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.

Advertisements

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?

Extra Innings: Not about Baseball

InningsI recently read Extra Innings by Doris Grumbach. This is the second of five memoirs that she’s published (though I found an article in The American Scholar that included an essay, “The View from 90” by Grumbach, which noted that the essay is part of a larger memoir, Downhill Almost All the Way, so hopefully the future holds at least one more memoir from this lovely, occasionally irascible woman).

For some reason I did not bother to read these in order, which is often a liability with memoirs. If I remember correctly, it is because I first stumbled upon her book Fifty Days of Solitude which I absolutely loved. I then read Life in a Day, which I also loved, and I’m not sure where in there I read Coming into the End Zone, which was her first memoir.

Extra Innings follows up two years later, and a bit of the book is about the reviews and responses to her first memoir. The overwhelming response that she noted was reviewers calling her grumpy or cranky, suggesting that perhaps she was not growing old as gracefully (or thankfully) as she should. I was surprised, because I didn’t remember having that feeling at all after reading any of her books. Certainly she’s not all chipper and spice; she’s direct and to the point, and calls shit shit (though not in such a vulgar manner). And she has a fine, sardonic sense of humor. I loved where relatively early in Extra Innings, a friend writes to say that she went to a bookstore to get her (previous) memoir, Coming into the End Zone, which they had in stock but couldn’t find on the nonfiction shelf. Her friend finally found it in the Sports section. A friend from New York sent her a postcard: “Loved your football book.” Grumbach muses:

There is a lesson in all this. Mary McCarthy once told me she was very good at naming books, as indeed she was: she provided me with the name for the biography I wrote of her, The Company She Kept, to echo the title of her own book, The Company She Keeps. On the contrary, I have a genius for misnaming books. Chamber Music [a novel] found itself on the Music shelves of bookstores, The Missing Person, a novel about Hollywood in the silent days, ended up among the Mysteries, and now there is my new football book. . . .”

This made me laugh out loud.

Another thing I love about Doris Grumbach: She loves words. Reading the recommendations in a book, Plain Words, first published in 1954, she notes that one is advised to use ‘get’ or ‘buy’ or ‘win’ rather than ‘acquire’; ‘rich’ rather than ‘affluent’; and ‘near’ rather than ‘adjacent.’ I couldn’t disagree more! For one thing, there is more at stake here than plainness, there is detail and accuracy, the conveyance of information. I have two neighbors adjacent to my house, but I would call at least 10 additional houses ‘near.’ The two words convey different information. Plainness is not a virtue if you lose detail and depth. Grumbach is not convinced that plain words are the answer, as you can tell in her writing—rich and diverse, with many words that call for a dictionary at hand.

Also in the world of words, later in the book she makes note of mistaken definitions—words that you thought you knew the meaning of, and then find out they mean something completely different. (I find this experience both embarrassing and exhilarating.) Two examples she gives: ‘pericope’ (which she thought was a variation of a word for a sea instrument, but instead it is an extract or section from a book); and ‘alewife,’ which she knew was a woman who ran a pub, but it is also a type of fish.

I have similar word experiences as I expect we all do. I always think ‘laconic’ means slow and/or lazy; lackadaisical. A laconic speech would be a slow,
meandering one. Wrong! Laconic means brief, concise, terse, or short. The satyrsexact opposite! And I always think ‘limpid’ means limp and having no depth, but in fact it means perfectly clear or transparent. I recently found out that ‘sartorial’ has nothing to do with goats or celebrations involving wine, but refers to tailors and clothing.

And this is why I loved Extra Innings. Grumbach always sends me down some garden path or another.

Any other examples of mistaken definitions out there?