“I have walked behind the sky.”


So. Yesterday I finished writing the final essay for Blue Portugal. Or at least I finished a full draft, with some parts a little rougher than others. There are ten essays in this collection, ranging from meditations on colour, investigations into ampelography, entoptic phenomenon, Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor as a soundtrack for navigating grief, the relationship between the venous system and rivers, and using Dante’s Inferno as a means to recover from fractures. I know. It doesn’t sound like a manuscript that will be easy to place with a publisher, does it? In truth, I don’t think the essays themselves are difficult or chilly. But they’re not issue-based. They’re not life-style pieces. I read those and enjoy many of them but they’re not what I write. Or at least they’re not what I need to write right now.

There’s a lot of blue in this collection. The title piece for example begins with wine, Modry Portugal, a beautiful light red wine we drank in the Czech Republic. Modry means blue in Czech (and other Slavic languages) and I wondered about the Portugal. Where did the grape come from, and how, and why. I also wanted to look more deeply at family origin stories. There’s another essay, “The Blue Etymologies”, that I wrote to puzzle through what I experienced when I fell last November and damaged my retinas.  I have walked behind the sky, wrote Derek Jarman in Chroma, and yes, that was exactly where I went. “blueprints” revisits housebuilding and various kinds of fabric resist printing and the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins. Several of the essays use maps and land surveys in an attempt to locate the past and a couple of them might be too personal to interest anyone but members of my family. Who can say.


What I want to say is how much I’ve loved writing these essays. They are messy, imperfect, badly constructed in parts, and the craft is often careless; if you’ve read previous posts and seen images of the quilts I make, then you will recognize the parallel. But in an odd way they’ve kept me alive. Or they’ve kept my mind alive as I’ve navigated some health issues, have lain awake in the night thinking of my children and their children and how we’ve ended up living so far apart, have learned to do particular techniques with textiles, and have tried to keep what’s beautiful close to hand in the face of climate change, dangerous political systems, and an aging body.

The epigraph for this collection is a passage from a poem by the American poet Robert Penn Warren.

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

–Robert Penn Warren

Deep delight, in a moment of mania. That was me, in the night, writing by starlight, telling the story over and over again.

“heat from a single woodstove”

in progress

In the night I was awake, thinking about Blue Portugal, the collection of essays I’ve recently completed. Almost completed, because there is space for one more, to be written after I visit my grandfather’s village in September. Last month I wrote about printing the manuscript and sitting down to edit it. I did that. I made my marks in red pen on the black text and then I entered the changes. Then I moved on to other work. (I’ve begun another novella and mostly I can’t stop thinking about it in that excited way that new work suspends one in, a state of heightened consciousness.)

But last night, awake, because I realized that one essay, “blueprint”, needs something more. But what? I resisted the urge to get up and come down in the dark to see what might be done because my life is very busy right now and I felt I needed to be my bed, under the quilt, beside my sleeping husband. I needed rest, not the excitement of sitting at my desk with the little lamp shining a light on my text. I talked myself back to sleep. But just before I fell into the warm tunnel of sleep, I scribbled a note on paper on my bedside table. An asterix and the words, Look to see what Robert Venturi has to say about his mother’s house. And now, at my desk, I have the book beside me: Mother’s House: The Evolution of Vanna Venturi’s House in Chestnut Hill, edited by Frederic Schwartz. It’s a book I read with avid curiousity when I was writing the first draft of “blueprint”. How the anticipated function of a building influences its design. I particularly enjoyed Venturi’s own essays in the book, one of them about designing a house for his mother in the early 1960s, the other considering the influence of the building 25 years later.

In the night, it seemed to be that the book might provide a small element for my own essay which I’ve felt needed an epigraph, a sign-post, an architectural note to the reader (and to me). And this morning, here it is, from Venturi’s essay, “Residence in Chestnut Hill”;

These complex combinations do not achieve the easy harmony of a few motifs based on exclusion – based, that is, on “less is more.” Instead, they achieve the difficult unity of a medium number of diverse parts based on inclusion and on acknowledgement of the diversity of experience.

He is summing up how he reconciled the compositional elements of the house he designed and built for his mother Vanna, the diagonals, the rectangular spaces, the scale, what architectural critics have called “the casual asymmetries”, the spacial requirements wedded to function and form. And how this passage speaks to me of what I’ve tried to do in an essay that remembers John’s work at a drafting table as he worked on plans for this house, that tries to figure out a blueprint from my grandparents’ papers, and arranges, throughout the work, a small showing of the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins.

floor plan

In my essay, I have a section of questions and answers. I asked the questions and John wrote out detailed and (to me) fascinating answers about the process for creating the rudimentary plans for our house.

3. When you look at the plans now, how do you feel? What do you remember about drawing them?

They make me proud a little. I did what I had to do to build a good house.

Our needs were perhaps simpler (and more economically restrained) than Vanna Venturi’s but reading a little of my essay this morning makes me realize that function and form are yoked in the most interesting ways, in architecture as well as writing.

Aesthetically the change in height indoors was a way to break up large open plan spacing, and to differentiate between rooms but still allow easy distribution of heat from a single woodstove, for example.

cell by cell

afternoon deck

It felt like summer on this deck (with its bronze fish). Huge bees, bombus spp. of some sort (orange rumps…), going from flower to flower—crocus, daffodils, forsythia, low yellow primula. I planted out the seedlings of sugar peas I started indoors on March 16th. They were a foot tall and ready for their bed in Wave (the box where there’s a good screen of chicken wire for them to grow up against). I also transplanted some tiny kale seedlings, self-sown, in Long Eye. (My vegetable beds have names. What can I say.)

Over the past week I finished another of the essays for the collection I am calling Blue Portugal. The process of writing these essays feels a little like the fall of 2016, when I’d been tentatively diagnosed with something serious and I felt that I couldn’t waste time. I’d get up in the night and come down to my desk to work on the material that became Euclid’s Orchard. There was urgency in the work and also the daily rhythm of my life. I have no regrets, either for the sense that time was limited and I needed to use it well, and for the headlong energy I expended during that period. I felt lucky. I lived with someone I loved and who I knew would accompany me on any dark path that beckoned. I had a wonderful extended family. (Still have!) This work has that same urgency, though (as far as I know) I am strong and healthy. When I wake in the night, I have the sense that everything I know is connected, that I need to find way to stitch it all together like a useful and beautiful length of tapestry. Everything is connected, the flight of the bumblebees, the starlight, a pileated woodpecker just beyond my garden, drumming on a Douglas fir, the small blue scribble of my grandfather’s signature—he was learning to sign his name on a scrap of paper and mostly he gives up on the first syllable of his surname (my surname) but a single version is complete—the new chives so green and pungent in their pots on the deck.

The essay I just finished, “blueprints”, takes me back to house-building, the beginnings of our family, and then reaches back, back, to my grandparents’ years in Beverly, then a community outside Edmonton and now part of the city. It reaches back to the extraordinary photographer Anna Atkins, whose cyanotypes are botanical studies in blue and white. It ends with an informal picnic on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River as the ice breaks up, the ice I saw forming in late November as we drove across the Walterdale Bridge on our way to the Emergency ward of the Royal Alexandra Hospital because my retinas were trying to detach, the result of a hard fall on ice.

What I did today was shadowed by bees, their orange rumps glowing in sunlight. They entered the trumpets of daffodils, hovered over warm soil, paused from time to time on the sleeve of my flannel shirt.

We are bees,
and our body is a honeycomb.
We made
the body, cell by cell we made it.

—Rumi, translated by Robert Bly

“She wrote some of her captions in delicate seaweed.”

eel grass

Two passages from “blueprints”. a work-in-progress.

She wrote some of her captions in delicate seaweeds. Her blueprints are a hoard of perfect quilt blocks waiting to be arranged and stitched. They are like scraps of summer sky. They are a world made perfect, young algae, fruiting examples, a dreamworld, a blue heaven, where the tiniest plants float through a blue sea, nothing to damage them, almost two hundred years old and as alive as anything I’ve ever seen.

Fucus vesiculosus, Polypodium vulgare, Leucojam varium, Cystopteris dentaria, Asplenium septentrionale, Punctaria latifolia, Bortrychium lunaria, blue paper haunted with their images, as I am haunted by them, by a woman who sought, identified, collected, and dried plants, immersed sheets of paper in ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, arranged the plants, set glass over them, positioned them in sunlight, timed, waited, rinsed the sheets in clear water, and left a vast garden of white on blue for us to wonder at centuries after.

He made the drawings. He sat at the desk overlooking Burrard Inlet after his teaching job finished for the day, putting aside his poems. He made marks, erased, used the three-sided ruler I sometimes take out for special quilt measurements. (Nothing is wasted.) He rolled the big sheets of paper with our house carefully imagined, no perspective, nor the distance from the eaves to the peak, but a way to see our way to building the platforms, the walls sheathed in plywood, the joists and beams to carry our roof aloft, and he took them to a place off Marine Drive in North Vancouver where they were reproduced by the process that replaced blueprint (not unlike the process used by Anna Atkins to preserve what she loved in white lines on blue paper, the negative image of what she placed on a page in sunlight). The term “blueprint” is still used for reproductions of architectural drawings and floor plans, though when John took our drawings to the office to have copies made, the process had become a form of xerography. No longer Prussian blue, no longer a page of sky showing how a house might be viewed from an angle impossible for me to apprehend. Now we’d probably hold up a phone or my small Samsung tablet, loaded with plans we could zoom in on, scroll, turn to see alternate views; looking at the little screen, we’d determine the dimensions of the lumber we needed to cut and piece together to make a house. A home.

blue windows


Yesterday I had a laser procedure to mend a retinal tear in one of my eyes; the other eye is being monitored because of suspected vitreous detachment. This is probably a result of my fall on ice in Edmonton last week. I thought I had a badly bruised and possibly cracked coccyx (my doctor confirmed that either or both are likely) but then developed some visual, well, not problems exactly because the experience was very beautiful but apparently beauty is not a consideration when your retina is torn. You need to have it repaired, and as quickly as possible. I’m lucky.

Yesterday I asked my (new to me) ophthalmologist about some things I’d seen while being examined in the Royal Alexandra Hospital’s Eye Institute on Sunday evening (another lucky thing, because there just happened to be a young ophthalmologist in the Institute who was willing to examine me and who alerted me to the necessity of immediate action once we were back on the Coast) and he told me I’d experienced “entoptic phenomena”, visual effects within my eye. I won’t detail those right now because they fit so beautifully into an essay I am writing called “The Blue Etymologies”, an exploration of the colour blue, my work with indigo dye (the image at the beginning of this post is cotton dyed last year), some old blueprints associated with my grandparents in the 1940s Beverly (then a small mining community just outside Edmonton but now part of the city), some cyanotype prints by the 19th century English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, and some other elements a little too complicated to explain just now.

The world of our senses is extraordinary and profound. We see, and then we realize how that happens. We have intense lights directed into our eyes and we see images so beautiful that we weep. Maybe a little because of the discomfort of a cracked tailbone as we sit on the examining chair and the pressure of the ophthalmologist’s tools. But maybe we have been given something else. When I was trying to describe this sensation to my son Forrest on the phone the other evening, he wondered if I’d read Oliver Sacks’s essay, “Altered States”, in which he sees indigo. No, I hadn’t. But yesterday, before my medical appointment, I found a copy at our library and read the essay last night before sleep.

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…

His methodology sounds a little more interesting than mine (a hard fall on the butt and a torn retina) but yes, that was it. The colour of heaven. Right before, or rather inside, my eye. He never found it again.