Text—Textile—Texture | The Button Jar
Content indicator: this blog post addresses a recent bereavement in my family, and the complexities of grief.
late Middle English: from Old Northern French texte, from Latin textus ‘tissue, literary style’ (in medieval Latin, ‘Gospel’), from text- ‘woven’, from the verb texere. 1
"The shared origin of text and textile in the Latin texere, to weave, is a critical commonplace. Many of the terms we use to describe our interactions with words are derived from this common linguistic root, and numerous other expressions associated with reading and writing are drawn from the rich vocabulary of cloth.” 2
“An ancient metaphor: thought is a thread, and the raconteur is a spinner of yarns—but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver. The scribes made this old and audible abstraction into a new and visible fact. After long practice, their work took on such an even, flexible texture that they called the written page a textus, which means cloth. [Robert Bringhurst, "The Elements of Typographic Style"]” 3
Such a little word, text, for all that it manages to encompass between the written and the woven, between the thread and the substrate and the feel and the word. From thought to paper, from paper to cloth, from cloth to thread, from thread to thought.
Roland Barthes drew the meanings of text and textile together beautifully throughout his polemic The Death of the Author, but in particular in this, where he states directly that text is a fabric: “The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” 4. (The noun tissue come from the Old French tissu, meaning “a ribbon, or belt of woven material” 5.)
For me, text’s interrelated meanings echoes my day-to-day: what I think about for my PhD (theories of text, textuality and meaning in relation to art) and what I relax with (sewing, knitting: threads connecting threads to threads). The prefix ‘text—’ binds what sometimes feel like the disparate elements of my life: text—textile—texture.
For the past seven weeks everything has off-kilter while I’ve come head-to-head with the various textures of life. I haven’t felt attuned to either my writing or my sewing. So this is an attempt to mend things together, through a piece of writing on the complexities of grief.
Weaving in the grief
Life is rarely tidy. Rather than each emotionally significant moment occupying a discrete period—where there’s time to process the impact of the situation, to sit quietly with it and understand how that impact will fit within the texture of your life—they tend to pile up. Emotionally-impacting moments have a way of colliding. Perhaps we can think of them as emotion-slubs.
October was an extremely intense month for a number of reasons, but the two key moments were my grandmother passing away, and my husband and I celebrating fifteen-years of togetherness. A rupture set against a continuance.
How do you acknowledge the joy when the grief for a loved one is hovering directly behind it; how do you process the sadness while wanting to revel in the pleasures and satisfactions of a good and solid relationship?
Each of these life-moments needed attention, acknowledgement, time. Where some things could temporarily ‘take a backseat’—PhD, teaching, housework—the joy and the sadness couldn’t take a backseat to each other. They are both important. They needed to sit alongside each other in the front seat, occasionally swapping the driving.
Or at least, that’s the ideal. I don’t really know if I’ve fully processed Granny’s death. A very complicated immediate family, fractured with deep schisms, makes for a complex and quite lonely period of grief. Although my husband and close-friends have been sweet and lovely, there’s not really been anyone I can grieve with, in the sense of sharing the grief with other family members who knew and loved Granny in a similar way to me; people who could loosely mirror how I’m feeling so that I could access and understand and share what is, for me, quite a scary emotion. Instead I block my grief off from other family members. When we’re together, my younger brothers (whom I remain close to) and I bury those emotions behind walls of cracking jokes and being noisy and talking shit about anything but…
And I block the grief off from myself. What do I do with these feelings? I do what I always seem to do: I bury myself in other things. My earliest grief—between hearing Granny was dying and had died—was first buried in one of those I must finish this sewing project before we go away for the weekend periods of sewing mania, driven, I know, more by not wanting to feel than by wanting a new coat.
Then it was buried, guiltily, between her death and the funeral, behind wanting to be emotionally present for the weekend away Justin and I had, a long time before, planned to celebrate our anniversary: we climbed a mountain! We talked and talked and walked and walked. We enjoyed being together. We celebrated our love. I didn’t want to look at my sadness, and I didn’t want to analyse what felt like betraying Granny by ignoring my grief for her in enjoying my time with Justin.
Then there was the Tuesday funeral, lonely and awkward and unsettling, piquing and twanging at my anxiety so much so that I couldn’t and wouldn’t allow myself to grieve fully at that event that should have been about that.
And then my PhD required attention that I’d avoided giving it for weeks: a meeting with my supervisors twenty-seven hours after the funeral and immediately back into the research; and it’s been that way ever since: read and write, write and read. Find a project, ignore the sadness.
So instead the grief occasionally comes in unexpected waves that I tend to beat back instead of actually feeling. I’ll experience the memory of the last time I saw Granny when we knew she was dying. Of flying to Auckland for a final visit. Of having to intentionally say goodbye, intentionally stand up and leave her rest-home room, walk away and out, turn on the rental car, drive to the airport to catch a flight home, knowing there wouldn’t be any possibility of seeing her again … and rapidly retreat, like pulling a hand away from a hot stove-top. Or I’ll think about Granny and Grandpa together, and their long and adoring love of each other, the way they’d look at each other with such softened expressions full of intimacy, private knowledge, love … and I’ll think, “nope, not the time for this, too busy” and I’ll get on with something else.
Her garden; her dry wit; her at the head of the dinner-table; her teaching me table-manners; her incredible vintage bathing caps; staying with them as a little-one and tea with honey in the mornings, and sitting in Grandpa’s bed, beside Granny’s bed—separate beds pushed right up together—while she read the paper; her armchair with a comfy footstool next to the fire and Grandpa swathing the living room in Borkum Riff pipe smoke; the warmth of their house coloured peach and cream and minty-greens and apricot; playing Candyland. Her choked-up happiness when I told her Justin and I had eloped. Her and Grandpa in Britain, their shared love of Grasmere and Skye and Inverness and the Cotswold (and what we called Snozzhill Pub instead of Snowshill Pub); all the many, many postcards Granny and Grandpa wrote to me when they were travelling; the long walks Granny and Grandpa would take us on.
Her restrained grief when Grandpa died, that once momentarily burst through its bounds when she was watching the yachts on the Waitemata Harbour, and the subsequent loneliness that set in. Her matter-of-fact way of talking, especially about her own mortality, “Well, I’ve had a good life, dear, but I’m ready to go now”.
This has been a really conflicting post to write, whether I should write it at all. But this was my October, and it’s largely bled into my November. These blog posts are usually about the fun, the achievement, the progress of sewing, but for the past month, I’ve been largely anchored in dealing—or not dealing—with the complex emotions of grief alongside joy.
And in this post, I wanted to write about that sadness—writing is so often my way into my emotions, a way in for me to grasp at what I’m feeling, and I’ve cried more writing it today than I have, probably cumulatively, since the day I heard Granny had died. Writing, recording, acknowledging gives me a chance to weave into my emotions in a way that I don’t ordinarily do, as if I not only am hearing myself think, but can also experience myself feeling, if that makes sense.
If you have read this, thank you.
Quotes sourced from:
4: Barthes, Roland. (1977). The Death of the Author. In Image — Music — Text. (Translated by S. Heath, 1977). Hill and Wang: New York, USA. P. 146.