Going Rogue (Bookishly) for Black History Month

A funny thing happened as I was finishing up the “Love” chapter of Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Somewhere after reading longish passages from her conversations with Elizabeth Alexander (African American poet) and finishing the chapter, I decided I needed to read more black and African American literature. I decided to prioritize all the black writers in my theme pile for February.

Guess what? Not a one. Well, boo. January was great with African American writers I didn’t get to. So I decided to go rogue and push the book theme to the side (not completely) and focus on black writers in February, partly because it’s Black History Month, but mostly because I really want to do it. Sometimes I get a little too wed to the book themes. I have books I’ve wanted to read for quite some time now, but I let the themes drive my reading. (I do have control over this, there are no rules. I do have control. Really I do.)

So sometime between my second and third cup of coffee this morning, I decided to read (mostly) black/African American books in February. I was excited before I even got up from my chair. Perusing my shelves (reminder: I tend to use the book themes to read and potentially pare down the huge excess of books I have accumulated over the years), I found nonfiction quite fruitful:

  • The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander
  • The End of Blackness, Debra J. Dickerson
  • Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay
  • Wounds of Passion, bell hooks (plus a few of her other books that I haven’t read yet)
  • You Can’t Touch My Hair, Phoebe Robinson
  • Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith
  • Living By the Word, Alice Walker
  • Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward

Not so very gender balanced, I will admit. But note, I still haven’t gone through memoirs or foodish books. Still, a very exciting list of prospects for the month. I expect I’ll start with You Can’t Touch My Hair, immediately followed by Hidden Figures (which I bought shortly after seeing the movie).

I’m adding another book to the nonfiction mix for February, not specific to Black History Month, but relevant nonetheless: A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (edited by Sun Yung Shin). Not all the writers are black, but several are, and it’s here in Minnesota. This is what I need to hear. To learn. To understand.

I haven’t finished going through all the general fiction yet, but I’ve been a bit surprised at the sparsity:

  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Zanzele, J. Nozipo Maraire
  • Sula, Toni Morrison
  • The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead
  • Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I might go to the “already read” shelves and pull a few favorites. Mama Day (Gloria Naylor) comes to mind. Then  Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (Ntozake Shange). And The Color Purple (Alice Walker).

I also found a few mysteries (picked up back in the day when I was reading a lot more mysteries):

  • A Little Yellow Dog, Walter Mosley
  • Hidden in Plain View, Blair S. Walker
  • Easier to Kill, Valerie Wilson Wesley
  • Killer Riches, Chassie West

And a few science fiction/fantasy books (mostly purchased at WisCon, the annual feminist science fiction convention held in Madison, WI):

  • Clay’s Ark, Octavia Butler
  • Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler
  • Redwood and Wildfire, Andrea Hairston
  • The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin
  • Filter House, Nisi Shawl

Again, a bit heavy on the women. And while that’s okay in general for reading (to make up for all those years of male classics), in this case I think I will need to add a few more male voices (since we didn’t read a lot of black male classics). Ellison’s Invisible Man immediately comes to mind. I would welcome other suggestions.

And I’ve decided that while a Black History immersion month is probably a good thing, I’ve decided to keep it up in a most modest way by resolving to read at least one African American book each month after February through the end of the year. Some might fit into a reading theme, but if not, I’ve realized I want to broaden my reading landscape more than I want to cleave to the theme.

I’m excited to bring this new focus into my life. Every once in a while, it’s really fun to go rogue.

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Monthly Reading Themes, 2018

Schedules and circumstances didn’t allow Sheila and me to get together to finalize our 2018 reading themes before the New Year. We had identified themes for the first few months, just in case it took forever to meet, but we managed to meet in early January, and now have decided (mostly, which is to say more or less, which is to say I’m leaving a little wiggle room) on the 2018 reading themes.

(Note: At present, this is for our book club of two. But all are encouraged to participate. Choose a book or books in our themes, or identify your own themes. It’s a really fun way to run across books you might not otherwise read. Or a good way to read a book a month if you aren’t a hard-core reader.)

2018 Reading Themes

  • January: Religious Words (e.g., grace, holy, divine, mercy, god, sacred, faith, redemption)*
  • February: Day/Month/Season (esp. specific days of the week, months, seasons)**
  • March: Women (lady, miss, girl, queen, Eve, she, aunt, mother, nun, etc.)***
  • April: Object/Thing (yes, it’s odd; but books that have “object” or “thing” in the title, while not highly numerous, are highly appealing)*
  • May:  Architectural Elements (e.g., tower, gable, gate, wall, roof, porch, window, stairs)
  • June: Green (trees, grass, plants, park, leaves, the word green, etc.)
  • July: One-word titles (this is a repeat theme—super fun)
  • August: Music (e.g., sonata, chime, tune, song, sing, dance, symphony, jazz, choir, soprano, band)
  • September: Animals (the word animal, or fox, rat, dog, cat, mouse, dragonfly, dinosaur, gnat, toad, etc.)
  • October: Life (and variations: live, lives, lived, living)**
  • November: Health/Wellness/Medicine***
  • December: Journey (e.g., path, pilgrimage, travel, passage)^

So much to look forward to (esp. readingwise) in the coming year.

*This might seem it would get all religiony, but trust me, it’s a finely broad-ranging theme. Of course you could make it all religiony if you wanted to (I could see wanting to focus on a specific area for an entire month—hmmm, hmmm! That could be really fun sometime. Not this month, but definitely worth pondering down the road).

**I have Saturday, August, October, February, September, June, winter, summer, spring, and a few generic day/season books.

***For Women’s History Month.

*It’s possible that “It” could be added to things and objects. It seems like a good fit, and I want to reread Stephen King’s book, It.

**An amazing number of books across the spectrum have life/lives variations in their titles.

***This was a completely new add. We already had a good list of themes we were contemplating, but we’re both interested in healthcare, the healthcare industry, big pharma, and health and wellness, and when we stumbled across this in our conversation, it became the November theme. I’m quite excited about it.

^Confession: As this theme is the furthest away, I have given it the least thought. Except for pondering whether “paradise” might be part of journey. I have several paradise books I want to read….

New Year’s Resolutions

I like making New Year’s resolutions. I find them a good way to set goals, try new things, and sometimes, induce new habits. I usually try to do three, in different areas of my life. Last year I resolved to: (1) send a weekly postcard to the Minnesota Senate majority leader, (2) give May baskets to several of my neighbors, and (3) get back to blogging (I had not blogged for months).

Overall I did quite well. For the political postcard project, I sent the majority leader a total of 57 postcards. In addition, I added another senator (on a couple of key health committees) in late July, and sent her 18 postcards.

I did indeed do May baskets (and plan to do again this year, but now May baskets are moving more into tradition rather than resolution). As for blogging, I had resolved (parenthetically) to blog weekly. That didn’t happen, but I did post more regularly, and I will be satisfied enough with that.

Here are my resolutions for 2018:

  1. Expand personal correspondence. I enjoyed the political postcard project, and I again wanted to do something with postcards, but I wanted to take a break from politics. So I decided to send my niece a weekly postcard. I tend to be abysmal at email, but find I have a bit of a gift for snail mail; and with the wide assortment of postcards I’ve accumulated over the years of the haiku project (yes, I’m still doing it), I can send a variety of sometimes beautiful, or funny, interesting, and even potentially scandalous cards. She has already received the first postcard and is quite excited about the whole thing. I’m also going to try to establish correspondence with an author. But I realize that it could well be that a person who writes for a living might not be inclined to find writing in their off time a relaxing/enjoyable thing. But I am giving it a try, and the card is in the mail. I’ll let you know if I hear back.
  1. Work out (yoga, walk, weights) at least twice a week. Yes, I know it’s a low bar, but I want to be realistic. This way, I might at least establish a bit of discipline. I have been known to work out five times a week and track it and everything—for about three weeks, but then I lose discipline. I can always do more than two (and I expect I will, especially in spring and fall when I love to walk), but I like having this low bar as a bit of a work-out safety net.
  1. Do at least one novel thing a month with my spouse. I got this idea from an excellent book I read in December, Life Reimagined, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, which I hope to blog about sometime soon (so many ideas for posts of late!). I’m starting to compile a list of novel things for us to choose from. My ideas include play mini-golf, take a class together (a cooking class, perhaps?), try a new cuisine (Somali?), attend a Supreme Court case, Explore Brooklyn (we are going to NYC for a wedding in August), visit the prairie (southwestern Minnesota has some gorgeous prairie lands), tour one of the huge mansions on Summit Avenue when there’s an open house, go on a paddleboat ride down the Mississippi, walk in the rain on purpose. Nothing hugely weird, just things we’ve never done together (and for many of them, things we’ve never done at all, or at least not for decades). Suggestions are welcome. The more we have to choose from, the better. And after all, we aren’t limited to one a month. This could be a very fruitful resolution.

Any New Year’s resolutions out there that anyone cares to share? (I love to post mine, because it strengthens my resolve. Also, I’m pretty sure no one but me is keeping track.)

Happy New Year to you! Wishing you good books, good friends, and a lot of laughter in the coming year.

2018: So Many Books (and Happy New Year)

We’ve already moved into January (and I have many things to get caught up on with this blog, which is one of my New Year’s resolutions) and also into a new monthly reading theme. The theme for January is religious terms or words (or, occasionally, phrases). This is a super-rich area for book titles (some more religious than others, and some, of course, not religious at all).

Here are the fiction books that leapt off my shelves:

  • The Holy Machine, Chris Beckett
  • Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler
  • Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, Kristi Belcamino
  • Can I Get an Amen, Sarah Healy
  • Grace Notes, Bernard MacLaverty
  • Minaret, Leila Aboulela
  • God on the Rocks, Jane Gardam
  • Act of God, Jill Ciment
  • Holy Fools, Joanne Harris
  • The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  • Kabbalah: A Love Story, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Nonfiction is troubling, as there as so very many theme books I want to read, and only 31 days in the month. Calling to me:

  • Grace (Eventually), Ann Lamott
  • Living With a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich
  • Unlikely Disciple, Kevin Roose
  • The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander
  • Words of Passion, bell hooks
  • Shopping for Buddhas, Jeff Greenwald
  • Lipstick Jihad, Azadeh Moaveni
  • Living by the Word, Alice Walker
  • Devil in the Details, Jennifer Traig
  • Aphrodite, Isabel Allende
  • Life is a Miracle, Wendell Berry
  • Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris

And a few poetry titles for frosting:

  • Clothesline Religion, Megan Buchanan
  • Nature’s Grace, Carolyn Zonailo
  • The Tulip Sacrament, ‘Annah Sobelman
  • The Gatehouse Heaven, James Kimbrell

As you can see, I’ve got a fine month of reading ahead of me. I have already finished Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard, a reread for me. Oddly, I quite disliked this book on my third reading. I will put it back on the shelf and see how it wears in a few years. But I have to say, the strong dislike took me aback. It also makes me want to revisit Teaching a Stone to Talk and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which I especially loved).

December’s reading theme (things that fly) was a good one, and I got back into reading mode. I finished 11 books (4 fiction, 4 nonfiction, 3 poetry). The best of the theme books was The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd (a marvelous reimagining of the famous feminist/abolitionist Grimke sisters). The Bees, by Laline Paull also stood out, and while it is called a dystopian novel, I didn’t find it so at all. Is one happy at the end of a dystopian novel? (She snorts, I think not.) Also in fictionland, a YA novel that I quite adored, Memoirs of a Bookbat, by Kathryn Lasky. A book for anyone who loves books or libraries, or has experienced a time in their life when books are their only friend.

In the world of nonfiction, the standout was The Geese of Beaver Bog, by Bernd Heinrich. This is a fine study of Canada geese (and other bog residents, on occasion) that I found both fun and fascinating. Canada geese are extremely common here in Minnesota (and Minneapolis), and I loved learning more about them. Most interesting to me: The white facial marking on the goose’s face varies and can be used to identify individuals. Also, Canada geese are not nearly the lifelong devoted monogamous mates that we (birders) had been led to believe. Monogamous, yes, if it’s convenient. I will no longer feel sorrow when I see a single goose winging through the air. OMG, have I put you to sleep? I think all my friends want to tell me to cut back on the bird ramblings.

I have been remiss in blogging and intend to get back on the horse in this new year. I already have a slate of topics, including New Year’s resolutions, caregiver tips (based on recent experience), 2018 reading themes (soon to be finalized), and perhaps a look back at 2017—the best birds, the best books, and other best moments. Also maybe the biggest flops.

Happy New Year to you!

End of Birding Frenzy; On to the Garden

May has turned into June, and my attention finally turns to gardening. While I was in the throes of birding in May, I thought perhaps I wouldn’t get any plants this year and merely tend the perennials. But then I remembered rosemary, and how much rosemary I use in so many things (cooking, of course, and I also add rosemary to many of my herbal concoctions—primarily for its taste and smell, but it also has some fine medicinal properties).

And my feverfew didn’t come back this year, which surprised me mightily. It was growing like a weed last year, even in the sidewalk cracks. This year, both the front and back are missing their feverfew. Rabbits? I do have (at least) two rabbits that spend a goodly amount of time in the yard. Mostly they seem to eat grass, dandelion, plantain, and clover. I wonder if they also favor feverfew.

So yesterday I went to the neighborhood plant store, and I got the rosemary (3) and feverfew (2—hoping it spreads like a weed again). And then I ran across the chamomile. I had decided not to grow chamomile this year—a lot of harvesting of those tiny flowers in the end didn’t even fill a pint jar. But I saw it on the shelf and I did the dangerous thing; I picked it up and smelled it. I smelled it and was back to the wonderful feeling I had while I was harvesting the chamomile last year. Also, homegrown chamomile even dried—no, especially dried—smells so much better than any I’ve found at a co-op or herb store.

So I bought the chamomile. And then I ran across parsley, and parsley (especially curly parsley) is one of my favorite things to eat right from the garden. It has always tasted like bright freshness to me and I believe it has the power to completely change one’s mood or viewpoint around.

So I got two parsley plants (one curly, one traditional—for research on my mood/viewpoint hypothesis).

And then I realized I really needed thyme. Not a lot, but especially for cooking, it’s nice to have a thyme plant. A thyme plant is added to the cart.

I had not planned to buy calendula. I had specifically decided not to buy calendula, as I still have a goodly amount left from last year, plus my herbal friend in California sent me even more. But then I saw the plants, and they have such bright orangey flowers, and they are so happy-making in the backyard. (Also very good for soothing the skin.) I thought getting only two was a good compromise.

I also got a bright red geranium to sit by the back door (this was in my original plan, even before the rosemary was added to the list). There is something about a geranium that makes me smile. I’m not sure if it’s the color, the smell, or its splashy sassiness. But really, now I think about it, I think I love the red geranium because it’s my mom’s favorite flower. So add a bit of love and tradition to that splashy sassiness.

I’m happy to report that nearly all of the plants have been planted, with just three left for tomorrow. I’m even happier to report that I’m ever-so-glad I changed my mind about the plants. Getting my hands in the dirt, working with the plants, the smells, the textures—oh yes. Why did I think I didn’t want to do this? I get to water and harvest and talk to my plants all summer.

I haven’t given up birding, just to be clear. I still have the binoculars on the table beside me. It’s just that now, a few other things can take up more room inside my brain. And June is for the garden.

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?

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.