Several years ago, Bill and I were driving to Saskatoon in late autumn and stopped at a little convenience store in Chamberlain. We walked in on a conversation between the male clerk and a woman in her forties that ended this way: "The days are getting shorter and shorter, and I'm solar powered." I know exactly how she feels, which is probably why her words stuck with me.
Although I have lived in Regina longer than I've lived anywhere else, the prairies remain something of a mystery to me. I actually keep a running diary that tells me when, each year, I heard the first robin, when the tulips bloomed, when the trees turned, when the snow fell and stayed. But I don't need my effort to keep track of spring and fall to tell me that weather on the prairies is changing. I'm not including what has been called our "Godzilla El Niño," which may or may not have anything to do with climate change. But our distinctly warmer winters have also been distinctly cloudier winters, and when we've had four or five days of cloud in a row, I know exactly what that witty woman means.
When I was younger, a stretch of cloudy weather had a distinct effect on my mood. Now, only those days when the sky is relentlessly white and simply blends into the white snow, like a sheet of paper or a hospital bed, make me feel like a weight had settled on my chest. I feel closed in. I can't feel or see the cycle of the day. I'm stuck in a relentless present until the dark comes down. Rainy days are fine because they seem purposeful. Otherwise, a cloudy day is more likely to influence my energy level. This winter, there have been many days when I looked out the window as I sat down at my desk and moaned, "Oh, no. I'll never have the energy to work today." I've discovered, however, that if I make myself stop moaning and simply put my head down, I can get more done than I imagined.
It's as if the universe is holding out on me. It's such a simple thing: a sunny day. But if you are a bird brain like me, and "solar powered," a sunny day can take ordinary moments, like staring out the window looking for a word or standing in the kitchen waiting for my little espresso pot to boil or playing the piano or talking to Twig, and turn those moments into celebration, not endurance. The week of sun we had a while ago gave me a boost of energy and focus: I finished off revisions of three chapters and had energy to spare.
So I am learning how to invent sunshine. The three easiest ways are not entirely satisfactory: espresso, chocolate, or sugar. The espresso and chocolate can be hard on my pesky ulcers, and sugar isn't good for my health. So I try to keep those indulgences to a minimum. Candlelight in late afternoon turns out to have a psychological effect, particularly if the candles are scented. Lighting a fire in the fireplace is helpful in a number of ways--though it's also more bother than a hit of sugar and probably isn't good for my carbon footprint. The warmth and the crackling evoke a sense of coziness rather than the claustrophobia of the cloudy weather.
Good long novels bring with them the sunshine of invention. Over the last couple of weeks, I've read Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain and the final volume of Elena Ferrara's Neopolitan Novels, The Lost Child. Both of these are good "put your head down and go to another world" novels. Poetry doesn't work nearly as well, because when I've finished reading a poem I look up to consider how it's working before I read it again, and there's that blank page of a cloudy day.
Quilting usually helps. Above you see some simple blocks I've made and auditioned with possible backgrounds. These fabrics are all reproductions--modern designers' attempts to create fabrics like those we might have found in the nineteenth century. The 150th anniversary of the American Civil War brought out an explosion of reproductions along with quilt designs that are true to period. But as you can see, repros (as we affectionately call them) are safe. Colour theorists would say that their shades are similar: basically, the same amount of grey has been added to them (except for the red). As well, the available colours are fairly limited, partly because reliable dyes were limited. Red, brown, gold (sometimes called cheddar) and blue are the usual suspects, sometimes eked out by poison green (of a distinctly yellow hue), mauves, oranges, and cinnamon pinks. Safe, not sunny, not an antidote to days and days of cloud.
So I decided not to play it safe and to get out Lucie Summers' Quilt Improv and some wild fabrics I've been collecting--lots of turquoise and yellow-green, some fairly wild chintz. Summers' wonderful book gives you some slightly organized ways of "making it up as you go along." One of these, on the left, has you make a block of diagonal stripes of different widths. When you put four of them together, you get the perception of squares, even if you haven't organized your values. Another strategy, in the middle, is to create chevrons by lining up your fabrics at a 45 degree angle. Or you can make traditional log cabin blocks, changing the width of your strips to suit a desire for quiet or emphasis, to punctuate the block with a skinny hit of deep colour or use wide sections of pastels to provide quieter spaces. Log Cabin blocks usually begin with a red square; then you surround these with straight, same-sized logs. It's a highly organized block. in the example up top, I asked what would happen to their geometry if you started with a wonky rectangle and didn't use straight "logs." The result is probably unusable in a quilt, but it was a crazy kind of fun that generated its own light.
Unlike repros, this is very risky, yet somehow I'm not sure you can do it wrong. Summers, who lives in Sussex England chooses colours that are very clear, and fabrics that are often geometric, so I brought in Kathy Doughty from Australia who runs a quilt shop called "Material Obsessions." Doughty makes funky boho quilts, choosing to put fabrics together less because they "go," than because they have a similar kind of energy. Summers is great with colour, but Doughty is more interested in the surprising, playful juxtaposition.
Making these few blocks has been my best invention of sunshine, taking play, chance, the unfamiliar, the unscripted, and putting them in my mental kaleidoscope to see what comes out. At this point, I have no idea how they are going to go together or whether they will even make a quilt--though that wild chintz I'm auditioning for a background looks promising. They make me smile. This is sunshine.