What’s in a Name?

KateThe reading theme for May is “name,” and I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. One of the nonfiction books I’m currently reading is Kate Remembered, by A. Scott Berg. Hal and I have been on a bit of a Katharine Hepburn roll of late and that makes it particularly fun to read. In fact, I was just reading about the making of Adam’s Rib when Adam’s Rib came in from the library (there was a waiting list) but it was damaged and we only got to see the first half. It was a good first half, though. Anyway, I’m nearly halfway through the book and we’re nearly halfway through the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy oeuvre and the pairing is spectacularly fun.

I’m also reading Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers. It’s a decent enough book, looking at how to manage information overload, drawing on the writings of some brilliant thinkers (all men, all white) throughout history. So far I’ve read Plato and Seneca. Still to come: Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Thoreau, and McLuhan.

One of my surprise excellent reads for this theme was What Is Stephen Harper Reading? by Yann Harper
Martel. Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi and resident of Saskatoon) sends Stephen Harper a book or two a month, each with a note attached regarding why it was chosen (and often where from) and how it could help Stephen Harper to be a better leader. (In case you aren’t up on your politics, Stephen Harper is the current PM of Canada, and conservative. Yann Martel is not so conservative.)

I actually started this book several years ago when we were in Canada, but I set it down and when I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago I couldn’t believe I had ever put it down. The notes to Harper are great. In 2008 he sent Harper Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. Part of his note:

The most significant element in the life of Zora Neale Hurston—even greater than that she was a woman—was that she was black. It is inconceivable that her writing . . . would have been the same had she been white. She was black in a white society that for two hundred years had held blacks in slavery. She was black in a society that was, at best, racial it its thinking, and, at worst, racist. I imagine that every day of her life there was some glance, some exchange, some limitation that reminded Hurston of the colour of her skin and what that was held to mean.

He closes this note saying that the value in reading this book is that, in addition to being entertained, “for the duration of a story you will have entered the being of an African-American woman. You will have heard voices that you might otherwise never have heard.”

The name theme was particularly good for poetry and I’ve been reading a lot of it this month:

  • Making her Way: The Search for Helga, by Nancy Frederiksen
  • Circe, After Hours, by Marilyn Kallet
  • Eva-Mary, by Linda McCarriston
  • The Night Abraham Called to the Stars, by Robert Bly
  • The Journals of Scheherazade, by Sheryl St. Germain
  • How Charlie Shavers Died, by Harvey Shapiro
  • Jonah’s Promise, by Adam Sol
  • Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, by Wendy Cope

You can see I’m making good progress on my poetry shelves!

Katie KittenheartExcepting The Days of Anna Madrigal (which I wrote about a couple weeks ago), fiction reading for this theme has been pretty mediocre. The most interesting is probably a book that for some reason I’ve been hauling around for nearly 50 years, a 35-cent Scholastic book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Sara Crewe. (Why did I keep this, and not Katie Kittenheart, which I read and reread and loved? Who knows how or why we do these things?)

But I still have another week, so there’s time for another fiction book (or two). And there’s a lot to choose from: Maurice, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes, Harriet the Spy. . . .

Herb Profile: Chamomile

chamomileThe herb that has most taken me by surprise in my medicinal herb explorations is chamomile. It has captured my heart. It all started at Bill’s.

I went with my neighbor Greg to Bills Imported Foods, primarily for olives (best olives and prices in town) but also olive soap (ditto, but only available sporadically). And we wandered into the isle of bulk herbs, also rather inexpensive. And there was a bag of chamomile flowers and whatever possessed me to buy them I don’t know, but I did and it changed my life and I will never turn back.

Chamomile is probably most well known for its calming effects. Chamomile tea will help you sleep. Chamomile is the herb for relaxing and unwinding. But I don’t particularly care for chamomile tea and in fact if I am to be completely honest I don’t even particularly like the smell of chamomile tea (but nor do I dislike it). So I got these dried chamomile flowers on a whim—I loved the color, they were bright and yellow and cheery and called out to me.

I was not so interested in a tea, so I made a chamomile-rosemary salve (I added the rosemary mostly for the smell and because I love it, but it has its own medicinal properties I hadn’t counted on). I was surprised to find the salve extremely effective on my poor arthritic thumbs. (I think it is arthritis at the base of my thumbs. Sometimes it flares up and can be quite painful.) I rub it all over the base of my thumb and the pain stops almost immediately. Not for long, mind you. Often it would come back within 15 minutes; but that has been enough time to get me focused on something else so it’s not so bothersome.

But I was surprised at the effect. I hadn’t expected it to address arthritis. And especially so immediately. But it turns out both chamomile and rosemary are good for arthritis, and in combination maybe particularly so.

I am so impressed with chamomile that I am trying to grow it this year. I started with seed indoors, and Iseedlings did transplant a few outdoors, but I am not holding my breath. I think I did something wrong. So I also bought a chamomile plant at Minnehaha Falls Nursery for back-up, and I think I’ll get another one. Or two.

In addition to helping with arthritis, chamomile is good for stomach ache, heartburn, tired itchy eyes, irritated skin, aches and pains from the flu, headache, burns, insect bites, fever, and sprains and bruises.

Another culinary panacea.

My thumbs are not bothering me so much now, but I’m not sure if that’s due to the salve or the warmer weather. I’m thinking the weather might be the primary driving factor. But it would be really nice if it’s the salve. Half a turn of the wheel and we’ll find out.

Birding the Oak Savanna

A friend of mine suggested I check out one of her favorite areas of the river, an oak savanna with some prairie restoration going on as well. I stopped by today, and at first I was kind of, “huh.” But then I kept going. And going. And it knocked my socks off. Beautiful, for one thing, and much bigger than I initially thought. I kept discovering new paths (and a few new birds for my year list).

Gray catbirdThe first interesting bird I saw was a Gray Catbird. These are fairly large songbirds, gray as the name suggests but with a black cap and a rusty patch under the tail. It’s called a catbird because of its call, which sounds very like a cat (listen to the Mew call). This was one of the first birds I could identify by its call. (There are still not a lot of birds that I can ID by sound, but there are a few really easy ones: Blue Jay (especially the third call), Red-Bellied Woodpecker (the Kwirr call), Mourning Dove, and Black-Capped Chickadee (esp 3 songs and chickadee-dee-dee call)American Redstart

Next I thought I saw an American Redstart, a flashy little black and orange warbler. But I had only a glimpse and I wasn’t sure. I saw another one later, and then another. This is my first redstart of the year (first catbird as well) which makes it particularly fun.

I also saw a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, an Eastern Bluebird, a Swainson’s Thrush, Common Yellowthroats, and several Palm Warblers. But then it started to rain and I decided I should move along and get the coffee at Longfellow Market that was my original mission. One does not want to wake up in the morning to a house without coffee!Wilson's Warbler

But I couldn’t help myself. I stopped at the savanna again on my way home, since it had stopped raining. Just right by the car, I said. And then just to the bottom of the steps. And then—oh, is that a little bridge over there? Oh, a bird—must follow the bird (thrush), and then I saw a parked car and I had to see what (where) that was to orient myself, and then I found a wonderful little overlook where you could stand and look out at treetops. Well. You can imagine how fine that was since warblers often like to hang out in the tops of trees. And it was here that I saw several Wilson’s Warblers. These are rather common warblers (yellow with a black patch on top of the head) that I usually see every year, but I didn’t see a single one last year so I was happy with today’s abundance.

gnatcatcherAnd then I decided it was time to mosey back. But I discovered so many things, so many paths I want to go back to explore. Next time. And so I slowly headed out. And as I wandered back I was a bit surprised at how far in I had gone. Did I lock the car? (After all, I was originally just going to stand by the car and look in the trees for the bird I lost track of when I was leaving the first time.) Yes, I had locked the car. But just as I was approaching it, something caught my eye. The bird that eluded me before: It was a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher!

turkeyIt wasn’t just the river that provided good birding today. The home yard was pretty good as well. This morning when I got up I glanced out the window and saw a sparrow that looked like it was not a house sparrow, and sure enough—it was my first Harris’s Sparrow of the year, and a new bird for my yard list. Before coffee! And then later, as I was drinking coffee on the front porch, what should I see walking down the sidewalk but a Wild Turkey. This is not the first time I’ve had a turkey in my yard, but it’s still fun, and I always drop what I’m doing and simply watch, and call Hal to come watch too, if he’s around. And when I got home from the river I was sitting on the front porch perusing my Peterson Field Guide (no relation) to see what the bird I wasn’t sure about could be (Prothonotary Warbler), when I looked outside. There were scads of Yellow-Rumped Warblers and Chipping Sparrows, practically dripping off the trees.

What a glorious spring!

Family Members

Flesh and bloodThe reading theme for April was “Family Members.” It was not as fun as some of my previous themes (e.g., water), but again I read many books that have been patiently waiting on my shelves for more than 10 years. Flesh and Blood, by C. K. Williams; The Last Uncle, by Linda Pastan; and In My Father’s Garden, by Kim Chernin were all little gems.

One of the “newer” books I read (only on the shelf for 7 years), was Brother and Sister by Joanna Trollope. It’s about two adopted children (different birth mothers) who decide, as adults, to find their birth mothers. I was sure I would like this book, both because of the adoption aspect (I’m adopted) and because I’ve read several Trollope books I’ve enjoyed.

So I start this book more or less romping merrily along (or trying to) and then I come to this (p. 46). In telling her brother she wants to find her birth mother, the sister says, “I never wanted to before. Or at least, I never let myself want to. I told myself that I wasn’t going to be that kind of adopted person, lugging a grievance around and wanting people to make allowances for me.

What? I never knew there was “that kind” of adopted person, lugging around grievances (not to mention expecting allowances).

I know a few, perhaps even several, adopted persons. Most have been co-workers over the years, and we’ve talked pretty in-depth about the whole adopted thing. Most (not all) are not interested in finding their biological parents. I have only ever been moderately interested in tracking down my birth mother, and started doing so when I was in graduate school until I found out it cost $50, which was a lot of money at that time. And so I didn’t pursue it.

But I, and all of my adopted friends (or perhaps I should say my friends who are adopted) have considered ourselves quite lucky. Pretty damn lucky, even. My story: 16-year-old mother. I’m glad she gave me up. I don’t particularly care if she did it because she didn’t want me or she thought it in my best interest; I’m still glad she did it.

Later in Brother and Sister, when “brother” meets his biological mother, he says to her: “It’s hard to get over the fact that you were given away.”

And I have never taken that—being given away—as something to be angry or resentful for. It had never even occurred to me to hate my birth mother.

I think what bothered me the most about this book is that it presented the viewpoint of the brother and sister as universal. At least that’s the sense I came away with. And they both had a lot of resentments towards the women that gave them up.

I, on the other hand, just have a lot of gratefulnesses. I am grateful that my biological mother OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgave me up. I’m quite grateful that I was adopted into my funeral-home family (super fun place to grow up in). And further, I don’t know a single adopted person who hates the mother that gave up her baby.

If you have given up a child for adoption, if you are in anguish about the child you gave up (does she hate me?), please know: Probably not. I am grateful. Many are grateful. Not all, for sure. But families are like that: Biological or adopted, they’re still pretty much a crapshoot.


GC FlycatcherI’ve been moseying to the river as much as I can, weather permitting, to see what’s happening. Yesterday, I was treated to a very close-up view of a Great Crested Flycatcher. It almost seemed to be posing for me. First from this angle, then that angle, a little closer, a little higher, a little lower. Gorgeous. Just a few feet away. I’ve seen Great Crested Flycatchers before, but never so close, and never so nicely choreographed.

Today I was again greeted by the flycatcher. (I couldn’t help myself: “Hello, friend” I said, and then looked around to see if anyone heard me talking to what would appear to be thin air.) I wandered down the path and noticed a small bird scuttling in the Common yellowthroatleaves. Mourning Warbler, I hoped, but not. Rather, a Common Yellowthroat, such an attractive little fellow he always makes me smile.

So I start to mosey back, walking along a wall that overlooks a small ravine. I’ve noticed there are paths to get down there. I haven’t explored them yet (well, just a few and not very far), but I will. There is so much to explore along the river, I’m glad I have all year!

And as I’m moseying along the wall, there’s a small bird on the ground, on a small shelf of rock. There’s my Mourning Warbler! And two feet away, a bird I totally ignored, so intent was I on the Mourning Warbler; I nearly missed my first Magnolia Warbler of the season. Another very attractive bird.

magnolia warblerAnd when I get home, what should be there to greet me in the front yard, but a Magnolia Warbler. A new addition to my yard list!

I’m also trying to identify the wildflowers I see. I am not at all good at wildflowers. It helped a lot that the Minnesota Weatherguide Calendar had bluebells for their April picture. That was the beautiful blue flower I saw on my way to the river! More recently I’ve noticed a droopy yellow flower. I checked a wildflower book, and it appears to be bellwort. This is another thing I want to pay attention to as I continue my riverwalks: What is growing? What is that flower? What is that berry? Is it edible? Is it medicinal? A whole world to explore.



Charlottes webI don’t reread a lot of books, and there are very few books I’ve read more than twice.The two books I’ve read most often are Charlotte’s Web (7 times) and The Outsiders (6 times) but those were both before I started high school.

I can only think of two others I’ve read more than twice since those early days, and both are series. One is J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which my cousin John gave me for Christmas when I was maybe in 8th grade. I didn’t read them right away but waited until summer, and I remember sitting on the swing on the front porch, totally obsessed with these books of hobbits and orcs and elves and ents. I’ve read the series at least four times (most recently when the movies started coming out) and still I love them and I think perhaps even more, each time. I always cry.

The other series is Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books. I discovered these in 1988 when I read the first five books (and the sixth in 1989). I’ve read these first six books at least four times. They are compulsive page-turners with short little chapters (often just 3 pages) that keep you saying, one more chapter, one more chapter….

I thought the series was over but then in 2007, Maupin came out with another book and then another, Anna madrigaland now the final book in the series: The Days of Anna Madrigal. The characters in the books aged right along with us, even when we weren’t reading about them, so the young people I knew so well—and loved and despised and didn’t understand—they’re all middle-aged now. My age. Or old (Mrs. Madrigal is 92, nearly the same age as my mother).

If you are not at all familiar with the Tales of the City books, they center around relationships and friendships, and most particularly the relationships of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco, Anna Madrigal, landlord. Expect a joint taped to your door on the day you move in.

This is a fine, fine book and an excellent cap on the series. Now that they are a complete set I feel compelled to read the whole bunch of them again. I think 2015 will be perfect for that—The Days of Anna Madrigal will hold some surprises I’ve missed or forgotten, and also it will be out in paperback which will match (most of) the rest of my set. Highly recommended.


Eliot and I went birding this morning at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. Because it’s early May, we were pretty much expecting birds to be everywhere. And we did see birds, and some very fine ones at that. But they were not dripping from the trees nor rafting in the waters (as at least I had hoped).

I start a new bird list each year. It’s a fun way to notice things and pay attention. On our bird outing this morning, I added eight new birds to my 2014 bird list. Coincidentally (I think), most of them start with B:

  • American Pipit
  • Barn Swallow
  • Black-Crowned Night-Heron
  • Brewer’s Blackbird
  • Brown-Headed Cowbird
  • Brown Thrasher
  • Green-Winged Teal
  • Lark Sparrow

black crowned night heronSo overall it was a B kind of birding day, and the Black-Crowned Night-Heron was the highlight. I’ve not seen one in years, and it just sat there forever as we watched it. And just as we were leaving it turned, showing its profile. Magnificent.

Since I started birding I have had a thing for sparrows. Sparrows are among those “little brown birds” that are all clumped together, but as with so many other things, when you go a little deeper you find some wonderful diversity. One of my favorites and an early spring arrival (and occasional over-winterer) is the White-Throated Sparrow. I frequentlywhite_throated_sparrow_2 get them in my backyard, and they always make me smile. And sometimes I hear them sing—most especially in the morning. I know that spring is really here when I hear the White-Throated Sparrow sing.

Today we saw Lark Sparrows: They have beautiful markings on their faces. I don’t see Lark Sparrows every year, so they were quite fun to spot. And the pipit! I have only seen a few American Pipits in my life, so that was a big highlight. Though I think the Black-Crowned Night-Heron carried the day.

I love spring. All is renewed. And so much more to come!

April Reprise

Fewer books, less cooking, less writing, and a lot more birding, walking, and other outdoor-related activity characterized April.

In my fathers gardenBooks. I read 16 books in April, nearly evenly divided between nonfiction (7) and fiction (6), plus three books of poetry. My favorite book of the month was In My Father’s Garden: A Daughter’s Search for a Spiritual Life, by Kim Chernin. This is another book that’s been on my shelves for awhile (purchased in May of 2003) that I picked up for the month’s reading theme (family members). I love that the reading theme leads me to these forgotten gems; it’s so easy to focus only on the most recent acquisitions. (Case in point—I was putting away our April purchases and May Sarton’s Recovering, which I found in the dollar bin at Half Price Books, did not make it to the shelf and is now my primary nonfiction.)

Chernin is struggling to find a spiritual path. She was raised in a Marxist household, focused on training “a very precise, skeptical mind. With a mind of this type, it would not be easy to wander about in search of a god.” But wander she does and I loved where it took her.

The divine is not quite loud enough for us, not sufficiently garish to attract our notice. It moves with muffled footsteps in and out of the very world we inhabit, leaving traces of subtle disorder, a fine brushwork of disappearing acts for us to dust away as we go about to set our house in order.

And a few pages later, “It must be possible to love the human and seek the divine, to be deeply attached to the earth and all its entanglements and still be trotting along on a spiritual course.”

Of the fiction, my favorite was The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penny. I think part of the reason that I liked it so much is that I read most of it on that really icky snowy/rainy day we had, the quintessential cruelest day. This is the third book in this mystery series set in a town not far from Montreal, Quebec. If you haven’t discovered Louise Penny and you like mysteries, I highly recommend this series. The first is Still Life.

Cooking. I made only one new thing in April, a barley bake. Even though I added more spices than it called for (none), it was still bland. When things are fairly new to me (e.g., barley), I tend to stick fairly close to the recipe. So while I added parsnips and carrots and onions (what isn’t improved by these three?), I didn’t add much in the way of spices (just a little rosemary and thyme) and that was a big mistake. And next time I will use more of a tomato base rather than a vegetable broth base.

Other than that, I just did the tried-and-true: porcupine meatballs, chili, meatloaf, corn pudding, and Minnesota goulash. I expect May will be more of the same. I am obsessed with birds and nature at this time of year. One thing I’ve started to do is experiment with bulk cooking. This will be especially handy in the summer, when the last thing you want to do is turn on the oven.

Herbs. My most exciting find of April was The Medicine Tree, a store that sells bulk herbs and essential oils,Medicine tree all organic, and right in my neighborhood. It is closer than my co-op (I can easily ride my bike there), the prices are a bit better, and they have a huge selection—everything I could have dreamed of and many things I’ve never even heard of. And, if there’s something you want that they don’t have, they will order it for you. I’ve been there twice now, and they don’t mind at all if you browse as long as you like. Open jars and smell things. Ask questions. And they offer classes! I can’t believe I have this great resource practically in my back yard. I am thrilled!

Also in the herbal realm I have finally decanted my lavender oil, the turmeric oil, and the calendula/rosemary (with a dash of turmeric) oil. And I’ve started both a calendula oil (just calendula this time) and a calendula tincture. I will leave both to macerate for several weeks, shaking daily (or so).

dandelionI’m watching my lawn daily for the first sign of dandelion, but no luck yet. This is the first year I’ve ever looked forward to dandelion. I have a formula for a dandelion bar (using dandelion flowers—how perfect is that, to run out and pick them before they have a chance to go to seed). First you make a dandelion oil, then add shea butter and beeswax, and voilà! Supposed to be great for dry and cracked skin and I am thinking it will be great for cracked fingernails as well.

Other. The haiku challenge continues (sixth month!) and I wrote seven blog posts in April. I will admit I got quite behind in the haiku (I almost always write the highlights of the day but sometimes the haiku itself is elusive) and found myself more than once writing haiku back for several days. I blame the birds.

snipeI’ve been a bit crazy about birding this month (the rain of the last few days slowed me down and I actually cleaned the kitchen and made some food) and have gone out almost every day when it hasn’t been raining or snowing. Most often I go to the river. I love exploring the terrain and going a little further afield each time. I saw three snipe there (I surprised one and it almost flew into me), Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes, and tons of Ruby-Crowned Kinglets and Yellow-Rumped Warblers. I discovered some bluebells (flowers), and various unknown kinds of bushes are starting to bud.

April also saw my first morning coffee on the front porch and the first outdoor day in a T-shirt. My little forsythia (a gift from our neighbor last spring) overwintered well and is in full flower (as full as a 12-inch forsythia gets). Lilies are coming up, and the rhubarb is six inches high.

I finally brought my bike in to The Hub, and it is all tuned and ready to go, for less than $100. I’m happy as a cat about that, since it had two flat tires and hadn’t been ridden in 10 years. I thought it was a bit of a wreck. Also, since April is tax month, we did our taxes (yes, we still do them ourselves), and then we refinanced the house. (These two events are unrelated except they both happened in April.)

In the realm of small activism, I marched with Kathleen for Planned Parenthood, and I went to Signature Cafe with Sheila for Dining Out For Life.

After months of dark and cold, life is starting to kick again. I love this time of year.

Happy May Day!