Monday, June 30, 2014

The Competence Project: Drifting in a Walnut Shell

That title is a very oblique reference to the original Hans Christian Anderson version of Thumbelina, which involved Thumbelina sleeping in a cradle made of a walnut shell. That story always freaked me out a little bit as a kid, not sure why. I didn't have any natural aversion to Cinderella-type stories, so maybe it was something about her minuscule vulnerability. Maybe even as a child I was searching for inner strength.

None of this has anything to do with this table-in-progress, except that it incorporates driftwood and black walnut. Last fall I was fed up with my copy editing work, frustrated with my parenting, and generally feeling glum and at sea. And pointless. So I emailed Dan Mack (the woodworker and artist I've taken the most classes from) to see if he had any classes or studio days opening up. It turned out he was doing a found objects workshop on the banks of the Hudson River that coming weekend, so on a Sunday my husband and I took the kids and he had them rambling around poking in the water and playing with sand and collecting rocks and sticks while I essentially did the same thing except with some direction. Or not. Dan likes to encourage people to find their own relationship with nature.

I found these:

Four driftwood sticks, which I kept trying to place so they would eventually make a table (I seem to be obsessed with little tables), and he gathered them like a driftwood nosegay and helped me screw them together and level out the bottoms.

It sat in our garage for a very long time because I couldn't find the right kind of top for it. Driftwood is so brittle -- I learned that to my regret in my very first class -- so it couldn't take something too weighty.

A few weeks ago I was at the sawmill and I found these slices of black walnut in the scrap pile:

The owner always encourages me to take scrap if I can use it (part of New York Heartwoods's mission is to reduce waste). I've got three pieces of flat walnut, and one would seem like the perfect top for this table, so I'm sanding them down (eventually -- there's that whole kids and job and life set of wrenches that run into my projects) to see how they'll work.

What to do with the rest? Cutting boards would be great (I'd love to make some of those) except for the big holes in the middle.

It'll be a while before I finish this again, as I'm hauling the kids back to Montana (yay! home!) and don't intend to leave for quite a long time. Hey! We're building a house. Soonish. Well, after we sell our cookie cutter in New York. So that'll be fun.

Until then, small projects. And look! A cat!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Cedar in Plane Sight

When I first sanded down my maple table I said I never wanted to own a planed piece of furniture again. A plane is a tool -- either a machine or a hand tool -- designed to straighten and smooth wood before its final sanding. Because I'm looking for rootedness or groundedness or whatever the heck it is, planing wood seemed too far removed from that to be satisfying.

That was true until last week. When I showed up at the mill we were tasked with ripping down into 4-, 6-, or 8-inch widths cedar planks leftover from an artist's installation up at the Storm King Art Center's sculpture park. (I have learned, by the way, that we do not "cut" wood. We rip it.) The cedar had been taken from her family's farm down in Tennessee and was already milled. She wanted it cut to size and then planed so she could make crates out of it for deliveries.

I've always loved cedar, the way it smells, the way it looks. We have a big bag of cedar shims sitting in our closet, which we'd bought at a hardware store in Tennessee several years ago and were going to get around to making shoe racks or something out of. (My husband and I have conversations sometimes about how lazy we are together. We're bad for each other's health and productivity. But we have so much fun.) Cedar has a reputation for keeping moths at bay, which is why blocks of it are often put in drawers or storage chests. It also supposedly has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties among a million other uses (some of which I maintain healthy skepticism of), and makes great outdoor furniture because it's resistant to decay.

In raw form I think it looks lovely. But planed, with a layer of wood skinned off to expose the inner colors, it's really beautiful. We ran it through the saw and the planer and the planks came out with these deep, bright purple and cream colors.

Unfortunately, I also discovered that I'm highly allergic to cedar. My childhood allergy tests probably say this anyway, but with the dust flying in my face I became aware of it all over again, sneezing my head off even through the high-end filtration face mask. Time to break out the Claritin, since clearly the homeopathic remedy I've been trying (quercetin, with extra Vitamin C) has had no effect. I hate having hay fever. The truth is, in another age I probably wouldn't have survived even if I were competent at survival and sustainability skills. If severe allergies didn't kill me, childbirth certainly would have.

Anyway, I'm a convert to planed wood depending on the context. 

The plane's crazy noisy, though. Even with our awesome earmuffs the screeching was pretty penetrating. If I'm going to invest, I think I'll go for the hand plane. And then I can just do that for hours and forget about getting on the rowing machine. Except not with cedar.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bread Loaf-Orion Environmental Writers Conference: A Retrospective

Last week I became a Bread Loaf convert. Specifically, a Bread Loaf-Orion Environmental Writers Conference convert. Every writer should attend this conference. Actually, not just writers. The conference was nearly 7 days of workshops, craft classes, laughter, and lots of in-depth conversation between poets, essayists, and fiction writers, but also people like soil scientists, mussel biologists (or people married to one), ethnoecologists, environmental science professors, geologists, oceanographers, and so many more. This cross-seeding of disciplines was the key to its success. That, and it benefited from not having any fellowships (except need-based) or work-study positions as the regular Bread Loaf (or the Mother Loaf or No-Orion [Norion] as we took to calling it) does, which removed any competitive, hierarchical atmosphere, to the benefit of both accomplished and beginning writers.

It was the most satisfying writing conference I've ever attended. Our teachers gave an astounding amount of attention to our workshop submissions, meeting with us individually to go through what we'd written and continuing conversations about our work and ambitions in various areas, whether in writing or research. I will forever be indebted to Alan Weisman, whose books I have always loved, but whose talents and attention as a teacher and mentor have begun to heal my bruised writer's heart. (Sidenote: more about that subject forthcoming in Full Grown People.)

But pictures! Because this blog is where I attempt to curtail my babbling tendencies. Speaking of babbling, this was my favorite part of the conference:

This stream is a short walk through an open field -- where the editor-in-chief of Orion magazine, who is an ornithologist, led birds walks early several mornings -- and right in this spot I could sit under these old woods on a large flat rock and listen to the water rushing and tumbling. I haven't done that in many years. It made me awfully homesick for Montana but I think I might have fallen in love with Vermont just a tiny bit that day.

Being able to walk in the woods helped compost and root the madly rushing ideas that made the conference so invigorating. Two people in my workshop and I got not-quite-lost coming back from Robert Frost's writing cabin, tramping through deep woods and a lot of muck. We found this map. Luckily they were better at reading maps than I am because it made me dizzy.

What was awesome was that we were slogging around in a lot of mud, which was a new experience since another member of our workshop was a soil scientist and his essay was a fascinating look at the life and biology of mud; one of we three walkers was a serious birder and taught me (who knows zilch about birds) to look for them and at them in new ways; and while he was trying to show me where elusive birds were I was remembering the essay of another workshop member, which was about his guiding experience in the Tetons and teaching people to see in new ways.

I've been at good writing conferences before, but nothing that recharged my brain synapses in quite this way.

I also just oiled my beloved boots, which was necessary because I forgot to bring my waterproof sandals with me and my boots spent the entire conference either soaking on my feet or like this:

By the way -- fires! It was chilly and rainy the whole time so they lit fireplaces in all the buildings. The parts of me that aren't Russian are completely Scottish at heart. There is nothing that makes me happier than being able to walk in the rain and come back inside to a fire (even if not peat).

Except, also, of course, this.

Neither of those people is me, but good conversation, long walks, and soul-restoring scenery sums up what makes my life feel most whole. Seven days of this and I feel like a much better writer, but also a better friend, thinker, human being, and inhabitant of the planet.

Driving away from Bread Loaf on Sunday, I was surprised by a feeling I thought I'd never experience again: that a new place had found a home in my heart.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Getting Ripped

I've been volunteering at a local hardwoods sawmill. New York Heartwoods, to be specific, which is run by, of all random things to find in nowhere upstate New York, another woman from Montana, and specializes in salvaging downed and diseased local hardwoods and milling and kiln-drying them for woodworkers, artisans, retail stores . . . you get the idea. Aside from the fact that I feel completely incompetent (hence the Competence Project), spending a few hours there makes my week. I wish I could rewind all my school years and career years and go back and learn how to do something useful like this. I mean, I correct grammar for a living. Much as I enjoy grammar, it's not, in real-life terms, all that useful.

The very first day I was there was back in January, and we rode the tractor over to a neighbor's collapsed barn to salvage 8-foot beams for a local woodworker. If you click here you can see a photo of us doing just that. I am the person in the blue coat pulling something out of that really precarious pile of barn wood.

That something was a barn beam. The thing about old barn beams is that they often have a lot of nails in them. Very old, very rusty, very long, and very, very sharp. I was bracing the beam while it was being chainsawed down, and it slipped on my leg. See those nails? It was one of those.

My very first day branching out (so to speak) in an effort at competence? I ended up driving to the doctor's office for a tetanus shot. These are my only pair of jeans. My husband repaired them that evening because I loathe sewing and only do it under duress. He didn't know that what he pulled out of the sewing box was silk embroidery thread over seventy years old that had belonged to my great-grandmother. What a convoluted world.

Did you know that tetanus shots make your teeth hurt like hell? Nobody told me that. I thought I needed a root canal. And underneath this ragged seam is a dull line that very much resembles my C-section scars. Except less painful because I didn't rip any staples out of this. Hands down, I'd rather get scarred by ancient nails poking out of barn beams than go through pregnancy again.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

That Birch Is Buggy

My friend who co-runs a local organic farm said I could take some of this birch. That's misleading. I happened to be at the farm with the kids on Saturday and saw the huge pile of cut birch logs on my 2nd-3rd-4th attempt to take my 3-year-old to the Port-a-Potty. She screamed every damn time. My friend invited me to take her behind the decrepit trailer to pee on the grass, which is where she herself goes. "Just -- if you hear a noise, don't worry. That's just a cat in the trailer." The followed a long explanation as to why the cat lived in the trailer and why he was noisy. I think his name was Jack but can't swear to it. Suffice it to say he was actually noisy and the toddler twitched around to see what was going on and got pee on my Keene sandals. Like that even phases me anymore.

Anyway. All this birch. Gorgeous. It wouldn't fit into my station wagon so I had to come back later, which meant my husband had to give me a brief lesson in using his Sawzall. (I ended up bending the blade. Sorry about that.) Look! Helpful children!

Got it back home and into the garage. Was doing some copy editing work and got an email response from Dan Mack about an open studios day I wanted to attend. I'd mentioned that I've been forming, slowly and over several months, ideas for a live-edge, slab-top dining table. "My friend said I could take a whole bunch of birch and I was thinking of using it for the legs. Would that work? It seems sound, but I don't know about how well it holds weight."

His response: "Oh, birch is terrible. Bugs usually. Like bananas in a plastic bag."

Not exactly the feel I was going for. Ah well, it was adventurous day out and now I've got this in the garage and don't know what the hell to do with it. I should take it to the sawmill and kiln-dry it but that seems like a lot of effort. I don't know if I can get my laborers to reload it into the car.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Writer's Life Project, a Blog Hop, or Hoppy Blog

I was awfully flattered to get an email from Debra Liese asking if I'd like to participate in "Writer's Life Project," a blog hop in which writers get to talk about our current projects, our writing endeavors, and how we work. I usually try to resist the urge to casually engage in this kind of conversation because I've learned that the more I talk about my writing projects, the less I do them. But I live in a rural area and have little opportunity to chat with other real-life writers about my work, so this is a rare opportunity.

Debra and I connected after she read my essay "Acts of Faith" on Full Grown People, about my atheism and intermittent longing for faith. (It also has Russia in it. Russia is a great backdrop for a lot of my work.) We've exchanged many emails since then, about atheism and agnosticism and faith and our mutual love of L.M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon series (if you like Anne of Green Gables at all, you'll like Emily Starr's story even more) and I'm an enthusiastic reader of her work. Her blog about creativity, which is published on Pyschology Today, is titled Ink: Creativity for Cowards. Right up my alley!

Enough babbling. If you want to read my essays, many of them are accessible through my website. The point here is to answer these questions, which I'm thrilled to do because they're topics I think about a lot. So let's go digging in the scrap pile:

1. What am I writing or working on?

Since last year I've been working on Against the Grain. It's a memoir about my experience of modern motherhood, which included a deep depression for nearly a year, and about trying to regain a sense of self without resorting to medication. I resorted instead to what I privately call my "competence project." It started with teaching myself to can and preserve food for winter, in response to thinking about the competence of my pioneer ancestors, and my Russian grandmother, and how I failed to live up to their standards. I branched out to making myself slaughter a rooster (ugh), taking a chainsaw and logging safety class (yikes), and several other endeavors, and have mostly focused on rustic woodworking, which I fell in love with. For this, I switch between woodworking, writing, and volunteering at a local hardwoods sawmill. Think Claire Dederer's Poser crossed with Shop Class as Soulcraft.

At the same time, I dug out an old manuscript: My Russian Condition, a travel memoir about my lifelong relationship with Russia. Finding it wasn't as crappy as I'd concluded it was several years ago, I've been revising it.

I am a regular contributor to Full Grown People, which focuses on personal essays and is my favorite nonfiction magazine (not least because its founder, Jennifer Niesslein, is the kind of editor all writers dream of), so I've always got something new in the works. I'm also working on a very long-form essay titled My Jewish Problem, about my Jewish blood, lack of Jewish identity, and the resilience of anti-Semitism. And I write a lot on sustainability and environmental issues. This week I am attending the Bread Loaf-Orion Environmental Writers Conference, which is very exciting and where I hope to learn a lot.

And until an agent snaps up my mystery novel and finds a publisher excited about the series I've planned on the strength of it, I'll continue tinkering with The Commutative Property of Addition.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

In my nonfiction, I focus hard on a few things. One is running a deep plumb line into any idea that comes my way. I get frustrated when reading essays that have beautiful language and innovative metaphors, but in which the thoughts still stay at the surface level. I might not always find the most sparkling phrasing, but I don't let up on an essay or book until I feel like I've excavated the subject from every angle I can personally explore. As a kid, I was deeply devoted to geology and paleontology; my writing has a similar devotion to bedrocks and geological layers and long, long perspectives of time and humanity. I do adore analysis and logic, and using those skills to heighten a piece of creative work is both a challenge and a privilege.

In my mystery novel I'm aiming for the literary mystery sphere, a cross between Louise Penny and Kate Atkinson. Is it different from what others do? It's a very character-driven work, with a strong sense of place. I draw on my past experience as a travel writer, and the protagonist is in fact a travel writer. Her sidekick -- the Nero Wolfe to her Archie Goodwin -- is a mathematician, which I wanted to do because I was a mathematics undergrad and have a deep passion for the subject, and you can't beat it for forcing people to think logically. Plus, they're estranged half-sisters with serious issues and troublesome mothers, which is great fun. I think so, anyway. And it takes place at a paleontology dig in Eastern Montana. All my favorite things!

3. Why do I write what I do?

Is that a trick question? Maybe not. I wrote the mystery because I love reading mysteries, and also, frankly, I thought it might be a good way to make a living as a writer. Still, I couldn't have done it if I didn't enjoy the genre and wasn't enthralled with my characters and the setting.

Nonfiction is more complicated. Like all writers, I write what comes to me, what inspires me. But I also have issues I care about to such an extent that they help define who I am: environmental degradation, women's rights, child abuse of varying stripes, education. My writing can range from journalism-type articles on teaching mathematics to more literary works on psychological abuse or, to pick a recent example, musing on the effect that a lack of sidewalks (and having to drive everywhere) has on both our physical health and our mental ability to think flexibly and find common ground.

I've been driven by environmental issues a lot recently, maybe because I have kids or maybe because I have always believed in having a relationship with the earth beneath our feet and the air we breathe. And it's become clear that even the best scientific research or most poetic writing isn't making a dent in the public consciousness. So my focus is veering: how does a writer help create a geological shift in the way we relate to the planet and to each other?

4. How does my writing process work?

Is that another trick question?

Okay, years ago when I was fresh out of my MFA program, I had all sorts of regulations for myself: how long to write, when to write, how many words to produce per day. I have yet to find a fellow living, breathing writer for whom any of those systems actually work.

In any case, it all flew out the window once I had kids. Because like many people, I started my writing life setup like this, thinking this scene is exactly what it would look like until I ended up with dementia and in a home where my ungrateful children had put me. Lovely, right?

After my first child was born, this is what my work space turned into:

Here is my saving grace: twice a week, for seven hours, I have a nanny come. I know, I know, it sounds like an immense amount of time. Most of it, though, is eaten up with my day job as a freelance textbook copy editor or doctors' appointments or oh-crap-I-forgot errands. I sacrifice as many Thursdays as I can to going to the local hardwoods sawmill because that's where I'm doing my competence apprenticeship and also my sense-of-self restoration and also I really like it. But I get a lot of writing done around those edges anyway. Because I'm copy editing during the days, I'm at my desk, so when inspiration strikes or I stumble across helpful research I'm right there, no other distracting tasks to finish. I just turn off my work timer and switch windows. It makes a big difference. I usually have one of my book or essay documents open, and quickly bypass the inner Censor/naysayer without blinking. That's something I've only learned to do through years of training, like being an athlete. The rest of the time I get up at 4 or 5 in the morning. Because I homeschool and work part-time and am a stay-at-home mom, getting all of it done would require early hours even without the writing. Not that I'm saying I do get it all done. But those early morning hours are when I access my most honest writer self.

And lastly, I have finally, after many years and attempts, found a writing group that fits where I am in my writing and what I'm working on. We meet once a month via Google Hangout and workshop two essays. Everyone in the group is a stellar writer, takes their writing seriously, and works hard to support the endeavors of others. Reading their work inspires me to produce more and make it better.

I could go on forever. Which would be boring. So now I'll hand this off to two writers I've known and admired for a long time:

Karrie Higgins and I met several years ago through Creative Nonfiction's #cnftweet microessay contest on Twitter, where we both participated regularly. Since then we've exchanged a book's worth of letters (even some real ones) and Karrie has become not just one of my favorite writers, but one of my favorite people. She writes about psychogeography, family, abuse, environment, the concept of faith, being a gentile in Salt Lake City, and so much more with a plumb line and dedication that frankly leaves mine in the dust. Not only did her stunning essay "Bottle City of God" win Cincinnati Review's Schiff Award in Prose (the issue is coming out soon! Go get it!), but she makes her own ink.

Carolyn McCarthy and I went through the MFA program at Emerson College together. We met in a travel writing class and continued to take several nonfiction classes together. She was one of the best writers in the program, a natural storyteller and observer and with a knack for choosing the most perfect, sparest words for every description. Before coming to the program, she had worked teaching English in Buenos Aires and as a backcountry guide in Patagonia. After graduating, she was granted a Fulbright scholarship to document the way of life of pioneer families in rural Patagonia, a timely project because massive dam projects now threaten the area and that way of life. She was trekking and writing a lot, received a grant for her work from Banff Mountain Culture, and then got a job as a Lonely Planet writer. She's written for magazines like National Geographic and Outside in addition to authoring 12 Lonely Planet guides. Carolyn is an amazing person, one of my most valued friends, and her creative writing remains some of the most memorable I've had the privilege to read. And, she built her own writer's retreat in Chile. Talk about competent.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Un-Competence Project, with Carpenters

I stole this log. That's what my son says. Someone had cut down a tree by the side of the road and left the chunks in the ditch. I drove past it once, then twice, then turned around and stopped. I could barely lift it. If I were a decent photographer, you could see how big it is. I'm awfully impressed with myself getting it home. Except my son kept saying, "Mummy? Are you going to get in trouble? Mummy? Should you be taking that? Isn't that someone's wood?"

My mother-in-law happened to be visiting that week and spent some time trying to figure out what it was. She scoured the Internet for bark descriptions and tentatively settled on sweet gum. An architect friend of ours guessed cherry, but the bark is completely different from the cherry I scavenged elsewhere.

The other day I was inspecting some of my black walnut scraps nearby and happened to notice motion in the log. Big black ants. Carpenter ants. My modern home-loving husband is thrilled with this revelation. You should have seen his expression. I rolled it out of the garage and to the woods, but am going to have to do some inspections tonight. And I'm bummed. What pretty tables it might have made, ants and all. Do they have carpenter ants in Rivendell? I never used to wonder but now I do. The owner of the sawmill I volunteer at said I could throw it in the kiln, but I don't know how I could get it back into my car. Self-sufficiency requires so much effort. And driving time.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Clean House? Not if You're Riding the Rails

I recently published an essay on Full Grown People about my slightly OCD relationship with housecleaning. There was no need to go into specifics about the cleaning schedule or the minutiae of my twitchiness. I would have liked to include a section about the book that taught me how to clean -- What To Do When Your Mom or Dad Says . . . Clean Your Room! -- but couldn't find a way to work it in. I love this book. Someone gave it to me when I was a child, and I still use the methods covered in it because they tap directly into the childlike love of having a routine and creating chaos at the same time. When my house, or a room, is a real mess, I chuck everything possible into some central location (as a child, it was the middle of my floor; these days, it's the kitchen counter), clean every single surface, and then start putting things away where they belong. The book is out of print, which is a real shame because I've never seen anything better.

I also didn't have an appropriate place to mention our Clean House playlist. There's a lot of fun music on there, and all of it shows my poor taste. But hyper-anal cleaning sessions require frequent dance breaks.

Except that wasn't the point of this post. The point is, Wednesday is our usual Clean House day. My kids are so used to it that sometimes my son (who's 6) will actually do his required duties (it's not rocket science -- all toys off floor and tables and put away somewhere, and Legos organized; sometimes he earns a bit of money washing the windows or the kitchen floor) almost before I'm done with breakfast. That sounds awesome, except that his purpose is to nab Angry Birds playtime before I have a chance to sit him down with arithmetic or have him read a Little Bear story to me.

That also wasn't the point. The point was, this happened.

It actually happened three weeks ago. These tracks go out of his room, into the hallway, and off into every other bedroom. I have to wait for Gordon to pick me up in his express before I can go anywhere. My son has pretty much aged out of the obsessive track-building phase (it's all Legos and Minecraft now), so it was nice to see what might be one of his last inventions. And I don't mind chaos at all, as long as the base state is clean to begin with. But after a week . . . or two . . . or three . . . I'm starting to get really twitchy and itchy and have trouble sleeping. Last night I had a nightmare about the weeping angels on Doctor Who. I need to vacuum this floor.