you that the Korean War finished off her husband. And all these years later, having read about the war and discovered the exposure these soldiers had to Mustard Agent and Lewisite as well as the bizarre view of PTSD at the time and the irresponsible treatment of these veterans, it is absolutely no wonder that he and his family, struggled upon his return.
I remember vacation days in both Magrath (at my Auntie Ruth’s and at my Grandparent’s place in front of the mill) and Raymond (at my Auntie Eleanor and Uncle Ted’s place). In fact, I regret that I didn’t have the chance to grieve the farmhouse in Raymond like I did this house. I remember much family laughter. I remember the smell of a slow-cooked blade roast in the oven. I remember my Grandmother’s laughter. I remember the smell of wool.
This past weekend, I said good-bye to a place. That does not mean that it does not remain with me…always.
I sent off the last two Love Notes two days ago, apart from the one that I have kept for myself.
I painted the series in 2004. It’s difficult to believe that already ten years have passed. Their story follows.
A Series of 12 Paintings
In 2004, I took up running along the ridge and down on to the lower trail along the Bow River. I had stopped to take a break at a random point. It was shady. I was completely alone, and to the right of me, the river flowed a blue green. I bent to tighten my laces, when at my toe, I saw a single rose. Bewildered, I picked it up and held it in my hand, looking. I spoke out loud at that time and said, “If this is some sort of a sign, Lord, thank you.”
I had lost at love again. It had become a ritual with me in my life. This time I was stumped and struggling to get back on track. The rose was a gift for me, a gift of healing.
Just next to the path and under some trees, I found a bench. I decided to sit and rest there for a time. I didn’t notice them at first, but there, hung by ribbon from the trees, were eleven roses. I gasped. All of a sudden, I felt that the space, the landscape and the river were more sacred. Something had happened at this location or someone special/an event had been remembered. I sat quietly for the longest time. Instead of continuing on a run, I turned for home, the rose still in my cupped hand.
I decided to paint a dozen roses…nostalgia, memory, love, symbols…
Eleven people have now received a Love Note…I have kept the one. The process: I flipped the paintings over in a grid of twelve and I wrote out my own love note, left to right, from top to bottom. Writing had, over the years, become an essential practice for me...this, along with exploring the visual world…objects…landscape…faces.
The painting at the top left was titled Love Note #1, all the way to Love Note #12 in the bottom right. If you received a Love Note, it was because something in you lit a spark in me. This was a very random, but time-impacted process. It would take an amazing moment in the gyre of life to bring the owners all together so that they might read the complete note on the back, something that connects all of you!
The original rose that I found at my toe remains in my studio, a reminder of the lessons taught in my favourite book, Le Petit Prince par Antoine de Saint-Exupery. If you received a Love Note, I would love to hear from you…and hear about the moment when you received a painting gift from me. I would enjoy reading your love note to me.
In 2005, I began writing this blog. It had something to do with the privacy or public notion of words. I was thinking that morning about the impermanence of life…of all of the floating papers of our lives…of art. And so this blog was born at the remembrance of those papers fluttering to the ground, from those broken buildings and from all that is ephemeral, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
It is an interesting thing to go back to September 2005 and consider the words that I chose to write down…a blog was born out of those words.
I was spinning my wheels that morning. There were things to get done as always and so I busied myself with those rituals when one of the children called upstairs to me, “Mom, what is the World Trade Center?”
As I remember it, I stepped out from the bathroom, into the hall where I could see the television clearly. A voice said, “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.”
As I set myself down on the couch, a plane hit the second tower. Smoke and flame billowed heavenward… it was truly something that seemed unbelievable. It remains so.
It is very early in the morning. I’ve just come in from the studio…it is only right that I should remember in the silence of this first bit of morning the many who lost their lives and the families they left behind, shattered and rebuilding to this day.
I played two songs for my students this morning. One was Deja Vu written by John Fogerty and the other was Wake me up When September Ends by Green Day. I thought there were common themes in these two pieces of writing and that the melodies were rich, emoting ‘stuff’ that the students could think about, given the circumstances in Iraq.
Just recently they have been considering Ray Bradbury’s short story, All Summer in a Day…and there are also some parallels there; with the seven years of rain….and issues of isolation, sadness and abandonment. The image of the sun gives us some insight about hope and its potential in very dark moments.
After listening, I distributed both sets of lyrics and led some rich discussion about ‘seeing the writing on the wall’. I felt pleased that the people sitting in front of me were going to take some learning with them.
As a follow-up, they will first write a comparison of the two songs and their themes and then go on to discuss which song they prefer and why it is preferred.
Finally, they will find a pathway into the lyrics and write their own narrative based on thoughts that surface as a result of considering the writing of these two powerful songs. I was excited when one of the boys came to ask me if he could write from a voice in the song Vietnam by Creedance Clearwater Revival. Good! I told him that I was especially pleased that he had extended the suggested activity as it will mean more to him this way.
It was a very rewarding day in the classroom.
This writing has provided me a brief shift in posture and in focus. Now I must return to the studio where work is really pushing forward. I hope that the energy can be sustained.
There is no long trail of documentation that precedes me…no hard drive containing a vast record of digital photographs…who I was…who I am…appearance-wise. I fear though, that I have left a huge trail of ephemera. My children likely wish that my footprint was less in this regard. I have a stack of concert t-shirts, for example…each one worn one time only…I hope everyone will select their favourite and take it, when I’m gone. The same goes for my ‘vinyl’…each record played once in order to make a cassette tape and then filed in a box. Why do I hold on to such as this? Does anyone really know Three Dog Night anymore?
My mother found two photographs in a box taken with a borrowed camera and she swears that they are photographs of me. Why do I have my doubts? Here is one of these official baby photos…the only one of two.
I treasured the paint-by-number of The Last Supper that my father did while stationed up north, so much so that I purchased its contemporary on E-Bay for $9.98…apparently done by someone’s grandmother circa 1953. I’m glad I have an archive of the original. (see below)
I’ve always been a pet-lover. This has been documented also.
Next…proof that I studied ballet, until the teacher explained to my mother that perhaps this wasn’t the style for me. In retrospect, I could have told her that and saved us both the trouble.
Family…most times one parent was missing from the photograph, depending on who was holding the camera.
School photographs are the best, aren’t they?
Two other portraits were brought to mind by a photographer of my youth, Lorraine. The first one portrays my ‘earth mother’ days very well. I made lots of whole wheat and rye bread back then, some loaves more successful than others. These, always partnered by the community pot of soup. Mm-mmm! Lorraine captured my young-woman-walk-through-the-coulees-self exquisitely, me thinks!
The second sitting was with Lorraine when I was about seven months pregnant for my first baby. I like the ethereal sensibility created with the lighting and the curtain in the window. I don’t mind publishing the photo here. Photos in our contemporary world have become far more provocative and revealing. I think this one is subtle and captures, I think, my sense of anticipation, if not acceptance. Thank you, Lorraine, for reminding me of these!
Based on this visual legacy, I decided to have my portrait done professionally and it was both entertaining, creative and fun! Thank you, Jen of Jen Hall Photography! A great experience and a record of my presence to my life. Thanks also to Cathy Larsen who built a quilt out of 2006, a year where I documented magic every day for 365 days on fabric. You are a master at your craft, Cathy, and I continue to this day, to treasure our friendship and your artistry!
Sometimes when I think how good my book can be, I can hardly breathe. Truman Capote
I learned that I was pregnant with Erin and Lorraine took my photograph. This was before the day of ultrasound photographs! Trust me…my small seahorse is floating in a primal tide!
Recently my daughter and her husband went to London on vacation. This meant that she was away for Mother’s Day.
It was only yesterday that I discovered her card, tucked away in a drawer in the sideboard. These are the wee surprises in life that make it so magical. If our lives are marked by such surprises, then we are truly blessed.
There have been many struggles, as much as celebrations in our lives. But still, there were the hours of reading Dr. Seuss books and rolling play dough together.
There were costumes to find and create. There were cookies to bake. There was dancing in the living room. When I found this card, I remembered.