three blue days

10 years

A few days ago, we decided we’d do some indigo dye work. My daughter Angelica and I spent a day preparing cloth — two sheets and two pillow cases in her case; a length of coarse linen (with waxed fish in the centre (more on this another time), a sheet, and a stained vintage damask table cloth for me, as well as some things I’d tied or clamped ages ago, hoping for a good time to dye–and then the weather wasn’t reliable for a day of standing outside, dipping our cloth into a dye vat, removing it so it could oxidize, and repeating as many times as we had patience for. The Edmonton family arrived. I wondered if the kids would like to prepare a small piece of cotton for the vat, something they could use as a flag for their room at home. They wound elastic bands around beach stones and added the cloth to the basket.

Yesterday didn’t begin in a promising way. When I swam early, it was drizzling a little. But then it cleared and given that some people will leave on Thursday, we decided that we’d make it work. We set up the dye vat on the long cedar bench by the garden and filled it with ten gallons of hot water, adding the prepared dye stock and the various chemicals. Angelica, Kelly, and I began the dips of the various bundles, pushing them down into the dye, stirring gently (so as not to introduce oxygen), and Henry also came to help.

helping

I kept leaving between dips, while the fabric rested on the bench, to do things for dinner. A few people walked, there were snacks, eventually drinks on the deck as the sun really began to assert itself after days of grey. We did 5 dips before dinner and even though we were tired of standing, we went out to do 2 more after we’d eaten, the 3 of us slapping away mosquitoes, one person timing the dips and rests. We removed all the bundles to the bench overnight and today, after pancakes and sausages, we went out to untie, unclamp, and unfold our cloth.

untiedcornersclamped

All over the grass, lengths of blue cotton and linen, as lovely as fallen sky. Lovely as water. In my recent book, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, I wrote about an earlier dye session, one I did alone on a summer morning, slapping at mosquitoes:

When I did this work, I remembered another occasion, outside, taking lengths of linen out of the tray where they’d been setting overnight after a morning of frequent timed immersions. While I was doing this, I realized the sound I was hearing, agitated, loud, was a whole family of pileated woodpeckers, the young having just learned to fly. They were flapping around awkwardly and making the most comical noise while the parents scolded and encouraged. Mosquitoes kept stinging the small of my back. What the cloth remembers, I will remember too—gathering the stones, sewing the circles that became the growth rings of larch, tying cotton string as tightly as I could. And the cloth and I will also remember the raucous sound of adolescent pileated woodpeckers finding their wings, learning what a voice sounds like in open air, in the morning, before the heat begins.

Weeks later, sewing spirals that draw together three layers of cloth—the newly-dyed surface, cotton batting in-between, and a back of old sheets or muslin—I try to recall each step of the process: filling the vat and measuring indigo, additives, finding a long cedar stick to stir the bundles of tied, clamped, and bundled cloth, brushing mosquitoes from my clothing, leaving streaks of blue on my old t-shirt, allowing the cloth to drip on the grass.

Maybe we are cloth, we are the very fabric of being, the world recorded on us like blue dye, the sound of woodpeckers echoing in the trees just beyond.

What the cloth remembers, I will remember too. My granddaughter, my daughter, and I, stirring with our blue-stained gloves, talking a little, wondering about the results of our work. And then our delight as we removed string, wooden blocks, elastic bands, stones from Trail Bay, to see what the cloth remembers of its time bound and tied, remembers as it is spread out on the grass under the blue sky, and warm sun, the wonder of it, mosquitoes forgotten.

the eye’s geography

circles

In 2018, I fell on ice in Edmonton and unknowingly the process of retinal detachment began as a result of the impact of that fall. I was lucky. Edmonton has a very good Eye Institute at the Royal Alexandra and when I realized that the shimmering I was seeing at the edge of my vision wasn’t just the result of being with my family and feeling really happy (though sore, as a result of the fall, which also cracked my coccyx), I was examined by an ophthalmology resident who happened to be working after hours on a Sunday evening and who realized something very serious was happening with my right eye. In my recent book, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, I wrote about the experience and its aftermath, because I had emergency laser surgery to repair a tear in my retina once we returned home the next day and then another surgery about 6 weeks later after a second tear was discovered in my left eye. It was a stressful period as I went back and forth to the ophthalmologist and he used special equipment to examine the inner tissues of my eyes. It was also profoundly interesting. In Edmonton and in Sechelt, I saw images of my inner eye that were so beautiful I cried.

What I remember about her examinations: there was a moment when she was shining a bright light into the back of my eye and I saw a red desert landscape with long fissures transcribing it. I think this might have been what’s called a Purkinje tree, the view of my own retinal blood vessels interpreted by my brain using a correlative image from its stored hoard. Which is why what I saw resembled a National Geographic photograph of a dry and cracked desert surface. I saw ochre earth and deep crevasses.

Yesterday I had my annual visit to my ophthalmologist. I had the usual vision test with the stinging drops and then a series of photographs, called optical coherence tomography, taken of my inner eyes. When I met with the ophthalmologist after a technician had done the test with light waves, he had the images on his computer. In a way it was like seeing the surface of Mars.

surface of mars

The colours were similar, though my eyes had some areas that appeared olive green, like distant marshes. Each eye had the scar from the laser surgery and those reminded me of buttons. After the surgeries, I made a quilt to try to puzzle through what had happened to me and what it meant. The opening essay in Blue Portugal is about that. I called the quilt (and the essay) “A Dark Path” and in a later essay, “Anatomy of a Button”,  I also explore the process of coming to terms with the experience:

Now what? I’d come through the experience with my sight intact but with scars at the backs of my eyes from the laser procedures. Quite often I’d lay my hands gently over my eyes and imagine a life without sight. There are worse things, I know, but I thought of everything I loved to look at—tulips, birds in flight, favourite landscapes, the sky (particularly the late February sky at 6:30 p.m. on a fine day when it’s the blue of Maxfield Parrish paintings, sometimes with Venus and a new moon hanging silver above the Douglas firs), the faces of those I love (an increasing number of people because of grandchildren), prairie fields from a great height, flying from the coast to Ottawa and back, freshly washed sheets fluttering on the clothesline in wind, the chartreuse flowers on bigleaf maples, and so many more things—and I’d realize how grateful I was that I wasn’t blind. Sometimes I’d hold my hands over my eyes for a bit longer because I was crying.

This time, looking at the ethereal geography of my eyes, I saw other relationships: the pinky-ochre of freshly sawn wood,

oak

the rich orbs of coho salmon eggs in the gravel of the creek near us after the fall spawning has taken place,

slc_eggs

and I was comforted. Or at least I was until the ophthalmologist  told me that I had a situation. Remember, he said, I showed you this last year? The macula tissue on the right eye has a pucker. (I did remember but I sort of put it out of my mind.) Here’s what we were seeing last year and here’s what I’m seeing today. And today it’s a little worse. We’ll keep an eye on it (of course). He told me what to be alert to changing vision because the condition can lead to vision loss and even holes in the macula. When he mentioned one of the things to take seriously if it happens, I wondered if that was what I’d experienced last Saturday, when the vision in my right eye went wonky for about 15 minutes. He thought not. He said if it happened and regular vision didn’t return, then I was to see him immediately. I quietly noted this.

Our eyes are such magnificent organs. And we take them for granted, or at least I do. Oh sure, I sometimes grumble when I’m downstairs, about to thread a needle, and I remember my reading glasses are on my bedside table. I remember the decades when I didn’t need glasses to thread a needle or to read or to do any kind of close work. But now? I am perhaps too alert to my eyes. Is that a thickening I feel in the right eye? A heaviness? When I was swimming my slow kilometer this morning, I was thinking of windows, mirrors, the surface of Mars. I was thinking of how we contain the most extraordinary landscapes right in our very bodies and mostly we will never know them. And now? And now?

When I take up the quilt, I hear the silk rustling. It is almost alive under its top of patches and panels. Rustling like bird wings, something I could hear with my eyes closed. If I close my eyes, I hear the silk, the sound of rain on the roof, the restless movement of the cat investigating the boxes behind my desk. I push my thread through the holes in the shell buttons, two eyes side by side, tender stabs with a sharp needle. For a moment a tiny button hangs on the thread as I fiddle with a tangled bit, trying to ease it out. By a thread. We hang by a thread in this world of wonders and terror. On a path of indigo cotton, black silk streaked with gold, squares of grey flannel, linen the colour of midnight, these silvery buttons will make a small light for anyone walking in uncertainty, in hope, scarred or whole, the whole dark length.

 

“Before the slide and before bank erosion and flooding…”

frozen fog

Last night I snipped the basting threads that once held together the 3 layers of my most recent quilt. It felt ceremonious. I’ve been trying to make a list of the quilts I’ve made over the years, the 34 years I’ve been doing this kind of sewing, and this is 36. At least. There might be ones I’ve forgotten. And while I was sewing this quilt, I was working on the edits of my forthcoming Blue Portugal and Other Essays, filled with rivers and quilts and the colour blue; and I was listening to news of one climate or health emergency after another. The world felt dangerous and sad. I sewed, thought of how time has lost its reliability (in a way), that rivers flood in spring, that summers are warm, autumns are crisp and cool and good for road trips in my favourite parts of the province—Highway 8, between Spences Bridge and Merritt; the area around Lytton and Lillooet; the golden grasslands of the southern Interior— winters mild-ish and wet, with some frosty nights and maybe a skiff of snow. Spring again, everything in its order. I sewed and thought and my quilt became a palimpsest. A bedcover, yes, but also a record of how I felt about the floods, the rivers, the state I find myself in as an aging woman, attentive to my own heart-beat.

corner rabbit

In spring, a snowshoe hare grazes behind our house, eating dandelion leaves, clover, and hovering by the (rabbit-proof) fence around the vegetable garden. In summer, we swim in the lake near us and in the ocean as often as we can, sometimes beyond the eel-grass with its communities of infant fishes, its blue carbon, wading heron, crabs. In fall, we watch for the salmon to enter the creek near our house, and all the birds associated with that process—the dippers, the mergansers at the mouth of the creek, hoping for stray eggs to wash downstream, eagles waiting for spawned-out carcasses to feed on—as well as the waiting coyotes and bears. And in winter, I work on projects indoors, sewing the year into cotton, this year as near-record snow drifted around my house.

eel grass corner

It feels a little desperate to be sewing this year, a little sad, as though I am somehow hoping that by paying this attention to such small things, we might be spared fires, floods, drought, that I can keep the world safe. I suspect it’s too late. But last night as I snipped the basting threads, I knew I’d made a record, a praise song, an archive of thread, cotton, memory, and a few tiny buttons to anchor the beginnings and the ends of the red lines of river that act as a map of what was, what I loved, and love still.

Turn the page quickly. Remember the rivers you have walked along, and into, and how you were held by water green and lovely. How your grown sons still remember the Nicola River, your grown daughter the ride you took by horseback to Salmon River and its memory of the sockeye runs before the Hell’s Gate slide in 1914, a river you have also driven along on your way to Salmon Arm, its silvery riffles so beautiful in sunlight. Before the slide and before bank erosion and flooding, agricultural run-off and the heavy feet of cattle making their way to water. (So many fish on this page, its wide waters.) How you stop at Lytton each trip to marvel again at the marriage of rivers, your husband’s arm around your shoulders.
                           (from ‘How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, University of Alberta Press, forthcoming, 2022)

back in the river