Friday, October 18, 2019

Finish it Friday ~ Jeweled Scarabs Cowl

When my parents came to visit last month, my mom brought me a two-year-old issue of Knitting Traditions magazine, one with a scarab cowl on the cover, knowing I have a thing for Ancient Egypt and Victorian lady Egyptologists, including one who inspired this pattern. We also visited a lot of yarn stores while they were here, and in each of them I kept my eyes peeled for just the right yarn for this project. I found it in Camden, two skeins of luscious alpaca-wool-silk blend, one in midnight blue, the other chartreuse, one of my favorite color combinations.

It's been a while since I knitted in two colors, and I was a little worried about the tension, but it came out beautifully. And I forgot how much I love this kind of knitting (is it Fair Isle? Or does that need to have those stripey patterns with the exes?). It came together super fast (and gave me an excuse for extra TV time), and I finished in just over two weeks, a record for me, I'm sure.

I knitted a little faster than normal toward the end because, as I neared the top of the cowl, my balls of yarn were shrinking at an alarming pace. I was afraid I might need to get more, and since E and Z had a cross-country meet in Camden that Friday, it would be very convenient (other than the fact of having to buy yarn for two inches of pattern) to get it at that time. So I was trying to either finish or run out before the time came. I didn't quite make it, but it was clear that there wouldn't be enough blue. The green was a little iffy, but to be safe I bought a skein of that, too.

Turns out I didn't need the green after all (just barely making it to the end without running out), but since I have most of a skein of blue yarn anyway, I might as well keep the green and knit something else, since the color is go gorgeous and the yarn so very soft. A pair of fingerless gloves, perhaps?

Pattern notes, such as they are, on my Ravelry page.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Among the Birds and Butterflies

After a warm, dry, sunny September, October took a firm hand and reminded us all that the party's over, with gray skies, rainy days, frosty nights. Any mention of wool sweaters, warm hats, or woodstoves has me wanting to make like the woodchuck, tunnel underground, and hibernate until the sun comes out again next summer. Don't even say the words "pumpkin spice" in my hearing.

But back near the end of September, when the sky was still blue and the air not out to kill you, I got to spend a glorious day on the coast with my favorite birder. We went in search of rare birds—oddities that drop into Maine only during migration or that have veered north from their usual territories.

We saw the birds we hoped to see—American oystercatcher, royal tern, Capsian tern, and black skimmer—plus we got to observe some of the more typical shorebirds from amazingly close range. And we enjoyed a beautiful day outdoors, with no expectations or obligations.

As we moved around to different bird viewing locations, I couldn't help but notice other creatures on the wing—monarch butterflies. Wherever asters were in bloom at least two or three butterflies hovered, tanking up for their migration ahead. This abundance meshed with my observations of more monarchs this summer, both around our house and, especially, near the coast.

As we hiked along a trail that led to a point of land, we passed a native plants garden, mostly growing tall New England American asters, and there, fluttering among and dangling from the purple blossoms were more monarchs than I've ever seen in my life—dozens of them. Sharing the blooms were several painted ladies as well. Drunk on nectar, the butterflies let us walk right among them, completely undisturbed by our presence, more interested, I imagine, in imbibing the calories needed for their 3000 mile journey to Mexico. 

Just a couple of years ago, I feared I'd seen my last monarch. The caterpillars didn't appear in our fields in the numbers they had in previous summers. At least one or two years went by when I didn't see a single orange-and-black butterfly. Like all wild creatures we share the earth with, monarchs are struggling with habitat loss and fragmentation and a changing climate, and milkweed, the caterpillar's food source, has been disappearing from prime breeding areas in the Midwest thanks to pesticide use on roundup-ready crops.

I don't know what this roost of several dozen means for the future of the monarch butterfly, and I don't want to trade in false hope. But to have witnessed that big little gathering of an astonishing creature was a gift, one I hope that humanity doesn't squander.

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Wild Wednesday ~ Playing With Words in Nature

Today I got to spend a lovely couple of hours outdoors with a group of high school creative writing students. We practiced using all of our senses to describe a place, wrote a praise poem about a small natural object we collected, and then we took a walk along a poetry trail created by our wonderfully talented and energetic hostess, who happens to be the students' teacher. She's made beautifully decorated pieces of wood painted with lines from the Mary Oliver poem "Sleeping in the Forest" were mounted to trees along our way, and I gave the students the assignment of choosing a line that spoke to them and using it as a jumping-off point for free writing.

The line that struck me was "pockets full of lichens and seeds" and went a little fanciful with my free write:

Autumn trips across the land,
her pockets full of lichens and seeds.
She casts acorns in a game of dice—
snake eyes mean winter's on its way.
Where her toes touch down,
mushrooms spring up—pink, gold, purple, cinnabar—
peeking through their coverlet of leaves.
The mosses, though—sphagnum, cushion, club—
resist her touch, glowing emerald green
in the slanting sun.
And the tiny white pine, its wiry needles
gray-green but defiant.

That's all I had time for before we had to round the students up and herd them back to school.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Time Management Tuesday ~ Week 1 Time Tracker

After one week of tracking how I spend time each day, a picture is starting to emerge of my days and what I prioritize, or what takes up my time at any rate. Over the week of Monday October 7 through Sunday October 13, this is how I spent my time each day, on average:
Sleeping: 7.5 hours
Family time: 4.6 hours
Crafting: 2.7 hours
Cooking and eating: 2.25 hours
Driving (or riding in the car): 1.9 hours
Entertainment (television and movies): 1.8 hours
Reading: 1.7 hours
Exercising: 1.4 hours
Writing: 1.5 hours
Time with Friends: 1.4 hours
Volunteering: 1.1 hours
Cleaning and organizing: 0.8 hours
Client Work: 0.6 hours
Shopping/Errands: 0.6 hours
Self-care: 0.3 hours
Email: 0.3 hours
Art 0.2 hours
I know it adds up to more than 24 hours. That's because I can do two things at once: knit while watching TV, spend time with friends while eating, spend time with family while driving them home from cross-country practice. This week was a little unusual, in that we went on a long drive to take a long hike, which upped driving, exercise, and family time. I also had an exciting knitting project going, so crafting and TV time were both on the high side. Crafting was up, along with friend time, also due to a stitch night with a few friends and a soap-making class I took with a friend. Cooking/eating was also high because one day I made an elaborate meal, which I hardly ever do anymore. But I suppose every week is unusual in some way.

I'm happy with my sleep score. It's the number from my fitbit, so it doesn't include time spent in bed tossing and turning. I'm also pleasantly surprised by family time, though it's a little skewed by parent-teacher conferences and that really long drive and really long hike. But it also includes just sitting around chatting with M who came home for the weekend.

I'm surprised by the writing number, which includes work on a couple of creative nonfiction projects  as well as blogging and writing my newsletter. Last week felt really productive, writing-wise, but I only averaged 1.5 hours per day. I suppose the takeaway is either that I don't need to spend a ton of time writing to feel productive or that my perception of productive is pathetically low.

I had thought that things like shopping and errands, housework, volunteer work, and email took up a lot more time than they appear to. I think maybe I either forgot to put a grocery shopping trip in the tracker or I didn't go grocery shopping last week (the state of the refrigerator supports the second possibility, but with three hungry boys in the house it's a challenge to keep the cupboards stocked no matter how often you shop). The housework disconnect may be due to the fact that I've consciously neglected housework ever since the blitz of cleaning and organizing I did in August. If I'd tracked my time then, the cleaning/organizing category would have been a much higher number. And after a four-day weekend of not dealing with email, I spent 3 hours yesterday reading, responding to, filing, and deleting email. A lot of that could fall under the category of "volunteering," since most of the emails that actually needed attention related to one of the two nonprofits I'm actively involved in.

Finally, the self-care and art categories are dismally small. Self-care for me literally means showering or taking a bath. I don't even know what else self-care would entail at this point. And the art number is probably a little bit higher in actuality than it appears, because I've been working on watercolor exercises that I drop in on for a few minutes at a time throughout the day, so usually it doesn't even rate a mention on the spreadsheet.

What does all this mean for how I should manage my time going forward? It definitely shows that there are a limited number of hours in the day, and time spent doing one thing (writing, say) equals time spent NOT doing something else (housework), and that I don't really waste much time each day (unless you count reading the news). There's not much on my list I wish I didn't have to do—other than those unavoidables like cooking, cleaning, driving. When E and Z's cross-country season ends, the driving number will go down, but so too will the amount of time I have to myself each day. I definitely want to lower the time I spend on email and plan to do this by unsubscribing from all the junk, limiting my email replies to three lines (five if it's really important), and deleting unnecessary items as soon as I see them instead of letting them pile up. Finally, I have to think of some ways to pamper myself other than the occasional bubble bath.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Finish It Friday: Bedroom Curtains

After repainting and cleaning and reorganizing of the boys' room, I had only one small job left to do to finish it—take one long curtain and make it into two short ones for their small south windows. I put this off for a long time because I knew the silky, slippery material would be a pain to work with, and I didn't want to deal with the math of figuring out how much to cut off the bottom in order to leave enough to make tabs and a hem and have both curtains come out the same size. It turned out to be not that bad on either count (although the material is no fun to work with, and I regret having agreed to buying them, but I was worn down by E and Z's total contrariness on the whole curtain issue).

Somehow I only managed to get one curtain in the photo, but I can assure you they're pretty close to being the same length. I also put in curtain rods, replacing the old white ones with red-and-blue car finials. I made the mistake of buying one long rod for these two windows without having actually measured. It was just barely long enough and didn't leave as much of an overhang as the other two curtains have, but I don't suppose anyone but me will ever notice. As I sat perched precariously on the edge of Z's loft bed, taking out the screws on the old curtain rods and putting in the new ones, it occurred to me that in removing the old froggie curtains we were removing the almost the last traces of childhood from this room, and especially the last traces of M, for whom I made the curtains after a long (long, long) trip to the fabric store when he was very little.

The curtain refresh was probably several years too late (although rainbow frogs aren't really all that babyish are they?), but that didn't make the moment any less poignant.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Making of a Book, Part I

(Note: I don't have a catchy catch-all for today's blog. Thinkin' Thursday? Thorough Thursday? It's all too much of a stretch.)

The Book in its rawest form.
I always find it interesting to hear about an author's process in writing a book, so I thought I'd share my own process, up to the current point, with great hopes that there will later be a Part II post full of good news about advances, publication, promotion, sales, royalties, awards, fame, and fortune (or at least publication, please).

I dreamed up the idea for my book—which, if you're joining me here for the first time, is an account of my family's journey on the Colorado Trail in 2016, with side trips into my husband's and my first hike on the same trail 20 years earlier, ruminations about what's changed over the intervening two decades, and romps through natural and environmental history—in 2014, as I was nearing completion of my MFA program (in fiction, so totally unrelated). I recently ran across an old journal in which I'd outlined and started on an intro to a book about that first CT hike, so writing about the trail was not a new idea for me (or for C, who had actually made good progress on a manuscript many years ago).

In the two years between coming up with the idea and actually going on the hike, I wrote a book proposal and sent it to what I thought would be a likely publisher. I never heard back, and later learned the publisher went under, so it may not have been my proposal that was at fault (and lucky I did not sign on with them before their demise!). I also typed up the notes from our 1996 hike and attempted to do some background research on some of the environmental issues we'd come across. This while also working full time, parenting full time, attempting to talk my husband into going on the hike, and planning, purchasing, and packing for the hike.

While on the trail, I wrote in my journal every single evening, even when I was really, really tired. Sometimes all I could muster was bullet points, but I got down the important elements of the day. I didn't have time to write during the day, so I had to hold everything I wanted to remember in my head until bedtime, which overall worked out okay, though I could have done better with dialogue and other human interactions.

We returned home at 2 a.m. on a Sunday. The twins went back to school on Monday, I dropped M off at a friend's house (he didn't start school until Wednesday), went back-to-school shopping, then sat at a sandwich shop and started typing up my journals. I didn't just straight transcribe, but added to my notes from memory and converted close past tense (this morning we did…) to present tense. I also went through all my photos to trigger memories and add to the physical descriptions and watched all of C's vlogs to round it all out. Then I dropped chunks of my journal from the first hike into the manuscript at the appropriate geographic locations.

This took until early November, at which time I was all prepped to start researching, with a stack of library books at the ready. And then the next day the election happened, and I went into a tailspin. What was the point of writing a book about hiking in the mountains when the world was about to come to an end? Time I should have spent reading and writing about dams and wildfires instead turned into time spent reading news articles and writing letters to my useless senator. The holidays came amidst this chaos, and very little book progress happened over those two months.

In January, I committed to writing some short pieces about the hike, in an attempt to get my head back in the right space to work on the book, help flesh out themes, and possibly earn a little cash. At the same time, I started The Artist's Way, which as you may know involves writing three longhand "morning pages" every day. I kept on reading my research books, and at some point found myself sitting down at odd times of day to write out sections of the book, long-hand, three pages at a time. Coincidence or synchronicity?

At some point amid all of this, I had printed out my manuscript, such as it was, opened a new document, and began to type it in again, re-running all the words through my eyes, brain, and fingers and reshaping it as I went. Whenever I came to an area I needed to research, I'd look up articles, order books, and spend a few days or weeks reading about the subject before writing what I needed to and moving on.

At first I though I was just really bad at research, but after listening to people on podcasts talk about their research process, I realized that this is just how it works—you read a book or two and five or ten articles in order to write a couple of paragraphs. It's a long slog and I got impatient with the stop-and-start nature of this method, so when I came to a place that needed research, I put in a placeholder and kept going with the writing. I still looked up the articles and ordered the books, and I devoted a chunk of time each day to research, but I didn't let it slow down the flow of the narrative.

By the end of the summer, I had almost gotten through rewriting the whole narrative, with only one or two chapters remaining, and quite a lot of holes where I still needed to do research. At this point, I printed it all out again, bought a selection of colored pens, and took myself away for a glorious week at an artist colony, where I went through the whole manuscript, marking it up with different colors for different changes needed (orange=grammar/spelling; green=more/better description; blue=research; teal=write better), and I filled seven notebook pages with lists of things I needed to research. I also wrote an epilogue (which I have since thrown out, but it was a good exercise anyway).

It took the rest of fall, winter, and spring to fill in all those research gaps. By the end of June I had a completed manuscript printed out and sent it in the mail to a friend to do a first read-through. I revised it based on her comments and sent it to another friend later that summer and revised it again. Then I went to an agent-querying workshop, wrote a query letter, and sent it off to around ten agents, but got no bites. Then I got a job and forgot about the whole thing for a while. When spring came, I though of more revisions I wanted to make, and did those (most significantly lopping off the first chapter, strengthening threads of certain themes, and working on the characterization of the other people in the book). I also decided to skip the agent step (for now anyway) and appeal directly to publishers, which led to me writing a book proposal this summer.

And that is how we got to where we are now, and how one little book took three whole years to write.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Wild Wednesday ~ Warblers

On Wednesday I go outside for a quick walk before I have to leave to pick the twins up from cross-country practice, and the trees at the top of the driveway are all aflutter and atwitter. I run back inside, grab my binoculars, and follow the flock into the woods across the driveway. I'm in a cloud of warblers. They barely notice me as they hop from tree to branch to leaf, fattening up for their long journey ahead. I watch one pull a fat green caterpillar off of a leaf and flutter to a nearby branch to feast.

Fall warblers are notoriously hard to identify. The young haven't yet feathered out in their adult plumage and the parents have shed their breeding regalia. I recognize some as yellow-rumped warblers, but the others remain a mystery, and far too soon I need to leave. By the time I get home, more than an hour later, the birds have moved on, and the next day the woods are silent, too.

The next Tuesday noontime I go out for a walk—exercise only, laps up and down the driveway. But on the third lap I grow bored and take a detour into the woods. A bird appears in the tree beside me, and then another, and another. One, two, three, four, five yellow-rumped warblers (all generously flashing their yellow rears and underarms) and one teeny tiny ruby-crowned kinglet. I don't have my binoculars, but I barely need them, the birds are so close. They move silently and efficiently, gleaning first one branch and then another, moving out of synch but more or less together in the same direction.

Not for the first time I marvel at the way that birds of completely different, unrelated species contentedly feed together when we humans barely get along with others of our own kind and only interact with other species when we are in the role of owner and they are pet or food or tool.

I accompany the small flock along the trail, until our paths fork, theirs taking them toward the swamp, mine looping back toward the house. In a clearing I pause and watch a white-breasted nuthatch whittle the branch of a dead elm tree. A confused spring peeper calls from the pond to my left, another calls back from the woods to my right. A cricket sings in the weeds, but the intensity of insect calls has greatly diminished after a handful of frosts.

When I reach the back side of the gravel pit, I see tiny birds rise and dance above the shrinking pond and give in, rush home to get my binoculars, and return. I find more yellow-rumps and a few others who will just have to be known as LBJs (little brown jobbies). A song sparrow hops around in the mud where turtles swam a couple of months ago.

Everyone by now has heard about the recent study that found a 29% decline in bird populations in North America over the last half century, with warblers being amont the hardest hit. I think about how many insects the handful of birds I just saw ate up in a matter of minutes. Are we facing not only a Silent Spring but also a Fatal Fall, in which caterpillars, with no warblers and kinglets to keep them in check, overrun the trees, devouring the leaves before they have a chance to feed the tree, let along turn gold-orange-red and drop to the ground?
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