One Thing Leads to Another

Yesterday I didn’t get much on my to-do list done, but a series of events led me down some fun memory lanes. It all started with my decision to put a few tree ornaments on the small tree growing too close to the garage, but it’s so beautiful I couldn’t bear to pull it up when it was little, and every year I told myself I should and now it’s taller than me, and still I love this tree.

So I went to look through my tree ornaments which I haven’t touched for years (I don’t do a tree but that’s a different story), and I found several that seemed they would work on an outdoor tree (though none of the garden variety shiny red balls that I was hoping for—just one or two; it’s a small tree, after all).

At the bottom of one of the boxes of ornaments, I found a book I got from my aunt when I was in 2nd grade, A Christmas Story, by Mary Chalmers. It’s a very small book—a gift book, maybe 3×4 inches. I remember being shocked at getting what I considered a picture book in 2nd grade. I was quite insulted. It was a kid’s book! I’m pretty sure I didn’t say any of these things out loud.

Here’s the thing I didn’t get at the time: The main character is named Elizabeth (which just happens to be my name), and she is a little girl (hmmm, possibly 2nd grade or so?) who has to find a star for the Christmas tree she has just decorated with her friends, Harry Dog, Alice Rabbit, and Hilary Cat. I will not ruin the story by telling you how it ends. I treasured the book more and more over the years, and used to take it out every Christmas. But I moved and traditions changed, and it got packed away. But now that I’ve found it, it’s back on display for the season.

Also while looking for ornaments, I found a large bunch of Christmas cards from the early 2000s. Thinking this would be an easy dispatch and free up space in the box, I grabbed a large stack to go through. Another trip down memory lane. Pictures of friends with their little kids (who are now adults); cards and letters from graduate school friends; cards from former coworkers and former former coworkers. I haven’t finished going through them all. So many of my parents’ generation of relatives are dead, but they were not dead in the early 2000s, and it’s nice to be running into them again. I’m keeping more of these cards than I’d thought I would, because I figure if I enjoy going through them now (not all of them—some are being repurposed as postcards, and most are getting recycled) I’ll enjoy it every bit as much 10 years from now.

Some of these cards were from the same aunt (who also happened to be my favorite aunt and my godmother) who gave me The Christmas Story. She died four years ago, and I still miss her. I’m keeping all the cards from her that include significant personal notes. And all of this made me remember the ceramic Christmas tree that she made, and gave to my mom, and my mom gave to me many years later. I decided this was the year to put up the tree again. I knew exactly where it was, and on a whim decided to get it out right that minute. But it wasn’t where I was sure it was. It wasn’t in that closet at all, which caused pause. Where could it be? I sat down to read for awhile to let my brain relax and remember. And then I remembered exactly where in the basement it was. But no. And no and no and no.

And then I remembered the closet under the stairwell. It would be right up front. It was not. Sigh. What’s that box back there? Old books (shocking). Surely not that one way in the back—I reached, I tipped—ceramic tree! I tugged it out of the box (which did not want to come out from under the stairwell), and brought it into the kitchen to plug it in. But, what? No plug, no switch. I knew it lit up; that’s why I liked it so much. Did I miss something in the box?

I did indeed miss something in the box, and it was a big something that didn’t want to come out. So I hauled the box out over the top of all the other things in front of it, and a huge pile of photographs cascaded to the closet floor. Of course.

It’s a cramped closet so I pile up the photos and stick them on the shelf outside the closet. I get out the box and the bottom portion of the ceramic tree, plug it in, and it works! While it wasn’t really like my aunt was with me, it was in a little way.

And then I grabbed a bunch of photographs off the top of the pile, and took another trip down memory lane. They were nearly all from road trips I’ve taken around Minnesota with a good friend of mine. I thought the photos would be easy to cull, but my friend is such a good photographer, and he has such a good eye for mood, that I find I’m keeping far more than I’m tossing. And I have realized that there are so many good memories here, while I will do some culling, I want to organize rather than get rid of these photos. Already categories are emerging: quirky town monuments (we have a lot of these in Minnesota—Paul Bunyan, loons, Jolly Green Giant, chicken, walleyes—this could be its own post, and maybe will); nature shots; bird shots in particular; town names (often on water towers); various kinds of signs (road signs, billboards, street signs); and that was just a handful off the top. This could be a hugely fun project.

So the little tree outside is decorated, The Christmas Story is on top of the bookshelf, the ceramic tree casts its light again, I’ve more Christmas cards from years past to look through (and mostly recycle), and an entire photograph organizing project ahead of me.

Life is good. Happy December.

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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.

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!

Postcard Project 2018

At the beginning of the year, I started a new postcard project. (Reprise: My first postcard project was the haiku project, which is ongoing; last year, I wrote a weekly postcard to our state Senate leader and then added on a high-ranking committee member. The year before that, I sent a weekly postcard to President Obama.)

You never know what to expect from postcard projects. Best not to have expectations, I suppose. I had no expectations from the haiku project except personal satisfaction and meeting a goal (of writing a haiku every day). I’ve gotten much satisfaction, and discipline, structure, and a vast postcard collection to boot.

The political postcard projects brought me mixed satisfaction. The weekly Obama card was going great until I got stuck on a TPP track and couldn’t get off it. I was boring even myself and so I stopped the project. I did hear back from the White House at least twice, though (in that generic we feel your pain way), when I was onto a broader range of things.

The 2017 project with the Minnesota Senate leader started out okay; I thought I was connecting (I Do try to send interesting postcards and not mean ones—funny sometimes, but more often simply local). I heard back a couple times (or maybe only once). But after a few months I wondered if they weren’t going right into the trash. So at the end of 2017, I shifted my political energies in other directions, and decided to bring the postcard project closer to home.

I asked my niece if she might be interested in receiving a weekly postcard. I received an enthusiastic yes, and my new postcard adventure began.

For those who might wonder why the niece, it’s because she of everyone in the family sends me the most mail. Never misses a birthday, sends the thank-you through the snail mail. She seemed the natural choice. We see each other several times a year, at family get-togethers, but not often, and I thought this might be a different kind of way to give her some insights into my life and share some fun postcards.

I have to say, the results have been beyond gratifying. It is unbelievably super fun!

First off, within the first few weeks, she emailed me saying how much she and her husband enjoy sitting and reading the postcards together (!!) and the husband especially wants to know where do I get all these postcards that so reflect what I’m writing in the text? Such a level of interest! Be still my heart!

And I kept writing and writing, and now my “weekly” postcard total to my niece is over 50 (for 2018). I had made it clear from the start that no response was expected. But she did respond, usually via email, and the responses started to get longer. And then we went off on a long snail mail/email exchange (I switched to cards at this point over postcards) discussing things like déjà vu, reincarnation, quantum physics, and the intersection of science and religion.

Is that cool or what?

We’ve also been encouraging each other to write, mostly in the essay/memoir arena. Turns out I suggest my niece write about having a grandfather, father, and brother who are morticians, while she suggests to me writing about growing up in a funeral home. At this confluence, she mentioned a collaboration. Not sure if she’s kidding around, but it sure would be fun to give it a try. I’ve always thought there might be an audience for a story about growing up in a funeral home (note—it was mostly fun). Another point of view from another generation—well, even I want to hear that one.

Total speculation.

What’s not speculation: This postcard project with my niece has been a smashing success, and we’re starting to get to know each other personally (outside our family function roles). I never even remotely expected such a positive outcome from a bunch of postcards. The advantage of no expectations!

Take a chance. Pick a relative you don’t know well. A friend you’ve sort of lost touch with or want to be closer to. Or a politician. Start a postcard project. Be honest. Be funny. Pour out your heart. And do it again the next week, and the next, and do it for a year. Don’t do it for what it will give to your friend or relative. Do it for yourself. Connecting and communicating—it’s kind of an art.

And you never know—you might be surprised at how much fun you have.

The Joy of Correspondence (In Praise of Snail Mail)

When I quit my job a few years ago, I had some specific goals for the year I was going to take off. I planned to read as much as I wanted to, and I wanted to learn to cook from scratch (beans and whole grains, soups and such). I wanted to learn more about medicinal herbs and make some simple remedies, preferably from my own herbs. And I wanted to start a blog.

I did not have correspondence on my radar. However, correspondence has become a major part of my life over the last few years, a huge unexpected joy.

It started with the haiku project in 2013. Write a haiku a day, put it on a postcard and send it to a friend. My Montana friend gracefully agreed to be the recipient of said postcards, and I decided to try to do a postcard a day for a year. I missed only a very few days, and I’m still doing it.

A friend in Colorado read about the project and started her own version of a postcard project with a variety of recipients (some receiving daily postcards and some receiving weekly postcards). I was one of the weekly recipients (and some weeks I received more than one). I am still one of the weekly recipients (we postcard project people clearly are not quitters), and she started her project back in August of 2014.

Fast forward to the fall of 2015. I started having serious computer problems. Email longer than a few sentences became untenable. It took a few months to figure out, but in the meantime, I was losing touch with some of my out-of-town friends, including Jami in Colorado.

So I started sending letters and cards via snail mail. This might seem extreme, but when it is taking two or three days to send an email, snail mail begins to look quite inviting. And I had an entire drawer full of cards that I had collected or received as gifts over the years, so there was no expense except postage. (Oh, and the obsession I developed with finding fun writing pens—you may not realize it, but sometimes you need to use different kinds of pens on different kinds of paper. Slippery paper requires special care.)

Jami (Colorado) almost immediately asked if I wanted to move completely (almost) from email to snail mail for the duration of my computer problem. Yes! And so it began.

With a weekly postcard and a weekly letter or card from Jami, plus occasional mail from other friends that responded in kind, getting the mail became much more fun. And the more fun it became, the more I wrote. The computer got fixed, and Jami and I continued our snail mail correspondence and still do. But now, it’s more like three or four cards a week (blank notecards that we usually write on both sides and the back), and it’s come to the point where I’m more likely to get something personal in the mail on a given day than not. And it’s not just Jami. I have several friends in town who send occasional cards and notes, and just today I got a postcard from a friend visiting Hawaii.

Sometimes I run across a funny in the newspaper that makes me think of a friend, and I clip it and send it to them with a note in a card (and it usually ends up being a longish note, because these are friends, and there are always things to say; also, smaller cards can be used if you are feeling somewhat less verbose on a given day).

I have one friend that I like to send scandalous postcards to because they make her burst out laughing when she finds them in the mailbox.

The payback? The payback is pure joy. First, I love writing (hence blog), so there’s that. But writing to close friends is more personal than the blog, and it can help me process feelings simply by writing them down, which is very grounding, so that’s a second thing.

Third, I get to support the U.S. mail system, which I think is one of the best things in this country. (And it also gives me an excuse to buy lots of the fun stamps the post office puts out, which I am tempted to count as number four but I won’t.)

Fourth, it brings joy into other people’s lives (a funny postcard, a poem, various goings-on, updates on important things like cooking successes and failures)—it singles a person out, and that means something; when the card is from a friend, you know it was chosen specifically for you; the words are written only to you. This primitive act of finding just the right card (or stationery), writing it, putting it in the envelope and addressing it (which of course means finding the address book), stamping it, and dropping it in the mailbox—somehow this primitive act does so much more than email. (I’m not sure which end experiences the greatest benefit, but I’m guessing the writer.)

Fifth, if you’re lucky, you might find a bit more personal mail on your porch floor (or wherever your snail mail lands). It’s fun. You pick it up, hold it in your hands. Read it (or tear it open and then read it), and if it’s a card, you often prop it up so you can enjoy it—usually for several days. (When’s the last time you propped up an email?)

Sixth, even if you don’t get more snail mail, you might strengthen relationships. I copied Jami’s weekly postcard idea and started sending a weekly postcard to my niece. This has led to a lot more correspondence (via text and email) and we’re both learning more about each other, which is a lot of fun.

Seventh, the correspondence can also be a form of artistic expression (especially with postcards). On my best days, the postcard picture reflects the haiku, and on the very best days, the stamp does too.

If this is new to you and you’re intrigued, you might want to consider starting small. Dig out some old postcards you got on vacation; send a note to a friend you’ve lost touch with.

Or perhaps you jump in with both feet and start your own project. A weekly postcard to an aunt or an old high school friend. A monthly riddle to your family….

If you like to write, you might be surprised at how much fun this can be. Addicting, really. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

New Year’s Resolutions

I like making New Year’s resolutions. I find them a good way to set goals, try new things, and sometimes, induce new habits. I usually try to do three, in different areas of my life. Last year I resolved to: (1) send a weekly postcard to the Minnesota Senate majority leader, (2) give May baskets to several of my neighbors, and (3) get back to blogging (I had not blogged for months).

Overall I did quite well. For the political postcard project, I sent the majority leader a total of 57 postcards. In addition, I added another senator (on a couple of key health committees) in late July, and sent her 18 postcards.

I did indeed do May baskets (and plan to do again this year, but now May baskets are moving more into tradition rather than resolution). As for blogging, I had resolved (parenthetically) to blog weekly. That didn’t happen, but I did post more regularly, and I will be satisfied enough with that.

Here are my resolutions for 2018:

  1. Expand personal correspondence. I enjoyed the political postcard project, and I again wanted to do something with postcards, but I wanted to take a break from politics. So I decided to send my niece a weekly postcard. I tend to be abysmal at email, but find I have a bit of a gift for snail mail; and with the wide assortment of postcards I’ve accumulated over the years of the haiku project (yes, I’m still doing it), I can send a variety of sometimes beautiful, or funny, interesting, and even potentially scandalous cards. She has already received the first postcard and is quite excited about the whole thing. I’m also going to try to establish correspondence with an author. But I realize that it could well be that a person who writes for a living might not be inclined to find writing in their off time a relaxing/enjoyable thing. But I am giving it a try, and the card is in the mail. I’ll let you know if I hear back.
  1. Work out (yoga, walk, weights) at least twice a week. Yes, I know it’s a low bar, but I want to be realistic. This way, I might at least establish a bit of discipline. I have been known to work out five times a week and track it and everything—for about three weeks, but then I lose discipline. I can always do more than two (and I expect I will, especially in spring and fall when I love to walk), but I like having this low bar as a bit of a work-out safety net.
  1. Do at least one novel thing a month with my spouse. I got this idea from an excellent book I read in December, Life Reimagined, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, which I hope to blog about sometime soon (so many ideas for posts of late!). I’m starting to compile a list of novel things for us to choose from. My ideas include play mini-golf, take a class together (a cooking class, perhaps?), try a new cuisine (Somali?), attend a Supreme Court case, Explore Brooklyn (we are going to NYC for a wedding in August), visit the prairie (southwestern Minnesota has some gorgeous prairie lands), tour one of the huge mansions on Summit Avenue when there’s an open house, go on a paddleboat ride down the Mississippi, walk in the rain on purpose. Nothing hugely weird, just things we’ve never done together (and for many of them, things we’ve never done at all, or at least not for decades). Suggestions are welcome. The more we have to choose from, the better. And after all, we aren’t limited to one a month. This could be a very fruitful resolution.

Any New Year’s resolutions out there that anyone cares to share? (I love to post mine, because it strengthens my resolve. Also, I’m pretty sure no one but me is keeping track.)

Happy New Year to you! Wishing you good books, good friends, and a lot of laughter in the coming year.

Postcard Project, What?

I got several questions after my Postcard Project Mid-Year Summary, most commonly about the content of the postcards and especially about the suggestions. I decided that rather than reply to each query in kind, I’d write a post in response.

[Brief recap: At the start of the year, I, a liberal in Minneapolis, began a weekly postcard project, writing to our new Senate Majority Leader, Paul Gazelka, a Republican from northern Minnesota; in late summer I added Republican Senator Julie Rosen to the project. So far, I’ve sent more than 60 postcards, most to Gazelka, but 10+ to Rosen.]

Here are some of the things I’ve suggested:

Early on (possibly in January) I suggested a statewide survey, specifically looking at concerns of urban and rural residents. Much is said about the urban/rural divide in Minnesota, but I think a bit of it might be manufactured in our state Capitol. Certainly there are issues (e.g., grass buffers for farmers, mining near the Boundary Waters—but even these are not completely rural/urban). But who knows? Anyone who has filled out a questionnaire from a political party knows how badly the questionnaires are designed. I am talking about a survey done by a reputable firm with a track record (local, please), that would actually help us understand where we agree and where we disagree. I suggested either the survey center at the University of Minnesota, or Wilder Research (fairly well-known in Minnesota and respected on both sides of the aisle). For funding (since I am sure that would be a concern) I suggested that one of our many local foundations might foot the bill.

It is amazing how much you can get on one postcard.

This is an issue that has my heart, because I have a foot in both worlds: I grew up in rural Minnesota and visit frequently. I always loved going to “The Cities” when I was growing up. Pretty much everyone I knew did. It was a bit special. People back home still go to The Cities—to shop, for sporting events and entertainment (I ran into my second cousin, from my hometown, at the Guthrie Theater not so very long ago). I think rural Minnesotans want and value a vibrant Twin Cities. And I think most urban Minnesotans want strong rural areas. After all, where do most of us go over the weekend?

I think this is being exploited as a divisive issue by politicians, and I want to get to the bottom of it. (As you can imagine, I’ve written more than one postcard about this issue.) Ok, I will stop that long song.

I also asked the senators to consider a tiered minimum wage in Minnesota. This was after Minneapolis started talking about a $15/hour minimum wage and the Legislature tried to legislate that the minimum wage had to be statewide (wanting to avoid a patchwork quilt of minimum wage rates across the state, which I think is quite reasonable). But a lot of things are more expensive in the city. A minimum wage of $15 makes a lot of sense in Minneapolis. Maybe not so much in my hometown, where I could get a much bigger and newer house for a lot less money.

Additional suggestions, including several in the healthcare arena, since I’m in that special class of people that purchases individual health insurance: Expand MinnesotaCare (our excellent statewide health insurance program for low-income people) so that people on the individual market can buy into it; allow people on the individual market to join the state health system; and consider something like credit unions, but healthcare unions (I am not sure exactly how the model would transfer, but it seems like someone smarter than I might be able to figure it out).

Also, I asked them to consider increasing the gas tax (because who would notice after two weeks?) to facilitate road repair; support a bill that would ban hand-held devices (e.g., phones and razors) while driving; and to please follow the single-subject rule (which is in the Minnesota Constitution) that no bill can address more than one subject. It makes legislation so transparent, and it would have avoided so much of the mess that our (MN) government is currently in (to wit: a standoff between the governor and the legislature).

I was also asked if I’ve heard back. Yes, I’ve heard from Senator Gazelka twice, once in response to my initial email introduction (he responded via email) and a few weeks into the project, I received a letter responding to the first three (or so) postcards. Very briefly, but my points were noted, and he acknowledged an area or two of agreement. I’ve not heard from him since, but I’ve decided to treat that letter as an indication that he is at least reading the postcards. I like to think this. Even if he isn’t, probably someone is—a mail carrier, an office worker.

And even if no one reads them, they’ve helped me. They’ve goaded me into thinking about things differently. I’ve expanded my horizons, learned how to think outside the box (or maybe I’ve gotten out of a box?) and perhaps become a little more creative.

Not bad for a postcard project.