Joy in the Everyday (with haiku)

This winter I have realized how much joy I get out of everyday things. Last week I was out walking with a friend. It had been snowing at a decent clip for a few hours and there were already a couple of inches on the ground. Mind you, we don’t need any more snow; we already have 3 feet, thank you very much.

And still. It was breathtakingly beautiful. There’s just something magical about walking in a good snowfall—the soft fluffy snow, not the hard dry pellets or the wet sloppy mess. Everything is quieter; sound is muffled, even on a busy street. Our footprints will be barely visible in an hour.

The next day the sun was out and the world asparkle. You had to squint even looking away from the sun. It was that bright.

sun high in the sky
makes the snow a sparkle-fest
I squint in reply

I love watching birds year-round, but in the starkness of winter, they are especially welcome. I spend hours sitting at the little blue table in the kitchen, reading, writing, and looking out the window at the birds (also squirrels and rabbit).

The cardinals have been the standouts this winter. Every day without fail they show up, anywhere between 2 and 20 (most commonly 6 to 10). I counted 8 males after a recent snowfall. That brilliant red against the white snow—this is beauty.

The flock of robins is still around, and there were 2 in the backyard today. (I think they may have been eating the mealworms in the new birdseed blend I recently got.) And a few days ago I had a northern flicker at my ground feeder, a first (not the first flicker I’ve seen in the yard, but the first time I’ve seen one in the ground feeder). Perhaps also after the mealworms?

perched on the birdbath
glinting in the winter sun
a single robin

a sassy blue jay
hides every single peanut
tomorrow’s dinner

Blue jays, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, house finch, goldfinch, and a variety of woodpeckers (downy, hairy, red-bellied, and even pileated), and one red-tailed hawk perched on the telephone pole by the garage.

Pure joy.

Also: Wrapping my hands around a mug of hot tea.

Seeing the cat stretched out in the sun.

After the sun sets and the plates are cleared, we settle in for a few episodes of Downton Abbey. I really had no interest, but first my niece, then my brother, and then my birding friend all gushed about Downton Abbey. With such diverse gushing, I had to check it out. My brother predicted I’d by hooked by the third episode of Season 1, but I believe I was hooked by the end of the first episode. We’ve just finished Season 4 (and Season 5 is supposed to arrive Friday).

At a recent lunch during another snowfall, my friends and I got to talking about snowshoeing, and I admitted having bought snowshoes over a decade ago and never having worn them (I got them end-of-season, it didn’t snow again, and they got put away). I found them at the back of the closet and have pulled them out, with the tags still on.

Perhaps a new source of everyday joy?

Reading Geography

As February ends, I start looking ahead to the March book theme—geography. So broad as to be overwhelming, even if one limits oneself to one’s own books. (For those of you who don’t follow my reading proclivities, I have a lot of books—a few thousand. The book themes serve to bring some of the older titles to the head of the class, and I’ve discovered some gems.)

Back to topic: Geography. Going through the books I had pulled off the shelves (without a thorough scan) I found a lot of America. So I’ve decided to focus on America for the geography theme (all of a sudden I had a throwback to sixth-grade, where I decided to focus on Fort Snelling for my history theme project—don’t know where to go with that but remind you I’m in Minnesota, which is home to Fort Snelling, which we visited when I was a kid).

I’ve already started a nonfiction book in the March Geography theme. I finished a nonfiction book a few days ago, and towards the end of the month, I always like to move ahead into the next theme. As I perused titles, I noticed America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth. I’ve a keen interest in economics and the balance of consumerism and sustainability. I’m not against buying things, but living in our consumer culture (70% of the U.S. economy is based on consumption), which is basically just getting people to buy more things, has gotten a bit over the top for me. So I’m interested in different economic models (anything downwards of 70% is a good start).

And that, really, was the start of the America theme. Also in the nonfiction arena that pulled me in this direction:

  • What Is America? Ronald Wright
  • Janesville: An American Story, Amy Goldstein
  • Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, Stephen G. Bloom
  • Heartland, Sarah Smarsh
  • Still Life in Harlem, Eddy L. Harris
  • American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever
  • American Wasteland, Jonathan Bloom

Fiction also has a number of stars. I am looking forward to:

  • Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
  • The Kingdom of Ohio, Matthew Flaming
  • Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal
  • An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Poetry is also falling into my subtheme, at least a little bit, with:

  • American Smooth, Rita Dove
  • American Primitive, Mary Oliver
  • The San Francisco Haiku Anthology

So I have decided to focus on America for the March reading theme; no generic city, country, state or territory (that could be its own theme for sure).

But America gets old, and I’d like to take a vacation or two. I have several options:

  • Versailles, Kathryn Davis
  • Murder in the Marais, Cara Black
  • The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi
  • A Palestine Affair, Jonathan Wilson
  • South Pole Station, Ashley Shelby
  • The Rain in Portugal, Billy Collins

March looks promising. Thirty-one days. So long compared to February. And every day, three more minutes of sunlight. Happy reading all—spring is around the corner!

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.

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.

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?

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.