“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?

“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 colour

The other day we were walking up the Suncoaster trail, past the Malaspina substation, and the day was bright. There was sun, no ice on the puddles, and the air smelled wonderful, a little of the snow we could see farther up the mountain in it, and balsam fir. And there was colour! Not the bright colour of spring and summer when the wild currants and salmonberries in that area bloom cerise. Nor the fall, when the maples turn yellow and orange, the dogwoods rose-salmon, the elders red. The colour I was suddenly aware of was more subtle but maybe even more beautiful for it. Tall young maples on a slope of sword ferns and deer ferns:

young maples

And a mass of wild roses dense with hips, maybe not even wild, maybe some dog roses growing from seed spread by deer or birds:

rose red

Long loose stitches of maroon bramble crossing the edges of the trail, waxy mauve canes of evergreen blackberry, and russet-y hardhack in the damp areas.

I’ve been thinking about colour, winter colour, in part because I’m writing about it and in part because I’m figuring out a quilt. Not the kind of quilt I usually make, pieced stars, or log cabins built of strips of bright cotton. This one is inspired by the Japanese tradition of boro, meaning something tattered or repaired. Boro has long been a way to extend the life of textiles by layering and patching, using a long running sashiko stitch, often described as “structural” rather than decorative, yet in the way that practical or utilitarian work is often beautiful, the long plain stitches are ravishing to my eye. I’m thinking of my quilt as a dark path through winter, through uncertainty, through aging and uneasy health issues, and the more I arrange my scraps into a pattern, the more I see that what the hands do is hugely therapeutic for the soul. Yesterday I spent the afternoon cutting and placing. Later today I may begin to actually sew. Some of the pieces are familiar — tweed from a waistcoat I made John years ago and because Forrest liked it, I made him one of dark grey wool flannel and that’s there too; little scraps of Japanese hemp and cotton; some deep blue linen; some grey-blue silk with a scribble of blue velvet like the contours on a map; gorgeous Indian silk given me by a woman who makes theatre costumes and who invited me to plunder her scrap bag. Because I have a thrifty heart, I haven’t wanted to throw out the tiniest remnants, ever. And now I have a use for them.


Last night there was a waxing crescent moon in the western sky when I got up to pee. And I wondered, maybe I need to light this path with a curve of golden silk. I’m thinking about how to do that as I write. The 18th century Japanese poet, Chiyo-ni, wrote about that moon and it’s her words I hear as I plan this quilt:

at the crescent moon
the silence
enters the heart


an algorithm for the passing of time

I’ve been sorting through some photographs I took while my family was here last week. I love this one, my grandbaby Kelly in the rocking chair in my study.

kelly in rocking chairJohn’s mum brought this chair for son Forrest when he was a toddler. For years it was in the kitchen, among the chairs in front of the woodstove (“Here’s an rocking chair for someone who likes to rock, an armchair for two more to curl up in.” Yup, we liked the Friendly Giant television show and yup, we had the chairs…) Then I moved it to my study when there was no one small enough to sit in it any longer. The quilt behind Kelly is one my paternal grandmother made for my older brother Dan when he was a baby. (He’s 64…) I never appreciated it fully until I began to make quilts myself, nearly 30 years ago. There’s nothing grand about it but it’s one of the few things I have from my grandmother. This little quilt appears in one of the first essays I wrote when I returned to writing after my children were born. For some reason it didn’t make it into my first collection of essays, Red Laredo Boots, but it did appear in Phantom Limb in 2007.

In Provo, I thought for the first time in years of the small crib quilt my grandmother had made for my older brother. Nothing of the sort had been made for me but the little quilt somehow ended up in my possession. I used it for my children when they were babies, its rough squares of old cotton — remnants of curtains, housedresses, my grandfather’s pyjamas — offering a comfort beyond warmth. I didn’t know my grandmother very well; she died when I was nine or ten. When she was alive, we visited in the summers and I found her to be rather terrifying — an ancient Slavik-accented matriarch who was practically deaf and lived surrounded by daughters and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, seated in a yellow rocking chair on a porch of a house in Edmonton, far from our home. I looked, all the years later, at the crib-quilt she’d stitched and knew something of her hands, the way she saw colour, the thrifty spirit that must have been so pleased to find a use for the bits of good cloth. The quilt was backed with red and white ticking, perhaps left over from stuffing mattresses with goose feathers from the fowl kept by my grandparents in the days of my father’s childhood. It was obvious that my grandmother was not an accomplished quilter; her squares were lopsided and the stitching irregular; but I felt a kinship with her in a way more profound than I ever felt sitting by the yellow rocker and trying to decipher what she was saying to me, all those years ago, in summer.

The rocking chair in my study doesn’t sit empty. My old teddy bear Georgie has pride of place during the times when Kelly isn’t here.

georgie in rocking chairGeorgie was bought in Hawaii in January, 1955. My father was on the HMCS Stettler, enroute to Pearl Harbor, and my mother sent him a telegram to let him know he had a daughter. He returned home a few weeks later with Georgie. I’m sure Georgie was more handsome in those days but in some ways he has always looked the same to me. I couldn’t sleep without him as a child. Or at least I wouldn’t. Once, when I was three and living on May Street in Victoria, I left him on Moss Rocks across the road from our house. At bedtime — it was winter, I remember, and dark — my father had to go out with a flashlight to find my bear. In my family it became a story of how much my father loved me, though I always thought of it as a story about how much I needed my Georgie.

I know I keep saying this but where does time go? How can all these things whirl in my memory, retrievable but murky, how can it be that I remember something that happened when I was three and how can I still feel like the girl of six who made a bed for her bear in a wooden mandarin orange box and did the difficult thing and let him sleep alone? There must be an algorithm for this, for time passing and accumulating, though when I try to find out how that might look, I come across formulae too difficult for me to wrap my mind around. Time complexity analysis. Polynomial time algorithms. The sublinear time algorithm sounds promising and maybe I’ll try to figure that one out.

The person in my family who might know is my son Brendan, the father of Kelly. He’s a mathematician. He’s also the one who was musing about something like this as a boy of about five (it seems like yesterday) and who said, not to anyone in particular, but with a kind of wonder: “Stuffed animals are a lot like grownups. They get older and older and older but they never grow an inch.”

fish, unwaxed

Today was warm and still, a good day for preparing a bucket of indigo dye and plunging in those squares of waxed fish. Well, since I last wrote about them, I stitched the squares in a kind of clumsy version of mokume, then pulled the stitching tight so that lines of the cotton squares would be protected from the dye. This is called thread-resist. Here’s what the squares looked like before they entered the bucket of dye.

The dye process is a bit lengthy — the squares sat in the bucket for half an hour while I stirred them frequently; then they were removed, some soda ash was added to the dye as a fixative; then the squared returned to their indigo bath and sat for another hour, with me stirring them every ten minutes or so.

Then they got rinsed, and rinsed, and rinsed. I sat on the grass and removed the threads, hoping for lots of contrast: white wavy lines across the deep blue squares, the mostly white fish marbled with blue. And I have to say I was a little disappointed that the watery lines didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. I know why this is. My batik fish took up quite a lot of the surface space so I couldn’t pull the threads as tightly as I think they needed to be. But a project like this is so much about the process, the immersing of one’s self into the various steps required. So here are the squares drying on an old red sheet on the grass:

I love the blue — and that’s a good thing because my hands are stained for…well, the time being anyway. I did wear rubber gloves for the dye process but for the last part of the rinsing and squeezing out of the water, it was easier to use my bare hands. It didn’t take long for the squares to dry so I set up the ironing board on the deck by the front door (where the robin’s empty nest still waits among the roses) and gathered up as much paper — newsprint, without the print, the kind of paper books are often packed in; we save it all for High Ground Press shipping — as I could find and then began to iron the wax out of the cotton. I know that one can also boil or steam out the wax but I’m not entirely certain of how securely the dye is fixed so I thought it best to use the old iron my mother dropped on the basement floor and then passed along to me for batik projects — the steam function no longer works and the base is a bit wobbly but it heats! I’m not entirely satisfied with the finished squares because there’s a halo of wax which no amount of ironing will remove, even with absorbent paper towel. But then I remember that I do this because I can’t draw, I can’t paint, so the whole process has been really interesting and I can’t wait to piece together a quilt with these fish in their indigo water.