a running brush


I began this blog nine and a half years ago. I remember thinking at the time it was such a self-indulgent thing to do but I also remember how much I loved discovering that the things I was thinking about could be written down in a semi-public form and given a place in the (small) world of virtual space. (Of course I know that virtual space is enormous but literary-ish blogs? That reduces the field considerably.) I didn’t need to think of what I was writing as publishable or formal. It was hugely liberating and continues to be.

I write these posts when I feel I have something I want to share, or puzzle through, or call attention to in other ways. Over the years I’ve learned to embed videos, to edit (somewhat) photos, and even to change the template of my website (after complaints from readers who said the white text on black space was too difficult to read).

But what exactly are these entries? Some of them have found their way into essays I’ve written. They served as spring-boards, I guess you could say. Some of them are extracts from works-in-progress. Over nine and half years, I’ve written a lot. I remember being asked about a possible manuscript in 2015 and I thought how I’d really like to put together a book about the year I was 60: 2015-1016. So much happened that year. I went through all the entries and drew out a couple of strands, edited them lightly, and sent the manuscript off, along with another manuscript of essays. The publisher (Mother Tongue Publishing, to whom I am eternally grateful) chose the manuscript of essays that became Euclid’s Orchard. It turns out that another writer published a book that year about being 60 and although mine would have been the antithesis of his, maybe there’s not room for two.

So. I have all these entries, some of them small essays in themselves. Personal essays. Some of them are fragments. But in my mind, in the mind that draws me to sit at my desk to shape and write down my thinking, my dreams, my hopes, I intuit that these are all part of a whole. Today I was reading the new Harper’s and was intrigued by an essay by Kadijah Queen called “False Dawn”. It’s a series of brief passages and responses to them, all of them seeming to arise from the author’s experiences of living through the current pandemic. They are personal, often lyrical, and some of them find their way to others in a slightly circuitous fashion. The piece is called a zuihitsu, a term I’ve never heard before, but now that I know it, I find myself thinking that my blog posts fit this almost perfectly. It’s a Japanese essay form, meaning “a running brush”, and it’s a miscellany, a catch-all in a way, of loosely connected responses to the life and surroundings of the writer. Think of Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book. I love the sense that there is no premeditated structure. If you’ve been reading my blog for any time at all, you’ve figured out that I don’t plan. I find my way through. I feel my way. To me this has always been the way I’ve worked but now that I’m aging and now that the publishing climate is so fierce about structure and outlines and a crisp narrative arc, I’ve been feeling kind of isolated. I write the way I write in order to find things out, to circle them, to praise them, to tease out their meanings, and I don’t expect I’ll change. So to discover a form that is already (essentially) the one I use almost daily is a gift. I may try to adapt some of the work I’ve written to echo the zuihitsu I’ve read today — not the works themselves but the open fragmentary form. Or maybe I won’t. But it’s lovely to know that I’m not alone in what I do.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about, also Japanese, is the art of kintsugi, of repairing ceramics with tree-sap lacquer dusted with powdered gold. The word means (I think) precious scars. The idea of keeping something alive, something beautiful and cherished, something practical, is hugely attractive to me. I don’t make ceramics but I do use a version of this (in a way) with quilts. The other night a friend of my son’s came for dinner with us. We were talking under the vines and she brought up kintsugi, saying in a way she felt it was how she wanted to approach some memoir writing she hoped to do. Oh, yes, I told her. It’s a perfect way to think about the broken fragments of our lives, made stronger and even more beautiful by the gold-dusted repairs.

So I write my small essays, I hope for a way to seam them together in their cracked and broken utility. I think of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”:

There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

I think of the cracks in my own skeleture, the tailbone fractured on an icy sidewalk in Edmonton, the rib cracked when I fell on a post one winter day a decade ago, my pelvis broken at the pubis when my horse fell on me 50 years ago, the footbone broken in early June when I slammed it against an open cupboard door. Think of the damage within my own body, seamed with gold, the light seeping in. Think of the running brush easing each fragment into something lovely and meaningful. Yes, repetitions, yes, the seasons, the wind, the births and deaths, the passing of time. And the constants, the moon I look out at each night from my bed in the woods between two lakes, the stars in their own loneliness.

At any time and in any place I find moonlight very moving.

Sei Shōnagon, The Pillow Book

5 thoughts on “a running brush”

  1. Thanks for introducing us to zuihitsu. It’s interesting, Theresa, that my blog is like the diary I’ve kept all my life, since the age of nine – this happened today, and this. Yours is I think more a coherent, structured exploration of ideas and thoughts in essay form, with poetry thrown in. Hope you do knit – or quilt – them into another collection.

    1. Beth, I’ve never kept a diary faithfully, though I always wanted to be a person who did. When I traveled or lived in other places, I sometimes kept a sort of day book or diary but I never intended others to read them. A blog is something of a space in-between for me. There’s the dailiness of it, or the potential of that; but also room for artful language or constructions. The zuihitsu form seems to fit that space too. I love its unplanned spaciousness, its openness to unexpected response.

  2. Zuihitsu seems similar to wabi sabi, with my limited understanding. Both of which are interesting concepts.
    But what I really wish to say is how similar we are in some ways — and in some of life’s experiences. How you began this post was the first thing I was completely relating to. Then, when I read your horse had fallen on you 50 years ago! Well, I thought I was the only one who had a horse fall on them 57 or 58 years ago. I had multiple broken bones and landed in Edmonton’s UofA hospital for an entire month.
    Enough about me. I’m so delighted I came this way via Kerry Clare’s Gleanings and also that I’m making a point of spending more time visiting an occasional blog while removing myself from the other social media.

    Again, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this delightful running brush.

    1. Thanks, Diane! Yes, lots in common (including Edmonton, where extended family lives, and where my paternal grandparents relocated from Drumheller in the late 1930s). Luckily for me, it was only one bone broken when my horse fell on me but it was a two month period of recuperation, one month in a critical care ward and one in a rehabilitation centre. During this strange pandemic time, I too am reading more blogs, looking for other congenial spirits. How nice to find you!

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