“a Past of Plank and Nail” (Emily Dickinson)


Sometimes the world is too much with us. Me. The news. I listen, read, and carry it around like a sad burden. The things I know to do to take my mind into other territory haven’t been working. It’s been cold here, with new snow on the mountain to the east. Last week there were some days in the garden, weeding, tucking manure around the raspberry canes, emptying pots of plants that didn’t make it over the long winter and filling others with new soil for lilies and spring greens. But then drizzly rain. The novel I am trying to write has stalled, mostly because I don’t know enough about boat engines. The quilt in progress, the one I pieced together happily but which now looks like an array of French and Russian flags–somehow I can’t bring myself to work on that one. I’ve had a basket of cotton sitting on the end of the dining table for ages, hoping that I will somehow see what to do with it. Mostly (of course) the pieces are blue. But also some other Japanese cotton prints. At one point I thought I might use them with deep purple velvet, a length given me years ago and not really a colour I’m drawn to. The blues weren’t drawn to it either. So they waited.

On Saturday I was thinking about something else entirely, remembering as I tidied the kitchen how we constructed the walls on the platform that is now the kitchen floor, 41 summers ago, raising them with the strength we had then, young parents, our baby in his stroller with his sunhat on. We’d raise the wall together, usually with some sort of brace behind it so that it wouldn’t tumble off the platform, and then I’d hold it in place while John nailed it down. When that was done–I think I have the sequence right–he’d cut a top plate, a long length of 2×4, and nail it along the top of the constructed wall, a horizontal member to give strength.


I was thinking about walls, about lumber, and the rows of stacked logs in the woodshed. The next time I passed the basket of cotton, I realized I could make blocks of vertical strips, like the 2x4s we framed our walls with. I would use blue Japanese prints because that’s what I have but I could also use some linen I once bought at Maiwa (you could fill a bag of offcut and scraps for $10) and I could take apart a thrift store skirt a friend handed on to me because it was tye-dyed and it reminded her of my experiments with indigo. Yesterday I cut strips and took everything upstairs to lay out “walls” on my bed, looking for the right relationships and combinations.

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Late in the afternoon, I began to sew the blocks together, three strips to a block, and they will be finished with a top plate of linen. I have in mind an arrangement, using deep blue for the sashing. And for the back, I have a length of dupioni silk, dark blue with a lighter blue band through it. It’s not exactly beautiful which is why it hardly cost me anything when I saw it on a remnant table at Dressew in Vancouver but it’s right for these blocks.

The whole time I was cutting and arranging, making decisions about placement, and sewing the strips to make the blocks, my mind was on the work in front of me and it was also remembering the construction of my kitchen walls. I wasn’t thinking about Bucha and the discovery of civilian dead, some of them with their grocery bags spilled around them, wasn’t thinking about women living in terror of sexual violence, of lines of refugees, the hideous legacies of war. I was under the same blue sky tumbled with clouds, the one I tried to replicate on the ceiling of the kitchen I was helping to build.

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The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –
             –Emily Dickinson

“my sight got crooked”

japanese cottons

These days I am strangely restless. There is so much to do—garden work; some writing projects or requests, as well as ongoing work on a novel that seems too fraught to continue with (the main character had just made plans to go to Lviv when I put the novel aside because of other commitments, and honestly? Who could go to Lviv now, even though the novel is set, oh, last year); and various other things that loom in the night when I’m awake but then sort of fade away during the day when I could actually be doing them instead of repeatedly doomscrolling for news of Ukraine. Instead of burrowing in to something clear and practical, I wander through the house. If I had a quilt to work on, this would be the time to sit with it, stitching, keeping my hands busy in the way that invariably quiets my mind. And I do have a quilt, a big one, but somehow—and honestly I don’t know how this happened—the strips of white (some of it from old damask tablecloths, worn in most places but with some usable areas), various deep blues, red prints, ended up looking like a collection of French flags. Instead of giving me pleasure, the actual quilting is irritating. I keep asking myself how it happened that I didn’t foresee the overall pattern beforehand. I didn’t. I was just happy to be seaming blocks together and then sashing them with deep blue. When Forrest and Manon were here in February, I showed them (and this wasn’t pieced recently but a few years ago; it’s been sitting in a basket in one of the back closets…), wondering what to do. We’d love it, they both said. So that’s an incentive, I guess, even though the stitching won’t give me pleasure.

I do have a little hoard of Japanese cottons and what I’m really waiting for is a moment of illumination, a moment when I walk by the basket where they are piled and I see a way to use them. I thought maybe log cabin blocks, big ones, like the quilt I made for Anik, only hers was made with colours she told me she liked. (When I asked, she said this: “I’m a fan of deep reds (not burgundy, but redder, earthier) and what Walter refers to as ’non-colour’ greens. Olive, forest, greens that blend in. Dark blues too. Is that boring?” And no, it wasn’t boring and I liked the results but it was outside my usual palette.)

sunday morning, quilting

In the fall I had some of the Japanese cottons and I wanted to make something with them. That was just as the catastrophic weather events—a system called an atmospheric river, bringing record rains and winds to the province—caused landslides and widespread flooding. I couldn’t cut and sew fast enough, it seemed, stitching the lengths of blue in long vertical strips and piecing them together with red lengths, printed and solid, to somehow echo the news, to remember the rivers I’ve loved that were rerouting themselves, to commemorate the way I’d always stood on their banks and felt their currents within my own body. I was sewing one of the essays in my forthcoming book, Blue Portugal, sewing it into fabric, quilting the oxbows, meanders, and avulsions. You see straight lines here in the finished quilt hanging on my clothes line but in fact all the actual quilting is curved and twisted, just 3 lines of it winding across the surface of the piece.

frozen fog

Now I need something to push the fabric in the basket into something more than itself, into an idea, a correlative, something to keep my mind focused and my hands active. I keep looking at the basket, waiting, while cities burn and we are helplessly watching. There is something I need to see, some way to do a new thing.

Don’t put up my Thread and Needle—
I’ll begin to Sew
When the Birds begin to whistle—
Better Stitches—so—

These were bent—my sight got crooked—
When my mind—is plain
I’ll do seams—a Queen’s endeavor
Would not blush to own—

Hems—too fine for Lady’s tracing
To the sightless Knot—
Tucks—of dainty interspersion—
Like a dotted Dot—

Leave my Needle in the furrow—
Where I put it down—
I can make the zigzag stitches
Straight—when I am strong—

Till then—dreaming I am sewing
Fetch the seam I missed—
Closer—so I—at my sleeping—
Still surmise I stitch—

                 –Emily Dickinson