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?

Orchard Exuberance

The robin is singing in the backyard, exuberant. Nudging me. Having nothing to do with this post (already titled before the song), the song has finally put my hand to the keyboard, as I was stymied how to begin.

It started when we went to a neighborhood event, and among all the various opportunities, my spouse wanted to volunteer to help with the neighborhood orchard. Sign me up, I said.

I am not particularly fond of getting together with a lot of people I don’t know, especially if all we’re doing is sitting around and chatting. I opted out of an initial planning meeting, but when the opportunity for actual orchard maintenance came up, I was definitely interested. Our first activity: pruning.

We started at noon on Sunday (earlier, if you got the message that coffee and snacks were being provided by the church across the street). And this was one piece of the magic, or exuberance, of the day. When we arrived, there was fruit, breads, cookies, and coffee, spread out on a table in front of the church. Spouse introduced me to people he knew (from the meeting I avoided) and I was stunned.

I was totally comfortable.

It is pretty much completely unheard of for me to be comfortable in a group of strangers. I’m still processing it.

There were about 25 of us (way more than expected), mostly guys (which surprised me). I have never in my life felt comfortable drifting from small group to small group, but unbelievably, I did. I don’t know if it’s the common goal, or that all these people love trees, or if it’s the trees themselves. Perhaps all of the above.

When we moved across the street to the orchard, we stood in a circle and introduced ourselves: neighbors across the street, people in the neighborhood, a bunch of people knowledgeable about fruit trees, a bunch that didn’t know so much, and a whole lot of enthusiasm.

One of the older men in the group suggested that if you really want to get to know trees, here’s your chance. Stop by the orchard at least every two weeks. Not a drive-by visit. A stop and park the car and spend some time with the trees visit. It is not so often you get the opportunity to shape a young orchard, or even to engage in its long-term growth. I plan to visit the orchard frequently. I have a great fondness for trees, and while I find most trees grounding, there’s something about fruit trees (even very young ones) that makes me a little giddy.

We spent a bit of time as a group around a tree, discussing pruning, examples, try it yourself, questions, etc. Again, I felt so comfortable. I asked several questions and was also able to just let go of social stress and think about what would work best for the tree.

Aha, there it is. It is the tree after all. I love trees and I have happened upon a community of tree lovers. It was a lovely contagious afternoon—trees, joy, purpose, camaraderie, and a good bit of fun.

The pruning of these little trees was a bit more challenging than I had expected (learned a lot). We will have a mission regarding blossoms in the later spring, watering through the summer, and mulching in the fall.

I like tending an orchard. This little orchard is an experiment in Minneapolis. If we can make it work, just imagine: neighborhood orchards everywhere. Why not?

Apples and Books

HaralsonA couple of social days in a row have worn this introvert out, even though both of my friends are introverts.

Wednesday I went with my friend Nancy on an apple orchard outing. We visited four of them! I’ve been on an applesauce kick, so I stocked up: half a peck each of Haralsons and SnowSweets, a full peck of a mix of Haralsons, Honeycrisp, and SweeTango; and two Honeygolds (that taste very much like pears, which I thought would make a very interesting applesauce).

Applesauce is easy peasy to make. Take your apples, core them, cut in chunks (I usually do quarters, then halve the quarters, and then cut crosswise). I leave the skins on because I like the added crunch (and the good stuff in the skin), but I make the pieces smaller than most applesauceapplesauce recipes because that seems to work better with the skins. Put in a large saucepan, add about 1/3 cup water per four large apples, bring to a boil over high heat, turn down to low, stir every five minutes or so, and add more water if the water totally disappears at the bottom or it seems to be getting too thick for your taste. When the apples are soft, it is done (usually 10-30 minutes, depending on how many apples). I use a potato masher because I prefer a lumpy applesauce, and I try to remember to add cinnamon before I put it in the jars.

CookedAfter the apple orchards we stopped for a beer and more talking and catching up. When we got around to books, Nancy asked if I had any interest in reading Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked, together. Oh yes! We did this a few years ago with Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, read a chapter a week and discussed it throughly, often page by page. We are not as geographically close now and weekly is probably not practical, but we will still read the book in chunks and meet as we progress. It is a very fun—and deep—way to read a book.

Then on Thursday I got together with Sheila and among other things, we finalized our monthly book themes for next year. There are no rules around this, except that you read at least one book related to the theme each month. Usually most of my reading relates to the theme (particularly poetry—I find the this approach a great way to find some of the poetry books that have been waiting for years to be read). I tend to want the theme reflected in the title of the book, while Sheila is more interested in its reflecting the content of the book. I’m afraid this says something really shallow about me, but sometimes I can be rigid, and I like being rigid in this particular way. Here are the themes we’ve chosen for 2015:

  • January—Year
  • February—Love
  • March—Number
  • April—Spiritual
  • May—Color
  • June—Award Winners (repeat from 2014)
  • July—Roads & highways
  • August—Time (repeat from 2014)
  • September—Academic/education
  • October—Scary/haunted
  • November—Food
  • December—Literary Characters

One of the best things about the reading theme is that I pull books off the shelf that I bought years ago. Books I bought with good intention and then never got around to; new things came in, and now they’ve been languishing, sometimes for decades (one, Sara Crewe by Frances Hodgson Burnett, for 40 years!). The monthly reading theme levels the playing field in a way; the new books no longer rule the roost.

For someone who has tended to buy more books than they read, it’s a refreshing change of pace.

July Reprise

July is usually the hottest month in Minnesota, but this July was pleasantly mild, with very few really hot days. This made for a good mix of hanging out on the front porch reading and puttering about in the garden.

I read 16 books in July, mostly fiction (6) and poetry (6). But the two best books of the month were nonfiction (and both will likely make my Best Books of 2014 list—these are books I read in 2014, not books published in 2014).

Sweet CornMy favorite favorite, and one that will likely be in the top five at the end of the year, was Turn Here Sweet Corn, by Atina Diffley. This is the story of the Gardens of Eagan, a local organic farm in Dakota County (one of the counties in the Twin Cities metro area). I loved it for the local angle, of course, but I would have loved it regardless. Diffley is a good writer and passionate about soil, land, nature, and organic produce. She communes with nature. She is practically a force of nature herself. Who else could (or would) take on the Koch Brothers?

After losing their land to development in Eagan, Gardens of Eagan relocated to nearby Eureka. Just after they had really gotten established in their new location, they received notice that the Koch Brothers were planning an oil pipeline right through their prime fields, including their prized kale field. Eminent domain. Pipeline companies don’t change routes. Diffley says:

Maybe it is historically true that pipeline companies don’t change routes for landowners. But this time they have picked the wrong plant, on the wrong farm, the wrong woman, and the wrong community.

The Diffleys won. But that is only a small part of the book. There is so much here, I just want everyone to read it. A high recommend!

MuirThe second excellent book of July was My First Summer in the Sierra, by John Muir. This is a book I bought 25 years ago, June 19, 1989, and am only now getting around to reading. It was worth the wait. Immerse yourself in love of nature and mountains and an insatiable curiosity, all wrapped around a poet’s heart. “Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.”

I mentioned the garden. We had a good raspberry crop this year, and I’ve harvested currants and a few cucumbers and tomatoes (I only have two of each plant). I’ve also got basil, thyme, rosemary, chamomile, calendula, and lemon balm. I’m drying the chamomile and calendula flowers, and have used the lemon balm to make an insect repellant (it’s still macerating in witch hazel, but I will let you know if it’s even remotely effective).

Also in the herbal world, I put up a tincture of sage (which will be useful primarily for night sweats, but also cold and flu).

In the writing world, I launched the Obama postcard project (wherein I send him a postcard each week) and July being so long resulted in five postcards to Obama. Here is the first one: Dear President Obama, Earned income is taxed at higher rates than unearned income. Doesn’t this seem wrong? Or even backwards?

I’ve also continued my regular haiku project—for the 9th month! A lot of them reflect the beautiful weather:

a gorgeous cool day
    outdoor chores are a pleasure
clipping the wild trees

Some of them focus on the explosion of life that is July:

robin convention
    baby squirrels and rabbits
I watch for hours

I have never seen so many monarch butterflies as I have this year. And I have seen two caterpillarmonarch caterpillars on my swamp milkweed and I’m absolutely thrilled. I don’t think I saw but one monarch butterfly last year, and this year I see them almost daily! Also, a beautiful yellow swallowtail butterfly has been frequenting the front yard. Is it possible to see a butterfly and not smile?

On the activist front, I’ve been contacting my representatives, talking to others, and blogging about finding the $1.1 million needed for bird-safe glass for the new Vikings stadium that’s going up in east Minneapolis (a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River Flyway, a major route through North America for migrating birds, including our own state bird, the Common Loon).loon

I also got together with a lot of extroverts this month, and it has led to a very spirited discussion with my introvert friend Sheila about the dynamics of conversation. It seems like the ideal conversation between two people would be 50/50, each contributing about half. But with my extrovert friends, I often find myself with 20% of the conversation. I just can’t find a place to interject. And if I try, they just keep talking. I wonder if they would say an ideal conversation is them talking 80% of the time, or if 50% is a goal they’re working toward, or perhaps they think they talk 50% of the time.

Any extroverts out there?

The House by the Sea

I read May Sarton’s journal, The House by the Sea, earlier this month and oh! I had forgotten how much I love May Sarton—especially her journals. I read her Journal of a Solitude several years ago and while I remember loving it, the overwhelming remembrance that I carried over time is that she’s a curmudgeon. And yes, she certainly can be a curmudgeon (especially when woken from a nap by unexpected—and unwanted!—company) but she is also wonderfully introspective and refreshingly up-front about her perceived shortcomings.

She is also an introvert. One might even call her an introvert’s introvert. I completely seconded her comment at the end of one December:

[C]ome January first I am determined to batten myself down, tighten up, go inward. I feel the day must be marked by a change of rhythm, by some quiet act of self-determination and self-assertion. Everyone earns such a day after the outpourings of Christmas. We are overextended. Time to pull in the boundaries and lift the drawbridge.

This describes much of my January so far.

Every once in a while she has an observation or makes a statement that I just love: “At some point one has to make choices, one has to shut out the critical self and take the leap.”

I think I underlined that because I have just taken my leap—this year off to read and explore (yes—I underline in my books and sometimes I write in them too, and I frequently index them, even if they’re already indexed).

And then there is the May Sarton that makes me look forward to growing old: “There are as many ways of growing old as of being young, and one forgets that sometimes.” And this observation, on her 64th birthday, particularly makes me look forward to the coming decade: “I found myself saying to everyone, ‘Sixty-four is the best age I have ever been.’ And that is exactly what I feel.”

This is a book that I hugged to my chest when I completed it, I loved it so. And although it’s awfully early to predict, I’ll be surprised if it isn’t in my top 5 books of 2014. After the hug I went directly to Sixth Chamber Books (online) to see if they had the next journal, Recovering, but they do not. They have put me on a list. If you have a copy of Recovering that you want to get rid of, please sell it to Sixth Chamber. I’m waiting for a phone call.