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?

Reading Geography

As February ends, I start looking ahead to the March book theme—geography. So broad as to be overwhelming, even if one limits oneself to one’s own books. (For those of you who don’t follow my reading proclivities, I have a lot of books—a few thousand. The book themes serve to bring some of the older titles to the head of the class, and I’ve discovered some gems.)

Back to topic: Geography. Going through the books I had pulled off the shelves (without a thorough scan) I found a lot of America. So I’ve decided to focus on America for the geography theme (all of a sudden I had a throwback to sixth-grade, where I decided to focus on Fort Snelling for my history theme project—don’t know where to go with that but remind you I’m in Minnesota, which is home to Fort Snelling, which we visited when I was a kid).

I’ve already started a nonfiction book in the March Geography theme. I finished a nonfiction book a few days ago, and towards the end of the month, I always like to move ahead into the next theme. As I perused titles, I noticed America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth. I’ve a keen interest in economics and the balance of consumerism and sustainability. I’m not against buying things, but living in our consumer culture (70% of the U.S. economy is based on consumption), which is basically just getting people to buy more things, has gotten a bit over the top for me. So I’m interested in different economic models (anything downwards of 70% is a good start).

And that, really, was the start of the America theme. Also in the nonfiction arena that pulled me in this direction:

  • What Is America? Ronald Wright
  • Janesville: An American Story, Amy Goldstein
  • Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, Stephen G. Bloom
  • Heartland, Sarah Smarsh
  • Still Life in Harlem, Eddy L. Harris
  • American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever
  • American Wasteland, Jonathan Bloom

Fiction also has a number of stars. I am looking forward to:

  • Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
  • The Kingdom of Ohio, Matthew Flaming
  • Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal
  • An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Poetry is also falling into my subtheme, at least a little bit, with:

  • American Smooth, Rita Dove
  • American Primitive, Mary Oliver
  • The San Francisco Haiku Anthology

So I have decided to focus on America for the March reading theme; no generic city, country, state or territory (that could be its own theme for sure).

But America gets old, and I’d like to take a vacation or two. I have several options:

  • Versailles, Kathryn Davis
  • Murder in the Marais, Cara Black
  • The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi
  • A Palestine Affair, Jonathan Wilson
  • South Pole Station, Ashley Shelby
  • The Rain in Portugal, Billy Collins

March looks promising. Thirty-one days. So long compared to February. And every day, three more minutes of sunlight. Happy reading all—spring is around the corner!

Summer Remembered (Haiku)

Today for the first time I toyed with getting out my winter coat. Oh, not until at least November, please.

This seems like a really good time to recall the haiku of summer. (Yes, I’m still doing The Haiku Postcard Project—I write a haiku every day and send it to my friend in Montana. I started in 2013. I never thought I would continue it so long, but I still love it, so why stop?)

Summer haiku:

June

south side of the house
blooming milkweed and cactus
postage stamp Eden

the soul is willing
but the hands will not obey
there’s still no cooking

all night toss and turn
temp still 89 degrees
the fan blows hot air

July

sitting still writing
at the dining room table
with the ceiling fan

reading poetry
on a summer afternoon
cool running water

the oppressive heat
sucks the air out of the room
sweet hotel relief

so many monarchs
sailing around the backyard
induce happiness

a phone scrap with Mom
it felt just like the old days
a little bit fun

four fledging cardinals
flopping around the dogwoods
trying on their wings

August

orchard watering
snaking the hose twixt the trees
weaving in and out

fresh raspberry pie
one of life’s greatest delights
on such a hot day

when cicada sings
the peaches are nearly ripe
siren insect song

across the trash can
the intricate spider web
glistens in the sun

So there you have it. A summer snapshot through haiku.

It’s a very fun and surprisingly gratifying thing to do, a haiku postcard project. Doubly fun if you have a friend who enjoys getting them.

A small way of paying attention to life.

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.

Black History Month Reading: Day 14

I’m close to finishing Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair (one chapter left to go) and have pretty much loved it. The thing about Phoebe Robinson is that you (or at least I) feel like she’s standing right there talking to you. She’s funny, direct, and honest. First off, I learned a lot about hair. Black hair in general and women’s in particular. You might not care about this, but I found it fascinating, and it has given me a new appreciation (and the occasional silent wow) for black women’s hair. Don’t touch it. Don’t ask to touch it.

Moving beyond hair, Robinson addresses stereotypes, or what she calls the monolith of black, which I totally got when I read:

Blackness is not a monolith. There’s nerdy black, jock black, manic pixie dream black, sassy black, shy black, conscious black, hipster black . . . the list goes on and on.”

After a nanosecond of introspection, I realized I have a bit of this monolith perspective myself. (This comes up in many of the books I’m reading—the perceptions, the expectations, the stereotypes. My eyes are opening a bit. I read on.)

Because I am an introvert and tend to analyze everything social, this, in particular resonated with me:

I don’t know about other black people, but that Greek chorus of “But what will the white people think?” has been a constant in my brain for much of my life. “Man, I truly am going to be late, not because of CPT but because of traffic. But what will the white people think?” “I really want to order certain food off this menu at dinner. But what will the white people think?” “I want to speak out about some injustice I just witnessed. But what will the white people think? That I’m a troublemaker? Guess I should keep my mouth shut.” Do you know the amount of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years that have been wasted second-guessing each and every behavior because I was wary of how I was going to reinforce or dismantle certain stereotypes?”

This is an excellent book, and I haven’t included any of the funny bits, some of which were quite exceptionally funny.

After You Can’t Touch My Hair, I decided maybe a little balance with the old school was in order, so I pulled out bell hooks and Alice Walker. I thumbed through both, decided on Alice Walker, and life was good. But then I went Stop! Why go old school? Why not read another up-and-coming (or at least on my bookshelves for less than a decade) author? So I put Ms. Walker back and pulled Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light off the shelf.

I’m not dismissing Alice Walker or any of her peers, but I think it’s time for me to get in touch with a younger generation of writers. Smith is Poet Laureate of the United States, and I’ve read a bit of her poetry, but Ordinary Light is a memoir, the story of “a young woman [born 1972] struggling to fashion her own understanding of belief, loss, history, and what it means to be black in America.”

I am beginning to begin to understand just a wee bit of what it means to be black in America.

In the fiction world, I loved The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon. Here is what you have: a girl all about science, a boy who writes poetry. She is a Jamaican immigrant scheduled to be deported at the end of the day. He is a Korean American, the younger son, destined to become a doctor. Science meets poetry. This YA book is a wonder on many levels. First of all, it has physics and multiverses (one of my pet physics theories and my own preferred explanation of infinity), and then you add poetry and I’m a goner. So much more—lawyers, parental issues, family angst… I won’t say more except that I laughed out loud, cried (more than once), and loved it.

In the world of poetry, I have moved on to Sonia Sanchez, Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums. A beautiful book I want to read slowly but can’t. I will leave you with this:

love between us is
speech and breath, loving you is
a long river running

 –Sonia Sanchez

 Happy Valentine’s Day!