Voluptuous summer

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Tomatoes growing like crazy. Grapevines out of control with their hidden clusters of fruit. I get up in the morning and step outside to take it in before the sun gets too serious about things. Here in the southern Willamette Valley, we are about to turn the corner into the hot sharp days of August, when the tomatoes will get fat and red, and the afternoons will send us to the river for relief.

I call this blog “Exquisite Now” because I am prone to procrastination. (I used to just crastinate, but then I turned pro!) The blog title reminds me to do things rather than just to think about doing things. We planted the tomatoes in April. Craig cut back the grape vines in February and weeded in May. That was then. And this is the exquisite voluptuous now of summer.


What is it the the Zen Buddhists say? “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

Horse latitudes of writing

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I am becalmed. I know this spot from previous long writing projects. Nothing like the exciting beginning when the ideas cascade and occupy most of the mental bandwidth. Nothing like the surprise at the end when you type a sentence and as you look at it, it dawns on you that you have arrived at the denouement.

No. The mid-latitudes of a book force the writer to deal with the early creative decisions — in character development, plot, setting, voice — that now midway through reveal the many ways in which they constrain the story. It’s like building a box around yourself and hoping you have an exit strategy.

The horse latitudes describe a grim reality of sailors in the region 30 degrees north and south of the equator where the winds die to nothing and can stay that way for weeks on end. I have always hoped it was apocryphal, the story that New World explorers becalmed in this zone threw their horses overboard to conserve drinking water for the humans. It’s here where some of my best big creative ideas may need to be jettisoned to make the story better.

Me and my writer friends, we commiserate about this stage. We acknowledge the tedium. We affirm our dream to finish the project. We assign ourselves word counts. We don’t have to like every word. We just have to get the next sentence on the page.

I am at 33,000 words of a book that may go to 80,000, best guess. At first my excitement buoyed and carried me. Now it’s time to bring some discipline to my game, knowing from previous projects that creative winds will return.

Off my usual route

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If you visit the Wikipedia page describing the Palouse, you get a much better picture of this voluptuous landscape than my little image, snapped from behind a windshield at 60 mph. It’s an experience to visit this area of western Idaho/eastern Washington in spring and I don’t think pictures can do it justice. To see these unique undulating hills, covered with wheat and the bright blooming canola fields had a profoundly gentling impact on my usually busy brain. We traveled through on our way home from southern Alberta, which also features rolling hills and lovely farms. But not like this.

We normally take a more spectacular route to get home to our little corner of the southern Willamette Valley in Oregon. We cross the jagged Rockies in southern British Columbia then run down through Bonner’s Ferry and Sandpoint Idaho. This time we dropped southeast of the Rockies, skirting Glacier National Park in Montana and then coming down the east side of Flathead Lake (who knew the ameliorating effect of the lake means a huge cherry-growing region in Montana?). We drove down to visit friends in Moscow Idaho, which is not on any of the major east-west or north-south interstate highways. It’s in the heart of the Palouse.

I have lost count of my road trips to southern Alberta to visit family in Lethbridge and wander the trails in Canada’s best but perhaps least known national park, Waterton Lakes. I’m so glad we detoured off the quickest-there-and-back highways to see more of the region. I’m a western woman. Born in Saskatchewan. Lived 50 years in Utah, Washington, Alaska, Oregon. Not dissing the rest of North America or any of the other glorious continents. But I love this vast region. And I love getting more intimate glimpses of it.

I’m reminded of William Least Heat Moon’s moving book “Blue Highways”. So amazing to get off the screaming multilane interstates, slow down (though in Montana they don’t shy away from 70 on two lanes). With family ties in Canada and the United States, I’ve found myself thinking of the region not so much as two separate countries but as one salmon nation, a term coined by people who know much more about biodiversity than I ever will.

Nowness

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Last month Craig and I camped and hiked at Humbug Mountain State Park, which, though close to the highway, has a secluded feeling. A fine trail winds through big trees to the top of the mountain and while its elevation gain is 1,700 feet over three miles, the switchbacks make it seem less arduous than I’d expected. We hiked at the right time for flowers: wild iris, rose, rhododendrons, bleeding hearts, and many others I have no names for.

Being in the moment on that hike proved easy. The periodic views of the Pacific Ocean through the fir trees, the spring flowers, the sound of birds. So much visual and audio stimulation to keep the mind in the present.

Day to day, I find myself stuck in thoughts of what has happened and what may be about to happen. I’m not dissing the past and the future, but I have this feeling that savoring now shouldn’t be reserved for special times.

I wonder if my daily activities can include the kind of nowness of the hike. Maybe there’s value to paying attention to the folding of the laundry, the doing of the dishes, the weeding of the garden.

Change is hard, strategies are required

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I like the strategies in “How to Change” by Katy Milkman, particularly because the University of Pennsylvania professor shares the research behind them. My previous blog noted one of those strategies, pairing something enjoyable with the less enjoyable habit currently under construction — Milkman calls this “temptation bundling”.

I used other techniques when I set a goal to take a monthlong break from drinking alcohol, like picking a start date connected to the beginning of the week and the beginning of a camping trip. Milkman calls this the “fresh start” effect. I also had a plan for meeting the moment in the day when I typically have a glass of wine in my hand.

But I decided not to use one of the book’s strategies, a punishment for failing to complete a goal. With this strategy people commit to a financial penalty for failing to follow through. I considered, then discarded the idea. I need encouragement, not fear of a negative outcome, to help me with goals.

This book doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that making changes is challenging. In much of the research that psychologists considered successful just 20 or 25 percent of subjects sustained change. That is humbling.

I don’t recall now if Milkman said much about this but for me taking a moment to let myself be gratified by the small steps I’ve taken — written my 1,000-word daily quota, spent my half hour weeding the garden, practiced my guitar, etc. — often fuels me for the next day and the next small steps.

Between the author and the reader

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I haven’t been a fan of audio books, but listening to compelling stories reduces the tedious aspects of hand stitching a large quilt. (Yes, endless spirals. What was I thinking?) While half a dozen audio books have helped me make good progress. I’ve been surprised to learn that the voice reading the book has a significant effect on my appreciation of the story.

I don’t care for the person reading Gregg Hurwitz’s “Orphan X” series (a guilty pleasure I confess to). If I hadn’t read the first few books in the series I doubt I could have listened to the entire “Prodigal Son” while quilting. And I recently tried (and failed) to listen to Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club. The reader’s voice interfered so much with my ability to connect with the story that I gave it up after the third chapter.

Because Fowler is such a respected author, I began to wonder whether the insertion of someone else’s voice between me and the written page was having an impact on my sense of not just the quality of the narrative but also the nature of the characters.

Casting about for something else to listen to, I stumbled on Elizabeth Bear, thanks to author John Scalzi’s inimitable and wondrous blog Whatever. This time, rather than just jumping into the audio book, I read the first few chapters, using Amazon’s “Look inside” feature. Reassured that I liked the both the writing and the story, I turned to the audio version and found the voices fit the story for me.

I appreciate my local library making audio books available through the Hoopla digital streaming service. I absolutely do buy books, but can’t buy all the books all the time.

I’m listening to Bear’s “The Stone in the Skull” now and suspect that the actual purchasing of Bear books won’t be long in coming.

Listening to books has reinforced for me the notion that reading is an oddly private and intimate act between author and reader, two people who rarely meet, but find themselves drawn together in an inner invisible dance. While audio books draw me back to my otherwise tedious needlework, I prefer no intermediary between me and the page.

May my eyesight last until someone pulls the last book from my cold fingers.

Gratifying but not easy

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My nephew Logan at the Eugene Marathon. Logan ran a personal best of 3 hours, 23 minutes, 21 seconds. His mom, Elaine, and Craig and I had the pleasure of cheering him on. A week later, during a Mother’s Day Zoom call, Logan’s Grandma Irene, plus aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. were congratulating him as well as recognizing what a physical challenge running 26.2 miles is. Logan noted that having run the race is sufficiently gratifying to overcome the physical pain during the race. And this prompted Irene (my 96-year-old genius mother) to ask the rest of us to share similar experiences in our own lives, things that are gratifying but not necessarily easy.

Some of the things that got brought up: herding cattle, being an air force pilot, writing, taking on the challenge of a new job. It was a fine family discussion as it helped us all know each other a little better. And that’s why I call her my genius mother. She’s good at drawing us out this way.

Place matters

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willcather.org

I’m embedded in “The Essential Willa Cather Collection” and revisiting my profound appreciation for her work. Cather wrote in the early part of the 20th century, and among many accolades her novel “One of Ours” received a Pulitzer Prize in 1923. I had previously read her classic “My Antonia” but I wasn’t familiar with her other books, short stories and essays.

This collection includes many short stories, essays and critiques and her first novel, “Alexander’s Bridge,” as well as “My Antonia.” Cather is known for bringing alive the Nebraska prairie and the immigrants who lived there at the turn of the century. I am in awe of her ability to shape mood through descriptions of place.

Here’s just a bit from “Alexander’s Bridge” where Cather is describing Chestnut Street in Boston: “Wilson was standing quite still, contemplating with a whimsical smile the slanting street with its worn paving, its irregular, gravely colored houses and the row of naked trees on which the thin sunlight was still shining.”

I hadn’t read any of her short stories until now and just finished “On the Divide,” published in a shortlived magazine The Mahogany Tree in 1892. It’s an odd, rich story that does that thing at the end that some authors manage. With one last sentence, the entire story is perfectly knit.

A gifted sister

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Seven Cities of Gold: Wings, Artist Betsy James

My good friend Chris James and I have known each other 40 years, and while I knew he had a gifted sister — Betsy James, both an author and an artist — I hadn’t ever seen her work until we visited the Nedra Matteucci Gallery in Santa Fe this month. Goodness me.

I just felt drawn into her work, which captures a magical nexus of sky/land/humans. Oh and birds.

Then I checked her web site and now I’m pulled into her books. Currently reading “Roadsouls.” It’s still early days, but there is something a little Ursula-Le-Guin Earthsea-ish about this book.

Her webpage has some fine observations about creativity. I particularly liked this bit about tithing.

The farm boy who discovered Pluto

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Clyde Tombaugh was a Kansas farm boy in the 1920s who couldn’t afford college so he just did what he could on the farm in his spare time: Built his own telescopes and took meticulous notes about his night-sky observations. He sent his notes to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff AZ when he heard they were hiring and his notes got him a job. The Lowell Observatory is a private institution founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell, son of wealthy Massachusetts industrialists and educators. Lowell was convinced another planet beyond Neptune influenced its orbit and Tombaugh, using the 24-inch Clark refracting telescope (pictured above) found Pluto in 1930. It turned out that Lowell was wrong about Pluto’s influence on Neptune. Eventually Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet in Kuiper belt. But the Clark telescope is still a remarkable instrument, still functional and available for viewing the night sky by the likes of you and me. Lowell invites folks up to the observatory on clear nights to get a closeup view of stars, nebula, galaxies. At our visit there this month, Craig and I saw the Orion Nebula using the 126-year-old Clark telescope. We also got introduced to the stunning Cigar Galaxy. Exciting research continues at Lowell. This is why we travel.