Writing means to try

Right now I am about halfway through reading the first volume of Beverly Cleary’s memoirs, A Girl from Yamhill. It covers her early years, from her first memories of their family’s farm in Yamhill, to her adolescence Portland, Oregon, where her family moved when she was six. As a child, Cleary lived near Klickitat Street — a name you may recognize from the Henry Huggins and Ramona books. She was born in 1916, which makes her a few years older than my oldest grandparent, and A Girl from Yamhill is a wonderful peek into the world of children a century ago.

It’s also given me a lot to think about when I consider the craft of writing. I enjoy catching moments from Cleary’s own life that later made it into her books, like the school play in which she played a soldier, bowled over with her leg in the air after being hit with a basketball cannonball; the same thing happens in Henry’s school play. But more than that, Cleary relates an epiphany she had as a young girl of eight or nine, about the practice of writing:

If I lost something, Mother said, “You’ll have to learn to look after your things.” I did. If I was involved in a neighborhood squabble, I got no sympathy. “What did you do?” Mother always asked, leaving me with the feeling that, no matter what happened, I was to blame. “Try,” Mother often said.

And try I did. When Abendroth’s store across from Fernwood [School] announced a contest sponsored by Keds shoes for the best essay about an animal, many of my class planned to enter. I chose the beaver, because Oregon was known as the Beaver State. On green scratch paper left over from printing checks, which Father brought home from the bank, I wrote my essay and took it to Mr. Abendroth. On the final day of the contest, I ran to the store to learn the results. I had won! Mr. Abendroth handed me two dollars. Then he told me no one else had entered the contest.

This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try! Others will talk about writing but may never get around to trying. I also wrote a letter to the Shopping News, which published the letter and paid me a dollar.

Beverly Cleary, A Girl from Yamhill, 105.

Try! I’ve been writing poetry for years and years, since I was a girl not much older than Beverly Cleary with her beaver essay. And I’ve wanted since I was a teenager, in a vague sort of way, to be a published poet. I don’t know how I thought that would happen given that I never submitted a single line anywhere, but want it I did. In the middle of the 2010s I started sending things out — barely — just one or two poems to one or two outlets about once a year. My expectations were not realistic; when I wasn’t instantly picked up by the first places I tried, I just stopped trying. This may have soothed my feelings, but it’s not exactly a path to publication.

Last summer, though, I also came to realize that if this was really something I wanted, it meant, well, trying. Now I sit down once a month, browse open calls on submittable, and send out a big batch of poems. This takes me an evening or two; there’s a lot of fiddly work to do in making sure that I’m following each journal/magazine’s particular guidelines, picking poems that I think would be good matches for their themes or style, and the like. Mostly I submit to outlets without reading fees; occasionally I will pay a few dollars if I think I have a particularly good match. Everything goes in a spreadsheet where I keep track of what I have out for consideration, response times, acceptances, rejections, and a page just for nice things people say about my poems that I can read over when I feel like a phony. And you know what? Trying works.

Here are my current numbers:

  • Contest placements: 1
  • Accepted poems: 4
  • Withdrawn from consideration: 8
  • Rejections: 141
  • Still under consideration: 42

There are some things that have become clear to me. One is that this is a numbers game. Perhaps more than any other genre, poetry is highly subjective, and it takes time and a lot of tries to match up what you’ve written with someone who wants to publish it. The second thing is that publishers need writers. Poetry magazines and literary journals could not exist without writers submitting to them; in a way, editors need me just as much as I need them. And the final thing is that rejections are a good sign. I don’t mean that I’m never disappointed when a submission is rejected (although as time goes by this is less and less true), but rather that I can take every rejection as evidence that I’m trying, I’m putting the process in motion, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, all this trying doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll succeed. I might keep sending things out for the next five years and never publish another poem. I don’t know, and that part of it is out of my control. But I do know this: trying gives me infinite more chances to succeed than not-trying does, and that? That is something I can work with.

Here’s to trying.

Weekend Reading: Publishing, Conspiracies, Tech Behaving Badly, MLMs

Weekend Reading is a collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. How Capitalism Changed American Literature (PublicBooks.org)

Both essays tell partial truths. By missing corporate conglomeration, they miss the whole. The two paths paved by the period—which subsume and reorient realism or avant-garde, MFA or NYC—were nonprofit or commercial. Two different ways of structuring publishers’ finances created a split within literature, yielding two distinct modes of American writing.

2. Why Is It So Hard to Reach the Christian Conspiracy Theorist? (David French)

And so I feel I should change my response to the question that launched this piece. When you fear for the mind and heart of your conspiracy-committed mother or uncle or son, don’t wait. Engage. But don’t engage immediately with argument, but instead with the fellowship and love that makes the heart want to turn towards truth. You become the person who loves them, accepts them, and helps provide that vital sense of virtuous purpose. 

The conspiracy theory is often the symptom of an underlying disease—a disease of hate or fear that robs a person of joy. The fierce anger and furious purpose of the conspiracy mindset is a hollow replacement for the peace and faith found not just in truth, but in truth communicated by a loving and empathetic family and friends. 

3. Clubhouse is Suggesting Users Invite Their Drug Dealers and Therapists (Medium)

Granting an app access to your contacts is ethically dicey, even if it’s an app you trust. If you’re like most people, the contacts in your phone include not just your real-life friends, but also old acquaintances, business associates, doctors, bosses, and people you once went on a bad date with. For journalists, they might also include confidential sources (although careful journalists will avoid this). When you upload those numbers, not only are you telling the app developer that you’re connected to those people, but you’re also telling it that those people are connected to you — which they might or might not have wanted the app to know. For example, say you have an ex or even a harasser you’ve tried to block from your life, but they still have your number in their phone; if they upload their contacts, Clubhouse will know you’re connected to them and make recommendations on that basis.

4. 12 Ways that MLMs Impact Society (MLMtruth.org)

Multilevel marketing is often ridiculed for its exaggerated promises of income freedom. People often gasp at some of the, admittedly rare, cases where individuals have lost 100s of thousands of dollars, relative to the others that have invested in the scheme. For nearly a decade, writers like the Finance Guy, Sequence Inc, Talented Ladies Club and Ethan Vanderbuilt have offered an incredibly thorough analysis of the financial consequences of becoming a distributor in nearly every major direct selling company.

Today we want to highlight those costs that aren’t captured in this financial analysis. This list is neither exhaustive or ordered in any particular manner.

This is a looonnng read. It is stitched together in one large post to illustrate just how large of an impact these companies have, and how little understanding we all have of their true COST.

How to buy a piano in thirty easy steps

1. Be stuck in a chair, nursing. Idly browse kijiji on your phone because breastfeeding is so, so boring. Happen across an ad for a piano. Note the reasonableness of the price.

2. Reminisce about how nice it was to grow up with a piano in the house. Imagine how nice it will be for Anselm to do his piano practice on a real instrument instead of the electric keyboard. Imagine spending afternoons playing hymns and folk songs while your (cherubic and in-tune) children sing along.

3. Send the ad to your husband, subject line: “I want this.”

4. Phone conversation with husband: Should we buy the piano? Conclusion: Reach out and see if it’s still available.

5. Call the number listed on the ad. Talk to “Mike”. Mike can’t tell you if the piano is available since he’s not in the office. He’ll call you back within half an hour.

6. Wait.

7. Phone call from Mike: the piano is available. But can you remind him what the ad said the price was? Put the phone on speaker while you look for the ad. Why doesn’t Mike know this?

8. Kijiji app won’t load. Grab the link from your email’s sent folder and read it back to him.

9. Oh, “Midsize piano rich sound half price for piano and delivery” means that delivery will be half-price, not that delivery is included. Ask Mike how much delivery is. Mike tells you how much of a deal half-price delivery is, no other shop in the city will do it, you know a piano weighs four hundred, six hundred pounds and you’ve got to use the ramp and the sledge, and by the way, how many stairs do you have up to your house? Say you’ll call him back in half an hour.

10. Phone conversation with husband re. updated price: Should we still buy the piano? Conclusion: Mike seems… odd, but sure, let’s do it.

11. Phone call with Mike: Yes, you’ll take the piano. Confirm all-in price for instrument and delivery. Ask when he can do the delivery. Well, maybe tomorrow, maybe sometime in the next week or two, he’ll have to check and call you back, he’s not in the office right now.

12. Rearrange the family room to make room for the piano. Vacuum behind the bookshelf you just moved. Comfort Tertia, who is scared of the vacuum.

13: Phone call from Mike: miscellaneous thumping and crashing noises, muted yelling of men at work in the background. Hello? Hello? Phone call is apparently from Mike’s pocket. The call disconnects. You still don’t know when the piano is coming.

14. Husband is home from work. When is the piano coming? You can’t answer. How are we supposed to pay for it? Well, you’re not quite sure. You didn’t pay him already, did you? No, no. We’ll pay on delivery.

15. Eat dinner. Put the baby to bed. Start Anselm’s piano practice.

16. Text message from Mike: “. 7uhj”. Respond “?”. Receive reply “Who’s this”. Be in the middle of writing your answer when your phone rings.

17. Phone conversation with Mike: Man he’s busting his butt for this job all day and his f’n phone’s sending messages while it’s locked, I mean how does it even do that, well anyway where do you live again? Yeah, maybe tomorrow, he’ll let you know.

18. Resume piano practice. Mama, when is the real piano coming? You don’t know, buddy. Soon.

19. Start getting the children ready for bed. The phone rings. It’s Mike! Mike is right around the corner so he’s going to bring the piano now. What’s your address again?

20. Your husband runs out to the ATM for cash. Perpetua is too excited to eat and wants to stand at the window until the piano comes. Convince her to come back and finish her snack. Time passes.

21. Your husband is back from the ATM. Are they not here yet? No, not yet.

22. Get the children in their pyjamas. No piano. Start reading their bedtime story. No piano.

23. Phone call from Mike. What’s your address, again?

24. Two minutes later: phone call from Mike. Sorry, long day, what’s your address, again?

25. Finish reading bedtime story. Pray. Resign yourself to the fact that the children absolutely will not go to bed until the piano comes.

26. Oh, there’s a truck! And it’s backing over your lawn. There is a lot of inching, adjusting and yelling. The piano is coming! Briefly consider stapling your children’s pyjamas to the couch as a means of keeping them in place.

27. Explain to Mike that even though the family room is right there, the clearance is too tight and the piano will have to take the long way around: front room through kitchen through dining room through back hallway and finally through the family room to its far wall. Maybe this is why the previous owner kept her piano in the front room.

28. Realise that whatever Mike’s phone habits may be, he is a bonafide piano-moving savant. The piano goes all the way through and around the house with nary a hitch. He has been doing this job for twenty years and is in complete control of the instrument, his teammate, and his tools. Thank you, Mike.

29. Everything is in place. Mike and his associate leave with the cash, and a bottle of scotch for a tip. Notice the handy way the piano shows off the slope of your floor, which you hadn’t noticed before. Wrestle the kids to sleep.

30. Joy:

Some housekeeping

This blog is about to move to its own domain at christinepennylegion.com.

Everything should migrate on its own and you will not have to do anything except to enjoy the new absence of intrusive wordpress ads, including if you are subscribed to posts here via email or RSS feed. If you access the site via a bookmark in your internet browser, you will need to delete your old bookmark and make a new one at the new website (Grandma: call me!).

This post will be followed by a test post within an hour or so just to make sure everything is working. We will then return to our regular posting schedule of “hmm, I haven’t blogged in a while”.

Weekend Reading: Seriously… deep fried water

Weekend Reading is a collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. Understand Your Horse’s Eyesight (Horse & Rider)

Full disclosure: I don’t think I’ve been on a horse since I was about twelve. I haven’t been near a horse since I was pregnant with Anselm. But it turns out that horse eyesight is super weird! Now you know!

2. Chef Invents Deep Fried Water (The Science Explorer)

#PeakAmerica right here.

3. The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months (The Guardian)

Peter went to work for his father’s company, yet the sea still beckoned, and whenever he could he went to Tasmania, where he kept his own fishing fleet. It was this that brought him to Tonga in the winter of 1966. On the way home he took a little detour and that’s when he saw it: a minuscule island in the azure sea, ‘Ata. The island had been inhabited once, until one dark day in 1863, when a slave ship appeared on the horizon and sailed off with the natives. Since then, ‘Ata had been deserted – cursed and forgotten.

But Peter noticed something odd. Peering through his binoculars, he saw burned patches on the green cliffs. “In the tropics it’s unusual for fires to start spontaneously,” he told us, a half century later. Then he saw a boy. Naked. Hair down to his shoulders. This wild creature leaped from the cliffside and plunged into the water. Suddenly more boys followed, screaming at the top of their lungs. It didn’t take long for the first boy to reach the boat. “My name is Stephen,” he cried in perfect English. “There are six of us and we reckon we’ve been here 15 months.”

4. These Photos Show Russian in an Entirely Different Light (Culture Trip)

On assignment from Tsar Nicholas II, the pioneer of color photography Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky spent almost a decade travelling across the Russian Empire. Using his ingenious method to create color pictures, the photographer documented the life of the country that ceased to exist in 1917.

In 1909 Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, who was already known for a color portrait he had done of Leo Tolstoy, was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II himself to carry out a groundbreaking photographic survey, which the photographer would later refer to as his life’s work.

Sweet Oatmeal Bread

There is a recipe for oatmeal bread that I got from my mother, who got it from… some cookbook, I suppose. I used to make it relatively often many years ago, because it tastes delicious — but the trouble is, I could never get it to rise and it ended up incredibly dense. Now that I know more about making bread, this is because the original recipe’s process might as well have included “Step 3: kill your yeast”!

Instead of sharing that version, here is my revision, with a few tweaked ingredient ratios and a better process.

Ingredients for 2 loaves:

  • 2.5 cups lukewarm water
  • 2.5 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup quick oats
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour


  1. In a large mixing bowl, add yeast to water. Let bloom for a few minutes.
  2. Add remaining ingredients all at once.
  3. Mix by hand until dough comes together.
  4. Turn out onto your work surface and knead 8-10 minutes until smooth and elastic.
  5. Put dough ball back in bowl, cover, and let rise 30-60 minutes until doubled in size.
  6. Knead for 1 minute. Divide dough in half, and shape into loaves. Place in two greased loaf pans and allow to rise a further ~30 minutes.
  7. Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes.

Don’t forget to cool it completely before slicing. This makes a lovely bread that’s a bit on the sweeter side and perfect for toasting. Enjoy!

Pattern: Easy Child’s Crocheted Ruffle Scarf

This is an easy scarf for the child in your life who loves all things ruffled! It was inspired by the “Mindless Mandala Scarf” from Trifles & Treasures; the biggest difference is that with my pattern you’re only working on one side of the starting chain, which gives a spiral effect.

This works up quickly. I used some Lion Brand Mandala in “Thunderbird” that I had left over after finishing Anselm’s afghan, and I love the effect of the long bands of colour. Between the shape and the stripes, this scarf made me think of turkey tail mushrooms the whole time I was making it.

Anyway, here’s the pattern!

Child’s Crocheted Ruffle Scarf

Abbreviations used:

  • ch = chain
  • sc = single crochet
  • hdc = half-double crochet
  • dc = double crochet
  • st = stitch

Materials: Any 4-weight (worsted) yarn with its suggested hook size; adjust as needed if you’d like a longer or wider scarf.

Foundation: Ch 150.

Row 1: Ch 1, turn, 1 hdc in each ch across

Row 2: Ch 1, turn, 2 hdc in each st across

Row 3: Ch 1, turn, 1 dc in each st across

Row 4: Ch 2, turn, [2 dc in first st, 1 dc in next st], continue across

Row 5: Ch 1, turn, 1 hdc in each st across

Row 6: Ch 1, turn, [2 hdc in first st, 1 hdc in next st], continue across

Row 7: Ch 2, turn, 1 dc in each st across

Row 8: Repeat row 7

Row 9: Ch 1, turn, 1 sc in each st across, fasten off

Happy crocheting!

2020: the year that was

2020, amirite? I feel like that date is going to end up as a shorthand for all of us who lived through it: for coronavirus and cloth masks and toilet paper shortages and social distancing and online church and political scandal and civil unrest and case counts and quarantines and the anti-mask lunatic fringe and allllllllllll the rest of it which, frankly, I’m pretty tired of talking and thinking about. The pandemic fatigue is real. We don’t need another post about why 2020 was kind of a dumpster fire, so here is another take — the things from 2020 that I want to remember as good and lovely. They may have been harder to see, but they were there.

First of the list, of course, is Tertia’s birth — this little bobobean filled a hole in our family we didn’t even know was there. She just slotted right in, and it’s been a joy and a wonder to have a baby in the family this year. She is a cheerful, amiable little person. We are so lucky to have her. And we were lucky in our timing as well — she arrived two weeks before her due date, which meant that we just missed out on the first wave of hospital restrictions. The first pandemic closures, while scary, also meant that instead of taking two weeks of paternity leave before going back to work, my husband was able to work from home for about her first twelve or thirteen weeks. It was a real blessing to have him around for the whole of that newborn stage.

The big kids — as we mostly call them these days — have been growing like crazy. We started formally homeschooling this fall as Anselm entered grade one. Perpetua is doing junior kindergarten and it’s been amazing to see how far she’s come with her letters, numbers, and early math just since September. Recently I did some organizing in the basement that left me with a spare large tub, which meant I could finally get all of our craft supplies in one place; it’s so much easier to do art stuff with them now. Anselm has lost two teeth and Perpetua makes me crack up on a daily basis. I’ve been very glad that they have a close relationship, especially this year when it’s been so difficult (or flat-out prohibited) to hang out with other kids. Right now they are being chess pieces and also in a high-jumping contest and a sack of javelins is apparently also involved (?). I don’t try to understand, I just enjoy.

It was a good year for baking! I learned to make sourdough and challah, sometimes on the same day, and I am happy to report that Sheryl, my sourdough starter, is now nine months old and still going strong.

I also made three birthday cakes this year. A strawberry bunny with strawberry icing for Perpetua, a London Fog cake for my husband, and a rainbow sprinkle cake for Anselm (the interior was yellow cake, with vanilla icing). Now, the ‘rainbow’ inside layers were really only discernible under a camera flash, and I learned that next time I should spring for the good old artificial colours instead of the naturally-derived ones… which apparently do nothing. But it was still delicious!

The decorations? Also strawberry.
The London Fog cake: chocolate cake, earl grey vanilla icing, and salted caramel drizzle — all from scratch!
The colours essentially baked themselves out; without the flash they were just variants of yellowy-brown. Oh, well.

It was a productive year for crochet. I completed 5 baby blankets, 6 dishcloths, 1 shawl, 1 decorative throw, 1 Christmas stocking, 1 hat, and 9 squares for my Eastern Jewels blanket. I also got about six or seven rows in to the 16 octagonal motifs for Eastern Jewels, and started a child’s scarf in the last few days of 2020 which I should finish tonight or tomorrow. It’s a fun, very ruffled self-drafted pattern and I’m looking forward to sharing that with you.

Because we bought our house late in the year in 2019, 2020 was our first full year here, and our first chance to experience the garden in the spring and summer. It was a delight to see all the flowers that came up in the spring, and wonderful to have such a nice big yard for the children to play in. The largest flower bed was extremely overgrown; we dug it out in the fall and are planning to put in raised beds for growing vegetables come spring.

What else, what else? I blogged some, I wrote some, I had a poem published, I read some wonderful books, and I continued to enjoy and achieved some personal goals in my favourite game. The recovery from my c-section was uneventful. I discovered, after nearly a year of living here, that there is a pull-out cutting board under one of our kitchen counters. Broadly speaking, we have been healthy, and even happy.

2020 had a lot of challenges. It’s been, at times, scary, frustrating, and lonely. But there are always things to be grateful for, even amid the other stuff. And I am grateful.