As always, I started many more books than I finished. Some of them will make their way onto my next-quarter list. I’ve been enjoying choosing a collection of essays and several books of poems to savor slowly through a season (or two). Right now this includes collections by the Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark and a leisurely meander through Christian McEwan’s World Enough and Time.
Writing booklists makes me want to drop everything and read. But reading something wonderful makes me want to drop everything and write. Writing compels further reading. Research generates new booklists. I have no complaints about this cycle. It’s as thrilling to me as the cycle of seasonal growth and dormancy. Speaking of which—it’s the season for gardening books!
We’re making another video in April, and you can be part of it! Look for more information at lowbarchorale.com or on our Facebook page. The next song will be announced at our April 6 “Bowieversary” livestream.
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.)
I’ve been reading a lot of Natalie Goldberg in preparation for a workshop I’m taking this month. She always makes me wild to write, write, write—but reading her this time around, a year into pandemic hibernation, she’s also making ache for coffee shops and sleepy afternoon pubs. Walking down Fremont Street to the sports bar whose back room was all empty tables between three and six, passing the stone retaining wall with the succulents sprouting from every cranny, the yard with the hollyhocks towering over my head, the yard with the two small dogs who tore furiously around the corner of the house to proclaim their hatred and suspicion of all passersby, especially me. Except once when the growlier of the two wasn’t around, and the other dog trotted right up to the fence, wagging, interested, asking for my phone number. The next time I passed, the angry dog was back, insisting on warfare, and our promising friendship was shattered.
Tulip trees and daffodils on the median strip. A pair of shoes neatly lined up next to a port-a-potty in front of a house undergoing renovations. For weeks, those shoes stayed exactly put. Sneakers, once white, now gray, but no scuffs, not much sign of wear. The story behind those shoes—their precise placement beside the blue metal outhouse, not a millimeter out of line with each other—tormented and entertained me during weeks of walks while I was revising Nerviest Girl.
My revision was due in April (2019), and as the weather got lovelier and the spring more exuberant, I found I wanted to walk farther, so I would keep going, past the barber shop, the tiny art gallery, the quiet pub; past Goodwill truck in the corner lot next to the cemetery where coyotes are rumored to make their home; past the family-owned restaurant that got ruined by being declared the home of the best hamburger in America; past the donut shop whose line always stretched out the door and down the block, even in rain. Past pizza parlors and yoga studios and bakeries to—of all places, on that stretch of quirky indie shops—Starbucks. Such a cliché! But a place with good light, where I could park for hours without feeling guilty. I’m not a coffee drinker and I only like good Southern sweet iced tea, but the berry Refreshers are okay, and sometimes I treated myself to an almond croissant. I got buckets of work done at the window tables in that establishment, that spring, summer, fall. And the winter before, and the whole year before that, I spent so many afternoons writing in the dim back room of the sports bar that for a while Huck actually thought I had a job there.
If I got to Starbucks by three, I had a solid hour of quiet writing time before the kids streamed in from the middle-school down the street. Then I would lose long stretches to eavesdropping. By 4:30 the students had drifted out, and the after-yoga crowd would arrive, and parents with small kids on the way to activities, and a few college students meeting their tutors. I usually found another burst of focus and wrote until just shy of six. Sometimes I walked home up Klickitat Street, a very slight detour with hundreds more flowers, and other times, especially in rain, I’d stick to Fremont, and Scott would drive to pick me up, usually meeting me on the long cemetery block.
After Daylight Savings Time ended in the fall of 2019, I stopped making the walk—it got dark so early and my studio was cozier. Then my surgery in February, and I wasn’t going anywhere for a while—dozens of stitches and two black eyes. And then, of course, March. I love my studio and spend a silly amount of hours in here—work, play, rest, even doing ballet lessons on Youtube, using my bookcase as a barre. But oh, how I look forward to venturing out to coffee shops again!
Does the little white dog still loathe the universe? Will the brown dog remember he wanted to be friends?
Are the white sneakers still lined up side by side?
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!
I’ve been meaning to share this all week! Last Saturday, my beloved pub-sing choir (still singing together, sans pub, via Facebook Live events, since last March) unveiled our second virtual chorale video: a Valentine’s-themed performance of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” It delights me that we can make music together even when we’re all scattered in our homes. And once we went virtual, people from around the world began to join us. For this video, we had over 175 contributors from more than a dozen countries.
During the next live show on Feb. 23rd, Low Bar Chorale‘s musical director, the incredible Ben Landsverk, will announce the song for our March virtual choir video. You can participate, if you’re interested! The Tuesday-night FB Live events (every other week) are a socially-distanced way to sing: Ben is onscreen, teaching harmonies and singing, sometimes solo, sometimes accompanied by a video of the Low Bar Chorale Band (which is phenomenal). You can watch quietly or sing along from home, whatever you like. (It’s not a Zoom thing—no one else can hear you.)
So—Tuesday night live shows, viewable in replay videos by visiting Low Bar Chorale’s FB page; and occasional virtual group performances like “God Only Knows” and “In Your Eyes.” Two ways to pour some magical music into your days. I would love to see your face in one of these little squares next time!
My first encounter with our local crocus patch, Feb 4, 2018
In the neighborhood:
• The snowdrops and crocuses are blooming, and the daffodil stems are getting tall. It’s time to visit the nearby park that becomes a field of purple and yellow crocuses this time of year. Most park-goers here seem to be good with masks, so hopefully we can safely meander along the paths.
In my reading life:
• Our Wrinkle in Time readaloud is getting to the exciting part. Yesterday, Huck and Rilla (along with Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace) got their first glimpse of the shadow blotting out a swath of stars. Things are about to get intense!
• Library books keep expiring on my Kindle before I get through them. This is poor patronage on my part! (Given the hefty prices libraries pay for e-books, which have a finite number of check-outs and then must be repurchased.) The blessing of rabbit-trailing is also its curse: I encounter more books than I can possibly read, ever, ever. Currently in progress: Good Habits, Bad Habitsby Wendy Wood; Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari; The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner; The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis; and (oh the irony) Start Finishing by Charlie Gilkey. Oh, and Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog, for which I’ll be writing a Brave Writer Dart this month.
• Oh but of course there are hard copies in my hands too! My friend Michelle reminded me of Christian McEwen’s World Enough and Time, which I bought a year ago but hadn’t begun. If you’re a Patreon subscriber, you know I have now begun reading it at last, and I’m adoring it. Am also midway through a reread of Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic.
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!