John was downstairs making coffee and I was half-asleep. Maybe more than half. I heard a voice say, close to my ear, “Folded.” That was all. When I was drinking my coffee, I thought about what it meant. What folds? Time does. It wrinkles, it turns on itself, it collapses, it takes us forward and back in the same moment.
It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern,
and ceases to be a mere sequence…
–T.S. Eliot, from “The Dry Salvages”
A few weeks ago I wrote about something I had in mind to begin. Maybe an essay or maybe a longer piece of writing. I live in a house hung with portraits of my younger self and I’ve been thinking about them, wondering how to write about them. Which means writing about the artist who painted them. The artist who drew me over and over, who wrote letters to me, made me a book of painting tips when I was leaving to live in Ireland for a year, a book that began with very practical advice and quickly became a torrent of affection. If that’s the word for it. Every morning I come down the stairs from my bedroom, I see myself at 23, with flowers in my hair, and most mornings I stop briefly to make eye contact, though I am looking down and slightly away, my eyes shadowed. In another portrait I am standing with my arms folded in a red robe, aloof and reserved. In another, holding Forrest in a French restaurant on Thurlow Street when the artist took me to lunch and ordered me two desserts, which I ate happily. In another, in another, another. Here I am, in a drawing, with Angelica. Or Brendan.
It’s a pattern, I guess, that I want to decipher. The other day I wrote the first words.
Every morning I descend the stairs from my bedroom and there she is: myself, at 23. She has dark hair, strewn with flowers. She is wearing a blue woollen waistcoat with wooden buttons, the one I sewed from fabric bought at Capital Iron. Even if you didn’t know me then, you’d know I was a poet.
I remember the mornings I’d begin the descent to the kitchen and stop after two stairs, sitting heavily in front of the portrait. In those years, with 3 small children, I was always tired. I didn’t sleep well and often I’d lie awake for hours, thinking about the day ahead, the days past. I thought a lot about the painter who brought the portrait as a birth gift to my daughter. I remembered vividly the first time we met.
And since then, nearly 4000 words. I sit at my desk, read the stack of letters, the little book, run my finger over the shape of my face at 23. It’s complicated, this story, because of course it’s not a single story; it’s many. Some of them aren’t really mine to tell. But my own is folded around those, or they’re folded around mine. We are intricate boxes of stories, folios of them, lines sketched, cross-hatched, thick oil paint applied to gessoed canvas.
My literary papers are held by the University of Victoria and eventually the stack of letters will go there to join them. Which is fitting because the painter belonged to a group of artists and their archive is also there. Brown paper folded in half holds the account of his life the painter wrote for me. I unfolded it yesterday, smoothed the pages within, and folded it again. This morning I will arrange the papers in order–letters, drawings, professions of love on the edges of pages. I am unfolding myself, the years, 44 of them, my arms, the curve of my mouth, meeting myself on the stairs.