1st clue

old grill

This morning I was listening to Iris DeMent sing her versions of Anna Ahkmatova’s poems. I was listening and I wasn’t. I was also making pancakes. It’s the final day of my Edmonton family’s visit and we had an early swim in the lake. Then the children picked blackberries while I went home ahead of them to get things ready for breakfast. Kelly helped me make the batter and then I began to cook on the old cast-iron griddle given us years ago by an elderly woman who wanted it to go to a good home. My father had a griddle like it, though I’ve no idea what happened to it after his death, and when we were children, he made pancakes on camping trips. I remember the taste of them, slightly toasty with buckwheat, and the curling fillets of bass he fried along side, dusted in cornmeal. He was there as I cooked this morning and in that strange way that happens sometimes, I could also sense others at the stove. Maybe it was Anna’s words, in Iris’s voice, that conjured them:

And it seemed as if ages walked with us
unseen, and as if an invisible hand were
striking a tambourine,
and there were stranger sounds, like
something we must mark,
secret signals that whirled about us there
in the dark.

It wasn’t dark but there were secrets as I ladled batter onto the griddle and turned the sausages. As we sat at our table and ate pancakes with maple syrup, sunlight pouring into the kitchen.

At breakfast, John mentioned the map he’d found in his study. He told the children that it was old and that no one had ever been able to figure it out. Of course they were eager to see it. Their father and Aunty Angie remembered it (they admitted, with secret smiles) and confessed they’d never been able to figure it out. Which made Kelly even more determined to see it and try to decode its clues.

From the Oxford Living Dictionary:


Late Middle English: variant of clew. The original sense was ‘a ball of thread’; hence one used to guide a person out of a labyrinth. clue (sense 1 of the noun) dates from the early 17th century.

So a series of clues, leading to locations around our house:

1st clue

Beware of the snakes, one of the clues advised. And when the treasure—because we finally determined that the map was a treasure map—was found, after Kelly pulled on a rope under the old dog house and something wrapped in an old rug (the kind of pirates might have used) emerged at the end of the rope, when the tin was opened, look what was inside!

the treasure

Gold coins (of the chocolate sort) and articulated wooden snakes and tattoos. Clues satisfactorily solved. For two small children, that is. As for their grandmother, she is still wandering through the labyrinth, caught by the tendrils of memory and love.

…mind my wish, however belated, oh, be kind
and send me, waking or dreaming…

“Memorial hour returns with each new year…”

So it’s winter and for me, that means quilting. There’s something about having my hands full of fabric, finding a way to create texture with a needle drawing thread over and through the surface of a quilt, pulling the layers together in a durable way. A subversive way, because no one could imagine how much pleasure and deep thinking is given to the work of making a practical thing. A bedcover, after all! A blanket of scraps! My mother used to knit, badly — I feel mean saying this, but honestly everything she knit for us was lopsided; the bulky Buffalo yarn sweaters had the collars on backwards and they always needed several extra inches added to the cuffs and those inches were often in a different yarn because she’d run out of the main one. She knit lovingly though and I remember she once said, giving me a blanket she’d made for one of my babies, that she couldn’t bear to have a winter pass without something to show for it. I know what she meant. A quilt, a blanket, a sweater which I still wear (for gardening) which barely covers my wrists and sort of flares at the waist.

This morning I was writing a letter to a friend and I told her this:

Yesterday I was putting away some quilting supplies (I finished the Euclid’s Orchard quilt for Brendan for Christmas!) and saw a basket of blocks I’d finished in the spring, all in a heat of creation, and then abandoned because they didn’t make sense to me once I’d tried to find a pattern with them. But yesterday I saw how I could take apart some of the long strips and rearrange them and use another fabric I have for sashing and voila, I think I’ll have something close to what I’d first envisioned. We’ll see. (It sounds a lot like writing, doesn’t it?)

I spent a few hours unpicking the long strips of blocks and this morning I began to arrange them on top of my bed to see if I can create a woven effect with alternating blocks. The blocks are pieced with four inch strips of reds, blues, and white damask from some old tablecloths I can’t bear to throw out. Some of the reds and blues are prints and some solids. I hadn’t anticipated that the way I’d first sewn them together would result in a series of French flags — I don’t have a very refined spatial sense. I have to do things by doing them. I can’t “see” clearly until the thing itself is in front of me. I use the word “envisioned” in the letter but it isn’t really vision at all. It’s hope. If I sew these things together, I hope I will have a pattern that approximates, well, something I might have dreamed or seen or imagined. I do it to find something out. And to spend time in the rocking chair in front of the woodstove, the scent of dry fir lightly perfuming the cottons.

And these days, while I unpick and resew, while I think about texture and how the damask has probably been the silent witness of hundreds of family meals, some of them ours, I’ve been listening in an almost obsessive way to The Trackless Woods, written about here. It is such a perfect recording, a relationship across the decades — or the centuries by now. Across continents and sensibilities. Amazing, how one woman found another to talk to in this way, to accompany in this way. I read a beautiful interview on the NPR site and loved this question, asked by Ann Power:

The Trackless Woods emerges from the act of reading. You fell into the Akhmatova poems somewhat unexpectedly, and clearly sat with them for a while as you were composing the music. The album’s intimate, domestic feel evokes a similar response from the listener. How can music be like reading? What did you get from reading Akhmatova’s poems that you most hope will come across in your versions?

And Iris DeMent’s reply:

Some of them I sat with a long time; with others, the melody came as I was reading them for the first or second time. My experience with and connection to poetry has primarily been through songs, so it probably shouldn’t be surprising to me that most, if not all, of these poems weren’t fully known to me, or understood on that deeper emotional level, until the melodies arrived. It was like the melody served as a doorway, a means by which I was able to enter the poem and that was the criteria I used when determining whether or not a particular melody stood up or not: It either allowed me entrance into the poem or it didn’t. And that’s something I never had to wonder about. It’s like any other door, it either opens up and lets you into the room or it doesn’t. It’s very basic. I could feel that every time.

Maybe my own sewing is part of this right now. A door, an entrance — into winter, its powerful hoard of memories and requirements (quiet, warmth, an abundance of quilts). As Iris sang “The souls of all my dears”, I found myself weeping at these lines as I cut out sashing for each course of blocks:

The souls of all my dears

have flown to the stars


Memorial hour returns with each new year

I see, I hear, I touch you drawing near


You step onto the porch and call my name

Your face pressed up against the frosted pane

Is it my mother, come back for a brief visit, lopsided sweater in her arms? Or the poet herself, across the river of languages, or the singer of these poems, her sweet voice in the falling light? Those who sat at the table laid with damask have gone home. Everywhere the scent of fir, the call of thread and cotton, the frost on the branches outside as lovely as silver.

winter quilt

“the secret of secrets”

I don’t watch much television so after dinner, when the kitchen is tidied and food put away, I head upstairs to read. I love to get into my bed, arrange four pillows comfortably behind me, and find my way into a novel. Or poetry. Or (as was the case the night before last) a recent Harper’s Magazine panel discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are windows on four sides of my bedroom and I can hear whatever is going on outside — boats down on Sakinaw Lake, teens on the highway laying rubber in the most extraordinary scribbles (this is surely a form of graffiti?), owls, loons, sometimes coyotes singing solo or in beautiful intricate harmonies. I’ve done this all the years we’ve lived in this house — we officially moved in on December 18th, 1982 but had been spending most of our time camping and then building (and sleeping on the floor of what’s now the dining area) for 18 months previous to that. I know that I don’t often have original thoughts and with my reading lately, I realize that I am repeating old habits. For some reason, I’ve been pulling old books off the shelf and taking them up to my bed. Yesterday it was Anna Akhmatova’s Poems, translated by Lyn Coffin. I have other translations — D.M. Thomas, Judith Hemschemeyer — but this collection is one I read 23 years ago when I was coming back to writing after an absence, one filled with babies and play-school and herding little children up and down the driveway to and from the school bus.

When I re-read “On the Road” last night, I was transported back to those years. It’s a poem that entered my body, my heart, and found a place in my own pulse. “This land isn’t native to me…” it begins. And how often I’ve felt that. As a young woman I travelled, mostly alone, through Europe, lived for a time in London, then on an island off the west coast of Ireland, trying to figure out how to be a writer. I wanted something. I wasn’t sure what it was. I’d burned bridges in the city where I’d grown up and wasn’t sure I could ever return. (I did, briefly.) I had such yearning, a girl’s yearning, and I’d try to imagine myself into the future. Would anyone ever love me? Would I find a place to make a home? In retrospect, these questions seem so melodramatic and silly but they were so real at the time. I remember staying with some new friends in the south of France just after my 21st birthday and wanting so badly to live among them, maybe in the grove where we ate lunch with a tribe of actors who’d restored an old stone house and made their own wine and brandy (an orange suspended on a wire in one vat). Or maybe in the caravan in the corner of a farmer’s field in Turlough, Co. Mayo, where an elderly friend cared for stray animals (me included) and shared her extraordinary memories day after day over pots of strong tea.

In my bed at night, I keep track of sunsets and they’re earlier now, redder (because of the haze of forest fires burning in the Interior, I think), and my white linen curtains turn pink for a moment as the sun tumbles down behind Texada Island. Last night, the lines of poetry were exactly true, as they were when I first read them and was preparing a manuscript of poems (which became Black Cup):

And the sunset itself in waves of ether

Is such that I can’t say with certainty

Whether the day is ending, or the world, or whether

The secret of secrets is again in me.

It’s been a summer of short trips — to Ottawa, the Okanagan, Edmonton (to meet my beautiful grand-daughter Kelly) — and house-guests and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. The garden has flourished, still flourishes, and I’ve been making preserves, curing garlic, shallots, and squash:

P1100481And I have writing to return to. For some reason I haven’t been able to work this summer, though the stack of quilt blocks on the trunk at the foot of my bed keeps me thinking about “Euclid’s Orchard” — both the essay about math and family history and horticulture as well as the actual quilt whose conception and making has been a companion to the writing. This morning I tried a pattern on my bed, tried to find a pleasing arrangement of the blocks. I’m not sure whether to arrange them in the order I made them or in an order that makes sense mathematically or in an order that resembles poetry and not science. (I’m leaning in that direction…) They’re a bit bigger than book pages and will be sashed with deep blue Moravian blue-print which I bought a few years ago in Roznov. (The quilt under them is a log-cabin I made for my parents’ 50th anniversary.)


But last night — and this morning — I feel as though the secret of secrets is again in me. And I’m ready.