Contiguous Reading


FasenfestA couple of weeks ago I picked up A Householder’s Guide to the Universe, by Harriet Fasenfest. It’s a month-by-month look at householding in the home, the garden, and the kitchen. Heavy emphasis on the garden, which is heavenly when we’re getting warnings about 30 below wind chills. I’ve just gotten to June and am reading about making jam. Will I make jam in 2015? Who knows?

BerryAt any rate, Fasenfest quotes Wendell Berry a couple of times, from his book, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural. I’ve been meaning to read Berry forever, and since I had this one on my to-read shelf, I decided it was time. I’m near the end of the book now, and I believe this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. And happily, I have picked up many Berry books over the years so I have a nice little stock to choose from.

In the essay, “Notes from an Absence and a Return,” musing on poetry in general and his poetry in particular, Berry says:

I want, and I think in my farming poems I have been consciously working toward, a poetry that would not be incompatible with barns and gardens and fields and woodlands.”

This got me to thinking about my own poetry—particularly the haiku project—and where I might want to go with it in 2015. In asking my Montana friend if she was up to the task of collecting my postcards for another year, I wrote: I want to change the focus. While they will still be daily, I won’t focus so much on trying to capture the essence of my personal day, but something from it that I haven’t quite figured out yet.

And then I read that passage in the Wendell Berry book, and I realized that what I want to capture, or create, is a poetry that is not incompatible with houses and cooking and birds and backyards. A householding kind of poetry. Grounded. Tied to the earth. But an urban earth, since I live in the city.

AmmonsEnough about me. Earlier in the book, Berry references three great nature poets: Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and A. R. Ammons. I have read Snyder and Levertov, but had never read Ammons. Happily, I happened to have The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons on my to-read shelf. I loved it! There were many poems that I absolutely adored. Here’s the first one (page 3):


After yesterday
afternoon’s blue

clouds and white rain
the mockingbird

in the backyard
untied the drops from

leaves and twigs
with a long singing.

Here is another, slightly more seasonal:

Winter Scene

There is now not a single
leaf on the cherry tree:

except when the jay
plummets in, lights, and,

in pure clarity, squalls:
then every branch

quivers and
breaks out in blue leaves.

And finally, on this last day of the year:


May happiness
pursue you,

catch you
often, and,

should it
lose you,

be waiting
ahead, making

a clearing
for you.


Wishing you and yours all the best in 2015.

Liz Peterson (The B Suite)

The Longest Night

sunToday is the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year. It was the perfect shortest day here: gray and gloomy and seeming near twilight at 3:00 in the afternoon (even though sunset wasn’t until 4:35).

To me, the winter solstice marks the start of the new year. The darkest part of winter is behind us. Already now, even before Christmas, the days start getting longer. Here comes the sun.


Yet and still, there are a goodly number of long nights ahead of us (albeit each will be just a tad shorter) and this is a good time of year for contemplation, personal inventories, and looking ahead to the coming year and making plans (or resolutions). Of course it’s also a good time for reading, sleeping, and napping.

janusJanuary is named for Janus, the Roman god of doors and new beginnings, depicted with two faces—one looking backward and the other looking forward. This is a deeply spiritual time in many religions, but even if you don’t have a strong religious bent, deep thought and contemplation are good for the soul.

I’m not a resolution-making kind of person, but I am toying with one for 2015, which is to learn to make one new thing in the kitchen each month. For January, I’m thinking beef stroganoff. Other things that would make the list include samosas, some kind of souffle, and deviled eggs. I’m cooking at home a lot more but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Experimenting with some new foods and recipes will expand my repertoire as well as my skill set. Plus cooking new things is challenging and fun (and good for the brain!).

I’ve also got some more general plans, like learning to play my clarinet again (I haven’t played for many years) and getting more serious about my writing (possibly even going to the library a couple of times a week for some committed writing time).

But I still have many long nights to contemplate these things and make my plans for next year. These are the kinds of questions I ask myself:

  • What worked best over this past year? (Not working.)
  • What did I enjoy the most? (Reading all I wanted.)
  • What surprised me? (How much I wrote.)
  • What was missing? (Art. Volunteer work.)
  • What do I wish I had done more of? (Bike riding.)
  • Am I doing enough to save the world? (Absolutely not.)
  • What new things do I want to learn next year? (Spanish.)
  • What might I want to dabble in just for fun? (Drawing. Relearning the clarinet.)

Try it for yourself. You might be surprised at what you realize or think of, just because you take the time to ask yourself the question.

Happy Solstice!

Homemade Christmas

giftsA few years ago my family started a gift-giving tradition of “nothing new.” You can regift, upcycle, pass along something of yours that you think (hope) will be appreciated, get something at a thrift shop, make something, or do something. There are other variations to be sure, but these are the main avenues we’ve gone down.

It has made Christmas much less stressful (goodbye holiday shopping!), much more thoughtful (what do I have or might I find that my nephew might like?), and a lot more fun, not to mention creative.

The impetus to this was a discussion with Marilyn, my sister-in-law, about the frenzy of Christmas and the stress of shopping, and all the focus on “stuff.” We were doing a lot of exchanging gift cards, which got to a point of seeming silly, so we decided to try this new approach and everyone else in the family agreed to give it a try.

It’s been so much more than we had ever anticipated. In many ways, it has changed the focus of Christmas. Well, the absence of the gift-buying frenzy is a nice background, and the personal foreground, focused more on skills, abilities, and interests, adds a wonderful spice.

cookieI always give my brother a batch of his favorite cookies (those peanut butter ones with the Hershey kisses on top). This year I’m going to make my mom a pan of lemon bars (her favorite and I can’t believe I haven’t thought of it before this year).

I’m lucky to have a lot of readers in my family. Marilyn is a major reader (nonfiction only, which I think is quite fun) and I set books aside for her throughout the year. Both of her children married major readers, and I also enjoy accruing small book stacks for each of them throughout the year.

It’s equally fun to be on the receiving end. The first year we did this, Marilyn gave me a large ceramic bowl with a pouring spout (think pancake batter). It was beautiful. She never used it, I use it often and am still thrilled. I smile every time I look at it. My niece had received a pair of earrings for a gift and she didn’t care for them but thought I might: total score. I love them and they are in my top five earring pairs (and I have many, many pairs of earrings).

Last year, my nephew’s wife gave us a wreath she had made. She’d had it several years and loved it, but had to part with it because for some reason they could no longer hang it on their house. I have hung it outside on the garage where I see it every time I walk outside for anything. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. It also makes me smile.

My spouse and I have not typically heeded the tradition in our personal gift givingclarinet (what with wanting new books and all), but this year he is giving me the gift of reconditioning my clarinet (from high school—discovered a few months ago in my parents’ basement). I am feeling compelled to return in the tradition and have come up with a few ideas. (He tends to read this blog, so I won’t write about any of them until after the holidays, and then only if they are wildly successful. Or not. Huge misses can also be fun to write about.)

Now I am going to finish writing my holiday cards. Then I hope to get a couple of packages ready to mail so I can bring them to the post office tomorrow. Then I pull together the family gifts, and then I bake.


Tanka: Kind of Like Haiku

ChulaI addition to the villanelle and haiku, tanka is one of my favorite poetry forms. Like haiku, the tanka form comes from Japan. The tanka is similar to the haiku, but it is longer. Rather than the three-line (5-7-5) haiku, tanka has five lines (5-7-5-7-7).

Margaret Chula is one of my favorite tanka poets, and here is one of my favorite poems, from her book Always Filling Always Full:

now that fallen leaves
have left gaps between branches
of the copper beech
the cold light of the moon
enters our room unbeckoned

Sometimes I have so much to say about a day (or in this case a dream) that my daily haiku turns into a tanka. Here’s an example from August:


big dark house, empty
puzzle pieces on the floor
there must be thousands
I can’t help stepping on them
they are all turned upside down

And a couple of weeks ago, after a small temper tantrum when I slammed a drawer under the bed and it fell off the tracks so I couldn’t get it open, I penned this tanka:

in a fit of pique
I’ve slammed and jammed my pants drawer
no clean pants for me!
in a sorry stinky state
I learn this lesson, again

Many of my postcard missives to President Obama lend themselves to tanka. Here’s one from September:

convert a golf course
into an urban forest—
carbon reduction.
allotments and urban farms—
local food, local power

I’ve started a new book of tanka, Urban Tumbleweed, by Harryette Mullen. The author writes her tanka in three lines: “While embracing the notational spirit of this tradition, I depart from established convention in both languages [Japanese and English], choosing instead a flexible three-line form with a variable number of syllables per line.”

I’m not so sure how I feel about this. Or at least I’m not sure it’s really tanka. That said, some of the poems are lovely indeed. For example:

Instead of scanning newspaper headlines,
I spend the morning reading names
of flowers and trees in the botanical garden.

However, I find myself not picking the book up very much, because I want it to be tanka and it doesn’t feel like tanka. To be fair, she calls her work an adaptation of the traditional form. Perhaps I’m too rigid, but I just can’t wrap my head around three-line tanka.

On the other hand, it is not at all uncommon for writers in English to eschew the syllabic rules for both haiku and tanka. I understand why this would be the case when translating the forms, but I don’t quite understand why it’s so very common when penning them in English. We do, after all, have plenty of short words that lend themselves to short poems. But still, I find much more haiku (tanka is less common so I can’t generalize) departing from the form than adhering.

And on that note, I will close with another tanka from Always Filling Always Full.

alone and brooding
why do I think of you
—it’s the honeysuckle
and that uncertain slant
of early evening light

November Reprise

November was mostly about cleaning and cooking and squirrels.  I had hoped to get the entire main floor of our house cleaned, but only got to the living room, dining room, and a bit of the bathroom. Oh well. The important thing is I’m making progress and I will continue (albeit not much in December which has its own agenda).

rosieIn between bouts of cleaning I read 11 books (4 each fiction and nonfiction, and 3 poetry). The standout fiction book was The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion: A socially challenged genetics professor develops a 30+ page questionnaire to help him find the perfect mate. This was a fun, witty book which made me laugh aloud several times. I didn’t want to put it down and finished it in two days. The standout nonfiction was The Art of Communicating, by Thich Nhat Hanh, a short book full of wisdom that I vowed to reread every year the moment I finished it.

I really ramped up the cooking in November. This surprised me because of the cleaning project. But it also pleased me because I feared I had lost my cooking genes, but apparently they were just dormant over the summer months. I made steel-cut oats, wild rice, and orzo, all for the first time. I also made my first chicken adobo (excellent) and brown rice and peas (horrible and bland). I made three more batches of applesauce (including a microwave recipe that was not one whit easier than doing it on the stovetop—and nor did it make the house smell as good!).

And now that we’re in root vegetable season (parsnips!) I’ve made aparsnips couple of batches of roasted vegetables (seasoned with pepper and rosemary). Last time we went to the co-op, I got a few turnips. I expect they will be a nice addition to the mix. And since winter is here (we had an extremely cold November), I made some red lentil soup (which was merely okay).

We were invited to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving. I was responsible for the corn pudding and the mashed potatoes. It was a fine meal, and I got to take home the turkey carcass (along with a lot of leftover turkey). So I made turkey stock and also a wild rice-turkey casserole which was kind of bland (but the cranberries I added were a fun occasional splash of tart).

In the herbal realm I was somewhat influenced by the cleaning project (sweet birch dust cloths, homemade air freshener), but also made some winter wellness tea (rosehips, elderberries, and star anise), cinnamon massage oil, a foot scrub, and I put up a couple of oils (thyme, chamomile, and elderberries; and ginger, chamomile, and clove) which should be ready to decant in a couple of weeks.

I’ve continued the haiku project (one haiku a day, which I send to a friend in Montana as a sort of record of the year), and the Obama weekly postcard project (I’ve now sent 24 postcards to the White House). I drafted another villanelle.

We trapped eight squirrels (they were in our walls) and there has been a blessed lack of scritching and scrabbling for the last two weeks. We got the lawn raked and the garden put to bed in the nick of time—snow fell the next day. Since I’m not a winter biker, I’ve adopted a winter regimen of yoga, weight lifting, and stretching. I do this with my neighbor, which is the only reason I do it at all. Otherwise I would just curl up in a chair and read all winter.

HepburnOn a final note, we abandoned the Hitchcock project. It all started when I lost the list (highlighting the ones we had seen). A sign. I thought of how many Hitchcock movies I had returned to the library unseen. And then I noted that we had never returned a Katharine Hepburn movie unseen. So now instead of the Hitchcock project, we have the Hepburn project. Next up: The Lion in Winter.

Winter Reading

winter worldAt last December is here. I’ve been looking forward to the winter reading theme all November. November’s theme was “a book with a form of thanks in the title.” I had a short novel, Thanksgiving, by Michael Dibdin, and a book of poetry, Turn Thanks, by Lorna Goodison, and that was it. I added a couple of “grace” books because that seemed at least somewhat related, but for a theme, thanks was kind of a dud.

Winter, on the other hand, has more to offer (though perhaps not as much as “year,” the theme for January!). Already I have started Winter World, by Bernd Heinrich. Actually, I started this several years ago and got nearly halfway through before setting it aside. I expect to finally finish it this month.

Additional nonfiction in my stack:

  • Raven in Winter, by Bernd Heinrich (same author as above)
  • The Winter of Our Disconnect, by Susan Maushart (library book)
  • The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen
  • The Snow Geese, by William Fiennes

After Winter World (or perhaps while still reading) I will start The Winter of our Disconnect. Usually I don’t get books from the library for theme reading (because the theme is a way for me to discover forgotten books on my own bookshelves), but my friend Sheila read it a year or so ago, and recently mentioned it again and said she wished she had read it in the winter. So, winter is here, the library is here, and now I have the book. I probably will not get to Raven in Winter, even though it’s such a good fit for the theme, simply because I don’t think it’s likely I’ll read two nonfiction books by the same author in a single month.

I have quite a bit of winter fiction:Calvino

  • If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino
  • Wintering: a novel of Sylvia Plath, by Kate Moses
  • The Winter Inside, by Christopher Kenworthy
  • The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin
  • Whiter Than Snow, by Sandra Dallas
  • As Simple as Snow, by Gregory Galloway
  • Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny

I am most excited to read Wintering, a Christmas gift from a friend in 2003. If on a winter’s night a traveler would be a reread, so it’s a bit tenuous. But I could see picking it up and not being able to put it down. I loved it the first time I read it, and it remains my favorite Calvino book. And then I’m afraid I won’t be able to resist Bury Your Dead, which of course doesn’t even sound like a winter book, but on the back of the book it says, ”As Quebec City shivers in the grip of winter…” and so it’s a perfect fit. And it’s Louise Penny, and the next in the series that I only discovered within the last year or so.

Poetry is a little skimpier:

  • If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, by Anne Carson
  • Iced at the Ward Burned at the Stake, by Paul Swenson
  • For, by Carol Snow

ForBut it does have the major league winner, If Not, Winter, one of my all-time favorite books. This will be a reread (obviously) and I can’t wait to see how it is on the second go-round. You can see how desperate I am with the winter-poetry connection, resorting to things like “ice” and an author’s name. But the Snow book has been patiently waiting for five years now, and it looks to be such a wild divergency of poetry, that already I am excited to finish the Carson book that I haven’t quite started yet.

One of the best things about winter is hibernation mode, which means many evenings curled up with a book. And with a winter reading theme, it’s particularly fun.