“A category into which something is put.”

zinnia blue

This morning I am thinking of beautiful writing, of beautiful writing by women, and how what I’ve read in recent months almost always has an interesting context. A textual construction deeply grounded in the quotidian. I’m not surprised. I’ve also been looking at textiles, mostly in photographs and in illustrations in archaeology papers, and I see how the work women do in the most practical ways has beauty. Their baskets, their weaving, their quilts, even the cordage used to bind tools, keep skins together for clothing, shelter, suspend fishing hooks in water, tether animals, anyway, the work of their hands and minds has always entranced me, made me feel part of a community through time and history.

I read a lot. 3 or 4 books a week. I don’t keep a list but mostly I can remember what I’ve read, or at least let’s say there are memorable books that I think about long after I’ve read them. Lately I’ve been reading non-fiction, which is often considered a genre but honestly? The book I’m reading on hand-dyeing has very little in common with Sinead Gleeson’s extraordinary Constellations: Reflections From Life. Turning to my dictionary doesn’t help much. Classification is defined this way:

[mass noun]

1.The action or process of classifying something.
‘the classification of disease according to symptoms’

1.1 biology: The arrangement of animals and plants in taxonomic groups according to their observed similarities (including at least kingdom and phylum in animals, division in plants, and class, order, family, genus, and species)
‘the classification of the platypus was one of the critical issues of the 1830s’

1.2 [count noun] A category into which something is put.
‘new classifications for drivers of commercial vehicles’

So. Is that clear? Not really. And I guess it doesn’t matter although sometimes it does. Right now it seems to me that the conversation about nonfiction usually means memoir. Yesterday I read Katherine May’s Wintering and yes, it’s a memoir. It’s also an investigation into weather and depression and the meaning of winter. I loved Beth Kaplan’s Loose Woman: My Odyssey From Lost to Found, an account of how an aspiring actress finds herself, literally and metaphorically, living with and caring for a community of damaged men in France. It has a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, a through-line, and it is both heart-felt and well-crafted. Constellations is a collection of essays which has its own narrative coherence, though it’s not as structurally evident.

As an undergraduate, I remember reading a translation of “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire”, or “Lament for Art O’Leary”, a gorgeous and heartbreaking poem written by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, an 18th c. Irish noblewoman grieving the murder of her husband at the hands of an Anglo-Irish army officer. So I was always going to read Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s stunning A Ghost in the Throat, in which she searches for Ni Chonaill’s life (reduced to shreds in the historical record) and makes a text of shimmering beauty, like the quilts I remember seeing at Kilkenny Castle in 1979, pieced of silk and taffeta and fine linen, each scrap a footnote or gloss on domestic life, on broader history.

An ache, this salt-sorrow of mine,
that I was not by your side
when that bullet came flying,
I’d have seized it here in my right side,
or here, in my blouses’s pleats, anything,
anything to let you gallop free,
o bright-grasped horseman, my dear.

The other day, I wrote about Kathleen Jamie’s essays, their durable and practical beauty. And there’s Susan Olding’s Big Reader— essays about reading, yes, and loss, and how we are shaped by books, how they shadow us in our daily lives.

This morning I am grateful for women’s writing, women’s work, their vessels and twine and the patterns they impose on both the daily and the divine. Tall flowers, groundcovers, medicinals, ornamentals. A shelf of their books, kingdom and phylum, genus and species, fieldguides to the life I am living.

‘Some folk say time is a spiral…’ (Kathleen Jamie)

sunday morning, quilting

I’d forgotten I hadn’t finished Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie until I was looking for something else and found it on John’s side of the bed. Sometimes when I read at night, I fall asleep and when he comes up to bed, he puts whatever book I’ve left on top of the covers on his bedside table rather than walk around the bed to mine. This must have happened. So I opened the book, realized I’d read about half, including the incredible “In Quinhagak” in which Jamie joins a group of archaeologists in the remote Yup’ik community situated where the Kanektok River empties into the Bering Sea. It’s a place of light and wetlands where the thawing permafrost is reshaping the land and eroding a 500 year old settlement site. I remember reading that essay and thinking how beautifully Jamie wrote about it but also how she somehow let the place and the artefacts and the Yup’ik people and their culture take their place in her words, her descriptions. She wasn’t pushing herself to the fore, wasn’t asking the reader (me) to recognize her sensitivity or courage or intelligence. It’s a quality, inherent in her work, I’ve noted before: her essay collections Findings and Sightlines are treasures of quiet beauty. I remember her extraordinary collaboration with visual artist Brigid Collins, Frissure, in which she examined the scar left on her body after a mastectomy:

Whatever it was, it was a line, drawn on my body. A line, in poetry, opens up possibilities within the language, and brings forth voice out of silence.

What is the first thing an artist does, beginning a new work? He or she draws a line. And now I had a line – quite a line! – inscribed on my body. It looked like a landscape. Because it was changing colour as it healed, it seemed to me as if it had its own weather.

So over the past few nights, it’s been my unexpected pleasure to read what remained of Surfacing. And to recognize again, because I certainly felt this when I read Jamie’s earlier essays, how skillful a writer she is, how elegant, and how so much of what she writes about and notices echo my own interests. On Westray, one of the Orkney Islands in Scotland, she (again) joins an archaeology crew as they excavate a Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement. Detail after detail, meditations on time and continuity, on what changes and doesn’t: I read farther into the night than I meant to just to follow her mind and her account of the work of the crew working against time (again), weather, funding sources drying up. She marvels at the little Westray Wife, or Orkney Venus (you can read about this tiny carved sandstone piece here), and I marvelled too because I am fascinated (as so many are) by the early representations of women found in various sites in Europe. (Mostly recently I’ve been looking at a Gravettian engraved Venus found in Předmostí in the Czech Republic, unusual for the geometrical elements used in the carving. The Westray Wife has interesting incisions in the decorative patterning too.)

On Westray, Jamie is intrigued by the spirals carved into rock, found on pottery fragments. After she meets a young couple who’ve come to the island to raise dairy cattle and to make artisanal cheese they call Westray Wife, she stands with them on their land for a few minutes:

     Amid the cows, we were looking inland at the island’s shallow valley. Their view was of a gloomy castle, and, beyond it, the small loch, then farms on the hills, sheep on the peaty summits, the climbing road, the chambered cairn, two or three small whirring turbines under the huge island sky.
     I said, ‘When the Neolithic people brought their cows ashore here, the first ones, all this land would have been wild. Can you imagine? I wonder what grew here then?’
     ‘I love this valley,’ said Nina. ‘Its different colours. Brown in the spring, then green. The cattle. Quiet, then noisy with tractors.’
     ‘I see it differently through your eyes.’
     ‘They were like us,’ Jason insisted. ‘Caring about their animals.’
     Some folk say time is a spiral, that what goes around comes around, that events remote to one another can wheel back into proximity. Leaving Nina and Jason I walked down to the shore, feeling like a child again, glad of heart to know there is still room in the world for a summer’s day and a cow called Daisy.

When I was putting aside the book the other night, the night I returned to it after an absence of perhaps 3 months, I found the card inside that had come with it when it arrived from the Netherlands as a gift from my friend Anik. I’d made her a quilt, mostly as a thank you for a kindness on her part, and also as a housewarming gift for the house she had recently moved to with her husband and son. The quilt was log cabins, 4 of them, arranged around green pathways quilted with spirals. I wanted her to be reminded of the log cabin she was living in when we met and how we have stayed friends, our green paths perhaps metaphorical rather than actual, though on a quilt they can be both. In the centre of each cabin block, a red square for the hearth. Everything is connected, isn’t it? The hearths uncovered on Orkney, their spiral pots broken. While helping with the excavation at Quinhagak, there’s a wonderful moment when Jamie is screening some soil with a Yup’ik man:

     A smell was rising from the earth in the screen. It was familiar, domestic, not unpleasant. I worked on, wondering if I was imagining it, because it was the smell of cooking. Specifically, the smell of mince and tatties, staple dish of my childhood
     ‘Mike–I’m hallucinating. Can you smell that?’
     ‘The meaty smell? It’s because we’re down at the floor level now, where they did the processing. Seals, walrus meat, skinning, all that.’
     The air is so clean and sharp, you can smell seal-meat from five hundred years ago.

On a cool morning, I’ll make a fire and sit by it stitching spirals. And in those inscriptions, time curls in on itself, holding stories and history and love. Sometimes they spool out across the ocean and sometimes they are the blanket that keeps me warm at night, keeps others in my care.




We were given a beautiful pottery dish as a wedding gift, shallow and wide, decorated with wild fawn lilies. Once I made paella and served it in the dish. The lilies were a gift you saw when you reached the bottom of the paella. When our first child was about a year old, he managed to lift the heavy dish from its place on a glass-topped coffee table and when he let it drop, it broke. The glass broke too. I kept the pieces for a time, wondering if there might be a way to repair the dish but eventually I must have thrown it out. I wish I’d known then about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with a lacquer made originally from tree-sap, dusted with powdered gold. Some call the process “golden joinery”, some refer to it as the art of making what’s broken beautiful again.


When the red-breasted nuthatches are preparing their nests in the abandoned holes of woodpeckers, they collect fir, pine, or spruce sap to paint around the edges of their nest. This repels some predators and pests and increases the possibility of the nestlings coming to maturity. The adults dive into the nest without touching the edges of the entrance.


Years ago I read the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie’s account of working with an artist, Brigid Collins, to record the visual possibilities of her healed mastectomy scar. I looked at Brigid’s images and read Kathleen’s words and I remember how I wept.

Whatever it was, it was a line, drawn on my body. A line, in poetry, opens up possibilities within the language, and brings forth voice out of silence. What is the first thing an artist does, beginning a new work? He or she draws a line. And now I had a line – quite a line! – inscribed on my body. It looked like a landscape. Because it was changing colour as it healed, it seemed to me as if it had its own weather.

My mother had died two years earlier of metastatic breast cancer and three days before she died, I accompanied her to an appointment first for a chest x-ray and then to consult with her specialist. Her breast cancer had first appeared in 1976. She awoke from surgery without her right breast and because she was private about her body, I never saw her scar. Until the day of the chest x-ray. I led her from the room with the machines to the change room so she could put on her clothes and she was too weak to do that herself. Taking off her hospital gown, I saw the line across her chest, puckered and slightly darker than the rest of her skin. It was like a path on a contour map, a path leading to what would happen in three days. Our eyes met. We were both crying. When I looked at what Brigid and Kathleen had done together, I wished I’d been able to commemorate my mother’s scar in a way that would honour its complicated beauty, the years between her first surgery and her death.


John returned home yesterday after spending 4 nights in hospital. After his bilateral hip surgery two and a half weeks ago, he was recovering quite well, despite the added difficulty of a paralyzed foot due to nerve compression during the surgery. But then he had some new things to contend with and I took him to the hospital early in the week. While he was there, one of the incisions on his legs became infected. Before he was allowed to come home, I was shown how to dress his wound. Last night I cleaned it with a saline solution, dried it with sterile gauze, and then taped the special padded dressing along its length. There were 22 staples in each incision and I think one or two came away on the infected side. One day we’ll look at the scars and remember the surgery, the hospital stays, what it felt like to sleep in the living room with the blue moon hanging just out the window, a scattering of stars around it, and then waking to moon-set over the low mountain beyond the lake.


The story of kintsugi’s origins is interesting. In the 15th century, a Japanese shogun sent a cracked tea bowl to China to be repaired. He wasn’t pleased with the results, a bowl mended with metal staples. Craftsmen were tasked with the challenge of coming up with a more pleasing way of mending broken pottery. The practice of using tree-sap lacquer and powdered gold or silver was what evolved, embodying the ideas of finding beauty in imperfection, of embracing change, and avoiding waste.


One of my favourite objects, bought when I was about 19, is a raku tea bowl made by Wayne Ngan. It called to me in the little gallery in Victoria where I first saw it. And I’ve always loved the tiny imperfections on the rim—you can see them in this photograph, one at the front and one at the back—and imagined Wayne wavering. Was it worth selling? Should it be discarded instead? But look at the colour! Such a saturated red!

wayne's bowl


I hope that one of us might write about John’s scars one day. That I might try to replicate them on fabric, metallic thread for the staples, the deep mysteries of what happened. That a surgeon cut through the layers of tissue at the tops of his legs, reached in to remove damaged bone and cartilage, and then implanted a prosthetic joint into the bones of his pelvis, closing the incisions with staples. The smooth skin of his outer thighs will hold the pathway of this mystery, what opened, what closed, what was lost, what is held.

So, I wrote a few lines from notes I’d made when I was recovering. It seemed that they were falling into themes, though the themes blended into each other. Healing, certainly. Mortality, of course. The idea of the gift. Intimacy. The natural world. The notion of the line. Memory and heredity. All had arisen during my treatment and recovery, but none was strictly medical. In Brigid’s work the texts are not repeated whole, but as fragments, fugitive.

         –from “Frissure”, by Kathleen Jamie & Brigid Collins


Watch the red-breasted nuthatch tracing its line down the trunk of the Douglas fir, watch it pause, bury seeds in the scales of the bark, watch it pause in the making of its line, alert, watch it pluck a bead of sap and disappear.