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!
I saw the first snowdrops yesterday. Crocuses seem a bit late this year—usually there are many in the yards of our neighborhood by this point. The photo above was taken at a local park the last week of January, the year we moved to Oregon.
I took photos like mad that year—that first incredible Pacific Northwest spring. Funnily, I’ve hardly taken any pictures at all in the past few months. I think that without noticing it, I’ve hit a point where I’ll look at something beautiful and think: I’ve already got a photo of that somewhere. It’s nice, quite peaceful really, feeling like the seeing alone is enough.
I’m now wondering if this shift is related to my increasing immersion in needle-painting. The time-scale is so different: you can snap umpteen pics a minute, or you can spend months laying stitches with single strands of floss. Both art forms spark great joy. But I think right now I’m more nourished by the slower one. Now I only seem to take a photo if I think I might want to stitch it at some point.
Even now I’m staring at those petals and stamens and imagining what colors of thread I might choose. Those delicious lines of dark purple against the lighter shades. The deeper orange-yellow of the stamens that are farther from the lens. The way you could drop in just a stitch or two of the gold in the center of the more distant crocuses. The question of focus: would you try to recreate the mist of flowers at the top edge of the photo? Or zoom in close to the few up front?
In one of Eric Maisel’s wonderful books—I think this was A Writer’s Space, but it might have been Fearless Creating—he suggested an exercise to help give clarity about what you really truly want to do. He said to dream big, just imagine the grandest vision possible involving the art you wanted to create. Like, say, giving an acceptance speech for a major award for your novel. And since this was when I was becoming really obsessed with embroidery, I started to imagine a gallery wall with my original pieces—but the thing is, the vision immediately shifted to a small mountain cabin, quiet, a tumble of floss skeins, a chair with good light. I understood in a flash that my embroidery ‘dream’ was simply time and space in which to work.
That was a good little epiphany. Apart from the mountain cabin, there was nothing in the vision that isn’t within my reach nearly every day, if only for a few minutes.
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.
Although we had never met, I knew Rebecca lived in my corner of Portland. She left the sampler on my porch one day, but I wasn’t home. Remember not being home? That day seriously was one of the very last times I wasn’t at home for a year.
The second-to-last very last time was March 10th. Even though my nose was still recovering from a harrowing-if-fascinating surgery to remove skin cancer, I went to the Tuesday night singalong of my beloved Low Bar Chorale. On my way into Show Bar at Revolution Hall, I passed some women sitting at one of the patio tables—and did a double-take, because I recognized Rebecca!
I think I sort of shrieked at her? I’m excitable that way. I introduced myself and we had a good laugh about it. She thanked me for testing the sampler and I told her I was already having a fabulous time with it. Then we went inside and sang with the band: a roomful of joyful adults shoulder to shoulder, mouths wide open, masks undreamed of.
Rebecca started a group text with her four test stitchers, and we spent the rest of March and April adjusting to lockdown and finding ourselves with LOADS of time for embroidery. Our deadline was late April, because Rebecca was supposed to film in May, I think. I loved working on the sampler, especially the alphabets. When Rilla saw the palette of floss colors I’d chosen, she laughed—they’re the same hues of Prismacolor pencils I always wear to a nub.
Covid, of course, changed Rebecca’s plans to fly to Creativebug’s studios in 2020 and film the class. But this year she was able to go at long last, and her class—Schoolhouse Sampler: A Daily Embroidery Practice—will begin on Saturday, aka January 1, the best day of the year.
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.
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!
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.
Oh my dears, what a time we’ve had! All of us—you and I. Our ten or so days of unbreathable air really did a number on me. Losing our daily walks, and my ritual of walking around the yard and literally stopping to smell the roses—brutal. On Friday the rain came at last, and the air went from Hazardous to Very Unhealthy to the miraculous-seeming Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. Imagine celebrating a designation like that! Especially since three of us in this household fall in that Sensitive Group.
Today the AQI readout is green, glorious green. We can breathe deeply once more. Scott and I went for a walk yesterday evening and of course the world had changed during our days of huddling indoors. Summer slipped away and autumn is coming in: air quivering with golden light, trees tinged with color, asters and brown-eyed Susans stretching out their arms. All over the neighborhood, we saw giant sections of tree trunk sawed and awaiting removal—very likely casualties of the fierce winds that ushered in our days of smoke. Just around the corner, an entire treetop is sprawled on the side of the road, cordoned off. Scott and I had a moment of retroactive alarm, imagining what might have happened if our next-door neighbor hadn’t taken down the dear old dead birch in the sidewalk strip right next to the boundary of our yard. We were sad to see it go—but it kept dropping larger and larger limbs, and safety demanded its removal. Just in time, I think. If the winds had taken it down, all the power, phone, and cable lines would surely have gone with it.
This morning feels like a fresh start. I love fresh starts! I began a new embroidery piece during my creative-practice time—a Sarah K. Benning design, a tumble of fall wildflowers. Usually when I work designs created by someone else, I like to change up the colors to put my own stamp on the project. But this time I think I’ll stick to Sarah’s palette, which is full of yellow and gold and orange and brown—colors I seldom reach for on my own! Those brown-eyed Susans are insisting on it.
I was looking for something in Dropbox and found a bundle of design elements I bought for my website a zillion years ago. Lots of pretty watercolor images and other goodies. There don’t seem to be any designer credits in the files, though surely there was documentation somewhere? I haven’t looked through all the files—much of it looks like things easily created in Canva now—but there was a folder full of watercolored butterflies, moths, leaves, and other bits of nature. I grabbed the image above to brighten up this post, and it turned into a twenty-minute effort to find a designer name in order to credit the artist. I mean, the entire purpose of a design elements package like this is that you’re allowed unlimited (and uncredited) use of the images. But someone made this art and it bugs me not to be able to say who.
Those lost minutes exemplify my theory that everything in modern life takes a minimum of 20 minutes longer than than you think it will. Especially internetty things. We’ve built a rabbit warren and we’re forever getting lost in meandering tunnels. And every seemingly simple task involves half a dozen steps, at least one of which will rack up your extra 20 minutes.
As of yesterday, we are now a one-vehicle family. Since our move to Portland, I don’t drive much at all. Our old Saturn was out of commission for a long while, but we got it running again last fall and decided not to renew the minivan lease when it expired. This after I did the math and realized just how much each infrequent van trip was costing us each month. I’d rather take a Lyft if I’m going across the river, anyway—I loathe hunting for parking downtown. And we do most of our daily errands on foot now: possibly my most favorite thing of the many things I love about living here. Groceries a block away. Dozens of cafes, pubs, and restaurants within walking distance. Two bus lines moments from our door, making it easy for my older kids to commute to work and school and Powell’s Books and other essential destinations. I could even walk to my doctor’s office if I needed to. I don’t tend to, because it’s next door to a grocery store I like, and the walk home is uphill. But I could.
Of course this means we’re now three seats short for a whole-family excursion, but an occasional rental (or two Lyfts) is still a lot cheaper than keeping the Odyssey.
Scott and I had been worriting over the end-of-lease busywork for a while, and yesterday’s turn-in appointment felt a bit anticlimactic—we’d had no one big family moment where we said goodbye to the minivan that bridged our time between San Diego and Portland. It’s just suddenly…gone. Along with (we just this minute realized) my I’d Rather Be Reading Betsy-Tacy license plate frame. Whoops. Scott’s making a call to the dealer as I type. Fingers crossed!
I got the stitches out of my nose on Thursday! And things are looking pretty good. Still in my jammies this morning so no pics:) There’s one small bump of scar tissue on the bridge of my nose that I’m worried is going to hang out and look like a perpetual pimple, but other than that I’m really quite amazed at how well the incisions have healed already. The scar is a faint red line zigzagging along my nose, and it’ll fade. There’s still some swelling so that my nostrils aren’t in exactly the same places they used to be. In a few weeks I’m supposed to start kneading and massaging the tissue daily to help break down scar tissue and restore the original shape. I’m hoping that means the one little scar bump will flatten out as well? If not, it’s only noticeable in profile. I’ll live. 🙂
I’m not yet able to put sunscreen on it, which means I’m going to have to overcome my aversion to wearing hats long enough to get my walks in—spring has arrived in full force and I need to be out in it! Cherry blossoms, plum blossoms, daffodils, grape hyacinths, hellebores—oh it’s a magical time! Rilla just noticed the neighbor’s clematis vines have climbed into the hedgehog tree. The tree (a dogwood) hasn’t yet begun to leaf out, but its bare limbs are clothed in a green shawl embroidered all over with starry white flowers.
Oh gosh, that makes me want a leaf-green shawl I could stitch all over with little white flowers. —Because that’s what I need: another stitching project. I have so many going at once right now! I spent some time reorganizing my studio this week, and now everything has a place again and I know what I’ve got in progress. A few things are quite close to being finished. Why am I still writing? There’s stitching to be done!