Sunday, January 15, 2017

Starting Over

Yesterday I went out sketching with my wonderful local Urban Sketching group. I'd not sketched in months, for a host of reasons and really, no good reason. Work. New puppy. Holidays. Other creative distractions. So, in some ways, opening up my sketchbook and putting pencil to paper felt like starting all over again. I was a bit nervous. I was silently giving myself permission to make a total mess, to draw badly, and I was reminding myself that just DOING it was the goal of the day.

Because it was chilly out, two other lovely sketchers and I opted to go into a cafe to sketch there. So, I dove in with some quick pencil sketches.

And immediately I realized something. I chose to start with a person! How weird is that? I've been intimidated about drawing people forEVER.  And it struck me that an online class I took last February from the amazing Roz Stendahl (Drawing Live Subjects in Public) had actually moved me forward a good bit. I wasn't that bothered by the fact that people were moving around while I was trying to sketch them -- which was something that seriously freaked me out when I started trying to draw actual living things.

 So as I did a few more fast pencil sketches of the people in the cafe, I just let myself enjoy it. No, I didn't tackle any faces, but heck, when starting over, one starts gently.

Eventually, food arrived, and I decided to move to another subject that is always fun and relaxing for me. I drew my breakfast -- quickly, because I wanted to eat it while it was hot. And as I scribbled wiggly lines for scrambled eggs, I was thinking about how often I've done painstaking, detailed drawings and agonized over color and shading, and then I end up liking the things I dashed off quickly better.

So, the result wasn't a brilliant food painting. but I can recognize the croissant and scrambled eggs and even the strip of bacon, and if all this does is remind me of a lovely breakfast with some fellow drawing enthusiasts on a frosty January morning, then the sketch has done its job. 

I had this same sort of experience again last week when I went back to singing with my local chorus after a 9-month hiatus. I was a bit apprehensive. I wasn't sure how it would feel. But immediately I was met with warm greetings and big hugs from chorus friends I've missed. Diving into the music (Gershwin! Kern! Berlin!) made me happy. And adding my voice to the group's felt familiar and comfortable. I found myself thinking about the very first time I'd gone, and how timid and uncertain I'd felt during that whole first season. I don't think anyone around me even heard my voice, I was singing so quietly and carefully. This week, I realized that I was singing confidently. I felt comfortable with my own voice.  What a realization!

Thinking about these experiences has gotten me reflecting on the experience of starting over. I'm starting anew in various areas of my life right now. Some days it's quite disconcerting. But I'm realizing that each time I start again, I start in a new place -- and one that's further ahead than where I was when I started last time.

So my backyard garden? It's kind of a disaster right now. It needs some serious energy to clear out the old dead stuff, tidy up, and plant some new things.  But there are plants that are thriving, if wildly overgrown. There is an established framework. So, starting to get that back in order won't be like starting to plant when it was a bare expanse of dirt. I'm starting again, but not starting with nothing.  Same with the exercise and nutrition issues. I lost some weight last year following a rather strict eating regime. And then I slid back into some habits, gained some weight back. But starting over means I'm still ahead of where I was last time -- both in pounds and in knowledge. I know what has worked and what didn't.  

January always feels like a natural start for new things, new perspectives, new goals. Sometimes I think, "oh, tried starting this thing last year" or "I set that goal last year and look at how far I haven't come."  But today I'm thinking that part of starting is understanding where we are, and how often where we are right now reflects growth from where we were before. 

Any thoughts, friends? Are you starting again at something right now?


Sunday, January 08, 2017

My Best Books of 2016

I should start with a disclaimer. I spent a lot of 2016 reading pure escapist, fluff fiction. I didn't want to think deep thoughts. I didn't want to read about other people's tragedies. I wanted happy endings and light adventures and cozy mysteries.  So my list might look a little different from the year end lists you may see elsewhere.  At any rate, here are a few of my favorites:

I've loved very one of the Dublin Murder Squad novels by Tana French, and The Trespasser was among my favorites for the year. Each of the books in the series is different -- and you don't need to read them in any order. This newest mystery had the same characteristics of the others, though: a rich plot with unexpected twists and turns, an engaging narrator, and rich characterizations. If you're in the mood for an engrossing mystery, this (and any of the others) won't fail you.

Jodi Picoult is another reliably good writer. Her books start with a subject matter that is currently topical, and they explore the theme from the perspectives of everyone involved. Lone Wolf  addresses issues around life and family: what does being on life support mean? What is brain dead? And how does a family member go about deciding to withdraw life support? These hard issues arise in the context of a family where the father is a renowned wolf expert who has left his family to live among wolves, so questions of what is family, what is each member's role, how do family members take care of each other are all in play, too. It's a rich story with unusual themes. Picoult handles them well, as always.

I love it when I pick up a book found in some random place and it turns out to be wonderful. This was my experience with Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor. The book is the first in a series about St. Mary's, a site for historical research in England which just happens to involve a bit of time travel so historians can go back in time to observe key events. This first book follows a new recruit, Max, as she learns that ins and outs of St. Mary's, pops between 11th Century London, the first world war, dinosaur viewing in the Cretaceous Period, and the Alexandrian library. Finding this was such a delightful surprise. The writing is strong, the characters entertaining, the whole novel is smart and funny and full of unexpected wry humor. I've already read the second in the series, Symphony of Echoes, and I loved that too.

The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton was another excellent book that surprised me. I'd read a previous novel by Lupton (Sister, which was very good) so I gave this a try. And what an intriguing, unusual story.  The novel follows Yasmine and her deaf daughter Ruby as they travel through Alaska to find out what happened to their husband/father. It's a very original psychological thriller that uses darkness and silence and snow and uncertainty so effectively. I especially loved the sections of the novel narrated by Ruby, reflecting on her own silence, using sign language, and what family means to her. I happened to read this during a very hot stretch in the summer, and reading about blinding, deadly arctic chill truly transported me.

Well, there you have it. No life changing, deep novels, but some truly enjoyable books anyway. If you have any wonderful novels to share, please post them in my comments -- I'm always eager to find new books. And if you'd like to see what else I read (good, bad and mediocre) and follow what I'm reading, you can check out my Goodreads book list.

Happy reading! It's a wild, rainstorm day here in Northern California -- perfect weather for curling up with a good book. So that's what I'm going to do right now.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Happy New Year!

Happy 2017, friends! I hope this January 1 finds you healthy and happy and ready for the adventure of a new year. I know that I'm glad to see 2016 end for a variety of reasons, and I'm moving into 2017 with enthusiasm and some new clarity and a bunch of goals for the coming year.

But first, some reflections on the last year:

Highlights from 2016

1.     We added a new member to our family:  Starlie, a sweet English Cream Golden Retriever.  She's added several highlights to this list: going with Miss C to choose her from 2 litters of 19 puppies; going again a few weeks later to bring tiny 8 week old Starlie home; and, of course, all of the amusement and joy and entertainment that Starlie has brought to our lives since.

2.     Miss C and I took a wonderful road trip this past summer, up through Oregon into Washington, to ultimately spend 10 days on Whidbey Island. Miss C isn't the most eager of travelers but she was game for our trip and we had a very good time. We spent time with some good friends, we spent a fair amount of down-time just enjoying our little rental cottage and the water and the beach, and we ate a lot of great seafood. (Whidbey Island is the home of Penn Cove mussels.)

3.     A big highlight of that trip (among many) was the fact that our very dear and longtime friend Abby happened to be in Seattle visiting from her Maine home.  She hopped the ferry and we had a very nice visit with her.  Abby and Miss C were babies in the same orphanage in China, and are the closest thing to sisters they will each have. We have so many memories of a lot of fun times when we lived in New Hampshire and saw Abby and her family often. It was amazing and wonderful to see both young women together, now that they are into their 20s, and to see what smart, beautiful women they have become.

4.     Last March I took an impromptu trip to Southern California where I met up with a friend from college and we spent several jam-packed days in Disneyland.  I now know that the best way to handle the long lines at Disneyland is to go to the park with someone you can talk endlessly with -- because we had so much to catch up on and talked constantly, the time in line flew by. As fun as Disneyland was, it was nothing compared to the pleasure of spending time with a dear friend. Plus, I sketched while I was there. Disneyland is definitely a great sketching place.

5.     My sister and I found ourselves newly immersed in a new papercrafting adventure, and we started hanging out together (in person or via Facetime) to make cards and stamp and die cut and just have fun playing with paper. It has been so fun to have a new enthusiasm emerge -- and to make something with almost instant gratification. And sharing it with my sister has been a blast.

6.     In June, I took a crafty workshop taught by Jane LaFazio. The class was fun, and the classmates were lovely women, including several good friends. I knew I'd have fun. But what I didn't expect was the instant and close connection I felt with a friend I'd only known online.  She came to Northern California from Canada, traveling with a longtime close friend of hers. And within minutes I swear I felt like I'd known them forever.  We had so much fun in the workshop, and then afterwards they came and stayed with me for a few days. We did some local touring (wine tasting of course) and had a gorgeous, truly fantastic day together in San Francisco. It was a wonderful reminder that we never know what friendships and life-changing relationships are just around the corner. I'm planning to travel to Canada to visit them this year, so stay tuned for that adventure!

7.     The summer also brought another visit with far-flung but very dear friends Helen and Dennis from the UK. We had a lovely visit and as always it went too fast. I think it's my turn to go to England next. (Here they are while I was trying to explain Pokemon Go to them.) 

8. Thanks to Starlie, I'm walking a lot, and both of us are enjoying it enormously. We head out into the neighborhood once or twice every day, and as a result I've met neighbors (and neighbor dogs) I'd not known before. It's good exercise, it's more social than I expected, and it's also a great time for reflecting. At first I took my phone and/or camera, but I've come to realize that I enjoy myself more and can focus on Starlie's training better if I just stay present on the walk. Puppy lesson #327: be in the moment!

9.     2016 was not a big sewing year.  But one very satisfying thing for me was completing a selvedge quilt I'd been working on for years -- literally years. I'd collected selvedges from my own fabric for ages, and friends started giving me theirs, too. Over a few years, I'd intermittently sew selvedge strips to a foundation to just make selvedge fabric -- which was oddly satisfying in itself.  But getting this quilt finished felt so great! It hangs in the upstairs hall and makes me happy every time I see it.

10.     It has been a terribly (with emphasis on the terrible) challenging year for my family as we have watched my brother cope with an aggressive colon cancer. Lots of hospital visits, lots of phone calls, lots of prayers -- but so much love and faith and hope, too. I can report that at the end of 2016, it is truly a highlight that he is doing well, looking more like himself than he has in a long time, and he's weathering the chemo process fairly well, all things considered. He's not done, but he's doing well, and that's excellent.

11.     Clarity. I won't go into specifics, and it's really not necessary. A friend once told me that clarity would come, that it just would, on its own. And she was right. I have had some challenges this year that have had more to do with my own attitudes and difficulty letting go of some illusions I've held -- clung to, really -- for too long. I've been reminded that it's hard to move forward when you're holding on to the past. Thanks to long talks with good friends, a lot of reading and contemplating and journalling, and a bit of just facing up to hard truths, I feel like I arrived at the end of 2016 with a new sense that the past is truly past.  I have finally, finally, FINALLY put some heavy baggage down and I'm leaving it in 2016.

So, onto 2017 with a light heart and clear vision!

How about you? What was the highlight or highlights of your year? If you've blogged about it, link in a comment. Or let me know in a comment. I'd love to know.