Musings + Essays

Wool Gathering.

By: Jen Shoop

*Image via The Studio Melrose.

A Magpie reader wrote me a lovely note earlier this week letting me know that she and her best friend often talk about my musing on “the years that ask and the years that answer.” (Which one is 2023 shaping up to be for you?) I paused for a minute and realized that ever since we moved from New York City to Bethesda, MD, I’ve been living amidst a string of years that answer, and answer, and answer. Life feels solid and comfortable in a way it never did in New York and Chicago before it. I think this is partly the ages of our children, partly the sensation of buying a home vs renting (honestly, more precisely, the sensation of not having to move in the imminent future), partly the fact that we are through our baby years and no longer have that “will we have another?” question asterisking our “dream talks,” partly our stability in our respective careers, and partly the fact that we are back in our hometown after a wild adventure flying the coop. We had to ask a lot of questions, and then handle a lot of fallout from their answers, to land here. My 20s and 30s felt like one long call; I am finally listening to the response. Anyhow, today, I want to say that if you feel you are wandering, and you are coming up on a decade of years that have relentlessly asked, there will be an answering year. You will look back and see the once-immaterial breadcrumb trail that brought you to a place of rest, and you will also see that the experience was not only worth it but wakening.

Below, I’m republishing some thoughts on the long trail for my fellow wool gatherers from an essay I wrote a year and a half ago for a gal who once interned for me.


It is OK to take the long road,

to earn the title “wool-gatherer,”

to be the handwritten cursive subscript under the 12-point Times New Roman font,

to move beneath, rather than with or against, the grain,

with meanderings so under-the-radar that they are dismissed as insignificant.

It is OK to take the squiggly path,

that draws you from arranging name tags on the reception table at the Phillips Collection

to stammering through academic papers in ancient towns in Italy

to gliding through rehearsed presentations to large audiences

to starting and shuttering a business

to writing for a living —

just an example.

It is OK to feel that you have been searching for something you can’t quite put your arms around,

each phase a phantom hug —

but know that the footprints that brought you here

suggest otherwise:

There is meaning-making in the tracks.

For Susie


+You are enough.

+More on that ill-fated academic paper in an ancient town in Italy.

+The moment I realized how little my peers thought of my choice to pursue English.

+Do you see a difference between the way those of us who studied the humanities and those of us who studied STEM approach the world?

If you want more Magpie, you can subscribe to my Magpie Email Digest for a weekly roundup of top essays, musings, conversations, and finds.

Shopping Break.

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+If you are looking for a dressy top for a formal skirt and don’t love the mesh vibe, this one is it. Could even be styled for black tie wear.

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+These Nikes are 25% off. Love the styling.

+Love these vintage inspired holiday bells for a garland/mantel!

+I’ve been looking for a few more items for my son’s bedroom refresh (see items I already have here), and I thought this little book caddy was adorable.

+My son already has too many blankets, but this one with the truck motif turned my head…

+Our favorite shampoo is 20% off with code GIVING20. A reader just wrote last week: “I purchased the Roz hair care set when you first posted that someone recommended it to you. Has been life changing for me! Can’t recommend enough.” I totally agree with her! My fav shampoo — super similar to Oribe, but less expensive (especially with the promo) and with a better lather.

+More fun holiday shoes!

+Chic shearling coat for a little love.

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21 thoughts on “Wool Gathering.

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I think constantly about your “years that ask and years that answer” essay. These past several years have definitely been years that ask for me. I became a mother of two; my family lived through multiple natural disasters; my career as a litigator intensified (you have no idea how much I connect with stories about your lawyer dad in Colorado.) Every day I dread having to face the scariest judge of all: school drop-off, where all flaws are exposed (you can’t be on time, you have old bags of Wendy’s in your backseat, your son is reeling from you scolding him too hard, your dress is unzipped.) But I’m grateful for all the hard lessons about empathy and forgiveness that this era has given me. It’s easier to skip offense and recognize someone who’s failing to hold back a meltdown when you’ve been on the verge of having one yourself. In my mind, my “answering years” involve me having found the perfect patterned chaise longue where I can read books while wearing sweaters that feel cozy AND glamorous. And having time for longer trips to Colorado with my kids. Nothing is more important for children than unlocking experiences that help them think like a poet. When you say you’ve found your “answering years,” I know that means you’ve found fulfillment like this, and I’m so happy for you. I’ll find balance soon. At least this week there’s no school drop-off!

    1. Ahh! Jeanette! I so feel for you and relate viscerally to the strain of the asking years. Not that all is smooth sailing now, but just — less teeth gritting and “what is happening right now?” Becoming a mother to two over the course a few years is the wildest journey. I lost myself, found myself, etc. I personally have been finding things get easier as the kids get older — at 4 and 6, there are less regular imminent threats to their bodily harm, and they can play on their own and be (sort of) reasoned with. The physical demands abate, too.

      Anyhow — there is definitely meaning making in the tracks. You are learning and growing SO much! Thinking of you!!


  2. Absolutely loved reading this post today and 100% agree that “it’s okay to take the squiggly path”. Thank you continuing to share your thoughts and words with this community!

    I am also on the search for a new shampoo & conditioner and highly considering ordering the Roz foundation shampoo and conditioner. How long is that code good for? I might wait until this weekend to order it, but don’t want to miss out on the savings!

    1. Hi Alison! Thank you so much for the lovely note. So glad these words resonated!

      Yes, the Roz shampoo is EXCELLENT. Code is valid through Monday!


  3. My gosh, ever since I first read your “questions and answers” essay it has lived rent-free in my mind. And now, the same with this illuminating concept of wool gathering. I think for me it speaks to the richness and endless challenge of being in the moment. Taking the good with the bad from what we live through. The journey of it all and what we learn through lived experience rather than immediate enlightenment.

    I don’t know if this is nosey, however I wonder if you and Mr Magpie have specific values or quotes you live by or meaning metaphors that you refer to as you make your way through life as partners, as individuals, as parents, and as a family?
    The reason being, I shared the “questions and answers” thesis with my own husband and we’ve been returning to it a lot ever since. Simultaneously, we’ve also been referring to another concept from a Graham Weaver lecture that I’ll share below. Though the focus of it is Asymmetric Risk Reward (not my wheelhouse in any capacity at any point in history), the concept of the purposeful surrender to the life reality of summits *and* valleys is something we’ve added to our shared lexicon. I have so many thoughts on it! And as we enter the twilight of 2023, I can honestly say this is has been a year spent in the valley with questions while digging deep to learn and have wholeheartedness in the ascent up the next summit. Ironically, my word of the year for 2023 was Expansion and wow, I’ve been levelled and stretched and challenged in infinite painful, educational, deepening, and ultimately essential ways. I’m tired but I’m grateful — in the (immortal) words of TS, if you never bleed, you’re never gonna grow.

    All of this to say, I’d love to know what you Jen and the Magpies live by — other words and theses and concepts and values and mottos? Perhaps even the sense of what you’d want your epitaph statement to be?

    In closing, I wanted to wish you and your loved ones a peaceful and connected Thanksgiving. I’m so grateful for your writing and since I started reading a bit over a year ago, it’s been a truly enriching anchor point in my day xx

    Video: Stanford Graduate School of Business – “How to Live an Asymmetric Life,” Graham Weaver –

    1. Aoife – Thank you so much for the wonderful note and prompt for thinking. I need to sit with this question and get back to you!! I do think that Landon and I spend a lot of time talking and recognizing “patterns” and “signals” in our lives. Not so much on a spiritual note but — wow, our needs around x are changing, or we suddenly find we’re doing a lot of y (travel, spending money on certain things, spending time with certain people). We like to pluck on why that might be, and whether or not we’re entering a new phase, or leveling up in some way, etc. It’s a helpful way to pluck ourselves out from the flow of daily life to understand the bigger sweep.

      I’ll keep thinking on this —

      Thank you, friend.


  4. “It is OK to feel that you have been searching for something you can’t quite put your arms around,

    each phase a phantom hug —”

    these verses – oh wow did they speak to me this morning. love the imagery of a phantom hug; i can’t quite describe in words what it calls to mind but i think that is the beauty of good poetry. it is evocative in a way all its own.

    1. Hi Molly – I’m so glad this resonated with you. I have tried to communicate these sentiments elsewhere, to various friends/colleagues, and the image was helpful to me, too, when it dawned on me. Thanks for this comment and for your continued encouragement of my writing! Very fortunate to have you here.


  5. Beautifully written sentiments – but mostly, I’m just heart-eyed over that William Morris wallpaper in the header image! We have WM throw pillows on our living room couch (the fabric took forever to arrive from the UK, but so worth it!) and I’m currently eying a few of the wallpaper prints for a potential (!!) office-to-nursery transformation.

    Also, clicked on juuust about every linked item in the roundup – so many great picks, thank you! Particularly intrigued by that Oribe shampoo… I always teeter on the edge of purchasing an Oribe shampoo/conditioner set (esp. during Sephora sales!) but haven’t taken the plunge yet.

    1. Isn’t it SPECTACULAR? It actually stopped me in my tracks. It was almost coincidental that I wrote something on the subject of wool — I knew I had to use the picture somehow and it’s a tenuous connection but…had to.

      Oo I really encourage Oribe next time you can avail yourself of a sale!


  6. Jen, I love these thoughts, and I love the little lamb image even more! It really spoke to me with its spring atmosphere as I sit in the doldrums of mid-February, expecting yet another winter storm tomorrow. And when it spoke to me, it said I need to plan a visit to the Scottish boarders 😉 My family is predominantly Irish, but I feel a strong pull to visit Scotland instead. Maybe after reading Winter Solstice, Alexander McCall Smith, The Cafe by the Sea, etc, and watching Case Histories, I’m primed for Scotland. Anyway, thanks for reminding me that “spring is just around the corner” (a family catchphrase that my dad starts using right around the winter solstice, ha).

    1. I love your dad’s encouraging refrain! It is! Isn’t the picture so evocative?! Those sweet lambs, the gorgeous interior design, the feeling of a space that is lived in and has been lived in for years? It stopped me in my tracks. I can’t imagine opening the door to that view! You’re making me have a deep wanderlust moment, too.


  7. Jen!! This post totally resonated, and immediately brought to mind Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Have you heard her talk about how the world is divided into jackhammers and hummingbirds? The former focus on a singular passion their entire lives, heads down. The latter (us “hummingbirds” or wool-gatherers”) are described by Gilbert as bringing “an idea from here to over here, where you learn something else and you weave it in, then you take it here to the next thing you do.” She explains that hummingbirds keep “the entire culture aerated and mixed up and open to the new.” Gilbert’s perspective, and her explanation of how us hummingbirds enrich not only ourselves, but our communities, brings great comfort to this unequivocal hummingbird/wool-gatherer.

    For those who haven’t read Big Magic, here are some savory tidbits I’ve kept in a note on my iPhone that I revisit when I start feeling angsty about my own squiggly path…

    “I don’t yet know exactly what I am, but I’m curious enough to go find out. The life you’re negotiating to save is your own!”

    “Follow your fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them.”

    “You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you passed your entire existence in devotion to the noble human virtue of inquisitiveness.”

    “Don’t rush through the experiences and circumstances that have the most capacity to transform you.”

    Jen, I’m adding to my iPhone note your wise words that “It is OK to feel that you have been searching for something you can’t quite put your arms around, each phase a phantom hug.”

    1. Hi Jacqueline – I so love and relate to these quotes. Another Magpie reader, Joyce, has turned me toward Gilbert’s writings a bunch of times and I always take away so much from what I hear about her. I think I have to read “Big Magic”! Thank you so much for sharing these. Should we rename Magpie as Hummingbird? Haha :).

      Fellow Hummingbird

    2. Jacqueline! I love these notes, as Jen knew I would 🙂 I have the Big Magic audiobook downloaded on my phone and listen sometimes when I am in a creative slump. Thank you for sharing these! I find Gilbert’s perspective on creativity so incredibly refreshing and rejuvenating and appreciate the hummingbird reminder. I also appreciate this poem, Jen! It’s beautiful.

  8. Oh, goodness. I was having a bad morning (for no real reason!) and this was truly touching to read. “Wool-gathering” is such a wonderful image. “There is meaning-making in the tracks” is a good candidate for a new mantra or foot-hold for me. Thank you <3

    P.S. Those OXO funnels went right into cart! My husband uses the cut-off tops of plastic bottles and this will be such a nice, easy upgrade for him 😉

    1. I am so glad it arrived at the right moment! It feels kismet that this was dedicated to another lady named Susie, doesn’t it?!

      Your husband will LOVE this simple upgrade!


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