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.