It’s been nearly a month since my last post here, and over a month since I shared any of my own photos on Instagram. This time, the silence was intentional, an awareness that I needed to sit quietly and read and learn, amplifying voices other than my own. I’m working through Mia Birdsong’s antiracism resource list, reading more slowly than is my usual gulping habit. I’m trying to listen more than I speak.
(Facebook friends will know I’ve not been totally quiet over there—that’s the space where I feel most compelled to speak out, for reasons that probably merit unpacking. That’s for another post, though.)
I’ve been wondering when I would come back to this space, and to Instagram, which is where I express myself in visual images—not planning for it, just allowing the tide to carry me back. I never feel entirely myself when I’m not blogging. Last year I read Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work and thought: aha, that’s it, that’s what I was doing for a solid decade on Bonny Glen—showing my work, thinking out loud, writing to discover what I know and what I think. Learning in public.
Of course, it was easier to “show my work” when the main part of my work was homeschooling young children. Thinking my way through various educational philosophies, curating resources, and chronicling our daily learning adventures—these were practices that felt fluid and natural. Inevitable, even. Once I made up my mind about how best to approach our home education experience, I found I had less to say—just as my feverish urge to discuss a book subsides after I finish reading it.
I wrote (a much longer version of) the above across two mornings. And now today I’ve written a new post, which I thought I was going to put on Patreon but (you’ll see me thinking through it below) decided to move over here, which means now I need to go through and reverse all the heres and theres of the first draft. And it’s getting late! Breakfast is nudging me. But I’m not ready to stop. If I include this morning’s efforts, this post will be monstrously long. Maybe that’s to be expected after a month away!
I’ve been driving myself a little bit crazy in the mornings. You’d think the quarantine would have seen me sinking deeper into the creative practice that nourished me all last year—the early rising, the yoga-stretching while water boiled for my cocoa, the fervent commitment to Poetry Before Screens, the writing of morning pages or what Holly Wren Spaulding calls “zero drafts” of poems, the heady feeling of having written, no matter what else the day brought. How gratifying to have the time and space for this practice; how satisfying to feel well begun each day. You’d think!
Instead, I’ve let my good habits slip, one by one. Standing in the kitchen reading Twitter while the water boils? Ah, there’s the whole thing dashed in one swoop. No stretching, no poetry, screens first. The most agitating kind of screen. One tiny choice each morning: which domino chain will I set off?
I resisted the Twitter urge today, the gnawing desire to see what happened in the night, in the East Coast morning while I slept (good thing, because the news of the Trump administration’s renewed efforts to cancel our healthcare would have utterly derailed any creative activity). It drains you, exercising willpower constantly. That’s why habits are so important; they remove the need to expend mental energy on constant choosing.
I worked hard to build good habits around creative practice. If I start my mornings reading—poems, essays, not news—I’ll want to write. Every time, simple as that. Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, for example, sends me soaring and makes my pen twitch.
This morning I kept my rules, and here I am writing. I had a laughing revelation about myself a few minutes ago: I’d followed the steps of my creative practice faithfully, reading all the right things, and I’ve been trying (even, or especially, on the Twitter mornings) to do a tiny two-minute meditation to clear my mind for writing—just two minutes! With an aim to work up to five. This morning I couldn’t make it thirty seconds—and it hit me that what always happens, half a minute or a minute into silence and breathing, is that my mind starts writing. I wrench focus back to breath and two seconds later I’m scribbling another line in my head.
It was comical, suddenly, to realize that I’ve been trying to cultivate a habit that will help me write, and then I exasperatedly push away the writing that wants to interrupt the habit. It struck me as a bit like swatting away the action verb to focus on the helping verb. (And maybe that’s the point of meditation—sitting quietly with “I am” instead of leaping, scrawling, dashing.)
Laughing at myself shattered the silence and I gave in to the impulse to reach for my notebook. I wanted to write down the path my reading had taken before I tried to meditate.
—A Holly Wren Spaulding post featuring a Ron Padgett poem, “How to Be Perfect.”
—Linked in the post, an exchange of letters between Padgett and a bright young student about Padgett’s delightfully inscrutable poem “Nothing in That Drawer.”
—An Austin Kleon newsletter, which I can always trust to send me in good, writery directions. Such as:
• this article about the arson-suspected burning of Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire sculpture in the Presidio (reminding me, because of a long-ago Goldsworthy connection, of John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic, which I should think about rereading);
• a mention of zuihitsu (re Kenko’s Essays in Idleness), which reminded me I meant to read Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, purchased months ago on a recommendation from Kimiko Hahn in her exquisite zuihitsu collection, The Narrow Road to the Interior
—Tonia Peckover’s new blog post, especially this:
In the garden this morning, I noticed the cool-weather crops have been lingering around longer than usual and the summer plants are still small and unsteady, different than other late Junes – but not surprising for this cool and rainy one we’ve just had. There is no sense of frustration there, no anxiety vibrating off the tomato leaves. I want to live by such confidence, content with the sun I am given, and the rain when it falls, taking what I can and growing. I admit I am not there yet.
I have notebooks full of these connection-lists, each entry dissolving into original writing, notes toward poems or posts. It strikes me that I used to do this kind of chronicling of the day’s rabbit trails here on the blog almost daily! Those collections of thought are invaluable to me now, and they’re much easier to revisit in my blog archives than in my heap of crammed notebooks.
I’m sure there’s a reason I needed to spend the past year writing by hand, but I’ve become frustrated with the aftermath: I can’t get to the particular note or draft I’m looking for without paging through half a dozen Leuchtturms. (Not to mention the expense. That paper is a dream to write on, but those purchases were a thing of the Before Times. My quarantine reality is: use what you have.)
I’m uneasily aware that one reason I keep dropping the blogging habit is because of my Patreon. I have the hardest time deciding where a post belongs. There, because it’s about creative practice? Here, where I’ve stashed fifteen years’ worth of booknotes? There, where I have a bit more privacy, which changes how I write? Here, where search engines can find me (meaning I’ll have an easier time, myself, finding references and quotes later)?
For better or for worse, today it’s going here.
I wrote that line on Patreon and then immediately decided, nope, wrong spot. So here it is, all of it. Way leading on to way.
This is me, showing my work.
andy goldsworthy, austin kleon, creative practice, holly wren spaulding, John Stilgoe, kimiko hahn, mia birdsong, Patreon, poetry before screens, ron padgett, ross gay, tonia peckover, zuihitsu
It’s Saturday morning and I’m lazing in bed, drinking cocoa and dipping lightly into social media, which I mostly ignored this week. Saturdays are the only mornings my alarm isn’t set for 5:45. I could sleep later on weekdays but my two boys get up around 6:45 and I really love having that quiet hour to read and write. I’m committed to the practice of poetry before screens, even if some days it’s a bit of a wrench to drag myself out of bed that early. This week was extra challenging because I take allergy medicine at bedtime, and its soporific effects last into the morning. Portland’s spring is spectacularly lovely but it also wants to kill me a little.
I could take the meds earlier but I’m equally time-greedy about my evenings. I try to use 7-9pm as another block for creative work, with a break in the middle to go tuck in my Huckleberry, for whom this is still an important ritual. (My last little kid, y’all…Rilla became a teenager this month. Can you believe it?) Then Scott and I watch an hour of TV, and then I read in bed for a while, where “read” means “hold my Kindle in front of unseeing eyes until Scott gently removes it from my hand.” Often I turn on the Kindle next morning to discover I highlighted random phrases as I dozed off, like:
tics. The simple action of sweeping
Norman was unaffected by her because
Uh, super helpful there, sleepy Lissa.
I learned last summer that as our Pacific Northwest evenings lengthen, I won’t be able to resist that magical golden-hour light, so the 7-9pm time block for creative work will give way to long walks, and I’ll have to find other ways to create room for playing with color and words. Of course in a way my whole day revolves around those activities: reading to and chatting with the kids, doing art projects together, working on various writing projects in the afternoons. But I’ve learned I need to give myself chunks of time for creative play that has no end-purpose—no deadlines, no expectations to meet. Lately I’ve been enjoying drawing houseplants—on index cards, mostly, because that’s the ultimate low-pressure canvas—or doing Procreate tutorials on the iPad. (I’m trying to catch up to Rilla and Beanie. Their Procreate skills far surpass mine.)
Not that I have any wish to hurry spring along! I could linger here for another three or four months. My bitterroot is just beginning to bloom, and the dogwoods are in full glory. I remember last May as a month full of swoons—the light, mostly, that miraculous glow illuminating the clouds every evening, turning the air blue and gold.
I may be getting carried away with photos—I have hundreds like this from last spring.
Some quick notes on things we read this past week:
—Began a readaloud of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, a lovely novel by Grace Lin. I wrote a BraveWriter Arrow guide for this book last year; it was one of my favorites from the year’s lineup. I’ve been looking forward all year to enjoying it with Huck and Rilla.
—Continued our nostalgia-read of Brambly Hedge. It’s slow going because Rilla and I have to spend long minutes cooing over every tiny detail in the art.
—Rilla (my resident green thumb) and I have also spend loads of time poring over my treasured-since-college copy of Crockett’s Indoor Garden. Rilla has taken charge of the houseplant-watering schedule, which is marvelous since I’ve been…unreliable on that front these past two years. My goldfish plant is getting ready to bloom, we repotted the aeschynanthus, Rilla’s jade cutting, and a few other overcrowded treasures. Rilla has a small succulent collection that began with cuttings given to her by a neighbor whose cat she looked after for a week last summer, augmented by plants harvested from a beautiful succulent wreath my sister gave me for Christmas. And this week we inherited a large fennel volunteer that was taking over my friend Ron’s vegetable bed. Trying to decide whether to plant it in a pot or in the small raised garden bed out back. The latter was probably sundrenched when it was built, but now the neighbor’s magnolia is leaning over it, casting heavy shade over the bed for much of the day. Our fennel will probably prefer a spot on the sunny front steps.
My parents gave Rilla a big box of flower bulbs for her birthday (thirteen! did I mention?!)—dahlias, daylilies, glads, and I forget what else. So those will be going into pots this weekend. Luckily we inherited a dozen large clay pots from yet another neighbor who was clearing out her garage before a move. And a big bag of potting soil! Such riches!
My rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, and chives survived the winter. The basil, not so much. (Its demise was expected.) The potted blueberry has buds and there’s a nice fat poppy coming up where I planned to repot the dahlia tuber Ron gave me when we moved in. My yarrow is looking lush and the foxglove has gone bananas! No flower stalks yet but the leaves are huge and abundant. And my tulips, oh! I can’t get enough of them.
But I’m supposed to be writing booknotes here! Apart from things I enjoyed with the kids, I didn’t get much reading done this week—I had an unusual number of out-of-the-house events in the evenings. I’m enjoying Austin Kleon’s latest, though—Keep Going. Come to think of it, I read that one with the kids as well—they love his artwork.
I’m about halfway through Mike Monteiro’s Ruined By Design, which is thought-provoking and somewhat chilling.
The world is working exactly as designed.
The combustion engine which is destroying our planet’s atmosphere and rapidly making it inhospitable is working exactly as we designed it. Guns, which lead to so much death, work exactly as they’re designed to work. And every time we “improve” their design, they get better at killing….
Design is also a craft with a lot of blood on its hands. Every cigarette ad is on us. Every gun is on us. Every ballot that a voter cannot understand is on us. Every time social network’s interface allows a stalker to find their victim, that’s on us. The monsters we unleash into the world will carry your name.
This book will make you see that design is a political act. What we choose to design is a political act. Who we choose to work for is a political act. Who we choose to work with is a political act. And, most importantly, the people we’ve excluded from these decisions is the biggest (and stupidest) political act we’ve made as a society.
Fascinating and unsettling, and it feels like an important conversation for this moment in time.
Today I’m in the mood for some entertaining fiction—maybe another Terry Pratchett since I so enjoyed The Wee Free Men. My only highlight in the Kindle edition: “an egg’s worth of education.” I read it aloud to the kids so that fragment can’t have been the thunk of a sleeping hand on the screen. I guess I just liked the notion! (Tiffany barters eggs for knowledge when the scholars come to town.)
This week on Medium I shared a peek at how I used a Trello board to help with my novel revision. And squee—the most exciting moment of my week—my editor sent me the cover sketch for my new book and it’s fabulous! I can’t wait to share it. The artist is brilliant and the sketch just crackles with energy. I’m so happy. I think we’ll have final art for it quite soon. Of course the book doesn’t pub until summer 2020, but seeing the title in print makes it feel very real!
Happy last-weekend-in-April, my dears. I’d love to hear what you’re reading and planting!
Ahhhh. Here it is, the day I’ve been working toward. There was no nice clean line between buried under work and wooo I’m free!—it’s been a gradual digging-out process, like shoveling snow. But my walks are clear now and I can at least emerge from the cave.
I’m blinking a bit. It’s ironic that this hemisphere is heading toward its darkest, coldest season, and here I am feeling like spring is on the way. The icicles haven’t even formed yet and I’m already hearing them drip. Sometimes the seasons of our personal lives don’t sync up with what’s happening in nature.
I’m glad, though, that the chilly weather, the rain, the early dark, will keep me physically cloistered a bit longer. I need some time to regroup, to restore balance. And of course there’s the holidays to consider…I’ve just barely begun the shopping and the house is still wearing autumn clothes.
This time last year I started a practice of writing Morning Pages a la Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Three pages longhand immediately upon waking, before opening any tabs or apps. I kept it up for a couple of months, then fizzled out. Resumed the practice in June and shifted my work routine so that right after finishing my morning pages, I worked on the novel for a couple of hours before breakfast. That was a wonderfully productive schedule for two or three months, and then summer ended and the family’s morning rhythm changed, and I had less solo time before breakfast. I dropped the morning pages and kept plugging away at the novel.
I’m shifting back now to my summertime rhythm, with tweaks. Up early, twenty minutes of quiet writing time, then Huck joins me in the studio for an early morning snuggle and chat. We watch the black sky fade to navy blue, steel blue, sky blue streaked with cream-colored clouds. The birds wake up, crows winging past the window, goldfinches arriving at the feeder, juncoes perching on the rain dome. Steven wakes for school and comes in to tear off the page on my ‘year of tiny pleasures‘ calendar. Then both boys scoot out to get their breakfast and I try to work for another hour or two. The temptation to climb back in bed next to Scott for a few minutes is strong, and some mornings I succumb. Never for long, because he gets up to make Steve’s lunch, and then the bus comes, and the girls begin arriving in the kitchen, and the busy day has begun.
For the next few weeks, instead of morning pages I’m going to do the lessons in Holly Wren Spaulding‘s 21 Day Poetry Challenge. I’m excited: I don’t think I’d be enthusiastic about getting up in the early dark on these cold December mornings just to write my morning pages. (I find the pages to be a valuable practice, but I don’t enjoy writing them. I’ve never been a journaler.) The theme for Holly’s course is “interior,” which is just right for this change-of-season I’m in. I also plan to choose a corresponding art practice for these twenty-one days, something simple—a daily sketch of some kind, perhaps sparked by a Creativebug* lesson, perhaps just something on my desk. My sketchbook practice has been a bit sporadic of late, although I did manage some good work this fall.
I recently read Austin Kleon‘s Show Your Work, a book that felt like a fresh pair of batteries for my blog. It made me realize that “showing my work” was exactly what I did here from 2005-2015: I was thinking out loud, learning in public, about homeschooling and parenting. Tidal Homeschooling grew out of that pondering. My sketchbook habit great out of it. A lot of things grew out of it! And I realized that’s what I want to return to. I don’t yet know where in the day a regular blog practice will fit but I plan to spend December playing with rhythm to see if something clicks.
What does your December look like?
*That’s an affiliate link because there’s a sweet deal on right now: three months of Creativebug for $1. I consider our CB subscription to be the best five dollars I spend every month.