September Reading Theme: Literary Forms

Being a little late to the gate with this post, I already have several books under my belt for this month’s theme:

  • Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, Roselle Lim (fiction)
  • Sleeping With the Dictionary, Harryette Mullen (poetry)
  • Blue Diary, Alice Hoffman (fiction)
  • Survival Lessons, Alice Hoffman (nonfiction)
  • The Tiny Journalist, Naomi Shihab Nye (poetry)
  • Love Poems (for Married People), John Kenney
  • The Bookshop of Yesterdays, Amy Meyerson (fiction)

There are no dogs in the above list, and I’m not going to comment beyond that except to call out The Tiny Journalist, by Naomi Shihab Nye, a poetry book I loved. I don’t think people read enough poetry. I find poetry to be akin to meditation in some way. I’m not quite sure how to equate them, except that meditation can pull me out of workaday, and poetry takes me out of my everyday reading. In both cases, they are special spaces. Perhaps not quite sacred space, but close to. In-between places, I think of them. Neither quite one nor the other.

Back to literary forms. This is such a rich theme, so many to choose from. Currently at the top of the fiction list (this can change on a dime):

  • A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
  • The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry
  • History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund
  • The Reader, Traci Chee

In the nonfiction realm, I’ve just started The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith. I’m not sure I’ll finish it. I certainly agree with one of her major premises, that animals are a vital part of a natural ecological cycle on a farm. But I don’t feel a need to convince vegetarians of this. Vegetarians have a much smaller carbon footprint compared to us meat eaters, and I respect that.

Other contenders for nonfiction:

  • True Notebooks, Mark Salzman
  • Monsoon Diary, Shoba Narayan
  • The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Briana Karp
  • I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Grace Jones

The Grace Jones book was at the top of my list, but I got it in paperback. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I hadn’t originally seen it in hardcover, with all those full-color pictures. The pictures in this book are black and white and of grainy character. I want to read it, but I want the experience I had when I first saw the hardcover. So, I guess I will track down the hardcover. Grainy black and white just does not do Grace Jones justice.

Last month’s theme was Women (in any form or reference). I read a lady, a huntress, a bride, Hagar, Invisible Women, a sister, more women, a mistress, a mother, a girl, Lumberjanes, and Sappho. A very good month for women.

Happy reading!

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My Mom Died

My mom died a few months ago. It was not unexpected; she was 98 years old. I knew she was going to die. Sometimes, I even hoped she would die—she was losing memory and functions, and, perhaps selfishly, I wanted her to know who I was to the end.

And she did. At least I think she did. We had gone up the week before, and my brother joined us and we ate pie, and Mom had two-thirds of her piece of lemon meringue. We talked about upcoming Mothers’ Day, and Mom said she wanted to go to the pizza place (this is in a small town, and they treat her like a queen at that pizza place).

But she died before Mothers’ Day arrived. No last final hurrah at the pizza place where she was so well-loved.

My brother and I were with her at hospice, as well as his wife (and my best friend in high school) and daughter and her daughter (with my mother’s name). Four generations. Great-granddaughter is a year and a half, gleeful and full of curiosity. It is difficult to be sad when there are young children around, my nephew said. So true. We sat and reminisced, each taking our time to talk to Mom, exchanging stories, laughing, sometimes crying.

Mom was not responsive, but my niece told me that hearing is the last sense to go, and I totally choose to believe that. And I know that Mom knew that we were there, and she heard every word and the love and the happiness, the memories and the occasional regrets (those were mostly the private conversations, at least on my part). But there was also a good amount of laughter in that room, and a lot of fond memories. In one of my last private conversations with Mom, I alluded to something—and I’m sorry to say I don’t know if it was talking about my favorite memory (the swan ride, though I must have done that earlier) or my most embarrassing (I’m pretty sure it was this) and I swear I saw a slight smile on her face.

Oh, I miss her. I used to call her at 6:30 every night. (Not for my entire life, but since my dad died, about 10 years ago.) Sometimes she was out and sometimes I was out, but most days we had our 6:30 talk.

So I totally expected the 6:30 pang, which I still have frequently. What I did not expect was all the fodder I collected for the 6:30 talk—oh, I have to tell Mom the rhubarb is coming in, or how windy it was, or a cardinal in the back yard or the two bald eagles overhead. This I did not expect; that so many things I see and experience every day, I marked to tell my mother about.

Not a pang just at 6:30. Many times throughout the day. A long-delayed chore completed, a bicycle ride, the first mosquito, Colorado peaches, paying the bills.

Another thing I miss is sharing coupons. Mom clipped coupons from forever, and so of course I picked this up as well. We’d often send coupons back and forth (if not in person). I still sometimes stop and almost clip the coupons for her favorites.

And what I haven’t missed yet but know I will is the cards. My mother was the queen of the card. She remembered birthdays and anniversaries for relatives and friends alike. Even if everyone else forgot my birthday, I always got a card from Mom. People mostly do email and Facebook birthday greetings now. It’s just not the same. I intend to continue the tradition of birthday and anniversary cards via snail mail. Also the occasional Valentine’s, Thanksgiving, and Halloween card.

My mother absolutely loved life. It didn’t take much to make her day—a trip to the grocery store, a compliment from a friend, tulips blooming, a cardinal in the backyard, a surprise visitor.

I think she instilled a little of that in me—that love of life (with a little help from her sister, my godmother). A gift that has made so much of the world interesting.

Sometimes (not often) around 7:00 p.m., I go into a kind of panic of “I haven’t called Mom for several days! WHY??? Call Now!” and then I remember she’s dead. I still miss her.

And now, when I think about her, I think about much more of her life than the day-to-day that we always focused on. I remember how she walked me to kindergarten almost every day (I hated kindergarten); and all those times we bicycled to Grandma’s (often with the dog running along).

Death does not have to be a bad thing. Even the funeral arrangements were fun in their own way—no squabbling, no disagreements of any sort. More the opposite, in fact. There were three women at the arrangements—me, my sister-in-law, and my niece. We all had a specific dress for my mom in mind, and we all said we had a specific dress in mind as soon as the first person brought it up. And we all three wanted the same dress. It was all like that. We looked at pictures, laughed about good memories.

The funeral was more of the same. People who loved my mom or my family, so much love, so many good memories. When we got back to the church after the graveside service, everyone had finished going through the line, but lots of people had stayed specifically to talk to one or the others of us. Friends from elementary and high school, cousins not often seen, old neighbors.

I left town missing Mom, but also with a buoyancy from what really was a celebration of her life. I knew she had a lot of friends, but I had no idea how many people loved her. And I also felt like I had a place to return to, even without the reason of visiting Mom.

It surprised me what a happy experience it was, in the overall scheme of things, and I felt pretty weird about it. I had written a thank-you note to my niece for her wonderful eulogy, and she wrote back. In her card, she said something along the lines of, “it feels so weird to say this, but the planning of the funeral and all of it—it was actually kind of fun. I didn’t expect that at all.”

Neither did I. It pulled us together and brought out the best in all of us. Mom would have loved it.

Backyard: Disaster Area or Nature Refuge?

My back yard has never looked worse. The red-twig dogwoods are out of control but are also being invaded by stray elms. The wood and wire compost bin is at a serious slant. The grass is knee high, and there are plants/weeds growing that seem to be new to the yard this year. I was going to hire a landscaper to come in and clean it all up, but that didn’t work out.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. In any given summer, I usually get an occasional juvenile robin or two, and on lucky years, I see juvenile cardinals.

This year has been a bumper crop. A few weeks ago I started seeing a couple of young robins (spotted breasts), usually with one of the adults. But not just occasional this year. Not daily, but nearly so. Always two young ones. And then today, I saw at least four juvenile robins, possibly six (they were flying around and I couldn’t count them all at once). So many youngsters was a first for my backyard.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw what I thought was a female cardinal on the back feeder. Turned out to be a juvenile cardinal (they look like females but have dark beaks rather than the bright orange of the adults). I haven’t seen any since, but even one sighting is welcome, as they don’t happen every year. And there’s plenty of time to see more.

A week ago I got a happy surprise: baby wrens. Fledged, mind you, and able to fly, but small and oh so fast! At first I thought they were mice, the way they scurried on the ground (there were about four of them). But then one flew, and their cover was blown. I’ve had a house wren visit every summer, but this is the first time I’ve had a wren family. How fun!

Today, I was sitting at the blue table and a woodpecker was hanging out on the large downed tree branch I’ve been meaning to take out for about two weeks. But what was different about this woodpecker? And is it a downy or a hairy? On closer look, this is something I have but haven’t seen before. A hairy woodpecker, yes, but different, with red on the front of its head (the forehead) instead of the back. A quick look at the field guide confirmed I’d just seen my first juvenile hairy woodpecker.

The catbird returned (the same one? not sure) a few weeks ago, but then I didn’t see or hear it for quite some time. But about four days ago, it showed up again, and has been back daily since. I am hoping that perhaps I will see some baby catbirds sometime down the road here. (That would be another first!)

This is the first summer I’ve ever noticed young chipmunks—two of them, at least. Like the baby wrens, exceptionally fast. Another fun sighting.

The narrow part of the yard that runs along the side of the house is happily overrun with common milkweed. It’s growing up here and there all over the yard, but it’s quite dense on that side of the house (such that it’s falling over the sidewalk, but I certainly don’t want to pull it, so I try to prop it up). Monarchs are a common sighting in this part of the yard, lots more than last year, and often several at a time.

So, there it is. I look at my yard and flinch. And then I look at my yard in wonder. I’ll let you know if I see any baby catbirds.

Water, Water Everywhere: July Reading Theme

During the hottest month of the year, it feels good to immerse yourself in water, be it lake, river, sea, or pond. So we’re immersing ourselves in “water” books for the month of July. I’ve finished three so far:

  • Dragons in the Waters, by Madeleine L’Engle. This turned out to be the second book in the O’Keefe series, and now I have the first on order from the library. I loved the Wrinkle in Time series; the O’Keefe series is showing promise as well.
  • Daughters of the Lake, by Wendy Webb. I loved this book by one of my favorite local authors. I didn’t think she’d ever write anything I loved as much as The Fate of Mercy Alban (set in the famous Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, though it isn’t Glensheen in the book of course), but Daughters of the Lake was every bit as engaging. A contemporary gothic mystery set on the shore of Lake Superior, this one had me baffled right up to the end.
  • Skinny Dipping, poetry by Suzanne Collins (what better in July?)

I have a good selection of watery fiction to choose from:

  • The Sea, John Banville
  • The Odd Sea, Frederick Reiken
  • The Shape of Water, Andrea Camilleri (first in a mystery series set in Sicily)
  • Ocean Sea, Alessandro Baricco
  • Bay of Angels, Anita Brookner
  • The Marriage of the Sea, Jane Alison
  • Rain, Kirsty Gunn
  • Madras on Rainy Days, Samina Ali
  • The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler

Notice how almost all the authors’ surnames are from the start of the alphabet? I stopped looking through fiction after the letter G because I already had such bounty. (I did go search out The Odd Sea, though, because I knew I had it and I wanted to be able to pick between a regular sea and an odd sea). I think it’s a grand list and I hope to get several more books in yet this month. It is July, after all—lazy days on the front porch (or under the ceiling fan) reading. It makes me feel all happy inside just thinking about it.

Nonfiction is much skimpier:

  • St. Croix Notes, Noah Adams
  • Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, Thomas Cahill
  • When the Water Smokes, Bob Simpson
  • Water and Sky, Alan S. Kesselheim
  • Seasons on the Pacific Coast, Susan J. Tweit
  • Sippewisset, Tim Traver
  • Facing the Wave, Gretel Ehrlich

I have started the Ehrlich book, just a few pages in. But earlier today, I glanced at Seasons on the Pacific Coast, and I think it may just win out. It looks so compelling, and it is so much of my mood in a July. It’s subtitled A Naturalist’s Notebook, and it has lots of beautiful illustrations (I am a sucker for illustrations; pictures, too). It’s a singularly attractive book with a siren call.

As is usually the case, there are a number of good titles in poetry. I am most looking forward to Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith (current U.S. poet laureate). Sheila and I are reading this together to discuss. It’s been awhile since we discussed a book of poetry. I’m looking forward to it. Also in the poetry stack:

  • River, Fred Chappell
  • Crossing the Same River, Patricia Goedicke
  • Waterborne, Linda Gregerson
  • The Water Carrier, Steve Straight
  • Water Becomes Bone, C. Mikal Oness
  • From Where the Rivers Come, Richard Solly
  • You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, Anna Moschovakis
  • White Sea, Cleopatra Mathis
  • Fleet River, James Longenbach

So many options available for long summer days. I’m picturing the front porch, a little stack of books, and a big glass of iced tea with lots of lemon.

Happy reading!

Deep Kindness

I’m nearly halfway through the kindness book, and already it’s making a difference. No, I have not become a better, kinder person overnight, but I have begun to take notice.

A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You, by Donna Cameron, can be read in many ways. It comprises 52 chapters in 12 sections. You could read a section a month, a chapter a week, or just pick it up and read a chapter whenever you feel like it (which is the way I’m doing it). The chapters are short, generally 3 to 5 pages, and invariably give me something to think about.

I don’t underline in most of the books I read, but this one I am. As I finish each section (five so far), I’m writing to the friend who gave me the book, telling her what stood out for me in each chapter. Now she’s rereading the book and we discuss it each time we meet for lunch (she’s saving the cards so we can discuss later as she reads at her own pace). What fine conversations we’re having!

Here are some of the things that stood out for me in the first part of the book:

In the introduction, Cameron calls kindness a “superpower that has the capacity to transform lives and change the world.” Hmmm. That’s a bit of a tall order. I will wait and see.

In the first chapter, she talks about the difference between niceness and kindness. “Nice doesn’t ask too much of us. It isn’t all that hard to be nice. In fact, it’s easy. It’s also benign. Passive. Safe.” Kind people go beyond what’s expected of them; they go beyond the easy response. And they do it without expectation of anything in return. I am a nice person, but I am not a particularly kind person. Occasionally yes, certainly. I rarely go beyond the expected response, and I usually do expect something in return—like gratitude or a thank you.

As you can see, I have a ways to go.

One particular thing the author says in the early pages really caught my attention. She’s talking about how she’s been practicing kindness for over a year now, and she’s getting better at it.

But there are still days when, as soon as words come out of my mouth, I recognize that they were not especially kind words and contributed nothing of value.”

That made me stop and think about my own speech, and it has stayed with me. How many times every day do I say words that are not especially kind and contribute nothing of value? Far too many, I will tell you. But there is good news already: I have started to take notice of it (“That wasn’t very kind, was it?”) and I think my behavior is already slowly starting to improve. Not bad for page 24, huh?

There’s a lot of research on kindness out there, and they’re finding that acts of kindness have a positive effect on the body’s immune system, and they produce serotonin (the brain’s happy chemical). Interestingly, the recipient of the act of kindness also experiences the positive effect on the immune system and the serotonin, and—wait, there’s more!!—even bystanders who simply OBSERVE the kind act get the immune and serotonin effects! Seriously, who knew besides all these researchers and everyone who’s read this book?

It gets even better: Kindness is contagious. The giver of the kind act, the recipient, and, again, the observers are all more likely to go on and do kind acts, and it doesn’t stop there. It spreads outwards to three degrees of separation. So my kind act will cause those around me (or at least increase the likelihood) to also commit kind acts, and then those observers will commit kind acts, and the observers of those acts will commit kind acts. That’s quite a potential effect.

But even if every act doesn’t go that deep, there’s always the potential. You just never know.

On the other side of the fence, rude behavior acts in a similar manner. People who experience rude behavior are more likely to subsequently behave rudely, and even those who simply observe the rude interaction are more likely to engage in their own form of rudeness.

And there I was, stopped in my tracks again. What? A rude behavior on my part can precipitate three degrees of rudeness? Now there’s a motivator. At so many given junctures I can choose to be kind or rude. Either act will have a ripple effect on those around.

As I pondered the numbers, I realized that if more people increase kindness and decrease rudeness, then kindness will spread. And if it does indeed affect observers as well as actors, and to three degrees, it could spread quite quickly.

And that would be a very good thing. I’m going to give it a try.

Reading in June Is All About Size

Happy June! June brings a lot of wonderful things, like strawberries, blueberries, rhubarb and cactus blossoms. Also, a new reading theme.

The theme for June is size (think small, medium, large, and take it from there). I’ve been looking forward to this theme ever since Sheila suggested it, and I will not be disappointed.

Nonfiction is especially enticing this month. I’ve started with Small Victories, by Anne Lamott. Talk about the perfect book at the perfect time (although it’s true that I tend to like Lamott at any time, this one seems particularly perfect). Next up is likely Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver (the rare writer who has written both fiction and nonfiction that I’ve loved). Other books in the nonfiction pile:

  • Any Small Thing Can Save You, Christina Adam
  • The Big Picture, David Suzuki
  • Sleeping Giant, Tamara Draut
  • At Large and At Small, Anne Fadiman
  • The Marginalized Majority, Onnesha Roychoudhuri (is a majority an amount rather than a size? It feels like a size)
  • The Big Squeeze, Steven Greenhouse
  • The Small-Mart Evolution, Michael H. Shuman
  • The Size of Thoughts, Nicholson Baker

Not bad, huh? And a nice range in topics.

My fiction stack is skimpier (but note, I have only gone through about two-thirds of my fiction). I’ve started with The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny. At first I thought “long” a bit of a stretch for the theme, but I’m good at stretching, and when I remembered drawing sticks when I was a kid (the kid who drew the long stick got to go first; the kid who drew the short stick had to do dishes—like that) I knew I was home free. Meeting with Sheila before the theme began, I started reciting my reasoning for “long,” sticks and all, and she laughed and said she already had a “long” book in her reading pile. Oh I do love my friends.

I also have two books by Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep and The Little Sister. I’m leaning more towards The Big Sleep, and I’ve just remembered I have a graphic novel of The Little Sister. Maybe I’ll read both!

Also in the pile:

  • A Little Yellow Dog, Walter Mosley
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie
  • The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, Tiffany Baker
  • The Last Full Measure, Jeff Shaara

A short but appealing stack.

In poetry, I’ve started All the Short Poems, by Valerie Worth. This is a lovely book, with illustrations by Natalie Babbitt.

Poetry has given me some of the best titles for the size theme:

  • The Tiny Journalist, Naomi Shihab Nye
  • A Slender Grace, Rod Jellema
  • Skinny Dipping, Suzanne Collins
  • In This Thin Rain, Nelson Ball
  • Crossing the Great Divide, Jean Feraca

A new month, a new reading theme, new birds and new plants. Turning the page on the calendar. Entering the lazy season, for lolling on the porch, reading and napping. Count me in.

Happy reading (and napping) to you!

Emotional Maturity

I honestly thought (assumed, really) that by the time I got well into adulthood, I would become wise and emotionally mature. No more temper tantrums or sulking. No jealousy, no resentments (that I can’t get past no matter how hard I try).

Holy cow, was I wrong.

While it’s true that I don’t sulk nearly as much as I used to, that’s only because a friend called me on it. We were on a road trip, and I didn’t get my way on something, and after an hour of me sulking in the car, she said something along the lines of, “So are you just going to sulk all day, or what?” Well.

Apparently, I thought in my wee mind that nobody noticed my sulking. Or at least if it was noticed, there was a tacit rule that it not be mentioned. But I think mostly I thought it was somehow not that noticeable. Why, I cannot say. Is there any behavior more annoying in a friend than sulking? It’s annoying in children and even more annoying in adults.

I’m embarrassed to admit that this event took place in my 40s. I’m pleased to admit, however, that it effected immediate change. What? You can see my sulk? That behavior ended that very day. Not without an occasional backslide, I’m sure. But it was quite a verbal slap to the face, and I am ever grateful to my friend for pointing out my poor behavior. I still feel sulky once in a while, wishing I had gotten my way. But now I usually either say something or just get over it. The hours-long sulk is behind me. Which goes to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

And resentment. Don’t get me going on resentment. I don’t think I’ve made one iota of progress on that front. When I was young I could carry a grudge longer than god, and that hasn’t changed much. Oh, except that I don’t get grudgeful nearly as often. But still the grudge is inside and it festers. Why can’t I let these things go? Years ago I said something that offended a friend. They demanded an apology. I said I wanted to tell my side. They said I didn’t have a side, and apologize or the friendship is over. Well, I apologized, but of course as you know, the friendship was over.

I’m still not sure to this day whether I’m more outraged or flabbergasted, that a friend would tell me in any kind of disagreement, “You don’t have a side.” Who says that? A judge, perhaps. A dictator, certainly. A czar, a despot, a tyrant.

Forgiveness. Definitely not my strong suit.

It all feels so petty. I thought I would be past this by now.

In a somewhat different realm is worry. Worry can be useful if it reminds you to do things. But once you’ve done everything and you’re still obsessing, worry becomes less useful, and it can even become debilitating. I used to swirl in worry, but I’ve learned (or been taught) some tricks: food and drink often serve as an excellent distraction, especially if the food is good and the drink is hoppy. Getting out in nature almost always soothes my soul, and if I can manage at least two hours, sometimes the worry moves away like the clouds. I can also find solace in physical activity: raking, weeding, doing dishes, cleaning out storm drains.

So this is a bit of progress, a bit of maturity. I’ve found some productive outlets (detours?) for my emotions.

I began drafting this post weeks ago (some posts are tougher than others) and just a few days ago I got an amazing (to me) gift from a friend. A book, A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You, by Donna Cameron. While kindness is not exactly an emotion, it sure seems to be tied to a lot of emotions that would not well entertain things like sulking, resentment, and worry.

I am intrigued. I was originally going to write, “I don’t think kindness is a panacea for my emotional immaturity” but I couldn’t do so, because now that I think about it, it might indeed be a cure. I mean, if you really think about it, kindness might well be the cure for many things. Maybe even for everything.

Could kindness save the world? Stay tuned.