blue days


In early June, I wrote of my delight in finding Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada’s marvellous exploration of shibori, or shaped-resist dyeing. I’ve done a little of this in the past, in a very amateur and careless way, and I’ve had some jars of indigo waiting for the right moment to try it again. I prepared some cloth (old sheets, some scraps of rough white linen left over from curtains, a worn damask table-cloth), trying as many techniques as I could, and then waited for the right time. Some were bound with string and elastic bands (kanoko); some were stitched (karamatsu or larch); one was wrapped and then ruckled on a piece of pipe for arashi, or storm; and one had pebbles from Trail Bay in Sechelt tied into it for kumo. Preparing cloth and dyeing it is a meditative process, like quilting — or at least it is for me. In a way, it’s thinking with my hands. So the time has to be right. And in Memory on Cloth, Wada writes:

Shibori recognizes and explores the pliancy of the textile and its potential for creating a multitude of shaped-and-resisted designs. When the cloth is returned to its two-dimensional form, the design that emerges is the result of the three-dimensional shape, the type of resist, and the amount of pressure exerted by the thread or clamp that secured the shape during the cloth’s exposure to the dye. The cloth sensitively records both the shape and the pressure; it is the “memory” of the shape that remains imprinted on the cloth. This is the essence of shibori.

Yesterday I dipped my prepared pieces into the dye vat. The process is magic. The dye itself is a kind of swampy green. The fabric turns pale yellowy-green and only becomes blue when it’s exposed to air. So you dip and then let the pieces oxidize; then you dip them again. The more times you do this, the darker the finished dye. I did 4 dips of about 20 minutes each, letting the pieces rest for half an hour on a long bench of rough cedar in-between their visits to the vat. One of the pieces, the damask table cloth, was wrapped around a piece of pvc pipe with cotton string, too long for the dye vat, so it had its own basin of dye and had to be turned regularly to allow it to take the colour evenly.

in the dye.jpg

There was time to do some watering in the nearby vegetable garden while the various pieces were soaking or else resting.

all tied up.jpg

I picked kale and made a green pie for guests who were coming to dinner. I made sourdough bread. And for each step of the dyeing process, I tried to lose myself in the fabric. If the cloth records the shape and pressure of thread and clamps, what does it remember of its worker? That she is flighty? That she was thinking of a sad member of her family too far away to truly comfort? That she wondered if she’d added salt to the bread dough? Never mind. I did my best, I think.

There are differing opinions as to what you should do when you’ve finished the last submersion. Some people advise you to rinse your pieces immediately and let them dry on a line. Others suggest letting the pieces oxidize for 12 or 24 hours to set the dye completely before you rinse them and then wash them in a mild soap. Because we had friends coming for a swim and dinner, I chose to let mine sit overnight on the cedar bench. And this morning I went out at 7 to snip the threads, the elastic bands, the string, and to remove the beach stones from the square of linen. There was very loud noise on the other side of the vegetable garden and I eventually realized it was a whole family of pileated woodpeckers, the young having just learned to fly. They were flapping around awkwardly and making the most comical noise while the parents scolded and encouraged. And mosquitoes kept stinging the small of my back.

But what pleasure to lay each finished piece out on the grass! Each a surprise! I’d wondered when I was awake in the night if I’d bound pieces tightly enough, if the dye would somehow penetrate the thin pieces of wood I’d used for the itajimi pieces (you pleat the cloth, then fold it and clamp it or use elastic bands to keep it place between two pieces of wood). A more careful person would have more interesting results, perhaps, but I have to say I love what shape and pressure created, how the cloth remembers its time as a three-dimensional object. You can see the itajimi in the photograph opening this post. Here’s the damask tablecloth remembering the storm:


And my favourite might be this, the rough linen shaped by beach stones from Trail Bay:


I expected a darker blue, given the number of times I dipped each piece. (The intensity of colour comes from the number of short dips rather than a long sustained soak — or at least this was what I gathered from the numerous things I read about indigo dye.) But maybe my indigo was old or weak. Anyway, it’s a ravishing blue.

And what the cloth remembers, I will remember too — gathering the stones, sewing the circles that became the growth rings of larch, tying cotton string as tightly as I could. And the cloth and I will also remember the raucous sound of adolescent pileated woodpeckers finding their wings, learning what a voice sounds like in open air, in the morning, before the heat begins.

the thing with feathers

It’s been a long grey week. The rain, the news of the British referendum, the aftermath of the murders in various parts of the world (that ask us again and again to think how we are implicated, whether our silence serves or distracts or ignores), our radio and television airwaves filled with the noise of that awful man south of the border, a more personal sorrow, and the images of fires in California, flooding in many places: you wonder where to place your hope, if you have any left.
This morning, around 6, I woke to light. Not just morning light but a sky without clouds. Blue as a book of hours. In the trees, a pair of western tanagers, so brilliantly coloured that I wondered (as I do every time I see them), why they chose our green landscape for a summer home. They spend their winters in Central America and find their way here, to the bigleaf maples below the house (I think that’s where they nest; they always come from, and head back, to those trees). And listening to a recording just now of their call, I realize that’s what I’ve been hearing the last few mornings. So maybe their young have fledged and they are teaching them about territory, food sources (elderberries, salmonberries, huckleberries…), and dangers.
And when I got up and came down to my desk, I watched the robins gliding in and out of the nest just beyond my vision, around the corner of the house, tucked into an elbow of grapevine. I’ve been thinking that the young must be about ready to fly but I’ve stayed away from the nest out of superstition. (The last robin nest we were watching with hope was raided by a weasel…) But I did go this morning, just to see, and yes, there are at least two young’uns. When they saw me coming, they quickly hid. But I waited and was rewarded with the sight of two eager beaks poking over the side of the nest, while the parents watched from the arbutus. Here they are, just barely visible. Like hope.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
                           –Emily Dickinson

Listening to Graceland

This song said nothing much to me when it first came out. Maybe I didn’t listen carefully — I am perfectly willing to take the blame. But just now it cracked my heart open. I am washing diapers I bought on Craigslist to have here for my grandchildren when they come and I am taken back to the years and years of diapers — my three children were born within 4 years — and how I was always rinsing or hanging them out on the clothes line or folding them into the basket I kept by the table where I changed the babies. My heart forgot, as my hands forgot, the feel of diapers (though to be honest, I’ve changed the grandchildren here, and in their own homes too). But here, in an empty house, with a voice singing of the heart and its capacity for love, I am reminded of all the ways we shape our lives around it. Or shape it around our lives. Which is true? Both?

And I may be obliged to defend
Every love, every ending
Or maybe there’s no obligations now
Maybe I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland

On Sunday, this photograph of grandson Arthur arrived to wish John a Happy Father’s Dad. There is nothing like a 6-toothed smile to say, Joy! Or nothing like the joyous manspread of an 8-month old infant — something I suppose he will have to unlearn once he’s older.

fathers day.jpg

And this morning, a photograph of Kelly with the little balance bike we sent to her as an early birthday gift. (She will be two next month.) Her dad said, “Kelly won’t get on her bike yet, but likes to stand near it wearing her helmet.” But I bet by the weekend she will be gliding down that quiet lane, heading into the rest of her life.

Kelly's new bike.jpg

Maybe I’ve a reason to believe we will all be received. And will hang out diapers in readiness.


“I say, ‘Regicide.’ I say, Help!'”

From An Exaltation of Larks, by James Lipton:

An Herde of Wrennys, The Book of St. Albans. Hodgkin says, “The wren was probably allowed the term of ‘herd’…because it was the king of birds.” I say, “Regicide.” I say, “Help!”

It’s been slightly more than a month since the boxes of my novella Winter Wren arrived at my door. Readers of this blog might remember that my friend Anik See and I have begun a small literary imprint, Fish Gotta Swim Editions, to publish novellas for now and perhaps other innovative prose forms in the future. It’s been an interesting process so far. I wrote Winter Wren, Anik designed the cover and text, and the wonderful team at Printorium in Victoria printed the beautiful hand-sized books. People are sending the nicest notes or calling me to tell me their impressions. So far, so good!

winter wren.jpg

It’s a word-of-mouth endeavor at this point. We don’t have an advertising budget so we’re relying on email newsletters and the kindness of friends and strangers. Anik doesn’t even have copies yet but will receive hers when she’s in Canada next month. After then, she’ll fill orders for European customers and those from other parts of the world. (I’m filling orders for North, Central, and South America. And have mailed books to the UK and a few other places far afield.) But we both believe that readers will be interested in novellas and will somehow find us and our titles. (More are in the planning stages.)

Several reviews are forthcoming and I will post information and links on my News and Events page once I have them. I look forward to reading from Winter Wren when I participate in the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts on Friday, August 12th at 2:30 p.m. (I plan to talk about novellas in general and to also  read from my Patrin, which isn’t even a year old yet!) There will also be a proper launch for Winter Wren, probably in September. (If this sounds a bit vague,it’s because, well, life is busy right now! The Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, which I’m involved with, is coming up on the weekend of August 18-21 in Madeira Park; some of my children are coming for a couple of weeks later in summer; and there’s a third grandchild due in late August. But watch my News and Events page for a book launch date and if you’re in our area, come to help celebrate its regicide — without giving too much away, that word has a kind of eerie truth for this tale of wrens and the solstice and the passing of the old year.


And if you want to support independent publishing not just in Canada but internationally (because Fish Gotta Swim Editions is located here on the west coast as well as in Amsterdam), please consider ordering a copy of Winter Wren. You can order from me. Or Anik. Several bookstores here on the Sechelt Peninsula carry the book and others can order it for you. If you are interested in a review copy, please let me know.

“…clay I felt my father fumble”

I was just sorting some photographs taken a month ago, in Ottawa. There was a moment in late afternoon, in Forrest and Manon’s back garden, when I was sitting on their deck and looked over to see my sons holding their babies above them.

their babies.jpg

And looking at the photograph a few minutes ago, I heard so clearly a few lines from one of John’s poems, in which he meditates briefly on fatherhood in the larger context of house-building.

                       …the deck
I built in a blur but sit on

with a view — definite trees– an acreage
to be landscaped — orchard to complement
woodlot. I’ll work it for years. For my sons

I’ve apprehensions, don’t care
for legacy, paternal imposition, clay
I felt my father fumble handling me.

But I build, deep-bearing
in fluid bonds gone concrete
a southwest exposure.
I live in it for love…

                          —John Pass, “Days in the Dark of Building”, from Forecast: Selected Early Poems (1970-1990) (Harbour Publishing, 2015)

It’s always been one of my favourite poems, one I’ve heard at public readings many times but without the sense that one day it would mean something more. That the sons would hold their own children — a son, a daughter — aloft with their strong hands. Tomorrow is Fathers Day. The sons are far away, the father will be celebrated with barbequed steak and good red wine, and the concrete still supports the house we live in for love, after all these years.

voices from west of the 4th meridian

I keep hearing them, voices from a hundred years ago, on the banks of the Red Deer River. I’m working on something I think of as an antiphonal essay, a series of calls and responses. Sometimes the calls are my own, back through the decades, to ask questions of my grandmother and her first husband, the other members of that early incarnation of my family who lived in a settlement of squatters in Drumheller from 1913 – 1917; and sometimes the calls are theirs — to the institutions and individuals who were part of the world they lived in. And the responses? They are often choruses of voices, or occasionally a single voice. The voice of Frank Collins, Superintendent of School Lands, Department of the Interior, Winnipeg, who wrote “I do not consider that we should force the squatters to vacate this land as it might seriously affect the operation of the mines…” He knew, as others knew, that the reason people had built shacks illegally on a quarter section of property known as School Lands was mostly because they were poor, there was nowhere else for them to live in the tiny community of Drumheller, and their labour was needed in the nearby coal mines. The voices of representatives from the Canadian Northern Railway who responded to Frank Collins: “The squatter situation has developed to our disadvantage.” The voices of the surveyors, the mayor of Drumheller (in a terse telegram): “Conditions are a menace to towns health and finances as we are practically debarred from any revenue from people on this land.” Later voices from people remembering what it was like to live in the settlement:”There were many coyotes running in packs. When they howled there were very noisy and would wake up the children. Each house had its scrap heap where you put out ashes, etc. The coyotes would come across the river in search of food from these scrap heaps. At night you could see them run from these heaps when you went outside…The houses were longer one way than the other, and could be converted into two rooms. They had a caravan roof, had tar-paper on the outside walls and roof and had no water or toilet inside. Those homes with children had bunk beds put along the back wall.” There were nine children in the home of my grandmother and her first husband so I am trying to listen to the voices inside their house (20×25 feet) and outside, as my grandmother chased her chickens and hoed potatoes in the big garden (its dimensions, 80×125 feet, found their way onto the list detailing the worth of the buildings in the settlement once a decision was made to allow the squatters to buy their lots). I hear them, I hear them across the decades, and it’s like a plain-spoken opera, an oratorio, the voices beautiful in their insistence on being heard. Even the questions on the patent application for homesteads:

When did you build your house thereon? And when did you begin actual residence thereon?

How much breaking have you done upon your homestead in each year since you obtained entry, and how many acres have you cultivated each year?

How many horned cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, of which you are owner have you had on your homestead each year since date of obtaining entry? Give number of each year.

So I listen and notate and try to find a shape for this material and all the while I have these photographs on my desk, a little gallery of lost time.


the rainy day arrived

For ages I’ve been planning a big project, a dye project, and have been waiting for a rainy day to begin the preparations of cloth. The actual dye vat will be set up outside and for that I will need clear weather and an empty clothesline to hang the results. But in the meantime the lengths of cloth have to be folded and stitched and clamped and tied. Today it’s raining. I’ve put writing work aside — though in truth the actual sense of inspiration, of excitement at the prospect of working with familiar materials in order to make something new of them, with them, is similar in both cases.

I’m a long-time quilter, though I always qualify that by admitting that I’m not very good at it. I love textiles, I love the sense of having my hands filled with cloth, love the meditative work of hand-quilting a large surface, making something slightly three-dimensional out of layers of fabric sandwiched together. I’ve taken to embellishing my quilts with shell buttons, in homage to the button-blanket makers of the Northwest Coast, who used abalone for its ability to catch firelight and create mystery. I always think of a quilt as the end-product of a process and for me the process, the quilting itself, is the best thing about it. I also like that the end-product is not only something practical — I make quilts that are bedcovers, with one exception (and that’s the “Euclid’s Orchard” quilt I made for my son Brendan and it’s kind of stiff with theory and mathematics, more a wall-hanging that a cosy blanket) — but also a repository for the thinking I do while stitching.

french manon and french quilt.jpgtwo starry quilts.JPGearly log cabin.JPG

I am drawn to indigo and the various shibori techniques associated with Japanese textiles. I’ve worked with indigo a little and have attempted some of the shibori and although my results were very rough and clumsy, I loved the process. I had something in mind — fish swimming in indigo water — and used batik as well as buttons to add to the shibori resist stitching (to create a watery effect).

P1070361.JPGbutton fish.JPGmaterials for fish quilt.JPG

I’ve been reading Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada’s extraordinary Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now, which has me so excited about trying some new techniques. The book looks at the history of shibori, its relationships across cultures, possible connecting threads between traditions as geographically removed from one another as South America and Tibet, and how textile design reflects our connection to the natural world.

Shibori is a Japanese word that refers to a variety of ways of embellishing textiles by shaping cloth and securing it before dyeing. The word comes from the verb root shiboru, “to wring, squeeze, press.” Although shibori is used to designate a particular group of resist-dyed textiles, the verb root of the word emphasizes the action performed — the process of manipulating fabric. Rather than treating cloth as a two-dimensional surface, shibori techniques give it a three-dimensional form by folding, crumpling, stitching, plaiting, or plucking and twisting. Cloth shaped by these methods is secured in a number of ways, such as binding and knotting.

Shibori recognizes and explores the pliancy of the textile and its potential for creating a multitude of shaped and resisted designs. When the cloth is returned to its two-dimensional form, the design that emerges is the result of the three-dimensional shape, the type of resist, and the amount of pressure exerted by the thread or clamp that secured the piece during the cloth’s exposure to the dye. The cloth sensitively records both the shape and the pressure; it is the “memory” of the shape that remains imprinted in the cloth. This is the essence of shibori.

— from Memory on Cloth

I have the materials all ready, even a length of old pvc drain pipe which I’ll cover with a sleeve of fabric to create the resist technique called arashi. I found some lengths of raw silk I’d bought years ago, very cheaply, waiting for the right occasion. They’re not white but I think they’ll take the dye nicely. (I have both indigo and woad.) And the other fabric I’m using is a collection of plain white heavy cotton sheets for single beds (the single beds my brothers and I slept in as children), taken from my mother’s house after she died. They too have been waiting for the right occasion, memory already contained in their plain surfaces.

rainy day.jpg


keeping time

Yesterday I was returning to my car after a meeting in Madeira Park and I stood at the school fence for a few moments, watching children race around the field in a kind of wild disarray. Sports Day! I remember the same field, the same June sunlight, more than 25 years ago, as my own children completed the obstacle race, the relay, then lined up for hot dogs and dixie cups. As I turned from the field, I heard someone — a mother almost certainly — call to another, Who’s keeping time?

Good question. Who keeps it, tries to keep it, where does it go? I’m reading The Siesta and the Midnight Sun: How Our Bodies Experience Time, by Jessa Gamble. It’s a clearly-written examination of the biological clock and circadian rhythms and I’m hoping it can help me to figure out the notion of metaphysical time — its accumulation, its disappearance, reappearance, its questions and riddles. I think about it and then I don’t. But last night, after putting the book aside, I was awake for ages, trying to puzzle my way through an essay I’m currently working on. Family history again, ancient history, with its clutter of names and dates and missing elements. A passage from a recent New Yorker article has found its way into my consciousness and at times it feels like a guide:

“Scientists have sought for centuries to explain how animals, particularly migratory species, find their way with awesome precision across the globe…Dragonflies and monarch butterflies follow routes so long that they die along the way; their great-grandchildren complete the journey.” (from “How Do Animals Keep from Getting Lost?” M. R. O’Connor, May 28, 2016 New Yorker)

In Drumheller in April, I thought I’d be able to find my way to the very place where my grandmother stood in the doorway, children around her feet, to look out at her new surroundings, buckets waiting to be filled. I thought I’d know the smell of the earth, the soil that my father ran through in bare feet, and whose dust rose in summer to settle on laundry hung out to dry, on the surfaces of tables by open windows. I thought I’d know it. Recognize the wind. But instead we drove each wide street as though in a foreign country. Following clear and detailed instructions, we missed the turn to the cemetery and had to ask an Asian woman in the uniform of a fast food outlet, walking home with her head down. She was helpful with her hands, though her English was poor. As my grandparents’ English was rudimentary, even after 40 years in Canada. How many generations of dragonflies and monarch butterflies? How many generations of children buried among their own babies in the Drumheller Cemetery (that whoosh of time again), which we eventually found, decoding the map and the narrow lanes among the dead. How many buried until the language of grief flowed smooth and clear in the vowels of the new country? Gone, the palatalizations, fricatives, and trills of Central and Eastern Europe, the stops, the lost aspirates. Did I ever speak to them, apart from the urgings of my parents to thank them for gifts or to tell my age yet again, a girl among her brothers, arranged by height, each of us self-conscious in the summer heat, the long drive behind us and the promise of our cousins ahead. The promise of the Exhibition, each with a dollar in our pockets.

Who’s keeping time? Who is this woman — a photo found in my grandfather’s travel documents (the passbook that said he was travelling alone and had no right of return) —  and where did the last chapter of her own migration complete itself? If it ever did?

single woman

“Where does spirit live?”

Awake very early, listening to a loon call on Sakinaw Lake as the light was just beginning, and I felt the sound enter my body, as a soul returns after a long journey. When we camped here, 35 summers ago, we heard loons all summer, the air tremulous with their calls. I’d wake from sleep, my husband and first baby next to me in the tent, and think how far we were from everything we’d known, yet how complete that felt. A house creates barriers, the walls less porous than the canvas we were sleeping within. And age creates other barriers — you sleep differently and miss the sounds of the night.

morning window.jpg

Where does spirit live? Inside or outside

Things remembered, made things, things unmade?

What came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul

Imagined in the dawn cold when it cried?

                               –Seamus Heaney, from “Settings”, in Seeing Things