“small but important repairs”


We were driving home from Vancouver yesterday afternoon—we’d gone in for a concert at the Orpheum—and I was musing about the quilt I’ve been working on this winter. I made the top to accompany me as I recovered from an eye injury, made it to map out what happened and why and how to accommodate the experience in my life. Last week I cut out beautiful silk to back the quilt with and then decided to attach the top and back with shell buttons. I’ve used buttons before on quilts but usually in a decorative way. On batiked salmon, I used small akoya shell buttons for eyes and to represent eggs among stones at the bottom of the panels. On a log cabin quilt I made for Forrest when he finished his PhD, I used an assortment of buttons from a small tin John brought back from his mother’s house after she’d gone into care. I recognized the tin from her sewing materials and remembered she once told me it contained buttons from her mother’s house. So those buttons articulating the log cabins became a sort of legacy.

But for some reason, the buttons I’m sewing onto a section of quilt cobbled together of scraps of fabric, the path through my eye injury, my recovery, this time of life when I’ve found myself in the dark woods, the right road lost, well, the buttons have felt very potent somehow.

Arriving home yesterday, I looked briefly at the quilt and then began an essay. I had no idea I had anything to write about this, anything more I mean, because I’ve already written about the experience of falling, seeing stars, exploring my inner vision. No, this is a different thing altogether. By the time I came out to make a simple supper for us, I’d written most of a first draft. “An Anatomy of Buttons”. I’ve found things out and realize there’s more to learn. A second draft today… In the night I was awake thinking about the buttons and their meaning. Their means of repair. What they secure and how.

…generations of women set forth,

under the sails of gingham curtains,
and, seated side by side

on decks sometimes salted by tears,
made small but important repairs.

                   –Ted Kooser, from “A Jar of Buttons”

buttons, and a father’s voice

“We use our parents like recurring dreams, to be entered into when needed; they are always there for love or for hate.” This was something Doris Lessing wrote and I think about it quite often. My parents are dead; John’s too. Yet they are present in our lives in so many ways. The dishes we eat from came from them. Our silver. I see my father’s shoulders in my own. My mother’s hair is, or was, mine. There’s a lot we don’t share but I always wonder where certain things came from, which rich strand of genetic material twisted and frayed and tangled itself with another to produce my brothers and myself — so different and yet from the same source. My three children — I ask myself the same questions about the how, the where, the why of them. I can’t imagine a world without them and yet sometimes I wonder where they came from, in what mysterious marriage of cells.

I hear my parents too. For the past few days I’ve been sewing buttons onto my salmon quilt. I have five sizes of akoya shell buttons. I think that they are made from the shell of the bivalve mollusc Pinctada imbricata, a host for cultured pearls, and it occurs in Japan, Korea, and China, as well as the Indo-Pacific area, the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Mediterranean Sea, area around South Africa, and the Caribbean. The buttons are lustrous and irregularly shaped, a pleasure to run one’s thumb across. I’ve been sewing them down among batiked rocks. I have in mind stones, salmon eggs, fish scales, and bubbles. And this is wishful thinking of course because the final effect is, well, a bit clumsy. But I love the process, the thinking that happens when I’m sewing.

P1090478Anyway, I heard my father’s voice, asking, “You’re doing what? You’re sewing buttons on a quilt? Why would you waste good buttons?” And I had to ask myself why I’d do that. Because my father, as John observed, had a good bullshit detector. (His father did too, although sometimes I think it was faulty. “Can you make head or tail of this?” he once asked another family member as he turned the pages of one of John’s books. It was the book, if I’m remembering correctly, which won the Governor General’s Award for poetry. So therein lies a paradox.)

So we talked about this, how our parents make themselves and their opinions known to us fairly regularly. Which is them, in us. Them, as us? This is a mystery I’d like to untangle, unravel as I’ve had to unravel thread today, twisting it from under buttons where I’d made a mistake and looped it through the wrong way. My father’s voice asking why I’d waste these buttons which he would never have seen as anything but buttons, useful for keeping a shirt closed, a sleeve in place.


Fish coming into being: a creation story

This time last year I was making a quilt for my son and his wife-to-be. I batiked fish onto cotton squares, made lines of shibori-style resist, and then dyed the squares with indigo. It took a long time but I think I loved every step. Towards the end I realized how lovely it would be to sew shell buttons along the spines of the fish, in part to echo the beautiful Tlingit button blankets, and in part to suggest eggs within the bodies of the fish.  I think the original cultures of the Northwest coast were right to revere salmon. If I believe in anything, I believe in fish.

For the past few weeks I’ve wanted to make something. This has nothing to do with my writing. It has to do with my hands. I remember being a child and rushing into our basement, filled with the desire to build something, make an object to translate what I felt into a solid statement. What that statement would have been, I have no idea. Or wait, maybe I do. Even then it might have had something to do with fish. But I’d see my father’s workbench, his tools, a few scraps of wood, and I’d be lost. What could I ever make anyway? I didn’t know how to use tools. My father might have taught me if I’d been able to explain what I wanted to do. But I couldn’t and he didn’t. And now it’s too late.

But that feeling has never gone away. Sometimes it’s a kind of despair. I look at art — paintings, fine ceramics, sculpture — and that child filled with the urgency to create surfaces. But I don’t have the skills. I can’t draw. I can’t think in dimensions, have no spatial sense at all. (When we were building our house, John drew the plans. I honestly couldn’t see how a window might look in a real room based on what he would show me. I’d wonder about sills where a pot of geraniums might flourish in spring light. Or where we’d hang our paintings.) Other times I am determined enough to simply use the skills I do have — I can sew in a pretty rudimentary way, I can work out patterns, I can (it turns out) mix indigo dye.

This spring I thought about making another of the salmon quilts but I didn’t want to do the same one twice. Then a week or so ago, I decided to batik the fish onto long panels of cotton, hovering above stones. Two panels, fish swimming in opposite directions — heading out to sea from their natal creek, and then returning. I haven’t bothered with the shibori resist because it didn’t do quite what I wanted it to, though there were moments when it almost did. But I have some other ideas involving a roll end of Japanese cotton I found — an indigo print resembling rain-drops — and more of those akoya shell buttons which I can buy in bulk at the wonderful Button, Button on Homer Street in Vancouver.

Here’s a little gallery of images and I will add updates from time to time. Today is the first day in ages that it hasn’t rained so my dye vat is out on the patio, the long panels of cotton soaking as I write.