71,000 stitches, give or take

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When I began hand-stitching this quilt last January, I discovered that sewing spirals took a lot longer than sewing straight lines. As I went along, I realized it would be months, not weeks, of work. Then I learned about temptation bundling, the pairing of enjoyable activities with tedious ones, and began listening to plot-heavy audio books that enticed me back to needle and thread.

Ten months later, I’ve listened to 30 books (novels by Elizabeth Bear, Ursula LeGuin, Gregg Hurwitz, Patrick O’Brian, Ellis Peters, and Alan Furst).

These authors attracted me for two reasons. The first: the narrators of the audiobooks had voices that I wanted to listen to. Secondly the authors wrote series, books with repeating characters or themes or locations — the Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters, the Night Soldiers by Alan Furst, and, of course Patrick O’Brian’s masterful Master and Commander collection).

Nine days ago I finished the quilt stitching. Two days ago I finished the binding.

I counted the stitches in an 8″ x 14″ section of the quilt to extrapolate the total stitches and that came out to 71,364. It took me roughly an hour to do about 350 stitches. That’s 198 hours of sewing.

It was interesting to notice that even though I only used one color of thread — a light teal — it looked white on the dark portions of the quilt and almost black on the light portions.

I think I may now be completely done with the whole quilting thing.

Totally sated.

A two-fer

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Every now and then, fate dishes up a surprise. The journalist scheduled to write about Oregon pioneer Louis Southworth and Oregon bronze sculptor Peter Helzer, had an unexpected family emergency and I was asked to step in and write the piece. It was a pleasure to meet Helzer, whose work graces many public spaces in Oregon. And it was an honor to be able to share Southworth’s story, all wrapped into one article.

The oldest art form?

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My grandmother, Maydell Cazier Palmer, had a way with a needle. I was reminded of this on my recent visit with my mother, Irene Palmer, who gave me Maydell’s pincushion, an item I recall from childhood visits to Grandma’s house, but hadn’t seen in decades.

Maydell’s needlework is inspiring, the tidy satin stitching in the middle, the intricate crocheting on the surround, and the blue ribbon holding it all together.

My needlework is informed by hers, and I’m also inspired by contemporary artists Mary Corbet and Trish Burr.

This is a sampler designed by Corbet that I enjoyed working on. Its graceful form obscures its sampler nature, which is how sewists learn new stitches.

Our generational connection is a tiny trickle in a flow of history. Textile art is one of humanity’s oldest art forms. I love dabbling in it, knowing how far back it goes.

Always learning, even when I think I know

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Cameron Lake, Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada

The air is still, so windless that the water itself hardly moves, reflecting sky and Rocky Mountains. Not so many people know about Cameron Lake, one of many tucked among the stunning peaks of Waterton Lakes National Park in western Alberta. The much better known Glacier National Park just south of the Canadian border gets a lot more press. To say nothing of the press of visitors.

My family visits Waterton often, and my first visit there predates my active memory. But there are pictures of little-kid me alongside Linnet Lake, pre-adolescent me at an uncle’s cabin in the tiny town of Waterton nestled among the lakes and peaks, teenage me on the trail to Bertha Lake. And there are dozens of adult me kayaking on Cameron.

Cameron Lake is famous for its winds. Smart boaters get an early start because the wind checks in late morning and gets rip roaring by late afternoon. Of course it’s almost always blowing away from the boat dock. And this lake only permits human-powered rigs. Muscle up and paddle hard. A float on Cameron is a workout.

But not on an early October visit in 2022. This year, the weather gods offered a boon, a perfect sun-drenched autumn morning and no wind. Also. a deep deep quiet. No sighing of the trees, no chatter from other boaters. And, for a short time, no jets overhead. Then a brief chitter of magpies. Then the world in stillness.

I like to say I know this place well. The lake, this day, said otherwise.

A master craftswoman

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British author Edith Pargeter, who also wrote under the psuedonym Ellis Peters, does a masterly bit of work in the second novel of her fine Cadfael Chronicles. That book, One Corpse Too Many, is set in 1138 England and includes a scene pivotal to the plot of the story, but also meaningful for its glimpse into human tragedy. Following the hanging of more than 90 men who were in rebellion against King Stephen, the families of the fallen come to claim their bodies for burial. It’s quiet and sad:

Some dozen or so had been claimed by parents and wives. Soon there would be piteous little hand-carts pushed up the slope to the gate, and brothers and neighbors lifting limp bodies to carry them away. More of the townspeople were still coming timidly in through the archway, women with shawls drawn close over their heads and faces half-hidden, gaunt old men trudging resignedly to look for their sons.

Among the men hung by the orders of the king, is one murdered and then thrown in among the other dead and it falls to the series’ hero Brother Cadfael to both discern that one corpse is not like the others and then to discover the killer.

I found myself moved by the small detail of a horror of war — the trauma of reclaiming the dead — and impressed that this scene was also pivotal to the development of the plot.

I’ve been enjoying Pargeter’s Cadfael Chronicles, impressed with her diligence in creating a believable historical setting but also with her skill in building a compelling narrative. It’s one thing when a scene evokes deep emotion. It’s a mark of expertise when it serves the plot so well.

Real world projects as metaphor

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I’ve had these director’s chairs for 32 years and the original white canvas finally failed on one of them. Since I’d taken them apart a few times over the years to clean the canvas, I knew replacing the old canvas wouldn’t be too difficult.

In the realm of projects, this was a short one and satisfying not the least because it’s simple and in the summer these chairs get daily use on the patio. A medium-term effort, bug screens for the van windows, took a few months. My long-term sewing project (a hand-stitched quilt begun in January) is two-thirds complete.

The varying length of these projects matters. Conceiving of, working on and finishing a creative task in a few days while other projects perk along at their own plodding pace, offers the reward inherent in finishing. Things that take longer — these middling length things that spin out of control because they involve unexpected problem-solving — provide the satisfaction of the ah-hah! moment when a solution presents itself and the making can continue.

They are like way-points, reminders that the long-term project, the 70,000 word book, just needs its own daily infusion of effort — solutions to thorny plot problems, taming of characters threatening to kick the book to pieces (a line I borrowed from E.M Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel”), releasing of the shy folk of the story who will unexpectedly step up to fix that plot issue. But it can only happen in the daily tedium of words going down on the page. Thinking of it in smaller chunks — this scene, that chapter, etc. — is useful.

And that is today’s little pre-writing pep rally.

In love with August

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When you get a dozen or so ripe tomatoes from the garden every day, dehydrating them into crispy sweetness is just too easy (after all the tomato sandwiches and fresh salsas, etc., have been indulged in). A note about food safety: We freeze the dried tomatoes to avoid concerns about not getting every last bit of moisture out of them. They hold up well in the freezer for well over a year. Many state university extension offices also have great recommendations for preserving fresh tomatoes.

Small bites

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In July I wrote about creating a better query letter. And then I promptly forgot all about it. That’s my go-to response to difficult tasks: I’ll do it later. Then months go by. So, today, I’m changing it up. Not going to do it later. Going to write 300 words of query letter today.

There’s another piece of the puzzle I’ve been avoiding: Writing the synopsis. This task I’ve started and stopped because it seems, on the best days, impossible, and on the worst days, futile.

I’ll keep showing up to both tasks — a little chunk at a time — until they’re done. This strategy may also help me improve them by virtue of the benefits that accrue from taking breaks, noted in this Scientific American article.

Or as my dad used to say: Little by little you can go a long way.

The mystery of a good book

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I’ve read or listened to more than a dozen books this year, but I only fell into one. You might know this feeling. You start reading a book and somewhere in the first 20 pages or so you become immersed in the story. When you open the book the world around you drifts into fog. When you are away from the book, it is sitting in a corner of your mind, waiting for you.

This is not the demand of a compelling plot that lures the reader on through the simple device of making you want to know what happens next. This is something else. The place of the book comes up around you. You see it, you hear it and smell it and it becomes a place you feel you know. As the characters in the book reveal themselves, you are drawn to them. You begin to feel what they feel. They rejoice or recoil, or are filled with wonder or alarm and you with them.

In the best books, you find yourself thinking in the special language of the book.

And when the book ends well, not happily but truly, having fulfilled the promise of its early pages, you are a little bereft because you will never have this experience again. You can never read this book in this way again, revisit it though you may.

Betsy James’ Roadsouls was this way for me. I don’t know how this happens, exactly, this resonance between book and reader. And we are all so individual in our tastes, in what resonates, that it can’t really be predicted. In a perfect world a book find its way to its perfect readers.

A writer wants to achieve this. To create a world a reader slips into like still water. And yet while writing, you don’t think about this. You are thinking about the plot. You are moving characters around in a room or on a mountain. You are describing place and setting mood. You are thinking about the words, the way they sound together. You are making choices every day in the writing that limit the choices that will come later. It doesn’t feel like a magical process. Some days it feels, in its middle parts, tedious. But worth remembering, at the end of a tedious writing day: the goal. Using words to create the illusion of a world and a story that will draw in the perfect reader, the one your book is written to, is a fine goal. And difficult. And worthy.

Inspiration in an unlikely place

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Sometimes you queue up a rom-com because it’s been a long week and you pick “Lost City” because Sandra Bullock is fun to watch.

And you get an unexpected gift.

Her character borrows a slogan from the crest of the Ferguson clan: Dulcius ex asperis, Latin for “sweeter after difficulties.”

In the middle of challenges, it’s a reminder that making an effort has rewards.