My notebook is full of the Delta variant, the wildfires, the worries. How is it possible I have so many unvaccinated friends?—none local, but scattered across the country in counties with spiking rates, and I’m wondering what losses the next ninety days will hold. I sent out a few Cassandra-like texts last week, and got back gentle rebuffs or silence. Don’t worry about us, one friend replied, and I groaned—it isn’t something you just turn off. I listen to the epidemiologists, and I know what’s rushing up on us.
I write this here because I don’t want to chronicle the celebrations and joys, the beautiful richness of life, without also acknowledging the dire state of the world outside my doors—the people in peril. The planet in peril.
Here, in this house, in this room? Not peril. Peace, sometimes. Contentment, often. Helpless laughter, frequently. A busy thrum of activity, constantly. I document all this, too, in various notebooks, and, when I can, here on the blog. I keep a ridiculous number of lists. Lists of work accomplished, housework done, books read, television watched, podcasts and audiobooks listened to; lists of small moments that sent gratitude or delight surging through me.
more light on the branch more light on the leaf than appears to fall on light or leaf
—Holly Wren Spaulding‘s posts like manna in my mailbox —my studio, the daily rush of appreciation I feel for this lovely space —a piece of aqua-colored linen in my hands, a vision for what it will become, a salamander in ferns, the meditative pleasure of handstitching the raw edges so they won’t fray —on green quilter’s cotton purchased long ago, a pink chrysanthemum blooming —my Aunt Genia’s recipe for inside-out chocolate cake, baked for no reason at all except that I was thinking of her —the new mop bucket, the satisfaction of gleaming floors —Rose’s long quest for an apartment, successful at last —the smell of morning, the expectant crows, the clatter of peanuts on the patio —dulce de leche ice cream —berry season —kids playing Zelda for hours —my friend Kyleen’s viola, Allen’s upright bass —”How fascinating!“ —my candy-colored socks —the Seam Finishing 101 class at Creativebug, a true gem —the free Bystander Intervention training at Hollaback —the Sister Act 2 finale, which will never get old
The celebration lists, and the Cassandra letters. That’s what I’ve got for the world right now.
Oh my dears. If you subscribe to receive my blog posts via email, you may have received a message from the new service (follow.it) this morning, notifying you that I posted yesterday. A very ugly, spammy-looking message with ads at the bottom. Gross. I’ll be deleting this situation right quick. Some experiments fail, and boy howdy, is this one of them.
What this means: until I find a better option, you won’t receive my new blog posts via email. My RSS feed still works, so you can subscribe via Feedly or another feed reader—if you’re one of the handful of people who still uses a feed reader. (I do! Feedly’s just fine.)
What I can do: from now on, I’ll include a list of recent blog posts in my monthly newsletter. That way, if you subscribe to the newsletter (and I think almost everyone who was subscribed to new-blog-posts-via-email is also subscribed to my newsletter—they’re two different lists but there’s a lot of crossover), you’ll see if I’ve posted anything new here on the blog. The newsletter’s pretty, I promise. Not spammy at all. I use Flodesk for that, which I learned about from the wonderful Nicole Gulotta.
Apologies for that spammy little detour! It won’t happen again. (Not even with this post. Which means you might not see it! LOL!)
This photo (Rilla, circa 2008) has summed up my mood all week. I’m just…beat. Among other things, I’ve been wrestling with this blog-post-by-email transition and—long story short—you may or may not get this post in your in-box. Who can say, really?
I had a ton of things saved up to talk about here, but instead I think I’ll just post pics of the July accomplishment I’m most excited about: I made this reversible drawstring bag! The pattern (“Modern Japanese Rice Pouch” by the wonderful KZ Stevens) says “Difficulty level: beginner” and yes! This is accurate! If I can pull it off, anyone can.
It only took me 16 months—or 10 hours, depending how you count. I assembled the patchwork pieces of the outer panel in early March, 2020, and then FOR SOME MYSTERIOUS REASON I got distracted and set the project aside. I picked it up again about a year later and embroidered a few embellishments, and then once again I got sidetracked. But about a week ago I felt a powerful need to finish something—preferably something I could hold in my hands. I remembered the drawstring bag and dug it out of my project pile.
To my surprise and delight, I was able to assemble the bag in a few hours’ time—and that included all the time I spent watching Youtube videos to troubleshoot Beanie’s sewing machine. (My own machine, a perfectly wonderful cheap little Brother that I bought in 1995 with my first-ever publishing check, decided a 25-year romance was long enough. Farewell, old friend. It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.)
So anyway, now I’m obsessed and want to sew ALL THE BAGS. I’m thinking this square-bottomed drawstring pouch would be a perfect way to use some of the eleventy-million pieces of embroidery I’ve amassed these past few years. I might even see if I can add a pocket or two.
I know, I know, I disappeared again! After dormancy, uh…more dormancy. At least here on the blog, and on social too, for the most part. I spent May and June feverishly busy on other projects, and when I wasn’t working I stayed offline as much as possible. I completely overhauled my studio, deep-cleaned the main floor of the house, reorganized the garage, fiddled with a picture-book manuscript, studied all ten Brave Writer Dart books for the upcoming academic year (I’m writing the whole batch of Darts), survived the heat dome, and read or reread all the novels of Emily St. John Mandel. That’s right: my pandemic lockdown began and ended* with Station Eleven.
*Oregon lifted all COVID-19 restrictions last week, but our home life hasn’t changed much yet. The spiking numbers of the Delta variant have me feeling cautious still, so I won’t be ditching my mask quite yet, not in indoor public spaces. I did get to spend a delicious evening with a circle of fully vaccinated chorale friends, singing around a firepit, and I’m hoping for an encore soon.
It’s a bit surreal to be all caught up on chores in the real world, and way behind on things in my digital spaces. But the former couldn’t have happened if I’d kept up with the latter. My sidebar booklist is months out of date. My whole site needs a spring cleaning. I didn’t even announce the Nerviest Girl audiobook and paperback launch here! Yikes! That is extremely bad authoring. More on that soon?
One of my looming digital chores was to deal with the demise of Feedburner’s email subscription service. If you’ve been accustomed to receiving an email whenever I publish a new post here, it may look different now. This particular post is meant to test the new delivery vehicle (Follow.it). If you received a notification email, would you mind letting me know in a comment? And if you should have received that email and didn’t (and you happen to drop by and notice this post), please let me know that too. The transfer was supposed to be seamless, but the subscriber number changed, so there was a puckered seam somewhere.
To my vexation, the new service seems to have added little ‘follow’ icons on mobile, hovering over the text in a seriously annoying way. I’ve checked all the settings and I most definitely have NO ICONS selected. Yet there they are on my phone, irritating as mosquitoes! If you’re a mobile reader, I apologize and I hope to disappear the icons very soon.
All right, this post is like a phone call to a friend you haven’t talked to in way too long. Too much to catch up on! I’ll hang up now and hope to chat again in a day or two. I hope you’re well. I’ve missed you!
Are you giving us white space on purpose instead to telling us about it? 🙂
I didn’t mean to disappear for three weeks, but they were a FULL three weeks and I had to set a lot of things to one side for a bit. I finished writing my last Brave Writer literature guide for the current academic year (an Arrow for the marvelous Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, and—ahhhh—I’m taking a break from writing them for a few weeks. I’ve been writing these steadily for four years!
During the hiatus, I’m reading all ten of next year’s Dart books and beginning to map out what topics I’ll write about for each. The new Dart, Arrow, and Boomerang lists will be announced on June 1st. I’ll be writing the entire Dart lineup. The booklist is full of treasures, I can tell you!
I’ve been busy, too, with other client work and some house projects. And later this week I’m heading to a studio downtown to record the author’s note for the Nerviest Girl in the World audiobook. Exciting! It’ll be out in June, and so will the paperback edition. As always (always, always, always)—preorders are massively appreciated. They make such a difference for current and future books!
But to return to Selvi’s excellent point: I did leave a silence where the white space category of my Rule posts was meant to be. I think I’ll be able to write about that this week.
For now, my allotted time is up, and the day is waiting to unfold. Here’s to a week full of what nourishes you!
This post contains Bookshop.org affiliate links. If you’d like to purchase audiobooks from Libro.fm, which supports independent bookstores, my referral link will get you an extra book in your first month.
I’m circling back to yesterday’s topic. The bird clock chirped before I got to the best kind of connections! A few hours later, laughing with Huck and Rilla over a math problem, I knew I’d want to revisit the subject today.
We’ve been doing the enrichment pages of Math-U-See’s Pre-Algebra book together, the three of us. Side by side on the old green couch—a housewarming gift from Scott’s parents in 1999 when we (then a family of four) moved from our little Queens apartment to a one-bedroom-bigger place on Long Island. That sofa has seen some life, let me tell you. Our first Christmas here in Portland, my parents gave us a nice new Ikea sectional—finally enough comfy seating for the whole family—but my entire crew refused to hear of the removal of the old sofa. It lives now under the windows in our dining area, a favorite place to flop and read or listen to music.
So: the green sofa, a page of puzzle problems on my lap, Huck and Rilla on either side. Huck had sharpened all the pencils right after breakfast, so I had a nice fresh point. The final problem on the page elicited a gasp from Rilla. That gasp—the inrush of breath that signals a connection has just been made—is my chief delight as a homeschooling mom. And in the connection of ideas, we connect with each other.
Huge chunks of this blog are devoted to chronicling those moments. My own notebooks are full of them—connections the kids have made between this book, that game, this show, that moment of hilarity in the kitchen; and my own connections too, the synthesis of ideas and images gathered on my greedy, plate-loaded-at-the-buffet, rabbit-trailing, metaphor-mixing lifelong learning adventure.
Our math problem had reminded her of a tidbit she’d puzzled over many times as a little girl. In the book, Scarecrow and friends are plotting an escape from a flock of jackdaws. They have a handful of wishing pills but not enough to go around—not, says the Tin Woodman, unless they can count to seventeen by twos. The sawhorse declares that’s easy to do, if you just start counting at “a half of one.”
Rilla remembered being extremely confused by the sawhorse’s logic. She could never figure out how he arrived at that solution. While we puzzled it out together (spoiler: he cheated), I absently doodled on the page. The kids laughed at me—this, too, is a longrunning point of connection for us and amusement for them. It’s extremely hard for me to focus on what anyone is saying if I can’t doodle or stitch or do something fiddly with my hands. (One reason I always encourage kids to draw, or play with Sculpey or beeswax, or crochet while I’m reading to them.)
And I guess the quiet pauses while kids work out math problems are another place I need the help of a pencil. The margins of their math books are full of nonsense drawings. I have a shelf full of elementary Math-U-See instruction books I can’t resell because I’ve scribbled all over them!
*”Every day” is more aspirational than practical. “Things to make time for over the course of a week” is more realistic. Or a shorter rolling time span, say two or three days. I’m not troubling myself with fastidiousness here. These ideas are more like recipes for a healthy diet. Reminders of nutrients I want to make sure I’m getting enough of.
Connection—you’d think it would be the hardest element to include right now, given the 13-months-and-counting we’ve been living in semi-isolation. Even though most of my family received the Pfizer vaccine in February, we’re continuing to be cautious because Huck and Rilla were too young to qualify. Until the 12-16yo version rolls out, we’ll keep playing it safe. As more of my local friends pass their second-dose-plus-two-weeks mark (oh hooray!), I’m beginning to anticipate some backyard hangouts. For now, though: I live quietly at home.
Zooma zooma zooma-Zoom
But I haven’t felt isolated—and I don’t just mean because I live in a very full house. 🙂 I know a lot of folks are completely Zoomed-out, but not me. I love the connections that platform has allowed to thrive all year. Four days a week, I open a coworking room for my Patreon subscribers. There are usually three or four of us in there, working with our mics off for 50 minutes, then unmuting for a ten-minute check-in chat. Over the course of the year, I’ve witnessed the creation of books, art, and all sorts of projects. I’ve written hundreds of pages of Brave Writer literature guides during these sessions, among other things. The work is easier in community, but it’s the check-ins I treasure: the laughter, the shared challenges, the warm support.
Singing in community
I’ve dearly missed singing shoulder to shoulder with my Low Bar Chorale community—when I think about a post-pandemic life, that’s where my thoughts go first—but I’m astonished and so proud of the way Low Bar has endured and even expanded during the past year. Our song leader, Ben Landsverk, began hosting weekly or twice-monthly livestreams where he sang—often accompanied by a video composite of our whole band—and we sang along from home. Not just our Portland singalong community, but people from around the world! Perhaps you’ve seen the videos I’ve shared here.
So—I can’t wait, CANNOT WAIT!, to be back in our space at Revolution Hall, singing in harmony with a crowd, but I’m thrilled that the community has remained connected during our year+ of isolation. Regular Zoom chats have allowed me to get to know a number of singalong pals better, and my social media work for the group keeps me in conversation with the rest of the team.
Unconventional (get it?)
This will be another summer without San Diego Comic-Con (there’s going to be a scaled-back version of the convention over Thanksgiving weekend, but LOL no, we’ll be sitting that one out). I miss that annual point of connection like crazy—a chance to catch up in person with artist and writer friends who are scattered around the globe. Here again it was Zoom to the rescue; occasional chats have kept us connected, and no one had to push through a sweaty crowd to get there.
Not the same as in person, but not negligible. Face to face conversation in a quiet room is, for me, a truly satisfying form of connection. It has its distinctive perks: I’m curled up in my favorite chair, in comfy yoga pants, perhaps with a bit of stitching in my hands. It’s a lot cheaper, too!
Turns out I was already living this way
But then I suppose I was already deeply engaged with Zoom-based conversation and connection before the pandemic. Helen McLaughlin’s wonderful Get-It-Done Days; Holly Wren Spaulding’s poetry workshops; regular update chats with small groups of friends working on their own creative projects. And of course I’ve been finding friendship and community in online spaces since, gosh, 1995, and here on the blog since 2005. I mean: hello friends!
But I get it: I don’t live alone; and I’m an extrovert who finds a Zoom conversation just as satisfying as an in-person visit, in its way. The year was a wholly different experience for my friends who live alone, or my introvert friends whose batteries are drained by video chats.
Funny how much time I spent in coffee shops, considering I don’t even like coffee
My big struggle with the isolation wasn’t so much about personal connection (except at a remove, aching for Huck who sorely misses his friends and his co-op classes), but with the inability to work in coffee shops and pubs. Until I couldn’t walk down Fremont to one of my favorite writing haunts, I didn’t know how much I relied on the low-key stimulation of a coffee shop to remain focused! And nope, the Youtube videos of ambient café sounds don’t work for me as a substitute. It was the people, the human connection, the just-right amount of visual stimulation and variety, that kept me focused and working. For a rabbit-trailing mind like mind, it’s key to find just the right kind of distraction.
I’ve focused here on the human-connection part of connection. There’s another part, of course—the connection of ideas that is so cherished by homeschoolers and creatives. That’s a whole different post, and I’m out of time!
How about you?
Instead, let me ask: what has your experience of social connection been like this past year? Have you struggled? Found yourself actually enjoying the excuse to stay home? Which half of the Holderness couple are you? (Scott and I laughed like crazy at this gender-swapped depiction of the two of us.)
Perhaps the easiest piece of my personal Rule to fulfill. I live in a house full of talkers, analyzers, discussers, ponderers. Online and and in the world, I gravitate toward friends of similar bent. I spend more time than I should following rabbit trails of research. (It feels almost heretical to say that!)
I should say: discussion is easy to come by. It’s the pondering piece that needs protection, because that takes time, silence, and closed tabs. It’s far too easy to gather stores of information, and then whisk on to a new topic of interest without taking time to sit with the accumulated horde of ideas.
Sensing this, I made a shift in my morning routine last month. Instead of struggling through (during the first year of the pandemic it had become a struggle) my longstanding pattern of writing almost immediately after waking, I decided to give myself the first hour—or however many minutes there are between waking and 7:30 (sometimes more than an hour, sometimes less)—for study.
Typing that, I get the same thrill of relief I felt upon making that decision. Time to read? To make notes in margins? To sit with an idea—a single thought—in a quiet room, with a notebook and a good pen? To breathe in (read, think) before I breathe out (write, speak)?
I made myself a little syllabus of sorts: a stack of books I knew would nourish, not derail, deep thought.
World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen—an absolute gem of a book. When I read a few pages (I’ve been reading it slowly for probably a year), I often get a flash of the scene in Heidi, a book I read over and over as a child, when her aunt is taking her up the mountain to the Alm-Uncle for the first time, and Heidi, delighting in the fresh, scented air, keeps shedding layers of clothes as she goes. Coat, scarf, heavy woolen dress, stockings all strewn among the wildflowers. By the time they reach the grandfather’s hut, she’s down to her white cotton shift. That’s me at the top of each chapter.
The Muses Among Us by Kim Stafford. A book I inhaled last year and have returned to this year at a more contemplative pace. Keeping its essays company, a volume of Stafford’s poems called Wild Honey, Tough Salt. The essay I love best is the one in which Stafford maps out his process for collecting fragments of images and overheard conversation, storing them in pocket-sized notebooks made by folding a few sheets of paper, and later returning to the notebooks to harvest ideas for poems and essays. “When I write,” he says, “I am secretary to a wisdom the world has made available to me.” There’s an idea to sit with for a while.
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. I love Godden’s writing, especially The Kitchen Madonna, but I’ve never made it all the way through this novel of hers. It nudged me as I passed by its longtime home on a bedroom bookshelf. I know it’s many people’s favorite of her novels.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. A joyful reread of this glorious collection of poems. Ross Gay has become one of my favorite writers; his Book of Delights is on its way to dog-eared Best-Loved Book status after less than a year in my hands.
Just these few. It was painfully hard for me to not load up the list, but slow reading and thinking is the point. There are other books on my Kindle, not to mention a new stack of future Dart titles waiting for me!, but the books in this small collection are the thought-stirrers I mean to spend these early mornings of spring with.
Reading, of course, is a way to collect and absorb ideas; to fully ponder them I must write. I hardly ever know what I think until I write it down. At 7:30am, birds chirp on my phone. I eat one square of mint chocolate (a ritual or habit to signal time to write), open my notebook or Scrivener, and let my fingers begin to think.
When I think of this category, I think of my kids in the backyard in San Diego, deeply immersed in the Warriors-inspired make-believe games that occupied so many hours when they were little. Or the long stretches of Sculpey play: elaborate scenes crafted and acted out. Epic adventures spanning hours and days. The Thomas the Tank engine set, the Playmobil stories, the blanket forts.
For myself, this category is a little harder to define. Rose and Beanie used to walk in circles (literally walk in circles!) on our back patio, making up stories for themselves. All the action was happening inside their heads. Here in the second year of the pandemic, my head is full, full, full—full of inputs, full of tasks to be done. I notice in myself a pattern of clearing a little time for my grownup version of play—or for white space, which has some crossover with this category, since it’s the soil from which imagination and creativity grow—and then immediately filling the space with yet another form of input, sometimes nourishing, sometimes fluff. An audiobook, a podcast, a show on Netflix, a screen game.
Funny as it sounds, holding space for imaginative play in my life takes more effort than almost anything else on my list of essential activities!
Where I find it is at my art table, or within the borders of an embroidery hoop. On the blank page of a notebook: a jumble of words arranging themselves into phrases, into poems.
It’s possible I’m not a minimalist
I know exactly where to find the doorway to imaginative play, but I have to make myself walk through it. To mess around with paint, not listening to a book or podcast. To doodle in my sketchbook while my mind roams. Not tuned into other voices. I find this challenging; I’m so accustomed to making the most of my minutes! Not enough time to read and exercise and make art and learn new things—better bundle them together.
Bundling is wonderful—in moderation! If every morsel of my sketchbook time, treadmill time, gardening time, has a soundtrack, I’ll never hear my own self. Even the time I spend in my poetry notebook several mornings a week can become a clamor of other voices. I’m impatient with the seed-time of my own thoughts.
Where I find the easiest ground for imaginative play is with embroidery. I think that’s because it combines a satisfying and meditative activity (stitching) with invention and beauty. You could say the same thing about painting, drawing, knitting, woodworking, but for me, a #7 Tulip needle is the key to the realm of imagination. Perhaps that’s because even after years of daily drawing and online art classes, I remain unsatisfied with my ability. When I picked up the embroidery habit, I gained skill with gratifying speed. And I found a blank round of fabric to be fertile ground for original thought and design, much more so than on a sheet of watercolor paper. Curious, no? I seldom like the original art I make on paper. (I say original to distinguish it from online course assignments, where I’m following steps and often do enjoy both the process and final outcome).
I hadn’t been stitching for long—using patterns purchased from my favorite Instagram designers—when I felt the itch to create my own designs. Ideas flooded in—but I could see that my they outstripped my ability. So I ignored the voice that kept urging me to be original. I gave myself time to practice and learn. I gave myself scraps of fabric to experiment on, reckoning that they were the embroidery equivalent of an artist’s sketchbook.
And eventually, after a long time, a project began to shape itself in my mind. It’s playful and inventive and combines elements and subject matter I care about intensely.
My challenge is holding space for it. I have an hour set aside after I tuck Huck into bed, but by that time of day I’m often too fried. This week I only picked up that hoop a couple of times.
I’m still stitching, though. I’ve found what works best for me is to have three projects at the ready, at all times: one for study (learning new stitches or techniques); one for thinking (a simple design purchased from creators like Cozyblue or Dropcloth, where the stitching is satisfying and meditative, and I don’t have to make decisions as I go); and the hoop containing my own project-in-progress.
The second type of hoop—I’ve written about this before—is an essential part of my writing practice. When I hit a point in a piece of writing where I need to stop and think, picking up that hoop quashes the urge to pop open a social media tab and “just” take a peek. Those peeks (which are never just a peek, are they) are the fastest route to utter derailment on a writing project. So I keep my “thinking hoop” handy and pick it up whenever I’m tempted to open a tab.
(I love the Momentum Dash browser extension for Chrome—it allows you to set a default New Tab that opens to a beautiful nature photo, different every day, with a blank for you to enter that day’s focus activity. Sometimes while I’m writing, I write PICK UP YOUR HOOP in that blank, so that if I do succumb to new-tab temptation, I’m smacked with a reminder before I can load another site. Other times, I write the day’s Highlight (a task or activity that I absolutely must attend to that day) or whatever piece of writing I’m working on at the moment in that blank. This has the same effect of redirecting my attention to my work. Probably one of my best workflow hacks! I also use Momentum’s built-in Pomodoro timer quite a lot.)
My time’s just about up for this morning, so I’ll close with a quick look back at the week’s imaginative play. I started, but didn’t finish, this fantastic Peggy Dean tutorial (free!) on how to draw canyons in Procreate. Except I just grabbed my notebook, not the iPad. I’d like to spend more time with that today. And Rilla and I are working on a pretty exciting art project together on Saturday nights. She’s done almost all the work so far, but last week we got to the painting stage and spent a happy hour testing our acrylic paints on a black canvas to see which colors show up best from a distance. I’m looking forward to putting in some more time on that project this weekend.
And writing this post reminds me to start my afternoon work session by threading some needles. I’m a big believer in always leaving thread in the needle—both literally for embroidery and figuratively for my writing (Hemingway’s trick). Never stop at the end of a scene! Break off mid-scene, mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence if you can. It’s much easier to pick the work back up next time.