June 29, 2012

simple summer peach cake

Yesterday was a ridiculously hot day (read: unpleasant to be outside - I even wrote my morning pages indoors!) and I had the day all to myself, with no commitments or obligations until the evening. So after I spent time writing in the morning, I looked forward to an afternoon of "being" practice. I decided to try out a recipe that has had my mouth watering ever since I first saw it: Simple Summer Peach Cake. 
The recipe is from the amazing website/cookbook Food52. (You can get the recipe here, along with soooo many others!) Several months ago, our amazing mom, Kim, invited me to go to a cooking demo/book signing with one of the Food52 creators, Merrill Stubbs. I am so glad Kim invited me! I liked Merrill so much that I bought the book long before I had begun my adventures in cooking, and now that I am in full-swing, I pick up this lovely book quite often. You can see my obsessive flagging of all the recipes I want to try, which is pretty much every vegetarian recipe! 
Now, I realize that baking is still "doing," but this "being" thing is harder for me than I like to admit. It will be a learning transition for me to embrace the true "art of being." So here is how I practiced "being" through this simple exercise: 1) It defies logic: it is a hot day, so not usually the ideal situation for baking; 2) It is highly sensory: the smell of the peaches, the textures and flavors (especially as I cut one peach to eat, along with the peaches for the cake), the visual process of watching the ingredients mix together, noting how one changes another; 3) It is a cake for "no reason": there is no event or purpose for a cake, which makes it an extra-special luxury and treat. Logically, I should not be making this cake, for many reasons. But when I thought of "being," it was the thing I wanted to try more than anything today! 
I put on a Carpenters record that I haven't listened to for a long time (so summer-y, no?), and added some 'sound' to my sensory experience. I felt a little bit like I was cheating as I sliced the peaches and had to add one more since I kept sneaking pieces - they were just dripping juice. 
Every step of the baking process was satisfying and so unbelievably cheerful! Something about summer and peaches and cake all rolled into one: you just can not beat it. My cake turned out beautifully! It looks a little different than the cake in the recipe photos, maybe because I did not squish the fruit down far enough into the cake. But I love that this resulted in a little more peachy-color in the cake, which reminds me of my favorite coral and pink tones! 
The cake is absolutely delicious, and a gift that will keep on giving: Ryan and I could not possibly (or should not, at least!) eat the whole cake between just the two of us, so I am sure we will get to share it with others. And I love anything that gives the gift of eating, which will help to create some more "being" moments over these next few days. 
Today, as it turns out, is a rainy day. I sat out on the balcony again to write my morning pages, and ate a piece of my 'simple summer peach cake' for breakfast as I watched the rain soaking the world around me. It brought the sun and warmth right back into this thunderstorm of a day: another great chance to "be."

Do you have any ideas or suggestions for more ways to practice "being" as I continue on my quest? I would love to hear them!

(If you haven't already, you should check out Kim's blog "You Were Meant For Amazing Things" here! It is very inspiring!)

June 28, 2012

objects: dollhouse sink

I have always wanted a real dollhouse. I want it to be bigger than I am, but I will settle for anything, as long as it has several rooms. I will glue wrapping paper on the tiny walls, like wallpaper, and cut up scraps of old towels for rugs. I dream of glueing  postage stamps onto the walls, just like in The Borrowers book, framed with tiny pieces of wood that I will paint gold. I will be decorating with themes: hunter green for the living room, of course, and a burgundy dining room, to compliment the wood tones of the oak dining set I also hope to have. The bedrooms will be taupe and butter yellow, neutral for parents and guests sleeping over. The guests should have the yellow room, to keep them cheerful while they visit. If I am lucky enough to have a third floor, with the children’s rooms, those should be powder blue for the boys and bubblegum pink for the girls. I would prefer a cornflower blue house with white trim, and I especially like the Victorian ones, especially the ones with the big porches, even though you can’t really decorate a porch as much. (If I could, it would be with white wicker chairs with flowered cushions and a matching table.) 
This little pink sink set is sort of a start for my dollhouse, even though I really prefer slate blue and white for my dream kitchen. I figure I can paint it, if I have to, or maybe one day I will be able to afford the fancy sinks I see at the craft store with Aunt Elisa. Aunt Elisa is not so old for an aunt, she is only fifteen years old, just seven years older than I am. But Mama says Gramma had Aunt Elisa TWELVE whole years after she had Mama. Thankfully, Aunt Elisa’s friend works at the craft store, and she is nice enough to bring me along once or twice a week when she visits Tianna here. We walk hand in hand for eleven blocks, mostly along side streets until at the last minute, we turn left and are right in front of the store. There is a smell, when we enter, of glue and dried flowers and wood. There are so many colors here, you would think there would be more smells, but you can’t really smell glitter, and the paint’s all closed. Sometimes, to give my nose a rest from all those old smells, I go to the little shelf by the cash register, with all of the scented erasers in their clear plastic tubs, like jars of candy. The strawberries are pretty awesome, sweet-smelling and so cute, just like the real berries! And I always have to pick up the popcorn one too, since that is the weirdest one to smell. They never get it right, but it always is weird, just like the popcorn jelly beans taste. 
Our shoes make clomping noises over the wooden floor as we “Watch Our Steps!” over the place where the door used to be. I just learned what that means, but I think it is really silly because if I am watching my steps then I might bump into something with my head instead of my feet! Lots of things can be bumped into when you are only eight years old, and I worry most about my head. It has been bumped too many times already, I think. We enter the second half of the store, where the aisles get a little more crowded and certain places seem to not really have much light. This is exactly where I want to be: with the dollhouses. The dollhouses themselves are up on the wall, almost too high for me to see. I wonder who built all of them? They did a great job, they are beautiful. They must have nailed them to the wall since they are so big, and the store is so crowded already. I wish they were lower to the ground, so I could see better inside their rooms. But I kind of like to be able to see them from far away, too, so I can tell what they would really look like, if they were in my room.

I could spend hours looking at the dollhouses and all of their furniture and accessories. This section is different than the other sections: instead of only walls with hooks and pegs so all the bags of stuff can hang off of them, the dollhouse area also has an amazing glass counter. The top and the sides are both glass, so you can see the furniture inside, front and back. It helps me to imagine what they will look like in my house. The furniture in the case is the really fancy stuff: the miniature pianos and fancy dining sets and some of it is even made from marble. There is other furniture on the hanging walls, sealed in clear plastic bags with folded cardboard labels for hanging. The hanging walls are where the accessories are, too, and I can’t even believe all the things they have. Tiny records, and a record player. China dishes that are fancier than anything anyone I know has in their real houses. Tiny clocks and even little newspapers and magazines. I add all these things in, when I dream of my dollhouse. 
I first found my pink sink set at a garage sale. Mama and I were walking to the grocery store and passed one of the houses where the garage backs up to the alley. I said “Mama, look! A garage sale!” It was across the street, and I wasn’t sure she would want to stop. She was tired because she just got home from work. I knew that if I asked her, she would probably not stop. But she must not have had the worst day today, because at the next street, she grabbed my hand and we crossed over to look at the garage sale. We didn’t hold hands very much anymore, since I was getting big now. I was glad that we still needed to sometimes, for safety reasons. The garage sale didn’t have much. It was one of those ones that really only have stuff nobody would want anymore. There were old magazines and small, beat up paperback books, and old brown fake leather cases for cassette tapes, with no cassettes inside. It seems like maybe a waste of effort to even try to sell this stuff. 
Under one table, there was a box of toys - mostly happy meal toys that a lot of kids already had. I had the one that was a cheeseburger that transformed into a robot, and the stuffed crab from the cartoon movie, and the tiny mint-green My Little Pony. She was not as nice to hold as the real ones, but I still liked her pretty well. And then I saw this little pink thing in the back corner of the box. I reached my arm in up to my armpit in order to grab it. Mama was starting to walk back to the sidewalk and she was kind of looking back, telling me to hurry up like she does, with no words. And then I had to think very fast and figure out how I could get the sink. The box had “25 cents each” scribbled on its side with black marker. I hoped she had a really good day at work. 
“Mama, look!” I had to try to get her to come back and see it. “Come on, Maya, time to go,” and now she was starting to frown at me. “Mama, this is so cool!” She sighed and her frown grew deeper. I smiled the biggest I could, and walked slowly toward where she was stopped at the edge of the alley. I didn’t want anyone to think I was going to steal it or anything. I held it up for Mama to see. “Mama, look at this! It is sooooooo cute. The drawers don’t open or anything but I think it is really cute.” “How much?” I was ready for this. “Only one quarter, and my birthday is coming up and so I think I can pay you back then.” Mama’s cheeks puffed out with her slow, irritated breath. “Fine, OK.” “OK?!” “OK.” “Thanks, Mama! I promise I will pay you back right away.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out three dimes. I paid the lady who sat inside the garage at the card table, and held tightly to my sink as I waited for Mama’s change.
Later that night, once we got home from getting the groceries, and ate dinner and cleaned up, I went to my bedroom and climbed into my bed. I laid on my stomach and just stared and stared at the sink. I thought about the drawers opening, and the things I would store inside the cabinet doors (cleaning stuff, probably, since there were pipes in there and all). I thought about how I could make a tiny dish rack to go on the counter part - I had never noticed one of those at the craft store. One of my friends made a whole entire dollhouse out of cardboard: old cereal boxes, milk cartons and berry baskets. She used tissues for the curtains and blankets, and cotton balls for the pillows. I know she worked hard on it. But it was hard to make it not look like a bunch of trash, and so I spent a lot of time thinking how I could make my own dollhouse feel nicer than that. My pink sink makes me even more excited!
I practice my decorating with the big Sears catalogs, tearing pictures out carefully and making piles of the things I like the most. The next thing is sorting them into pages, where I create my room themes. I paste them to scrap pages of paper that have stuff Mama doesn’t need anymore on one side of them. No one here really uses the Sears catalogs, so they are all mine to use and then throw out when I am done. I have a hard time getting rid of them, usually, in case I might need something later for my rooms. I especially love learning all the different colors in the catalog, because they inspire my rooms. My favorite catalog-designed room so far is one of the bedrooms. I haven’t decided yet if it will be the parents’ room or the guest room. It has a four-poster Oak bed with a matching dresser and the most beautiful quilt I have ever seen: all ivory with embroidery that looks like lace. That page is almost completely full. Not many people want to see my pages. Sometimes I show my friends, but they are not really into decorating so far. And none of them have real dollhouses, either. I don’t know if they really think about them. Definitely not all the time like I do.
I think about my dollhouse when we are walking places, when we are passing houses and the people who live in them. I think about it when I am playing outside with my friends, in our dirt backyards, shaping sticks in the dirt into house shapes. And I think about it in my room, laying on my bed on my stomach, when the screaming starts and gets so loud that it is hard to think about anything else. I think about my house, and I keep my little pink sink with me all the time, to remind me that just like the Cinderella song from the movie says, “If you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.” 
(Learn more about my "object prompts" series here!)

June 27, 2012

life is like a jazz song...

Several years ago, I attended a book signing/reading with author and life coach Martha Beck, a wise woman with a fascinating story of her own path to personal truth. Martha shared a quote with us, at that signing, which went something like this: "Life is like a jazz song: sometimes you have to 'do' and sometimes you have to 'be,' and sometimes you have to 'do be do be do.'" It is a line that lingers at the edges of my consciousness, ready to be summoned in these moments when I am caught between the "doing" and "being," and trying so hard to figure out which should come next.

So much of my creative practice is about "being," about learning to be more present and to use my senses more often and more diversely. It is about sitting out on my balcony and listening to the water flow through the fountain below. I watch the clouds as they drift slowly through the sky, taking notice of their shapes and textures. I feel the heat of the sun on my face and the subtle movements of the gentle breeze through my hair. I watch the trees around our little pond closely, as each of them is moved by the same gentle breeze, which sways their branches in so many different rhythms and arcs. I touch the leaves of  herbs planted in boxes at my feet, feeling the changes in their surfaces and the scents that linger on my fingertips after. 
This practice of "being" is counterintuitive to my sense of productivity. "Doing" is the mode that I have practiced more and it is my personal default setting. I know how to "do" very well, from housework to cooking to making my obsessive "to do" lists. And so much of life requires "doing." I am tempted to approach all things through this filter, to "do" my writing, to "do" my inspiration, and even to "do" my creative "being." I realize, in typing this, how absolutely absurd that must sound, especially to anyone whose natural mode is not to "do." (I envy you, even as I know the grass is never really greener.) When I feel lost, I feel something must be "done" about it, and often that is the furthest answer from the truth. And then I must remind myself to "be." 

Life requires both modes, it is true, and neither mode alone will take us where we dream of going. Whichever mode is our default setting, we will only find our meaning, purpose, and function through practicing balance and seeking to grow comfortable in both modes. I try to remember this often, and to remind myself to switch, when I have spent too long and too much energy in one mode or the other. I am sure you know those moments, when the balance shifts too far in one direction, and a complete switch is necessary. They are the moments when you feel suddenly vulnerable, lonely or out of sorts. They are the moments when everything seems bleaker than it did the minute before, when everything is against you and nothing feels "right" at all. They are the moments when you can not even begin to explain yourself, even to your closest loved ones, or to imagine a solution. Or maybe this is just how it is for me? 
But my practice today focuses on the end of Martha's quote, when the answer lies in a need to not just "do" or "be," but to practice the art of "do, be, do, be, do." Often, life must be lived in this rhythm and cadence, which for me is the hardest one to achieve. This balance and proportion is so much more difficult for me than swinging to one side or the other. I want to find this middle, and to practice living there, letting myself drift gently from one mode to the other and back again.

Where are you today? Are you in a place of "doing" or "being"? Have you found a rhythm that honors both modes? I would love to hear how your song goes.

(My favorite book by Martha Beck is her memoir, Leaving the Saints.)

June 26, 2012

artist date: pippi and a carnival

My last artist date was an unbelievably silly one, and I had the very, very best time! I was reading over the schedule for a local festival in Geneva, IL, called "Swedish Days." I love any chance to spend time in Geneva, so I was curious what I might find at the festival. "The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking" was showing at the Geneva Underground Playhouse as part of the festival schedule, and I knew this would be the perfect artist date!
"I always feel free." -Pippi (image from fanpop.com)

Is anyone else a fan of Pippi?? For those of you who might not know her, Pippi Longstocking is a character from a series of children's books by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. Several films and cartoons have been made featuring Pippi (whose full name is actually 'Pippilotta'), in addition to the books, but this film was my own strongest connection to her. (There is something about stories featuring red-haired girls, I just loved them! Anne of Green Gables, Annie, Amelia Bedelia and Pippi: perhaps one day I will have to dye my own hair red in order to pay them ultimate homage.) 
"The very air we breathe is sweet, not a challenge we can't meet, if it takes all day." -Pippi

I went to see the film as much from curiosity as admiration: I remember loving the film as a child, and the theme song still gets stuck in my head from time to time, which reminds me of spontaneous sing-a-longs with my brothers when we were small. One of us would get a song in our head, and several more would chime in, and it is a great memory from our childhood. Pippi's theme song was one of our favorite sing-a-longs. But I couldn't remember exactly how the story went, or what specifically I loved about Pippi, beyond her red hair and crazy pigtail braids and catchy theme song. 
 "The view's lovely up here." - Pippi (spoken from a homemade 'autogiro' plane she propelled herself, by twirling with her broomstick)

I am SO happy I went to see Pippi again that day! Yes, it is a very cheesy film, with very silly songs and rather ridiculous situations. But I was completely inspired by Pippi: her optimism, imagination and absolute honesty have continued to play back in my head ever since I saw it! And even the film's colors and fashions inspired me: Pippi's dresses in bright colors and patterns with their random patches sewn onto them, and Tommy and Annika's mom's outfits, which I would wear myself today. And SO many quotes and one-liners: I am obsessed! In honor of Pippi, I went on to celebrate my "Swedish Days" artist date by visiting the festival's carnival. I think she would have absolutely loved it! And Pippi's words played as my soundtrack all throughout, though I did refrain from subjecting anyone else to my rendition of the theme song.
 "They have forgotten how to dream." -Pippi

Pippi and her friends made tents out of quilts, a plane out of crates and a bicycle, and drew life-size horses on the floor in chalk. They had an ice cream fight, right out on the street, as if scoops of ice cream were snowballs. They ran from "splunks," and talked to animals, and took their tea in a treehouse. I cannot remember being this type of kid very often, and for many reasons, but I am reminded all the time of the important role my imagination plays as I seek to follow my creative passions. It is easy for me to be serious, but I find it so very difficult to let loose and play, even in my own head as I dream and write. 
"Isn't it great to be alive?" -Pippi

Of all of the silly things Pippi brought to mind and memory, it was her very life philosophy that has left me inspired. I fed my 'artist child' on this date, which is something I really just don't do enough. And I left with a lighter heart and a different lens: an ability to find joy and color and light in everything I encountered. I would like to hang on to that.

 "When you believe in something, you never give up." - Pippi

(Learn more about my practice of 'artist dates' here!)

June 25, 2012

writing practice: freewriting

One of my most challenging writing practices is freewriting. Some writers/creators might use their morning pages as freewriting space. I admire them! Sometimes I freewrite in my morning pages, but they are usually a place of 'sorting' and more conventional journaling. I do not set out to make them this way, but this is how my brain works, first thing in the morning. They shake my brain around and empty out whatever has been sitting for too long and building up. 
But I definitely find that I challenge myself more when I sit down to freewrite. My morning pages have already cleared my mind, and whether my freewriting follows immediately or much later, I embark on a journey that has no anticipated destination. Some of my most passionate writing comes from this practice, and it has led me in so many new directions, too! All of the advice on writing I have read encourages freewriting, especially for prose writers. I am personally a fan of longhand writing, specifically printing rather than cursive, because that is the way I write the fastest. Speed is not the goal, but flow can often require speed. For me, the tactile qualities of writing by hand really enhance the experience. This connection of pen to paper differentiates this writing practice and keeps it from feeling like writing an email or using social media, etc. I do know people who freewrite on the computer - it is simply not what works for me! 

Here are some principles I have gleaned from the many books and articles I've read, which have helped me in my freewriting practice:
  • Focus on your writing tools: It is so important that your pen or pencil will move comfortably across the page and connect with your paper in a way that matches your particular flow of words and thoughts. We all hold our pens differently, we all have different ways of connecting pen to paper, and there will be as many combinations of the "right" writing tools! Some great advice I have heard is to even take the pressure off of your process by using inexpensive notebooks which create absolutely NO expectations for how they must be filled. If you choose that route, I still suggest that you find a pairing of writing instrument that will combine comfortably. Be willing to experiment with combinations until you find one that really feels right. 
  • Find the writing environment that most supports your flow: When I participated in NaNoWriMo last year, my writer friend Chris and I decided to visit a "write-in" at a local library with other participants. I gained great insight into all of the varied environments people choose as they write: longhand or typed, music or silence, and some writers even seemed to physically connect with their flow, either bobbing along with their writing or growing absolutely still as they concentrate. Often, when freewriting, it helps me to have noise. And often, if I need to shake up my routines, I will go to a coffeeshop to write, to give me an even busier background. I think this might come from growing up in a big family with a noisy background at all times. But there is no wrong answer! 
  • Commit to freewriting for a specific time period: You might begin at just 15 or 20 minutes, or you might find that you like to devote an hour or more. Timed writing will help you keep going and give you an end in sight, for those moments when you will feel like you can't keep going. It helps to create a goal, both in motivating you to achieve the goal and in helping you feel proud of your accomplishment when you reach the goal! Start small and work your way up!
  • Begin anywhere: I know this is probably an overused theme here, hehe, but it is one that has been a block SO many times in my own practice! Freewriting is not about beginning at a beginning - it is simply about beginning at all. You can even begin with "I don't know what to write today." Keep going and you will find your topic, and most likely many topics to follow after! Or you can use a writing prompt of any sort to get yourself writing.
  • Keep your expectations simply in the practice: Do not put pressure on the outcome of your writing. It is super important that you are motivated by the practice and not the results! Otherwise you will just be creating more blocks for yourself. Sometimes I will not let myself read back through what I have written for a certain amount of days, to be sure that I will not read with so much pressure on the results.
Those are my most practical applications of all the advice I have learned. Whether you are a writer or not, I hope you will try freewriting sometime soon! One last short list of rules from one of my favorite writing teachers, Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones, from the chapter "First Thoughts"), which I keep in the back of my journal to remind me:
1. Keep your hand moving. (Don't pause to reread the line you have just written. That's stalling and trying to get control of what you're saying.) 
2. Don't cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn't mean to write, leave it.) 
3. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don't even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.) 
4. Lose control.  
5. Don't think. Don't get logical. 
6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)
(Learn more about Natalie Goldberg in this post! And you can read Chris' book blog, Wildmoo Books here!) 

June 21, 2012

postcards: "Was taken last Sun.," c.1909

I had never made a real photo postcard before, not until that summer when Joe came to stay with us at our country home near Lake Geneva. He brought his newfangled camera with him - obviously his most prized possession. The Eastman Kodak 3A Folding Pocket Camera seemed like a false advertisement, when it came to the matter of pockets, but Joe did not mind at all. He carried the slim black box with him everywhere he went, never letting it out of his sight. And he beamed with pride anytime he could set up the camera to take a photograph or offer a demonstration to a new, interested party. He flushed as bright a red as the accordion-style apparatus which held the camera’s lens, as concentrated entirely on the magic workings of his camera. 
Front: "Was taken last Sun."

Joe had photographic aspirations; he wanted to really figure that camera out, and was tireless in asking us girls to pose for him. Not a difficult crowd to convince: six girls in total, between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two, all here the whole summer long. Always scouting, he coaxed us to all manner of locations. We sat out back on our pair of adirondack chairs on the lawn, posed with one girl on each seat and one on each arm. (The chairs were a new thing, then, still called “Westport chairs,” and a rarity in the Midwest, even among wealthy city families.) Six girls giggling to keep their balance and make sure not to move, in order to show off the architectural features of the chairs: this was a typical photography sitting with Joe. We grouped around the grand walnut double-pedestal dining table in the formal dining room, dressed in our very fanciest attire, to recreate the scene of an important social gathering. There was theater in this art of his - a desire to insinuate something more than what was actually occurring. I wonder now if people knew, as they received their cards in the mail from this sister or that, how much of that was put on. 
Sure, there were plenty of social occasions at our home that summer, but Joe wouldn’t dare pull out the camera on those nights. My father was skeptical of the whole business, and never willing to pose himself, let alone subject his guests to such behavior. Joe came from the same social circles as us to begin with, but his father’s printing company had taken a turn for the worse as he grew, and over the years he had fallen out with most of his well-to-do friends. Momma always had a soft spot for his impish grin: his freckles and golden blonde hair reminded her of the Karl and Fritz cartoon strips in the city newspaper comics. She still kept up with Joe's mother - unwilling to let go of a friendship on the principle of money alone - and had gotten permission from Father to invite him to stay the summer. Just a year older than Joe, I had watched the changes occur in his family's social standing, and seen how his grin grew a little slower coming with each passing year. I was happy to have him with us this summer, to have it all back to normal and just like old times. 
As the summer went on, the rest of the girls grew less interested in Joe’s camera adventures. I became the only one he could coax to travel here and there, the only one to keep him company as he tirelessly worked with his negatives and plotted out what he would like to photograph next. I did not have the heart to turn him down. One hot Sunday in July, he devised a whole new plan. Though Joe always behaved respectfully toward my father, he felt the judgment implied by Father's rules and sense of propriety, which always reminded him of the gap in things, and the question of belonging. He got this gleam in his eye when he wanted to dispute an idea or notion of my father’s, and we might spend the whole day comprehensively discussing one of his old-fashioned ideas. It bothered Joe to no end. So once he got this plan in his head, there was no turning back. We would get my father in a real photo postcard after all. 
Out back, behind our grand, white, two-story country home with its green painted shutters and wraparound porch, the wide, rolling lawn led down to the dock on the Lake. They had cleared the trees and stumps long ago in order to create such a magnificent lawn, but they had left a small patch of woods off to one side. On especially hot summer days, you could find shade there, and my sisters and I loved the chance to play with the leaves, berries, twigs and needles that blanketed the floor of these woods. My father had found his own respite in the patch of woods: the crude double-swing set made by a rural woodworker further upstate. The backwoods man hand-crafted patio pieces from all his own lumber, and while the furniture did not compare with our Adirondack chairs, it became a different sort of collector’s piece. Several neighbors had taken a drive up to the man’s farm 30 miles north of Lake Geneva, to pick out just the right pieces for their summer entertaining. We had most everything you could want already, but Father just had to see it for himself. He came back that day with this double-swing contraption, in two pieces, and set about securing its four long poles deep into the ground beneath the towering trees. 
Every day, in the heat of the afternoon, around two or three o’clock, you could find my father here, always in his long shirtsleeves and proper slacks, resting in the shade of these trees. He leaned heavily into the flat, planked back of the swing, choosing the seat where he could still see the sun sparkling on the Lake beneath the tree branches. He never admitted it, but he always dozed off a bit. He never invited anyone to join him, lest they find him out. But I had snuck by enough times to catch him as his head softly fell to one side or the other, and heard his breath as it caught in just a hint of a snore. On our initial tour of the place, when Joe first came to visit, I had let him in on this small secret, which I knew he, particularly, would appreciate. Apparently, he had not forgotten.
Joe’s plan was to set up his camera behind my watercolor easel, to rig the camera so my father would not notice, if he were, by chance, to wake up. We waited until half-past two, when he would likely be asleep, and tip-toed gently across the lawn. I set up the easel as if for Joe’s benefit, with all manner of brushes and my fancy German ceramic palette, just in case Father were to come upon us and interrupt our plan. I took my place as subject, positioning myself according to Joe’s wild gestures, first this way and then that, until I was exactly where he wanted me. I sat and waited, squinting into the blinding afternoon sunlight, while he fumbled behind the easel to get the camera set in place. My thoughts drifted off, like they do. Before I knew it, he was hissing my name under his breath, gesturing wildly once again - it was done! 
I am not sure anyone ever noticed my father in the background of that real photo postcard; the light is all on me, sitting on the lawn in my long, dark skirt and high-necked blouse with the sleeves pushed up my arms, holding a bit of a leaf or flower, and gazing vaguely into Joe's direction. And I am not sure if he meant to achieve what he did in that photo: the most honest portrait of myself I have ever seen, no smile or set gaze, but a head lost in thoughts and daydreams, too many to capture.

Back: “Dear Friend Arnold, I had this ready to send to New York, but changed my mind so will send to you. Was taken on the lawn at my home in the country. We are having very warm weather here. -Clara” (Addressed to Mr. Arnold Casey, no address, dated July 19th, 1909)

(Click here for more about my postcard prompts series.)

June 20, 2012

summer solstice

Summertime is lemonade stands and watermelon slices, their juice dripping all down your chin. It is anything refreshing, anything to offer a contrast to the sun beating down, the humid air soaking into your skin, reminding you that you are porous and alive. It is Mr. Freeze pops, it is you reaching into the box and taking whatever you get, but hoping so much that it will be blue, or grape, or red, or anything but orange. It is longing for the pool, whether or not you can swim. Summer is the sweating glasses of water or Kool-Aid, anything cold, anything you can drink up fast to regulate your body temperature halfway back to normal. It is lemon-anything, just like iced-anything... it is lighter meals and long, lovely days...
Summer is adjustment. It is lowering your standards from "comfortable" to "as comfortable as you can be." It is a shifting of schedules, a forced siesta in the midday heat, when naps sound good to every age, and especially to those at work. It is dimly-lit afternoons in rooms, in houses, behind blinds closed tightly to keep out the sun. It is fans doing their reverse dance moves to push and pull the air from the house, in the cool of the early morning and late evening. "Old-fashioned air conditioning," that is what they call it.  

Summer is wilting plants in the garden (they feel just like you do, but they can't go inside). 
It is dry, dusty dirt, like powder, coating everything, but you don't even mind, so long as it is not stickyIt is summer fruits - it is cherries, peaches, cantaloupe, and more - refreshing but sticky. Why do they always have to be so stickyIt is lessons in melting: you, me, the ice, my popsicle, the blue wax figurine you got in the machine by the dolphin tank at the zoo and left in the back window of our car. Summer is shorter tempers, it is fuses ready to blow like fireworks, just as it is longer days. The days are so long it seems as if it might be near impossible to be awake for all of the daylight hours. A summer's day seems like it could hold just about anything you could ever imagine. 
Summer is clouds passing rapidly before the sun, like a game of peekaboo, folding hands over the wide, bright eyes of the sun's brilliant glow. Summer is storms rolling in faster than seems possible at any other time of year. It is pressure building in the air, anywhere from hours to days, and then violently choosing its moment to break free and loose itself all around us. It is the only time you want to be in the rain; you stand and welcome a thorough soaking-through. 

Summer is as little clothing as possible: short, loose dresses to offer whatever comfort they can. It is boys of every age in shorts: no shoes, no shirt. Flip flop sandals, such funny, silly shoes: they are barely any shoe at all, though they do help with that matter of the hot sidewalks. Summer is dirty lines on tops of feet where flip flops rub the dirt into your skin. It is brightly-colored clothing and neon shades of nail polish and swimsuits, for better or for worse. Summer is bleached hair and weathered skin that covers over you like a costume made in the image of your most true self: young and tan and glowing, old and weathered and hardened?Summer is beaches you forgot existed, littered with so many bodies you begin to grasp just how many people must live in this city, and yet they are only a drop in the bucket of your comprehension. Summer is sprinklers - bless them! - it is baby pools and slip 'n' slides. It is outdoor festivals full of music and food (though wouldn't we all like them better in Spring or Fall?). It is sunbathing, an art you have never mastered, which is probably for the better. Burn and peel, burn then peel: this is your own art form. It is more freckles than you ever knew you had. Summer is sparklers in your fists, waving like wands as you proudly spell your name in the air. It is grand, impressive fireworks displays, seen and heard, but always from afar. Summer is everyone out on their porches, where they play more music than you could ever possibly hear all at once.

(For this themed post, I decided to set the scene for myself as I wrote: I sat outside in the heat of the day, in the full sun, with summer indulgences prepared to cool me off as I wrote. I cut up some watermelon - it was absolutely delicious!! - and made a pitcher of Cucumber-Mint Lemonade, which is one of my favorites, originally inspired by this post on the fabulous "A Beautiful Mess" blog! I hope you can cherish and nurture some of your own Summer moments to celebrate its official start!)

June 19, 2012

the write things: my journal

I am obsessed with things and objects of all sorts, but very few compare with my sentiments about my journal. For years, I jumped from journal to journal. Many were gifts (Thank you, to each of you who have given me a journal! They are some of my very favorite gifts!), and many were special finds on this trip or that, and the hunt was half the fun! Those 75+ journals represent every size, every style, every phase of my life since I began keeping track in this way. I love their range and variety; I love the way those journals catalog my life both inside and out! And it always felt like a part of my process: the way that I could start fresh with each new journal. But for the past nine months or so, I have grown quite attached to a new journal-system:
My new journal is a refillable faux-leather notebook made by Graphique de France, which is a company I have admired for many years, ever since I was assigned to manage the "Gifts and Stationery" department at Borders on State Street. But I had never indulged in any of their journals for myself - I simply admired them on the shelves and made sure they were prominently displayed to find their eventual owners. When my life recently changed directions and I decided to focus more specifically on my writing, I found a different Graphique de France journal at a Papyrus store. That journal was Tiffany blue, also faux-leather, and had the word "Journal" engraved in gold on the front cover. Instead of being refillable, its pages were bound inside. That journal somehow felt more "serious" and was a great companion as I began my new journey. I loved it so much that I went back to see if I could find a different color! My local Papyrus store did not have what I was looking for, so I settled for this one instead. I can not believe I ever loved it less than I do now...
The gold cover feels fancy, and is made from high-quality faux leather, which feels substantial and somehow "professional," and is lovely for my conscience, too! The paper quality is AMAZING, which is something that is really, really important for my aesthetic sense while writing. I like my pen to travel a certain way across the paper to keep my thoughts flowing.  And I am absolutely charmed by the paper's gold edges. You can find more info about the journal here
And to my surprise, I have fallen completely in love with the notebook-refill system! They really are the most sophisticated notebooks. They contain 144 pages, and I have an unofficial goal of filling one per month, which pushes me past my usual morning pages and challenges me to free-write more often! I order them in multiples, and watch for sales on the Graphique de France website to get the best deal I can. There are different sizes of refills, and many different colors and styles of covers, as well! Here is a new blank refill notebook: (don't you think it is excited to meet its words soon?!)

I am especially obsessed with this little "post" emblem on the front page of the journals. I have no idea what the significance is, but I like to imagine what it could mean!
One other thing I appreciate about this journal is that the "pockets" in the cover allow me to store bits of paper or additional notebooks inside. This notebook by Rifle Paper Co. fits perfectly inside the back cover of my journal! 
I have found new uses (like the one above!) for the assorted blank journals that are still waiting to be filled. I will often think of a specific purpose for a new journal, since I do best when keeping my thoughts as organized as possible, and it is as special as ever to make that important choice of which journal will be perfect for my purpose! And I think sometimes it allows those journals to stand out even more, to represent new themes or pursuits in my life as I associate those new thoughts with a specific cover or the paper inside. 

This journal has been a steadfast companion since we made our acquaintance in the shop nine months ago. I have converted to the notion of its consistency, the way it stays the same, even as the words and pages take turns living inside. I still feel just as excited to begin a new blank journal, but I don't feel as much nostalgia as I did before, to let the former take its place among my other filled journals. The consistency of this journal reminds me of the consistency within myself as well: the single, focused dream I have embraced as my purpose. It reminds me to write.

June 18, 2012

inspired: Writing Down the Bones

Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, was the first book about writing I read, many years ago. It remains the most liberating and influential work about writing I have ever read. My friend Emily, who is a poet, recommended the book to me when I was first beginning to articulate my interest in being a writer.  I read the book on a trip to visit my grandparents, who live in a small town in Northwest Wisconsin. I began reading in my bedroom at their house, and the book caught me like wildfire. At my first opportunity, I ventured into town to find a place to sit and write, to let the flames of inspiration consume me and see where they might lead. It is the first time I ever gave myself over to writing, rather than sitting down to write with a specific purpose or intention. I have loved many books throughout my life, and I think every book I read impacts me in some way or another. But this is one of those rare, few books I can say truly changed me. 
The book is a long-standing classic in writing texts, published over thirty years ago, when I was just five years old. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a writer who has not come across the book at one time or another. But I continue to marvel at its endurance over time, and at the consistencies it exposes in the craft of writing as well as its obstacles, through this timelessness. 
The book is structured into very, very short chapters - most are one to three pages. The chapters are intended to be read in whatever way you choose, in sequential order or on a whim, based on their subject. In this way, the book invites an easy return to re-read its chapters bit by bit, like meditations or affirmations. Here is one of my all-time favorite passages from Writing Down the Bones, found in the chapter "The Power of Detail": 
“Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist - the real truth of who we are... We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”
I have written these words on a page that I posted in the front of my journal, as a reminder for every day's new writing-beginning. There are more brilliant passages in this book than I could even begin to recount, and I am sure I will continue to refer back to its wisdom often in my writing journey.
For many years since that first reading, and through many varied stages of dormancy in my writing practice, I failed to pick the book back up. About a year ago, I saw a new, smaller, hardbound edition of the book while browsing in a bookstore. Though I knew I owned the original paperback copy, I had long ago misplaced it, and had been thinking of the book often, wishing I could find it again. I added the new version to my wish list, and was delighted when Ryan picked it up for me this past Valentine's Day! He inscribed the front of the book with a reminder of his belief in me. Three months later, I finally began to share my writing. 
In this new phase of my writing life, I have often turned to this book for nurture and inspiration. I can honestly say that it never, ever fails to reignite the flames of passion and purpose I feel for writing. Each chapter I read teaches me something new, or helps me view something else in a different light. Often, it simply (but importantly!) reminds me of something I already know, but am so quick to forget. Any day that I am stuck, I return to read its gentle and substantial chapters, to see what might help me break out of my own blocks and begin once again.

(Here is a link to the bookstore, Vroman's, in Pasadena, CA, where I first saw the book.  It is an incredible independent bookstore with an impressive selection of titles! And check out Emily Bobo's amazing poetry in this published volume - it is exquisite!)

June 15, 2012

writing practice: every thought counts

When a thought comes to mind, any line or idea, write it down it at once! I have lost so many ideas and lines, despite swearing to myself that I would manage to remember them later, simply because I failed to write them down immediately. Every line I lose reminds me of this basic, necessary writing practice of writing it all down! If the line or idea is not great, you will know when you review your thoughts with a fresh perspective later - no harm done. If it is great, you will be so glad you held on to it tightly!

Whether in a tiny notebook you carry with you, or in a memo app on your phone, or scribbled on a napkin and stuffed into your purse- write it down! Perhaps the line is the beginning of something important, or perhaps it is the thought that stands in the way of the next thought, which might hold even more potential. This process of recording thoughts also reinforces my belief in myself as a writer, reminding me of my purpose and practice. Carrying some sort of notebook is the best way I have found to hold myself accountable to practice listening to my creative brain. It is also a way to validate the thoughts that pass through.
I try to pick up little tiny notepads when I come across them at stationery or gift shops or even stores like Target or Hallmark. The important thing is that they speak to me in some way, nurturing my sense of myself through style or affirmative words. These notebooks remind me of where I want my head to be, of the importance of keeping my writing at top of mind as much as possible. (Ryan does the same with voice memos on his iPhone or a handheld recorder, if it is nearby; his practice has definitely been an inspiration to me!) The notepad I carry with me in my purse right now is this one, which I found at the Huntington Library and Gardens gift shop in California (one of our very favorite places!).
You can see it is kind of battered - I take pride in that! It is worn because I carry it with me everywhere I go. And it means that I am using it, hopefully, which is exactly the goal. The messages on front and back, “Live in Hope” and “Hope Doubles Everything,” are thoughts that encourage me every single time I read them. And I originally picked the notebook out because of the pretty hot air balloon filled with forget-me-nots, a flower that reminds me of my close friends who I want to treasure forever. The binding at the top, which is pretty worn out by now, has the words “love” and "bliss" written in the clouds, which is another detail I absolutely love.  Sometimes I will choose a simple notebook, like the tiniest size of Moleskine journals, which are perfect for pockets or wallets as well as purses.  
Inside the book, I am loose with my expectations. I try to date everything I enter, because I think it is interesting to see when I return to ideas and pick them back up again or decide to use them for a writing project. But I do not worry about neatness, or even logic. I do not worry about where the thought will go later. Sometimes I enter just a brief description of an idea, like this one:
And sometimes it is a line that comes to me, a full run of connecting words, and I try to record them just as they come, without editing, whether or not they make sense. Like this one:
Many times, when I am sitting down to write and void of inspiration, one of these lines will help jumpstart a topic or idea for me! Or sometimes a line will be so persistent in my consciousness because I have given it the attention of writing it down, and this obsession will bring me back to the page all on its own. 

I hope that you are catching your thoughts somehow and writing them down! You can truly never know where they will lead.