Note: this post is from February, 2019. I describe the process of writing “A Dark Path”, an essay subsequently published in Brick 104. Sometimes essays begin in thin air, a voice in the darkness calling out.
Something happened the other day and I want to write about it while it’s still fresh and lively in my thinking. I got up in the night (after midnight as Wednesday eased into Thursday) to sit at my desk and ponder the beginnings of an essay to accompany the dark path quilt I was sewing. I know this might not make sense to people who do one of these things or the other but not both. Each discipline requires a different set of skills, a different kind of focus. Still, working on the two things in tandem has become a way for me to explore the process of making something and thinking deeply about the way it connects to ideas, dreams, visual signals, metaphors. My essay “Euclid’s Orchard” traced the making of a quilt of the same name. It followed my attempts to learn something of mathematical language and pattern in order to understand my son Brendan and his life-long calling. (He is a professor of mathematics at the University of Alberta and when I look back at his childhood, I see that he was always pursuing patterns and numbers. Though when I asked him once if he always thought about numbers as a child, he said, “That’s the way you’d describe it but it was more about relationships, patterns, equations.” “Even then?” “Yes, even then.”) Another essay, “An Autobiography of Stars”, documents the making of a starry quilt for my daughter who was still a teenager. I wanted to give her the heavens and all they contained. Not all my essays have matching quilts but they almost have some sort of puzzle at their heart. Something I need to figure out.
So as Wednesday became Thursday, I was at my desk, the space lit by a small lamp, and I was looking at the beginning of the dark path essay. To the right of my computer is the pelvis of a long-dead dog. While I was sitting there, I remembered something that happened to me when I was 14, an accident with my horse. I heard (if you can believe me) the voices of the two soldiers in the opening scene of Hamlet:
Bernardo: Who’s there?
Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.
I shivered a little in the night, in the small space of my study under its Giotto ceiling, and I began to write. An hour later, maybe two, I went back to bed. Then in the morning I returned to my desk and finished what turned out to be a complicated and (to me) fascinating nexus.
What I wrote wasn’t what I thought I’d write. When I began the essay to accompany the quilt, I imagined it would describe the process of choosing scraps of fabric and laying them out in a pleasing pattern. Yes, there’s some of that in the essay. I thought I’d describe how much John and I are enjoying reading the Inferno of Dante each evening by the fire. Yup, that too. But I also found myself drawing together pelvises, fractures, the fear of losing myself in the process of aging, various paths I’ve made and taken in my life so far, and oh, some other strands of loose thread into a crooked but interesting seam. It took me almost all of Thursday to finish the first draft and a good part of Friday (yesterday) to fix some weak areas and to tighten the structure. (Those seams! The connective tissue!)
Sometimes you just have to write. You can’t wait for the right moment because when exactly will that be? You need to pay attention to your own fears (Who’s there?) and walk into the night to meet them. You hope the path you’re following is not too broken and rough. You hope your footing is at least adequate, in the darkness, in the grass that has grown up over the path you made with rocks to lead you out to the outhouse when you first lived here, your baby (not the mathematician but the one who became a historian) sleeping in the unfinished house.