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.

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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.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Boys' Room Refresh ~ Purple!

After M moved to his own bedroom last November, and after he finally finished clearing all of his junk out of it much, much later, we started prepping what was now E and Z's room for a slight remodel (this room has undergone a number reorganizations as the needs of three boys have evolved and changed: bunk beds, overhaul part I and part II, loft bed). But after 16 years and three boys, the room needed a lot more than reorganization this time around; it needed a total facelift.

Not even a construction zone can take E away from his Minecraft.
The first order of business was to fill about 18 trillion pushpin holes on the walls and ceiling (yes, ceiling) with joint compound, and paint said ceiling with two coats of white to cover a film of dirty finger and footprints (the downside of bunk beds). Then we got started with the walls.

At first Z wanted purple and E wanted hot pink. Hot pink doesn't exactly work with my color scheme, and I figure at least one compensation for having all boy children is that I've never had to live with a pink room in my house. Then E switched to purple and Z decided he wanted red. Or black. So we went with purple. (When I told a friend whose kids were little in the 90s, she said, "You mean like Barney?"  Since he'd gone extinct by the time my kids were preschool age, hadn't even thought of Barney, but now I gotta admit, yeah, it's pretty close to the color of Barney.)

The whole process took several weeks, requiring, as it did, for C and I to both have the time and the enthusiasm at the same time on the weekends, so E and Z have been living with their room dismantled for a while. Sunday afternoon, after the paint dried, I washed the floors and all the woodwork, cleaned the construction (and preconstruction) dust off all the furniture, made up the beds with new sheets and clean bedding, and put the furniture into place. Then at midnight my internal Mom alarm went off—Z had come down with a sudden stomach virus and didn't have time to get down from his loft bed. He had the foresight to keep his bedding clean by leaning over the rail, sea-sick-syle, and I spent the middle of the night rewashing the floor and all of the furniture and the woodwork and the newly painted wall (fortunately, the room was not its usual state of chaos, and E's basket of clean laundry was just outside the splash radius, and all of the dresser drawers were closed). I've reconsidered my brief thought of getting a rug for between the beds.

We still need to get desks and window treatments, clean out the closet, which is stuffed with outgrown toys and books and all of the things that had taken up space in the room before we started on the walls, and decorate (though I'm in no hurry to hang anything on the wall anytime soon).
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