"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, April 5, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER VIII: Notes from a Retreat at the Elizabeth Bishop House, by Cheryl Harawitz

Elizabeth Bishop House
Great Village, Nova Scotia

I first learned of Elizabeth Bishop through my good friend singer/songwriter Susan Crowe, who invited me to the Elizabeth Bishop birthday celebration poetry reading at the Writer’s Federation in Halifax in February. A few days later, Susan invited me to spend time on a retreat at the Elizabeth Bishop House. She contacted Sandra Barry on my behalf. I am sure anyone who has met or been involved in any way with Sandra knows the rest of the story…

I felt like a child in wonderland as I pulled into the driveway at the house and locked myself out within half an hour of arriving. Thanks to Grant at the Antique store and Meredith, who lives up the road, that situation was easily remedied. Right from the start, I felt welcome and secure.

I had come to write of my own childhood in another village on the shores of the St. Lawrence River during the 1940s and ’50s. I like writing with pen and paper so I kept a daily handwritten journal. I also wrote on a computer that I had set up on the desk in the library and kept a notebook on the little table by the bed. I am not sure what woke me during nights — it could have been the trucks whizzing by — but I think it more likely that the new memories flooding in while I was there caused me to stir.

I set up breakfast and lunch in the dining room; the table in the center of the dining room immediately bringing to mind the women who “…bent in the twilight like sea plants, around their little dark center table hung with cloth like seaweed-covered rock” from Bishop’s story “The Baptism.” At first I turned on the radio or played music on the portable radio/CD player. But I found I could hear the past better in silence. I never felt lonely in the house.

The three birdhouses perched on top of tree trunks as if waiting for spring and new babies inspired me to sing Happy Birthday out loud at one point. Sounds corny but it sure felt good imagining those little birds peeping out of their little houses singing. I look at birds from our kitchen window at home and enjoy their busyness. But this was different. For one thing there were no birds in these little houses. These houses were empty like this house, waiting for life to enter. The house itself made me stop and listen that way, in a kind of pregnant silence.

One afternoon I walked over the little bridge to the post office that still “sits on the side of the road like a package once delivered by the postman,” (from “In the Village”). I wanted to buy stamps and post two birthday cards, one to Halifax and the other to England. Finding it closed I went next door to the convenience store, bought two stamps, went back and dropped the cards into the little slot on the front of the post office wall. As they slipped out of my grasp I realized there was not enough postage on the card going to England! The next morning, I returned to the post office and explained my dilemma to the postmaster. She retrieved the card, sold me the correct postage, removed the “return to sender sticker” from the envelope, and re-mailed the card. “Can’t beat that for convenience and efficiency” I thought and felt sad about post offices closures in other villages.

Another day I drove down to Spencer’s Point on the Cobequid Bay. Maybe it’s just my fairy tale memory, but the blueberry patches I visualize now as I recall the drive there were like deep violet carpets on golden fields against navy blue distant hills. The basin was empty that morning. I thought about the missing water swishing back and forth connecting Atlantic shores. The chill and fresh salt-smell reminded me of my first encounter with the ocean just before I was ten in December, 1954. My family had boarded the Empress of France passenger ship at Montreal crossing the ocean to England to live in a small seaside resort on the south west coast. My first morning there I had raced up the street from where we lived and seen magnificent waves leaping up and over the stone seawall bordering the promenade. When I returned a few hours later the ocean had gone. In its place, sand was spread like a wet tablecloth across the bay for as far as I could see. Growing up near a canal and river I had not been prepared for the disappearance of such a vast quantity of water. The village we had left in 1954 was flooded permanently in1958 to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway. When I was there a few years ago there were few physical reminders to trigger childhood memories.

While at the house I read Elizabeth Bishop’s The Collected Prose, Sandra Barry’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Village: A Self Guided Tour, (a gift I thank her for), poetry, of course, and notes in a file about Bishop’s life that I discovered at Sandra’s invitation, in the drawer in the desk in the library. It’s impossible for me to find and assemble the words needed to capture my profound experience of her writing. I can say that reading, eating, sleeping, preparing food in the little pantry or sitting in a wooden rocking chair by a window helped me light up corners of my mind not visited in more than fifty years. On one occasion I found myself weeping as I remembered a small kindness from my mother and its cost amid the hardships and challenges she faced as a single parent raising four children in the 1940’s, alone with little support. I was truly amazed at how much detail a small child can remember — neighbours’ names and their characters, exchanges, tensions, smells, sounds, so many details of so long ago. Through writing about these memories I felt somehow released from the images and feelings fixed in place by a child’s view. I had rediscovered a past made more complete with adult understanding.

Elizabeth Bishop left behind gifts to be opened again and again, now part of my life. I am reminded of a phrase from Pearl S. Buck in her book Pavilion of Women, “To know how to read is to light a lamp in the mind, to release the soul from prison, to open a gate to the universe”; I believe writing has the same effect. The house is also a gift — maintained by other loving and generous hearts. I feel deeply thankful to its owners for the privilege of staying there.

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