“My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel…”


And following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I—

      — from The Inferno of Dante, trans. Robert Pinsky

In February, I began work on two things at once, an essay and a quilt. The essay rose out of some reading John and I were doing together; we read The Inferno of Dante by our fire, a book at a time, each of us reading a page and then handing the poem to the other. It was Robert Pinsky’s memorable translation and it was a good thing to do. (Next winter we’ll read Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey.) We’d read and then talk. And I realized that what I was learning was how to go into the darkness and return. In late November I fell on black ice and fractured my tailbone. We were visiting our Edmonton family and I wanted to enjoy every minute of our time there so I took heavy pain-killers and rode the horse-drawn sleigh down Whyte Avenue, watched a performance of the Nuckcracker in a Nutshell at the Grindstone Theatre, ate wonderful pastries at La Boule, visited the Royal Alberta Museum with my daughter and my granddaughter, and then on the last afternoon in Edmonton, experienced the symptoms of retinal detachment which landed me in the Emergency Ward at the Royal Alex Hospital. Thus began a whole process of examinations, appointments, eye surgery, further retinal difficulties, and whew, it was finally over in February.

The quilt and the essay happened together because I wanted to try to cobble together a visual narrative for the fall, the fracture, and the darkness of the wait for both a diagnosis and the repairs that followed. And then I wanted to write about it too. I’m no artist. I can’t draw. I can’t even sew very well. But I can think visually and that was my intention. To use the Japanese boro technique (boro means something tattered, repaired) to create a path down the centre of a piece of textile work (a quilt, I guess), and then border the path with dark lengths, one of Japanese silk, one of cotton, to embellish with shell buttons. Two eyes, pierced. Little shards of light on a deep blue path. Spirals of descent, and the hard climb back. Corny, maybe, but it seemed absolutely necessary at the time.

I finished the quilt top and sort of put it aside because I wasn’t sure what to do with it. It’s hardly cosy. You probably wouldn’t want it on a bed. But maybe I’d hang it, I thought. The essay I finished and I’m happy to say it will appear in Brick in the fall.

Then in April I wondered what it would look like to back the dark top with teal dupioni silk. I love dupioni for its weight and crisp texture (achieved by warping with fine thread and then the weft is coarser threads so you get an uneven slubbing in the finished fabric) and the teal went well with the pattern in the panel of Japanese silk on one side. I’d sew, and then put the piece aside. Sew, and put it aside. Quilting for me is usually something I do by the woodstove and it’s been so hot since June that I haven’t felt like sitting with something heavy on my lap. But lately I’ve thought I’d like to finish up and see what I’d done.

on the line

I write and I quilt to find things out. I like to finish, of course, and I like it even more when the results are better than I hoped for. This isn’t better than I hoped. The sewing is kind of clumsy and I have no idea what I’ll do with it, apart from maybe hanging it on a door. But I documented pain and fracture and potential loss of vision and I had the intense pleasure of pushing a needle in and out of patches of blue fabric, piecing together a path that took me to the cold heart of winter, and back.

“My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,” said Dante. His guide was Virgil. Mine was my needle, its single eye carrying dark blue thread.


“To get back up to the shining world…”


To get back up to the shining world from there
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel…

Last night we finished reading Dante’s Inferno, in the translation by Robert Pinsky. We began in late January and had some gaps in our reading: we’d read a canto faithfully for a week or ten days and then life would interfere. Last night we’d read the penultimate canto after dinner and I said, Let’s just keep going. So we did.

It was a good thing to do, reading this poem over the darkest coldest time of the year. I know December is the bleak mid-winter but there’s Christmas and lots of parties and guests to take the edge off the chill. So January until early April seemed right, though the poem actually begins on Maundy Thursday, 1300, and concludes on Easter Sunday of that same year. We’d read by the fire while the night settled around us, read of treachery, lies, fraud, every kind of torment, heretics, thieves, seducers, and every manner of torture. The language spares no one, no detail.

It’s been a dark winter in many ways. World events keep me awake at night. So do various kinds of infirmity. In early December, after a hard fall on ice, my retinas began to detach. That’s meant regular visits to the ophthalmologist for intensive monitoring and laser procedures to repair the damage. But two weeks ago, he told me he felt the process had completed itself—the vitreous easing away from the retinas—and that I was no longer at risk of retinal detachment. I have no regrets about the experience. I found things out. How precious my eyes are, and the sight they gift me with. How the prospect of perhaps losing my vision, in whole or in part, allowed me to explore what it actually meant to see. Yesterday I saw an optometrist to have my eyes checked (because my close vision has changed as a result of the damage) and she showed me the images of my inner eyes and the scars from the retinal tears. It made me cry a little.

This winter I did what I know how to do when faced with uncertainty. I wrote some essays exploring what was happening to me and I made a quilt top to find a way to gather the experience into a tactile object. I called the quilt “A Dark Path” and I used the boro technique. Boro means something like tattered, repaired. It’s usually structural stitching, meaning that the intention is not to make something beautiful in itself (think of fine embroidery) but to extend the life of scraps of fabric, to use them to mend, layer, and give strength to each other. The edges of the scraps are not tucked under or hidden but are left to show their tattered state. And the stitch used is the sashiko stitch, a plain running stitch in a contrasting colour; it reinforces the patches and scraps.

I finished my quilt top a month or two ago and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. Would I back it with something plain and durable? I had some ideas but none of them seemed quite right. Then the other day I remembered I had a length of teal dupioni silk tucked away. Dupioni is woven with fine thread in the warp and more uneven thread in the weft so that the result is both lustrous and textured. I left it out with the quilt top, along with one or two other possibilities—an indigo cotton print, blue denim with red dots—but I kept seeing the silk rustling and shimmering, as I saw the light shimmer when the ophthalmologist examined my retinas. If I have time today, I’ll cut the silk to fit.

I also wrote an essay called “A Dark Path” and the quilt figures in it, as well as broken bones, damage of other kinds, and a little Dante. It will appear in Brick next November. So we come out of darkness, we descend and ascend, and like Dante and his guide Virgil, if we’re lucky, we see the stars.

winter jasmine, crocus, the first circle of hell

Like so many others, I find January a long month. A dark month. And although we are not in the middle of the polar vortex that is creating such frigid temperatures in other parts of the continent, it’s cold here. In the mornings I put on two or three layers and drink my coffee close to the fire.

But then there’s a morning when it’s somehow lighter. I woke at 5 a.m. on Monday and the sky was dense with stars against the deepest indigo. I thought, oh, that would make a beautiful quilt and then I realized I’d made several inspired by winter skies. In my book Phantom Limb, there’s an essay called “An Autobiography of Stars” in which I detail the making of a quilt for my daughter Angelica, set against a meditation on astronomy and the Leonid showers.

On each bed, a patchwork, for warmth and for safe passage through the night. In the sky we might fashion a parallel life, a world mirroring the topography of our own lives, irregular and beautiful, geometry in service to love. Sewing stars for my daughter to sleep under, I am fashioning a metaphor for my love of her and a belief in her luminosity, a parable of meteors and radiance and grace.

I have no photograph of that quilt to share but it was silvery stars—Variable Star blocks—on a ground of deep purple and blue. And I’m pretty sure I was making it in winter.

So a morning when it’s lighter, when you walk across the patio and realize that the winter jasmine has begun to bloom, single yellow stars in a thicket of branches:


A morning when you are looking forward to reading more of Dante’s Inferno by the fire. Last night we read the 4th Canto, the long beautiful lines taking us into the first circle of hell with Dante and Virgil. And in that place too is a bright fire with poets gathered—Homer, Horace, Lucan, and Ovid. More company appears, every poet or philosopher or mathematician important to Dante. In the poem’s notes, written by Robert Pinsky’s daughter Nicole, she calls this “an abundant, almost ecstatic identifying list.” Dante and Virgil spend some time with them and then

         …my wise guide leads me away from that quiet
Another way—again I see air tremble,

And come to a part that has no light inside it.

Tonight we’ll go there, into the second circle. But even in that darkness, there will be beauty. I remembered in 2013, in the aftermath of having to take the vegetable garden apart for a septic field repair and then rebuilding it again, digging in a new border and finding, underground, unexpected beauty. When I’d dug up all the plants and trees a few months earlier, I thought I’d also lifted all the bulbs to set aside and replant again. But there, in the dark, an incandescent clump of crocus.



by our fire, we are reading Dante’s Inferno…


chimneyThe other night—well, it was actually very early morning: around 2 a.m.— I was in my study working on one of the essays in a linked group (one of them has just been published at the Little Toller Books site) and remembered a passage from the Inferno. Luckily I had a copy on my desk, Robert Pinsky’s glorious translation. I found my passage, contemplated it, and read a bit more of the poem I hadn’t really thought much about in years. Yet it is so current in its considerations. The next day we were talking about stuff, the darkness of winter, the indignities of aging, etc. (as one does), and I suddenly said, I think we should read something together. What do you suggest, John asked. The Inferno of Dante, I replied. He blinked. And said, Yes, let’s. So we read the first Canto yesterday, each of us reading a page, then passing the book to the other. Our fire was warm and agreeable. Just now we read the second Canto. It couldn’t be more appropriate to everything we’ve been talking about and thinking about. To what I’ve been writing about in the small hours at my desk with my small desk light allowing me to see the keys of my computer and not much else.

I’m working on a quilt I’ve called A Dark Path and now an essay called the same thing. How good to read a poem that begins,

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough…

There aren’t many people you can read the Inferno with, on a January evening, in front of a woodstove fire. Passing the book back and forth, our voices were oddly at ease in the terza rima of a poet born in the 13th century.

O Muses, O genius of art, O memory whose merit

Has inscribed inwardly those things I saw—
Help me fulfill the perfection of your nature.
I commenced: “Poet, take my measure now:

Appraise my powers before you trust me to venture
Through that deep passage where you would be my guide.