old rapture: a spiral

memory game

Will another novel ever swim up? If so, how? The only hint I have towards it is that it’s to be dialogue: and poetry: and prose; all quite distinct. No more long closely written books. But I have no impulse; and shall wait; and shan’t mind if the impulse never formulates; though I suspect one of these days I will get that old rapture.

—Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, Friday, August 6th, 1937.

The other day, as we drove home from a few days in the Interior, John asked me if I had a new book in mind. A good question. I finished two manuscripts this winter and spring: a novella, The Occasions (a loose homage to Mrs. Dalloway); and Blue Portugal, a collection of 10 essays. The last ten years have been quite productive for me in that I had work I wanted to do and I had time. I published my memoir in essays, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees in 2011, followed by two novellas (Patrin in 2015 and Winter Wren in 2016), a collection of essays called Euclid’s Orchard in 2017, and just this spring a novella, The Weight of the Heart. I think John’s accustomed to discovering I’m not in bed in the middle of the night because I’ve gone downstairs to work. It might be my favourite time: the house sleeping, the mystery of the dark trees beyond my window, owls calling deep in the woods, weasels at work in the eaves-troughs. I love the netted moon in the big firs and the promise of light as I head back to bed. He’s also accustomed to the cycle of joy and despair as I send out work and wait for responses because let’s face it, when you’re 65 and you aren’t writing best-seller material, agents and publishers aren’t exactly welcoming. Or at least most of them aren’t. The latter, I mean, because no agent will take me but some smaller publishers have accepted my quirky books with an enthusiasm I am grateful for.

So: a new book? I can’t say I know exactly what I have to do next but I have glimmers of that old rapture. When my grandsons were here from Ottawa, the older one (he is 4) kept picking things up from my desk and asking questions.

What’s this?
A barnacle.
What’s a barnacle?

And from there, we’d look it up, I’d tell him that barnacles grew on rocks, on whales, on shells, even the oyster shells we found north of Powell River while he was here. He wanted to look at my fossils, the horned corals from the mountains by the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the shell fossils from Sandcut Beach west of Sooke (the locus for Winter Wren). He wondered what a wishing stone was for. He wanted to know if he could take some of the bones on my desk home with him. When I was walking at Nicola Lake with my grandaughter, who is 6, she wanted to know if the squirrel racing up a tree with a pine cone was going to eat the whole cone so I showed her how to shake edible seeds from between the scales of a cone. We looked at the spirals formed by the bracts and I began to tell her about the Fibonacci sequence but then realized that her father (a mathematician) could do a much better job of that than his mum, who still has dreams about failing high school math. (Last one two nights ago…)

The older grandchildren kept asking why. And why and why and why. It’s a good question. It’s one I ask myself. I ask myself why I’m drawn to spirals, why I am comforted by sewing them when I am making quilts, why I think of them as the perfect analogy for the writing I do, and how astonished I am to find them in so many places. This moon snail shell for example.

moon snail

It’s an example of a logarithmic spiral, also called the golden section spiral. Many organisms share this growth curve: snails, certain galaxies, those spirals evident in the bracts of pine cones, the seedheads of sunflowers, human embryos in utero (and the whorls on the scalp), and even well-constructed highway turns. On the other hand, the Archimedean spiral (the one I use when quilting) differs in that the turns of the curve maintain a constant distance in their progression. I don’t know that I could quilt a logarithmic spiral freehand but somehow the Archimedean one comes naturally to my hands, a form of meditation as I stitch my way across lengths of cotton and linen.

My grandchildren’s questions were spirals that led me inward, as though I was moving from the endpoint towards the starting point. From the sound of them asking back to the origins of our connection. Waves of sound, spiralling to their source.

Did you hear owls last night?
Maybe I did.
They were close!
How do you know?

I am not putting this clearly but maybe I’m beginning to thread the needles that will sew me into a pattern that might, if I’m lucky and I pay attention, become something.

What I want is a season of calm weather. Contemplation. I get this sometimes about 3 a.m. when I always wake, open my window and look at the sky over the apple trees. A tearing wind last night. Every sort of scenic effect—a prodigious toppling and clearing and massing, after the sunset that was so amazing L. made me come and look out of the bathroom window—a flurry of red clouds; hard;a water colour mass of purple and black, soft as a water ice; then hard slices of intense green stone; blue stone and a ripple of crimson light. No: that won’t convey it…

–Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, Wednesday, August 17th, 1938

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