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.