Barbara Nickel

Illustrations by Gillian Newland (

Check out the lamp post

at the corner of Ash & 68th in Vancouver for a new panel thanks to the Vancouver Public Library and CWILL BC’s Reading Lights Program…

For more information and an interactive map, visit:


Foolscap & Apple

I was writing this on sheets of lined paper, the kind we called foolscap in elementary school. My dictionary tells me “foolscap” is for the paper’s former watermark representing a fool’s cap, which I’d love to google and post here but can’t because my laptop is at the Apple store for repair.

Yesterday I drove a long distance and joined the queue there, eventually taking a seat at the Genius Bar alongside a woman jiggling a stroller with a crying baby and a bespectacled, bewildered-looking elderly couple—a wide cross-section of the population, all of us frighteningly reliant on the geniuses in the navy T-shirts to get us back (and quickly) into our googling, texting, twittering lives.

If I as a little girl who still writes with a fat, red pencil on foolscap were to walk into my life now, I’d ask my son why’re you carving an apple with a bite taken out into the Halloween pumpkin and how does your mom talk on the phone while driving a car? I’d ask myself why I can’t organize thoughts into words on just foolscap anymore and what’s so important on all the little screens that everyone’s looking at most of the time? I’d ask are you happier now? More fulfilled? Informed? Efficient? Smarter? I’d ask myself why I feel so lost after having lost that metal rectangle with the apple on it for less than a week.

In the meantime, the oval web from last week’s post is still framed in my office window despite the crazy winds and snow that hit last night. Its maker, the spider, hunkered up in the eaves against November’s chill, is a dead ringer for  the one in the poem “Crux” by Elise Partridge ( whose collected poems, The If Borderlands, was published in a beautiful volume recently by New York Review Books. James Pollock, reviewing the book in CNQ (, quotes “Crux” in its entirety and devotes over a page to discussing its brilliance.

Many years ago, Elise and I co-wrote a review in the form of a conversation about a genius born in 1918 who wrote a poem called “Thaw” I loved rereading just now after a long time away. With a few swift strokes in the opening stanza, she gets at a certain quality of time and children who might write on foolscap or play on iPods or, somewhere in the far-flung future, ask what is an Apple anyway:

Sticky inside their winter suits
The Sunday children stare at pools
In pavement and black ice where roots
Of sky in moodier sky dissolve.

October’s End

For families will not be broken. Curse and expel them, send their children wandering, drown them in floods and fires, and old women will make songs out of all these sorrows and sit in the porches and sing them on mild evenings. Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the same.

Marilynne Robinson wrote this passage near the end of her novel Housekeeping (re: last post, a work just as brilliant as Gilead but in an entirely different way), at a point when two characters—Ruthie and Sylvie—are just about to cross a bridge in the night and lose—and save—almost everything important to them.

Suspended time and a kind of ease, that quality in the air and leaves of “just about to,” is what I love about the fall in this part of the world. A few hours ago, crossing the new bridge at the point where the Chilliwack River becomes the Vedder, I looked upriver, past the old bridge toward shifting gold and water over rocks, knowing that gales and rain will drown it all soon enough but not quite yet—

we’re still in October. (Next week they’ll be tearing down the old Vedder bridge, a guy in a backhoe at the construction site told me.)

I’ve been watching October through the rectangle of my office window, which has on the outside become home for a very large spider and her oval web framed perfectly within. Its shimmery lines elude capture by even the iPhone—I tried unsuccessfully to photograph it from many angles and heights and inside/outside—so that the spider’s pursuit of a ladybug in this photo happens apparently in mid-air:

The scene reminds me of a poem about another spider, “self-possessed, idling, calm,” whose “abdomen’s ample bulb/was flecked domestic brown”* exactly like the one in my window. By the last stanza, her web is torn as this one will be and the bridge but for now there’s this gift; I’m glancing often between the lines of the poem and the lines of the web, amazed at the symmetry.

*Who said it?

After the Not Peaceful and Ordinary Sunday


Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample it.  

That’s John Ames, Congregationalist minister, narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead.

I love John Ames as I’ve never loved a fictional character; I sat at his feet and listened to his gentle voice. Not one to push himself to the front of a crowd and trumpet his views, John Ames; approaching death, he wants his sermons burned. (“The deacons could arrange it. There are enough to make a good fire. I’m thinking here of hot dogs and marshmallows, something to celebrate the first snow.”) I wish his voice haunting the ear of the gunman in Quebec before he fired at the praying men. You take care not to trample. The silent and invisible life of prayer, care not to trample, the three-year-old with his father at prayer.

Obama loves John Ames, too. He read Gilead while campaigning in Iowa. He reveals this in an enlightening conversation with M. Robinson in The New York Review of Books (in two parts, November 2015) here:

and here:

Obama: “…the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found…” The whole conversation brings to mind the vast gulf, to say the least, between the last U.S. president and the current one.

But in these days of hate the quiet and small kindnesses are accumulating like at The Book Man in downtown Chilliwack; if you don’t take a bag for your books, you can drop in a token for local literacy or families in transition or even for Nietzsche the Bookstore Cat (community cats and dogs) and there’s the hollow clink of one but a week later a whole heap and there’s a heap of books to read for every trumping tweet.

Yesterday evening, browsing there, I found a novel I’d loved and lost and then found and found again and from it this passage in the wake of death and the face of hate:

For families will not be broken. Curse and expel them, send their children wandering, drown them in floods and fires, and old women will make songs out of all these sorrows and sit in the porches and sing them on mild evenings. Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the same.



The Egret in Regret



in letting us

an egret.

Thanks to The Yale Review for the rejection card that gave me this. Some friends advised me to cut the last five lines from the previous version (see last post, thanks, #4 x 50!) and it’s better, I think, for its new landing on “egret.” At the local Great Blue Heron Reserve, I’ve just learned that egrets (Cattle Egret, Great Egret) are actually a type of heron but very rarely seen around here. Egret comes from the French aigrette, which is just an egret’s white plume used in a headdress:


Marie Antoinette, 1775

But my poem’s “egret” comes from “regret”.

Summer of regrets, too many, like billboards. But keep driving past them, past all the ferry traffic to Youbou, then take the ridiculously dusty road to Nitinat Lake—a tidal, saltwater fjord where the campground never wakes up until 10 a.m. at the earliest, even though the crows begin to jabber at dawn. Later in the day, the lake is restless with wind that doesn’t let up, festal with kites and sails and whitecaps and boards flying several metres in the air or lying on the gravel beach. But in the “early morning,” say 8:30 or 9, you can lean against a log and watch the lake deep gray and grave, still as if it won’t break ever.

Hooray for no cell service; there’s time—hours and hours when you’re not skimming over the lake—to read. Which is when I discovered a novel (another gift, thanks, C.!) and this passage that touches the stillness by the log, the egret in regret. Who was it (character not author) that said,

“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample it.”


To _____, an Arrow


Of Silken Speech and Specious Shoe
A Traitor is the Bee
His service to the newest Grace
Present continually

The Yarrow Graces—magnolia, forsythia, peach, even the bleeding heart–have been serviced lately. Town abloom on the first day of Poetry Month; thank you Emily Dickinson for getting it right—spring always seems—at least in this part of the world, not on the prairies where I grew up—somehow too gorgeous, masking the inevitable sting; the other day a violist died.

I opened a gallery of a book yesterday for the first time—The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson. It was a gift (thank you, S.!) and contains Emily’s envelope writings, lines written on flaps and seals and envelopes folded and cut into pointed arrows and pointless arrows, and from senders like Otis Lord and Abigail Cooper and Josiah Gilbert Holland. There are several indexes at the back that read litany-like:

Index of Envelopes with Columns
Index of Envelopes with Multidirectional Text
Index of Envelopes with Pencilled Divisions

They are pictorial indexes so to turn a page is to find a new room in the gallery arrayed with her small envelopes. What grabbed my attention was one envelope in the shape of an arrow, with this at the top in her sloping hand:

A Pang is more
Conspicuous in Spring

Which exactly is, in a way I can’t explain, spring here.

Emily’s dress had a large pocket where she stashed her jottings and poems and notes. Also she rejected print publication of her poems. Which helps to make insubstantial those little pangs that tend to come in Spring–a shortlist not made or the crisp rejection card I received the other night, now lying around on my desk.

I found a poem in it and cut it into an arrow. Sending Happy Po Month from Yarrow.



in letting us

an egret.

You form
you know

have found
a place

for it.


(Which pub rejected? Tell me your answer and I might buy you a beer.)



The Missing Vivian Marple


He understood so much now…why Time in the garden had sometimes jumped far ahead, and sometimes gone backwards.

The quote is in the mind of Tom Long from Philippa Pearce’s novel Tom’s Midnight Garden. To read this book, even for the umpteenth time, even in snatches, is to escape Time but also to delight in its unraveling. There’s a scene when Tom, gone back to 1895 from the mid-twentieth century by means of a garden, finds himself without skates. His friend Hatty promises, in 1895, to hide her skates, when she grows too old for them or leaves the house, in a secret space under the floorboards of her room (Tom’s room in the present). Back in his present, Tom finds her skates and enters the 1895 garden with them in hand. There’s a brilliant moment when Hatty and Tom, children of different centuries, both hold the same pair of skates; they’ve tricked Time. “Time No Longer” says Tom near the book’s close.

Four months ago (four!) Time seemed to steal the whole morning as I searched in vain for Vivian Marple’s book of poetry, I Mention the Garden for Clarity. I wanted a garden quote to end the last post and nothing else would do. Where had Vivian gone? Her only book, published about twenty years ago by Quarry Press (long gone), not readily available and my only copy (signed I think) was mysteriously missing.

Now, months later, another copy (stamped by the National Library of Canada) finally in my hands, I’m searching again, this time for a quote that I might have used if I’d ended the last post in Vivian’s garden instead of Tom’s. Perhaps this, from “The Lamb”:

Imagine a woman in a blue dress
with a scar in the palm of her hand
who sings canticles on Wednesday
mornings as the magpies lift the
brown sky above the careful houses
of the suburb where you live

Why does the woman have a scar in her palm? Why canticles? Why Wednesday mornings and magpies and why are the houses careful?

I love canticles, just as, several pages later, I rejoice to come upon the word chalice in “statements about Margaretha and the cosmos”. The opening:

She is Margaretha, marigold, marry gold woman on the front porch. On the step is the mustard seed and the cook book. It is 1966.

I ask, “Why marry gold woman?” even as I savour the mustard seed and the cook book on the step. I ask “Why 1966?” Still after all these years new questions arise from her strange and fierce and original poems, reminding me of another poet. Who was it that wrote–

Of Silken Speech and Specious Shoe
A Traitor is the Bee…?

The capitals should give her
away but I’ll leave it here
anyway as twenty minutes
elapsed a long, long time ago.




Poetry in the Garden

O little bird, what wild
journey, what storm and sand
gave you so still
into my hand?

You’re right if you guessed the quote is by me. It’s from a poem that hasn’t been written yet – who knows what and when the rest of it will be? The sand/hand rhyme came suddenly, but the whole poem might take months or years.

Here’s another poem that uses “sand” on the end of a line:

I’m a lettuce seed,
small as a grain of sand.

My home is underground.

I can see the earthy ground,
see the distant shadows of worms,
and hear the water dripping.

I dream to see my home outside.

I like the way seed and sand (grain) are drawn together not only by their actual size but by their sound, the opening “s” and closing “d”. And although sand and seed are equally miniscule, each lives in a vastly different home; this contrast draws you in.

The poem is by Song-ah*, who was in Grade Three when she wrote it last May, sitting on a stump with others of us by the newly planted garden at Yarrow Community School. We studied the seeds, planted them, wrote poems, waited, watched, and then after weeks measured the seedlings and wrote more poems about the lettuce teenagers.


In June when the lettuce was grown, we made a salad lunch, picked lettuce and chocolate mint and edible pansies, added local berries and a raspberry vinaigrette I’d brought from home. Kids on lunch recess stopped by, grabbed a plate and loaded up until we ran out of plates and used napkins instead. It was a wonderful celebration.


Now in late September, lettuce long gone, we might gather around the pumpkins and make more poems and maybe some soup. Like a poem, the garden grows and bears gifts in its own time, deliciously oblivious to our bells and schedules and instant click phones:

“He understood so much now…why Time in the garden had sometimes jumped far ahead, and sometimes gone backwards.”


*Thanks to Song-ah for permission to post her poem.

Gift in the Dunes

In case you haven’t noticed from previous posts (all two of them), each one ends with a mystery quote, its writer revealed at the start of the next post. I’m sure it’s been a difficult four months for my numerous followers to wait to discover the writer of April’s quote—here it is revealed at last:

…and should some limb of the Devil/Destroy the view by cutting down an ash: Yeats, “A Prayer On Going Into My House,” 1919.

Summer of fire and ash, of brown lawns and berries ripening before their time; I saw bear scat on the dyke the other day, they said on the news that bears have run out of food and are coming into town. Summer of the campfire ban – I imagine my kids telling theirs,

“Now when I was small, we used to sit in a circle around a fire, and make these things called s’mores.”

“Really? Tell me more, Dad, what were s’mores?”

“Well, you take a marshmallow…

Rustling stalks of dried peas, shriveled tomato leaves, promises of rain, it keeps wanting to but doesn’t. The eeriness of it; tell me again, what’s rain?


In Quebec last month it was just as hot the day we visited the dunes by Tadoussac, overlooking the St. Lawrence. I had been sitting on the beach absently digging a hole while my kids sand-skied down the steep dunes behind and above me, again and again. I decided I needed sunscreen and water from the parking lot above so began scaling up the hot sand like an insect, digging my hands in, feeling the scalding scrape-i-ness of it. And then there was something, down in the sand under my hands.

A bird. A hummingbird. How long dead? Where from? What forest? What flower? How did it die and how did it happen, in that enormous space of dune, to find its final resting place exactly in my meandering path? My son cradled it, sun playing on its green iridescence.

We placed it in the hole I’d dug, gave it a burial there.

“O little bird, what wild/ journey, what storm and sand/gave you so still/into my hand?”


Thyme & Time & Ash

Twenty minutes is an ocean of time: Richard Scrimger, quoted by Kathy Stinson to a small gathering of us (including a writerly dog) in the front room of Peter Carver’s old, family farmhouse at the Seaside Writing Retreat/Workshop ( the September before last.

You could smell the Atlantic. Hours every day to write. It was easy to believe in time with no end, or at least to forget, for a time, time’s constraints. Twenty minutes…she said a day or two before our departure, and already I felt the gnawing return to the land of parceled time when I would wonder at those words. What, really, can I accomplish in twenty minutes?

Write a blog post (ha!)

Think about a character; write notes toward a setting; read what I’ve already written (Kathy’s wisdom, I think)

Watch crows congregate in the mountain ash outside my office window

Last week when I was swimming in the Pacific off the coast of Costa Rica, time opened again and also when I walked the trail from the beach with Freddy, our wise guide, who (tour over, tips already paid) stopped suddenly on his own time to fix his scope on a violet-crowned woodnymph hummingbird to give me this:


Its stillness seemed outside of time.

The hummingbird in Elise Partridge’s poem “Hummingbird Koan”, from her book The Exiles’ Gallery to be released this month ( is still for us for oceans of time because fixed on a page but also fleeting because of the poem’s brevity and the swiftness of her onomatopoeic word choices, wish-rush and Dzzz dzzz dzzz whirring by your ear. Elise told me on January 24 that she was hoping to live to see the release of her book in April. She died on January 31.

Last summer I was throwing extra kale (anti-oxidant) and thyme into a soup for her, as if time could somehow be released by its twin sound in a scent that might escape the measures of our minutes and teaspoons, thyme for her, I threw it in, time for her, thyme, thyme…how could a woman who gave so lavishly of her time run out of time?

The bright morning of her memorial I was sitting in my office pondering these things only to be interrupted by a chainsaw’s drone; the neighbours had decided to chop their mountain ash. My view bereft of leaping squirrels and bunches of red berries that ferment and get the crows drunk; now crowded with Little Tykes toys – blue and yellow plastic picnic table, green and yellow plastic tractor, turquoise and yellow plastic slide. Elise would have mourned, too. Also would have known, in a snap I think, the answer to who was it that said “…and should some limb of the devil/Destroy the view by cutting down an ash…”?


About Text & Image & the Wonderful Gillian Newland

I set out initially wanting to write about Maurice Sendak, maybe a few ideas from a lecture that he gave – “Sources of Inspiration” – back in 1983. It had been many years since I read that lecture in preparation for a course I was to give on Writing Children’s Literature at UBC. Now I found myself, for reasons I won’t go into, at UBC again, in a carrel in Koerner Library, skimming the lecture and trying to write a blog post in 20 minutes, impossible task. On the first page is not, as you might expect, a reference to Where the Wild Things Are (that comes hilariously and brilliantly later), but a mention of Ezra Jack Keats. Which reminded me of The Snowy Day, which I had just a few days previously read three times over to a bunch of preschoolers at story time. One of my favourite parts – and theirs, too—is when Peter trails a stick in the snow and you can see the single new track beside his boot tracks.


From The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

The illustration pinpoints where he picks up the stick and begins to drag it along (you get the feeling he’s dawdling), but you don’t get the word “stick” until the page is turned. This is the true brilliance of an illustrated book – when pictures and text lean on each other to fill in the missing information. Remember Pat Hutchins’ magnificent Rosie’s Walk? No mention at all is made of the fox in the text, but there he is, under a dump of flour and chased by a hive of angry bees as Rosie (the hen, his prey) strolls blissfully on. The marriage of text and image in the hands of a single artist/writer like Sendak, Keats, Hutchins and Brett is of course ideal.

I’m often asked, when I tell people about my forthcoming picture book, if I’m drawing the pictures, too. I laugh. No, I tell them, you wouldn’t ever want to buy a book with any visual art by me! What many people don’t realize is that when a publisher accepts a picture book text (unless the author is one of the lucky handful who can successfully do both), they need to find a professional illustrator to do the rest. I’m thrilled with Red Deer Press’s choice for my forthcoming book, A Boy Asked the Wind – Gillian Newland. You can view her exquisite illustration of the wind churning the sea on this website. I’m so grateful to Gillian for generously giving me permission to feature it, since the cover image of the book isn’t yet available. I love the swell of the wave and the fish carried along and within it, the tiny details of froth and marbling on the sea’s surface that somehow also convey hugeness, and all of this super-realism juxtaposed with the hint of a magic wind in the background; this is no ordinary wind, no ordinary ocean.

And…speaking of oceans, who was it that said, “Twenty minutes is an ocean of time…”?



Jan in 35 Pieces, a memoir in music by the cellist Ian Hampton and edited by Barbara, will be released this coming spring 2018 by The Porcupine’s Quill.

Barbara will give a presentation of A Boy Asked the Wind to the Grade Four students at West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver on December 11, 2017.

Barbara will present a nature poetry workshop to families of Eastern Fraser Valley NatureKids at the Great Blue Heron Reserve in Chilliwack on February 3, 2018.

A Boy Asked the Wind has been selected as a starred choice in Best Books for Kids and Teens 2016 published by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre:


A Boy Asked the Wind.

Trailer by Rascal Media

A Boy Asked the Wind was recently reviewed in Quill & Quire:


Barbara speaks about A Boy Asked the Wind on CBC’s North by Northwest.



Video by Shaw TV of Barbara presenting and talking about A Boy Asked the Wind.

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