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image, An Autobiography of Stars, by Theresa Kishkan

by Theresa Kishkan
 

We have always made time in August to watch the Perseid meteor showers, often taking guests to our second-story deck where we lie back on the cedar boards, glasses of wine at hand, and watch the streaks of light across the heavens. But until this fall, I’d never seen the Leonid showers. They occur in November as the Earth crosses the orbit of the comet Tempel-Tuttle, the parent comet of the Leonid showers, between the 17th and 18th of that month. Having heard that the show would be particularly rich this past fall, we set our alarm for the small hours of the morning and put out the chairs in readiness. My daughter asked us to wake her for the showers.

A child learns early to wish on stars. What dreams we attach to them, their silvery print on the dark cloth of the sky! I wished for fortune, for a horse, for someone to love me, for pain to vanish, for beauty. All of it came true, in time. When the Leonid showers washed our sky, the shooting stars were too swift and various to wish on, but what would there be now, in any case, for a woman to want in the richness of her middle years? I have written a book, planted a tree, loved and been loved by a man who continues to sleep at my side, built a house, and given birth to three children. And yet there are wishes, and wishes.

I am making a quilt of stars for my daughter. She is sixteen and has asked for a bedcover to replace the pink and green cats and hearts of her childhood. What colours now, I asked, and she suggested blues and purples. The bolts of cloth were almost too beautiful to choose from but there was an indigo like the night sky, there was a marbled cotton in deep blue and purple, and a soft silvery periwinkle like the starry flowers on the ground beneath our arbutus tree. I measured and cut, using my son’s knowledge of mathematics for one difficult triangle, and pieced together stars of periwinkle and mauve to shine on a bed of dark blues.

image, Stars.

When I was a child, I dreamed of beauty. What did it mean? I never knew exactly but was speechless with it sometimes, coming in from the fields with tears in my eyes, filled with something I had no words for. I was odd one out at the table, amid the talk of hockey and hunting. Where did the sight of frog spawn on the rushes in the shallow end of a pool fit? Or the skeins of geese flying south overhead on golden fall days? I felt I would burst with the wonder of things and cried into my hands, inconsolable. By some odd quirk, I was given poetry as a means to explore such mysteries, although it was not understood by my family. It pained me to make my lines in the shadow of anger and aggression I often felt in our household. Later, when I had a horse, I would press my face into his warm neck and murmur words that might have been poetry, might have been love. On his forehead, a white star against the black of his coat.

Is a parent ever aware of the brilliance of its offspring, a comet its shooting stars? Who can see such things clearly? My sons, with their fine minds, intent on disciplines which will take them far out in the world, their lives trajectories beyond my seeing. My daughter is so lovely at sixteen that I am surprised again each time she enters a room. Her intelligence, her ideas, her kindness to those around her, are balanced by the grace of her body, her blond hair framing her face, her shapely blue eyes. My parents were of a generation reluctant to praise. I wonder if it had to do with religion, the fear that God might take what was remarkable. I remember bringing home report cards with good grades but the questions would come: Why a B? Who got an A? And a comment on the report indicating a problem with attitude or effort would be seized and worked like a bone. I remember walking home from school with the brown envelope containing the report card in my satchel, anxiety causing my heart to flutter. I wanted to please my family but the things I excelled at were as foreign to them as Timbuktu. Poetry, the explication of novels, classification of plants.

In thinking about meteors, the birth and passing of beauty, I look for books to tell me about astronomy. A few are very dry and show author with impressive telescope, author adjusting lenses, author looking seriously into the sky with the naked eye. But one intrigues me, Teach Yourself Astronomy, by David S. Evans, from a series called The Teach Yourself Books, published in England in the fifties, the decade of my birth. I note that series includes such titles as Teach Yourself Anatomy, Teach Yourself Seamanship and (my favourite) Teach Yourself to Fly. I immediately went to the index to see if there was information on the Leonid Showers—there wasn’t—but found the "Appendices," a wonderful little collection of material: "The Greek Alphabet," "The Constellations," "Some Bright Stars," "A Short Astonomical Dictionary" (more on this in a moment), and "A Book List" (annotated), directing the interested reader to books on telescope making, journals, as well as An Important Reference Book (rather advanced) called Astrophysical Quantities.

I learn in the "Short Astronomical Dictionary" that a meteor is defined this way: small body rendered momentarily luminous by friction on entering atmosphere of earth. And meteor shower is a group of meteors sharing common motion producing a display of numerous, almost simultaneous meteors. I read these again and am struck by how applicable the first definition is to a newborn child and the second to its family. We are luminous at birth and that we lose the halo of cherished light that accompanies us to earth from the womb of our mothers is a source of great sadness. And a room of intense light, such heavenly bodies—what sorrow that a family loses sight of such brilliance. I was recently given a copy of the telegram announcing my birth —my father was in the navy and was away at the time —and was moved to see myself described as “darling Theresa.” I am certain I must have been praised as a child but the terms of possible endearment are lost to me in the tangle of hurt and absence that was my adolescence. I believed no one could love me.

image, Stars.

A quilt takes months. You choose a pattern, something formal or an idea to cobble together. You try to think how much fabric you will need, translating shapes into metres, or in my case, yards which I then convert to metric. The fabric shop will make your choices difficult, all the bolts arranged by colour and tone, each more lovely than the last, or next. You will choose too much fabric, or too little. Wash it and dry it so that later washings, once the quilt is finished and used, won’t shrink your coverlet out of shape. Cut out fabric into necessary pieces —for years I used scissors and nothing ever quite fit which meant I had to compensate by constantly adjusting or easing things together. Then I bought a mat and a rotary cutter which makes things easier and more accurate. But still.

Make the blocks or arrange your collage of likely colours, textures, sewing them together by hand or with a machine. Fit these together in an agreeable way, realizing as you do so that your skills have not improved with the measuring, cutting, sewing, despite the fact that you’ve been doing it for years. More than a decade. Nearly two. Sandwich your top of pieced blocks together with batting and whatever you’ve chosen for the back of the quilt (I have taken to buying cotton sheets, often seconds, from remainder bins, keeping an eye out for likely colours and stockpiling them.). Baste together with big stitches in a thread you’d never be able to use for anything else (the fuschia in a assortment package, or the turquoise...).

Then you can quilt. Using a frame or a hoop, using templates or freehand patterns which you’ve drawn on with quilting pencils designed to fade after use, make the tiny stitches which draw the layers together and create texture. Be prepared for pleasure as you sit and stitch, working from the centre out to prevent wrinkles.

By now you will see what I am seeing as I stitch my daughter’s quilt, something unexpected, pale stars glowing in a deep blue sky. It calls from its basket to be worked on, completed.

Even so, no matter that I love to stitch, that I pick up the quilt whenever I can, that I honestly take solace in this homely handwork, it still takes months. I marvel at those who can work faster and I love the story of the mice who help the tailor of Gloucester finish the Lord Mayor’s waistcoat, their tiny paws working the buttonholes with tiny stitches, creating a festival garden of roses and pansies, of poppies and cornflowers. My stitches are nothing like mice-sized but we are all watching the starry quilt as it nears completion, a constellation of stars for a young woman to dream under.

I look in "A Short Astronomical Dictionary" to see if there is a term to describe this process. Nothing quite fits. But definitions speak to me of the processes inherent in motherhood, in quilting, in watching the skies as a part of living intensely in a time and place. “Phase”, for instance: used to describe degree of illumination of moon, planet or satellite. Also in sense of fraction of period of an recurrent phenomenon which has elapsed, as for example, in connection with variable star...

Did I mention that the pattern I am using for my daughter’s quilt is the Variable Star? Quilt names have their origins in the workplace (Monkey Wrench, Chimney Sweep), in travel and migration (Delectable Mountains, Oregon Trail, Wandering Foot); they reflect the lives and hopes of their makers (Log Cabin, Wedding Ring, Friendship Album) and have deep allegorical values as well. I remember reading a book about how quilts were used as codes for those using the Underground Railroad: the placement of a Compass Rose on a fencerail would warn or encourage, stars would echo the constellations leading north. A Variable Star is named for the possibilities within its design. It is pieced in small units of squares and triangles and there are untold variations inherent in this, correspondences between the maker and her materials, the outside world, future generations. A poetry of texture and anecdote, a guide to migration and continuity.

image, Stars.

The night I woke my daughter to watch the Leonid Showers was cold and not quite clear. Mist from the lakes in the valley below us obscured the near sky to some degree but gradually drifted and lifted to allow better visibility. We understood that we should face east and try to locate the constellation Leo. We have a chart and know of course to find Ursa Major, then follow a line down to Regulus, a bright star at the foot of the sickle-shaped line of stars that forms the head of Leo. The hindquarters are a sort of wedge-shaped group of stars. The sickle is the western portion of Leo and that is the radiant point for the meteor showers. Sure enough, we watched bright streaks rushing through the darkness.

It is hard to find words of my own for the sight of this. However, in his 1563 treatise on meteors, A Goodly Gallerye, William Fulke expounded upon shooting stars: A flying, shooting or falling Starre, is when the exhalation being gathered as it were on a round heape, and yet not thoroughly compacted in the hyghest parts of the lowest region of the ayre, beynge kyndled, by the soden colde of the mydle region is beaten backe, and so appeareth as though a Starre should fall, or slyde from place to place. This endearing description is oddly at one with my sensation that the meteors passed like the breath of fire. Finding a few lines, across the centuries, to tell my story, a tale of a woman watching the Leonids with a daughter as lovely as starlight in the middle regions of the planet.

image, Stars.

In quilting, geometrics have traditionally imposed the formats, the patterns. Woe then to the mother who is useless at math. In planning a quilt, my reaction to this ordered system has always been a reckless measuring which produces careless results. Over the Christmas holiday, intent on beginning the Variable Stars, I asked my younger son, a physics and math major, how one could accomodate for seam allowances in a particular shape; I’d always arrived at this by hit or miss. He spent time working out an equation which he tried to explain to me but seeing I was lost, he produced a template with the equation as his blueprint. How easily his mind grasped the dimensions of a star, how well he saw that it was a sum of its parts and how best to represent each discrete element, first in an abstract calculation, then on paper, then in clean cotton.

One thing that has always puzzled me when looking at books about stars is the relationship between the pattern of the stars and its name. So much must be taken on faith. Orion, for instance, is a constellation appearing in the classical astronomer Ptolemy’s list of 48 constellations. His is an ancient story, infinitely various. A constant is that he was a hunter but the thread that leads him to the heavens is lost in myth. One version of his story has him pursuing one of the seven sisters called the Pleiades. Variants of the myth have Orion pursuing the mother. Some sources suggest that this story evolved to explain the proximity of the two constellations and not the reverse. But to look at diagrams of Orion, the two triangles joined by the famous three-star belt, one must take it on faith that this is a hunter, the two bright stars, one of them Betelgeuse, his shoulders, and two more, his knees. Diagrams show the bow, Orion’s arm raised to shoot. These stars are more elusive.

Ursa Major, the Great Bear, looks nothing like a bear to me but more resembles its variants —the Plough and the Big Dipper. And Pegasus, the winged horse of the autumn sky —well, try as I might, with a heart eager for horses, I cannot see the horse hanging below the Queen Cassiopeia. If wishes were horses, this is a constellation I would bridle with the help of Athene to bring on the wellspring of the Muses. But that assumes that one takes on faith the relationship of those particular stars to one another when in fact some of the stars within the formation are hundreds of light-years away from one another and if we were in different areas of the Galaxy, we would see something very different, another set of transparencies. And we are not seeing what is actually there in the real time of stars, a concept quite beyond my grasp. And yet humans have essentially viewed the same heavens since the dawn of recorded time, although stars are constantly in motion, being born and dying, shrinking and altering. Some explode. Some appear unchanged for centuries while others, the variables, brighten and fade over periods ranging from a few hours to a few days. The charts which illustrate the light curves of variable stars remind me of quilting charts. What impresses me most about both kinds of charts is that their creators have minds which can relate the abstract to the actual, curved lines to a star’s light, geometric angles to a tactile object of cotton. My mind doesn’t get it.

Later, discussing this, my husband says, “It’s because you look at quilts as terrains, not maps.” And I think, Yes, of course—for me they are collections of textures, colours, movements of stitching across surfaces. Getting fabric to mimic something I have seen—tulips in a bed of forget-me-nots, yellow and red against clear blue; velvets and corduroys to echo the patterns of fields seen from the sky; and now these silvery mauve stars pricking an indigo heaven. Something in relief, representational but not a leap from geometry to image; rather from hillock to valley, plant to its root system, meteorite to its brief flaring moment in the atmosphere of earth.

And looking to the sky, I see the way light resonants in darkness that goes on so far past seeing that it cannot be thought about, except by those with fine allusive minds. My sons, for instance, the younger one in particular, who can move from star to equation in the moment it takes to put pen to paper. I stand at my window at bedtime for a glimpse of heaven and see a moon, sometimes a sickle, or a full aching globe dusky with mountains. A topography, then, a terrain. I try reading it for its ridges and canyons, spaces between stars, the long wash of light of the Milky Way. It doesn’t matter than I’ve never been able to see the swan in Cygnus or the horse in Pegasus. The stars have a physicality of their own, a selfhood, and it doesn’t matter in the least to them that I don’t understand the Doppler Effect or Keppler’s Law.

William Fulke wrote the places in whiche Meteors are caused, be either the ayre or the earth, in the aire be generated rayne, hayle, snow, dew, blasing starres, thonder, lightning etc. In the earth be welles, springs, earthquakes, metalls, mineralls, etc. made, and as it were in their mothers belly begotten and fashioned... The remarkable springs forth in surprising ways and needs to be acknowledged, praised, though the language we have for this doesn’t often rise to the task as we hope it might. And so we make poetry, stories, connect the stars with lines to make patterns to reflect our own secrets and fears, or hopes and auguries. Consulting charts on graph paper, we plot a garden, a residence, the light curves of stars, a bridge to arch over a river to take us across safely, a quilt to echo our journey, our friendships, a flight of geese seen and never forgotten, bordered with pine trees, a compass rose.

I think of early people huddled into their animal skins beside a smoking fire, reading the sky like a bedtime story. Across the heavens, those tales unfold, light stitched to light, a tracery of twins, compasses, crowns and scales, virgins, the long sagas of hunters and heroes. We have in us a deep need for stories, to make the abstract literal, to offer narratives to explain the unknown. And isn’t that what I’ve been doing with my cottons and needles? I have been reading and remembering, finding a shape for the hurt of my own youth, hoping to spare my children from fear and regret. On each bed, a patchwork, for warmth and for safe passage. In the sky we might fashion a parallel life, a world mirroring the topography of our own lives, rough and beautiful, geometry in service to love. Sewing stars for my daughter to sleep under, I am fashioning a metaphor for my love and belief in her own luminosity, a parable of meteors and radiance and faith.

  

Theresa Kishkan lives with her husband John Pass on the Sechelt Peninsula in British Columbia where they operate High Ground Press. Her books include Red Laredo Boots (1996), Sisters of Grass (2000) and A Man in a Distant Field (2004).
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