Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Book Stack ~ August 2020

A monthly list of books read. Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJune, July.


I don't know what was going on with August, but apparently it involved reading...a lot.

Nonfiction
I've been reading a lot of essay collections, gathering material for a project I'm working on. Here are August's selections (from the bottom of the stack):

Maxine Hong Kingston, Hawai'i One Summer. These short essays were written, I believe, as a column for the New York Times in the late 70s. I haven't read Kingston's fiction, but there's something wonderful that happens when a novelist writes from real life. These brief meditations on everyday things, like buying a house, washing dishes, watching her son surf, are wry and full of heart with not a word wasted.

Camille Dungy, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History. Do you ever read an author's work and wish she was your best friend? Or at least that you could sit down over tea and talk about all the things? That's how I felt while reading Dungy's smart, sprawling, insightful essays. I especially appreciated one that takes place on a visit to Maine, in which Dungy recounts this state's outsized role in the Civil War--Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Brunswick when she penned Uncle Tom's Cabin, Joshua Chamberlain, also of Brunswick, accepted the the Confederate Army's surrender in 1865, Maine sent more soldiers to the war, on a per-capita basis, than any other state in the Union, and Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln's first VP, came from Maine. This makes the dumbasses who fly Confederate (traitor) flags around here not only ignorant of geography, but also of history. No surprise.

Annick Smith, Homestead. A lovely collection that covers the years Smith and her husband homesteaded in Montana with their four sons, her husband's early death, the history of ranchers, mountain men, and other Montana characters, fly fishing, and conservation.

Janisse Ray, Wild Card Quilt. A memoir-in-essays about the author moving back to her family home in southern Georgia as an adult and trying to build community there. I find where I live (1/3 old hippies, 1/3 new hippies, 1/3 rednecks) stiflingly conservative, so I can't imagine trying to navigate life in the Deep South, but Ray manages to do it, digging deep to find like-minded people and building coalitions to save the local school, clean up the local river, and preserve a parcel of old growth long-leaf pine. Even when her son moves away to be with his dad in Vermont (where there are "fewer rules" compared to this place where there's "not enough imagination," according to the  insightful nine-year-old), Ray stays and struggles to reclaim her family property and grandmother's home from decay and find people who share her values. 

Jill Sisson Quinn, Deranged: Finding a Sense of Place in the Landscape and in the Lifespan. In the essays in this collection, Quinn braids together the threads of her childhood in rural Maryland, her current home in Wisconsin, and different aspects of the natural world or family history, always questing to find her bearings in her new home's landscape of glacial-flattened plains when her internal compass is calibrated to stream-carved valleys of her childhood.

Fiction
I received a big load of mysteries in the mail at the beginning of the month and pretty much devoured them.

Jenn McKinlay, Better Late than Never. I did not like this book. I know writing a book is hard and I should only say nice things, but this author has published more than 20 books and is a NYT bestseller, so I think she can take it. She spends a lot of time moving her characters around the page (she picked up her purse, she walked across the room, she turned the doorknob, she opened the door, she left the room). Speaking of characters, there were way too many to keep track of. And, I suppose this is a pitfall of series, there was a lot of ink spilled in service of building the main character's relationships with other characters and moving forward various peoples' life stories irrespective of the plot. Also, the inciting incident was not interesting and the characters' reactions to it disproportionate. I didn't like it. Or rather, it was not to my taste.

Julia Buckley, A Dark and Stormy Murder. This one was much better--still frivolous, but more entertaining. There was an actual dead body at the start, which helps. And though it was a set-up for a series, it didn't feel clunky in that regard. The premise is totally unbelievable, but I was willing to let that slide and go along for the ride. Also, the author hat-tips Mary Stewart, which automatically endeared her to me.

Robin Page, Death at Daisy's Folly. This is another by the author(s) I've written about before herehere and here, which include the Beatrix Potter mysteries (though Potter does not appear in this one). Like the others, it's a cozy who-done-it of the old style, taking place around the turn of the 20th century and involving a few real-life characters of the time (including the king, before he was king, and the eponymous Daisy). The suspense is mild, the thrill minimal, but the writing is good and the story compelling, and the main character charming, so it was a pleasant book to escape into.

Mary Stewart, Wildfire at Midnight. The classic Mary Stewart setup: an exotic location, a heroine who is not a complete ingenue but who is at loose ends, a couple of potential love interests a dark, foreboding mystery, and a plethora of suspects. This one involves a lot more dead bodies than the usual Mary Stewart, and is more of the locked-room type setup than usual. It takes place at a remote hotel in the Scottish Highlands (having recently read The Living Mountain, I felt like I'd been there before myself), and is filled with Stewart's usual flair for the descriptive details of a landscape. My only complaint, which applies  to at least two of my literary heroes (this is going to be a spoiler, but since the book is ~65 years old, I don't feel bad), is the trope of the surly, almost mean, verging on abusive, character turning out to be the hero. Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters uses this trope a LOT. Let's just say it hasn't aged well. 

What have you been reading?

Friday, September 4, 2020

The Most Fragrant Flowers


I've been working on two writing projects this summer—both of which involve deep dives into research, one in my own personal records, journals, and photographs, the other into two centuries of other women's writing. It's hard to feel productive while doing research, at least in that dogged American protestant work ethic way we're stuck with, when all you have to show at the end of the day is a few scribbled notes or pages marked with sticky notes. Still, it's usually engrossing work and I might not come up for air at all if it weren't for the wants and needs of my family. Apparently I'm still required to cook dinner.

Other things keeping me from turning into a dusty book mite are a couple of more community-minded projects I'm involved in. One of these is co-coordinating the 2020 training course for the Maine Master Naturalist Program, which has, like everything, gone online. This weekend we'll have our first in-person field day since February—in small groups, properly distanced, masked, and sanitized—and everyone's thrilled to finally be teaching and learning in real life. Perhaps that's the lesson of this trying year—appreciate the small things, like a walk with fellow naturalists at the arboretum, or breathing.

Another of my ongoing volunteer activities is editing at the online journal Literary Mama, where a couple of weeks ago we launched our brand-new, beautiful website. I had the honor of writing the editor's letter for the issue and of working with writer Nadia Colburn on the issue's Literary Reflections essay.

And nature, of course, continues to pull me outsdoors and outside of my researching/ writing/ editing/ zooming cocoon. Since my butterfly class ended, and most of the butterflies drifted away in the midsummer lull, I've rekindled an interest in dragonflies that I'd let wane over the last few years. The best part about them—other than their colors, variety, acrobatics, big eyes, and insect predation—is that I can watch them from my kayak.

One morning, while paddling slowly along the edge of a lake in search of dragons, I came across a flotilla of fuchsia water lilies. I immediately assumed they were invasive (a symptom of our "we can't have anything nice" society), but my field guide insists that native fragrant water-lily can sometimes come in pink. And fragrant they are, like the smell Johnson's Baby Powder aspires to be: soft, delicate, ephemeral. If you paddle through a dense enough cluster of them, the perfume will drift up at you as your boat glides over their petals.

C and I were paddling through just such a garden earlier this summer, along the edge of a bog, the sweet smell of the flowers competing with the stink of the bog mud our paddles dug up in the shallow water. My friend B tells me there's a metaphor in there—the most fragrant flowers growing from the stinkingest mud. I think I'll wait until 2020 is done having its way with us before I weigh in on whether it's true.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Book Stack ~ July 2020

For a while my laptop has been losing its ability to talk to certain websites and apps. Losing zoom was a real problem in the covid days, and then blogger went too. So it was time for a new one, which arrived almost exactly ten years after the old one did. I'll always feel nostalgic about that old laptop, the very first computer I owned that was all mine (except for the two or three years that M used it for his school work and music and the times E and Z used it to write reports), that produced many issues of my zine, several hundred blog posts, countless essays and short stories. It's the laptop that went to graduate school, and Ireland, with me. It was a good workhorse and writing partner, chugging along even after I cracked the screen a few years ago (oops). 

I think I can drop the pretense that I'm still working toward My 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). By my count I've read 15 books that were already in the house and unread by me (I guess 20 if the Flavia de Luce novels I borrowed from M count). Meanwhile, new (mostly used) books keep making their way into the house and onto my nightstand at an alarming rate. 

Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMay, June.


Nonfiction
The one book stack book I read in July was Mariposa Road by Robert Micahel Pyle, about the first butterfly "big year," i.e., his attempt to see as many butterfly species in one calendar year as possible (his goal was 500 and he fell just short of it). I admit that at first I thought it was going to be boring, but I have a soft spot for cutely cantankerous old men (as long as they are cantankerous in the service of good--such as butterfly conservation--and not bad--such as ranting about anything they saw on Fox News), and the book and its author grew on me. I read the book at the same time I was learning butterflies, and it was fun to hear about species in other parts of the country (I really need to get to the Rio Grande Valley). It was also nice to know that a butterfly expert can still sometimes miss netting the butterfly or i.d.ing the species.

Poetry
I had fallen out of the habit of reading poetry in the morning when I went back to work in the fall. Once bird-watching season ended for the most part this summer, I picked the habit back up and read Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry edited by Camille Dungy. The poems in this collection are so good. I don't know enough about poetry to tell you why (if it sounds good it is good), but at least some of the appeal is in the huge range that includes rhyme, meter, form, free verse. The way it expands the definition of nature writing is part of it too--when bodies have been colonized and abused as badly as the land, when nature is both a place of escape and a source of terror, when a writer's relationship to the natural world is through toil, when the natural world includes rats and cockroaches in substandard housing, then it makes for a much more vast understanding of the genre. 

Fiction
Still going with escapist in the fiction realm, reading another Mary Stewart suspense, Rose Cottage (more on Mary Stewart here, here, and here), which was, as always, delightful. I'd read the first Kopp Sisters novel back in April, but because I'd accidentally bought #s 3 and 4, but not 2, I had to wait to continue, meanwhile getting distracted by other books. I finally resumed in July, and each volume gets better than the last. The fourth in the series, Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit, is particularly timely, featuring a candidate for office who lies, intimidates, and plays on people's fears as his entire campaign strategy. I won't give anything away, but I do hope real life turns out better. 

What are you reading these days?

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Exquisite Litle Gems



This summer I've been taking an online field course in butterfly identification and ecology. Online and field may seem like contradicting terms, but, as with most things in the world of 2020, even nature has moved onto the internet. This format, of video chats and lectures interspersed with self-directed field work, is ideal for me this summer, when leaving home is both difficult (we are down to two vehicles for the three adults in the house, and the two of them with real jobs get dibs) and terrifying (I'm not sure which is scarier, the deadly virus or the lawn signs and flags championing the two people responsible for making the United States so virulent). When I need a break from writing or editing or housework or the inside of my own head, I grab my net, my binoculars, and my field guide and walk up the driveway to where our wild, raggedy field meets our neighbors' manicured lawn. Here on the edge, where milkweed blooms, is where I find most of my butterflies.

And find butterflies I do! Almost every day that I go out, as long as the sun is shining, I discover new-to-me species. In the six weeks of the class so far, I've identified more than 40 species of butterfly, about three-quarters of which I've never seen before, and even more of which I've never seen here on our property. How can I have missed all these exquisite little gems of creatures that have been here, sipping nectar and dancing over the flowers, for the last twenty years? It's as if my dresser drawers are full of emeralds and sapphires and rubies that I never notice because all I do is reach in and pull out socks and underwear.

I can draw two conclusions from this oversight: 1) I'm a rubbish naturalist; or 2) we don't truly see what we don't look for. There are a lot of terrible things going on in the world today—illness, death, vicious people intentionally trying to make others less safe, other people doing the same out of ignorance. I go looking for these stories every day when I read the news. But there must be other stories out there, too, the exquisite gems of courage, kindness, and generosity, if only we knew how to look.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Book Stack ~ June 2020

My 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarchApril, May.



June's reading stack was a good mix of escapist and serious, and though the stack is tall, only two of them count for my goal of reading 50 books already in my house (ordering used books online is just too darn easy).

In the escapist category, I ready three novels in one of my favorite sub-genres—vintage romantic suspense—My Brother Michael and Airs Above the Ground, both by Mary Stewart, and Black is the Color of My True Love's Heart by Ellis Peters, the latter being the one contribution in this category from my book stack (a library book sale find). These were all a delight. I've waxed rhapsodic about Mary Steward before, here and here, so I won't repeat myself. As for Ellis Peters, I'd only read her Brother Cadfael books a long time ago, so it was fun to read a contemporary (as in 50 year old) book by her.

In a more serious vein, I've been continuing to try to get myself caught up on nature writing. Writing the Western Landscape, edited by Ann Zwinger (the other book from the stack), includes selections from Mary Austin and John Muir. I'd never read Austin before but have always meant to, so it was nice to have this introduciton. I've got two of her books waiting in the wings and I'm looking forward to reading more. The Muir selections were interesting—one about the Grand Canyon that was clearly written for a popular audience and one about Alaska from his journals. I had started this book months ago and put it aside in the midst of the Grand Canyon piece, which is over the top purple prose. But I made myself pick it back up and the Alaska writing is so beautifully wrought, so subltly humorous, so truly lovely. It's fascinating how an audience—real or perceived—can influence a writer's style so much (also I'm sure the passage of time and development of skill plays a role). I hope to pick up Muir's Alaska journals someday soon.

I also read The Nature Fix: How Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. I don't often pick up straight nonnarrative nonfiction, but I'm interested in this topic of course, and under the current circumstances, which are indeed stressful, I'm even more interested in how nature can help keep us healthy and sane. It's a fascinating read and should be in the hands of every teacher, doctor, and policy maker.

Finally, I read The Inland Island, by Josephine Johnson, who is a new discovery for me. This book, written about the plot of undeveloped land in the midst of encroaching suburbs where the author lived for most of her life, is magical. Her descriptions of the natural world are lovely, and her brief commentaries on war (Vietnam was happening at the time of her writing) are powerful.

What have you been reading?

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Book Stack ~ May 2020

My 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack* by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarch, April.



It's almost time to share this month's book stack and I'm just getting around to last month's. Where has the time gone? I don't know…I guess I've been in more of a contemplative, burrowing kind of place than a sharing kind of place, what with one thing and another. I should probably share C's book stack instead of mine—he spent the spring reading books about the civil rights movement (even before it was the it thing to do), while I've been pretty much in full-on escapism mode. I did order a few books of nature writing by Black authors because I realized that was a big gap in my huge pile of nature writing to read (and a big gap in the genre in general). So stay tuned for that. In the meantime, here's what I read in May:

Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters. When everyone got sent home for the pandemic, I started reading a P.G. Wodehouse book to the boys, but E quickly lost interest and then M went to work and wasn't around most of the read-aloud time (afternoons for me), so Z got me to read him the first in the Amelia Peabody series to him (we'd skipped this one when we started the series, because I thought they'd prefer to hear about young Ramses's adventures). We've since started the second book (which we listened to on audio during our long road trip three years ago), but once school ended and he didn't need me reading to him as a way of getting out of doing school work, our progress slowed down quite a bit.

Speaking from Among the Bones and I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley. These are the last two on the Flavia de Luce books that we own. I thought I might have had my fill after I finished these, but a big bombshell was dropped at the end of the last one, so I'm sure I'll pick up the next couple soon.

A Moment on the Edge, edited by Elizabeth George. I picked up a couple of writing craft books by Elizabeth George, whose mysteries I have enjoyed in the past (and whose book What Came before He Shot Her is one of the best books I've ever read), and I saw that she'd edited this book of short crime stories by women writers. Most of these were great, with a huge range of styles.

Upstream by Mary Oliver. Uncharacteristically this was my only nonfiction read for the month (told you I was all about escapism). I have a weird habit of starting to read a book when I first get it, then setting it aside (because I'm usually already in the middle of three other books) and not picking it up again for a long, long while. That happened with this one, but it turned out to be just the right book at the right time—Mary Oliver's quiet contemplations about writing, nature, and life, just when I needed them.

* The Mary Oliver is the only one of these that counts as a book stack book—the Elizabeth Peters I've already read before (many times), the Aland Bradleys belong to M, and the Elizabeth George I ordered to read.

What have you been reading?

Friday, May 8, 2020

Finish It Friday ~ Very Belated Christmas Vest

Last fall I got it in my head to make a Fair Isle vest for C for Christmas. I bought the yarn for the vest I had in mind—a self-striping green—and went in search of a pattern. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a pattern that met my mental image—knit in the round, with worsted weight yarn, with an abstract repeating pattern. So I took a pattern for a striped vest, added a fair isle pattern from a cowl (plus one stitch for the vest) and voila!




Or maybe not quite voila, but a lot of labor later…

This pattern required a lot of knitting techniques that were new to me, including kirchener stitching, tubular bind-offs, and a few short rows of working on the back of the patterned knitting, carrying the yarn across the front. I did not like that at all (which kind of made the next and most scary new tecnique a little easier to swallow, since it allowed me to knit most of the vest in the round. The scariest new thing I learned was a steek (actually three steeks), which, for the uninitiated, is a part of your knitting that you make with the intention of cutting it later. With scissors. The idea is you knit your whole project in a tube, then cut, in this case, the arm holes and neck V. It is a little magical, but also terrifying. When I first heard about steeks a long, long time ago when my local yarn store was offering a class in it, I thought it was barbaric. Now that I've done one myself, I still think it's barbaric. 

I chose to machine-sew the reinforcement stitches for my steeks. I didn't know enough when I knitted them to alternate colors, and just knitted right through with green, carrying the orange across the back. I figured machine stitching would be my best bet for anchoring those floating little bits of yarn. It worked pretty alright, though I did end up with a few loose threads I had to weave in afterward.

Then I did the cutting. Oh, my heart. I had a moment when I thought I'd cut through the shoulder stitches and almost had a stroke. I don't think I can handle this level of stress from my leisure activities.

But then, ta-da! your weird scrunched tube opens up like a flower into an actual knitted garment.



Needless to say, I didn't get it done in time for Christmas, just finishing it up this week. Every time I approached a new and challenging aspect of the pattern, I had to set the whole thing aside and let it marinate for a while before I could tackle it. Somehow C managed to stay in the dark—even when I was clearly adding ribbing to a vest and weaving in ends on the vest—until I layed it out to block it. He was pretty psyched by the whole thing, even if it was four and a half months late.

Notes about the yarn and pattern(s) on Ravelry.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Book Stack ~ April 2020

My 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). Previous months here: JanuaryFebruary, March.



One good thing about a stay-at-home order: it makes for lots of time to read. Still, I only checked two books off the stack (1 and 2), because I ordered books online (3 and 8), borrowed books from other members of the household (4-6), and reread a book I've read before (7).

1. Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl. This is one I picked up off a book swap table last year, about a barn owl raised by a young woman. It's a fascinating look into the psychology of this intelligent and charming bird.

2. My favorite guilty pleasure is 1960s romantic suspense novels, and Mary Stewart is the master. I acquired this tattered old copy of This Rough Magic some time ago at a library book sale, and it was the perfect diversion from reality—a spine-tingling romp through murder, smuggling, and romance in Corfu. There's also a heroic dolphin.

3. I'd been wanting to read Amy Stewart's Kopp Sisters novels for a while and finally ordered what I thought were the first three from an online used book purveyor. Unfortunately I missed the second volume and had to take a break after the first, Girl Waits with Gun, about three sisters living on their own on a farm in rural New Jersey who have a run-in with a local miscreant. It's full of interesting historical details, and the fascinating thing is that it's based on true events.

4, 5, and 6. When M was younger, my mom used to send him the Flavia de Luce mysteries by Allen Bradley. I'd been meaning to give them a try for a while, but only just last month got around to it and plowed through them, reading one every couple of days. Before reading these books, I would have told you I'm not a big fan of child narrators of adult novels, but I stand corrected. Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is a delight—smart, spunky, saucy. Her fascination with poisons and poisoning is endearing, although when she mixes up persistent toxic chemicals (like trichloroethylene to dry-clean a coat she got covered in graveyard dirt) in the chemistry lab next door to her bedroom, I get anxious for her health. I finished the last two we own (fourth and fifth volumes) in the first couple of days of May, and I thought I'd be saturated with the goings-on in Bishops-Lacey at that point, but a big bombshell drops at the end of the fifth book, so I might need to order the next five ASAP.

7. Over 2017, 2018, and into 2019, I read almost all of the Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters oeuvre (70-odd books in all; oh to be one-tenth that prolific!), but there was one book I hadn't gotten to yet, Other Worlds, an unusual volume, in which some famous spritualists and skeptics from different times and places (including Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, as well as, one suspects, the author herself) gather together to solve—or at least swap theories about—two famous historic ghost stories. A great reminder that the truth of a story often depends on the teller or listener's point of view.

8. Finally, I read an actually recent book, Desert Cabal, by Amy Irvine, in which she carries on a one-sided converstaion with the late Edward Abbey about the desert, wilderness protection, and some of Abbey's less savory qualities like sexism and xenephobia. Having been a big Abbey reader in my younger years, I found it engaging, refreshing, and a little depressing, considering the current state of public lands protection (or lack thereof) under the political craziness of our current time.

What books are you escaping into these days?

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Thinking of You



Despite the fact that I got snowed on while bird watching earlier this week and it's an as-warm-as-it-gets-in-April high 50s, it feels like summer here. The kind of summer no one has experienced since circa 1982, where days unspool one after the other with no real demarcation between one and the next. I can almost hear a housefly buzzing halfheartedly against the screen and taste Country Time Lemonade mixed with tapwater in a tall glass of translucent red plastic.

My job has ended for the season, as it would have without the pandemic, and my life's not that much different than it would have otherwise been, except my kids are home and I don't ever go anywhere. M works afternoons at the farm store, boxing up curbside pickup orders. In the morning he challenges his brothers to endless two-square tournaments. E has been pulling up the roots of weeds and small trees in the yard, expanding the lawn and making a duck-friendly copse of carefully thinned sumcac trees. Z is building a sailboat out of an old canoe. Both are energetically avoiding any acknowledgement that school is, indeed, still in session. They may have reached that "useful boredom" stage, the absense of which has been lamented by so many child phsychologists and educators. 

I, meanwhile, cycle between extreme anxiety and relaxed acceptance, while my two volunteer "jobs" help me keep a toehold in civilization via zoom meetings and reams of emails. It is, I know, outrageously unfair how unevenly the burden of this disease has been distributed, not only between those who are getting sick and dying and those who are merely bored at home, but also between those whose work load has been catapulted into the stratosphere—health care workers and teachers especially—and those toward whom endless articles about how to keep busy and stay sane while home with nothing to do are geared. Which adds another stage to my cycle—guilt, because I'm one of those, not bored, not in need of someone to tell me what to do, but not on the terrible front lines or trying to wranle 30 students from afar (having mostly failed to wrangle the two students who live with me, I know how hard their job is). 

So I seek a balance—don't lose sight of those who are facing extrememe hardships, but don't dwell on things outside your control. Stay home, wear a mask, try to make the best of it, and hold dear ones tight, even if it's from six feet, or six hundred miles, away.


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Friday, April 24, 2020

Finish It Friday ~ Face Masks

I made up a bunch of masks for a friend's medical practice a few weeks ago, and though by now everyone has probably made all the face masks, I thought I'd share my process, just in case you feel inclined to produce a few more.

I started with this tutorial, using fabric and narrow elastic from my stash. I used anywhere from two to four pleats, and it didn't seem to make much difference in terms of how much they gathered up on the sides, because the more pleast I used, the smaller they were. I also just eyeballed the pleat width and did freehanded them (that is, I didn't use a ruler or pins) as I sewed. I don't think they'd win a 4-H sewing contest or anything, but they do the job.



When I ran out of narrow elastic, I made ties using 1" strips cut from old t-shirts. At first I sewed these strips in half lenthwise in 40" lenghts and made sleeves along the outside of the (slightly wider) masks to thread them through.


There were several things I didn't like about this design, not the least of which was the hassle of threading the strips through the sleeves, so instead I took strips about 27" (or half the circumfrence of an XL t-shirt), folded them over each side of the mask at the center and sewed it in half along the whole length.


I got smart after the first whole bunch and used a narrow zig-zag so that the strips can stretch without snapping the threads of the seam. After washing, the eges of the t-shirt fabric curl over nicely and you don't have to worry about them unraveling, which makes them so much handier than trying to make your own bias tape.




I ended up making about 30 masks, and I'm not gonna pretend it was a fun project. There were jammed bobbins and broken needles and lots of swearing involved. at one point I thought my machine went kaput until through a vigorous internet search I figured out the right place to oil it (under the bobbin casing). If it hadn't been for a good cause, I'd have thrown in the towel.

Most of them went to the medical residents at the local hospital. I kept one each for C and me for when we go grocery shopping and made several for M, who has to wear them at work at the farm store where he's boxing up curbside pickup grocery orders.

 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Faith in a Seed

"Deep within the arboretum across the street from my office, along the edge of a field of raggedy wildflowers, sixty American chestnut trees grow in four neat rows. The trees were planted fourteen years ago, on a sunny but cool morning in June. My husband worked at the arboretum at the time and invited teams of draft horses to plow the furrows into which he planted the knee-high whippets just dug from their nursery beds. I took our infant son, Milo, to the arboretum that day, to watch the enormous horses draw plows that peeled back wide strips of sod, to see his father lower tiny trees into the ground. Milo, two weeks old at the time, snuggled deep in a front pack, his still-wobbly head asleep against my chest. Neither horse nor tree made an impression on his newborn mind. I might have forgotten the day myself, if not for the momentousness of it being our first big outing after his birth, the connection of his father to the event, and the proximity of the arboretum to my workplace, allowing me to return and visit the chestnuts years later."


So begins my essay, "Faith in a Seed," which took me years to write and even longer to get published (this is, unfortunately, my processslow writing). Still, I'm thrilled that it's found a home in a very local publication, the 2020 issue of Sprire: The Maine Journal of Conservation and Sustainability. You can read it now, here, if you're so inclined, and while you're there, check out the other offerings in the issue. And please do come back and let me know what you think in the comments.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Enjoy the Little Things



A few weeks ago, in the Before Times, an old guy had set up a table down the hallway from my office and was giving out small dishes of Ben & Jerry's ice cream—free. I waited for my turn, watching him as he reached elbow-deep in a big cardboard carton of American Dream, dipping an ice cream scoop held in his bare hand, thinking that this was maybe not regulation food-service hygeine, but it was Ben & Jerry's and it was free. Another old guy joined the first at the table, wearing a denim ball cap emblazoned with "Ben," and began dipping ice cream out of a second carton.

"Here's Ben!" the first guy cheered. And then it hit me. These weren't any old guys serving free Ben & Jerry's ice cream; these were the actual Ben and Jerry. Any qualms I had (slight as they were) about the bare hand in the carton evaporated. After all they probably stirred every batch in the factory themselves, right? And besides, it was Ben & Jerry's served by Ben and Jerry.

I think now how strange that moment was, standing in queue in a crowded hallway waiting for ice cream served by bare-handed old men. How strange it was to be jostled by strangers, to open doorknobs without resorting immediately to hand sanitizer, to shake hands, to sit cheek by jowl on a bus or airplane. How strange that all of the things that were perfectly normal parts of everyday life until a couple of weeks ago are the stuff of nightmares (I've moved on from zombie nightmares to ones about people standing too close together in workplaces).

I wonder too what it will be like in the After Times. Will we continue to maintain six feet of distance between ourselves and the next person? Will we always be just a little bit afraid of each other?

I've been trying to reign in these and other terrifying thoughts this week. I've cut back on my news consumption. I go on long walks around my property or up and down my driveway (even when it's raining, which it always seems to be doing these days). I make things by hand. I order things online, like used books, yarn, and vingate dishes. Everyone needs to define for themselves what is essential, and I guess that about sums up my list. I was made unreasonably happy this week when I found something online I've wanted for a long while—a two-cup Pristine England teapot in chartreuse. I was made even happier when it arrived three days later, in time for my afternoon tea.

Is it frivilous? Yes. Is it materialistic? Yes. Is that so wrong? I hope not. Because if we can't have little things that make us happy in the face of calamity, well then what's the point?

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

Monday, April 6, 2020

Mindfulness Monday ~ It's Okay to Feel Weird

It's been a while since I've done a Mindfulness Monday post, and now feels like a good time to revisit those past practices and refocus on being mindful in the midst of pandemic pandemonium (or very long days at home with the whole entire family).



My first MM was to Make My Bed. Believe it or not, I've stuck with this practice—mostly. I'd say nine out of ten days I make the bed. If ever I leave the house before C gets up or if I'm really in a rush or feeling extra lazy, it doesn't get made.

The second was Self Care, which I defined pretty broadly (once I stopped being self-pitying). My self-care routines currently include walking, spending time in nature, making afternoon tea, reading, hot baths, watching TV with my peeps, crafting, painting.

The third MM was keeping track of a Favorite Moment each day. I have not been as good at keeping up with this one, but I restarted a couple of days ago. I think this will be an especially useful practice now that the days are starting to blur together.

Well, I didn't do as many mindfulness posts as I'd thought. Hmm…what does that say?

My newest practice has been to cut way back on news consumption. Sometime last year I'd gone cold turkey on news after three years of obsessively reading and freaking out about all the terrible things the administration was doing, without changing one damn thing. When I went back to work in December and had a free half hour in the morning between dropping the twins off at the bus and needing to start work I resumed reading a little bit of news. But once COVID-19 hit, I'd become obsessed again, again to no good end. What purpose does it serve to read six different analyses of the same terrible press conference? None. So now I'm limiting myself to one hour in the morning and no peeking the rest of the day. It's a lot harder than it sounds, but I felt better the very first day I started.

I've also made it a point to accept my feelings, which seems like it should be obvious, but how often do we try to talk ourselves out of feeling a certain way? It's okay to feel weird, because the times now are very weird. It's okay to feel sad. There are people dying all over the world. People I know are likely to become very sick if not worse. I had plans and expectations for the coming months (years?) that now will not come to pass. My kids are missing out on big chunks of their freshmen years (in HS and college). These are all sad things. And it's okay to be grumpy, especially when it rains for days on end. It's also okay to feel good when the sun's shining and the daffodills are blooming and the phoebe has come home, because even though there are sad things going on, you don't have to feel sad all of the time. That's not good for you.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Finish It Friday ~ Saucy Table Runner

I feel better when I create something tangible with my hands—something that doesn't need to be made again (and again and again), like dinner. I've known this about myself for a long time, but I don't always remember it when I need to. Fortunately, sometimes my unconscious mind steps in, as it did earlier this week, when I sat down to make some face masks and instead put on my own oxygen mask and picked up a stack of fabric that had been waiting in the queue for me to get around to making it into a table runner.

Now I don't need another table runner. Nobody needs a table runner.  But making something pretty, that is something I needed. And I'd had this idea of putting some scraps of red, blue, yellow, and turquoise together with a half-yard printed with talavera plate designs to go with a Mexican pottery dish I bought at the thrift store in the Before Times. (The talavera fabric I'd bought a few years ago, intending to replace the valance in my kitchen but was vetoed by my friends who like the dish towel curtain just fine.) So I cut strips and sewed them together and cut those into strips, which I tacked together to make longer strips (hoping to save myself a little bit of the tedium of assembling tiny squares individually). Then I sewed it all together directly onto the batting and backing, so I wouldn't have to quilt it later.




It came out a little wonky, the corners not exaclty square, but it would have come out that way even if I'd cut out indifidual squares. I'm just a wonky quilter. I ran out of blue thread most of the way through and switched to white, then I whip-stitched the binding on with teal. I always wondered how much thread Ma Ingalls brought along in the wagon in Little House on the Prairie. It must have been miles and miles, because what would she do if she ran out, there in Kansas Territory with no stores anywhere and every stitch of clothing needing to be made by her own hand? I wish that when everyone was out panic buying toilet paper I'd panic bought a few spools of thread. By the time this is all over, I'll have used it all up, right down to the lavender.




There it is, just a table runner, one which will be made dirty by my husband and children, then  unceremonously shoved aside when they need the table space for something else. It hasn't changed the world, nor will it. But it made a gray day a little brighter, and that's something.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Seeking Refuge



I once read a book about a man who spent a winter alone on a sailboat frozen into the sea somewhere off the coast of Canada. Every day of the long Arctic winter he would walk out into the darkness, as far away as he could go, out beyond where he could no longer see the boat, where the footprints of hungry polar bears marked the snow. He did this to ensure that his tiny, musty boat would feel like a refuge and not a prison.

I think of this story every day when, around noon, I hoist myself off the sofa, take a shower, get dressed in the most brightly colored outfit I can fashion, and go for a walk. I don't walk away from our house but rather circumnavigate it, making one, two, three loops on the woods trail that runs around our property. One week into social distancing, I don't yet feel confined in our house (I'm pretty good at staying home, despite what my family members might think). But the idea of refuge is very much on my mind.

I think, too, of people in literal prisons and those in the concentration camps at our southern border, for whom social distancing is impossible and for whom COVID-19 will spell disaster. I think of people trapped in homes with dangerous people or just too many people for health and sanity. I feel fortunate that I have so much room to roam, both indoors and out, and yet at the same time I feel unbearably anxious—that every sneeze or tickle in my throat means I've got the virus, that all those people in all those unsafe situations are suffering, that our government is failing us catastrophically.

I walk that loop of trail until my brain derails from the loops of negative thoughts, when I nearly step on a woodcock, blending so perfectly with the dead leaves of the trail, or when I hear the high-pitched tsssp-tsssp sound of kinglets in the trees or a wood frog chuckling in the swamp. There are no deadly polar bears or sub-zero temperatures out there to drive me to the safety of home. On the contrary, spring's slow reveal is a reassurance that nature hasn't changed, that everything is going to be okay, if only for a little while.

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

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

March 2020 Book Stack

Month two of my 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). Last months here: January, February.



On the bright side of the COVID-19 pandemic is plenty of time to read, although I have to admit to spending far more time watching TV than reading, and the dumber the better C and I had recently begun watching "The Crown," but most nights I vote for "My Name is Earl." I even gave "Tiger King" a try, and it definitely took my mind off of the coronavirus, but it gave me even worse nightmares than I already had, so no more. It's also kind of fortuitous that I'm confined to home with this giant stack of books and a goal of reading them all this year, but it's also kind of a bummer that my reading choices are limited to books I already have (okay, so I've ordered a few books online—after all this thing could go on for a year or more!). It's also unfortunate that even if I finish reading all the books in the stack, I won't be able to get rid of them, which was kind of the ultimate goal—decluttering. Alright, enough complaining, on to the books.

One of my mothers-in-law gave me Where the Crawdads Sing for Christmas, and I'd been saving it up for just the right time. I'd loved Delia Owens's earlier, nonfiction books—Cry the Kalahari and The Eye of the Elephant—in my 20s and was excited to see where she went with fiction. She did not disappoint, painting all of the intricate details of a South Carolina marsh and the young girl who is abandoned there by her family, left to fend for herself and grow up on intimate terms with all of the birds and animals of the area. Oh, and there's a suspected murder. And a really satisfying ending. I really like the way that the two timelines of the story converge, the present time one progressing by hours or days while the past jumps ahead by years. I'm amazed and delighted that a book in which nature figures so prominently ended up being such a huge bestseller. It gives me hope for the future.

I also finished reading a book I'd started last fall but got a little bored with in the middle: In Beauty She Walks by Leslie Mass. It's the trail journal of a woman who hikes the Appalachian Trail in her 60s. Because it covers every day of the hike without compression, it's a very long book, and because she doesn't run into too much conflict or difficulty, it's a little slow. Or at least it was a little slow a few months ago when my life was all rush-rush-rush. When I picked it back up, after social distancing was initiated, it was a pleasant escape. I think people especially need books about traveling and being outdoors while also being removed from regular 9-to-5 life during these times of social isolation (hint, hint to all the publishers I've sent my book proposal to).

The Beginning of Everything, by Andrea Buchanan I'll be reviewing for Literary Mama, so I won't say much about it here and now, except that it's the memoir of the author's experience with living with the excruciating pain that resulted when a hole tore in the dura mater covering her spine and her long, slow road to recovery. As I read it I couldn't help thinking about how much more challenging the COVID-19 world is for people enduring other medical issues as well as for those going through marital problems (Buchanan and her husband divorce in the midst of her illness). It's one thing to be trapped at home with loved ones who can be kind of irritating in large doses; quite another to be trapped with anger, acrimony, or worse.

I finally convinced Z to read The Outsiders, and when he chose it for his independent reading for English class, his teacher added Rumble Fish, which I decided to read also. I kind of thought I hadn't read it, because even though I'd loved The Outsiders, I did intentionally read sad books until I was in my 30s. But enough of the story was familiar that I decided in the end I had read it; it just hadn't left as much of an impression on my as The Outsiders and I can see why: the story is a lot shorter and a lot less complex, and I just didn't build up as much of an affinity for the characters. 

I read one more book, the last of the mysteries that I picked up last spring at the crime writing conference I went to, but it wasn't very good, so I'm not going to mention it here. In fact it was so bad that I figure I can't do much worse, and I've planned to write a mystery over the next few months of sheltering in place.

What books have you found to escape into these days?

Friday, March 20, 2020

We're In This Together



How are you doing as the world as we know it appears to be dissolving around us? I've been feeling a little dislocated and unmoored and like everything is not quite in focus. The last time I felt like this was eighteen-and-a-half years ago, holding four-month-old M on my lap on my sister's couch, 2,000 miles away from home, watching airplanes fly again and again and again into the World Trade Center towers. It strikes me that my oldest son's life has been bracketed, so far, by these two world-changing events: 9/11 and COVID-19. Yet he was too young to remember the former and he hasn't quite grasped the implications of latter (not that any of us have, really).

Interestingly, it's not my kids' safety that's my first concern this time around, for possibly the first time ever. Rather our older friends and family members have taken up most of my worry space during the day. At night I dream about zombies, which is weird since I've seen maybe one zombie movie in my life.

At the same time, I've been feeling a lot of gratitdude. For living in a safe, warm home with plenty of outdoor space around us so we can get out and move our bodies. For C no longer working in the gig economy but now having a steady paycheck and a job that he can make work remotely. For M having gone to college close by so bringing him home was a simple matter. For having my family at home, for them being homebodies who won't mind weeks of social distancing, and for us having had practice living almost on top of each other in a tiny tent for a whole summer. For my kids being older and more self-sufficeint and healthy. For not having a wedding or graduation or big travel plans on the calendar for this spring. For having learned how to bake bread and make yogurt years ago. For having a ridiculous number of hobbies and a long 2020 to-do list full of tasks that I need to be at home to do.

In fact, I was starting to look at the next few months as a chance to catch up on many undone projects, to delve deep into reading and writing, and to play Little House on the Prairie. But then I read an article that said we may have to spend 18 months in social isolation, until a vaccine is available, and I went from feeling unmoored and out of focus to feeling like cymbals were crashing along my nerves. Half a year at home I can handle, but a year-and-a-half? Suddenly my kids' ages no longer seemed like an advantage. Missing out on a year of high school or college will be immensely disruptive, and with the economy cratering, prospects for meaningful, well-paid work will be even more dismal than they already were for new college grads. And what about those vulnerable friends and family members, whom we won't be able to see until 2022?

It's all a little too much to think about at once, so I watch dopey TV shows, stay up too late reading so I won't lie awake at night before I fall asleept to dream about zombies, and go outside in the morning mizzle to listen to the birds. The chickadees are singing their hey sweetie songs, the robins are descending in flocks, and the redwing blackbirds are in the tops of trees singing in spring, oblivious to human concerns. They'd be out there even if we weren't here to hear them, which doesn't sound like a comforting thought, but somehow it is.

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

A HIke Down Memory Trail



I've been listening to this podcast episode on Backpacker Radio over the last few days (it's taking days because it's really extraordinarily long for a podcast—2 hours—and my commute is only 25 minutes) about a family who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with four kids aged 11-17. It's made me nostalgic for our Colorado Trail hike of nearly four (four!!!) years ago. Yeah, we took along 3/4 the number of kids, and yeah, we only hiked 1/5 the distance, but there's still so much I can relate to in their discussion. It's also made me (even more) antsy to get The Book out there. I think people are interested in these kinds of stories. Now I just need to find the publisher who's interested.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

February 2020 Book Stack

Month two of my 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). Last month here: January.



I only read one book out of my stack last month, because it was long and fairly intense, Sophie's Choice by William Styron. I inherited this book from a friend who moved away years ago, and I knew nothing about it, except that it's among the canon of books everyone should read, and that whatever Sophie's Choice is, it's not a happy one. It's the very gripping tale of a woman in Nazi-occupied Poland and, later, Auschwitz, told through a young man who meets her a few years later in the apartment building where they both live. It was so good I didn't want to put it down, but sometimes the story got so intense that I had to put it down and cleanse my brain with some dumb comedic TV. My only complaints: I'm a little bit sketptical that a person's response to trauma would be to basically become a sex addict (Styron's wishful thinking?), and I found Sophie's actual choice, when the book finally gets to that point, to be a little anitclimatic. Not that it isn't terrible—because it is—but that part of the narrative felt a little rushed. Overall, however, a brilliant story and one that's important to read at this time, with the fascists taking over government and actual Nazis marching in our streets.

As an antidote to such an intense and tragic story, I needed to read something light and comforting and very low-stakes, so I turned to my go-to comfort writer, Jane Austen, who I like to read in the winter anyway. It's been years since I read Northanger Abbey, and an ironic gothic tale was exactly what I needed. It did not disappont. Fun and funny and thoroughly entertaining. It does not, however, count as a book stack book because, even though I already own it, I've read it before, so it doesn't help me toward my goal of reading all the unread books.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Finish It Friday ~ Valentine's Edition

Some time ago (years, perhaps?), I picked up a couple of little packs of fabric charms for Enlish paper piecing. However, after my first foray into the craft, I wasn't eager to do it again. It is a little, shall we say, fussy? And I'm a little, shall we say, ramshackly?

But while tidying up in my room a few weeks ago, I ran across the charms, and was inspired by a batch of vintage-looking prints in mostly pinks and reds to make a little Valentine's Day…I don't know what you'd call it. Table mat? Doily? Fiddle-faddle?



So over the course of the next few weeks, I stitched together tiny hexagons during our evening family television time, and last weekend I kind of improvised putting on a backing while trying to maintain the zig-zags of the hexagons. The corners didn't come out as sharp as I would have liked (ramshackly), but otherwise it looks pretty sweet, and it goes well with my lemongrass Fiesta heart bowl (displayed here with some cherry-date-almond-chocolate "truffles").

While I had the sewing machine cleared off, I whipped up a gift bag out of this lovely fabric to wrap a wedding present in, using my fat quarter gift bag method. Now I need to think of something else to make out of this fabric so I can go back to the store and buy a fat quarter for myself.

 

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Lingering in January




January has been a slow month, but not in a bad way. I spend a lot of time wishing time would just slow down, for goodness's sake, and this month I've gotten my wish: long lazy weekends of reading classic books, sewing tiny hexagons together by hand, baking cakes, watching old movies with the kids, taking long walks in the snow. Weekday mornings are still a hurried and harried mess of running late and forgetting things, and the evenings are sometimes overbooked, but I've taken to spending my lunch break combing the local thrift store for Fiestaware (and having some success), and we've found a show that all of us at home enjoy, which means we have an hour of family togetherness before bed each night, 1980s-style, all eight eyes focused on the same screen.

My word for 2020 is move. Maybe not the most glamorous choice, but having felt stagnant in my writing life in 2019, I need forward motion, momentum, and all the movement words. I also like how it has both a figurative and literal meaning: I can move toward my goals, and I can literally get up and move my body. When I feel stuck, I ask myself what can I do to embody movement: send in a submission, type up some notes, craft a newsletter. Sometimes I need to take a walk or put a Duran Duran karaoke song on and dance around the living room or take a belly dancing class. When in doubt, move about.

I've also made a 20 For 2020 list a la Gretchen Rubin. It's a wide-ranging lists with some old favorites (like upload photos and make into albums and organize basement--although this time I've broken that daunting task into chunks and already completed one of them)--some discrete and doable tasks (finish knitting project), an ambitious target (100 submissions), and one goal outside of my control (sell manuscript). I'm a lists and goals person, so the 20 for 2020 works for me--and 20 is a good number, both ambitious and restraining at once. I'll keep you posted here or on the blog as I tick items off.

In the meantime, I'm enjoying the lingering feeling as January unwinds into its last week, and I hope this sensation of slowed time carries through the year (though maybe not in March; March is too long already).

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