redux: a running brush

Note: from two years ago. I wondered then if there might be a way to stitch these entries into a whole and maybe I’m still wondering. Suggestions welcome.

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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

6 thoughts on “redux: a running brush”

  1. Maybe your beautiful blog posts don’t have to be something else, Theresa. They’re things of loveliness you are giving to us, and they’ll be there forever online. I am getting mine transcribed into books in case they vanish from the ‘net, but I can’t imagine anyone can do anything with them – over a million and a quarter words for the first ten years alone. It makes no sense to keep writing without payment and for a tiny audience, and yet – that’s what we do, it’s who we are. So I have no answers for you, but I do thank you for the gift you give us.

    1. “…and yet — that’s what we do, it’s who we are.” Yes, this is so true. I guess I knew that, know that, but some days, realizing I’ve written the equivalent of, oh, three novels or essay collections in this ongoing online thinking aloud that I do a few times a week, I wonder about repurposing or recycling. I do love the opportunity to simply share my thinking, though, and thank you so much for your kind words. I feel the same about your blog.

  2. This is a wonderful concept, I love this word and the potential it holds to communicate differently with readers. Recently I reread Kristjana Gunnars’ five “novellas” reissued in The Scent of Light (Coach House) and there are similarities in what you write here, I believe. There does seem to be potential with some indie presses here, evidenced by books like Rowan McCandless’ Persephone’s Children (Dundurn) and Hazel Jane Plante’s Little Blue Encyclopedia (Metonymy) for meandery-observey-reflecty styles but as you mention sometimes there’s (seemingly) “not room for two.”

    1. I was really glad to see that Kristjana’s novellas have been collected and reissued. They are entirely their own thing. Reassuring that a publisher recognized this, against the current trends.

      1. When I came across this statement in Robertson Davies’ Leaven of Malice the other evening, I thought of this chat: “But I get sick of people crying for originality, and rejecting it when it turns up.” From his Salterton trilogy, this volume pub’d in 1954, I’m reminded this isn’t a new concern (is there any new concern, really? heheh).

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