In Search of New Life

A new month and a new book-reading theme. The June theme is celestial objects. I have a lot of fiction books that are calling to me: Shoot the Moon, by Billie Letts; The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold; Leaving Earth, by Helen Humphreys; Walking to Mercury, by Starhawk (loved her book, The Fifth Sacred Thing); and Turtle Moon (as well as Here on Earth) by Alice Hoffman.

I thought celestial objects would be much broader (Alpha Centauri?) but mostly I am finding sun and moon and a very few stars. I have a galaxy and a few universes, a satellite, and two planets so far (Earth and Mercury).

In the world of fun, I have a Star Trek graphic novel: To Boldly Go. Good silly summer porch reading.

I was most surprised at the sparsity of nonfiction on my shelves. On the bright side, most of them are quite intriguing and I’m not yet sure which I will start first.

The Accidental Universe, by Alan Lightman, I will read for sure (as I am discussing it later this month in the world’s smallest bookclub with my friend Sheila). Although now that I’m looking at this book I am wondering if I haven’t already read it. But then again, if I did, it was several years ago, and it might make a completely different impression now than it did then (if indeed there was any impression at all), and reading a book to discuss always adds a nice element of interest.

Also among the few but valued celestial nonfiction books: The Universe in a Single Atom, by the Dalai Lama; Earth Democracy, by Vandana Shiva; The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and a Family, by Jeanne Marie Laskas; and Walking Gently on the Earth, by Lisa Graham McMinn and Megan Anna Neff.

It’s odd to have so few nonfiction books and such a plethora of fiction books (most especially as I’m mostly in a nonfiction place these last several months). But it’s June, and at least at this moment, a light novel sounds appealing, so who knows?

As for the May reading theme (land/terrain), I will report that I have learned a lesson: Never place a reading theme that you are Most Particularly Interested In during the peak of bird migration. One would think I would have learned that by now.

Nonetheless, I managed to read myself through a gorge, a field, a prairie, the shore, a couple of landscapes, a point, a quarry, and your basic land. The one book I most wanted to read for this theme I have not quite finished, but will do in a day or two: Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

After reading this book, I am finally starting to understand where the tea party (and other hard-core conservatives) are coming from. This is not to say I agree, but I am beginning to understand.

I don’t often talk politics on this blog, but I am all in favor of at least Trying to understand the other point of view. I think it’s a little hard-headed to have a blanket opinion that the “other side” (are they really?) is wrong. Why do they think that way? Sometimes (not always, but sometimes), when we talk about why we disagree, we find that we in fact agree on many things. This can provide a path to resolve the things we disagree on. But even agreeing to disagree is not a bad thing. (Granted, it’s a low bar, but compared to open animosity, it seems to be a small but achievable goal.)

I am going to be very local for a moment and say that I favor cooperation and compromise (among people in general and government in particular) and am appalled at the sandbox fight taking place right now at the highest level of our Minnesota government. I don’t appreciate our Republican Legislature starting it, nor do I appreciate our Democratic governor massively upscaling it.

The anarchy model of government is starting to sound good. Oh oh. Was that left wing or right wing?

What Can I Give You?

I had lunch with a friend the other day, and she brought me a gift bag—a couple of magazines and a few bottles and jars that she knew I would find useful in my herbal work.

We had a good long lunch, including a discussion of South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami. We have a bit of a tradition of meeting and discussing a Murakami book at Pepito’s in Minneapolis in February.

Murakami stretches your mind. Or maybe it’s your imagination. Or maybe he prods the id. It leads to good and sometimes far-ranging discussion. If you like odd fiction, you might like Murakami (start with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). If you don’t like odd fiction, you might like Murakami (start with Norwegian Wood). Murakami is one of the few authors whose books I will read and reread. Always something new, something—huh?

We skirted around politics. Not that we have major differences, mind you. But rather because last time we got together we did get into politics, and it felt like we were swallowed by a whirlpool and two hours later spit out the other side. Not that we disagreed or argued, but almost like a two-hour vent. Or even a two-hour rage. We were both disquieted by that.

Our get-togethers are usually very happy making, with talk of books and food, writing and friends and family, and possible personal concerns we might want a bit of help working through. Usually I go home all relaxed and happy and feeling like my soul has been nourished (corny but true, so there). But not after the politics for two hours. Even agreeing, it drained us. So we have put a moratorium on talking about politics. (Although since we make the rules, we can make exceptions if we think it’s important.)

As the conversation moved into other areas, my friend mentioned her upcoming Lenten project (she does a Lent thing every year; I kind of like the idea, but I’ve not yet done it myself). Okay, I’m just going to very pridefully say that she told me that I inspired her Lenten project.

Specifically, she said the occasional things I send her in the mail (I love using snail mail; I visit the post box several times a week) are a special moment in her day (personal mail being relatively rare these days). So she’s decided to send a card to someone on each day of Lent. A friend, a relative, a mentor, someone she admires.

Can we focus on this most excellent idea for a moment? Okay, I am not of the Lenten variety, but don’t most people typically give something up for Lent? And I guess my friend is doing that, in that she is giving up a bit of time in writing the notes. But more importantly, at least to my wee mind, it’s like she’s turning the idea of Lent inside out. Instead of taking away, she’s giving.

I love it when my friends humble me.

She mentioned that she probably needed to get cards for her project, and being rather Lent uninformed, I asked when (soon) and how long (40 days). I knew I had a few cards I could give her and I passed them on after our long lunch.

But later in the evening as I was reading, it niggled. I have so many cards. I have a huge variety of cards (lots that I receive free in the mail from charities, but also just a lot of cards accumulated over the years). And then I remembered a gift that a different friend had sent me a couple of years ago, when I was rather early into my postcard project. She sent me a package of 50 unique postcards. I was awash in delight—so many new possibilities for matching message to postcard.

So I went through the card drawer and pulled together a package of cards. A wide variety that I hope will cross a variety of folk. And I remembered the gift economy—giving what you have when you can. You want, I have, I give.

I have so much more of so many things than I need. Sometimes I latch onto things simply because they could be useful some day. In the gift economy, if my friend needs cards and I have cards, I give her some of mine. Maybe she’ll like them, maybe not (I ask her to return the cards she doesn’t use) but she doesn’t have to go out shopping, and I’ve gotten rid of a bit of my surplus of cards.

But the gift economy is more than that. When I was at my best with it, every time I got together with someone, I tried to bring them a gift. Something small usually—a jar of ginger jam, a magazine, or some rhubarb. A poem. An article from the newspaper. It’s a way of saying, I value you. I think about you. It’s nice to give people things—sharing what you have, or just thinking, what might they want or appreciate that I happen to have?

It feels good. I have a couple of friends who do this occasionally, and I always feel very special. I feel lucky, and blessed. And when I give something to someone, I always feel happy and a little bit lightened.

Note: The gift doesn’t have to be something physical, it could be a service, or a favor. The most common around here is shoveling walks. Minimally one tries to do at least a few inches over the border of the neighbor’s walk, but copying my neighbor across the street, last year I started shoveling both my neighbors’ sidewalk up to their personal walk (about half the full sidewalk). This year, someone shoveled our front walk three times. That has never happened before.

The gift economy: I swear, it’s contagious.

The Things We Do

After the election, I decided to focus more on things here on the home front—at the neighborhood and city as well as the state level. It started with volunteering to “adopt” a storm drain. There were six at the intersection half a block north of our house, and we could pick whichever one we wanted. But it was just too hard to choose, so we adopted all six. This winter with the frequent thaws, we’ve been out there chopping out the snow and ice so the water can drain. You might be surprised at how difficult it can be to find a storm drain in the winter. And when you find one, you’d think the one across the street would be right across the street, right? Well, no.

But it’s always rewarding—good exercise and a sense of doing something in the community. And sometimes people stop and thank us. The bus drivers almost always wave. That feels good too. We’ve also started shoveling out both ends of our alley (where the snow always seems to accrue). We reap a very direct advantage from this, so it is not exactly a civic deed. Nonetheless, one day when we were clearing out the snow, a guy stopped his truck and asked if he could spell one of us for a while—he just wanted to help out. Maybe we will even get to meet more of our neighbors!

The other thing we’ve done right here in our neighborhood is volunteer for our small urban orchard. It is just starting out (no fruit until next year) but we will help to water and mulch and other sundry tasks as assigned. After the trees start to bear, we will also help with harvest and gleaning. It is quite an exciting project—a variety of fruit trees, including apple, crabapple, plum, pear, peach, and cherry. I wonder what a Minnesota peach will taste like?

There are a few town hall meetings coming up—two of them held/sponsored by my state senator and representative. There is also a town hall meeting in February on the minimum wage of $15 for the city of Minneapolis. I absolutely want a higher minimum wage, but I don’t know that $15 and just for the city of Minneapolis is the way to go. Geographically speaking, Minneapolis is a relatively small part of the 7-county metro area. And with a population of approximately 394,000, we are also a relatively small portion (approximately 13.5%) of the population. I need to learn more.

I have stuck to my New Year’s resolution to send a postcard a week to our new Senate majority leader. I have already heard back from him—not wordy responses but acknowledging my concerns (in this case, responding to two separate postcards, one about infrastructure and the other about healthcare). I did not actually expect him to respond to my postcards. I don’t think I’ll tell him that. I’ve also written about funding the University of Minnesota; a potential crackdown on protesters—potentially making it a felony with some serious financial implications; a suggestion that the state NOT invest in developing a from-scratch computer program to distribute health insurance premium rebates (as that has not worked so well in the past—the build from scratch part); and the definition and use of the word “exponential” (sorry, but it’s numbers AND words, an intersection I can’t ignore).

The acknowledgment has further spurred me, and I have chosen to believe that he actually appreciates these postcards. I know this is a glass half-full to overflowing viewpoint, but why not? I am always respectful and try to send interesting postcards (and a nice variety—I have scads that I’ve collected for the haiku project).

Anyway, I should have made the resolution to send AT LEAST one postcard a week, because I have already sent 10! They are addressing so many things in the Legislature (as well they should, leaving so many things undone last year) that I feel I can’t wait a week on some things. I sent three postcards on healthcare, and the legislation is now signed and done. It is a decent piece of legislation, and both sides compromised. The Republicans put some interesting things on the table that I want to learn more about: a farmers health insurance co-op, and a reinsurance program. Since I am one of the 5% that purchases my health insurance independently on the market, I watch this issue very carefully.

Not long ago I got together with a friend for lunch. We were talking about things we were doing since the election. She has doubled her volunteer commitment at a local nonprofit, working a shift two days a week instead of one. She’s made phone calls to national House and Senate leaders (and our reps as well) on various issues. She participated in the women’s march in St. Paul.

It wasn’t a tallying, it wasn’t a comparison, and often it wasn’t even the focus of the discussion. But as we moved on to the second beer, I realized that even just between the two of us, we are doing quite a lot! Lots of contact with government representatives (she more national, I more local), local involvement, even drinking local beer. Yes, I know. Civic to the bone.

A few days later, after reading the newspaper I was a bit despondent. I went online and signed two petitions (one sponsored by a Minnesota senator, one by moveon.org) and sent a congratulatory postcard to the Senate leader for the healthcare legislation which was actually quite a good compromise. But it felt so little.

And then I remembered the lunch with my friend, and when it all added up, it had seemed like a lot. And I thought it might be inspiring to track that for two or four years. So I emailed my friend and another good friend of ours with this idea: Report in on what you’re doing. It will give each of us other ideas, as we have different approaches and different areas of priority. Even if each of us did one thing a week, at the end of a year, that would be more than 150 actions. It’s not meant to be competitive, but I do hope it challenges us. And I know it will encourage us, just having this list of ongoing things that we’re doing, small and large: a postcard sent, a phone-call to a senator, attending a town hall meeting, a petition, an email, a volunteer gig, a letter to the editor, a march, a poem.

This is not a partisan thing. Everyone can do something to make community stronger, to make their voice heard, to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. Start where you’re comfortable. Maybe make a pact with a friend, keep a list. Do one thing this month, this year, tomorrow.

These are the things we do.

When it comes down to it, perhaps they’re the only things that matter.

New Year’s Resolutions

I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, though I’ve made them off and on throughout the years with greater and (mostly) lesser success. This year however, I am making three New Year’s resolutions, which is quite unprecedented.

New Year’s Resolution #1: Get back to The B Suite and blog at least once a week. My spouse and I have had several months to get used to mutual retirement. As patterns settle in (and we settle in), I’m starting to feel pulled back to writing. I’ve kept up with the daily haiku project (more than three years now!) and the change of the calendar into a new year and the lengthening day is calling me back to blogging as well.

New Year’s Resolution #2: Get involved in things more locally. While I am not going to drop out of politics at the national level (I will continue to write my senators and representatives on key issues), I am going to focus my primary efforts closer to home. The national Republican sweep included the Minnesota Legislature, with a new Senate majority. The new Senate majority leader said he wants to build bridges—and let’s be honest, there is a LOT of middle ground between Democrats and Republicans. Lots of bridge potential. And so…

Specifically for New Year’s Resolution #2, I decided to write a weekly postcard to the Senate majority leader, giving him my invaluable input on a weekly basis (hopefully in an informative, or at least entertaining, way). I decided to introduce myself via email, telling him to expect said postcards for one year. I have already heard back, and he is looking forward to the postcards!

Seriously. He responded within a day. I wrote to my senator in my district two months ago and she never bothered to get back to me. And here is this new Senate leader and he knows I am a Democrat in Minneapolis (because I told him) and he still responded and wants to hear what I might have to say.

And call me naïve, but I actually do think he might listen. There are some politicians who really do want to work across the aisles. I want to vote for more of them.

Also in the land of Resolution #2, we have “adopted” the six sewer storm drains at the end of the block (Minneapolis Adopt-a-Drain Project). Mostly it’s a piece of cake, but six storm drains in October make for a lot of wet and heavy leaves. And then again, chopping them out for the (relatively rare) winter rain was a bit of a project as well. In a perhaps more interesting vein, we have also volunteered to be caretakers of our neighborhood orchard (a new neighborhood project on an empty triangle of land—peach, pear, apple, and plum trees). We will help with watering and harvesting.

New Year’s Resolution #3: Don’t Forget the May Baskets. I skipped this last year, and I don’t want to miss it again. It’s a great way to appreciate neighbors and celebrate Spring. And for someone who is a non-morning person it is particularly exhilarating. There’s nothing quite like leaving a gift on someone’s doorstep, ringing the bell and running away without getting caught. A total blast from the past.

Happy New Year to you! Any interesting resolutions?

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?

February Reprise

February was mostly reading and writing with a little shoveling thrown in. We finally got a nice dumping of snow in early February—about 10 inches. The book launch party I was planning to attend was canceled, so instead I made a tuna casserole, shoveled, and read.

I read 13 books in February, pretty evenly divided between poetry (5), fiction (4), and nonfiction (4). My favorite book of the month was Iron Hearted Violet, a YA novel by Kelly Barnhill. I loved this book for many reasons and was completely captivated. Without giving anything away, I can tell you that I loved it because it has lots of strong female characters, a mistress of falconry, a princess who isn’t beautiful, a dragon, a runty god, and a dab of physics.

Other than that it was just kind of a blah reading month; nothing else really grabbed me. I think it’s the February blues. Not that it’s been a particularly rough February (on the contrary). But my heart wants to be puttering in the back yard, pulling weeds and harvesting herbs. Two months to go yet.

I continued the GMO postcard project through all of February (a postcard a day to my two senators, with a fact a day about GMOs and what we know and don’t know and asking them to vote against the Dark Act). It was a lot of fun but kind of intense. I really got quite immersed in the GMO world (learned a lot, too) and while the postcards themselves only took about an hour a day, the issue occupied my mind for many more hours. I did give myself Sundays off, but it was still pretty intense.

And I’m still continuing my daily haiku postcard project. From February:

white-breasted nuthatch
calls from the top of the tree
is it springtime yet?

winter storm warning
gleefully anticipate
5 to 9 inches

the perfect snowstorm
not too cold, nowhere to be
Groundhog Day indeed

The final thing that took a good chunk of time in February was politics: It’s been a bit of a wild ride and a lot to follow. From the presidential candidates to the Supreme Court to the many strains of populism being displayed by the citizenry. It’s a fascinating time to be alive.

Again, scary but fun.

Caucusing

I went to my precinct caucus last night—it was a lot of fun. (Mostly.) In Minnesota, both parties bucked the national trend: Democrats’ choice for president was Sanders (62% vs. 38% for Clinton) while the Republicans’ candidate of choice was Rubio (37%) over Trump (21%). I kind of like that we march to a different drum.

I was at the Democratic caucus. It was held at a nearby high school and each precinct met in a different room. Most people (including us) didn’t know our precinct number so that caused a bit of a jam at the door. Once we got inside, we found our room and took a seat. There were 32 desks and it looked to be maybe a third-grade classroom. We arrived about 15 minutes early and there were plenty of desks available. We were suprised by how uncrowded it was. All we had to do was wait.

It turned out 275 people showed up for our precinct. The first thing you do (after signing in) is vote for your presidential candidate of choice. A lot of people left right after voting, but a good number of us stayed around for the resolution portion and it was standing room only. I was glad we got there early!

I have been to caucuses where the resolutions go on and on (and sometimes verge on the silly) but the ones presented last night were pretty good, and many of them passed unanimously or nearly so: restore voting rights to felons once they’re released from prison; remove the Social Security tax ceiling; support urban agriculture; mandatory GMO labeling; reduce the use of toxic chemicals in our parks; a six-point plan to help struggling pollinator species; invest some of our environmental dollars to buy land preserving wild rice habitat; invest in policies and strategies to reduce homelessness; divest the state pension fund from investments in fossil fuels; and require all Democratic candidates to sign a pledge saying they will not accept campaign contributions from Monsanto (I personally would have added Syngenta and Cargill, but singling out Monsanto is not such a bad idea since they are so very keen on their neonicotinoids).

A not-quite contentious discussion arose around a resolution to increase funding for treatment of ash trees (we’re having emerald ash borer problems here). An amendment to not use systemic insecticides (which make the entire tree poisonous to critters that eat, live in, land on, or otherwise use ash trees) was introduced. I learned quite a bit about ash trees and their future, and also systemic insecticides. Eventually the insecticide amendment was added and the resolution passed.

The only resolution that I can remember not passing was for legalizing marijuana for recreational use and allowing people to grow their own. I am heartily in favor of this, as marijuana has great medicinal properties as an herb. A lot of people in the room were in favor of legalizing pot, but the rub was the method: an amendment to our state constitution. I asked if there wasn’t a better route (I hate amending the constitution willy nilly, and a few others had a similar concern). I think I voted for it, even with the constitutional amendment aspect, but I was a little relieved when it didn’t pass (it was close though).

We wrapped up a little after 9:00. It was a good way to spend an evening: I learned a lot, met some of my near neighbors, and got to see which issues we are pretty unanimous about and which are a little more contested. I forget how invigorating it can be to hear different viewpoints and sides. I signed up to be an alternate delegate (I did this once before, and it was a little bit scary and a little bit fun). We’ll see where it goes this time. I’m good with scary but fun.