Random Questions

I have a friend in Colorado that I correspond with frequently via snail mail. In a notecard I sent a few weeks ago, I was in a kind of silly mood and asked her several random questions, just as they popped into my head. I don’t remember a single one of them, and it being written correspondence (primarily handwritten, as opposed to typed) I don’t have a record. No matter.

I got a set of random questions in response, and I found them so engaging I had to respond immediately (I believe I wrote back the very same night). Here were her questions:

  1. If you lived anywhere but Minnesota, where would you want to be?
  2. What would you want for your last meal?
  3. If you see someone in public reading a book, do you strike up a conversation or silently judge them?
  4. Ocean, mountain, meadows, valleys, lakes/rivers, or forests?
  5. What’s your favorite tree?
  6. What’s your favorite bird on your life list?
  7. If you were a spice, what would you be?
  8. What’s your spirit animal?
  9. Cruise or destination vacation?
  10. What qualities do you consider indispensable in a friendship?

Is that not a fine set of questions?

I think I had the most fun with (2) What would I want for my last meal? I don’t remember my entire response, but I do know it included fried shrimp with cocktail sauce, cocktail shrimp (also with cocktail sauce), crispy hash browns, a small green salad, some crispy bacon, and coconut cream pie. One thing I know I forgot on the list—no, two—raspberries and peaches. The menu will change every time I answer the question. Another time it will include spaghetti or lasagna, maybe red beet eggs. Potato sausage. Fresh local corn slathered in butter (and a bit of pepper).

Question (3) intrigued me. I very rarely strike up conversations with people reading in public, though I do stealthily try to see what they’re reading. I don’t like to interrupt readers (though I might make an exception if they are reading one of the most wonderful books in the world and I want to tell them I love them). But I do have an internal disposition such that I tend to think they are likely to be interesting people. I have a bias towards readers. I guess that is a judgement of sorts. Maybe more like speculating.

Perhaps you are starting to see how fun these random questions can be. Question (4): hands-down easy peasy answer for me—forests. I love trees. That made (5) fairly easy to answer—my favorite tree is the closest tree (and the older the better). I can’t pick a favorite—I love them all. Trees are like magic to me. Another favorite tree (though it’s gone now): the huge tree next door when I was growing up. It served as hiding place for Kick the Can, counting down place (Hide and Seek), goalpost for football, and company while I was reading on the porch swing. I still love that tree.

Questions (7) and (8) were difficult for me. I still am not sure of my answer for either. Is there anyone out there that said immediately, “I am X spice” as I knew immediately I was forest?

Question (10) gave me pause. First thoughts: sense of humor, things in common, and trust. My closest friendships encompass all three. But I have had very good and strong long-term friendships that are intellectually rewarding, even without the humor element.

My turn for a set of random questions. Here’s what I’m thinking:

  1. Favorite board game when you were a kid?
  2. Favorite outdoor game?
  3. Do you enjoy storms?
  4. Do you dream in color?
  5. Favorite kitchen utensil?
  6. Favorite thing in your kitchen overall?
  7. What is your favorite color of the rainbow? (Rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. I love that violet is included in the rainbow. Who talks about violet anymore? Not to bias anyone or anything.)
  8. Gravel road, county road, or freeway?
  9. What’s the furthest you’ve ever been from home?
  10. Have you ever seen a falling/shooting star?
  11. What’s the last animal (not a pet) that you saw? (Or, go and look out the window now.)
  12. If you were a geometric shape, what would you be?
  13. When you double-shelve books, do you do it alphabetically, or do you put the books less likely to be read behind the books of higher interest?

I am seeking additional questions, so please feel free to chime in. (What question would You want to ask or be asked?)

It’s absolutely silly but it’s also fun. Sometimes you remember things (all those fried shrimp I ate when I was a kid), sometimes you stretch yourself, sometimes you ponder.

If you were a bird, what would you be?

The Reading Landscape

The reading theme for May is landscape/terrain. This is one of those broad themes that would encompass things like field, grassland, range, desert, marsh, and so on. I was really excited about this theme. I have a lot of landish books that I am really looking forward to reading.

But it is May. May, when the birds migrate. May, when the lilacs bloom. May, when butterflies return and the house windows are open. When the herbs are coming up and rhubarb demands picking. The month of warblers. May, when I have the binoculars right beside me even when I’m reading. Especially when I’m reading. May, when I bring binoculars into restaurants just in case we get a window seat. You never know when you’ll see a warbler wave.

I’ve only finished one book so far this month, but have several in progress: Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, by Marc Ian Barasch (later published under the title The Compassionate Life: Walking the Path of Kindness); Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild; Prairie Reunion, by Barbara J. Scot (memoir); Divining the Landscape, by Diane Jarvenpa (poetry); and Joyland, by Stephen King. (Two of these are holdovers from the emotions theme. I love having books that cross themes.)

I am finding Field Notes on the Compassionate Life to be quite helpful. I tend to struggle with issues like grudges and resentment, and perhaps especially forgiveness. This book is giving me some good insights and suggests some practices that I think could be very helpful. I am reading it quite slowly (a chapter a day), because that seems to be all the compassion my wee brain/soul can absorb. And Strangers in Their Own Land promises to be fascinating, but I’ve only read the first few pages.

Report on last month’s theme (emotions): I experienced calm surrender, hate, love, happiness, disappointment, anxiety, longing, grief, moping, consolation, more happiness, wild comfort, and solace. I found emotions to be an absolutely lovely (and fun) reading theme. Best book of the month: Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, by Kathleen Dean Moore. I loved this book because sometimes I felt like I was right there with her, wherever she was talking about. If she was in the forest, I could almost smell the pines. The writing is that good. But also—there’s a spiritual element to this book which I resound with. Nature is always where I most feel god.

There are many potential landish options for the rest of the month. John McPhee’s Basin and Range is high on the list (he has two other books that also intrigue: Rising from the Plains, and In Suspect Terrain). Found poetry:

basin and range
rising from the plains
in suspect terrain

Other books of interest include Lentil Underground, by Liz Carlisle; and Of Landscape and Longing, by Carolyn Servid. And Notes From the Shore, by Jennifer Ackerman, is nipping at my brain.

Because I am a planner by nature, I always look ahead. The theme for June is celestial objects, and I am finding my pickings extremely skimpy beyond earth, moon, and stars. Any fun ideas or suggestions out there?

The Marsh Birds

I went birding with my friend Kathleen this week. Early May is a fine time to bird. It’s almost like birding in Florida (not that you will see a roseate spoonbill, but that experience of wherever you look—in the water, in the reeds, in the trees, in the road—there are so many birds to capture your attention, you can hardly decide where to look).

These are among the best birding days.

Today we went to the 180th Street Marsh, to bird in general of course, but also specifically to see yellow-headed blackbirds. This marsh is the best place I know of to reliably see yellow-headed blackbirds, and we were not disappointed. More, perhaps, than I’ve ever seen, and we got so close to them! Not that we snuck up, mind you (though of course I’ve done that), but we’d just be standing still and they would land a few feet away. They seemed to not particularly care about us. Saucy, bold, beautiful birds.

Somewhat less bold is the sora. Soon after we arrived at the marsh we spoke with a man who asked if we had heard the soras. I am not so very good at bird songs and calls, so I wasn’t sure. And then this guy does his rendition of a sora. Hmmm. Okay. Within two minutes, I hear almost the exact same call, from the marsh. And then one in another part of the marsh. He had nailed it!

(This is truly a gift, to be able to reproduce a birdcall so well. I can hear them perfectly in my head, but my reproductions do not often help the listener so much.)

We heard them, the soras. And heard them—on both sides of the road that crosses the marsh. Like right here—right at my feet. This bird must be within a yard. No sora. We stood so still for so long at a clump of reeds one foot away. In the middle was a sora calling, but could we see it? No. Sigh.

Moving on. The yellow-headed blackbirds continued to be beautiful, and who can be disappointed in anything when you have these insouciant birds practically landing on your shoulder?

We saw three kinds of swallow: tree, barn, and northern rough-winged. I also saw a purple martin (that was fun as I don’t see them every year)—in, or possibly fighting for, a purple martin house (of all things). There were many tree swallows at this martin house, and lots of activity. But not all tree swallows! Dark, dark, yes, martins! Kathleen was parking the car (lots of rain recently, soggy ground near the marsh and  parking was dicey) so she couldn’t see the battle in progress. When the car was parked, we almost immediately saw the yellow-headed blackbirds, and moved forward.

Lots of Canada geese, coots, and ducks (bufflehead, blue-winged teal, red-breasted merganser, ring-necked duck), but I would say that most of my time was spent enjoying the yellow-headed blackbirds and trying to spot a sora. There were so many! How could I not see one? (Birds do often have this amazing ability to disappear.)

After spotting a turtle sunning on a something, and a final look for additional ducks, we headed out. Before we got very far at all, I said, “Stop.” And there it was: a sora. Easily seen from the car without binoculars (although of course I DID look through my binoculars because it’s nice to see close-up). I was afraid Kathleen wouldn’t be able to see it, but she is enough taller (and she also has really good eyes) and got a very good view of it.

After the marsh we went out for lunch. En route near Minnehaha Creek, a merlin flew so close to our car I was afraid we would collide. Not a typical encounter.

Even when Kathleen dropped me off at home the birding continued: chipping sparrows just hanging out in the street.

May. Birds. Euphoria.

The May Basket Project

Two years ago I left May baskets for three of my neighbors early in the morning on the first of May. It was a lot of fun. Candy, flowers, a book—leave the basket on the doorstoop, ring the doorbell and run.

Just like I did as a kid.

It was great fun, both then and now. The making of something purely for someone else’s pleasure (hopefully anonymously) is hugely gratifying, for reasons I haven’t quite divined.

An unfortunate confluence of events kept me from May baskets last year, but this year I am back in the game.

I planned 7 of them—a significant increase from last time. I’m kind of hoping this thing will catch on in my neighborhood.

This morning I woke to rain, and when I thought of the books and dog biscuits in some of the baskets, I decided a belated May 2 delivery might be the wiser choice.  Who doesn’t like to sleep in on a rainy day? After newspaper and coffee, spouse and I went out for a late lunch. Halfway through lunch, the rain changed to snow. As we finished, we had a very decent snowfall going on. Too warm to accumulate, but very fun to walk through.

For sure we won’t deliver May baskets now, I thought; but the snow stopped immediately after we got home, and turned into a slow drizzle. I was putting finishing touches on the baskets (leaving only the flowers to add last-minute) when I realized that the rain had stopped.

Do it! I quick got the flowers and added them to the baskets (confession: One set got left behind on the counter, and another fell out en route—clearly we have a few kinks to work out). The first delivery was a total success: after running away, we saw the door open and the basket taken in. Next we did two neighbors to the north, and then two to the south.

As I was wrapping things up, our doorbell rang.  What? A shadow of someone running away.

A May basket! Truly! Flowers (magnolia and tulip), Shakespeare sonnets, and far too many chocolate candies. (Spouse counters that “far too many” is an overstatement.)

Later this neighbor stopped by, and I found out she gave three May baskets in the neighborhood. Perhaps it will catch on after all. I love this idea!

I don’t know if it is my small-town roots, my introvert nature, or simply the appeal of giving someone something unexpected that draws me so to the May baskets. We learned to do it as kids at school—we made them out of construction paper and hung them on our neighbors’ doorknobs.

I’ve ratcheted it up a notch, forgoing construction paper and staples for actual baskets (often free from friends and family who have piles of them in the attic/storeroom/basement), and trying to apply at least a nominal personal element. Dog biscuits, comic books, poetry, puzzles.

Whether it catches on or no, I plan to continue May baskets to my neighbors. It’s simply too fun, and why not?

Fifty Words (no more, no less)

My friend Jami in Colorado was recently telling me about an exercise she did for work. It’s a small company (< 10 employees), and a new person was coming on board. As part of the introductory process, each staff member wrote a 50-word autobiography. Exactly 50 words. (This is 50.)

This was not to take a long period of time. Less than 10 minutes, I think. Could it have possibly been 2 minutes? (I can barely count to 50 in 2 minutes, not if I think about each of the numbers, and how they look and feel.) Unless you’re doing this on a computer (which I was not envisioning happening in this exercise; for some reason I only thought pencil and paper), how could you possibly do this even remotely quickly, making sense and getting exactly 50?

And then I hit on it: verse. Ten 5-word lines. Here is what I came up with in about 4 minutes:

They called me Psycho Liz
I was that into psychology
Eventually I got a Ph.D.

Roommates, marriage, roommates, lover, marriage
I very rarely live alone
though I always love it

I thought I couldn’t love
then I met my match
it’s practically happy ever after

(he outlasts me in bookstores)

It was quite fun. Invigorating, even. Go ahead, try it yourself. (You don’t have to use the verse form.)

Doing it in a short time span is key. You don’t want to mull, cross out, rewrite, or start over. Some would call it stream of consciousness. I felt more like a bulldozer—just keep going, just keep going, five more, five more, up to 50, done.

I am thinking this could be a good format for pretty much anything you might want to capture: vacation moments, childhood memories, obsessions, happiness, fear. I found it a little fascinating, and I encourage you to try it to see if you experience same.

Choose your own topic (I have several I want to try). I’d love to hear back if anyone finds this as fun and fascinating as I do.

24 Reading Challenges

I love any kind of challenge to broaden my reading horizons, and was intrigued by a group called Book Riot that has issued a 2017 “Read Harder” challenge. The purpose of the challenge is to push readers to explore topics or formats or genres that they otherwise wouldn’t try.

Nobody’s keeping score, and I already have my reading theme thing going on, but could I possibly resist? Well, no. I decided to overlay the reading challenge on top of the themes, figuring I’d hit several on chance, plus I could steer a few theme reads down the challenge road as they fit (and appealed, of course—always the primary criterion).

Here is the list of 24 reading challenges:

  1. A book about sports.
  2. A debut novel.
  3. A book about books.
  4. A book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.
  5. A book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.
  6. An all-ages comic.
  7. A book published between 1900 and 1950.
  8. A travel memoir.
  9. A book you’ve read before.
  10. A book that is set within 100 miles of your location.
  11. A book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location.
  12. A fantasy novel.
  13. A nonfiction book about technology.
  14. A book about war.
  15. A YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ.
  16. A book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country.
  17. A classic by an author of color.
  18. A superhero comic with a female lead.
  19. A book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey.
  20. An LGBTQ romance novel.
  21. A book published by a micropress.
  22. A collection of stories by a woman.
  23. A collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.
  24. A book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.

I’ve read 10 of the 24 categories so far this year (those would be the bolded titles). Given the list isn’t a driver of my reading, but rather something I remember to check in on once in awhile, 10 out of 24 doesn’t seem too bad for late April. (Most of them were also reading-theme books. Ms. Marvel would be an exception.)

I had thought that “a book about sports” would come up empty at the end of the year, but scanning my shelves I found Michael Shaara’s For the Love of the Game, a novel about baseball. Oh, I do love baseball. And I have loved Shaara’s Civil War novels, and I had no particular passion about the Civil War before I read them. But I do have a bit of a passion about baseball, so I figured he’d do well by me here as well. And he did. It’s a short, tight novel. Almost a fable.

I know I read a lot of debut novels, or at least I think I do. But it isn’t a driver of my reading. So I was ever so pleased when a friend offered to loan me HER LIBRARY BOOK COPY of Grief is the Thing With Feathers, a debut novel by Max Porter. One of the narrators is a crow. I will say no more. Except I have finished the book and will return it before it is due. And I love crows.

South of the Border, West of the Sun was both a reread and a book set more than 5000 miles away. I love Haruki Murakami (mostly), and he rewards rereading. Definitely an author I will keep, hoping to reread all of his works (except maybe skipping short stories, which I always have good intentions about and almost always fail miserably at) in the order written. Sometimes his characters pop up in other books. I love when that happens.

Looking ahead, some of the reading challenges seem like slam dunks, even under the aegis of the reading theme: a fantasy novel, a book by an immigrant, a travel memoir, a banned book.

And then there are the serious challenges: A YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as GLBTQ. Mostly sexual orientation is not included in author information. So while it may be that I have or will read books that fall into this category, I’m not sure I want to take that extra step to investigate the sexual orientation of the author. But I do read the occasional YA and middle grade book, so perhaps one will fall into my hands. It happens.

Another challenge: A book about war. I went through a Civil War phase and a World War 2 phase. Right now I am in a warless phase so that could be a challenge. Oh, here’s a big challenge: a collection of stories by a woman. I tend not to like short stories in general. I might like them a little more if they’re by a woman, but still, short stories. But it doesn’t say “short stories,” it says “stories by a woman.” Well. That could be a memoir.  Many memoirs are written as stories. Hurrah! That I can do for sure.

It’s a fun challenge, and I’ll report back towards end of year as to how it’s turning out. I’ve plucked much of the low-hanging fruit, as they say (except for the sports book). We’ll see how it turns out. I feel like I should get at least 20, but I won’t be surprised if it’s closer to 15. Anyone else out there trying this?

A Basket of Happiness

It is not so very often I start out loving a book. I started to love this book before I even got to page 1. In the introduction to Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, Kathleen Dean Moore writes:

This book moves from gladness to sorrow, as life often does, and climbs through what might be prayer or a kind of stillness, to restored meaning and hope, to peace, maybe even to celebration and the courage to be glad again.

I had set out to write a different book. I had begun to write about happiness.”

I have moved past the first part of the book, Gladness, and am now immersed in Solace. Yet a part of the gladness holds on: Moore’s concept of the happy basket.

It started as an experiment. She decided to start keeping notes of when she found herself extremely happy, “happy in that deep-down, exhaling, head-back way.” She decided to keep a basket—the happy basket—to collect these notes of what she was doing at the time she experienced these deep happy moments. The experiment was to last a year, but she cheated after about 8 months and looked. Here were some of her happy moments:

Rain, after no rain. And company for dinner, after a long time without seeing friends.

Phone message from Erin. Nothing to say, really, but she sounded content. She had a good day. I could tell by her voice she was healthy. This makes a mother glad.

Frank and I held hands in bed last night, as we often do. We lay on our backs and held hands. This makes me happy, feeling the warmth and strength of him beside me.

Walking fast in the morning, down the path to the bridge.

A patch of sun and a glass of wine after work.

She wanted to analyze the happy moments—look for patterns, possible trends. What she found was that “Almost all the happy moments take place in a pause, a slowing down from job and routine.” She also found that happiness isn’t really the opposite of sadness—she found an odd relationship between sadness and happiness, but not necessarily oppositional. She wonders “if the opposite of happiness might be something else—meaninglessness, maybe, or emptiness.” I find that worth a good ponder.

I love the concept of tracking happy moments, and I know exactly those moments of which she speaks. My description would be somewhat different: You are filled with a sense of exuberance, of awe—wonder at the universe, at nature, at your wonderful luck in life.

So I decided to do the happy basket thing, but it took several days before I had one of those truly happy moments (I feared that the basket would be empty at the end of the year, but my fears were for naught). I had one of those moments yesterday. I wrote it down, along with the date and time, on a scrap of paper. Today, I found a basket to use and a place to set it. And now there are two scraps of paper in the basket.

Can you possibly not want to do it? I am going into the project assuming that almost all my happy moments will be in nature. Based on my two measly current scraps, however, I’m thinking “almost all” might be overstated. But, the data are young and the basket is large, and I am going to the end of the year.

Do you really know what makes you happy? Do you want to find out, or at least get a clue?

And really, why not? Like a gratitude journal, a happiness basket can do no harm. And even though it would be cheating, if you’re partway through the year and hit a rough spot, reading a few scraps from the basket might give you an insight, or at least a lift.

Maybe. I don’t know. I just started today. I think I know a few things about myself. But I think this fun and easy project might teach me a lot about myself that I don’t realize.

And who couldn’t use a little more happiness in their life?