Monthly Archives: December 2010

the public library

I often do my work at the downtown public library. I’ve always liked the library; the courtyard outside is one of my favourite places in Victoria, with its breathless spiral of slowly-turning sculpture dominating the bright atrium, and the random collection of characters who occupy its nooks and crannies. There are, of course, the books – but I go to other libraries for that. The public library is all about people-watching. (And free wireless).

The downtown public library hosts an unlikely group of people. One might expect, being a library, that it would be full of studious researchers, students and other academic or intellectual types. However, look at it from this perspective: it is a large, warm, public building in the center of the downtown core. It has many comfortable armchairs, dozens of computers that you can use for free, and public washrooms. Newspapers, magazines, and books are available for your entertainment. There are pay phones. Nobody will ask you to buy another drink, hassle you, or request that you leave, no matter how long you stay.

All of these reasons, and more, have made the library the preferred hangout for people that have nowhere else to go. On any given day, you can see a half-dozen homeless people asleep in the armchairs; the library is a warm, comfortable haven for someone who’s spent the night on a street corner. Then there are those who may have a place to sleep, but have no access to a phone or a computer, who are unemployed and need to occupy their days, or are living alone in their retirement and just want to be in the company of other human beings. There are dozens of regulars who spend all day here, every day. I’m starting to recognize them. A handful of people wait at the doors each morning before the library opens, huddled on the benches in the atrium until they can come in.

There are, of course, students and researchers. There are people who just come to check out a book and leave. Occasionally I see businesspeople doing very official-looking things. But the vast majority of people who come to the library seem to be on the more care-worn side of life. The computers are a huge draw; if you have no computer or internet access of your own, then the library is the one free route to the online world. When I was working in Botswana, the Kuru offices provided that service; if you had an email address, you could come in and check your mail. Here, you can do it at the library. The bank of computers is always full.

The pay phones are continuously in use, as well. Sometimes I like to sit near the pay phones and eavesdrop on people’s conversations. People will pull in with an armchair and a pocket full of quarters, and stay for an hour just making calls. I’ve heard about abortions, true love, babies on the way, drug problems, friends in jail, long-lost relatives, teenagers moving out of their parents’ homes… Just sit here long enough, and you’ll hear one side of any number of crazy stories.

I imagine it must be interesting to work at this branch of the library; part social worker, part librarian. There are safe needle drop boxes in the bathroom stalls. I imagine they sometimes have to deal with rowdy characters. It is downtown, after all, and despite how easy it may be to skate your eyes over the panhandler on the corner or the mazed, delirious man stumbling down Douglas in his stained second-hand parka, this is our city. Full of problems, spilled out into the heavy black receiver of the library pay phone, or shared silently with the hundred other people gathered in this warm, well-worn building to try and avoid being lonely.


A.R. Ammons Amid the Fungi

by Diane Ackerman
(originally from Wife of Light, 1978)

A.R. Ammons Amid the Fungi

You say:  segmented worms
roll back their saddles
during copulation.

And I say:  yes, and pine bristles
like a boar’s back.

And you say:  red-capped fungi
will fabric the spring.

And I say:  yse, and woodchucks
in hibernation are breathing
only ten times an hour.

And you say:  shape & form & saliences.
And I say:  verbal pliés, acoustic fatigue,

and do you read lodestars and cereal boxes?
And you say: yes, and navigation manuals,
place mats, and hurricane charts.

And I say:  do you mind that it’s colder
than a polar bear’s menses?  or that a cat
in a black hole in space becomes linguini?

I say:  did you know that from Rimbaud
you get barium and radium, Bim, Bram,
mab, braid, drum, dram, daub, raid?

And you say:  yes, and also bird & Brad,
Baird & Mau & Ra & Maud.  And axolotl
is also good, have you tried vineyard yet?

And I say:  yes, and that pockmarked
aluminum prop tha we call a moon
answers directly to Mission Control.

And you say:  yes, that trollop’s
on a tether of Tang; she put the rill
in Rilke, you know what I mean?

And I say:  yes, a bone knits and
a river purls, and I’ve always
admired your Southern kraal.

And you say:  jejune, and knee-deep
in the magma.
And I say:  this is not the Hebrew letter
for Jehovah.

And you say:  one thing about death –
it’s hereditary.

And I say:  where the hell are we
and, incidentally, how the hell is it here?
Isn’t a friend someone to tread water with?

And you say:  the asylum of idle chatter
is wide open.

went out last night

just ducky

I walked along the waterfront for an hour this morning, listening to Ravel.  I found a bunch of ducks in front of a hotel and watched them for awhile.  They were so busy, preening and washing and picking through their feathers, wiggling their tails and occasionally rearing up and flapping their wings.  One or two feisty ducks would chase each other around the fountain, disrupting the others and setting off an irritated chorus of quacks.

There’s so much urban wildlife in Victoria.  My house regularly receives visitations from squirrels, rabbits (both wild and domestic-gone-feral), raccoons, and of course the ubiquitous deer.  Downtown Victoria has seagulls, ducks, and pigeons aplenty.  So many of my nights out in Victoria have included this moment:  walking down the orange-street-lit asphalt, heels clacking, wound up in music or chatter or longing, and I hear a seagull crying.  I look up and see it, ghost-white against the light pollution, an elegant cutout gliding within the frame of office buildings. Today, though, it’s ducks all the way.  Maybe I’ll go back and see them again tomorrow.

S’bongile Keetseope

On December 5th, 2010, my friend S’bongile died in a car accident.

Me, S’bongile, Mmapula

S’bongile was one of the first people I met in Botswana.  Originally I was supposed to share a house with her; through various circumstances I ended up living in a different house, alone.  We worked in the Komku office together and saw each other every day, and she welcomed me wholeheartedly into her country.  Later, she moved into the house next to mine and we were neighbours.  She was so intensely alive that it’s hard to understand that she’s dead.  That when I go back and visit D’Kar she won’t be there, with a huge smile and a million stories and dramas and questions.

It’s hard to imagine that someone who was so talkative (to the point of irritating us all!), who was always looking for a reason to dance, who had plans coming out of her ears even if they didn’t always work out…  Who was mother to two children, who flirted with every new man that came in the office, who had a thousand friends in a dozen different countries…  Who insisted on wearing heels in the Kalahari sand, wore clouds of cheap Italian perfume, and occasionally shimmied into the office in a dress that was really meant for the nightclub; yet at the same time, someone who would quickly pull on boots, jeans and a t-shirt and head out to the settlements to sleep in a tent, throwing herself into working for her people…  It’s hard to imagine that she’s gone.  I’ll never watch Generations with her again, or get sucked into her personal melodramas – she’ll never lend me milk, or a pan, or whatever else I needed that day – she’ll never get to visit Canada.  It’s hard.

She was too young.  She was full of plans and potential, but she also lived a full life, no wasted time.  All of us who remember her should feel inspired to live better, more fully, to do all the things she would have wanted to do but now cannot.

Rest in peace, SB.

Mt. Finlayson

On Saturday I climbed Mt. Finlayson with H.  

I’d been thinking about climbing it since going to Goldstream a few weeks ago, and decided that this weekend was the one.  It’s a beautiful hike – about 3 hours round-trip, with gorgeous forest and views.  The climb is steep enough to provide a challenge, but short enough to be friendly.

I found some beautiful fungus along the way!

The view was lovely, but sadly spoiled by the Bear Mountain Golf and Country Club – the last time I climbed Mt Finlayson (a long time ago!) it had just been erected and since then it’s exploded.  There’s an ever-increasing spread of construction, and eerily well-manicured golf greens among the trees.  Despite the eyesore, it was a crystalline day, and Mt. Baker was stark and close on the horizon.

We’d climbed up the eastern face of the mountain, and when we reached the top there was a sharp dividing line: on the west, the slowly-moving line between sun and shadow also marked the line between frost and melt.  We’d encountered no ice on the way up, but at the top, wherever the sun had not yet reached, there was a thick frost.

It was a good day.  I don’t spend enough time outside when it’s winter, but once I actually get OUT, I never regret it…  There’s something about the clarity of cold winter air that always seems like a bad idea when I’m in my nice warm house, but invariably reveals itself as an excellent idea once I’m out and about.


Holy shit.  Everything we know about biology just changed:

Trust me, your life – all life – is a little bit different now.