“…time is your material.”

yellow

In the night I had to stop myself from getting up to come down to work on my current essay “blueprint”. thinking that it was high time I had a proper sleep. I didn’t go back to sleep right away but listened to the mouse that was making tiny sounds in the sunroom just off my bedroom and to the sleeping sounds of the cat (who brought the mouse in to show us the previous night and then dropped it in his excitement). I thought about the essay with a deep curiosity for where it might take me, and how. I know some things about it, of course, but I don’t know how they will come together. Because it’s partly a piecing together of how the plans for our house were imagined and made, I’ve made a little set of questions for John to answer, as he drew the plans. I’m not sure I remember exactly how I did the plans, he said yesterday as we sat by the fire after lunch. That’s ok, I assured him. Your not remembering is important too. He thought he’d done a lot of drafts on lined yellow paper and I’m hoping those turn up somewhere.

Our life here was never really planned. We met, married, wondered where we might live. There was a lovely old rented house but it was falling down around us and the owner had plans. We looked briefly at houses in Vancouver and realized it would be huge debt and we didn’t really want to live there anyway. We bought this land, thinking we’d camp on it, maybe forever. And then we realized that we could build something. And one thing led to another.

We had a baby and I enrolled in the MFA program at UBC. It didn’t work for me for a lot of reasons. I’d thought I could get that degree and perhaps teach. But that didn’t happen. I love Ann Hamilton‘s essay, “Making Not Knowing”, for its wise musings about how artists find their way into their true work:

You may set out for New York, but you may find yourself, as I did, in Ohio. You may set out to make a sculpture and find that time is your material.

I thought I’d teach, and write poetry. Instead, I helped to build a house and wrote prose. I’m still writing prose and although I sometimes miss the brief quick heat of writing a poem, I’ve learned that prose, particularly the essay, has a wide and generous capacity to hold everything you ever wanted it to. Everything you ever needed it to. Like the expandable string bags I first saw in France, pulled from a pocket in a market and filled with cheese, a head of chicory, a little pot of stoneground mustard, a baton or two, some butter wrapped in greaseproof paper, a melon, a bottle of wine, an essay will gladly perform the same function.

It’s important to me right now to think about my work and why it matters to me. I spent many years just finding time to write and now I have all the time in the world, though maybe not enough of it. I feel both urgency and patience. In a way it’s a perfect combination. I know what I want to do won’t go away if I let myself stay in bed rather than coming downstairs in the dark to write a page by lamplight. I used to think I wasn’t a real writer because I didn’t make outlines and didn’t work in a particular way. I’ve seen the photographs of sticky notes on bulletin boards and I know that it must provide terrific guidance for some writers but it’s not my process and I’m relieved to acknowledge to myself that I don’t have to do it that way. It’s a good thing I never taught writing, apart from a few workshops here and there, because I don’t have a system to pass along.

Imagine those bags, though. You hold one, wondering what you will choose at the market under the bright umbrellas. You didn’t make a list. But following your nose, you find the heaps of freshly-picked basil, a tumble of tomatoes so ripe you can imagine their juices puddling on the cutting board, little rounds of cheeses wrapped in vine leaves, spices from North Africa, brown eggs laid that morning, a tablecloth of brilliant yellow cotton printed with irises, branches of blossoming thyme that have brought bees from the hillsides with them, and somehow, somehow it all fits in your string bag.

But not knowing, waiting and finding—though they may happen accidentally—aren’t accidents. They involve work and research. Not knowing isn’t ignorance. (Fear springs from ignorance.) Not knowing is a permissive and rigourous willingness to trust, leaving knowing in suspension, trusting in possibility without result, regarding as possible all manner of response.

 

 

 

 

“Who’s there?”

pelvis

Something happened the other day and I want to write about it while it’s still fresh and lively in my thinking. I got up in the night (after midnight as Wednesday eased into Thursday) to sit at my desk and ponder the beginnings of an essay to accompany the dark path quilt I was sewing. I know this might not make sense to people who do one of these things or the other but not both. Each discipline requires a different set of skills, a different kind of focus. Still, working on the two things in tandem has become a way for me to explore the process of making something and thinking deeply about the way it connects to ideas, dreams, visual signals, metaphors. My essay “Euclid’s Orchard” traced the making of a quilt of the same name. It followed my attempts to learn something of mathematical language and pattern in order to understand my son Brendan and his life-long calling. (He is a professor of mathematics at the University of Alberta and when I look back at his childhood, I see that he was always pursuing patterns and numbers. Though when I asked him once if he always thought about numbers as a child, he said, “That’s the way you’d describe it but it was more about relationships, patterns, equations.” “Even then?” “Yes, even then.”) Another essay, “An Autobiography of Stars”, documents the making of a starry quilt for my daughter who was still a teenager. I wanted to give her the heavens and all they contained. Not all my essays have matching quilts but they almost have some sort of puzzle at their heart. Something I need to figure out.

So as Wednesday became Thursday, I was at my desk, the space lit by a small lamp, and I was looking at the beginning of the dark path essay. To the right of my computer is the pelvis of a long-dead dog. While I was sitting there, I remembered something that happened to me when I was 14, an accident with my horse. I heard (if you can believe me) the voices of the two soldiers in the opening scene of Hamlet:

Bernardo: Who’s there?

Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

I shivered a little in the night, in the small space of my study under its Giotto ceiling, and I began to write. An hour later, maybe two, I went back to bed. Then in the morning I returned to my desk and finished what turned out to be a complicated and (to me) fascinating nexus.

What I wrote wasn’t what I thought I’d write. When I began the essay to accompany the quilt, I imagined it would describe the process of choosing scraps of fabric and laying them out in a pleasing pattern. Yes, there’s some of that in the essay. I thought I’d describe how much John and I are enjoying reading the Inferno of Dante each evening by the fire. Yup, that too. But I also found myself drawing together pelvises, fractures, the fear of losing myself in the process of aging, various paths I’ve made and taken in my life so far, and oh, some other strands of loose thread into a crooked but interesting seam. It took me almost all of Thursday to finish the first draft and a good part of Friday (yesterday) to fix some weak areas and to tighten the structure. (Those seams! The connective tissue!)

Sometimes you just have to write. You can’t wait for the right moment because when exactly will that be? You need to pay attention to your own fears (Who’s there?) and walk into the night to meet them. You hope the path you’re following is not too broken and rough. You hope your footing is at least adequate, in the darkness, in the grass that has grown up over the path you made with rocks to lead you out to the outhouse when you first lived here, your baby (not the mathematician but the one who became a historian) sleeping in the unfinished house.

“every force evolves a form”

laid out

The great thing about swimming is its capacity for meditative thinking. Not always. But sometimes, when I have something to figure out, and if I’m breathing steadily as I swim up and down the local pool, I can find my way down into the idea I’m puzzling through.  I’m going to write about it here because I know how often I read about writers and their work patterns and my own never seems to be anything like that. I’ve asked myself many times if I might in fact be a fraud, that maybe I’m not really a writer at all. But this time I actually had an insight about something and I worked out a solution that I think is pretty interesting.

Over the weekend I completed a first draft of an essay on rivers and venous systems. I was trying to understand how our veins work and how things can go wrong with them. Obviously my medical background is zero. But I also realized at recent medical appointments that there are gaps in the way doctors and other medical practitioners view (and tend to pathologize) anomalies in the human body. My essay remembers particular rivers and their origins, situating me (and my family, if required) on or in different rivers. The rivers move over and around obstacles, their water levels change, they form oxbows and meanders. I try to imagine the notion of braided rivers, channels that split off from one another for various reasons (bank erosion being one) and then rejoin each other again. And there are many correspondences with our venous system. I loved writing the first draft and now the challenge is to take the sections, written as they occurred, and make a coherence of the whole thing. The beginning is still the beginning and the end is still the end but the 12 sections in between needed some organizing.

I had in mind moving the material around on the page a little, as one would do with the sections of a poem, using the space of the page as a compositional field. Can you do this with an essay that is essentially written as straight prose? Well, maybe you can. In the pool, I remembered a little passage in one section of the essay that uses an encounter with a physiotherapist last week who was helping me to strengthen one leg.

My physiotherapist tells me that the ligaments, bones, and cartilage exist in a relationship. He braids his fingers together to show me. Then he turns them askew, like my own braided hair after I’ve slept on for a night or two, and he says our work will be to re-align the workings of my right leg. He doesn’t think it’s simply arthritis though he’s breezily convinced that everyone over 50 has some degree of it in his or her joints. He speaks of trauma, of injury. A bump or a fall or a turn too far.

So what would happen, I wondered, if I tried justifying the margins of certain sections to the right-hand side of the page rather than the left. Would you still be able to read the prose easily but might you also be able to understand how the sections are like the rivers splitting and rejoining one another, the bones and ligaments trying to do the same? Would you? Hmmm. I kept swimming up and down the pool, doing my slow kilometer, and trying to “see” the prose sections as visual correlatives of my body and the rivers I love. I know this could work with huge sheets of paper and letterpress printing, I know that space would not be an issue. But on an 8 1/2 x 11 inch page, what then?

I’ve been trying various things in my word-processing program (which isn’t Word but LibreOffice, close to Word but not exactly the same) and I’ve been cutting and taping pages to try to see which sections might look best meshing or braiding together (only at the bottom or top of a page, I guess, because otherwise there won’t be room for the actual text). And trying to remind myself that this is writing first and graphic representation second. That meaning ought to come first. But maybe there’s also room for what Guy Davenport, via Mother Ann Lee, so beautifully recognized: that “every force evolves a form.” That meaning is, in a way, a realization of aesthetic form.

one section

Ok, back to it. I can’t wait to fiddle some more.

in the mail

postcard

In today’s mail, the most beautiful postcards for Euclid’s Orchard. I’ll be taking them to Word on the Lake later this month. If you’d like me to mail one to you—and who doesn’t like mail?—send me an email with your address! I sent back the edited manuscript today so we’re one step closer. How would that be expressed in mathematical terms? I have no idea.

to try

to try.jpg

A few posts ago, I wrote about my difficulty in finding the right form for one of the essays in Euclid’s Orchard. My original thinking about the material I’ve been exploring—some of it archival, some of it personal memory, some of it meditation on time and family history—was that I wanted it to reflect the voices I’d heard speaking to me on a little road trip to Drumheller last spring in search of my grandmother’s first home in Canada. At the time I mused that I’d like to write the piece as a libretto. I know very little about the formal requirements of such writing but never mind. That’s what I hoped I could do!

What I wrote instead was something kind of flat and untidy. The material was there, oh yes, and I think it’s intriguing in its own right but I was disappointed in myself for not trying a little harder to give the piece an original shape and to find a way to represent those voices. Part of the pleasure of working with an editor is that you can often have a second chance, with a very capable eye and mind to guide you. I’ve had Pearl Luke. I know that there are elements to what’s become “Polychoral: A Badlands Antiphon in 25 Sections” that Pearl thinks are perhaps excessive but she’s been so encouraging and challenging. A dream of an editor.

What is an essay anyway? There are many ways to think about the form. I like part of the Oxford definition:

Origin

Late 15th century (as a verb in the sense ‘test the quality of’): alteration of assay, by association with Old French essayer, based on late Latin exagium ‘weighing’, from the base of exigere ‘ascertain, weigh’; the noun (late 16th century) is from Old French essai ‘trial’.

“Test the quality of.” Isn’t that wonderful? The quality of the writer and the relationship to the material as much as anything. I’ve never used a template for my work. For a while I kept hearing about something called a hermit crab essay, using one kind of thing inhabiting the shell or form or container of another species — for protection? For what, exactly? I’m not sure. Maybe to test the quality of its shape and original intention? But I can’t imagine setting out to write one. In French, “essayer” means to try, to attempt. I like the suggestion of almost preordained imperfection. Yes, we try. We attempt. And the pleasure, the value (if you like), is in that work. We weigh. We try.

So I didn’t write a libretto. I did look at a number of libretti (and the term itself is a diminutive of the Italian word for “book”) and quietly gave up that idea. But something stuck. The memory of my grandmother saying her rosary, the music of the Latin mass I attended once or twice with my father in childhood, the calls and responses of Byzantine chant, the strophic odes so characteristic of ancient Greek tragedy — and there was my essay. There’s no formal musical structure but there’s a weighing, yes, of musical form, a careful listening to the language of old letters and legal descriptions, and an attempt to contain all this in a series of lyrical sections that call to one another and listen for an answer. No other essay I’ve written has given me so much difficulty and perhaps none has given me so much pleasure.

“…the red lengths”

spiral

“I’ll use red thread for this quilt, small stitches to draw layer to layer, capillaries to help the blood of our relationship circulate through the images and actual fabric of my thinking. Red thread, long strands carried by the needles I will prepare, three at a time, to allow me to push and pull the red lengths in and out, to meditate between the past and present, to contemplate the future, to secure with tiny knots the end of each fragment of thought.” (from “Euclid’s Orchard”)