Tuesday, October 30, 2012


I hope you and your families are all safe and well after Frankenstorm.

Here, it was pretty much a bust. A couple of trees down, some wind, some rain, and much ado about nothing, much to the disappointment to the members of my household who were hoping for a storm day (I won't say who those members may be, but I did have a long list of to-do's if I just happened to be trapped at home).

In the meantime, I'm working on making the transition to winter, to holidays, to whatever chapters of life lay ahead. It's no secret that I'm a summer girl all the way, so I resist fall in general, and I resist Halloween in particular, I think, because it is the start of the madness––two months of making and baking and preparing and celebrating. Don't get me wrong; I like all that kind of stuff. But, it's a lot of doing and doesn't leave a lot of time for being. Also, this year I'm trying to remind myself that I can't do it all (I never could do it all, but now I can do even less). This summer I failed to comprehend that I need to say "no" to some things (okay, a lot of things) in order to get my work done, and I got really far behind. I need to do better this holiday season.

At the same time, I'm trying to get into the spirit of things. This weekend, the boys painted their papier mache weapons Halloween props that we made the week before (using wrapping paper tubes torn along their spiral seams and then re-rolled into a tight, long cone shape).

A (rainbow) trident for E (some sort of devilish, deamonish thing):

(Here he's fake-painting because I failed to grab the camera faster than he could paint).

And a sword for Samurai Z:

Then we baked some cookies for a Halloween party at our friends' house, using this sugar cookie recipe, some basic butter and powdered sugar frosting and chocolate-covered sunflower seeds.

I had a bunch of ideas for Halloween crafts and decorations to make with the kids, but we never seemed to have the time. We only have a few Halloween decorations––a tissue paper jack-o'-lantern garland that has survived eight or ten Halloweens, a few construction-paper bats made for a long-ago party (and starting to curl up along the edges) and, of course, the table-runner I made last year, which I like to just sit and admire whenever I'm at the table (and now I know why everyone keeps saying it snowed on Halloween last year––it snowed a teensy bit the day before!).

I also discovered a batch of matching placemats I cut out last year but didn't finish and it turns out I didn't have time to finish them this year, either. Oh well, it's all part of transitioning: making room for what is important, and letting go of the rest.

How is your transitioning going this season? Did you make it through the hurricane OK?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Two Quickies

What to do when you like to give homemade gifts, but you're short on time? Quick gifts from the stash. I've made two in the last couple of weeks.

First, for a baby due very soon, I took a large piece of thick, super-soft flannel and made a binding using cowboy material leftover from E's sleeping bag:

I sewed the binding on in the least sensical way possible, so that it's all lumpy and weird at the corners, but I suppose it will still work as a blankie.

Next, for another friend's birthday, I made this earring holder, using a vintage hankie (one of the snowflakes) and an embroidery hoop (which, incidentally, are hard to find in wood anymore):

I had seen this idea on some blog or other a long time ago and made myself one, which I adore. Then last year sometime, this friend and I were in a store and she pointed out some earring holders made of framed window screens and said she needed one. Now I just couldn't let someone hang a piece of window screen in their house (except, of course, as a window screen), so I made her this for her birthday. Now you could look at this as me being a control freak, and wanting to force my sense of aesthetics on everyone else, or you can look at it as me seeing a friend in need and creating something beautiful to help her meet that need. I think I'll go with option B.

What's your favorite quick gift?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Walk in the Woods

Between the boys going away for a weekend and me going away overnight and soccer games and lots of rain, we hadn't gone on a family hike in the woods in a long while. Finally, this past Sunday afternoon, after cleaning the house and catching up on laundry and papier-mache-ing a sword and a trident, and way too much time playing Legos in the basement, we all headed out on our trail.

I kept my eyes open for interesting fungi,

While the boys hacked at every dead log with their hatchets,

Then made their usual attempt to fall in the river (no one got wet, but when E jumped off a log onto the bank, his shoe went in).

We bushwhacked into the puckerbrush for a ways, with me in the lead, hoping to get to the beaver lodge we found a couple of years ago. We did not find it (C claims we were on the wrong part of the river) and gave up on pushing through the dense blackberry thickets, but we did find this skull.

At first we thought it was beaver, with beavers on our minds and all,

But after getting up-close and personal with this guy, C thought maybe it was a porcupine. We checked the mammal guide when we got home and, sure enough, based on the angle of the nasal bones and the delicacy of the cheek bones, the shape of the eye sockets and the size of the teeth, we decided it was probably porcupine.

To round out the day, we helped propagate the milkweed.

Where have your adventures taken you lately?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Photoplay: Vertically Challenged

I've been slowly working my way through a couple of landscape photography books a friend of mine lent me and in one of them the author challenges the readers to look through your photos and see how many are in vertical format versus horizontal, and, if you find that you favor one format over the other, to try to take more in the less-common orientation. I didn't even have to look through my photos to know how many vertical shots I have. The answer is zero, or pretty close. Ever since I started blogging, at least, I've pretty much only taken horizontal photos because it is so annoying the way the text wraps around the vertical ones. Instead of finding a workaround in Blogger, I've just completely given up on vertical pictures. To correct this deficiency (and also because vertical pictures help balance the photo collages I've started making), over the last couple of weeks, I've challenged myself to take more vertical pictures:

And it's been fun. (It was also fun to make Maine look like it's Big Sky country).

Do you have a tendency to prefer taking photos one way over the other? What kind of challenges have you presented yourself in your creative life lately?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Writing Desk Refresh, and Thoughts on Organizational Craziness

October is the busiest month of the summer/fall semester for me, so I made myself stay away from this space last week, until I finished drafting my second workshop submission (how's that for incentive: "No writing until you finish writing."). I even put in several very early mornings, on top of my two library nights (one of which was interrupted by the building shimmying like a brick belly-dancer. Of course I had to go online and see if it was an earthquake––it was).

Anyway, one of those very early mornings, I found myself looking around the house and feeling overwhelmed by all the disorder. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, were piles of clutter and crap. That evening, I came home and, in an effort to create one little respite of clean and calm, I went a little manic and tidied up my desk and the windowsill behind it while at the same time cooking dinner, listening to kids read and putting them to bed.

I didn't take any "before" pictures, because it wasn't terribly premeditated, but you can see previous efforts at sorting out this area of my life here, here and here. This part of the house has come to symbolize my writing life––even though usually when I write at home, I do it on the futon in the sun room––so when I'm feeling out of sorts with my writing, I try to sort out my writing desk (and there's no better way to feel out-of-sorts with writing than struggling with a first draft that refuses to submit to one's will).

I got most of my inspiration for the the new look from this blog, and most of what I used I already had on hand, although I did make the lace rock and the stone picture-holder, above. I bought the doily for the rock (no, I did not crochet it that night––that would be really insane) and the little vintage bird Christmas tree ornament, below(my mom bought the ink bottle for me when she was visiting this summer, and I've never been able to keep any plant alive the tiny aqua flower pot/pencil holder).

Heart-shaped rocks, journals and colored pencils.

One of the biggest issues with the desk is the papers that pile up, waiting to be put away in the filing cabinet which we moved to the basement last winter in preparation for the piano (okay, truth be told, I let papers pile up, even when the filing cabinet was sitting right there). To help alleviate this problem, I sewed up a little file hammock, using a vintage linen calendar towel, two sticks cut from a dead dogwood tree and an old pair of shoelaces. I saw the design on Pinterest, for use as a laptop hammock. While I wouldn't quite trust it to hold my computer, I think I can pile quite a few bank statements and insurance papers in it without too much trouble. Out of sight, out of mind.

So, when I got up at five the next morning, did I get straight to work, filled with new inspiration and fresh ideas? No.  I sat and admired my handy-work for a good half hour. But then I did get to work, and I eventually finished my story (Saturday while the boys were at soccer, sitting in the mudroom).

So, I'm not sure whether to call this a burst of creativity and energy, or a slightly crazy mania about which I should be concerned. On the one hand, with a full-time job, three kids and graduate school, the only way to get anything accomplished is to go manic. On the other hand, what is so important about having a clean, well-organized house (or tiny corner of the house) that it all has to get done right now? 

October seems to be an introspective time of year for me (the earth turning in on itself and all that) and I find I've been thinking about what things, habits and people are not healthy in my life right now and how to eliminate that which does not nourish me or bring something positive to my life. How do I balance a healthy desire to be surrounded by beauty against an unhealthy dissatisfaction with my surroundings because they aren't as perfect as those I admire online?

This post here Let's All Compare Our Perfect Lives Then Try To Enjoy Our Day at Revolution from Home especially has me thinking.

In the meantime, all that blank horizontal space on the top of my desk is driving M and C crazy so that whenever either of them walks into the house, he has to pile something on top of it.

What do you think? Do you get manic and try to reign your house into order, or do you just go with the flow of family chaos (or are you one of those naturally orderly people who cannot understand what the hell I'm talking about)?

Edited to add: I just read this post and found it also inspiring and connected to these thoughts in ways it's far too early in the morning to articulate, but some key phrases include: "Relentlessly prioritize." "Be deliberate about your choices." "Meaningful work is nourishing." "Surround yourself with people who fill you with peace and energy; stay away from negative people."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Nature Journaling: Incorporating Photographs

My new nature journaling project, to journal every day for a year, has been going amazingly well. I have only missed one day in the last month-and-a-half since I began. And I've cut way back on posts of the "It's 10 p.m. and I haven't even been outside except to walk to my car" variety. The project seems to be succeeding so far, in pushing me out into nature more than I might on a regular basis and in encouraging me to pay attention while I'm there.

One thing I've incorporated that I've never included to any great degree in journals in the past is adding photos to my posts. When I first started nature journaling many long years ago, photography was still in the caveman days of film, so that when you took a picture you had to wait to finish the roll, then wait to remember to send it off to the developer, then wait to get it back, and by that time, you had moved so far beyond whatever was going on at the time you took the picture that it didn't even make sense to include them in the journal. At least that's how it worked for me.

But now...NOW I can take pictures, upload them to my computer, arrange them in a little collage and print them out all in one day. Many days, the pictures have saved me. When I don't have much to add to an entry, I place a few photos and captions.

Other times, I incorporate the photos with writing and/or drawing, often planning ahead, leaving little 2x3 inch gaps between my words for later photo additions.

I LOVE making these little photo collages, that tell a little story about one day or afternoon. I'm about three years behind on uploading photos to Snapfish and making them into albums, so my nature journal has become my only printed record of family photography and I find myself paging through it just to look at the pictures. I especially love how it chronicles my family and my time in nature together, which is the theme and goal of my current nature journaling project.

How do you incorporate your photography into your other creative pursuits? 

Previous Nature Journaling posts:  
See also Nature Journaling as Meditation for more on starting a nature journal.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Strawberry-Kiwiberry Jam

My friend Tina has these amazing hardy kiwi vines that almost completely cover two big spruce trees and an apple tree in her side yard. Also known as kiwi berries, or Japanese kiwi, they are of the species Actinia arguta and are much smaller than grocery store kiwis and have a smooth green or reddish-brown, edible skin, rather than the fuzzy skin of the regular kiwi. They grew all over some retaining walls at the college I went to, and C and I planted two vines several years ago, which just set their first three or four fruits this summer (they need to be fertilized and pruned, I think).

Last week Tina picked a several pints of fruit from her vines and came over to my house Friday night for a jam-making party. During a hasty online research session, I found some websites that said the kiwi berries are "not suitable for jam" while others said they are suitable, but I couldn't find any recipes for them specifically. Searches for "kiwi jam" came up with (yummy-looking) jams from New Zealand, and a few strawberry-kiwi jam recipes that called for the regular fuzzy kiwis, and pectin.

As you know, I consider pectin to be a conspiracy of the agricultural-industrial complex to foist their byproducts off as valuable merchandise, and I suspected that the kiwi berries, being small and covered in thickish skin would contain natural pectin a-plenty, so I went with my usual formula: four cups crushed fruit, four cups sugar, a little lemon juice––and it turned out brilliantly. So, to make up for the dearth of kiwiberry recipes online, I present you with:

Strawberry-Kiwiberry Jam
(makes 5-6 half-pints of jam)

Bring to a boil in a large soup pot, stirring regularly:

1 1/2 cups crushed hardy kiwis (cut in half or quarters before crushing)
2 1/2 cups crushed strawberries
2 T fresh-squeezed lemon juice
4 cups sugar

Continue boiling and stirring until the mixture reaches jam-like consistency (test by placing a spoonful of the liquid part of the jam on a chilled saucer; return the saucer to the freezer for a couple of minutes. If the surface of the jam wrinkles when you push your fingertip through it, it's done). This took about 15-20 minutes at my not-much-above-sea-level home. Tina shared a bit of folk wisdom, that when the jam foams up, then the foam dissipates, it's within five or ten minutes of being done. This seemed pretty accurate.

Bring a large pot (canner) of water to boil (deep enough to cover jars by at least 1/2 inch). Wash five or six half-pint jars and place in boiling water for five minutes. Boil jars, rings, ladle, tongs and canning funnel in a separate pan.

When jam is done, ladle into hot jars, place hot lids on top and screw on rings loosely. Return to boiling water bath and boil for at least five minutes (add a minute for every 1000 feet of altitude). Place jars on a towel and wait for the satisfying "click" of the lids sealing (three of ours did not seal; it was the first time that's ever happened to me!).

Enjoy on toast!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Me Weekend

First of all, I need to start off this post by stating that I love my husband and children very, very much. And yet, and yet...I spent most of the weekend completely free of them and it was absolutely divine.

It all started a few weeks ago when we decided to head up to Mt. Desert Island Columbus Day weekend to hang out with two other families and attend some of the Alumni Weekend festivities at C's and my alma mater.

A weekend with good friends, hiking and going out on a boat, visiting old haunts––sounded like so much fun. So why, every time I thought about it, did I feel like a thick leather belt was tightening around my chest?

Perhaps because, due to a summer of fun and busyness, visitors and travel, I was SO FAR BEHIND on my graduate school work, with October the busiest month of the semester, I felt if I went away for a weekend I would never, ever catch up.

So I asked my husband if he would very sweetly take the children and go away for the weekend of fun, leaving me behind to catch up on my work, and to have a bit of that solitude and quiet and just general head space required for generating ideas and inventing characters and carrying narrative lines through to a conclusion. I have been missing that space, craving it, and as the weekend approached, I felt like a giddiness rise in me, like a shaken-up bottle of soda-pop, every time I thought about it. And that giddiness stayed with me throughout the weekend, every time it occurred to me, "I am here, all by myself!"

After they had all left the house Saturday afternoon, after soccer games and packing flurries, it occurred to me that I have never once spent a night alone in this house (where we've lived for ten years now), and that possibly the last time I spent more than a few hours home alone was way back when I was pregnant with M (we were living in an apartment then) and C went to Florida for a week. I have been lucky enough to go away and stay with friends, in hotel rooms and even dorm rooms, but I've never actually been home alone (I have spent at least one full school-day at home completely alone, within blog memory).

It was every bit as wonderful as I expected. I got tons of writing done (finally got this month's packet done and in the mail today, only four days late, and revised a piece from first semester for one of my workshops, due at the end of the month), went for quiet walks in the woods (tons of mushrooms poking up from the earth), ate yummy food whenever I felt like it, read quite a bit of a book for my next packet. I even watched TV (which I hardly ever do) and slept in late Sunday morning (which I didn't even think I was capable of doing). I was so refreshed and rejuvenated and grateful to my brood that I cooked them up a big feast of chiles rellenos, beans, rice and tomato-jalapeno sauce for dinner upon their return last night. And they all survived just fine without me. Now if I can only convince them to go away on that big week-long fishing expedition I've been imagining for seven years...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Musings on Banned Books Week

This week is Banned Books Week, as I was reminded by this great post by M. Molly Backes, and Banned Books Week reminded me of something I wanted to write about way back in June, but never got around to it.

Last spring, M's fifth-grade class was studying the Revolutionary War, for which his reading group read My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier. When he finished the book, he left it on the kitchen table, as he is wont to do--whenever he is done with anything, he just sort of drops it in situ, like a snake shedding its skin. After it had been sitting there a few days, I picked it up and just happened to flip though it and noticed that there were magic marker lines throughout the book, blacking out words or in some cases whole sentences.

I asked M what that was about, and he said Mr. C. had crossed out all the "swears." I was immediately appalled, but kept my cool and decided to use this as an inroad to discussion about censorship. Now, I should probably say I've never read My Brother Sam is Dead, but I noted from the cover that it is a Newberry Honor Book and an American Library Association Pick, so that some smart people somewhere have read it and think it is a pretty darn good book.

Anyway, I asked M what he thought about that, and he said that he thought writers shouldn't put swears in their books. Fair enough. He's not a kid who swears, and he gets mad at me when I swear (although he laughs hysterically when he hears kids swear in movies like Goonies, which is likely the most sweary movie he's ever seen, on my watch anyway). We talked about why the characters might be swearing--it is a book about a war after all, which is probably a pretty stressful time, and stress might make you want to swear a bit. I brought up Fahrenheit 451, which he had just read (in graphic novel version) and talked about how this was another, if less extreme, form of censorship, like book-burning. I asked him if he wanted another, un-redacted, copy of the book and he said no.

And we left it at that. School ended. Summer came. And I forgot all about it, until this week. Still I have a lot of unanswered questions and would love to hear your thoughts on it all.

I, personally am opposed to censorship. I don't know if the teacher acted on his own, if it's the policy of the school or the school unit, if he had to deal with irate parents in the past and just wanted to skip over the headache. I don't know what type of "swears"the book contains--is it just hell and damn, or f-bombs? Would I feel differently depending on which it is? Honestly, most kids in his class I'm sure are exposed to as much if not more from the movies and video games they watch (I know M is way more sheltered than most of his friends as far as that kind of thing goes).  I would have happily bought M the real book, because first of all it must be confusing to read a book with half a dozen words crossed off every page, and secondly I believe in the integrity of art. I'm not against holding back on books that have content too mature for my kid to handle, but it's tricky when he has a very high reading level (and when I don't really want to pre-read every book...he reads way too many too fast for me to keep up!). Then again, maybe it's no big deal at all, or maybe the opportunity for us to discuss the idea of censorship made it worth it. I do think it's ironic that the book is about the Revolutionary War and that one of the central principles of our country is freedom of speech.

Sooo.....what do you all think? Do you read all the books your kids might read before they do? If not, how do you decide your kid is ready for a book? How do you feel about the school crossing out the swear words or other content in a required book? How do you discuss this kind of stuff with your kids? Would you have spoken up and said something to the teacher or just copped out an let it slide like I did?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


M was an early reader. Not to fail to give his preschool and kindergarten teachers credit, but he just seemed to take it up rather magically. In fact, he learned to write when he was four, before he could read, by sounding out words, and shouting to me from the deck where he sat drawing thousands of pictures while I sat inside nursing thousands of babies--okay, maybe it was just two babies, but they may as well have been thousands--"what does an 'h' look like? What makes a "fff" sound? And then one day he was reading. And then second grade came along, with the Reading Log, and suddenly he had to read every day, and that was pretty much the end of me reading to him, until I started to read the Little House books to E and Z and he would listen in (and then he really stuck around when C and I read them the Harry Potter books the first time around).

Ever since, I have thought of it as the Tyranny of the Reading Log, because it not only meant an end of the lovely time reading to my boy, but it was also the beginning of a four-year battle to get him to keep track of his reading. The whole thing always seemed completely stupid to me, because M has never needed external motivation to get him to read. Most of the time, we have to make him stop reading so that he'll sleep or do some other necessary activity. He's always, as a matter of course, read far more than necessary for the log, but he's never once been bothered to check the time before and after he starts reading and writing it down, so every Friday morning it was a struggle and tearful battle to get him to try to remember (or make up) what he read and for how long on which day. I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to learn that sixth grade meant no more Reading Log.

And then E and Z, who are now in second grade, brought home Reading Logs. Ahhhhhh!!!

But, here's the thing. They are not natural-born readers. They went into second grade reading at about the same level that M did going into kindergarten. I've been (mostly) totally fine with that, knowing all kids develop at different levels, and that I was a later reader which has in no way affected my life. But, when they started the reading log, they started to get excited about reading. They check the clock before and after they read. They write down their books and their minutes. They have been caught getting up very early in the morning to read more. It turns out that perhaps this kind of external motivation works for them (for now) and is helping them get over whatever reluctance they have shown toward reading in the past. I still wish the teachers could have shown a little more flexibility when putting this requirement before someone who clearly did not need such motivation (page numbers! if they had just let him record page numbers instead of minutes life would have been so much happier). For now I will drop my own bad attitude toward the Reading Log, but I won't let it stop me from reading to my kids this time around.

Monday, October 1, 2012

E and Z's Museums

A couple of weeks ago, E and Z made these two museums in the shelves of their bookcase:

The Rock Museum:

The Nature Museum (sometimes referred to as "The Wildlife Museum"):

They put these together while my parents were visiting and between working and entertaining guests and going sight-seeing, I didn't take the time to properly slow down and check out (and photograph) them until last weekend, although I did pay my six-cent entrance fee and go on a brief tour when they first opened.

I love how they came up with this and put it together completely on my own (I had actually been thinking about getting some divided shelves to hang on the walls to do something similar, but had not yet gotten around to it). Earlier in the summer, they had an ongoing yard sale, where they would take things out of the playhouse, put them on the picnic table and mark the price with chalk. I bought everything (to take to Goodwill) just to get the playhouse cleaned out. Last week, they took over a corner of the living room to make their own "homeschool" where they do math workbooks or draw or finger-knit or mold beeswax (god forbid they do their actual homework, though!!).

A few weeks ago it seemed like every blog I read referenced this booklet you can download that's full of fun creative stuff to do with kids, and I thought wouldn't that be fun, but we'd never have time to do any of it, and then I'd feel guilty, and I'm a terrible mother...you know how it goes. Then it occurred to me that my kids are super creative even without such a booklet glaring at me from a shelf. They build amazing Lego and block structures, and things out of cardboard, and finger-knit miles of "garling," and even bring the outdoors in. They have this elaborate, ongoing fantasy game (Tom Lighthouse's World) that makes its way into stories and drawings and Legos. M is on page 111 of his novel (which is a lot more pages of a novel than I've ever written, even if he is using 18 point font). I'm sure the booklet is great and would be fun if we had more time, and I may even buy it (it is, after all, only a few bucks), but I have decided there is no need to feel guilty about not engaging my kids in creativity enough. They do plenty of it on their own.

(For more on kids and creativity--and the coming creativity crisis--see my blog buddy Kristen's post)
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