In October, I began an essay about exploring something that was part of my life when I was 23. It involved paintings and archives. I had in mind an essay, perhaps one that would eventually lead me to others, and eventually a collection. I wrote two in the past year or so, in and around the work of getting Blue Portugal & Other Essays ready for publication. Readers of my essays will know how much I love the form, its capaciousness, its agreeable nature. I am also writing a novel but some days it goes quiet. To be honest, it goes quiet for weeks, as I think about where to go next with its narrative and characters. I like this rhythm. An essay, then immersive time in and around the water with Easthope, the novel.
What happened with the essay I began in October is that it grew. Yes, the essay is a capacious form but sometimes at some point it doesn’t want to carry the materials you need to put in it. So then I started to think of the work-in-progress as something else: a memoir. There were indications it was headed that way and one of those was a quilt I pieced together last April, one inspired by the memory and experience of framing the walls for our kitchen 42 years ago. It began as one or two panels but then it grew as I realized I needed more space to build the elements in harmony with each other. The quilt references the vertical framing timbers and the horizontal top and bottom plates, the lintels over the window openings. Our building process went something like this: John framed the walls on the 16×24 foot platform of what would be our kitchen; I’d nail down the plywood; then we’d both raise the wall and I’d hold it in place while he nailed down the bottom plates and tied the corners together (not with string but with nails).
I’m quilting that now, drawing the 3 layers together with blue sashiko thread, sewing spirals that spin out into the space of the quilt. (You can see some of the work in the image at the top of this post.) While I’ve been quilting, I’ve been thinking about this essay-on-its-way-to-memoir, thinking and feeling my way through the territory I’ve needed to explore. It hasn’t been easy. It’s been quite painful actually. At the centre is a relationship, one I thought I understood, but from which I’d been sort of hiding. There were things I didn’t want to admit. That’s why it became longer and more complicated. All along, I’d told myself one story and it turns out there were many.And yesterday? I think I finished a first draft.
It’s very much a first draft. It’s full of notes to self, saying, Find out about this. Or, See if you can locate an image of this painting. There are sections that use some other texts in a conversational way, for example Freud’s “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis”, and maybe I’ll put these to work in a more formal way. But it’s nearly 30,000 words, too long for an essay (and with the revisions I’ve planned, I know it will become longer), and worth working on some more to get things right. Every morning since October, even during the two weeks we were in Baja, I woke up excited about it. I worked on it daily, even in Mexico, though sometimes I didn’t do much but jot scribbles into my notebook in La Paz because my laptop was back in Cerritos. When I swam in the pools in Cerritos and La Paz, when I swam in the Pender Harbour pool, I was working out what to do next. And sewing led me to the memory of the extraordinary Karyatids holding up the entablature of the south porch of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, women who have been in the back of my consciousness, who were at the heart of my strength as I helped raise the walls of our kitchen, holding them in place.
Mornings, I still pause by the poet with flowers in her hair. What do you have to tell me?
But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men. Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door…(Hesiod)
Pandora, the holder of the pithis, was herself a gift. Her name tells us that: Πανδώρα, the all-gifted, giver of all, though it’s hard to think of the contents of her vessel as welcome. So many in this story have died. So many I no longer know. The Karyatids once held phiales in one of their hands, shallow vessels for drinking or gifts, or for pouring libations for others. They held the weight of the emblature on their bodies, their hair arranged to detract from the strain on their necks. Can you imagine such strength, such purpose?