“a Past of Plank and Nail” (Emily Dickinson)

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Sometimes the world is too much with us. Me. The news. I listen, read, and carry it around like a sad burden. The things I know to do to take my mind into other territory haven’t been working. It’s been cold here, with new snow on the mountain to the east. Last week there were some days in the garden, weeding, tucking manure around the raspberry canes, emptying pots of plants that didn’t make it over the long winter and filling others with new soil for lilies and spring greens. But then drizzly rain. The novel I am trying to write has stalled, mostly because I don’t know enough about boat engines. The quilt in progress, the one I pieced together happily but which now looks like an array of French and Russian flags–somehow I can’t bring myself to work on that one. I’ve had a basket of cotton sitting on the end of the dining table for ages, hoping that I will somehow see what to do with it. Mostly (of course) the pieces are blue. But also some other Japanese cotton prints. At one point I thought I might use them with deep purple velvet, a length given me years ago and not really a colour I’m drawn to. The blues weren’t drawn to it either. So they waited.

On Saturday I was thinking about something else entirely, remembering as I tidied the kitchen how we constructed the walls on the platform that is now the kitchen floor, 41 summers ago, raising them with the strength we had then, young parents, our baby in his stroller with his sunhat on. We’d raise the wall together, usually with some sort of brace behind it so that it wouldn’t tumble off the platform, and then I’d hold it in place while John nailed it down. When that was done–I think I have the sequence right–he’d cut a top plate, a long length of 2×4, and nail it along the top of the constructed wall, a horizontal member to give strength.

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I was thinking about walls, about lumber, and the rows of stacked logs in the woodshed. The next time I passed the basket of cotton, I realized I could make blocks of vertical strips, like the 2x4s we framed our walls with. I would use blue Japanese prints because that’s what I have but I could also use some linen I once bought at Maiwa (you could fill a bag of offcut and scraps for $10) and I could take apart a thrift store skirt a friend handed on to me because it was tye-dyed and it reminded her of my experiments with indigo. Yesterday I cut strips and took everything upstairs to lay out “walls” on my bed, looking for the right relationships and combinations.

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Late in the afternoon, I began to sew the blocks together, three strips to a block, and they will be finished with a top plate of linen. I have in mind an arrangement, using deep blue for the sashing. And for the back, I have a length of dupioni silk, dark blue with a lighter blue band through it. It’s not exactly beautiful which is why it hardly cost me anything when I saw it on a remnant table at Dressew in Vancouver but it’s right for these blocks.

The whole time I was cutting and arranging, making decisions about placement, and sewing the strips to make the blocks, my mind was on the work in front of me and it was also remembering the construction of my kitchen walls. I wasn’t thinking about Bucha and the discovery of civilian dead, some of them with their grocery bags spilled around them, wasn’t thinking about women living in terror of sexual violence, of lines of refugees, the hideous legacies of war. I was under the same blue sky tumbled with clouds, the one I tried to replicate on the ceiling of the kitchen I was helping to build.

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The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –
             –Emily Dickinson

2 thoughts on ““a Past of Plank and Nail” (Emily Dickinson)”

  1. I fully agree that the world can be too much with us and news a sad burden. Was not always so. Just saw a movie, News of the World, about a guy who travelled through Texas in the 1800s making money by reading articles from newspapers to groups of people who had no access to newspapers or could not read.

    1. And they probably waited for weeks or months to hear the news! I’ve been obsessively reading the Guardian’s live coverage of Ukrainian situation. Sort of long for the days of travelling balladeers, bringing the news….

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