Fixing It

This sign has been in our front yard since we moved in. The dog hunched over in pooping stance and the word “No!” painted across its side. I’ve contemplated removing it many times. It sends a message I don’t really want to send. I don’t feel precious about the patch of lawn on our front yard anyway. In fact, once we have the energy and funds, we plan to xeriscape the area. But I’d think to myself, do I really feel pooping-dogs-yes! ? And so I left the sign up.

At a block party this weekend, my husband said everyone he talked to about our house asked, “Is it the one with the no-pooping-dog sign?” And he’d have to say yes. We agreed we would finally take the stupid thing down, but we didn’t get around to it right away.

Yesterday, I heard the news of the massacre at Robb Elementary while I was in the pick-up line at my child’s school, waiting to pick up my own 4th grader. I felt nauseous at the news. I teared up and took deep breaths to try to stay in control of myself. When my kid got in the car, we chatted, and I kept it light. I already knew I’d have to tell him, but not yet, not yet. We drove home and he talked about how his friend has been to Meow Wolf in Las Vegas.

And when we got home and I pulled into the car port, I immediately, without thinking, got out of the car and marched out to the front yard, took this picture, and then pulled the silly little sign out of the dirt. My child hollered after me, “What are you doing? I want to go in the back way, not the front!” I grunted back, “I just want to take care of this.” It was lodged firmly in the dirt. It took both hands and all my strength to pull it out. In the end, I think a part the stake broke off and is still buried under the desert willow tree.

I carried it with me to our backyard, and stuck it in a flower bed there where it still is, ridiculously saying “No!” to nobody but us when we walk by it. The front yard is open season. Come poop on it, dogs of the neighborhood. Please get your person to pick up after, but poop all you like. We are a poop-yes household. We have no control, it feels, over the things that matter. No matter how hard we donate and vote, no meaningful gun-control laws ever seem to get passed. We drop our beloved child off at school every day and if we think about it too hard, our hearts are in our throats. There is so much wrong in the world. But dogs may poop on our useless lawn.

Bird Friends

One thing I’m learning is that the side yard in my new home is beloved by birds. I’ve been sitting out here on the patio and writing most mornings this week. The house is hot because temperatures have been high and our swamp coolers aren’t turned on yet. But the west patio is in shade all morning and it is deliciously chilly. After a night of being too warm, it feels wonderful to sit out and feel cool air nipping at my bare toes in sandals. I don’t know a lot about birds, so I can’t identify them very well, but so far I’ve seen doves, robins, roadrunners, finches, hummingbirds, and woodpeckers. Yesterday morning I even managed to get a picture of a woodpecker as it hopped along the trunk of one of our trees. I love being visited by all these bird friends. The cats love it too. They sit by the screen door of the patio and chirp and chatter.

It is probably my happiest time of the day, the mornings spent outside with my computer and my words. I don’t feel like I’ve been writing anything especially brilliant, but I’ve been doing the writing work out here and that feels satisfying. I’ve been sitting on one of my new Mother’s Day chairs, the ones modeled after the Terrace chairs on the Memorial Union at the UW-Madison, and that has added to the happiness of the mornings. It brings back memories of some of my best times in Madison when I was a young adult. I loved the Terrace, and time spent there chatting with friends, studying, and writing. Having a little piece of that memory here in my new home is a joy.

At the Terrace, bird-friends mostly came in the form of mallard ducks. It was fun to watch them swim, and waddle around begging for popcorn. Here there are no ducks, not unless I venture out to UNM’s duck pond. But there are the hummingbirds that buzz past me like little jet planes. There are the woodpeckers who hop along the trunk of the tree and occasionally make that rap tap tap that rings out across the block. There are the robins who hop along on the ground looking for critters. Maybe best of all, there are roadrunners who easily hop over the fence and then look at me long and hard, as if sizing up my worth. I’m glad this new neighborhood had roadrunners. I’ve always considered them a lucky sign when I spot one. And who doesn’t like a little luck, as they go about their day?

On Writing Profiles

I just finished writing my third volunteer profile for my church’s monthly newsletter. I belong to First Unitarian here in Albuquerque, the first church I’ve ever been a member of, which is a subject for a whole blog post on its own, and I was recently recruited to join its Radical Generosity committee and do much of the writing for that committee. I was a little nervous about joining. I’m a writer, yes, but the kind of writing I’d need to do for the committee is not the kind of writing I have experience with. But I decided this would be a chance to stretch myself and learn something new, and also be of service to my church community, so I said yes. My first writing assignment for the committee has been to write a series of profiles highlighting the volunteer efforts of church members. One will be published in each month’s newsletter, under the title, Caught in the Act of Generosity. The first was published last week, the next will appear in three weeks or so.

I’ve found the whole process to be a challenge. I am a memoir writer. I write about my life, and the people close to me. It is mostly pretty looking inward kind of stuff. Profiles, by their definition, are very different from that. These profiles have involved interviewing people I don’t know, first over email and then over the phone. I am… not great at talking to people I don’t know well. It takes a lot of emotional energy on my part. A lot of anxiety in advance. A lot of anxiety during the actual conversation. A lot of exhaustion afterwards. And then once the interview is done, I need to craft that into something coherent with 400 words or less. My natural writing length is very long. I once turned in a 40-some page draft of a memoir essay to my workshop during my MFA program. (Sorry, classmates!)

But, like I said, I just finished my third profile this morning, and I feel like it is a good one. I’ve gotten into a rhythm with the work. First, I send the person 5 questions for them to answer over email. When they send that interview back, I print it out and sit down with it, reading and contemplating, and underlining the bits that catch my attention. I then schedule a phone interview with the person and spend a fair amount of energy in advance trying NOT to be anxious about it. When the time for the phone interview comes, I call them right at the appointed time, and then we talk. I go through their email interview and ask follow ups about the parts that most caught my interest, and I listen. Sometimes it helps to share a short thought of my own, being vulnerable inspires vulnerability. Once the phone conversation is over, this is important, I immediately begin to write. I draft a full profile right then. They tend to be about 600 words long. Once I have my drafted profile, I take a deep breath, and let myself go work on my cross stitch because I’ve just done a big difficult job and I deserve a reward.

The best part comes the next day, when I sit down with my 600-word draft and try to sculpt it down to 400 words or less. Sometimes I think of this as playing word-Jenga. I try to remove as much as possible without having the whole structure collapse into chaos. This part of writing is fun, always has been for me. Having a form to work within and revise towards, in the case that 400-word limit, turns writing into a kind of a game and I get in the zone while I play it. Its highly satisfying. And so far at the end of it, each time I’ve ended up with a profile I feel proud of.

The first profile was published in the newsletter last week. I was surprised by how anxious this made me. I couldn’t figure it out at first. I’ve published work before, much more self-revealing work. Why was this publication causing me to feel so self-conscious? Then I realized it is because usually I publish into the void. The lit mags that have published me mostly have readers I’ve never met, never will meet, and never will so much as hear from. That can be kind of frustrating, actually. But these profiles are being published and read by my church community, by people I know and see on Sunday. It is a much more vulnerable feeling.

I hope these profiles are helpful for my community, that they help to connect us to each other. A thing that is needed after the past two years of isolation. I’ve realized that writing them is good for me as a writer. It has introduced me to a new form and process, a more outward-looking one, and that can only make my writing life more well-rounded.

Settling In

We moved into this new house on the last day of November, so our first few months of getting settled in have been winter months. The trees had no leaves and all the plants were dormant. We didn’t spend much time outdoors, or even in the sunroom because of the cold. But as things have warmed up, we’ve started to venture outside more and more. First, I discovered in early March that the sunroom warmed up enough by the afternoons to be a good place to sit and stitch. And now by the end of April, the sunroom is comfortable all day long and we’ve started to make use of the west patio, which faces out into a small lawn bordered by rose bushes.

At first we had no furniture for this patio, but we fixed that just last week. Now there are two comfortable outdoor chairs with ottomans and a little table between them to hold coffee cups. That patio is in shade in the mornings, and is a perfect place to sit with a cup of coffee. My husband and I have gotten in a routine of sitting out there most mornings for 10-15 minutes and chatting before we each start our days. Me, with my writing, and him with his programming and meetings. These are some of my favorite moments in the day. My love language is time, and this gift of time from him every morning fills my heart. He started working from home because of the pandemic, and we moved in part so that he could have a dedicated office. It looks like he’s going to get to keep working from home, and I love having him here during the days, hearing the clacking of his keyboard as he works.

Yesterday, I noticed a couple of the rose bushes have started to bloom, and I clipped three roses to bring inside. Once inside, I discovered we somehow don’t have any small bud vases, so I ended up putting them in a Thor glass. They are sitting near my right elbow now as I type at the dining room table, facing the open west patio door. Their scent is gentle but ever present, much more so than any store-bought roses we’ve ever had. They improve my day, just by being there.

Once we started using the west patio in the mornings, I realized that it would be a perfect place to sit in the mornings and write, if only there was a table out there too. The patio area is large enough to hold a small bistro table and two chairs, along with the two comfy chairs that are already out there, so I started daydreaming. I asked myself, what would be my dream writing set up out on the patio? And I immediately had my answer. I’d like to sit at one of the chairs that they have at the Memorial Union at the UW-Madison, where I went to college 25 or so years ago. I spent many happy hours there on the terrace, and the iconic chairs are both very cool looking and also would bring back good memories. I googled, and sure enough those chairs are for sale, though they aren’t cheap. I showed them to Eric, told him they were my dream chairs for our patio, and also mentioned that Mother’s Day is coming up… He said to go ahead and order them and we’ll call it my Mother’s Day present. I am so thrilled! I ordered the chairs, which will be cherry red, and then also a glass and black metal bistro table from Wayfair to go with them. (The website also sells terrace tables, but at nearly 900 dollars, I thought I’d go another route…) I’m already imagining mornings spent at the little table, on one of the new red chairs, happily writing in the shade of our new house. I feel so lucky to be here, even more so now that it is spring and surprise flowers are blooming (so far daffodils, tulips, irises, and lilacs along with the roses) and the three large trees on our lot all have leaves. It is a pleasure, settling into this new home and learning its secrets as the year and seasons progress.

On Balance

This week I picked up my embroidery again. I had stopped working on it around the same time I stopped working on my old cross stitch project. But a couple weeks ago I revived my cross stitch practice simply by switching to a different project, and this week I found the need for an embroidery project to balance it out. I like working on more than one thing. The two together, my cross stitch and my embroidery allow me to stitch in different moods and circumstances. When I feel done with one, I’m often ready for the other. They are related, of course. They both give me the pleasure of working with my hands, the hiss of thread through fabric, the calm that descends upon me. But there are slight differences. Cross stitch is all a geometry of squares, which I prefer to work on using my Lowery stand. Cross stitch is structure. Embroidery I work by holding the hoop in my hand, and each stitch lands in a slightly different place with few truly straight lines in the design. Embroidery is freeform. My current cross stitch fabric is an even weave imported from Greece which smells pleasantly of hay. The cloth of my embroidery is a tighter weave and so the thread pulling through it resists a bit more, hisses a bit louder. These small differences matter to me. They allow me to keep working. I guess I like the variety.

I do something similar with writing. I write both essays and poems, and historically it has worked well for me to switch from one to the other. If I was stuck on an essay, I’d work on a poem, and vice versa. I even took my book of poetry, removed all the line breaks, fleshed out a few spots, and turned it into a series of three essays, one of which was published in The Hunger as The Pure Blue Burn. Similarly, there have been essays that turned into poetry. Lately though, for some years, I’ve been more focused on my nonfiction. I have a manuscript I’ve been working on about being a parent with bipolar disorder and I’ve really wanted to have it done, so much so that I’ve let poetry fall more by the wayside. So I find it funny, or perhaps just telling, that I’ve taken myself out of my latest writing break by participating in the poem-a-day challenge for April. I haven’t managed a poem every single day. I did the first two weeks without missing one, but then have missed some days in the third week. But I’m not beating myself up about it. I’m simply opening up a new file on a new day and writing yet another poem. Most are simply play, and I doubt I’ll come back to them. But a couple I intend to revise, try to shape them into something, and then I’ll likely share them with my writing group. I’m glad to be writing poetry again. Going forward, I’m going to try to remember that for me, writing nonfiction and poetry balance each other. Each has its different pull.

Coffee Shops, the Pandemic, and Evasion Strategies

When the pandemic began, I had a lot things I needed in order to write. I needed to write away from the house, preferably in a coffee shop. Even more preferably with a friend across the table, doing their own writing. I had two writing friends in town who enjoyed the same activity, and I met each of them weekly — one on Tuesdays and one on Thursdays. Many weeks this was the only writing I did, though on good weeks I’d manage to get to a coffee shop on my own and do some solitary writing surrounded by strangers as well.

Then the pandemic hit, and all the coffee shops closed down, then re-opened for take-out only. I wouldn’t have gone to one in those early days even if they had been open. And I wasn’t writing in those early pandemic days either. I was spending time with my child, who was eight at the time. I was structuring their days, making sure that they felt as okay as they could, with school suddenly closed and the whole world feeling hostile and strange. We drew together along with Mo Willems on my computer screen. We took long walks around the neighborhood, admiring the blooming daffodils and crossing the street when we encountered other pedestrians. We read books together each afternoon during what I dubbed Mommy Storytime. I gave myself permission not to write.

Time passed. Summer passed. School re-opened in its new strange virtual form. I found myself spending days sitting in the living room, listening to my child’s third grade class conduct its business in the den over Google Meet. The teacher’s voice traveled all over the house and she started to feel like a close friend, though she hardly knew my face or my voice. It occurred to me at some point during my second time through third grade that I really needed to learn to write in adverse conditions. So what if I wasn’t at a coffee shop? So what if there was no friend across the table? A professor from my MFA program had called these evasion strategies, and I admitted to myself that he was right.

And I found my way back to a writing practice in starts and stops and eventually with the help of an old friend who became my writing coach. I learned to write even though I was at home, even though 3rd grade was going on in the background, or, once summer returned, when my child was playing Prodigy Math. During the summer between 3rd and 4th grade I had a daily writing practice at my desk in the living room while my child had a daily Prodigy Math practice in the den. It worked, and it kept working until I took a break for us to move houses.

Now I’ve got a feast of places to write within my own home. There is my home office, which occupies one wall of the bedroom. There is a desk in the guest room. There is the dining room table, which is my preferred spot with its view of the side yard and its large and beautiful tree. There is a table out on the patio. And I am writing again, happily so. One small thing the pandemic accomplished was it forced me to confront my own evasion strategies.

And today, for the first time in over two years, I find myself writing at a coffee shop across the table from a friend who is also writing. We are sitting outside on the patio. I’m wearing a mask. Neither of us has a perfect breakfast burrito on the table beside us. (In the before days, there was often a perfect breakfast burrito.) It feels good, coming back to this new form of my old way of writing. It also feels a little strange. I can see why this was my preferred way of getting writing done in the past. It is a luxury, having company while sitting deeply inside my own head. But I also know that tomorrow, I’ll park myself at the dining room table at some point, and I’ll write a poem. My child has the day off from school, so there may be the dulcet tones of video games in the background. I’ll likely only write for 30 minutes or so, but I will write. And it will be good too.

Busy Hands, Quiet Mind

It happened a little late in the pandemic, but I’ve finally got myself a new hobby. I’ve been cross stitching since around January of this year. Cross stitch never appealed to me before. I never cared for the patterns I saw people working on, including the more modern cute/snarky ones. But at some point last year I was poking around Etsy, looking for a new hobby. All my hobbies had something to with words — reading them, writing them. I felt strongly that I needed to do something that was wordless. I read an article in Slate touting latch hooking as the perfect pandemic hobby, and that led me to Etsy to find appealing latch hook kits. While I was there, I ran across embroidery patterns by Avlea Folk Embroidery, and I was intrigued. The designer, Krista West, had both cross stitch and embroidery kits available, and the patterns were unlike anything I’d seen before. Her patterns are directly inspired by traditional Greek folk embroidery and they called to me right away. I placed an order for a couple latch hook kits and an Avlea embroidery kit and waited impatiently for my new hobbies to arrive.

Latch hook ended up being a bust. I found the latch hooking process to be tedious and the resulting rug ugly. I persevered periodically for a couple months but finally ended up abandoning my fuzzy rug halfway through. The embroidery was another matter though. I loved it right away. I had trouble with a lot of the small details of it (at first I didn’t realize I should cut the floss to shorter lengths, even) but despite that, I found the process soothing. I kept working on my kit, and even finished it. I was delighted with how it looked, and more importantly with how the embroidery made me feel. It relaxed me, and the idea of doing something that many generations of women have been doing made me feel… connected. I went to the Avlea website and ordered another embroidery kit and a cross stitch kit. They came, and I started both and then… I quit.

I don’t exactly know why I quit. Maybe just because summer break began and my energies were focused more on my child, then a rising 4th grader, and on my writing practice. Both the new embroidery and the cross stitch languished in a shoebox. Sometimes I’d think about them, but I never picked them back up.

Until I did. Soon after our move to a new house, which I wrote about in the last blog post, I became interested in embroidery again. I poked around the Avlea website and found that Krista had started a forum where people could ask questions and share progress on their stitching. I pulled out my languishing projects and began again. This time, it stuck.

It is the meditative quality of stitching that I love the most. Sometimes I stitch in silence, sometimes with a podcast, sometimes with an audiobook. If my stitching has a soundtrack, I find myself sinking into it in a way that has been hard to find lately while reading books the traditional way. I tucked a small notebook into my project bag so that I could jot down the essay ideas that came to me as I stitched and listened. If my stitching has no soundtrack, then my mind becomes quiet. An hour spent stitching relaxes me and raises my spirits, leaving me feeling simply, good.

The new house has a sunroom. As weather has warmed, I’ve found it is the perfect place to stitch. I sit out there and soak up sunlight and calm my mind. My cats often join me, napping in the chairs near mine. I sink into the wordless activity and I can’t exactly explain why, but it feels like it is feeding my writing practice. I get ideas for new writing projects, or I simply replenish my creative energy. My stitching practice is absolutely much of why I felt able to return to writing this month, why I’ve taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day in April. It feels good, to make something with my hands, something which cannot be read.

A Return

We moved houses last year. My husband and I had last moved in 2003, so it was a pretty major endeavor. I spent all of October sorting and winnowing through our stuff, giving away things that still had use and discarding or recycling things that did not. I spent all of November finishing up this task and also starting to pack the things we had decided to keep. The last day of November, movers arrived at our old house and spent the day lugging all our boxes and furniture onto two trucks and then into our new house. December first found us in our new house, thankful, happy, and also more than a little dazed.

Throughout all this time, I didn’t write, not really. I wrote emails to friends, posts to friends on social media, but no poems or essays or even journal entries. It felt like a relief to take a break. It felt freeing to focus on something else instead, on the massive project of getting us moved into our lovely new home. And then once we were in the new house, there was the massive project of settling and unpacking. I enjoyed that too. When that was done, it was almost Christmas. I told myself I’d get back to my writing practice in January.

January came, and I did not get back to writing. February came. Then March. I wasn’t panicking exactly. I know myself by now, at the age of nearly-50. I always come back to writing. I take breaks, and then I return. It is the way we work, writing and I. But I did know that my writing break needed to end soon. Enough.

April first began, and I surprised myself by writing a poem. Just a rough draft of a poem, an idea of a poem, but a poem. I thought maybe I’d try the April poem a day thing. So the next day I wrote another poem, and the day after that another. The days kept passing by and I kept writing poems, and I wrote something else too.

In the new year, I was recruited to join my Unitarian Universalist church’s Radical Generosity committee and to do most of the writing for that committee as it prepared its yearly pledge campaign. I was a little apprehensive about the request. That is NOT the kind of writing that I generally do. But I thought it might be good to stretch myself, and to be of service, so I said yes. My first assignment for the committee was to write a series of 400 word profiles of church members who are generous with their volunteer time. This would require interviewing people, and then writing up what I’d found. I’d never interviewed someone before, or written a profile, and I wasn’t sure I could, really. I’m an introvert. Talking to people I don’t know takes a lot of anxious energy.

But I tried it anyway. I sent out a couple emails to church volunteers, and started corresponding with them. On Tuesday, I spoke to one of them on the phone. It was a good conversation, interesting and pleasant, and then towards the end I fumbled with my words and said something a little bit vulnerable, and in turn they responded with their most honest and vulnerable reply yet. I knew it when I heard it — this was my hook. As soon as we ended our phone call, I wrote. I wrote in that trance that is so satisfying and so difficult at times to achieve. By the end of it, I had a 500 word profile which I felt really good about. I then spent some satisfying time cutting and winnowing my words until I had just below 400 of them. And there it was, my first profile. I looked at it, felt proud, and then drafted my poem for the day.

Today, Thursday, I did some final revisions to the profile and then emailed it off to our church’s monthly newsletter. Then I drafted a poem, my 7th so far this month. I feel comfortable saying that I’m writing again. My break is over. It was a good break, a break worth taking. But now it is good to be back to the page.

A New First

This Sunday I experienced a new first. My essay, “I Am Afraid/I Am Not Afraid” was featured in a sermon given at my Unitarian Universalist church by my minister, Angela Herrera. She had contacted me a few weeks before, complimenting the essay, and asking permission to refer to it in an upcoming sermon. I said yes, gladly, and felt honored. The upcoming sermon was a special one. Our church has been meeting virtually over Zoom since March of 2020 but on Sunday September 12th of 2021 the church was going to have its first in-person service since the pandemic began. The sermon she was working on was about “embracing possibility” and was going to be given twice on this special day — once during the 9 a.m. Zoom service and once during the 11 a.m. in-person service.

Our family chose to attend the Zoom service. We don’t feel like we’ll be ready to rejoin everyone in person until our nine year old son is vaccinated and Covid numbers go down in our area. But a part of me longed for the experience of going to the in-person service, of seeing everyone in real life, of being inside the church’s sanctuary with its lovely mural. I know the first time we’ll return in person I’ll cry with the joy of it, and a part of me wished that day could be on September 12th.

That day wasn’t September 12th, but in a way it feels like it was. The sermon opened and closed by referencing my essay, and a couple paragraphs were quoted directly. I wasn’t in the sanctuary this past Sunday, but my words were. That means a lot to me. I’m so glad that a part of me was there, in that large light room full of people with love in their hearts.

New Beginnings

I’ve been thinking I ought to have an author’s website for awhile. I’ve been slowly increasing my publications, and it seemed to me that I ought to have a place where people could find them all, and also contact me if they wished to. I sat on this idea for some time. Imposter syndrome told me having my own website was silly. Inertia told me setting it up would be a lot of trouble. But I’ve been working with a writing coach lately and she suggested it was time I put together a site where people could contact me and find all my publications. Having that little extra push was enough to get me moving, and here I am. I wrestled with WordPress for a good week, trying to figure it all out. And I’ve ended up with the simplest possible design, as I couldn’t figure out anything more complicated. But here it is, my website, and it includes this blog, where I’ll periodically update people about my writing life, and perhaps small bits of the rest of my life as well.

While I was writing the above paragraph last week Thursday, my phone rang. I saw it was from my son’s grade school, and I fumbled the phone as I picked it up and answered it. It was the school nurse, and I don’t know what I said at first in reply, but she responded by saying, “I know. Take a deep breath.” She proceeded to tell me that my son was running a fever of 101.8 and I needed to come pick him up as soon as possible. So began a long weekend of worry, and Covid tests, and more worry. Now on the other side, I am glad to say that his sickness passed quickly, with the only symptoms being spiked fevers and headaches, and that his Covid tests were negative. He’s back at school this morning, and was happy to go.

Such is the writing life, always interrupted by the rest of life. I’m trying to learn to keep writing despite it all. I’ve done a good job of it the past few months, even managing to keep up a daily writing practice while my son was on summer break and had no day camps or other care. He cultivated a Prodigy Math habit on his computer, while I cultivated a writing habit on my computer. Ironically, I’ve found keeping up my writing practice more challenging since he started school. I have more time, but I also have more worry. I’m trying to learn to write through the worry as well. I even wrote a piece about that worry, which came out in MUTHA Magazine recently, “I Am Afraid/I Am Not Afraid.” It felt good to take my anxiety and shape it into something outside of myself.

Now I’m back to working on my long manuscript, about parenting with bipolar disorder. Again, I’m trying to take a piece of my life and shape it into something outside of myself. It is satisfying work and I feel proud as I see that manuscript grow. I’ll update here about how that project is going, from time to time.