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!

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Fifty Words (no more, no less)

My friend Jami in Colorado was recently telling me about an exercise she did for work. It’s a small company (< 10 employees), and a new person was coming on board. As part of the introductory process, each staff member wrote a 50-word autobiography. Exactly 50 words. (This is 50.)

This was not to take a long period of time. Less than 10 minutes, I think. Could it have possibly been 2 minutes? (I can barely count to 50 in 2 minutes, not if I think about each of the numbers, and how they look and feel.) Unless you’re doing this on a computer (which I was not envisioning happening in this exercise; for some reason I only thought pencil and paper), how could you possibly do this even remotely quickly, making sense and getting exactly 50?

And then I hit on it: verse. Ten 5-word lines. Here is what I came up with in about 4 minutes:

They called me Psycho Liz
I was that into psychology
Eventually I got a Ph.D.

Roommates, marriage, roommates, lover, marriage
I very rarely live alone
though I always love it

I thought I couldn’t love
then I met my match
it’s practically happy ever after

(he outlasts me in bookstores)

It was quite fun. Invigorating, even. Go ahead, try it yourself. (You don’t have to use the verse form.)

Doing it in a short time span is key. You don’t want to mull, cross out, rewrite, or start over. Some would call it stream of consciousness. I felt more like a bulldozer—just keep going, just keep going, five more, five more, up to 50, done.

I am thinking this could be a good format for pretty much anything you might want to capture: vacation moments, childhood memories, obsessions, happiness, fear. I found it a little fascinating, and I encourage you to try it to see if you experience same.

Choose your own topic (I have several I want to try). I’d love to hear back if anyone finds this as fun and fascinating as I do.

A Basket of Happiness

It is not so very often I start out loving a book. I started to love this book before I even got to page 1. In the introduction to Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, Kathleen Dean Moore writes:

This book moves from gladness to sorrow, as life often does, and climbs through what might be prayer or a kind of stillness, to restored meaning and hope, to peace, maybe even to celebration and the courage to be glad again.

I had set out to write a different book. I had begun to write about happiness.”

I have moved past the first part of the book, Gladness, and am now immersed in Solace. Yet a part of the gladness holds on: Moore’s concept of the happy basket.

It started as an experiment. She decided to start keeping notes of when she found herself extremely happy, “happy in that deep-down, exhaling, head-back way.” She decided to keep a basket—the happy basket—to collect these notes of what she was doing at the time she experienced these deep happy moments. The experiment was to last a year, but she cheated after about 8 months and looked. Here were some of her happy moments:

Rain, after no rain. And company for dinner, after a long time without seeing friends.

Phone message from Erin. Nothing to say, really, but she sounded content. She had a good day. I could tell by her voice she was healthy. This makes a mother glad.

Frank and I held hands in bed last night, as we often do. We lay on our backs and held hands. This makes me happy, feeling the warmth and strength of him beside me.

Walking fast in the morning, down the path to the bridge.

A patch of sun and a glass of wine after work.

She wanted to analyze the happy moments—look for patterns, possible trends. What she found was that “Almost all the happy moments take place in a pause, a slowing down from job and routine.” She also found that happiness isn’t really the opposite of sadness—she found an odd relationship between sadness and happiness, but not necessarily oppositional. She wonders “if the opposite of happiness might be something else—meaninglessness, maybe, or emptiness.” I find that worth a good ponder.

I love the concept of tracking happy moments, and I know exactly those moments of which she speaks. My description would be somewhat different: You are filled with a sense of exuberance, of awe—wonder at the universe, at nature, at your wonderful luck in life.

So I decided to do the happy basket thing, but it took several days before I had one of those truly happy moments (I feared that the basket would be empty at the end of the year, but my fears were for naught). I had one of those moments yesterday. I wrote it down, along with the date and time, on a scrap of paper. Today, I found a basket to use and a place to set it. And now there are two scraps of paper in the basket.

Can you possibly not want to do it? I am going into the project assuming that almost all my happy moments will be in nature. Based on my two measly current scraps, however, I’m thinking “almost all” might be overstated. But, the data are young and the basket is large, and I am going to the end of the year.

Do you really know what makes you happy? Do you want to find out, or at least get a clue?

And really, why not? Like a gratitude journal, a happiness basket can do no harm. And even though it would be cheating, if you’re partway through the year and hit a rough spot, reading a few scraps from the basket might give you an insight, or at least a lift.

Maybe. I don’t know. I just started today. I think I know a few things about myself. But I think this fun and easy project might teach me a lot about myself that I don’t realize.

And who couldn’t use a little more happiness in their life?

The Changing of the (book theme) Guard

As March turns to April, the book theme turns from Literary Forms to Emotions.

Literary Forms was a lot of fun. Within the titles of the books I read were white papers, an autobiography, fieldnotes, an elegy, two tales, myths, a manual, riddles, a journal, a field guide, questions, short poems, footnotes, letters, and a lexicon. It was a great reading month, with several notable books.

The Autobiography of Foudini M. Cat, by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, is a silly cat book. It is one cat’s autobiography, written for the young new cat in the house, to share his wisdom (and also because he kind of likes her, even though she’s young and silly). I always snort when I run across these books, but somehow they end up on my shelves. I ignore them for years, and then I am reading one. Honestly, I pulled it off my own shelf and thought “a stupid cat book, I almost certainly won’t read it; not with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas also in the pile” but then I read the back and the first paragraph and the first page and then several more and there you have it.

Hillbilly Elegy was another significant read of March. I was hoping it would give me a lot of answers to questions I have about our cultural landscape and current trends. I learned a lot; mostly that it was silly to expect the answer in one book. But I did feel like I got a piece of the puzzle.

A surprise star book of the month was Flat Rock Journal, by Peter Carey. This journal is one day, spent in the Ozarks—all very close to home (the book starts on his back deck, and from there he only walks). The connection to nature is deep—watching lizards on a tree, the songs of frogs, loving a thunderstorm. There are some flaky moments. Do you think we can talk to trees? Actually, I do rather think we can talk to trees, so just know that there are flakier things than that.

However, Flat Rock Journal did remind me of the primacy of nature, and how grounding and restorative it can be. I would even go so far as to say healing. And that gives me hope. Which leads me to the April reading topic of emotions.

Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit, is high on my list of books to read for the emotion theme. So is The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin; Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life, by bell hooks; Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver; and Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton. Today I started Happiness: The Nature and Nurture of Joy and Contentment, by David Lykken (note: the author is involved in the University of Minnesota twins study, an unbelievable long-term gold mine of information; the local connection, good data, and inclusion of humor made this the second theme book I started for the month).

The first theme book was Calm Surrender, by Kent Nerburn; a book about forgiveness. I pulled it off the shelf for the calm aspect, and when I looked closer and saw it’s mostly about forgiveness, I almost put it back, since forgiveness wasn’t really high on my interest radar. But I like this guy (I’ve read a couple of his other books), he’s local (Minnesota), and I found almost every page I randomly turned to interesting, intriguing, or compelling. Who knows, maybe a post on forgiveness will be in my future.

In the fiction arena (not a strong suit for me of late), I was really excited to run across Where Angels Fear to Tread, by E.M. Forster. That is definitely at the top of the list. Others of high interest: Joyland, by Stephen King, Empathy, by Sarah Schulman, and The Joy of the Game, Michael Shara.

I was a bit surprised at the paucity of breadth of emotion in my poetry collection. So many books of love and desire; multitudes of books of joy or desire. But also a few further afield: disappointment, consolation, longing, tenderness, eros.

Other emotions I’ve found on the shelves: compassion, yearning, shame, lonely, envy, grief, neglected, sorrow, brokenhearted, bitter, affection, pleasure.

A world of emotions, just in book titles. Do it! Go scan your shelves! Who knows?

Plant Dreaming Deep

It was five years before the plum trees I had planted flowered, five years before the oriole came back to weave his flame in and out of the clusters of white. I shall soon have been planted here myself for ten years, and I have a sense that the real flowering is still to come, and all I have experienced so far only a beginning. . . .

Now the adventure before me siezes me in the night and keeps me awake sometimes. Growing old . . . why, in this civilization, do we treat it as a disaster, valuing, as we do, the woman who ‘stays young’? Why ‘stay young’ when adventure lies in change and growth?

It is only past the meridian of fifty that one can believe that the universal sentence of death applies to oneself. At twenty we are immortal; at fifty we are too caught up in life to think much about the end, but from about fifty-five on the inmost quality of life changes because of this knowledge.”

–May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

While I’m going through a bit of a writing drought, I am at no loss for good reading material. I am going to start posting some of my favorite passages, hoping to introduce people to books they may not have discovered or considered.

This is the passage that gave me the idea:

Something happens to you in an old-growth forest. At first you are curious to see the tremendous girth and height of the trees, and you sally forth, eager. You start to saunter, then amble, slower and slower, first like a fox and then an armadillo and then a tortoise, until you are trudging at the pace of an earthworm, and then even slower, the pace of a sassafras leaf’s turning.”

—Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood won the American Book Award. This is the third Janisse Ray book that I’ve read (The Seed Underground and Pinhook being the first two), and I am quite enjoying immersing myself in southeast Georgia.

I’ll still write my longer posts, just not quite as frequently for now. But there will be some.

And there will be the books. Always the books.

April Reprise

The rhubarb is ready to pick. The lilacs are starting to bloom. The catnip is a major personality in the herb garden, and the lemon balm is most decidedly coming back this year (last year was pretty iffy). Both sage plants are in full green and growing, and the raspberries seem intent on marching through the yard. I confess I cannot stop them. I will happily take a detour to allow the rampant raspberry.

Bookishly, I read 10 books in April. Another month heavy on nonfiction (5 of 10; 3 fiction; 2 poetry). The book I loved most was Plant Dreaming Deep, by May Sarton (memoir). I’ve read several of Sarton’s journals in higgledy-piggledy order, but this is a memoir and a prelude to the journals. I’m hoping to read all of them (in order) in the next year or so. Sometimes things call, and these books are calling to me.

My major reading accomplishment, though, was finishing The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thank goodness I was reading this with a couple of friends, or I doubt I would have made it to the end. It’s about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as the journalists of the time (and most notably Ida Tarbell). I certainly learned a lot reading it, but I wasn’t as engaged as I have been with some of her earlier works (most notably Team of Rivals, featuring Abraham Lincoln). We all heaved a sigh of relief at our last discussion and decided to stay away from books with political themes for the foreseeable future.

One of the best things about April is the ongoing influx of migrating birds. I added 30 birds to my year list, including a variety of ducks, but also Eastern Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Pileated Woodpecker, Great-Horned Owl, and American Pelican. Of these, both the pileated and the pelican were seen from my yard, giving me a fairly respectable yard list this year. The pelicans were not new to my yard list, but this is the first time I have seen so many. They were kettling high in the sky—I only ran across them because I was scanning treetops with my binoculars and there they were. My other notable sighting for the month was a Belted Kingfisher. These are not uncommon in Minnesota, but I saw not a single one last year, so I was exceedingly pleased to see one a couple weeks ago, and not far from my house at that!

In the herb world, a few weeks ago my herbal friend in California sent me a hot rub that was so effective on the arthritis in my foot that I decided to have a go at making my own Minnesota version. It includes hops, chamomile, rosemary, cayenne, and turmeric. Half is macerating in grapeseed oil and half in canola oil. I am just starting to experiment with different carrier oils (up until now, I’ve used olive oil almost exclusively). It won’t be ready to decant for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I decided to try another version, with minced ginger (along with chamomile, cayenne, and turmeric) and this went in olive oil. I will have much to compare and contrast in a month or so. Warning: If you make your own version of this, do wash your hands immediately after application and keep away from eyes and sensitive tissues. The cayenne can cause serious discomfort!

Cooking was not a high priority in April but I did have one quite excellent cooking experience. I was at a neighborhood restaurant and noticed orzo-tangelo-thyme salad on the menu. It looked delicious and I decided to try making it at home—it seemed so simple. And it was! Take some cooked orzo, add some zest from a tangelo (I couldn’t find a tangelo so I used a tangerine)—enough to add some pretty color but not to overwhelm. Add as much juice from the tangelo as you like to the salad, until it reaches a pleasing consistency. (I only used a cup of cooked orzo, and added the juice of half a tangerine—next time I will make a much larger batch!) Add fresh chopped thyme.

(Note: If chopping fresh herbs stymies you because the herbs always bend instead of getting cut by the knife, you probably need a sharper knife. I had completely given up on chopping fresh herbs with a knife and tore them up by hand for years, until a few months ago I invested in a fairly decent and small chef’s knife. The smaller knife fits better in my hand, and whether it’s the control or the sharpness of the knife, when I tried chopping the fresh thyme with this knife, it was like magic.)

Add enough thyme so the salad has a nice mix of orange and green. Taste, of course, and add more thyme as desired. Mix all together and serve with pretty much anything. It worked equally well with pork roast and sausages, and also makes a fine light lunch on a hot day.

My haiku postcard project continues. April highlights:

the nice sunny day
turns into a short blizzard
April’s lion side

not a house sparrow
skittering in the dogwoods
white-throated sparrow!

Plus the occasional tanka:

such a loud drumming
pileated woodpecker
I couldn’t find it
until it flew from the tree
so big yet so elusive

Happy reading, happy birding, happy spring. Is there a better time to be alive?