Leaving The Old World

Leaving The Old World

(Part 1 of 2. 2 tomorrow.)

I’ve been falling in love with worlds my whole life.

I first visited Oz when I was four years old, thumbing through the first book of Dorothy’s adventures on a hardwood floor in a house with a honeysuckle trellis (its own world).

One day, my uncle led me into a bookstore and said I could pick out anything I wanted. We rounded a corner into the Fantasy section and there they were, all in a rainbow row, tantalizingly out of reach: all fourteen Oz books, the Del Rey paperbacks, carefully numbered and begging to be mine. We carried those books to the counter, and I still remember that, all together, they cost one hundred dollars, which seemed a fortune to me at the time.

We got our money’s worth: I read the covers off those books, quite literally. As I ran through book after book, volume after volume, Oz opened around me like countryside rushing past a backseat window. I could stand in the Emerald City, Magic Picture at my back, and see Oz spread out, all four corners with a Deadly Desert keeping it safe from the outside world.

That outside world is shaky and uncertain; Oz was my bedrock. Friends change and move on; cliques form and exclude; Ozma, Dorothy, Betsy and Trot were my fast friends, and I could and did visit them whenever I wanted. Oz was safe, Oz was magic, Oz was mine.

My next door neighbor had a set of children’s classics she’d lend me from time to time. I read the real, terrifying Pinocchio, and the Swiss Family Robinson. There must have been many more, but they’ve since faded from my memory, because, one day, I lay down across my bed and opened A Study In Scarlet.

I packed up my luxurious bedroom in Oz and moved out.

The fact that I had recently discovered boys was probably not a coincidence.

The Detective was testy, impatient, sometimes full of righteous anger, sometimes casually cruel. He punished evil, and, when he wished, let wrongdoers go free. He died, was reborn, and accepted worshipful admiration as his due.

In short, Sherlock Holmes took me to church.

We lived in his world, not mine. We inhabited the cluttered flat at the top of the seventeen stairs, air choked with the smell and smoke of shag tobacco. I sat quietly in an out-of-the-way corner, hugging my knees, and pitied Mrs. Hudson. Then I followed him down Baker Street, jumped into a hansom cab, and plunged into his Victorian London.

Oz was self-contained, bounded by the uncrossable desert; the world of Sherlock Holmes stretched from Utah to Tibet. I was, again, obsessed; in the days before DVDs, to say nothing of DVRs, I combed over TV Guide every week and set my VCR to record any Sherlock Holmes-related show or movie. In the days before eBay, to say nothing of Amazon, I walked through used and new bookstores and read each and every book spine to find Holmes pastiches and coffee table books and speculations.

For scale, this photo represents less than half my total collection:

Sherlock-Resized.jpg

There’s a pattern, here, and it continued to repeat itself. Victorian London became Georgian England, the island’s last hurrah before Victoria’s disapproving glare. I pitched my tent in the History aisle and wrote a historical romance that was as authentic as I could make it, gave it a hug, sent it out into the world, and got a series of polite no’s that felt like individual sucker punches. “It probably wasn’t authentic enough,” I thought, and went back to the drawing board for six years.

In sudden bursts of creativity, I wrote 5,000, 10,000, 50,000, 75,000-word projects that stuttered and stalled. I refused to read fiction and, instead, doubled down on history, forcing myself to inhabit a 900-year span of European and American history. I have a book about 18th-century silverware and a 1910 edition of the Memoirs of Madame du Barry, and also dozens more. I have checked out a frightening quantity of library books over the years. I spent three years of unpleasant commutes listening to every pre-19th-century history audiobook I could find, enthralled by some, jerking awake and turning up the air conditioning during others.

And there I was, feeling the weight of history—history as hobby and history as compulsion—lighting my life and crushing me flat. I loved studying history, and spent years of my life making myself hate it.

One day, I left my job and found myself at home.

I stay-at-homed with kids and wandered the back hallways of consulting, until one of my old stories—set in prerevolutionary Versailles and rural New Orleans—drifted back into my consciousness. It played with slavery and race, it was, of course, a romance, and I’d been confused by it because it kept washing up on the shores of fantasy when I was all about making sure spats existed yet and then making sure people were wearing the right kind of spats.

This had happened a few times before, and I kept getting stuck on the spats.

Sumner & Longfellow & Spats

But, this time, I wasn’t really thinking about spats. The world around me kept shifting all over the place and shifting back, and that history I’d studied long enough to probably qualify for a master’s degree was remixing itself and turning upside down.

what if the United States had abolished slavery before racism had time to get hard-coded into law

and what if also the Cistercians had kept using the forge at Laskill and the industrial revolution started during the Reformation

no what if the Cistercian monks were extremely shady and all-powerful but also smart

no wait up what if there never had been any Christianity and there was no United States in the first place

what if magic

There were dozens of directions, and, honestly, the world was getting really…weird. If there had never been any Christianity, for example, there weren’t any churches, and the entire period I had been researching for literally six years…wasn’t. And, for each direction, I’d try to do my customary obsessive researching and fret and get confused and tired.

One day, over dinner, when I was complaining how difficult I was finding it to redesign 1800 years of human history with magic in while somehow making it historically accurate, my husband, who is very clever, said something for which I will be forever and profoundly grateful:

Why does it have to be our world at all?

My brain crashed and I got up and probably did a weird dance.

Then I ran headlong into a new world.

I broke this into two parts. This one is already a novella as it is.Part 2 tomorrow.

Not Cool, Man

Not Cool, Man

I’ve been scrapbooking on and off almost as long as I’ve been a mother of two—longer, if you count my various personal blogs. “Scrapbooking”, for the uninitiated, covers a variety of public journaling crafts, from digital to paper, is usually done by moms, and usually involves documenting growing families. I say “public” because most scrapbooking is designed to be seen by others. It’s like how scholars, writers, and politicians used to keep detailed journals of their thoughts and activities, except with stickers. Boswell with a glue stick.

I just finished thinking through my relationship to knitting communities. Even when I’m not actually talking to knit-friends on Ravelry—I tend to lurk more, these days—I still never minded sharing even my wackest final products. Even when I could barely garter-stitch. Sharing my scrapbook layouts online, however, gives me the heebie-jeebies, and I’m uncomfortable with why that may be.

Knitting, at this point, is a more or less mainstream activity. Admittedly, every few years another crop of journalists will suddenly discover Ravelry and write a few dozen “not your grandmother’s knitting!!1!” articles, but, at this point, most people know someone who knits. I’m often not the only person knitting on the bus.

Knitting is pretty cool. Or, at least, about as cool as it is ever going to get.

Scrapbooking is not cool. (Scrappers, don’t be mad. I’ll explain.)

Knitting takes place in the part of my brain that is at some trendy but relaxing spa decorated in Spring 2014 Pantone colors. Hits that came out last year but are not-quite-played out can be heard in the background. I am definitely drinking a pomegranate vinegar champagne cocktail with a turbinado-sugar-and-cardamom-dipped rim. (Come to think of it, I could be doing that right now. brb.) It’s fun, but pretty cool, too.

My scrapbooking takes place in a store off Telegraph in Berkeley where everything is tie-dyed and there is the sound of windchimes and I am exchanging a macraméd plant hanger for a soapstone sculpture of a Lisa Frank unicorn, and also my T-shirt is printed with a Mary Engelbreit picture of a sweet-faced little girl holding a friendly duck on a porch. Plus the store is inside a Marie Callender’s. It’s…earnest.

I have a hard time publicly and unapologetically liking things that are not cool.

Not reverse-ironically liking them. Just liking them.

This is not a cool thing to discover about myself when I am at an age where sometimes I have to quickly subtract my birth year from the current year because I tend to have +/- 1 year accuracy about how long I, personally, have been alive on the earth. (I lost most of my 34th year because I thought I was 35. This is a true story.)

The problem, here, is that I wanna scrap with somebody. Knitting in a community is fun. I assume scrapbooking with other humans is fun, too. These days, scrapbooking products are fun and modern. And I love it. Why feel weird about it?

Because I can’t document the happenings of my little humans ironically: they are made of equal parts magic and tinkling harp music and clapping because I do, in fact, believe in fairies.
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But I am fundamentally uncomfortable with being earnest on purpose. I think that is downright weird, especially since, as a parent, I spend significant time telling my children that it is okay not to be cool.

So, in my continued quest for flow, I am going to take tentative steps towards sharing my sticker-covered exploits. I am going to scrapbook in public sometimes. It probably won’t be funny, but, at least, it will be honest.

At 36, I am entirely too old to communicate any other way. (I am 36.) (I think.)

Flow

Flow

It’s 4:45, right in the middle of an awkwardly-shaped space between dropoffs and pickups. The weather is unseasonably warm, if San Francisco can be said to have seasons at all. I’m walking, alone, towards the sandy bluffs above Fort Funston Beach and away from at least fifteen healthy-looking singles frolicking with happy, glossy-coated dogs. If I had a slow-motion camera, I could get enough footage for a sitcom break’s worth of organic dog food commercials.

I’m looking for flow. I now have a word for it. I thought it was “a meditative state”, but I’ve just learned it’s simply that feeling humans get when they’re immersed in an engaging, productive task. Flow
, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, may be the key to human happiness. Maybe I don’t have to meditate anymore. I just have to get more flow.

When I’m engaged in the various fussywork tasks that a raging craft addiction mandates, like this one,

Flow-2

I often forget what I’m doing completely. (I cut and positioned paper hexagons for almost three hours.) I had the same feeling when teaching myself to play the piano as a teenager, playing Solfeggietto for two hours a night; running from breakers to Bay when I was training for a half marathon; writing romances with a sleeping newborn lying warm on my lap. I’m pretty sure that’s flow.

I’m taking pictures of the abandoned fort, of the sun filtering through cypress, when I see the highest point, a mountain of sand and ice plant pointing west. I start walking towards it. When the sand gets too deep I take off my suede flats and walk, barefoot, feeling the stored warmth of the sun between my toes. My camera bag squeaks. I pass a raven. I don’t ask it for wishes, but I consider the idea.

The sounds of millennials playing dog frisbee fade, and all there is is crashing surf on all sides.

Flow-3

From my vantage point, on this unreasonably clear afternoon, I see straight down to the beach and out across the Pacific. I know this is what I was looking for. I capture it all with my camera, or think I do—the setting sun glinting on the waves, the ice plant rolling right to the edge of the cliff, the lonely raven behind me, pecking at the sand. The act of turning experience into images is sublime.

This is it. This is flow, and, in the writing, I get to find it again.

I Heart Pictures

I Heart Pictures

I am falling in love with photography. I have been falling, slowly, over a period of nearly seven years. I began to fall, thanks, in great part, to Ravelry.

I opened my Ravelry account just as the language of the Internet was shifting—hard—from words and hyperlinks to image-based communication. The idea that I should include a photo on my project and stash pages seemed novel. After all, I didn’t even have a camera phone back then; if I had, it certainly wouldn’t have been able to navigate the site.

I liked to scrapbook, but I liked playing with paper and tape more than I liked taking pictures. I’d often get the urge to scrapbook, start a layout, and then realize I didn’t have a photo to put on it. It had never before occurred to me to photograph my knitting; the digital photos I remembered to take documented vacations and graduations.

Photographing my knitting was a revelation. It felt like scrapbooking, but more personal. I scrapbooked about my kids; Ravelry was about my creative life. I took a photo whether or not I liked the end result, helping me to see the beauty in my knitting. I accepted failure as part of the process. I looked back over my knitting, and found new inspiration to keep going. The pictures told the story of a new crafter, acquiring skills project-by-project.

Then, I started working full-time. I rarely knit, and I took sporadic photos.

My commute down and up the 280 was unpleasant, but not because it was ugly. It was the beauty that bothered me.

Photography-2

During my hour or more down, I drove through breathtaking vistas. The early morning mist rolled northeast over the Santa Cruz Mountains, the statue of Junipero Serra pointed tantalizingly west towards the coast, and my car sped south at 80 miles an hour. Time and again, I had the impulse to jump out at the various vista points, just to see what loomed just a mile or two to the east or west. I never did.

One morning, packing up my laptop and ergonomic mouse, I paused before my (largely-unused) Nikon D3100. At first, I ignored my instinct; as it was, I brought a bag of knitting to work every day…then left it, untouched, in the trunk. Despite my better judgment, I grabbed the camera.

On Great Highway, around 7 in the morning—without really thinking about it—I got out, snapped a few photos, got back in the car, and drove to work.

Every morning, I stopped a little further south, until I made it to Crystal Springs Reservoir, just off the 280. This is what was on the other side of the freeway.

Photography-3

The same impulse that had lead me to photograph 80 finished pieces of knitting lead me to document my commute. Instead of posting to Ravelry, I was posting to Instagram. One day, I thought I should start a new scarf. Just so I’d have something new to photograph, of course.

Photography-4

(I posted it on Ravelry and Instagram.)

I’m just getting started; though the camera is beginning to comfortable in my hand, it’s still not so comfortable as a pair of size 6 Knit Picks circular needles. I try to post even when the photo isn’t my favorite, so I can see what makes it that way. Most are beautiful, in their own way. Each one displays a tiny bit more skill. Each documents the journey of a woman falling, slowly, in love with photography.

Projects:
Mustard Scarf by Jane Richmond in Freia Ombré Worsted (Vertigo)

Sabbath Shawl from The Prayer Shawl Companion in madelinetosh tosh merino DK (Glazed Pecan)

I Just Meditated So Hard

I Just Meditated So Hard

I’m trying to look into the stillness. I see…a still pond. That’s what stillness looks like, right? Truth: I see the back of my eyelids. Maybe that’s progress. Is thinking “Maybe that’s progress” stillness? Probably not? Yay! The timer!

Meditation has always been one of those things I always thought I ought to want to do but managed to mostly avoid. (That list is long. Pilates is near the top.) When I’m on my game, I’m an on-the-go kind of person; I like to do lots of things, read lots of books, craft all the crafts. Meditation is the opposite of on-the-go, and, thus, my all-or-nothing thinking goes, the very opposite of me.

Despite having undermined my meditation practice before it began, I kept trying to stick with it; studies have shown that meditation has a direct and quantifiable effect on blood pressure reduction, to say nothing of depression. I shoved the practice of stillness into my life, attacking my carefully stacked pile of recurring thoughts and bad habits with a beautifully-crafted Crowbar of Enlightenment.

I’m going to meditate so hard today. High Blood Pressure, consider yourself disrupted.

I couldn’t bring myself to actually carve out 10 minutes a day for a regular practice, so I meditated with an app for 10 minutes here and there—parked in Hayes Valley waiting for carpool time, lying on the bed between piles of dirty laundry, and once, just once, sitting on a comfortable couch in a clean and empty house. Meditation felt like dropping everythingso I could do nothing. To feel good about that, I had to finish everything first; somewhere between polishing the underside of the dining room table and organizing my craft glues in alphabetical order I’d run out of day.

Then, one particularly harassed afternoon, carrying things to and from kids’ rooms so I could earn the time to meditate, I found myself staring down at a Dover coloring book of Mexican Folk Art I had purchased for some work-related reason lost to time.

On impulse, I grabbed a set of colorful pens I’d never really used.

I opened the coloring book and started to color a sugar skull drawing with fine-point pen. The pattern was intricate, so I couldn’t really think about anything else. I colored the flower eyes, the upside-down heart nose, the papel picado background. Everything was very quiet and still, except the tiny sound of marker against paper and the occasional train.

Coloring

“I’m meditating,” I said, to no one in particular. “I am meditating so hard right now.

How to Meditate: A Tutorial

1. Find a coloring page
2. Find something to color with
3. Color
4. Stop when you want to