Friday, January 22, 2016

January Knits

I didn't set out to knit a project every month this year, like I attempted to last year, but it looks like I might be on the way to matching 2015's nine-knits record. In any case, I'm putting a dent in the stash

First off, I made this cowl from a skein of yummy rainbow yarn I've had hanging around for years. It came together super quick--during a long car ride and a couple of movies--and I had fun watching the wavy pattern emerge. Sometimes I think a busy stitch pattern doesn't work well with multi-colored yarn, but in this case i love the way the stripes of color emphasize the wave effect.

Not only is the cowl pretty, it's effective. It's snug enough to fit beneath the high collar of my coat without feeling lumpy and my neck has stayed cozy and warm, despite the bitter wind that has been blowing all week.

As soon as I finished the cowl, I got started on a cute stripey baby hat. Right around Christmas, I received an invite for a baby shower I couldn't attend and promptly forgot about it until I saw a picture of the baby of Facebook last week--oops! I dug out some yarn from my stash--leftover super-soft cotton/wool blend from the fingerless mitts I made last spring--found a pattern and got to work. After a long stretch of late-night PBS shows Sunday night and a visit Monday from a friend, who didn't mind my knitting while we chatted--ta-da!--the hat was born. I have just enough yarn for a second hat, which I've already started on for another baby I know of who's on the way (trying to get ahead of the curve this time).

Yarn and pattern information on my Ravelry page.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

New Year, New Me, Part 2 ~ The Books

I like to think I disdain self-help books, but whenever I hit a sticky patch in life, I find myself turning to books for answers (note the grocery sack full of books on managing early childhood that I just donated to a local family resource center). Maybe it's just the cheesy self-help books I don't care for--the ones that promise financial and romantic miracles if only one follows these 13 easy steps. Or maybe I should just get over myself and admit that I'm a willing victim of the self-help industry.

In any case, starting this year with a strong sense that something's got to change in my life, I picked up three books to help me calibrate my compass in the direction I want to travel.

The first one I read was the Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion, by Elle Luna. I ran across the essay by the same name a couple of months ago and promptly asked Santa for the book. The basic idea of the book is that there are two pressures in our lives--Should, which comes from expectations mostly imposed externally (or our responses to expectations we think the outside world has of us), and Must, which is what our soul clamors for--our passion, our creativity. Moms have a lot of shoulds vying for our time (like last night, when I Should have--and did--spent three hours at my kid's high school for parent-teacher conferences and a how-to-prepare-for-college presentation). Sometimes I think our Must gets buried so deeply we don't even know it's there anymore. This book was a fun and inspiring reminder of how to get back in touch with that passion. I noticed that in the book Luna doesn't mention the six-week trip to Bali she took after quitting her job, which is a big focus of the essay. Maybe someone suggested that such a drastic (and costly) life change was not accessible to most people and they would just hate and resent her if she talked to much about it. Instead, she offers small steps for finding your Must (if you don't know what it is) and making room for it in your life without drastic change.

Speaking of people who got to disappear into Bali for an extended period of time, the next book I read was Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert. I was a little skeptical going into this one, for no good reason, but I love, love, loved it. It's really inspiring without in any way diminishing the hard work aspect of creativity. Basically, it's about falling in love with your creative work, letting your work love you back, working really hard and diligently, being open to inspiration, being serious in your work but not taking yourself too seriously, and skipping all the angst, drama, and self-abuse that creative people often seem to court. She also writes about what to do if you don't have a creative passion already--which is, simply, to follow your curiosity. Following her own curiosity in the garden led her to write The Signature of All Things. The book is not about writing specifically, or exclusively--Gilbert has an expansive definition of creativity and makes an effort to encompass a range of creative pursuits from cake-baking to figure-skating--but because she is a writer, and her personal anecdotes come from the writing realm, I felt especially connected. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted to read it again, to pick out the bits of advice I want to remember.

Neither of the above books has one iota of scientific research backing up the author's claims of how best to live a creative life. The next book, on the other hand, has 18 pages of notes. The author of Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin, was a lawyer-turned-biographer before she landed in the self-help book realm with The Happiness Project, so of course her books are meticulously researched. I have to admit, I didn't really like The Happiness Project--the whole time I read it, I kept thinking, "Of course you're happy! You're being paid to write a book about making yourself happy!" I started reading the follow-up--Happier at Home--last year, but didn't get very far. But I like the premise of Better than Before--that change in our lives comes from change in our habits--and though I've only read the first chapter so far, I'm excited to see where she goes with it.

What inspiring books have you read lately?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

It's Here

Winter was slow in coming this year.

But now that it's here, we're making the most of it.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

New Year, New Me, Part 1 ~ The Bullet Journal

I am a walking New Year's cliche. At the end of each year, I take stock of my accomplishments and then I start the next year with a long list of goals, dreams, and aspirations. This year is no exception, and, if anything, those goals have taken on a greater urgency than ever (time's a wasting'). However, unlike in past years, I think the goals I've set for myself are integrated in a way that they work together to build toward bigger, long-term goals, and I have more of an understanding of the small steps I have to take to meet those goals (which is not to say there's no pie in the sky on the list, just that I've got a fork and a knife ready to take a bite of that pie). One of the tools I've found helpful in managing the tracking of goals and the steps along the way, as well as the daily stuff that has nothing to do with where I want to go, but has to get done anyway, is the Bullet Journal.

I first read about Bullet Journals on Dawn's blog, and if you want to learn more about the Bullet Journal system, you can check out the official Bullet Journal website. There you can also see examples of really amazing journals. Some people turn theirs into works of art. That's not going to happen with mine anytime soon (or ever), but I do try to make it fun with colored pens and the occasional drawing.

Basically, my Bullet Journal is a daytimer or pocket calendar over which I have TOTAL CONTROL (and no, working on my control issues is not among my New Year's resolutions). I started mine back in July, with the purchase of a cute turquoise Moleskine notebook with tiny dots that outline a grid. This makes it easy for me to lay out my pages, without being too busy with lines. The way I set mine up is with a two-page calendar spread for the month, on which I write major events, like holidays or days I don't have to work. There's a little space left in the margins, where I list what I need to do for the month for Literary Mama, for my writing group, my writing goals, and any upcoming deadlines.

After the monthly spread, come the week-by-week spreads, with each getting two pages. This is where I get into more detail with my to-do lists. Each item is either preceded by a dot, for things I need to do, an open circle, for events, or an asterisk, for things I need to make. Things that get done get a checkmark, things that don't get a little arrow to migrate them to the next day. Not every week looks as chockablock full as the one above—that was crazy get-ready-for-Christmas week.

Most weeks are more like this one. In the bottom right corner of each day I write the topic I plan to cover on my blog that day (with an asterisk, because a blog post is a thing one makes). I've also started adding little clouds with "dreamy" things--things that don't need to get done but that I'd like to do, like take a bubble bath, knit in front of the TV, go to bed early. I've also added a line for whatever I'm grateful for that day, but you'll notice (if you can read the tiny words), that they're mostly silly things. I wanted to add a gratitude habit to my days this year, but it turns out I just can't do it. Say I read an article about a family that's fallen on hard times and is suffering in a lot of ways. I'll feel a rush of gratitude that we have a safe, warm home and that we're able to feed and educate our children, followed immediately by a strong urge to throw salt over my shoulder and knock on wood. There's no way I would write anything of the sort down, for fear some evil-minded lesser god or spirit will read it and destroy whatever it is I'm grateful for. So instead I write things like "Harrison Ford," because we just watched all the Indiana Jones movies, and who isn't grateful for that?

Finally, between each month, I have two-page spreads with various things I want to keep track of, like books I want to read, writing projects, places to publish, my writing and journaling workshops, my New Year's goals (of course). I just added a list of books I've read this year, because I'm kind of curious to see how many books I read in a year, and a page for daily habits (more on those in Part 3).

My Bullet Journal makes me happy. I'm a total list-maker, and I get great satisfaction from checking things off the list. Having my calendar, my to-do list, and my other running lists all in one place is a revelation—and a big improvement over the old "scraps of paper every which way" system I used to use.

Do you Bullet Journal? How do you stay organized? Is an analog system like this one hopelessly old-fashioned or refreshingly tactile?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Wild Wednesday ~ Winter Birds: Black-Capped Chickadee

Santa brought me a zoom lens for Christmas, and I finally had some time this past weekend to take it outside and play with it. I thought that I'd be able to point it at the birds we normally see around our property and click, click, click, I'd capture a series of pictures of winter birds.

It turned out to be not so easy. The bird I saw with my naked eye vanished in the much narrower field of the viewfinder. The auto focus got confused by tree branches. The birds moved around too fast. I missed the male cardinal, three house finches, a downy and a hairy woodpecker, a nuthatch, and even an entire flock of turkeys that walked right by our front door. This is going to take a bit more practice.

I managed to capture a few chickadees. The black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapilla) is one of our most numerous--and noisy--winter birds. The chickadee is named for its distinctive chick-a-dee-dee-dee call, and when you hear that in the woods, stop and make a psh-psh-psh sound and the chickadees might move in closer to see what you're up to. They gather in flocks, often joining up with nuthatches, woodpeckers, brown creepers and titmice. Look around when you hear chickadees nearby and you'll likely see at least one of these other species. 

The black-capped chickadee makes its home in the northern states and Canada from coast to coast, dipping farther south in the Rockies and Appalachians. They are regulars at our bird feeder, and tend to snatch-and-run, grabbing a seed and darting into the woods to crack into it, while another comes in for a seed. They're cute, charming birds and I don't ever get tired of watching them. They're also harbingers of spring --their breeding song, which some hear as fee-bee, though I hear see-saw (and it has the squeaky quality of an old piece of playground equipment) is always a sure sign that winter is on its way out (though I heard it this past weekend, so they might be getting ahead of themselves this year).

Meanwhile, there were a few birds that stood still and let me take their pictures.

What's wild in your neck of the woods?

Friday, January 8, 2016

Season's Ending

We celebrated the last day of Christmas Tuesday, with candles and carols and the last page of our book. The boys woke up to small gifts from the Three Kings in their shoes Wednesday morning.

The tree will come down this weekend, and the lights and the gnomes and the candles. We'll sweep away the needles and the last lingering scraps of wrapping paper, the stray ornament hooks. We'll look out from our clean house, down the long barrel of winter, with no big holidays or celebrations on the horizon. It's tempting, this time of year to go into a funk, imagining that the cold days might, this time, just hang around straight through to another winter. I've got a big stack of books ready to read by the fire, plus a stack writing projects, a whole list of goals, habits, and resolutions. I've got nature-study plans (bark! lichens! tracks!) and I'm thinking about improving my cross-country ski skills (if it actually snows) and maybe going on an overnight ski trip. Like a lot of things in life, winter is much more unpleasant in the anticipation than in the actuality, so I'm trying to look forward the positive side of it, focus on the things I enjoy, and not worry about the cold and the dark and the clouds.

What are you looking forward to this winter? 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Wild Wednesday ~ Stories in the Snow

We finally got some of the white stuff that makes this season last week. Not enough to close work and not enough, reportedly, for good sledding. But enough to record tales of our neighbors' travels.

When I went out for a walk on Saturday, I did so without bringing any of my tracking tools--ruler or books--with me, so all of my i.d.'s here are made from assumptions. These little paw prints are squirrel. Gray, I'm guessing, based on the number of big fat ones that have been hanging around eating seed spilled from the feeder (though we have an occasional red, too).

These tracks are from a perfect walker--an animal with long legs and a gait that alternates legs (as opposed to a waddler). Like a deer or a coyote.

But the individual tracks were too blurred to really see what they were. Those divots, that look like they might belong do a dog or foot pad, are just spots where melted snow dripped out of the trees. I looked hard for any sharp-edged hoof marks and didn't find any, and, because we had heard coyotes yapping really near the house the night before I really wanted to call these coyote tracks, but they just weren't distinct enough for me to do so confidently.

Nearby, I found a scattering of scales beneath a pine tree--a midden left behind by a snacking squirrel.

A few feet away, another midden, this one beneath a hemlock tree. But hemlock cones are so tiny? Could these scales, as big as the pine cone scales, be from a hemlock cone?

Farther along the trail I found clear deer prints, which made me think it would be really hard for deer to leave such blurry indistinct prints as I saw before. Surely they belonged to coyote...

On a downhill slope, between two dense stands of balsam fir, snowshoe hare tracks crossed the trail, just faintly etched on the surface of the packed snow.

In the shade of the woods I spied a big patch of snow fleas. Unfortunately, I didn't have my phone with its macro lens, so they just look like little flecks of dirt. Some were frozen in the ice that layered on top of the snow. It just now occurs to me that I should have brought a chunk of ice home to melt and see if the ones encased in it were still alive.

The river is still wide-open and the water has that shallow, penny-colored look of late summer. Anyone up for a swim?

Lots of hemlock trees grow along the river and I found a fallen cone. And look! Big scales on a tiny cone. The things that slip by our notice.

In the middle of the river is a rock--a rock that now wears a perfectly rectangular snow hat. How did that happen?

I sat by the river for a while--the sun warm on my face--and admired the colors on the bank--golden grass, black water, white snow, a tiny green hemlock, and a bright red (dead) fir.

The water reflected the blue and white and gold light of the afternoon.

When I got up and moved on, I found one! A clear coyote track. No mistaking it for anything else.

And then I came across this: a hole dug in the snow, with lots of duff kicked up, and not a single track anywhere around. Something digging out from below, and then changed its mind? A flying thing landing, snatching, and flying off without leaving any wing prints? A mystery for sure.

Speaking of wild things, though not winter things, check out this wild music video M made about photosynthesis:

What's wild in your neck of the woods these days?
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