“My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel…”

middle

And following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I—

      — from The Inferno of Dante, trans. Robert Pinsky

In February, I began work on two things at once, an essay and a quilt. The essay rose out of some reading John and I were doing together; we read The Inferno of Dante by our fire, a book at a time, each of us reading a page and then handing the poem to the other. It was Robert Pinsky’s memorable translation and it was a good thing to do. (Next winter we’ll read Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey.) We’d read and then talk. And I realized that what I was learning was how to go into the darkness and return. In late November I fell on black ice and fractured my tailbone. We were visiting our Edmonton family and I wanted to enjoy every minute of our time there so I took heavy pain-killers and rode the horse-drawn sleigh down Whyte Avenue, watched a performance of the Nuckcracker in a Nutshell at the Grindstone Theatre, ate wonderful pastries at La Boule, visited the Royal Alberta Museum with my daughter and my granddaughter, and then on the last afternoon in Edmonton, experienced the symptoms of retinal detachment which landed me in the Emergency Ward at the Royal Alex Hospital. Thus began a whole process of examinations, appointments, eye surgery, further retinal difficulties, and whew, it was finally over in February.

The quilt and the essay happened together because I wanted to try to cobble together a visual narrative for the fall, the fracture, and the darkness of the wait for both a diagnosis and the repairs that followed. And then I wanted to write about it too. I’m no artist. I can’t draw. I can’t even sew very well. But I can think visually and that was my intention. To use the Japanese boro technique (boro means something tattered, repaired) to create a path down the centre of a piece of textile work (a quilt, I guess), and then border the path with dark lengths, one of Japanese silk, one of cotton, to embellish with shell buttons. Two eyes, pierced. Little shards of light on a deep blue path. Spirals of descent, and the hard climb back. Corny, maybe, but it seemed absolutely necessary at the time.

I finished the quilt top and sort of put it aside because I wasn’t sure what to do with it. It’s hardly cosy. You probably wouldn’t want it on a bed. But maybe I’d hang it, I thought. The essay I finished and I’m happy to say it will appear in Brick in the fall.

Then in April I wondered what it would look like to back the dark top with teal dupioni silk. I love dupioni for its weight and crisp texture (achieved by warping with fine thread and then the weft is coarser threads so you get an uneven slubbing in the finished fabric) and the teal went well with the pattern in the panel of Japanese silk on one side. I’d sew, and then put the piece aside. Sew, and put it aside. Quilting for me is usually something I do by the woodstove and it’s been so hot since June that I haven’t felt like sitting with something heavy on my lap. But lately I’ve thought I’d like to finish up and see what I’d done.

on the line

I write and I quilt to find things out. I like to finish, of course, and I like it even more when the results are better than I hoped for. This isn’t better than I hoped. The sewing is kind of clumsy and I have no idea what I’ll do with it, apart from maybe hanging it on a door. But I documented pain and fracture and potential loss of vision and I had the intense please of pushing a needle in and out of patches of blue fabric, piecing together a path that took me to the cold heart of winter, and back.

“My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,” said Dante. His guide was Virgil. Mine was my needle, its single eye carrying dark blue thread.

 

ragged stitches

imperfect

It’s counter-intuitive, to sew ragged stitches along the raw edges of fabric scraps. Everything I know about sewing (and I am careless enough as it is) tells me to do this differently, to apply the patches of various silks and cottons and linens in the way I’ve always done: sewing the wrong side of the scrap to the body of the quilt and then turning it, ironing it flat, using small regular stitches to quilt the layers together. But this time I am exploring imperfection. Here’s one example I keep in mind as I sew, a boro quilt of ethereal practical beauty:

boro

What is perfection anyway? I think about that when I swim. I am clumsy, awkward, but I swim a kilometer three times a week and it feels wonderful in the moment, and after. My writing is always raggedy-edged, unfinished (in a way), shape-shifting as it goes along. There’ve been times when I was courted by bigger publishers, hoping for a book that would sell. I remember having lunch with one and coming home in great excitement to tell John what suggestions had been made (I’m being careful here!) to turn something I’d already written in something else. I could do this, I said. And he said, Yes, of course you could. But would it make you happy? You’ve already written the book you said you wanted to write. When I thought about it, I realized I had. My happiness with it had been in the process of writing, of following the beautiful thread that led me along roads I’d never known were there, into mazes and out again, not knowing the destination. What had been suggested to me was a trail well-mapped, direct, not exactly full of possibility, but maybe interesting enough. I’d know exactly where I’d arrive before I even began. Did I want that? Even if I could make my sentences as bold and as strong as I could? It turned out I didn’t. I’m curious enough and stubborn enough to want to do things my own way. It’s not that I think everyone should follow this process. I’m really glad that others don’t because in books, as with quilts, I love the huge range of texts and textiles that result from all kinds of approaches and pursuits. I think there’s room for them all.

It’s counter-intuitive, to sew ragged stitches along the raw edges of fabric scraps. But I’ve got these new needles, sharp and true, and it’s a pleasure, though sometimes a nervous-making experience, to run them along and through a small scrap of blue cloth. What will this become? What will I become, making it?

needles

 

 

winter colour

The other day we were walking up the Suncoaster trail, past the Malaspina substation, and the day was bright. There was sun, no ice on the puddles, and the air smelled wonderful, a little of the snow we could see farther up the mountain in it, and balsam fir. And there was colour! Not the bright colour of spring and summer when the wild currants and salmonberries in that area bloom cerise. Nor the fall, when the maples turn yellow and orange, the dogwoods rose-salmon, the elders red. The colour I was suddenly aware of was more subtle but maybe even more beautiful for it. Tall young maples on a slope of sword ferns and deer ferns:

young maples

And a mass of wild roses dense with hips, maybe not even wild, maybe some dog roses growing from seed spread by deer or birds:

rose red

Long loose stitches of maroon bramble crossing the edges of the trail, waxy mauve canes of evergreen blackberry, and russet-y hardhack in the damp areas.

I’ve been thinking about colour, winter colour, in part because I’m writing about it and in part because I’m figuring out a quilt. Not the kind of quilt I usually make, pieced stars, or log cabins built of strips of bright cotton. This one is inspired by the Japanese tradition of boro, meaning something tattered or repaired. Boro has long been a way to extend the life of textiles by layering and patching, using a long running sashiko stitch, often described as “structural” rather than decorative, yet in the way that practical or utilitarian work is often beautiful, the long plain stitches are ravishing to my eye. I’m thinking of my quilt as a dark path through winter, through uncertainty, through aging and uneasy health issues, and the more I arrange my scraps into a pattern, the more I see that what the hands do is hugely therapeutic for the soul. Yesterday I spent the afternoon cutting and placing. Later today I may begin to actually sew. Some of the pieces are familiar — tweed from a waistcoat I made John years ago and because Forrest liked it, I made him one of dark grey wool flannel and that’s there too; little scraps of Japanese hemp and cotton; some deep blue linen; some grey-blue silk with a scribble of blue velvet like the contours on a map; gorgeous Indian silk given me by a woman who makes theatre costumes and who invited me to plunder her scrap bag. Because I have a thrifty heart, I haven’t wanted to throw out the tiniest remnants, ever. And now I have a use for them.

path2

Last night there was a waxing crescent moon in the western sky when I got up to pee. And I wondered, maybe I need to light this path with a curve of golden silk. I’m thinking about how to do that as I write. The 18th century Japanese poet, Chiyo-ni, wrote about that moon and it’s her words I hear as I plan this quilt:

at the crescent moon
the silence
enters the heart