redux: what does a carrier bag hold?

Note: this was from December 1, 2014. Yet it’s still true, still ongoing. I did finish both the essay and the quilt. The essay was published first in Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction, edited by Josh MacIvor-Andersen, and then it became the title essay of a collection of my work, published by Mother Tongue Publishing. The quilt went to Forrest and Manon for their March birthdays. And it’s all happening again—essays in progress, quilts inspired by them, and my bedrock belief that it’s part of a continuum.


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.


after the champagne corks flew

If you heard champagne corks popping yesterday, around 4 p.m., it was us, celebrating the good results of my latest scan. We’d met with my specialist in North Vancouver and he was very clear in his assessment that the nodules under scrutiny are not metastases as first suspected. That scan, a little harrowing, was thorough. So we left his office and went into a bar nearby, ordering two small bottles (the single-size serving) of sparkling wine and to be honest, the bottles had screw tops, not corks. But it was lovely to touch glasses and breath huge sighs of relief.

There’s so much to do. My publisher and I are beginning the process of thinking about a cover image for Euclid’s Orchard., due out in September. I believe that the book will be designed by Setareh Ashrafologhalai, who also designed Patrin. I love her sense of space, her ideas for both cover and page, and look forward to seeing what she does with this collection of essays. I put the manuscript together in the fall, when I was recovering from double pneumonia and was undergoing all sorts of tests for other possible things. I knew it was important not to waste time so I set myself the task of finishing four essays in various stages of completion after Mona at Mother Tongue asked me for a nonfiction manuscript. One of the essays, the title piece, was ready, thanks to Josh MacIvor-Andersen who edited it for Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction, available in April. But the others were scrappy, messy, shapeless. Many nights I got out of bed and came down to my desk to sit in the absolute quiet and puzzle away at what it was I wanted the essays to do. I wanted them to explore territory, to shine small lanterns onto dark pathways threading through the lost landscapes of my family’s history. They’re personal and sometimes I wondered — still wonder — at the value of writing that terrain into being. But I also believe that we do the work we’re called to do and that was the material agitating to be noticed and shaped.

Today is Virginia Woolf’s birthday. I began reading her in high school and I remember how much I loved her novels, Mrs. Dalloway in particular. There was everything in it. Later I discovered A Writer’s Diary and lost myself in it. Each generation has its Woolf biography, or two; and for mine, it was Quentin Bell’s. He was her nephew and his sense of her time, her relationships, her houses — so intimate, and beautifully circumspect at the same time. I’ve read later biographies, notably Hermione Lee’s, and other books about Woolf. But I like best her diaries, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, and her letters.

Whenever we go to London, we stay in Bloomsbury, where Woolf often lived, and we walk from the little flat we rent at Cartwright Gardens to Marchmont Street for coffee. I love the street, with its bookstores, small hardware shop with pots of flowers for local gardeners to buy, cafes, stream of people…I remember this bit from the diaries, when Woolf returned to Bloomsbury from Hogarth House:

Can I collect any first impressions? How Marchmont Street was like Paris… Oh the convenience of the place and the loveliness too… Why do I love it so much?

There’s a pub we pass on our way back to the flat from dinners or concerts or plays and in March, the evenings are often mild enough for people to take their drinks to the outside tables. Walking by late, there’s a hum of conversation as one passes and I think of her then, hearing the same sound, on the same street, the air just beginning to smell of green from the nearby St. George’s Gardens.

on marchmont street.jpg

I wonder what she would have made about our current world? She would have had no time for the machinations of a pompous self-aggrandizing man tweeting his tiny vicious thoughts, I feel quite sure. It was a man like that who led her to believe that the world was not worth living in, I think. Her own demons were the world’s demons. On her last birthday, two months before her suicide in March, 1941, she recorded this is her diary:

Its the cold hour, this, before the lights go up. A few snowdrops in the garden. Yes, I was thinking: we live without a future. Thats whats queer, with our noses pressed to a closed door. Now to write, with a new nib, to Enid Jones.