redux: stories of snow and shooting stars

Note: three years ago we were returning from Edmonton and tomorrow we’ll start the first leg of a return journey. The 2018 trip was very eventful and I’m hopeful this one will be quieter. Yes to the gingerbread house, the snow, the stories — but maybe I will be spared the fall on ice and the resulting damage to my retinas.


We spent five days in Edmonton, visiting our family there. It was cold. Of course it was. Walking from the car to the house, I slipped on ice and my feet shot out from under me. Maybe I cracked my tailbone. The pain was (and is) pretty intense. But this is an injury for which there’s no treatment apart from pain-killers and time. It was wonderful, though, to spend those days with loved ones. One afternoon, John and I stayed with the kids while their parents worked. We made a gingerbread house which was a big hit, particularly the gumdrops. (Our house had long drippy streams of icing and did not resemble the suggested version on the box. And luckily Grandpa John was able to repair the broken wall with extra icing, though it kept threatening to cave in again.) Afterwards he read Kelly and Henry a story about other houses and a wolf who was able to blow them down.


Aunty Angie came for three nights from Victoria and so there was a trip to the new museum, tickets for a performance of “Nutcracker in a Nutshell”, and a sleigh-ride around the snowy streets of Strathcona, pulled by Sugar and Spice, blond Belgians from Rattray.

sugar and spice on whyte avenue

On our last day in Edmonton, I wondered at the shooting stars, long streams of silver, I was seeing to the side of my right eye. And the tangles of, what, hair?, that kept drifting across my vision. After some calls to various medical facilities, Brendan and John took me in a blizzard across the low bridge over the North Saskatchewan, its surface a constellation of ice stars, to an emergency room where I was examined, then examined again because I was lucky enough that a resident ophthalmologist just happened to be in the hospital, and told I almost certainly have a posterior vitreous detachment*. I won’t say I wasn’t a little scared but it was also strangely beautiful to have a glimpse of my inner eye. The ophthalmologist was puzzled when I asked why I was seeing a particular landscape and a skyscape and thought maybe it was my brain trying to make sense of the instruments and their intense light. Her immediate concern was to try to make sure I could have a follow-up examination at home this week or she was going to insist I stay in Edmonton for further retinal examinations. But finally we left, drove back in the blizzard, and ate Cristen’s delicious dinner (saved for us to enjoy with the bottle of good wine John had bought and the box of assorted macarons I’d chosen at an excellent bakery the day before).


The next morning we woke to a foot of snow over the cars on our street. But people were out and about and so we packed our rental car and drove carefully to the airport. Shooting stars were the least of my worries as we passed abandoned vehicles along the Calgary Trail. We flew home with stories of snow and those silver stars and beautiful children on a horse-drawn sleigh and the mystery of what my eye saw, and didn’t. I am seeing a specialist tomorrow to have another dilation but I think that I will be fine. I think of that wonderful poem, “Stories of Snow”,  by P.K. Page—I was lucky enough to hear her read this several times in her beautiful patrician voice—and what it tells us about vision:

And stories of this kind are often told
in countries where great flowers bar the roads
with reds and blues which seal the route of snow –
as if, in telling, raconteurs unlock
the colour with its complement and go
through to the area behind the eyes
where silent, unrefractive whiteness lies.

*In fact it was a bit more serious in that when I arrived home and saw the coast ophthalmologist, he determined that my retinas were tearing away and he did immediate laser surgery to repair them. You dodged a bullet, was his assessment.



The days meander. I wake, I make coffee, a fire, feed the cat. Some mornings I swim. I try to stay straight in my lane but my body drifts, sidles. It wants the next lane and maybe the one next to that. The news cycle meanders. One day we are all holding our breath as the rivers rise, flood farmland, as mudslides destroy roads, wash farms into the rivers already swollen with rain. The next day we are all holding our breath as the new Covid variant, named for the fifteenth letter of the Greek alphabet, floods into our anxieties. Meander too is Greek in origin, though now located in Turkey, near the ancient Greek city of Miletus, a river that gave its name to a concept. The Greek historian and geographer, Strabo, said of it that ‘…its course is so exceedingly winding that everything winding is called meandering.’ We are holding our breath. It’s the Christmas month. Gifts accumulate in the basket by my closet. Some will travel to Edmonton next week and some will be mailed. Others will wait under the tree for the beloveds who will join us here.

So a day meanders. Three needles currently meander through red and blue cotton, the quilt I am working on, stitching rivers through its three layers, a way to explore the sinuous curves of the rivers eroding the banks containing them. How much thread these meanders will take because of course a river doesn’t flow, or these rivers don’t, as a crow flies; they turn and ox-bow and sidle and erode. Or they would, if they were water. I am hopeful the thread will hold, in both senses: that the quilt is strong and that the two spools of special red sashiko thread last, are sufficient to their task.

A day meanders. We swim, we talk, we do our chores (cutting wood, doing laundry, writing overdue letters), and then one of us sits by the fire to sew and the other one heads out to the printshop to prepare a Christmas card, something he does gladly because last year he wasn’t able to operate our old Chandler and Price letterpress, treadle-driven, and this year he has recovered enough from a slightly botched surgery to pedal the press as he feeds paper under the friskets and hopes the ink covers the lino block evenly. It’s a block we’ve used before but this year it will be printed in a different colour and there will also be sewing involved. No more hints! You’ll have to wait!

When I woke just after 5 a.m., not yet ready to meander downstairs, I could see a few stars of the Big Dipper tangled in the firs. Not Dubhe and Merak pointing to the North Star but the elegant handle, in place, light spilling out of its old well-scoop like winter water. There was frost on the blue metal roof and I thought of that beautiful poem by Li Bei (whom I first encountered as Li Po 50 years ago), translated by J.P Seaton:

Before the bed, bright moonlight.
I took it for frost on the ground.
I raised my head to dream upon that moon,
then bowed my head, lost, in thoughts of home.

“Our house has a garden at the front…”

8.grandma's house and fields

If you’ve visited this site before, you’ll know that one of my abiding interests is family history. When I was younger, I wasn’t particularly interested, or at least I couldn’t imagine finding out much beyond the little my parents knew (or didn’t know) about their families. But I realized when my own parents died that I could see myself as a woman who looked for the family stories, who puzzled through their details, and who shared what she discovered. I didn’t have much to go on. A few photographs, a few names, a couple of dates. But somehow I’ve learned so much about the places my ancestors came from and even more important, who and what they left. Who they left. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to the villages my paternal grandparents left and through the wonders of the best kinds of internet connections, I’ve also found possible family members. A woman in the Czech Republic who is distantly related–her grandfather was a cousin of my grandmother–took some photographs of my grandmother’s family farm in Horni Lomna in summer and it gives me a clear locus for the work I’ve done in determining some of my grandmother’s early life. in its place

When I went to Ukraine in 2019, I was lucky enough to visit my grandfather’s village, Ivankivtsi, and then a few days later, some relatives who’d learned I’d been there–at the time no one could direct me to possible family members but the priest who came to show us the church said he’d tell the worshippers that Sunday and see if any of them knew of Kishkans–drove a great distance to meet with John, Angelica, and me in a hotel in the Carpathian Mountains where we tried to determine our relationship. They brought gifts of sparkling wine, chocolates, and a rushnyk I used to hold the bread for a meal when my children were here. I’ve kept in loose contact with one of them and she wrote yesterday to resume our joint project to determine how the branches on our particular family tree should be drawn. A niece in Quesnel has indicated an interest in learning more about our family and I’m hoping to meet a first cousin three times removed late next week (her great-grandmother was my dad’s half-sister); she has been working some of the same trails as me and we’ve been sharing our work.

In my forthcoming book, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, the title essay gathers together strands of my grandmother’s story, red threads, green leaves, and phrases of Moravian folk poetry woven into the music of Leoš Janáček. There are ways to make family history. Some use charts, databases, boxes with dates and relationships. I use some of these too. But mostly I try to write the places and people into some sort of living text that will hold them, hold us, as tenderly as branches hold their leaves against the wind.


Our house has a garden at the front…

It has fruit trees, a hollow that could be a creek, a fence to keep animals close to the house. A pig? Some sheep? Perhaps a cow. My grandmother learned to make cheese before she came to Canada, fresh curds my father loved; she made butter to sell, and noodles golden with eggs from the chickens that ranged through the yard of the house in Drumheller, even entering the house for crumbs or the cool shade of mid-day in summers. Did she ever sing the songs I am listening to now, the folk poetry of her area, did she hum as she made cheese, did she dream of a true love coming from the mountains as she washed clothes in a big tub behind the house, within the sound of the Lomna River?

The river will flow away,
and nor is love here to stay,
it too will pass forever,
like a rosemary leaf it will wither.

blue Monday zuihitsu



Sewing rivers into strips of blue cotton, broken by red, running my needle with its long thread in and out, ripples forming, oxbows, sewing rivers, each stitch part of the wild current.

It’s not quite the blue of jays, or the blue of veiled Tuareg men, not the deep indigo of new Levis. I love it but know that I’ll have to try again for the blue I really aspire to, my thumb print whorled and ridged on the edges where I’ve gripped before hanging up the cloth to dry in the sun. And later, printed again, on paper, as I make a note after washing my hands, the dye renewed by water. Marked by blue, as the 12th century artist applying lapis lazuli to a manuscript, shaping her brush with her lips repeatedly as she worked, is known to us now by the residues of pigment in the tartar of her teeth.*


Water is dripping off the blue metal roof, glistening on the moss.

above walhachin


“the lower Thompson River from Kamloops to Spences Bridge is at least fifty million years old”**

In my greenhouse, a boulder taken from the side of the road where we are looking down at the Thompson River from Walhachin, a boulder nudged into soil on its wave cut bench, lifted, eased from its place among cactii and brown-eyed susans, anchoring the little box of light as we prepare for its first winter.


Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life.***

Yes, when the rivers have returned to their ancient beds, when the fields have drained, when the houses floating out to sea have been numbered and accounted for, when the old side-channels have become quiet in the first hours of the morning, when I have sewn this into blue and red cotton with my needles from Japan, then ask me.

* from “The Blue Etymologies”, part of Blue Portugal and Other Essays, forthcoming
** from In Search of Ancient British Columbia, volume 1, by Barbara Huck
*** from “Ask Me”, by William Stafford

redux: a copper briki


Note: this is from November, 2015. On this grey November day, I am dreaming of Crete…


“A tiny copper briki in which coffee had been boiled three times.” That phrase occurs in my novella, Patrin. I wrote it, remembering how much I’d loved coffee the months I spent in Greece in the last century when I was in my early 20s. I had a sweetheart on Crete — I’ve written about him in my memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, in the chapter “Olea europaea: Young Woman with Eros on her Shoulder”: “A very old man, a fisherman with a bright blue boat, used to bring me slices of melon when I sat at the dock and read my book. One day he brought his son, whom I will call Agamemnon. He was older, had served in the army, and spoke English only marginally better than my Greek.” I had many cups of coffee with Agamemnon and his father. They made it by spooning coffee into water in a little briki, along with sugar. The briki was placed on a gas burner (Agamemnon and his family owned a small taverna) and brought to the boil, removed, placed back on the burner, removed, and then placed on the burner one more time. It took some time for me to convince them that I wanted mine without sugar — sketos. But that’s how I liked it best. They didn’t drink their coffee quickly, the way people drink an espresso in Italy, but they sat at a table or on a bench, with a tall glass of water, and they sipped the coffee slowly and appreciatively. I learned to do the same. The first few times I had coffee with them,  I drank mine right down to the last drop — which was grounds. And I was told not to do that. I soon figured out when to consider my coffee finished. All this is so long ago now but the other day, on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, I was shopping for Christmas presents and as I was about to pay for all the things I’d chosen at the Mediterranean Market (this will be an edible Christmas!), I saw some brikis hanging behind the counter. I asked to see one and as I held in my hands, a whole world came back to me, filled with the rustling of olive leaves, the flavours of retsina and salty cheese, the feel of my body alive in the ocean, and then the company of two men under shade trees in front of Agamemnon’s taverna. Of course I bought the briki and will keep it in my kitchen for the memories it conjures on winter mornings, the taste of strong coffee — sketos — and the warmth of sunlight, almost forty years later.

Maybe I could have worked in two windows

the party's over

During this morning’s swim, I was thinking about writing. Often this is the case, though sometimes, like all of last week, I went up and down my lane in the pool figuring out how to use blue and red cotton strips to commemorate both the lane I was swimming in and the rivers swollen with rain, overflowing their banks, and in some cases forging new directions. But this morning it was writing I was thinking about as my arms and legs propelled me up and down, back and forth, the lifeguards chatting, John in the next lane, and a woman I don’t know over on the other side, swimming far more vigourously than we were. (I knew this, even without looking, because waves kept washing over my face.)

I’ve been reading Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a novel so intelligent and original that I found myself awake in the small hours, reading by the light of my bedside lamp. The cat purred between my legs and John’s. Last October, when I was in my rooms at UBC’s Carey Centre while John recovered from surgery, I read Lerner’s The Topeka School and loved it. 10:04 precedes The Topeka School but it reads in a way like part of a grand metafiction (and I’ll be looking for his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, because I understand it is also a composite work, autofiction, meditation on time, history, poetry, social constructs…). There’s a lot of art in these novels, a lot of artfulness that isn’t distracting but serves to highlight the narrator’s uneasy relationship with the present and what it requires of him. I recognised an entire chapter published in the New Yorker a few years ago as a short story and the chapter I’m reading now, set in the Texan town of Marfa, includes a poem which was published separately as a chapbook.

As I swam, thinking first of 10:04, my thoughts turned to my own recent work. I’ve put aside the novel I began in late summer, Easthope, because I knew I needed to focus on upcoming work on Blue Portugal, mostly answering the very diligent and gracious questions posed by the editor assigned to my book. In the mornings, I open my laptop, bring up the file, and think about certain things. I try to remember page numbers, sources of documents embedded in my text, whether or not the musical passages truly belong where I’ve threaded them like little songs. In the back of my mind, Easthope sits in the misty weather, woodsmoke curling up from the chimney of the house the narrator lives in with her husband, their boatshed filled with old marine engines. Sometimes I open that file just to make sure they’re still there, sitting at their table by the window looking out over Jervis Inlet. Wait, was that a pod of orca passing, in pursuit of herring or seals? Close the file, close the window, because you don’t have the kind of mind that can focus right now, I tell myself. Maybe once I could have worked in two windows, moving from one tab to another, but these days it’s all I can do to keep one clear and ready for the work I need to do. The seasons pass. More rain is promised. I’ve taken to turning on a light in the greenhouse at night and when I get up to pee and look out, the little clear box glows in the darkness.

There was a lot of talk years ago (maybe still is) about walking meditation, the practise of bringing body and mind together peacefully. I never thought of the walks I took as a practise. They were, well, walks. When John and I went up the mountain, we talked as we walked, noting birds, potential Christmas trees, scats familiar and strange. (The first time I saw wolf scat, I remember a tiny shudder running across my shoulders. I looked around. Nothing.) And maybe swimming is just that too: swimming. But it feels like such a potent time, a meditation that isn’t always peaceful (those waves), pushing my body forward and back in the water, eyes open but not seeing anything outer. My seeing is inner, contained. Strips of cotton, reels of red thread, a little glass vial of special needles from Japan, a book by my bed with questions of its own (how to make a child, how to know how a person’s own body is connected to the larger social body, how to prepare for storms, for death, how to write a book which will be this book, and more), the windows I might have opened, one inward and one looking out, out, out.

“Wish well to all.”

doukhobor borsch

Another atmospheric river is on its way apparently so what a good day to stay inside and make soup. My two biggest soup pots are simmering with Doukhobor borsch, a kind of interesting anomaly in the world of Eastern European soups, in that the recipe calls for a single small beet added simply for colour, then fished out and discarded (though I cut it into tiny dice and put it back in the pots). Friends are coming for lunch tomorrow and one of them grew up in the Kootenays. Like us, he likes to stop in Grand Forks for the borsch and it’s this version. A soup filled with vegetables, cream, and butter, and also filled with a more subtle story of its origins. A vegetarian borsch because the Doukhobors who came to Canada were followers of Peter “Lordly” Verigin and were opposed to the consumption of animal flesh. So not for them the long-cooked bone broths, the slivers of beef, or pieces of duck (I’m thinking of a recipe from Olia Hercules). Not for me today, either, though I’ve made the beautiful borsch with smoked apple (she uses smoked pears but I had apples) and duck from Summer Kitchens. I think the Polish barszcz is vegetarian so there’s a whole range of versions of the borsch story, like any good tale.

The first time we had Doukhobor food in Grand Forks, we were returning from Alberta, stopping in various places–Banff, Castlegar– to do readings from new books. So it must have been 2011. Ten years ago! We ate at the Grand Forks Hotel, a shabby beauty, and were served by a comfortable woman wearing bedroom slippers that flapped as she walked from tables to kitchen. We had bowls of borsch, tender vareniki, pyrahi, and pyroshky for dessert, maybe with rhubarb and berries. We knew we’d return but by the time we did, the Grand Forks Hotel had burned to the ground (late winter, 2012). It was a hundred years old, iconic in the way the old hotels of the province are (were, I should say, because so many of them have burned and I’ve been thinking of the Coldwater Hotel in Merritt, wondering how it weathered the recent floods), and it was sad to see the empty space it had filled for so long, its kitchen turning out delicious food. We found the Borscht Bowl and the food there is really wonderful too. (They even sell borsch by the jar, for those who want to take it home.) Grand Forks is a beautiful town, surrounded by the remains of Doukhobor villages,

grand forks postcard

the places where women made this soup as a communal activity, chopping, frying, stirring, and no doubt with bread baking as they worked. Tomorrow we’ll have fresh bread with our soup and a warm fire.

The borsch is thick and ochre-coloured, dense with vegetables, including cabbages from my garden, and flecked with dill. I made enough for a village but only 6 of us will eat it, talking, laughing, and who cares if the rain falls on our blue roof. If the power goes out, we can heat our lunch on the woodstove, give thanks for our lives, restricted as they sometimes feel, by plagues, weather, and distance. I hope this new cycle of storm is kinder to us, that the rivers don’t find new routes for themselves, that the roads remain in place. When I was looking up the recipe for our borsch on the Doukhobor site, I found myself reading a psalm that felt very timely somehow:

Be courageous, always willing to labour. Leave off all idleness and laziness. If you wish to start some project, mea­sure well your strength in advance, then proceed without letting up. In adversity, do not lose hope; in prosperity, do not morally deteriorate. Hold thriftiness in esteem. Keep careful observation of the different occurrences in life of inconstancy, misfortune and sorrow. Over that which the patient forbear, the fainthearted sigh, lament and wail. Be benevolent and gracious. Give to him that asketh of thee, if thou hast; help the poor, of thou canst. If anyone has hurt thee – forgive him; if thou hast hurt anyone – reconcile thyself with him. It is very commendable to refrain from holding grudges. Forgive the sinner; accede to the reconciler. If you yourself will love your fellow-man, you shall in turn be loved by all people. Be thou also obedient to elders, companionable to equals, and courteous to subordinates. Greet those whom you meet; return the greeting of those who greet you. To the enquirer, give answer; to the ignorant, give advice, to the sorrowing, give comfort. Do not envy anyone. Wish well to all.

“Deep waters cannot quench love,/nor rivers sweep it away.”

crossing highway 8

The first time I remember driving Highway 8, the road between Spences Bridge and Merritt, was in, I think, 1982. John and I were heading to a family event north of Kamloops. Angelica hadn’t been born, Forrest and Brendan were small boys, and we still had Friday, our English sheepdog cross. Our usual route would have been Highway 1 to Cache Creek, then east to Kamloops, then north to where we were meeting my parents, brothers and their families for a few days of camping. Why don’t we take this road instead, John said, as we reached Spences Bridge and the turn-off to Highway 8. He’d travelled in the Nicola Valley before, with his family, when he was a boy. He remembered how much he’d loved the Nicola River and he thought I’d love it too. That was an understatement. I’ve never forgotten the drive, every moment of it. We stopped for a picnic at a forestry site along the highway and it was like the Emmylou Harris line: “Speaking strictly for me, we both (all) could have died then and there.” Not that I had a death wish, not then, but the river, the aspens, Ponderosa pines resiny with heat, the scent of sage, the dry hills around us: it was a landscape that entered my heart and never left.

In the years since, I’ve put characters in a novel on that road, just so I could travel it again over and over, as I wrote, as I revised, as I edited, and they are there still, in my novel, Sisters of Grass. I’ve put us there, in an essay coming out as part of Blue Portugal and Other Essays in the spring.

I imagined us staying there, making some sort of shelter to extend our small tent, I imagined a life by the river. My husband had his fishing rod, I knew a little about edible plants. Already I watched the sun for its own time.
…the beams of our house are cedars,
our rafters, cypresses.
We spread out our maps and planned the rest of the drive, eating sandwiches and apples, tipping our cup into the river itself (this was before anyone worried about giardia), drinking the cold water as sweet and satisfying as wine. There were outhouses and we used them, one of us staying with the boys as the other entered the little shed in order to at least have the opportunity for privacy and toilet paper (there’d been a stop or two along the way to crouch by the highway behind the door of the brown Toyota station-wagon). John stretched out on the table for a short nap while I helped the boys to skip stones on the surface of the river. A small herd of mule deer were grazing on the opposite side, in a pasture under the shadow of the mountains the Nicola River cut through.
I adjure you, Daughters of Jerusalem,
by the gazelles and the does of the field,
Do not awaken or stir up love
until it is ready.

I changed diapers, rubbed sunscreen into the arms and legs of my children, the tops of their feet in leather Clark’s. (How beautiful are your feet in sandals…), and packed up our picnic leavings to return to the back of the car. We had several hours of travel ahead of us and as it turned out, a stop in Kamloops for an emergency car repair, so it was time to leave, though I’ve never forgotten the smell of the dry grass and sage, the sound of the water, and the arms of my small boys, golden and downy, as they tossed their stones as far as their arms could fling them before I settled them into the car.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor rivers sweep it away.

I’ve just been looking at photographs we’ve taken on that highway and the memorable ones are from October, 2014, when John and I were on one of our road-trips. We had a few routes, meandering through Lillooet, Pavilion, Cache Creek, over to Kamloops, down Highway 5A through the Nicola Valley to Merritt, west to Spences Bridge. We were nearly at Spences Bridge when we encounted a herd of bighorn sheep, a single ram and a whole passel of ewes. We pulled over to the side of the highway and watched them, the scent of them in air earthy and warm.

During the recent and catastrophic weather events in this province, major highway systems were damaged, some of them badly. Rivers flooded them, undermined them, and huge sections washed away. I knew Highway 8 had been closed because of wash-outs but it wasn’t until yesterday that I saw the really awful images of sections of the highway simply gone. This morning I saw some video footage and it broke my heart. One of the voices in the helicopter flying overhead:

“But this is all the road here…it’s gone. Not gone in one place, it’s gone in all the places. This huge section of road here is all gone…”

We are still there, I hope, in what I’ve written, what I’ve remembered. (Speaking strictly for me.) We are wading in the river, skipping stones in the heat of the day. A day that has lasted forever.


“in the eyes of fish” (Bashō)

ghost fish

During the past four or five days, as news of one catastrophe after another fills the news cycle, I’ve been working on a quilt. I thought it was a bow to swimming — and perhaps it is. I thought of how I wanted to arrange vertical strips of blue cottons, pieced from Japanese momen and other prints, adjacent to red cottons, and how they would be a companion piece to my swims up and down a lane in a blue pool. But then when I kept seeing the images of rivers overflowing their banks, washing away roads, small towns, and now whole farms in the Fraser Valley, I realized that my thinking about lanes had shifted to rivers. I thought of the blue strips as rivers, deep and turbulent. And disrupted. I don’t know any other way to think deeply. I do things. I sew. I swim. Or I work in my garden. While I do these things, my hands at work give my mind a shape for thinking. I can’t begin to describe this any other way. It might sound strange but I’m used to it. So when I was piecing this quilt together, the one I’ve been describing on this blog for the past few days, I was pulled into the rivers I’ve known and loved, pulled right into their water, their turbulence. I was mourning the loss of salmon eggs washed from their gravel nests in the wild flow from the atmospheric rivers. And this is in the quilt, for my own understanding if not for anyone else’s.

Yesterday I bought a soft cotton batting for the middle layer. I don’t want much loft. I want a smooth surface for the red sashiko stitching I’ll be quilting through the three layers. The third layer, the backing, well, that was going to be a deep blue cotton I also bought yesterday. But somehow it seemed too static, too sombre. Though of course this is sombre thinking.

In the basket where I keep the indigo cottons I’ve dyed over the years, I have a couple of sheets, bought at thrift stores, that I prepared when I was dyeing something else. (I like to use up every bit of the dye.) I’d wrapped some of the surface with string for an arashi effect — usually you’d use a piece of wooden dowel or pvc pipe for this but I simply wrapped part of the sheets with hemp string. Because the sheets are big, there are areas of the surface without much pigment. But I’ve kept them because I thought I’d use them for something. As it turns out, the back of a quilt…There are two that are more or less the right size. One of them has really good colour in two areas. But when I held up the other one, I realized it was one I’d printed with wax-relief salmon, just a few of them, hoping that they’d show up after the sheet was dyed. I remember being disappointed because they are sort of ghostly. But right now? Ghostly is exactly what’s called for.

When the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō began his walk around the island of Honshū in the spring of 1689, a walk commemorated in his account, A Narrow Road to the Deep North, he wrote a haiku to set the journey into motion.

行く春や                 Spring passing—

鳥啼き魚の            birds cry and tears

目は泪                    in the eyes of fish.

Fish have survived cataclysmic climate shifts before. During the last ice age, salmon found their refugia, living and breeding in isolated areas, enduring glaciation, flooding, volcanoes. I hope they can survive this latest round of devastation. In the meantime, I’ll sew and think of them, think of the rivers that they are born in and return to, and give them a place of honour, if not the one they deserve.

it became rivers



And on the low table, books about human anatomy, atlases of the strange geography of our bodies, with their own legends. It’s the veins I’m particularly interested in. They are usually indicated in blue, as opposed to arteries, which are red, to represent the oxygen-rich blood carried away from the heart to the rest of the body. The blood the veins return to the heart is darker, because it is oxygen-depleted. In one of the veins of my leg, a clot formed, though there’s no sign of it now.

On Monday, I pieced the strips for the quilt I have been thinking about, the one using some Japanese momen, assorted blue cottons, and two red cottons–a print with viney leaves, and plain red. I had in mind these vertical lines, or lanes, maybe, inspired by my morning swim. Sometimes while I’m swimming, I hear my own pulse, and I thought I could reference this with the deep red. And the reason I’m swimming regularly at all is because in the late summer and fall of 2016, I had a series of related health issues, probably set into motion by a deep vein thrombosis. By the time any of the resulting damages were diagnosed, I’d had double pneumonia and a pulmonary embolism and suspected metastatic tumours in my lungs. All of this has been settled. The tumours, if that’s what they were (and there was some back and forth on that. Maybe scarring? Maybe fungus? I tell you, once you’ve looked at scans and xray of your lungs with a respirologist indicating the margins and nodes with a pointer, musing about biopsies and outcomes, you never forget), anyway, whatever they were disappeared. The other stuff cleared up. But I began to swim and some days I felt I was swimming for my life. I can’t look back. I just keep swimming and as a result, I’ve found a new arrangement for my thinking and my sense of my own strength. This quilt will be, in a way, a testament to that, to those dark months. And I would live them again, in a heartbeat, because I learned things about myself and what I value(d).

All down the coast, we passed creeks in the darkness, Homesite, Meyer, Anderson, Maple, Haskins, scribbling down the mountains. And I would do it all again, sit at the desk with a nurse taking my pulse, my blood pressure, arranging for bloodwork, ultrasound, medication to prevent a blood clot moving up into my lungs, for the glow of the cougar’s eyes in our headlights, and the knowledge of water finding its way to the sea.

This morning, after my swim, I was sewing the strips together–I’d laid them out on Monday after piecing them and found a pattern I liked– and I was listening to the The Current on the CBC. The show was extended today in order to gather stories and information about the catastrophic weather events in my province over the past 4 days, and by extension the past year. The visuals of highways actually breaking into pieces as rivers flood them and undermine their bedrock, of mudslides making other road systems impassable, people stranded in their cars as helicopters rescue some of them from dangerous terrain, of towns and valleys under water, places I’ve known well and loved– Merritt, Princeton, Yarrow in the Fraser Valley where the horse of my girlhood was born and where I found him in a field of soft grass and lost my heart to him– well, I had to keep wiping tears from my eyes as I sewed and listened. And it came to me that the quilt had become rivers, blue systems connected to one another.

I don’t know what we do about the immediate climate emergency. We’ve just watched our leaders let us down yet again in Glasgow. Here in our province, there is an unwillingness to declare, immediately, a state of emergency. We nervously think of our larders, our firewood supplies, wonder about loved ones elsewhere, and I don’t know what we do. Our gestures have to be courageous and bold. And our gestures have to be productive.

In my forthcoming book, I wrote about rivers and the body and how we are linked. I remember my own unsettled years when I stood on a suspension bridge over the Englishman River on Vancouver Island, contemplating an act I felt driven to by the unhappiness in my life. I wrote about it and wished I could have held that young woman in my older arms, tucked her under a quilt of red and blue strips, stitched by a fire in the house she would one day help to build, then live in.

(A woman, hand inside her rain jacket, tenderly taking her pulse, the drama of her heart pushing blood, whoosh, into her circulatory system, the drama of her life, whoosh, at wrist, at neck. She wonders if she will move forward to the other side of the river, or back, into the wreckage of the past weeks while her dog pants at her feet, eager for more walking. Not this, not the dark considerations of life or death.)

A quilt waits to be imagined into being. It waits until a day when fabric and imagination and memory conspire together, when rivers overflow their banks, lifelines are threatened, and it insists on becoming something more than thread and cotton. Seamed and durable, it will wish for safe passage, by road, by water, a steady pulse, a place on the map.


Note: the passages of quoted material are from “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”, part of Blue Portugal and Other Essays