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?

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Time Management Tuesday: Tracking Time

I checked out a copy of Laura Vanderkam's book Off the Clock last week because who could resist the subtitle: Fell Less Busy While Getting More Done? While it's true that there have been times over the years that I've gotten a lot done, I don't feel like I have any kind of system for it, other than powering through, and I rarely feel not busy, even though I've (mostly) banished the word from my vocabulary and stopped treating business like a virtue. I'm hoping this book will help me take control of my time in a more organized fashion.

The first thing Vanderkam recommends is tracking your time, which makes sense. If you don't know how you spend your time, how will you know how to spend it better?

Coincidentally (or perhaps not coincidentally, since figuring out how to best use my time before I go back to work has been on my mind), I had been kind of half-assedly trying to track my time over the last couple of weeks by writing down my daily activities in a ratty old notebook. The trouble was, I'd get going on a project, rush out of the house to pick up the kids, hurry home to make dinner, and lose all track of where those hours went. With a spreadsheet, I feel obligated to fill in all those gaping boxes. This is how day one looked:

12:00 a.m. - 7:00 a.m.: Sleep 
7:30 Exercise (yoga, walk)
8:00 - 8:45: Cook/ Eat (breakfast) /Read (news)
8:45 - 10:00: Writing 
10:00: Clean/Organize (tidy kitchen)/ Shower/ Dress
10:30 - 11:30: Blog
11:30 - 12:00: Email
12:00 - 1:00: Cook/Eat (lunch)/Read (Orion)
1:00 - 3:00: Volunteer (Literary Mama; finalize Nov. essay)
3:00 - 3:30: Exercise (balance board)
3:30 - 4:30: Clean/Organize (tidy kitchen; organize desk drawer)
4:30 - 4:45: Volunteer (MMNP; prep for conf. call)
4:45 - 6:00: Cook / Eat (dinner)
6:00 - 7:15: Volunteer (MMNP; conf call)
7:15 - 7:45: Clean/Organize (sort & fold laundry)
7:45 - 8:00: Art (watercolor)/ Social Media (Instagram)
8:00 - 9:00: Entertainment (TV)/ Craft (knitting)
9:00 - 10:00: Read (fiction)
10:00 -12:00 Sleep

For a total in each category of:


Yesterday was a little unusual in that it rained all day, so I didn't go outside except for that one short walk in the morning. E and Z also didn't have cross-country practice, so I didn't have to pick them up. That freed up an hour, which I might otherwise have spent reading or knitting (or going outside, if it weren't raining), but which I put to use cleaning up the kitchen and my desk drawer, in part because I'd yanked the drawer out in frustration and put it in the middle of the floor earlier in the day, and in part because C was home early, and it's difficult to sit and relax when other people are around, potentially judging you. I also listened to writing podcasts while I exercised and cleaned, which I could count as professional development. Also, because I knit while I was watching TV, there's an extra hour in there. I realize there's a bit of the observer effect going on here—that is the act of observing my behavior is affecting that behavior, but since this is a project in figuring out how to better spend my time, not a research study, that's all to the good.

If I think about my realistic ideal day (another Vanderkam concept), I see that a lot of the elements I'd want it to contain are here: writing, reading, art-making, crafting. I'd like to take more time for going outside and spending time in nature (maybe I should have grabbed my umbrella and rain boots and walked in the rain) and for self-care, which I'm terrible at (I can't even think of anything good other than a bubble bath). I'd also wish for more positive, active family engagement, but that's tough with two teenagers who have a lot of homework and who want to spend their non-homework time doint their own thing. But the first step is awareness. I'll be back next Tuesday with the results of week one.

This is all pretty borning compared to the Daily Schedule I posted ten years ago on this blog, an amusing, and slightly terrifying, glimpse into life with small children. Looking at it now, I wonder how I survived one day let alone years of it. It makes any time management challenges I might face now (even when I get back to working 10 or more hours per day) seem downright quaint.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Mindfulness Monday: Making My Bed

I have just about a month left before I return to work, and I've decided to try to blog every day (or at least every week day) of that month. My reasons are varied and probably not that interesting, but at the top of the list is this refrain that I've heard and repeated over and over again this year: Summer went by so fast. Where is fall going?

I want to try to keep track of what I'm doing, how I'm spending time, in hopes of slowing it down a bit. I'm also going to make use of dorky alliterative headings to help myself focus and develop ideas of what exactly to write about. Welcome to the first Mindfulness Monday.

I won't pretend to be an expert on mindfulness, or even pretend I know very much about it at all, but it's long been a somewhat squishy and amorphous goal of mine: to be more aware of what I'm doing in each moment of the day, to be more fully present, to spend less time and energy wishing for something different out of life. I'm not even sure if or how today's post fits into the realm of Mindfulness as a quasi-spiritual practice, but instinctively it feels like a mindful thing to do.

I never in my life have made my bed on a daily basis. Though my mom did make her bed, it wasn't something she expected of her children (probably falling into the realm of "pick your battles"; when it would take a snow shovel to reach the bed, whether the sheets and blankets are smoothed neatly becomes a moot point). In college, I was prone to taking naps; a made bed would only have interfered with that practice. Ditto when I had small children who napped in my bed at various times during the day. In between college and small children and now, I just never saw the point. You're going to mess it up again in a few hours anyway, so why bother? When I heard a report that found that unmade beds had lower levels of dust mites because moisture had less chance of getting trapped between the sheets, as in made meds, I felt vindicated. Take that, bed-makers!

Then this summer I was flipping through a book I had gotten for M—Cal Newport's How to Win at College—looking to see if there was any advice that might apply to regular, non-college life, and came across the suggestion to Make Your Bed Every Day. I don't remember Newport's reasons  (probably something along the lines of an orderly mind in an orderly environment), and I don't remember why I suddenly decided to give this practice I'd eschewed my whole life a try, but I did. And I've kept it up.

And here's where I think it fits into mindfulness: The made bed is a small oasis of calm in my room, which is in a constant state of disarray due it being the last frontier (other than the basement, shed, and garage) in my summer project to clean, declutter, and reorganize my house. That calm oasis keeps me from feeling either overwhelmed or driven to clean when I have more pressing things to do. It also creates a clear delineation between night/sleep/rest time and morning/work/focus time. I leave it unmade (to keep out those dust mites) for a couple hours while I do my morning routine of yoga/breakfast/writing, then when I go upstairs to get dressed (one really lovely thing about not going to an office every morning is that you can get dressed at 10 a.m.), I make the bed, and signal to my brain that it's time to start the work part of the day.

I'm not suggesting anyone else try this at home. Dropping into the tangled sheets of an unmade bed for an impromptu afternoon nap is a really lovely experience, and I wouldn't deprive anyone of that for the world. But for now, a smooth, calm, made bed works for me. Once I start having to leave the house at 7 a.m., all bets are off.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Let Creativity In

Today I hit "send" on my book proposal, transferring my hopes and dreams into the hands of my preferred publisher for my book (or at least knocking the ball into their court). It's a project I've been pecking away at all summer, with interruptions for more fun things—like sailing, kayaking, traveling to DC, spending time with my kids, and hosting my parents for two weeks of all the good things Maine has to offer. This week I finally got down to it and got it done. It helped that my fitness device broke, so I no longer get hourly reminders to move. Turns out I can spend long hours glued to my office (a.k.a. the couch) when no one tells me to get up, even during the most gorgeous fall weather.

Writing the proposal itself was an odd experience, considering I have an actual manuscript in hand that I'd have happily have sent along instead. It forced me to think not in terms of narrative but rather sales. How can I sell this idea to the publisher, and how will I sell the actual book? Which I suppose was a useful exercise, but I'm sure glad it's over.

I checked my inbox repeatedly after sending the email (kind of like waiting by the phone for that certain boy to call), just in case my cover letter so wowed the acquisitions editor she didn't even bother to read on. I got over that quick—it could be weeks or months before I hear back, if I do at all—and turned my attention to other projects.

I could have started formatting the proposal to fit the requirements of the next publisher in line (because of course they all want something different), but that seems a little too defeatist. Besides, I'm ready for a change. As soon as that mental space was freed up, ideas began tumbling in—amorphous, disjointed ideas, but ideas nonetheless. And fiction ideas, a well that's been dry for a while, which is a very exciting development, as long as I can stay focused and not get distracted by too much fall fun—and if my replacement fitness device doesn't show up too soon.

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

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

September 2019 Nightstand

I think I've finally, after a year, figured out how I want these nightstand posts to go, so as to not overwhelm you (or me) with every single book I read in a month. I'll just share one or two that stand out, and that may have some link like this month's selections do, and I'll share other books I've enjoyed during the month on Instagram. Follow me there @andrea.lani. Books I don't like I'll just keep to myself. [I rarely read a book I don't like—maybe because I'm so picky about what I choose or maybe I'm just easy to please—but I did read one this month. I almost gave up on it halfway through (literally nothing had happened yet—and it was a mystery novel, not avant-garde literary fiction), but I have a hard time quitting (especially when I paid good money!) and I hoped it would redeem itself—it didn't. The ending was pretty terrible too. I'll just chalk it up to education—I now know exactly what is meant by everything must serve the story, and not just be random names, places, events, people, and food (oh the food; I think this writer should have stuck with cookbooks instead of who-done-its) dropped in for no purpose. Okay, enough vague-blogging, onto the meat of this post!

I bought Barbara Kinsolver's latest novel, Unsheltered, as soon as it came out a year ago. And then I didn't read it. I don't know why. Old-fashioned Catholic self-denial? Was I afraid it wouldn't stand up to my hopes and expectations? Was I just too involved with reading other stuff? Whatever the reason, I finally pulled it off the shelf this month, and it was every bit as delightful as expected. The story alternates by chapter between the current day and Victorian times. The contemporary story revolves around a family experiencing many of the horrors of the modern world (climate change, downward mobility, crushing student loan dept, aging parents, political divisions, and suicide) while trying to keep the ancient house they inherited from literally falling down around their heads. It feels almost pre-apocolyptic, if that's a thing. The historic part of the book takes place in a utopian community in New Jersey, where a young teacher struggles against the strictures of the closed society and the unrealistic financial expectations of his pretty wife, meanwhile becoming fascinated with his next-door neighbor, the real-life naturalist Mary Treat. I'm always a sucker for stories about "lady naturalists" who grubbed around in the dirt at a time when women were expected to be empty-headed ornaments for the drawing room. And I adore Kingsolver's language—every sentence pregnant with metaphor and meaning and lush with poetry and human empathy—and humor! So many wry, funny lines. I still don't know why I put reading this book off, but I'm so glad I finally picked it up!

My parents have been visiting, and as a consequence I've gone into more stores in the last two weeks than I normally do all year. Since most of these have been bookstores and yarn shops, I've been quite happy. In one bookstore I couldn't resist this little volume that appeared on a display table: A Butterfly Journey: Maria Sibylla Merian, Artist and Scientist by Boris Friedewald. It's my very favorite size for a book—about six by eight inches—and has my very favorite accessory, a built-in ribbon bookmark, and when I got it home I discovered the gorgeous cover beautifully reflects that of Unsheltered. Best of all, it's about a lady naturalist. Maria Sibylla Merian was born in 1647 in Germany and spent her life collecting, drawing, and painting caterpillars, butterflies, and moths. Not only did she paint them, she raised the larvae through the pupa and metamorphosis, studying and sketching each stage, and producing several books of her paintings and research. Another interesting parallel between the books is that, like Mary Treat, Merian lived for a time in a cultlike utopian society, which she eventually left for the cosmopolitan city of Amsterdam and from there traveled to Suriname to study the plants, butterflies, and wildlife of that colony. The book is a quick little biography, filled with images from Merian's books. It's written in an odd style, almost like it's directed at children, with the occasional rhetorical question followed by a "perhaps we will never know!" statement. I wonder if it's just a byproduct of translation (I almost heard it read in a German accent inside my head). Nevertheless, it's a delightful, quick read that I'll revisit again and again to admire the gorgeous artwork and marvel at this woman so very far ahead of her time.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Autumn Adjustment

There's a hint of fall in the air—chilly nights (and mornings) and crickets singing like there's no tomorrow (which, for crickets, is kind of true). It's a tough time of year, when everyone else is rhapsodizing about wool sweaters and wood stoves and I'm on my knees, begging for just one more day—or week or month—of 80 degree weather.

A little over two weeks ago, on a Tuesday morning, C and I dropped E and Z off at their new bus stop for their first day of high school, then kept on driving till we got to M's college. There we moved his bike, his guitars, his crate of Adidas, his duffels of clothes, his extra long sheets, his hot pot and clip-on fan and lights and, of course, him into his tiny new dorm room. We spent the day on campus doing all the things they had arranged for move-in day, then we left M to his new friends and neighbors for a week of orientation, picked E and Z up from cross-country practice, and came home.

I was a little anxious for the twins, because the first day of high school is an anxious time, but I was just happy dropping M off, excited for all the opportunities that await him, and, to tell the truth, a little jealous that they didn't offer those opportunities when I was in college. But over the next few days, when I'd think about needing to turn on the porch light for M, or when I'd drive in the driveway and look for a third car, I slowly came to the realization that he's not just at school or drama practice or work or a housesitting job, he's really and truly gone, and in the quiet left behind by his absence, I missed him. 

It's hard, when someone is a part of your everyday existence for 18+ years, for him to be gone all of sudden (even though it's not really all that sudden, but rather a slow, slow peeling away).
Fortunately, he's just around the corner, and he joined me for his brothers' cross-country meet last week, then we all went out to dinner. We got to hear all about his new adventures and E and Z got to tell him about their new adventures. Then we dropped him off at his dorm and drove home through the early dark of an autumn evening to our quiet, quiet house.

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

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.

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

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?

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

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.

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

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.

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

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?
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