boots in winter

It’s no secret among my family and friends that I love boots. Not Uggs or slim high-heeled ones but, well, western boots. I have other boots too and enjoy wearing them. But cowboy boots? With dresses? That’s me, a style sense I learned early from Emmylou Harris, whose early albums feature her in boots. Gorgeous ones. The late Bronwen Wallace knew this and wrote so beautifully of Emmylou and her boots in Keep That Candle Burning Bright:

Another thing I like about Emmylou Harris is how

the boots she’s wearing on the album cover always fit

her songs: sleek and expensive on Elite Hotel, fringed

and slightly sleazy on Evangaline, white with sleek

black toes on White Shoes. And when she favours

pink, it’s not just any pink. The boots she’s wearing

on Angel Band are what I think of as old-fashioned,

spiritual pink, almost mauve, like those unspectacular,

but heavenly-scented roses country gardens used to

grow, while the ones on The Ballad of Sally Rose

shimmer with the surprising incandescence of Bob

Dylan’s hat when he walks in stage in The Last

Waltz or that split-second of sunset in early July, if

you catch it from a canoe, in the middle of a lake,

with a thermos of good coffee beside you.

And yes, is what I have to say to that. (And as a side-note, John watched The Last Waltz on New Year’s Eve while I slept off the last of the noro-virus visited upon our house over the holiday and he said it was as wonderful as ever.)

So no surprise that one of my Christmas gifts (from John) is a calendar featuring 18 months’ worth of boots. He hung it for me this morning by the porch door and I look forward to the months turning so I can laugh out loud at each new portrait of spectacular boots.

bootsI own one pair of three-toned brown cowboy boots from the Red Barn in Kamloops, bought with the honorarium for an essay in Lake, a journal published for a time at UBC-Okanagan. I happened to be in Kamloops when the acceptance email arrived in my box and so I knew exactly what I wanted to spend the money on. (I’d already tried on the boots and decided it would be frivolous to buy them. That is, until writing money happened my way…) And I have the most beautiful red roping boots, made of deerskin, which gave me the title of my first collection of essays: Red Laredo Boots. And again, I saw them, decided I couldn’t afford them, but returned to buy them when the essay I’d written with them as a centrepiece was sold for exactly what the boots cost. It was February, 1994 or 5, and we’d gone on a family road trip:

We drive out to Quilchena in the late afternoon. Nanci Griffith still sings, though the kids ask for something else. But this song suits me fine — Oh, I might be gone a long old time, and it’s only that I’m asking. Is there something I can send you to remember me by, to make your time more easy passing? By now a cold wind is blowing off the lake but the kids still want ice cream in the general store. And I want something, too, though I don’t know what it is. I buy an enamelled blue coffeepot because the copper one at home has lost its handle — and I lose my heart to boots. These are no ordinary boots but red Laredo boots, sitting on the shelf with the purple ones, the green ones, the regular browns and blacks. If there weren’t $175 I’d try them on in a minute, but as it is they are just a fancy. Oh I could do things in these boots, do anything, climb, dance, walk for miles. The lady who works in the store asks us where we’ve come from and seems surprised that we are so familiar with the area. We tell her we come very summer and we just wanted to see the country in winter. We talk about the changes over the years and then she asks me if I like Ian Tyson. Out of the blue.

      “He comes to Douglas Lake every summer, you know.”

      I assure her that I love Ian Tyson, particularly “And Stood There Amazed.”

      “Then I’ll give you the Douglas Lake number and you should phone early for tickets. The barn only holds eight hundred and the tickets go fast.”

      I thank her and we drive back to Merritt, two children asleep in the back and the other quiet. I am thinking of the boots. I could wear them to the Ian Tyson dance and maybe waltz in the arms of a cowboy.

I bought the boots but I never went to the dance. Never waltzed in the arms of a cowboy. Though now, in my kitchen, with the boots hanging on the wall, a new pair each month, it might be time.

red boots

“Memorial hour returns with each new year…”

So it’s winter and for me, that means quilting. There’s something about having my hands full of fabric, finding a way to create texture with a needle drawing thread over and through the surface of a quilt, pulling the layers together in a durable way. A subversive way, because no one could imagine how much pleasure and deep thinking is given to the work of making a practical thing. A bedcover, after all! A blanket of scraps! My mother used to knit, badly — I feel mean saying this, but honestly everything she knit for us was lopsided; the bulky Buffalo yarn sweaters had the collars on backwards and they always needed several extra inches added to the cuffs and those inches were often in a different yarn because she’d run out of the main one. She knit lovingly though and I remember she once said, giving me a blanket she’d made for one of my babies, that she couldn’t bear to have a winter pass without something to show for it. I know what she meant. A quilt, a blanket, a sweater which I still wear (for gardening) which barely covers my wrists and sort of flares at the waist.

This morning I was writing a letter to a friend and I told her this:

Yesterday I was putting away some quilting supplies (I finished the Euclid’s Orchard quilt for Brendan for Christmas!) and saw a basket of blocks I’d finished in the spring, all in a heat of creation, and then abandoned because they didn’t make sense to me once I’d tried to find a pattern with them. But yesterday I saw how I could take apart some of the long strips and rearrange them and use another fabric I have for sashing and voila, I think I’ll have something close to what I’d first envisioned. We’ll see. (It sounds a lot like writing, doesn’t it?)

I spent a few hours unpicking the long strips of blocks and this morning I began to arrange them on top of my bed to see if I can create a woven effect with alternating blocks. The blocks are pieced with four inch strips of reds, blues, and white damask from some old tablecloths I can’t bear to throw out. Some of the reds and blues are prints and some solids. I hadn’t anticipated that the way I’d first sewn them together would result in a series of French flags — I don’t have a very refined spatial sense. I have to do things by doing them. I can’t “see” clearly until the thing itself is in front of me. I use the word “envisioned” in the letter but it isn’t really vision at all. It’s hope. If I sew these things together, I hope I will have a pattern that approximates, well, something I might have dreamed or seen or imagined. I do it to find something out. And to spend time in the rocking chair in front of the woodstove, the scent of dry fir lightly perfuming the cottons.

And these days, while I unpick and resew, while I think about texture and how the damask has probably been the silent witness of hundreds of family meals, some of them ours, I’ve been listening in an almost obsessive way to The Trackless Woods, written about here. It is such a perfect recording, a relationship across the decades — or the centuries by now. Across continents and sensibilities. Amazing, how one woman found another to talk to in this way, to accompany in this way. I read a beautiful interview on the NPR site and loved this question, asked by Ann Power:

The Trackless Woods emerges from the act of reading. You fell into the Akhmatova poems somewhat unexpectedly, and clearly sat with them for a while as you were composing the music. The album’s intimate, domestic feel evokes a similar response from the listener. How can music be like reading? What did you get from reading Akhmatova’s poems that you most hope will come across in your versions?

And Iris DeMent’s reply:

Some of them I sat with a long time; with others, the melody came as I was reading them for the first or second time. My experience with and connection to poetry has primarily been through songs, so it probably shouldn’t be surprising to me that most, if not all, of these poems weren’t fully known to me, or understood on that deeper emotional level, until the melodies arrived. It was like the melody served as a doorway, a means by which I was able to enter the poem and that was the criteria I used when determining whether or not a particular melody stood up or not: It either allowed me entrance into the poem or it didn’t. And that’s something I never had to wonder about. It’s like any other door, it either opens up and lets you into the room or it doesn’t. It’s very basic. I could feel that every time.

Maybe my own sewing is part of this right now. A door, an entrance — into winter, its powerful hoard of memories and requirements (quiet, warmth, an abundance of quilts). As Iris sang “The souls of all my dears”, I found myself weeping at these lines as I cut out sashing for each course of blocks:

The souls of all my dears

have flown to the stars


Memorial hour returns with each new year

I see, I hear, I touch you drawing near


You step onto the porch and call my name

Your face pressed up against the frosted pane

Is it my mother, come back for a brief visit, lopsided sweater in her arms? Or the poet herself, across the river of languages, or the singer of these poems, her sweet voice in the falling light? Those who sat at the table laid with damask have gone home. Everywhere the scent of fir, the call of thread and cotton, the frost on the branches outside as lovely as silver.

winter quilt