redux: The risk of nostalgia

•January 23, 2019 • Leave a Comment

On the eve of my son Brendan’s birthday, I am sitting at my desk, awash in nostalgia for the early years of our family’s life. 36 years ago this evening, I was unable to sleep (though we had a new mattress!) and was awake in my bed, eager for the new baby to arrive to join us—John, Forrest, and me—in our brand-new house. My parents had come from the Island to help out for the first week and they were sound asleep downstairs in the study (this study!). So nostalgia, love, the memory of a quiet sleeping household, while I tried to find a comfortable position for my body with its beautiful cargo. And I wonder if the stories I tell about those years are plain fact or embellished. Both, I think. Does it matter?


This afternoon I found myself reading a small journal I kept during a trip to Europe in 2010. At an exhibition in Vienna – and I didn’t record the museum but possibly it was the Museum of Modern Art (or Mumok) where I recall a fascinating exhibit on the Moderns – I wrote down this observation by Sidney Tillim, from an essay, “Notes on Narrative and History Painting”, published in Artforum (May, 1977), posted on the wall of one gallery:

“The risk of nostalgia is a morbid identification with the past. But its power is precisely as a criticism of the present. Representation, as I conceive it, is an admission of loss…and a criticism of an unfulfilling reality which takes the form of an attempt to re-establish a live equivalent of the lost ideal.”

This strikes me as particularly resonant as I am currently reading Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. I first encountered PLF’s work in the late 1970s, just after A Time of Gifts (1977) was published. I remember how taken I was with both the journey described in its pages (and that of its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, which came out in 1986) – imagine, a young man, 18 years of age, deciding to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (we would say Istanbul but that romantic boy insisted on its earlier name)! – and the rich prose taking the reader so generously to a time and a series of places about to be changed utterly by the Second World War. A Time of Gifts  and Between the Woods and the Water trace his route through Holland, beginning in December, 1933, entering Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania, and ending at the Bulgarian border. He reached Constantinople a little more than a year later, in December, 1934. I re-read his books every few years and have had the pleasure of introducing several friends and family members to them. Like many fans of PLF, I am eagerly waiting for the third book, left in draft form after its author’s death in June, 2011.

How did he do it, I’ve always wondered. How did he write so vividly of a walk across Europe, years after he’d done it, with many more extraordinary adventures —  his war-time service for instance, including his time in occupied Crete, working with the Cretan resistance. (If you’ve seen the film, Ill Met by Moonlight, you’ll know something about this.) I think it’s fair to say that A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water contain elements of embellishment. The gorgeous passages describing his grand ride across the Great Hungarian Plain are an example of this. The wonder of those days, walking and riding across a vast sunlit steppe among sheep and goats and long-horned cattle, hosted by one family of faded nobility after another, all of them kind and cultured. There were games of bicycle polo in courtyards followed by long dinners made splendid with poetry and music. It seems that he walked more than rode, though the story of being lent a horse at one end and honouring the arrangement to drop the horse off at the other is, well, exaggerated. In a letter to Artemis Cooper, he says, “I did ride a fair amount, so I decided to put myself on horseback for a bit. I felt the reader might be getting bored of me just plodding along…You won’t let on, will you?” Does it make any difference, knowing this? To me, not a bit. Memory has a way of storing and polishing the important events of our lives until they have the clarity of fine jewels. They are no less valuable for having begun as glass. And PLF is a writer above all, his imagination shaping his memories into narratives we are lucky to have.

In my Vienna journal from 2010, I wrote down an observation made by Alex Colville, accompanying (I think) “The River Spree, 1971”:

“I do not paint from direct observation but from memories. I paint exact, and only change the reality according to the requirements of the composition. To be a good realist, I must invent everything.”

A few years ago, everyone was reading The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, described by their publisher as follows:

“How negotiable is a fact in nonfiction? In 2003, an essay by John D’Agata was rejected by the magazine that commissioned it due to factual inaccuracies. That essay—which eventually became the foundation of D’Agata’s critically acclaimed About a Mountain—was accepted by another magazine, The Believer, but not before they handed it to their own fact-checker, Jim Fingal. What resulted from that assignment was seven years of arguments, negotiations, and revisions as D’Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction.”

Oh, how times have changed. For the better?  I wonder. I’m so grateful to have PLF’s glorious account of his walk across Europe, a copy of Horace’s Odes in his rucksack, and a greatcoat to keep him warm those nights when he hadn’t been taken in by a baron or a baker or a Rumanian princess, just before the maps he used were redrawn forever.

We had one of the best meals ever at this restaurant in Vienna!

We had the most wonderful meal at this restaurant in Vienna



“Often it will come to you even in your sleep.”

•January 22, 2019 • Leave a Comment


The other night, outside in the cold, looking at the red moon, spring felt a thousand years away. The stars were winter stars. No owls. A glaze of frost on every surface. But yesterday, walking up the mountain, John and I noticed how the light had changed. Not spring light, not yet. But there was a little warmth in it. And on our way down, we stopped to look at the first leaves of miners lettuce sprouting under some blackberry canes. Soon the early salads, the snippings of chives, the pizzas of dandelion greens, the buckets of forsythia blossoms brought into the house. This morning I woke from a complicated dream, not about any particular season, but I was younger, more nimble. So before the strange series of misadventures that began in late summer, 2016. Before the tests, the injections, the puzzling of specialists over screens. I’d like to think I’ve left that behind and that’s how I’m proceeding with my life but then I dream, I wake, and know where I am in the grand scheme. Or simply in the cycle of the seasons, of which winter is one.

The pillow’s low, the quilt is warm, the body smooth and peaceful,
Sun shines on the door of the room, the curtain not yet open.
Still the youthful taste of spring remains in the air,
Often it will come to you even in your sleep.

—Bai Juyi (772-846)

“I remember the silver light…”

•January 20, 2019 • 2 Comments


Yesterday I was outside by the bench where I do my indigo dyeing in better weather. I was thinking about the long essay I’m current writing on blue, its various incarnations, and visual disturbances. The research has led me into the most amazing areas of scholarship, unknown to me before I fell on ice in Edmonton in November and tore the retina in my right eye. My son Forrest mentioned Oliver Sacks and his experience with indigo and so I read his collection of essays, Hallucinations.

I had long wanted to see “true” indigo, and thought that drugs might be the way to do this. So one sunny Saturday in 1964, I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed, “I want to see indigo — now!”

And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture. It was the colour of heaven…

                          (Oliver Sacks, “Altered States”)

After that I was interested in the idea that the entoptic phenonoma I’d experienced before the retinal tear was diagnosed might be something one could induce. I’m not sure I want to induce them but I found myself thinking about the intense beauty I’d been reluctant to admit was the result of damage to my eye. The blue in particular, the blue of the sky billowing with white clouds: if I was a believer, I might have thought I was seeing heaven.

It hadn’t occurred to me that a person could summon indigo. My own recipe for producing it was pretty tame. Indigo powder (which is sourced from a farm in India, not grown in my garden and fermented in a vat),thiourea dioxide, lye, synthropol soap, and soda ash. I use vinegar for rinsing the dyed fabrics. Some of these are caustic but none, as far as I know, is capable of generating hallucinations.

Would I use a cocktail of hallucinogens to see that inner sky again? Would I mix a little of my precious vial of homemade cannabis tincture (Texada Timewarp buds soaked in Silent Sam vodka) with something else more powerful if it meant I could look upon that cracked red desert beyond my irises? An inner landscape entirely my own. I don’t know. But I would be in good company. Dr. Sacksand those who entered the caves perhaps 35,000 years ago to paint horses, bison, ibex, a gallery of lions, their own hands outlined in hematite.

—from “The Blue Etymologies”, a work-in-progress

Right now I’m reading The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, by the South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams. It’s quite a provocative analysis of the origins of image-making, the evolution of symbolic activity, and how certain percepts are wired into the human nervous system. I think of the spirals, the gridwork, the zigzag lines that are part of the complex non-representational patterns we see in cave art, existing alongside the most beautiful and coherent images of animals, keenly observed and anatomically represented. The quartet of horses in Chauvet, the polychrome bison in Altamira. The finger-flutings in mud in the Cosquer Cave. The finger-drawn grids in Hornos, in Spain.

I read, and I write, and I wait for better weather in order to set up my dye vat and pursue my own indigo dream.

I remember the silver light falling beside my face, like the tails of shooting stars, in the dark cave of my bed at night, fearful and blessed, and how I will try to replicate that sensation—not just the visual beauty but the awe—in some way for the rest of my life.

—from “The Blue Etymologies”


redux: “I am haunted by waters.”

•January 18, 2019 • Leave a Comment

A year ago, I was planning a long essay about rivers, inspired by Oliver Sacks. I finished it and am in the process of finding a home for it. As I’m also trying to find a home for my novella about rivers, also completed in the past year. More water, more searching, more finishing…


“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.” — Norman Maclean, from A River Runs Through It

Last night I finished reading The River of Consciousness, the final collection of essays by Oliver Sacks. It’s a beautiful book, full of lively, erudite, and humane explorations of memory, illness, and yes, consciousness. I put it on my bedside table, turned out the light, fell into a deep sleep (helped a little, I have to say, by my homemade tincture), and woke with one thought in my mind. Do rivers themselves have consciousness?

I suspect they do. Think of how often we use river terms for our own metaphorical purposes. River of consciousness. Stream of consciousness (that wonderful narrative device so beloved by the Modernists). Time and the river.

If a dynamic, flowing consciousness allows, at the lowest level, a continuous active scanning or looking, at a higher level it allows the interaction of perception of memory, of present and past. — Oliver Sacks

The photograph above is the moment of the Thompson River entering the larger body of the Fraser River, at Lytton. How long before the Thompson is just a memory of green water in the darker water of the Fraser? What does it retain of its essential self? Its origins, its sediments, its particular history, its…yes, its own fluid memory?

My husband’s new book of poetry is due out from Harbour Publishing later this year. Its title? This Was The River. I’m thinking a conversation about rivers and their own consciousness might well begin this evening, by our fire, over a glass of wine. And later this winter or early spring, overlooking the Thompson and the Fraser, a place we stop every time we drive up Highway 1 into the Interior.

I made some notes this morning and I hope to enter the river of consciousness as well as its obverse during these dark days of January. Maybe most particularly its obverse.

ragged stitches

•January 16, 2019 • 2 Comments


It’s counter-intuitive, to sew ragged stitches along the raw edges of fabric scraps. Everything I know about sewing (and I am careless enough as it is) tells me to do this differently, to apply the patches of various silks and cottons and linens in the way I’ve always done: sewing the wrong side of the scrap to the body of the quilt and then turning it, ironing it flat, using small regular stitches to quilt the layers together. But this time I am exploring imperfection. Here’s one example I keep in mind as I sew, a boro quilt of ethereal practical beauty:


What is perfection anyway? I think about that when I swim. I am clumsy, awkward, but I swim a kilometer three times a week and it feels wonderful in the moment, and after. My writing is always raggedy-edged, unfinished (in a way), shape-shifting as it goes along. There’ve been times when I was courted by bigger publishers, hoping for a book that would sell. I remember having lunch with one and coming home in great excitement to tell John what suggestions had been made (I’m being careful here!) to turn something I’d already written in something else. I could do this, I said. And he said, Yes, of course you could. But would it make you happy? You’ve already written the book you said you wanted to write. When I thought about it, I realized I had. My happiness with it had been in the process of writing, of following the beautiful thread that led me along roads I’d never known were there, into mazes and out again, not knowing the destination. What had been suggested to me was a trail well-mapped, direct, not exactly full of possibility, but maybe interesting enough. I’d know exactly where I’d arrive before I even began. Did I want that? Even if I could make my sentences as bold and as strong as I could? It turned out I didn’t. I’m curious enough and stubborn enough to want to do things my own way. It’s not that I think everyone should follow this process. I’m really glad that others don’t because in books, as with quilts, I love the huge range of texts and textiles that result from all kinds of approaches and pursuits. I think there’s room for them all.

It’s counter-intuitive, to sew ragged stitches along the raw edges of fabric scraps. But I’ve got these new needles, sharp and true, and it’s a pleasure, though sometimes a nervous-making experience, to run them along and through a small scrap of blue cloth. What will this become? What will I become, making it?




winter colour

•January 14, 2019 • 2 Comments

The other day we were walking up the Suncoaster trail, past the Malaspina substation, and the day was bright. There was sun, no ice on the puddles, and the air smelled wonderful, a little of the snow we could see farther up the mountain in it, and balsam fir. And there was colour! Not the bright colour of spring and summer when the wild currants and salmonberries in that area bloom cerise. Nor the fall, when the maples turn yellow and orange, the dogwoods rose-salmon, the elders red. The colour I was suddenly aware of was more subtle but maybe even more beautiful for it. Tall young maples on a slope of sword ferns and deer ferns:

young maples

And a mass of wild roses dense with hips, maybe not even wild, maybe some dog roses growing from seed spread by deer or birds:

rose red

Long loose stitches of maroon bramble crossing the edges of the trail, waxy mauve canes of evergreen blackberry, and russet-y hardhack in the damp areas.

I’ve been thinking about colour, winter colour, in part because I’m writing about it and in part because I’m figuring out a quilt. Not the kind of quilt I usually make, pieced stars, or log cabins built of strips of bright cotton. This one is inspired by the Japanese tradition of boro, meaning something tattered or repaired. Boro has long been a way to extend the life of textiles by layering and patching, using a long running sashiko stitch, often described as “structural” rather than decorative, yet in the way that practical or utilitarian work is often beautiful, the long plain stitches are ravishing to my eye. I’m thinking of my quilt as a dark path through winter, through uncertainty, through aging and uneasy health issues, and the more I arrange my scraps into a pattern, the more I see that what the hands do is hugely therapeutic for the soul. Yesterday I spent the afternoon cutting and placing. Later today I may begin to actually sew. Some of the pieces are familiar — tweed from a waistcoat I made John years ago and because Forrest liked it, I made him one of dark grey wool flannel and that’s there too; little scraps of Japanese hemp and cotton; some deep blue linen; some grey-blue silk with a scribble of blue velvet like the contours on a map; gorgeous Indian silk given me by a woman who makes theatre costumes and who invited me to plunder her scrap bag. Because I have a thrifty heart, I haven’t wanted to throw out the tiniest remnants, ever. And now I have a use for them.


Last night there was a waxing crescent moon in the western sky when I got up to pee. And I wondered, maybe I need to light this path with a curve of golden silk. I’m thinking about how to do that as I write. The 18th century Japanese poet, Chiyo-ni, wrote about that moon and it’s her words I hear as I plan this quilt:

at the crescent moon
the silence
enters the heart


summer after summer…

•January 11, 2019 • 9 Comments
murray church0002

The Murray Church, around 1985

…we walked through the little graveyard surround the Murray Church in the townsite of Upper Nicola, on highway 5A, the old road between Merritt and Kamloops. In that graveyard, I found names that spoke to me, though they weren’t my dead. They spoke to me and agitated and I wrote my first lyric essay, “Morning Glory” (in my book Red Laredo Boots). The church, built in 1876, and its surroundings, its beautiful plain dignity, the graveyard of old iris and cacti — well, they eventually helped me to write my first novel, Sisters of Grass.

morning glory

I have to write this now. I have to write this while I can. I just heard on the noon news that the church burned to the ground yesterday. Arson is suspected. I will go through old photo albums (this was all before computers and digital files) and probably I’ll cry.