Know Thy Shelf | 01

One of my favorite blogs is The [Blank] Garden, a reading journal slash book review website. Almost every review (or what its creator, Juliana Brina, wonderfully describes as “efforts of affection”) is written as a letter to the author of the novel or story in question, which I adore and, as a longtime letter-writer, I wish I’d thought of myself.

My reading life is a conversation made in silence with writers I most probably will never meet. I see the books I read (and the posts I write about them) as a letter exchange.  You are invited to open these letters I send to the void. Cor ad cor loquitur.

I highly recommend checking her out, and an excellent place to begin would be her wonderful post on the subject of whether or not the indie book blog is dead: And it seemed right, I mean rite, to me. (Spoiler alert: it is not.)

Recently, Juliana launched a series of posts–Know Thy Shelf–documenting her eclectic and enviable bookshelves. She also invited others to join her in posting a picture of their bookshelf, or part of their bookshelf, and answering (and, in one case, asking) the following questions:

(1) Book from this shelf you would save in an emergency.

(2) Book that has been in this shelf for the longest time.

(3) Newest edition to this shelf.

(4) Book from this shelf you are most excited to read or re-read.

(5) Any poetry books?

(6) Any non-fiction books?

(7) Most read author in this shelf?

(8) What does this shelf tell you about me as a reader?

We were two years in our new home before we finally got around to building some bookshelves and getting at least some of our collection out of cardboard boxes. A domino like line of books still snakes around the perimeter of our bedroom floor, and there are days when it seems as though the beige carpet is growing up around them like sun bleached blades of grass.

I love the combination of salvaged wood and industrial piping that Ian used to build these shelves into a small alcove between the kitchen and the living room. We’re still two shelves shy of making this the full-length bookshelf of my imagination (we’re good at starting projects in this house, but not so great at the finishing touches), and we’ll need at least two more book cases of the same size to house all the books that we own between us.

I love bookshelves as much for their aesthetic quality as I do for the actual books themselves, and in this rickety and drafty house of ours they have the added benefit of providing a smidgen more insulation in the winter time. I’m a compulsive book buyer so it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get around to reading every book I bring into this house, but simply being surrounded by them is pleasure enough for me most days. In the dreariest days of Oregon’s winter, they are the most colorful and promising things to be seen for miles around. And, if nothing else, they make wonderful look-out posts for the cats!

For my first ‘Know Thy Shelf’ post, here’s a close-up of one of the shelves.

(For those of you who can’t bear the secrecy, the books that are hidden by the candlestick are Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett, which I have not yet read, and Final del Juego by Julio Cortázar, which I would like to read but my Spanish is nowhere near as good as my husband’s so I will need to get my hands on an English translation.)

Know Thy Shelf 01

And here are my answers to the questions posed by The [Blank] Garden:

(1) Book from this shelf you would save in an emergency:

  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

(2) Book that has been in this shelf for the longest time:

  • In Flander’s Field by Leon Wolff.

(3) Newest edition to this shelf:

(4) Book from this shelf you are most excited to read or re-read:

  • To read: Notable American Women by Ben Marcus. To re-read: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.

(5) Any poetry books?

  • Apart from Leaves of Grass which I already mentioned, American Primitive by Mary Oliver, and the selection of Aristotle’s most important works contains his book on The Art of Poetry among other delights.

(6) Any non-fiction books?

  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

(7) Most read author in this shelf?

  • Toni Morrison.

And, lastly, a question for you, should you have the inclination to answer:

(8) What does this shelf tell you about me as a reader?

I love snooping around other people’s bookshelves; it’s one of the first things I do when I walk into someone’s home. I’m not sure what this slice of my bookshelf tells you about me as a reader, but taking a fresh look at something I see every day is telling me that I need to shut down my laptop for the afternoon and open up a book instead.

Ragtag & Sundry

A few years ago I started writing my regular ‘Ragtag & Sundry’ posts on a Sunday afternoon–an enthusiastic summary, essentially, of the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated on the world wide web that week.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times this month, I’m procrastinating on writing a particular blog post that I want to write. Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that this one post could probably be five to ten interrelated posts, and I’ve been figuring out how to say what I want to say without being either overly longwinded or neglecting to do the topic (or indeed myself, as a writer) justice.

So, as yet another week goes by when I haven’t finished writing the post that prompted me to start up my old blog again, I figured I’d fall back on the old faithful Ragtag & Sundry posts and share a couple of things I found interesting or worthwhile of late.

A passionate procrastinator, one of my favorite ways to procrastinate is to read about procrastination–what it is, why we do it, and how to prevent or overcome it.

Always late to the party, I recently ‘discovered’ the delightful Wait But Why website, and I love their clever yet entertaining take on the underlying psychology of procrastination (aka the action of ruining your life for no apparent reason), and how to beat it by changing the story you tell yourself about it.

Storylines are rewritten one page at a time, says the author. Aim for slow, steady progress, adding:

“[The] key isn’t to be perfect, but to simply improve. The author who writes one page a day has written a book after a year. The procrastinator who gets slightly better every week is a totally changed person a year later.”

Perfectionism is definitely at the heart of my procrastination, particularly when it comes to writing about things I deeply care about. Like I say, I want to do justice to the topic of the post I’m writing, and I feel an anxious need to get it just right. I’m nervous that some of the things I say might alienate people; or I find myself searching for small flaws or inconsistencies in my argument, as though a single mistake or inaccuracy in my post will wind up doing more harm than good.

Afraid of being misunderstood or caught out somehow, my post (as it’s currently written) is chock a block with qualifying remarks and ‘in order to understand this, you should probably know this‘ or ‘when I say this I don’t mean to imply that‘ kinds of sentences. In short, the post is riddled with outsized anxieties and apprehensions, and I need to edit it from a more peaceful place of self-assurance and courage.

This piece in the New York Times–Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing To Do With Self-Control–resonated with me a lot, therefore. Writing against the pervasive idea that procrastination is laziness or a simple time-management issue, the article instead presents procrastination as a complex and irrational form of self-harm that is governed by our inability to manage negative emotions around a task.

“Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.”

In short: procrastination is not a time management problem, it is an emotion regulation problem–a concept that felt intuitively true as soon as I read it, as well as more deeply and holistically beneficial than the usual theories and strategies I come across.

One strategy cited in the NY Times piece is to forgive yourself in the moments that you procrastinate. In a 2010 study, researchers found that self-forgiveness for procrastination can reduce further instances of procrastination, and that self-forgiveness supported productivity by allowing individuals to move past their maladaptive behavior and focus on a task or upcoming event “without the burden of past acts.”

Another tactic is the related practice of self-compassion, which the authors describe as treating ourselves with kindness and understanding in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical. Practicing self-compassion connects us to our common humanity, allowing us to perceive our experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating. Self-compassion entails being mindful–“holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them.”

The (not necessarily) simple act of identifying and naming my aforementioned anxieties and apprehensions around my post is already hugely helpful and has given me a more balanced perspective about the whole thing. Not only am I putting far too much pressure on myself to write the “perfect post,” I’m also creating unrealistic expectations about the effect the post will have on people.

It’s one thing talking about something with a close friend or family member who knows, loves, and understands you; it’s another thing to share your heart and inner world with people you’ve never met

I care so much about the issue I’m writing about, I have to remind myself that the majority of people don’t see things the same way, and I’m already preparing myself for the likelihood that people will either not care or be outright dismissive or aggressively defensive about it. It’s one thing talking about something with a close friend or family member who knows, loves, and understands you; it’s another thing to share your heart and inner world with people you’ve never met, especially in a world where we behave and respond to each other online in ways that we would never do face-to-face.

I’ve also been feeling self-conscious and somewhat foolish that I returned to blogging with a specific goal in mind but I haven’t yet articulated that goal or made my purpose clear. I’m frustrated at myself and impatient to get going with the real reason I wanted to begin my blog again. From anxiety and ambivalence to fear and foolishness, reticence and impatience, a plain old blog post can provoke a whole lotta feelings! Some self-compassion is definitely the order of the day.

Ironically, compassion is at the heart of the post I’m writing, and will form the foundation or guiding force of this blog in general, so for today at least I forgive myself for not being quite finished with the post I’m working on, and will walk into a new week with a little more kindness and understanding of, and for, myself. I may not yet have written the post I set out to write a month ago, but in the course of procrastinating around it, I made some useful connections regarding my underlying thought-processes and fears about it, so this “wasted” time has not been entirely in vain after all.

Photo by Aleksandr Ledogorov on Unsplash

The Place Where You Live

I love Orion Magazine, and one of my favorite features is The Place Where You Live project, which provides readers with space to record their ideas about “place.”

Anyone can submit an entry, which I love. You don’t need to identify as a “real” writer, and–whoever you are–I highly encourage you to give it a go if you should feel so inclined.

“What connects you to your place? What history does it hold for you? What are your hopes and fears for it?”

When I wrote for it (quite a few years ago now), I liked the challenge of being limited to 350 words or less. I tend towards long-form writing (which is why it’s taking me a little longer to publish that “bigger” post I talked about last week), so I love the challenge of working within more constrained parameters.

Occasionally, some entries are selected for inclusion in future editions of Orion’s print magazine. Needless to say, I was delighted when my little piece was chosen to appear in their September/October 2014 issue, but today when I went searching for it to include in a copywriting job application, I discovered that there’s no longer a link for it online, which makes sense after so many years.

I have a print copy, but our scanner is on the blink. Luckily, I came across a website with a PDF of that issue. I include it here for no other reason than to make sure it doesn’t disappear again!

FireShot Capture 025 -  -

I hadn’t thought much about this essay in years. Six months after it was published, Ian and I found a few acres of woodland with a gentle creek and a wood stove, I learned how to plant snow peas and lots of other vegetables, and his parents brought their beehives to live with us when they moved from their home on the Oregon coast to the same condo in the city that we used to live in!

I love this memory of a time when a home just like ours was nothing but wishes and shapes in a concrete ceiling. But, after four years in the Willamette Valley, it’s high time I try to capture this (not so) new place where I live. Right this moment, I can’t imagine how I’ll manage it in such few words, but that’s the great puzzle of writing. This place has changed my life in so many unimaginable ways; it’s been my greatest joy and my greatest challenge. I’m not quite the same person who moved here, but I’m still the person who lies on the floor looking for patterns and things that look like other things.

Begin again

More than two years have passed since I wrote my last post. I have always been an inconsistent and ambivalent blogger, in no small part because “blogger” is an inelegant, philistine, and silly-sounding word, and I will come up with the most trivial and haughty of excuses to not write.

Other excuses are less snobbish and more tender to the touch. Like many people, I have an acute case of imposter syndrome. When the internet is teeming with people more knowledgeable, more experienced, more original, more talented, and more authoritative than me, it’s hard to rationalize time spent scratching and poking at the keyboard with my witchy pointer fingers.

What do I have to offer? What do I have to say? So and so is already doing it better. I don’t really know anything that I didn’t learn from somebody else. Why would anyone care about or take the time out of their already saturated and over-stimulated life to listen to my thoughts and perspectives?

Etcetera, etcetera. Ad nauseam. Retch.

Still. In the past few weeks, I’ve felt the need to create some rituals and regular practices for myself. Nothing too Satanic, at least not yet. It’s just, I’ve been feeling (as I recurringly do) a little lost and directionless and, though it’s not very sexy, I’ve come to see that I thrive within routine and structure, do best with a list of doable things to be done on any given day.

A return to “blogging” may be unwise, uncouth, uncharacteristic, and largely unjustifiable from a “good use of one’s time” perspective, but it’s certainly doable, and in various ways that’s the criteria I’m working with right now.

A year ago this month, the company I worked for went out of business and I was suddenly, though not surprisingly, laid off from the pays-the-bills job I’d been whining about (while increasingly thankful for) for the previous five years.

Since then, I’ve been proofreading, copywriting, and (bizarrely) ghostwriting from home and, while I wouldn’t describe it as meaningful or creatively stimulating writing, I have learned a lot about writing and feel…not so much as though I’m moving forward professionally…but that I’m not moving backward or away from where I want to be, which I have done for so many of my thirty-eight years on this planet.

One of the more difficult lessons I’m (still) learning is around discipline and time-management. The client that I’m working for is flexible and doesn’t impose super strict deadlines. In the absence of a traditional boss or manager, I fall into periods of procrastination about the best way to proceed with a chapter, or find myself nitpicking over straightforward paragraphs, the work expanding to fill the available time for its completion and all that. It’s not that I lack a work ethic. It’s more that I’m allowing work to seep into my life and take up more time than it really needs to.

In short, though I feel I’m making significant strides in other ways, in the past few weeks I’ve fallen into an all-too-familiar pattern of working, eating, sleeping, and watching the occasional movie or TV show, and I need some things to do outside of freelancing (and gardening now that spring is finally here) that feel focused and purposeful. And yet, while there are so many many higher things that I want to do, or say I want to do, for some reason I don’t or can’t or simply shan’t do them.

This is, literally, the story of my life and the next thing that I’m going to set my sights on changing. Returning to my chronically neglected novel, and looking for more fulfilling work, will be the most significant change that I make; and returning to this blog will, I hope, also be a smaller part of that change.

And yet (surprise, surprise), I’ve been procrastinating about what to post for my first post. Or, to be more accurate, while I know, vaguely, what I want to write about, I’ve been procrastinating about the best way to do it, and am somewhat questioning why I feel the need to write about what I want to write about in the first place.

Two years is a long time. I feel as though some explanation is owed: a reason for my absence, or an account of what I’ve been up to, something to bridge the gap between then and now, and create a semblance of continuity. For some reason, I feel that nothing I will write or say in the future will make any sense unless you have an idea of what’s been going on with me the past two years. Which is an insufferably narcissistic, self-indulgent sentiment, salvaged only by the fact that there’s a good chance nobody will actually ever read this or any other post.

With that in mind, perhaps it’s best to postpone the “bigger” post I’ve been procrastinating on, and pause before diving headlong into details of my life or expanding, this second, on particular thoughts and topics. For now, I guess it’s enough to say that the last four (and especially the last two) years has been a period of challenge and great change. In some ways, nothing or very little is all that different; yet in other ways, everything has changed and I am not the person that I was four or even two years ago; and yet in still other ways, I feel as though I have never been more myself or that I’m finally, actually, the person that I’ve always been, this entire time.

Weird stuff. Contradictory. Dissonant. Tough to put into words and, no doubt, when I finally do get around to sharing the particular story I have in mind, it will be very anticlimactic and unremarkable to most readers.

For me, however, the transformation (for want of a better word) has been the most important of my life and opened up my world in the most marvelous and demanding ways. For maybe the first time in my life, I feel passionate and purposeful and, in spite of my previously mentioned misgivings, that not only do I have something to say but that I have a responsibility to use and raise my voice, regardless of whether others are doing it similarly and better or, indeed, whether anybody out there is listening or not.

For maybe the first time in my life, I feel passionate and purposeful and, in spite of my previously mentioned misgivings, that not only do I have something to say but that I have a responsibility to use and raise my voice, regardless of whether others are doing it similarly and better or, indeed, whether anybody out there is listening or not.

Perhaps that’s a good place to end this “begin again” post. I promise I won’t always write so obliquely. I’m not trying to be mysterious or confusing or evasive…at least not on purpose. It’s just hard for me to know quite where to begin when it’s been so long since I’ve written anything here, and when I’m conscious that I’m largely communicating with myself right now! In my next post, I’ll try to speak more plainly. But for now, after weeks and weeks of procrastinating about this post, I’m going to stop over-thinking it and simply press Publish.

Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

Because Going Home Is Not An Option

On Sunday afternoon, I joined a hundred or so women in Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland. What began as an invitation to a small gathering in a friend’s living-room had expanded, within a week, into this bigger, sprawling, holy-seeming space with a stage and a ballroom, a balcony and curtained side-rooms, where we broke out into smaller groups to talk and listen and think and feel and share and organize.

A common cause connected us but, within that cause, our various and differing concerns and motivations nested like so many matryoshka dolls within the single, steeple-roofed space and, indeed, within our very selves. I helped at the check-in table and explained that, for logistical reasons, and to facilitate focused and meaningful conversation, everyone would have to select a single topic to participate in that day: Education, Gun Control, Immigration, LGBTQ rights, Healthcare and Reproductive Rights, and Energy and the Environment.

Their faces said it all as their pens hovered over the sign-up sheets. How to choose? Where to begin? How to prioritize when there is so much at stake and everything, everything, is so vital and urgent and cannot, cannot, wait?

Those who know me know that, these past couple of years, I have been grappling with Time: the ways in which I squander it and how, knowing those ways, will I live my days from here? Few would argue that ‘activism’ is a poor use of one’s time but, accepting that we cannot do everything there is to do, how do we decide what our activism will be and look like, how do we choose what to do, where do we place our time and energy, to which people, and in which place?

In which place?

I am not from here.

I am a Permanent Resident of the United States, though the cynic or Buddhist in me smiles whenever I hear the word ‘permanent’ or ‘united’. I sometimes think of myself as an Alien, feeling, as I often do, as though I am living on a strange planet, trying in vain and in pain and in anger and frustration to understand.

I was born and raised in Dublin. I am Irish. European. I am white. A few weeks ago, an older white woman engaged me on the bus. She was planning on voting for Trump and spoke at length about “those immigrants” and “those people”. I didn’t say much. I live in a progressive, tolerant, loving, echo chamber and was, frankly, fascinated to be talking to one of “those people,” but eventually I must have said something because she noticed my accent and asked me where I’m from. “I’m Irish,” I said. “Ohhhhh!” she said, her face lighting up the way people often do here when they hear that. “Yes,” I said, “I’m an immigrant.”

The woman’s smile faded and her eyes flickered in recognition at the trap I’d laid for her, a trap she stammered and stuttered her way out of, or tried to. A Latino man to our left smiled. It was a sweetish moment, in the moment, but I wonder now what he was smiling at. The old white woman and her racism and inconsistent thinking. Or the younger white woman and her cleverness and privilege. Both he and I know that I am not and never will be an ‘Immigrant’, and all that word implies.

In the days following the election results, unlike so many citizens, so many Americans, this pale alien could walk freely down the street and nobody was telling me to go home or that my time here was up. Unlike so many Americans, I was not harassed or intimidated or violently assaulted. Nobody looks at my face, my skin, my body and wants to end it, wills or wishes me out of existence. I get to make wry comments about permanence and the phrasing of my status but my status remains unquestioned and intact. I can play at being E.T., pointing my finger and saying, “America. Beeeee goooooood,” and pretend that I’m outside it all when, in fact, I am terribly within it and blend in all too well.

I get to say who and what I am. I have at least a dozen identities at my disposal. We all contain multitudes, but I get to live them and can be this thing before breakfast and this other thing after lunch and who will I be tomorrow and what will I do and where will I go?


I thought about it. I hunted out my Irish passport, put it in a safe spot.

It is an option, and it comforts me to know I have a place to run away to but then I think of Virginia Woolf and her words in the essay, Three Guineas.

“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”

Woolf was writing about the connection between patriarchy, war and fascism, and a patriotism that fights and kills for rights and freedoms that she, as a women, had not shared and probably would never share. But when I read it now in this globalized, highly interconnected world, it takes on another meaning and I see that there is no place to run to: that there is a link between America and that little Syrian boy and his face in the sand on a beach in Turkey; that there is a farmer in Aberdeenshire, Scotland who is under threat of being forcibly removed from his land to make way for the Orange Man’s luxury golf resort; that rising seas and famine and drought will come for all of us; that there is no place on earth that is untouched by the same forces of hatred and injustice and denial that we face in this place.

So, no. No going home. Going home is not an option because wherever I am, I am already there. And there is work to do inside of myself and right outside my front door.


Enough For Keeping

I have a new story in The Stinging Fly. It’s about woodturners, sort of.

I haven’t done too much woodworking lately, not since last Spring when I finished my blanket chest. Our place is so small, there’s only so much room for another box, bowl, or coffee table. But some things from the past few years filtered into my story.

Like the woodpile at Ian’s parents’ home on the Oregon coast; the chalky cedary smell of woodshops; time spent in slow and patient purpose; bark, burl, rings; a little bowl I turned from some sweet-smelling apple; a tin helmet I saw when wandering around Portland one day; and this fog that won’t lift and makes me wonder is the world out there at all.

Small bowl, turned from apple

Blanket Chest with Bear Dovetail Joints, Blanket Chest Handmade Dovetail Joints Woodpile at the Coast WoodpileTable Top Legs In The Air Tin Helmet Morning fog, Portland

The Spring issue of The Stinging Fly looks beautiful, as ever, is available to order online, and will be in (Irish) bookshops very soon.


Fund My Dream!

Please help fund my dream.

(My dream was that I was a sardine in a bait ball and you were a hammerhead, a great one.)

(My dream was that I was the last hermit crab and you were an old marmalade jar.)

(My dream was I was wandering in a narrow gorge with so very high cliff walls. Other people were also wandering in the gorge, but we did not speak to one another. I stood on the edge of a thin and silvery stream as a large iceberg sailed quietly by then stopped, stuck. Unable to pass, the once shallow water rose and rose and rose around the iceberg, still quiet, all was quiet. We, all of us, stood there and watched (the rising water, the so very high cliff walls). I don’t know what the other people were thinking or, if like me, they were both frightened and composed, patient, accepting. We did not speak to one another.)

(I woke up to pee and couldn’t get back into this one great dream.)

(My dream was just me roaring and shouting at her. At him. At them.)

(My dream is often a vast, silent wave. Nothing can prevent it.)

(My dream was my cat had a British accent.)

(My dream was I was a girl, dancing on my daddy’s shoes, holding on to the loops where his belt should go but when I looked up it was our old friend, Dave Franklin. He looked down surprised but happy to see me, said “Hi!”)

Ragtag & Sundry

A periodic news and reading roundup

(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated on the www of late).

This Conversation between Dan Gunn and Lydia Davis at the wonderful Music & Literature.

This 1929 Soviet-era silent movie by Dziga Vertov, who once said: “I am eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see.”


Published a couple of years ago, but still – and maybe more so – relevant, Rebecca Solnit’s Diary in the London Review of Books meditates on the influence of technology and the quality of the time we spend in today’s day and age.

“A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing….  It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone.”

Solnit’s sentiments echo my own of late (though more beautifully and with considerably more clarity and conviction – I tend to vacillate between her perspective and one of the commenters who persuasively argues that Solnit is not the first in history to romanticize and misremember the reality of the past). Still, food for thought, and it nudged me into action concerning the way I do, and want to, spend my time. Day 2 of being Facebook-free and it feels okay!

Based on a couple of short stories I’ve read, I’m very excited about Irish writer Sara Baume’s forthcoming debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, from Tramp Press. Will certainly gush more about her another time. For now, though, I lately loved her little blog post documenting some artwork she made, and an installation of post-its titled All The Days I Did and Didn’t, while writing the novel.

I’ve also been seriously dreamy over the work of Mister Finch, a self-taught artist who sews delightful flora and fauna from vintage textiles. I want to fall down this lacy, threadbare rabbit hole and live in a world that looks like this:



There were other things, too, but these are the things I thought to share with you, whatever share means, whoever you are.


Day One


Make room for summer’s blooms.

Say GoodbyeIReallyLovedYou.

Burn, then walk away.




A poem, by Naomi Shihab Nye:

Burning the Old Year

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.
So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.