The moody month of May

May 3, 2022 @ 8:44 am | Filed under: ,

photo of a gray house with a bright red garage door, and blossoming trees under a gray sky

Good grief, it’s been two months since my last post. I did start several (in the seventeen-plus years I’ve been blogging here, I’ve amassed a truly ridiculous number of unpublished drafts. Over seven hundred of them. I mean.) but I kept butting into that wall I face when I want to capture some funny or beautiful moment—the larger context, the grimness of that larger context. The state of the world. I’m resisting the urge right now to write that distressing litany (war, plague, corruption, oppression, fires, dying oceans, dying soils, melting ice—the list we’re all carrying around all the time.

I’ll read a poem that shoots through me, or something amusing will happen during our lessons, or I’ll see a neighbor’s cat stalking a scrub jay, the jay perfectly aware of the crouching, intensely focused predator, cocking its head this way and that, hopping a little, flaunting its total confidence in its power of flight; and I’ll want to come here and record the thing so I don’t lose it. Even capturing in a notebook as I often do doesn’t insure against loss: I’ve filled so many, many notebooks. And they don’t have rapid search engines.

But the urge to begin with a disclaimer—exactly this kind of disclaimer—burns up all the energy I had for writing the post.

Can I just issue the disclaimer once and move on? Everything is terrible, but also a lot of things are beautiful and I want to remember them?

Well. Here I am, in May, a month I love. On the East Coast I loved it for the explosion of blossoming trees; but here in Portland that begins in April and is winding down by now. We’ve had cherry blossoms & tulip magnolias & flowering plum; now it’s dogwood time, and rhododendrons and azaleas. What I love most about Portland’s May is the light: especially in the evenings after rain, when the light lasts and lasts, and the clouds are shot through with it, backlit, illuminated, and it’s like there is light in the air, or the air is made of particles of light. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen, anywhere else.

pink roses blooming against a cloudy sky

Soon, unless it starts pouring, Huck and I will go out for a walk. Last night, Scott and I were returning home from a long walk and encountered a pair of mallards splashing in a large pool of water on Beech—a cross-street in our neighborhood badly in need of repairs. Blocks and blocks of puddles and potholes. Puddles large enough to attract waterfowl, it seems! Oh, the gorgeous sleek green head of the male duck.

And of course I can’t think of mallards without remembering one of the funniest moments of my whole parenting/homeschooling life: the time someone at the park yelled “Duck!”

…A bunch of kids were playing ball not far away. Suddenly a cry rang out: “DUCK!” Every person in the vicinity ducked out of the way of the large ball hurtling toward our group. Except my kids. All three of them (there were only three at the time) LOOKED UP AT THE SKY. I kid you not. “Where?” cried Jane. “Is it a mallard?”

How happy am I that I wrote that story down at the time? 2006, it was. Sixteen years later, still so funny.

Hasped and hooped and hirpling, but hopeful

March 4, 2022 @ 4:39 pm | Filed under: ,

Okay. Whew. It’s March. I’m a few days away from finishing my last Brave Writer Dart of the year (this one on Nim’s Island, that utter delight of a book), and I’ve scaled back on other freelance work in order to—dare I say it?—give myself a little break. It is a long. long time since I’ve had a real break. I want to work on my new novel, finish some stitching projects, and read a lot of books.

I’ve been feeling pretty wrung out, I must admit. I just answered a lot of messages on FB and IG (and comments here) and was horrified to see some of them have been sitting for months. I didn’t mean to be rude. I was just buried.

And now, like the daffodils exploding all over my neighborhood, I’m ready to emerge. I mean, sort of. Emerge and be sociable online again, and write posts and answer comments. But in another sense, I’m thinking the nice, quiet, soaking-up-the-good-nutrients life of a flower bulb sounds like heaven. I guess I’d better scrap the metaphors and, while I’m at it, the plans. The planning!

LOL LOL LOL I just realized that what I’m saying is I’m ready for low tide!

Which is funny, because the kids and I are definitely in high tide right now. We’re reading Beowulf, Wilding, and Moominpappa’s Memoirs. Lots of good rabbit trails. Lots of geometry.

How’s this for a quote? From Seamus Heaney’s brilliant translation of Beowulf:

“He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain, limping and looped with it.”

Oh we lingered long over those delicious verbs. Hirpling!

And they’re the right verbs for this moment in time: the whole world, it seems, is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain. And no epic warrior coming to set things right—it’s going to take small actions from all of us, small ripples building up into great waves.

I wish you could see the sky outside my window right now. The light—it’s like it’s shining behind and through things, a luminous wash of gold, like something from an Elizabeth Goudge novel. Oh, I know what I’m thinking of: the “tide of gold” in The Scent of Water, the light moving across rooms in Mary Lindsay’s house, rooms that had once been part of a monastery infirmary. I reread that book (again) last month and have been on a Goudge kick ever since: the light, the woods, the skylark, the shipwrecked grain coming up near the water’s edge every year. And the small thoughtful or loving actions of individuals rippling out to change others’ lives. That’s what I love most about her work: the way one nearly invisible choice, one kind word, one hand held out to another human, can set in motion a cascade of events that makes life better for a community.

“He makes sure of doing things now and again”

February 2, 2022 @ 10:08 am | Filed under:
Comet illustration by Tove Jansson

Comet in Moominland illustration by Tove Jansson

When I read the Moomins books aloud, I have to remember which voices I used for each character in our first reading many years ago. For some, that’s a piece of cake (I never have to wonder what Snufkin sounds like; Snufkin is immutably Snufkin), but sometimes a secondary character will pop up and I’ll have to ask, wait, what did the Muskrat sound like? And sometimes I’ll run through a few possibilities and the kids will say, There, that’s the one.

The Hemulen sounds like Eeyore, only British. I think of Moominmamma’s voice as low and soft, but I think it sounds lower inside my head than outside, because Scott says it sounds like Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins. Votes for women!

Moomintroll is easy—he’s had the same enthusiastic timbre for a decade—but it was only this year that I suddenly realized what voice I’m doing for him. It’s my Hayley Mills voice—or more precisely, my version of the Hayley Mills impression Julia Sweeney does in one of her one-woman shows. “Girls,” she breathes, “I’ve got a scathingly brilliant idea!” That’s my Moomintroll. Excited, eager, delighted, always rallying his companions to adventure.

I was therefore mightily amused when, in a recent chapter, Moomintroll actually does say “I’ve got a brilliant idea!”

book cover of moominvalley in november by tove janssonI’m a little vexed with myself over the Moomins, though. After a many-years stroll through the series, Huck and Rilla and I took up the final book, Moominvalley in November, last November (fittingly and deliberately). I hadn’t read that one before and it became one of my favorites, though it is markedly different from the rest of the series in tone and cast of characters. There were so many passages I wanted to share here. But a readaloud is the one time I can’t stop and make a note! I mean, I do occasionally, interrupting the narrative to ask Scott to Slack me a phrase—but I lose track of those messages and never seem to follow through on copying out the quote or noting a connection.

After November, it was decided by unanimous vote that I should start all over again at the beginning of the series. Comet in Moominland was a deep delight—containing as it does Moomintroll and Sniff’s first encounter with Snufkin. Not to mention the Snork Maiden, her brother the Snork, and the Hemulen. It also contains the scene Rilla and I agree is the funniest in all the series: the visit to the small shop run by a kindly old lady. Snufkin tries on a pair of new trousers but decides to stick with his old ones (this is extremely Snufkin of him). The others’ purchases are tallied up—”That will be 20 3/4 pence altogether”—and that’s when they remember none of them is carrying a single penny.

Nobody said anything. The Snork Maiden picked up the looking-glass and laid it on the counter with a sigh. Moomintroll started unpinning his medal, the Snork wondered if exercise books cost more or less after you had written in them, and Sniff just thought about his lemonade, which was mostly on the floor anyway.

The old lady gave a little cough.

“Well, now, my children,” she said. “There are the trousers that Snufkin didn’t want; they are worth exactly 20 pence, so you see one cancels out the other, and you don’t really owe me anything at all.”

“Is that really so?” asked Moomintroll doubtfully.

“It’s as clear as day, little Moomintroll,” said the old lady. “I’ll keep the trousers.”

The Snork tried to count it up in his head, but he couldn’t, so he wrote it in the exercise book like this:

Exercise book 1  3/4
Lemonade 3
Medal 5
Looking-glass (with rubies) 11 

Total 20 3/4
Trousers 20

20=20
3/4 left over.

“It’s quite right,” he said in surprise.

“But there’s 3/4 pence left over,” said Sniff. “Don’t we get that?”

“Don’t be mean,” said Snufkin. “We’ll call it even.”

Rilla and I agree we like this kind of shopping math.

I did remember I’d made note of page 120 in Comet, but not what was on it. Today I finally refreshed my memory and found this, which made me laugh because it reminds me of blogging:

“My pappa has built a wonderful bridge,” said Moomintroll, for about the third time, “but mostly he writes in a book called ‘Memoirs.’ It’s all about what he has done in his life, and as soon as he does something else he writes that down, too.”

“Then surely he hasn’t got time to do very much?” said the Snork Maiden.

“Oh, well,” said Moomintroll. “He makes sure of doing things now and again, even if it’s only to give himself something to write about.”

Ha!

Beginning as I mean to go on: a New Year’s Day booknote

January 1, 2022 @ 2:22 pm | Filed under:

Reading, writing, thinking.
Drawing, stitching, walking.
Singing (in groups when possible).

And an endeavor I’m thinking of as: Use it or lose it. Some would call it decluttering, but that’s a word that has lost meaning for me since it translates (in my past actions to): jumble all the clutter into a box and stash it in the garage to deal with later. The Swedish term döstädning aptly describes my intentions—getting rid of all your extra stuff sooner rather than later, so it doesn’t become someone else’s problem—but I can’t bring myself to put “death cleaning” on a list. Anyway, it freaks out the children, especially in Pandemic Year 3.

But seriously: I want to use up all the fabric, floss, paints, and pens I’ve acquired. And (gasp) I guess we really don’t need to hold on to Math-U-See Alpha anymore—not with my youngest poised to begin Geometry this week.

And books, these mountains of books.

Speaking of which
Here’s a touch of serendipity in my reading life (which is kind of redundant—any real reading life is going to be loaded with crossovers and connections):

Cover of Reader Come Home by Maryanne WolfI began Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World yesterday. I forget exactly what propelled me there. Something else I read mentioned her book Proust and the Squid—was it How to Break Up With Your Phone? Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now? There was a definite throughline in my late-December reading. Anyway, I jumped online to look up Wolf’s Proust book (which is about the neuroscience of reading), and I spied the title of her other book and answered the call to “come home to reading” immediately.

And struggled! For hours. But before I get to the struggle, the serendipity. Late in the evening, straining to stay awake for the kids’ jubilant countdown, I opened a review copy of The Twelve Monotasks by Thatcher Wine. First monotask (that is, the first endeavor to train or retrain yourself to do with full presence, not multitasking): reading. And there was Proust and the Squid being quoted—a passage similar to something I’d underlined in Reader, Come Home just hours earlier.

With the invention of reading, Wolf writes, “we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.”

Able to think
In Reader, Come Home, Wolf explores this concept in great depth, with detailed explanations of what’s actually happening in the circuitry of our brains as we read—and how those circuits are being altered by the kinds of reading we do now, the short bursts, rapid flitting, and homogenized hot takes of our sundry feeds. To read deeply, critically, in a way that allows for long-term memory and for synthesis of ideas, we must read deliberately, with single focus.

I really struggled to stay in sharp focus while reading Wolf’s book yesterday. I helped myself along by taking copious notes in a fresh notebook (a lovely blue gift from Jane). I kept at it for much longer than my brain wanted. It felt urgent, a diving into the deep end and flailing, half drowning, until my mind rediscovered old neural pathways and remembered how to swim.

A striking moment in Wolf’s book is her confession, midway through, that she too—while drafting this very book—discovered she had forgotten how to swim in deep water.

I set up an experiment…My null hypothesis, if you will, was that I had not changed my reading style; rather, only the time I had available for reading had changed. I could prove that simply enough by controlling for it by setting aside the same amount of time every day and faithfully observing my own reading of a linguistically difficult, conceptually demanding novel, one that had been one of my favorite books when I was younger. I would know the plot. There would be no suspense or mystery involved. I would have only to analyze what I was doing during my reading in the same way that I might analyze what a person with dyslexia does when he or she is reading in my research center.

With little hesitation I chose Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi, also known as The Glass Bead Game, which was cited when Hesse received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. To say I began the experiment with the most cheerful of dispositions is no exaggeration. I was practically gleeful at the idea that I would be forcing myself to reread one of the most influential books of my earlier years.

Force became the operative word. When I began to read Magister Ludi, I experienced the literary equivalent of a punch to the cortex. I could not read it. The style seemed obdurately opaque to me: too dense (!) with unnecessarily difficult words and sentences whose snakelike constructions obfuscated, rather than illuminated, meaning for me. The pace of action was impossible. A bunch of monks slowly walking up and down stairs was the only image that came to mind. It was as if someone had poured thick molasses over my brain whenever I picked Magister Ludi up to read.

Molasses on the brain
I’ve known for a while that the feeds were changing my brain. I hadn’t stopped reading books—quite the opposite—I spent last May reading the ten middle-grade novels I’d been assigned to write Brave Writer literature guides for; in June I luxuriated in an Emily St. John Mandel binge, reading or rereading her five gorgeous novels—and later in the summer I fell headlong into a review copy of her sixth, Sea of Tranquility, which I adored; and between October and mid-December I read nearly two dozen high-school nonfiction books as a CYBIL Awards round-one judge, and as soon as that work was finished, I treated myself to a reread of the 600-page Riddle-master trilogy.

Plus the aforementioned unplug-from-the-feeds-already jag of late December.

(I should reread M.T. Anderson’s Feed. It’s been a while.)

So okay, I’ve been reading. But it’s more work than it used to be.

First: the work of choosing to read instead of scroll (or clean, or work, or whatever else is clamoring for my attention).

Then the impossible work of choosing what to read. Which of the thousand books wooing me shall I pick up? I walk around the house collecting stacks; I page through my Kindle library; I dip a toe in here, there; I wonder if there’s any new news about Omicron or the fires. I remember a video I saved to watch later. It’s later.

photo of notebook pages containing quotes and thoughts on Reader Come Home

This post is too long already, but I’m just getting started
I was going to type up a bunch of the notes I copied out from Wolf’s book—this self-assigned copywork practice being a large part of my personal strategy for combating the molasses—but now that I’ve written this much about Reader, Come Home, I’m thinking it would be a good candidate for my February book club pick over on Patreon.

(The January title is Twyla Tharp’s delightful Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life. I’ll kick off the discussion on the 4th.)

Okay, so I’ll save most of my Wolf quotes for next month. As for this morning’s molasses-free ramble through a Ted Kooser essay that sparked connections to Li-Young Lee and Olav Hauge? There’s another post bubbling there, proving yet again an axiom I’ve held for decades: the more I read books (not tweets!), the more I have to write.

And—Wolf’s thesis—what we read, and in what medium, affects how we think. I’ve certainly found the corollary to be true: what medium I read shapes what I’m compelled to write. Reading Twitter makes me want to write witty tweets. Reading Facebook makes me want to write rude things on walls. (I kid! I don’t actually spend much time on Facebook anymore, outside my social-media gig.)

Reading The Gammage Cup, The Whisper of Glocken, and Moominvalley in November to my kids this fall left me itching to pull a long-neglected story idea out of the shadows onto the page. It’s coming along! I’m excited about it!

Joyous discovery
Reading poetry absolutely turns me into a poet for a little while. I’ll jump ahead to my Ted Kooser notes for just a moment to share this passages which is beautiful and true:

“What is most difficult for a poet is to find the time to read and write when there are so many distractions, like making a living and caring for others. But the time set aside for being a poet, even if only for a few moments each day, can be wonderfully happy, full of joyous, solitary discovery.”
The Poetry Home Repair Manual, p. 6

The “solitary” part doesn’t last long for me—what I learned over and over in my first decade of blogging was that reading leads to writing leads to sharing. Learning in public, thinking out loud, and inviting the lively exchange of ideas we exhilarated in, back in those heady days before social media changed, well, everything.

From time to time I take myself in hand and impose fierce limits on my access to the feeds. I use the Downtime and Screen Time apps on my phone, and sometimes the Freedom app on my laptop, to insert roadblocks between me and the myriad tempting distractions. I delete apps, or hide them if I need to keep them around because of work; I move them to different screens so I can’t open them on autopilot. I especially like this trick: I design wallpaper for my home screen to remind myself what I really want to be doing.

screenshot of iPhone home screen with the message Your book is waiting under the apps

(I’m happy to share if you’d like a copy.)

Anyway, Happy New Year! I wish you good reading, deep thinking, and molasses in your gingerbread but not in your brain.

My stitching is in a Creativebug class!

December 28, 2021 @ 2:20 pm | Filed under: , ,

So here’s something fun: this is my embroidery on Creativebug!Rebecca Ringquist's Schoolhouse Sampler stitched by Melissa Wiley

Waaay back in early March 2020, in the last gasp of the Before Times, Rebecca Ringquist of Dropcloth Samplers mentioned she was looking for test stitchers for a sampler to be used in her upcoming Creativebug class. I love Rebecca’s samplers and had taken several of her other Creativebug classes, so I was delighted to be chosen as one of the stitchers on this project.

Although we had never met, I knew Rebecca lived in my corner of Portland. She left the sampler on my porch one day, but I wasn’t home. Remember not being home? That day seriously was one of the very last times I wasn’t at home for a year.

The second-to-last very last time was March 10th. Even though my nose was still recovering from a harrowing-if-fascinating surgery to remove skin cancer, I went to the Tuesday night singalong of my beloved Low Bar Chorale. On my way into Show Bar at Revolution Hall, I passed some women sitting at one of the patio tables—and did a double-take, because I recognized Rebecca!

I think I sort of shrieked at her? I’m excitable that way. I introduced myself and we had a good laugh about it. She thanked me for testing the sampler and I told her I was already having a fabulous time with it. Then we went inside and sang with the band: a roomful of joyful adults shoulder to shoulder, mouths wide open, masks undreamed of.

Rebecca started a group text with her four test stitchers, and we spent the rest of March and April adjusting to lockdown and finding ourselves with LOADS of time for embroidery. Our deadline was late April, because Rebecca was supposed to film in May, I think. I loved working on the sampler, especially the alphabets. When Rilla saw the palette of floss colors I’d chosen, she laughed—they’re the same hues of Prismacolor pencils I always wear to a nub.

Covid, of course, changed Rebecca’s plans to fly to Creativebug’s studios in 2020 and film the class. But this year she was able to go at long last, and her class—Schoolhouse Sampler: A Daily Embroidery Practice—will begin on Saturday, aka January 1, the best day of the year.

(I love love love me a fresh start.)

The Schoolhouse Sampler is available at Rebecca’s Etsy shop, and you can sign up for the class at Creativebug. I’m a Creativebug affiliate, but I’m also a longtime subscriber, as you probably know if you’ve been around Bonny Glen for any length of time. It’s where I learned how to draw!

“I get up. It’s lighter.”

November 29, 2021 @ 10:10 am | Filed under: , ,

A poem by Olav Hauge: One Poem a Day

This is the poem that carried me through this year, more than any other. “One Poem a Day” by Olav Hauge, from his lovely book The Dream We Carry. Those last lines especially—

I get up. It’s lighter.
Have good intentions.
And see the bullfinch rise from the cherry tree,
stealing buds. 

There have been so many days during the pandemic (and before) when I’ve walked around thinking: Have good intentions. Look for the bullfinch, the buds.

In her wonderful book Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life, Twyla Tharp urges us to “make sharing delight into a daily occurrence,” or, as she puts it a few pages later, to find “the Daily Miracle. Find something that pleases you greatly first thing every morning when your mind is fresh.”

Mary Oliver puts it like this:

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.

(From “Mindful” in Why I Wake Early)

What, for you, is the bullfinch rising from the cherry tree, stealing buds, today? Your ‘daily miracle’ for this last day of November? What little thing, ordinary or extraordinary, has more or less killed you with delight?

Whoa! Awesome Creativebug subscription offer

November 26, 2021 @ 10:54 am | Filed under: , ,

Heads up on an incredible deal! A whole year of Creativebug for $5. (Affiliate link.) The kids and I have taken sooo many of their art & stitching classes over the years. I’ve taken all of Lisa Congdon’s drawing classes and Rebecca Ringquist’s embroidery classes, to name a few—especially fun since I’ve become friends with both Lisa and Rebecca since moving to Portland!

I’ve posted many times about what an invaluable resource Creativebug is for homeschoolers and anyone else looking for affordable, high-quality art classes. This post recaps a few of my favorites.

Comments are off

Tags: ,

Solitude and perfection

October 19, 2021 @ 4:55 pm | Filed under:

book cover of moominvalley in november by tove jansson We finished The Whisper of Glocken last week and I’m in mourning—no more Carol Kendall books to read aloud. We did The Firelings, The Gammage Cup, and Whisper all in a row, and that’s it. Kendall did write four more books (as far as I can tell)—three for kids and an adult mystery‚ but I’ve never been able to track them down anywhere. ONE DAY. She’s got to be in my top five authors. A magical way with words, characters with flaws and foibles, and utterly unique worldbuilding and plotlines. And funny!

The only antidote for my Carol Kendall withdrawal: Moomins, of course. And here we are sliding toward the end of October, the perfect time to begin Moominvalley in November. I wouldn’t say I usually identify with the Fillyjonk, but today I was really feeling her:

“She began to feel cold because of the rain, and because she had tumbled all the way through her life in a single second, and she decided to make herself a cup of coffee. but she when opened the cupboard in the kitchen, she saw for the first time that she had far too much china. Such an awful lot of coffee cups. Far too many serving dishes and roasting dishes, and stacks of plates, hundreds of things to eat from and eat on, and only one Fillyjonk. And who would have them all when she died?”

Substitute books and pens for the dishes, and that’s my house. Hundreds of things to read and write, and only one me. ::heavy autumnal sigh::

a line drawing of Snufkin walking away with his pack on his back, leaves blowing at his feet

Snufkin is my favorite, of course. He set off for the wilds in early fall, and now, a few weeks in, he’s feeling like he wants to write songs. He’s listening and waiting, knowing the melody is somewhere in Moominvalley waiting for him to find it.

“There are millions of tunes that are easy to find and there will always be new ones. But Snufkin let them alone, they were summer songs which would do for just anybody. He crept into his tent and into his sleeping bag and pulled it over his head. The faint whisper of rain and running water was still there and it had the same tender note of solitude and perfection. But what did rain mean to him as long as he couldn’t write a song about it?”

What, indeed?

What I’m up to

October 12, 2021 @ 11:28 am | Filed under: ,

yellow rain books on a front porch overlooking a Portland neighborhood

Reading: Gathering Moss (still, slowly, with lots of marginalia); Black Birds in the Sky, Brandy Colbert’s chilling account of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

Reading aloud: The Whisper of Glocken by Carol Kendall—only a few chapters to go, and I’ll miss it when it’s over.

Listening to: A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny (audiobook). Am listening to these all out of order, whatever comes into Overdrive first. Excellent company during evening stitching time.

Watching: The Morning Show, season 2, with Scott; Tiny World with the kids

Learning about: saeksilnubi (a traditional Korean quilting art) and Roam Research (an incredibly useful notekeeping/mind-mapping tool). Also some basic Korean as I work to translate pattern instructions.

Remembering: Rilla in 2009:

3yo asks, in a knowing way, “Mom, what do you like?”
Of course I say, “I like YOU.”
She looks perplexed: “I thought you liked chocolate!”

Noticing: leaves starting to go yellow all over the neighborhood; the last tomatoes splitting on the vine; a downy woodpecker at the suet feeder

Feeling: mildly feverish and very achy (got my Pfizer booster yesterday)

Stitching: too many things all at once. A saeksilnubi panel for a small crossbody bag. Several handstitched drawstring bags to give as presents. A secret embroidery project. Another secret embroidery project.

Writing: A novel outline; a Brave Writer Dart on Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree.