Of Winter Birds and Books

I had some fine winter birding today without even leaving the house. A few birds caught my eye as I was folding clothes this afternoon—a small flock of robins! I haven’t seen many robins since early September, so it was nice to see several. (While most robins move further south for the winter, a smallish number, about 10%, overwinter here.) I am hoping this flock stays in the neighborhood all winter. There’s nothing to bring a smile to your face in the winter like a flock of robins.

I watched the robins for quite a while. And then I noticed one that had a—what? Wait—a yellow band on the end of the tail? Really? I grab the binoculars at the top of the stairs, and sure enough, exactly what I thought: a cedar waxwing! But only one? How odd. Where you see one, usually there are several. Sometimes dozens. Of course I kept watching. And true to form, I spotted several more.

Cedar waxwings are not uncommon, but neither do I see them often around the house, so that was a special treat.

I looked closely at each waxwing, hoping one would turn out to be the much more elusive Bohemian waxwing, but no such luck. No complaints on that count, though.

Later in the back yard, I had cardinals (two male, one female), blue jays, and, for a brief period, a singing robin (not so very common in November and a lovely bit of cheer on a grey day).

For over a week I have had a small flock of cardinals visiting my feeders and bird bath, but recently the (heated) bird bath went on the fritz and I haven’t seen them in the last few days. I got a new heated bird bath, but then I was having trouble with the outlet (not so very bright not to check that first), but I think I may have gotten it fixed. Tomorrow will tell (it’s getting down to 17 degrees tonight).

And while I was watching the birds out the window, I decided it was finally time to compile all my lists of books read over the years into one spreadsheet. Right now, some are in a three-ring binder, some are lists in Word, and some are still in my desk calendars (which is where I track it through the year). I’m kind of excited about this and have already started. I have decades of lists of books that I’ve read. A good winter project.

When I went to get the three-ring binder, I discovered I had not written down the first names of any of the authors in the first year. This did not surprise me. But what horrified me is that I continued this. I didn’t bother to record the author’s first name for SEVEN years. The lists do evolve over time. After a few years I start adding book ratings. Years after that, I start making those ratings more consistent. And at some point, I started adding the length of the book.

And now, the next evolution: the searchable spreadsheet. All those titles in one place. Imagine!

I’m kind of excited about the whole thing. I’ve already done the first year. A fine trip down memory lane. (Wow, I was really into mysteries!)

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Book Theme Update

Life is full of surprises. I was so excited about the October reading theme, Life, and had a nice stack of books waiting for me—two stacks, actually, one fiction and one nonfiction. (There’s also a poetry stack, but that’s in a different room.) There were many titles that I was quite excited about.

But when it came time to choose a new fiction book in early October, none of the titles in the stack appealed to me. I ended up reading only one fiction book for the theme, and that was a graphic novel, Get a Life, by Dupuy & Berberian. Instead I read a novel about books (The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, which I recommend) and a YA novel (Akata Witch, which I also recommend).

I read four poetry books, but none of them stood out, so I’ll just move on.

Nonfiction has been the standout in October. I’ve already written about Birds Art Life, by Kyo Maclear (see Life After Animals). The other theme book I read was Life Without a Recipe, by Diana Abu-Jaber (also discussed in Life After Animals), which I loved. Life Without a Recipe is a very food and family-oriented memoir, including recipes (both Jordanian and German).

November’s reading theme is Health. I do not have a large stack of books for this coming month, but that’s okay. I have one book I’m really looking forward to: Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing, by Victoria Sweet. Sweet is a physician and also has a Ph.D. in history. Still, this book looks compulsively readable. She considers medicine a craft, a science, and an art, and I can’t wait to read more. The Introduction is titled, “Medicine Without a Soul.” Does that feel familiar to you?

Since the pickings are a mite slim for the theme, I’m casting a wide net and realize that several of the books from the Life theme are defendable contenders. To wit: The End of Your Life Book-Club, by Will Schwalbe (a memoir of a book club between a son and his mother who is dying of cancer); Coming Alive, by Taylor Brorby; and Life Is a Miracle, by Wendell Berry. Is that too much of a stretch?

I have to come right out and admit: There is not a lot of health on my fiction bookshelves. Here is what I found: The Diagnosis, by Alan Lightman; Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri; The Wasties, by Frederick Reuss; and A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines (the latter may be a stretch, but there are no book theme police, so it’s in the pile).

My nonfiction shelves were moderately healthier. I found For the Health of the Land, by Aldo Leopold (his book, A Sand County Almanac, is one of my all-time favorite books—it changed the way I look at nature, and possibly life); Wounds of Passion, by bell hooks; My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor; Ill Fares the Land, by Tony Judt; and The Hidden Wound, by Wendell Berry.

Poetry nearly always has good theme titles, and this month is no exception:

  • Talking Cures, by Richard Howard
  • Tourniquet, by Roy Jacobstein
  • The Manageable Cold, by Timothy McBride
  • Echolalia, by Deborah Bernhardt
  • You Won’t Remember This, by Michael Dennis Browne
  • Swoon, by Victoria Redel
  • Breath, by Robert VanderMolen
  • Bodily Course, by Deborah Gorlin

I wish you a happy Halloween, and a healthy November filled with fun books.

Summer Remembered (Haiku)

Today for the first time I toyed with getting out my winter coat. Oh, not until at least November, please.

This seems like a really good time to recall the haiku of summer. (Yes, I’m still doing The Haiku Postcard Project—I write a haiku every day and send it to my friend in Montana. I started in 2013. I never thought I would continue it so long, but I still love it, so why stop?)

Summer haiku:

June

south side of the house
blooming milkweed and cactus
postage stamp Eden

the soul is willing
but the hands will not obey
there’s still no cooking

all night toss and turn
temp still 89 degrees
the fan blows hot air

July

sitting still writing
at the dining room table
with the ceiling fan

reading poetry
on a summer afternoon
cool running water

the oppressive heat
sucks the air out of the room
sweet hotel relief

so many monarchs
sailing around the backyard
induce happiness

a phone scrap with Mom
it felt just like the old days
a little bit fun

four fledging cardinals
flopping around the dogwoods
trying on their wings

August

orchard watering
snaking the hose twixt the trees
weaving in and out

fresh raspberry pie
one of life’s greatest delights
on such a hot day

when cicada sings
the peaches are nearly ripe
siren insect song

across the trash can
the intricate spider web
glistens in the sun

So there you have it. A summer snapshot through haiku.

It’s a very fun and surprisingly gratifying thing to do, a haiku postcard project. Doubly fun if you have a friend who enjoys getting them.

A small way of paying attention to life.

Life After Animals (Book Themes)

The September reading theme (Animal) was great fun. I read a panther, a horse, a fox, two dogs and a parrot, a cat, a tiger, birds, monkeys, and one generic animal. The Panther and the Lash, poetry by Langston Hughes, was my favorite of the bunch. The essays in B.K. Loren’s Animal Mineral Radical: Essays on Wildlife, Family, and Food also stood out.

The October reading theme is Life. I had two animal books that didn’t quite make it into September, but that’s okay because they fit the October theme too (I love when I can do this). The first was Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation, by Kyo Maclear—a memoir about urban birding (in Toronto) over the course of a year. As you might imagine, being an urban birder myself, I loved this book. It’s not just all nature, though. It also has an introspective and spiritual aspect as well. A lovely mix.

The other book I’ve finished this month is Lives of the Animals, poetry by Robert Wrigley. I absolutely loved the first part of this book. The last half didn’t resound so much, but I will definitely read more Wrigley. I followed up Wrigley with another poetry book, What the Living Won’t Let Go, by Lorna Crozier. I am a Crozier fan, and the book is not disappointing. Next up in poetry: People Live, They Have Lives, by Hugh Seidman; or, possibly, Like the New Moon, I will Live My Life, by Robert Bly (I love that both the titles have two versions of life in them, and both comprise two phrases; how odd that these exact two floated to the top).

In nonfictionland, I’m reading Life Without a Recipe, by Diana Abu-Jaber. This is her second memoir. I loved her first one, The Language of Baklava. I’m about one-third through Life Without a Recipe, and so far it has focused primarily on the influence her German grandmother (who loved to bake) and her Jordanian father (who loved to cook) had in her early life. I find myself wanting to bake cookies one minute and cook something deliciously spicy the next. (Note: Abu-Jaber also writes fiction. If fiction is more your thing, I highly recommend her book Crescent.)

Also in process (but at a slower pace because, in hindsight, it wasn’t a good idea to follow a book of essays with another book of essays) is Alice Walker’s Living By the Word. These essays are good, but for the interim I’m going with the flow of the memoir. After Abu-Jaber (who completely grabs my attention), I will be able to give Walker the attention she deserves.

Fiction is going a little more slowly. I’ve started off with a graphic novel, Get a Life, by Dupey & Berberian. I’ve been having an off-and-on relationship with fiction for the last year or so. I want to read fiction, but nothing appeals to me. This does not seem to happen with nonfiction. I’m hoping the fiction bug comes back, because I do have a couple of books I’d like to read: Lost Among the Living, by Simone St. James (sort of a gothic mystery/thriller), and The Third Life of Grange Copeland, by Alice Walker (after I finish her book of essays—I really do like Alice Walker, as you may have guessed).

Nonfiction is even more compelling. Top of the pile is The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe, a memoir; Still Life in Harlem, by Eddy L. Harris, also a memoir; and Life Is a Miracle, by Wendell Berry. And if none of those appeal when the time comes, there’s always The Lion in the Living Room.

Truly, Life is a banquet.

Reading Animal

I am loving the September reading theme of Animals. I started out with Langston Hughes’s The Panther and the Lash, which was excellent. Amazingly, I have had this book for 10 years and had always read the title as The Panther and the Leash. On the cover is a drawing of Langston Hughes in a stylish three-piece suit, and whenever I noted the book, I envisioned Langston Hughes, nattily dressed, walking along with a panther on a leash.

Well, no. Not the image he meant to convey. The Panther and the Lash conjures up a much different vision, evoking history, emotions, and oppression. Not a walk through the park, with or without a panther. A few of my favorite (short) poems:

Slum Dreams

Little dreams
Of springtime
Bud in sunny air
With no roots
To nourish them,
Since no stems
Are there—
Detached,
Naïve,
So young,
On air alone
They’re hung.

Justice

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

Jim Crow Car

Get out the lunch-box of your dreams
And bite into the sandwich of your heart,
And ride the Jim Crow car until it screams
And, like an atom bomb, bursts apart.

Bible Belt

It would be too bad if Jesus
Were to come back black.
There are so many churches
Where he could not pray
In the U.S.A.,
Where entrance to Negroes,
No matter how sanctified,
Is denied,
Where race, not religion,
Is glorified.
But say it—
You may be
Crucified.

The Panther and the Lash brought me through a range of emotions and feelings: uncomfortable, appalled, despair, compassion, horror, sympathy, hope. Even if you don’t read poetry, I recommend this book and most especially if you are interested in racial issues.

Sticking with poetry, I followed up Langston Hughes with Horse Dance Underwater, by Helena Mesa. It didn’t speak to me. Langston Hughes is a hard act to follow. I’m now reading The Tiger Iris, by Joan Swift. I’m only just beginning, so no opinion yet. The next likely poetry book following Swift: The Girl With Bees in Her Hair, by Eleanor Rand Wilner.

My first fiction book was Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeymi. I totally didn’t get this novel. I’m pretty sure it went right over my head. At the end of the book I was confused, with a primary reaction of “What??” So I went to check out the Amazon reviews, sure they would be bifurcated, heavily weighted to 5 star (those who got it) and 1 star (those who didn’t) reviews.

The internet is a humbling thing. A near majority (45%) loved this book (5 stars) and an additional 20% really liked it (4 stars). A mere 7% gave it one star. Even the people that were confused enjoyed the book. So do not take my word for it on this one. Note: Mr. Fox might make more sense if you know the legend of Bluebeard and/or have a fondness for fables.

After giving my brain such a workout, I was ready for some mind candy and started Curiosity Thrilled the Cat, by Sofie Kelly. The lightest of fluff—a mystery with magical cats. I’m about halfway through, and it’s silly light fun. This is the first in a series, but I haven’t decided if it’s one I want to continue. Maybe a bit too light. Next up in fiction is hard to say, though just now Lamb in Love, by Carrie Brown, is leading the pack.

I’ve finished one nonfiction book, Two Dogs and a Parrot, by Joan Chittister. I didn’t like this as much as I’ve loved some of her other books, though I did rather like the section on the parrot.

I’ve currently got two other nonfiction books going—My Cat Saved My Life, a memoir by Phillip Schreibman; and Animal, Mineral, Radical: Essays on Wildlife, Family, and Food, by B.K. Loren. I’m about one-third through each. I’m loving My Cat Saved My Life—it’s one of those magical books that transport you. When I pick this book up, I feel like I am right there with this man and his cat. I’m in the kitchen having the argument, I’m napping in the meadow with the cat, I’m sunning on the rock. A book to keep or a book to gift? That is the question.

Loren’s book is longer and a bit more uneven (as books of essays are wont to be), but I’ve only started Mineral and am particularly looking forward to Radical. I don’t know what will come after. Early days yet, as I’m still immersed in these two. No doubt something will leap off the shelf before too long.

Happy Reading!

Waiting for the Mail

I’m waiting for the mail. Not hovering waiting. Writing and acutely aware that the mail could arrive any minute (some people get their mail at a regular time; ours is usually sometime in the afternoon, but occasionally early morning). I’m not waiting for any particular reason; it’s not that I’m expecting a package or an important document. I am looking forward to the new stamp catalog (I’m running low on postcard stamps and also want the dragons, John Lennon, and Art of Magic stamps—the post office is putting out some really fun stamps these days). But that’s not why I’m waiting for the mail.

You never know what the mail will bring: a magazine, a catalog you love to peruse (hello Syracuse Cultural Workers, Sur la Table), a newsletter with some good news. And then there are the calendars, address labels, notepads, and occasionally even gift wrap from nonprofits hoping to lure you in (note: sometimes it works). The peak of mail happiness is the personal mail: a postcard, greeting card, letter, and occasionally even a package. Happy dance!

I’ve enjoyed getting the mail for as long as I remember. In our small town, that meant going to the post office. I loved walking with my dad to get the mail. I was honored and delighted to be entrusted with the responsibility (and the key!) of getting the mail on my own when I was in 3rd grade. The mail was never meant for me, but getting the mail was fun and special. One of my first significant responsibilities.

In college I totally lucked out and got a summer job working at the campus post office. I’ve had a lot of good jobs in my life, but that was one of my favorites: I learned so much about the ins and outs and rules of the postal system, developed an appreciation for postage stamps, and got to interact with faculty on a much more level playing field (I was the expert in this arena, a nice turning of the tables) and thus more personally, and they weren’t nearly as scary as I had thought. I loved every aspect of the job, from sorting the mail (before we opened) to selling and ordering stamps, and figuring out postage for various package types (useful knowledge to this very day). Happy summers.

And now the mail is delivered right to our house. In summer, when the door to the front porch is open, I can hear the solid thunk as the pile hits the floor on a good mail day. Sometimes I finish the sentence I’m reading before I go retrieve it.

The mail has arrived! Today’s haul:

  • A card from a friend (who I met working at the college post office job mentioned above)
  • A postcard from a different friend confirming a lunch date in October
  • The Conservation Minnesota newsletter
  • Electric bill
  • A mailing from my health care provider about an upcoming board election

Not a bad day, and not one piece of junk mail!

Backyard Report: Hops 1, Rabbits 8

I finished harvesting the hops today. A small crop this year, possibly due to rabbits (all of a sudden several vines died, and I wondered if a rabbit had chewed through the bottoms) or possibly to neglect.

Neglect? Yes. Unintended, but In May, I got a case of eczema on my hands. It didn’t get better and then it got infected and I missed the entire planting season. An unplanned experiment: I basically did nothing in the backyard this summer. No weeding, pruning, mowing, deadheading, or harvesting (excepting one catnip harvest).

I have felt guilty all summer. My backyard looks like weeds and shrubs run amok (which it is). But here is what I experienced:

More monarchs than I’ve seen in any year before. Possibly because I had a lot more milkweed. I’ve been trying to get more milkweed in my yard for several years, and this year I had a bumper crop (some even in the front yard!). I love the milkweed because of monarchs, but also because it reminds me of being a kid, finding milkweed pods in late summer and pulling them apart and blowing out the seeds. I still enjoy doing it—every bit as fun as blowing the fluff off dandelions—and your neighbors don’t mind so much with milkweed.

My lack of care didn’t hurt the cactus at all. They had a mighty bloom, and continue to spread. I also continue to spread them, as they encroach on the sidewalk (they are prolific!): Cut off the pad at the joint, take it to a different part of the gravel side-garden bordering the south side of the house, scrape away the stones, set down the pad, pour a few teaspoons of water over it (or not), and forget it forevermore (except to check on it and look at it frequently, which helps ignored plants grow).

The rabbits have been quite fun to watch this summer, and in July there were several babies. After a week away in early August, on our return, I noted only one of the young rabbits left nosing around the yard, and so it has remained. Until tonight, when something startled the backyard denizens: First, the young rabbit shoots out from under the dogwoods, heading east. Seconds later a smaller rabbit follows its path. Two little rabbits! And I consider myself such a good observer of nature….

And speaking of the dogwoods, they have become hugely overgrown and are taking up nearly a quarter of the backyard. But I think by no coincidence, I also added five new birds to my yard list: ovenbird (be still my heart!), Swainson’s thrush, gray-cheeked thrush, Connecticut warbler, and eastern wood pewee. All sighted in, under, or around the overgrown unsightly dogwoods.

Saving the best for last: A few weeks ago I was writing at the table in the kitchen, and I glanced out the window (this was early evening), and just winding around the corner of the flower bed, a—what are you?? My mind scrambled, searching. Big (not squirrel or rabbit) with a snout like a pig! What?? And it was white (not all white, but whiteish).

This is an animal I have never seen before, and I am seeing it here, right in my back yard in Minneapolis. I could only think it might be an opossum, even though in my mind they were brown and much much smaller.

It moseyed around the flower bed. after which I moseyed to google, to find out I had indeed had an opossum wend its way through my untended yard. This, to me, is the royal flush of urban wildlife.

Maybe won’t clean up my backyard so much come spring after all.