Friday, February 17, 2017

On My Desk

My Artist's Way week starts on Wednesday, and so I've made it a little ritual to, in addition to reading that week's essays and schedule all of the exercises and tasks for the week, clear the decks—or at least my desk—in anticipation of the week's creative recovery. The clearing doesn't last long (a clean surface is like a blank canvas around here, just waiting to be ornamented in hats, napkins, water glasses, tea mugs, homework, candy wrappers, piano music, trumpets, and all manner of flotsam and jetsam), but this is a little glimpse of  my desk after I cleared it this week.

John Muir Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, which I pulled off the shelf Wednesday afternoon and started reading. Because just one self-improvement activity is not enough, I've decided to draw one bird a day for the next year, as recommended by Laws. The only trouble: we ran out of bird seed in the last few days and I haven't wanted to go out in the snow to get more, so the birds don't stick around very long (thus the blank journal page).

And yet another daily, or nearly daily, activity: Cassie Premo Steele's book, Earth Joy Writing. I've had it for a couple years now, but have only just started doing the exercises regularly.

Natural Abundance. This is one of The Artist's Way tasks for this week: find five rocks and five leaves. Reminders that the world is abundant. The rocks were easy—our house is full of them and all of these were on the windowsill above my desk (I gave them a good dusting). The one on left is a green-and-red heart(ish) shaped one I found on the Colorado Trail. The leaves had blown off the beech and oak trees after the snow stopped falling and were littering the driveway when I went out for a walk yesterday—true natural abundance!

An invitation to a reunion at my MFA program this summer and nice things that three of my mentors wrote in my final evaluations (I had four mentors; one did not say anything nice, but the other three make up for that). This was also an exercise from The Artist's Way, and it was well-timed.

Finally, I had a little money in my PayPal account from some editing work I did, but it didn't last long. Part of it I spent on these cards. The one on the left is "Persist" by Nikki McClure. I used to have the same image, torn from a calendar, in a frame at my desk at work. I passed it on to a co-worker when I left, thinking I wouldn't need to persist in my new life, but last week was a reminder that women face many obstacles and we must always persist. The one(s) on the right are Stand Up Postcards by Maine artist (and fellow COA-grad) Jennifer Judd-McGee. I sent one to my Senator earlier this week and I plan on sending the rest to friends over the next few weeks. I'll also send one to the first person to leave a comment on this blog (with your email so I can get in touch to get your address).

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Snow Days

Out of the last nine weekdays, all three kids have only gone to school two.

Three days all three of them had snow days; two days either one or two of them did; and the other two days, they had early release.

Needless to say, I haven't been getting much done these last couple of weeks.

(And next week is school vacation!!)

I should, in theory, I suppose, be able to work when they're around, but I can't. Or not much anyway.

It's "Hey, mom…" every few minutes.

And even when they're not bothering me, I feel obligated to engage them in other activities so they don't turn into total screen zombies (which, I admit, is a serious danger right about now).

And then there is the bickering, and the need to feed them occasionally.

So I heave them outside on a regular basis (and myself, too, because a daily dose of light—no matter how dim—and fresh air and body movement is essential to surviving February).

Last week's Artist's Way question was: what is your favorite creative block? That was an easy one: my kids. What to do about it (which the book doesn't ask, not yet anyway) is another question.

This is the best I could do for a Valentine heart this year. Can you see two of them?
In addition to outside time and puzzles and games and movies we all watch together (which feel a little healthier than each to his own screen), I've tried to engage them in a little creativity, both to keep them busy and to help me in my creative recovery.

One of The Artist's Way activities is to create an image file where you store pictures of things you want or that represent who you want to be or what you want to do. I figured, why create a file when you can make a collage? And E and I spent a happy evening cutting up old magazines and gluing the pictures onto big paper. My collage, necessarily tending toward nature and birds and travel, because that's what kind of magazines we had available to us, tells a little story about what kind of life I'd like to lead.

"Make art" is a phrase that keeps popping up in my mind—and in my Morning Pages—when I think about how I want to spend my time, and I was able to get all three boys engaged in a little painting project with me (when paint and canvas are involved, I can usually even get M to play along). I'd had an idea for monochromatic landscape paintings, based on a project E and Z had brought home from art class a while ago, and gave each of them a cool paint color, plus white, and had them draw a series of mountain lines.

We started with white with just a little color mixed in for the sky, and then added more color as we moved toward the bottom of the painting (foreground). I suppose I should have talked about value a little more, and maybe it would have made sense to pre-mix the different values to ensure there was enough of a range, but, well, I'm not an artist or art teacher, so we bungle along as best we can. I was left with black (though I thought sure M or Z would pick it) and it was surprisingly a lot more interesting to paint with than I expected.

Z had the idea of adding snow to his—using a mostly-empty squeeze bottle of acrylic paint, and I thought it was a pretty good idea (especially considering the blizzard swirling around outside at the time). E suggested I use an old toothbrush to flick paint on my canvas to make the snow (a trick he learned from a former art teacher), so it was a fun, collaborative project and we all learned from each other.

Another aspect of The Artist's Way is to take a weekly "Artist's Date" all by yourself. I had planned  an extended Artist Date for last Friday, thinking I'd head down to the coast, but I wanted to get some work done at home while the kids were actually at school, and it was brutally cold and windy (not a nice beach day, in other words), so instead I took a shortened date to a nearby not-quite-coastal (but on a tidal river so it feels like it is) town, where I sat in my warm car with hot tea and ate  sticky bun while watching ducks on the river and writing in my journal. I also went to a book store, which I seem to do every Artist Date, but was very good and didn't buy anything.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Weekend Things ~ The Morning After

Back when I was working for The Man, I hated Mondays. I'd wake up Sunday morning, thinking "Ugh, I have to go to work tomorrow." I was destined to be one of those people that die of a heart attack on Sunday night after a lifetime of back-to-work stress. Now that I work for me, Monday is my favorite day. I look forward to reclaiming the peace of a silent house, a reprieve from the "get off your screen" wars. I'm more convinced than ever that the 40-hour work week is inhumane. I'm willing to concede that some people enjoy their jobs and like to work, but even so Mon-Fri, 9-5 is too much. Bring on the national minimum income, I say. This Monday morning, after everyone left for school and the peaceful lull descended, I looked around my house and noticed the signs of a weekend well-spent, though it was a weekend in which the camera didn't come out very much.

The kitchen table: I swear I spent the whole weekend eating: a belated Lunar New Year celebration Saturday with friends (egg rolls, stir fry, tofu, a vaguely Southeast Asian dessert of tropical fruit and coconut milk) and then on Sunday I went on The Table Tour (a walk—not enough snow for skiing or snow-shoeing—around the Arboretum, from table of food to table of food). After two days of eating to repletion I needed to start the day with a bit of a cleanse.

Also on the table: The boys were recently gifted a collection of foreign money, and they spent some time sorting through all the coins Sunday after dinner.

The boys' room: I spent Saturday morning helping the boys deep-clean their room—vacuuming under beds, dusting behind dressers, washing windows. I helped M finish cleaning his closet. He's been working on it for a couple of months. It's been like an archaeology dig, uncovering the layers of M past (I feel like there's an essay in there somewhere). But he'd come to a standstill with one-and-a-half shelves of mementos, bric-a-brac, and dust waiting to be resolved. I held up each item and he decided whether it was to trash, keep, pass on, or store. 

The other side of the closet, however, is a bit of a disaster (despite E's and my efforts on that front a couple of months ago), but I ran out of energy on cleaning before I could tackle that.

My room: Draped over a chair is the result of a little Sunday afternoon sewing—finally making progress on a quilt for Z (thanks to my reading deprivation, I'm forced to find other ways to spend my time).

A shelf in the kitchen: We have a problem in our house which came into sharp relief with the cleaning out M's closet—of a ton of science kits and craft and art kits and kids that spend too much time on screen, not doing projects. So Sunday afternoon, I dragged E and Z off their screens and put them to work making crystals.

My desk: And then E and I started making paper boomerangs. He ran out of time to finish his, but here's where mine landed after a fling around the room.

The living room floor: In another attempt to keep boys off of screens, we've been trying to play more board games around here. When I was a kid, my sister and I played cards and games all the time, but not so these guys, unless there's an adult around directing the activities. We played Pictionary with our friends Saturday night and Taboo—E's favorite—Sunday evening.

The kitchen counter: M has been very into baking lately. He's reached the stage of baking confidence that I don't need to help out except with the occasional bit of advice and making sure we have all the necessary ingredients on hand. One weekend he made chocolate chip cookies three different times. Last week he made chocolate cake and brownies. And Sunday evening he mixed up a batch of banana- chocolate chip muffins.

The sofa: I usually write my morning pages in bed, but when C leaves early for work, like this morning, I get up to help motivate the twins to get out the door, and then curl up in a blanket on the couch to write my Morning Pages. After I finished my breakfast, I came back to this nice scene of morning productivity.

Friday, February 3, 2017

January Reads

Having a single post to cover all I read in 2016 was a bit overwhelming—both to write and, I'm sure, to read. So I've decided instead to do a monthly recap of books I've read, and share a little about each book.

I started the year with a speed-read of Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk for my Naturalist Book Group, which was fairly easy to do because it's an enjoyable, page-turning read. You've probably already read (or read about) it, but for a quick rundown, it's about the author training a goshawk after the death of her father. The hawk, Mabel, in part helps her work through her grief but also enables her to push away the companionship of other humans which is what she really needs to fully recover. I was fascinated by Macdonald's relationship with Mabel; it seemed much more complex and interesting than the relationship one would have with a "pet." Near the end of the book, Macdonald dips into this idea of a nationalist identity wrapped up with a certain type of landscape in Great Britain, which is a mind-blowing concept and worthy of a book of its own, especially in these days of out-of-control nationalism around the world.

Macdonald intertwines with her own story that of TH White, whose book The Goshawk chronicles his own (failed) attempt to train the same kind of bird. We happened to have a copy of it, which I'd bought for Z because he at one point wanted to be a falconer (but he never read it because the language was too dry, lofty, and old-fashioned for a 10-year old, but not so Helen Macdonald, who read it when she was eight). Macdonald makes out The Goshawk to be a very dark tale, but I did not find it so. It's true she had much more access to information about TH White's sad life from his biographies and personal letters and papers, but very little of his alcoholism and other self-destructive behaviors, his repressed homosexuality, or his traumatic childhood comes out on the pages of The Goshawk. In fact it's rather amusing, in that dry, British way. And his writing about the natural world can border on rhapsodic (in what at least one of my grad school mentors would have called "purple prose" but which I love).

Last year I started the habit of reading one or two poems each morning as a way of getting more poetry into my life, and because I think poetry is better appreciated in small doses, rather than plowing through a whole book at a time. With many detours and setbacks, I finally finished The Selected Works of Edna Saint Vincent Millay, which I had bought after a visit to The Millay Colony about 15 years ago. Poor Edna was a maudlin woman—she had an unholy fascination with death (perhaps everyone back then, when life was so uncertain). But I did enjoy a few of her verses and I'm glad I finally read (and finished) it.

After Christmas, I picked up a bargain-basement copy of the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. About halfway through my second viewing of the miniseries, I pulled my ratty old copy off the shelf to reread, taking comfort in Jane Austen's world where virtue is always rewarded, bad behavior punished, and everyone gets what they deserve. Why isn't real life like that? Needing further cocooning, I read Sense and Sensibility as soon as I finished P and P.

Finally, I am "doing" The Artist's Way in tandem with one of my writing group buddies. The book is like a 12-step program for recovering from "blocked creativity." Over the course of twelve weeks, the book provides exercises that are meant to help reconnect with your artistic drive and get past whatever is holding you back. This involves daily "morning pages" or three pages of free-hand writing about anything (or nothing), weekly "artist dates," and multitudes of tasks that range from organizing personal space, going and doing things, or writing to or about a variety of people and things. So far I've found that it gives me a whole lot of ways to get out of actual writing. But it also has made the day-to-day a bit more enjoyable in small ways (stickers on the morning pages! a trip to the store for office supplies! going to the art museum for no good reason! being silly, playing games, nurturing myself!). One of this week's exercises is reading deprivation. I'm supposed to not read for a whole week! The fist day I had to finish up the last few pages of Sense and Sensibility, and I had tons of editing work to do, so I didn't do well that day, but I allowed myself only two news round-up articles and enough of another article to write a letter to my senator, otherwise I stayed away from news and Facebook. Yesterday the same, and I found that not constantly taking in news about the imminent demise of democracy and life as we know it is much more conducive to happiness. Ignorance IS bliss! This morning, after a stressful event, I found myself bingeing on bad news the way I might on junk food had their been any around. I've found it a strange feeling to have an odd free moment or hour throughout the day and to not reach for a book, magazine, or my phone. I might even finish my endless knitting project if this goes on. Anyway, February's reading list might be a bit shorter due to the reading vacation.

What are you reading these days?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Now What?

I joined in the Women's March on January 21—along with millions of other people around the world—here in Augusta, where an amazing 10,000 people showed up.

I brought E and Z with me—their first demonstration. They weren't too thrilled about it (especially Z, who had stayed up till midnight reading and was tired and grouchy), but I made them Warrior Cat hats to wear, and that helped a little. ("Why is everyone wearing cat hats?" "Because cats believe in equal rights.") 

Other than my own cranky kids, the energy there was so positive. It was literally the first time I felt good since November 8.

My faith in humanity was restored a little bit.

But now the question on everyone's mind is: Now What? After months of despondency we've been reenergized. We've seen that we are far from being alone in our horror for the events taking place in our country. But what do we do with that energy? With that solidarity? 

 I don't know the answer to that question, but I can tell you what I've been doing and thinking about:
  • Staying informed. Honestly, it feels like someone's set up an industrial-strength fan behind a massive pile of manure and we have to decide which pieces of shit to dodge, to deflect, and to just let hit us. I'm trying to keep focused on the big picture (a few well-respected news analysts help with this) and also what's going on locally, where I may be able to have the greatest effect.
  • Trying not to get overwhelmed. I just have to cut myself off of Facebook, Daily Kos, the internet in general for chunks at a time. I am considering a short media blackout (which negates my first point, but feels like it might be necessary for my mental health).
  • Taking care of myself. Yes, the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but that doesn't mean I can't take the occasional bubble bath, do 10 minutes of morning yoga, give myself sparkly stickers on my own writing (oh, yeah, that's a thing), and drink smoothies.
  • Contacting the hell out of my legislators. In Maine we have a so-called "moderate" republican senator. Many would argue that her moderate cred is a sham. Ahem. But I, on a total whim, made it my mission to message her every single day until I get a reasonable response on her bid to overturn the ACA. Of course I haven't been able to stick to the ACA focus (see fan blowing shit metaphor above), and have been taking her to task (and giving credit where credit is due) on many, many other issues. I've also written my rep and the other senator to thank them on a couple of issues. I post my letters on FB, where I think you can read them if you search #senatorcollins, #susancollins, or #senatorsusancollins. I'm kind of hoping we'll start a movement of daily, publicly posted letters to legislators. A friend has suggested I make a bid to blog for one of our daily papers and I'm considering it; I'm just afraid they'll make me conform to some set of standards (like capitalizing republican or not referring to a certain person as "your president"—both of which I've taken on as small, possibly petty, acts of resistance). Yes, I know everyone says calling is more effective, and I've done that as well—though not daily. I find it incredibly frustrating—the busy signals, the voicemail full boxes, the smug people who answer the phone, if in fact you reach a person. And I'm much better able to articulate my thoughts on paper.
  • Writing letters to the editor. I've sent out two so far, neither of which has been published (yet), but I plan to make it a weekly ritual.
  • Attending rallies. I went to a second rally this past weekend, which was intended to draw attention to multiple issues and convince the above-mentioned senator to return to Maine for a town hall meeting. The energy there was different than at the previous week's rally—still positive (as in articulating a positive alternative to what's taking place in Washington), but less of a feel-good love-in and more focused, intense, and occasionally angry. 
  • Focusing my energy. There is sooooo much happening now—so many terrible things to oppose but also so much good resistance. I need to take the time to research exactly where and how to expend my energy, both for the greatest effect and to prevent burnout. Initially my plan was to focus on climate change. That got derailed by the push to overturn the ACA. And now that we're in constitutional crisis mode, I feel like energy needs to go toward the big picture (see again the giant fan blowing shit). I'm not sure how I will figure out what makes the most sense for me—there are some local/state issues I want to weigh in on, completely separate from fascism taking over the US. Is it whistling while Rome burns to do so, or do we think globally, act locally? I honestly don't know. It goes back to the first step—stay informed. Parse out the real from the BS. Look for places where my skills (e.g., writing) and knowledge (e.g., environmental regulation) are needed. And hang the f*ck on. It's gonna be a bumpy ride.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Weekend Things ~ Mid-January

A lazy-busy, indoor-outdoor weekend.

A four-day weekend for two boys (three-and-a-half for the other one).

Movies out with friends (two!).

A cousin in town.

Ice-skating on the pond (twice!)

A bonfire a the in-laws.

Lazy mornings.

An afternoon movie (Ferngully, with butterscotch popcorn!!!!)

An owl sighting (see that dot on top of a tree about 1/4 of the way in from the left?)

The sort of weekend where the camera doesn't come out at all but we make do with phone photos.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Wild Wednesday ~ Moment(s) of Wonder ~ Owl and Ducks

In which I share a Moment of Wonder recorded in my nature journal over the previous week.

This week, I have two moments to share with you, because they were both pretty great and I just couldn't decide.

My niece was visiting from Boston for the weekend, and on Sunday afternoon, we'd all just returned from ice skating on the pond down the road and had settled down for a movie and butterscotch popcorn. The sun was starting to set in streaks of lemon and raspberry, and as I looked out the window at the scene, a large bird flew across my field of vision. From the size of its head, I knew it was an owl. Z spied the tree it had landed in and my niece and I pulled on boots and trekked down the driveway to see if we could get a closer look. As we neared the tree it was in, I thought I detected "ears"—or the tufts of feathers on the head that would indicate it was a great-horned owl. A little closer and it flew off, across our neighbor's field, ears fully visible. We walked partway across the field before it took off again.

This sighting was extra-cool for two reasons: We often hear great-horned owls calling around our house, but we've never seen one before; usually we see barred owls. And, every time my niece visits, we have a neat wildlife sighting. One time it was a close encounter with a porcupine, the other time it was a flying squirrel on our bird feeder. She's wildlife good luck!

The second moment happened yesterday. E and I went ice skating one last time before the snow when he got home from school yesterday. While I ooch my way in a circle around the ice as if I'm at an actual ice rink with a designated direction of travel, he scoots all over the pond and is up and down and up and down, sliding on his knees and butt as often as his skates. At one point, he was lying on his back and said, "Look up there."

A flock of 50-60 birds was flying overhead in a perfect V formation. They were totally silent, so not geese (also, they didn't appear to have long necks), and appeared completely black, so not gulls (I'm not sure if gulls practice such disciplined V-flying). Some kind of duck, I assume. Where did they come from and where were they going? And who can look at a V of flying birds and not comprehend that mutualism and cooperation are inherent traits in nature, and therefore should also be part of human society?
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