What Next?

This time last year, I was holding Thing1’s hand as he recovered from major surgery and navigating an unwanted gap year. I was still working at home, and Thing2 was still getting his feet wet in middle school. They were the center of my world and the center of my life, and I thought I knew who I was – a mom, writer and artist. The last twelve months, however, have changed all of that.

When I first started this blog seven years ago, I was a work-at-home-mom. The boys were 12 and 6 and, in addition to being the center of my world, were the centers of my days. At the time, the messes and chaotic rituals that go with raising creative kids in the country were endless sources of entertaining and, sometimes, heartbreaking, inspiration for post after post. Trying to preserve the moments, I got back to drawing/illustrating and then found my way to painting.

While Thing1 and Thing2 starred in many posts, I resisted making this a “mommy blog“ for reasons I couldn’t explain then but, after this year of change, I am starting to understand now.

I changed work venues and careers at the beginning of summer. Then Thing1 left for college after a summer of work. Thing2, a case study in extroversion, waded enthusiastically into the middle of middle school, and, while they are still the centers of my life and my heart, they are not always at the center of my day. Thing1 is carving out his own life. Thing2 is working his heart out to be better than his brother at everything. I’m getting to know them both as young adults, and it is an exhilarating experience. It’s also a confusing one.

The kids seem to be forging their identities almost effortlessly. I’ll always be a mom, but with each snip of the apron strings, my ‘mommy’ days seem to be slipping away. I’m still new enough at teaching to think of it as something I do and not yet as something I am, and that distinction has, over the last few months, repeatedly prompted a question about the other important part of my life of “What do I create?” Am I a writer who paints or an artist who writes?

With our family stories evolving away from the kitchen table near the wood stove, for the first time in seven years, I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to paint. I even started taking internet personality tests (always a reliable source of wisdom), hoping the results would spur an obvious answer and direction.

Then a friend reminded me that an artist is an artist, regardless of the medium. That meant the answer was simply in getting back to creating again. The task, now, is to start with writing something – anything – every day.

I know he’s right.

I know that the act of creating will be the discovery of the next stage of life. So bear with me as I get my new bearings. All topics are on the table, and the journey has just begun.

Kickstart – No Funding Required

I’m kicking off the new year with a jumpstart to my blog.

The recharge includes a return to a name – Picking My Battles. It’s mantra that helped keep me focused on creating for the first few years — even when I was almost as busy as I am now. And, what the hey? The formula worked before, and sometimes sequels are better than the original.

When I inaugurated Picking My Battles, Thing1 and Thing2 — then 12 and 5, were the primary focus of my and the Big Guy’s lives. Six years later the domestic front, much like the deck chairs on the Titanic, has been rearranged a bit, but the chaos still seems to be the consistently constant.

Six years ago, the day would go from peanut butter sandwiches to carpools to work to bills to homework. Fast-forward to the present, and I’m still a domestic anti-goddess, the Big Guy is still a rock, Thing1 has morphed into a college-bound, jolly greens-eating Giant, and my tutu-wearing free spirit, Thing2 is a bigger free spirit with way more expensive fashion sense. So, somehow, in order to carve out time to create books or paintings or cartoons and get healthy and strong again, life still boils down to learning to pick the important battles.

You can read the updated blog by visiting http://www.rachelbarlow.com or http://www.pickingmybattles.com.

Head in the Clouds


I love to stop and ponder the headless statue whenever I go over to Bedlam Farm, the home of bestselling author John Katz and artist Maria Wulf.
This weekend I was there to participate in their semi-annual Open House, celebrating Rural Art and the creative spark that lives in all of us. I love the Open House because you can’t get up the driveway without running into an old friend and fellow art junkie, but this year there was something deeper to love, and it gave me a clue as to what might have happened to the pilgrim’s head.

As happens with every Open House, people from all walks of life and points of view came together to enjoy the art. Throughout the day I overheard people praising the work of others. Sitting under the apple tree on a wicker love-seat, I heard one visitor contemplating reviving her creative life as another enthusiastically encouraged her. We watched sheep herding and listened to kids relatively new to this country sharing their musical talents with a damp-eyes audience.

This weekend ended up being, for me, about nurturing the idea that the things we have in common–the things that bind us–are more beautiful and powerful and than those that divide us. There seemed to be a mass mutual recognition that our creative sparks are worth fanning and when we come together to encourage people’s gifts, we are all better.

That thought kind of carried my head into the clouds as I sat on that love-seat on Sunday, and I realize that’s probably what happened to the little pilgrim statue at Bedlam Farm too. I think he found himself at the altar of creativity (featuring a recycled art sculpture by Ed Gulley) and, keeping his feet on the ground, let his head get lost in the clouds as he chased his own creative spark. 

It’s a worthy pursuit, and I think all of us who had a chance to sit near the altar this weekend went home full of sparks to nurture and share.

Blessed Burdens

Laundry peace

Living off-grid means every scrap of laundry gets hung on a line, but if you think because the clothes dry more slowly I would be able to stay ahead of the folding, you’d be wrong.  

I can wash and hang three hampers full of biohazard-quality laundry in a single day, but the to-be-folded pile only grows.  I usually tackle it before Google Earth registers it as a new land mass, and I rarely mind the activity.  The rhythm of the sorting always stimulates meditation.  

Last Saturday, it stimulated something else.

Hoping to disrupt the strange biorhythms that, only on weekends as soon as I sit down before dawn to write, rouse my children and send them searching for snuggles and cereal, I’ve fled to the nearby country store to work before heading to Hubbard Hall, to help with the tech side of a blogging class.  The class has provided plausible cover for my morning escapes, and each afternoon I’ve come home thinking I couldn’t be more thankful for anything else that day than I was for a little grown-up time.

This last Saturday I came home to a different kind of grown-up time. A neighbor phoned looking for computer help.  I glanced around our kitchen/great room and at the laundry pile and said, “Come on over!”  He would be here in a few hours.  

Folding sessions usually occur after bedtime (the biorhythms only manifest when Mom is doing something fun), but  with impending company, I made an exception and began my folding dance, aided by my iPod and earbuds.  

The couch and table were soon dotted with neat multi-colored piles.  My antics immediately drove thirteen-year-old Jack to his room to study.  Seven-year-old Thing2, however, remained, quietly dancing over from the TV area.  

I sorted and thought about writing and chores.  I didn’t really think about the folding aside from which things should go to Goodwill.  Thing2 interrupted my ruminations, wrapping his arms around my waist as I was in mid-fold.

“Mommy, can I help?”  he asked.

“You really want to fold clothes?”  I asked.  

“No,” he said.  “But I want to help.”  He released me and spun around the living room.  Then he returned for another hug.  “Maybe I can play some music for you,” he suggested.  He sat down at the nearby piano and plunked out “Do-Re-Mi”.  

I took out my earphones so I could listen.  I kept folding, but there was no rhythm now.  Thing2 sang softly with the piano.  Too small items rotated out of inventory, sometimes taking with them a last tangible souvenir of this family vacation or that event.  Jack’s old shirts went into Thing2’s piles.  The piles grew and so did the memories.  

Well before the to-fold pile was gone and the folded clothes packed into baskets, the task ceased being a burden.  It was a reminder of the things that make a life worthwhile.  And, for once, I didn’t just make the best of the laundry pile. I was thankful for it.

Moving In – Installing WordPress on your Self-Hosted Blog

If you’ve decided to self-host your blog, there are two options for installing WordPress on your host.  The first is to visit http://www.wordpress.org and download the free software.  WordPress.org does include step-by-step directions for installing the software on your site.  

Increasingly, however, web hosts are offering an easy one or two click installation of the software when you purchase your hosting package.  Your installation process will be similar to thethe following:

  1. Most hosts that offer WordPress (or other Platform choices) will present you with a control panel to manage your entire site.  You’ll usually see an option to install WordPress or ‘Popular Scripts’ as shown below NewImage
  2. To begin, click ‘Install’.  The script installer will try to detect your settings and will let you know if any changes need to be made prior to the installation.  Once your host account settings are in order, your installation will begin.  
  3.  Some web hosts will do everything for you when you click install, but others may want a little information from you.  The second phase of your installation screen will ask you where you want the blog stored – do you want readers to find the blog when they type in your web address, or do you want it to be a subpage on your site.  Other things you may need to determine are the name of the installation directory (the installation script will create it), your Administrator user name, and the Admin password you want.For security reasons, it is recommended that you do not accept the default Admin user name ‘Admin’ or the default Installation directory of ‘wp’.  WordPress is popular with readers and writers, but it is also a popular target for hackers who tend to exploit those default names to gain access to blogs:NewImage
  4. Click ‘Next’ and your web host will take care of the rest of the installation.  Your blog’s web address will be the ‘Base URL’ address you chose.  Your blog’s administration page will be at www.yourblogaddress/wp-admin.  Your login information will be the name and password you chose.  If you forget your password, it can be emailed to the address you provided.  Again, choose an email address that can’t be deduced from the name of your web address.
  5. Your hosting provider will email you with your user ID and password and confirmation of the installation completion.  Now it’s time for the fun part of any move-in:   decorating.

Keeping Up Appearances – Decorating the Self-Hosted Blog

If you’ve already been blogging at WordPress.com, much of the self-hosted WordPress environment will look very familiar.  However, there are a few key differences – even when keeping up appearances – between running your blog at WordPress.com and having your own ‘place’.

Themes

When you first login to your new self-hosted WordPress Dashboard, one of the first things you’ll want to do is customize your appearance.  To start, click on ‘Appearances’ in the left pane of your WordPress window and then click on ‘Themes:

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The installation will include a few default themes, but you can add new themes by clicking the ‘Install Themes’ tab.  That tab will let you upload custom themes you design or buy, or you can choose from over 600 free themes.  

As with WordPress.com, each theme on your self-hosted blog allows a different level of customization.  You can use the links to choose from different appearance options, or, if you know CSS  or HTML, you can click ‘Editor’ and tinker with the code.   Be aware that, on a self-hosted blog, you can break a theme, so be sure to make a backup before wading in too deep. 

Widgets

As with a hosted WordPress blog, your self-hosted blog includes a Widgets, add-ons to your blog page that can be dragged to your side bar.  There are a few default widgets – Custom Menus and a BlogRoll you can add to your blog right away.  You can add others by installing them from the ‘Plugins’ section of your WordPress Dashboard.  

To add a widget to your blog sidebar, click and drag the widget to the desired place.  Widgets can be moved up and down in relation to each other:

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This is how a widget looks on the actual blog:

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Plug-ins

The plug-in is where the self-hosted blog really begins to flex its muscle.  Plug-ins are basically neatly-packaged scraps of code that you can add to your WordPress blog and that allow you to add custom Social Networking widgets to your sidebar, shopping carts to your blog, and even forum infrastructures to encourage your readers to engage with each other on your site.  If you know PHP programming, you can create your own, but the most common way to add a plug-in to your blog is to choose from the thousands of free offerings.

To add a plug-in to your site, click ‘Plug-Ins’ in the sidebar of your administration screen.  You’ll notice that the WordPress installation includes one or two default plug-ins.  Click ‘Add New’ to navigate to the search page:

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You can use keywords or categories to search for plug-ins, just as you would when installing a new Theme.

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 Plug-ins shown in your search results are rated and can be sorted by rating or by name.  Click promising listings to learn more details and then to install the one you want.  Once the plug-in is installed, you’ll have the option to ‘Activate’ it.  Some plug-ins, such as tracking programs, operate behind the scenes but need you to custom their settings to your blog.  Others, such as shopping cart plug-ins, will appear as new pages or as new widgets to be added to your sidebar.

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Because plug-ins are usually free, and because they offer new options for customizing your site, it can be tempting to add a bunch all at once.  However, extra gadget you put on your site, visible or not, is like the clutter in your junk drawer – it may be useful, but it takes up space and, in the case of your blog, can slow things down for your user.  Only you can decide when that next new widget is one too many.

Hosting – Your Place or Mine

When setting up a blog – or growing an existing blog – the question of whether to host or have your blog hosted for you often arises.  The host is the infrastructure for your blog.  You can choose to have a blogging service host your blog for you, or you can pay to host your blog on someone else’s web server.  Each option has advantages and disadvantages as shown below.

Hosted vs. self-hosted

Hosted

A hosted blog is an inexpensive way to get started quickly. A hosted blog is stored on the servers of the blog platform.  Blog platforms such as WordPress and Blogger (now owned by Google) offer free sign up.  There are a number of pros, but there are also a few drawbacks to a hosted blog.

Hosted Pro’s and Con’s

PRO’S

  • Sign up is Free, offering up to 3GB of blog space on WordPress and few limits on Blogger (they limit you to 1GB of photos).  
  • Getting started is quick.
  • The host handles automatic backups of your blog
  • The blog host handles software upgrades automatically for you
  • The host handles spam filtering.
  • The host handles security issues.

Con’s

  • Customization is limited to default themes offered by host
  • Most hosts won’t allow you to add plugins
  • With the exception of Blogger, you can’t use Adsense 
  • Most hosted blogs won’t allow features such as shopping carts 
  • You can’t use Google Analytics (except for Blogger)
  • You can move your blog content, but you don’t own it – the host can remove it at anytime or drop support for your blog platform

Self-Hosted

Self-hosted blogs are not free, but if you like to be in control, this may be an option for you.  

Self-Hosted Pro’s and Con’s

PRO’S

  • You own your blog
  • Complete control over your blog.
  • Ability to upload custom themes and plugins.
  • No need to know web design or coding, but if you do, you can completely overhaul the look of your site.
  • Access to custom analytics and tracking tools
  • Freedom to monetize your blog as you see fit

Con’s

  • You’ll need to find a hosting package.
  • You are responsible for backups and security.
  • You are responsible for upgrading your software when the blogging platform announces updates.
  • Costs for hosting range from $3 to $7 per month or more depending on the size and traffic levels of your blog.

The Self-Hosted Blog

Blogger and WordPress.com users have a host built into their platforms and only need to sign up for an account to begin setting up a blog.  However, if you’ve decided to host your own blog, the next step in building your own soapbox is to find a host.  Here are a few popular and reliable hosting providers:

Godaddy 

http://www.godaddy.com

With hosting starting at $3.99 for up to 100GB of disk space and unlimited bandwidth (traffic), GoDaddy offers excellent support by email or by phone.  They also offer free, one-click installation of WordPress and several other blog platforms.  You can also register and park a domain with them.

littleoak.net

http://www.littleoak.net

I’ve used Little Oak for hosting websites and my blog for over five years.  If you’re a Mac user (and even if you’re not), Little Oak is a great place to park your website or blog.  They also offer easy installation of WordPress (and a few other blog platforms).   Hosting starts at $80/year, and you can register domains through their site.  They do offer Live Chat tech support, as well as support by email. 

bluehost

http://www.BlueHost.com

Offering support by phone or email, Blue Host is another popular web host.  As with GoDaddy and Little Oak, you can use their control panel to quickly and easily install your WordPress blog.  Hosting starts at $4.95 per month.

dreamhost

http://www.DreamHost.com

Starting at $3.95/ month, Dream Host offers one-click WordPress installation and tech support by email.

These are just a few of the available hosting options, and all of those offer quick and easy installation of your WordPress blog – a process I’ll cover in the next post.

The World of Widgets

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When you first setup your WordPress blog and preview your new page, the first thing you may notice – after perusing your first post –  is a collection of links and other items, called Widgets, in your sidebar.  Not just a fictional product in economics class anymore, widgets are the tools that let you arrange and manage the content in your sidebar and on your page.

By default, most WordPress themes will populate your sidebar with the Blogs I Follow widget and the Meta widget.

The Meta widget gives you a quick link to login to the administration side of your blog.    It also contains links to your feeds (more about those later) and to WordPress.com.

The Blogs I Follow widget is automatically generated when you click the ‘Follow’ () button in the corner of any WordPress.com blog.

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You can also add to this list from your WordPress Administration page by clicking ‘Blogs I Follow’ in the sidebar and then the link to your WordPress.com Reader.

 

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This field will let you enter the URL of any blog, regardless of whether or not it’s hosted on WordPress.com or another server.   You can see the update and the results below:

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Both of these widgets can be customized or removed from your sidebar by clicking ‘Widgets’ under the ‘Appearances’ menu in your blog’s administration page:

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On the right side of the widget screen, you’ll see a collection of Widget areas that are available on your selected Theme. Some of the Widgets will appear in the sidebar – others will appear in the footer or above your header image.  To add a widget to your blog, click and drag it from the ‘Available Widgets’ section to the desired Widget area in the right side of the admin screen.

The following are Widgets I recommend for any new blog:

  • About Me – Self-explanatory, this widget lets you use a free service to add a brief bio or profile about yourself.  To use this widget, you’ll need to sign up with a free service called ‘About.me’.  You can add an image and use your About.Me profile on any blog you create.

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  • Categories – Your blog categories are not automatically displayed in your sidebar, so you will need to add them.
  • Search – This lets readers search your blog based on Tags, Category names and post content. It’s a good way to keep readers on your page.
  • Text  – This widget can be straight text or, if you know a little HTML, you can really customize your WordPress.com blog.
  • Facebook (Twitter, del.icio.us) – Give your readers a chance to share your work.  WordPress.com now makes it easy to add links to your social media with several customizable widgets just for that purpose:

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  • Follow Blog – Blogs need readers.  Make it easy for people to read your content by adding the ‘Follow Blog’ widget to your sidebar, ideally at the top:

 

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Widgets appear on your site as soon as you drag them to the Widget area – you don’t need to save them for them to appear. You do need to click the ‘Save’ to keep any changes you’ve made:

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There are a host of other free, useful widgets for your WordPress.com blog, and it’s worth taking time to play with them and see what works for you.  On a WordPress.com blog, you are limited to the widgets they’ve included.  However, if you decide at some point to host your own blog, you’ll have access to a world of plugins and widgets, including plugins for social networking, adding shopping carts and other functionality.  I will cover self-hosted blogs in another post.

Until then, have fun exploring the world of widgets.

Blogs I Love

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Many times in my life I have tried to be a writer.  I think in my heart I was always a writer.  I have always had stories in the back room of my brain, but this latest attempt to create a writing life has been the most successful, and I think it’s because I finally came out of the back room.

For years, the only people who saw my writing were my husband and my mother.  Sometimes I’d show other people.  I joined a writing group for a while until each of our lives put too many demands on our time.  But, for most of my life fear kept my journals in a box under my bed.

Then, last summer, came the Writer’s Workshop at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, NY.  Already familiar with the magic effect Hubbard Hall was having on my husband as he immersed himself in their community theatre group, I had high hopes when they announced this writing workshop.  But I was also terrified.

First I was terrified I wouldn’t get in.  Then I was terrified I would, only to find out I was a hack and dilettante.  I was sure that everyone else would be better.  They would be ‘real writers’.

And then the workshop began, and fear was summarily banished by the group’s leader as he asked us each to start a blog and a practice of sharing.  And, as we began to share with each other, I began to stop worrying about who was better and, instead, began to focus on getting better than before.

For me, sharing almost anything was initially about as easy as it would be to deliver the State of the Union address naked (at my current weight – 20 years and 100 pounds ago, not such a problem).  But once I got over my initial nervousness and realized everyone else was baring their souls and lives, it was fun.  And it’s been something else too.  It’s been inspiring.

Each of us has had the pleasure of watching our new friends grow.  We’ve each had our successes and setbacks – online and off.  Our blogs have evolved with our goals and our lives.

Between work and family, my days were already fairly filled before the group began, and after the group got going, I had to find more hours in the day.  As I found more hours in the day, I found I was spending more time reading my friends’ blogs.  I found my way into blogs they liked.  I found I was reading more each day than I had in years.  And as I read I wrote.

I’ve kept a blogroll on my site since its inception.  Yesterday while chatting with a friend from a workshop, however, I came to the conclusion that a blogroll doesn’t really do justice to the people who’ve been inspiring me these last months.  So, today, following the lead of my friend Kim Gifford and our group leader Jon Katz, I decided to add a ‘Blogs I Love’ page to mine.  It’s a little way to pay it back, but I really hope that by sharing the work of these and other artists I’ve loved and come to love, I’m actually paying it forward.


Blogs I Love (so far)


Pugs and Pics by Kim Gifford, Vermont writer, photographer, artist and pug lover.  Whether she’s writing about her beloved pugs or her distinctive photographs, Kim’s work is humorous, heartwarming, and sometimes heartrending.

http://www.pugsandpics.com/

 A real life milkman-turned-writer and poet, John Greenwood’s blog Raining Iguanas is a journey of discovery and nurturing of his own talents as a writer and artist and of his native Upstate New York.  It combines the best of pleasurable escape and motivating inspiration.

http://rainingiguanas.blogspot.com/

Bedlam Farm by the venerable and always affable Jon Katz, was the inspiration and benchmark for each of our blogs.  Honest and fearless, Jon’s blog is living, breathing proof that the most important thing in life is to never stop growing.

http://www.bedlamfarm.com/

Full Moon Fiber Arts by Maria Wulf is a record her life as a fiber-artist and free spirit.  Her quilts and potholders are prozac in fabric form, and she’s also a fantastic writer, weaving  stories and inspiration throughout the colorful images of her work.

http://www.fullmoonfiberart.com

Hiking Biking Adventures by my incredibly cool aunt and uncle Anne and Mike Poe is primarily about their Take a Hike guidebooks, but even if you’re not a hiker, you’ll visit for the photos and stay for the stories.

Hiking Biking Adventures Home

Merganser’s Crossing by Diane Fiore, follows her journeys with her father and his dementia at the end of his life.  Diane’s blog is intensely personal and incredibly relevant at the same time.  Hopefully she will give us a book out of this, but, for now, it’s worth not only visiting, but going to the very beginning and reading it straight through.

 http://merganserscrossing.wordpress.com

I stumbled onto A Teaching Life by Tara Smith when I followed a backtrack, and I’ve kept going back.  A middles school and writing workshop teacher, her blog holds interest for me, not only as the parent of a sometimes reluctant reader, but also as a fellow lover of books.  Each post is a discovery or rediscovery of a new literary adventure.

http://tmsteach.blogspot.com