Joy in the Everyday (with haiku)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pure joy.

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

Seeing the cat stretched out in the sun.

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

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

Perhaps a new source of everyday joy?

Advertisements

Hate Speech: Liberal Style

“All Republicans should die.”

That’s what a liberal friend said to me at lunch a few weeks ago. It gives one pause, doesn’t it? Well, at least I hope it does, whether you’re liberal, conservative, in between or above or below.

I’ve been hearing a lot of such sentiments from my many liberal friends. (Mind you, I’m a liberal myself, which is why I have so many liberal friends.)

I am of an age where I think of the Democrats and the liberals as the party of love. But over the last two years in particular, it’s gotten to a point where politics are off limits in many of my friendships. It’s a rabbit hole of negativity.

I am particularly concerned when people my friends use broad terms, like “all Republicans.” Like assuming that every asshole on the road is a Republican (I know several liberals who are bad drivers and one that might qualify as an asshole—on the road, I mean). It’s the sweeping nature of the condemnation that bothers me.

Republicans, like Democrats, come in all sizes, shapes and colors. I happen to have some Republicans that I respect in my life. My father is one of them (even though he’s dead now). He was super conservative and I was radically liberal, but we always managed to find common ground (sometimes with difficulty, and most often in the realm of economics). And I learned some of the things about why he was conservative (e.g., a small-business owner dealing with one-size-fits-all government regulations) and that has helped me to understand conservatives in a small way.

Which is to say, they are not all alike. I expect there are as many reasons for being conservative as there are for being liberal.

And for this reason, I suspect that liberals and conservatives might have a lot more in common on a lot of issues than they realize. We box each other into categories and demonize the worst in each other. So easy to do, and almost expected. A knee-jerk reaction.

A potential remedy: The next time you’re in a situation with someone on the opposite side of the political fence, spend some time finding what you have in common. It might not be as hard as you think. Talk about books or health care. Or maybe the number of people in prison. Or the price of soybeans.

Just…talk.

Resolutions: 2019

I have a thing about making New Year’s resolutions, and I have for maybe 20 years or so now. I really like them. I usually make three (that’s not a firm rule, but I’ve found it’s a good number to manage) and I usually keep them. (Not always. More to come on that.)

Resolutions for 2019:

Resolution 1: I’m keeping a gratitude journal. I decided to do this in late November, and got so excited about the idea that I started early (December 19). I’ve missed a couple of days, but given it’s been over a month now, that’s not too bad! The birds in my backyard figure highly in my gratitude, as do my friends, the sun (at least in winter), and books.

Resolution 2: Postcard Projects. I’m lumping all my postcard projects in one resolution. I have three postcard projects for 2019—my daily haiku postcard (that I’ve been doing since 2013—I can hardly believe that!); a weekly postcard to my niece (I started this last year and it’s been so fun, and we’ve gotten to know each other so much better, that I’m happy to continue it); and a weekly postcard to my brother (I started this in the fall of last year, and he’s been responding by text, and that’s been a lot of fun). No political postcard projects this year. I’ve found the family postcard projects much more rewarding.

Resolution 3: May Baskets. I don’t believe I made this resolution last year, because I was so sure I would just do it and didn’t need to resolve. But then we had that god-awful April blizzard and I just couldn’t do May Baskets because it still felt like winter. So, May Baskets go back on the resolution list, because it’s a thing I really like to do. It has introduced a small bit of playfulness in the neighborhood.

Resolution 4: This is also a postcard project, but so different, it is its own resolution. This is my big resolution for the year. The idea is this: I send out a lot of postcards every year, and to do this, I have collected large quantities of postcards. Lots of the boxes I get contain (which I miswrote complain) duplicates. And some postcards I’ve had for years never seem to fit anything—a haiku, a missive, a greeting—but perhaps they would be the perfect card for someone else. My postcards are crowding me out, and thus is born the Community Postcard Project, or, more simply, little free postcards.

Here it is in a nutshell: I cull cards out of my postcard collection and stamp them and bring them to local businesses to leave out for customers. I am completely excited about the idea. Why? Perhaps you think I’m nuts. Here’s my logic:

(1) People who get something free or unexpected—even change in a phone booth (yes, old research), are more likely to do something nice for someone they run into (e.g., buy them coffee, hold a door open) than those who didn’t. (2) Stamped mail is much more likely to be mailed than unstamped mail. People hate wasting stamps. I know this is true for me. So I stamp all the postcards I put out there. If someone grabs a postcard at a coffee shop because it catches their eye, my logic goes like this (hypothetically, of course):

The customer walks out of the shop feeling good because in addition to her usual experience, she has a free stamped postcard that she thinks is quite beautiful. Should I send it to my cousin? At the bus stop she notices a woman struggling with a stroller, and helps. The customer gets home, and decides to send the postcard to her mother instead. Her mother is thrilled (they talk on the phone a lot, but she doesn’t get much personal mail).

 Hmm. Maybe the next time I go to the coffee shop, they’ll have more free postcards, and I’ll send this one to my cousin.

Happy customers return, and recommend others (well, unless they want to keep the postcard thing to themselves).

While I get rid of postcards I don’t want, others get a beautiful/fun thing free. With luck, at least 50% of those people send the stamped postcards to someone, who might be particularly thrilled to get personal mail (as I always am) and do something nice for someone else. I can’t speculate far beyond that, but I think there is a fairly high happiness quotient in this stamped postcard project from many perspectives.

Sure, eventually I’ll run out of postcards and stamps. But think of all the happiness. Think of all the potential connections.

And maybe it will catch on. Maybe when I run out of steam the businesses and their customers will carry on. Maybe even before I lose steam (let’s not forget the best-case scenario).

Why? Why am I doing this crazy thing? Well, first off, postcard stamps are pretty cheap. It only costs $7 to send 20 postcards. And just thinking of 20 people happy to get fun postcards (I forgot to mention earlier the satisfaction one gets from filling out and mailing personal mail—it’s a wonderful thing; almost as good as getting personal mail), that in itself is a good reward.

But also, it could catch on, and that’s my hope. Little free postcard boxes everywhere. Who doesn’t have postcards sitting around their house? This is my long-term dream goal.

It could happen. You never know.

One Thing Leads to Another

Yesterday I didn’t get much on my to-do list done, but a series of events led me down some fun memory lanes. It all started with my decision to put a few tree ornaments on the small tree growing too close to the garage, but it’s so beautiful I couldn’t bear to pull it up when it was little, and every year I told myself I should and now it’s taller than me, and still I love this tree.

So I went to look through my tree ornaments which I haven’t touched for years (I don’t do a tree but that’s a different story), and I found several that seemed they would work on an outdoor tree (though none of the garden variety shiny red balls that I was hoping for—just one or two; it’s a small tree, after all).

At the bottom of one of the boxes of ornaments, I found a book I got from my aunt when I was in 2nd grade, A Christmas Story, by Mary Chalmers. It’s a very small book—a gift book, maybe 3×4 inches. I remember being shocked at getting what I considered a picture book in 2nd grade. I was quite insulted. It was a kid’s book! I’m pretty sure I didn’t say any of these things out loud.

Here’s the thing I didn’t get at the time: The main character is named Elizabeth (which just happens to be my name), and she is a little girl (hmmm, possibly 2nd grade or so?) who has to find a star for the Christmas tree she has just decorated with her friends, Harry Dog, Alice Rabbit, and Hilary Cat. I will not ruin the story by telling you how it ends. I treasured the book more and more over the years, and used to take it out every Christmas. But I moved and traditions changed, and it got packed away. But now that I’ve found it, it’s back on display for the season.

Also while looking for ornaments, I found a large bunch of Christmas cards from the early 2000s. Thinking this would be an easy dispatch and free up space in the box, I grabbed a large stack to go through. Another trip down memory lane. Pictures of friends with their little kids (who are now adults); cards and letters from graduate school friends; cards from former coworkers and former former coworkers. I haven’t finished going through them all. So many of my parents’ generation of relatives are dead, but they were not dead in the early 2000s, and it’s nice to be running into them again. I’m keeping more of these cards than I’d thought I would, because I figure if I enjoy going through them now (not all of them—some are being repurposed as postcards, and most are getting recycled) I’ll enjoy it every bit as much 10 years from now.

Some of these cards were from the same aunt (who also happened to be my favorite aunt and my godmother) who gave me The Christmas Story. She died four years ago, and I still miss her. I’m keeping all the cards from her that include significant personal notes. And all of this made me remember the ceramic Christmas tree that she made, and gave to my mom, and my mom gave to me many years later. I decided this was the year to put up the tree again. I knew exactly where it was, and on a whim decided to get it out right that minute. But it wasn’t where I was sure it was. It wasn’t in that closet at all, which caused pause. Where could it be? I sat down to read for awhile to let my brain relax and remember. And then I remembered exactly where in the basement it was. But no. And no and no and no.

And then I remembered the closet under the stairwell. It would be right up front. It was not. Sigh. What’s that box back there? Old books (shocking). Surely not that one way in the back—I reached, I tipped—ceramic tree! I tugged it out of the box (which did not want to come out from under the stairwell), and brought it into the kitchen to plug it in. But, what? No plug, no switch. I knew it lit up; that’s why I liked it so much. Did I miss something in the box?

I did indeed miss something in the box, and it was a big something that didn’t want to come out. So I hauled the box out over the top of all the other things in front of it, and a huge pile of photographs cascaded to the closet floor. Of course.

It’s a cramped closet so I pile up the photos and stick them on the shelf outside the closet. I get out the box and the bottom portion of the ceramic tree, plug it in, and it works! While it wasn’t really like my aunt was with me, it was in a little way.

And then I grabbed a bunch of photographs off the top of the pile, and took another trip down memory lane. They were nearly all from road trips I’ve taken around Minnesota with a good friend of mine. I thought the photos would be easy to cull, but my friend is such a good photographer, and he has such a good eye for mood, that I find I’m keeping far more than I’m tossing. And I have realized that there are so many good memories here, while I will do some culling, I want to organize rather than get rid of these photos. Already categories are emerging: quirky town monuments (we have a lot of these in Minnesota—Paul Bunyan, loons, Jolly Green Giant, chicken, walleyes—this could be its own post, and maybe will); nature shots; bird shots in particular; town names (often on water towers); various kinds of signs (road signs, billboards, street signs); and that was just a handful off the top. This could be a hugely fun project.

So the little tree outside is decorated, The Christmas Story is on top of the bookshelf, the ceramic tree casts its light again, I’ve more Christmas cards from years past to look through (and mostly recycle), and an entire photograph organizing project ahead of me.

Life is good. Happy December.

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!

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.