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.


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

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.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Book Stack ~ January 2020

I have a large stack of books in my bedroom--volumes that were lent or gifted to me or that I picked up at used book sales or author events and never gotten around to reading. One of my 20 for 2020 goals is to read 52 of those books this year. When I made that resolution, I imagined that I read around 100 books per year, so that only about half would have to come from that stack. Though I pose books I read for photos and write about them here, I don't count them. One day when I had time to kill in a doctor's office waiting room, I scrolled through my book posts, mentally tabulating the volumes read, and it turns out that last year I read fewer than 50 books, the previous year it was in the 80s, and the year before that I don't know, because I was interrupted mid-count. So, reading 52 books from the stack and other books I want to read is going to be a challenge.



I redefined what counts as a book from the stack to include any book I already owned at the start of 2020 and haven't already read, so books I got for Christmas count, as do books I shelved but never read. I'm off to a good start this month, with nearly five books from the stack read so far. These are:

Murder in a English Village by Jessica Ellicott. I bought this book at a crime writing conference I went to earlier this year, along with another from a different series (under a different name), which I wrote about here. There's a wintery scene on the front cover, so I saved it as a wintery read, and started it on New Year's Day. It turns out weather wasn't a significant enough of a factor to make the time of year essential, but it was a nice, cozy ready for the quiet relaxing days after the holidays. I liked the characters and the set-up for what is clearly a series, as well as the setting of an English village post-WWI. My only complaint is that it was poorly proofread, which is more of a reflection on the publisher than the author, but I found it somewhat distracting.

A Modern Mephistopheles by Louisa May Alcott. I found this book in the thrift store and was intrigued by the dark description of a book by the author of Little Women. I finally pulled it out and read it while preparing to go see the latest film adaptation of that more gentle story. It's a Gothic tale about manipulation, vanity, and innocence. It has a kind of play-like atmosphere, and one can imagine its beginnings in one of Jo's theatrical productions in the garret. Apparently the book was written earlier in Alcott's career, before Little Women, and not published in her name until after she died. I was interested to learn from the introduction that she  suffered from mercury poisoning from her time as a nurse during the Civil War, which is a story I want to learn more about.

Lord of the Wings by Donna Andrews. My mom gave me this book over the summer, and I started it in October, because it's about Halloween. I ended up getting distracted by something else and put it down halfway through. There's a lot going on in Andrews's books--way too many characters and plot points to keep track of. I finally decided to give up on trying to keep track and just go along for the ride. If you like an entertaining, cozy, and somewhat ridiculous mystery, this one's for you.

Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why they Matter by Ben Goldfarb. This book is the current selection for my naturalist book club, and I arranged for my kids to give it to me for Christmas. It's a fascinating look at beavers as essential elements of our ecosystems, the history of their near-decimation, and the people working to protect them today and encourage their dispersal back into damaged landscapes. You get to know some interesting characters along the way (Beaver Believers) and a few beavers as well. I have renewed admiration for these giant rodents.

The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks. This book has been on my shelves a long while. I pulled it out after seeing a coworker was reading another book about sheep. It's the memoir of a young-ish (about my age; for some reason I was expecting a wizened old man) shepherd in the Lake District of Northern England, telling the story his life growing up on the farm and the history of ancient sheep breeds and sheep herding practices that have been handed down through time and how the modern world devalues work like farming. I like the way it's written, in short vignettes and antidotes that move back and forth in time, sometimes within a single paragraph. I'm about 3/4 of the way through the book, and it's interesting to me that not one mention has so far been made of spinning, knitting, weaving, or anything to do with fiber other than selling it (or burning it when the prices are low). Is that because it's written by a man, or because fiber arts aren't part of the tradition of his family or the region as a whole?

I also read two books not from the stack this month:

Howard's End by EM Forster. Not sure why I never read this book before, when I'm a fan of Passage to India and A Room with a View, but it took a PBS dramatization of it to get me going. After the first episode, I picked it up at the library and read it all before episode 2 (luckily there was a three-day-weekend in there). And I loved it. It's full of astute observations about human nature and the class system, the characters are charming, and every twist of the plot was a surprise. I also added a new word to my vocabulary: ramshackly, which pretty much describes my whole life.

Outer Order, Inner Calm by Gretchen Rubin. I have a love-hate relationship with Gretchen Rubin books, mainly owing to a blind spot that I think a lot of "self-improvement" authors have, which is that not everyone's life lends itself as well to happiness or time management or self-care as those of people who are literally getting paid to make themselves happy, manage their time, or take care of themselves by writing books on these topics. However, I responded to an uncontrollable urge to buy this book, right around the time I was clearing out the jar room. There's nothing in it that I didn't already know, but it was still helpful to read it and focus my thoughts on decluttering. I like her three-tiered list of questions to go through when deciding to get rid of something: Do I use it? Do I need it? Do I love it? I also like that she doesn't go for a one-size-fits-all approach. If you're comfortable with clutter, then don't declutter. We don't all have to live like monks.

What's in your book stack this month?

Friday, January 17, 2020

Finish It Friday ~ The Jar Room

For years (and years and years) I've put "organize basement" on my new year's resolution/goals list, and for years (and years and years) I've not gotten the basement organized. This year I got smart, I think, and broke "organize basement" into a few discreet tasks, the first of which I tackled last weekend: a small storage room which we originally conceived of as a root cellar, similar to what my grandparents called the "fruit room" in their basement (because they canned a lot of fruit; and they were a LOT more organized than I). After my last major reorganization of this room, I took to calling it the "jar room" because it seemed to primarily hold empty mason jars. In the nine-plus years since that effort, entropy had taken over:



So, inspired by two ulterior motives—I was trying to find something and I wanted to make room in the kitchen by moving some little-used items down here—I launched into a major clean-out last weekend. After a morning's labor, a trip to the dump, where I recycled about eight thousand yogurt containters plus various and sundry boxes, jars, lids, and tubs, and a trip to Goodwill where I unloaded several boxes of stuff I haven't looked at in years, this was the result:



Mason jars only take up two shelves now, leaving room for Z's glassware collection, overflow mugs, cookie tins, and even some blank space. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, I've cleared room for my new hobby: trawling thrift stores for Fiestaware. In truth, it's been a hobby for nearly thirty years, but, spurred on by a few successes, it's become a minor obsession with visits to the thrift store two to three times per week. I've even had a few friends alert me when they see items in certain stores and one spontaneous gift of a found bowl. Most of my finds have been dinner plates, Tom & Jerry mugs, and teacups, with or without saucers. I've done a little rearranging of the blue cabinet (which used to be quite bare!) to squeeze all the finds in among my existing collection.



Most fun of all, I added cup hooks to the underside of the second shelf in order to hang the dozen teacups that have come into my life in the last month (with room for three more). My best friend in high school lived in a house with a galley kitchen. Space was at a premium in that tiny space, and the teacups hung from hooks screwed to the bottom of the blue-painted cabinets. I've had a great fondness for teacup hooks (if not tiny kitchens) ever since, and I'd intended to put them either beneath or above the narrow shelf that runs beneath our cabinets, but it turned out that it made more sense for the cups to sit on the shelf. Now I finally have cup hooks of my own.



People keep asking me what I'm going to do with all these tea cups (apparently looking at and loving them isn't enough), so I've started a tea ritual. On weekend (and snow day) afternoons, I make myself a pot and have a jolly good time sipping from one of my new cups.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Finish It Friday ~ 2019 in Knits

I started the 2019 knitting year by repairing my knitting project of 2017, a lace-weight cashmere hat, which sat for all of 2018 waiting to be fixed. I also used this as an opportunity to wax philosophical about knitting as a metaphor for writing.


I quickly moved on to another hat, made from some two-color yarn I picked up at a fair the previous summer, and which knit up faster and more fun than the cashmere hat (and which I have worn exponentially more times).

After that, I started on one of my most ambitious projects to date--a mitered squares poncho, which I finished up just in time for summer to begin and the weather to be too warm for wool (but it's gotten a fair amount of use this fall).

Then I moved on to some color work, which I forgot I loved (I mean, it truly is thrilling) and made a jeweled scarabs cowl from some truly luxurious silk-alpaca-wool yarn.

Not-quite-finally, I made myself a new Noro Spiral One-Skein Hat to replace my favorite hat, which disappeared sometime between hat seasons.

Notice a theme with all these knits? All for me. Yes, it's been a bit of a selfish knitting year for me (okay, several years). But who better to enjoy and appreciate all that hard work than the person who actually did all the hard work?

But, just so you don't think I'm totally selfish, I'll let you in on a secret--there's a project on my needles now for someone else. It was meant to be a Christmas present, but that didn't quite happen, what with all the distractions the month of December offered (and that hat I *had* to knit for myself in the midst of it all). But it's a good 5/8ths, maybe 2/3 done. And it is even more ambitious than the shawl--there's color work involved, there's mixing of two patterns, there will be steeking (gah!). You'll be (among) the first to know when it's done. In the meantime, you can visit my Ravelry page for deets on these and other projects. Happy knitting in 2020!
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