“I have walked behind the sky.”


So. Yesterday I finished writing the final essay for Blue Portugal. Or at least I finished a full draft, with some parts a little rougher than others. There are ten essays in this collection, ranging from meditations on colour, investigations into ampelography, entoptic phenomenon, Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor as a soundtrack for navigating grief, the relationship between the venous system and rivers, and using Dante’s Inferno as a means to recover from fractures. I know. It doesn’t sound like a manuscript that will be easy to place with a publisher, does it? In truth, I don’t think the essays themselves are difficult or chilly. But they’re not issue-based. They’re not life-style pieces. I read those and enjoy many of them but they’re not what I write. Or at least they’re not what I need to write right now.

There’s a lot of blue in this collection. The title piece for example begins with wine, Modry Portugal, a beautiful light red wine we drank in the Czech Republic. Modry means blue in Czech (and other Slavic languages) and I wondered about the Portugal. Where did the grape come from, and how, and why. I also wanted to look more deeply at family origin stories. There’s another essay, “The Blue Etymologies”, that I wrote to puzzle through what I experienced when I fell last November and damaged my retinas.  I have walked behind the sky, wrote Derek Jarman in Chroma, and yes, that was exactly where I went. “blueprints” revisits housebuilding and various kinds of fabric resist printing and the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins. Several of the essays use maps and land surveys in an attempt to locate the past and a couple of them might be too personal to interest anyone but members of my family. Who can say.


What I want to say is how much I’ve loved writing these essays. They are messy, imperfect, badly constructed in parts, and the craft is often careless; if you’ve read previous posts and seen images of the quilts I make, then you will recognize the parallel. But in an odd way they’ve kept me alive. Or they’ve kept my mind alive as I’ve navigated some health issues, have lain awake in the night thinking of my children and their children and how we’ve ended up living so far apart, have learned to do particular techniques with textiles, and have tried to keep what’s beautiful close to hand in the face of climate change, dangerous political systems, and an aging body.

The epigraph for this collection is a passage from a poem by the American poet Robert Penn Warren.

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

–Robert Penn Warren

Deep delight, in a moment of mania. That was me, in the night, writing by starlight, telling the story over and over again.

redux: radio’s perfect at night…

…when you’re driving the dark highway home from the ferry and Bruce Cockburn is offering a playlist on the CBC. You tune in late, much later than you think, and first, just past Roberts Creek, it’s Ian and Sylvia Tyson singing “Four Strong Winds”, which has you thinking ahead, to Thursday (“Think I’ll go out to Alberta/ weather’s good there in the fall”) when you’ll fly to see your baby grand-daughter in Edmonton, those sweet harmonies part of how you came of age yourself. And then, just before Sechelt, it’s Joni Mitchell singing “Amelia”, with its beautiful high notes and its hexagons of the heavens, the strings of her guitar, and those geometric farms, which you’ll see as your plane descends after crossing the Rockies. Perfect at night as the moon appears, not blood-red or in full eclipse (you missed that while you napped in the car on the ferry), but shrugging its shoulder until the grey shadow falls away. Leonard Cohen sings of the future, the one that is almost upon us:

Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul…

Oh, and Sarah Harmer, as you drive home, home past Halfmoon Bay, makes it personal:

A raincoat and a French beret
The rolling hills of past mistakes
Like quiet under cloud

And I will long look to the churning sea
This call to arms means wrap them
Around the first person you see.

And then, just before the coyote crosses the road near Kleindale, Bruce has the good sense to ask Tom Waits to sing you the last miles:

Far far away a train
Whistle blows
Wherever you’re goin
Wherever you’ve been
Waving good bye at the end
Of the day
You’re up and you’re over
And you’re far away.

And when you arrive, the moon is waiting, full and silver as though nothing has ever happened and the world is still hopeful and waiting for tomorrow.


“…the river is life.”

I use photographs as visual notes while I’m writing. I use other things too — stones, dried flowers, fossils, seed pods. But photographs help me to summon up textures, experiences, and they usually begin another kind of process: they lead me back into the world I’m writing about in such a visceral way that I look up after a bit and can’t believe I’m here, at a desk on the west coast of Canada, and not wherever the photograph has allowed me to return to.

This morning, writing about the villages I visited in western Ukraine, I’ve been looking at mouse-traps (and a rather fierce looking rat-trap) in the market at Kosiv. They were part of one merchant’s display and I watched for a little while as one person after another looked at them, talked to their maker, and fished into pockets or purses to buy one or more. I don’t understand Ukrainian so what I heard were low murmurs, almost guarded, because I guess no one likes to confess they have enough vermin to warrant traps. Sometimes we have enough. We used to hear mice in the walls but then in January of 2017 our cat Winter came to live with us. We were kind of relieved because we thought our days of mice would be over and in truth I don’t hear them in the walls any longer. But Winter likes to bring creatures into the house, using the cunning little door John built for him in a window opening— we didn’t want a door at ground level because raccoons and skunks would use it too. I’ll hear the little squeak as the door opens and then the sound of Winter racing along the hall and up the stairs to bring us his prize. But then he’ll stop to wash a shoulder or to meow even louder so we’ll wake to praise him and the mouse will escape. I’ve never known Winter to catch a mouse inside the house. Traps have to be set under bureaus or behind a hutch so that the cat won’t investigate them and lose a toe. When I look at this photograph of traps at the Kosiv market, I regret not buying one. Maybe it would have made all the difference.


I’m also using photographs to recall the process of making lizhnky, the most beautiful wool blankets woven by Hutsul people in the Carpathian mountains. We visited a workshop and learned something of the steps involved; I was particularly intrigued by the valylo, or wooden tub under the workshop where a diverted strand of river tumbled the woven blankets to shrink them and tighten their threads. The weaver told us that the time the blankets spent in water depended on the season and the temperature of the river. She was stirring and lifting the submerged blankets with a forked stick and she said, the river is life.

On our way to Yavoriv, where the blankets are woven, I called to our driver, Stop, stop, because I saw a bridge over the Rybnytsya River entirely covered with fleeces. They’d been given a preliminary rinse in the river and were drying in September sunlight.


Note to self: why didn’t you buy a blanket? Then you wouldn’t have to try to remember the scent of the wool, the feel of it as the weaver guided your fingers on the spindle.

from an essay-in-progress

at the market

Follow your nose to the booth laden with loaves of every shape and size. Doughnuts, nobbly buns, pastries filled with prunes or poppyseeds. Bottles of moonshine, carefully labelled, with tiny glasses for tasting. There were tables piled high with plastic plates, old brown pottery crocks, headscarves, and tiny thong underpants. Bows and arrows, slingshots, chickens hung by their feet. I bought two small oil paintings in wooden frames; they showed the same view of the valley I saw as I walked to the pool each morning. How much, I asked, and the artist, Mr. Пенета, carefully wrote 200 UAH on an old envelope. $10, more or less. Using a voice app on his phone, he told me that he was an artist and he lived in Kosiv. You’re lucky, I replied. And I’m lucky too to have found your work.

On the bridge over the Rybnytsya River, a woman stopped me. She had four porcini mushrooms and a little jar of rosehips. I thought of my own jam made with Rosa canina hips, each one emptied of its coarse seeds, then boiled with sugar and lemon slices. No, I gestured, no, but beautiful mushrooms! Pizza? And that was a word she knew.

slow writing


I was up in the small hours, working on the final essay for a collection I’m calling Blue Portugal. I’ve always said that writing takes the time it takes and sometimes that time passes so quickly that, oof, a few months, a year passes and I have most of a book written. I’ve been told I’m prolific but I don’t think of it that way. I spent years trying to find a way to do the work I wanted to do and now I know, or at least I know what I don’t want to do. I want a spacious and generous form to allow me to bring everything I need or want to it. The essay is closest, though I have to admit I keep in mind the Oxford definition:

Late 15th century (as a verb in the sense ‘test the quality of’): alteration of assay, by association with Old French essayer, based on late Latin exagium ‘weighing’, from the base of exigere ‘ascertain, weigh’; the noun (late 16th century) is from Old French essai ‘trial’.

The satisfaction is almost entirely in the process, the weighing and testing, and I know that the resulting work is never quite what I thought it would be. Like any craft, I expect. Or anything else, for that matter. Growing zinnias among the roses and seeing colour combinations that surprise me with their beauty, though I know others might say they clash. Or making one of my indigo quilts with my imperfect stitching, thinking that the finished version will look one way and realizing that I’d gone in another direction entirely. (I’m thinking right now of an unfinished quilt folded into a closet in the back of the house, pieced with strips of old white damask tablecloths, red prints, and deep blue Japanese cottons, which sounds like it should be lovely but in fact it looks like nothing so much as a lot of French flags. My heart isn’t in it any longer.)

Anyway, in the small hours I was lost in the experiences and materials of the past few weeks in Ukraine. I’d done a fair bit of work preparing for this essay—its working title is “Museum of the Multitude Village”, which refers to a brief piece I read about a small museum in the village of Valyava, founded by a man who might be related to me. I wanted to try to write a draft of the essay sooner rather than later while I can still understand my cryptic notes, including a little series of dots which represent the constellation Orion seen from a train window as we traveled overnight from Kyiv to Chernivtsi. Somehow that image led me to another star map, one found in a cave in the Swabian Jura, an accurate version of Orion carved into mammoth tusk, with an age of about 32,000 years.

You plant zinnia seeds in spring and wait, patiently, for the germination, the first true leaves, and the eventual flowers. It’s a slow process. Like piecing together scraps of cloth, over time. Like decoding old documents and trying to figure out what they mean across the decades—or in the case of my grandfather, over a century and more. Twenty years ago I said to myself that I wanted to visit my grandfather’s village. I put that thought aside until I had time. The right time. Last Wednesday, on our way down the mountain to the market in Kosiv, then lunch, then Lviv, we stopped to photograph hay stooks and a man passed us on the Tiudiv road, the one in the photograph above. Maybe he was on his way to collect apples or firewood but he was happy to stop and let me stroke his horse’s face. I am trying to write about that moment—the lazy bees in the flowers on the side of the road; the scent of the horse, pungent and friendly; the elegant stooks in the small fields; and everywhere apples and pears, huge orange squashes, thickets of dill. I have all the time in the world.


“There were other things.”

ivankivtsi church2

When I woke this morning, after a good sleep my first night home after two weeks in Ukraine, I thought of the church in Ivankivtsi, my grandfather’s village. Well, there are two churches, the new one and the old one. The old one was where my grandfather was christened in 1879. No one could have imagined that baby leaving, going to Canada, and more than a hundred years later, a woman trying to find traces of him in a landscape full of beauty. There were fields, a horse pulling a wagon down the dusty road, a baba carrying a pail of water with two apples floating on top. The priest came (summoned by the mayor, who made calls to everyone who might have information for me) and opened the church. He opened both churches and engaged my translator Vasyl in a long conversation about the dates of the green building which might have been 250 years or maybe 300. He would talk to his wife, who spoke English, about me and my search and he carefully wrote down Vasyl’s email address. In a way it was enough—seeing the village where my grandfather was born, seeing the church, decoding the Cyrillic characters of my surname on the WW1 memorial, one П. Кишкан. So imagine my surprise, a few days later, while I was seated at the table of an outdoor Hutsul feast in the small community of Bukovets in the Carpathian mountains where the little glasses of vodka flavoured with golden root (ginseng) were kept full for toasts, to have Snizhana come to tell me that Vasyl was on the phone: the priest and his wife had found some Kishkans in Ivankivtsi. When we returned to our hotel after the feast, they would be waiting to meet me.  I knew it was at least a 2 hour drive, on rough roads for part of the way (our hotel was up a long rubbly track which wound through farms and orchards), so I wondered if they could find us. 7 of them were indeed waiting, with gifts of champagne, a length of intricate textile, chocolates. We spent 3 hours together, with Snizhana bravely translating (because Kishkans are excitable), and although we don’t know quite the intricacies of our relationship to one another, we are confident that we are family.

There were other things. A woman making blankets in a workshop built over a river. Morning swims in cold water. Endless plates of delicious food and glasses of vodka, the red one flavoured with kalyna, the fiery one made with horseradish. Pulling aside the curtain at the end of my bed on the train traveling by night from Kyiv to Chernivtsi to see Orion stretched across the sky. Churchbells in Lviv. The smell of incense in the Armenian Cathedral. Eating bowls of kasha in the morning and remembering my grandmother’s cabbage rolls.

I am sitting at my desk, wondering how I will take the strands of what I found in Ukraine and make them into something approximating the texture and colour of a place that felt familiar. The schoolteacher at the feast in Bukovets said, This is your land. Come again and bring your children, your grandchildren. I wonder if my grandfather ever hoped to return? Or if I will?

ivankivtsi church