one last peek: 10 from 2010

I always have a little trouble coming to grips with the end of a year. Just a little.

And though I'm doing a lot better than I used to, it still takes me a while to adjust to the thought of it, to a clean calendar lying at my feet. All those boxes... waiting to be filled. Filled with what?

2011's gonna be a big one, I just know it.

But as a way to say goodbye to 2010, I spent some time poking through the old posts on this blog, sifting through the words of the past year. Wow. We've been through a lot, oh blog of mine! There's a lot we've chronicled here, you and I.

So here are a few posts from the past, a handful of moments from 2010, maybe the best ones, or maybe just the ones that still hit me.

Ten from 2010:

1. these things i keep

2. spring cleaning

3. gusto

4. the small & unguessed life

5. dear summer,

6. lost & found

7. a platter of figs

8. let's count the days like falling leaves

9. for the love.

10. the gift of your presence

Okay. Okay. Now I think I'm ready. ... Bring it on, 2011.

*I admit, I kinda stole this idea from hula seventy. Elsie has a similar list. It's a fun way to celebrate the past, isn't it?


store update! (and number four.)

Take pictures on a cold and windy day? And then celebrate with a post-photo snack of ... hot, crispy bacon? Oh yes we did! (It was a really good day.)

Kristen designed a new kind of neckwarmer for Squirrel & Serif's new year: here's a peek...

It really was cold out, and let me say: these neckwarmers work! My neck felt so cozy. The rest of me ... not so much.

Annd, in other Serif news, I can finally cross number four off this list: five new scarves for the store? Check!
The Sir Michael Scarf:

The Christopher Scarf:

Perspective Scarves:

Waffle Scarves:

And the Winterfield ... mmmm, which might be my favorite:

Whew! It's been a busy scarf time... suddenly I'm dreaming of hats.

Bright red hats.


book crush thursday: Clementine

I have had not so good of a week. -- Sara Pennypacker, Clementine

When a million pigeons take off at the same time right above you, you can feel their wing beats exploding inside you, like fireworks. -- Clementine

This year I am in the gifted class for math. And here is the bad surprise--so far no gifts. -- Clementine

Clementine is one of the most brilliant books about being a kid that I have ever read. Ever.

I mean: seriously. Wow. I am so glad I stumbled across this book: an instant favorite. I read it in one sitting, one headlong happy gulp.

Sara Pennypacker is just an amazing writer. Amazing! Clementine's voice is absolutely dead-on. She captures the feelings and moments of childhood in beautiful sentences that left my ears ringing. And Marla Frazee's illustrations are the perfect complement.

And what to say about Clementine herself? And her busy, crazy, trouble-filled week?

I wish I could beam myself back to third grade just so I could be her friend. She's so warm-hearted, so quick and insightful, and ... just completely hilarious. I laughed so hard through this book, and yet she also captures the sweet-sadness of being a kid as well. The ending ... was exquisite. So much fun.

A genius of a book! I want to give this one out to everyone I know.

And ... oh. Ohhh. Guess what I didn't know. Guess what I just found out: this is the first in a series.

So... my day just got better.

Recommendation: Grilled cheese and a chocolate milkshake. Read this one by the window for one glorious afternoon. You'll be so glad you did.


writer in progress: cobwebs

It used to freak me out.

I'd have a few days--sometimes, a few weeks--of being, oh, just the littlest bit brain-dead. Something would happen, some kind of huge renovation project, or a minor crisis, or a major happy occasion. My routine crumbled to ashes, the writing stopped, and the story grew cold.

Sometimes, I just forgot that I was a writer for a few days in a row. Sometimes it was that simple.

Whatever the cause, there have been times when I've stopped writing.

Which means, there have been many times when I've had to figure out how to start again.

For about four years, my "favorite" technique was: Let's make a list. (You're shocked, aren't you. Aren't you? Yeah, me neither.)

You can make a list for anything, right? It's like building a beautiful, optimistic ladder in black and white, and if you touch every rung, you make it to the top! Brilliant! Perfect!

I'd program myself to death, and maybe I'd get started again.

Lately, though, I've abandoned the list-making technique.

This morning, the first Monday back at it, after the blaze of holidays and vacation... I've come back to it peaceably. Without lists. Without stress.

Instead of the programs and lists, it's a lot more fun to find the bits of the project that I love.

To flip idly through the last draft and come across the moments I still believe in, the bits of dialogue that make me laugh. It helps to look my characters in the face, and remember why I'm writing about them, why I'm telling their story, when it could have been anyone else's.

When I get reacquainted with the heart of the story, when I find my own heart as a writer, then it's the easiest thing to brush out the mental cobwebs, and to start typing again.

I write because I love it, after all.

It's a small lesson, maybe. But one I come back to again and again: if my heart isn't engaged in the words, then I might as well not do this. If I'm not writing for the love of it, then it's time to find a new job.


just like the ones i used to know ... kind of.

Last night, I wasn't dreaming of a white Christmas.

I didn't even have visions of sugarplums, dancing in my head.

Nope, every dream was about assassins, near misses, quick getaways, explosions, and lethal intent.

Fortunately, the white Christmas came true... the adrenaline-filled chases did not.

And I can live with that.

The only sad thing is, with the last bits of my holiday cold, I can't dash outside for snow angels.

Maybe next week.

Merry, merry Christmas, white or not.

And don't let the bad guys get you.


merry & bright: the Christmas week

Instead of just a Christmas Day celebration, my family's doing a kind of Christmas week celebration. And I'm pretty okay with that.

Even if it does mean that all the presents were opened yesterday, and the massive family gatherings are yet to come.

Which puts me in a bit of a holiday-spirit limbo right now.

I'm still soaking in the afterglow of yesterday: our family together, eating epic food, watching my niece do laps around the house with a bright yellow giraffe...

And then unwrapping presents, which is never a quick thing. Each gift seems to bring a story with it, and we take our sweet time, talking and laughing and passing things around.

So, yes. The memories of yesterday make me linger today: I don't want to cover them up too quickly--I just want to savor it.

Today, then, was laidback. A day for watching White Christmas yet again.

And then googling "how do I cut awesome paper snowflakes?" and not finding anything noteworthy. But trying my hand at it nevertheless. (Always good to keep those grade school art skills at the ready.) 

Today was also devoted to drinking as many Vitamin C drinks as I could manage, hoping to stave off the latest of colds... and whatever else colds might bring my way. I'm not in the mood to chance it, so: bring me another fruit smoothie, if you please.

As I sip, I'm dreaming up better plot twists for my novel-in-progress. Draft Two is definitely happening in a very big way come January. A very big way. Like: cue the goose bumps. It's going to be fabulous.

Not gonna lie: There have also been naps, today. And I've been reading Terry Pratchett's Nation, which looks fantastic. And, too, peeking over Kristen's shoulder, as she posts our latest batch of awesomeness to our Squirrel & Serif site.

Tomorrow will probably be more of the same. More rest, more Vitamin C (I'm not going down without a fight!!), more reading, more plotting, more peace.

And then hoping for a bit of snow to fall before the weekend, just to sweeten things up.

Merry Christmas, wherever this finds you! May your days be merry and bright.

And blessed.


book crush thursday: Jamie's Italy

If you want to blow people's socks off, make this soup. -- Jamie Oliver, Jamie's Italy

This is a fantastically quick recipe to make, and when you open the bags you'll be rewarded by the most amazing smells from the earthy mushrooms and the herbs. Really nice. -- Jamie Oliver

I walked around the town one day asking the locals who made the best couscous, and, of course, every answer was "Mia mama!" That is, until one lad took me along to meet his grandmother--Nonna Giusy. She was the most incredible woman. -- Jamie Oliver

Lately, when it seems like the sun is setting around noon each day (you know what I mean), I start craving food that tastes like summer.

Don't get me wrong, I'm still loving the wintry overcast days. But I'm also in the mood for ... lemons. And rosemary with chicken. Pasta in tomato cream sauces. And risotto.

A lot of risotto.

Enter this book, Jamie's Italy by the brilliant "Naked Chef," Jamie Oliver. He's the one who taught me how to make risotto: white risotto, risotto with pesto, and then ... roasted mushroom risotto with parsley. I know. Get out. It's so amazing.

... Okay, so Jamie didn't teach me in person, but I was stirring and chopping with his book open in front of me, and he's so much a part of his cookbook. So many pictures of him cooking, and his writing sounds so fresh, like he's talking face-to-face with you about all this food he flat-out loves.

So though it was just me, the risotto, and the book, I felt like I was being coached by an exuberant older British cousin.

And that's okay with me.

(Incidentally, the risotto turned out awesome. Every time.)

The recipes are so inspiring. Just reading the titles feels like a vacation. And you know I love Italian food...

And then the photography... every cookbook needs a brilliant photographer, agreed? This one delivers. I completely love all the outdoorsy shots--most of this book feels like the food was purchased, prepared, and eaten outside. And I love that.

Can I say it again? I love that.

Something gets put back together in my soul when I eat outside.

There's also a handful of pictures of amazing old Italian women. ... I want to be an amazing old Italian woman when I grow up. I really, really do. They look so wise, saucy, and sweet, all at the same time. Can I spontaneously become Italian when I turn, say, 75, and work up to wise/saucy/sweet from there?

It's a goal.

... You need this book. It's a trip out of winter for a while. Not to mention: a ticket to some pretty astonishing cooking. Have fun.


it's beginning to look a lot like Etsy.

If you're still stumped on holiday shopping, and if you haven't spent some time on Etsy, well... consider this an invitation. I love this site!

... Best of all, I love doing random searches, and seeing what comes up. You never know what you'll find! So... with a tip of the hat to number 13 on the list, here are my ten favorite searches lately:

writerly, especially this one

ferret, especially this

London (yeah, I know, that was a hard one!), especially this!! makes me wish I had a laptop!!

library chic, especially this

repurposed books, especially these

unicycle ... look at this!!

typewriter... especially this one!

Sherlock Holmes, especially this lovely thing ... and wow, I couldn't resist, this too!!

ink ... so many gorgeous things, but check this one out!

And last but far from least ... ampersand. I'd love just about everything on this list, but especially this. Okay, and this. Annnnd this.

So much fun, isn't it?? Happy browsing!


book crush friday: Weekend Knitting

I knew it was my stitches and the love I knitted into them that were keeping his hands warm. -- Melanie Falick, Weekend Knitting

[These projects] fit into my idea of an idyllic weekend, one filled with fresh air, beautiful scenery, good friends, delicious food, laughter, and time to knit. -- Melanie Falick

Yes, this book crush is a day late. Yes, it's also worth it. Because this is a book that, against formidable odds, flat-out changed my life.

And I can't say that about just anything.

First of all, it was August. A hot, sticky, 100 degree day on our vacation, and we wandered to the cabin next door, which turned out to be: a yarn store.

And that's where I, an off-again, on-again crocheter, who repeatedly turned down offers of knitting lessons, first saw this:

I pulled it out of the crammed bookshelf, to see this:

And when I opened it up, I fell in love with an entire lifestyle.

Melanie Falick certainly knows how to present a book! The photographs are charming, the projects are intriguing, and she really does do it: she sells a way of creative, beautiful, joy-filled living in Weekend Knitting.

In between the wonderful projects and their photos are great quotes about knitting or creativity ... and we all know by now how great quotes are a direct path to my heart...

He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his heart is a craftsman. He who works with his hands, his head, and his heart, is an artist. -- St. Francis of Assisi

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. -- Pablo Picasso

Certainly knitting is not the only thing that fingers can do, but it is a good thing: simple yet capable of endless complexity. -- Anna Zilboorg

And then, there are recipes, for the perfect cup of tea, or hot chocolate, or butter cookies. She's compiled lists of movies for a knitting-movie festival, or books for a knitter's reading list. There are ideas for decorating with yarn, or gifts to give a beloved knitter.

After resisting for such a long time, I fell so hard and so fast for knitting.

I sat outside in the August heat and flipped through these pages, again and again, trying to decide what I'd make first. (It turned out to be the lap blanket on page 20, and then the union square poncho, and then the look-back leg warmers...)

I showed it to everyone in my family at least once, I begged my mom to teach me to knit as soon as we got home, I dreamed about wearing the hats, the mittens, the legwarmers.

Now, as you know, I'm a full-out knitter. I've made a bazillion scarves by now, launched this sweet little shop with my sister, and hey, I'm off to a ladies' knitting night in two hours. I dream, quite literally, of new projects to try.

I guess it's not surprising, though, that it was a book that finally opened my heart to knitting. Pick this one up and see if it does the same to you.

Recommendation: Yes, absolutely, you need to page through this whole book in one glorious sitting, with your cup of earl grey tea and a few shortbread cookies. Most definitely. It's ideal for a Sunday afternoon, so grab a copy before then.

On a side note, I can never get enough of anything done by Stewart, Tabori, & Chang. They are geniuses of design and presentation, and I drool over every single book they produce.


this is one of those.

It's kind of a year-end tradition, this thinking through, sweeping cobwebs from the rooms of my brain. Shaking out all the rugs in my life, washing the curtains that hang on the windows of my mental universe.

I have some questions muddling my mind, big and helpful and extraordinary questions. Directions I'm looking for, ideas I'm feeding. I'm not always sure quite how to puzzle out what I'm thinking... perhaps I'll find it at the bottom of my next cup of coffee.

But it means that this blog and its schedule have gotten a little... short changed? And I'm so sorry about that. I've spent so much time thinking, and not so much time posting.

This isn't meant to sound dreary, because nothing's wrong. Actually, I'm exploding with happiness. (Yes, my one-year-old niece has been kissing my nose again. It's like sunshine.) I've just also been thinking a lot, considering where and how my writing might go next year, what our plans are for Squirrel & Serif, even what the future might hold for this, The Ampersand Café. 

I'll be back soon with another book crush for Thursday. Meanwhile, have you been keeping up with the beautiful posts over at habit? I've always admired the calm and simplicity of their presentation... they make me want to be a better person. And lately, the posts have put me in a holiday mood. Go take a peek.


book crush thursday: Calamity Town

The slopes of Bald Mountain looked as if they had been set on fire and everywhere you went in town you breathed the cider smoke of leaves burning. ... The stars were frostbitten, and the nights had a twang to them. Out in the country you could see the pumpkins squatting in mysterious rows, like little orange men from Mars. -- Ellery Queen, Calamity Town

Mr. Queen found it harder and harder to work on his novel. For one thing, there was the weather. -- Calamity Town

The leaves are down by now, and all we have are skeleton trees and dull lawns. Crisp air. Overcast afternoons. ... I think that means it's time for another mystery, don't you?

I'd heard of the writing team Ellery Queen before, but never read one of their mysteries. I was surprised to find that Mr. Ellery Queen is the name of the protagonist--he's a novelist who also happens to solve mysteries. How brilliant is that? I'm a sucker for any writer appearing in a book, but the self-referential aspect of this one completely delighted me.

And this is the perfect mystery for this season. All the main events happen on holidays (including a wedding on my birthday--that was unexpected!)... Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's... I love reading books in their season! So it's the right time to pick up Calamity Town.

It's the kind of puzzlish mystery that I love... gently-paced, but as it unfolded, I found it harder and harder to put down. I read the last fourth in a rush. I do want to give you a taste of the mystery itself, but I don't want to give anything away... Hmm. I'll need to tread carefully...

There's the mysterious house, nicknamed Calamity House, which split up a couple a day before their wedding. Another man died just taking a look at it. So Mr. Ellery Queen rents Calamity House and gets to know the family who owns it, and hears the story of their jilted daughter. And then, one day, the runaway groom returns...

Three cryptic letters. Arsenic. Poisoned drinks. A love triangle or two. Blackmail. A complicated trial. The enigmatic Mr. Queen himself. You'll be guessing till the very end...

It's all that good stuff you wanted in your December! After all, what's Christmas Eve without a little murder attempt?

Recommendation: Apple cider, definitely. Some warm socks. And a window seat. ... Have fun!

i guess it's just that time of year...

... when I catch myself humming "Let It Snow," sitting on the floor of the office supply aisle at Target, contentedly picking out mailers for Squirrel & Serif...

I don't feel as stressed as I should. There's all the work to be done during the Christmas season, I'm a little behind on my writing, the gifts to seek and wrap... Nope. I'm just not too worried. The days are going so quickly, but each one feels precious and happy and golden.

I love this season.

I love how the air smelled like snow last night, how the stars felt so very close. I even liked, just a little, the way the icy air cut right through me, making my nose tingle, making me dream about gingerbread and cocoa.

I love it, love it, love it. Trying to savor each day as it slips past...


scarf weather & number eight.

Brrrr... It's definitely scarf weather around here! Kristen and I are working on another batch of products for Squirrel and Serif, but until then, check out what's already posted...

... Ha, that picture totally cracks me up! It took me a while to come around to the nerd glasses phenomenon... but I think I've been converted.

(And this is what happens when someone tells me I'm squinting...)

Also, I did, in fact, take care of number eight from this list... the new ornament for 2010! Though, strictly speaking, it isn't knitted... I went back to my childhood and called up some long-lost crocheting skills for a granny-square design. Here's to a homespun Christmas!

How fun is that?

So we'll toss in an ornament with any purchase between now and Christmas. And stay tuned! More awesome scarves coming soon...


book crush friday: A Year in Provence

The year began with lunch. -- Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence

I missed the sounds that marked the passing of each day almost as precisely as a clock: Faustin's rooster having his morning cough; the demented clatter--like nuts and bolts trying to escape from a biscuit tin--of the small Citroen van that every farmer drives home at lunchtime; the hopeful fusillade of a hunter on afternoon patrol in the vines on the opposite hillside; the distant whine of a chainsaw in the forest; the twilight serenade of farm dogs. -- Peter Mayle

This is the book I indulged in during the deadlines and chaos of my senior year at college. It was like anti-stress medication: I'd take this book and crawl into the cavelike safety of the bottom bunk... and escape to Provence for as long as I could.

And if you read those quotes, you can already see why... A Year in Provence is a warm, fantastically conversational memoir of--well--a year in Provence! Which Peter Mayle and his wife spend fixing up a farmhouse and learning about the people and customs and villages around them.

I let myself read it quite at leisure, dipping into it now and then, or soaking it up for an hour or two. I love snooping around in the lives Mayle writes about, learning about his acquaintances, and all the trials of fixing up a house. And traveling vicariously through southern France.

Maybe this book is dear to me because it's about so many of the things I love most. Community. Food. Travel. Living well. France.

... And especially, enjoying food among French community.

(I am such a sucker. Combine food and friends, and I'm there. Combine them in a great setting... well then. Even better.)

Recommendation: A glass of wine. A sunny room and a comfortable chair. And this book. That's my prescription.


thanks & thanks

The best things in life are nearest: Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life. -- Robert Louis Stevenson

To which I'd add... toasted hazelnuts, poached figs, simmering sauces, turkey legs, and the sparkling combo of cranberries and raspberries... not to mention the deep joy of sharing good food with good people!!

I thought of making a list of everything I'm thankful for ... but my heart is so full right now, I think I'd deafen us all. So I'll keep it simple.

I'm thankful for fine pencils, for a stack of blank books, for the awe-inspiring privilege of learning to write.

I'm soooo grateful for my dear and amazing friends, from the oldest to the newest. Most of you are too far away... but I miss you and love you, wherever you are.

I'm overflowingly thankful that God turns family into friends. I love these people! I don't know where I'd be without my dear family!! 

I'm so grateful for the rain that's finally come, wrapping our house in soft grey, tapping at the windows with sleety fingers.

And, because it's me, I'm still thankful for a beautiful buttery pie crust.

Heck. To be frank, I'm grateful for butter, period.

Oh, and what else? I'm thankful that it's snowing. Right now.

Right now, our first snow of the season... I think I might burst.

Happy thanksgiving, everyone. Thanks for reading! I'm grateful for all of you, for your kind comments and willingness to listen to me raving about books and pie. I hope your days are filled with wonderfulness.

PS: ... there will be a book crush tomorrow. Till then, enjoy your turkey!


writer in progress: me and my nine-to-five

"Suppose we change the subject," the March Hare interrupted, yawning. "I'm getting tired of this. I vote the young lady tells us a story." -- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The significant, life-forming times are the dull, in-between times. -- Jan Karon, In This Mountain

When I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel. ... For the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it. If anyone asks me what I work at, I shall say, "Collecting material." No one can object to that. -- Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

It's actually not as alarming as it once was.

When I first came home to write, answering the question What do you do? was a white-knuckle event. And I would stumble through some kind of explanation, a mini-autobiography. So terribly afraid of what people would think.

Now, it's a lot easier. Now it's just a little weird.

Sunday was a day of introductions, meeting new people. I found myself talking with a Navy pilot and a forensic pathologist, and thinking about their worlds of propellers and bloodstains. And then the question comes, of what is it that I do?

Though I don't break out in a sweat anymore, I still don't know quite how to answer that. I'm a writer. I'm writing a novel. I'm learning how to write novels! I'm working on a novel...

I write things down on paper. And try to get better. And hope it all amounts to something good eventually?

The challenge is in the tone of the thing: how do you say I'm writing novels! without sounding like you're saying "I'm building a moon rocket in my backyard! All by myself!" I feel about six years old.

I think that's the trouble.

I've decided not to talk about manuscripts: it's hard not to make manuscript sound snotty, a little too inkstained. I say projects. That sounds so tidy and productive! Sometimes, too, I wave the word three around, three projects! Think of all those pages! I promise it's really work!

That makes me feel a little more stable...

It's such a silly, simple thing, but I'm not the only one who has a hard time saying it. Which is why I have a soft spot for that moment in Anne of Avonlea, you know? I'm a teacher, I'm a writer, Actually I write books... I have so been there.

Embarrassment isn't so much the issue anymore; it's just a tricky thing to talk about, a hard thing to describe. I do something that's ill-defined, which takes all my time, and isn't generating any money (yet).

Maybe novel writing is too limiting of a term. Maybe sometimes I think the noveling process is what's writing me. Maybe there's no good way to describe it, to say, this is what I do:

Right now? Right now I'm spending my weeks redefining a ficticious world, with its village matriarch (the one with the weird feet), underground passages, lamplit waterways, owl costumes, and the man with the missing hand. I'm having a blast, and working hard, analyzing, changing, fine-tuning...

There! There, I finally have it, that's my explanation. Now I'll just commit that to memory and toss it out next time the question comes up...


book crush thursday: Speaking of Books

She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain. -- Louisa May Alcott

[... Um, that may be true of me. Hmm. And yet, I feel remarkably unconcerned...]

When we are collecting books, we are collecting happiness. -- Vincent Starrett

When you sell a man a book you don't sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue--you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night--there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book. -- Christopher Morley

I'm about to encourage us all to an act of gluttony, and I hope you're okay with that. After all, it is Thanksgiving season, a time for, well, gratitude. And feasts.

And Speaking of Books (edited by Rob Kaplan and Harold Rabinowitz), is basically both of those: a massive feast of quotes, all about the love of books.

I would rather be a poor man in a garret with plenty of books than a king who did not love reading. -- Thomas B. Macaulay

When people ask me, "Do you collect books?" I always say, "No, books collect me." -- Nicholas Barker

... So, why do I like this? I know, kind of an easy one. A book of quotes about books. Could anything make me more gleeful, more apt to fall over in a dead faint of happiness?

(Well... yes, actually. But we're talking about books here, and not the pies I'm planning for Thanksgiving. So, in the bookworld, this is tops.)

I used to read it before bed, a pinch of non-fiction to escort me to sleep. The mental equivalent of a midnight snack, right? Except it failed miserably, because I'd start copying them out and reading more and more, and eventually I'd go a little mad. Had to swap it out for something more tame.

So, I suppose that if you're a die-hard bibliophile, you might need to tread carefully. It is a feast, after all. Go easy and savor every bite.

When you walk into a room of books, you're embraced by them. -- Timothy Mawson

I do not read a book: I hold a conversation with the author. -- Elbert Hubbard

I like a thin book because it will steady a table, a leather volume because it will strop a razor, and a heavy book because it can be thrown at a cat. -- Mark Twain

Recommendation: This is a book for all seasons, all situations, all weather. What else can I say? Take it everywhere. Dip into it again and again.

... If I did have the café/bookstore of my dreams, these quotes would be stenciled and scrawled and carved all over. Even on the plates.

Especially on the plates.


a bit of fortitude for your wednesday.

This one goes out to all my friends in the midst of Nanowrimo, or the stresses of schoolwork (be they teachers or students)...

It comes from the acknowledgments page of Leif Enger's So Brave, Young, and Handsome:

Sometimes heroism is nothing more than patience, curiosity, and a refusal to panic.

It's the "refusal to panic" that gets me, every time. And the thought of a heroic curiosity intrigues me...


writer in progress: the gift of your presence

Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pocket. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past. -- G.K. Chesterton

Personally, I want the sea always ... and with it sunshine, and wine, and a little music. -- Max Beerbohm

I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. -- Charles Lamb

I guess I said it last week, didn't I? And I'll say it every time I think of Leif Enger and his work. But it's still true, and so I'll keep saying it: words are gifts. It is a gift to read and a gift to be read.

Even Starbucks has picked up on it: did you see the new cups? I tacked one of their cardboard sleeves on my bulletin board for inspiration: Stories are gifts: SHARE.

It's so true. Receiving such a thing, a gift like that, makes it obvious that you have a debt to pay, some huge story account to feed your words back into.

I have so much wonderful time I "owe," so many moments where stories, essays, words were gifts to me. And yes, that's a fact that keeps me at my desk: books have done so much for me. Without that awareness, there's no way I'd be a writer.

I remember one Grand Rapids winter that was particularly rough. I was going through a hard time, and most of my close friends were traveling. I ended up facing the cold and loneliness with a book of essays (actually one of my class textbooks--oh the joy of being a nerd and loving your assignments!).

I sat by the fireplace in the lobby of my apartment building. I brought my coffee, and I would read for hours, devouring these personal essays. Their words were so immediate, so fresh and frank that my loneliness evaporated, there in the company of Seneca, Montaigne, Thoreau, Fisher.

My favorites, though, were the three I adopted as my uncles: G.K. Chesterton, Max Beerbohm, and Charles Lamb. I read their essays over and over, imagining the men themselves sitting around me in tweed jackets, smelling of pipe tobacco, their eyes large behind their glasses, gesturing with strong square fingers as they spoke. They were encouraging, entertaining, and laughed me out of my self-pity.

I mean, really. No matter how grey the weather, how exhausting and lonely the weeks, how can you not laugh at G.K. Chesterton's "On Running After One's Hat." The title alone is a little bit of brilliance, and the essay itself is wonderful. ("I am inclined to believe that hat-hunting on windy days will be the sport of the upper classes in the future....")

Near the end he writes: An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

You see, a perfectly charming uncle. Funny, engaging, and full of that wisdom that stays with you.

I remember those essay-reading nights and think again about the gift our words can be, across classes, across oceans, across generations. How books can meet us even in the places where other people cannot. And I feel both humbled and determined to work again.


book crush thursday: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home. -- Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt, and then shadow sweeps it away. You know you're alive. You take huge steps, trying to feel the planet's roundness arc between your feet. -- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I didn't have much experience with Annie Dillard until I enrolled in a creative writing minor, and found her books and essays assigned in all my writing courses. It was easy, once I dug into Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, to see why...

I remember stumbling around as a freshman, wide-eyed after reading the first few chapters, and thinking, why bother? She took all the stunning sentences already!

And yet, there was something addictive about her words, about the observations she makes. Something that made me pick up my pen and try to write an answer.

Simply put, this is a book of essays, thoughts, meditations, and observations about the land around Tinker Creek in Virginia. Oh, but that's far too simple. She has a way of showcasing the dramas of nature, enough drama in the little things to make me shiver and keep shivering.

This book has a way of haunting me: once you've read it, how can you forget the giant water bug dissolving and draining the frog? Or the tragic Polyphemus moth creeping down the driveway?

There's a weight, a heft, to her prose. Her language gets in your blood. She splits your brain open, really, and pours in Tinker Creek.

Even now, I'm not immune. Browsing my copy of Pilgrim, I have to come up for air, frequently. It wouldn't surprise me to feel a wind coming out of this book, to smell the wet rocks, to reach up and pull leaves out of my hair.

She will make you see differently. She changes the way you wonder. Her prose is dense; gorgeous, but dense. And it will go right to your head if you're not careful.

One last quote: every time I think about this book, this is the passage I'm trying to remember--

I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood in the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. ... I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.


This is one for the new season, one to read as the world around us shakes itself and changes its clothes. Give it a weekend or two, and let it keep you company.

Recommendation: I can't even begin to think about eating something while reading this book. Nope. You're on your own. But read it in a patch of sunlight. Or under an umbrella in the rain. Or at the very least, by a wide open window.


leaf stalking

I meant to do this earlier, to kick through the sweet gum leaves, document the look of fall 2010, and get that crumbly leaf smell in my nose...

I can't believe how many are already down... is autumn really this far along??

I jump at the shishh of another leaf hitting the pile. They're surprisingly noisy things, falling leaves. Nothing subtle about them and their raspy voices.

And I find myself thinking of the line from Charlie Brown, when he asks the fallen leaf, Did you have a nice summer?

I come back inside wishing that my cheeks were cold... but thinking of whipping up sweet potatoes anyway. Mmmmm.

We have three of them, ready to be transformed into something extraordinary, and now I'm thinking of brown sugar and cinnamon and maybe a hint of maple.

Nothing like a good shot of maple syrup to defy unseasonable weather...