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.
Heads up on an incredible deal! A whole year of Creativebug for $5. (Affiliate link.) The kids and I have taken sooo many of their art & stitching classes over the years. I’ve taken all of Lisa Congdon’s drawing classes and Rebecca Ringquist’s embroidery classes, to name a few—especially fun since I’ve become friends with both Lisa and Rebecca since moving to Portland!
I’ve posted many times about what an invaluable resource Creativebug is for homeschoolers and anyone else looking for affordable, high-quality art classes. This post recaps a few of my favorites.
September 19, 2021 @ 11:36 am | Filed under: Books
This is maybe half of my stitching projects currently-in-progress. Plus a pair of middle-grade novels, a picture book, a blog/essay collectionish thing, a nonfiction project, and Brave Writer Dart #5 of the 10 I’m writing this year. (Yep, that’s the whole year’s Dart lineup. The books are SO GOOD, y’all. A joy to write about.) This is why I’m not very good at promoting the books I’ve already published—the ones I really really hope people will keep buying because I love them and want them to stay in print—and I’m low-level worried all the time about neglecting them, but I would always, always rather be working on the next thing than promoting the finished ones.
And buried in this pile are two hoops from a project I am truly over-the-moon excited about, a set of original designs, and it would be awfully nice if someone could rustle up a way to fit about six extra hours into the day. I’m not greedy—five or six will do!
And the whole time I’m stitching, I’m thinking about the books, the middle-grades* mostly. Or, well, that isn’t quite accurate, because at night I listen to audiobooks while I stitch. But reading is a big part of writing, too. So in a way it’s all in service of the work.
*(I can’t decide which to focus on so I’m mapping out two at once, set in the same world. I told a friend on Friday that I’d like to have proposals ready to send to my agent by mid-October. Which is maybe a reasonable goal if I kick the clean-out-the-garage project down the road until, like, spring??)
I love Charlie Gilkey’s book Start Finishing, and I’ve truly taken his advice to heart this past year, but BOY do I have a hard time with the crucial first step in his road map, which is recognizing that most of the time we can’t be actively moving forward on more than five projects at once.
And that’s if all systems are go, no health issues, etc. (In this house, there are always health issues. I’ve had a miserable time with asthma this past month. Which is partly why I’ve managed to do so much stitching: too fatigued for all the household projects I’d envisioned barreling through this fall. Silver linings.)
Anyway, five projects. Words that send me into helpless laughter petering out with a rueful groan. When I try to narrow down All the Things, I cheat a lot.
1. Homeschooling (an ongoing project, decades deep now)
2. Client work. Lots of it. Counts as one big ongoing project with many, many subtasks.
3. Books in progress. A major cheat to count them as one project. At a certain point, I have to tuck a bunch of ideas away and focus on just one manuscript. But this is not that point.
4. A wild card spot. Any kind of household project bigger than basic daily chores. OR: the ongoing project of navigating Wonderboy’s medical appts and services. There are periods where this becomes intense, with several appointments in a short span of time, and that’s for sure when other things on this list have to be back-burnered. OR: a biggish reading project; research; study.
5. Book outreach — the one I’m forever neglecting — my newsletter and blog posts and reaching out to podcasters & teachers. I mean, this is really a whole job by itself! There are, like, professionals who make their entire living out of it! But the vast majority of published authors can’t afford that kind of help. We’ve got to champion our books ourselves. Which is…kind of excruciating? I would rather champion OTHER PEOPLE’S books. (Like Tanita Davis’s new one. You should buy it!)
But what about…?
Stitching, you’ll notice, doesn’t land a spot on my Five Projects lists. Which may seem a bit bananas, since I’m obsessed with it and pretty much want to stitch all the time. But there’s a reason for it—a mini-revelation that gave me a lot of peace.
The thing about Projects is they require focus. Charlie Gilkey defines a project as activities that require time, energy, and attention. (TEA.) Most projects have some kind of Admin component, but to really move the work forward, the critical need is for Focus blocks. (What Cal Newport calls Deep Work.) Good-sized chunks of time—90 minutes to 2 hours is a good target, although for writing or, say, garage-cleaning, I prefer a 3-hour Focus block.
Most of us can only manage one, maaaaybe two Focus blocks in a given day. In Start Finishing, Gilkey notes that the rest of our time goes to routines, and admin, and social blocks (meetings, outings, phone calls), and…if we’re being good to ourselves, if we’re being wise: recovery blocks. Down time. Rest. Fun.
It was this Recovery part of Charlie’s road map that helped me make peace with the Five Projects (at most!) reality-check. Yes, I think of my stitching projects as projects. And they do take time and attention. But—here’s the glorious part—they don’t drain my energy. They restore it. They exhilarate me, thrill me—and they provide me with something I rarely experience otherwise.
I’m sitting still, stitching. My mind is still. I mean, it may be roaming, exploring the valley where my little book people live, or chewing on a post I mean to write—but it’s a contented, calm state. Not agitated. Not hyper. Not stressed or worried. Not holding mental arguments with That One Friend on Facebook. Not tacking items onto an endless to-do list. For me, stitching is a meditative activity; a vital part of my writing process; a means of rest and, yes, recovery.
A few years back when I was feeling a bit desperate over a too-intense workload, my brilliant coach friend Helen McLaughlin suggested I make a list of activities that drain my energy, and activities that give me energy, to make sure my days had a reasonable balance of both.
Tops on the refueling list were: reading to my kids, singing with Low Bar Chorale, and making art. At the time, I was only just beginning to venture into embroidery. I was filling a lot of sketchbooks, trying to learn to draw and paint. Sketching stills my mind in much the same way stitching does. But the stitching high lasts longer: I like the way my embroidery projects come out more than I like my drawings. Gradually handstitching took precedence.
Interestingly, I find there’s an admin component to a stitching project, too. Cutting fabric, transferring a design (my own original one or a purchased pattern, depending), choosing colors, assembling supplies—this is the busywork part of the process that I usually save for weekends. That leaves me ready to sink into the bliss of a recovery state after a workday’s Focus session. If I time it right, my background mind can go on untangling whatever knotty problem may have popped up during the work, without me really noticing it. I think I’m puzzling out which stitches to use, and all of a sudden I discover I’ve written the next paragraph, the one I was sure I’d never get right.
Writing this post (which believe it or not, started out as a simple Instagram Story caption—hahaha) has untangled its own kind of problem. The garage is going to have to wait. My much-avoided Project #5 needs some time in the spotlight. I’ve got to put my needle down and spend a little time joining the chorus of authors and booksellers who are encouraging readers to place holiday book orders as soon as possible. Worldwide shipping delays have the publishing world in a tizzy: everything (not just books) is taking a much longer time than usual to get from Point A to Point B, as I’m sure you’ve heard.
Independent bookstores are begging customers to order holiday gifts early—like, NOW, no time to lose!—to ensure deliveries by December. Which means we authors need to make that plea, too. If you’d like to give one of my books (or Scott’s! They’re awesome) to the kids and teachers on your gift list, now is a perfect time. Same goes for any other books. Especially backlist titles that may already be in stock on the shelves at your favorite indie bookstore. Snap those up and everybody wins!
Prairie Thief and Nerviest Girl are middle-grade novels, great for kids 8-12. Fox and Crow is a Level 3 beginning reader (also a fun readaloud for younger kids) and the Inch & Roly series is Level 1, for kids just beginning to read on their own (and good read-alouds for toddlers and preschoolers, because: roly polies! Inchworms! And of course all children’s books make excellent gifts for the teachers in your lives.
If you order online from Annie Bloom’s Books here in Portland, they’ll ring me up and I’ll zip over to sign your copies before they ship.
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.
When I think of this category, I think of my kids in the backyard in San Diego, deeply immersed in the Warriors-inspired make-believe games that occupied so many hours when they were little. Or the long stretches of Sculpey play: elaborate scenes crafted and acted out. Epic adventures spanning hours and days. The Thomas the Tank engine set, the Playmobil stories, the blanket forts.
For myself, this category is a little harder to define. Rose and Beanie used to walk in circles (literally walk in circles!) on our back patio, making up stories for themselves. All the action was happening inside their heads. Here in the second year of the pandemic, my head is full, full, full—full of inputs, full of tasks to be done. I notice in myself a pattern of clearing a little time for my grownup version of play—or for white space, which has some crossover with this category, since it’s the soil from which imagination and creativity grow—and then immediately filling the space with yet another form of input, sometimes nourishing, sometimes fluff. An audiobook, a podcast, a show on Netflix, a screen game.
Funny as it sounds, holding space for imaginative play in my life takes more effort than almost anything else on my list of essential activities!
Where I find it is at my art table, or within the borders of an embroidery hoop. On the blank page of a notebook: a jumble of words arranging themselves into phrases, into poems.
It’s possible I’m not a minimalist
I know exactly where to find the doorway to imaginative play, but I have to make myself walk through it. To mess around with paint, not listening to a book or podcast. To doodle in my sketchbook while my mind roams. Not tuned into other voices. I find this challenging; I’m so accustomed to making the most of my minutes! Not enough time to read and exercise and make art and learn new things—better bundle them together.
Bundling is wonderful—in moderation! If every morsel of my sketchbook time, treadmill time, gardening time, has a soundtrack, I’ll never hear my own self. Even the time I spend in my poetry notebook several mornings a week can become a clamor of other voices. I’m impatient with the seed-time of my own thoughts.
Where I find the easiest ground for imaginative play is with embroidery. I think that’s because it combines a satisfying and meditative activity (stitching) with invention and beauty. You could say the same thing about painting, drawing, knitting, woodworking, but for me, a #7 Tulip needle is the key to the realm of imagination. Perhaps that’s because even after years of daily drawing and online art classes, I remain unsatisfied with my ability. When I picked up the embroidery habit, I gained skill with gratifying speed. And I found a blank round of fabric to be fertile ground for original thought and design, much more so than on a sheet of watercolor paper. Curious, no? I seldom like the original art I make on paper. (I say original to distinguish it from online course assignments, where I’m following steps and often do enjoy both the process and final outcome).
I hadn’t been stitching for long—using patterns purchased from my favorite Instagram designers—when I felt the itch to create my own designs. Ideas flooded in—but I could see that my they outstripped my ability. So I ignored the voice that kept urging me to be original. I gave myself time to practice and learn. I gave myself scraps of fabric to experiment on, reckoning that they were the embroidery equivalent of an artist’s sketchbook.
And eventually, after a long time, a project began to shape itself in my mind. It’s playful and inventive and combines elements and subject matter I care about intensely.
My challenge is holding space for it. I have an hour set aside after I tuck Huck into bed, but by that time of day I’m often too fried. This week I only picked up that hoop a couple of times.
I’m still stitching, though. I’ve found what works best for me is to have three projects at the ready, at all times: one for study (learning new stitches or techniques); one for thinking (a simple design purchased from creators like Cozyblue or Dropcloth, where the stitching is satisfying and meditative, and I don’t have to make decisions as I go); and the hoop containing my own project-in-progress.
The second type of hoop—I’ve written about this before—is an essential part of my writing practice. When I hit a point in a piece of writing where I need to stop and think, picking up that hoop quashes the urge to pop open a social media tab and “just” take a peek. Those peeks (which are never just a peek, are they) are the fastest route to utter derailment on a writing project. So I keep my “thinking hoop” handy and pick it up whenever I’m tempted to open a tab.
(I love the Momentum Dash browser extension for Chrome—it allows you to set a default New Tab that opens to a beautiful nature photo, different every day, with a blank for you to enter that day’s focus activity. Sometimes while I’m writing, I write PICK UP YOUR HOOP in that blank, so that if I do succumb to new-tab temptation, I’m smacked with a reminder before I can load another site. Other times, I write the day’s Highlight (a task or activity that I absolutely must attend to that day) or whatever piece of writing I’m working on at the moment in that blank. This has the same effect of redirecting my attention to my work. Probably one of my best workflow hacks! I also use Momentum’s built-in Pomodoro timer quite a lot.)
My time’s just about up for this morning, so I’ll close with a quick look back at the week’s imaginative play. I started, but didn’t finish, this fantastic Peggy Dean tutorial (free!) on how to draw canyons in Procreate. Except I just grabbed my notebook, not the iPad. I’d like to spend more time with that today. And Rilla and I are working on a pretty exciting art project together on Saturday nights. She’s done almost all the work so far, but last week we got to the painting stage and spent a happy hour testing our acrylic paints on a black canvas to see which colors show up best from a distance. I’m looking forward to putting in some more time on that project this weekend.
And writing this post reminds me to start my afternoon work session by threading some needles. I’m a big believer in always leaving thread in the needle—both literally for embroidery and figuratively for my writing (Hemingway’s trick). Never stop at the end of a scene! Break off mid-scene, mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence if you can. It’s much easier to pick the work back up next time.
And I burst out with a delighted laugh, because moments earlier, I had scrawled in my notebook: I need to Rule-of-Six myself.
Long ago and far away, I wrote a post here on Bonny Glen about the six elements I tried to make sure were a part of my children’s days.
• encounters with beauty (in art, music, nature);
• encounters with living books
• meaningful work (not busywork, but work that makes a real contribution to one’s mind, one’s home, or one’s community);
• imaginative play; and
• big ideas to ponder and discuss.
That’s five. The sixth was prayer, which I would frame differently now, fifteen years later, as meditation/contemplation/white space. Time outside the hustle of time. Time apart from the barrage of stimuli that has become 21st-century life. Time to sit (or walk, or stitch, or garden) in quiet thought.
After this past year, I think I’d add a seventh ingredient to my recipe for a good day: connection with others—something I certainly took for granted back then, in my years of lively inter-blog discourse, and daily breakfast phone calls with Alice, and nature club and Shakespeare Club and Journey North club and group piano classes. How different life is now, rolling into this pandemic’s second spring! Huck and Rilla take piano lessons via Zoom, the same platform on which most of my face-to-face connecting happens these days, in daily afternoon coworking sessions and occasional friend-group meetups.
Avoiding the temptation to overload
In the days when the Rule of Six post was traveling to other homes, it was often tweaked and adapted to fit a family’s individual priorities, which I loved to see. One oft-added item was “exercise,” which I hadn’t thought to include in my vision for my own kids because they were young enough that movement was as ubiquitous as breathing, no matter what they were doing. I see myself moving to add it to the list now, and I hesitate, hand hovering over the page, because I recognize the fine line between enough and overload. Even the urge expressed above to add connection with others risks opening the floodgates to a host of other daily aspirations and habits. I have always had a hard time not including All the Things on any list.
Containers, not habits
A helpful distinction is to understand the Rule as something separate from habits (a topic I also loved to explore in discussions on this blog, back in the day, and with which I remain fascinated and even professionally involved). This past year, I gave a lot of focus to cultivating certain habits—exercise being one of them. It’s perilously easy for me to overload myself with lists of habits I mean to develop, so that over and over I have to remind myself to return to core principles: one simple habit at a time, worked at faithfully for weeks until it becomes automatic. When my children were small, it was easy to allow habit-building a long and gentle timeline: they had their whole lives stretched out before them! With myself, it’s harder to be patient.
Embracing core principles
My old Rule developed out of core values. It began, of course, with Charlotte Mason’s notion that a child should have, every day, “something to think about, something to do, and something to love.” And so I find clarity when I view the items on my Rule list as principles that inform good habits, not habits themselves. The ways in which I (or my kids) encounter beauty shift and change over time; the kinds of meaningful work each of us engages in have changed many times over the years.
And I can see the ways I’ve worked to create habits that support the Rule’s principles, like coaching a child through the formation of a habit for a household chore like taking out the recycling (a kind of meaningful work: contributing to the pleasant atmosphere of the home). I have lots of habits and practices to support my own “meaningful work,” like take a walk between lunchtime and writing time; or write down my top three work priorities each morning. From time to time I have to re-establish good habits around reading (poetry before screens, or no phone in bed) to ensure that “encounters with living books” doesn’t disappear from my list.
And so, as I contemplate my growing sense that I need to Rule-of-Six my own self, I have to keep remembering to focus on the core principles, the containers, not the granular habits that support the principles.
Why this strong urge to revisit the Rule?
I think my old Rule leapt back into my notebook because the pandemic’s limitations and stressors have, inch by inch, shoved me into a space that feels alien and incompatible, like when Mrs. Which accidentally tessered Meg & co. to a two-dimensional planet for a moment, and their lungs couldn’t expand. Perhaps that’s overstating—the essential elements on my list are present in my life, say over the span of a week instead of a day—but still, I’ve been feeling restless, yearning, nostalgic.
I’m off balance: way too much work (meaningful though it may be) and not nearly enough white space. Encounters with beauty: easy, because Portland is a fairyland in spring, and spring lasts for months and months here. But “encounter” becomes too shallow a word when I put it in the context of “encounters with art”—to simply scroll Instagram is to encounter so much deeply beautiful art that I can’t take it in, can’t fully appreciate it. I think back to the time I spent two full afternoons in one Barcelona museum, even though it meant not visiting some other sites. I gave myself time to stand quietly in one room and taste the paintings, not brush past them like people on a subway platform.
And so I remind myself that “encounter” meant a close encounter, a slow one, a deep one.
Carrying my Rule into spring
I can see the ways my ideas have ripened, matured, since I first put it into practice. I can see ways that it has slipped right off my radar as a mother—things I came to take for granted, as givens, or as items on a checklist. Revisiting the Rule nourishes me and reminds me of the core values that inspired it in the first place.
• encounters with beauty
• encounters with living books
• meaningful work;
• imaginative play;
• big ideas to ponder and discuss; • white space; and, yes, I’ll add—
So, er, Rule of Seven?
I think connection is important for me to include because it reminds me to step outside myself and make sure I’m letting ideals become actions. And of course connection is a word of immense significance to so many of us who homeschool, whose understanding of education is centered on helping facilitate connections of all kinds for our kids. Jocelyn Glei urges us to actively schedule time for white space (thinking/contemplating/daydreaming/staring out a window/praying/meditating) immediately after a focused “deep work” session. It’s an intriguing notion! And a wise one. If I meander out to the garden after a writing session, roadblocks I hit in the day’s writing have a way of dissolving into the air. But too often, too often!, I rush directly from a writing session to some other kind of work. In my earlier Rule of Six days, I had an abundance of white space that was organic to life in a household of littles—nursing a baby, or sitting on a blanket at the park, physically tethered and mentally free to roam.
It’s funny to hear myself think: maybe try to be a little less efficient. Stay playful. Fritter more, but fritter well. (Scrolling isn’t frittering.)
If I apply the Rule to myself, it will spill over to my family
Core principles are infectious. If you’re making space for pondering and discussing big ideas, you’re going to be discussing them with other people—most especially the people you live with. If I’m having a close encounter with something beautiful, I can’t help but share it.
The practice of the Rule itself used to provide an opening for discussion, in the days when I would ask the questions at bedtime: where did we encounter beauty today? Or: tell me about the game you were playing in the back yard. At one point I had a side-blog where I recorded our answers and my own observations. At other points, I chronicled them in a Small Meadow Press notebook or on Listography. Just writing that sentence fills me with longing!
I love the feeling of longing because it spurs me to action. And no action could be simpler than returning to my old practice of spending a few minutes at the end of each day sifting through the day’s activities and seeing where they fit into my Rule.
Do you have a practice like this? I’d love to hear about it.
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.)