This feels incredibly weird to write, but I’ve hardly picked up a needle in months. That feels a little like saying I haven’t stopped to think in months, because handstitching has become such a key part of my creative process: keeps my hands busy but allows my mind to roam. This may explain why my brain feels a bit like a dartboard right now. It’s been seven months of pointy Life things flying straight at me. I’m ready to take back the needles. (This metaphor is falling apart fast.)
Well, my new space is set up for creative practice beyond my wildest dreams. There’s so much room! Including a large flat counter for cutting fabric. Now comes the absolute hardest part of embroidery: deciding what to stitch. I have several hoops in progress, not to mention the linen bag pictured above—it’s a weekend pattern but I slowed it down by, gosh, months by deciding to stitch those wonky watercolor-inspired circles on the front panel. I mean, it’s no rush. I have bags aplenty already. So perhaps that’s the project to dig out? Something to do while I decide what new thing I want to make?
A frequent refrain in my head lately is how the two hardest parts of my day are: starting and stopping. Starting work on the thing I want or need to do, and stopping when it’s time to stop. The modern wisdom about motivation (the impetus to do a task) is that you have to start work first, and only then will motivation arise. But a lot of the discussion around best practices seems to assume that starting is as simple as deciding to start. And for me, there’s a gap between those two actions.
I have all kinds of tricks for hurtling across that gap. But employing a strategy is itself an act that requires a launch. I often feel the most intense resistance about taking the first step in a strategy I know to be effective for me. Like: Click on Scrivener. Simple as that. Or: Ask Scott to hang out with me until I’ve gotten started writing. That works every time and he’s always happy to oblige. But I’ll resist clicking or asking. It’s my absolute most frustrated state of mind. I’d rather sit at the DMV. Actually, it’s kind of like sitting at the DMV without having taken a number first.
I mention this because it occurs with fun stuff as well as work. I mean, a lot of my work is fun—once I start working. But I mean it happens with down-time, leisure activities too. Like embroidery, which I adore doing and often feel I don’t have enough time for.
Well, here I am, well past my allocated time for writing this post. The only thing harder than starting is stopping!
WordPress won’t let me include a photo, for some reason, not even an old one. When my upload of daisies in this morning’s garden failed, I searched for a daisy pic in past posts. I found this post from 2016, a happy rediscovery. But they won’t load either!
As I stirred my cocoa this morning, it struck me that this time the obstacle to posting here is backstory. So much has happened, these past six months, that filling in the gaps feels like a chore, a too-big undertaking. So in lieu of rich exposition, a two-sentence summary: our landlord is selling the house we rented for the past six years, and (long story short) we wound up buying a very sweet little mid-century home less than a mile away. It’s adorable and has a beautiful yard, and although the past six months were incredibly fatiguing, everyone is settling in nicely and oh, I love this house so much.
There. We’re all caught up. Now I can write! I’m going back to the practice I had just barely begun to cultivate in January when the landlord’s bombshell email arrived: posting a single photo, not necessarily related to the post, often pulled up from the archives here via whatever random search term jumps into my head, but now—now that I have this lovely bit of earth to play in—sometimes a new picture taken in my morning ramble around the yard. And then I can write for a few minutes, warming myself up for work on the novel.
I wake up earliest of all the family and I relish my gentle time in my favorite chair—now with a rooftop view, if I turn my head a little, of blue mountains in the distance, and plenty of sky. During these last few months of the move (we closed in April, got Covid for the first time in May, and did the heavy lifting in June), my nourishing morning practices fell away one by one, and I often started the day with Stardew Valley and social media—the former a respite from thought, the latter a really unwise choice for beginning the day in a state of equilibrium.
This week (not only the move behind us, but a trip to the East Coast, and then a very tight deadline to meet, so that I didn’t really felt like this new chapter of life had properly begun until yesterday) I’m returning with profound relief to my old habit of Poetry Before Screens. I thought it would be a lot harder to ditch the dopamine slot machines I’ve been reaching for first thing, but I was wrong. I woke up yesterday relieved and hungry: hungry for a particular kind of nourishment, like when you’re craving a good salad after a few days of fast food.
Yesterday: a few poems from Henri Cole’s Middle Earth (I’m going to love this book, I can see already) and then I reread some of my own notebook entries from December—bread crumbs, I discovered, leading me back to what I think of as my Shining Intention: to treat all the primary areas of my life as art. Family, house, work, health, and, yes, my creative practices, my literal art-making. Not all of them, all the time (and of course you can see there are things I’ve omitted: friendships, for one; parts of life I value deeply but can’t give first priority to—which means I’m thinking about my friends much more often than they know). But much and as often as I can manage. The words help get me out of my head and into the present moment. Remember your Shining Intention. I feel as if I used to live this way (even if I didn’t have that language for it) for many, many years; but the stresses of the past few years shoved it out of my mind.
It came back to me in December and then went on a shelf in January. I did try, often, to experience the house-hunt, the move, the whole exhausting, distracting upheaval, as art, but I never really got there. Every thought circled back to the to-do list. There were only flashes—washing our empty floors with Murphy’s Oil soap, one of the best smells in the world, in April after we took possession of the house but long before we moved in—and the scent of honeysuckle (the actual best scent in the world) meeting me in the garden on an early-morning walk—and the joy of watching some rather glorious sunsets from our bedroom windows, a view I hadn’t realized came with the house.
Flashes, but will-o’-the-wisps, easy to lose sight of as you pick your way through the swamp.
I can hear in these (perhaps a bit dramatic) words how exhausted I am. But rest feels possible, now. Not time off work—not a vacation—but something better (for me, at least)—a daily rhythm that intersperses work with plenty of down time. Like this hour right here! A quiet space with books, and art, and a blank page beckoning.
Look how much I needed to write! I didn’t even get to today’s perusal of Lydia Davis and Grace Paley, who hit me like a bolt of lightning.
This was my works-in-progress array in Sept 2021. I finished most of these up, abandoned one, and am still working on another. Slooooowly!
At least once a week I like to make quick notes about my stitching projects in progress. This is mainly to help me keep track of what I’m working on so that nothing gets lost if I tidy up. I usually do this in my notebook, but I thought it might be fun to see if I can make a Sunday habit of it here.
The hitch will be photos, so no promises there. Or maybe just a quick snap like the one above? None today, I can’t be bothered.
Projects I actively worked on this week:
• I finished hemming the rust-colored linen square and added it to my wrapping-cloth pile for next year.
• Scott ripped a hole in his jeans so I did a quick mend.
• KZ Stevens dropped the pattern for her Wide-Strap Crossbody Bag! I’ve been eyeing her example pics on Instagram and hoped she’d be offering the pattern soon. I snapped it up in a hurry and cut the exterior fabric on Saturday morning from some red and blue linen fat quarters I had on hand. Chose a striped cotton for the lining. Hand-sewed the two shorter linen strips to either side of the big red block. Spent ages last night looking at my idea files to see what I might like to embroider on the fabric before I assemble the bag. Found something that lit me up: a painting of little watercolor circles I made when I took Lisa Solomon’s Color Meditations class on Creativebug in 2020. Last night I tried a few stitch variations on my scratchpad hoop and decided on satin stitch with some variegated floss to mimic the watercolor effect. Hoping for time to start stitching this evening.
This watercolor exercise was immensely satisfying and I’m excited to translate it to satin stitch
• I put in a little time on the needlepainted dandelion hoop. Really glad I made good notes about floss colors before the holidays because I’d be hopelessly lost now if I were trying to dive back in cold.
That’s it for this week! I need to go finish my Sunday housework (Sunday seems to be the day I’m best able to lavish attention on the house), and then I ought to be able to stitch this evening after dinner.
Updated to add: I made a quick and (in keeping with the topic) totally unedited audio recording of this post, if you’d prefer to listen. I just used the voice notes app on my phone, and to close up some longish pauses, I selected the “skip silences” option, which has pros and cons. It’s good enough for now.
Am I doing the math right? It’s about to be 2023, and I started my blog in Jan. 2005—so: it’s about to turn 18? Holy cats.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reflection about this blog and all the other places I’ve engaged in online discourse. I’m holding most of that reflection close to the vest for now, but what I can say is that my line of thought this past year has been heavily focused on the way this blog used to support my writing life, and the ways my pattern has shifted over the years.
One thing I’ve been keenly aware of is that navigating multiple platforms—necessary at times, for good reasons—has often left me feeling scattered, digitally speaking, unsure what to put where. My Patreon (in addition to paying off the hefty medical bills of 2017) was meant to cover the overhead costs of Bonny Glen. In practice, though, I found myself constantly waffling over what to post where. Here or there or social or where?
During the pandemic years, the decision fatigue—bane of my existence—has had a dampening effect on my writing process overall. I’ve begun, and left in drafts, dozens, possibly hundreds of posts. Blog, Patreon, newsletter, Medium, Instagram. As my old Astoria landlord used to say: It’s too much! It’s too much!
Another major factor in diminished blogging was the end of Feedburner’s posts-by-email function. Some of you will remember when I tried a substitute, with unfortunate (ad-icky) results. Absent that feature, and with social networks playing algorithm games with us all the time, readers have to actually go to a blog to see if there’s a new post. A few readers still use an aggregator, like Feedly, but not many. (I do have extremely high hopes for Reader, though—a new offering from Readwise, which became my favorite platform of 2022.)
Substack has perks as a platform, but—like Patreon—much of its content lives behind a paywall, and as a reader I thoroughly grok the impossibility of paying for individual subscriptions to a whole bunch of Substacks. Medium, at least, offers access to all paywalled posts for about the same monthly cost as a single Substack sub. But getting any kind of visibility on Medium is a whole nother challenge, a boring one.
And it’s all—aha, here I’m getting to the heart of it—work. It takes time. A lot, lot, lot of time. But this blog was never intended to steal time from writing my books—it was meant to support my work. I’ve written often about the role it has played in my reading/writing/thinking/mothering life, and that’s part of the more recent reflections I’m holding close for now.
What I will say is this:
Over the past several years, I’ve experimented with half a dozen strategies for refocusing my blog habits. Nothing succeeded at beating back the scatter factor. So in September, I tried something new. I put my Patreon on pause and dialed back on all forms of posting. No newsletter, not much action here on the blog, very little social media activity. I needed the break.
But privately, I was trying to restore the practice of daily blog-style writing—capturing my thoughts about what I was reading, watching, experiencing. And now, with lots of things bubbling behind the scenes, I’m ready to return to posting. But posting within some self-imposed parameters.
1. Since work and family responsibilities tend to come in intense waves, keeping to a regular posting schedule has been difficult-to-impossible for me. For that reason, and to mitigate the scatter factor, I’m keeping my Patreon on pause indefinitely. I’ll miss the egg money, but right now it’s more important that my blog is a delicious respite from work rather than another kind of job.
2. I’m not going to bother with affiliate links anymore either. I switched from Amazon to Bookshop.org a while ago, but (much as I love Bookshop) that creates even more work. (Amazon’s tools are faster, basically.) I may leave affiliate portal links in my sidebar, but I’m not going to take the extra time to grab specific book links any more.
3. Photos: another form of busywork. What I’ve been doing this past year is just entering loosely related keywords into my WordPress media library and choosing one of the old pics that pops up. I may also take advantage of Readwise’s lovely quote graphics because they require only a quick tap.
4. Similarly, I’m not going to bother much with design. My WordPress has a built-in analysis feature that loves to scold me for using too many words/too few keywords/too few subheadings/too few images/too complex a vocabulary. To which I say: Pffffttthhhht! See, what I’ve learned is: subheadings make a piece of writing feel like an essay or article, not an old-school chatty blog post, not an even-older-school letter from a friend. And essays and articles, while a form of writing I love to read and sometimes write, are not what I’m turning up in this space for. I need a place for shoes-off, hair-down writing. Warty writing, even.
5. How to let people know there’s something new! Last year I planned to round up posts in a monthly newsletter. This required both a) posts and b) sending a monthly newsletter. I did not much of either. What I think I’ll try instead is just sending a newsletter whenever I have three or four posts to share. No fixed schedule. You can sign up for my newsletter here, if you’d like.
6. And finally, as for posts themselves—the heart of this endeavor. There again, no pressures, no expectations. Just thinking out loud about what I’m reading and doing, as of old—but without any of the busywork that has often made it feel like a job. (Sending a quick newsletter isn’t arduous if it’s just to say—like Tonia Peckover or Three Ravens—here’s something new I wrote.)
So that’s what I’m thinking about my digital writing life as 2022 rolls to a close.
This year, I stopped wearing a Fitbit because I was weary of feeling like I hadn’t taken “enough” steps yet. I stopped caring about streaks in everything except Duolingo. (I’m learning Welsh, and I’ve been obsessed for [checks notes] 112 days.) I think I’ve logged barely half of my year’s reading at Goodreads—another intensely busyworky site, if you care about certain fiddly details. I’m sick of metrics. I keep thinking about that bit in A Ring of Endless Light where Vicky’s younger sister, Suzy, is more or less volunteering at a bait shop (something like that), and she comes home every day and flops into a chair with melodramatic fatigue, and the rest of the family is like, well if it’s so exhausting, why are you doing this totally voluntary thing? How about you just…don’t?
Here’s to walking away from the bait shop, friends, if that’s what you feel like doing. Here’s to a year of rest and restoration for all of us. Here’s to reading what you feel like reading, and deleting what you feel like deleting, and writing like your best friend is going to college on the other side of the country in 1989.
In the course of writing this post, I’ve thought of about six other things I want to write about. Which is, of course, the reason I blog in the first place.
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.
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’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.)