Archive for the ‘Assorted and Sundry’ Category
I gained a whole week today. It feels luxurious: what to do with this newfound space of time? It’s like finding a $20 bill in the pocket of your winter coat. Of course, just as with found money, immediately upon the heels of the jubilant discovery rush the responsible thoughts: you could put the money toward bills, or into a child’s college fund. I should (must) work toward some impending deadlines; I should tackle the Extreme Purging project I keep saying I’m going to undertake.
After all, it’s not like I really gained a week. It was here on the calendar all along; it was factored into commitments I have made. I didn’t lose it for long, only misplaced it for a day or two. The culprit was Comic-Con brain, I’m sure. SDCC came earlier in July than it usually does. Somehow, after I emerged from the exhausted post-con daze, I jumped ahead a week mentally. Rose is in Colorado visiting my parents. I knew she was coming home the 24th, but until this morning, I thought that was today. We have family coming to visit at the end of the month. Until this morning, I thought next week was the end of the month. The time in between is filled up with assignments: in a way, I’ve only located the lost $20 I had already spent.
Still, I feel dazzled and charmed: some tasks I’d thought would be frantic may now unfold at a reasonable pace. And how much more might I read, write, draw this month than I had been supposing?
My friend Edith Fine (a wonderful writer) told me once that when she used to teach school, she would always begin a new month by having the kids take note of what day of the week the sevens fell on. Since, you know, the multiples of seven are going to be on the same day each week. I caught the habit from her—it’s quite useful! I think July is the first month I’ve forgotten to notice, ever since Edith shared the trick with me. The sevens fall on Tuesdays, this month. In August, they’re the Fridays.
Next Tuesday is the 21st, not the 28th, in case you were wondering.
There’s something I need to get a picture of—the story begs a visual—but the shirt in question has already gone into the laundry. I’ll share a photo later. The other day, I remarked on Twitter that Rilla has decided to be a fashion designer when she grows up—a designer, that is, of clothing with lots of pockets. A perpetual grumble around here is the dearth of girls’ clothes with useful pockets. This, Rilla has announced, is a wrong that must be righted. I applaud her vision.
Yesterday I had a doctor’s appointment. (Which I knew was on the 16th. HOW did I think today was the 24th??) When I returned home, Huck greeted me at the door, beaming proudly, urging me to take notice of his new pocket. Picture a worn gray t-shirt. Way up high near the shoulder, a teeny tiny pocket of some scrap fabric rummaged out of a storage bin, attached with embroidery floss in large, determined stitches. There’s just about room to keep a quarter in it. It is the dearest thing I have ever seen. No moss grows on Miss Rilla, for sure. When she announces a business plan, she means BUSINESS. I’m sure she knows what day it is.
On my mind constantly of late: notebooks, sketchbooks, art journals, and combinations thereof. Conversations are swirling in several of my circles—
• at Sketchbook Skool there is always lots of chatter about what people prefer to draw on and with;
• over at Wisteria & Sunshine, Lesley has been revisiting the topic of daybooks (especially handmade ones);
• Kortney is posting wonderfully enticing things about right-brain planning;
• Amy Ludwig Vanderwater is hosting a summer “Sharing Our Notebooks” project that I plan to participate in, soon as I get a chance…
Once a week I meet a small group of teenaged girls (one of them my Beanie) at a coffee shop to discuss literature while their younger siblings take piano lessons in the studio upstairs. This is hands-down one of the best hours of my week: meaty stories; lively analysis; word-collection; chitchat. A couple of weeks ago we ran off on a tangent of comparing one another’s notebooks. The conversation coincided with a similar thread at Wisteria & Sunshine, so I was primed. I’ve been using graph-style spiral-bound steno pads for the past year or so, with a modified bullet-journal method. (Chiefly the use of an index page at the front of each notebook—that was a game-changer for me.) But I was hankering after something less utilitarian-looking, and one of my lit girls had a new kraft-brown Moleskine that set me swooning. Back at home, I looked it up and it was exactly what I wanted. Slim paperback in the size I favor (Moleskine calls it “large” but it’s only 5×8), and—this was crucial—they offer a “squared” (graph-style) version.
I’ve used Moleskines before but mostly the Volant model with the bright solid-colored covers. So pretty on my shelf but you can’t really fold them back on themselves, and I don’t like writing on a double-page spread. That’s why I’ve mostly sighed and made do with spirals. But Moleskine’s Cahier model with a heavy paper cover is flexible enough for me to fold back. And I love the pocket in the back, such a nice touch.
Kraft paper is one of my favorite surfaces for decorating, so of course the cover cried out for some decoration. I started on the back in case I messed up. Still haven’t decided what I want to do on the front.
gridded steno notebook, kraft brown Moleskine Cahier journal, Canson Mixed Media Sketchbook
I love a skinny notebook not only because it fits easily in my bag, but because it fills up faster. I am mad for the fresh start. I had a few pages left in my May steno book but I craved a clean slate for June, so I’ve been using up the steno pages with hand-lettering practice.
I use my daily notebook for list-making, idea-sorting, story-outlining, note-taking…basically anything that involves words. Words + doodles, really: my “work” pages are always margined with crosshatching and basketweave and spirals and mushrooms…whatever. I used to try to keep things compartmentalized: one notebook for current book-in-progress; one for medical & insurance notes (I always seem to have volumes of these); one for quotes/commonplace book entries; one for to-do lists…but they always wound up melded together, and then I’d have three or four mishmash notebooks going at once, which was ridiculous. So I gave up and embraced my brain’s clear need to dump itself onto a page, melting-pot style, and now I let all those channels of thought intermingle. (Messily, much like the mingling of metaphors in that sentence.)
And these days my word-notebooks are overrun with drawings, too. I have a separate sketchbook—two, actually; a smaller (5×8) hardcover Moleskine that fits in my bag, and a larger (7×10) Canson mixed-media sketchbook that is my place to experiment with drawing techniques and paint. That’s where I do my Sketchbook Skool assignments—it’s my it’s okay to screw up place. Consequently, it sees way more action than the Moleskine sketchbook, which I pretty much only use when I’m 1) away from home and 2) feeling unobtrusive enough to draw in public. I don’t mind kids looking over my shoulder but I’m way too shy about my work to want adults eyeballing it in progress.
Interestingly, the Canson Mixed Media Sketchbook is the one that got a thumbs-down from Roz Stendahl (THE source of in-the-field info on all things art supply), and when I read her review I had a major light-bulb moment: Ohhhh, so you mean the paper isn’t supposed to buckle when I paint? This Canson (I’m in my second one now) is the only sketchbook I’ve ever painted in, so I thought that’s just how it went, unless you bought one with watercolor paper. Roz’s report clued me in to the possibility that the book I picked (entirely because it was on sale at Michael’s) may not perform as satisfactorily as other brands. I’m nearing the end of this one (you guys!!! I’ve filled two whole sketchbooks with drawings!!) and may take Roz’s recommendation and try a Strathmore Journal Series’ Mixed Media book next time. Does Michael’s sell them, I wonder? Got another coupon burning a hole…
bad phone photo; can’t be bothered to scan
Okay, so I was saying that in theory I have the sketchbook(s) for, well, sketching, and the notebook for all the word things, but the truth is that ever since I started working on my drawing skills last fall, I’ve got rough sketches running wild all over my word-notebooks. Again, this is something I’ve just decided to be at peace with. So much of my work involves a rigorous process of polishing and structure, and I think perhaps my mind really needs a place to be messy and unfiltered, a place to set itself down in raw form. It’s like a test kitchen for my thoughts, I guess. This is where the index is so invaluable: it allows me to quickly locate the notes from that Very Important Phone Call without having to hunt through pages of nonsense. I try to update the index at least once a week—just a mild leaf-through to note down the page numbers on which I have recorded important information. I number the pages of my notebooks in the bottom right corner, about ten pages at a time. I like to write my to-do lists on a Post-It that can travel from page to page. As each task is crossed off, I jot it down in the notebook for a record of what I’ve done.
Since the ugly steno books all look the same on the shelf, I would run a highlighter down the sides of the pages, a different color for each new book. But so far the kraft Moleskine is serving beautifully, and I doubt I’ll go back to the steno grids. I might use a bit of Washi tape on the spine to differentiate the Moleskines on the shelf, once they’re filled.
Back to my coffee-shop girls. We had so much fun that day, comparing notebook preferences, that we decided to all bring our sketchbooks the following week. Which was truly delightful—what a treasure, this look at the outpouring of creativity from these girls. Beautiful design work (I mean really breathtaking, some of it), whimsical drawings (much more skilled than mine), and illustrated quotes, and just so much wonder, so much evidence of curious minds sifting the world. I felt really honored to have this work shared with me. We are nearing the end of the topics we charted for our class, but the girls begged me to keep going through the summer. So we’re thinking of spending a few weeks on sketching and notebooking. I have all sorts of ideas for things we can do together—heavily Lynda Barry-influenced, naturally, because who better to guide you through an exploration of all the things a sheet of paper can become?
Oh, May. You beautiful, terrible month. I can’t say I’m sorry to see the back of you. Massive workload, plumbing woes, multiple trips to the children’s hospital (which sounds more alarming than it ought to—here in San Diego they send your kids to Children’s for every little thing; for example: a chest x-ray when your child has pneumonia even though there is an x-ray lab RIGHT NEXT DOOR to the pediatrician’s office, AHEM, and a four-hour wait and a three-second x-ray later the radiologist will say, all right, I’ve just sent these to your doctor, zap)…but it’s June now, let’s put all that behind us.
I suppose, though, that May did have its moments. Scott surprised me with a trip to a big art supply story downtown, a wonderland full of pens singing at me. I came home with a metal brush pen, aka my new best friend, it feels amazing when you pull it across the page; and a tube of raw umber paint because I have been unsuccessful in mixing a shade the color of chocolate with my basic color palette. Rilla’s birthday breakfast is still waiting in my sketchbook to be painted. Since April, sheesh.
In May my boys’ writing class wrapped up—this was a group of nine homeschooled boys ages 10-14 whose mothers approached me about putting together an eight-week writing course. We had us some fun, let me tell you. A highlight of my spring was watching our freewrites transform from “TEN WHOLE MINUTES??!!?” to “Oh wait can I please have a bit more time?”
Huck discovered the delights of the Oz books—specifically the Eric Shanower/Skottie Young graphic novel adaptations that Rilla loves so much. He spends a lot of time like this:
blurry photo but it’s all I got
He’s also enjoying the Magic Tree House books, like so many of his siblings before him. Scott read him the first one to get him started. The corresponding nonfiction volumes are particular favorites, and I am once again being treated to daily factoids about sharks and pirates. Never gets old.
1. Piano recital: accomplished. And swimmingly, I might add. Particularly sweet this year because the music school divided the recital students into smaller groups (fewer classes lumped together into each recital), which meant our girls’ three classes were part of a five-class recital consisting mostly of good friends, families in our homeschooling circle. Best part: the way Huck (not yet a student) gasped in delighted recognition at the songs played by the beginner class (a level below Rilla’s group), because he recognized all the songs from last year when Rilla was learning them. Next year it will be his turn to begin! Hard to believe.
2. The drought, oh the drought, it has hit my garden hard. I’ve planted a lot of drought-tolerant natives over the years, so things are limping along, but still, it’s pretty grim out there. As it must be: flower-gardening will have to be one of the indulgences we let go in the new normal that is our hot-and-getting-hotter world. At least here in this dry-and-getting-drier state. Some of my work this year has involved a lot (a LOT) of research into California’s drying aquifers and the truly shocking lack of Sierra snowmelt and its impacts, and the sobering percentage of reduction of water deliveries to certain small towns from the State Water Project, and, well, you can’t face those facts and go on lavishing water on delphiniums. I’m becoming something of a vicarious gardener once again—the way I was in grad school when I confessed to the poet Robert Pinsky, whom I was tasked with picking up at the airport for a reading, that my habit while driving around town was to re-imagine the landscaping of all the yards I passed. Only now I’m mentally tearing up all the thirsty lawns around me in this desert. But I may have to find room for an annual trip to Portland in the spring, to soak myself for a few days in the glories of lush blossom and unfurling ferns. For now I must apply the tactic I used with much success back in those garden-deprived grad-school days: houseplants require very little water. Rilla and I went to work this week, taking cuttings and clippings to bring a bit of the bright outside indoors. And (influenced by Anne Shirley, of course) I’ve always kept windowsill geraniums with their cheery blooms perched on my kitchen sink—you can never go wrong with good old pelargonium. Thus this item belongs on a happy list even though its genesis is a bleak climate situation.
3. Kate Winslet does a smashing job with the voices in the Matilda audiobook. Rilla and I have one chapter left. We may not be able to wait for our Saturday-night ritual (audiobook + sketchbook time while the older girls watch S.H.I.E.L.D. with Scott) to finish. Which means I’d better come up with our next listen before Saturday…
4. Broadchurch Season 2. Wow.
5. Last night we watched a movie called Begin Again. Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, and yet I had somehow failed to hear about it until Scott queued it up. (He has unerring instincts for films that will delight me.) I loved it. A lovely, thoughtful piece by the writer/director of Once. I’ll watch it again.
What I’m reading this week
To the kids: House at Pooh Corner (still)
Myself: Connie Willis’s Blackout (Determined to finish this time! The other times I’ve begun and set it aside, it wasn’t because I wasn’t interested. Other things just kept crowding in. We’ll see if this time around is different.)
Photo of the week
My friend Edith Hope Fine shared this photo, taken at last weekend’s Greater San Diego Reading Association awards breakfast, on Facebook, and our pal Salina Yoon dressed it up with everyone’s book covers. What a fantastic community of writers and illustrators we have here in San Diego! (Thanks, Edith, Salina, and—wait, who took the photo? I can’t remember!)
April 20, 2015 @ 8:30 pm | Filed under: Assorted and Sundry
ARGH, when did I go from being a daily blogger to a weekly one? When I took on so much extra work, I suppose. It’s just so. very. busy. right now. But busy is good—busy is kids with full lives and writers with full workloads.
Busy is I got my manuscript back from my editor, so I’m in revision territory now, and that’s absorbing.
Busy is Journey North Mystery Class! Which we finished today with our usual awesome party full of lively presentations and unusual food. Delicious in every way.
Busy is the three (!) homeschooling classes I’m teaching! Two literature and one writing class—I suppose if you count Journey North, which I lead (but my friend Erica hosts at her house, and in my opinion that’s the hardest part), that makes four classes. Except (as I mentioned) JN is done now, so only three. We’re having a lot of fun. I teach because I love. The reading, the discussion, the kids—oh, most of all, these energetic, deep-thinking kids.
Busy is my roster of Other Jobs—the grantwriting gig, the website maintenance gig, the editorial gig. You know, the day jobs that make the writing life possible.
Busy is Sketchbook Skool and my commitment to daily drawing. (The rhino up there was for an assignment—splatter some ink on the page and turn it into a drawing. He’s scribbly on purpose. Also because I’ve never drawn a rhino before and I was winging it.)
Busy is when the neighbor kids are on spring break and therefore practically living at my house during daylight hours. We have become That House!
Busy is evening IM chats with Jane and full days with the rest of the gang. And morning walks with Scott, because no matter how busy All the Busy is, it’s never too busy for that.
Small child straddling two barstools, running toy cars up and down the high counter. Another child sprawled on floor, drawing a picture. A third hovering by the cedar chest at the far end of the sofa, at loose ends. A leggy teenager spidering sideways in the comfy armchair. A perfectly typical scene of mild morning chaos.
I curl up in my rocking chair with House at Pooh Corner. The younger set hasn’t heard it yet, in that way that shocks me. They are six, almost nine, and eleven, for Pete’s sake! How could such a thing have happened? Answer: SO. MANY. BOOKS. With no fanfare, I open it and start reading.
The child on the floor flashes a starry grin and scoots closer, her pencils rolling under my feet. The child at loose ends looks up, ears perked. The small one zooming his cars around seems not to notice, but all the engines appear to have undergone sudden tuneups: their roars diminish to silky purrs.
It takes me a minute to find Pooh’s voice. It’s been a few years, after all. Piglet is easy and Eeyore—this revelation would no doubt astonish him—is a delight. It’s snowing, tiddley pom, but at least there hasn’t been an earthquake.
The cars have abandoned the counter and are crossing a bridge of air toward the Hundred Acre Wood. The teenager’s limbs have been transferred to the sofa. The no-longer-hovering child has claimed ownership of the big brown armchair. Nobody knows, tiddley pom, how cold my toes are growing. The postman rattles the lid of the mailbox, delivering the day’s contingent of recyclables. Pooh’s voice has settled down, and the wind must have blown Eeyore’s house over the wood because there it is, just as good as ever, and better in places.
It’s a beautiful house, tiddley pom.
One of the earliest lessons of having a special-needs child was learning to recognize his progress not by comparing him to typically-developing children of the same age, but by comparing him to his own earlier self. I say ‘lesson’ and ‘learn’ but in truth this was something that happened naturally and almost instantaneously after his multiple diagnoses and the beginning of various therapies—physical, occupational, speech. As soon as I had an understanding of his developmental challenges, I was able to rejoice over each increment of progress, each small accomplishment along with the big ones. It was like my brain was wiped free of comparisons to other babies, including my first three, and all that existed was this baby, making these tremendous (even when tiny) strides.
That mental shift keeps popping into my mind lately as I keep working (and working and working) on drawing. Only here, it isn’t natural and instantaneous. Here, I have to keep relearning the lesson; some days I practically have to shout it at myself. The trouble, of course, is that I have so many friends who are spectacularly good artists. Years of training, years of dedication and work. Hundreds or thousands of pages of finished art under their belts. If I compare my drawings—or my slow progress—to them, I feel bleak. I don’t have it, that thing they have. Vision, natural talent, hand-eye coordination, vast knowledge of technique—you name it, I don’t have it. All I have is…earnestness. A belief that everyone can learn to draw, and that includes me. And this long-simmering desire to learn, kindled last fall into a full-boil determination.
So I keep reminding myself, baby artist, to compare myself to the even babier artist I was a few months ago. I remember when my son was finally able to climb up stairs on his own. He was well past a year old. He had motor planning issues, and we spent hours and hours over a period of several months, moving his limbs for him up stair by stair by stair. Hand, knee, hand, knee. Or was it hand, hand, knee, knee, I don’t remember now. Either way, it took so much practice. Until one day his brain figured it out. The pattern was learned. The pathways were formed. Soon after that we could hardly remember what it was like before he learned to climb stairs. We had to scramble to help him learn how to climb down.
Stair by stair, I’m making progress. For every ten drawings I hate, I make one that I like. But I like looking at the bad ones, too, because I know that the fact that I can see what’s wrong with them is another sign of my progress. My eye is improving along with my hand. (“Your taste is killer. Your taste is why your work disappoints you.”)
Today I looked at something I’d done, a couple of quick, surreptitious gesture sketches of some women in a meeting, and realized I’d attempted people—in complex postures, no less—without even thinking about it. Six months ago, I wouldn’t have done that. It’s nice to know I’ve made it up a stair or two.
Louisa by Isabelle, grade 5
• Melted at the artwork and poems created by the three classes of fifth- and sixth-graders who welcomed me to the Greater San Diego Reading Association’s annual Authors Fair.
• Read aloud the last chapter of The Prairie Thief to a roomful of eager fifth-graders. Such a delight. I so seldom get to read the end of the book to a school group—I don’t want to give anything away! Exceedingly fun to discover the teacher had been reading the book to the class and saved the finale for my visit.
• Had a marvelous time swapping book suggestions with the kids during the Q&A after my readings. Hot tip: they are loving The Unicorn Chronicles at the moment.
• Tried out a new voice for Fox in my Storytime at Carmel Valley Public Library on Saturday. Gotta keep it fresh, you know.
• Wrote my tail off all day yesterday.
• Rejoiced with the gang as our monarch butterfly emerged from its chrysalis this morning. We missed the big entrance but not by much. Later, when it was ready to fly, we took it out to the milkweed patch in the backyard, and it rested there long enough for Rilla and me to sketch it. I had just finished adding watercolor when it soared away to the cape honeysuckle, and from there out into the blue. Bon voyage, little dear.
Yes, aphids galore
Ours is in bloom this very day, as it happens
“Our Christmas cactus has predictably bloomed each December for three decades and some years when it has been colder for longer, as is the case this year, it often blooms more than once a year. Our Christmas cactus is alive and growing 365 days of the year, most of which it is rarely seen by me but only looked at.”
That’s Owen Swain in his post “Blooming Cactus / blooming an illustrated life / and, what I learned in Sketchbook Skool.”
In his drawing of the cactus, he includes a quote which sent me immediately dashing for my commonplace book (which is to say, this blog).
“While drawing grasses I learn nothing ‘about’ grass, but wake to the wonder of this grass and its growing, to the wonder that there is grass at all.”
That. Yes. Exactly. Or at least, I suppose I would say I learn something about grass when I’m drawing it, I learn something about everything I look at closely. But that kind of learning is implied in the quote. I get what he means by ‘about.’ And yes, the waking to the wonder of a thing by observing it quietly, moving your pen along its paths, or by writing a poem about it (“This grasshopper, I mean—/ the one who has flung herself out of the grass,/ the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—/ who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes…”)*; even, I daresay, by blogging about it—the combined act of observing, pondering, and then expressing, in word or line—these endeavors shift your relationship with the humble object; they awaken you to the wonder the thing actually is.
The very first revelation that struck me about drawing, way back in college during a too-brief foray into sketching, was the passage in the Betty Edwards book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain in which one of Betty’s students mentioned that after she began trying to draw faces, “every face I looked at seemed beautiful to me.” I have written before about the enormous impact that statement had on me, not just in relation to drawing but to an overall view of life.
The drawing lessons taught her to really look at people, and when she did, she saw beauty everywhere.
I know I’m going all over the place here, but in my mind these things are all connected: this way of really looking, really seeing, noticing what is interesting and important and even beautiful about things many people whisk by without noticing. And what I can do for my children is refuse to fill up their lives with things they must patiently endure until a better moment comes. I can savor the moments as they happen, and give them the time and space to find what’s interesting and beautiful in every face the world shows them.
As I was writing that last sentence, Beanie appeared in front of me with a big smile and a present: a bracelet made of safety pins linked together, each pin shining with green and blue beads. “It’s for you, Mommy,” she breathed, so proud and excited. “Jane showed me how.” How patiently (the good kind of patience) she must have worked to slide all those beads in place.
I never noticed before what a work of art a safety pin is!
I’ve written so many times on this blog about how my approach to education is to keep the focus on the process, not the product. The lesson is renewed for me every time I take pencil in hand and try to capture the lines of a thing on my page. In the end, it doesn’t matter at all how my drawing ‘turns out.’ The magic is in the doing.
*From “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver