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...


i know how to take defeat.

All right. So it didn't rain. In fact, it was crazily gorgeous outside, a reprise of summer's best.

And while I wrote outside, marveling at orange leaves against the clear sky, tonight I'm still missing rain.

So I rummaged around and came up with the next best thing: There's dark chocolate. And a glass of red wine. And I'm listening to Edith Piaf.

I'm in luck--it's not a perfectly clean recording. And in the faint, underlying hiss, I can imagine all the rain I need. I'll even sing along, pretending that I know enough French. I sing nasal gibberish, she hits the right words and notes, and somehow it's exactly what I wanted.


writer in progress: the joys of being nosy

Writing is not hard. Just get pencil and paper, sit down, and write it as it occurs to you. The writing is easy--it's the occurring that's hard. -- Stephen Leacock

A book is not an end in itself, it is only a way to touch someone--a bridge extended across a space of loneliness and obscurity. -- Isabel Allende

You will wonder: Is the work hard because you're following the wrong path? Or because it's just hard? -- S.L. Wisenberg

Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you. -- Bernard Malamud

It goes without saying, but just in case you missed the memo, here I am to say it:

If you write, do yourself a favor, and read books on writing.

If you're like me, you can't help it. You do this regardless. I have stacks of books on my desk right now that are crammed with writerly wisdom, writerly advice. Not so much of the "here's how to plot, here's how dialogue works, here's how to find an agent." That's all vital and good, but it's businessy, and what I'm after is this:

Here's how I sit, this is my morning routine, this is what works for me, this is what doesn't.

I am deeply nosy about how they do the work they do. It's both a comfort (when I'm stalled, scared, procrastinating) and a friendly spur to get me started on my own projects.

So I read. I eavesdrop on their lives.

Read Rules of Thumb to get permission from Kate Bernheimer: you're allowed to keep your work a secret. Or to hear from Steven Barthelme: fill your work with your obsessions. His: cats. Mine: outcasts. Good to know that's allowed.

Or pick up Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, and learn about short assignments, fill your life with index cards, learn to do a plot treatment. Along the way, watch how she copes with disappointment, how she finds inspiration. And for goodness' sake, let her teach you how to forgive your first drafts.

One of my favorites is The Writer's Desk, with its stunning black and white photos of Stephen King, Eudora Welty, P.G. Wodehouse...

And how comforting is it to know that Anthony Powell has a hard time ignoring the telephone, just like me? That Robert Coles stares out the window, that Joyce Carol Oates daydreams, doodles, doesn't hurry?

Maybe it's silly to need permission to be a writer, to have writerly quirks, but I do love to get it.

It's the camaraderie of the thing: someone's keeping you company in what is, otherwise, a lonely, weird, and occasionally desperate endeavor. They shine light into the places you're confused about; or at the very least, they say hey, that's dark for me, too.

They keep me company in my flaws, speak to my weaknesses, identify the craziness and blindness of it all. They're also good at giving permission to celebrate those successes, joys, and all the bliss when the words are right.

It's a wonderful cycle: Writers comfort other writers with words. They send us our favorite gifts (books!) with wisdom attached. It's kind of sweet.

no offense, sunshine...

But we could seriously do with another rainy day. Please.

Not too much, just a thin, gentle, grey rain. Just enough to make the evening feel drowsy, just enough to lullaby us all to sleep.

And then we can go back to startling blue skies again tomorrow.

Okay? Okay.


book crush thursday: The Mysterious Benedict Society

As is always the case with a society, some arguing remained to be done. -- The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart

It has so much going for it, right from the start. First off, it has one of those titles I wish I'd made up: The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Second of all, fantastic cover, isn't it? And every chapter has an illustration by the wonderful Carson Ellis, and, well, what can I say, I still love a book with good illustrations.

Best of all, it's just a darn good book. Reynie Muldoon and three other uniquely gifted children pass a series of tests in order to go off to a special institution and, quite frankly, save the world. So it's all about their secret mission: codes, danger, puzzles, mysteries, teamwork... all those good things.

Everything else is wonderful too: it's full of quirky and loveable characters (how can you not adore Sticky Washington? I kept wanting to send him warm cookies every time he got nervous), frightening villains (seriously, Ledroptha Curtain would scare me spitless), and unguessable plot twists (... which I don't want to give away. But beware of suited men with silver bracelets...). It's full of danger and yet so much heart. You'll have a blast.

Recommendation: It's the sort of book you'll want to read with a flashlight in bed. Better yet, make yourself a tent and spend your weekend inside with this book. It's perfect for an autumny, blustery weekend like this one.

If we're all lucky, there will be rain.


not gonna lie...

Okay. Here it is: I'm actually listening to Christmas music today. I know. I know it's super early. And I'm usually the one saying, can you wait just a little longer?? It's the first week of November, for crying out loud!!

But I can't help it.

I blame it on being outside a lot yesterday, enough to get chilled right through. The air had that cold smell, that Decemberish smell.

I blame it on going to the mall and seeing those gaudy fake snowflakes hanging everywhere...

I blame it on some brilliant gift and cooking plans for the holidays.

So, I caved in. And now there's Christmas music.

The Nutcracker theme is playing right this minute. It reminds me of gingerbread and mittens and the way snowy nights are never really dark. (It also reminds me of the smell of my elementary school gym, squeaky bleachers, and jittery nerves before our Christmas production. So there you go.)

But seriously! There's something about colder weather. You want to bake something with cloves in it. You think about making stews. You find yourself trying on one woolen sweater after another. You start ordering 1940s Christmas movies. It gets in your skin like that.

And if you're like me, you start hunting for your copy of T.S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi."

(If the above link is your first time with this poem, read it yourself first before letting T.S. read it to you. He has such an unusual voice that I usually absorb that and accidentally forget the poem. Okay, I confess, and then I practice mimicking him. I still think a good T.S. Eliot impression is a skill worth perfecting.)

Maybe "Magi" isn't very Christmasy in the traditional way, but I always find myself reading it in the weeks (okay, months) before December 25.

No matter how many times I've read it, it still surprises me, somehow. In fact, maybe it's best read now, in early November, because it's about the journey toward Christmas, right? About the way that journey shifts you. How it moves some things around, how it makes room for more than just trees and ornaments and pies. 

So, maybe I'm not apologizing at all for this early Christmas celebration. Maybe it's the exact and perfect time.


writer in progress: you have the right to revise

Begin doing what you want to do now. ... We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand--and melting like a snowflake. -- Marie Bryon Ray

In writing, you can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but first you have to create the sow's ear. Your first draft is the sow's ear. -- Charles Parnell

There's no Muse of Epic Revising. But I say: This is where the real miracle takes place. -- Carole Burns

Revision: though it can be the never-ending bane of my existence, it's also one way that writing is better than real life. You get do-overs. A lot of them.

A lot.

How many times have I looked over my shoulder and thought: could I revise that conversation? That isn't what I meant to say. Or, alternately, I had the perfect reply on the tip of my tongue, but couldn't figure it out until just now...

So behold the constant, writerly pleasure of revising. The cut and paste. Select all and delete.

Welcome to the cutting room floor, the eraser smudges, the palimpsest.

The unending search for the perfect word.

If I may say so, I'm a pretty decent reviser. All you need, really, is enough dogged persistence to keep moving forward. That and an iron stomach: it can be a bit of a shock to tear up paragraphs, chapters, whole drafts.

Or maybe the key is this: loving the book it should be more than you love how it looks right this moment.

Maybe that's the real mindset that has galvanized me through four drafts of my main novel. There's a gem of a story buried in there somewhere; it's just taking me a long time to find it.

And yet: knowing this, knowing that I can revise and revise, knowing I can keep questioning the characters and the plot: it gives me courage to face new drafts. That's what got me through some truly horrible places (I have no idea what I'm doing!! And neither does my character!!) in my latest project.

That's where I get the guts to reopen last year's Nanowrimo novel. I'm pulling it out of storage and diving back into it tomorrow. Kind of fun, really, to work on its second draft while all the Nanowrimo writers fire up their engines.

I'm excited--really excited--to see all my characters' faces again, to see what I think of them, after a year apart. To listen to their voices. I can't wait to see how they'll grow in these next two months.

Revision. It's thrilling, isn't it? It's a chance to grow, to change your mind.

And in the spirit of that, the blog has had a facelift! Goodbye to Serif's Yarn Cafe: I haven't posted about our Etsy work or my adventures in knitting nearly enough to warrant that name. And yeah, while we all know yarn also means "narrative," the first thing I think of is, that stuff we all knit with. So it had to go. I still plan to post about Squirrel & Serif (we're posting fall stuff now! woo hoo!), but you know and I know that I'm mostly here to talk about books.

Books and other things. Coffee and pie. Writing and reading. This and that.

And you can't argue with the ampersand: it insists that good things go together.

So welcome to the revised blog: Welcome to The Ampersand Cafe.