“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

patchwork

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This morning I tried to make an inventory of my quilts. I began quilting 34 years ago and am truly self-taught. Someone told me once that I’d get better (I think I was lamenting my careless skills) and that wasn’t true. I’ve now made 35 quilts and I am still careless and I don’t sew well. But I love the process and I am always working on at least one quilt, often more. Right now it’s a school bus quilt to celebrate grandson E’s transition into a bed. I also have some pieced variable stars that have been waiting for me to notice them again and figure out what to do with them. I think I know now so I’m looking forward to finishing the top. What you’re seeing in the photograph here is a pieced top for a quilt I made for Forrest and Manon about 10 years ago. I batiked the fish and then dyed the squares in indigo. The lighter marbled squares are me using up the dye when it didn’t have much ooomph left in it. I love the soft blue though. I can’t remember if I sewed akoya shell eyes on the fish.

I was thinking about quilts as I was reading Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory last week, a book that won’t quite let me go. Her Canadian publisher calls it a documentary novel. Maybe it is. I wonder about calling it fiction though. It is a scrapbook in a way, a pieced quilt made of fragments. Family stories, portraits, songs, maps, journals, letters — all of these, incomplete in themselves, with missing elements, forgotten names, have a cumulative effect. Some sections of the book are like art history (meditations on Rembrandt), 20th c. history (the sections on the siege of Leningrad and the Stalinist purges are harrowing), and very moving parsings of family history in all its possible variations.

The past had bitten me, but it was only a warning nip, and it was still prepared to let me go. Slowly, very slowly, step by step and bawling gently at the effort, I made my way back to what once had been the beginning of a path through the cemetery. 

I thought how the material could have been organized differently and the book would have been a very different experience. I was curious about the decisions Stepanova made to include particular things and how different the book might have been if she’d been given permission to use material her father vetoed. In some ways I was reminded of an interview I’d watched, Doireann Ní Ghríofa talking about her wonderful A Ghost in the Throat, and how genre isn’t on her mind as she writes, that what she’s doing is, in a way, its own thing. I completely understand that. It’s true, too, of In Memory of Memory.

It won’t let me go. Her uncles, her aunts, her great-grandmother who went to medical school in Paris. What they left. What they lost. Sitting in the chair by the fire, sewing, I am in Leningrad, I am sorting family photographs and letters, walking streets in small forgotten towns looking for traces. And how my own scraps gather, accumulate, until the right arrangement suggests itself. Fish on blue cotton, lopsided stars, log cabins pierced at their centres with red fire.

In a book about the working of the mind, I once read that the important factor in discerning the human face was not the combination of features, but the oval shape. Life itself, whilst it continues, can be that same oval; or, after death, the thread of life running through the tale of what has been.

a dark path

How a quilt begins. You are sorting fabric and you see a path of dark blue in the scraps and small squares. There is a length, perhaps 4 feet by 16 inches, of deep indigo silk with a beautiful pattern woven in, at random. Could you run that down a piece of light muslin and then cobble a path alongside it with the pieces, fitting them together as you might fit stones together, as you did once for a path to the outhouse when you were young, with just one baby, and all the time in the world?

begin

It would be a dark path, it would be the path you have walked for the past two years. Not an unhappy one but you needed to think about (or hope for) the light at the end of it. There was a double pneumonia, a pulmonary embolism, some chest xrays that revealed possible metastases. There were scans of several sorts, including one where you were injected with radioactive tracers, covered with warm blankets, in a dark room listening to Bach, and then you were asked to lie on a table which entered a PET scanner and where you kept your eyes closed because if you’d opened them, who knows what you would have seen?

The dark path would be the one you fell on in late November and fractured your tailbone and, without knowing for several days, tore a hole in your right retina. It was a path that also led to your family so you have no regrets.

And look, some of the scraps are greyblue silk, embroidered with flowers, a few sequins scattered across the surface. So the darkness is never without beauty.

scrap

What if you make the cobbled path and then border it on the other side with a length of ikat, deep blue with silvery streaks running down it? It would be the moment when you first knew that something was wrong with your eye because you realized the light falling past your face was not reflected light from your silver earrings but something inside your vision.

Looking at my piece of paper, I parse the word “entoptic”: from the Greek, meaning inside light or vision. I read about blue field entoptic phenomenon or Scheerer’s phenomenon, moving white dots are actually white blood cells flowing in the capillaries in front of the retina. Some people think that the experience is like seeing heaven, an aspect of consciousness, an apprehension of angels. I saw billowing clouds in the deepest blue sky, and the clouds were moving across the sky just as clouds move when one looks up for a sustained period at a summer sky. But my experience of that blue and its white clouds was brief. Brief and as beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen. And it was within my eye, apprehended in the light of an ophthalmologist’s instrument. When she removed the instrument, I was in an examining room in a high tower while snow whirled around the windows and the river froze under the bridge we would have to cross on our way home.

I learn that the silver light that fell to the periphery of my vision was caused by little waves in the vitreous jelly hitting the retina. The fall on ice had caused these coruscations and sitting in the dark, at the Grindstone Theatre watching an abbreviated version of the Nutcracker, and lying in my dark room at the Airbnb, trying to ease the pain in my tailbone, I mused that it was like seeing the summer meteor showers, the shimmer of light as the meteors entered the earth’s upper atmosphere and burned up in a display of brilliance in the night.

—from “The Blue Etymologies”, a work-in-progress

streaks

February, freehand

freehand

February has always felt like a hinge to me, a time when the first early bulbs might come into flower, when I’ve noted the first salmonberry blossoms in sheltered areas, when the sky, late afternoon, will have something of spring in it. A certain kind of light, a clarity. This morning is foggy and grey but when I went out to fill the bird-feeder, I could smell the soil. Time to fill little seed trays and plant some peas and early salad greens.

My mum used to say that she didn’t like a winter to pass without having something to show for it. She crocheted and knit, badly. Is it mean to say this? We have her lopsided baby blankets still and I love them for their odd shapes and their history. I like putting them on the crib in the room our grandchildren sleep in. And John still wears the sweater of Cowichan wool she made for him in the early 1980s, along with one for Forrest.

forrest

John’s sweater had the sleeves up near his elbows so my mum cheerfully made them longer (and lopsided). The shoulders are beginning to unravel and I might try to fix it, though my knitting skills are pretty rudimentary. Still he loves his old sweater, he says, pulling it on to cut firewood or prune the roses.

And who am I to talk about lopsided or careless? My freehand quilting is both. But I love to do it. I’m almost finished the indigo wholecloth quilt, stitching spirals and anchoring them with shell buttons. A winter’s work. A wholecloth quilt is often an opportunity for a quilter to showcase her (or his) fine stitching but not mine. I’m resigned to the fact that I will never make those little perfect mice-tracks across a length of fabric but I do love the meditative possibilities of sitting by the fire and allowing my hands to guide thread into a spiral, a quiet labyrinth of red stitches holding the layers together. And look! Going into the kitchen a few minutes ago to pour a cup of coffee, there it was, waiting for me. (The morning light makes the colour look lighter than it actually is. Think new jeans, not stonewashed or faded.)

waiting

The shortest month, maybe the most promising in some ways. There were mosquitoes the other day and the sound of frogs. And tulips coming up in the raised beds in the vegetable garden, protected from the deer. I have enough red thread to finish my quilt and seeds to plant.

Winter garden,
the moon thinned to a thread,
insects singing.

—Matsuo Basho

 

“a sequence emptied of its numbers…”

morning, looking west

The fire’s made, the beautiful morning moon observed as it heads to the western horizon, and I’ve decided it’s a day to work on a quilt, to put the layers together with long temporary stitches and to figure out a way to quilt them so that the resulting cover is durable. I’m going to use some of last weekend’s indigo-dyed linen and either yellow cotton or deep red flannel for the backing. I bought some soft organic cotton batting for the warm middle layer.

Inside I am stitching a spiral into the layers of the orchard I have pieced together, a snail shell curled into itself. That’s what I’ll see when I’ve finished. I begin the spiral at its very heart, keeping my course as even as I can as it opens out and widens. Not the complicated pathways of the sunflower, some turning left, some right, so that an optimal number of seeds are packed in uniformly, or Romanesco broccoli, its arcs within radii resulting in something so intricately beautiful I wonder how anyone could cut into it to eat it.On windowsills,pinecones. The plump Ponderosas, brought home from the Nicola Valley, and a few long Monticolas. They’re dry, open, but at the base, where their stalk connected them to their trees, two spirals are still visible, like a relaxed embrace, lovers asleep. My spirals are simple, my hands sewing to follow a path from its knotted source, around and around, until I’ve learned that my pleasure comes from the journey itself,a needle leading me outward,towards completion. A quilt elegant and sturdy, a sequence emptied of its numbers.

—from Euclid’s Orchard (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017)

“the heavy blossoms of fruit trees in May”

Euclid's Orchard_cover Final.jpg

From my forthcoming book, Euclid’s Orchard (Mother Tongue Publishing, September, 2017).

Twelve quilt blocks wait for me to find an ideal pattern for them. I arrange them on Moravian blueprint, somehow expecting to see logic at work. Do I begin with the first idea I had—the representation of Euclids orchard, the set of line segments like a trellis to hold the heavy blossoms of fruit trees in May? Or do I find a way to let the blocks tell a story all their own, dense with figurative language? Does it matter?

“…the red lengths”

spiral

“I’ll use red thread for this quilt, small stitches to draw layer to layer, capillaries to help the blood of our relationship circulate through the images and actual fabric of my thinking. Red thread, long strands carried by the needles I will prepare, three at a time, to allow me to push and pull the red lengths in and out, to meditate between the past and present, to contemplate the future, to secure with tiny knots the end of each fragment of thought.” (from “Euclid’s Orchard”)

what does a carrier bag hold?

For the past month or so, I’ve been trying to work on a long essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, which is loosely about mathematics, wine, love, horticulture, and genetics. It’s a hodgepodge, yes, but I know that there’s also a coherence there, a pattern, and I’m a little at a loss right now to see it. (I’ve also begun a novella which is taking my attention, though not all of it.) The essay has a quilt to accompany it; the quilt is a textural meditation on the mathematics in the essay and the essay also details the making of the quilt. The individual parts of the quilt are all designed and made and now I need to piece it together, to find a pattern for the individual squares (though in fact they’re rectangles!) to echo the elements in the essay. This is where I’m puzzled and can’t see or think my way through it.

I don’t like being idle. And I think best when I have some sort of hand work to do. I am a terrible knitter but sometimes I knit just to feel the accumulation of yarn making itself into a scarf or a blanket, a kind of magic emerging from the needles. And my quilting skills are only a little better but I love to see the possibilities of colour, harmonies, even narratives in fabric and to find ways to work with those. My brain is not logical and I can’t follow directions so the quilts I’ve made over the years (more than 25 — years and quilts) are very much my own. And they’re explorations.

Maybe they’re also carrier bags. Years ago I visited a class of students studying my novel, Sisters of Grass, and when I met their instructor before the class, he told me that he thought of my work in the tradition of Ursula LeGuin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, from her essay collection, Dancing at the Edge of the World. As it turned out, I’d brought along a basket of objects central to the novel — a sampler, some Ponderosa pine cones, photographs taken by the ethnographer James Teit — so I noticed the instructor (a very congenial man) smiling as I unpacked my basket, reading a little from my novel, and passing around objects for interested students to look at.

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again-if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all.

A carrier bag holds more than food, of course. It holds anything you want it to and sometimes it holds ideas, simple ones and more adventurous ones. It holds scraps of fabric and pine needles for baskets and memories of campfires and the sweet scent of a baby sleeping.

This weekend I had such an urge to make something, my hands yearning for work. But I’m still weighing and pondering the final pattern of “Euclid’s Orchard” and wasn’t able to take that any further. I went into the trunk holding my stash of fabrics and pulled out a whole passle of scraps, bits and pieces left from other quilts but too pretty to throw away. There wasn’t enough to anything big or elaborate so I decided to cut what I had into five-inch squares and find a pleasing way to piece them together. It took two mornings to cut out all the squares — 168 of them — and then an afternoon and a morning to get to the point I’m at now: ten courses of the eventual fourteen pieced together. The cottons have no relationship other than the one I’ve imposed on them. Some of them are French prints, some scraps from intricate quilts I’ve made in the past, and some of the fabric comes from an unfinished dress begun by a friend and passed along to me because she thought I’d like the print and might want to cut up some of the usable areas.

This morning, as I sewed lengths of squares together, I found myself thinking about “Euclid’s Orchard” and I think I might be ready to work on the essay again.  Something about the quiet labour of fitting pieces together, aligning their edges, trying to make the seams even, looking for a way to highlight a colour — the punch of yellow in this simple patchwork quilt has me remembering the sunlight on the orchard that is central to the essay…

If you haven’t got something to put it in, food will escape you–even something as uncombative and unresourceful as an oat. You put as many as you can into your stomach while they are handy, that being the primary container; but what about tomorrow morning when you wake up and it’s cold and raining and wouldn’t it be good to have just a few handfuls of oats to chew on and give little Oom to make her shut up, but how do you get more than one stomachful and one handful home? So you get up and go to the damned soggy oat patch in the rain, and wouldn’t it be a good thing if you had something to put Baby Oo Oo in so that you could pick the oats with both hands? A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A recipient.

And wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a bright quilt to keep away winter’s chill? Blues, yellows, and a long diagonal of red, bright as berries and necessary as blood.

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more of the same, but different

I’ve just picked vegetables for a special dinner tonight (friend Liz is coming!) and am delighted with the broccoli crowns (just cut one…), the Mendel peas from seed saved from last year’s crop, and a few curly garlic scapes because they were too pretty not to include. And roses — again, roses, because how could you not cut them over and over and put them in pots for their beauty? And the tablecloth from Arles.

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And this morning I did a bit of detailing on the salmon panels, using red fabric paint. The indigo is lighter this time around because I tried boiling the wax out of the batiked areas and it seems the dye was not quite as fast as I’d hoped. But it’s still a good blue, I think, and I have a whole pile of cottons stacked to see what seems to work best with these two long panels — they’re 70 inches wide, one with the fish heading into the natal stream, and one with them leaving it. In the next few days I’ll spend some time spreading out lengths of fabric on the floor and seeing how the panels look with dark red or a Japanese print with raindrops or even the Moravian blueprints. After I’d dyed the fish panels, I dyed about 3 metres of the unbleached cotton with the left-over dye and the result is nice — like a faded chambray shirt. I know I’m not a real quilter because I don’t plan. All the books tell you to chart your design and use colour wheels and so forth. (I know writing manuals tell you much the same thing: make an outline, keep file cards of your characters, plan out your chapters. Sigh.) But my eye is more random, looking for surprising relationships and unexpected connections. Who knows what this quilt will look like when it’s finished? All I know is that I love every step.

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