7 Frustrating Truths About Birding

Back in March, I spent a week in southern Arizona birding. While I have looked for birds while hiking in the past, this was my first trip dedicated to birding. I discovered that focused birding is both wonderful and frustrating. Here’s what I learned.

Black-throated Sparrow (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

1) Birding can be intense. Knowing I might see something I’d never seen before made me vigilant. I concentrated and was alert whenever I was outside. Eventually, every little movement got my attention and I found myself gazing at a spiderweb glinting in the sunlight or a leaf shivering the in the breeze. Given how many leaves there are out there, it’s not surprising how tired I was by the end of the day.

Acorn Woodpecker: Looks like a clown, acts like a king.  (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

2) You need to take your binoculars everywhere. I missed a good look at a raptor that might have been a new bird for me because I left my binoculars in the car while I went to the bathroom.

Painted Redstart, one of the easier birds to identify (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

3) That bird you saw so clearly? It isn’t in the field guide. This happens to me all the time. My favorite on this trip was a big black bird I saw with rusty patches under the wings. I scoured the hawk pages, certain these “distinctive” marks would be easy to spot. Nothing. Then I saw Kurt’s photo of the same bird, and discovered it was a raven. Which brings us to

4) You will see more common than exotic birds. 99 times out of a 100, that hawk you saw was a red-tailed hawk, not one of the rarer hawks in the area. Unless it was black. Then it was probably a raven.

Red-tailed Hawks. Just because they are everywhere doesn’t mean it isn’t a thrill to see them. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

5) Birds are tricky. Even though it was only March, most of the trees had already leafed out where we were, which meant the birds had plenty of places to hide. It was surprising to me how often I could hear a bird without laying eyes on it. You’d think the singing would give its location away.

Mexican Jay: we thought we were hearing a flock of house sparrows until we finally saw these guys, which took an amazingly long time given their size. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

6) Birds are really tricky. They have either figured out how to travel through wormholes or have cloaking devices. Whichever it is, I can’t count the number of times a bird was right there and then just as suddenly wasn’t.

7) Check every bird in the flock, just in case. Often, different birds will flock together. At a reservoir in New Mexico, I saw one Ross’s goose hiding amongst a bunch of snow geese. Another time, I was certain there were at least three species in the flock of sparrows I was watching, but they all turned out to be Lincoln’s sparrows.

While birding was more work than I expected, it was worth the effort. I picked up 37 new-to-me species and got to see some birds that are Mexican natives. The rarest bird we saw was the streak-backed oriole. We also saw birds that are common to that area but were new to us, like Mexican jays, bridled titmouse, painted redstart, and acorn woodpeckers. Common or rare, moulting or in full breeding plumage, every one of them was a beauty.

Making It Through Creative Limbo

January is here and I am baffled. Where is the excitement I usually feel?

I like to spend January getting excited about what’s next. I had planned on returning to my novel. Thanks to NaNoWriMo, I had developed a strong daily writing habit. My re-write of Rapunzel was going to rocket forward.

Then my husband hit a patch of ice on his mountain bike and broke his hip.

Two of the handful of drawings I’ve done in the last month.

As he lay in the ER, Kurt tried to figure out how he could make his meetings the next day. It didn’t occur to him that he would still be in the hospital the next day.

While I was quicker than Kurt was to realize that our world had changed, I didn’t realize exactly how I would be affected. I would have to be his nurse, as well as take sole responsiblity for all the tasks we normally shared, so I expected to be busy. I expected to be tired.

I did not expect to be completely unplugged from my creative self.

Early on, I was so overwhelmed and exhausted that I had to choose. On any given day, I could only do a little. Groceries took precedence. Doctor appointments came first. Cooking and laundry? Essential to the point of being inescapable.

Writing had to wait.

After a few weeks, however, I expected to get back to normal. Kurt was home and we had developed a new routine. Surely I could get back to my writing?

But I couldn’t. I usually write daily. I also knit, quilt, or draw on a regular basis. Since Kurt’s accident, I’ve gone days without creating, and I don’t seem to care.

My lack of enthusiasm frightens me. I feel like I’ve lost a piece of my brain. I signed up for some weekly online inspirational sessions to help me focus on my dreams, hoping this would help me find my way back to my creative self.

It turns out, I can’t do that, either. Attempts to dig deep and look at the big picture are fruitless and frustrating.

Whether I like it or not, I am in creative limbo right now.

Just as Kurt is sleeping much more than usual, I apparently also need to be still. As the days go by, however, I wonder when the my enthusiasm will be back. Like Kurt, I am anxious to return to my normal activities, and like Kurt, I must be patient.

The temptation is to force things, to makes something happen, but sometimes you can’t push it. Sometimes, you have to accept where you are at and go with the flow. We cannot always be making. We have to stop and breathe and let ourselves rest now and then.

Creativity is supposed to go in cycles. My hope is that this flat, gray, unproductive time is just part of the cycle, and that soon I will move on to a new phase.

In the meantime, I must wait.

When Life Forces You To Let Go Of Your Plan


I’m pretty sure when E. M. Forster wrote about letting go of our planned life, he was thinking about the big picture — those ideas we have when we are kids about marriage, children, and career, where we’re going to live, who we’re going to be. I’ve had to do that in the past. Getting a divorce is a real lesson in letting go of what you thought your life would look like.

This week, however, I’m facing this issue on a different level. Over the weekend, my husband had an emergency appendectomy. We spent all of Sunday in medical facilities, which was certainly not how we had planned on spending the day, and the week has continued to not meet up to my expectations. While Kurt is taking good care of himself and has been free of complications, his recovery is slow. When he isn’t asleep, he’s bored and anxious to get back on his feet.

What I hadn’t anticipated was how much his operation was going to affect me. I feel like my week has been dropped on its head. I can’t focus and have been unable to do my work. I’ve canceled and postponed appointments and put off any chore that can wait. I’ve barely written, been unable to try any of the simple exercises from this week’s drawing class, or to make progress on my challenge quilt for this summer’s show.

I don’t understand why I am feeling so discombobulated. Kurt’s fine and on the mend. I have a few extra things to deal with because he isn’t able to do the things he normally does, but it’s not that much more than I normally do. Is it the knowledge that my father-in-law is now in hospice and won’t be with us much longer? Or is it the insomnia that is keeping me up most nights? Or all of these things combined?

While I want to know why I can’t seem to get back into my routine, what I’d like even more is just to be back in my routine. I have a plan for my days that I am unable to follow right now, and that’s frustrating me. Forcing things isn’t working. I’m too tired to push through. So I’m going to follow Forster’s advice and let go in the hopes that things will right themselves, and we’ll back to a more normal schedule soon.

Are you a planner? Do you have trouble letting go when the unexpected happens?

Accepting My Down Days


It helps to resign as controller of your fate. —Anne Lamott

It happened again. I had a “Down” Day.

Back in 2006, nearly all my days were Down Days. I wound up on disability because I couldn’t work more than two days in a row. I was lucky if I had enough energy to take a bath — showers were too exhausting. Finding the energy to walk the dog was my daily challenge. The big outing for the week was a trip to the therapist and the rest of my time was spent trying to take care of the basics like laundry and groceries.

My health has improved a lot over the years, especially since June 2013, when I made a radical change to my diet. Now, many of my days are Up Days. I not only have the energy to shower, but I workout at the gym, get some house chores done, write at the cafe with my friends, AND walk the dog. These days seem like miracles to me.

Despite the fact that they are happening more and more often, they still feel strange. As I go through them, I am constantly looking around, wondering what is happening, if everything is really OK. When I have a string of them, I get hopeful. I think “Maybe I’m finally cured. Maybe I’m going to be an energetic, productive adult from now on.” And I start making plans.

That’s usually when it happens. I wake up one morning with a day full of golden plans and realize that all the energy has disappeared. I have to let go of my goals for the day — AGAIN. It’s a Down Day whether I like it or not.

“The Tired One” collage by Kit Dunsmore

I’ve been fighting this problem for nearly a decade, so I guess it’s not surprising that my reaction to a Down Day is resentment and frustration. I think, “I was fine yesterday but today I’m not. What did I do wrong?” I’m always looking at my food, my exercise, my activities, trying to figure out what the magic thing is that gives me an Up Day instead of a Down Day.

I have to face the facts. There is no one magic thing. They are all magic things, and even when everything is in place, the magic doesn’t always work. That’s the ugly truth of it.

When I went to bed Tuesday night, I was excited about Wednesday. It was one of those wonderful days when I had nothing scheduled and could fill my day as I chose. I could plan longer sessions working on my novel than usual and still have time to knit or sew. I couldn’t wait. Wednesday morning I woke up feeling awful and was soon stuck with the truth: I felt ill with fatigue. It was a Down Day.

I’m tired of Down Days, but I’m even more tired of being disappointed with myself. I decided it was time to try something different. I would accept that I couldn’t do what I’d planned and instead do everything I could with what I had. I let go of the idea that I was in control and gave acceptance a try.

It was tough. I didn’t like it very much. I still felt that my day was not what I had hoped for, and certainly not what I planned. However, looking back on it, I think I got more done than I might have. I wasn’t good for much more than reading and watching TV, so I read a book about the Salem witchcraft trials and I watched videos of people grooming poodles. I spent the day learning about things that I want to know more about and now I feel like that day wasn’t as wasted as it might have been.

I can tell this acceptance thing is going to take some practice. I’m not sure I’ll ever great a Down Day as a good thing. But maybe, by letting go of the idea I’m in control of this stuff, I can experience a little more peace.

Recognize the Little Triumphs In Order To Hang On


I’m having one of those days where I feel broken. I’ve had to scrap most of my plans for the day because my health is not cooperating. It’s easy to get frustrated when I look at my to do list and realize I just can’t, not right now anyway.

Fortunately, I came across this quote:

Little triumphs are the pennies of self-esteem. — Florence King

Not every day is about big accomplishments. Some days, we have to lower the bar and celebrate the little victories instead. While it’s easy to get frustrated by such slow progress, we still get to add a penny to the jar. Over time, that jar will get full. We just have to keep showing up.

In the meantime, I know things will improve again. I don’t know how or when, only that they will. By lowering my expectations of myself to match my abilities of the moment makes it easier to keep moving forward without wiping out completely. I can hang in there until things get better if I don’t push too hard right now.

My little triumph for today is getting a blog post up on time. What’s yours?

Great Mini Animals to Knit — If You Can Unravel The Instructions

Recently I came across the adorable knit animals of Sachiyo Ishii. Some of the animals look surprisingly realistic for tiny knits. I couldn’t resist buying both Mini Knitted Woodland and Mini Knitted Safari at once. I got out my cotton yarn and 00 needles, eager to get started. It wasn’t long before I discovered that these cute patterns aren’t as simple as they seem.


I began by making the hares out of Mini Knitted Woodland. Thanks to the vague instructions (“sew the head”), the first one didn’t look right. Dissatisfied, I tried again. After three, I felt like I’d gotten the hang of the pattern and working so small, and was ready to move on. I switched to some scrap wool yarn and made a raccoon.

While my difficulties with the hare were a clue, it wasn’t until I was stuffing the raccoon that I realized the instructions in the book were lacking. My raccoon looked like a no-necked gangster, while the pictures in the book showed a well-defined break between the head and shoulders, even though the body and head are knit as one. I used sculpting stitches along the neckline to get a better shape. It worked, sort of.


Next, I tried a squirrel and had my first complete fail. The tail is made from a tiny pompom, and since I’ve made pompoms in the past, I wasn’t too worried about the minimal directions. I followed the directions and it didn’t work. At all. So I set the squirrel parts aside for another day.

Squirrel parts.
Squirrel parts.

Discouraged by the failed squirrel, I decided to make a pompom-free tortoise. The little guy is adorable and one of the smallest things I have ever knit.


As Mother’s Day approached, I pulled out Mini Knitted Safari to make a VW van for my mom. I knew Mom would love a reminder of our family camping trips. The pattern in the book is a hippie camper complete with embroidered flowers, but I changed the colors and the embroidery to make it more like the one we’d owned.

Van Collage_web

Emboldened by my success, I went back to animals and made a polar bear. (Note: Apparently “safari” means “big wild animals” and is not limited to Africa.) It worked pretty well, although once again I had some trouble with the directions. The back end did not come out like the bear in the picture, and I had to do some additional stitching to make the shape more bear-like.


The last project I tried was a panda bear, mainly because I had black and white yarn on hand. The body went together pretty easily but the head is just weird and I can’t tell from the instructions how to put it together. If I use the flap as a neck and sew it to the body directly, it looks all wrong. If I sew up the head so it’s completely separate, it comes out too small. As soon as I added one black eye patches, it was clear that my panda does not look like the one in the book, and I have no idea how to fix it.

The instructions were wanting...
The instructions were wanting…

Much as I love the tiny animals in these two books, I’m not sure how many more I will try to make. I’m willing to put up with failure and fudging when I’m designing something from scratch, but if I am following a pattern, I expect it to work, no major adjustments, and certainly no failures.

How about you? How hard are you willing to work to construct something when you are given poor instructions? Also, if you have any tips on how to make a tiny pompom (less than an inch across), please share them! Some of the cutest critters in the book are made with pompoms.

Getting Organized Without Buying A New Purse

A few years ago, I made myself buy a bigger purse. For years I resisted carrying a purse at all, and then when I did start, I kept them as small as possible. Keys, wallet, and sunglasses were all that fit, because that was about all I needed. Eventually, I wanted to carry a notebook for scribbling in during otherwise wasted time. I didn’t want to carry two bags, so I bought a lovely hand-woven Peruvian purse from ClothRoads as a birthday gift to myself. A friend who had one assured me that the material wears “like iron” and looking at the bag today, I have to agree. I’ve used it for two years and it looks new.

My big purse, hand-woven in Peru.
My big purse, hand-woven in Peru.

I’ve gotten used to carrying a bigger bag, and I think that caused my next problem — not being able to find anything. A big bag means plenty of room for extras, and I’m in the habit of carrying all sorts of stuff I didn’t use to bother with. In the last month, I’ve had multiple moments of frustration where I nearly dumped my purse out in order to find what I was looking for. I started thinking it was time to buy a new purse, but because this one is still in such good condition, that seemed like an unnecessary and wasteful solution.

Fortunately, I thought of Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern. I checked the section of the book where she tackles different sorts of things that need organizing, and sure enough, there was a chapter for briefcases and purses. A quick skim of it told me what my problem was: items did not have a home. There’s a small zipper pocket inside that I put my cell phone in, but otherwise the purse is a single large compartment. There was no way to sort or organize my belongings inside the bag.

Since I didn’t want to go shopping for a new bag, I decided to make smaller bags to collect like things. The rule I made for myself was that after reaching into my purse, I should only have to open one thing to get at what I wanted. This meant that my prescription sunglasses, which travel in a hardshell case, could just go in the bag as-is. But most everything else could be inside a second bag.

Following Morgenstern’s advice, I sorted the things I carry in my purse into like items. I wound up with three piles: money-related (wallet, discount membership cards, checkbook, pen), personal care (chapstick, eyedrops, gum, etc.), and planning (calendar, pen, shopping lists).

The contents of my purse. (No wonder I couldn't find anything!)
The contents of my purse. (No wonder I couldn’t find anything!)

Next, I needed bags. Since I used to make the little purses I carried, I was willing to make the bags that would go into my purse. My favorite purse pattern is the Runaround Bag by Lazy Girl Designs. Although it includes a zipper, the construction of the bag is designed to make inserting it a breeze. So I used the trick from the pattern to put zippers in my much simpler bags for my purse.

The bags I made to organize my purse.
The bags I made to organize my purse.

I chose the fabric to suggest the contents, hoping it will help me remember my new system. Money is green (of course), personal care has geishas primping on it, and the butterflies on the planning bag are symbolic of time passing.

I’ve used the new bags for only a few days, but already, life is much, much better. Every time I’ve had to go into my purse, I’ve found what I was looking for without effort, and I no longer have to apologize to the cashier for having to wait while I dig for my wallet. It’s taken the frustration out of carrying my big purse, and I can love it again.

Do you prefer big or small bags? How do you keep things you carry around with you organized?