Monday, January 30, 2012

Belated Birtdays

I'm famous in my family for sending birthday greetings long after the birthday boy/girl has forgotten he/she even had a birthday. But I do get around to it eventually (almost always), so that's what's important, isn't it? (Especially if I sent a text message on the actual technology sometimes). I have two especially tricky siblings, my youngest sister, E, whose birthday is right before Christmas, and my youngest brother, also E, whose birthday is not exactly right after Christmas, but in the middle of January, which is pretty close to right after Christmas, and this year was right in the midst of my residency. So they both get neglected, as all birthday-right-around-Christmas people should do.

This past Saturday, I was feeling makey, so, while dinner baked, I made some toffee for my brother who just turned 21 and had asked, rather pointedly when I saw him over the holidays, "Do you ever make toffee?":

Little did he know that toffee is my very favorite candy to make and to eat, though I shouldn't because I have three crowns on my molars (I grind my teeth at night...stress), so I should probably get this packaged up and mailed quick before I eat any more.

My sister had mentioned that she has a hard time sleeping, for various reasons, including the bright street light outside her window, so after dinner, I escaped up to my room while the boys started a movie and made these:

I had never made one before, so of course I had to make a prototype, which of course I had to keep for myself.

Now here's where I'll tell you probably the most embarrassing secret I'll ever share on this blog: I wear a sleep mask to bed. Every night. I started about two years ago, before I had made curtains for my room and the bright, bright moon kept me awake all night. And once I started wearing it, I slept much, much better, between the darkness and the gentle pressure on my eyelids that helped my eyes relax. It did not completely cure my insomnia--I still keep bottles of Benadryl, melatonin and Rescue Remedy Sleep lined up beside my bed--but it helped, and continues to help a lot. In fact, I panic when I can't find, just ask C. 

My old mask, though, was getting worn-out: the green silk had taken on a grayish hue, the fabric was fraying along the edge and the elastic was losing its elasticity. Plus, I wanted a backup in case after one of those panicky mask-less nights it did not turn up under the bed, clothed in dust bunnies.

I like the profile of my old mask, so I just traced it and cut the shape from some super soft cotton voile (Anna Marie Horner Little Folks) and lined it with one layer of cotton batting and tucked the elastic into a scrunchy-style casing. I think I might have made it a smidge too tight, though, because after the second night of wearing it, my eyebrows were kind of sore. Is that weird? I think my sister probably has a smaller head than me, so hopefully hers will be OK.

I had enough voile left over to make this scarf:

Which I did very selflessly consider giving to my sister along with the mask, but ended up keeping it (and wearing it today) for myself.

Now, I just need to get everything mailed off and I can check two belated birthdays off my list!

Friday, January 27, 2012

My Stonecoast Hat

I knitted this hat while I was at my grad school residency:

I wanted something small and unobtrusive to work on in the evenings during the readings, so I left my sweater at home and finally started this hat I've been wanting to knit for a good six years.

The hat kind of mirrors my experience at the residency (and forgive me for taking a metaphor to tortuous ends, but that's what we writers do): it starts out all enthusiastic and openminded, weaving in different strands to make a pleasing pattern, but it falters near the top (at exactly the moment I falter in my experience); I dodn't have the right needles to finish (size 11 double-pointeds; I even drive out into a snowstorm in search of a set, only to find extra long, glitter-filled acrylic ones that I cannot bring myself to buy). After stalling out, and considering giving up, I buck up and make it work--I put an extra-long cable on my circular needles and use what I believe is called the magic-loop method to finish. I am at this point skeptical, no longer starry-eyed but willing to give it a chance. I make it to the finish somewhat falteringly, but I make it. I've left some big holes all along my decreases (not sure if this was due to the needles or if I did my ssk's wrong), which I have to sew up when I weave in the ends. It feels a bit snug. Perhaps Stonecoast isn't the right fit after all? But I'm reassured that everyone has this same thought during their first residency, and, sure enough, the hat stretches to fit my head snugly. And it is soft and warm.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Perfect Day

Sometimes, when your expectations are low simple, you get exactly what you want.

Last week, on her blog, Stirrings and Stories, Jenna asked readers to describe their perfect day.

I wrote: my perfect day would be sunny and quiet and I'd have lots and lots of alone time to go hike in the woods, draw in my nature journal, read and write. Oh, and someone would have left me three delicious meals (and would come later to clean them up). Oops, somehow my husband and kids don't figure in to my perfect day (maybe I would let them come visit after I do all those other things).

This past Sunday was one of those crisp and cold but clear and sunny days we sometimes get in January. For breakfast I made rice pudding with all of the leftover rice from Saturday's Chinese New Year feast and spent the morning reading, both to myself and to E and Z. Then C took all of the boys to a bowling party, followed by a German waffle party (it is rare indeed for those four homebodies to leave the house on the weekend, but for them to attend two social engagements without me dragging them by their ears is unheard-of).

I spent the day reading and writing (or, more specifically, revising a short story for my first packet). I went for a hike in the woods (the snow is still not deep enough to necessitate snowshoes or skis) where I spooked an owl off his perch with all my noisy boot-crunching. I read and wrote some more. I munched on leftover eggrolls and tofu and rice pudding whenever I felt the urge, and sipped chai all afternoon. The house was already clean from Saturday and the only housework I had to do involved washing and hanging a few loads of laundry and keeping the woodstoves loaded.

My husband and children came and visited after all that, and I gave the little ones baths and read them a story and put them to bed, after which I returned to my books for another hour before falling asleep myself.

It was almost exactly like the perfect day I imagined and it was almost exactly perfect.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dragon Year

Saturday we observed Chinese New Year in a celebration involving food, friends, music and, of course, dragons.

Going into our celebration, I was wishing for a nice Chinese dragon decoration for our table, so I went on Etsy in search of a wooden dragon toy, but all I could find were European style dragons (except this Chinese dragon puzzle, which I favorited, but failed to order in time). Then I remembered that Z had a bunch of these three-dimensional puzzle dragons that came in a Dragonology book. Their parts and pieces were piled up in a peanut tub, where I had been throwing them whenever I found them on their bedroom floor. We were able to (mostly) reassemble five of them and set them, along with a Chinese kaleidoscope that I've had my whole life, on the nature table on a piece of red Chinese silk (which has yet to be transformed into a sexy dress):

It's a bit of a multi-cultural dragon display, with a Chinese dragon, a Tibetan dragon and three dragons of European descent. 

My friends Raina (of the great blog, Mamacita Spins the Globe) and Tina and their hubbies and children joined us just as I was deep in the making of fortune cookies (or, as many of them turned out, particularly the ones that stuck irretrievably to the pan, unfortunate cookies):

They helped me make the eggrolls (the making and eating of which being my prime motive and motivator in our annual Chinese New Year celebrations); in fact, they did most of the work--chopping and sauteing veggies and rolling them up. All I had to do was fry, which worked out great for me since I'm terrible at that kind of detail-oriented cooking (note my ragged fortune cookies).

I also made my world-famous sweet & sour sauce, a big vat of rice and some stir-fried broccoli. Tina brought three types of tofu, cooked two different ways and some yummy sesame noodles.

After dinner the kids made dragon puppets (here's E with his the next morning, in better light):

And then we dug into our fortune cookies and the Nian Gao cake (made with sweet rice flour and adzuki beans) that Raina brought:

Throughout the evening we listened to our Putumayo Asian Dreamland CD (which is more lullaby than party music, but it made a quiet, non-intrusive background to a lot of noisy kids) on repeat, and before the kids went to bed we read The Story about Ping

To keep the celebration going (I think the actual Chinese New Year day is today, and the official change of year is November edited: oops, I mean February 4), we've been trying out our Chinese characters on the Buddha Board (I had brought out board and printed out some Chinese character cards before the party, but no one noticed these over on a side table; I have since moved it to a more prominent location).  Last night, we read Daisy Comes Home and we'll be reading some more Chinese-themed story books that I picked up at the library (I can't remember where I found the original list, but I'll add the names of the books here later) over the next few days). I might even remember to dig out the red envelopes I made the kids a couple of years ago and slip some $$ into them (hmm, I could just use them for their February allowance and kill two birds and save some money).

Looking back over Chinese New Years past (2009-Ox, 2010-Tiger, 2011-Rabbit), I love to see how our traditions evolve and cement, and how what once felt thrown-together and half-assed now feels like a part of life.

Astrology (of any type) always confuses me, and the many different factors and permutations always leaves my head spinning and makes me kind of tired, so I won't do any speculating on what the dragon (or, more specifically, Black Water Dragon) means for the coming year, but I will steal this quote from this site

Dragon is a legendary animal and it is symbol of emperor in China. Since the Dragon is coated with mysterious color, Chinese consider that the dragon is unpredictable, untouchable and people cannot see its head and tail at the same time. Therefore, we can might see something unexpected happening in 2012. Also a person with too many dragons in the Chinese astrology birth chart will become smarter, sly and unpredictable in the coming year.

So, may you have something unexpected (in a good way) this year. And may you be fierce and strong like a dragon. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Guest Post at Motherhood and Words

Hey, there! Check out my guest post (about that little writing workshop drama--and what I learned from the experience) over on Kate Hopper's blog, Motherhood and Words. And, while you're there, if you're a mom who write or used to write or wants to write, take a look at Kate's class offerings. I can vouch for her awesomeness.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Finding a Groove

Thank you all so much for your lovely, sweet, encouraging comments on my last post. You're the best. I'm stealing a bit of my (school) writing time to write this, just to check in and thank you and let you know that things got much, much better after that day. I'll be writing a post all about it for Kate Hopper's Motherhood and Words blog soon, so I'll keep you posted on that (and Lone Star Ma, yes, let's talk about next issue).

Happily, I had a day off Monday before getting back to "real life." I should probably have launched right in to my writing projects, but my brain wasn't up for it just yet. Instead I did a lot of puttering around, tidying things up (though they boys kept the house almost as clean as I had left it during their 10-day reign), and a fair amount of snuggling with the boys.

One of the things I had looked forward to (and enjoyed) most about my ten days away was being freed from all things domestic, but once I got back, I took pleasure in putting my little domestic touches around the house. Blue glass on the windowsill (I love blue glass in January):

And snowflakes in the living room:

And while the boys watched Harry Potter #6 (I know, I know), I spent some time sorting through my papers from the residency and getting my "office in a box" ready for evenings in the library. (Z, who loves to steal my camera, caught me in the act):

And now I'm trying to figure out how to fit 25 hours of writing into the interstices of my days. I've got it all mapped out on paper, which looks great, but implementing it is something else altogether. I've given up Thursday knit nights, and almost all social activities that don't take place on Saturdays and include my children. I'm putting myself on a strict 9-5 sleep schedule, with two 5-6 a.m. work sessions during the week (I'm not giving up my swim on the other three mornings, though, because it was key in maintaining my mental health all last year). I'm abandoning the boys two evenings a week and most of Sunday (though I'm going to try to work at home that day). Oh, and there are lunch breaks and 8-9 p.m. every night No problem, right?

I already find myself jealously guarding my time--especially the evenings. I've never been much of a nighttime parent (I think it all dates back to the bone-crushing sleep deprivation brought on by two nursing babies), but now I'm a drill sergeant at 8:00--to bed now! To the point that when M had a stomach ache the other night, I made him a glass of baking soda and water and told him to go to bed, while I meanwhile slipped into my room with a book of short stories from my reading list. Later I woke to C thrashing around in the closet--he was digging out spare blankets so he could sleep on the chair next to M, who was on the couch in, C was convinced, the early stages of appendicitis. It was sweet, really, like after 10 days alone with his children, C had finally hit that new mother stage when you get home from the hospital with this fragile being whose continued breathing you need to verify every five minutes (though I might cut him off from WebMD if he carries on this way).

And now, I think I should really get to work.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Hostility to Motherhood

Dear friends,
I know I said I wouldn't be around this week, but I feel the need to be in the company of people who understand me.

In my regular, normal life I work in a family-friendly place, so I spend my days surrounded by people with families. Most of my friends have kids, and those that don't either like to be around them or at least tolerate those who do. I read blogs by women who have immersed themselves in the motherhood experience even more deeply than I have--they stay at home full-time and homeschool their broods.

Now, I know (because I've read about it) that motherhood is undervalued and that mothers are treated with contempt by some. But because I've been living in this little bubble of my self-selected group of like-minded individuals, I've never experienced this myself, at least not to any degree that it has left a lasting impression on me.

And now I have--through the proxy of one of my fictional characters--and I've felt sick ever since. Now, it probably sounds silly to react so strongly to the treatment of an imaginary person, but I believe there are elements of the author's self in any character, and the parts of this character that were attacked were those things that I share in common with her. Part of this can be chalked up to the fact that the only experts on parenting are those who don't have kids; my audience possessed a great deal of knowledge that it pulled out of thin air.

But there was still a strong, almost palpable sentiment that feminism and motherhood are incompatible. That putting your children's needs ahead of your own means you are submissive. That because you are home with your children while your husband is at work means that his life is richer than yours. That focusing on your children for a day or a weekend or a few years means you have no life, no interests, no intelligence. That craving a few minutes of peace when surrounded by the energy and noise of young ones points to a gaping hole in your soul.

Now, I had always thought that no one was harder on mothers than other mothers--we can be a vicious, catty bunch--but all that infighting over breast/bottle, Sears/Ferber, Montessori/Waldorf is like a friendly pillow fight at a slumber party compared to the teeth-and-claws-bared attack I felt. I am completely and totally floored.

I don't mean to imply that this is the general sentiment of all 100+ people here--in fact there are many mothers and fathers among both the student population and faculty--I just happened to experience the full onslaught of this sentiment from a handful of young, childless women. And I'm feeling a little defensive.

I have children. I am a feminist. I cook dinner, clean toilets, read stories, zip backpacks, wake in the middle of the night to tend to feverish brows. I am still a feminist.

I have other interests. I work full-time. I write. I'm a grad student. I make things with fabric and yarn. I take long walks in the woods. I draw. I blog. But children are not one more thing on a list of hobbies: stamp collector, bird watcher, mother, sudoku enthusiast, cross-stitcher. They are deeply entwined in my identity. I carried those three babies inside of my body, gave birth to one through long hours of labor and pain, and felt the phantom tug of having the other two lifted from my numbed and curtained body. I nourished them from my breasts, carried them in my arms and have watched them grow and grow and grow into fascinating little people in their own right. They are a part of me that could never be replaced by mere hobbies or pets (one detractor sports a CATS NOT KIDS bumper sticker).

Motherhood is complicated. Identity is complicated. Feminism is complicated. When approaching a complicated situation, one should maintain an open mind, and respect for what one doesn't understand.

How about you? Have you experienced first-hand anti-mother hostility and how did you handle it?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Thoughts on 2012 and beyond...

I start my first graduate school residency this afternoon, which means I won't be around this space next week (or much after that, either, though I do hope to check in at least once a week). I've been so busy frantically trying to complete all of the required readings, in between dismantling Christmas, dispensing Jr. Tylenol, lemon juice, honey and chicken soup to kids who sound like they've worked their whole short lives in the coal mines or Cornwall, and eating leftover Christmas sweets, that I haven't taken much time to reflect on the year past, or the one ahead.

When I do think back on 2011, my first reaction is that it was pretty much a crap year. But if I look back over what I've put here on these "pages" I see a lot of good: I knit a sweater (plus three hats, a shawl and a necklace, and 6/7 of another sweater)! I wrote 30 poems in April. We went on a lovely vacation to Philadelphia. I got accepted to graduate school. We raised and released a monarch butterfly, got a pet fish, went to the beach and went hiking (only once...shame!). We discovered the beauty of our river in summer. I finally got my dragonfly net and made some progress in slowly untangling the mysteries of odonata families, genus and species.  As far as my kids go, 10 and 6 have been pretty awesome ages (mostly). E and Z just had a huge reading breakthrough over vacation. M has officially exceeded me in math ability. So really, in the scheme of things, other than that place where I spend half my waking hours (The Place that Must Not Be Named), it was a pretty great year. However, I was not sorry to see it go.

As far as 2012 goes, I don't expect any improvement on the Place that Must Not Be Named front (that won't happen until at least 2015, dear god). Instead, this year, I plan to focus my energies on the other 16 hours a day. Graduate school, writing, family, living. These are the things that matter and I'll refuse to have my energy sapped or my heart broken over that other thing. Usually I make a big long list of goals and resolutions, but not this year.

This year, I think it will be enough to just hang on by my fingertips and try to keep it all together. I keep finding myself tempted by the projects, plans, challenges and events I see those around me taking on for the year--letter-writing! photography! sewing guilds! exercise! eating well! My own personal challenge is to resist the temptation to add anything else to an already bursting-full schedule. This year I really must say "no" and say it with conviction. My one goal, I think, will be to try and maintain a balance--to accomplish all I need to and not neglect anything else--and give my full attention to whatever it is before me: to write when I am writing and mother when I am mothering, and not let half my attention wander or guilt sabotage me. In short, I plan to create a rhythm in my weekends (and evenings, too), that allows me to integrate family time and writing time in a way that is healthy and productive for me and for them. Wish me luck!

What are your plans and dreams for 2012?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Handmade Holiday: One last knit of 2011

After I finished five knitting projects in the first half of the year (one--the sweater!--, two--pattern!, three, four, five), I set a secret goal of completing one knit per month for the whole year. Then I started another sweater, which I am now, finally, almost finished with, but alas, it did not get done in June as scheduled. But I did whip out this hat, which I finished just a few minutes before 10:00 on New Year's Eve (and a few minutes before I went to bed--it was the most boring New Years Eve in a long string of boring New Years Eves--we ate takeout Thai food, put the kids to bed early and watched a movie about crossword puzzles. I kid you not. But due to a combination of insomnia/jet lag and coughing kids, I stayed awake much closer to midnight than I expected, so that's exciting).

Anyway, back to the hat. I turned out ENORMOUS!! And 10:00 on New Years Eve is too late to start another hat when you're giving the gift the next day, New Years Day, which is when we celebrated Christmas with some of our friends and family on this side of the continent (I believe it was seventh Christmas). 

The recipient, pictured below, is going to try throwing it in the washing machine on hot a few times in an effort to reduce its gunny-sack-like proportions.

Here's to knitting in 2012! What's on your needles?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Handmade Holiday: Purchased "Handmades"

When you can't make everything yourself (and who can?), it's nice to have sources of handmade items to purchase. I made profligate use of Etsy and other online crafter marketplaces this holiday season.

These deer in their forest and bears in their cave I actually bought for E and Z from Anne Moze last summer, in anticipation of that road trip that never came to pass. I envisioned them galloping wildlife over various National Park picnic tables. Instead they became stocking stuffers. So far, I think I've played with them more than anyone.

This beautiful bunting C got for me from Fresh Squeezed Baby. I was planning on making one for this big wall, but I knew I didn't have any time coming up, so instead I did a search on Etsy for "orange bunting" and came up with this and sent the link to C--perfect! In fact, like the fabrics so much, I've already favorited several fat quarter bundles and charm squares in the same family...thinking a quilt to toss over the back of that midnight blue velvet couch when I get it.

For my sister and sister-out-law, I bought lovely hand-painted silk scarves from JingJing Design

And for E and Z, magic wands from Mud Hollow.

Z wrote no fewer than three letters to Santa saying, "I would like a wand that will do anything I want it to," the last on Christmas Eve because he was not entirely convinced that I had actually mailed the first two to the genial elf (for good reason--I hadn't). The last one I tucked into the pocket of my dad's red shirt--he has a white beard, so I figured it was as close to Santa as I was going to get.

When we got home, and found that Santa had arrived in our absence, Z knew right away exactly which box contained his wand, and when he opened it, a gleam in his eye indicated he truly believed it was going to work magic. Later he said to me, "I don't think Santa understood what I meant when I said I wanted a wand that would do anything I want." 

I replied, "Maybe Santa's just not that magic, that he can give presents that don't exist. Or maybe you don't know the right spells."

So today, when I was walking him down the driveway after he got off the bus (he was alone...his brothers both sick at home), he said, "You know what I'm going to ask Santa for next year? A spell book to go with my wand."


Other handmade purchases (not pictured) include: wallets for E and Z (for 3 Kings Day), a space necktie for M, butterbeer fudge (which no one was nearly as excited about as I was...which meant more for me), boxers and boxers.

Hooray for handmades that someone else hand makes!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Handmade Holiday: Received

The Stockings

When we first considered going to Colorado for Christmas, I called up my mom and asked if she'd be interested in knitting the boys stockings. They were beginning to outgrow (both in age and volume--I do like to stuff stockings) their old Sesame Street character stockings that my aunt had sent each for his first Christmas, and I'd been drooling over the three stockings in Jan Brett's version of The Night Before Christmas. She said "Sure," I sent the book for inspiration, and I think all three were done within the month.

I had made it clear that Santa Claus would come to our house while we were gone, and the presents would be there when we got home. "Then we'll have two Christmases!" I exclaimed each time, emphasis on the "two" (in the end, we had something more like seven Christmases, but who's counting?)

But, on Christmas morning, I got a text from my Sister V saying Santa had stopped by her place and left stockings for the boys. We bustled over and tore into the loot.  We just reread the inspirational book and E and Z were very amazed that their stockings are almost just like those in the book (they did take their time to point out the minute differences. We decided that Mrs. Claus must have knitted them, and that maybe she'd knitted a similar set for Jan Brett, which the artist copied into her book).

Hanging along side them are the stockings my mom knitted for C and me a few years ago (and they're all hanging from Sock Hooks, which are fantastic--no nails, no holes, no poke-your-eye out hooks--and made in Maine. And if you don't have a handy knitting granny at your disposal, you can get beautiful knit stockings from the same folks).

While Mrs. Claus was busy knitting, GrandSantaPoppy was busy making a fleet of vehicles

For the boys to paint while we were there.

He also made this cool ornament, somehow with some kind of magic saw. 

And my aunt made this little flower ornament from pinecone scales, beads, wire and glitter.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Scenes From our Trip

As we drove home from the airport last Friday afternoon, about twelve hours after departing Denver in the middle of the night and ten days after arriving in Denver in the middle of the night, after spending what felt the better part of those ten days driving confusedly lost through neverending suburban sprawl, and nursing three kids through four different illnesses, I was thinking, "Never, ever, again," when Z announced, "That was a good trip."

Six hours earlier, as our first plane coasted into Detroit in the early morning light, E had said, "We stayed up all night! It was fun! Not grumpy!!"

Perhaps six-year-olds are more resilient than old mamas. In any case, here's a bit of what we've been up to for the last two weeks:

Our hotel Christmas tree--Maine-grown and smuggled in our luggage.
Street Piano
The Lego Store
City sidewalks, busy sidewalks...
Gems and minerals and dinosaur bones, oh my.
The Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Denver Branch (because I lamely failed to reserve tickets to the Mint).
Christmas Eve with around 25 relatives my kids don't remember ever having met (photo by Z, I believe).
Christmas Eve spent introducing and reintroducing myself and my children to my grandmother who doesn't remember ever having met us.
Christmas morning in the hotel room (in new Grammie Jammies)
Lots of screen time with aunts and uncles (Angry Bird, Harry Potter and, here, photos of Greece, I think).
Christmas Day balsa wood plane races.
City lights.
Art photography by Z.
Falling in love with Waffles, despite his sharp claws.
Rare moments of brotherly love.
Discovering powder.
The ritual photo of Twin No. 1, 
And Twin No. 2.
Checking out Grandpoppy's shop.
And, at long last, sleep, undignified as it may be, on the red carpet of Concourse B in the Detroit airport.
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