“every force evolves a form”

laid out

The great thing about swimming is its capacity for meditative thinking. Not always. But sometimes, when I have something to figure out, and if I’m breathing steadily as I swim up and down the local pool, I can find my way down into the idea I’m puzzling through.  I’m going to write about it here because I know how often I read about writers and their work patterns and my own never seems to be anything like that. I’ve asked myself many times if I might in fact be a fraud, that maybe I’m not really a writer at all. But this time I actually had an insight about something and I worked out a solution that I think is pretty interesting.

Over the weekend I completed a first draft of an essay on rivers and venous systems. I was trying to understand how our veins work and how things can go wrong with them. Obviously my medical background is zero. But I also realized at recent medical appointments that there are gaps in the way doctors and other medical practitioners view (and tend to pathologize) anomalies in the human body. My essay remembers particular rivers and their origins, situating me (and my family, if required) on or in different rivers. The rivers move over and around obstacles, their water levels change, they form oxbows and meanders. I try to imagine the notion of braided rivers, channels that split off from one another for various reasons (bank erosion being one) and then rejoin each other again. And there are many correspondences with our venous system. I loved writing the first draft and now the challenge is to take the sections, written as they occurred, and make a coherence of the whole thing. The beginning is still the beginning and the end is still the end but the 12 sections in between needed some organizing.

I had in mind moving the material around on the page a little, as one would do with the sections of a poem, using the space of the page as a compositional field. Can you do this with an essay that is essentially written as straight prose? Well, maybe you can. In the pool, I remembered a little passage in one section of the essay that uses an encounter with a physiotherapist last week who was helping me to strengthen one leg.

My physiotherapist tells me that the ligaments, bones, and cartilage exist in a relationship. He braids his fingers together to show me. Then he turns them askew, like my own braided hair after I’ve slept on for a night or two, and he says our work will be to re-align the workings of my right leg. He doesn’t think it’s simply arthritis though he’s breezily convinced that everyone over 50 has some degree of it in his or her joints. He speaks of trauma, of injury. A bump or a fall or a turn too far.

So what would happen, I wondered, if I tried justifying the margins of certain sections to the right-hand side of the page rather than the left. Would you still be able to read the prose easily but might you also be able to understand how the sections are like the rivers splitting and rejoining one another, the bones and ligaments trying to do the same? Would you? Hmmm. I kept swimming up and down the pool, doing my slow kilometer, and trying to “see” the prose sections as visual correlatives of my body and the rivers I love. I know this could work with huge sheets of paper and letterpress printing, I know that space would not be an issue. But on an 8 1/2 x 11 inch page, what then?

I’ve been trying various things in my word-processing program (which isn’t Word but LibreOffice, close to Word but not exactly the same) and I’ve been cutting and taping pages to try to see which sections might look best meshing or braiding together (only at the bottom or top of a page, I guess, because otherwise there won’t be room for the actual text). And trying to remind myself that this is writing first and graphic representation second. That meaning ought to come first. But maybe there’s also room for what Guy Davenport, via Mother Ann Lee, so beautifully recognized: that “every force evolves a form.” That meaning is, in a way, a realization of aesthetic form.

one section

Ok, back to it. I can’t wait to fiddle some more.

Winter, reading

winter, reading

“Hang there like fruit, my soul,
Till the tree die.” — from Cymbeline

Readers of this blog might recognize Winter, the cat who came out of the woods (mysteriously) and decided to live us last January. There was some confusion about gender but we finally worked out (with the help of the Pender Harbour vet) that Winter is a neutered male. (He is dappled and there are dapples right where his dangling bits would be if he still had them.) He is a lovely cat. In his first few months with us, he slept in the utility room, on an old red blanket. We didn’t know his habits and I am an unreconstructed animal person. I love to have them around but I don’t particularly to have them wandering around food preparation areas (Winter has a pan for his toilet requirements so you know where his feet have been…) and on tables and rooting through stuff that’s been left out. When it seemed that he didn’t do such things, we opened the door at night and he joined us at the foot of our bed. He likes to be at our feet, which is wonderful; he is large and warm and just the right weight for cold feet. He is companionable in the best way. He doesn’t fawn. He doesn’t like us to swoon over him. He just likes food and our company and a place at our feet at night. He particularly likes it when I come to bed early, as I do most nights (unless we have dinner guests). I arrange all the pillows behind me and I read. I look forward to this all day. I have a stack of books on my bedside table—right now, the pile includes Jon McGregor’s extraordinary Reservoir 13 (I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this when I’m finished), Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook, and Sylvia Brownrigg’s Invisible Countries (sent to me by my friend Anik because we adore the Sylph Editions Cahier Series)—and I love the moment when the pillows are right and I reach over for the evening’s pleasure.

Last night I finished Ali Smith’s Winter. It’s a very seasonal read. By that, I mean that it’s full of weather, of Christmas and its difficulties when family members gather and no one is quite sure of what’s expected, and of the notion of art itself. Each character assembled in the huge and storied Cornwall house has at least one story and those overlap (or don’t) in surprising ways. No one remembers the family history in the same way and we’re not sure who is reliable and who isn’t. But it doesn’t matter. A disembodied stone head floating through the house reminds us that things are never what they seem and when characters venture out into Cornwall itself, either in the present moment or in the past, what they discover is truly astonishing. Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures (which reminded me of a glorious afternoon spent in her studio garden in St. Ives in the summer of 2005, looking through her pierced forms), the nature of paternity, of truth (the hapless Art, whose blog “Art In Nature” has been hacked by his estranged girlfriend), and how a homeless stranger invited into the house (the appropriately-named Lux, a unit of illuminance, one lux equal to one lumen per square meter: 1 lx = 1 lm/m2 = 1 cd·sr/m2) is the presence that draws out the stories and allows each family member to shine. The novel is really quite mythic, though it is also planted in the present moment, where a terrible American President addresses the 2017 National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia and Lux reminds the household of how the Conservative Government truly treats immigrants. Art’s aunt Iris remembers her heady (and terrifying) involvement with the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and as for Cymbeline, well, its themes of forgiveness and reconciliation float through the novel, a little like the stone head, but much lighter and more luminous. Like Lux.

winter reading

February, freehand


February has always felt like a hinge to me, a time when the first early bulbs might come into flower, when I’ve noted the first salmonberry blossoms in sheltered areas, when the sky, late afternoon, will have something of spring in it. A certain kind of light, a clarity. This morning is foggy and grey but when I went out to fill the bird-feeder, I could smell the soil. Time to fill little seed trays and plant some peas and early salad greens.

My mum used to say that she didn’t like a winter to pass without having something to show for it. She crocheted and knit, badly. Is it mean to say this? We have her lopsided baby blankets still and I love them for their odd shapes and their history. I like putting them on the crib in the room our grandchildren sleep in. And John still wears the sweater of Cowichan wool she made for him in the early 1980s, along with one for Forrest.


John’s sweater had the sleeves up near his elbows so my mum cheerfully made them longer (and lopsided). The shoulders are beginning to unravel and I might try to fix it, though my knitting skills are pretty rudimentary. Still he loves his old sweater, he says, pulling it on to cut firewood or prune the roses.

And who am I to talk about lopsided or careless? My freehand quilting is both. But I love to do it. I’m almost finished the indigo wholecloth quilt, stitching spirals and anchoring them with shell buttons. A winter’s work. A wholecloth quilt is often an opportunity for a quilter to showcase her (or his) fine stitching but not mine. I’m resigned to the fact that I will never make those little perfect mice-tracks across a length of fabric but I do love the meditative possibilities of sitting by the fire and allowing my hands to guide thread into a spiral, a quiet labyrinth of red stitches holding the layers together. And look! Going into the kitchen a few minutes ago to pour a cup of coffee, there it was, waiting for me. (The morning light makes the colour look lighter than it actually is. Think new jeans, not stonewashed or faded.)


The shortest month, maybe the most promising in some ways. There were mosquitoes the other day and the sound of frogs. And tulips coming up in the raised beds in the vegetable garden, protected from the deer. I have enough red thread to finish my quilt and seeds to plant.

Winter garden,
the moon thinned to a thread,
insects singing.

—Matsuo Basho