Hard to believe it’s been almost 10 years since I wrote this post

November 27, 2014 @ 1:42 pm | Filed under: Family

She finished the last round of high-dose chemo on Thanksgiving Day of 1997. We ate Boston Market turkey and stuffing in the hospital playroom while her meds finished running. There were two more years of low-dose chemo to go, but we expected to spend most of that period as out-patients. When we got home that night—home, where we hadn’t spent more than ten days in a row since March—it was late, a cold, clear night, with as many stars as a New York City sky can muster. I remember thinking I couldn’t imagine ever being more thankful for anything than I was to be carrying that little girl up the stairs to our apartment that night.

I was wrong.

Singing my song

November 27, 2014 @ 10:29 am | Filed under: Art

The habit of making art is wonderful. Sharing it is sublime.”

Danny Gregory, artist, author of The Creative License and other wonderful books on illustrated sketchbook-keeping

Oh, is that all?

November 26, 2014 @ 8:35 am | Filed under: These People Crack Me Up

Wonderboy, perusing the family calendar as he is wont to do, observes: “We don’t have much going on in December. Just Ron and Larry’s visit, and Grandma and Grandpa’s visit, and Jane coming home from college, and my birthday and Dad’s birthday and your birthday, and the piano recital, and Christmas.”

Garden notes, Thanksgiving week 2014

November 25, 2014 @ 3:23 pm | Filed under: Gardening

photo (48)

Faded: the sunflowers. They’re drooping in sad-Charlie-Brown fashion all along the side wall. They amuse me.

In bloom: yellow daisies, masses of them. Pink geraniums, always. Orange zinnias, still going strong. Sweet alyssum and snapdragons, recently added. (The summer alyssum crop, grown from seed, carpeted a corner of the yard all summer, then went brown and weedy. We missed them and put in a few nursery plants to tide us over until the next batch of seeds comes up.) Bougainvillea, small but promising. Lavender, keeping the bees busy. Basil, because I forgot to pinch it off.

In fruit: Tomatoes! Hurrah! I moved them to the front yard this year and voila, they are producing abundantly.

But overshadowing all of these by a mile: the renegade pumpkins. Last year (Halloween 2013) we had one jack-o-lantern and two smaller uncarved pumpkins. These got left alone when we tossed the melting jack-o-lantern. (That’s what carved pumpkins do in Southern California. They dissolve on the stoop.)

The two little pumpkins became a quiet science experiment during the course of the year. One was partly under a bush and retained its integrity for months. The other, in full sun, decomposed rapidly. All of us enjoyed comparing their progress during our comings and goings from driveway to front door.

By July, the shaded pumpkin had joined its mate in the circle of life: its skin crisped and cracked like old, brittle paper. Seeds spilled out everywhere. Did I pay them any mind? I did not.

In August, we noticed sprouts. Not only at the site of the departed pumpkins, but also along the side wall near the sidewalk.

photo (49)

By October, we had vines. Big sprawling vines with huge leaves, trailing all across the lawn and beyond. We had to keep kicking them off the sidewalk back onto the grass lest they trip up passersby.

And now, two days before the final pumpkin holiday of the year, we have (at last count) a crop of six young pumpkins of modest size in various shades of green and yellow. Not orange. No, not quite orange yet.

pumpkin

I figure they’ll be ripe in time for Christmas.

Learning in Public

November 24, 2014 @ 8:56 pm | Filed under: Art

pens

Something I think is wonderful about social media is the way so many creative people share their efforts and progress in various arts. I don’t just mean professional artists sharing their finished work, though of course that too is a great delight—this abundance of gorgeous, polished photography and painting and stories and poems and quilts and handwovens and other creations we find displayed all over the internet. Just Google artist sketchbook blog and you could be absorbed for weeks upon weeks.

But even more so, I appreciate the working-it-out pieces, the I’m-undertaking-something-new-and-here’s-how-it’s-going-so-far posts. Years ago, a bunch of us were doing this with quilting—posting pictures of our blocks, sometimes the first ones we’d ever made, crooked seams and all. You see it often with knitting and sewing and all kinds of handcrafts. Look what I made! I know it isn’t perfect, but… Sometimes shy, sometimes fearless, always inspiring, this sharing of incremental progress.

Even people who are accomplished in one aspect of an art sometimes do what I’ve come to think of as “learning in public” when they undertake another aspect of it—a kind of unabashedness I thoroughly respect, since it means admitting to gaps in skills or knowledge, but speaks to a desire to always be learning, always be stretching one’s abilities. I think about the very wise advice of that great sage, Ms. Frizzle: “Take chances! Make mistakes!” Our mistakes are what spark growth.

Certainly you may challenge yourself in private, and do plenty of chance-taking and mistake-making without an audience. Most people do, I think. Or they do it in the context of a relatively intimate setting: a knitting club, an improv class, a private piano lesson. I understand that, I respect that desire for privacy. But it makes me all the more grateful to see someone willing to fumble along in public, so to speak, encouraging the rest of us by posting rookie work online. Then, too, you create an archive of progress, not just for yourself but for future students of the art.

Lisa Congdon, a very accomplished artist, decided to improve her lettering skills by posting a handlettered image on her blog every day for a year. Every day of 2012, she shared her work. About a hundred days into the project, she wrote:

Hand lettering everyday is a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. Some days it feels really fun. Some days it feels like a chore (and I have to redo something 5 times to get it as right as I can). I do like the discipline of the process. When I did my first daily project in 2010, I felt the same way. The daily encouragement from people who read my blog and follow me on twitter also helps tremendously!

Artist Jennifer Orkin Lewis (I’ve posted about her before) does a daily 30-minute painting in her sketchbook and posts each page on Instagram. They are a feast for the eyes, let me tell you. In an interview with Lisa Congdon, Jennifer said, “I decided to post them all on Instagram to hold myself accountable to painting everyday.” I think there’s a lot to be said for using a blog or other public medium to help yourself stick to a goal—spurred on both by the sense of accountability Jennifer describes, and the encouragement and support Lisa speaks of.

***

I wrote the above more than a week ago and left it sitting in drafts because—despite everything I said up there—I personally feel really shy about sharing my rookie drawing and painting efforts. (Confession: the one time I went to a karaoke party, I was dying to get up and sing—and would have died before I’d have volunteered.)

This morning Tammy Garcia posted the following at Daisy Yellow:

When I started drawing I didn’t know that I would or could get better. I thought that people were either born with innate drawing talent or they were not. Perhaps they skipped the queue. But the truth for me has been that my coordination and control have improved over the years. If you are having trouble getting the pen to do what you want it to do. Maybe you just need to draw more lines.

When I started drawing in about 2008, I was an accountant – a financial analyst – with no particular drawing skill set. I started drawing doodly lines simply to pass the time while my kids were doing stuff. I drew in moleskine journals. On airplanes, at swimming lessons, while the kids splashed in the tub, at Starbucks and book stores.

The boxes looked like wonky kites. Parallel lines intersected instead. Circles looked like cracked eggs.

But looking back, I can see that every time I challenged myself to try something new {what about a mandala without any curved lines? what about ivy leaves that cover each page? what about a mandala where the lines focus on negative space? what about a new alphabet?} I made a step forward. In understanding, in pen control, in art. With trial & error & practice, I now know how hard to press, how to move my arm, my hand, to get a reasonable facsimile of a straight line. I can draw curves. I still can’t draw great faces, but I believe that one day I will.

(Read the rest—there’s a lot more including a list of ways to improve your line work.)

Tammy teaches online art classes and sends out regular art-journaling prompts that inspire masses of people. What a delight to see her discussing her (relatively recent) learning curve. I was nodding excitedly as I read along, because I’ve been drawing lines almost obsessively ever since taking Lisa Congdon’s Creativebug course in early October—pages and pages of scallops or triangles or short parallel lines in interlocking patterns. It’s meditative and relaxing, a good busying-of-the-hands for me when I want to think for a bit. But mostly I’ve been doing it simply for the pure pleasure of feeling the line. Of making my pen do what I want it to do. Of figuring out, bit by bit, how to do it better.

varsity

Now Rilla and I are watching all these Koosje Koene drawing videos and I’m trying to push a little farther. This month my sketchbook is full of staplers and tape dispensers and colored pencils—whatever’s lying around on my desk when I sit down to draw. I’m working on watercolor, too. SO MUCH TO LEARN. Scott gets cross with me when I start pointing out all the flaws in my work—he thinks I’m way too hard on myself, being a novice and all—but I remind him that as professional writers, our entire day is laced with editing and revising—the constant practice of seeking out places in our writing that could be made better, stronger, zingier, lovelier, fresher, truer, something-er. I don’t feel pained about cataloguing the ways a drawing isn’t there yet. I enjoy it, actually. Especially since reading that Ira Glass quote and recognizing that it’s my “killer taste” that allows me to see the weaknesses in my own work.

mwileytomatoes

Because at the same time that I’m self-critiquing, I’m also feeling a tremendous sense of pleasure in having a Finished Thing I Made. This was a bit of a revelation I had the other day after I painted these tomatoes from my garden. It’s my first real attempt at a proper watercolor. And even as I was scrutinizing its shortcomings, I felt giddy: there it is. This thing I made. In one sitting! I’ve been working on my current novel for four years. Even books I’ve written quickly took months—and then another year or more to reach publication day.

I can grow a tomato in my sketchbook in an hour. To me it feels like magic.

I don’t think I’m brave enough to commit to posting a daily drawing—much as I would like the accountability and encouragement! But maybe I’ll try to keep learning in public once in a while. Something I want my kids to know is that you have to be not-great at something on your way to getting better at it.

Sing, cuckoo, sing

November 21, 2014 @ 7:23 am | Filed under: Poetry

640px-Red_deer_stag_2009_denmark
Pardon me!
Image source: Bill Ebbesen | Wikimedia Commons

Today is the last meeting of this year’s Poetry Club. The fall session was short, just six weeks (minus one when we all suddenly realized Halloween fell on a Friday). We’ve expanded to three age groups now: littles, middles, and bigs. In the older group, we’ve been looking at some poetic forms and doing close readings. Today we’re going off on a different tack and hunting up poems about food. I challenged the kids to write their own poems about food or Thanksgiving, and that’ll be the best part, seeing what they’ve come up with. :)

Last week in my littles group, the funniest thing happened. We were looking at animal poems, and I had put out a stack of children’s poetry books for the kids to rummage through. They would find a poem and either read it aloud or have me read it. Usually they wanted me to do the reading. We ended with the selection of one small girl from a lovely collection of nature poems. She had picked a spread that featured the medieval song “Sumer Is Icumen In” with a contemporary translation on the recto. “You read it,” she urged, sliding the book across the floor toward me. I dove in and was well underway when I remembered that one line in the middle—the one that brought my college Medieval Lit class to fits of giggles. The modern translation hewed pretty close to the original.

“Bullock starteth, buck farteth.”

This is a group of six-to-eight-year-olds. You can imagine the hilarity. That’s one poem they’ll never forget. :)

I really think what I love most about that poem, more even than its exuberance and exultation over the return of lovely weather, is its window on human nature. Seven hundred years later: we still enjoy a good fart joke.

States I’ve Visited

November 19, 2014 @ 8:48 am | Filed under: Travel

This make-your-own map is going around Facebook and I couldn’t resist.


Create Your Own Visited States Map

(Cut off on the left: everything’s pink except Maine and Rhode Island.)

I’m a little tortured by that Arkansas gap! On our cross-country trip four (!!) years ago, we just barely missed that state; our route eastward took us through Tulsa and then northeast to Mansfield, MO, to visit Rocky Ridge Farm (naturally). We almost nicked the top corner of Arkansas then, but nope. And on the way back, we took the southern route through AL, LA, TX and so on.

I’ve been back and forth past RI several times too, en route from NYC to Massachusetts. But somehow we never drove through it.

Funny that two more of my missing states (so far I’ve been to 40, which ain’t bad) are major Little House milestones! One of these days I’ll get to DeSmet, SD, and Pepin, WI, for sure.

Beyond the borders of the U.S., I’ve been to four countries: Canada (for a wedding in Toronto, but I really need to hie myself to PEI one of these years, too); Germany; France; and Spain. Germany & France were one summer during high school, when I got to stay with a German family for a couple of months. They took me all over the country, with a week in Montélimar, France (nougat capital of the world) to boot. And Spain was the awesome week in Barcelona with Scott in 2008. A life-changer in some ways, that one.

But then I suppose all travel is life-changing!

Art Resource: Koosje Koene’s Draw Tip Tuesday

November 16, 2014 @ 9:10 am | Filed under: Art, Fun Learning Stuff

drawtiptuesday
(Added the shadow color before the cookie was dry, and the yellow bled. Whoops!)

Saturday night, as I’ve mentioned, is one of the best parts of my week. My boys go to bed early these days—7:30, ever since the time change. (Ahhh…) Rose and Beanie watched S.H.I.E.L.D. with Scott. And Rilla and I cozy up on my bed to listening to our current audiobook—right now we’re midway through Matilda, having had such a delightful time with The BFG—and our sketchbooks.

Sometimes we start off with a few short art videos on YouTube for warmups. Lately we’ve had some of our most fun bouts of clip-watching yet, because we have discovered Koosje Koene’s Draw Tip Tuesday. Koosje is a Dutch artist who teaches online art classes at Sketchbook Skool and via her own site. Her clips are clear, fun, and super helpful. Rilla and I are having the best time making our way through all of them. I’m learning a lot!

I’ll share only a few here. It was hard to choose which ones! You can click through to see the whole series. We have subscribed to Koosje’s Youtube channel so we won’t miss anything.

We had fun with this tangerine:

(direct link)

And this cookie quartet:

(direct link)

Of course we couldn’t resist the one about popsicles:

(direct link)

This tip for how to draw both edges of a banner at once was new to me and is very cool:


(direct link)

Enjoy!

I prefer to think of it as late, LATE October

November 13, 2014 @ 4:01 pm | Filed under: Assorted and Sundry

zinnia

I’ve been unusually (for me) quiet here lately. Partly it’s due to some unexpected work keeping me out of the house a lot more than usual. But also I’ve just been taking some breathing-in time. Reading, thinking, sketching, a bit (a very little bit) of painting. Reading, hoo boy, my Cybils pile means a whole lot of breathing in…I have so many books I want to tell you about! I’m hoping next week sees a return to a more usual blogging schedule for me.

But (gasp) here it is practically mid-November already, and the kids are practicing for the Christmas recital, and I’ve booked Jane’s train tickets for Thanksgiving (hoorah!), and my editor plans to send notes on my manuscript before the holiday, and—well, I guess it’s a good thing I took a little time to be pensive because there will be precious little time for that during the next two months, eh?

Pumpkins have overrun our front yard. Last year’s decorative pumpkins decomposed quietly under a bush all year; at first we meant to throw them out but then it became so interesting to watch how much more quickly the one mostly in the sun deteriorated than the one completely in the shade. Eventually the heat desiccated them both and the brittle, papery sides split open and exposed the seeds to that one little bit of rain we had. Voila, sprouts galore. Now little green globes that promise to be autumnally orange right around, oh, I’d say Christmas. Right on track for the topsy-turvy seasons of this crazy place.

Glorious right now: my zinnias, which I don’t remember planting. They came up intermingled with the sunflowers, so perhaps someone spilled a seed packet back in June. I did have a lot of helpers that day. Garden surprises are the very nicest kind.

(One of the only kind of surprises I like, come to think of it.)

A neat thing from yesterday: the Stone Writing Center at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, named me their “Writer Crush” for the day. :)

Even cooler: this comment from Dori White’s niece on my Sarah and Katie post!

Making my life easier: Google Inbox. Anybody else using it?

Yikes, I’m out the door again in 15 minutes. Your turn. I’m way behind on blog-reading (blame Cybils) and I miss you guys! What’s new?