Friday, March 24, 2023

Finish It Friday ~ Another Runner Hat

After I finished Z's cross-country runner hat last fall, my cousin asked me to make one for her, so I picked up a skein of the same soft, squishy yarn in a sunny color called saffron, and got to work. 

I wanted to make this second hat smaller than Z's, which is pretty large and loose, so I went down a needle size, from 7/8 (ribbing/pattern) to 6/7, shortened the ribbing so it wouldn't be foldable, and focused on keeping my tension consistent throughout.

Unfortunately, I also accidentally cast on 80 stitches rather than the 88 (or 90) I should have, and the hat turned out VERY snug. So I started again, with the correct number of stitches, and came out with two hats, one a form-fitting adult size and one just right for a kid.

I gave the small one to a friend who still has little ones in her home and sent the other one off to my cousin, with hopes for some cold weather remaining in the winter so she could wear it.

Ravelry notes (including an explanation of the cast-on conundrum) here. Ravelry notes on the original hat with the pattern here (including notes on how to lop off the Ancient-Egyptian-looking hands and an improved decrease over the first one I did).

Monday, March 20, 2023

Inflection Point in Literary Mama

I joined the staff of Literary Mama in the spring of 2014, shortly after I finished my MFA program. I'd published my first short story there, six years earlier, and had published an essay about finding models of mother protagonists in fiction--an adaptation of my thesis introduction--in the Literary Reflections department the previous month. My pre-MFA writing instructor Kate Hopper was resigning from editing the Literary Reflections department and recommended me as her replacement. At the same time, the editorial assistant for the department, Libby Maxey, moved up to take the other department editor position, vacated by Christina Speed. 

Libby and I enjoyed eight years of highly compatible co-editing until she moved over to help run the Poetry department around a year ago. We became good friends, even though we didn't speak to each other outside of email until 2018, when I joined the Senior Editor team, of which Libby was already a member and began to participate in conference calls, and we didn't meet in person until last summer. Libby was the first reader of the first draft of Uphill Both Ways, and she's always been my go-to when I have a sticky editorial question or any question at all about poetry. I was a little afraid we might not be as compatible in real life as we were over email, but we talked nonstop for a solid four hours when we got together, and I'm pretty sure we could have kept going if we didn't have time constraints.

I've made other good friends in my years at LM, including former editor Amanda Jaros, who was another UBW early reader and a kindred spirit in the mother-nature-writer realm (and who is coming out with her own hiking memoir soon!). I really enjoyed working with the senior editor dream team we had for several years with Amanda, Libby, Christina Consolino, Amanda Fields, and Hope Donovan-Rider at the helm. And it's been a joy to be part of this literary community and experience its growth and change of the last almost-decade.

But all good things must come to an end, and at the end of this month so does my term at LM. I'm leaving the Literary Reflections department in good hands, and looking forward to stretching my writing muscles in new, possibly not motherhood-related directions. As a swan song, I penned an essay that's been bubbling under the surface for even longer than I've been an editor at LM. Please enjoy what Libby referred to as an "origin story" of a Literary Mama editor: "Inflection Point: The Birth of a Mother Writer," in which I weave together the many stages in my lifelong dream of becoming a writer with the monumental effort of getting to a writing conference when my kids were small:

Six months before the conference 

You learn about the annual conference of writers from your writing instructor and look it up online. It will be held in April in the state where you grew up, where your family still lives, 1,800 miles away from where you live now. You check the school calendar, but the week of the conference does not align with the week of your kids’ spring break, so you won’t be able to turn it into a family vacation.

I wanted to write as soon as I could read. In second grade, I decided I was going to be an “author” when I grew up. I’m not sure I knew what that meant, but Betsy Ray of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books wanted to be an author, and so did I.

Five months before the conference 

You spend all your discretionary funds Christmas shopping and don’t have the money to register before the early bird deadline.

My third-grade teacher was big into creative writing and had us write a lot of poetry and short stories. I enthusiastically filled up her green poetry sheets with banal verse, clichés, and made-up words like “scrumpdillicious,” and she enthusiastically marked each page with a red A+.

You can read the rest of the essay here. Enjoy!

Friday, March 10, 2023

Book Stack ~ February 2023

 A monthly post about what I've been reading.

Somewhere I saw a list called "Books that Don't Bum You Out," and when next February comes around, I'm going to find that list, because last month I read a lot of downers. February is not a month for books that bum you out; it's a month that requires all of the artificial means of mood elevation available. First, let's talk about the happy pill books I read.

Fun Fiction
I started the month by finishing off the stack of Barbara Michaels books of suspense I had ordered in January: The Grey Beginning and The Master of Blacktower, both delightfully gothic, with one contemporary and the other Victorian (sometimes I think I don't want to read a Victorian gothic, but I always end up enjoying myself when I do). I then threw in an Elizabeth Peters--The Copenhagen Connection--just for fun. This one's a caper, and while I don't know all the conventions of that genre, I'm pretty sure an element of the ridiculous is requisite, and this one had it in spades. I then read an Anne Hillerman my mom sent, The Tale Teller. While it's been a long time since I've ready anything by Tony Hillerman, and while the story was good, I don't think the writing quite stood up to her father's. There seemed to be a lot of banal dialogue that didn't serve the story. I'm also more aware of, and uncomfortable about, cultural appropriation than I was last time I read a Joe Leaphorn (detective) book. So I'm on the fence about this one. Finally, at the end of the month, I read another Barbara Michaels Victorian gothic, Black Rainbow (because once I remembered I liked Victorian gothic, I decided to keep going with the theme), as a palate cleanser after the heavy reads below.

Heavy Fiction
The New Wilderness, by Diane Cook. In a post-apocalyptic world, a small group of people is sent to live in a manufactured "wilderness" and observed by the state to see how they fare. Lovely writing, beautiful exploration of mother-daughter relationships, interesting concepts, but just generally grim. I don't know if the idea of post-apocalyptic writing is to warn of coming dangers or concede defeat before it's even happened, but it kinda feels like the latter to me. 

The School for Good Mothers, by Jessamyn Chan. Not post-apocalyptic, but speculative, about women who make mistakes (ranging from momentarily lapses of attention to outright abuse) as parents being sent to a prison-like environment to "learn" to be good mothers (i.e., boundlessly self-sacrificing) by taking care of creepy robot dolls. Also grim, mainly in the way it so expertly reflected society's impossible expectations of mothers (and double standard with regard to fathers). But the ending was, if not redemptive, very satisfying.

We All Want Impossible Things, by Catherine Newman. A woman watches her best friend die in hospice and makes, shall we say, questionable behavior choices. This one contains all of the signature Catherine Newman humor and cooking and unbelievably generous and cheerfully self-sacrificing adults and funny, quirky, loving children of her nonfiction (somehow these traits are less believable in fiction than nonfiction--I mean, an ex-husband who comes over and cooks every night?). But there's only one way a hospice novel can end, so definitely a book that will bum you out.


I'm still working my way through Louise Dickinson Rich (I won't read it all--she wrote a LOT, and I'm not terribly interested in her fiction), and read Only Parent, about life raising her two kids after her husband, Ralph, died suddenly. It's an interesting topic for the time, when divorce was less common and less commonly accepted. And while she mentions the ways life is made more challenging by the lack of a second adult in the house, it's not a woe-is-me tale, but rather another series of her funny and prescient observations of everyday life. Definitely not a bummer.

Inciting Joy, by Ross Gay. I was expecting more of The Book of Delights, but the essays in Inciting Joy are much longer (and more discursive; in some the parenthetical asides and footnotes run as long as the main text) and cover much heavier topics, although they may start from a benign subject like music, basketball, or gardening. I'm actually still mulling this one over, a few weeks after having finished, not entirely sure what to think, and I'll probably dive back in and read it again a time or two in order to fully grasp it all.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Boring But Not Bored

 At the beginning of the year I started a 5-year journal, with about one-by-three inches of space in which to recount each day of the year, year after year. When I get to the end of each day and jot down the events--read a little, wrote a little, worked a little (I have a freelance project going on now, which makes me feel more at home now in the capitalist system in which when people ask, "What have you been up to?" they usually mean, "What are you doing to move money around?"), made a little art, walked the trail, watched the birds, cooked dinner, tidied the house, maybe knitted a bit or grocery shopped or talked to someone on the phone--I think something along the lines of "Wow, my life is really boring." Only the thing is, I don't *feel* bored (although I did go through a restless period last weekend, wherein I felt like I need a big project to work on, something physical and not reading-writing-art related, like building a shed or remodeling a bathroom; luckily I did not act on this impulse, and the mood, which I diagnosed as spring fever, eventually passed).

February can be a hard month, with the first halfway between the solstice and the equinox, a good eight to twelve weeks until spring in my neck of the woods, no matter what the groundhog says. Though the days are perceptibly longer and the quality of light more golden, we started the month with the coldest weather of the year (-14.4 on 2/4) and we're wrapping it up in a similar vein (-0.8 this morning). The freelance job I'm doing is on a heavy topic and many of the books I've read this month have been heavy as well, and I've had to antidote it all with a heavy dose of rewatching ridiculous television shows every night. 

For all these reasons, February is the month I most feel like hibernating, by which I mean loading up the wood stove and reading a little, writing a little, making a little art, knitting a bit, walking the trail, watching the birds, fixing a pot of tea in the afternoon. Maybe burrowing is more what I mean than hibernating--cozying down into a pleasant waking doze beneath a comforter with a plate of cheese nearby: torpor, dormancy, senescence. In other words, exactly what I've been doing.

Which isn't to say I've done nothing at all this month--at the beginning of the month I caught up with a few friends at a party and led a full-moon hike at a nearby nature center; yesterday Z and I met up with M for a day of cross-country skiing on some gorgeous groomed trails, and the snow was so perfect I decided that perhaps, rather than hanging up my cross-country skis for good (which I'd been considering, because I always feel so resistant to going), I'd instead trade them in on a pair that isn't missing the back half of one of the bindings and the top half of of one of the pole handles and most of the pole baskets, along with some boots that are warm and comfortable and don't raise blisters. In between I had a book talk and met a good friend for lunch and had countless appointments. And now that I'm nearing the end of the month, I think I'm ready to wake up a bit, to poke my head out of my hole and see if I see my shadow. It is, perhaps, another symptom of spring fever.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Book Stack ~ January 2023

 A monthly post about what I've been reading.

While Christmas shopping with my kids, I pointed to Barbara Kingsolver's latest book, Demon Copperhead, and told them they could get me that for Christmas. M took the hint, and in January I read the retelling David Copperfield, situated in rural Appalachia the midst of the opioid crisis. Through the engagingly delightful voice of young Demon--which never resorts to dialect or other cheap tricks to convey regionality--the reader is taken on a journey through systemic poverty, a failed social services system, and drug addiction. Born in a trailer in western Virginia, raised by an unstable mother, subjected to a cruel stepfather, shunted through a series of foster homes, and put to work too young in dangerous jobs, Demon has the deck stacked against him from the beginning. As with Dickens's character, despite the many ways life goes wrong for Demon, his fortunes often rise, and though he's forced to confront multiple villains, he is also blessed with good people in his life who help to steer him in the right direction. As a narrator, Demon is both innocent and wise in the telling of his tale, and through his voice and his life history, Kingsolver manages to convey the ravages that centuries of institutionalized poverty and exploitation and abuse by the tobacco, coal, and drug industries have wreaked on the region, while neither romanticizing the people nor condescending to them. She also celebrates the natural beauty of the landscape and the values of hard work, strong family ties, and attachment to the land that characterize the area. This book gripped me more than anything I've read in a long time--I stayed up way too late several nights in a row because I couldn't stop reading--and before I was even done I went out and got a copy of David Copperfield. It was a delight to read the original and see the ways Kingsolver turned a Victorian lawyer into a Virginian football coach, an honest and determined old fisherman into a feisty young nurse, and, of course, the ghastly Uriah Heep into the equally ghastly U-Haul Pyles. The combined 1,400 pages of the two books flew by in a matter of weeks, despite Dickens's version sagging a bit between about page 200 and 500 (due to young Copperfield going through a relatively good spell at that stage in the book).

On the lighters side, I also read three delightfully gothic Barbara Michaels novels: The Walker in the Shadows; House of Many Shadows; Be Buried in the Rain; and Wait for What Will Come. When I realized in December that I didn't own a copy of Ammie Come Home, I went through my collection to see what else was missing and ordered them from a used book shop. Michaels is the pen name that Barbara Mertz aka Elizabeth Peters used for her books of suspense. These often, though not always, have a supernatural element and are generally more serious in tone than her Peters books, though not without humor, and they frequently have gothic elements--the big creepy house, the young ingenuous heroine who can't leave for some reason, mysterious goings-on, often a housekeeper who is either alarmingly grim in demeanor or unbelievably cheery. Occasionally they take place in the classic Victorian gothic setting. There's always at least one handsome love interest (and in one case four), who is sometimes a friend and sometimes a foe, and sometimes the heroine doesn't know which until too late. These four are all contemporary (as in they take place in the '70s and '80s, when they were written), and they're evenly split between those with supernatural causes of the mysterious happenings and those with human villains. House of Many Shadows is fun for being one of the few of Michaels's books with an older protagonist (although there is, as always, still a pair of "confounded young lovers," as Radcliffe Emerson--chief hero of the Amelia Peabody series by E. Peters--would say). So it's never too late to find yourself in a haunted house.

The novel I drafted in January was a takeoff on the Barbara Michaels contemporary gothic--an homage if you will--so it was fun to read these at the same time as writing my own. I even hid some Easter eggs in the text, including Michaels's books on the shelves of the creepy house.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Finish It Friday ~ JANOWRIMO


The phenomenon known as NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, takes place every November. The gist of it is to write 1,600-odd words each day for the whole month and come out a the end with a 50,000-word draft novel. There are all kinds of ways to connect to other people who are participating, such as posting your daily word count and joining group write-ins. I've tried, halfheartedly, to NaNoWriMo a couple of times in the past, but November is not a great month for me for daily writing, what with Thanksgiving, at least four days with no school, and it usually being the time of year that my attack of "spring" cleaning strikes. I also don't find motivation in the joining of groups or the declaring publicly that I'm working on something. Quite the opposite, in fact.

At the end of December, I was looking at a January calendar that was mostly clear and feeling the urge to work on something different than the projects I'd been doggedly grubbing away at all fall. I pulled up the file of a novel I'd started the last time I'd tried to NaNoWriMo, in 2018. I'd written 14,000 or so words before I couldn't bear to look at it any more. But now as I read through I realized there was something to it--a story I could work with. So I decided to create my own NaNoWriMo but in January--JanNoWriMo--and finish writing that book. There would be no joining, no declaring my intentions, no public posting of my daily word count; there would just be me pecking quietly away writing every day. 

Since I already had some words (about 8,000 that made it over from the original effort)--and because I did the math wrong--I only required myself to write 1,200 words in order to get a sticker for the day. Most days I wrote more, some days a *lot* more, and some days I quit at exactly 1,202 because I couldn't think of another single solitary word to write. I also wasn't quite done on January 31st and had to write a couple thousand words on February 1st to finish the book, In the end, I came out with a draft of around 61,500 words.

Another principle of NaNoWriMo is to write forward--no going back and tinkering--and I followed this mostly, until I got to a place about 3/4 of the way through when I got stuck. I had no idea where to go from there. So I went back to the beginning and started reading, and for the next three days got my word count in by backfilling all of the preceding scenes. This gave me both an overview of the book and enough of a rest that my brain had time to come up with the next scene. 

When I typed the last word Wednesday I experienced a feeling of euphoria that was quickly followed by a sense of letdown. I was going to miss these characters who kept me company when I lay awake at night with insomnia, imagining them acting out the scenes to come. I also knew that the really hard work--letting it rest, deciding if there's anything there worth keeping, and then revising--lies ahead. The letdown didn't last too long, though, because, after all, I wrote a whole novel, right to the end, something I've wanted to do for more than 40 years.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

New Year Refresh and Recharge

It may be a cliché to think of January as a time of fresh starts and new beginnings, but I'm okay with that, because I like the idea of taking time to reflect over the last year and look ahead to the next one, to recommit myself to big plans and goals, to reset my feet on the path that I want them to be taking, when they may have wandered off onto trails of less resistance or have even stopped altogether and settled at a resting spot.

I began the month with giving myself a word (or in this case words) of the year: pay attention. Last year my word was intention, and it had so little influence on how I went about 2022 that I didn't even remember what it was by the year's end. I figured that in order to understand better what I want my intentions to be in each day and action and scenario, I should maybe start with paying attention to what I do with my time and why, to how I feel, and to what's going on around me in the natural world and among the humans I'm in contact with.

Also this month, with my creativity group, I made a vision board. It has a lot of warm coral-orange-pinky colors and a lot of flight and upward movement and words like creativity, vitality, and joy. It's meant to serve as a reminder to bring those qualities to my writing and my daily living, to pay attention to those things. And I  made lists--lists of projects big and small, for writing, art, crafts, travel, and life; lists of all the things I want to incorporate into my days: writing, art, exercise, professional development. 

January began with a feeling of expansiveness. I didn't have much on the calendar, and the early days of the month felt long and luxurious with plenty of time in them to accommodate anything I could dream up. I thought I could accomplish everything on those daily lists. But, as it usually does, time often got away from me. I'd get to the end of my day with several boxes left unchecked. That's the trouble with an expansive feeling--everything expands to fill it. I didn't do any professional development, but I did luxuriate in reading two very long books, I didn't do any of the illustrations for Book #2, but I did knit a hat (which I need to re-knit because I cast on the wrong number of stitches), I didn't take up pilates, but I did more nature journaling than I've done in a long time.

Whether due to poor time management or my eyes being bigger than my stomach (metaphorically) or just getting plain tired before I got to everything, I had to let some of those list items go. But I stuck to the most important ones for me: writing every day on a novel (more on that next month), doing a short yoga routine every weekday morning, taking a long walk (or snowshoe) on our trail, jotting a quick recap of the day in my 5-year journal. On a day-to-day basis, I tended to focus on the the things I didn't get done and the time I wasted, but looking back, I'm happy with what I did get done.

As January nears its end, that expansive feeling is beginning to contract, as appointments appear on my calendar and I my focus turns away from reading big fat books and writing a novel just for fun and more toward work I need to do for or in conjunction with others. It's part of the natural rhythm of our days and months and years--expand, contract, expand, contract. And having spent a month exploring and luxuriating in expansiveness, I feel rested and ready to move into a time with more deadlines and obligations.

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