Thursday, April 1, 2021

Why? Why write? Why quilt? Why beauty?


I have just finished listening to the report from Ontario about how much more virulent and deadly the B.1.1.7 variant is.  This is only the most recent evidence of what we are all experiencing if we live west of the Maritimes.  We had no idea, during last year's surreal lockdown, which in retrospect seemed oddly calm, that we would curtail our lives for over a year and then watch it get worse. 

Samuel Johnson said "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”  I think the same could be said for a pandemic--at the outset anyway.  Then ennui and boredom and the exhaustion of being continually subject to the threat; then the COVID dreams and the bad nights' sleep; then the drive to scream at politicians that, no, it's not a matter of the economy vs. the mental and physical health of the people who are looking to you to do the right thing--a drive you quickly suppress because it's pointless--make it impossible to concentrate on anything. Except in the middle of the night when you feel like a two-year-old and simply want to ask "Why?"  We're experiencing a world-wide trauma, that's why.  We're moving into the ecosystems of animals who, as retribution, give us their viruses, that's why. We don't belong there, that's why.  We're greedy, that's why. And then somewhere, deep inside the undergraduate in all of us, we know we've been experiencing an existential threat for over a year, and "why?" is exactly the right question.  At the very least, all the enforced isolation of the last year gives us time.

 I don't have any answers to the big question "Why?" except to say that under normal circumstances the very shape of my day answers the question.  Random acts of kindness.  Conversation with a friend.  Cats taking a nap with me, treating me daily as if I'm part of their tribe.  Lunch with Bill--one of the few bright spots in my day--where we talk about the most surprising things.  (At dinner, there is candle light but we're both more tired.) Walks without a mask or a tape measure.  Compassion and empathy.  Writing.  Learning a new Bach Suite.  Spring.  The beginning of any season.  Because life is itself a meaning often infused with joy.

But I have part way puzzled out three answers.  First, why write?  I have just finished working with an editor on Soul Weather, and a query package has gone out to several publishers.  I spent three weeks writing a cover letter and a "pitch"--easily the hardest writing I have ever done.  And the question "Why?" buzzed around my head in a particularly wasp-ish way.  Why was I trying to convince publishers that I'd written a wonderful novel?  Oh, I came to the egotistical answer about fame and fortune quite quickly, but decided to press on.  The first real answer is that I understand the world much better if I write about it.  At least once a week, I spend time with my journal, but I don't subject that to the pressures of fiction--which is, ironically, being as truthful as one can be.  A poem or the conversation in a novel has to sparkle with reality and you only get there if you can work with two things in tandem:  your vision of the world and your craftsmanship.  A lot of digging goes on.  A lot of sanding and drilling and filling in with rocks and taking the rocks out and polishing the empty oval.  Putting a single rock, now the size of your hand, that you've carefully lined up with the horizon and seen its truthfulness, gets  brushed off and put in alone among the words just so.  But, by godfry, there's this little scintillating tremor of meaning. 

Why quilt? The piecing is easily explained. It's curiosity and playfulness combined. What happens if you put this colour next to that one? This pattern or texture next to that one? What happens if you use this as a background, that as an accent? There's a long and wonderful history of quilting, and you want to respect that history while making something unlike what anyone else has made. There's the delight in craftsmanship, getting seams and points to line up just so, the conversation you make with the past and the future that Bill Reid attributes to things that are well made. But it's the hand quilting I'm curious about right now. It's clearly inefficient. I make quilt tops faster than I quilt them, and this is becoming a problem. Before COVID is over, I hope to baste up a couple of quilt tops so that when I spend more time in the garden this summer I can quilt at the end of the day and watch the dusk slowly fall. Hand quilting centres me, the way knitting centres a lot of people. Again, there's the sense of craftsmanship: my stitches are tiny! It's meditative; my mind can wander through memories and make surprising connections. It's almost part of my creative practice the way walking is for other poets. Hand quilting also connects me in a comforting, sustaining way to centuries of women for whom this was their art. I celebrate that by keeping up the practice rather than sending my smaller quilts out to be machine quilted.

 Why beauty? How long have you got? Okay, let's just talk about beauty during a pandemic. The order that you usually comprehend in something beautiful--the balance, the unity--deliver little hits of meaningfulness that we badly need. Surely, if tulips come up every spring, all of nature is not as disordered as the pandemic. Beauty stops us in our tracks, offering respite. Elaine Scarry, in On Beauty and Being Just, writes "It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level."  We need exactly that wake-up call from the sameness of lockdown.  Alexander Nehamas notes that beauty seems to reward our attention.  There is something about a beautiful painting or landscape or flower that is just beyond us, so we keep returning to it.  There's a joie de vivre about engaging with something beautiful that is not present in our daily lives right now.  Finally, we can't define beauty:  we can't come up with a definition of beauty that includes everything everyone believes to be beautiful while eliminating those things which someone believes are not beautiful.  So beauty is personal.  When you stand before something beautiful, you are in some ways standing before one of the most inexplicable things about yourself.

I can't give you either a quilt or a novel today.  But you can give yourself beauty.  Don't forget to appeal to all of your senses.  That perfume you bought to wear for special occasions?  Wear some today.  That piece of heavy jewellery you never wear?  Feel it against your skin.  Feel it when it's cool and then heavy with your warmth.  Wear that wisp of brilliant silk your dear mother-in-law bought you.  Buy flowers with your groceries.  Follow Kew Gardens of the Museum of Modern Art on Instagram.  Read Shawna Lemay's blog or look a the photographs of a former student of mine on Instagram, Lara Stoudt.  Read a sonnet out loud.  Put on some jazz at dinnertime. Chocolate, obviously.

There.  I think I can do tomorrow.

The photographs above are of quilts waiting for my needle.


  1. I love this. And your quilts are beautiful.

    1. Somehow in the isolation of lockdown, I had forgotten to look to see whether a blog elicited any comments, so I'm very late getting back to you. Thank you for your kind words.

  2. Indeed they are.
    And I happily await your next novel after loving Blue Duets.

  3. This post was breathtaking. Thank you.