Monday, September 9, 2019

New Boys' Room

It's taken a long time to get E and Z's room spiffed up for them since M moved into his own room last November. First we had to spackle and repaint the ceiling and walls, which took most of February. Then we had to clean out the closet, into which I had shoved everything but the beds and dressers before we painted. All the furniture, toys, books, and random junk had to come out, get sorted into piles for keep, toss, give away, and store. Then I had to paint the walls. Then I had to put everything back, arranged neatly (notice how I drop the "we"—we all know who exactly did most of this work).

Meanwhile, C was busy in the garage building new desks for the nearly high-schoolers, all from scrap wood (inspired by a butcher block counter that my inlaws were replacing). We each finished our respective jobs right before our trip to D.C. in early August, and since then the room has been arranged, enjoyed, and made messy cozy again.

Two small items remain to be done: a switchplate for the closet light swithc (I was going to decoupage one with old maps, but Z, who is really into maps, tells me this would look tacky) and curtains on the small windows (I have a third purple Indian-print panel, which I need to make into two half-panels, but right now my sewing machine is inaccessible due to all the stuff I've "cleaned up" from the rest of the house having accumulated in my bedroom).

I was hoping that after they saw how tiny M's dorm room is, E and Z would have greater appreciation for the expansiveness (and hominess) of this space, but still it does not seem to be big enough for the two of them, and most study sessions turn into Nerf gun battles. So much for that soothing purple color.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

August 2019 Nightstand

I initially thought my new monthly nightstand posts would be different from my old monthly reads posts—in that I'd envisioned them as a snapshot of what I happen to be reading at a point or two during the month, but as it turns out, I still just end up rounding up all the books I read over the month. But at least my nightstand gets dusted and tidied once a month.

I haven't finished this one yet, but I know I'll love it to the end: Odes by Sharon Olds, which I picked up at a reading by the author a little over a year ago. In a refreshing departure from Grecian urns, the very first poem is "Ode to the Clitoris," so that tells you all you need to know—Olds doesn't hold anything back and dives right into writing tributes to all of the important but not-talked about aspects of our lives.

Still hunting for comps—and inspiration as I revise—for my book, and in that vein read Almost Somewhere, an entertaining tale of a hike along the John Muir Trail in the early nineties, from the perspective of a young woman on the trail with two other women as they learn how to support each other rather than compete over the attention of males. At the other end of the spectrum is Elevations, which, though the subtitle is "A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," is much more about the history of the areas the Arkansas flows through (from its beginning in the mining district of Leadville, Colorado to the border between Kansas and Oklahoma) than about the author's personal journey, though that does come in some. I was amazed at how many significant events in history took place in my home state about which I was never taught in school (one of the largest Labor wars in history, Japanses internment camps—which the author rightly calls concentration camps—and the Sand Creek Massacre, which I did learn about eventually, long after completing Colorado history classes in school).

I'm way behind the times here, but I picked up Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies while we were in DC and read the whole thing the day after we returned (I was too tired to do anything else). It is so good, funny, and suspenseful, though I did feel like the ending was tied up in a little bit too neat a bow.

Over the month I also slowly delved into Claire Keegan's short story collection Antarctica. The stories are almost like poetry—gorgeously rich language, dense and full of meaning but also a little inscrutable, leaving me wondering a bit at the end of each one what exactly happened. Is it weird that I wish I could write exactly like both Liane Moriarty and Claire Keegan, even though they're both so incredibly different? It is perhaps why I have not successfully written beyond page 30 of any novel I've started—I want too much to write everything every way at once.

Finally, I read Stowed Away by Maine mystery writer Barbara Ross. I read most of it while on or near the water, which was fitting. It was a fairly entertaining mystery in the classic cozy style, a fun frolic.

What's on your nightstand?

Friday, August 30, 2019

Letting Go

Summer is coming to a close in much the way it began—full speed ahead. While the beginning was marked by, among other things, graduations times three, the ending is speeding toward the first day of school times three. E and Z start high school the same day we drop M off for college. I've never been so relieved that he chose a school 45 minutes from home. It would be one thing to miss your kids' first day of eighth grade or sophomore year, but the first day of freshman year requires some support.

I've also gotten it into my head to spend these last few weeks of summer tearing our house apart, decluttering, rearranging, touching up. This is partly because we have guests coming to stay in a few weeks, partly because it's been a long time since I cleaned the house from top to bottom and soon I'll be back to work and won't have time, and partly to make sure M doesn't go off to college, leaving his belongings cluttering up the rest of the house. 

I suspect there might be another reason. After I found out I was pregnant with twins, on a Friday in early January, in one final burst of energy before succumbing to the exhaustion caused by being inhabited by two fetus-parasites, I spent that entire weekend dismantling Christmas, cleaning, and rearranging furniture in an unconscious effort to avoid confronting the reality of the situation. Perhaps I'm cleaning the house to avoid thinking about my baby launching off into the world (even if it is only 45 minutes from home).

I'm truly excited for this next stage of life for him, but last week, when we were driving to the big-box store to do a little dorm shopping, I had a vision of his three-year-old self reaching up to stuff his gigantic lunch box into the top of his preschool cubby, and my stomach dropped. Is this really the same kid. Has so much time really gone by?

Among the dust and cobwebs and junk, housecleaning has yielded a few Easter eggs—spots where the kids wrote on the walls (and doors and floors) long past the age when such behavior is reasonable, books I forgot I had, an envelope of photos from the Colorado Trail and a cute picture frame that wasn't being used for anything else.

I've also been practicing letting go—of toys and books the kids have outgrown, of items gifted or handed down from relatives that I've never used but have kept out of a sense of obligation. I'm not going full Marie Kondo—I love my books and dishes too much to be a minimalist—but as much as I'm tempted to write a book called "Happily Messy," I'm finding that what organization gurus say is true: a clean, well-organized space is more comfortable and relaxing. So while my living room and bedroom serve as staging areas for stuff that needs to find a new home, I find a bookcase that has been dusted and sorted or a picture in a frame on a shelf, and gaze at it for a few minutes to find my inner calm.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A Trip to the Capital

I went on my first trip to Washington, DC when I was a senior in high school. It was my first time on a plane, my first time east of metro Denver, my first visit to a major city (surely places like Seattle, Portland, and Salt Lake didn't count?). We stayed in a hotel and rode around on tour buses with students from three other states, hitting the highlights: the Capitol, the monuments and memorials (except the Washington Monument, which was closed for maintenance), the Natural History and Air and Space Museums. We were there during the time of the first Gulf War, so the White House was closed to tours, but we had lively discussions about free speech during a time of war (you can guess which side I was on). Everything was so new, so exciting, so different, that I bought about 200 postcards and took a similar number of photos (in the days of 35 mm film).

I've been back a few times for work, each time taking in a little more of the city: an Art Nouveau exhibit at one of the Smithsonians, Pakistani food in Georgetown. Once I was passing the White House during my lunch break just as they were about to close off the tour line. I hestitated, considering skipping the afternoon round of meetings, but my sense of duty took over and I went back to a long, boring meeting at EPA headquarters, about what I don't even remember, and have been kicking myself ever since.

We'd planned to take the kids to visit their nation's capital for years, but never got around to it. Then this summer came and I realized it was almost too late—one kid was about to fledge into the world and who knows if he'd ever want to go on a vacation with us again. Coincidentally, C's stepbrother, who lives in DC, made a casual comment like "you should come see us sometime," and we took him up on it (be careful with those casual invites).

We had an amazing time. We hit the highlights: the Capitol, the monuments and memorials, including the new FDR and MLK memorials (George Washington still closed for maintenance; I'm beginning to think it's a hologram), the Natural History and Air and Space Museums, the National Archives. We did not bother looking into White House tours, but had a moment of mourning while looking at the white columns from the ellipse. We also fit in some nature (Constitution Gardens, Botanic Gardens, and National Arboretum), spent a weekend in Baltimore with a pirate cruise, a view from the observation deck, a visit to the other Washington Monument, and food from Little Italy. We ate empanadas at a street food event and injira in an Ethiopian restaurant.

Most impressive, educational, and moving were the five-plus hours we spent in the Museum of African American History and Culture. It was a lot to take in—sobering, uplifting, and really, really unsettling. Humanity has such a range—from brutal and barbaric to magnificent—it's hard to wrap your brain around. While I was looking at a display that included a book by Toni Morrisson, a woman turned to me and said, "Do you know who Toni Morrisson is? She died yesterday." I thought of Beloved and how much that book affected me. 

The kids were the perfect age for a vacation this rigorous and educational—they took in a lot, barely complained, and, most importantly, I didn't have to worry about them falling under a subway. They've also studied enough American history to understand the significance of what they were looking at.

We stayed pretty much ignorant of current events during our trip, preferring to look at our country as if it were frozen in amber, and yet news of two mass shootings worked its way into our bubble. I wonder how long before we have a memorial, a museum, devoted to the victims of the mass shootings that have become woven into the fabric of this troubled nation. What year will be on the exhibit that depicts the day our "leaders" take action to end to gun violence?

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Friday, August 9, 2019

On the Nightstand ~ Late July 2019

Usually my stack of reading is at least partially made up of books written decades (or sometimes centuries) ago—partly because I like buying used books and partly because I've been on a program to catch up with reading all the books I *should* have read by now. July was a bit of an exception, with three titles published in the last year and the others a decade or less old (which to me is new).

I started my mornings with a handful of poems from Another Way to Say Enter, a collection by my friend Amanda Johnston. Amanda's poems are smart and sassy, they play with language and form, they are by turns humorous and heart-wrenching, and they never fail to strike a nerve.

Nature Writing
For our fall selection, my naturalist book club chose The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, but not finding that title at the local bookstore, I picked up Wicked Plants instead. (I'm more interested in poison than alcohol anyway.) It's a bit slow-going, because it's not written in a continuous narrative, but rather in short (2-4 pages) passages about individual plants. However, it's an intriguing look into the more dangerous members of the plant kingdom. Also, I kind of love that Amy Stewart both writes about the natural world AND writes mystery novels. (I haven't read the Kopp sisters series yet, but I plan to.) And I just found out she paints, too. So basically she's living my best life.

I read Thirst by Heather Anderson both because I'm writing my own hiking narrative (still) and because I love reading adventure memoirs. The book tells the story of Anderson's fastest known time hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Though I'm more likely to score a slowest known time on any hike I do, I still found it a page-turning read and it gave me insight into why someone would want to hike 40+ miles per day and an understanding that such an endeavor is not necessarily (in Anderson's case anyway) a stunt.

I really enjoyed reading my friend Aaron Hamburger's latest novel, Nirvana is Here, a tale about a gay, Jewish high school student finding his identity, coming to terms with his sexuality, and coping with sexual assault in the early 90s Nirvana era. Ari, the narrator, is so engaging and his desire to find his place in the world is so relatable that rooting for him all the way, and dying to find out what would happen—another page-turner!

I also devoured Whispers Beyond the Veil by Jessica Estevao, about a young woman who grew up as part of a traveling medicine around the turn of the 20th century. She runs away from the show after a tragic incident, in which she was inadvertently complicit, seeking out an aunt in Old Orchard Beach Maine, where she establishes herself as a spiritualist medium, but where her past comes back to haunt her. I've almost finished rereading the entire Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels oeuvre and I'm looking for a replacement. Estevao *might* fit the bill—I liked the characters, setting, and storyline, although there could have been a little more spine-tingling-ness to the supernatural element. I'm excited to read more by Estevao.

I'm terrible at keeping up with reading the magazines and literary journals I'm subscribed to. I thought by keeping one—this month it's been Ecotone—on the nightstand I might have a better chance of reading it all the way through. I'm making slow progress because I'd almost always prefer picking up a novel or book-length narrative. Although when I do pick it up, the short stories, essays, and poems are always first-rate and worth reading.

What's on your nightstand?

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Slow Down, Summer!

This is the time of year I start to panic. Midsummer should be all about sun and fun, but as July creeps to a close, I think, "Winter is coming. My kids are growing up. I'm getting old. We're all going to die!" 

That's not true. I actually start freaking out when the lilacs blossom in early June. It hurts too much knowing they'll only be around a couple of weeks. Each subsequent bloom and fade is one step closer to THE END. 

It doesn't help that this year, in addition to the back-to-school sales that seem to start before the previous year of school has ended, I'm being bombarded with dorm-shopping listicles. I haven't even made it to the beach yet, and we're talking clip-on lamps and shower caddies? It just doesn't seem right.

This is the point in the essay where I say something wise, about how the caterpillar in the photo above doesn't worry about the first frost or hungry birds or an early death. It just spends its days munching milkweed, splitting its skin, and emerging bigger and stronger, working its way toward that final split, the spinning of its gold-trimmed chrysalis, the metamorphosis, the trip to Mexico on delicate but strong stained-glass wings. A lot can happen between here and there, but the caterpillar makes the most of the days it has.

But I don't feel wise like a caterpillar. I feel petulant, like a child who doesn't want to leave the park. Only unlike a child, I start worrying about the moment I'll have to leave as soon as I get to the swings, when instead I should just pump my legs and fly through the wind, for as long as I can. But really, what I really really want, is for every day to be a summer day.

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Thursday, July 25, 2019

Learning to Sail

This week I've been taking sailing lessons. I've lived in Maine for more than twenty years and have only been on a sailboat once before, and I spent most of the time napping in the cabin. I wouldn't have even thought of sailing now except that a friend had signed up for the lessons and invited me to join her.

The first day, we helped rig the boat, learned words like sheet, halyard, and boomvang (which I hold dibs on for a band name if I ever take up music), and manned the jib while our instructor, Will, maneuvered the boat out into open water. We hadn't had any classroom instruction, and, though Will did his best to convey the relationship between the boat, the sails, the rudder, and the wind, it was a lot to take in wile putting it into practice. When it came my turn to skipper, a gust of wind caught the mainsail with the sheet cinched tight, we heeled over, and, feeling like I was sitting in one of those rocking chairs that tips over backward, I forgot everything Will had told us.

Water began to pour into the cockpit, and I looked up in time to see Will sitting on the gunwale, arched over backwards in a vain attempt to counterbalance the tilt of the boat. "Release the mainsheet," he said through clenched teeth. I did, the boat righted, and we spent a long time bailing the water out.

The next day we had much calmer breezes. A bit too calm, as we petered out in the doldrums near the end of our lesson. Day three there was a chance of thunderstorms, so we stayed on dry land, practicing tying knots and studying the points of sail. We were learning backwards, but on a boat you have to take what Mother Nature tosses your way.

By day four, I started to put all the pieces together—tiller, mainsheet, wind direction, points of sail—and managed a successful man overboard drill (rescuing Taylor, the moldy boat fender) and docked the boat.

From our first day, I was struck by the many variables involved in sailing—the wind, the water, the boat itself, gravity, waves, the sails, the lines, the shore, other boats—more moving parts, I thought, than any endeavor I'd ever before attempted. Then I remembered writing. There's plot, character, narrative arc, emotional arc, description, dialogue, point of view, theme, structure, rhythm, word choice. All must work together to keep the whole sailing smoothly.

A couple weeks ago, my sails were full and I was gliding effortlessly, making revisions to my book, starting a new essay. Then I had to change direction to work on projects for other people, and though I tacked fairly smoothly, when I finished the other projects, my bow nosed into the wind, and I found myself in irons, sails luffing. I'd lost momentum, and, moving backwards, my rudder steered the boat in the opposite way I wanted it to go.

My only choice is to scull until my sails catch wind—that means put my butt in a chair and pick up a project, even if it looks about as appealing as a swamped boat, and fiddle with it until I start to pick up speed again. I fully intend to bail out that essay—but I will probably wait until my sailing lessons are finished.

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Thursday, July 18, 2019

Goodbye First Car

Earlier this week I had to take my car to the mechanic for some repairs. I brought M with me so he could clean all the stuff out of his car, which had joined the 100 or so other Volvos in the bone yard out back after it died two days before graduation. After we'd cleared out the tennis rackets and school notebooks, loose change, rearview mirror ornaments, and yerba mate cans, after we'd taken off the license plates and removed the registration from the glove box, I gave them a few minutes alone together.

The black wagon was only "his" car by dint of an overindulgent father and a mother who prefers not spending all of her time carting kids around. Yet once he had the keys in his hand, he started calling "my car," and no one contradicted him, except for a perceptive and indignant younger brother.

We didn't intend to send M to college with the car, and so the parting would have happened even if the engine hadn't blown. Knowing this did not make the moment of goodbye less poignant. There was a summer's worth of transportation needs to consider, aside from the fact that it was his first car. A boy's first car is a big deal. It means freedom, especially where we live, miles from the nearest sidewalk, bike path, or bus. Like a tribal coming-of-age custom, driving is the bridge from childhood into manhood.

I have before me for this summer and the fall (and quite possibly the next ten years) the project of clearing our house of the trappings of childhood—the story books and stuffed animals still crammed in the twins' closet, boxes and bins of blocks and Legos and wooden toys piled in the basement and garage, bicycles to match every stage of childhood, pint-sized lifejackets, three-quarter length sleeping bags, Matchbox cars, plastic dinosaurs, wooden trains.

Each of these things is weighted with memories, with hopes and possibilities, disappointment and fulfillment. We imbue material items with too much value and emotional power in our culture, and I tend toward the sentimental. C doesn't help, with all his talk of "save it for the grandchildren."

The car was easy, for me—being pronounced dead at the mechanic's shop, letting it go entailed little effort, no rereading of pages or stroking worn fur, no packing into a box and delivering to the thrift store. The car is not connected to that time, long gone, when my children were children. But for M, too young and too practical for nostalgia and more interested in the future than the past, this more recent parting will likely hold significance until he hangs his wooden pineapple from the rearview mirror of another car.

This post went out last week to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. You can subscribe here.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

On My Nightstand ~ June into July 2019

I like to have a lot of books from different genres going at one time, each genre lending itself to a different time of day.

Now that work is done for the season and I don't have to rush to get anywhere by 8 a.m., I'm enjoying a morning reading routine. First, I read the day's entry from's Naturally Curious Day By Day by Mary Holland, followed by a handful of poems. I'm still working my way through Balancing Act 2, an anthology of Maine women poets. If I have time to linger over breakfast or, even better, in bed, I read a little nature writing. Edwin Way Teale's North With the Spring has followed me into summer, and I'm still enjoying his apple blossoms and warblers.

If I have time to read during the day, usually at lunchtime or while kids are warming up for a soccer game or if I'm sitting in a waiting room, I often pick up nonfiction. This month I've been reading I Miss You When I Blink, a collection of essays by Mary Laura Philpott, which I learned about on the #amwriting podcast and discovered in the book store when I was wandering around with a coupon and no specific purchase in mind. I always enjoy collections like this that demostrate that your life doesn't have to be dramatic or traumatic in order to engender good nonfiction writing. Interestingly, the essays in the first half of the collection wander through a little of this, a little of that before finally coming to the crux of Philpott's story, which is that, in her early 40s, she found herself vaguely but distinctly unhappy, despite all the trappings of a good life.  It's a scenario a lot of women I know, including myself, have dealt with and are dealing with. A series of choices and lucky breaks that lead Philpott out of the doldrums and into a new city, a new job, and a more satisfying life made me kind of want to hate her, except that she's such an endearing narrator that's impossible. 

Reading nonfiction during the day makes me feel responsible, like I'm kind of working. If I want to be a rebel, I'll pick up fiction. My friend and grad school mentor Aaron Hamburger recently came out with a new book (more on that in a later post), and I realized I'd never read his previous novel. I have a bad habit of buying lots of books a readings and book signings and adding them to the "to-read" pile, where they get lost in the crowd. So before I went to the reading for Aaron's new book, I pulled out Faith for Beginners, a story that takes place during a Midwestern Jewish family's trip to Israel. The protagonists are the mother, Mrs. Michelson, and her younger son, Jeremy, a gay man in his early 20s who's experiencing a delayed adolescence. As the two of them make their way through the searing heat of Jerusalem, they are each forced to confront their personal shortcomings as they reach inside and find hidden strengths. It's a humorous, touching, and very human tale.

I'll usually read a chapter of either my nonficton or fiction book at bedtime, and then, before I go to sleep, I like to read a bit of murder mystery, suspense, or ghost story. My taste in this area tends toward the cozy and gothic. I eschew gratuitous and graphic violence. I need there to be a real who done it puzzle. I like suspense. I like informative. I like a bit of romance and a happy ending. Yes, I'm describing Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels. But I branched out a little. My mom sent me Murder With Peacocks by Donna Andrews, a madcap murder mystery involving three weddings (the narrator is the maid of honor and chief cook and bottle washer for all three), a flock of peacocks, and several assorted bodies. It was an entertaining ride, though I don't think I did very well keeping track of all the aunts and uncles and cousins who made their way into the story. In early June, I attended a crime writing conference and came home with an armload of books by Maine authors. The first of these that I've read is Crime and Punctuation by Kaitlyn Dunnett, the first in the Deadly Edits series, which cracked me up, since I spent the winter as an editor/proofreader (and murder did cross my mind on occasion). This book falls into the cozy who-done-it category (complete with old house and cat), as the narrator, having returned to her hometown after retirement, tracks down the killer of one of her clients.

What's on your nightstand this month?

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Paddle Away With Me

I slide the kayak off the roof racks and balance it on my left shoulder—it weighs less than the double stroller I heaved in and out of the back of my car for three years—and ease the boat into the water near the culvert. Bullfrogs thrum in the wetland across the road, and green frogs twang on the edges of the pond. A small painted turtle hovering in the shallows dives away at my approach, and I hope I've frightened it away from any ideas of crossing the road.

I bought this boat on a whim a few weeks ago. I was mad because I'd been made to work on the Sunday of Memorial Weekend, and the sporting goods store was having a sale. So I decided to treat my ill humor with a little retail therapy on my lunch break. Only it wasn't a whim, because for years I've thought how nice it would be to have a little kayak for exploring the ponds and bogs and swamps near my home. But I thought that if I had one kayak, I would need five, plus some enormous vehicle in which to tote both boats and family.

The boat glides through the tall rushes of the outlet channel and out into open water. Usually I like to paddle along the northern shore, nosing among the pickerel weed and lily pads and watching whirligig beetles twirl, but today I've been staring down a threatening thunderstorm, and now that the dark bank of cumulonimbus clouds has passed on, I have only half an hour before I need to hurry home, cook dinner, and drive kids to their soccer game. So I paddle straight across the pond, heading for the northern shore.

It's easy to forget, when you're a mom, that you can do things by yourself. By "can" I mean both "are cabable of" and "are allowed to." The latter makes some sense; after years in which peeing alone is a triumph, you tend consider the people you gave birth to extensions of your own body. "Whither thou goest" and all that. But the former is crazy. Motherhood is a job that requires the knowlege of a complete set of encyclopedias, the organizational skills of a NASA ground crew, the control of a drill seargant, and the patience of Mother Theresa. Yet somehow raising children makes us feel unequal to other tasks. How much of that feeling is inherent, I wonder, and how much dictated by society?

I paddle northward, into a wind that rumples the dark surface of the water, calling gelatinous core muscles into duty. This pond is only two miles from my house, and it's small, only about 22 acres in area and 18 feet at its deepest point. But there are only five houses on its shore, all on the southwest corner. With the road and the houses at my back, I might be paddling into the wilderness. The eastern shore is edged in hemlocks and, beyond, a wooded hillside. To the north stand the spindly forms of larch trees, rising from a sphagnum bog. Tree swallows perch on the bare upper branches of the larches, chittering and making forways over the pond to snap up bugs.

Sheep laurel grows dense along the boggy shore, bright with magenta blooms. Turqoise pond damsels dance along the edge between water and land. I nose my boat between two hummocks to get a closer look at a pair of alien-shaped pitcher plant flowers and notice a small pink blossom, then another and another and another. Calopogon orchids have come into bloom in the last two days.

I take photos and make a few quick sketches, but all too soon duty calls me back across the pond. I paddle straight and steady, the breeze now at my back, my abdominal muscles remembering that they once had structure. I lift the boat out of the water and onto the car, cinching it down tight, and drive home with the wind blowing through my hair.

This post went out last week to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. You can subscribe here.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

We've Made It Through So Much

Last Tuesday I went shopping during my lunch break. As I entered the store, I passed a woman pushing two infants in a double stroller. When E and Z were babies, everywhere we went strangers stopped to tell me they had twins, or their daughter had twins, or they were a twin. I try to refrain from this behavior, but once in a while I have to let a twin mom know that I survived and that she will too. But on this occasion, I said nothing but clapped my hands together after I walked past and said, "Thank you, Jesus," out loud in Target.

I haven't prayed to Jesus since I was 14 years old, but I was moved in that moment to be grateful to whatever force in the Universe got me through the double-barreled-all-night-nursing stage, the climb-on-furniture-in-search-of-dangerous-objects stage, the indoor-sandbox-of-oatmeal-and-cocoa-powder-on-the-floor stage, the run-off-in-opposite-directions-in-a-busy-store/parking lot/ fairgrounds stage. I made it through pottytraining times two, learning to ride a bike times two, and daycare, preschool, school and homework times two.

Challenges still lie ahead—high school, girl friends, driving lessons, college searches—but we've made it through a lot, and I was at the store that day to buy eighth grade graduation cards times two. That evening, two tall young men, dressed to the nines, would stand on the stage of the school they've attended for nine years and accept their certificates of recognition. Which is a moment I never imagined when I pushed two tiny babies in a double stroller.

This post went out last week to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. 
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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

A Poncho Out of Season

I've never owned a poncho before. The ponchos of my youth were brown, nubbly things with unsightly fringe. Not at all attractive. And besides, how would you do things, like ride a bike or climb a tree, with your arms trapped underneath an acre of crotcheted acrylic. Fast forward a few decades to the two recent winters I spent working at home, where, too lazy to start a fire in the wood stove, I would pile on sweaters and blankets. I started to think a poncho might not be such an impractical garment after all. Then, while I was working on my quilt of red concentric (consquaretric?) squares last year, I started dreaming of more red squares—knitted ones.

In late winter, I found myself free for an afternoon in Belfast, Maine, after a friend I'd planned to meet up with had to deal with a houseful of sick kids. So of course I made my way to Heavenly Yarns, in its new, upstairs, airy location, and set about searching for the right yarn. I didn't yet have a pattern, but I knew what I wanted—mitered squares, knitted together (no sewing!). And I wanted red, or mostly red, with some other colors, because just one color would never do. And I wanted worsted weight (no more lace weight, not for a while).

I found some almost just-right yarn, in shades of red, purple, and blue, and picked up four skeins. But there was also a turquoise-to-teal colorway that I found irresistible, so I took two skeins of that. To drag the whole thing back toward the warm end of the spectrum, I added two skeins of red-magenta-pink-peach. When I got home, I found the perfect pattern online, and after I cleared the decks of other projects (a certain hat, and another hat), I got started.

The pattern is extremely easy to follow, the mitered squares knit up a dream and don't require any counting of rows and only one purl row to every three knit rows. Yet the stitch work is varied just enough that, along with the suspense of wondering how the colors will come out, it keeps things interesting. I also learned some new knitting skills: picking up stitches (which I've been doing wrong for 20 years), three-needle bindoff, attached i-cord. The whole thing went together much more quickly than I expected (due, in part, to watching a lot more TV than usual; there are a lot of murder mysteries knitted into this project), but not fast enough. I finished it on the second day of summer, a bit late for wearing woolens. 

It also makes a useful headdress.
Fortunately, we had plans to go to the movies that night, and since movie theaters are cold in all seasons of the year, I got to wear the poncho, and I loved it! It's all the best parts of a sweater—warm and wooly—without any constricting arm holes or cuffs, no annoying buttons or zippers. It's like a blanket you can wear. I can't believe I've never thought of making—and wearing—a poncho before!

Ravelry notes, such as they are, are here.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

It Goes By So Fast

Eighteen years ago I held my first child in my arms. Approaching his one-month birthday, he was holding his head up and his eyes had cleared from milky newborn blue to bright, sparkling sapphire. Everything about him seemed longer, stronger, and less babyish. I turned to my husband and cried, "He's growing up so fast!"

I had no idea.

That baby graduated from high school last Friday. I spent the morning, when I should have been getting ready for work, searching through photo albums for his first-day-of-preschool picture. I remembered it so clearly: his lime-green Oscar the Grouch sweatshirt and the faded red Australia baseball cap that he never took off. How enormous his mini backpack appeared. How tiny he looked walking up to the school's red front door (that part I misremembered—the door was gray). How full of hopes and dreams and possibilities I was. How both nervous and eager to learn he was.

I'm not going to say it seemed like yesterday, but damn if those fifteen years didn't fly by. Which is not to say there weren't interminably slow times—that year I had two infants and a four-year-old, which is shrouded in a fog of exhaustion; age eleven (or was it nine?), when my sweet boy became a sassy know-it-all; the hour-and-half betwen 6:30 and 8:00 p.m., which lasts a lifetime when you have young children.

I finally tracked down the album with the photo I sought and went outside to take its corollary—the last day of high school. I wished him well, watched him drive out of the driveway, and burst into tears. My baby had grown up so fast!

That evening, after a comedy of errors trying to get everyone to the Civic Center on time, I watched that baby march across the stage and receive his diploma, now a self-assured and self-aware young man, and one of the most content people I know, ready and eager to move onto the next stage. I didn't cry—I'd released all my tears that morning. I didn't feel sad or nostalgic or wistful. I felt happy and proud and full of love for this man, that baby, that little boy.

This post went out last week to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. You can subscribe here.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Nature Journaling Workshop ~ Wildflowers

I'm offering a nature journaling workshop with a focus on wildflowers at Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden, Maine on Saturday, June 29. We'll cover the basics of nature journaling and then head out into the field in search of spring blossoms, which we'll sketch, observe, and write about.

Registration information here. (I know it says the class goes for 1 week, but it's really 1 day.)

I hope you can join me!

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

On My Nightstand ~ May 2019

A new series to replace the monthly Reads.

I love the question, when an author is being interviewed, of "what's on your nightstand?" Since I'm not likely to be asked that question any time soon, I thought I'd take it upon myself to do a monthly nightstand roundup, which will provide me with motivation to dust and organize my bedside reading once a month. 

Several of the books on my bedside table right now are aspirational. In an ideal world, I'd have time in the morning to read the day's entry from Mary Holland's Naturally Curious Day By Day and a poem or two from the book of poetry I keep bedside—right now it'sBalancing Act 2, an anthology of Maine women poets. Unfortunately, it's not an ideal world and I've barely cracked the cover of either this spring, but I have great hopes for the summer. I also have a back issue of Poets & Writers magazine at the bottom of the stack, and I have great ambitions of finishing reading it.

Another book I'd imagined dipping into a little each day is Edwin Way Teale's North With the Spring. I started at the Equinox and now here it is nearly June and I'm still in Florida (in this installment of four seasonal volumes, Teale and his wife start in the Everglades and drive 17,000 miles as they follow the northward migration of the season). I love Teale's quiet, gentle observations of the land and the people he meets. 

I expected Dreyer's English to be another read-a-bit-here-and-there type of book, but it turned out to be a page turner. I'm not kidding. You might think a book about grammar and usage would be dry, but the only thing dry about the book, other than the author's name, is his wit. It's laugh-out-loud funny, as M, who was sitting near me as I was reading and giggling, can attest. 

Notice how all the new books (and magazine) have black covers? It must be the trend this year. My only complaint: black book covers make it a little too plain that a room is in need of dusting.
Of course I have Elizabeth Peters on the shelf—Borrower of the Night, the first of the Vicky Bliss series. It makes perfect before-bed reading, because I can read a page or two and even stop in the middle of a sentence when I get too tired to read (which happens far too often these days) without worrying about what's going to happen next, sine I read it recently, and I know everything will turn out just fine in the end.

Finally, in the foreground, is a novel by my friend Dave Patterson, Soon the Light Will Be Perfect. The cover of this book is so gorgeous it hardly matters what's inside. I've been admiring it on my nightstand for the better part of a month while I finished up book club reads and then rested up from those reads. I finally cracked it open this week and I was hooked from the first line. It's a coming-of-age story of a young boy in Vermont in the early 1990s whose mother gets cancer and whose father loses his job. Dave's writing is fast-paced and direct, and his narrator is a confused, somewhat troublesome, and endearing kid. 

What's on your nightstand this month?

This post went out last week to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. You can subscribe here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

So Much Abundance

Ever since I heard the poet Naomi Shihab Nye say a few years ago that she had excised the word "busy" from her vocabulary, I've tried to do the same. Now, whenever the B word hovers on my lips, I try to instead think of life as "full" or "abundant." Whenever things start to get a little too full, I know it's time to cut back.But I have a hard time cutting back in May, the most abundant month of all, with three kids' birthdays, spring sports, our annual camping trip, and the hurtle toward the end of the school year. It's the time of year I most want to slow down and reflect on my children's growth and changes (and my own) and watch the unfolding of spring outside my window, yet it's the time of year when slowing down is most difficultThis week brought the most significant birthday of my mothering career so far (not counting the actual birth days of my children): M turned 18 on Monday. At the time of his first birthday, my go-to line (only semi-joking) was I don't know how he can be one, because I'm not a year olderThe same holds true today: I don't know how he can be 18, because I'm most certainly not 18 years older. And also, I don't know how he can be 18. I've been making lots of jokes about how my work is finished (or "done 'n dusted," as I like to say), but I'm also barely holding down a large burst of freaking out.Which is where a month of great abundance comes in handy. We threw a party for M with 50 or so of his nearest and dearest (what can I say, the kid is loved), and, in the spirit of not completely giving his younger brothers the shaft, we had a much, much smaller party and sleepover for E and Z the previous night. We still have various playoffs to attend and a camping trip to pack for and unpack from, I'm attending a writing conference at the end of the month, and I try to squeeze in a bird walk here and there. At some point, however, the abundance will abate, and I won't have any choice but to will slow down and reflect on the fact that my first baby is 18 years old.
This post went out last week to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. You can subscribe here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Mother's Day Hike

I'm acutely aware these days—with my oldest son's 18th birthday and high school graduation approaching and the twins turning 14 and finishing up eighth grade—of the approaching finish line. I know, I know, once a mother, always a mother. But it feels like much (I was going to say "most," but I didn't want to jinx the next four years) of the heavy lifting is behind me, the caretaking, cake-baking years (though no doubt there will be plenty of heart-breaking years ahead). I approach this transition with a mixture of teary-eyed nostalgia and giddy anticipation—for all the adventures that lie ahead for my kids and for those that I hope lie ahead for me.

In the meantime, we celebrated Mother's Day by going on a hike at one of our favorite natural areas, after picking up pastries at one of my favorie bakeries. It's a place we've gone hiking at again and again over the years, usually around Easter or Mother's Day. We can measure the passage of time by how much the kids have grown in comparison to how much the fallen spruce tree's root mass has shrunk.

The place, as such places are, is infused with memories: Finding hermit crab shells and deer antlers. The time five-year-old M picked up a giant piece of birch bark as he was walking, not realizing it had been placed to cover a giant dog turd, which he proceeded to step in in his brand-new shoes. The enormous rock shaped like an Easter egg that three-year-old E found and then carried a couple of miles back to the car, staggering all the way  (and, of course, how a few months later Z threw said rock and hit E in the head, defending himself thus: "I said, 'Watch out!'").

In a sign of imminent independence, M met us partway around the hiking loop after he got off of work (a busy Mother's Day morning shift, which a secret informant told me M handled with aplomb), bearing a gift he went out of his way to get and a card he made with a message written in his uniquely funny and heartfelt voice.

There are so many times over the course of raising these three kids when I've felt out of my depth, certain I'm doing it all wrong. But for Mother's Day, at least, out in nature with my kids, with so many memories behind us and so much possibility ahead, I felt as if I haven't done all that bad.

This post went out last week to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. You can subscribe here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

March and April (and Early May) 2019 Reads

A post about the books I read in the last month (or two or three).

January 2019 Reads

February 2019 Reads

This will be my last post of the "what I read last month" type. I will continue posting on what I'm reading, but I'm going to freshen things up with a new format starting next week, so stay tuned! In the meantime, here's two-and-a-half months' worth of reads for your armchair-reading pleasure.


I continued my deep dive into the Shirley Jackson ouevre (which began in February with Ruth Franklin's biography of the author) by reading Jackson's first two novels, The Road Through the Wall and Hangasman (collected along with the third, The Bird's Nest, which I ran out of time to read before the book was due back at the library). These were both slightly odd books (as might be expected from Shirley Jackson).

The Road concerns a small, insular, and prejudicial community, and the third-person narration migrates from the points of view of several of the characters (each of whom is introduced, along with their other family members, in the first chapter in order of their house's appearance in the neighborhood. Of course the houses are also introduced in all of their quirky style details). The characters of the story are all generally terrible people (or at least unappealing, though not as terribly unappealing as, say, Flannery O'Connor's characters), and there's a vague, forboding sense that something awful is going to happen at the end of the book (something awful does happen, and the townspeople's resolution is even more awful).

Hangasman is about a young woman away at her first year of college, during which her isolation leads her to conjure up a friend who—it's unclear from the book—may be a piece of herself, an imaginary friend, or a supernatural being. The book casts a jaundiced eye on the small, private liberal arts college (which isn't something I wanted to read with my firstborn about to go off to a small, private liberal arts college), but the character finds redemption in the end.

Then I had to extract myself from my Shirley Jackson deep dive in order to read for book clubs (and because of the aforementioned library-imposed time limit).


The Overstory by Richard Powers is a book I received from my mother-in-law for Christmas and only somewhat coincidentally the book  was chosen by my naturalists' book club for this quarter.

It's a very long book, a tome you might say, and it's hard to read, not in the Shakespeare way, but because it's so heart-wrenching.

It begins with a long (long, long) introduction to the multitudes of primary characters. Each of these was an interesting self-contained story, but 200 pages or so is a long time to hold on waiting to find out where all this is going (it reminded me of Victorian novels in that respect). And then it started to get going, and the characters' lives began to intertwine, and then things got very intense in the middle, and I had to put it down every few pages because I knew what was coming and I didn't want it to happen. My anxiety related not so much to the fate of the human characters, but to the trees, which play a central role in the book as living, breathing, fascinating characters in their own right.

Half my book club gave up on the book partway through because it struck them as too odd, and I agree that it is odd. The characters are all over the place, in terms of their traits, their histories, their behaviors, and the structure takes a lot of stick-to-it-iveness to get to the end, but it is a gorgeously written book, with fascinating insight and knowledge into trees, and it will wake you up if you've been feeling a little passive, a little resigned about the state and the future of our world.

May, the first half
I never even got a chance to take a picture of May's book because I had to return it to the library right away after I finished it (photographing books requires planning ahead in order to take the picture when I'm home during daylight hours), which is too bad, because it has a lovely cover (that doesn't have much to do with what goes on in the story). The book was the novel Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi, and I read it as part of an impromptu book club with two of my friends. I'm always a million years behind the rest of the world's reading habits, but I feel quite au courant having read this new release while it's still being reviewed (and not that favorably). It is a decidedly strange book. More so than all three of the pervious volumes put together. It's part fairytale, part fever dream. Most of the time I was thinking, "What is this book even about?" But I liked the characters (the ones I could keep track of, anyway). I wanted to know where they had come from and where they were going (though I don't think I ever figured either out). And I luxuriated in Oyeyemi's gorgeous sentences and descriptions. And I loved that it made me reset my default image of characters, and just plain think and wonder (even if I was wondering what is this book even about?).

What have you been reading lately?

P.S. I'm planning to breathe new life into both my blog and newsletter, aiming for one of each per week. Later this week I'll send out a new, somewhat slimmed down newsletter. If you're not already on the receiving end, you can sign up here.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Goodbye Winter

The last bits of snow have finally almost melted from our yard and woods and April showers are doing their damndest to bring on May flowers (at least I hope that's what all this rain is about). But before we let winter go, there are two last things I haven't had a chance to tell you about. First is this barred owl, who made a brief visit to our house on an afternoon when I happened to be home (I think there was a sick kid or a kid with an appointment or something), and I was able to catch one photo out my bedroom window before it flew off (admittedly because of the sound the window made when I tried to open it). It's just too beautiful not to share.

Once the blockage was cleared, the new knitting began, first with this hat made from yarn I bought last June at the Fiber Frolic and a pattern that was free on Ravelry. I was surprised at how quickly it knitted up—after the two-year hat—and I love the way the variegated yarn turned out. It fits well, snug and stretchy, and with spring's slow approach I'm still wearing it. Rav notes here, for what they're worth (I mislaid the yarn label, so I can't remember what it's called…bramble something maybe?… but at least the pattern link is there).

Monday, April 22, 2019

Nature Journaling ~ Birds

I'm teachinga  Spring Nature Journaling workshop this Saturday, with a focus on birds, at Fields Pond Audubon center in Holden, Maine. I'd love for you to join me. We'll learn some basic drawing and journaling techniques and learn how to use them to help identify birds, remember field marks, catch fast-flitting birds in action, and record observations. Info here.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

February 2019 Reads

A post about the books I read in the last month.

January 2019 Reads

A long time ago I was going to go to graduate school for environmental studies with a focus on literature and writing, but life got in the way, the way it does, and that never happened. I did eventually get a graduate degree in writing, but I've still always wished I had more knowledge and background in nature and environmental writing. So a while ago, I found online a series of lectures on the history of environmental literature and got to work. It's taken me about 2 1/2 years to work my way through all of the lectures and readings, last month finishing up with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Unfortunately, the last two lectures seem to be missing from the internet, so I'll never know what's happened in enviromental literature since 1962, but it was a good place to end since I spent a lot of time this past summer reading a biography of Carson and some of her other works. It's been about 20+ years since I last read Silent Spring, and if you haven't read it in a while (or ever) I recommend picking it up again. It's still such a powerful book and still so relevant to the careless way we humans handle dangerous technologies and written in a way that is the perfect blend of scientific authority and lyrical phrasing.

I heard about the next book on my list, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, when the author, Ruth Franklin, was interviewed on the #AmWriting podcast. I've been a Shirley Jackson fan since high school, when I read my mom's dusty paperback copy of The Haunting of Hill House and some of her creepier stories ("The Lottery," of course, and "Louisa, Please Come Home"). I discovered her books about life with kids, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, when my kids were little, and I was obsessed with finding and reading every published short story of hers when I was working on my MFA. I can't believe I missed this biography when it came out in 2017 (okay, maybe I can believe it, since I don't read the New York Review of Books or anything). But I'm so glad I did find it now. So, so good. I loved reading about the evolution of Jackson as a writer, her rocky relationship with her husband, her experience parenting four kids, her sad end. I'm obsessed all over again.

So of course I had to check out The Lottery and reread the stories all over again, in context (I seriously don't know why I don't own my own copy of this book). I try, as I did while working on my MFA, to figure out how she does it, how she creates the twists and turns of plot, the breath-taking endings, the unforgettably strange characters (oh, James Harris) and scenarios. And I can't do it.

I also read one of the last Elizabeth Peters books I picked up during my used-bookstore-trawling last summer: Trojan Gold, a Vicky Bliss adventure/suspense/mystery. Vicky is one of Peters's more entertaining and endearing characters, so these are always a fun read.

If I were to add Ann Zwinger to this list, it would be my pantheon of writers—Rachel Carson, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels, Ann Zwinger—which makes for an intersting range that I myself don't entirely understand: fiction and nonfiction; nature, the environment, history, archaeology, witchcraft; humor, horror, suspense, caper. All geniuses and writers I bow down to.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Knitting as Metaphor for Writing

A surprising number of writers are knitters (as attested by Ann Hood's two anthologies on the subject, Knitting Yarns and Knitting Pearls). Maybe it's because writing is so open-ended it's nice to have a pattern to follow. Or perhaps writers are "busy hands" types, who need to feel productive, even while watching TV. Or it could just be that knitting is a guilt-free form of procrastination because, hey, you're still being creative, right?

I think it's a little of all of these things, but also that knitting is a metaphor for writing. There's the burst of creativity in the planning (and the possibilities) at the beginning, the necessity of making choices that narrow those possibilities to one yarn, one pattern, one character, one plot. Then comes the long stretch of often-tedious stitch-by-stitch, word-by-word work before you come out with a hat or an essay or a story or a sweater or a novel. Then there's the weaving in of the ends, the blocking and shaping, the finishing.

Last winter, I finished this cahsmere hat that had taken me a year to knit because it was lace-weight yarn on size 2 needles, with about a thousand stitches per round. The hat came out too big, even after I ripped out the brim and redid it four times, and it grew even bigger after I wore it around the house for a while. I tried threading a ribbon through the lacy bits, but it looked silly and I was unlikely to ever wear it. But I didn't want to waste that whole year of work and that skein of soft soft yarn. I knew I had to mathematically figure out how many stitches I should end up with and how many decrease rounds I needed to get there, and then rip it out and reknit the brim one last time.

That seemed like a real pain in the neck, so the hat sat in a bag for more than a year, and during that year I didn't knit anything else except for a handful of preemie hats to donate to the hospital. I bought some yummy yarn at the Fiber Frolic last June, and I had a couple of other big knitting projects in mind, but I couldn't get started on anything as long as that cashmere hat lingered in its bag and on my mind. Finally last month, after a trip to the yarn store from which I came home with a bagful of goodies and big plans, I pulled out the hat, did a little measuring and counting and dividing, and ripped out the brim and reknit it one last time. All told, it took only a few hours, and the hat, in the end, finally fits. Right away, I cast on a new project, as if a great blockage had been cleared from the knitting pipeline.

What does this have to do with writing? I've had a similar problem in that department—a lot of ideas and plans swimming around, but an inability to approach them with anything more than a sort of aimless groping. After I finished my hat, I realized I need to finish The Book, which has been hanging out in a kind of limbo, of being done and revised and out on submission to agents, but also needing (I knew deep inside) further revision and a perhaps a different approach to publication.

As soon as I had this realization, I got up early the next morning—and every morning since—and got to work on my revision plan. My goal is to finish by the end of March, at the rate of 10 pages per day, and, as with the hat, my process is to pull out unnecessary stitches and tighten the whole thing up. I hope that, by the end of spring, The Book will move on to a new stage in its life and a great blockage will have been cleared from the writng pipeline, leaving me free to get started on the next book.
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