June Reprise

June was your basic lazy summer month. I read 11 books (4 each fiction and nonfiction and 3 poetry). The theme for the month was award-winning books (any award will do). There was a pinch towards the end of June as I tried to finish up multiple books at once (the one drawback of having a monthly reading theme), but I managed to pull it off (even though I perhaps gave short shrift to the last 100 pages of Slaves in the Family).

There were two major league standouts: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (fiction), a novel that takes place during WW2, from alternating perspectives of a young French girl who is blind, and a German boy who becomes a soldier (at age 16) even though he doesn’t believe in the Nazi creed. Short compelling chapters made for several fine afternoons of reading on the front porch.

The other particularly notable book of June was Things That Are, by Amy Leach. One could call these nature essays, or one could call them flights of fancy. They could also qualify as prose poetry; the writing is often playful and sometimes humorous, delightful and whimsical. I also learned a lot about sea cucumbers and jellyfish.

I’ve been tending the garden, harvesting rhubarb, blueberries, and calendula and just starting to see raspberries. I opted out of growing any vegetables this year, since with the exception of tomatoes I tend to fail miserably. More room for rosemary and chamomile!

A major highlight of June was seeing South Pacific at the Guthrie Theater. I had never seen it before (either the play or the movie) and it was wonderful! I knew many of the songs, including “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” which I associated with Clairol hair coloring, but not a musical. Good humor and great dancing. I Love the Guthrie; it rarely disappoints.

Minor highlights: I got rid of several more bags of books (what a good feeling!); of course this makes room for more books, which is also a good feeling. One of my favorite restaurants closed—Le Town Talk Diner. A sad day. And I continued my haiku postcard project (a haiku a day, sent on postcards to my friend in Montana)—nearly three years now! Here are some of my favorites from June:

another bag gone
gently used books seek new home,
a new adventure

adieu Le Town Talk
you have loved and served us well
I will miss your quiche

out the front window
two swallowtail butterflies
in the lilac tree

award-winning books
just a few days to finish
six hundred pages

Happy summer and good reading!

Things That Are

In the seventeenth century, his Holiness the Pope adjudged beavers to be fish. In retrospect, that was a zoologically illogical decision; but beavers were not miffed at being changed into fish. They decided not to truckle to their new specification, not to be perfect fish, textbook fish; instead they became fanciful fish, the first to have furry babies, the first to breathe air and the first fish to build for themselves commodious conical fortresses in the water. If Prince Maximilian, traveling up the Missouri River, had taken it in mind to recategorize them as Druids or flamingos, beavers would have become toothy Druids, or portly brown industrious flamingos.” (p. 5)

Things That Are is a perfect summer porch book. (Though I believe it would also make good reading curled up by a fire during a snowstorm.) I found it whimsical and delightful. A friend suggested that it reminded her of Annie Dillard, but quirkier. I like that description too. I couldn’t limit myself to one quote, but I will limit myself to two:

What happens to jellyfish out of water is similar to what happens to bridesmaid hairdos in water. Jellyfish in the water look like pink and green flower hats and bright dripping egg yolks and manes of lions, but out on the beach sand they look like melting plastic bags.” (p. 84)

—Amy Leach, Things That Are, winner of the Nautilus Award, published by Milkweed Editions, 2012. It also has beautiful illustrations by Nate Christopherson.

Early Summer Harvest

Summer officially arrived last week, and I’ve now had my first official harvest of summer, small though it may be. Yesterday the blueberries started to peak. Last year I got about three blueberries (first year of the plants). Yesterday I harvested 10, and several more today. I expect I may get at least 30 blueberries this year. I find this trend (can it be a trend with only two data points?) very encouraging and plan to add one or two more blueberry plants to the patch. Perhaps in a few years I’ll get a few pints of blueberries.

But I have to say this: Even bringing in just 10 blueberries, grown in my ownimgres yard, is a fine feeling.

I’ve also harvested my first round of yarrow, and maybe a dozen calendula flowers. The calendula are just starting to come in strong, and soon I’ll need a basket rather than my hand to hold the blossoms. (I always feel a little like Morticia Addams when I snip off the brightly blooming flower.)

The hops are finally starting to hop. They’ve been growing and spreading marvelously, and finally today I saw the first incipient hop flower. Yes! The hops are coming! I have grown quite enamoured of hops—primarily as a sleep aid. (Wake up at 2:30 in the morning and can’t get back to sleep? Try a wee bit of hops tincture.) Hops are also good for aiding digestion and queasy stomachs, and they can produce a calming effect in a highly anxious state. A lovely plant that I have found unbelievably easy to grow.

The currants are also in harvest mode. Happily, the birds have left me enough this year to enjoy (last year, they completely beat me to it). Currants fresh off the bush are exceptionally good with rye bread, cheese, and olives.

Slightly off the harvesting theme: My prickly pear cactus flowered last week! It has never flowered before (I’ve had it about five years)—they were beautiful yellow flowers. I saw two of them, but in the end I saw there had been five. This is a lesson to me: Pay attention when the cactus blossoms; it all happens within just a very few days. This is an exceptional and beautiful thing. You can’t put it off to the weekend.

But that’s the thing about this time of year. Everything is happening. An embarrassment of lushness, so much fecundity, it is impossible to appreciate it all. Every moment. Every moment something miraculous is happening.

Tonight I was watching the bees on the hydrangeas. First I saw the large bumblebees, then smaller bees, then other pollinators that looked more like flies. For most of my life I’ve been unreasonably freaky-afraid of bees. Tonight as I was watching the bees on the hydrangea, they clearly had no interest in me. They were all about the flower. And the patterns were so interesting, and I kept leaning in closer and closer, quite proud of myself for acknowledging how unconcerned these bees were about me. When one of the larger bees left the bush to fly around my head I took little notice, knowing it would shortly return to the flowers.

Except I was wrong. It did not return to the flowers. I stepped back a couple of feet, knowing it would return to the flowers then. Wrong again. I kept stepping back, it kept following me. Circling me. Possibly darting at me. My old fear returned, and I ran to the house.

But I’ll go back tomorrow. There were so many different bees, I want to pay more attention. I like to know what’s in my backyard.

Theodore Roethke: The Far Field

The Abyss

I

Is the stair here?
Where’s the stair?
‘The stair’s right there
But it goes nowhere.’

And the abyss? the abyss?
‘The abyss you can’t miss:
It’s right where you are—
A step down the stair.’

Each time ever
There always is
Noon of failure,
Part of a house.

In the middle of,
Around a cloud,
On top a thistle
The wind’s slowing.

(“The Abyss,” Part 1)

 

The Manifestation

Many arrivals make us live: the tree becoming
Green, a bird tipping the topmost bough,
A seed pushing itself beyond itself,
The mole making its way through darkest ground,
The worm, intrepid scholar of the soil—
Do these analogies perplex? A sky with clouds,
The motion of the moon, and waves at play,
A sea-wind pausing in a summer tree.

What does what it should do needs nothing more.
The body moves, though slowly, toward desire.
We come to something without knowing why.

 

—Theodore Roethke, The Far Field: Last Poems. Winner of the National Book Award.

Plant Dreaming Deep

It was five years before the plum trees I had planted flowered, five years before the oriole came back to weave his flame in and out of the clusters of white. I shall soon have been planted here myself for ten years, and I have a sense that the real flowering is still to come, and all I have experienced so far only a beginning. . . .

Now the adventure before me siezes me in the night and keeps me awake sometimes. Growing old . . . why, in this civilization, do we treat it as a disaster, valuing, as we do, the woman who ‘stays young’? Why ‘stay young’ when adventure lies in change and growth?

It is only past the meridian of fifty that one can believe that the universal sentence of death applies to oneself. At twenty we are immortal; at fifty we are too caught up in life to think much about the end, but from about fifty-five on the inmost quality of life changes because of this knowledge.”

–May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep

In Praise of the Handkerchief

My spouse is a handkerchief person. I thought this was quaint when we met. I have since experienced the practicality of the practice (particularly in movie theaters when I have forgotten tissue).

Not long ago when we were visiting my mom, I asked her if she had any of dad’s old hankies left. I thought perhaps I could replenish the spousal supply, and plus I’ve always loved a big hankie for myself when I have a really bad cold, most especially an old and very soft hankie. She did indeed have a supply and shared some, and then asked if I wanted any of hers. Compared to my dad’s, they were so small, so dainty. I couldn’t imagine honking into one of those things. It would feel like desecration or something.

But the next time we’re visiting my mom, I have a little sneezing attack and I’m going through tissue after tissue. I remember the hankies and ask Mom if I can have one of her handkerchiefs after all. I grabbed a small soft one mostly at random, and it was perfect for my slightly runny sneezy nose. To my surprise the next day, it looked and felt perfectly soft and clean. So I used it for another day. I had thought handkerchiefs would get icky right away, like tissues do. I was finding out different.

The next time we went to see my mom, I asked if I could have a few more. She said sure, and this time we took them out and I looked at them more closely. She must have at least 50 handkerchiefs. Beautiful, so many of them. Most were white, but not all. Some had embroidery around the edges. Some had some very serious needlework (I know nothing about needlework so I don’t know what kind, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if at least some of them weren’t stitched by people she knew). I took several (I believe she allowed me six). I was thrilled, and she was kind of thrilled that I was into her hankies.

Once I had several, I used them a lot more. One in the purse and another in a pocket. I found (not surprisingly) that I was decreasing my use of tissues. (I wish I had thought to measure it before and after, but ah well.) I mentioned this to a friend and she was a little intrigued, and I asked her if she wanted one of my mom’s handkerchiefs, just to see if it was something that might appeal (we are both into reducing waste), and she said yes.

When I relayed this to my mother, she said, “Oh! Well then you’ll have to get more next time you come up!” And this time we went through them more slowly, and I took many. Mostly white, mostly soft. But almost none plain white. A border, a pattern, some lace. Lots of flowers. But there were a few that were not white: purple, black, brown, bright red, turquoise. I’m forgetting some. It felt like a small array of history spread out on her bed. It was so fun.

What a thing we have lost: the art, beauty, and utility of the handkerchief.

It turns out my friend did indeed enjoy the handkerchief. With my new bounty, I asked if she might like a couple more. Absolutely, she said. (I’m almost positive that was Not her exact word. But it was a strong affirmative.)

Since we had that conversation (several weeks ago), my use of the handkerchief has evolved further still. I have had a beautiful purple hankie (with splashes of white flowers and green leaves) on the front porch table these last two days. It has mopped up tears (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr), the occasional sneeze, and the drips off glasses of iced tea. Also good for drying one’s brow on a humid day.

This is a part of my mother’s history that I cherish. Much like a paper clip, you can find endless uses for the handkerchief. Since I’m quite the neophyte, I know I’ve only scratched the surface.

Icked out about the reuse factor? The snotty handrag?

My handkerchief rule is this: Use it as long as it feels (and looks) soft and clean. As soon as it doesn’t feel soft and clean, replace. (If it’s a major cold, this could be several times a day.) I find I tend to go through 3-4 hankies a week. They take up practically zero space in the laundry, and then you’re set for another week.

I think I’m moving towards reducing tissue use by about 50%. That’s not a bad start.

Perhaps it’s time for a handkerchief revolution. They are practical, sustainable, and extremely versatile.

And often, quite beautiful.

All the Light We Cannot See

“Color–that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. Its scientists are lilac and lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich black and complicated blues down the hall toward the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden. The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light.”

–Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize and also an Alex Award (awarded to books written for adults that also have strong appeal to teens). Highly recommended. It’s longish (> 500 pages), but it has short chapters alternating perspectives, and you keep wanting to read one more and one more. Another. Just one more.