“When is the burden of the gods lighter than air?” (Camille Paglia)

the line

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 entablature on their bodies, their hair arranged to detract from the strain on their necks. Can you imagine such strength, such purpose?

“Don’t fear the voices”

Tonight is the launch for my novella Patrin. In the way that one does, I’m anticipating questions (not necessarily tonight but in the next while as friends and strangers read this book that takes place partly in the city of my birth and partly in the country of my grandmother’s birth) about the intersection of fact and fiction. Sometimes I write what I call fiction and sometimes I write what is presented as non-fiction. Each is embellished with elements of the other. How could it be otherwise? I think of myself as a writer first,  a citizen of language, and sometimes the world is so rich and dense with materials, with possibilities, that I feel dizzy with it. Joyous with it. And sometimes burdened by it.

For the past few years I’ve been working intermittently on pieces which hover between essays and stories. Some are just fragments of dialogue, overheard. Some are lists of findings, catalogues of family details. Some are sustained narratives. One is a wild patchwork of math and botany, genetics and animal behavior. I haven’t worried about the final organization of this material. Yet. But I know that at some point I’ll have to decide what it is.

I’ve been rereading Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock. It’s one of my favourites of all her books, though I have to say that on any random day, my favourite might be another book entirely. Maybe I mean that it’s the book that puzzles me and enchants me, in equal measure. Some of it seems to be pure memoir. Sometimes Munro takes a single fragment of factual material and meditates upon it, asking questions of it, giving it a life beyond its immediate presence. She writes, in her Foreward, about the genesis of the book. She tells us that she had been looking at family accounts, letters, recollections:

I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories. Some characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can every be.

During these years I was also writing a special set of stories. These stories were not included in the books of fiction I put together, at regular intervals. Why not? I felt they didn’t belong. They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person. In other first-person stories I had drawn on personal material, but then I did anything I wanted with this material. Because the chief thing I was doing was making a story. In the stories I hadn’t collected I was not doing exactly that. I doing something closer to what a memoir does — exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the centre and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and colour and did things they had not done in reality. They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed that they had once lived in Chicago.

I don’t know that any of those surrounding my particular self joined the Salvation Army but there are some individuals and occasions I don’t know enough about and perhaps never will. And maybe it’s time to explore the possibilities of those instead of waiting, waiting, waiting to find out the actual facts which I suspect will never be revealed. The land my grandmother bought near Grays Harbor, Washington, for instance — how did an immigrant woman living in Drumheller, a widow (I think) at that point, with at least 7 children, buy land in Aberdeen? My father told my son that she discovered the property was worthless and she took a shotgun with her to confront the man who sold it to her. Did she get her money back? My father said she shot fish to feed her children. Grays Harbor is a bay composed of many estuaries — the Hoquiam River, the Humptulips River, the Chehalis, all of them salmon-bearing rivers. In those years — this would have been the early 1920s at the latest — I imagine the salmon-runs were the old legendary runs, so many fish you could cross the river by stepping on a living bridge. I can smell those fish, can see that woman with her shotgun and her children. So a story, a fragment, and as mine as anything ever is.

Releasing one book to the world creates such space for the imagination. I have been sorting (in the most chaotic way) some of the material I have in my study and I keep hearing quiet voices. In Patrin, there’s a poem by the wonderful Czech poet Jan Skacel; its opening line is “Don’t fear the voices.” Patrin Szkandery takes the poem and its advice to heart. And maybe it’s time I did too. I look at this photograph, for instance — a baby who would have been my aunt if she’d lived. Julia Kishkan. She died before my father was born and I know almost nothing about her death. This photograph is anything but empty though. Her older (half) sisters, the curtain, the window, the cloth under the casket, and all those brothers and sisters who aren’t in the photograph. Julia’s parents, my grandparents, whom I barely knew but whose lives deserve my attention, now if ever there was a time. “Don’t fear the voices, there’s a lot of them.”