Go outside. Get high.


We went for a hike on Thursday. The garden is mostly done except for a few lettuce plants and a small plot ready for the garlic. Oh yeah. Pull up the fading sweet peas, say adios to the glorious clematis and kiss the one volunteer sunflower goodbye. Not yet, I tell them, not today. Summer comes to an end soon enough in Driftwood Canyon. Today I’m going into the mountains.

Which means I can ignore the itch that drives me upstairs this time of year. The itch and that damn caterwauling on the landing, the cat telling me to get my arse up there and into the chair. Or she’ll find something precious to knock off my desk.

I’m in that miserable stage of a writing project where a dozen ideas are roiling around inside what passes for my mind, and I’m scared to begin because once I do, well, all sorts of possibilities are lost. So hiking is a great distraction. It’s perfect this time of year. No mosquitoes. Not too hot. The flowers are mostly gone, but the colours of fireweed, huckleberries, willow and those red-leaved blueberries light up the alpine meadows.

the-trail-281x500The trail we pick is a gentle one – it follows the northern contour of Harvey Mountain with lots of views across Driftwood Creek to the mountains on the other side. No snow yet, and great swathes of red and yellow. An iron streak right through the mountain range. The roar of the creek fades as we climb high above its passage. A varied thrush lifts off the trail into a sub-alpine fir, letting us get a clear look. We hear them ringing all spring and summer, but rarely see them as anything but shadows.  A male spruce grouse, its red eyebrows still visible. Across the way, two mountain goats and then two more.




When you’re walking, though – climbing, sweating and puffing – it’s not all wonder and delight. Hips hurt, feet stumble, and you find yourself thinking about writing after all. The doubts that ring louder as you get older: the growing pointlessness as you see what a broken place the world is, what broken creatures we are. The millions of words thrown out to see what they might hook.

You never know when writing might bring you to a sense of intense connection and understanding – the words feeling like wisdom from a far off spectral being – but often you wonder just what the hell you’re doing as those words shiver and dissolve. Forgotten.

So too the trail. You find moments of pure joy when everything clicks and your feet feel a passage created by thousands of footsteps following the same path, some of them your own. How it takes you across a precipitous traverse and deposits you in wildness. In beauty, the blueberries sweet in your mouth. The trail opens you up, even if sometimes it’s rough, sometimes wet, cold, and sometimes frightening: the huge bear scat purpled by the same kind of berries you’ve just eaten. The fear that makes wildness what it is. The fear that gives any good writing the edge it needs, the fear that underlies everything we do. Knowing it will all get along just fine when we’re gone.

But, oh god, that feeling.


That fist in the air hurrah when the trail emerges into the glorious alpine meadows we get around here. The feeling when the writing falls into place, all the dead-ended game trails, all the boot-soaking bogs, the bruised shins and blistered feet forgotten. That feeling when it not only makes sense but makes the new kind of sense you want to study a bit farther. Use as a prism to refract what you think you know into something different, something bigger.

It’s always worth it.


International Women’s Day – Imagine!

When I was asked to speak to the Hazelton International Women’s Day celebration several years ago, I was first flattered, then I felt really old, and then I freaked. The request was like sprinkling warm water and sugar on what passes for my mind. A mind that some days feels like a batch of bread dough without the yeast. When I realized I’d said yes and would be standing up in front of a group of brilliant women, well, things started fizzing and bubbling. Mostly with anxiety. When I got down to the work of kneading that dough into some kind of shape, I had a hard time fixing on anything. What did I have to say about imagination? You’re a writer, I was told, you should be able to think of something.

bread (432x640)

So I started thinking. And for some reason I kept thinking about bread. One of my happiest childhood memories is of coming home from school to the smell and taste of my grandmother’s buns, her cinnamon rolls, her bread. There are many kinds of bread and I’ve been filching and trying bread recipes for years. But although you hope your bread is going to taste good and be nutritious, it’s the work of making it that counts.  It’s called being alive.

Lots of hard work goes into making bread and into living both, but there’s an ingredient we often forget about.


And I don’t mean the kind you never have enough of. The time to do all the things you think you need to do and can never get done. I mean the other kind of time, the kind most of us are banishing from our lives.

Here’s my granny’s recipe for buns:

Scald two cups of milk. Add shortening, sugar and salt.
Let sit until lukewarm.
Sprinkle yeast on top.
Let soften.
Beat in one egg, then add enough flour to make a sticky dough.
Cover and let rest.
Turn onto a floured board and knead until dough stops sticking and is smooth.
Place in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place.
Punch down, form into buns.
Cover and let rise again. Heat oven. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes.

It’s the other kind of time we forget about. The time to let the yeast come to life, join with the air and lift that dough up off its butt. Time to regroup and rise again. Time to kindle a fire, and time to leave the bread to bake. You’ve got to work the dough and you’ve got to let it alone.

I made some of my granny’s buns this morning. And as I punched them down, I thought about standing up and talking to an incredible group of women, women who have already forgotten more than I’ll ever know about living, women who have suffered, women who are way better at having fun. I felt like a fraud. What could I possibly have to tell you?

I may as well have been punching myself as punching down that dough.

Thankfully yeast doesn’t need confidence to rise. It can sit for a long time in the back of your cupboard looking pretty near dead and, given the right circumstances, still rise.

Like you, I was born with my ovaries chock full of eggs. A lot of them flowed away, quite a few were duds, and a couple made their complicated way out of my body and joined us here. Two boys, bless their hearts, who taught me a lot about love, terror and self-doubt. All of us, men and women, are born chock full of those little yeast-like pellets of imagination. They’re inside there, waiting for almost any excuse to rise up.

Mary Oliver, a wonderful and wise poet, calls imagination “a sharp instrument”. It cuts through our isolation and gives us the capacity to feel a stranger’s pain, to understand a friend’s anger, to share a child’s joy, to share the unique experience of being human. But it cuts both ways. We can imagine failure, embarrassment, ugliness, or, heaven forbid, ordinariness, much easier than peace, beauty, brilliance. It may take days and months to grow a story or a song, years to grow a child, a century to grow a tree. But if we don’t guard them carefully, it takes only seconds to cut them down before they reach the ripeness they’re due.

I grew up in a time when we didn’t really recognize the dark side of imagination. Women’s liberation and the pill were new enough to be untarnished. I had no idea how hard women had fought to get there and how terrified, angry and hostile some people were about their victories. Imagination was, to me, something fuzzy and warm. We believed, like John Lennon, that by imagining a better world, we could build it. We would make love, not war. The bad guys would lay down their guns and come with us back to the land.

That the bad guys had ideas of their own, that they were, in fact, part of who we were, never registered.

It took moving into a small community to realize how far many of my ideas were removed from people’s day to day lives. It wasn’t that people here were less advanced. It was that the community was close enough, small enough, for me to be able to see how people could be many things at the same time.

I still had lots of ideas though, and lots of those were about kids. Although I hardly knew any real children, I liked the idea of them. I imagined raising these ideas of children in a warm and fuzzy place where we’d live in peace and harmony and eat whole wheat bread. Where we’d play wholesome creative games, share the work and the fun, and it wouldn’t make any difference if they were boys or girls.

I think these were good ideas and I’m glad I had them. But I wasn’t prepared for the real thing. The gut-wrenching love I felt terrified me. So did the power of my frustration, resentment and fury. No one had told me about that part. When you make something, it takes on a life of its own and sometimes goes places you’d rather it didn’t. The flip side of creation.

And then the self-doubt. I doubted myself as a mother. I probably had my first clue that I wasn’t going to have complete control over what my children thought and did, that maybe heredity, gender and culture had their hands in the bread dough, when Daniel started biting his cheese into the shape of guns and shooting things. When he spent hours looking at a book of drawings of earth movers. When his first phrase was “wheels on it”.

Then one day, when some earnest mothers were sitting around my kitchen table, reality came crashing in. We were mounting a campaign urging parents not to buy their children war toys for Christmas. Another great idea. The kids came trooping down the stairs lugging the machine guns they’d built out of Lego. We looked at each other, aghast. Then, mercifully, we had the sense to laugh, and laugh we did. But I have to tell you, there was a layer of hysteria underlying the laughter.

We’d been imagining a better world, alright, and even getting some good work in on that bread dough. Hard kneading. How had we produced these little wanna be killers? Why did our boys spend hours blowing up Lego with firecrackers? Why did our girls simper and want Barbies? Why did we feel such anger and guilt? I even remember feeling as if I was a failure because childbirth hurt. Was it a failure of imagination?

No. It was misunderstanding imagination. Not accepting that in the work of hatching children, of hatching ideas, there’s a process that requires time out. That requires punching down. That also needs high temperatures. That it doesn’t always go the way you want it and sometimes that’s not so bad.

I learned finally, with the help of my community, and with the help of some great books on writing (all written by women by the way) to accept those parts of the process that feel like time’s a wasting. When everything seems like garbage, when I feel really uncomfortable, I know creativity is happening. I still piss and moan about it, but I know the only way to get over it is to go through it, right through the middle of it.

Mary Oliver calls a poem “a confession of faith.” Keeping at it even when self-doubt is sitting on my shoulder, when my family, my job, and my community want me to do other things, other important things, is my confession of faith.

I’ve got a ragged old poster of Virginia Woolf on the wall above my desk. I’ve hauled it around with me and moved it from wall to wall for at least 25 years. She wrote that all a woman needs to create is a little money and a room of her own. We all need to build that room in our hearts and make sure it’s our room, not one our culture, our friends and family tell us to build. Not the one we tell ourselves we ought to build.

If the noise of the world keeps you from hearing what those little yeast pellets of your imagination need, then it’s time to turn off some of that noise. Literally. Turn off your television, your radio, your computer, open a window or, better yet, go outside, mosey down to the river and breathe. This is important work. It cannot be left until the last.

If, instead of breathing wonderful glorious air, we inhale a culture that tells us what to think and feel with every turn of the knob, what music to listen to, what clothes to wear, what mutual funds to buy, that tells us our truck is too old, our kids need $200 running shoes, that a holiday at a nearby lake is boring and we really ought to go to Mexico, we can’t hear the voice whispering inside of us.

Some of you may be thinking you’re not the creative type; you don’t sing, dance, or paint. Don’t worry. Being creative is hatching an idea and giving it the time and space to grow into something. Every time you think of a way to make your community better, every time you piece together a party, you come up with a better way to run your business, you’re being creative, you’re using your imagination.

But if you’re doing all those things and more besides, and still feel something’s missing, you need to make time and psychic silence to listen to your heart. Put out your elbows, like they tell you to do when the avalanche is coming, and make room for your imagination to breathe even if it feels like it’s buried under tons of snow.

If every second of our lives is occupied with structured pleasure or work, with television and microwaved popcorn, with piano lessons and cross country ski racing, we lose the ability to imagine a world where we are not measured at every turning against an impossible yardstick. We forget that bread doesn’t come from bread machines. We forget the pleasure of plunging our fingers into sticky dough and kneading.

But be careful. Because once you let your imagination loose, once it starts working, you had better tend to it or it will make a godawful mess of whatever spot you leave it in. That yeast may even start to grow in places where it has no business, where it makes you itch and squirm so badly even the best loving won’t take care of it.

Self doubt is part of the process. I realized how messed up we’ve become when we feel guilty about guilt, we feel like losers because we dare to doubt. Guilt and doubt are part of living. It’s time to stop blaming ourselves for those doubts, but there’s no point in blaming anyone else either. A friend said to me she was tired of hearing people tell her how they don’t have time to do what they really want to do. You can’t wait for conditions to be perfect, for there to be enough money, the perfect light, a satisfied family. We can and do create from many different places in the same way we make babies: from places of love, of joy, of hope, of perfect readiness, but also in anger, in resentment and even sometimes in hate. Creating may drive us crazy, but create we must to be healthy and whole.

I’m the only one who can sit down at my desk and write; and it’s no one else’s fault if I don’t.  Sure, it helps if I have the support of my family and friends, but they can’t do it for me. And if I really want to do it, they can’t keep me from it.

“A poem is a confession of faith.”  So is a baby, so is a home. So is a loaf of bread. A confession of faith that we are here for more than house work and more than a pay cheque.  “Imagination is a sharp instrument.” We have to keep it sharp to outwit the horrors that surface in the minds of bigotry, of greed and of fear. Imagining and creating is not something to be left until everything else is done; it’s the most important work there is. And like breathing, it isn’t over until you’re dead. If you win a little level ground, you’re lucky. If you get to the top of something, the only direction is down and sometimes it’s the direction you have to take.

You’ll have to fight for that breathing space, and you’ll have to keep fighting and you know, sometimes the person you have to fight the most is yourself. Every day that I manage to find my way to that room, set aside time and space to feed the sourdough of my imagination, to let it breathe and grow, every day that I sit down to the hard work of punching and kneading that dough into shape, I am offering my confession of faith. Sometimes I write in anger, sometimes in love. Sometimes my poems are terrible, but you know, sometimes, they’re true and beautiful.

In his inaugural speech Nelson Mandela said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” That light, he said, is in everyone, and, as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Every day the world gives us air to breathe is, I figure, affirmation enough. We’re still here; we must have something worth doing. It’s time, right now, to get on with it.

Sheila writing (640x480)

Punto en Aria

Outside mlace hoody pattern side 1y window, the snow hangs in great swags from the eaves. The bottom edge of the bunting dips into ruffles and finally, where gravity has exerted the most pressure, into a lacy frill. Sunlight shines through the intricate tracery – punto en aria.

Lace comes in many forms and dates back, they say, to the 1400s. There’s needle lace and bobbin lace, where threads are twisted into complicated patterns, there’s cut work or drawn thread work where threads are removed to reveal the design. But true lace – punto en aria (stitch in the air) stands alone, literally. It is its own unique manifestation of absence and presence.   It is the yin and yang. It is light and shadow.

I believe the fundamental nature of lace goes much further back than Renaissance Venice, back to nets, which have been made for tens of thousands of years and are essential markers of our divided nature. We want some things to be contained, others to be set free; we want some things to be seen, other things to be hidden; we need silence between the notes.

In the early eighties, when I started knitting and writing in earnest, lace was for babies, old ladies and soft core porn.  It was for old fashioned tablecloths and doilies stored in your grandmother’s cedar chest. It was for a certain kind of lingerie. It was not for feminists. It was silly, frilly, and frivolous.

Things have changed. Lace is now everywhere. As I write this in my chilly office, I am wearing fingerless mittens with lace cuffs and delicate picot edging. People are knitting lace scarves, lacy sweaters and vests, toques, and stockings. (Now that I think of it, perhaps lace has made a comeback because soft core porn has become mainstream. Cables are big too – probably for those interested in a little S&M).

Knitting lace is what I know, and it is very much like writing. Establishing a pattern out of single stitches strung on a needle or out of the single words strung together on a page can be daunting. It’s one after the other, again and again. Like writing phrases, lines, or sentences, knitting lace is a matter of ordering the components. Joining them, separating them, dropping them, picking them up again. Deciding what to put in, what to leave out. Often, while the work is in process, the fabric looks like a ratty old dishrag, rumpled, crumpled, rucked up and wrinkled. You just have to trust in the process and keep going.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get into a rhythm where the pattern begins to feel organic, something emerging from your heart. Your fingers fly and your mind is elsewhere. Other times you have to stop and count every stitch. Then there are the mistakes you notice much too late, mistakes that especially hard to fix in a lace pattern. As in writing – when you’re building something so interconnected, built word upon careful word to create a seamless whole – well, it’s both difficult and unnerving to have to go back and fix it. Sometimes you have to unravel the whole thing.

Lace is an especially apt metaphor for writing. When you’ve done the clunky work of putting a story or a poem together, you must step back and take a good look to be sure you’ve created openings in the fabric, openings through which your readers can enter, cracks where the light shines in.


We recently stayed in a cabin on a small unnamed island near Nuchatlitz, a former Nuchatlaht community off the west coast of Vancouver Island. The small island is privately owned by twelve people, but most of the surrounding area is either reserve or provincial park. We were there to kayak, but we were also visiting a place we’d read about. In 2001, our publishing company, Creekstone Press, reprinted John Gibson’s A Small and Charming World, a book first published in 1972 that told of Gibson’s time as a social worker in Smithers and later in Campbell River. The book’s last chapter contains a particularly poignant reference to Nuchatlitz.  At one time about 3000 people lived in the area, but when he flew in to pick up a little girl going to school in Campbell River, only five houses were occupied. When we were there, one unoccupied house remained and its last occupant, Lily Michael, was buried in the overgrown cemetery across the inlet. We so often think of these isolated places as wilderness, but they have been occupied for centuries, and contain many stories. Which is why writers look for places like this.

Virginia Woolf told us we needed a room of our own. In the Sea Watch cabin in Nuchatlitz, also known as Witt’s End, there are many rooms, each lined with books. Among those books, I found a collection of essays by E.B. White, The Second Tree from the Corner, in which he contrasts his writing practice to that of a contemporary who sits down at home where his “privacy is guarded” and works in an orderly and diligent manner to accomplish a great deal. White says that his “professional life has been a long, shameless exercise in avoidance.” His home is, he says, “designed for the maximum of interruption,” his office the place he never is. How can a writer not love E.B. White? How can a writer not love Witt’s End?

While each room has a table inviting the writer to sit down with a notebook, out the windows are sea otters, cedars, rhododendrons, driftwood installations, and a greedy young crow eating the salal berries growing out of one of those installations. And the books. Downstairs, Chinese literature, the classics, fiction, history, the restoration plays. Bill Kinsella, Margaret  Atwood, Virgil, A Dream of Red Mansions.

In the kitchen, beside the binoculars on the windowsill, the plant/bird/seashore/animal guidebooks.

You must climb the steep stairs to find the poets, ranged along the floor in a room with windows on three sides and skylights, a bed tucked into a dormer, the chimney from the wood stove below bringing warmth into its spaciousness. And a table, of course.

I brought a collection of Bruce Chatwin’s work along and, while it started well enough, seemed to become one of those publications designed to plump the coffers of his estate – some work would have been better left “unpublished or neglected.” In it he writes about the two towers where he writes well – one on the Welsh border and one in Tuscany. It is, he says, “a place where I have always worked clearheadedly and well, in winter and summer, by day or night – and the places you work well in are the places you love the most.”

Seawatch could become one of those places – and writer Paula Wild uses it for her own escapes and also runs writing retreats there. Shannon Bailey, the co-owner with Brian Witt, writes there too. She and Brian left Victoria (where she completed a Creative Writing degree at UVic) over a decade ago to live almost full time at Nuchatlitz. You really are a long way away from anywhere – an hour’s boat ride from Tahsis, which is about a three-hour drive from Campbell River.

You’d think it would be perfect. But the work to keep a place like Sea Watch running (solar energy, rain water cisterns, generators, boat maintenance and wild west coast weather) is, as White said, “designed for the maximum of interruption.” Like waiting for the right tides to put the sailboat up onto a neighbour’s makeshift dry-dock in order to scrape the barnacles off the hull, messy and physically demanding work, done in the dark, in the pouring rain. And anyone who’s lived in a place with only boat access knows the minutiae of hauling things up and down docks, in and out of boats, and offloading at a slippery low tide.

And then there are the distractions of all the artifacts the ocean offers up.  There are hundreds of installations in every available space, inside and out. Shells, skulls, feathers, tiny congregations in mossy corners, as well as the reminders of the many places Shannon and Brian have travelled.

The perfect retreat, I think, needs to be someone else’s tower – as Chatwin said. Where someone else is bringing in the groceries, doing the upkeep, weeding the gardens. Or, as I suggested to Shannon – a real winter. I always look forward to October here in Driftwood Canyon – dropping temperatures put a quick end to any silly notions about another crop of spinach, by November the snow covers all those projects that call for attention all spring and summer, and it’s dark so early and so late, you’re not distracted by the play of light on the trees. You leave the curtains open and stare out into the darkness, thinking.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Thanks to  Dan Shervill for letting me use some of his photos.


After a rough start, the summer here has blossomed into one of amazing richness. Hiking up a dappled alpine trail in the Babine Mountains, we came out into a small opening, the sun striking a cluster of arnica all turning their bright faces toward its light. Looking at those fragile stems emerging from the rocks that had themselves only weeks ago emerged from a long winter’s snow, my heart thumping from the climb, all sorts of vegetative metaphors took root in my oxygen-starved brain. The ways in which life expresses itself so vividly and abundantly in the most rugged environments is here made concrete, literal. The fragility of life and the random nature of death are enacted moment by moment when you can’t take a step without crushing something beautiful. The mosquitoes are, of course, Satan in paradise.

Metaphors enrich our concrete experience of the world. We unconsciously make connections between the present physical moment and our emotional responses to past events at almost every step (especially when we go into the zone induced by physical exertion). This trick we do is so embedded in the way we learn from each other and the way we try to share our experiences that language is rife with it. Rising to the occasion (we’re so used to this one, we don’t imagine, for example, a child rising to break the surface of the water clutching the dropped keys); seeing the light; we wake up but fall asleep; we smell victory, we feel rough.

Which is one of the metaphors used in a study published in Brain & Language. It found that literal descriptions (I feel sick) activate the language-processing parts of the brain; throw in a metaphor (I feel rough) and the sensory part of the brain, whether it’s touch, smell, sound, taste, or sight, is also engaged.

Writers know this. We use metaphor as a way of enriching readers’ experience of language itself, but also at deeper level where the characters, settings, and narrative arcs of our stories or poems create all sorts of possible interpretations for our readers – they create vivid ambiguity – which I suggest is not an oxymoron. It is always fun to hear a reader give a detailed interpretation of your work that has little to do with your intention, however conscious that intention was, but makes perfect sense.

People who don’t or can’t process metaphor are often impaired in some way – it can be an indicator of autism, schizophrenia, or dementia according to an article in The Humanist: “Mapping Metaphor: This is Your Brain on Figurative Language.” While people with dementia can still process the old standbys, they can’t find hide nor hair of sense in new ones. This, the author states, shows that “Figurative language is surely more than an intellectual extravagance. It is as much a fiber of our very being as each of the countless neurons contained in our big, beautiful brains.”

This is, I suspect, what makes me so nervous about literal interpretations of the Bible. When celebrating a book so full of metaphor and parable, it makes little sense to deny that richness to its original author(s). Why else do we tell each other the old stories over and over again? It’s not for the history lesson. And that’s not why we write the new ones.

Night Rain in Nebaj

Since The Taste of Ashes was published, I’ve been asked about the time I spent in Guatemala – a two- week trip in the summer of 2004. It was a pivotal journey that brought some of the ideas I was exploring into clear focus for the first time. I wrote about it for Northword Magazine that fall, and, as I was out hiking in the Babine Mountains on Sunday, I remembered the way in connections were made for me between places as apparently disparate as Guatemala and Tatlatui in BC’s north. Making connections is really what writing is all about for me – connections between ideas, emotions, people, culture and landscape. Here’s that article:

Night Rain in Nebaj

After that they came to the Dark House, a house with darkness alone inside it.   – from Popol Vuh

We are sweating up to a pass high in the Tatlatui Mountain Range in northwestern BC, a wilderness park accessible only by floatplane. My pack is heavy, and we’ve had three days of hard slogging. It is new country for us and there’s been no trail for most of the way.

Bushwhacking through thick brush on the lower slopes, often in the rain, makes us irritable. But once we hit the alpine tundra, the sun comes out and we shake off the gloom to delight in the cries of a nesting horned lark and the sight of eight caribou crossing a snowfield. As we climb, the vegetation dwindles to delicate flowers on shattered shale. In the narrow pass, the peaks on either side are bare of everything but scattered lichens.

There’s a kind of hiking euphoria that comes at this point: the pivot where you can no longer look back to see how far you’ve come, where you can see only what lies ahead. You forget that from up high, route finding is often delusional. We can see the cabin we’re aiming for at the head of Kitchener Lake, but we can’t see the scrub willow and stunted fir waiting to entangle our feet and catch our packs. We can’t see the nearly vertical drops where we will be glad of the undergrowth for handholds. From up here the pale green swamps look like inviting meadows. When a golden eagle flies right above our heads, we grin like fools.

And then memories of Guatemala bubble up. Only two weeks earlier, doing research for a novel, I was in other mountains, la Cordillera de los Cuchumatanes in the north of Quiché. I was with a small group in a van driving through the municipality of Nebaj to the tiny village of Acul, the road twisting between steep hillsides. On one side the pasture, grazed to the roots by el patrón’s cattle, was scattered with huge stones, their surfaces pitted like grotesque skulls. On the other side, corn plots rose almost vertically between deep tree-filled ravines. These were the mythical hills I had read about. The hills where the guerillas lived and ran their campaigns against a succession of brutal Guatemalan governments. The hills where villagers fled the army massacres to live on the run, some of them for years, some of them children carrying babies, told by their mothers to run, run, even as the soldiers tore off their beautifully embroidered huipils so they could rape them.

As I sit in the top of the pass in Tatlatui, sweat cooling on my back, these stories spike through the elation found in the company of good friends and rare alpine poppies. They surface because of my fatigue, the weight of my pack, and the uncertainty of the route ahead.  This is nothing, I think, to what the villagers felt as they abandoned their homes to live in the hills without food or shelter. Imagine hearing a helicopter and having to run, now, stumbling and sliding down the slope into the trees below, dodging bullets and grenades. My tired body opens me up and narrows the distance between our worlds. But nothing that happens to us in these remote BC mountains, in spite of our sense of wilderness adventure, can fully bridge the gap.

Even the evening the grizzly lumbers up out of the draw to walk within spitting distance of our tents, our fear is different. The surge of adrenaline is a momentary rush that fades as we watch the bear cross the great alpine basin, rise as a silhouette on the horizon, and disappear. He might frighten you, but he usually has other things on his mind. He certainly is not going to be upset if you organize the local farmers into a cooperative to better market their corn. He won’t phone and threaten to rape your sister. He will not lock you into the church with your entire village and burn it down. If you’re smart, you won’t block his passage. If you do, he may kill you. But he will not riddle your life with unanswerable philosophical questions: Is it wrong to remain silent when speaking will bring you unimaginable pain? Do you pull the trigger on your innocent neighbour or take the bullet along with him?

My Canadian stomach is ill prepared for such questions. When I see the shriveled lemming impaled on a splintered branch collected in that same alpine basin for firewood, I am disturbed by the shrike’s methods. When I spot the golden eagle in his aerie, I pity the marmot whose skull I pick up, the bones crushed sideways. I wonder if it was dropped as it struggled in the eagle’s talons or was crushed as a grizzly clawed its burrow to shreds. But I know it wasn’t tortured by a local patrol sent out to round up anyone poking her nose in where it doesn’t belong.

That night, listening to the rain on our tent, I remember the evening we drove into Nebaj. As we passed a low white building, doors red in the headlights, the voice of our driver came out of the sleepy darkness. During la violencia, he said in Spanish, that was the torture center. At that moment, the testimony lifted off the pages of the international reports. I heard boots kicking up water as struggling bodies were dragged out of dark vans. I saw the light slicing onto the street as the red door opened, and felt the despair as it closed again. Would we have heard the screams as we hurried by, clinging to the shadows?

Later, I lay in bed, still vibrating from the long hours on the road. The night sounds of Nebaj – tires in puddles, footsteps on the street, voices cut off when a door closed – came through the rain and in between the bars of my open window. As I drifted into an uneasy sleep, they travelled along the small bones of my inner ear, translated into disturbing dreams.

The next morning, the rain held off as our small group found its way to a meeting with the Movimiento de Desarraigados del Norte de Quiché. Four men explained the group’s painstaking and complex work seeking redress for the genocide and displacement suffered by the largely Mayan rural population during Guatemala’s long civil war. Afterwards, a young woman pulled us into a ground-floor room in the city hall building to see an exhibit illustrating the work of an associated organization, Fundacion de Antropologia Forense de Guatemala. The walls were covered with photographs of human bones. A sign beside a picture of a skull explained the damage typical of machete chops. Another showed the fragments left by a bullet.

Outside, the rain started again, a downpour that sent people running for cover, dodging the water spouts gushing off the roofs onto the cobblestone streets. Inside I struggled to understand the stained and pitted hieroglyphics. A rope, looped around neck bones embedded in dirt, intact long after the flesh held hunched in pain and fear by the articulated vertebrae was gone. Leg bones drawn up close to tangled ribs. Fetal bones, a starfish cluster of ivory in a pelvic girdle. But it was not the wounds or the binding ropes or even the bones themselves that undid me; it was the clothing. A shirt held the huddled shape of a decomposed body. The polyester threads in a mother’s shawl formed a shroud for her baby’s tiny skeleton. A child’s shinbones protruded from red running shoes flattened by the weight of the dirt and stones that had been piled on top of them. I could almost hear the small bones of the feet inside, rattling like dice.

The exhumations are like a game of pickup sticks. They are a delicate exercise to dismantle the tangled bones in secret graves so families can identify the dead and know how they died. So they can mourn in public and rebury the fragments with ceremonies that reclaim their dignity. The exhumations also preserve the evidence necessary to prove the cases of genocide being brought against the Guatemalan generals. They put a lie in the mouths of those who say the army fought only combatants. Combatants don’t hop into battle, their arms and legs bound. Combatants don’t run to the attack, their infants tied in shawls on their backs. At least 200,000 people were killed –silenced – during Guatemala’s civil war, but their bones are speaking out.

The young woman who took us to Acul pointed to a small river, one I could have easily crossed in my sturdy hiking boots. That was where they threw her father’s body after they killed him, she said. She led us up the path to the cemetery to see a stone monument erected in the memory of the villagers massacred there at 3:00 am on April 21, 1981. Villagers fingered as friends of the guerillas by some poor tortured wretch. Her father’s body was never found. Now she risked her own life by working with the Movement of Displaced People.

There is a paradox here. The gap between Canada and Guatemala is perhaps an illusion, an illusion as thin as the aluminum skin of the old Beaver floatplane that brings us into Tatlatui. But like that skin, it has just enough substance to hold its engine and passengers in the correct aerodynamic shape, just enough so we can skim the jagged peaks unharmed. Our pilot navigates with the topographic map in one hand, the other on the throttle. When ice chokes the carburetor, we are afraid, but our fear is very different from that of those villagers in Acul.

The day I flew home from Guatemala, the Supreme Court granted Efrain Rios Montt, one of the generals charged in the genocide trials, the right to run for president. The day after we make the difficult descent to Kitchener Lake, his blue-fisted Frente Republicano Guatemalteco party busses 5000 supporters into the center of Guatemala City to terrorize the people protesting the court’s decision and the journalists covering the protests. The people who organized our trip to Acul are themselves in danger.

Guatemalans understand in their bones what it is to be hunted in a way that most Canadians can only guess at. In Guatemala those who feel their interests are threatened stand ready to slit the skin of any social and political vision that honours individuals, indigenous cultures, or the most basic of human rights. They stand ready to sell their glue to street children, to drug the textile worker so she can keep up the pace for her 12-hour shift and rape her when she takes a bathroom break, to murder the banana worker negotiating a living wage. Things may not be as different here as we’d like to think. The difference may be an illusion, one many Canadians find unsatisfactory, or, even worse, banal. But it is an illusion worth fighting for. It is one many Guatemalans die for.

On our last night in Tatlatui, the mosquitoes tap on the netting of our tent like animated raindrops. It is 9:30, still light enough to read this far north. It’s about the same time of night the 75-year-old Bishop Gerardi left his sister’s house to drive to his San Sebastian Church residence in the center of Guatemala City. It would have been dark when he pulled into the garage. He would not have seen the men waiting for him until it was too late.

I read about his murder when it happened in 1998. He was killed two days after releasing the Recovery of Historical Memory Project report, Nunca Mas. The report details the horrors of the civil war including testimony from the tortured and the torturers. It lists the hundreds of massacres, village by village, year by year. It was an attempt to begin a truth and reconciliation process like the one in South Africa. His murder was a deliberate attempt to stop that process. Nuncas Mas means never again, and at the time, Gerardi’s death seemed like just another heart-breaking irony in the long misery of Guatemala’s history. But lying in my tent on the shores of Tatlatui Lake, I feel his loss in my tired bones. I feel it very differently than I did when I first arrived in Guatemala. Walking through the capital’s gritty streets on our way to meet with the committee keeping the investigation of his murder active, I was more interested in the street life: the platters of colourful fruit, the quick knives, the juicers, the shoe shiners, the buses spewing diesel fumes. Outside San Sebastian Church, small schoolboys in white gym gear played games on the paved courtyard.

It wasn’t until I saw the shrine – the flowers and the rosary dangling from Gerardi’s photograph – that I realized the door of our meeting room opened into the garage into which he drove that night. Where his killers caved in his head with a block of concrete. The polished tiles were the ones the housekeeper had mopped clean of his blood.

One of the women spoke of her admiration for his courage and determination. In the early 1980s, he was the bishop of Quiché. The Guatemalan army was terrorizing and killing his parishioners. He travelled to Rome to report on the atrocities. When he returned, he was refused entry and left in the hands of the El Salvadorian army, then involved in its own civil war. That was the night he thought he was going to die, one of the women told us. He did not expect to be murdered two years after the peace accords were signed.

The paradoxes in Guatemala – the cruelty and the courage, the corruption and integrity – are many, and they provide a proving ground for thousands of missionaries and aid workers from North America and Europe. In Nebaj, the torture center now houses an international children’s organization. Committed accompanists protect members of the Committee for the Displaced as they help prepare testimony for the genocide charges against Rios Montt.

Here in the north, I struggle against complacency as we move past an equinox that goes unnoticed in Guatemala. The hours of darkness grow in the mountains of Tatlatui. There is snow on the ground; the marmots and grizzlies are deep in their dens and the golden eagles have flown. Somewhere in between the memory of two mountain ranges, I am trying to write a story that will speak across the gap. A story to travel across the bridge formed by the small bones of the inner ear, the bones that carry the voices of the world deep inside us. I listen along these bones, vibrating in the darkness.


A friend just returned my copy of The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker. It’s the story of a hapless Paul Chowder, a poet unlucky in love, as he moves through an excruciating struggle to write an introduction to an anthology of poetry called Only Rhyme. Which is what the novel becomes – the introduction.

The novel succeeds in two ways: it is an idiosyncratic and insightful discussion of poets and poetry – a love song to rhythm and rhyme. But even more amusing and excruciating is the portrayal of his inability to get started. You grind your teeth at his procrastination (as does his lady love – hence the difficulties): he cleans his office,  mows the lawn, moves his chair around the yard, goes shopping and enjoys many moments with a lovely mouse who shares his house. It is excruciating because it is so accurate (here I am, writing this and not writing that difficult scene in the novel I’m not working on right now).

At one point he writes, “A poem is not a poem. It’s a plum.”

If you’re an uncertain reader of poetry or interested in the creative process, it’s well worth the read.