This might be a weird post. An SOS of sorts. But here goes.
I was very fortunate to add two new bookcases to my living room this summer. Now I finally have so much room to display what I’ve read over the years . . . and, well, what I haven’t read!
I have a bad habit, you see. I pick up books to read “someday” all the time. At the bookstore. At Goodwill. At library sales. At Commonwealth Books, my favorite pre-dentist stop. At Crow Bookshop in Burlington, VT when we visit each October. New, used. It doesn’t matter. I am a book fiend.
And, until this bookcase, I just tossed them in random places all over the house. But now, seeing them lined up like idle sentries, I am a bit befuddled about which ones to read next. There are so many!*
And since I cannot stop myself, I fear there will soon be more now that I have the real estate to give them homes.
So, tell me, dear reader, which of these books have you read and is a must read?
The Known World, Edward P. Jones
Postcards, E. Annie Proulx
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
So Much a Part of You, Polly Dugan (I just picked this one up; still very recent)
Wisdom of the Last Farmer, David Mas Masumoto
The Big House, George Howe Colt (I actually started this in 2013, but only got about 20% in, though I can’t recall why)
Me Before You, JoJo Moyes
The Dirty Life, Kristin Kimball
The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin (I’m about 20% in and love the story/prose, but got distracted with other books this summer)
Still Life With Insects, Brian Kiteley (50% done; put down for other books this summer)
Dreams of Sleep, Josephine Humprhies (10% done; really was enjoying it…then distracted by other books)
Mennonite in a Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen (10% done…again, distracted)
Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Berg (yes, I am the last female on Earth to not have read this)
About Alice, Calvin Trillin
Women, Animals, and Vegetables, Maxine Kumin
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen
The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
The History of Love, Nicole Krauss (started in late 2012, but was having a hard time getting through beginning)
The Circle, Dave Eggers
I’m about to start a new book (Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, by Mira Jacob) for my book group once I finish what I’m currently reading (My Family and Other Hazards, by June Melby), but after that I’d love to know what I should tackle from my “TBR” shelf. Help!
Please leave me a comment about what I should read/finish next (and maybe a bit of why). Do you see an author here that maybe has another book that is stronger than the one I’ve got and should read instead? (Or, if there is something that is NOT worth my time, tell me and I promise to keep those comments private.) Thank you!
*Admission: I actually have way more than what’s on this list and shelf, but the others are a kind of nonfiction that I tend to read in short bursts anyway, or were otherwise given to me and I can tell are not up my alley at this point in my life.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I like to take pictures. Lots of pictures, in fact. I have my digital “big girl” camera that I truly love and use. But it’s really not practical to carry around on a regular basis, at least not to capture the seemingly mundane (though not to me) things I find and like to remember. This is why I love my phone camera and use it often. Daily usually, though sometimes even hourly.
In fact, when I recently showed a photo on it to a friend, she remarked, “You have more than 3,000 photos on your phone!?” I admit I was taken aback by that number too, though they do go back a few years. They also include things like screen shots of book reviews I want to remember or photos I use in texts to explain to or laugh about something with someone privately who’s not nearby. A bunch of them are a series of shots of the same subject. Turns out you often have to take multiple shots of moving children to get one that comes out right. I’m just not that great about cleaning up the photographic clutter afterwards.
And then there’s Instagram. I love it. It’s unfathomable to me that I’ve already posted more than 1,000 photos there in just 40 weeks. Of the various social media platforms I am on, this is the one I’d kick and scream about having to give up.
I know that a lot of people who are not on Instagram do not understand it, and often (in my experience) give me the eyeroll when I mention I’m on it (@littlelodestar). But here’s the thing: I can (and do) connect with others this way. I can also, it turns out, connect with myself too.
I like seeing what other people capture in their tiny camera lens. There are some really wonderful Instagrammers out there, and I know I’ve only scratched the surface. Some people I feel almost personally connected to because of what they post there (and, in some cases, through their writing in other places). Some accounts I love for the sheer fact that they offer wonderful stories to go with the faces (like @humansofny) while others just insert a burst of interesting creativity throughout the day (like when @austinkleon puts up one of his #newspaperblackout posts). I am grateful that I can see the world through others’ eyes in this small but wholly intimate way.
I follow three times as many folks that follow me, but that’s OK. I’m not really in it for the fame. I’m in it because I like sharing bits of amusing or beautiful things that I stumble upon. I like to come up with captions, with the photos serving as prompts that break the surface of some lingering writer’s block. To a lesser extent, I use IG to bolster a blog post I might have that day. Anyone who follows me on there already also knows I have a small obsession with the endless supply of comedy that my daughter’s two most beloved dolls, Emma and Paul (#emmapauldolls), provide me on a regular basis. But in all honesty, I just want to capture and later remember the moments that moved me for one reason or another. I have an acute awareness, if not anxiety, that I might someday forget them.
Which leads me to the sunsets. I’m not sure when I started it in earnest, but over the course of many, many twilights, I have taken to the habit of snapping an IG shot of the sunset or dusky sky I see off of our deck or out my bedroom window. Ever since before phone cameras or Instagram, I have enjoyed the often majestic show that our sky view puts on almost every night. But the funny thing is, it’s not some quaint shoreline sunset or inspiring cityscape that I have the pleasure of seeing. It’s merely my humble backyard view and one that, on occasion, gets me down by being cluttered with a wholly unattractive apartment building and obstructed view of the last moments when the sun kisses the western horizon goodnight. When someone like me would much rather live in the Vermont woods or along the rocky New England coast, this vista has the potential to underwhelm. And, for a time, it did. Sure I’d notice it in passing while doing the dishes, but I wouldn’t remember those lovely views when I most needed grounding about what I do have in my life.
Enter Instagram. I started taking pictures of these sunsets. Some of them are quite stunning and in all honesty are not done justice by my phone’s camera. There is something about standing there, with the breeze and hum of urban noise in the distance that brings it all together in a way that a mere photograph just cannot do. But as I started recording these evening skies, with their various watercolor splashes of lavender, apricot, and pink, I noticed a few things. Of course, the obvious: each evening’s sky really is different from one day to the next. There are textures and contrails that are there one night that are completely absent another. Or the way a certain amount of humidity and air pollution can create a gradient that you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t take two minutes to observe. These differences are visible when I view the photos side by side.
But there’s something else I noticed too. I now have a deep and fundamental (though still growing) sense and awareness of how and when the sky is going to shift and peak in my midst. I can walk out there on almost any evening now and just sense in my core of whether I’m seeing the preview, main attraction, or closing credits of the sky’s show that night. I can feel in my bones whether this will be a one or twelve picture night, each one completely different from the others. I am now profoundly aware of the shift among seasons and when I must get out there to capture it all. As fall grows near, it’s sadly earlier than I’d like it to be. This is an intimate knowledge and understanding about our physical world that I had either lost or not truly appreciated until I started taking pictures. And, it turns out, I am not the only one out there who does this. Knowing this makes me feel less alone and silly. Still, I think this kind of intimacy with and appreciation of our surroundings—especially, perhaps, the ones we live among every day—is immensely lacking in our world today. This is why I make sure to point all of these vistas out to my daughter who, thankfully, has started telling me when to “look, Mama!” That, perhaps, is the most meaningful benefit to all of this. It is something I hope that she carries forward and shares as she grows older.
So this is why I love Instagram, as ridiculous as that sounds. It’s an introvert’s dream. It’s an “I’ll never be able to travel to all the places in the world in my lifetime” worrier’s portal. It’s a parent-who’s-stuck-at-home’s escape hatch. It’s a “noticer’s” tool. It’s an “I don’t ever want to forget this moment” person’s answer to the otherwise unresolvable problem of time not stopping. It is, I think, the lens that helps me view the world with a little more clarity.
Are you on Instagram? Leave your handle in the comments so I can follow you too, or suggest others that you love to follow.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I don’t usually post “parenting how-to” advice. There’s a good reason for that: I also don’t usually know what the hell I’m doing at any given moment.
But tentative/anxious school aged children and big transitions like starting school? This I know.
My daughter started first grade today, and she turns seven on Saturday—two big milestones crammed into a frenzied start to September. Naturally, for the past 72 hours she’s been a tightly wound ball of moody nerves. But, having dropped her off at school for her first day without incident, I feel like I’m finally doing something right.
So, without further ceremony, here are my top five tips for helping your child make it through the first day of school (or any big transition/event), even if they already have a few years under their belt.
1. Keep your spirits high, but set your expectations low. Seriously. And not just starting the day before either. Even the most laid back child is bound to get even a small case of the jitters on the first day of school. Then there are children like mine who will stress out about it for a week before, AND a full week after school starts before they begin to feel comfortable in their own skin and a new routine again. But here’s the key: they really do look to us parents, including our own unspoken anxiety (if we have it), for cues about how they should respond. If we are worried about it, they will be too. It took me the first five years of her life to really understand this. So, keep it light. Don’t let conversations drone on about the first day all.the.time. Maybe mention it in passing here and there, and answer any questions that come up, but do not go on ad nauseam about it because that is what will make them wonder if there’s something to worry about. Still, even having a relaxed attitude might not totally work every minute leading up to the big moment, so be flexible with their moodiness, clinginess, need for physical touch, and seemingly manic emotions. If all of their needs eventually get to you, find some time to go for a walk or thrash around to some of your 90s metal collection, but otherwise, you need to be the rock for them until that time passes where they can exhale again.
2. Relax (some of) your rules a bit. We all have certain rules around the house. I’m not proposing anarchy in the name of keeping spirits light, but look at what you can flex on in order to maintain the peace a little more. Here’s one of mine: school day breakfast around here is consistently the same, and we have a clear expectation that it will include some kind of healthy(ish) carbohydrate, a protein, some water, and a bit of fruit. Not in a “clean your plate” kind of way, but in an “at least have a bite of each thing so it’s well rounded” way. We have this “rule” because of the wonky times they eat snack and lunch relative to the structure of the entire school day, and also because we cannot control how much of the food we pack is eaten during that time. Yes, there are days she will make the choice to go play with her friends rather than sit and finish her sandwich, and then she’s stuck until she gets home and can eat again. Still, I know she is nervous the first day and week, so I just set out a plate of those things without comment, trusting that she will eat enough of something (at home and school) if she wants to. Which leads me to . . .
3. Two words: gastrocolic reflex. Go ahead Google it. Suffice it to say that if you feed your child 15 minutes before you expect her to be in the car to go to [big moment of the day], and then wonder why they always have to use the bathroom to poop RIGHT BEFORE you’re about to lock the door to leave, then you are not familiar with this term. (I happened to learn it because of some health issues M was having a few years ago.) And, when someone’s nervous, their digestive tract is even more amped up and can behave erratically. So, take that into consideration when you plan out your morning/at home routine. Leave enough time so that your Nervous Nellie/Nelson doesn’t have to feel rushed when eating OR when using the loo afterwards. No one likes to feel rushed in either scenario, but feeling rushed (or prohibited altogether…remember, some children are afraid of using the school/public bathrooms to do their duty and will hold it instead) in the second situation is potentially bound to backfire in a myriad of ways, including constipation. Incidentally, breakfast is broken up into two parts in our house; she eats a little something when she first wakes up (to get things moving, if you catch my drift) and then a little more after she’s dressed. That set up has worked wonders for us having a stress-free departure.
4. Keep it comfy. Back to school shopping is all you hear about in the weeks leading up to school. A lot of folks like their children to be spiffy on the first day. A lot of children themselves like to make an impression too. The problem for some children can be that they don’t actually like the feeling of new clothing when their senses are already on high alert. Honestly, it’s more important to me that she is able to walk into that building and take in all the new sights/sounds/smells without the added burden of some distracting new seam or tag. Hence, she wears old rags for the first few days. It’s just one less thing to worry about.
5. Write a letter. I recently gave this tip to someone on Instagram who has a child starting Kindergarten and needs ideas about calming some nerves. We did this last year before Kindergarten, and did it again this year. I think it will actually become a new tradition of sorts. Anyway, my daughter dictated a letter to herself (for efficiency, I penned the letters these two years but next year she’s going to do it herself) to be read on the LAST day of the school year. In this letter, she describes (in her age appropriate way) how she’s feeling about the new school year, what she’s looking forward to, and what she’s slightly nervous about. The goal of this letter is twofold: first, to get her to vocalize any jitters she’s having and for her to pay attention to the good stuff too; and second, to allow her older, wiser self some ten months from now to see (especially year to year) how each year generally starts the same. There are normal fears that usually go unfounded, and expectations for good things that usually come true. It’ll be a great keepsake too where she can look back one day when she starts college, her first job, gets married, has a child, starts a global conglomerate to promote world peace, etc. and find that these kinds of feelings ebb and flow, and that she can manage it like she always has.
What are your tips for your child embarking on something new? How do you help them cope with stressful transitions?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Our house is rather quiet. It seems to have started with my aversion to noise and a general preference for calm, since even before our daughter came along. Now on the cusp of her being seven years old, I sense that this is something that she favors most of the time too.
Still, feeling guilty that my affinity for quiet roars too loudly around here sometimes, I will occasionally ask, “Do you want me to put some music on or something?”
“No, that’s OK, Mama. I like it quiet,” she usually responds. I think she means it. She’s always played pretty quietly, and is easily startled by loud noises or overwhelmed (like me) by the endless ones. But more than that, I think she also wants all of the details. She doesn’t want to miss anything.
She likes being able to hear the conversations between my husband and me, peppering us with dozens of questions if she can’t hear us from another room. By leaving out the pointless cacophony, there is also room for her to be receptive to the soundless nuances around us, whether it be the shifting afternoon light on the walls or the patterns that present themselves in the wood floors. She points these things out with a regularity and enthusiasm that surprises me sometimes, at least given her age.
I do think it’s a gift, this tendency that she and I share, to see and hear things that others don’t seem to. Indeed, it’s what allowed me to notice on a recent summer morning that an unfamiliar bird had alighted across the street somewhere. It stood out merely because I didn’t recognize the song. I was completely engrossed in a book, and yet this strange birdsong stopped me in my tracks. I coursed through my admittedly limited mental catalog of birdsong, and couldn’t place it. The convenience of technology at my fingertips then led me down the distracted path of trying to determine what winged friend had stopped by, much less a reflection that with the changing season upon us also comes a changing of the guards so to speak, at least the feathered ones. I mulled the solstice that was now far back in summer’s wake when what I should have been doing was simply reading my book.
I fear sometimes that this inborn tendency to notice will lead her down the path that I seem to be on. This inability to turn off the desire for details, or searching for meaning and moral in the minutiae, even when there truly is none. Like the other day when I noticed that the woman who comes down our street every recycling day, pushing her overloaded shopping cart while looking for five cent treasures. She had a bum tire on her cart. To me, the audible anomaly was akin to an air raid siren. I was immediately thrust into those shopping experiences that we all have, the ones that start with a bad shopping cart with the wheel that sticks or wobbles incessantly. We discover the source of irritation—and fix it too—almost immediately. We have that luxury. But what about this woman who needs to work so hard just to find two nickels to rub together, and yet has to also deal with this crappy cart that serves as her work horse? Her life seems hard enough and she can’t even get a new cart at the front of the store. There was a deeper metaphor there in that rickety wheel, I’m sure, but all I could think about after hearing that clickety clack along the asphalt was that she seems to have gotten not one but two bad cards dealt in her hand. Why her? Why not me?
Or what about the single dahlia I noticed on the busy road running perpendicular to my side street? Every year this unknown gardener—anonymous to me at least—grows one dahlia, a different color every year, right at the edge of the sidewalk where the granite berm meets the pavement. With ambulances and cars racing by, it is quite a precarious spot to grow anything, much less something as large as a saucer on a four foot stem.
I saw it the other evening while on a walk, a deep garnet color this year. It reminded me that I took a photo of another one, white and deep pink, in that very spot a few years ago. It was glorious, and, considering the neighborhood, a gift as well. Which is why I was dismayed while driving to the grocery store the next afternoon. There it sat, that magnificent red flower head, right in the middle of the street, gleaming like a roadside flare. It was clear that this was not some accidental brush with a biker or stroller. No, given the location where it met its demise, and the perfection with which it still maintained its beauty, it was clear that this was a deliberate plucking and chucking by some ungrateful hoodlum. It bothered me on behalf of the gardener for the better part of an hour.
But what perhaps shook me more was that I noticed this floral fate in the first instance. How many other drivers had driven by that spot before me and wondered how this blossom met its demise in this way? How many even noticed it while it was still living the day before? Was the heart of the gardener heavy now? Does any of it even matter, in the grand scheme of things? Is my threading together of dahlias from year to year done for no apparent reason, or simply no reason at all?
My daughter, she has this affliction too. Like the ladybug that she somehow spotted from yards away while we were on a walk last week. We were consumed in some chatter when she was immediately distracted by this lovely thing meandering on the bark, well above her head.
It might be a curse, perhaps, to some, and certainly some days it seems that way to me, this inability to turn off the details that just lead me down the rabbit hole of endless inquiry and introspection. It can be exhausting to notice so much, especially when you’re not even trying. But I have to remember that, on balance, it really is a gift, and one that is predominately innate, it seems. I think that it ultimately comes from a place of deep empathy for the world around us and wanting to fully understand it all. How to temper it so one is not overwhelmed or takes on more than her fair share of the world’s burden, I’m still not sure. Maybe it’s not as necessary for me at my age, but as she starts to creep closer to the point where there will be increasingly more inputs into her world, I start to wonder how I can help her learn to filter out the noise just so that she can make it through the day. I hope that I am up to the task.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs this year. I think the significance of that is a separate post in its own right, and one that I intend to write about sometime soon. Suffice it to say, it comes down to two things (I think): my introversion and a present sense of loneliness when it comes to friendships.
Anyway, in one of those memoirs, Dancing Fish and Ammonites, by Penelope Lively, I was intrigued by the last chapter, “Six Things”, where Lively essentially describes the significance of six material things in her life. She prefaces the chapter with this:
My house has many things, too, besides those books—the accretions of a lifetime. Not many of them are valuable; some of them are eloquent. People’s possessions speak of them: they are resonant and betraying and reflective.
. . . I have picked out six of the things that articulate something of who I am. . . . [A]t this late point in life, I have seen these objects in the house imbued with new significance — I have seen how they reflect interests, and concerns, how they chart where I’ve been, and how I’ve been.
She goes on to describe the story of each item and dubs it a “material memoir” of sorts. I loved that notion, and ever since reading it months ago, it has been on my mind.
What would I choose as my six things?
Right away I imposed upon myself the rule that neither books nor photos (or devices that hold photos) would count. Those are a given, I think, for many of us. Maybe I’ll even do a separate entry about that one day; that is, which six books I couldn’t live without.
So, what’s left? This was harder than I thought it’d be, not because there were too many things, but because I was struck at how few I came up with. The process revealed that I do not have much in the way of material possessions that I feel deeply connected to on some level. Perhaps that is a good thing.
The process also revealed that there is much about the house that I don’t feel is truly mine. I don’t really have much in the way of material things that I carried forward from childhood or even my college/early adult years. Moreover, so much of the things in our home are shared, if not utilitarian. That was an interesting and unexpected realization.
Given the relative age difference between Lively and me—she’s 81 and I am 40—I wonder if that is part of it too. Perhaps I have not really begun that life phase of acquiring meaningful things. Maybe I never will. Or maybe the significance of things already in my midst have not had the full measure of time to reveal themselves yet.
But, eventually, some of my possessions did trickle forward, though perhaps with a sort of latent value that required me to really think about them first. I’m still thinking about the significance between items that I acquired myself versus those that were given to me, items that were objects found in nature versus those that were paid for with money. I think those differences speak volumes, and I will continue to ponder that a while longer. For now, though, here are my six things.
1. The diamond earrings from E. My husband, E, and I have been together for twenty years this summer (though married only since 2002). In 1997, after a few years of dating, he gave me a pair of diamond earrings for Christmas. They are humble and flawed (if you look closely), and were purchased with far more love than money. After all, he was still in graduate student budget mode at the time. Could we afford to upgrade this pair now? Yes. But the thing is, I don’t want to. Bigger, flawless diamonds are not who I am. I like to hold these earrings and know the backstory of how they came to be, and how they still, after all this time, matter just as much to me now. Notably, they are one of the few things I specifically bequeath to my daughter in my will.
2. Driftwood and rocks from Lake Champlain in Shelburne, VT. I’ve posted before about the significance of Shelburne, VT to my husband and me. When we go, I pick up these lovely pieces of driftwood that collect along the shore of Lake Champlain just steps from the cottage we rent at Shelburne Farms.
They have a distinct sound when you walk on them or toss one on the ground. I love their weathered grey color, smoothness, and sometimes erratic shapes. I carefully nestle a few each year in my suitcase, and they’ve taken up residence around the living room. And the rocks. Oh, the rocks. These smooth stones of black shale, veined with quartz are, in a word, mesmerizing. I could (and often do) spend hours poking through them along the shore. Inevitably, I pick a few to take home. These stones and sticks, I see them every day and am reminded of that special place, a place that I hope one day will be a more permanent fixture in my life.
3. Shells collected at various beaches. In my living room sits a jar of shells that we’ve collected as a family (and even a few since before M was born almost seven years ago). They hail from beaches domestic and afar. Other than the Atlantic Surf Clams, I probably cannot even tell you what beaches we were on when we found those treasures. But no matter. It’s what they represent and remind me of: long stretches of time together to walk—uninterrupted and unhurried—along the shore, just to take in the salty breezes and hear the cries from the gulls overhead. Those walks where the water lapped at our feet, us wondering whether the next wave would deliver a new treasure just for us to see. Each shell is plucked as being so very important, and it is, at least in that moment. That importance fades over time, it seems. Collectively, though, seeing these shells accumulate from year to year (and particularly in the middle of winter), I am reminded that summer will always come again, as will vacations and time to let our guard down together.
4. My camera. I really don’t know where I would be without my camera. I’ve had many over the years, and each one has been so supremely significant to me while in my possession. I’ve long since given away my first 35mm (film!) camera, and the few digital SLRs I owned after that, but I will always remember each one as special. The camera I have now is no different, other than the fact that it was also the one thing I allowed myself to buy right before leaving my job at the law firm three years ago. By leaving that job, I was walking away from a more viable income source than what I’ve cobbled together for myself by writing and working as a VERY part-time attorney. It was my last significant purchase with money I earned completely on my own. For any woman who has ratcheted down her career in the name of her children, you know exactly what I might be feeling when I note that. It’s not bothersome to me, but it’s a significance that is tied to this particular camera, and it’s not lost on me.
5. My bunny coffee mug. This little guy only came into my possession a few years ago, but for some reason I am profoundly attached to it. I bought it at a craft fair and it was made by a local potter. Strange that it took so many years to find the “right” mug–the handle, the weight, the size . . . all of it. Just perfect. I think what also gives it significance is that on some level it solidifies that I am a bona fide adult, one who needs coffee on a daily basis just to keep up with life, and there’s no turning my back on that fact anymore. Nothing else makes me feel quite like an adult as does my mug.
6. The necklace that hangs around my neck. I bought it out of a catalog some years ago, so it’s not something profoundly unique. On one side has a tree (affirming my affinity for trees), and the other side simply says this:
By now I’ve almost developed a sort of superstitious relationship with it. I am afraid to take it off for fear of something bad happening. Perhaps this is a talisman of my anxiety if nothing else. I do, on occasion, take it off in order to wear something fancy if the event (or my mood) requires, but it’s rare. I feel naked without it.
Remember what is important to you. Words that I need to literally wear around my neck in order to remember it, every single day.
What’s important to you? What are your “six things”?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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