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?

The Reading Landscape

The reading theme for May is landscape/terrain. This is one of those broad themes that would encompass things like field, grassland, range, desert, marsh, and so on. I was really excited about this theme. I have a lot of landish books that I am really looking forward to reading.

But it is May. May, when the birds migrate. May, when the lilacs bloom. May, when butterflies return and the house windows are open. When the herbs are coming up and rhubarb demands picking. The month of warblers. May, when I have the binoculars right beside me even when I’m reading. Especially when I’m reading. May, when I bring binoculars into restaurants just in case we get a window seat. You never know when you’ll see a warbler wave.

I’ve only finished one book so far this month, but have several in progress: Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, by Marc Ian Barasch (later published under the title The Compassionate Life: Walking the Path of Kindness); Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild; Prairie Reunion, by Barbara J. Scot (memoir); Divining the Landscape, by Diane Jarvenpa (poetry); and Joyland, by Stephen King. (Two of these are holdovers from the emotions theme. I love having books that cross themes.)

I am finding Field Notes on the Compassionate Life to be quite helpful. I tend to struggle with issues like grudges and resentment, and perhaps especially forgiveness. This book is giving me some good insights and suggests some practices that I think could be very helpful. I am reading it quite slowly (a chapter a day), because that seems to be all the compassion my wee brain/soul can absorb. And Strangers in Their Own Land promises to be fascinating, but I’ve only read the first few pages.

Report on last month’s theme (emotions): I experienced calm surrender, hate, love, happiness, disappointment, anxiety, longing, grief, moping, consolation, more happiness, wild comfort, and solace. I found emotions to be an absolutely lovely (and fun) reading theme. Best book of the month: Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, by Kathleen Dean Moore. I loved this book because sometimes I felt like I was right there with her, wherever she was talking about. If she was in the forest, I could almost smell the pines. The writing is that good. But also—there’s a spiritual element to this book which I resound with. Nature is always where I most feel god.

There are many potential landish options for the rest of the month. John McPhee’s Basin and Range is high on the list (he has two other books that also intrigue: Rising from the Plains, and In Suspect Terrain). Found poetry:

basin and range
rising from the plains
in suspect terrain

Other books of interest include Lentil Underground, by Liz Carlisle; and Of Landscape and Longing, by Carolyn Servid. And Notes From the Shore, by Jennifer Ackerman, is nipping at my brain.

Because I am a planner by nature, I always look ahead. The theme for June is celestial objects, and I am finding my pickings extremely skimpy beyond earth, moon, and stars. Any fun ideas or suggestions out there?

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?

A Basket of Happiness

It is not so very often I start out loving a book. I started to love this book before I even got to page 1. In the introduction to Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, Kathleen Dean Moore writes:

This book moves from gladness to sorrow, as life often does, and climbs through what might be prayer or a kind of stillness, to restored meaning and hope, to peace, maybe even to celebration and the courage to be glad again.

I had set out to write a different book. I had begun to write about happiness.”

I have moved past the first part of the book, Gladness, and am now immersed in Solace. Yet a part of the gladness holds on: Moore’s concept of the happy basket.

It started as an experiment. She decided to start keeping notes of when she found herself extremely happy, “happy in that deep-down, exhaling, head-back way.” She decided to keep a basket—the happy basket—to collect these notes of what she was doing at the time she experienced these deep happy moments. The experiment was to last a year, but she cheated after about 8 months and looked. Here were some of her happy moments:

Rain, after no rain. And company for dinner, after a long time without seeing friends.

Phone message from Erin. Nothing to say, really, but she sounded content. She had a good day. I could tell by her voice she was healthy. This makes a mother glad.

Frank and I held hands in bed last night, as we often do. We lay on our backs and held hands. This makes me happy, feeling the warmth and strength of him beside me.

Walking fast in the morning, down the path to the bridge.

A patch of sun and a glass of wine after work.

She wanted to analyze the happy moments—look for patterns, possible trends. What she found was that “Almost all the happy moments take place in a pause, a slowing down from job and routine.” She also found that happiness isn’t really the opposite of sadness—she found an odd relationship between sadness and happiness, but not necessarily oppositional. She wonders “if the opposite of happiness might be something else—meaninglessness, maybe, or emptiness.” I find that worth a good ponder.

I love the concept of tracking happy moments, and I know exactly those moments of which she speaks. My description would be somewhat different: You are filled with a sense of exuberance, of awe—wonder at the universe, at nature, at your wonderful luck in life.

So I decided to do the happy basket thing, but it took several days before I had one of those truly happy moments (I feared that the basket would be empty at the end of the year, but my fears were for naught). I had one of those moments yesterday. I wrote it down, along with the date and time, on a scrap of paper. Today, I found a basket to use and a place to set it. And now there are two scraps of paper in the basket.

Can you possibly not want to do it? I am going into the project assuming that almost all my happy moments will be in nature. Based on my two measly current scraps, however, I’m thinking “almost all” might be overstated. But, the data are young and the basket is large, and I am going to the end of the year.

Do you really know what makes you happy? Do you want to find out, or at least get a clue?

And really, why not? Like a gratitude journal, a happiness basket can do no harm. And even though it would be cheating, if you’re partway through the year and hit a rough spot, reading a few scraps from the basket might give you an insight, or at least a lift.

Maybe. I don’t know. I just started today. I think I know a few things about myself. But I think this fun and easy project might teach me a lot about myself that I don’t realize.

And who couldn’t use a little more happiness in their life?

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name

9781565125247I finished my favorite book of February on the penultimate day of the month. If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska, by Heather Lende, is a lovely blend of nature, musing, philosophy, spirituality, and small-town pragmatism.

It’s a good primer on small-town living, and it’s also a decent introduction to Alaska (though I am admittedly much more of an expert on the former than the latter, having grown up in a small town and visited Alaska only once, and on a cruise at that).

A blurb on the front cover calls Lende’s book part Annie Dillard and part Anne Lamott (I found that quite appealing as I like Lamott and love Dillard). By the time I got to the end of the book, I certainly understood the references to Dillard and Lamott, but Lende also brings her own chemistry into the mix.

The passage that first grabbed my heart was her conversation (did I mention the book feels like a conversation?) about furnishing their house in Alaska. Both she and her husband “like to be surrounded by old things that wouldn’t pass as antiques and aren’t valuable to anyone except us.” She mentions her grandfather’s rolltop desk, a worn Oriental rug from her mother-in law’s house, a crystal pitcher that came from Norway with the first Lendes.

I put the book down and looked around me, and the sentiment resounded: I was sitting at the small blue table that held my chemistry set when I was 12. Behind me is my aunt’s copy of The Joy of Cooking. Our everyday dishes include three of my grandmother’s everyday dishes (there were four but I recently broke one) and several plates that somehow made it through my entire childhood. I have my grandmother’s cedar chest, and a beautiful blond buffet that belonged to my dad’s sister. (I call it beautiful possibly because it’s so functional, with three good-sized drawers and a little side door with shelves.) I have a fine old library desk left in my care by a dear friend more than 25 years ago (along with a good wooden plant stand, which holds a fern of my mother’s, in a pot that I think she might have found when she moved into the house I grew up in). And I have hardly started. I walk through my house and feel surrounded by love.

Much of what I enjoyed so much about If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name is that the author and I share some common values and interests, as noted above, and also with nature. At one point in the book, she is at a funeral, and during the talking she looked through the open door at

two eagles circling in the warm breeze high above the water. Although I’ve seen thousands, the sight of an eagle in flight still moves me in a way I can’t explain. It’s like a prayer.”

I know exactly what she means. I see eagles often, and while I haven’t seen thousands, I’ve seen hundreds (close to the Mississippi, after all), but they never get boring. Always I pause, and watch. In reverence or awe, I’m not sure. As the funeral continues, Lende, pondering eagles and spirits and mountains, wonders,

Do we feel God’s presence because we are looking for him, or do we feel it because he is looking for us?”

You see, this is the thing. She leads us down some roads. I went down a road of gratitude, and I went down a road of awe, and I went down a road of resolve. I resolve to appreciate what I have just a little bit more, and I resolve to try harder to see and understand the other person’s point of view.

There were many things I loved in this book, but these rose to the top. I expect other people will take away different things. But one thing I’m pretty certain of: There is something in this book for just about everyone.

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.

An Excellent Birding Day

I went out with my friend Eliot last Saturday morning to see what spring birds we might find. It was a good day to bird: I added 17 birds to my year list!

The highlight of the day was a Golden Eagle. I have had only one really good look at a Golden Eagle before, so I was thrilled to see another. At first we thought it was a Turkey Vulture (Minnesota’s most common huge bird of prey), but we were both wait, wait, something isn’t right. Eagle? But not a Bald Eagle (which are happily fairly common here). OMG a Golden Eagle! Yes! This in and of itself made the day. But, as mentioned we saw lots of other birds too.

Many were water birds, especially ducks. Northern Pintail (very fun—not a bird I see every year), Bufflehead, Common Merganser, Ring-Necked Duck, Redhead, Green-Winged Teal, and Lesser Scaup; also Pied-Billed Grebe, Trumpeter Swan, American Coot, and Cackling Goose.

I saw my first Eastern Bluebird of the year—always a happy sign. Also a Tree Swallow, Song Sparrow, and Northern Flicker.

And just before we called it quits, at our last stop of the day, we saw a Great Horned Owl. I don’t see these very often either, so I felt doubly gifted.

It wasn’t until the end of our birding, at this last stop, that I finally saw a Great Blue Heron. I love these huge and beautiful birds, fairly common in Minnesota, but no less stately for that. I reverberate with joy.

I need Auden to help me with the words here. This sense you get in nature where you just beat with the world. I’m not sure it’s reverence, but it’s close to reverence. And then there’s awe. Awe definitely comes into play.

But after awe there’s breakfast. The excellent day continues.