Truth Telling

Tap ZenLast April I read the book Tap Dancing in Zen, by Geri Larkin. I pretty much loved the book, and one chapter in particular has changed my life.

The chapter was “Why Lying Sucks” (I know, not very eloquent, and not what one thinks of when one thinks of things zen. Nonetheless, I loved the chapter.)

Live the path. Be honest. It shouldn’t be so very difficult. I consider myself a fairly moral and ethical person. I love philosophy. Honesty should not be a problem.

Have you ever tried this? Try it for a week, or a day. No lies, no exaggerations.

While I was reading Tap Dancing in Zen and mulling these issues, my spouse called me from work. I was writing a blog post and didn’t answer the phone. Later, when I called him back, I said I had been outside in the garden when he called.

And that kind of stopped me in my tracks. It was a blatant lie. Why? He would not be angry if I ignored the phone because I’m writing. More likely he would be pleased—he’s very supportive of said writing. So why the lie? (I figure it’s because it feels better to be missed [I was outside] than to be ignored [I was writing]—pretty much regardless of context; current theory.)

So I decided to try to be totally honest from there on out. I will say this: It’s hard. Larkin warns us to “beware: You’ll slip and learn more about yourself than you probably want to.”

truth or lieWhat I have learned is that I lie quite often. I wouldn’t have thought so had I not taken this honesty vow. Mostly they are lies to make me look better or feel better.

The thing is, I don’t want to just do the semantic game playing, either. Although I did tell my neighbor, when asked, that I could honestly say I had not delivered the May basket to her door. (Immediately catching my semantic evasion, she asked if my husband had left a basket. Busted.)

Ach! This is difficult! I find I am scratching myself and I just don’t do that! Venturing into dangerous (or perhaps merely unknown?) territory.

“This is a good day to make a vow to shift to a life of radical honesty. To tell the truth…not totwain deceive…ever.”

Honesty. Intricately connected with trust. I don’t know how to do this, but I think if I keep going down this road, I’ll learn something. I think it might be something important.

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Award-Winning Books Co-duh

carnivoreI love the monthly book theme (award-winning books for June), but one thing I’ve been missing in my reading diet are my food- and sustainability-focused books. While I love that the reading themes get me out of my ruts, I find myself particularly missing those books—they serve as guides in this new workless life I’m living. So I’m falling all over myself reading The Compassionate Carnivore, like an oasis in the desert.

I always check my food and sustainability shelves for each reading theme, but too often there’s no match (not even a stretchy match). I’m not completely rigid about the theme, but I’d say most months a good 80% of the books I read are theme related. The exceptions are usually library books or something I’m reading with a friend.

And then I had a duh moment: Search the internet for award-winning food books. (Why it took me so long I don’t know. I had already searched online for nature book awards—hence Wilderness and Razor Wire). Jackpot!

StopMy first exciting match was The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement, by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis. This won the Taste Canada Food Writing Award. I decided to make it my next nonfiction Clwin(after The Compassionate Carnivore). But then I started checking the James Beard Foundation book awards, and found two more matches on my shelves: More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, by Laurie Colwin; and The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, by Dan Barber.

Trifecta! An embarrassment of foodish riches!

PlateWill I read all three before the end of June? Probably not. The Third Plate clocks in at 486 pages, and while I’ve been missing foodish books, I’m not sure I want to read four of them in two weeks. And I think I will start with the longest, The Third Plate. It looks so interesting and appealing, and is frequently compared to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I loved. And in fact I have already started it. Just a few pages. It won’t get much traction until I’ve finished The Compassionate Carnivore, but I’m pretty sure that once I start it, I will get sucked in. Maybe my life will change. Books can do that.

Award-Winning Books

RelishThe reading theme for June is award-winning books. No lack of books here (and no lack of book awards, for that matter!). My kick-off book was Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, by Lucy Knisley. I absolutely loved it. Relish is a graphic memoir (think Persepolis or Maus) with a focus on food. I loved both the drawing and the story and would highly recommend this as an introduction to the world of graphic memoirs and novels. If you’ve never explored this genre, it’s a door worth opening. Relish won the Alex Award, which is given to adult books that are good picks for teens.

WolvesInterestingly, the other book that I have totally loved so far this month is also an Alex winner: Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt. This is the story of 14-year-old June Elbus who loses her beloved uncle Finn (also godfather, best friend, and rather famous painter) to AIDS. When she discovers Toby, her uncle’s long-term partner, they strike up a friendship of sorts, based on their mutual grief. It’s also about June’s relationship with her family, most especially her older sister Greta (the good, smart, petite, talented, beautiful one). I was drawn in from the first, and the further I got into the book, the more reluctant I was to put it down. I can be rudely antisocial when reading a good book and have been known to become quite irritable if interrupted.

Sex and the River Styx is the first book I’ve read by Edward Hoagland. A book of essays equally about nature and aging, I feel kind of ambivalent about it. Some of the essays I liked a lot, some not so much. Not uncommon for a book of essays. (This won the John Burroughs Medal.)

TuxedoIn the multiple awards category (caveat—I have not done extensive research and may have missed awards—there are a ton of them out there!) I read The Green Tuxedo by Janet Holmes (winner of the Ernest Sundeen Prize in Poetry and the Minnesota Book Award) which included a poem that I absolutely love: “The Mortician’s Son” (possibly I love it because my brother is a mortician’s son and my brother’s son is a mortician’s son).

Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton won the NAIBA (New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association) Award and the James Beard Foundation award. I started out liking this book quite a bit, but by the end, not so much. (Truth be told I hated it, but I am in a small minority here; the reviews are exceptionally positive.)

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth won the NAIBA Award. Another book in graphic form, this one is all about Bertrand Russell, mathematics, philosophy, logic, and madness. Also starring Alfred North Whitehead and Kurt Gödel.

It took barely an afternoon to read Newbery winner When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. All I will say is that it’s connected to A Wrinkle in Time, one of my all-time favorite books. Okay, I will also say time travel and good for 8-12 year olds. (Adults too, of course.)

RazorCurrently in progress: Wilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist’s Observations from Prison, by Ken Lamberton. I am about halfway through and loving it. It gives equal insight into Arizona wildlife and life in prison, a fascinating mix. He also draws, and the book includes a goodly number of his drawings. I love books with pictures, and these drawings pull me into his prose: birds, toads, flowers, beetles, scorpions, spiders. More, much more. Wilderness and Razor Wire won the John Burroughs Medal.

I’m midway through two poetry books, Going Back to the River, by Marilyn Hacker (Lambda Literary Award) and New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (National Book Award). I’m enjoying both—Hacker for the forms, and Oliver for the nature.

I’ve just started The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend (Minnesota Book Award). Only to about page 20, but it has good promise. I’ve read two of her other books, Hit by a Farm and Sheepish, and loved them both; I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to get to this one.

I read way too many books in the first part of the month that had to do with children and parents (and most especially girl children and parents—all those mothers and daughters started mixing together, and I started to lose track of what was in what book; I hate when that happens). Time to broaden the horizons. A different population, a different country, a different time.

Look! Up in the Sky! It’s a Bird!

kestrelWe went to visit my mom today, and I decided to keep a list of birds I saw on the hour-long drive. I always have an eye out for birds when I’m on the road, but this time I decided to specifically keep a complete list. A day list. The idea struck me when I saw an American Kestrel before we even got out of Minneapolis. Kestrels are falcons and our smallest raptor. They’re pretty common in Minnesota in the summer, but not so much right in the heart of the city, so that was a fun start to the drive.

I saw a lot of the usual suspects: American Crow (several); American Robin (a dozen or so); Canada Goose (3); several Rock Pigeons; far too many European Starlings; Red-Winged Blackbirds (scads); Mourning Dove (1); and Common Grackle (2).

hawkAnd while I didn’t add any birds to my year list, I did see a few of those birds that always make me smile, even though they aren’t all that uncommon. For example, the Red-Tailed Hawk perched on a light pole alongside the highway. Not uncommon, even in the heart of the city, but they still make me smile.

swanAs do the swans. I saw five Trumpeter Swans today (none of them very close; three weeks ago they were closer to the highway and I saw several cygnets!). Also, two Double-Crested Cormorants (one perched on a branch, one flying overhead); Great Egrets (at least two); one killdeer; one barn swallow; one tree swallow; and one green heron (they have the most recognizable hunch).

I saw the swallows at Dan & Becky’s Market where we stopped to get beeswax. I’ve been looking for a good local source for beeswax (which I use in my medicinal herb work), and they recently started carrying it. Nice! It even smells like honey. I can hardly wait to try it out. Also at Dan & Becky’s I saw two chickens. I don’t count birds that are penned up, but these were truly free-range chickens, so on the list they went. Dan and Becky commented on the number of people that tell them they have a chicken loose in the yard. That shop is a total joy to visit. Becky asked me if I might have any interest in pig farming. They can’t keep up with demand.

I’m thinking about it.

pelican_davidstephensThe best birds of the day were the pelicans. American White Pelicans. I still marvel that we have pelicans in Minnesota. As we were nearing our destination, I saw a large V-formation in the distance. Too far away to identify, but I thought they were pelicans. I wanted to chase them, but Mom was waiting. We picked her up, and on our way to the restaurant Hal pointed up and said “There are your birds,” and they WERE pelicans. Up close and personal and 18 in number. Not long after, we saw a small group of 3, also flying, and on the way home we saw a solo pelican on a lake.

It amazes me how much you can see, when you look.

The Backyard in June

I finally got all my plants in the ground. Or in the pot, as the case may be. Basil, rosemary, parsley, Roman chamomile (to complement the German chamomile that I grew from seed), and sage.

chamomileI’m awash in chamomile. I started a packet of seeds, and surprising me, many of them grew! So I have several pots of chamomile as well as a few in the ground. I use a lot of chamomile (mostly in salves) and I ran out mid-winter last year, so this year I am really doing the chamomile. Part of the problem last year was that I was a bit unreliable about the harvesting. This year I have more plants, a driving desire to grow enough to last through winter, and a huge eager desire to harvest (I hope said desire lasts all summer).

My peonies are in beautiful bloom, and the swamp milkweed is finally starting to come up in the front! Several milkweeds, so that’s good to see. (I had only seen one from the porch, but on closer inspection there look to be six or so.) And I believe I have finally got a common milkweed growing in my yard. My neighbor has scads of them, and has given me several to plant, but they never take and never come back. But I do think some seed has stuck and I finally have one. Fingers crossed.

So many bees! I get the big furry bumble bees. They seem to particularly love the catnip and the comfrey. (I also get black wasps, but mostly by the front porch. They sometimes get in the house—mostly on the porch. I catch them and bring them back outside, and can’t figure out how they keep getting in.)

currantsThe currants are not going to be quite the bumper crop I had foreseen. Something is finding them delicious while they are still green, and I decidedly prefer them red. Rabbit? Raccoon? Oh, a brief internet search informed me that almost every animal extant likes currants. Perhaps not cats. But most especially birds. Oh well. I love my birds. I do hope they leave me some to have with bread and cheese!

The raspberries are in flower, and the hops seem to be going crazy this year. Hops are a growing viney plant, and for the first time this year it’s creeping out into the tarmac driveway. Like how ivy grows on a house—the hops are starting to grow on the driveway. Just creeping along. Hops are a most excellent natural sleep aid and that’s pretty much the only thing I use them for.

What else? The hydrangea are starting to flower. Oh! My rosebush! My rosebush is more beautiful this year than it’s ever been.

Rosebush aside: This rosebush was in the backyard (near the back door) when I moved in. I have never been particularly fond of roses and always thought them difficult to grow, and was shocked to see flowers on it the first summer. I was delighted, but still didn’t pay much attention to it. It was blooming. I figured anything I did to a rosebush would only damage it. And one day (a few years later) my friend Victoria came over to help me design a new little garden. She saw the rosebush and asked if she could prune it.

Sure, I said.

roseAnd then she said to me, “I feel about this rosebush like you would feel if you saw a bird trapped in a net or wire. You would have to try to help.” 

Oh, what a lesson! And I have paid attention to my rosebush since, and though I feared I had far overpruned it this spring, it is having its most glorious bloom ever. Thank you, Victoria!

m cloakOther news: I don’t think the butterfly weed is coming back—don’t know what happened there. I saw my first Mourning Cloak butterfly this week! One of the things I love: reading and drinking coffee on the front porch in the morning, and looking up to see a butterfly hovering around the flowers and milkweed. A Mourning Cloak, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Red Admiral, and today in the backyard, a small one I don’t yet know.

It all makes me feel so small, this abundance, the butterflies, the bees, currants and blueberries, earthworms and wasps.

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

May Reprise

May is my month of abundance; an embarrassment of riches. Books, bookstores, birthday, and birding rise to the top as highlights, as well as gardening and watching things come back to life. MinBooks.  I read 13 books in May, 5 each for fiction and nonfiction, and 3 poetry. The big standout was The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, which I’ve already written about. I also particularly liked Red Azalea, by Anchee Min, a memoir of growing up in China under Mao. Very compelling and I learned a lot (not surprising given my sparse knowledge of China). The reading theme for May was color, and I did indeed complete the color spectrum:

  • Red Azalea, Anchee Min
  • From the Orange Mailbox, A. Carman Clark
  • The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Lewis Buzbee
  • A Few Green Leaves, Barbara Pym
  • Blue Jelly, Debby Bull
  • Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Ntozake Shange
  • Violet & Claire, Francesca Lia Block

It was fun in that I had the books in my collection to do it, and I read a lot of books that have been languishing unread for years (one of the great boons of the monthly reading theme), but I didn’t get to several of the books I had really wanted to read (the one that stands out most particularly is Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett). Of course that seems to be the case with every reading theme, so I guess I’m best off not blaming the color spectrum.

moon palaceProbably the bigger book story of May was the purchasing side. We went a little wild on that front. May is always a big month for buying books because it’s my birthday month and also we usually go to WisCon (Feminist Science Fiction Convention hosted annually in Madison, WI) where the books are not to be resisted. We didn’t go to WisCon, but we have a goodly number of local bookstores and we managed to hit several of them (Moon Palace Books, Minnesota’s Bookstore, Micawber’s Books, SubText, Magers & Quinn, Dreamhaven, Sixth Chamber, and three different Half Price Books). Crazy, huh? But it’s a vacation! We saved all that travel money, but then we spent it on books (yes, even more books than last May when we DID go to WisCon, an increase of a hefty 75%). We got more books in May (58) than we did in January-April combined. Lots of nonfiction (31) and fiction (19) and also several new volumes of poetry (7). An extravagant month as books go!

Birding. I added 62 birds to my year list in May! This was a spectacular May for shorebirds and I added a few to my lifelist, including White-Rumped Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Short-Billed sbdow_beauliddellDowitcher. Of these, the most exciting was the Short-Billed Dowitcher, which we saw at the Princeton Sewage Ponds. It was just there for the longest time, and we watched and watched and watched. The sandpipers I know I have seen before, but never close enough views to truly identify them. The waters were really low at Old Cedar one birding morning, and what at first looked like empty mudflats were in fact mudflats teaming with shorebirds. Oh they can blend! Other particularly fun sitings in May:

  • Wilson’s Phalarope (5-8)
  • Indigo Bunting (5-12)
  • Red-Shouldered Hawk (5-16)
  • Blue-Headed Vireo (5-19; new yard bird!)
  • American White Pelican (5-24)
  • Earred Grebe (5-30)
  • Caspian Tern (5-30)

I’ve only seen a few Caspian Terns in my life, so it was a rare treat at Old Cedar. Just one, but it flew in close and then settled down on a sandbar where it stayed for a good half hour or so. Lovely.

Medicinal Herbs. After a bit of a hiatus, I’ve gotten back into the swing of things. I felt like I had gone too broad, taken on too much, tried too much (with scads of bottles and jars filled with tinctures, herbs, and oils to prove it!) and said as much to a friend. My wise friend said it was probably not a mistake to go so broad to start—that’s how you learn the scope of the field. And I realized that I have learned a lot about what’s out there, and also the things that I most use and need, as well as what I am most drawn to. So now I am starting to focus in.

One of the things I like best is salve. I like to make it, I like to give it away, and I like to use it. I made another batch of the ginger, chamomile, clove, and black pepper salve (good for muscle massage and body aches); another batch of rosemary-chamomile salve (my favorite and most popular with my friends, and good for mild arthritis); and a thyme-chamomile salve (soothing and good for disinfecting).

Chamomile is one of my go-to herbs, so I’ve planted some from seed this year. I’ve moved several into large pots and am hoping to have a decent crop in a few weeks. Last year I was horrible about harvesting, and this year I vow to do better. Most especially with the chamomile (which I can buy at the co-op but it just doesn’t smell as good as the home-grown does) and rosemary (which I use vastly in cooking and for medicinals).

rhubarbCooking. My rhubarb was crying to be picked by early May, and pick I have. Several batches of rhubarb sauce later (the most recent just yesterday, with brown sugar, honey, and cinnamon), it’s still going strong. When we had a cold rainy spell mid-month I made some beef stew. I also made a huge batch of spaghetti sauce and froze a few pints for summer days when I don’t feel like making it from scratch.

Other highlights. May Baskets! Seeing Bernie Sanders, first mowing of the lawn (second, third), and cleaning out the garden beds. Perhaps the greatest highlight of the month: My mom gave me her dutch oven. She has used this for roasts for years, her most prized piece of cookware. But at 94, she isn’t cooking very much any more, and she has handed it down to me. I am thrilled. I hope to do her proud.