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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Many of my students will acknowledge quite readily that they find archives to be dead spaces, filled with meaningless documents detailing the lives of people who no longer matter (if they ever did at all). They will scoff, turning up their noses at the classist nature of the archival project (and to a certain extent, they’d be right), and they will turn back to the present, putting the stories of the past out of sight and out of mind. There is no meaning to be found there.

But not all of my students are like this. There are some whose lives are transformed by their forays into the archives. Reading the letters that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians wrote to Joey Smallwood, one student was suddenly overcome on discovering a family member’s signature and wept; another found a family signature on a petition about an issue that they had never known about. Yet another student was profoundly affected when she discovered, during the course of her research into a mother’s search for good medical care for her ailing ten year son, that the son had died less than a year after the letter was written. These were real people. They lived. They loved. They lost. They died. And their stories mattered. And they still matter.

And in many cases, these letters, often written on cheap lined paper with a blue pen, are all that remain. And they remain only because Smallwood cared enough about his own posterity not only to keep them all, but to ensure that they would have a formal home in the university’s archives. They remain, that is, because someone cared enough to keep them.

Over the past year, a team of volunteers has been carefully creating an archive. Japan’s Memory Salvage Project has gathered some 750 000 photos found in the debris after last year’s devastating earthquakes and tsunami. Painstakingly, they’ve washed, cleaned and digitised them. And now, these photos are travelling – an archive of memories, stories, and images. Where possible, the photos have been returned to family members. But in some cases, these photos – some too badly decayed to be saved – are all that remain.

The project’s website includes amazing photographs detailing the process of gathering, cleaning, reproducing and now exhibiting these photos.

From the project’s website:

“We all take photographs. A few special ones are cherished, and the rest forgotten. We take pictures when we are having fun, when we want immortalize a moment shared with another person. The photographs you see here were also taken under those circumstances. The depth of emotion might vary from snap to snap, but each one captures a point in time that somebody wanted to keep.

What are we supposed to feel and think when we look at these pictures?
Should we be happy that they were found at all, or sad that they will never be returned to their owners? Or should we simply mourn for the dead? The more I struggle to find answers, the more missing pieces I seem to find.

But without looking at the pictures, I don’t think we’ll see anything at all.”

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“For many people, music is here to let them forget the daily chores of life …. People have a difficult day at the office, they have a fight with their wife or their mistress, or both, they get bad news from their accountant. So they come home, exhausted, put their feet up, and put on their favourite Chopin Nocturne – preferably played by me – and within three minutes they have forgotten their troubles. But I maintain music is not here to make us forget about life. It’s also here to teach us about life: the fact that everything starts and ends, the fact that every sound is in danger of disappearing, the fact that everything is connected – the fact that we live and we die.

–          Daniel Barenboim, interviewed in The Guardian (bold print mine)

I’ve written about the intersections between music, bodies and life writing before. And now, as I read through Daniel Barenboim’s words, captured in an article in The Guardian, I feel the need to return.

There is much that unites the letter writer with the composer. Both are struggling to articulate, in text, their experiences, emotions, bodily tremblings, slivers of thoughts, ideas… trying to put down, in some sort of fixed way, things that resist fixity. What happens in that translation process? What happens when bodily experience becomes word? When thoughts, ideas, emotions, trembling become musical notes? When gestures move from body into language?

Letter writers, like composers of music, all have unique voices. They use the same tools, but to very different ends. Pen. Ink. Paper. Words. Spaces. And in the process, they tell different stories, opening their readers/listeners to different ways of thinking, perceiving, experiencing, living.

There is much that unites the letter writers that wrote to Tissot. Suffering, social class, and accepted notions of propriety. They follow similar patterns and structure their letters in similar ways. But the letters are also surprisingly diverse.  There are sudden bumps. And intriguing twists. And just when you’ve figured something out, the letter changes direction.

So it is, too, with composers. In his Guardian interview, Barenboim talks about concert programming. More specifically, he considers the potential in combining the first ‘great Romantic’, Beethoven (as we were taught in music school), with Pierre Boulez, a scion of contemporary music. Putting the two into conversation with one another transforms the listeners’ (and the performers’) understanding of each composer. Beethoven’s first symphony is changed upon hearing Boulez’s Dérive II. And the work of Boulez, too, is shaped by our intimate experience with Beethoven. If, as Barenboim argues, “every sound is in danger of disappearing,” the careful juxtaposition of compositions allows for sounds to expand and multiply as new meanings emerge.

But what does any of this have to do with letters?

Letters, like concerts, can (on the one hand) be seen as nothing more than entertainment. Quiet pleasures accompanied with a good cup of tea. Moments of respite from the day’s cares and concerns. Opportunities to look in a different direction. Put your feet up. Disappear into another world.

But what happens if we take Mr. Barenboim’s words seriously? Can the art of letter reading be imagined as something akin to the art of listening to music? Can reading letters “teach us about life”? Can letters –and our reading of them – serve to remind us that “everything starts and ends, …that every sound is in danger of disappearing,…that everything is connected …. that we live and we die”?

Collections of letters – whether exchanged by intimate friends or, like the ones I’m reading, directed by hundreds of individuals to one common recipient – offer us new ways of listening. Juxtaposing letters allows us to examine harmonies and dissonances, to plumb the depths of melody, gesture, silence and sound. Like the encounter between Beethoven and Boulez, letters challenge and confirm one another, asking to be read anew, over and over and over again.

What might we lose by not taking letters seriously?

I’m reading Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book right now. It is alive with the stories that books tell, the narratives captured not just in text, but in the material artifact of the book itself. Archival research, Brooks’ main character reminds us, is not just cerebral work, but deeply sensual:

“As many times as I’ve worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation. It’s a combination between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby’s head.” (13)

Ahhhh. Lausanne and my letters in June. I can’t wait.

I’ve been thinking about silence for the past few days. As the teaching term comes to a close, I actually have time to revel in a bit of silence. It’s a much needed space for contemplation and I’ve missed it in the busy-ness of work and home life. Silence to think. Silence to ponder. Silence to ruminate. Silence to be.

But I am also thinking of silence in relation to my letters. My, I say, claiming them possessively to myself. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what is said in the letters. I’ve spent a lot of time considering the possibilities of epistolary performance, looking at how individuals crafted identities to share with Tissot.

But I haven’t spent nearly as much time with silence. And yet silence, too, is integral to stagings of self.

What we don’t say might be just as valuable, if not even more valuable than what we do. Lucy Frost, in an article in the journal, Life Writing, considers silence in the telling of family biographies: which stories matter to the family tree? And which might be better, in her words, “expunged” (19).   Here, silence protects not only the moral purity of the family, but, at a broader level, the purity of the nation as a whole. You see, Frost is interested in the intertwining of narratives of belonging and exclusion as they play themselves out in the colonial history of Australia. What happens when questions of nationalism are founded on histories of criminality, imprisonment and transport? What role do the stories of the “150,000 men and women transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land between 1788 and 1853” (19)  in the construction of national identity, both at the level of the individual family and at the level of the nation as a whole?  As she observes, “A quintessentially Australian fear of the ‘convict stain’ is integral to the foundational narrative of nation” (20) and this fear is mirrored in other contexts as well: “At the same time as Australians were writing the convicts out of their family histories, ‘white’ Americans were airbrushing their ‘black’ relatives off the family tree.” (20). According to a museum curator I met a few years ago (whose name I have, unfortunately, forgotten), a similar process took place here in Newfoundland, as ‘white’ Newfoundlanders sought to distance themselves from “undesirable” interracial mingling with aboriginal peoples. Since then, of course, politics have shifted. Now, there is some room to revisit those silences and to write these expunged family members back into the histories of families, communities and nations.

David Gerber notes that immigrant correspondence is a particularly rich source of insight into the nature of epistolarity. For new immigrants in a strange land, letters were “the transnational lifeline of communications in relationships rendered especially vulnerable by separation” (315). Such letters brought families together again, performing the intimacy they once took for granted. But these letters are also spaces of negotiation: fact and fiction mingle as immigrants struggle both to articulate their new realities as to hide the less savoury aspects of their decision to travel. Silence, in these letters, is carefully maintained and controlled.  “There are all sorts of obvious reasons, some of them quite compelling and mitigating, why correspondents might not want to tell the truth to protect the people with whom they correspond, while remaining faithful to the larger purpose of maintaining a relationship. Sickness, unemployment, poverty, martial discord, drunkenness, rebellious children, or abject failure might not only prove variously embarrassing, but also prompt worry and concern in one’s readers….,” observes Gerber.

I think, too, of conversations I’ve had with one of the archivists here at the university, Bert Riggs. Bert notes the differences between men’s and women’s war correspondence, observing that men on the battlefield were much more likely to be silent about the gritty realities of war than their female counterparts. Silence, in this sense, was a way of mediating suffering, and it was directly related to how these individuals understood their sexed and gendered roles in wartime, and how they presented these selves to close family members and friends.

But silence can also be understood as a state of being forsaken: Sarah Haggarty observes (of William Cowper), that when one waits for a letter, one might be “stranded in silence – a period during which [one] expected or hoped in vain for an answer – [one] did not know whether that answer was going to come, let alone when [one] would receive it.” (152). Silence, from this perspective, is about uncertainty, and about the fragility and tenuousness of  long distance relationships. Additionally, Haggarty’s work suggests that silence also denotes a lack of control. Once the letter is out of our hands, it journeys on its own. We can only put our trust in others: will the letter travel safely through t he postal system (and, in the eighteenth century, through the various censors), will it be delivered to the right address, will it be read by the intended recipient(s), and finally, and here is perhaps where the idea of trust carries the most weight: “Will [the letter] be answered?” (152). Indeed, as Haggarty observes, “Even accidental delays… were decoded, and rendered intentional by their initial sender. As one is waiting of the letter that has not arrived, silence, the effect of delay is made to speak.” (161)

In my letters – yes, that pesky possessive again! – silence is also a factor.  It’s easy to overlook because the letters are, in many respects, so very detailed. But the details included in each letter have all been carefully chosen, the body’s logic culled from a broad range of experiences and understandings. Thus some patients take care to include specific details that others, in apparently similar circumstances, don’t recount at all. Take the case of wetnursing, for example. Some might blame experiences of corporeal weakness partially on the poor milk of a wetnurse. Others, however, observing very similar symptoms, make no mention of wetnurses at all, though it’s highly likely that they were wetnursed, given that upwards of 80% of children were sent out to nurse during this period.

Other silences are revealed in the spaces between letters. A patient might claim all sorts of ailments, for example. His doctor, meanwhile, might note that there’s nothing to these sufferings; his patient is merely a gluttonous exercise-phobic hypochondriac (and yes, there is a patient described in exactly this way in the letters).  In the silences that mark the ruptures between these two letters, we find alternative stories, stories that exist only in the silences that mark the letters themselves.

Silence is also fraught. Like William Cowper, Tissot’s patients wait anxiously for responses, their anxiety recorded in letter after copied letter, each one increasingly urgent in tone. One poor onanist wrote Tissot five letters over the space of a few months, each almost word for word the same as the one before it.  Divulging what were perceived to be shameful medical histories, onanytic patients in particular were eager for a response, desperate to know that their letter had been received, and, more importantly, received by the right person. They were, equally, frantic to find a cure to their sufferings. What they couldn’t know, but what I know, is that in several cases, Tissot had no intention of responding, marking a decisive “non répondu” at the top of the first page of the letter.  What might silence have meant to these patients, these suffering individuals who had taken the risk of putting their private agonies into print?

And I am intrigued, too, by the silences engendered by political circumstance. During the French Revolution, some correspondents appear to have embraced their revolutionary identities, signing letters as citizens: “citoyen” or “citoyenne.” Others, perhaps more circumspect, nevertheless mention ‘the difficulties.’ But there are still others who make no mention of the revolution at all. While they are comfortable writing about their bodily sufferings, it’s as though those sufferings are experienced in an almost utopic idyll seemingly untouched by the violence and bloodshed of a violent revolution (especially during La Terreur). Who are these people who claim their political allegiances? Who are these people who prefer to remain silent? Silence and speech were political acts during this period: the censors would no doubt have read many letters. Just how easy was it to speak?  What could one say? What political purpose may silence have served? These are things that will be almost impossible to discern. Nevertheless, silence needs to be taken into account. Silence is as much a part of the story as speech is.

I am reminded of the insights of some of my music instructors, coaches, colleagues, and conductors: silence is not dead space. It is active. It is alive. It has energy. And without it, music is nothing. The same holds true for these letters: silence is not passive. It is active. It has its own stories to tell. And without it, the letter is meaningless. It is up to us to listen for it.

According to Will Self, writing in The Guardian Online on 31 March 2012, walking is a political act. It is a way of reclaiming the streets from the power of the car, of asserting the body and its workings in the face of a society increasingly reliant on motor vehicles, and ever more integrated with broader corporate interests.  

Slate, meanwhile, has a whole week of articles on pedestrians and the art – and act – of walking.  Its author, Tom Vanderbilt, starts from almost the same premise as Self, noting that: “walking in America has become: [a]n act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text.” But Vanderbilt uses his article to explore the idea of the pedestrian at a conceptual level: why is it that walkers have been reduced to pedestrians, and what are the implications of this?

The politics of walking is a discussion that we have every winter here in St. John’s – who has full winter citizenship rights in this city? Main roads – heck, even secondary roads – are cleared quite quickly after a snowstorm, as our ever filling end of driveway can attest. Sidewalks, however, remain clogged, often for days.

City planners throw pedestrians like myself bones to chew on: they state that on ‘priority streets,’ one side of the sidewalk will be plowed. One side! Seriously? What would happen if they took that argument to drivers: “Folks, we’re going to ensure that on priority streets, we’ll plow one side of the street.” Can you imagine the uproar?

Things were a bit better this year. But one side of the street isn’t enough. And even that side isn’t done very quickly or very evenly. As a fully able-bodied individual, I find myself far too often walking less than a metre away from cars moving at 50-70 km/h. Imagine if I had a dis/ability. Or if I was less balanced on my feet. Or if I was walking with a child. Or carrying unevenly weighted bags?

But I walk in this city in winter as much as I can. Because walking is a political act. It is a statement that acknowledges – indeed asserts – that not all of us have cars, not all of us want cars, and not all of us want to be in cars. And it asserts that we have the right to safe passage in our city. Every time a car driver curses me as I slowly pick my way through the piles of ice and snow, I’ve reminded them that we exist.

Walking’s on the agenda all week at Slate. Care to join me for a stroll?

I could call today’s post cheating, because I first wrote it seven years ago. Yes, seven. 7. sieben. zeven. sept..

I, however, see it as inspiration. This post was one of a required series of posts written for a class blog in my Feminist Theory class with  Helen Leung at Simon Fraser University. It was my first introduction to blogging and I was decidedly uncomfortable. It was in this post that I first felt like I could “let my hair down,” the first time that I felt I’d found a voice, my voice, in a blogging space. And rereading it now, seven years later, I’m amazed at how many of my current interests, ideas and musings are encapsulated within it.

Join me in a walk through memory lane, of the hair-y kind. And to Helen – thanks. It was great to find this blogging voice.

There’s a piece by a Dutch composer (Chiel Meijering) called ‘A Lady Shaves Her Legs.’ It’s for harpsichord and guitar. I have no idea what it sounds like, and I have no idea if I’d even like it, but I almost bought the CD just for its title….. There’s something irreverent about it (especially given the fact that this composer has also written works called ‘A Fart in a Blizzard’ and ‘The Nostrils of Sophia Loren’), but at the same time, there’s something that compels further reflection….

A lady shaving her legs…it’s the ubiquitous image of North American femininity, so much so that a recent internet forum poll on shaving didn’t even allow the option of ‘don’t shave,’ [edited to add that by recent I mean 2004…] and while obviously the statistics of an internet forum are questionable, a wander through the personal hygiene aisles at a local pharmacy seemed to bear this out. As a  non-shaver, this fieldtrip was also extremely instructive – I had no idea that there were so many different options when it came to removing ‘unwanted’ and ‘unnatural’ body hair – you can hot wax, cold wax, warm wax…even lavender wax…who knew?)

But while it’s the ubiquitous image of North American femininity, it’s also the completely invisible image of North American femininity, and in this sense, Chiel Meijering’s title takes on a voyeuristic quality…

The act of shaving is an extremely intimate and potentially sensuous one if one imagines the razor gliding soundlessly across the smooth planes of a woman’s flesh. Perhaps that’s why it remains invisible. I mean, when does one ever see a woman shaving her legs? You can pluck eyebrows or put on makeup on public transit; you can touch up your lipstick in a restaurant bathroom; you can hike up your panties almost anywhere and I have even seen women curling their (head) hair in public.

Looking further, you can read about women getting dressed, or having showers, or drying and styling their hair, or putting on makeup or jewellery, but how often do you read about them shaving their legs? Can you imagine the following passage appearing in a novel of your choice: “She gazed lovingly into his eyes, searching for the spark of sensual interest that she knew she would find there. A seductive smile played about her lips. Feigning innocence, she turned away, reached for her disposable razor and slowly began shaving her legs”…sounds ludicrous doesn’t it?

On the one hand, then, we’re ‘supposed’ to remain hairless (except for the glorious cascade of shining locks – nurtured by the shampoo brand of your choice – falling seductively from our heads) and on the other, we’re supposed to keep it a secret that we even had hair to begin with. Shaving, it seems, is not fit for public – or even private – consumption; rather, it must remain shadowed and permanently unknown —

perhaps the lady doesn’t shave her legs at all?

Perhaps the hair was never there to begin with?

Perhaps she’s just a tease?

It’s a mystery that seems impossible to solve….

So I went on a search for body hair.

It’s almost invisible in much canonic visual art. A poster of Matisse’s ‘Nude on a Yellow Couch’ (1926) graces our bedroom wall. See the soft, undulating curves of female flesh, the full globes of breast rising on her chest as she reaches her arms behind her head, the sensuous fleshiness of curvaceous hips melting seamlessly into knees and feet.

She is all curves; she is all woman…luxe, calme et volupté…she is all hairless, a smooth, depilated body exposed for all the world to see…

Scroll back through a few hundred years of art history and the story is the same: the truly feminine woman is a hairless woman. Botticelli’s famous Venus, painted in the late 15th century, has the requisite cascading locks, and may possibly have other hair under her armpits and in the pubic region, but the rest of her body is quite naked indeed, with nothing to disturb the unnaturally glowing whiteness of her mythical body. François Boucher, lasciviously painting odalisques during the decadent middle years of the eighteenth century, retains Botticelli’s supernatural glow in his painting of Mademoiselle O’Murphy (1752), the Irish teenager who,  at fourteen, was one of the king’s favourites. Again, we see an overabundance of sensual curves with buttocks flowing imperceptibly into fleshy legs. And again, we note a complete absence of hair – Boucher almost manages to avoid the issue altogether by painting his model on her stomach…but we can still note clearly that her legs – long expanses of creamy flesh – are gloriously liberated from the confines of excess hair…(or the artistically problematic irritations of ingrown hairs, razor nicks and patches of dry skin).

Biblically speaking, the presence of hair denotes power. The mighty Samson loses his power when Delilah shaves his head in the dark of the night…even in our current culture, the masculine and the virile are represented by thick mops of head hair, forests of chest hair and muscular arms and legs covered in hair. This is the Marlboro man; the strong man; the powerful protector and saviour….

One would think that the feminine imperative for long, shimmering locks of head hair would bear out the ‘hair is power’ theory, but I wonder if our culture’s obsession with female depilation negates the biblically empowering effect of head hair….

On the other hand, perhaps, as women, we’re still paying for the evil Delilah’s transgression: sentenced to an eternal replaying of her disempowering deed, we endlessly subject ourselves to a process of depilatory self-flagellation: clucking, pecking…..and looking for all the world like a new species of plucked chicken.

I’m thinking about quilts today. More specifically, I’m thinking of quilts as storytellers, as letters, as conversations stitched together. [for those that are dying to hear more about Tissot, letters, and bodies, stay tuned …. but don’t for a moment think that this has nothing to do with them…I’m slowly but surely thinking through the what, how, where, when and why of life writing…. ]

Back to quilts….

We know, of course, of the massive AIDS quilt – that piece of work created by thousands upon thousands of individuals and groups to commemorate all the lives lost to AIDS. It’s grown so big that it’s now impossible to show the whole thing in one place. Each square tells a story of a life lived, a life loved, a life ended. Each square is a conversation within itself, each square a shared testament of memory created in loss and in hope. And stitched together, the squares tell a collective story of living, loving, suffering, and remembering.

And I am captivated by the possibility of showay quilts, even if their stories are contested. Imagine narrating the journey from enslavement to freedom in quilt blocks. The quilt as map, stitching routes, paths, and dangers along the way.

And of course, we can consider quilting traditions; quilt making as community building. And crazy quilts patching pieces of lives together.

I  have a few quilts in my house. My mother made one for each of the boys, painstakingly planning, patching and sewing ideas and love into them.

She made one for our bed as well, a magical carpet of exploding colour that radiates more energy than you can even begin to imagine. It’s a happy-making quilt that includes some fabrics from my childhood, but also, intriguingly, hints of fabrics that were present in this house – the first house we ‘own’ [well, the bank still owns most of it] – when we first moved in. The previous owners loved valances and they were on every single window.  Three years later, bits and pieces of those valances found their way into that quilt.

A close friend made another quilt, a baby gift received in the weeks just after our first son was born.

But of all the quilts in our house, there are two quilts that are different from the rest.

Or at least, they are different to me.

On the surface, these quilts look very similar to the other quilts in our house. They have colourful squares and easily recognisable patterns. But the stories they tell are very different.

The first is, perhaps, not properly a quilt because it doesn’t have the requisite batting inside it. But it involved much of the same kind of work. This quilt is the result of a nesting project, undertaken while I was pregnant with son #1. It tells a story of a waited for birth, of a life in transition, of a body that was and was not my own. It tells the story of a body (re)learning to sew, revelling in the sensuality of touch, of colour, of fabric, of a new world slowly unfurling itself.

I sewed my quilt from pieces of fabric old and new. My batik skirts are in there, yes, but so, too, are squares pulled from a most magnificent batik muumuu I found at Value Village. There are squares of mustard yellow, fuschia, navy blue and green. And in between my quilted squares, there are ribbons of black fabric. Later, son #2 imagined them as roads, driving his cars around the colourful neighbourhood.

 

The end result isn’t perfect. I know exactly where things went awry, where ‘perfect’ squares suddenly turned out not to be quite so perfect after all. It won’t win any prizes. And if someone found it, they’d probably toss it, unimpressed with my lack of skill.

But that doesn’t matter.

When I see it on the bed, I see the story of my maternal life arrayed before me. I see my growing belly, my swollen ankles. I see my young baby, rolling on it. And I see the cars and hear the putt-putt that accompanied their journeys through Quiltville. I see my fingers cutting squares, learning the pattern, figuring out how to work the 1950s black Singer generously gifted by a friend. All of this life is reflected in my uneven squares.

Superimposed on these squares, so carefully, if inexpertly, crafted, I see a second quilt.

This one is expertly made. Each stitch is confident. Even. Assertive. Each stitch tells the story of a woman who knows how to make textiles sing. Nobody would think of tossing this quilt.

This quilt is smaller.  36 inches by 36 inches, to be exact. The fabrics are soft. Cotton. Flannel. And filled with colourful designs suited to young children. A group of dancing snowpeople. A gaggle of jewel-toned cats (do you think they’d mind being compared to geese?),  several psychedelic lizards, some leaping frogs, dinosaurs and a few schools of fish. On the back, a flannel communion of ‘animals of the jungle’: lions, giraffes, monkeys, elephants and hippopotami.

 

This quilt, too, tells a story.

No, it tells two stories: it tells the story of a boy born too soon. A wee boy who spent his first week cocooned in the warmth of an incubator-womb and the next few growing in what was then known as the Special Care Nursery (now the NICU). It tells the story of a wee little one who wasn’t even strong enough to suckle, who mewled when he fussed, and who spent most of his first weeks of life attached to monitors of all sorts.

And it tells the story of a family living through an intense period of growth and journeying together. Of a preschool-aged  brother whose life had been turned upside down and didn’t understand what was going on, of a family limping back into existence after too many weeks of bedrest and too many hours and days in hospitals.

In that quilt, I see conversations with doctors, with our midwife, with interns, with nurses. I see charts. I see hospital trays. I see numbers blinking red. I see exhaustion and I see exhilaration. And I see my wee lad growing. Just over 5 pounds when he finally came home, still premature, at 35.5 weeks.

But I also see something more. In this quilt, I see a gift.

The quilt was a gift from the Fraser Valley Quilters’ Guild. Since the early 1990s, the quilters in the Guild have made over 9000 quilts for the babies cared for in the NICU at BC Women’s/Children’s Hospital. 400 quilts a year. All of them made by hand and made to order. Cotton. Flannel. No ties. Natural fibres. 36 inches by 36 inches. All given out of love and with generosity of heart.

I don’t know the woman who made my baby’s quilt. I have never met her. I don’t know what she looks like. I don’t know how old she is, what her interests are, or if she has a dog. But her name is on the quilt and so I wrote her a letter. I don’t remember what exactly I said. I do know that I said thank you. And I know I included a picture of my slightly less wee boy after he came home. And I know I told her a bit about our story and how it as that we came to receive her quilt. And I think I told her about some of the other babies. Some so very wee that they barely had a chance to live at all. In the three weeks my son spent in the NICU, three babies died. It was hard for everyone there: family, nurses, doctors…all had grown to love those babies. For those families left behind, memories are all that remain, and far too few memories, at that.

I didn’t expect a response. I just wanted the quilter to know that her work – her care – was appreciated. And I wanted her to know that what she did mattered, and it mattered a lot. Her quilt has become an intrinsic part of our story.

But she wrote back.

She wrote to say thank you. And she wrote with the same generosity of spirit that went into the quilt in the first place.

I still have the letter. It’s part of the quilt, its words part of the story she – and I – have stitched into the fabric of our lives. Through her quilt, her story has also become my son’s story. And perhaps, when he’s a bit older, we’ll have a chat, the two of us. About generosity. About gifts of kindness. About quilted roads. And about monitors. And medicine. And lights. And bedrest. And growing. About uneven stitches and confident ones. About cats. And elephants and batik neighbourhoods. And about black Singer sewing machines with knee pedals.

And I’ll tell him about the stories that quilts tell and about how those stories change as we invite more people into our quilts. About how stitches expand. And how squares grow. And about how it is that suddenly a quilt can become so very big that there’s no longer any place big enough to carry all the stories shared within it.

What happens when we imagine quilts as sites of life writing? When we think of quilts as narrations of selves? What happens then? What stories do your quilts tell?