“To get back up to the shining world…”


To get back up to the shining world from there
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel…

Last night we finished reading Dante’s Inferno, in the translation by Robert Pinsky. We began in late January and had some gaps in our reading: we’d read a canto faithfully for a week or ten days and then life would interfere. Last night we’d read the penultimate canto after dinner and I said, Let’s just keep going. So we did.

It was a good thing to do, reading this poem over the darkest coldest time of the year. I know December is the bleak mid-winter but there’s Christmas and lots of parties and guests to take the edge off the chill. So January until early April seemed right, though the poem actually begins on Maundy Thursday, 1300, and concludes on Easter Sunday of that same year. We’d read by the fire while the night settled around us, read of treachery, lies, fraud, every kind of torment, heretics, thieves, seducers, and every manner of torture. The language spares no one, no detail.

It’s been a dark winter in many ways. World events keep me awake at night. So do various kinds of infirmity. In early December, after a hard fall on ice, my retinas began to detach. That’s meant regular visits to the ophthalmologist for intensive monitoring and laser procedures to repair the damage. But two weeks ago, he told me he felt the process had completed itself—the vitreous easing away from the retinas—and that I was no longer at risk of retinal detachment. I have no regrets about the experience. I found things out. How precious my eyes are, and the sight they gift me with. How the prospect of perhaps losing my vision, in whole or in part, allowed me to explore what it actually meant to see. Yesterday I saw an optometrist to have my eyes checked (because my close vision has changed as a result of the damage) and she showed me the images of my inner eyes and the scars from the retinal tears. It made me cry a little.

This winter I did what I know how to do when faced with uncertainty. I wrote some essays exploring what was happening to me and I made a quilt top to find a way to gather the experience into a tactile object. I called the quilt “A Dark Path” and I used the boro technique. Boro means something like tattered, repaired. It’s usually structural stitching, meaning that the intention is not to make something beautiful in itself (think of fine embroidery) but to extend the life of scraps of fabric, to use them to mend, layer, and give strength to each other. The edges of the scraps are not tucked under or hidden but are left to show their tattered state. And the stitch used is the sashiko stitch, a plain running stitch in a contrasting colour; it reinforces the patches and scraps.

I finished my quilt top a month or two ago and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. Would I back it with something plain and durable? I had some ideas but none of them seemed quite right. Then the other day I remembered I had a length of teal dupioni silk tucked away. Dupioni is woven with fine thread in the warp and more uneven thread in the weft so that the result is both lustrous and textured. I left it out with the quilt top, along with one or two other possibilities—an indigo cotton print, blue denim with red dots—but I kept seeing the silk rustling and shimmering, as I saw the light shimmer when the ophthalmologist examined my retinas. If I have time today, I’ll cut the silk to fit.

I also wrote an essay called “A Dark Path” and the quilt figures in it, as well as broken bones, damage of other kinds, and a little Dante. It will appear in Brick next November. So we come out of darkness, we descend and ascend, and like Dante and his guide Virgil, if we’re lucky, we see the stars.

“Who’s there?”


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.

winter work

another path

Over the weekend, as it snowed, I finished the middle panel of my Dark Path quilt. I made it to find out how to cobble something together out of scraps of blue fabric, scraps from other quilts, from waistcoats made for my husband and son, from samples given me by other women who know I love textiles. (The grey-blue patches with scribbles of deep blue velvet came from a woman in Ottawa who owns a couture shop. I bought a jacket from her and she sent me off with a bag of little bits and pieces.) I wanted to do boro, the Japanese mending technique, to piece the path together. That means no hidden seams, no fine stitches, but essentially a layering of scraps over one another. Mine is no showpiece. I didn’t intend it to be. I wanted to put aside my expectations of reasonable tidiness in order to follow a path down a length of muslin, piecing and fitting as I went. I’m not careful or skilled at sewing to begin with and I had to remind myself a time or two that this is not about perfection. It’s about participating in a process. Maybe of discovery, maybe not. I know something now about setting aside my own modest standards in order to find something out.

I haven’t finished. I have two panels ready to sew on either side of the path. One is a length of Japanese silk, also pieced together. It came with an order of recycled kimonos I received some years ago, intending to take them apart to make quilts. They’re sold as craft materials. But when my box arrived, each kimono was in good shape and I couldn’t bear to cut them. So now they’re stored away in a trunk, waiting for something to happen. What? A Noh performance? An opera? Anyway, the company that sold the recycled kimonos included a few scraps of silk and I was glad to find a use for one of them. The other panel is a Japanese indigo cotton print, again pieced together from scraps left from another quilt. I’ve been trying some arrangements of panels and path and I think I like the one in the photograph. You haven’t made anything like this before, John noted. It’s dark. But beautiful.

This is winter work. I sew and think and listen to music. This morning? Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2. It’s a beautiful work, with slow lyrical movements, a passionate scherzo, a grand and thundering conclusion. I liked what the pianist Stephen Hough said about a concert in which he played the first piano concerto and this one on the same programme:

For all the grandeur and excitement of the first concerto’s youthful flare, the second’s older vintage seemed wiser, more fascinatingly complex as I revisited and re-recorded both pieces last year. Its musical arguments seemed more nuanced, more open to exploration, more a search for common ground where, as in life, the sun can shine brightest … and warmest.

Sewing, listening, the snow outside making the whole world new and white. I’ve made a dark path, echoing the poem John and I are reading together each evening, Dante’s Inferno. Last night we read the 8th canto. It was harrowing! Well, so far they’ve all been harrowing. But the little epigraph for the 9th canto—tonight’s—is hopeful:

                                 …we in our turn
Stepped forward toward the city and through the gate…

The right road lost, that’s how the poem began. A dark wood, in the middle of a life. It’s late, for all of us on this earth, but what will we find when we step through the gate? I’ve sewn the path. Now we’ll see.

winter jasmine, crocus, the first circle of hell

Like so many others, I find January a long month. A dark month. And although we are not in the middle of the polar vortex that is creating such frigid temperatures in other parts of the continent, it’s cold here. In the mornings I put on two or three layers and drink my coffee close to the fire.

But then there’s a morning when it’s somehow lighter. I woke at 5 a.m. on Monday and the sky was dense with stars against the deepest indigo. I thought, oh, that would make a beautiful quilt and then I realized I’d made several inspired by winter skies. In my book Phantom Limb, there’s an essay called “An Autobiography of Stars” in which I detail the making of a quilt for my daughter Angelica, set against a meditation on astronomy and the Leonid showers.

On each bed, a patchwork, for warmth and for safe passage through the night. In the sky we might fashion a parallel life, a world mirroring the topography of our own lives, irregular and beautiful, geometry in service to love. Sewing stars for my daughter to sleep under, I am fashioning a metaphor for my love of her and a belief in her luminosity, a parable of meteors and radiance and grace.

I have no photograph of that quilt to share but it was silvery stars—Variable Star blocks—on a ground of deep purple and blue. And I’m pretty sure I was making it in winter.

So a morning when it’s lighter, when you walk across the patio and realize that the winter jasmine has begun to bloom, single yellow stars in a thicket of branches:


A morning when you are looking forward to reading more of Dante’s Inferno by the fire. Last night we read the 4th Canto, the long beautiful lines taking us into the first circle of hell with Dante and Virgil. And in that place too is a bright fire with poets gathered—Homer, Horace, Lucan, and Ovid. More company appears, every poet or philosopher or mathematician important to Dante. In the poem’s notes, written by Robert Pinsky’s daughter Nicole, she calls this “an abundant, almost ecstatic identifying list.” Dante and Virgil spend some time with them and then

         …my wise guide leads me away from that quiet
Another way—again I see air tremble,

And come to a part that has no light inside it.

Tonight we’ll go there, into the second circle. But even in that darkness, there will be beauty. I remembered in 2013, in the aftermath of having to take the vegetable garden apart for a septic field repair and then rebuilding it again, digging in a new border and finding, underground, unexpected beauty. When I’d dug up all the plants and trees a few months earlier, I thought I’d also lifted all the bulbs to set aside and replant again. But there, in the dark, an incandescent clump of crocus.



by our fire, we are reading Dante’s Inferno…


chimneyThe other night—well, it was actually very early morning: around 2 a.m.— I was in my study working on one of the essays in a linked group (one of them has just been published at the Little Toller Books site) and remembered a passage from the Inferno. Luckily I had a copy on my desk, Robert Pinsky’s glorious translation. I found my passage, contemplated it, and read a bit more of the poem I hadn’t really thought much about in years. Yet it is so current in its considerations. The next day we were talking about stuff, the darkness of winter, the indignities of aging, etc. (as one does), and I suddenly said, I think we should read something together. What do you suggest, John asked. The Inferno of Dante, I replied. He blinked. And said, Yes, let’s. So we read the first Canto yesterday, each of us reading a page, then passing the book to the other. Our fire was warm and agreeable. Just now we read the second Canto. It couldn’t be more appropriate to everything we’ve been talking about and thinking about. To what I’ve been writing about in the small hours at my desk with my small desk light allowing me to see the keys of my computer and not much else.

I’m working on a quilt I’ve called A Dark Path and now an essay called the same thing. How good to read a poem that begins,

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough…

There aren’t many people you can read the Inferno with, on a January evening, in front of a woodstove fire. Passing the book back and forth, our voices were oddly at ease in the terza rima of a poet born in the 13th century.

O Muses, O genius of art, O memory whose merit

Has inscribed inwardly those things I saw—
Help me fulfill the perfection of your nature.
I commenced: “Poet, take my measure now:

Appraise my powers before you trust me to venture
Through that deep passage where you would be my guide.