I typed “January” into my media library and this African violet from several years back is what popped up. Today’s windowsill looks much the same.
Updated to add audio again! Like yesterday, I recorded this in one gulp on my phone. It’ll have hiccups, but if I start trying to polish it up, I’ll never be able to stick with this. Thanks for understanding!
Oh my goodness, what a delight to wake up to so many comments from old blog-world friends! I really really want to get in the habit of dashing off a quick post every day, probably around lunchtime, because otherwise I’ll start doing the thing where a half-written draft takes on too much weight and I never come back to it.
I am terribly fond of containers. I used to have such a good one for blogging—the necessarily short transition from mom hat to writer hat. If I spent too long on a post, I’d lose my window for writing, and I had pretty intense book deadlines when I started this blog (and a lot of bairns) so I didn’t have any windows to spare.
My day still falls pretty neatly into a mom focus and a work focus, but the rhythms are quite different now that I’m only homeschooling Huck and Rilla—who, if you’ve lost track—are now both in their teens, and now that I do a lot of freelance work in addition to writing my own books. I’m prone to catapulting straight from lesson time into work brain without taking a breather. (Or else I dip into social media and take too long a breather!)
Well, I’ll try this midday container for blogging and see how it goes. My friend Chris O’Donnell—who has been blogging longer than anyone I know—made me laugh on Facebook this morning with his New Year’s Eve post: Happy “I will write more on my blog and less on social media next year” night to all who celebrate. Ha! I can’t deny that that shoe fits!
Okay, SO. As I read your comments, a slew of replies and post ideas rolodexed through my brain. I made a list. I made several lists. This is so energizing! Thanks, seriously, for jumping right back into conversation here. You made my day.
Question: if I reply to a comment, do you see it? I used to have an option for readers to get comment replies by email, but I feel like that stopped working a long time ago. Just curious.
My gravatar isn’t working, either! But some of yours are. I mean, I logged into my gravatar account and it still appears to be linked to this one, but the pic doesn’t show up.
Well, that’s cosmetic and not all that important. I promise I’ll stop being 100% metabloggy soon. But, you know, first you have to tune up the jalopy before you can take it for a spin! 😄
I liked, yesterday, that I landed on the idea that our old blog conversations were like letters from friends. They didn’t always feel that way, but they often did—chatty glimpses of life in someone else’s world. I’ve always loved a good epistolary tome! I remember so happily the leap of the heart at seeing a friend’s particular handwriting in the mail, and that’s how it felt when your names popped up here yesterday.
All righty. Lunch is over and I’m ready to get back to the household-reset that is my much beloved New Year’s Day tradition. I did the files this morning and now I want to tackle some bookshelves. And it’s sunny today! In Portland, in January! I think Scott & I will take a walk after he finishes chopping an onion for the black-eyed peas.
I’ve already overhauled my studio for the season, and I’m half giddy over the enticing rows on the little built-in shelves next to my writing chair: a shelf for poetry, one for fiction and nonfiction (currently reading or at the front of the queue), and one for embroidery and art books. Heaven. The two books delighting me most at the moment are Padraig O’Tuama’s perfectly wonderful Poetry Unbound (which I forgot I’d preordered until it arrived—on my birthday!) and Gareth King’s Modern Welsh: A Comprehensive Grammar. It sounds funny to say I’m enthralled by a grammar book, but I am! Both for the clarity he brings to the concepts I’ve learned in three months of study on Duolingo and Say Something in Welsh, and for his descriptivist approach to language, which is so in keeping with my own approach and the vibe of the Brave Writer programs I write for.
I want to say more about the Say Something In courses soon—I’m wildly enthusiastic, and if you or your kids are studying Welsh, Spanish, or Dutch, you should check them out—and more, too, about Readwise and some of the things you mentioned in the comments. And Moominmamma, that post has been percolating for a while.
So much to talk about, once I start talking.
Well, I said I wanted to dash off a post and I have, in the sense that I wrote it rapidly and haven’t gone back to polish anything at all—but I didn’t promise it would be a short one. I’m not a novelist for nothing. 😉
Reading, writing, thinking.
Drawing, stitching, walking.
Singing (in groups when possible).
And an endeavor I’m thinking of as: Use it or lose it. Some would call it decluttering, but that’s a word that has lost meaning for me since it translates (in my past actions to): jumble all the clutter into a box and stash it in the garage to deal with later. The Swedish term döstädning aptly describes my intentions—getting rid of all your extra stuff sooner rather than later, so it doesn’t become someone else’s problem—but I can’t bring myself to put “death cleaning” on a list. Anyway, it freaks out the children, especially in Pandemic Year 3.
But seriously: I want to use up all the fabric, floss, paints, and pens I’ve acquired. And (gasp) I guess we really don’t need to hold on to Math-U-See Alpha anymore—not with my youngest poised to begin Geometry this week.
And books, these mountains of books.
Speaking of which
Here’s a touch of serendipity in my reading life (which is kind of redundant—any real reading life is going to be loaded with crossovers and connections):
And struggled! For hours. But before I get to the struggle, the serendipity. Late in the evening, straining to stay awake for the kids’ jubilant countdown, I opened a review copy of The Twelve Monotasks by Thatcher Wine. First monotask (that is, the first endeavor to train or retrain yourself to do with full presence, not multitasking): reading. And there was Proust and the Squid being quoted—a passage similar to something I’d underlined in Reader, Come Home just hours earlier.
With the invention of reading, Wolf writes, “we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.”
Able to think
In Reader, Come Home, Wolf explores this concept in great depth, with detailed explanations of what’s actually happening in the circuitry of our brains as we read—and how those circuits are being altered by the kinds of reading we do now, the short bursts, rapid flitting, and homogenized hot takes of our sundry feeds. To read deeply, critically, in a way that allows for long-term memory and for synthesis of ideas, we must read deliberately, with single focus.
I really struggled to stay in sharp focus while reading Wolf’s book yesterday. I helped myself along by taking copious notes in a fresh notebook (a lovely blue gift from Jane). I kept at it for much longer than my brain wanted. It felt urgent, a diving into the deep end and flailing, half drowning, until my mind rediscovered old neural pathways and remembered how to swim.
A striking moment in Wolf’s book is her confession, midway through, that she too—while drafting this very book—discovered she had forgotten how to swim in deep water.
I set up an experiment…My null hypothesis, if you will, was that I had not changed my reading style; rather, only the time I had available for reading had changed. I could prove that simply enough by controlling for it by setting aside the same amount of time every day and faithfully observing my own reading of a linguistically difficult, conceptually demanding novel, one that had been one of my favorite books when I was younger. I would know the plot. There would be no suspense or mystery involved. I would have only to analyze what I was doing during my reading in the same way that I might analyze what a person with dyslexia does when he or she is reading in my research center.
With little hesitation I chose Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi, also known as The Glass Bead Game, which was cited when Hesse received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. To say I began the experiment with the most cheerful of dispositions is no exaggeration. I was practically gleeful at the idea that I would be forcing myself to reread one of the most influential books of my earlier years.
Force became the operative word. When I began to read Magister Ludi, I experienced the literary equivalent of a punch to the cortex. I could not read it. The style seemed obdurately opaque to me: too dense (!) with unnecessarily difficult words and sentences whose snakelike constructions obfuscated, rather than illuminated, meaning for me. The pace of action was impossible. A bunch of monks slowly walking up and down stairs was the only image that came to mind. It was as if someone had poured thick molasses over my brain whenever I picked Magister Ludi up to read.
Molasses on the brain
I’ve known for a while that the feeds were changing my brain. I hadn’t stopped reading books—quite the opposite—I spent last May reading the ten middle-grade novels I’d been assigned to write Brave Writer literature guides for; in June I luxuriated in an Emily St. John Mandel binge, reading or rereading her five gorgeous novels—and later in the summer I fell headlong into a review copy of her sixth, Sea of Tranquility, which I adored; and between October and mid-December I read nearly two dozen high-school nonfiction books as a CYBIL Awards round-one judge, and as soon as that work was finished, I treated myself to a reread of the 600-page Riddle-master trilogy.
Plus the aforementioned unplug-from-the-feeds-already jag of late December.
(I should reread M.T. Anderson’s Feed. It’s been a while.)
So okay, I’ve been reading. But it’s more work than it used to be.
First: the work of choosing to read instead of scroll (or clean, or work, or whatever else is clamoring for my attention).
Then the impossible work of choosing what to read. Which of the thousand books wooing me shall I pick up? I walk around the house collecting stacks; I page through my Kindle library; I dip a toe in here, there; I wonder if there’s any new news about Omicron or the fires. I remember a video I saved to watch later. It’s later.
This post is too long already, but I’m just getting started
I was going to type up a bunch of the notes I copied out from Wolf’s book—this self-assigned copywork practice being a large part of my personal strategy for combating the molasses—but now that I’ve written this much about Reader, Come Home, I’m thinking it would be a good candidate for my February book club pick over on Patreon.
Okay, so I’ll save most of my Wolf quotes for next month. As for this morning’s molasses-free ramble through a Ted Kooser essay that sparked connections to Li-Young Lee and Olav Hauge? There’s another post bubbling there, proving yet again an axiom I’ve held for decades: the more I read books (not tweets!), the more I have to write.
And—Wolf’s thesis—what we read, and in what medium, affects how we think. I’ve certainly found the corollary to be true: what medium I read shapes what I’m compelled to write. Reading Twitter makes me want to write witty tweets. Reading Facebook makes me want to write rude things on walls. (I kid! I don’t actually spend much time on Facebook anymore, outside my social-media gig.)
Reading poetry absolutely turns me into a poet for a little while. I’ll jump ahead to my Ted Kooser notes for just a moment to share this passages which is beautiful and true:
“What is most difficult for a poet is to find the time to read and write when there are so many distractions, like making a living and caring for others. But the time set aside for being a poet, even if only for a few moments each day, can be wonderfully happy, full of joyous, solitary discovery.”
—The Poetry Home Repair Manual, p. 6
The “solitary” part doesn’t last long for me—what I learned over and over in my first decade of blogging was that reading leads to writing leads to sharing. Learning in public, thinking out loud, and inviting the lively exchange of ideas we exhilarated in, back in those heady days before social media changed, well, everything.
From time to time I take myself in hand and impose fierce limits on my access to the feeds. I use the Downtime and Screen Time apps on my phone, and sometimes the Freedom app on my laptop, to insert roadblocks between me and the myriad tempting distractions. I delete apps, or hide them if I need to keep them around because of work; I move them to different screens so I can’t open them on autopilot. I especially like this trick: I design wallpaper for my home screen to remind myself what I really want to be doing.
(I’m happy to share if you’d like a copy.)
Anyway, Happy New Year! I wish you good reading, deep thinking, and molasses in your gingerbread but not in your brain.
It’s early, and I’d like to be stitching. But my fountain pen leaked all over my fingers and even after scrubbing off the ink, there are stains. I worry about leaving black marks on the piece of linen I’m—ah, and now I’m derailed by the search for a verb that accurately describes what I’m doing to the linen. Not embellishing, ornamenting, decorating—all too ornate, too fancy. Ferning, perhaps. Covering it with ferns.
I’m handstitching a drawstring bag (this pattern) because handstitching, including and especially embroidery, is one of the very few activities that quiets my mind enough for real thought. Gardening works, sometimes—if I don’t fall into a swirl of longing for plants I have neither time nor budget for—and has, in the past, yielded entirebooks while my fingers occupied the rabbity part of my brain. Mopping wood floors works: the smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap, the light gathering on the boards, the repetitive motion. I miss the job I had for a couple of years in San Diego, cleaning the floors of a yoga studio on Saturday mornings before it opened. I did some of my best writing while vacuuming or mopping those bare floors in empty rooms.
The thing about floors is that cleaning them doesn’t take terribly long. And then they’re finished. You rinse out the mop head, put away the bucket, and you’re done. Gardening is never finished, and neither is stitching, really—I may finish one project but there are a dozen others clamoring in the wings. Lately I find myself dreaming of an interval in which I could tip the balance in the other direction: spend the afternoons stitching instead of writing. What’s with that? I baffle myself. But I have these ideas, you see…
And if there’s anything slower than writing a novel, it’s handstitching! Ha!
We finished our readaloud of The Firelings yesterday. Oh, how I wish this were still in print! If you ever come across a copy at a library sale, snatch it up. I’ve read it at least twenty times since my dad brought it home from a used bookstore when I was eleven or twelve. Probably more. It explores, as I wrote here some years ago, “the relationship between custom and reason”—a tension I have always found intensely fascinating, as anyone knows who has heard me refer to the “ham in the pan.”
I didn’t get my hands on Carol Kendall’s other books until I was older—gosh, much older, my archives tell me. I posted about The Gammage Cup in 2010, shortly after reading it for the first time. (Scott, when you see this, skip the blockquote—I know you prefer to encounter a new book with a totally blank slate. I’m probably starting Gammage as a readaloud today.)
Kendall is one of those writers whose voice I just plain enjoy. She’s a quirky storyteller with a taste for misfits. This novel is about the Minnipins, a tradition-loving people who live in small villages in an isolated mountain valley. Their distant ancestors settled here after escaping from terrible enemies about whom little is known, now, except their names: The Mushrooms. A few centuries ago, one of the Minnipins journeyed over the mountains and back via hot air balloon. Most of Fooley’s souvenirs—and memories—were scattered when he crash-landed back at home, but the remaining fragments have been carefully enshrined in a village museum and in the customs of his descendants. (You can tell them apart from the rest of the villagers by their names, which are taken from a scrap of paper that survived the crash and is now presumed to be a list of the friends Fooley made on his journey: Ave., Co., Wm., Eng., etc. “The Periods,” as these folk are reverently called, run the village.)
Folks in the village like things to be done just so, and they have little tolerance for eccentrics like Gummy the poet or lively Curley Green, who recklessly paints images of things from real life, in disregard of the proper classical style. (My kids love Kendall’s work, but her character names drive them up a wall.) When Muggles, the reluctant heroine, and her misfit friends begin to suspect the terrible Mushrooms are preparing for another attack, they have to persuade the rest of the villagers that the danger is real. Instead, they get kicked out of the village.
Whoops—time to accompany Huck to his garden gig. I’ll come home with strawberry juice on top of the inkstains. You see why I need afternoons free for stitching!
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!
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.
I set this afternoon aside for reading, a whole glorious seven hours of it, and reading always makes me want to write. So here I am, blowing the dust off this dear old blog. I neglect it for weeks at a stretch because I spend so much of my day writing other things, and when I open this tab I often feel drained or blank.
There’s also an aspect of blogging that feels like homework—combing my photos for the right image, choosing tags, looking up books on Bookshop.org or Amazon to add links, the kind that send a few cents my way, defraying the costs of maintaining the site. Chores I find tedious and sometimes embarrassing. The book links aren’t as necessary as I tell myself they are—you can Google anything that catches your interest—but money’s as tight for us as it is for most everyone else right now, and omitting the links always feels, in the end, a bit irresponsible. Even now I’m staring at the word Bookshop up there, feeling internal pressure to stick my affiliate link in place like a sensible blogger.
But this is my magic week, when I don’t have to be sensible. I try to reserve the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day for combing through the year’s notebooks, revisiting, panning for gold. It’s mostly iron pyrite so far, but that’s often useful in its own way. I gave yesterday afternoon to a single notebook, distilled now to a page of notes and asterisks. Today, as I mentioned, was hours and hours of reading other people’s work. Twyla Tharp’s Keep It Moving, a packet of poems, a Mary Oliver essay that cut me to the quick. Lordy, I love her. Both of them. Twyla shakes you by the shoulders and Mary raises her eyebrows at you until you cry uncle. You’re right, I’m constantly shouting back, of course you’re right! I’ll go for a walk! I’ll try to enter the long black branches of other lives! More birds, less Twitter!
The line that made me gasp tonight—it was like an adrenaline syringe to the heart—was in her essay “Of Power and Time”:
In creative work—creative work of all kinds—those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.
She writes about her three selves—the child she was, who exists now in remembered experiences; the “attentive, social” self who makes dentist appointments and remembers to buy mustard; and a third self, “occasional in some of us, a tyrant in others.” A self “out of love with time,” a self that “has a hunger for eternity.”
The shock of recognition was severe. These past several months, my capable, responsible second self has—out of necessity—run the show. I’m a bit sick of her, to be honest. My third self, more tired than tyrannical in this bizarrest of years, is stretching her limbs and wondering when the prime minister took over running the kingdom.
I’m being a little unfair to the second self: someone had to get the FAFSA done and the health insurance renewed, and it certainly wasn’t going to be the poet queen. Mary Oliver’s delight was in lying down in the grass, as though she were the grass. My delight has been in showing the grass to my children and teaching them how to find its secret name. We walk in different fields, is what I’m saying.
But. Sometimes the second self tumbles or leaps into the whirlpool of distractions—most of them connected to the internet—and promises the third self her turn will come “as soon as.” As soon as the election is over, as soon as this assignment is turned in, as soon as the bathroom floor is mopped. The as-soon-as train has an infinite number of cars.
Twyla Tharp would say: you must make a pledge to the third self. Promise her time on the throne. Mary Oliver says to put your foot into the door of the grass and to sit down like a weed among weeds and rustle in the wind!
Every day, I get up before dark to give the third self a little time in the chair. I’m dedicated to this practice and it bears fruit on a long, slow timeline. But here at the end of an infuriating, stupefying year, those morning hours already feel like a distant memory by the time breakfast is over. The poet queen refuses to compete with Twitter. She won’t come back until all the tabs are closed. That’s Mary Oliver’s point.
“It is six a.m.,” she writes, “and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be.”
This last week of the year, I invite the third self to occupy the chair not just in the dawn hours but for a string of entire days. The second self can go jump in a lake, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, jump! urges Twyla—there is literally a chapter about jumping in Keep It Moving, in which she recommends four different kinds of leaps you ought to fold into your day. Beside her, Mary is calling: Fall in, fall in!
Astonished, I watch people in other states flocking back to crowded rooms and long queues. I shudder to imagine the steep rise we’re bound to see on the charts in the coming weeks. We don’t have widespread testing or contact tracing in place. Hospitals are still desperately short on PPE. An entire TV news/entertainment network goes on blithely lying to its viewers, putting so many of them in danger. The President of the United States is a feckless narcissist who cares more about his own ratings (ratings!) than the staggering numbers of dead and dying Americans.
My feelings about all of this have made it more than a little hard to write posts here. The staggering misinformation campaign that’s costing so many lives—and putting ours at risk, and people I love. The horror of knowing breastfeeding mothers are being separated from their babies (perhaps forever) or having to endure crowded detainment facilities where the virus is spreading, spreading. The sickening cruelty perpetrated by the current administration. The underpaid, underprotected “essential workers” who bag our groceries and tend our elderly. I’m so angry and feel helpless to fix it. All I can do is keep calling my electeds, who are already fighting the good fight.
Our home life is fine, lovely even. Jane is working fulltime from home, Rose has a part-time job and another one lined up (pending reopening), and is due to start classes at PSU in the fall. Online, probably? Derailing her dorm plans, of course. Beanie is finishing up this quarter’s classes at PCC. Wonderboy has been doing school from home since March 12—the day our whole family began cloistering. I’ve been nowhere except the doctor’s office (for a torn tendon in my hand) since then. I haven’t minded much? I fervently miss Low Bar Chorale and my weekly ramen/OMSI dates. I miss working in coffee shops. But my work has been uninterrupted by the pandemic, and my garden is a mellow and happy place, and I’m playing lots of Animal Crossing with my kids (their recent gift to me!), which is a delight.
Not reading as much as I’d like—or maybe I’m reading more than I give myself credit for? I wrote on my Patreon yesterday about how much I’m enjoying Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, and I’m getting a ton out of B.J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits as well. I’m reading a new Arrow selection to the kids—can’t say what, since the big reveal doesn’t happen until May 28—and we’re all pretty darn glued to it. What I’m missing is some juicy and captivating adult fiction: I haven’t looked for anything lately. Hundreds of options in this house and on my Kindle. That immense ever-growing list of novels I specifically want to read—but I can’t settle on one. My mind is restless and veers away. Poetry works: I’ve read Olav Hauge’s The Dream We Carry almost to tatters.
I might be in the mood for another Riddlemaster reread.
My wretched hand is much, much better (but I still have to be careful when picking things up. I have dropped so many things!) and my nose is almost back to its old shape. I certainly picked a good time for significant facial surgery, I suppose! I’m so grateful the surgery was in the rear-view when the shutdown began.
In bloom: rhodendrons, gloriously. One poppy was unfurling in my back garden this morning—I need to go see if it’s awake! And roses, oh I’m swooning over the roses I inherited from my neighbor last fall—eleven large potted rosebushes, every color.
The peas are nearly ready, and blueberries and strawberries are coming. I don’t have tomatoes yet. There’s curbside pickup at the garden shop; I should look at their order sheet. Our salad greens are just about done—I only planted one round. Still lots of time for more.
Last week I finished a rather big stitching project—a test stitch of an upcoming sampler by one of my favorite embroidery designers, who plans to use it in her next Creativebug class. Whenever that may be! She’d been due to film in mid-April but of course that changed. I loved stitching the sampler and comparing notes with the other three test stitchers. I was mighty chuffed to be asked, I must say!
Now that that’s done, I’m back at work on, oh, four or five other hoops. Including my own secret project (not so secret since I have talked about it on Patreon). Writing about them makes me want to close this tab and get stitching. I’ve got a pile of work waiting for me this afternoon, though.
Work is…really hard, under these circumstances. Staying focused, staying connected, staying sharp. If I read one more post urging us to slow down, take naps, allow more white space in our days, I might scream. Our grocery store workers and hospital personnel don’t get to slow down—they’ve been soldiering on day after day without hazard pay, reusing masks that were never meant for weeks of wear. And for those of us who are fortunate to be working from home, the work is much harder and more intense because of these circumstances. The effort of concentrating is exhausting. The long hours of work are necessary. I’m still paying off breast cancer, and skin cancer set us back another two grand. Boy do I know how to have fun with money or what?
Oregon is moving more cautiously than many states, for which I’m grateful. A slow rollout of Phase One reopenings will happen in rural counties soonish, but not in Portland for a while. I suspect the inevitable spike in cases in other more recklessly reopening states will slow Oregon’s plans as well, and without a robust test-and-trace program I can’t imagine my family (with some particularly high-risk members) will feel able to risk crowd situations until there’s a vaccine in place.
So. Every day I take some time to catch up, to stay informed about what’s happening beyond my home, good and bad. And then I make a list of things that are lovely. A nuthatch at the suet feeder. Rilla’s oat bars cooling on the counter. My vigorous, adorable sourdough starter. The masks my friend Ramona sent. My friend Ben leading hundreds of solitary singers in virtual singalongs every Tuesday evening. The sound of the M*A*S*H opening credits drifting down the hall in the afternoons—Scott is watching with the kids. For me, that’s the theme song of this pandemic.
Oh my friends! I hope you’re staying home, and staying well.
Ha, joke’s on me! I wrote this post yesterday morning and left it sitting in drafts, awaiting photos. Went out to putter in the garden and took a spill jumping from the raised bed (I mean it’s not that high, just a step). Smashed flat on the patio. Thumb and wrist now killing me and elbow is pretty ouchy. But nothing broken, I’m reasonably sure. Just sprained, I think? And bruised? And basically furious at me for forgetting I’m not a gazelle?
We scrummaged up an Ace bandage from the first-aid kit and wrapped the hand overnight. I’m not keen on paying a visit to urgent care this weekend, GEE I WONDER WHY, so I’m just keeping it wrapped and we’ll see how I do. Can type for brief periods before my thumb starts to yell but I’m not doing much. Reading. Walking around my garden, longing to dig. Fortunately, the injured hand is my left and I’m righthanded. I might even be able to embroider if I use the hoop stand. Hooray for hoop stands! Okay, no more exclamation points. They’re the ones that hurt my thumb.
(Who even AM I without exclamation points??)
Anyway, on to yesterday’s plague journal. 😉
Things that happened this week:
• I finally planted the veggie starts I bought a couple of days before we went into isolation. (We isolated a bit earlier than the rest of Portland due to some high-risk family members.)
• I repotted a whole bunch of houseplants
• and cleaned the garage
• I got a tower of review books from a (beloved) publisher who, despite nearly three years of dogged efforts to get them to update my mailing address in their system, continues sending packages to our San Diego address. UPS saved up NINE BOXES and redirected them to Portland all at once. Yes, the delivery guy thinks I’ve lost my mind. He’s not far off.
I’ll be sharing these with young friends after I read/review them
• I swapped out the regular suet feeder for the squirrel-proof one (rediscovered during the garage cleanout) because the starlings kept wiping us out, leaving nothing for the bush tits and chickadees. However, the down side of the cage feeder is that the downy woodpeckers and flickers will be as stymied as the starlings. Either way, we only have a few suet cakes left. Our favorite retailer does have curbside pickup during the quarantine, but given the state of things, suet might not make it into next month’s budget.
Bush tits at the old feeder, before the starlings moved in. They’re tiny and travel in a flock of forty or so.
*Sunday update: we spotted a Northern flicker at the feeder this morning! Its beak is long enough to reach the suet through the cage. Not so for the starlings. This may be a solution! Waiting for the bush tits to return. Meanwhile, we had an absolutely new-to-us bird at the feeder just now. Still trying to id. Finch size, blue-gray back (more blue than gray), yellow belly, and the tip of its tail looks like it was dipped in white paint. A warbler of some kind? Photo coming–we got one goodish snap–but transferring the memory card from camera to laptop is beyond my poor hand’s ability right now. As are em dashes. Had to go with double hyphens. This may be the end of me.
• I taught the final week of my Comic Strip Capers class at Brave Writer. I get a week in between and then I’ll start a new session on the 30th. These kids, their comics—such a delight. (My class is sold out but Brave Writer does have openings in other fun courses if you’re looking.)
• I also continued my work on Brave Writer Arrow literature guides. I’m both revising/expanding older guides and writing new ones for the current year’s subscription. I recently finished the Arrow for Bronze and Sunflower, a beautiful tapestry of a book by Chinese author Cao Wenxuan, translated by Helen Wang. The literature guide was challenging to write but oh, so worth it! I’ve walked around for weeks pondering this gem of a novel, turning its poignant scenes and lush imagery over in my mind. I think now that my work on it is done, I might reread it (or read it aloud to the kids?) just for pleasure.
• I worked on a secret stitching project that is different from my OTHER secret stitching project—this one a test stitch of a new sampler for a favorite instructor’s upcoming Creativebug class. Originally I was supposed to finish it by mid-April, but now the class taping is postponed like everything else on the planet. It’s a gorgeous sampler and I’m having a wonderful time with it.
• I went on a few walks in the quiet neighborhood, nodding at neighbors from a prudent distance or chatting from the sidewalk. Our streets are empty but I’m noticing that porches are full. So many more neighbors sitting out front in the evenings.
• Huck is crushed that he can’t play with friends, but at least his very best pal doesn’t have to be kept at a distance. Our next-door neighbor, for whom Huck & Rilla have a standing weekday dogwalking gig, is working at home for now and is therefore walking her mini Schnauzer herself, but several times a day Huck and Barkleigh meet up in the backyard for some buddy time.
I took this photo through the fence. Only one of them noticed.
• I completely failed at playing a game of Ticket to Ride with Huck. I tried, I really did! Couldn’t focus. Got so squirrely between turns, my mind racing. You’d have thought I was the eleven-year-old child, not the mom.
• I laughed over this memory that popped on Facebook from 2013:
So the 4yo is standing beside me and asks, “Are you Mommy?”
“What?” I say, confused.
“Are you MOMMY?”
I’m laughing, thinking he must be playing a game. “Yes, I‘m Mommy.”
He points across the yard at his 17yo sister, nods to himself.
“OK, so that one is Jane.”
• I put in some more work on my rebooted newsletter which I am trying very hard to get out this weekend!* You can sign up here.
*Laughing somewhat hysterically. Obviously that was written before yesterday’s tumble!
I’m reading Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser’s A+++ book about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, and I quipped on Facebook that so far a chief takeaway for me is: One should never achieve a level of fame that inspires historians to go through one’s personal correspondence. 😉
That post has generated a good discussion of Fraser’s book, and in answering some friends’ questions I wound up writing a whole tome, which I thought I might as well share here.
S. mentioned, “I didn’t realize there was so much new material in it!”
I replied: re new material, you might be thinking of Pioneer Girl, which is Laura’s original memoir, a manuscript written long before the Little House books. I was given a copy back in the 90s when Harper commissioned me to write the Martha books. It was published for the first time last year in a wonderful edition annotated by Pamela Smith Hill. It’s a much bleaker narrative, telling many chapters of the story that Laura left out of the children’s series (death of her brother Freddy, the awful Burr Oak Iowa years, etc). I haven’t reread it in many years but at the time I loved getting a peek behind the curtain to the more raw, adult memoir and learning what happened in some of the gaps in the series, and what kinds of changes she made to the narrative thread when she reworked the material into children’s novels.
Prairie Fires is a stunningly thorough nonfiction book by Caroline Fraser which maps out the life stories of Laura, her parents, Almanzo, and Rose. It’s impeccably researched, drawing heavily on Rose and Laura’s personal correspondence, Rose’s diaries, their many published writings in various periodicals as well as their books, land records, local archives, etc. The depth of Fraser’s research is impressive and makes this historical fiction writer’s heart go pitty-pat.
In this account, Laura comes off better than Rose, but Fraser doesn’t shy away from discussing Laura’s flaws and quirks. Not a problem for me, since LIW was demystified and humanized for me a long time ago. As a look behind the curtain at writing process, Prairie Fires is fascinating and hugely valuable. I’ve loved watching the interplay between Laura and Rose (and occasionally Laura’s editors) that helped shape the Little House books. I think Fraser does a much better job of unpacking the complicated writing/editorial relationship between the two women than Holtz’s Ghost in the Little House.
I do wonder sometimes if Fraser’s educated guesses (and they are HIGHLY educated and thoroughly considered, don’t get me wrong) are a tiny bit presumptuous—she does make some assumptions about motivations and personal emotions. But she always makes it clear that those statements are suppositions. “Laura may have felt…” etc.
In response to J.’s question, “do I dare to read it?”: If Laura is on any kind of pedestal in your mind, this book probably knocks it out from under her. But for me it’s been marvelous–a look at the real Laura, the woman, the often struggling writer doubting her abilities and deferring to her daughter’s judgment–then bristling back and defending certain authorial choices, digging in when she felt strongly about a scene. As a writer of historical fiction I am just EATING UP the conversations about how to mold *truth* and *fact* into a compelling fiction narrative.
[Side note: I was really stunned to encounter a speech in which Laura talks about how she tells the truth ***but not the whole truth*** because that’s what I have said myself many times these past 13 years about my blog (everything I share is true, but I don’t share everything) and of course it served as a major theme in The Prairie Thief. “Not the Whole Truth” was in fact my working title for that book! (Nixed by my publisher as not kid-friendly/gripping enough. Prairie Thief was their title but it gave me serious angst since I wanted the book to stand apart from my Little House work.]
I had already been aware that Laura rearranged some of her family’s travels and left whole huge chapters out of the series. Fraser’s book delves into precisely why those changes occurred. Excellent insight for any student of fiction and memoir.
S., re how Laura’s books are doing these days…well, the past twenty years have been a time of growing awareness of the highly problematic areas of her books. Her family’s story goes hand in hand with the story of Native Americans being cruelly displaced from their lands. Fraser takes an unflinching look at that history, as well as the ways in which Laura’s pervasive message of rugged individualism breezes past the many times her family received government or community assistance of various kinds. (Not to mention the Ingalls family skipping town when Burr Oak debts mounted up.)
My understanding is that sales of Laura’s books have declined somewhat over the past fifteen years but they still remain staples. Personally, I think contemporary children are less engaged by the long, detailed *process* descriptions (making bullets, making a door, etc)–why read a step-by-step when you can watch it on Youtube, you know? (I’m not being disparaging–I freely admit I too would rather watch a video of a door being made than read a blow-by-blow narrative. But not sausage. I don’t want to watch a sausage-making video. Give me Laura’s narrative anytime.) And of course Harry Potter swept in a great wave of interest in children’s fantasy. Historicals were on the downswing for a bit but have bounded back up now with many brilliant own-voices works.
The reality is that Laura’s books require discussion. When my own kids came along I realized I was hesitant to just hand the books over–I felt like conversation and contextualizing was necessary because of the treatment of Indians, the minstrel show, etc. Today I would add: the climate disruptions also invite what Julie Bogart calls Big Juicy Questions. Not to mention the politics (for older readers)…
Laura’s work is certainly in no danger of being forgotten—she’ll always be a pivotal figure in children’s literature. But the field is rich and crowded now. The glorious explosion of kids’ graphic novels, the brilliant prose of contemporary authors—there’s an overwhelming abundance of books competing with Laura’s now. Not to mention all the visual media. Much of her prose is what would now be called “quiet”—I say this as a passionate lover of “quiet books” — in a market that prefers action and zip. All of which is to say that I think there are many reasons why contemporary kids aren’t embracing Little House with quite the fervor we did (and for our generation it’s probably impossible to gauge how much our zeal was spurred by the TV show—I honestly don’t remember which way I encountered Little House first! But I do know that Nellie Oleson always had Alison Arngrim’s face in my mind. I would guess I encountered book and show more or less concurrently).
Probably more to come when I’ve finished the Fraser book. Closing in on the finish now…heart in my throat.