Waiting for the Mail

I’m waiting for the mail. Not hovering waiting. Writing and acutely aware that the mail could arrive any minute (some people get their mail at a regular time; ours is usually sometime in the afternoon, but occasionally early morning). I’m not waiting for any particular reason; it’s not that I’m expecting a package or an important document. I am looking forward to the new stamp catalog (I’m running low on postcard stamps and also want the dragons, John Lennon, and Art of Magic stamps—the post office is putting out some really fun stamps these days). But that’s not why I’m waiting for the mail.

You never know what the mail will bring: a magazine, a catalog you love to peruse (hello Syracuse Cultural Workers, Sur la Table), a newsletter with some good news. And then there are the calendars, address labels, notepads, and occasionally even gift wrap from nonprofits hoping to lure you in (note: sometimes it works). The peak of mail happiness is the personal mail: a postcard, greeting card, letter, and occasionally even a package. Happy dance!

I’ve enjoyed getting the mail for as long as I remember. In our small town, that meant going to the post office. I loved walking with my dad to get the mail. I was honored and delighted to be entrusted with the responsibility (and the key!) of getting the mail on my own when I was in 3rd grade. The mail was never meant for me, but getting the mail was fun and special. One of my first significant responsibilities.

In college I totally lucked out and got a summer job working at the campus post office. I’ve had a lot of good jobs in my life, but that was one of my favorites: I learned so much about the ins and outs and rules of the postal system, developed an appreciation for postage stamps, and got to interact with faculty on a much more level playing field (I was the expert in this arena, a nice turning of the tables) and thus more personally, and they weren’t nearly as scary as I had thought. I loved every aspect of the job, from sorting the mail (before we opened) to selling and ordering stamps, and figuring out postage for various package types (useful knowledge to this very day). Happy summers.

And now the mail is delivered right to our house. In summer, when the door to the front porch is open, I can hear the solid thunk as the pile hits the floor on a good mail day. Sometimes I finish the sentence I’m reading before I go retrieve it.

The mail has arrived! Today’s haul:

  • A card from a friend (who I met working at the college post office job mentioned above)
  • A postcard from a different friend confirming a lunch date in October
  • The Conservation Minnesota newsletter
  • Electric bill
  • A mailing from my health care provider about an upcoming board election

Not a bad day, and not one piece of junk mail!

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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.

The Joy of Correspondence (In Praise of Snail Mail)

When I quit my job a few years ago, I had some specific goals for the year I was going to take off. I planned to read as much as I wanted to, and I wanted to learn to cook from scratch (beans and whole grains, soups and such). I wanted to learn more about medicinal herbs and make some simple remedies, preferably from my own herbs. And I wanted to start a blog.

I did not have correspondence on my radar. However, correspondence has become a major part of my life over the last few years, a huge unexpected joy.

It started with the haiku project in 2013. Write a haiku a day, put it on a postcard and send it to a friend. My Montana friend gracefully agreed to be the recipient of said postcards, and I decided to try to do a postcard a day for a year. I missed only a very few days, and I’m still doing it.

A friend in Colorado read about the project and started her own version of a postcard project with a variety of recipients (some receiving daily postcards and some receiving weekly postcards). I was one of the weekly recipients (and some weeks I received more than one). I am still one of the weekly recipients (we postcard project people clearly are not quitters), and she started her project back in August of 2014.

Fast forward to the fall of 2015. I started having serious computer problems. Email longer than a few sentences became untenable. It took a few months to figure out, but in the meantime, I was losing touch with some of my out-of-town friends, including Jami in Colorado.

So I started sending letters and cards via snail mail. This might seem extreme, but when it is taking two or three days to send an email, snail mail begins to look quite inviting. And I had an entire drawer full of cards that I had collected or received as gifts over the years, so there was no expense except postage. (Oh, and the obsession I developed with finding fun writing pens—you may not realize it, but sometimes you need to use different kinds of pens on different kinds of paper. Slippery paper requires special care.)

Jami (Colorado) almost immediately asked if I wanted to move completely (almost) from email to snail mail for the duration of my computer problem. Yes! And so it began.

With a weekly postcard and a weekly letter or card from Jami, plus occasional mail from other friends that responded in kind, getting the mail became much more fun. And the more fun it became, the more I wrote. The computer got fixed, and Jami and I continued our snail mail correspondence and still do. But now, it’s more like three or four cards a week (blank notecards that we usually write on both sides and the back), and it’s come to the point where I’m more likely to get something personal in the mail on a given day than not. And it’s not just Jami. I have several friends in town who send occasional cards and notes, and just today I got a postcard from a friend visiting Hawaii.

Sometimes I run across a funny in the newspaper that makes me think of a friend, and I clip it and send it to them with a note in a card (and it usually ends up being a longish note, because these are friends, and there are always things to say; also, smaller cards can be used if you are feeling somewhat less verbose on a given day).

I have one friend that I like to send scandalous postcards to because they make her burst out laughing when she finds them in the mailbox.

The payback? The payback is pure joy. First, I love writing (hence blog), so there’s that. But writing to close friends is more personal than the blog, and it can help me process feelings simply by writing them down, which is very grounding, so that’s a second thing.

Third, I get to support the U.S. mail system, which I think is one of the best things in this country. (And it also gives me an excuse to buy lots of the fun stamps the post office puts out, which I am tempted to count as number four but I won’t.)

Fourth, it brings joy into other people’s lives (a funny postcard, a poem, various goings-on, updates on important things like cooking successes and failures)—it singles a person out, and that means something; when the card is from a friend, you know it was chosen specifically for you; the words are written only to you. This primitive act of finding just the right card (or stationery), writing it, putting it in the envelope and addressing it (which of course means finding the address book), stamping it, and dropping it in the mailbox—somehow this primitive act does so much more than email. (I’m not sure which end experiences the greatest benefit, but I’m guessing the writer.)

Fifth, if you’re lucky, you might find a bit more personal mail on your porch floor (or wherever your snail mail lands). It’s fun. You pick it up, hold it in your hands. Read it (or tear it open and then read it), and if it’s a card, you often prop it up so you can enjoy it—usually for several days. (When’s the last time you propped up an email?)

Sixth, even if you don’t get more snail mail, you might strengthen relationships. I copied Jami’s weekly postcard idea and started sending a weekly postcard to my niece. This has led to a lot more correspondence (via text and email) and we’re both learning more about each other, which is a lot of fun.

Seventh, the correspondence can also be a form of artistic expression (especially with postcards). On my best days, the postcard picture reflects the haiku, and on the very best days, the stamp does too.

If this is new to you and you’re intrigued, you might want to consider starting small. Dig out some old postcards you got on vacation; send a note to a friend you’ve lost touch with.

Or perhaps you jump in with both feet and start your own project. A weekly postcard to an aunt or an old high school friend. A monthly riddle to your family….

If you like to write, you might be surprised at how much fun this can be. Addicting, really. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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.

In Praise of the Handkerchief

My spouse is a handkerchief person. I thought this was quaint when we met. I have since experienced the practicality of the practice (particularly in movie theaters when I have forgotten tissue).

Not long ago when we were visiting my mom, I asked her if she had any of dad’s old hankies left. I thought perhaps I could replenish the spousal supply, and plus I’ve always loved a big hankie for myself when I have a really bad cold, most especially an old and very soft hankie. She did indeed have a supply and shared some, and then asked if I wanted any of hers. Compared to my dad’s, they were so small, so dainty. I couldn’t imagine honking into one of those things. It would feel like desecration or something.

But the next time we’re visiting my mom, I have a little sneezing attack and I’m going through tissue after tissue. I remember the hankies and ask Mom if I can have one of her handkerchiefs after all. I grabbed a small soft one mostly at random, and it was perfect for my slightly runny sneezy nose. To my surprise the next day, it looked and felt perfectly soft and clean. So I used it for another day. I had thought handkerchiefs would get icky right away, like tissues do. I was finding out different.

The next time we went to see my mom, I asked if I could have a few more. She said sure, and this time we took them out and I looked at them more closely. She must have at least 50 handkerchiefs. Beautiful, so many of them. Most were white, but not all. Some had embroidery around the edges. Some had some very serious needlework (I know nothing about needlework so I don’t know what kind, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if at least some of them weren’t stitched by people she knew). I took several (I believe she allowed me six). I was thrilled, and she was kind of thrilled that I was into her hankies.

Once I had several, I used them a lot more. One in the purse and another in a pocket. I found (not surprisingly) that I was decreasing my use of tissues. (I wish I had thought to measure it before and after, but ah well.) I mentioned this to a friend and she was a little intrigued, and I asked her if she wanted one of my mom’s handkerchiefs, just to see if it was something that might appeal (we are both into reducing waste), and she said yes.

When I relayed this to my mother, she said, “Oh! Well then you’ll have to get more next time you come up!” And this time we went through them more slowly, and I took many. Mostly white, mostly soft. But almost none plain white. A border, a pattern, some lace. Lots of flowers. But there were a few that were not white: purple, black, brown, bright red, turquoise. I’m forgetting some. It felt like a small array of history spread out on her bed. It was so fun.

What a thing we have lost: the art, beauty, and utility of the handkerchief.

It turns out my friend did indeed enjoy the handkerchief. With my new bounty, I asked if she might like a couple more. Absolutely, she said. (I’m almost positive that was Not her exact word. But it was a strong affirmative.)

Since we had that conversation (several weeks ago), my use of the handkerchief has evolved further still. I have had a beautiful purple hankie (with splashes of white flowers and green leaves) on the front porch table these last two days. It has mopped up tears (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr), the occasional sneeze, and the drips off glasses of iced tea. Also good for drying one’s brow on a humid day.

This is a part of my mother’s history that I cherish. Much like a paper clip, you can find endless uses for the handkerchief. Since I’m quite the neophyte, I know I’ve only scratched the surface.

Icked out about the reuse factor? The snotty handrag?

My handkerchief rule is this: Use it as long as it feels (and looks) soft and clean. As soon as it doesn’t feel soft and clean, replace. (If it’s a major cold, this could be several times a day.) I find I tend to go through 3-4 hankies a week. They take up practically zero space in the laundry, and then you’re set for another week.

I think I’m moving towards reducing tissue use by about 50%. That’s not a bad start.

Perhaps it’s time for a handkerchief revolution. They are practical, sustainable, and extremely versatile.

And often, quite beautiful.

Look! Up in the Sky! It’s a Bird!

kestrelWe went to visit my mom today, and I decided to keep a list of birds I saw on the hour-long drive. I always have an eye out for birds when I’m on the road, but this time I decided to specifically keep a complete list. A day list. The idea struck me when I saw an American Kestrel before we even got out of Minneapolis. Kestrels are falcons and our smallest raptor. They’re pretty common in Minnesota in the summer, but not so much right in the heart of the city, so that was a fun start to the drive.

I saw a lot of the usual suspects: American Crow (several); American Robin (a dozen or so); Canada Goose (3); several Rock Pigeons; far too many European Starlings; Red-Winged Blackbirds (scads); Mourning Dove (1); and Common Grackle (2).

hawkAnd while I didn’t add any birds to my year list, I did see a few of those birds that always make me smile, even though they aren’t all that uncommon. For example, the Red-Tailed Hawk perched on a light pole alongside the highway. Not uncommon, even in the heart of the city, but they still make me smile.

swanAs do the swans. I saw five Trumpeter Swans today (none of them very close; three weeks ago they were closer to the highway and I saw several cygnets!). Also, two Double-Crested Cormorants (one perched on a branch, one flying overhead); Great Egrets (at least two); one killdeer; one barn swallow; one tree swallow; and one green heron (they have the most recognizable hunch).

I saw the swallows at Dan & Becky’s Market where we stopped to get beeswax. I’ve been looking for a good local source for beeswax (which I use in my medicinal herb work), and they recently started carrying it. Nice! It even smells like honey. I can hardly wait to try it out. Also at Dan & Becky’s I saw two chickens. I don’t count birds that are penned up, but these were truly free-range chickens, so on the list they went. Dan and Becky commented on the number of people that tell them they have a chicken loose in the yard. That shop is a total joy to visit. Becky asked me if I might have any interest in pig farming. They can’t keep up with demand.

I’m thinking about it.

pelican_davidstephensThe best birds of the day were the pelicans. American White Pelicans. I still marvel that we have pelicans in Minnesota. As we were nearing our destination, I saw a large V-formation in the distance. Too far away to identify, but I thought they were pelicans. I wanted to chase them, but Mom was waiting. We picked her up, and on our way to the restaurant Hal pointed up and said “There are your birds,” and they WERE pelicans. Up close and personal and 18 in number. Not long after, we saw a small group of 3, also flying, and on the way home we saw a solo pelican on a lake.

It amazes me how much you can see, when you look.

May Reprise

May is my month of abundance; an embarrassment of riches. Books, bookstores, birthday, and birding rise to the top as highlights, as well as gardening and watching things come back to life. MinBooks.  I read 13 books in May, 5 each for fiction and nonfiction, and 3 poetry. The big standout was The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, which I’ve already written about. I also particularly liked Red Azalea, by Anchee Min, a memoir of growing up in China under Mao. Very compelling and I learned a lot (not surprising given my sparse knowledge of China). The reading theme for May was color, and I did indeed complete the color spectrum:

  • Red Azalea, Anchee Min
  • From the Orange Mailbox, A. Carman Clark
  • The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Lewis Buzbee
  • A Few Green Leaves, Barbara Pym
  • Blue Jelly, Debby Bull
  • Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Ntozake Shange
  • Violet & Claire, Francesca Lia Block

It was fun in that I had the books in my collection to do it, and I read a lot of books that have been languishing unread for years (one of the great boons of the monthly reading theme), but I didn’t get to several of the books I had really wanted to read (the one that stands out most particularly is Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett). Of course that seems to be the case with every reading theme, so I guess I’m best off not blaming the color spectrum.

moon palaceProbably the bigger book story of May was the purchasing side. We went a little wild on that front. May is always a big month for buying books because it’s my birthday month and also we usually go to WisCon (Feminist Science Fiction Convention hosted annually in Madison, WI) where the books are not to be resisted. We didn’t go to WisCon, but we have a goodly number of local bookstores and we managed to hit several of them (Moon Palace Books, Minnesota’s Bookstore, Micawber’s Books, SubText, Magers & Quinn, Dreamhaven, Sixth Chamber, and three different Half Price Books). Crazy, huh? But it’s a vacation! We saved all that travel money, but then we spent it on books (yes, even more books than last May when we DID go to WisCon, an increase of a hefty 75%). We got more books in May (58) than we did in January-April combined. Lots of nonfiction (31) and fiction (19) and also several new volumes of poetry (7). An extravagant month as books go!

Birding. I added 62 birds to my year list in May! This was a spectacular May for shorebirds and I added a few to my lifelist, including White-Rumped Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Short-Billed sbdow_beauliddellDowitcher. Of these, the most exciting was the Short-Billed Dowitcher, which we saw at the Princeton Sewage Ponds. It was just there for the longest time, and we watched and watched and watched. The sandpipers I know I have seen before, but never close enough views to truly identify them. The waters were really low at Old Cedar one birding morning, and what at first looked like empty mudflats were in fact mudflats teaming with shorebirds. Oh they can blend! Other particularly fun sitings in May:

  • Wilson’s Phalarope (5-8)
  • Indigo Bunting (5-12)
  • Red-Shouldered Hawk (5-16)
  • Blue-Headed Vireo (5-19; new yard bird!)
  • American White Pelican (5-24)
  • Earred Grebe (5-30)
  • Caspian Tern (5-30)

I’ve only seen a few Caspian Terns in my life, so it was a rare treat at Old Cedar. Just one, but it flew in close and then settled down on a sandbar where it stayed for a good half hour or so. Lovely.

Medicinal Herbs. After a bit of a hiatus, I’ve gotten back into the swing of things. I felt like I had gone too broad, taken on too much, tried too much (with scads of bottles and jars filled with tinctures, herbs, and oils to prove it!) and said as much to a friend. My wise friend said it was probably not a mistake to go so broad to start—that’s how you learn the scope of the field. And I realized that I have learned a lot about what’s out there, and also the things that I most use and need, as well as what I am most drawn to. So now I am starting to focus in.

One of the things I like best is salve. I like to make it, I like to give it away, and I like to use it. I made another batch of the ginger, chamomile, clove, and black pepper salve (good for muscle massage and body aches); another batch of rosemary-chamomile salve (my favorite and most popular with my friends, and good for mild arthritis); and a thyme-chamomile salve (soothing and good for disinfecting).

Chamomile is one of my go-to herbs, so I’ve planted some from seed this year. I’ve moved several into large pots and am hoping to have a decent crop in a few weeks. Last year I was horrible about harvesting, and this year I vow to do better. Most especially with the chamomile (which I can buy at the co-op but it just doesn’t smell as good as the home-grown does) and rosemary (which I use vastly in cooking and for medicinals).

rhubarbCooking. My rhubarb was crying to be picked by early May, and pick I have. Several batches of rhubarb sauce later (the most recent just yesterday, with brown sugar, honey, and cinnamon), it’s still going strong. When we had a cold rainy spell mid-month I made some beef stew. I also made a huge batch of spaghetti sauce and froze a few pints for summer days when I don’t feel like making it from scratch.

Other highlights. May Baskets! Seeing Bernie Sanders, first mowing of the lawn (second, third), and cleaning out the garden beds. Perhaps the greatest highlight of the month: My mom gave me her dutch oven. She has used this for roasts for years, her most prized piece of cookware. But at 94, she isn’t cooking very much any more, and she has handed it down to me. I am thrilled. I hope to do her proud.