Saturday Adventure

Last Saturday, after collecting a small satchel of paper, pens, books, and a camera, I kissed my husband on the forehead and announced, “I’m off on an adventure! I’ll be back when I’m done.” I left him with a bewildered smile on his face and drove to the Japanese stroll garden on the other side of town.

Garden Bridge

Despite the weather service’s prediction of “mostly sunny”, it was a persistently overcast day. But it was warm enough to comfortable with just a windbreaker and the gray sky made the pinks and greens of springtime really pop.

Redbud by the lake

It was wonderful to be out and about on my own. To be free from the expectation of conversion. To walk with no destination other than Being Outside. To sit and listen long enough for the brook’s soft babble to gradually supersede the chattering thoughts in my head.

By the stream

As I walked I remembered this post by Jonathan Trotter. I feel like 2015 started with the bang of a starter’s gun, and it’s been a series of sprints for the last three months. I placed well in all my meets (to keep the metaphor going) and I’m proud of myself for that, but I hit the wall (emotionally) last Thursday and was desperate for rest and solitude the way a dehydrated athlete is desperate for electrolytes and water. Thus, my “adventure” on Saturday.

A path to somewhere

So at the end of the first quarter of 2015, I’m finally able to take stock of where I’m at and where I want to be headed this year. And it’s okay that it’s April 17 and not January 1; it means that I’m meeting one of the two goals that I did manage to set in January–to remember that every day is New Year’s Day. Truth be told, my “Goals for the Year” can be a bit lofty and especially susceptible to my petulance for time optimism. Maybe setting goals for the next three months would help me be more realistic and stay focused.

Take a closer look

So–April, May, and June–what do I want you to be? I want to have a day of rest like this once a month instead of once a quarter. I want to finish one of craft projects I started last year. I want to start blogging again. (See, this one is already coming to fruition!) I want to become clearer about my “WHY” before starting a couple projects at work. I want to continue to make time for friends and maintain a quality connection with my husband. (Despite all the running of the first quarter, I’ve done well with both of these things.) I want to continue working towards my goal of exercising three times per week. Oh, and to figure out how to make 2015 a Year of Dancing! (After having a Year of Surviving in 2014, the second goal that I set for 2015 was to make it a Year of Dancing.) At minimum, dancing requires a bit of open, uncluttered floor and some unscheduled, unhurried time. Maybe the first step towards that goal is making space in my life to dance.

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Evenings with Emily: This is my letter to the World

In honor of National Poetry Month, I am starting a new series of posts titled Evenings with Emily. One evening last week, it was time for bed, but I couldn’t get my mind to settle down. So I picked up a slim volume of selected poems by Emily Dickinson (one of my favorite poets), read the first poem, and used it as a writing prompt. It was such a lovely distraction from ruminating on the next day’s “To Do List” (which was the rut that my mind had been stuck in) that I intend return to this practice at random intervals and share my reflections here.

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This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me –
The simple News that Nature told –
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see –
For love of Her – Sweet – countrymen –
Judge tenderly of Me
Emily Dickinson

This poem has a wistful loneliness to it that reminds me of my junior high and high school years. Though I had more contact with the World than Emily did, I rarely felt included in it–certainly not a part of it. And lacking confidence–or true understanding, really–of who I was and what value I had to offer, there was a fear of others’ judgement. Nature was my retreat as well–long walks in the golden afternoon, meditation and prayers in the silver temple of moonlight. Nature is a companion that I miss here in the city, yet I am so grateful to have found a community of human friends who refresh and encourage my heart in ways that Nature can’t.

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Book Review: The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter by Sharyn McCrumb

I actually read this book in August 2013 and it’s review languished in the Drafts folder for the past five months while my free time was consumed with other demands at home and at work. Thankfully, a more manageable rhythm of life has been re-established and I am once again able to share my literary adventures and creative endeavors with the world at large. So without further ado, I present my long over-due reflection on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.

I love the title of this book; it’s intriguing with the implied inevitable tragedy and (perhaps most importantly) it made me pick up a novel by an author I knew nothing about. Kudos also go to the artist who designed the cover for this paperback edition for effectively giving me a taste of the book’s atmosphere before I’d even read the first page.

This mystery is quite a contrast from last novel I read. Quicksand has an immediacy to it’s pace, like a series of white water rapids that move you through the story with impetuous haste; there is this sense of narrowing as the entire plot whirls around a handful of characters. Whereas The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is more like a ride on an old steam engine train, slowly building up speed, moving effectively while letting you take in the surrounding landscape and study the other passengers.

The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter has a slice-of-life feel to it (despite opening with a murder-suicide); you see different characters fighting personal demons, marking particular milestones, and cherishing secret dreams that may or may not have any bearing on the outcome of the mystery itself. The citizens of Dark Hollow, Tennessee, reminded me of people I knew growing up in a small town, which made their story seem more real to me. While Quicksand almost felt like a fantasy to me (maybe because I’ve never had a brilliant detective and a charismatic ex-arms dealer vying for my affections like Eve Duncan), this story and it’s characters are very grounded in the culture of the rural Midwest in the early 1990s. This pre-9/11 novel lacks certain attitudes that permeate our culture today. And I tasted the bittersweet tang of nostalgia as I read about Sheriff Arrowood attending a Judds concert during their farewell tour. In my opinion, this type of present day fiction (McCrumb published it in 1992) makes the best historical fiction, if it survives long enough.

I found it interesting that after reading Quicksand, I was eager to start the next book on my bookshelf, but when I closed The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter for the last time, I was content for more than a week to reflect on the pictures of the life in this Tennessee valley that McCrumb had painted so effectively for me. Quicksand was cotton candy–fun, but not really satisfying. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was pot roast, cooked slow and seasoned well. There was one dry bit–a few pages of odd and distracting historical exposition in the middle of the book–but over all a literary meal that hits the spot!

 
Blurb (from the paperback edition): Blessed with “the Sight,” old Nora Bonesteel is the first to know about the murder-suicide in Dark Hollow, Tennessee. Four members of the Underhill family lie dead on a run-down farm. And Sheriff Spencer Arrowood has this worried feeling that the bad things aren’t over. Old Nora knows they aren’t. For what she saw was the kind of dying that will test the courage of the living–and a sheriff’s insights into country way and hearts.

First line: Nora Bonesteel was the first one to know about the Underhill family.

I would recommend this book to: Anyone who likes a mystery that takes it’s time.

Would I read it again: Yes

My personal rating: 4 out of 5

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Book Review: Quicksand by Iris Johansen

You know you have too many books when you come home from the bookstore and have to take books off the shelves to put away your new literary treasures. Thus, I chose my latest book to read based on the question, “Which of these books am I not going to keep?” Quicksand was loaned to me by my mother-in-law, so it obviously fit the criteria.

I found Quicksand to be an easily engaging and solid thriller. The story was dark (how could it be anything else when the villain is a serial killer who targets children!), but I didn’t think the violence was too graphic. I liked that Johansen trusted the story itself to be compelling enough not to resort to cliff-hanger chapter endings (or graphic sex scenes and R-rated swearing for that matter); I plowed through this in 5 or 6 hours so I certainly found it compelling as is. I was quite curious when I reached the point where I had expected the story to end and discovered that there were still 50 pages left. I’m sure there are readers who would have anticipated Johansen’s ending, but it was an interesting surprise for me.

I somehow failed to notice the subtitle at the bottom of the front cover–An Eve Duncan Forensics Thriller–so I had no idea that I was joining a party well after it started. (Although, in hindsight, the way certain things were referenced in the story should have tipped me off.) But that didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the story. In fact, not reading any of Johansen’s books prior to this may have enhanced my experience of Quicksand. I think it made Megan Blair a more effective character since she was a mystery to me instead of being an Easter egg as she would have been if I had read Pandora’s Daughter. And by the end of the book I was losing my patience with Eve’s obsession with finding her daughter Bonnie’s remains at the expense of all else–I may not have had any patience left if I had already endured her ruthless desperation through seven other books. I understand that losing a child is a life-long burden to a bereaved parent, but I do not understand Eve’s obsession in light of the fact that she is occasionally visited by Bonnie’s spirit, who assures Eve that she is happy now and urges her mother to give up the search. The novel certainly indicates that the longer Eve continues this obsession the greater the damage she does to herself and those around her. But if Eve has stubbornly resisted her beloved daughter’s invitation to lay down this burden (for at least eight novels), I can’t see any hope for her getting out of this infuriating rut and I have no desire to travel with her any farther in it. So my bottom line is that I enjoyed Quicksand more than I expected, but not enough to read more of Johansen’s Eve Duncan series.

Blurb (from the paperback edition): Do you still miss your little Bonnie? The one sentence, spoken by a male voice in an anonymous phone call, is all it takes to drag Eve Duncan right back to that horrifying moment years ago when her only daughter vanished without a trace. Since then, Eve’s life has become an obsession to find her daughter’s remains. Only one man–a brilliant, ruthless killer–knows the truth about what happened to Bonnie. But taunting Eve might be his first and last mistake…

First line: Someone was watching him.

I would recommend this book to: Anyone looking for a light, beach-read thriller.

Would I read it again: No

My personal rating: 3 out of 5

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Book Review: A Darkness Forged in Fire by Chris Evans

I confess that the blurb for this book wasn’t all that appealing to me. But because I’d seen it advertised often enough in the Sci-Fi Book Club catalog, the title caught my eye at the used bookstore. I read through the first few pages, which did what a blurb is supposed to do, and I went home with Chris Evans’ debut novel. After reading A Darkness Forged in Fire, I would say it’s an impressive debut.

Book One of the Iron Elves Series

Aside from the occasional stumble over the jargon of this new world (a normal hazzard of the genre), Chris Evans’ prose is smooth and effective. Evans deftly demonstrates his intimate knowledge weaponry and military culture while carving some extremely sympathetic (and humorous) character gems to set on the battle’s canvas, of which Private Yimt Arkhorn and Private Alwyn Renwar shine the brightest. These two characters are so fully realized that I smelled the spice from the crute that Yimt constantly chewed and felt weight of Alwyn’s glasses as he squinted into the darkness of their night patrols. I cared deeply for them, which heightened my main problem with the book–I didn’t care about the main character. I found  Konowa Swift Dragon a bit tedious and his relationship with Visyna terribly cliched. Until the final battle, I was far more interested in what almost anyone other than Konowa was doing in the story. Now since the cast is fairly large, there were plenty of intrigues to keep my attention, but it’s a shame when the hero is totally eclipsed by the supporting cast. Nevertheless, A Darkness Forged in Fire is a good read and I will continue with the Iron Elves series for love of Yimt and Alwyn and to satisfy my curiousity about RallieSynjyn.

Blurb (from the 2009 paperback edition): An unforgiving world of musket and cannon…bow and arrow…magic, diplomacy, and oaths—each wielding terrible power in an empire teetering on the brink of war.
Even in this world, Konowa Swift Dragon, former commander of the Empire’s elite Iron Elves, is anything but ordinary. He’s murdered a Viceroy, been court-martialed, seen his beloved regiment disbanded, and been banished in disgrace to the one place he despises the most–the forest. All he wants is to be left alone, but then an unexpected royal decree orders him to resume his commission as an officer in Her Majesty’s Imperial Army, effective immediately.
For in the east, a falling Red Star heralds the return of a long-vanished magic, and rebellion is growing within the Empire as a frantic race to reach the Star unfolds. It is a chance for Konowa to redeem himself–but the entire enterprise appears to be a suicide mission…and the soldiers recruited for the task are not quite what he expects. Worst of all, his key adversary to obtain the Star is none other than the dreaded Shadow Monarch, whose machinations for absolute domination spread deeper than Konowa could ever imagine.

First line: Mountains shouldn’t scream but this one did.

I would recommend this book to: Anyone is looking for a new fantasy series to explore with a convincing blend of military and magical warfare and a couple of delightful comrades in arms.

Would I read it again: Maybe.

My personal rating: 3 out of 5

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Speed Limit Enforced

Last week, I smashed my finger in the sliding door of my minivan. It was late. I was tired. All I wanted to do was to get home from work as soon as possible. It happened so fast: I hoisted my rolling case into the van and slammed the door; I felt the pinch and reflexively jerked my right hand. I thought I’d had a narrow escape until I reached out to open the driver’s door and saw the blood on my middle finger. And my life, which had been buzzing along at 60 miles per hour, rapidly decelerated to an agonizing crawl.

Dogged by a policeman who switched on deafening sirens of pain at almost every turn, nothing I did was simple or automatic any more. Pick up my purse–no! Pick up my purse with my left hand. Get the car key–no! Gently place the purse straps over my right forearm, extract the key with my left hand. Transfer purse to left arm. Gently grasp the key using ONLY the right thumb and index finger and VERY CAREFULLY turn the ignition switch.

An unwilling disciple, I was forced to practice the discipline of intention. Every action now required forethought and my complete attention, which meant no hurrying, no rushing. I first had to figure out if I could use my right hand for a particular task. If the answer was “yes”, then all movements had to be careful and precise to minimize any movement or strain to my middle finger. If the answer was “no”, then a great deal of concentration was required in order for my left hand to accomplish the task successfully. I felt like a 5-year old, awkwardly maneuvering my toothbrush around my mouth as I brushed my teeth left-handed.

In brief moments of maturity, I admitted to myself that there was a certain peace in focusing solely on the task at hand (no pun intended). I could even see how this way of intentionally moving through life would be pleasurable, if it weren’t for the pain (which was fairly constant those first two days). But there’s the rub–if I’m honest, I admit that the pain is what compels me to this more peaceful pace; I would not choose it for it’s own sake. I know this because the more my finger has healed, the more I find myself slipping into a faster pace of doing things. And in my current phase of the healing process where the injury hurts less, but I am still unable to do certain tasks, I find myself frustrated and impatient.

Rather than being grateful that I was able to return to work yesterday, I was annoyed at my limitations and unhappy with having to modify nearly all the movements I normally do fluidly. “Yes, I’m working, but this isn’t how I want to be working,” I mentally griped, “I don’t like doing it this way.” So ultimately, this speed bump in my life has drawn sharp attention to this grace I have yet to master–embracing the good in  life as it is, instead of obsessing over what I wish it would be.

“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
— Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

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My First Crocheted Sweater!

Yesterday, I finished my first piece of crocheted clothing! I am ridiculously excited about it. I mean I was positively giddy this morning, trying to decide what to wear with my new shrug! That’s one of the things I love about it–this shrug goes with nearly everything, thanks to the wonderful colors in the Homespun yarn! I also love how soft and cuddly it is–the perfect thing for this cold, rainy day.  And there’s something special about wearing a beautiful item that is handmade; when my friends complimented me on it, I loved saying, “Thanks. I made it myself.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Such rich colors!

 

 

 

Aren’t the ruffles fun?

For my fellow crocheters reading this, here are the details of the project. The pattern for this V-Stitch Cocoon Shrug is free on http://www.lionbrand.com.* I used Lion Brand Homespun yarn in the color Nouveau. I used a P-15 (10 mm) hook, as the pattern recommended, however, my gauge was a little off; when I made a practice swatch, my stitches were exactly the right width, but the swatch was 2 inches  shorter than the target height. I went ahead with that because I figured could always add extra rows to make up for the lack in height, but I didn’t know what to do if my stitches became too wide. (Anyone else had this experience, where your stitches matched the width but not the height or vice versa? What was your solution?) As it turned out, the shorter length actually looked better on me, so I didn’t add any extra rows to the shrug. The only way I deviated from the pattern was that I only did two rounds on the armbands, because (1) I didn’t want a really wide, heavy cuff, and (2) it drives me crazy to do single crochet with a heavily textured yarn like Homespun! The final measurements of my shrug were 30 inches wide (including the armbands) and 19 inches long without the ruffles, 23 inches long including the ruffles.

This pattern is definitely for a size medium (it fit me perfectly). One of the commenters on the Lion Brand site, Lori Larocca, said that increasing your starting chain in increments of 5 stitches adds about 2 inches to the width. Of course adding extra rows will increase the height. Both of these are easy adjustments to make with this patten if you are wanting a larger size. Although the pattern calls for two skeins of yarn, I bought three for this project since some of the commenters complained about running out of yarn, but I only used about 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 skeins. I don’t know if this is because my shrug ended up being shorter than the pattern’s measurements or if the pattern is more accurate than some people thought.

Overall, I found this pattern to be easy. It was fun to do and went very quickly (not as quickly as the commenter who completed hers in 2.5 hours, but crocheting thirty minutes to an hour per day for less than two weeks was quick enough for me). Since the body of the shrug is made by repeating two different pattern rows, I alternated two different colored stitch markers at the end of each row to help keep track of which pattern row I was currently working. I am thrilled that it turned out so well, especially since this is my first sweater. Yes, I’ve been crocheting for years, but making flat squares is not the same as shaping a garment.

*You have to sign up for the weekly Lion Brand e-mail newsletter in order to view their free patterns, but it’s fairly painless.

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