My appetite for fiction waxes and wanes throughout the year. I typically keep a steady diet of 50% fiction/50% nonfiction, but lately, I have found it difficult to concentrate on novels and short stories. I am very slowly working my way through Tolstoy’s first novels — Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth — composed as episodic, unconnected vignettes, and even though I adore him, I am not terribly interested. Nonfiction, however, has been holding my attention with great force.
As I make my top 10 lists of the best things I read in 2018, this preference for nonfiction bears out; I read a ton of excellent nonfiction this year, apparently, and just a handful of excellent fiction. Lists to come soon.
. . .
“The most effective stories are those that resemble ramparts from which one can gaze out at everything that has been excluded.”
— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia
. . .
With cold nights and cold mornings, I have a passion for lighting candles during this season. I now have candles strewn about in every conceivable living space in our home: kitchen counter, coffee table, bedroom, dining table, etc. It is a small thing, but it makes winter bearable.
Closing side note: If you, like me, are nurturing a passion for candles, I have a recent discovery to share with you: This excellent and very affordable beekeeper in Michigan who makes beautiful 100% pure beeswax candles. I just got my first order of taper candles from him, and I am extremely pleased.
Merry Christmas, all! Hope your season is merry and bright.
It’s been a very slow year for me with my calligraphy business, somewhat intentionally, and I’ve been really happy about it. It is a nice thing: To come home after working for eight hours and not have another two hours or more of work every night.
“The book was in her lap; she had read no further. The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?” — James Salter, Light Years
Sweet, sad Pyrrha, my older dog, has been in a lot of pain lately, and it’s incredible to me how much this has affected my well-being. I feel this pit of dread in my stomach when I think of her, whenever I hear her whine, whenever I let her out in the morning or look over and see her ears pinned back to her head. (It’s probably her hips, which is almost an inevitable ailment with German shepherds, but I’ll take her to the vet next week for a more in-depth assessment.) Just today, I was trying to tell Guion I was worried about her while pumping gas, on our way to work, and these fat tears were rolling down my face. Ugh. She’ll be OK. It’s me that might not be. Emotions! Hate them.
Recent realization: I have a very consistent personality. Since I was a small child, I have been this way. Here’s the progression, as best I can chart it.
1. WORDS, READING THEM
It starts with words. When I was two, I would sit on my grandfather’s lap while he read the newspaper and identify letters that I knew. Letters were intrinsically interesting to me, as a baby, and I’m not sure why. I was read to continually by my family. I began memorizing full books when I was very little, but soon, by the age of three, I had taught myself how to read. (Mom says I pulled a random, unfamiliar book off the shelf while we were in the library and sat down and read it to her.) And so, naturally, I have surrounded myself with books ever since. Mom realized, when I was young, that time-out was an ineffective punishment for me. When she came in to let me out of my room, she was greeted by my solemn face as I pored over a book. “Oh, I’m not done yet, thank you,” I said dismissively. Words have always held a deep, deep pull for me. For whatever inexplicable reason.
2. WORDS, WRITING THEM
Once I learned how to read, I then devoted myself to learning how to write. From the age of 7 until the present, I have kept a journal, mostly in handwritten form. As a child, I acquired scads of pen pals all over the country and the globe (some of whom I am still in touch with). I have always been fanatic about high-quality writing instruments and would hoard my good pens from the rest of the family. I took up calligraphy in middle school, and I am presently a calligrapher on the side. Loving words as much as I do, it has made sense to me that I should also love the process of physically writing them.
3. WORDS, EDITING THEM
I was a persnickety child who loved rules. Applying this legalistic devotion to my love of reading, I cared tremendously for words and it hurt me when others did not equally care for them. (It still does. The large majority of writers on the internet, especially in the comments section, are constantly hurting my feelings, in a grammatical sense.) As a young girl, I was naturally good at spelling and at picking up the dictates of grammar (primarily through the natural osmosis of excessive reading).
I eventually went to college and got a dual degree in English (dreamy and fun) and journalism (practical and cut-throat). I thought I was going to be a reporter, because I loved print media and writing, but reporting made me extremely anxious, and I swiftly realized that I was not cut out for the competitive, high-energy demands of the job.
Around that time, I had an aggressive but insightful journalism professor who encouraged me to try copy editing. He goaded me to apply for a nationwide copy editing internship program, and I did. I got accepted and got to spend a glorious summer at the Denver Post copy editing and hiking. I had found my calling.
Copy editing, as I’ve written about before, brings me a lot of joy, and I’m really happy to be in this odd little profession. It’s a career for rule-loving introverts and jubilant nerds, and I’m delighted to be one of their number.
4. SPACES, EDITING THEM
The leap that this personality bent takes is this: I seem to have a parallel approach to both words and spaces. I like to edit sentences. I also like to edit rooms. Or my wardrobe. Or other people’s junk drawers. Reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was a revelation. I spent about eight hours over the Christmas holiday cleaning out and organizing my parents’ closet, and it was fun for me. I loved it. The fastest route to my domestic happiness is a clean kitchen. I cannot abide visual clutter (even though I can get very lax about some things, like sweeping or dusting or vacuuming curtains, ever, in their lifetimes).
The epiphany was that my deep need for a tidy home maps perfectly onto my deep need for a tidy sentence. There’s a reason why I am this weird, obdurate person! It’s all very consistent. I understand that the reason I insist on Inbox Zero … is the reason that I can’t read a restaurant menu without itching for a red pen… is the reason that I compulsively make lists for everything I want to accomplish… is the reason that I read voraciously still… is the reason that I have to fold my shirts in a particular way… is the reason that an un-alphabetized bookshelf is anathema to me…
So. This is a poorly articulated question, but here it is: Do you find, like me, that your interests and hobbies converge into this seamless presentation of your (rather uniform) personality? In other words, the reason that you love X is because it’s really a very similar thing to your other great love, Y.
I’m sincerely curious to hear from you. I don’t think I’m alone in this…
It’s goal-setting time! I approach these resolutions loosely, as you can see from last year’s goals, with commentary in italics:
Read 100 books.Read 167.
Read through the Bible in a year. Nope.
Make exercise a regular part of my life. (Even if I can only walk for 30 minutes a day, do SOMETHING.) I don’t know about “regular,” but I spent more time walking and I felt better, having converted to a standing desk at work… does that count?
Get strong. Do some kind of strength training? Hahahahaha.
Buy a bike and use it to run errands around town or to get to work. No. I still should get a bike, though.
Eat meat only once a week. (Excluding fish.)We didn’t do this faithfully every week, but I think we got pretty close.
Keep a tidy, peaceful home.More or less, I think I accomplished this.
Read at least three-fourths of each New Yorker issue I receive. Often.
Be a better businesswoman, regarding my calligraphy studio.There are still many things to do to improve my business, but I felt like 2014 was a good year for Bluestocking Calligraphy.
Continue weeding colors out of and cultivating a minimalistic wardrobe.I’ve made a lot of progress on this front, and I’m happy about how my wardrobe looks now. I don’t feel like I truly need anything. Except for those Everlane loafers…
This year, here are some simple things on my mind.
Read 120 books.
Continue the pursuit of minimalism and eschewing clutter in my approach to our home and my wardrobe, specifically. I stumbled on the website Into Mind a few weeks ago, and I feel so radicalized by it.
Invest in higher-quality and ethically made clothes and shoes. Stop buying cheap crap. Jump off the fast-fashion train.
Take either a Japanese or a French class, for credit. Maybe both, if I’m feeling extra-ambitious.
Eat healthier lunches. I am wary of leftovers and I’m fundamentally lazy, so this means I’m usually eating Trader Joe’s frozen pasta lunches every other day. Which is pretty terrible. What do you health mavens eat for lunch?
Figure out how to read the Bible for pleasure. In a related gesture, think more about the meaning of freedom in Christ.
Practice morning prayer/meditation/timid yoga sessions at home on weekdays. I have the time to do this; I just don’t. Because, as I mentioned before, I am profoundly lazy. I’d like to spend more time in the Book of Common Prayer at home. And to pray with more sincerity/regularity.
Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but I have to note here briefly that I have some calligraphy prints for sale, just in time for the holidays.
Prints start at $25.
Prints can also be framed for you in advance, which I find to be a huge benefit in gift giving. I’m always hard-pressed to find suitable frames when giving art, and Society6 make this very simple.
PLUS, as a big bonus, between now and 25 December 2014, a portion of proceeds will benefit New City Arts Initiative, a nonprofit that aims to support Charlottesville artists and create engagement between artists and our community. It’s an organization that’s near and dear to my heart, so I’m thrilled to be able to offer this collaboration.
I have been wanting to sell prints for a while, and I have a very encouraging and accommodating husband, who has been urging me to explore this new venture. Regardless of the outcome, it’s been a fun foray into another arena for my work.
Looking out every morning at my Japanese maple seedling, a gift from Kyle.
Wearing pants, because the weather has been mild enough that they are comfortable again.
Our weeknight regimen of “salon,” in which we cannot watch TV but must instead walk the dogs, sit and read, play guitar, and/or discuss ideas. (TV is permissible on the weekends now. On the current docket: “The Wire” (just finished season 3), “The Leftovers,” and “Peep Show.”)
Monday nights with Maddy and Tara.
Plotting what I’m going to plant in the front yard this fall. Front yard goal: Entirely landscaped; no grass to speak of.
Eden’s new habit of leaning up against my chair while I read. She’s not begging for anything, just sitting with adorable closeness and cuddliness; it’s so unusual for her, and I love it.
Also: I’m really looking forward to seeing the family women this weekend. Grace is finally back in America!
Even though my books are still in boxes and there is no art on the walls, I am finally beginning to feel like the new house is ours. Maybe it’s the familiar tumbleweeds of German shepherd fur that adorn every room, but it’s starting to feel like home.
The bane of my existence right now is the backyard, which turns into a veritable swamp when it rains — a swamp of red clay pools that the new puppy* utterly delights in. (*Right: We got a second dog! Adopted our foster puppy and named her Eden. She is a joyful little terror. So bright and happy; opposite personality of my shy, sensitive Pyrrha.)
If you have any great solutions to a marshy yard — aside from pouring concrete over the entire thing, which I am often tempted to do — please let me know. I had such high aspirations for having a beautiful house. Now I just have a den of dog hair and clay-stained floors and walls. It is good, though; I am learning to surrender my material possessions to the Hands of the Lord, who points to the dogs and says, “This is why you can’t have nice things.” (It’s training ground for future offspring, right? I’d like to have a competition between a toddler and our two dogs to see who could destroy a room the fastest.)
On the brighter side, I enjoy practicing calligraphy 50% more now that I have A Room of My Own. I like to escape there from time to time. Pyrrha is the only one who is allowed to join me. She’s been more jealous of me since adding Eden to the household, and she likes to be reminded of her top position in my esteem.
I am also reading fiction again and deriving great pleasure from it. I just finished Adam Johnson’s fantastic novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which most recently won the Pulitzer. I rarely read books that are both action-packed AND superbly well-written. (And darkly funny!) It’s great. I recommend it.
I also continue to marvel that I was lucky enough to get to marry Guion. He is a real winner. Par example: In the past year of our marriage, he has morphed into a gourmet chef. I don’t even want to go out to restaurants anymore, because the food they serve me pales into comparison to what Guion can make. And these are primarily meat-free dishes, too; we’ve continued our aspirations to mostly meat-free eating, and I’ve felt better for it. We sit at our refurbished farm table (thanks, family!), light some candles, and keep the dogs at bay.
The photograph above shows Guion tending to his deeply beloved hops. As you can see, he’s constructed a makeshift hop maypole running up the dead evergreen tree. Every time he climbs up there, I expect one of those branches to break, but he assures me that it’s very sturdy. He’s very adept and quick up there and the hops have been thriving, thanks to his ramshackle fence.
The fence keeps the deer out, but it hasn’t been successful in prohibiting a more malevolent animal: The domestic cat. We have noticed a tabby cat prowling around the tree and the hop plants and we didn’t think too much of it. But the other day, Guion comes in, huffy and disgruntled. “Cats are evil,” he says. The cat, apparently, dug up one of his precious hop seedlings, pooped in this hole, and then covered it back up, leaving Guion a special little present when he went to check on that lingering seedling. This made me LOL all over the place, but yes, it’s also proof positive that cats are evil. And that they potentially share my father’s sense of humor.
Exhibit B: Escaping calligraphy
I was positively exhausted this weekend by demanding calligraphy jobs. I shouldn’t complain–I am so grateful for the extra cash–but spending one’s entire weekend hunched over a desk, slave to the pen, is not necessarily my idea of a good time.
I was desperate to get out of the house, so we took a brief hike through Pen Park for my Saturday reprieve. A hot day, but the trails are so shaded. We met an equally shy German shepherd puppy, saw three deer crashing through the woods, and lost Pyrrha for a few minutes (turns out her recall is not as good as I thought it was). And then we came home, tired dog in tow, and ate and… did some more calligraphy.
Even though I get easily stressed by these little things, at the core, I feel very peaceful. We have a good life.