The May Basket Project

Two years ago I left May baskets for three of my neighbors early in the morning on the first of May. It was a lot of fun. Candy, flowers, a book—leave the basket on the doorstoop, ring the doorbell and run.

Just like I did as a kid.

It was great fun, both then and now. The making of something purely for someone else’s pleasure (hopefully anonymously) is hugely gratifying, for reasons I haven’t quite divined.

An unfortunate confluence of events kept me from May baskets last year, but this year I am back in the game.

I planned 7 of them—a significant increase from last time. I’m kind of hoping this thing will catch on in my neighborhood.

This morning I woke to rain, and when I thought of the books and dog biscuits in some of the baskets, I decided a belated May 2 delivery might be the wiser choice.  Who doesn’t like to sleep in on a rainy day? After newspaper and coffee, spouse and I went out for a late lunch. Halfway through lunch, the rain changed to snow. As we finished, we had a very decent snowfall going on. Too warm to accumulate, but very fun to walk through.

For sure we won’t deliver May baskets now, I thought; but the snow stopped immediately after we got home, and turned into a slow drizzle. I was putting finishing touches on the baskets (leaving only the flowers to add last-minute) when I realized that the rain had stopped.

Do it! I quick got the flowers and added them to the baskets (confession: One set got left behind on the counter, and another fell out en route—clearly we have a few kinks to work out). The first delivery was a total success: after running away, we saw the door open and the basket taken in. Next we did two neighbors to the north, and then two to the south.

As I was wrapping things up, our doorbell rang.  What? A shadow of someone running away.

A May basket! Truly! Flowers (magnolia and tulip), Shakespeare sonnets, and far too many chocolate candies. (Spouse counters that “far too many” is an overstatement.)

Later this neighbor stopped by, and I found out she gave three May baskets in the neighborhood. Perhaps it will catch on after all. I love this idea!

I don’t know if it is my small-town roots, my introvert nature, or simply the appeal of giving someone something unexpected that draws me so to the May baskets. We learned to do it as kids at school—we made them out of construction paper and hung them on our neighbors’ doorknobs.

I’ve ratcheted it up a notch, forgoing construction paper and staples for actual baskets (often free from friends and family who have piles of them in the attic/storeroom/basement), and trying to apply at least a nominal personal element. Dog biscuits, comic books, poetry, puzzles.

Whether it catches on or no, I plan to continue May baskets to my neighbors. It’s simply too fun, and why not?

All the Light We Cannot See

“Color–that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. Its scientists are lilac and lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich black and complicated blues down the hall toward the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden. The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light.”

–Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize and also an Alex Award (awarded to books written for adults that also have strong appeal to teens). Highly recommended. It’s longish (> 500 pages), but it has short chapters alternating perspectives, and you keep wanting to read one more and one more. Another. Just one more.

April Reprise

The rhubarb is ready to pick. The lilacs are starting to bloom. The catnip is a major personality in the herb garden, and the lemon balm is most decidedly coming back this year (last year was pretty iffy). Both sage plants are in full green and growing, and the raspberries seem intent on marching through the yard. I confess I cannot stop them. I will happily take a detour to allow the rampant raspberry.

Bookishly, I read 10 books in April. Another month heavy on nonfiction (5 of 10; 3 fiction; 2 poetry). The book I loved most was Plant Dreaming Deep, by May Sarton (memoir). I’ve read several of Sarton’s journals in higgledy-piggledy order, but this is a memoir and a prelude to the journals. I’m hoping to read all of them (in order) in the next year or so. Sometimes things call, and these books are calling to me.

My major reading accomplishment, though, was finishing The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thank goodness I was reading this with a couple of friends, or I doubt I would have made it to the end. It’s about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as the journalists of the time (and most notably Ida Tarbell). I certainly learned a lot reading it, but I wasn’t as engaged as I have been with some of her earlier works (most notably Team of Rivals, featuring Abraham Lincoln). We all heaved a sigh of relief at our last discussion and decided to stay away from books with political themes for the foreseeable future.

One of the best things about April is the ongoing influx of migrating birds. I added 30 birds to my year list, including a variety of ducks, but also Eastern Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Pileated Woodpecker, Great-Horned Owl, and American Pelican. Of these, both the pileated and the pelican were seen from my yard, giving me a fairly respectable yard list this year. The pelicans were not new to my yard list, but this is the first time I have seen so many. They were kettling high in the sky—I only ran across them because I was scanning treetops with my binoculars and there they were. My other notable sighting for the month was a Belted Kingfisher. These are not uncommon in Minnesota, but I saw not a single one last year, so I was exceedingly pleased to see one a couple weeks ago, and not far from my house at that!

In the herb world, a few weeks ago my herbal friend in California sent me a hot rub that was so effective on the arthritis in my foot that I decided to have a go at making my own Minnesota version. It includes hops, chamomile, rosemary, cayenne, and turmeric. Half is macerating in grapeseed oil and half in canola oil. I am just starting to experiment with different carrier oils (up until now, I’ve used olive oil almost exclusively). It won’t be ready to decant for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I decided to try another version, with minced ginger (along with chamomile, cayenne, and turmeric) and this went in olive oil. I will have much to compare and contrast in a month or so. Warning: If you make your own version of this, do wash your hands immediately after application and keep away from eyes and sensitive tissues. The cayenne can cause serious discomfort!

Cooking was not a high priority in April but I did have one quite excellent cooking experience. I was at a neighborhood restaurant and noticed orzo-tangelo-thyme salad on the menu. It looked delicious and I decided to try making it at home—it seemed so simple. And it was! Take some cooked orzo, add some zest from a tangelo (I couldn’t find a tangelo so I used a tangerine)—enough to add some pretty color but not to overwhelm. Add as much juice from the tangelo as you like to the salad, until it reaches a pleasing consistency. (I only used a cup of cooked orzo, and added the juice of half a tangerine—next time I will make a much larger batch!) Add fresh chopped thyme.

(Note: If chopping fresh herbs stymies you because the herbs always bend instead of getting cut by the knife, you probably need a sharper knife. I had completely given up on chopping fresh herbs with a knife and tore them up by hand for years, until a few months ago I invested in a fairly decent and small chef’s knife. The smaller knife fits better in my hand, and whether it’s the control or the sharpness of the knife, when I tried chopping the fresh thyme with this knife, it was like magic.)

Add enough thyme so the salad has a nice mix of orange and green. Taste, of course, and add more thyme as desired. Mix all together and serve with pretty much anything. It worked equally well with pork roast and sausages, and also makes a fine light lunch on a hot day.

My haiku postcard project continues. April highlights:

the nice sunny day
turns into a short blizzard
April’s lion side

not a house sparrow
skittering in the dogwoods
white-throated sparrow!

Plus the occasional tanka:

such a loud drumming
pileated woodpecker
I couldn’t find it
until it flew from the tree
so big yet so elusive

Happy reading, happy birding, happy spring. Is there a better time to be alive?

The Mighty Middle

I just got back from a three-hour breakfast with a friend from graduate school. She’s lived out of state for most of her working life but we’ve stayed in touch, mostly through Christmas cards. A few years ago, though, the friendship deepened and we’ve been writing frequently (it’s so fun to get real mail) and seeing each other on the occasions she comes back to Minnesota to visit family.

She’s one of the smartest people I know, and I never tire of talking with her. We have much in common (as well as many differences) and range all over the conversational landscape (in three hours we didn’t even get around to books!). Towards the end of this marathon breakfast we discovered a shared passion that surprised both of us: We want to bridge the partisan political divide.

It sounds so dry, doesn’t it? Hardly a passion.

It seems the parties work so hard to convince us how different they are, and thus how different we elephants and donkeys are. Government has become frightfully partisan, to the point where it has shut down more than once and shut-down threats have become the currency of the day. These are the people we have hired to run our government. Compromise is considered treason.  A lot of people on the left and the right are increasingly frustrated with this dysfunction.

On the other hand, according to numerous polls, Democrats and Republicans as people (as opposed to elected officials) agree on quite a large number of things, though you would hardly know it from reading the newspaper or talking to your friends. I have friends who demonize Republicans as evil incarnate. I’m serious. I used to stay silent, but the last time one friend pinned all the economic woes of this country on Ronald Reagan, I reminded her that it was Bill Clinton who signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which contributed greatly to the 2007 meltdown.

A scad of polls has found large majorities of the population favor labeling of genetically modified foods. An Associated Press poll reported in January 2015 that 64% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats support GMO labeling. That’s a lot of agreement.

Gun control is usually considered a very partisan issue, and in ways it is, in that Republicans are more likely to oppose stricter gun laws (79%) and Democrats are more likely to support them (77%). On the surface that seems pretty cut and dried, but if you go just a tiny bit below the surface you find that 87% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats would support a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online. Maybe not so polar after all. (Quinnipiac University, December 2015)

Even abortion is not as polarized as it is positioned in the political arena. Yes, Democrats generally defend and Republicans generally oppose it, but let’s face it: Nobody really likes abortion. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that fewer abortions is better and perhaps they would agree that none is ideal but not realisitc. I do know that even my most radical liberal friend who demonizes Republicans (“Can you tell them by the way they walk?”) is opposed to abortion as birth control. And nearly every Republican I know is in favor of the option for abortion in cases of rape or incest. Again, we enter shades of gray.

Economic reform is another issue on which huge numbers of Democratic and Republican people (if not politicians) agree. Big money controlling politics is a huge concern for the vast majority of the people, in stark contrast to elected officials who—of course—embrace big money because that’s how they get elected. More than three-quarters (80%) of Republicans and 90% of Democrats believe money has too much influence in political campaigns. (NYTimes/CBS News poll)

There is also huge bipartisan support for overturning the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United. A Bloomberg poll in September 2015 found 80% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats opposing the Citizens United Ruling.

You still think we have nothing in common?

I’m just scratching the surface here.

Hero: Terry Tempest Williams

BeautyI’ve just finished Finding Beauty in a Broken World, by Terry Tempest Williams. Not her most recent book, but one of the few that I hadn’t read. At times I struggled with this book. It covers three distinct (sort of) topics: making mosaics (she actually goes to Italy and learns this ancient art); prairie dogs; and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

The book itself is a mosaic: Snippets of this and that, observations, occasional quotations, sometimes it flows smoothly and other times it’s bumpy and discrete. I decided early on to write about this book. But then I got bogged down in the prairie dogs and decided not to write, since Rwanda was still coming up and I was looking forward to that a bit less than the prairie dogs.

But like a mosaic, the whole of Finding Beauty in a Broken World is much more than the sum of its parts. When I finished it this morning, I realized it is one of her best books yet. (Although it’s possible I say that about all her books.)

I most love her writing and her love of nature. She spends a couple of weeks in Bryce Canyon observing prairie dogs as part of a research study. We get 110 pages of her observations (this is where I got bogged down a bit), much of it about prairie dogs but also the surrounding environment.

Cloud ships are sailing across the plateau once again. . . . Two pronghorn antelope passing through. Elegance on four legs.

More than merely beautiful, her writing is meaningful at the soul level. Terry Tempest Williams makes my soul cry, because she doesn’t hide from the broken parts of our world. Terry Tempest Williams also makes my soul sing, because she doesn’t ignore it, she takes it on, she raises her voice. At first bored with hours and days of nothing but observing prairie dogs and making notes, “slowly, hour by hour, panic and boredom became awe and wonder. I grew quiet.” She writes,

The degree of our awareness is the degree of our aliveness. . . . Much of our world now is a fabrication, a fiction, a manufactured and manipulated time-lapsed piece of filmmaking where a rose no longer unfolds but bursts. Speed is the buzz, the blur, the drug. Life out of focus becomes our way of seeing. We no longer expect clarity. The lenses of perception and perspective have been replaced by speed, motion. We don’t know how to stop. The information we value is retrieved, rarely internalized.”

And I learned a lot about prairie dogs. They are endangered but poorly protected. They are a keystone species because they have a major effect on biological diversity in prairie ecosystems. They have a significant language, including different calls for different species of predators. They can convey descriptive information about a predator, including size, color, and how fast it’s traveling. Their language includes nouns, modifiers, and the ability to develop new words. Seriously.

I also learned a lot about Rwanda (though I knew a bit more about Rwanda going in than I did about prairie dogs). Like the section on prairie dogs, there was some grisly, difficult reading. But again, she also finds beauty and hope.

TTW

Terry Tempest Williams

Should you start with this book if you haven’t read any Williams? I don’t know that I’d recommend it. If you are intrigued, I would start with Refuge, perhaps her most famous book, and then follow it up with When Women Were Birds. Published 21 years apart, both of these books involve Williams’s mother—her death from cancer in the first book, and the journals she leaves behind in the second. Both are extremely powerful and moving.

Terry Tempest Williams is my hero because of her words as well as her actions. She tells it as she sees it, doesn’t hesitate to jump deep into the experience, and then goes to work to see what she can do to help fix it. Finding beauty in a broken world.

The Pleasures and Follies of Reading Themes

The reading theme for January is “year.” (Reading theme: I’m doing this with my friend Sheila—we’ve identified themes for each month of the year. Mostly that means the theme word is in the title of a book, but sometimes we get more creative.)

I have just finished The Checkered Years: A Bonanza Farm Diary 1884-88, by Mary Dodge Woodward. Sometimes I like diaries and sometimes not, and this one I loved. I read a year a day, from 1884 to 1888, the lives of this family—she a widow—in the Dakota Territory (eight miles from Fargo). I can’t imagine such a life (except this book has now helped me experience it in some small way): “I baked seventeen loaves of bread today, making seventy-four loaves since last Sunday, not to mention twenty-one pies, and puddings, cakes, and doughnuts.” That’s just the baking of course. There’s also the cooking, the washing, the garden, the sewing, the chickens….

As a Minnesotan, I fancy myself acquainted with snow and blizzards, but winter on the prairie in Dakota Territory in the 1880s makes my Minneapolis winter seem like Florida.

I do not think people anywhere else guard against cold as they do here. I doubt if they wear three pairs of drawers, a buffalo coat over a cloth coat, a fur cap, a mask, and arctics over two or three pairs of socks and a pair of shoes.

January 12, 1888. 42 degrees below zero:

I doubt if there is a poet living who possesses vim enough to write a poem about a Dakota storm. I guess a blizzard would knock all the poetry out of a man. There is no romance about this country.”

But despite the brutal winter, Woodward sees beauty all around, on the same day: “Today a Jack rabbit came very near the house. He looked beautiful, as large as a dog and snow white. I beg the boys not to shoot them and then, in summer they eat my vegetables.”

Possibly most fascinating is the mention of several mirages, most commonly in winter. I was familiar with desert mirages, but not prairie mirages.

There was a grand mirage this morning. Katie and I, as we hung out our clothes, watched a train sailing in the air; but we could see none of the farm houses between the cars and us, although there must have been many. We could see timber a hundred miles away; while villages ten miles away looked close at hand.”

I found the whole book fascinating and engaging, and very humbling.

dotyThe other extremely good year book that I’ve read is Dog Years, by Mark Doty. This is the story of the dogs that span 16 years of his life, a time that his partner died of AIDS, but it really is pretty much all about the dogs. I am not a dog person and I wanted to get a dog before I was even halfway through this book. If you even remotely like dogs you will likely love Dog Years.

In the world of fiction I started the year theme with Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years. My first Anne Tyler. Not a long book, but it took me nearly three weeks to finish. I guess I am not an Anne Tyler fan. I will give her another chance (but not for a good while). Three weeks! And I have so many good “year” fiction books! But then John Sandford’s new book, Deadline, came in at the library (I just can’t buy him new anymore), and I picked it up yesterday and finished it today. It’s really nice to get sucked into a book like that and who cares about the theme?

hareI’ve still got over a week left in January, for a couple of those enticing fiction books. The Year of the Hare and Leap Year are floating to the top. But who knows? Moods change.

Unfortunately, in nonfiction I have read all the year books that called to me. IHoover have a few left in the pile: A Year at the Movies, A Year in Provence, and The Years of the Forest. I’m not in the mood for France, so that will go back on the shelf; the movie book—it doesn’t look as enticing as it did several years ago when I found it in the dollar bin, and I think I’ll take it back to Half Price Books. The Years of the Forest is a small regret, because I love Helen Hoover. But after years of brutal winters (oh, summers too) on the prairie with Mary Dodge Woodward, I’m not keen to jump into brutal winters (summers too) in the north woods.

So this morning I needed a new nonfiction book to start, having finished The Checkered Years. Feeling just slightly guilty, I bypassed the few remaining “year” books, and picked up The Impulse Society, by Paul Roberts. I’m only to page 11, so I can’t say much. But based on this from the introduction, I think it will be interesting:

In everything from eating and socializing to marriage and parenting to politics, the norms and expectations of our self-centered culture are making it steadily harder to behave in civic, social ways. We struggle to make, or keep, long-term commitments. We find it harder to engage with, or even tolerate, people or ideas that don’t relate directly and immediately to us. Empathy weakens, and with it, our faith in the idea, essential to a working democracy, that we have anything in common.”

It sounds a bit like an updated Bowling Alone. I’ll keep you posted.

Sadness

I seem to cry at the drop of a hat these days. This morning, it was this passage, an excerpt of a speech by Winston Churchill, in No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin:

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, weChurchill shall fight in the seas and oceans . . . we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

This was in 1940, just after the evacuation of Dunkirk.

KearnsNo Ordinary Time is primarily the story of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the home front in World War II, but we get a bit of the goings on in other parts of the world. As usual, Goodwin’s writing draws you in, almost making you feel like you’re living in the early 1940s. It will almost certainly make the year’s top 10, and I say this even though I have read only 80 of its 759 pages.

It makes me want to read 20 more books about the Roosevelts, World War II, and Winston Churchill. However, in a huge show of restraint, I will refrain from buying any until I’ve finished my current tome.