Monday, January 8, 2018

December Reads

A monthly recap of books I've read. For past months, see:
January Reads 
February Reads 
March Reads 
April Reads 
May Reads  
June Reads
July Reads
August Reads 
 September Reads
October Reads 
November Reads


If November's reading list was about fun and escape, December's list is a bit more well-rounded and seasonal.

Poetry
Measure for Measure, edited by Annie Finch and Alexandra Oliver. This book I read over several months, a poem or two or three per day. It's organized by different meter types and while I still wouldn't be able to tell a dactyl from a trochee, I had a lot of fun reading it and look forward to seeking out more metric poetry.

Nonficton
Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed. Not really sure if this book counts as nonfiction or not…it's a collection of quotations from Strayed's other books. I received it for Christmas last year (or maybe the year before) and had picked it up and read a quote here and there over that time, but after I finished Measure for Measure I still felt like reading short pieces in the morning and this happened to be on my night stand. The other thing it has in common with Measure is that it's a hard-cover book the size of a paperback, with a ribbon bookmark—my favorite kind of book of all.

Holidays on Ice by David Sederis. This probably doesn't count as nonfiction, either (I've read that David Sedaris describes his writing as "true-ish"), and it shouldn't be on this list anyway because I only read one piece, "Santaland Diaries," not the whole book. I read "Santaland Diaries" every Christmas, but the other pieces only once every three or four years or so. Nevertheless, I wanted to put it on the list in case there's anyone out there who hasn't given themselves the pleasure of "Santaland Diaries" which is hilarious. The one downside to reading a piece of writing so often you almost have it memorized is that when C and I went to see a one-man play of it earlier in December, I noticed every time the words had been changed (do we really need to update "camcorder" to "iPhone"? Doesn't everyone still know what a camcorder is?) or a part had been left out.

Play
The Winter's Tale, by Shakespeare. This was referred to in the Introduction to Literature and the Environment lectures I've been watching on YouTube. I haven't read Shakespeare since high school, when I found the writing pretty much impenetrable, but I was surprised how well I understood what was going on and how little I had to refer to the text notes that came in my copy of The Winter's Tale. It was a good story with a twist at the end.

Read-aloud
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. E and Z opted to not listen to a holiday picture book every night leading up to Christmas, for the first time this year. Instead I read the full, unabridged A Christmas Carol to them, mostly to their annoyance. But it can't hurt to have a little Dickens tucked into their brains, especially since it appears that literature is disappearing from the curriculum.

Fiction
The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing. I'd always thought of Doris Lessing as a writer from a long time ago, but this collection of four short novels was published in 2003 (her literary career ranges from 1950 to 2008; she died in 2013 at 96). Each of the four short novels/long stories was so engaging and so different from all the others and so almost word-perfect. I hope I can write only half so well in my 80s (and anytime between now and then). I've always meant to read The Golden Notebook sooner or later; now I'm determined to read it and much more of her writing.

Death at Gallows Green by Robin Paige. This is the only book that could count as escapism for last month. It's tangentially related to a book I read in September, Death at Hilltop Farm by Susan Witting Albert (Robin Page is the pen name Albert and her husband write under), in that Beatrix Potter makes an appearance, but I thought it was even better than the Hilltop Farm book and I'll be looking for more Paige novels this year.

P.S. By popular demand, I'll continue my monthly reads posts at my new website. Check there in a month for January's list and anytime for other writing updates and posts.

Friday, January 5, 2018

New Year's Hat

There's really nothing "New Year's" about this hat, except that I started it last November (as in 2016) and it's the only thing I knitted in all of 2017 and I was determined to finish it before the year was out. That would have happened, except that I ripped out and re-knitted the ribbing four times, at first because I was afraid it would be way too big and then because it ended up too small. As you can imagine, each of these episodes resulted in a mess of dropped and twisted stitches which had to be rescued and repaired.

I finally wrapped up the last of the four ribbing re-dos and the end weaving in just shy of midnight last night. In the end it came out a little too big, but I'm not doing it again. Goodbye to the last project of 2016, the first project of 2018 and the only project of 2017.

The only reason the hat took so darn long was because it was made of tiny yarn on tiny needles…and because I spent an awful lot of time not knitting…because of said tiny yarn and tiny needles and because of all those very long rounds of stockinette with nothing to break it up but YOs and K2togs. Next project will be made with thick yarn on big needles and a little more exciting action.

It's also a bit too cold for a thin, cashmere hat right now. But I can wear it inside for now, and I'll say this for the hat: it's versatile—it can be worn as a slouchy hat, as a tam-o-shanter, a jaunty beret, or a shower cap.



Pattern notes on my Ravelry page.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

I Did It! 2017

Time again for the annual I Did It! list, inspired by Lisa Romeo.



Writing I Did Its!

I finished a draft of the narrative part of The Book and put that narrative though one full round of revision. I still have a lot of research to do to fill in a lot of holes, but clearing that hurdle of getting those first round edits into the document felt good!

I continued to write and submit short pieces, especially during the first half of the year. My results:

Submissions: 24
Rejections: 26
Withdrawals (due to acceptance elsewhere): 2
Short-listed: 1
Acceptances: 7
Pending Publication: 2
Publications: 14


The reason these numbers don't add up is because rejections, acceptances, etc. include a number of pieces submitted in 2016. Even though my submission rate was almost half what it was last year (24 versus 45), my rejection rate was higher (26 versus 20) and so was my publication rate (14 versus 8), but my acceptance numbers were down (7 versus 9). What does all this mean? I have no idea.

The low submission number has to do with me focusing on writing short pieces and getting them out in the world during the first half of the year and turning my attention to The Book during the second half (only two submissions since May!). I would like to find more of a balance between The Book and keeping short pieces flowing next year. 

Right now I only have two essays that are finished and making the rounds of literary journals. They're two of the best pieces I've ever written, I believe, and they're having a hard time finding a home. Probably because I insist on sending them only to paying journals. I've got a bunch of partially written essays on hold in the files and numerous short stories on hiatus. At some point I have to address the gap between essay and short story—why am I having more success with the former than the latter? Which stories in the queue truly have merit and which need to be retired? I also want to write more fiction, despite the challenges it poses.

Other writing activity:
  • I applied—and was accepted—for a week at an artist colony (and it was amazing).
  • I applied—and was rejected—for a writing grant.
  • I entered—and have not yet heard from—a writing contest (not counted in submission #s)
I also continued to co-edit the Literary Reflections department at Literary Mama, wrote 90 blog posts (my lowest number since the first two years of the blog), started a monthly-ish newsletter, and created a new website. I attended a poetry festival in Augusta and an alumni weekend at my MFA alma mater, each of which was as good as a writing conference and much more affordable.

On the financial front, my writing balance is in the black! It's not much, in terms of trying to survive (or even buy the occasional cup of chai), but my income from publications and teaching workshops exceeded my expenses of buying books and office supplies and paying submission fees and alumni weekend registration, Duotrope and Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance membership fees, and cloud storage costs. I've reached my goal of not spending more money on writing than I earn. Now I just need to earn enough to live on.

Travel I Did Its!
I took the boys on a road trip to Colorado and back home (via Utah, Wyoming, and South Dakota). This was the first time I went on a road trip as the only adult (though I had some driving help from M), and I think I did pretty great (we never ran out of gas and we never succumbed to a hotel room, camping the whole way there and back). We even survived a rare Utah Hurricane which threatened to float our tent away. And my kids had fun!

Crafty I Did Its!
Making things by hand has taken a bit of a backseat to writing this past year, but I still appreciate the satisfaction of creating a tangible and usable object—a different and often more immediate satisfaction than writing. A few things I made:

Art I Did Its!
I taught myself to watercolor by painting every day for 100 days over the spring and summer (and continuing not quite as religiously since then), following some online tutorials and attending a couple of painting classes at my friend's studio. Watercolor painting is something I've wanted to learn for years and this project not only got me started painting, but also taught me the value of doing something every single day—you actually get better!

Nature I Did Its!
I  taught a couple of nature journaling workshops and have been volunteering at a local nature center, helping lead groups of fourth graders through the woods and trails. I've also put my newly acquired watercolor skills to work in my nature journals. I compiled my birding Life List and went on several bird-watching expeditions, each of which added a few more birds to said list. C, E, Z, and I again did our Christmas Bird Count route. In general, I paid a lot more attention to birds.

Phew! That's a lot for one year! Can't wait to see what 2018 has in store, and I'm a little worried about how I'll keep track of it all if I'm not blogging next year.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Handmade Holiday 2017

This wasn't a very making-ey Christmas, compared with years' past, however I did send out a few handmade gifts into the world.

E and Z received their quilts, which weren't exactly a surprise, since they've seen me working on them for three years. I managed to sew the binding on Z's before Christmas (like on the 23rd), so it was bed-ready, but E's was still just a top (we dropped it off at the quilter the next week) and tossed aside in favor of more interesting, or at least finished, gifts.



Everyone received hot pepper jelly—either jalapeño or habanero—from our garden's excess of peppers this past summer. I used recipes that don't call for extraneous ingredients like carrots or bell peppers, and I think that's the way to go, and I omitted the food coloring because ew. It's most delicious on crackers or bagels with cream cheese and I'm a devoted fan, especially of the habanero.



I also made ornaments for an assortment of relatives back home.



I used Kaffe Fasset jacquard ribbon from Renaissance Ribbons to create yo-yos from this book and sewed on a loop for hanging.



I think they're pretty cute, although they're a one-sided ornament with a scraggly-looking back. Sadly that half of them got lost in the mail on their way to Colorado.



One of my kids asked for a fluffy mauve bathrobe, bath bombs, rose-flavored chocolate…and a Nerf gun.

I found the bathrobe at our local department store, but I searched high and low for bath bombs that don't contain artificial fragrances to no avail, so I made my own, using this recipe, omitting the coloring and adding instead dried rose petals, lavender flowers, and lemon peel. For molds, I used Easter eggs, which I thought was pretty ingenious, although the bombs were not quite fool-proof after all. Several broke in half or crumbled on their way out of the mold and I had to remix them using more coconut oil. When I finished making them, I was tempted to test one of the broken ones, but I had to go out in search of rose-flavored chocolate instead (I did later try one and it was quite nice).



The next gift shouldn't even count, since I made it for last Christmas for family who we didn't get a chance to see before they headed south for the winter and somehow failed to catch up with all summer. Luckily it was a present that would keep.



The little hexagons are formed and put together using the English paper piecing method, using a started kit I bought at my local fabric store and then appliquéd onto a gray-blue linen background and zipped up in a pillow. I had intentions of making more paper-pieced pillows for this Christmas, but that didn't happen. Maybe next year...



In the received department, the boys got their traditional Grammie Jammies, this year with robes included.



Saturday, December 23, 2017

On the Solstice

I had an infuriating day grappling (unsuccessfully) with an impenetrable government bureaucracy (an intolerance for bureaucracy is one of the many reasons I no longer work for the government) and Christmas shopping for about the 100th time this holiday season, thinking I was done, finally, before realizing I'd forgotten gifts for two people. I went into the evening tense and grouchy.



While I made soup, I put E and Z to work stringing popcorn. They've reached the stage where they can pop the corn with only a little guidance, thread their own needles and knot their own threads. One of the advantages of repeating the same rituals year after year. After many years of making failed birdseed ornaments, I gave in this year and bought a bird seed bell instead, and after dinner we hung that and the popcorn in the spruce tree in front of our house and then trekked through the woods, down to the river.



I don't get outside at night at winter much—except when driving to and from places—because, I admit it, I don't like being cold. But it was a beautiful night—cold, yes, but still and starry, with the snow giving off enough light you almost didn't need a flashlight (which is a good thing because my headlamp battery died on the way there).


Down at the river, we lit a small fire (more of a b- fire than a bon-fire), toasted marshmallows, made s'mores, finally burned the sparklers that have been sitting on a high shelf since I-don't-know-when. We sat in the snow and watched as the fire burned down to coals and then trekked our way home, feeling a little lighter as we entered into winter.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Weekend Things ~ Wonderful Life, Bird Count, Hanukkah

We had one of those weekends where everything was happening at once.

M played Bert the Cop in It's a Wonderful Life. I was able to catch two of the four performances, and they were great (don't you love high school plays?). Here he is with George and Ernie, checking out Violet's backside as she struts away across the stage:



Saturday, C and I and E and Z did the Christmas Bird Count. This is the third year in a row and the fourth year overall that we've had the same route in our area. The first time was many years BC (before children), and we both swear we saw snow buntings that year, but we haven't seen them since.

If you want to tag along in spirit, you can watch the video C made of our count:


Sunday, I helped out M's French trip with a bottle drive (lucky kid was at work and didn't have to help me) and then took him Christmas shopping after he got out of work. In the evening, friends came over for our traditional Hanukkah dinner of latkes, gingered beets, and homemade apple sauce. Per tradition, C made a Yule Log Menorah. I think this is the best one yet. Usually the menorah-yule-log gets tossed in the wood stove, but this year C threatened to hide this one and just pretend he made it new next year. I'm okay with that.

They didn't have gelt at the store where I usually buy it, so the kids made do with square chocolates in shiny wrappers. The change of shape didn't seem to slow down their dreidel playing (or chocolate eating) at all, and when the chocolates were gone, they played with nuts.



To infuse an educational element into our festivities, we watched The Rugrats Chanukkah special. It was silly but surprisingly informative and the big kids didn't complain about watching a cartoon.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Best of the Blog ~ Holiday Traditions

Traditions give a comforting sense of rhythm and repetition to days and years. They give us things to look forward to, trigger memories, and are measuring sticks by which we chart our family's changes over the years. They can also be repetitive, rote, and boring. Do we have to do that again? I'm feeling a bit of the latter this year, which either means it's time for these kids to grow up and move out already, or it's time to mix things up and try something new. Before I figure out what that will be, here's a little stroll down some of our favorite holiday traditions.

Christmas Book Countdown


With much bigger boys, this will be the first December in many years that we don't count down the days to Christmas by unwrapping and reading a holiday book (or two or three) each evening before bed. But for all the years it lasted, the Christmas Book Countdown was one of our favorite traditions. (This post tells gives the low-down on the tradition and also includes links to the creation of the book crate and some of our seasonal favorite reads).

Getting the Tree




Setting off into the woods to search for and cut the perfect tree is one of my favorite parts of the holiday. We've gotten a tree out of the woods near our house every year since M was a baby and I've been documenting those tree hunts here since 2009. That year, I shared some history on that tradition.  Some years we collected our tree from snowless woods. Then there was the year we came home from picking out a tree from the woods and decided to instead use the tree that had fallen down in our front yard months earlier. Some years, we've had to squeeze getting the tree in between all the other things we have going on; make that many years. And last year, the year we got our 16th tree off this land, I revisited some of those past tree-gettings.

Christmas Cookies




Making—and eating—cookies is, of course, a favorite tradition of everyone around here. I've honed cookie-making to a science, mixing all the dough in one mega-mixing session, and putting it in the fridge or freezer for later cutting. This saves me from having to wash all of the measuring and mixing implements more than once. To avoid contamination, I start with the white dough of sugar cookies, followed by light brown Spekulatius, and finish with the much darker chocolate gingerbread. Sometimes I add other cookies into the mix, like two kinds of shortbread I tried last year. Different candies make appearances now and then, including the perennial and always improving peppermint bark,

Little Holidays
My favorite part of the Christmas season is not Christmas at all, but the other holidays we celebrate in a small way in the weeks leading up. These are low-stress, high reward events, completely divorced from wantiness, greed, and unrealistic expectations.



On December 6, we celebrate St. Nikolaus Day, with a few treats placed in shoes left out the night before: an ornament for the tree, a chocolate, and a clementine. On or around December 13, we celebrate St. Lucia Day with saffron buns.



Sometime during the eight days of Hanukkah, we get together with friends for latkes, applesauce, a few rounds of dreidel, and our traditional Yule log menorah. A few days ago, M said "Did you know most Christian families don't celebrate Hanukkah?" It was a funny statement, but also a perfectly reasonable thing to be surprised by for a kid growing up in an atheist-but-open-minded-and-slightly-pagan household. We don't mind coopting religious celebrations that aren't our own, especially if they involve really good food. And I'd rather have a latke with sour cream than turkey or ham (or whatever the traditional American Christmas dinner is these days) any day.



For the solstice, we decorate our front yard spruce tree with yummy treats for the birds and, weather permitting, go out for a nighttime trek to the river, where we build a small fire and enjoy being outside at night in winter—a rare event.

Twelve Days of Christmas



Several years ago, I started combatting the day-after-Christmas letdown by keeping the festivities going for twelve more days. Our celebrations are simple: A Twelve Days of Christmas calendar (kind of the anti-Advent calendar); a ring of twelve candles which we light each night while we sing a holiday carol or two, removing one candle each night as we count down to twelve; and one final gift dropped in shoes placed by the fire on the last night of Christmas.

After all that celebrating (not to mention actual Christmas, which involves a lot of contortions with C's extended family plus long-distance Christmasing with my family in Colorado), we are usually ready to settle into a long, quiet winter.
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