Thursday, October 31, 2019

Climb All Your Mountains

The first obstacle nearly defeats me, a granite boulder big as a truck, an iron rung at the level of my chest, another above my head and to the left, and no obvious way to hoist myself up and over. I last hiked this trail 25 years and 50 pounds ago, at a time when nothing seemed too difficult. Will this rock, five minutes into our hike, be my Waterloo? But I can't admit defeat—this hike, after all, was my idea, a trail two teenage boys can't possibly complain about, all sheer cliffs and vertical ascent. It's the reason we woke at five this morning and, against all precedent, left the house at 6:15. I still want to believe nothing is too difficult. If I can't surmount this rock, today, when can I?

I remember how stone works, how there's always a crack or a crevice or a crystal for hands and feet to find purchase, and I make it easily over. From there we clamber over boulders the size of household appliances, shimmy beneath slabs of rock balanced over cave-like crevices, side-step along angled ledges, and climb walls of rock on iron ladders bolted to smooth granite faces. The boys scramble ahead and wait, scramble ahead and wait.

I know we're nearing the top when I smell the familiar dog-poop odor of fall viburnum leaves, a scent that clings to my memories of the peaks in this small range. Atop one last ladder, we pop out onto an undulating plain of smooth granite and short, twisted pine trees. Near the cairn, we sit in the lee of the wind, snack on cheese, crackers, and figs, and watch a schooner with terra-cotta sails ply the waters around the islands, a scene that might be two hundred years old.

The boys bound over the granite as we head down the north ridge of the mountain. We lose them when we reach the trees, and they make their own way back to the car, taking the short spur and walking back along the road. C and I parallel the mountain, climbing up and down and up and down endless staircases of stone, eventually rejoining the morning's trail above the boulder field. Muscles that have been out of use for untold years quiver as I lower myself from rock to rock, exhausted from the morning's toil.

We find the twins at the parking lot, and they tease us over our choice of trail: "It only took us seven minutes to get here. It took you guys an hour!"

"That's okay," I say, "Nobody's lost or hurt, and we had a nice, four-hour hike."

"To be fair," E says, "It was an hour of hiking and three hours waiting for you."

Yes, to be fair, I made my very slow way up the mountain, but at least I made it.

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

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Time Management Tuesday ~ Mindsets and Algorithms

I finished Laura Vanderkam's book, Off the Clock, over the weekend (just in time to return it to the library three days late; how's that for time management?), and I have to say I'm hovering somewhere between skeptical and intrigued. The book isn't so much about actually managing your time as it is about changing your perceptions about time. I'll write about some of the strategies she suggests (in addition to the time tracker, which I wrote about here and here) and my efforts to implement them over the coming weeks. It turns out that my strategy of prioritizing my own work that I wrote about last week is also one Vanderkam recommends, so that makes me feel like I'm both on the right track of figuring this out for myself and that some of her other recommendations might work for me.

I know that mindsets (even unconscious ones) affect how much time you experience because I get so much more done on weekends when I'm working full time than I do when I'm literally off the clock—because those two days are the only time I have all week to play outside, do housework, complete projects, and spend time with my family and friends, I make use of every second. When I have all week relatively free, I tend to goof around a lot more on the weekends. Which is totally fine. I love having lazy-ish weekends. But is it really possible to consciously shift the way you perceive time, and as a result feel like you have more of it? We'll find out.

As far as this week's mindset goes, it's only Tuesday and I already feel like my time's compressed into a smaller container than usual. I happen to have a lot of appointments this week—car repairs, a dentist appointment, a meeting about a class I'm teaching, as well as fun things like lunches with friends. None of these fit together neatly on the schedule, so there's a lot of driving involved and, because we live so far out of town, I'm compelled to take care of all my errands while I'm out and about. Z is also still running cross country, so picking him up in the afternoons adds another hour of driving. At the same time lot of tasks for both my nonprofit orgs are also coming to a head.

I'm cognizant that this is nothing compared to a 40+ hour job outside the home, and that all those errands would have to be squeezed into lunch hours if I were working right now, so I'm grateful that I do have the time I have. But I had to break my rule about putting my own work first today, because urgent tasks were screaming louder than the important but amorphous work of thinking about an essay. I'm back to thinking if I could just get everything else done, I'll have time for my own work, knowing full well there's no such thing as done.

I do, however, have recommendations for spending less time goofing around on the internet, for anyone out there who feels like they want to cut back in that area. I took the Facebook app off my phone last January, so now going on that site requires the laborious work of logging on or turning on my computer, and as a result I don't spend much time there. To minimize the time I spend scrolling when I do go on Facebook or Instagram, which I like much better, I've instituted an algorithm of my own—I shut it off after seeing two of pictures of any of the following: dogs, cats, foamed milk on a latte. It only takes about 30 seconds, max, and then I'm free to go do something else.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Mindfulness Monday ~ Self-Care

I made this dumb statement in my Time Management Tuesday post of two weeks ago: "I don't even know what else self-care would entail at this point." The me of 10 years ago, with a full-time job and three little kids, would wanted to have strangled the person who wrote that sentence. The me of 14 years ago, with two five-month-old infants and a four year, old would really have wanted to strangle her. Even the me of next January, working 10-hour days in the dark of winter, would want to strangle her.

I tend to think of "self-care" as things that would take place at a spa—massages, mud baths, face masks with cucumbers on the eye lids and soothing music—pampering the body, in other words, and, since I never even took the time to polish my toenails all summer, I don't allow myself much pampering.

But in addition to nurturing the body, self-care can encompass anything that feeds the spirit, as my long-time blog reader and cyber friend Rachel commented: "I'll just toss out what I consider as [self-care] (though I know you're not asking) ... tea, chocolate, walks in nature, conversation with friends, concerts and readings that fire me up creatively, foot rubs that I give myself, road trips."

I'd already gone for a walk that afternoon and figured out that walking outside on a beautiful fall afternoon is self-care, even if I made myself go out for exercise (walking outside on the ice in January, however, might be a different story). And though my cup of Sleepytime tea at bedtime is more than self-care, it's pampering, since C usually makes it for me, I'm hesitant to add chocolate to my list, because from there it would be an easy slide to a daily trip out for a cinnamon role in the service of treating myself. My ten-to-fifteen minutes of yoga every morning is self-care, even if I have to drag myself out of bed to do it. Going on a hike with a friend on a Monday is self-care. Watercolor painting and nature journaling is self-care. Reading in bed at night is self-care. Knitting is self-care (a friend recently posted on Instagram about all the health benefits, mental and physical, of knitting, and though I don't feel compelled to look it up myself to verify her facts, I'm convinced). Even watching television with one of my kids can be self-care, if we're relaxing and enjoying ourselves.

The fact is that for much of the year under my current work situation, most of my time is self-care. Writing is how I want to spend my time, even if it's a struggle sometimes. And though there are often niggling little tasks that I don't always feel like doing involved in the volunteer work I do for my nonprofits, I believe in their missions and derive a lot of personal satisfaction from giving them my time. I get to sleep in later than if I had to go into an office, I get to go outside when I want or take a long lunch with a friend. I've been known to blow off a whole day of writing and read an entire book.

So forget what I said about not knowing what self-care is. I'm living it, for now. And when I go back to work, I'll be sure to up the bubble bath frequency, and maybe paint my toenails one time before sock season fully sets in.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Finish It Friday ~ Infinity Scarf

This shouldn't really count as something that's finally finished, since it took about an hour to make, two if you count shoveling a path to my sewing machine and ironing the fabric. But I bought the supplies last winter, at the same time I bought the yarn for my poncho, which is kind of fitting, since I finished the very wintery poncho on the second day of summer and I made this very springy scarf well into the fall.

Regardless, I've been wearing it constantly, and it's nice to have a bright splash of spring this time of year. It's made of Liberty lawn on one side—a somewhat economical way to utilize that very dear fabric—and peachy-orange voile on the other

I've been trying to up my scarf game, since I own so very many of them (and I do admire scarfy people), but I'm not great at styling them. So for this one, I went with an infinity style to avoid the conundrum of what to do with the ends. It still might look like I have a blanket thrown around my neck, but I like it anyway.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

October 2019 Nightstand

I've started but not gotten into enough to keep reading several books in the last month or so. I feel like a cat kneading and kneading a cushion, trying to find the comfortable sweet spot. When a book has stuck well enough for me to see it through, it's been collection of shorter works.

Alice Munro's Dear Life has been lurking around the house for a good long while. I have a tendency to buy books and let them ripen on the shelves for a few years before I get around to reading them. But I was trying to motivate myself to write short stories earlier this month, so I decided to read short stories and, of a rather large stack, Dear Life rose to the top. I have a love-hate relationship with short stories (the hate part born, perhaps, from reading nothing but during grad school). Sometimes they're these brilliant little capsules of life, and sometimes they're…WTF? Munro's stories in this collection fall into this former category, most of them little slices of slightly strange, slightly obscure, but mostly ordinary lives of characters living in post WWII Canada. I was particularly fascinated by the way in some cases the stories followed a character through years or over most of a life, in just a dozen or two pages. I always feel the compressed length of a short storie necessitates a short timespan, but I see now that it need not. The book ends with a few sketches about the author's own life, in post-WWII Canada, which are every bit as fascinating as the fictional stories.

I wrote a sonnet once, in 12th grade English class. It was about the first Gulf War and had a rather nice metaphor about war planes and birds in it, and it had only one syllable off meter. I was rather proud of that sonnet, and I'm resting on its laurels nearly 30 years later. Then my co-editor in the Literary Reflections department at Literary Mama had to go and write an entire stack of sonnets and put my small effort to shame. Libby Maxey published her debut poetry chapbook, Kairos, this summer, and it waited on my nightstand, I think, until the world outside matched the cold and leafless but red and glistening image on the front cover. I found myself reading each sonnet two or three times, savoring the rich language and right metaphors, untangling the threads of meaning. The formality of the vocabulary and form gives this collection a sense of timelessness, a faint sepia hue of times past, like a poet from history is whispering the words in my ear, at the same time feel very present, with poems about kindergarten and snow days and looking back at one's naive teenage self. It's a gorgeous collection and I wish my friend all good things to come from its publiction.

Where the poems in Kairos are tightly structured, those in Arrival by Cheryl Boyce-Taylor are loose and free-flowing, sometimes arranged in stanzas and sometimes cascading over the page in widely and wildly spaced words. The words themselves are ripe fruits of Caribbean patois, an accent, a history, an identity, as in the oft-repeated "gyal" (girl). The poems are warm and bright with tropical heat and color, but also achingly real with loss and strained relationships. They tell a story of a life that's rich with varied origins and a winding pathway, one that has been hard and beautiful at the same time.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Wild Wednesday ~ Tiny Things

Yesterday, when walking in the woods with my kids, I came across something I've been hoping to see for years: green stain fungus.

Okay, actually I've seen the fungus, Chlorociboria spp., many times, in the form of chunks of wood stained a lovely dark teal. But I haven't seen the fruiting bodies, which are known as green elf cups. And then there they were on this little chunk of wood near the river.

I didn't have my camera or even my phone with me, so I brought the wood home and left it outside under a tree overnight. After a solid soaking from an all-night rainstorm, the fruiting bodies doubled in size, from pin head to peppercorn. I imagine they'll keep growing until they develop the classic goblet shape that gives the species its common name.

In other tiny fruiting body news, today I found on our driveway this dead aspen branch that came down in the storm.

Closer inspection revealed that it was colonized with all kinds of life. Each of these orange blobs of jelly fungus was about the size of a currant. I think they might be very tiny specimens of witches butter, Tremella mesenterica, another type of fungal fruiting body. 

And all over the branch grew this bright golden lichens, which is also fruiting, and I think may be Candelaria fibrosa.

Those round disk thingies are the apothecia, or fruiting bodies. Everyone's getting in on the fruiting act it seems.

We've also had a very tiny visitor to our sunroom this week, who I was going to release outside when it got warm today, but the darn thing went and hid on me. Hopefully I'll find him in time for the next edition of Wild Wednesday.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Time Management Tuesday ~ Prioritizing Myself

There was a question on last week's time management post about how I tracked my time. This is what I did: I made a spreadsheet with half-hour increments down one side, 12 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and days of the week across the top. I kept the file open on my computer, and throughout the day, as I switched from one task to another, I filled in how I spent that time, trying to stick to broad categories. It got harder in the evenings and on weekends, when I don't usually use my computer. I'd try to hold in my head how I spent those hours and pop into the spreadsheet and fill it out as best I could at bedtime on weeknights and a few times throughout the day on weekends.

After one week, I really didn't think I'd want to carry on with the tracking. It felt way too neurotic, and I also felt like someone was looking over my shoulder, making sure I didn't waste any time. But I also saw the value of knowing how much time I spend writing, and how quickly I write. It was also helpful to know how much time I spend editing, so that I'd be better able to estimate how much to charge if anyone were ever to offer to pay for my services. It's also good to know how much time I put into my volunteer activities, so that in the future, I'll know where to draw the line. So for now I'm carrying on with the tracking, but only during "workday" hours and anytime I do work outside 8-5.

I don't always sit down and work on either writing, editing, or volunteering during working hours. Sometimes I go hiking. Sometimes I have appointments or errands to family things to deal with. But, when I do spend the day on my laptop, I try to follow a rule I put into place earlier this summer: do my own work first. For a long time, I'd clean out emails and approve essays and write things for other people and try to make sure everything I had to get done got done before I started working on my own, personal writing. The trouble with this technique is all that stuff is never, ever done. New emails pop into the inbox every second. There's always a backup of deferred tasks. I could very easily give all of myself to others, my family, my nonprofit organizations, my rare paying clients, and never get anything done that I want to get done.

I've read in several places about being clear about what's important versus what's urgent. There are always urgent things that want to command our attention—other people's needs and priorities—and it's very easy to continually triage so that the urgent tasks always slip ahead in line in front of the important things. The trouble is, there will always be more urgent things to take up your time and space and attention, and if you let them, they will completely crowd out the important work of writing that memoir or starting that novel.

So now I try to give myself an hour and half to two hours every morning to work on my own stuff, and even if it doesn't look much like work, as I page through old journals in search of material, and a full inbox is calling out for my attention, I stick to it. And do you know what? All those urgent matters are still there when I'm done, and they get taken care of in a reasonable amount of time.

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.

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