And following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I—
— from The Inferno of Dante, trans. Robert Pinsky
In February, I began work on two things at once, an essay and a quilt. The essay rose out of some reading John and I were doing together; we read The Inferno of Dante by our fire, a book at a time, each of us reading a page and then handing the poem to the other. It was Robert Pinsky’s memorable translation and it was a good thing to do. (Next winter we’ll read Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey.) We’d read and then talk. And I realized that what I was learning was how to go into the darkness and return. In late November I fell on black ice and fractured my tailbone. We were visiting our Edmonton family and I wanted to enjoy every minute of our time there so I took heavy pain-killers and rode the horse-drawn sleigh down Whyte Avenue, watched a performance of the Nuckcracker in a Nutshell at the Grindstone Theatre, ate wonderful pastries at La Boule, visited the Royal Alberta Museum with my daughter and my granddaughter, and then on the last afternoon in Edmonton, experienced the symptoms of retinal detachment which landed me in the Emergency Ward at the Royal Alex Hospital. Thus began a whole process of examinations, appointments, eye surgery, further retinal difficulties, and whew, it was finally over in February.
The quilt and the essay happened together because I wanted to try to cobble together a visual narrative for the fall, the fracture, and the darkness of the wait for both a diagnosis and the repairs that followed. And then I wanted to write about it too. I’m no artist. I can’t draw. I can’t even sew very well. But I can think visually and that was my intention. To use the Japanese boro technique (boro means something tattered, repaired) to create a path down the centre of a piece of textile work (a quilt, I guess), and then border the path with dark lengths, one of Japanese silk, one of cotton, to embellish with shell buttons. Two eyes, pierced. Little shards of light on a deep blue path. Spirals of descent, and the hard climb back. Corny, maybe, but it seemed absolutely necessary at the time.
I finished the quilt top and sort of put it aside because I wasn’t sure what to do with it. It’s hardly cosy. You probably wouldn’t want it on a bed. But maybe I’d hang it, I thought. The essay I finished and I’m happy to say it will appear in Brick in the fall.
Then in April I wondered what it would look like to back the dark top with teal dupioni silk. I love dupioni for its weight and crisp texture (achieved by warping with fine thread and then the weft is coarser threads so you get an uneven slubbing in the finished fabric) and the teal went well with the pattern in the panel of Japanese silk on one side. I’d sew, and then put the piece aside. Sew, and put it aside. Quilting for me is usually something I do by the woodstove and it’s been so hot since June that I haven’t felt like sitting with something heavy on my lap. But lately I’ve thought I’d like to finish up and see what I’d done.
I write and I quilt to find things out. I like to finish, of course, and I like it even more when the results are better than I hoped for. This isn’t better than I hoped. The sewing is kind of clumsy and I have no idea what I’ll do with it, apart from maybe hanging it on a door. But I documented pain and fracture and potential loss of vision and I had the intense please of pushing a needle in and out of patches of blue fabric, piecing together a path that took me to the cold heart of winter, and back.
“My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,” said Dante. His guide was Virgil. Mine was my needle, its single eye carrying dark blue thread.