This morning I tried to make an inventory of my quilts. I began quilting 34 years ago and am truly self-taught. Someone told me once that I’d get better (I think I was lamenting my careless skills) and that wasn’t true. I’ve now made 35 quilts and I am still careless and I don’t sew well. But I love the process and I am always working on at least one quilt, often more. Right now it’s a school bus quilt to celebrate grandson E’s transition into a bed. I also have some pieced variable stars that have been waiting for me to notice them again and figure out what to do with them. I think I know now so I’m looking forward to finishing the top. What you’re seeing in the photograph here is a pieced top for a quilt I made for Forrest and Manon about 10 years ago. I batiked the fish and then dyed the squares in indigo. The lighter marbled squares are me using up the dye when it didn’t have much ooomph left in it. I love the soft blue though. I can’t remember if I sewed akoya shell eyes on the fish.

I was thinking about quilts as I was reading Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory last week, a book that won’t quite let me go. Her Canadian publisher calls it a documentary novel. Maybe it is. I wonder about calling it fiction though. It is a scrapbook in a way, a pieced quilt made of fragments. Family stories, portraits, songs, maps, journals, letters — all of these, incomplete in themselves, with missing elements, forgotten names, have a cumulative effect. Some sections of the book are like art history (meditations on Rembrandt), 20th c. history (the sections on the siege of Leningrad and the Stalinist purges are harrowing), and very moving parsings of family history in all its possible variations.

The past had bitten me, but it was only a warning nip, and it was still prepared to let me go. Slowly, very slowly, step by step and bawling gently at the effort, I made my way back to what once had been the beginning of a path through the cemetery. 

I thought how the material could have been organized differently and the book would have been a very different experience. I was curious about the decisions Stepanova made to include particular things and how different the book might have been if she’d been given permission to use material her father vetoed. In some ways I was reminded of an interview I’d watched, Doireann Ní Ghríofa talking about her wonderful A Ghost in the Throat, and how genre isn’t on her mind as she writes, that what she’s doing is, in a way, its own thing. I completely understand that. It’s true, too, of In Memory of Memory.

It won’t let me go. Her uncles, her aunts, her great-grandmother who went to medical school in Paris. What they left. What they lost. Sitting in the chair by the fire, sewing, I am in Leningrad, I am sorting family photographs and letters, walking streets in small forgotten towns looking for traces. And how my own scraps gather, accumulate, until the right arrangement suggests itself. Fish on blue cotton, lopsided stars, log cabins pierced at their centres with red fire.

In a book about the working of the mind, I once read that the important factor in discerning the human face was not the combination of features, but the oval shape. Life itself, whilst it continues, can be that same oval; or, after death, the thread of life running through the tale of what has been.

“A category into which something is put.”

zinnia blue

This morning I am thinking of beautiful writing, of beautiful writing by women, and how what I’ve read in recent months almost always has an interesting context. A textual construction deeply grounded in the quotidian. I’m not surprised. I’ve also been looking at textiles, mostly in photographs and in illustrations in archaeology papers, and I see how the work women do in the most practical ways has beauty. Their baskets, their weaving, their quilts, even the cordage used to bind tools, keep skins together for clothing, shelter, suspend fishing hooks in water, tether animals, anyway, the work of their hands and minds has always entranced me, made me feel part of a community through time and history.

I read a lot. 3 or 4 books a week. I don’t keep a list but mostly I can remember what I’ve read, or at least let’s say there are memorable books that I think about long after I’ve read them. Lately I’ve been reading non-fiction, which is often considered a genre but honestly? The book I’m reading on hand-dyeing has very little in common with Sinead Gleeson’s extraordinary Constellations: Reflections From Life. Turning to my dictionary doesn’t help much. Classification is defined this way:

[mass noun]

1.The action or process of classifying something.
‘the classification of disease according to symptoms’

1.1 biology: The arrangement of animals and plants in taxonomic groups according to their observed similarities (including at least kingdom and phylum in animals, division in plants, and class, order, family, genus, and species)
‘the classification of the platypus was one of the critical issues of the 1830s’

1.2 [count noun] A category into which something is put.
‘new classifications for drivers of commercial vehicles’

So. Is that clear? Not really. And I guess it doesn’t matter although sometimes it does. Right now it seems to me that the conversation about nonfiction usually means memoir. Yesterday I read Katherine May’s Wintering and yes, it’s a memoir. It’s also an investigation into weather and depression and the meaning of winter. I loved Beth Kaplan’s Loose Woman: My Odyssey From Lost to Found, an account of how an aspiring actress finds herself, literally and metaphorically, living with and caring for a community of damaged men in France. It has a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, a through-line, and it is both heart-felt and well-crafted. Constellations is a collection of essays which has its own narrative coherence, though it’s not as structurally evident.

As an undergraduate, I remember reading a translation of “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire”, or “Lament for Art O’Leary”, a gorgeous and heartbreaking poem written by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, an 18th c. Irish noblewoman grieving the murder of her husband at the hands of an Anglo-Irish army officer. So I was always going to read Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s stunning A Ghost in the Throat, in which she searches for Ni Chonaill’s life (reduced to shreds in the historical record) and makes a text of shimmering beauty, like the quilts I remember seeing at Kilkenny Castle in 1979, pieced of silk and taffeta and fine linen, each scrap a footnote or gloss on domestic life, on broader history.

An ache, this salt-sorrow of mine,
that I was not by your side
when that bullet came flying,
I’d have seized it here in my right side,
or here, in my blouses’s pleats, anything,
anything to let you gallop free,
o bright-grasped horseman, my dear.

The other day, I wrote about Kathleen Jamie’s essays, their durable and practical beauty. And there’s Susan Olding’s Big Reader— essays about reading, yes, and loss, and how we are shaped by books, how they shadow us in our daily lives.

This morning I am grateful for women’s writing, women’s work, their vessels and twine and the patterns they impose on both the daily and the divine. Tall flowers, groundcovers, medicinals, ornamentals. A shelf of their books, kingdom and phylum, genus and species, fieldguides to the life I am living.