Thursday, November 17, 2022

The Christmas Spreadsheet

{First, a note: If you subscribe to this blog through Feedly or other feed reader, please click over to the actual blog website because I've noticed all of the photos don't come through the feed.}

I mentioned my Christmas spreadsheet in a comment on Elisabeth's blog, and Suzanne asked me to share more about it. Prepare to be blown away, folks...

As usual, other people can articulate my thoughts better than I can. Anne Helen Petersen's newsletter about sprawling holidays made me feel SEEN. Particularly this: "... commodification and consumption becomes the primary way that Christmas is expressed, is experienced. The primary affect is one of near-constant purchasing, unboxing, arranging — a vigilant doing — as opposed to periods of observation, contemplation, devotion, being." For the most part, as a family we've avoided a lot of the pressure to do more. I've seen several posts about making advent calendars for your kids (handmade of course), and the gift every day is an activity: make cookies, read Christmas-themed books, decorate, look at lights, sing songs, etc. Why anyone would bring this stress upon themselves is beyond me.

I know a lot of people like doing these things, and I don't judge them for it - go forth and have fun! But as a parent (and if you are one you KNOW) there is a lot of pressure to do things a certain way. To create a magical holiday experience. I decided several years ago that I would only do the holiday activities that I liked, and for me, that's decorating and baking. I don't really like shopping and gift-giving but I haven't figured out how to get of that one.

In an effort to lessen the constant nagging to-do list in my brain, several years ago I created a spreadsheet that outlines all of the Christmas tasks. I copy the previous year's sheet, which has the added benefit of telling me what I bought last year, because there is no way I would remember otherwise. The first section is everyone I need to buy gifts for. When the gift is purchased, it gets a "done". I also added a column for delivery method, so I can remember what I need to mail; when that's done it gets changed from red to green (isn't that festive?)

The second portion is the most valuable, because these are the things I always forget. I have several work events I need to plan for, as well as teachers and other non-family members I need to buy gifts for. During the pandemic years these thankfully were not relevant, but now we're back at it.

And that's it! It's not super fancy, but it works for me. 

Now for some pictures because this seems too much like work if I'm just posting screenshots of spreadsheets. Halloween happened, and there was pumpkin carving (mostly done by me) and seed roasting (me) and seed eating (me) and seed throwing away because they didn't get eaten and then they molded (me). Most kid activities are actually parent activities that kids watch you do. My mom asked me if she should get my kids a tie-dye kit, and I said, "Are you asking if I want a tie-dye kit, because let's be real here."

Jason and I continued our tradition of visiting a garden in the fall. This year we went to Ladew Topiary Gardens, 3 days before it closed for the season. If you are a rich person and you don't have a yard full of bushes carved into swans, you're doing it wrong.

There were some nice gardens, which probably looked better a few months ago in full bloom, but this wasn't my favorite garden (Longwood has that honor). The gardens are arranged in somewhat of a straight line, and are located right next to a busy road. It's hard to get that tranquil surrounded-by-nature feeling when subjected to constant traffic noise.

However, lunch. I would go back here just to eat. Museum/Garden cafes, at least in this metro area, are known for being overpriced and mediocre. You have to eat there because where else would you eat, so why should they make an effort? However, I ordered a salad with fruit, goat cheese, and candied walnuts, and a scone, and it was AMAZING. It also cost something like $14 total. The scone was one of the best I've ever had, and was so big it was enough for two people. It reminded me of my student days in Ireland where I would eat a scone and have tea for lunch, which is not really a thing you can easily do in the US.*

The picture below is for posterity, because it was a Saturday, I was watching a relaxing YouTube video, and knitting, and no one was bothering me.

One book because I can't have a post without a book. I read Thornyhold by Mary Stewart on the recommendation of Katie, who reads it every year (!!). After reading The Shell Seekers I was introduced to a whole world of cozy books that I hadn't known existed. I was on the waiting list for awhile because my library only had one copy**, and it turns out it's a first edition from 1988! Gilly Ramsey inherits her cousin's house in the English countryside, and with no other prospects, moves in. There are rumors that her cousin was a witch, the house filled with herbs and other natural remedies. There is a slight mystery, and a flat romance, but the cozy descriptions of the house and gardens are what made this a comfort read. 

I wasn't old enough to start reading adult literature until the mid-nineties, so I missed out on the popular books of the 80s. It's been pretty fun exploring these (if not cringey at times) and I'm contemplating doing a back-list reading challenge next year. I found this list of bestsellers that should be a good source to choose from.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

It's Fall Y'all

[Well, I didn't get this published before October ended. Let's just time travel real quick.] October is the best month if you live in the mid-Atlantic. There are still leaves on the trees, which gradually change color, peaking toward the end of the month. The temperatures are pleasant enough that everyone goes outside. And I mean EVERYONE. People who usually spend their lives in climate-controlled comfort emerge and take up all the parking spots everywhere. Nothing ruins a beautiful fall day by people trying to enjoy a beautiful fall day. Something in my nature rails against anything we are "supposed" to do at certain times of the year, so I find myself exaggeratedly rolling my eyes at pumpkin patches, apple cider donuts, fall festivals, boots and plaid, and pumpkin spice anything. It's not that I don't like those things. It's just that I wish I could do them in private, during the off season. So if anyone opens up a mid-January pumpkin patch, I'll be there! (We went to the beach in February this year and drove home in a snowstorm. It was great.)

Don't even get me started on Christmas. It's a whole month (at least) of spending money and obligation. Why can't we go see light displays in February when there is nothing happening and we're all tired of winter? I know Christmas is a favorite time of year for a lot of people so I'll just go grinch over in the corner.

October also meant the end of the flower season. I could have gone on longer, but I did not do a good job staking my dahlias. They are still blooming, but they all flopped over so the stems are growing in random directions. Next year I'll know better! I was pretty happy to stop, though, and take a rest. All my free time has been consumed with flowers for the past six months, and I'm ready to sit on the couch or work on other projects.

At the beginning of the month I had my annual trip with some friends. We treat this as a creative retreat, and everyone brings their own projects. My two friends are writers so they tapped away on their projects. I did some painting, cross-stitch, knitting, and reading. The house we booked was right on the water (an inlet off the Potomac River), and had kayaks and all sorts of fun things. Unfortunately this was also the weekend that a hurricane worked its way up the coast and rained for 5 solid days. We didn't get to do any hiking or outdoor stuff, but we did visit a giant antique store twice.

That's the river above - looks like an ocean, right? It was rainy and windy as I walked on the beach, collecting rocks. All was not lost since we had the chance to get cozy with blankets and a fake fire and a show about botched plastic surgery. Best of all, I was with two other grown women who clean up after themselves and don't whine constantly! We ate salad and drank tea. Who could ask for more?

I spent many hours this month rebuilding my raised bed garden. I originally built it in 2016, and I used non-pressure treated wood because I was growing vegetables and didn't want them exposed to harmful chemicals (it's difficult to find actual research on if this is a valid concern or not). Over the years the wood completely rotted out and the garden started falling apart. I took the whole thing apart and rebuilt it from scratch using pressure treated boards now that I've switched to growing flowers. Hopefully it lasts a long time because this process was exhausting. I could barely walk the next day.

Recent Books

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata was all I had hoped The Maid would be, but wasn't. Keiko is in her 30s and has worked in a convenience store for her whole adult life. She loves her job, but is pressured by friends and family to get a "real" job and find a husband. It's a short and charming book and can be read in a few hours. Highly recommend.

The Marriage Portrait was my first fiction read by Maggie O'Farrell, and it blew me away. It may be my favorite fiction book of the year. I can see how the writing style would be annoying for some people: it's quite wordy and descriptive. But it works! O'Farrell's sense of pacing is phenomenal. The first two chapters left me breathless. The book takes place in the 1500s and focuses on the first year of marriage between Lucrezia de Medici and Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. I knew very little about this time period which turned out to be super scandalous and murderey. If you're a historical fiction fan, I also highly recommend this one.

I'm on a roll with good books! I knew that The Bullet That Missed would be good since I've read the previous two books in this series. I wasn't super engaged in the mystery in this one, but that didn't matter to me because the writing is so funny. For those who have read the series, Bogdan is my favorite character. I'm trying to think of who would be the best actor to play him if they make a show of these books. (Just looked it up - Steven Spielberg bought the rights!)

Thank you to everyone who reads and comments. (Thank you even if you don't comment! I'm happy to have you.) I love keeping up with all of your blogs too, so know I am there even if I don't have the time to leave comments. Long live blogging!

Monday, September 26, 2022

September Light

The leaves are still on the trees, but the light has changed. The sun stays lower on the horizon in the mornings, and the afternoons are bathed in a golden glow. Not surprisingly, the flowers have slowed down as the plants slowly fade. I am happy for the relief from constant gardening - having a few more weekday nights and weekend hours free has been wonderful. Instead of taking on more projects, like home renovation or sewing, I've spent a lot of that time watching book reviews on YouTube and knitting socks. I typically have many projects in the works, but frankly, I just need some rest!

With my second job slowing down (just in time, because my regular job has sped up), I want to use my non-phone camera more. In years past I have taken thousands of pictures; that number has since dwindled to a few hundred per year. Sure, I could wait until the new year and make this a resolution. There is no reason to not start now, though.

I didn't have plans for this post other than to share some of the recent photos I'd taken, so perhaps here is a good spot for a social media tangent. Nothing I have to say is new, because we've all read the articles and have experienced ourselves what social media can do. I recently read Stolen Focus, which is the book I had hoped Digital Minimalism would be. This book explains how our focus has been collectively eroded by several factors, including social media and the constant stream of content. I feel this myself. I used to be able to spend hours reading, but now I am interrupted by my own drive to check a notification or Google something I must know the answer to right then (most recently: ooh I wonder if Teecino has any new flavors out). I find myself racing through books in order to move on to the next one instead of taking time and savoring the words. While Digital Minimalism took the more common line that we should, and can, take personal responsibility for our use of digital devices, Stolen Focus outlines all of the external forces that make this nearly impossible.

It has been interesting seeing these social media issues play out in the artist community. Artist Ohn Mar Win recently posted about a sabbatical she is taking. Another photographer I followed left Instagram at the end of last year and has since decided to give up her content-creating business entirely. Anne from My Giant Strawberry has written several posts about this issue; in the linked post, she links to even more stories of artists who have left or are taking a break from Instagram.

The constant demands on time and attention are some reasons for these reactions, and more recently Instagram's shift to video over images. The algorithm rewards frequent posting of a certain type, and that has led to less engagement for many creators. For people running creative small businesses, the constant stress to hussle more and produce more has increased stress, taken time away from actually being creative, and for many, led them to close their small business.

I want to focus on doing things that I love, just for the sake of doing them. I will never be a professional artist, but I like painting. I have no desire to start an art business or attempt to be paid for my work. In fact, I once had an art Instagram account that I have since deleted. We are so conditioned to feel like we should share anything that we create, and every photogenic moment, that it seems radical to fight against this.

Yes, I understand the irony here - I am posting this on a public blog. However, no one is ever going to find this by scrolling or being recommended it by a machine. I'll stay in my semi-hidden corner and enjoy it. I'm not writing for likes or attention, but for the ease of putting photos and words together. I suppose I could go back to the scrapbooking days and write this all out by hand and print out all my photos... but that would take so much time.

I'll write more in praise of day jobs later, but for now, I do wonder what will happen to the majority of those who use content creating as their sole source of income. Peak content will happen, if it hasn't already.

And now, for books! Last year I read The Authenticity Project, and when I heard that Clare Pooley was coming out with a new book I immediately put it on hold. This is the story of a group of unlikely friends, who all meet in the same train car while commuting. It's a little bit similar to the premise of Pooley's first novel. It ended up being a cute, light story that was not a romance (although it contains a bit of romance) which is somewhat rare. I had fun reading it and it made me think about all the subway riders I used to see pre-pandemic. I wonder what happened to them?

Sometimes you stumble upon a book that highlights the exact phase if life you are in, and I'll Show Myself Out was that for me. My kids are (thankfully) out of the baby years, but it wasn't too long ago that I was there. Klein tells it like it is and doesn't write nonsense like "enjoy it while you can" (because it's not possible to enjoy being sleep deprived). I thought she was very funny, which is good because she's a comedian, although there is just a touch of rich lady showing through. 

Oh, The Shell Seekers. This is the fiction book I have been waiting for. At its core, it's a multi-generational family saga. So much happens! It flips back and forth between the present and the past, mainly during WWII in England. The story of the Keeling family is complicated and full of plot, but the best part of this book is its inherent coziness. There are endless cups of tea, cottages, and gardens. This is a book to sink into and be immersed in another world. I am not finished yet (it's 630 pages), but I already can't wait to read more by Rosamunde Pilcher. (Side note, the 1989 movie version starring Angela Lansbury is on YouTube, but it is so painfully 80s I don't think I'll be able to watch it.)

Friday, August 19, 2022

Books & Blooms

Thank you to everyone who left recommendations for books on my last post. I've already added many of them to my TBR list and I look forward to checking them out! As my last few months of pictures show, books and flowers are a major theme around these parts.

Flower farming was hot and heavy during July and the first half of August. There are several bits of wisdom passed among farmers about this time, all along the lines of "Never make decisions in August" and "Don't quit in August". It can be really hard to find the motivation to go outside in the 100 degree F + heat index to work, especially after being worn down by 6 months of planting, watering, harvesting, weeding, and shoveling. Luckily the heat and humidity broke last week and so my soul was somewhat restored. 

The garden below was a long time in the making. Last year I cut the border and tilled the grass up, then planted a cover crop which grew during the winter. In the spring, Jason weed whacked the cover crop down, then I covered the whole thing with plastic to help cook down some of the plant matter. After that I covered it all with cardboard and several inches of compost. Everything you see was grown from seed. I do cut flowers from this garden, but it's become the wild English cottage garden I dreamed of, and we can see it from the house which makes it extra rewarding.

In July I spent several long nights (out until 9pm or later) planted the cutting garden across the street. (The house surrounded by all the trees is ours, so that gives you an idea of the proximity.) It's now full of zinnias, cosmos, sunflowers, marigolds, and celosia. I'll share pictures soon, if it wasn't killed by the spraying of herbicide to kill everything else in that field this morning (I have feelings about this.)

The sunflower field really did look beautiful during peak flower. Sunflower fields are a THING now and they are popping up all over the place. I'm sure this is 75% the result of social media and people's desire to take photos. 

A view of the upstairs that I rarely show. The whole second floor of our house is just 2 rooms; this library/sitting room, and through the door is my office/craft room. Jason and I also keep our dressers here and each have a closet, and we use the bathroom. I suppose that the room that I use as an office was intended to be the primary bedroom, but it has 4 windows and 3 skylights and we'd rather sleep in the cave on the main floor. These two rooms are also mainly MINE and have decorated them however I want. (A Room of One's Own, and all that.) No toys allowed! Except for one pinata.

I visited my favorite Friends of the Library used bookstore recently (home of the danger section) and it was fabulous and fruitful as always. Most of these books are $3!

I even got a book from the danger section: The Sun is a Compass, which is about a couple who travel 4,000 miles by foot, ski, and boat through some very cold places. I can't wait; I can read about other people's physical discomfort without actually leaving my climate-controlled house! I'm also excited about all of the other books in this stack. I have read Big Magic before, but it's been awhile and I want to revisit the ideas. I have already finished The Principles of Uncertainty, which is packed full of paintings and is my favorite genre of book: hand-written

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was published in 2017 but is super-buzzy right now because of TikTok. (I think, obviously I had to Google why I was 254th on the holds list for a 5-year-old book.) It didn't turn out to be about what I thought it would be about (I won't spoil it!) It was a fun, fast-paced read, and I appreciated that the author didn't resort to twee endings. It was also a great example of how to make an unlikeable character likeable. I would definitely read more by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

The Maid was another super-buzzy book. It turns out that the author ("Prose" is 100% a pen name) is a high-level exec for a major publishing company, so cynical me is sure that she really knew what she was doing promotion-wise. This ended up being a weird read for me. It had some fun bits, but I found the main character to be so inconsistent. She is supposed to be autistic (maybe, it never explicitly says), but she also seems painfully naïve. The main plot is a mystery, and then at the end the main character basically says, "Oh yeah I actually know who the killer is but I just haven't brought it up." UGH. Cheers to the author for trying to do something different, but in the end I don't think it worked.