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.

A Whimsical Year

A few years ago, my family adopted the tradition of no “new” gifts at Christmas. You could make something, provide a service, regift, or even buy something used, but buying new was forbidden. It has been a lovely tradition, and has migrated far beyond my family Christmas.

The best idea I have come up with so far is the Whimsy Box.

This grew out of an original idea of coupons to be redeemed over the year (e.g., homemade meal of choice, dinner at favorite restaurant, a day getting lost in Fort Snelling State Park). I originally thought big—a special meal out, a special meal in, a full day at the park), maybe 10-12 a year. A lot of them were fun, but we didn’t do them all. Mood, life, timing. Sigh.

This year, as Christmas rolled around, I didn’t want to do coupons. I wanted to do something a bit more fun, with a spark of spontaneity. Hence, the Whimsy Box.

Partly the idea stemmed from the box: a fine tie box (a Native Northwest design that we got in Victoria, British Columbia; it has hinges)—a box I had thought to use as a box for a gift (thinking the box half the gift), but I changed my mind (thinking 95% chance recipient will throw said box in trash).

Not a box I was ready to part with. Beautiful box. A box for ideas. A box of the imagination. A box for suggestions. Suggestions!

Hence the Whimsy Box: I took this tie box, and filled it with whimsical ideas—things I think we will both find fun, often at the drop of a hat. More than 10. A lot more than 10. More like 50. Some examples:

  • Happy Hour at Dixie’s (great catfish basket)como-tropical
  • Take a walk by the river
  • Spend a winter afternoon at the Como Conservatory
  • Go to the downtown library (Minneapolis)
  • Spend a day at a state park
  • Walk to the mailbox
  • Learn a yoga pose
  • Visit our friend in Hastings
  • Go for a walk in the snow at night
  • Take the bus to Uptown and go to the bookstores
  • Go to Minnehaha Falls

And, since Hal has taken an interest in learning to cook a bit (ever since reading Real Food, by Nina Plank), I included several kitchen basics: learn how to fry an egg, learn how to make French toast, learn how to make pea soup, for example. And also, I thought it might be fun for us to learn how to make something together (even in our small awkward kitchen) and so I threw that idea in the box as well. We have talked about possibly doing a frittata.

This is a super easy and very personal gift you can tailor to individual preferences, whether it be to spend more time together, explore new places, spend less time together (not as crazy as it sounds—example: “I will leave the house for an afternoon and you can have the entire house to yourself.”), get more exercise, try new restaurants, get more culture, etc.

We have already had a lot of fun with it (a walk to leave books at a Little Free Library, learning to make French toast), and this weekend, I think we may make the frittata.

New Year’s Resolutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year to you! Any interesting resolutions?

Reading Down the Books: 2015

I read 196 books last year. That’s a lot, but not as many as the previous year (211). That’s what happens when you quit your job and read as much as you want for a year (or two). I’ve had a lot of catching up to do. And you know what? I’ve made progress. Not just getting around to reading some of the books that have been lingering for 10 and 20 years, but also moving books out (and not to the garage).

I get rid of most of the books I read, either giving them away as gifts or selling them at local used bookstores. I have to love a book to keep it, and not only that, I have to believe there’s a good likelihood that I’ll read it again. (The exception to this is poetry, some of which I keep just because I like to have a well-rounded collection.) I keep maybe 1 for every 10 books I read (and more like 2 or 3 per 10 in poetry). The point is, they’re moving out. Of course, we brought 178 additional books into the house this year (I accounted for 107 of those), so it would appear to be a bit of a wash.

Except for poetry. Two years ago I had two bookcases bulging with unread poetry. I still have two bookcases of unread poetry, but they are no longer bulging and there’s room for plenty more (though I don’t buy poetry as excessively as I used to). Noticeable progress, noticeable space!

Back to 2015: As I was tallying the books for the year, I wasn’t sure if I had read more fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. Most years I read more fiction, but last year I read more nonfiction (77 of 196; 39%). I go through reading phases. In 2014 I was on a major poetry jag (86 of 211; 41%). Interestingly, when I go through heavy nonfiction or poetry phases, I never become concerned, but when I go on a fiction jag, if it lasts very long (i.e., more than a few weeks) I start to get concerned. Concerned that I’m being frivilous, that I’m not learning enough, that I could be better using my time. I forget sometimes how transformative fiction can be.

That said, when I look back over my favorite books from 2015, only one is fiction. All are nonfiction with the exception of Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, which I highly recommend you read no matter who you are.

Here are my favorite books read in 2015 as of now (there could be additions or deletions):

  • One Hundred Names for Love, Diane Ackerman
  • At Seventy, May Sarton
  • Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams
  • The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Lewis Buzbee
  • Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, Lucy Knisley
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt
  • The Compassionate Carnivore, Catherine Friend
  • Another Turn of the Crank, Wendell Berry
  • The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, Dan Barber
  • Farm Anatomy, Julia Rothman
  • Heal Local, Dawn Combs
  • My Favorite Things, Maira Kalman
  • An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler
  • Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
  • Kosher Chinese, Michael Levy
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, Sandor Ellix Katz
  • Ethics of Household Economy, Gloria McPherson-Parsons
  • In Winter’s Kitchen, Beth Dooley

A few comments:

  • I love all May Sarton’s Journals, and At Seventy was no exception.
  • I wrote a fan letter to Lewis Buzbee, author of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (a most excellent book for book-lovers) and he responded.
  • Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is a graphic novel-memoir (I don’t want to call it a graphic memoir, lest some think it is sexually or violently graphic) and now I want to read all Lucy Knisley’s work.
  • The Compassionate Carnivore (Catherine Friend) caused me to change my eating behaviors in quite a major way.
  • Farm Anatomy taught me a lot and is beautiful and fun to read to boot. I was going to give this to my nephews for Christmas this year, but I couldn’t let it go. Julia Rothman has also written Nature Anatomy (which I also couldn’t let go).
  • Men Explain Things To Me, in which a man educates Rebecca Solnit about a topic based on a review of a book review he had read, not realizing that she was the author of the book he was educating her about. I think this has to be my favorite book of the year.

I don’t want to read more books this year than I did last year. I think my numbers have peaked and I’m happy with that. I’ll still read plenty, for sure. But I want to read a few more classics and a few more really long books, and plenty of poetry of course. But I also want to walk more, bike more, and spend more time on the clarinet. And walking the river.

What about you? Any reading resolutions or other intentions for 2016?

The Mighty Middle

I just got back from a three-hour breakfast with a friend from graduate school. She’s lived out of state for most of her working life but we’ve stayed in touch, mostly through Christmas cards. A few years ago, though, the friendship deepened and we’ve been writing frequently (it’s so fun to get real mail) and seeing each other on the occasions she comes back to Minnesota to visit family.

She’s one of the smartest people I know, and I never tire of talking with her. We have much in common (as well as many differences) and range all over the conversational landscape (in three hours we didn’t even get around to books!). Towards the end of this marathon breakfast we discovered a shared passion that surprised both of us: We want to bridge the partisan political divide.

It sounds so dry, doesn’t it? Hardly a passion.

It seems the parties work so hard to convince us how different they are, and thus how different we elephants and donkeys are. Government has become frightfully partisan, to the point where it has shut down more than once and shut-down threats have become the currency of the day. These are the people we have hired to run our government. Compromise is considered treason.  A lot of people on the left and the right are increasingly frustrated with this dysfunction.

On the other hand, according to numerous polls, Democrats and Republicans as people (as opposed to elected officials) agree on quite a large number of things, though you would hardly know it from reading the newspaper or talking to your friends. I have friends who demonize Republicans as evil incarnate. I’m serious. I used to stay silent, but the last time one friend pinned all the economic woes of this country on Ronald Reagan, I reminded her that it was Bill Clinton who signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which contributed greatly to the 2007 meltdown.

A scad of polls has found large majorities of the population favor labeling of genetically modified foods. An Associated Press poll reported in January 2015 that 64% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats support GMO labeling. That’s a lot of agreement.

Gun control is usually considered a very partisan issue, and in ways it is, in that Republicans are more likely to oppose stricter gun laws (79%) and Democrats are more likely to support them (77%). On the surface that seems pretty cut and dried, but if you go just a tiny bit below the surface you find that 87% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats would support a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online. Maybe not so polar after all. (Quinnipiac University, December 2015)

Even abortion is not as polarized as it is positioned in the political arena. Yes, Democrats generally defend and Republicans generally oppose it, but let’s face it: Nobody really likes abortion. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that fewer abortions is better and perhaps they would agree that none is ideal but not realisitc. I do know that even my most radical liberal friend who demonizes Republicans (“Can you tell them by the way they walk?”) is opposed to abortion as birth control. And nearly every Republican I know is in favor of the option for abortion in cases of rape or incest. Again, we enter shades of gray.

Economic reform is another issue on which huge numbers of Democratic and Republican people (if not politicians) agree. Big money controlling politics is a huge concern for the vast majority of the people, in stark contrast to elected officials who—of course—embrace big money because that’s how they get elected. More than three-quarters (80%) of Republicans and 90% of Democrats believe money has too much influence in political campaigns. (NYTimes/CBS News poll)

There is also huge bipartisan support for overturning the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United. A Bloomberg poll in September 2015 found 80% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats opposing the Citizens United Ruling.

You still think we have nothing in common?

I’m just scratching the surface here.

May Baskets

I gave out May baskets today—the first time since I was a kid. It was absolutely exhilarating. I can’t believe I waited so long to resurrect this lovely childhood tradition.

BasketI got a wild hair a few days ago when I realized that May Day was right around the corner. I remembered running to my neighbors’ houses, hanging the May basket (made out of construction paper, including handle) on the doorknob, ringing the doorbell and running away. That’s the trick, fun, and joy of May baskets: The idea is to not get caught. The gift is anonymous.

However, if you DO get caught, the recipient is supposed to run after you and kiss you! So, if you hear the doorbell ring on May Day morning, depending on your circumstances, you may want to run to the door or you may, perhaps, prefer to stop and do the dishes before sauntering to the door.

wven basketsMy husband had never heard of May baskets, but when I described them to him, he immediately wanted in on the action. I first tried reproducing a construction-paper May basket. I found to my dismay that I was more artistically talented in third grade than I am now. So I looked on the internet and then looked around the house and realized that I don’t need to make baskets from construction paper, I have plenty of regular baskets that I’ve accumulated over the years.

I mentioned this idea to my friend in Montana, and she said her mother (grandmother?) used to give out baskets of flowers on May Day, and that she herself often gives flowers on May Day, following the tradition. Flowers? I had never heard of flowers for May baskets. We always just filled them with candy. But why not branch out?

Of course I immediately thought of books. I found good matches for everyone, fine little gift books: a book of zen haiku, a little book of yoga, a spiritual book, a nature book, a book on sacred numbers. Some Mardi Gras beads to add a little sparkle. A couple of shells, a beautiful rock, a totem animal. And of course, the requisite edibles: Cracker Jacks, little Hershey bars (a couple of Mr. Goodbars and Krackels didn’t make it to the baskets), Dove dark chocolate, Life Savers, and Reese’s peanut butter cups. I think there might have been something remotely healthy as well, but I seem to be repressing it. Flowers on top, wrapped with a ribbon.

We put the baskets together last night and added the flowers this morning. I thought distributing the baskets would be fun, but I didn’t realize how very much fun it would be. I first snuck over to my neighbor to the south. I crouched down and scuttled in front of his windows, studiously avoiding looking at the house (apparently I reverted right back to that childhood sense of if I can’t see you, you can’t see me). I arranged it on the porch, rang the bell, and ran. We watched from the front of our house to see if he came to the door. He did, and immediately looked at our house and yelled something. I crawled out of the room in an effort to preserve my anonymity. I’m hoping he yelled “Happy May Day.”

My spouse did the delivery to our neighbor across the alley. I went as far as the garage, in encouragement (this was a lifetime first for him!). Smooth as silk—up to the door he goes, arranges the basket, knocks on the door, hears the dog in the house respond, and makes a quick getaway. We watched from the kitchen this time. There she is! Success!

The others were down the block so we nonchalantly strolled over with our baskets. Both were delivered to no response that we saw (because we ran away of course) but they were gone an hour later. Walking back to the house after the final delivery, we laughed about how much fun it was. The adventure in being sneaky. The joy of giving. The fun of trying not to get caught.

I was so jazzed, I drank half as much coffee as usual and then made a hearty breakfast of fried potatoes and egg. Maybe I should go out running every morning!

I will not be at all surprised if we do May baskets again next year. What a fun way to start the day.

Happy May Day!