This old photo popped up when I typed “work” into my blog’s media search bar. Original caption: what I look like while writing, according to Rilla
Early on in my parenting and homeschooling journeys (same journey: they were simultaneous), I recognized as a core value the importance of giving kids opportunities for real work that contributes to the household. As my babies became toddlers and then preschoolers, and I immersed myself in education theory and methods of homeschooling, I understood that this was an area where my thinking diverged from radical unschooling. It’s why I landed upon a style of homeschooling that was unschoolish but not, by the definition developed by the radical unschoolers of the late ’90s and early 2000s, unschooling.
Book idea: what it was like to watch homeschooling theory develop and spread in different directions. The Home Ed Mag discussion boards on AOL in 1995: moms speaking with authority, laying down definitions that over the next ten years became a kind of dogma. Amusing now to think back and realize how very young their children were at the time. As the years passed, I watched with interest as their ideas were tested, challenged, vehemently defended, splintered, refined—all the while testing, challenging, defending, splintering, and refining my own. Remembering moments like the time a famous unschooling/non-coercive parenting speaker wanted me to stay for an evening event at a conference, and I explained that one of my kids was ready to head home, and she said, “Can we bribe her to stay?” —How startled I was, having seen her blister hapless moms on her discussion forum for parenting with bribery. How crystal clear it was in that moment: the gulf between theory and practice. How that canyon snakes through nearly everything we attempt in adult life, and much of the work of adulthood is building bridges. /end tangent
Anyway! While I’ve experimented with different methods and materials over the years (the decades now!) of homeschooling, I held fast to certain core principles, and provide opportunities for meaningful work has been one of them. (My older children, however, will note that I applied that principle more consistently when they were small than with my two youngest. “When I was your age, I’d been ______ [fill in the blank with a household chore] for years already” is an occasional—and totally accurate—remark in my home. When you have competent teens handling the bathroom- and kitchen-cleaning, it’s easy to ride the status quo. I generally appreciate the reminders to make time for teaching important life skills to the younger set.)
The meaningful work concept has shaped our home education experience, too. If I assign something, I want it to matter, not be mere busywork. On a practical level, this means: if I can see after three or four math problems that you understand the concept, there’s no need to finish the page. You can do a few more problems on that page a couple of days later. Still remember the steps toward the solution? Cool, we can move on. If I observe a gap later, we’ll circle back and fill it in.
I know that my dogged adherence to this principle stems from the hours of boredom and frustration that filled my own school days—hours spent doing 40 problems, the first five of which were interesting puzzles and the rest, puzzle-key mastered, were excruciatingly bored and robbed me of sleep or precious reading time.
Eek, the timer’s about to go off. I was going to chronicle the past week’s meaningful work! My own, I mean.
• All tasks that make our home pleasanter are meaningful work, even the tedious kind. Of note this past week: I sorted through two boxes of paperwork from the filing cabinet, culling a whole boxful for shredding or recycling, and sorting the remaining files into grouped layers in the other box. Did I find the one piece of paper I was looking for—the document that prompted this activity? I did not.
• Homeschooling: I taught some math things, read lots of When You Reach Me (see yesterday’s post), discovered how fearfully dusty our globe is but spent a lot of time poking at sites on it anyway, and learned about the Haida Nation who lived off the coast of British Columbia thousands of years ago.
• I wrote a Brave Writer Arrow for Pam Muñoz Ryan’s lovely novel Mañanaland. Sent it off to my wonderful editor, Dawn Smith, with a few gaps that I’ll fill this afternoon. This is the May book for Arrow subscribers and will be my fifth Arrow from this academic year’s batch of ten titles. I wrote nine of the ten Darts, too! Writing these comprehensive guides is challenging and rewarding work—the reward being the delight I see on kids’ faces in the photos parents share on Instagram and elsewhere. We’re helping families make magic.
• I kept up with work for my social media clients, my coaching clients, my nonprofit client.
• I wrote posts for Patreon and for this blog.
• I worked on some extremely loose and fuzzy exploratory notes toward my next novel. Didn’t spend as much time in that notebook as I would have liked, due to the bullet points above. 😉
• I did some garden cleanup (the bees are awake at last, so it was safe to remove dead stems)—but that’s such a pleasure that I can hardly count it as work. Or: it’s meaningful work on the writing project, because gardening is when I do some of my best writing. I wrote the first draft of Fox and Crow Are Not Friends in my head while weeding the side yard, one San Diego day. Same with all three Inch and Roly stories, come to think of it.
• I got exactly nowhere on my secret stitching project. No wait, that’s not true. I made some notes about next steps.
I’ve just had a slender epiphany. For my Patreon yesterday I wrote a post about small projects—how many I have underway, and how satisfying it is to complete them—when it struck me that as a writer and an artist, nearly all the projects I care deeply about and think of as my Real Work are huge in scope.
I write novels, which can take years. Especially historical novels, with their months and months of research.
I have two separate, original, multi-piece embroidery projects underway, and if I thought novels were a slow-burning endeavor, boy howdy. I write at light-speed compared to the rate at which a stitching project develops from a glimmer of an idea to a transferable design to a finished piece hung on the wall. With embroidery, each ‘draft’ on the way to a final piece can take months. Even if, say, there’s a global pandemic keeping me housebound for a year, creating gaps of time where wandering around the science museum or meeting a friend for lunch used to live, my hands and eyes can handle only so much stitching and staring in a given day. And attempting something grand means lots and lots of iterations, lots of experimentation, lots of snipping away errant stitches so you can try something else.
And then of course there’s my epic, my life’s work—the homeschooling project, now in its 26th year, if you begin the count from the spring of 1995, when I began the read-and-research jag that has never stopped.
Pondering this, these large-scale endeavors I’m drawn to, in the context of my being a person who relishes the sudden, the new, the different, the spontaneous, the immediate—I have to laugh. We all live in various states of tension, tugged at by opposing forces (for example, you long to travel but don’t have the funds; or you’re happiest when you’re running but your knees are giving you hell); so the contrast between my nature and my aspirations isn’t unique, but it’s amusing.
Perhaps that’s why I took so readily to blogging and its later incarnations (most social media platforms are vehicles for microblogging, with twists): their quick turnaround, their perpetually changing nature. These forms of expression allow me to share ideas and experiences quickly, and to engage in immediate discourse about any topic that has seized my interest, right away, while the flame is burning high.
Meanwhile, the slow-burning project is simmering away, satisfying a whole different part of me. And it’s the determined part, the part with vision, the molten core roiling deep under the surface.
I grow sunflowers, and I grow trees.
As I said at the start of this post, it’s a slender epiphany—a morsel of self-understanding, not a revelation that changes the course of a river. But it’s a nourishing morsel, a crumb of lembas, that offers sustenance to both my practice of blogging and my larger-scale projects.
The splendid truth (to use Gretchen Rubin’s splendid term), of course, is that sometimes you discover that one of your sunflowers has grown into a towering oak. And some of your trees turn out to be bonsai. Either way, the point is to grow something.
Photo from August 2017. Not an oak.
Through this lens, I can survey my cluttered studio, my open tabs, my Scrivener files, my baskets and bins, and see the garden for what it is: abundance. Life. I grow milkweed, and I grow blueberries, and I grow river birches. (I also, let’s face it, grow a fair share of Bermuda grass.)
For such a short month, it sure was jam-packed with projects and activities!
• We (those over 16) got both doses of the Covid vaccine. Wonderboy’s disabilities qualified him and his adult household members. Big relief. The second dose did pack a wallop, as we’d been warned, but a half day of side effects were totally worth it. I’ve never been so happy to have a fever in my life!
• A major ice storm knocked out our power, but only for one night and day. Nothing like the Texas hardships. Lots of tree limbs (and whole trees) came down around the neighborhood. I forgot to bring in my Swedish ivy from the porch and it froze to death.
• I finished a manuscript and sent it off to my agent. We’ll see what we see…
• I completed a major project for my nonprofit client. Lots and lots of reading and review.
• Read A Wrinkle in Time to Huck and Rilla (and Scott, who began scheduling his coffee time around our readalouds). One of the best parts of the month.
• Two weeks after my second dose of the vaccine, I went. to. Trader. Joe’s. My first time inside any building that wasn’t my house or a doctor’s office in a year! It was glorious and weird.
• Wrote my monthly newsletter—it went out yesterday, so if you didn’t receive it, check your filters!
• Books I read: Make Time; Start Finishing; The Kitchen Madonna; Year of the Dog; Big Magic; Writing Down the Bones; Three Simple Lines; Wild Mind (halfway); Do the Work by Steven Pressfield; Familiars by Holly Wren Spaulding; and parts of several other books I hope to finish this month. (Most of these are listed on my Bookshop.org page. And I’ve caught up my sidebar booklist here on the blog.) Most of these were rereads—some of them, I’ve read many times over.
• In bloom (as of yesterday): snowdrops, daffodils, crocuses, the odd hellebore here and there. Oh, and wild violets in the lawn!
Crocuses in Wilshire Park, Feb 4, 2018. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s just around the corner.
We had a sudden blast of snow the other day, our first all year, and it caught me completely by surprise. Snow at THIS time of year? I thought—and then had to laugh. It’s January, for Pete’s sake. Nothing astonishing about snow in January, even here in the rainy northwest.
But, you see, the crocuses are budding, and the daffodils are coming up. And the general fresh-start feeling of January, plus the fresh-start feeling of the inauguration, have me feeling very springy. Winter weather was quite unexpected. The kids hurried out to enjoy the flurries while they lasted. By the next morning, they were gone. Wet sidewalks, no ice, no drifts. Not so much as a flake left.
Instead: my neighbor’s crocuses opened wide. Glorious.
My own crocuses are pokier.
We seem to have an odd microclimate in our yard: my bulbs consistently bloom about three weeks later than everyone else’s. I don’t mind that—it stretches out the enjoyment.
Neighborhood walks have become more pleasant since I switched back to putting in my contacts. All this past year of quarantine, I’ve had no need for them—they’re for distance; for driving, mostly; and even before the pandemic, I wasn’t driving very often. Here in Portland it’s easier to walk or grab a Lyft. In fact, we got rid of our minivan last February, so seldom did I use it. Perfect timing, since otherwise it would have gathered dust in front of the house all year!
Several of us have had our first doses of the Covid vaccine (Oregon opened it up to people with disabilities and their adult household members a few weeks ago). I’m hopeful that we’ll get the second dose on schedule in early February. If we do, I know life still won’t be back to normal quite yet, but it will be normal-er? If normal even is a thing, anymore. I look at videos of our Low Bar Chorale pub sings and marvel: a crowd of us packed together, heads close, mouths open wide. How long before such a thing is possible once more?
Speaking of Low Bar!!
In December we made a group video, a virtual chorale performance of God Only Knows. It was splendid. (I didn’t submit a video myself, since they were due the week we lost my brother-in-law. But I run social media for the group and was busy behind the scenes, promoting the event.)
I’ve rebooted my newsletter and sent out a new issue. I moved it from Mailchimp to Flodesk, so if you are a subscriber and didn’t get an issue last week, check your spam filter to make sure it didn’t get snagged. You can read the January issue here or subscribe here.
I put it on pause for January to give me some time to reorganize the tiers. Membership pricing remains the same (it’s cheap!) but the subscriber benefits have changed.
Tier 1 benefits ($1/month or more):
• Daily coworking sessions
• Weekly posts about nourishing a regular creative practice—mine and yours
Tier 2 benefits ($3/month or more):
• Daily coworking sessions
• Weekly posts about creative practice
• Monthly (or twice monthly, if time permits) memoir posts—early looks at a manuscript I’m working on about our homeschooling, creative-living, medical-roller-coastering family adventure. Bonny Glen: the book version, if you will.
Tier 3 benefits ($5/month or more):
• Daily coworking sessions
• Weekly posts about creative practice
• Monthly memoir posts
• Monthly literary essays, usually focusing on a particular author or a linked collection of books. A close reading of a book or deep dive into a favorite author’s body of work.
For all levels: I’ll continue my daily coworking sessions until the pandemic is well and truly behind us, and we can go back to working in coffee shops and museum cafés again. We meet in a private Zoom room and do brief check-ins before and after each hour of work. The usual schedule is M-F, 3-5pm Pacific time (except Tuesdays, when we meet for just one hour, 4-5 PST).
When you mention A Ring of Endless Light in a post, naturally you check for dolphins among your photos. Here’s Beanie making a friend in 2008.
My morning routine has been a bit out of whack lately, and I’m trying to get it back in what an etymological site tells me is the opposite: in fine whack, meaning the same as in fine fettle.
There seems to have been a phrase in fine whack during that century, meaning that something was in good condition or excellent fettle. (It appears in a letter by John Hay, President Lincoln’s amanuensis, dated August 1863, which describes the President: “The Tycoon is in fine whack. I have rarely seen him more serene and busy. He is managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and planning a reconstruction of the Union, all at once”.) It doesn’t often turn up in writing, though, so there’s some doubt how widespread it was.
And now I’m trying to remember which Madeleine L’Engle book discusses the word amanuensis—I’m hearing a small boy saying it; he’s proud to be someone’s amanuensis, a literary or artistic assistant; which means it’s either Rob Austin or Charles Wallace Murry. Hmm, no, neither seems right, although in my memory there was an element of precociousness in the character’s use of the word. I reread A Ring of Endless Light for the umpteenth time last year—always my favorite L’Engle novel—so that’s probably where I’m recalling it from. But would it have been Rob? Was Adam Jed’s amanuensis? Sort of?
Well, this digression is indicative of the way I sometimes allow my morning routine to skitter off course. I have a no-screens rule for the first hour minutes, and then I allow myself to open the laptop for an hour or more of writing time. I’ve been trying to keep to a strict one-tab-at-a-time habit, but a rabbit trail like the one above has generated three extra tabs and a jaunt to the library website to see if A Ring of Endless Light was available in ebook. It was! But my search for amanuensis in the text revealed zero hits. Hmm. My brain will keep poking this question until I find the answer. Watch me: I’ll wind up rereading all of L’Engle to find the quote!
There’s autumn, all stitched up. I feel myself shifting into winter mode, despite the bright leaves still lingering here and there on the neighborhood trees. I packed up the backyard bird fountain for the winter and replaced my studio blanket with an electric throw. On our walk yesterday, I discovered that I need to have my warm ankle boots resoled—I could feel every piece of gravel underfoot! I’ve logged a lot of miles in those boots on my treks around Northeast Portland.
Speaking of Northeast Portland! I’ve been reading—and loving to absolute bits—Beverly Cleary’s memoir, A Girl from Yamhill. As a young child she moves from the family farm in Yamhill to a rented house in Portland just a few miles from my neighborhood. And then, a year or two later, she moves to a house “a block and a half north of Klickitat.” I live a block and a half north of Klickitat! Just nine blocks away from the place Beverly lived for a while—a direct line east of where I sit as I type this post. I knew that she had lived in Northeast but I only knew about the homes near Grant Park and Fernwood Elementary. I didn’t know she’d had an interval right here in my own small neighborhood. She saw her first movies (silent films!) at the very same theater in which my family saw Avengers: Endgame. Goosebumps.
The sun is bright today, a rarity this time of year, not to be squandered. I’m itching to get out for a nice long tramp. At the same time, I’m longing to cuddle up under that heated throw and read more about Beverly, or dive into a chapter in the gorgeous book my friend just sent me: Nichole Gulotta’s Wild Words. It’s been a full day.
Ahhh…a fun, full, hard, harrowing week is behind me. Not only did I have the excitement of the book launch, I also took a (truly excellent) four-day Author Visits workshop by Kate Messner & Julie Hedlund, and I had a writing deadline for Brave Writer. The workshop was terrific, with lots of practical strategies for reimagining our in-person school visits to fit this year’s all-remote reality. (Even schools that are reopening classrooms aren’t going to be bringing in authors and illustrators to meet the kids face-to-face this year.)
This week things are settling back to routine—this still-new routine in which the bulk of my work time falls between 6am and noon, and we homeschool in the afternoons. With only two kids left to homeschool, three hours is plenty of time for any high-tide learning we have planned. Then I log into Zoom for my afternoon coworking session (3-5pm PDT; see my Patreon if you’re interested in joining) and I usually keep going afterward until I run out of steam—usually around 6. A full day, to be sure! But I like it that way.
Today’s Tuesday, which means Poetry Teatime! Maybe I’ll see if Rilla wants to make some oat bars for our treat. We’ll also do some conversing in German (we’re using Talkbox.mom this year and having a lot of fun with it—I can share a coupon code if you’re interested). Rilla and I are cooking up some kind of longterm study project on frogs, one of her special interests.
Something I haven’t had enough time for this past month is reading! Hoping to turn that around this week. My Kindle is going to explode if I don’t give it some attention. I want to ask what you’re reading right now but that’s a dangerous question, when you already have a TBR list that stretches to the moon.
Small delights: flowering oregano and coneflower. Two ripe blueberries. Chickadees chatty in the bushes. The air still cool. Kimiko Hahn, Billy Collins, and Ross Gay in my head. Huck working out percentages in an absorbed murmur as he comes down the stairs. Bees in the lavender. Pens in the jar.
My fountain pens all got leaky, and I can’t embroider with ink-stained fingers—too risky. So sometime during the past few months I shelved my beloved Hobonichi planner (acquired in the Before Times) and shifted back to recording my daily “done” lists in Evernote, where I can easily search them later. I very much rely on these daily lists, which capture what I need to do and what I actually did, and lots of other things besides.
At some point in my paper-planner years, I tried out a Panda Planner and loved a lot of things about the format of its daily pages—especially the way each day begins with a Morning Review section: What I’m grateful for; What I’m excited about. When I set up my Evernote daily template, I folded in those items. It does me good to sit a moment at the start of the day, cocoa steaming beside me, birds waking up in the bushes outside my studio window, to make these small lists. Over time, they paint a picture of the things that brought me joy in a particular season—even the difficult seasons. And when I start filling the page with checkboxes of things I absotively posilutely must get done this day, the Happy Things lists keep me from feeling overwhelmed. There are so many small good things that make up a day.
Today’s gratitude list was simple:
—cool morning air
—the Linda Gregg poem Holly Wren Spaulding shared on her Patreon
—my nice clean studio (I did a major overhaul on Saturday)
—the smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap (related)
—the Portland “wall of moms” at the downtown protest
And under Excited About, I wrote:
—fresh bread soon (I had a loaf ready to go in the oven before the day’s heat set in)
—Brave Writer Summer Camp tomorrow (I’ll be reading a Nerviest Girl chapter to the attendees’ kids—there’s still time to sign up, and it’s free!)
There’s so much troubling me at this fraught moment in time, and it’s easy to get caught in an agitated doomscrolling/info-sharing loop. Those concerns find their way into my poetry notebook but I try to keep the daily task lists focused on concrete actions I can actually take—and moments I can savor. The giant pink lilies my neighbor brought to our porch. The fringed nasturtium seedlings my friend Ron gave me. The song sparrow tossing leaf litter under the hedge. My good bread, baked now and rapidly devoured by my beloved horde. An eight-year-old blog post I was reminded of this morning in a lively conversation with dear friends—and the pleasure of revisiting its rabbit trails. The welcome news that our favorite pediatric urgent-care doctor has added primary care to his practice, and he’s in network. Kids laughing uproariously at dinner. Evening walks with Scott, wearing masks handmade by a bighearted friend. The cheerful check-ins at my daily Patreon coworking sessions. My son’s bird photos. The cream soda bottles on my windowsill painting rainbows on the wall.