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?

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.

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?

Sestina

ToeI mentioned in my March Reprise that I had read three particularly good poetry books last month, including one book (Eleventh Toe) that included one of the best sestinas I’ve read in years.

A sestina is a poetic form comprising six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line stanza.

Here’s the sestina I loved in Eleventh Toe. See if you can spot the pattern.

      May Day

We stopped at a restaurant for a drink.
The first of May, and we simply felt lucky
to be alive on that auspicious evening,
caressed by the hypnotically warm
air. In conspiracy, the handsome waiter
seated us at a table beside the open window.

The table linen was pristine. The window
faced the busy street where we could drink
in the cosmopolitan sights until the waiter
returned with wine and his lucky
green eyes. He drawled in seductive warm
tones, “You’re in for a perfect evening.”

An aria floated out through the evening
din, harmonic, until a man approached the window
spouting gravelly throat sounds and a cloying warm
smell. He’d clearly had too much to drink.
He slurred, “Ladies, yer gonna get lucky
tonight,” and glanced around for the waiter.

He fumbled in his pockets before the waiter
returned, producing a perfume labeled Evening
Stars. He sprayed an acrid poof. “For you lucky
ladies, five bucks.” He stumbled against the window.
The bump jostled the table and toppled my drink.
Red wine on my white skirt, bloody and warm.

“Shorry,” he leaned so close, I felt his warm
stinking breath on my face. Our waiter
snagged him roughly by the collar. “Drink
this!” the waiter spat and, heedless of the evening
traffic, shoved the man away from that window
which separated us, the safe and the lucky,

from the stunned, limping man who was only lucky
to be alive. The waiter with his green eyes and warm
smile shooed the shocked onlookers from the window,
people staring at me, as if I had coaxed the waiter
on. The man staggered away through the evening
crowd, looking for his next drink.

We felt a little less lucky to be sitting in the window
where the warm air set the red stain on our evening,
and the handsome waiter returned with a fresh drink.

—Julie Roorda

If the pattern didn’t leap out at you (I don’t know how many sestinas I read before I realized I was reading a rather complex form), look specifically at the end words. Compare the end words for each line through the poem. See the repetition? In a sestina as well-written as this one, which keeps pulling you forward, the pattern is easy to miss.

From the Academy of American Poets: the sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line stanza called an envoi (or tornada). The lines may be of any length, though in its initial incarnation, the sestina followed a syllabic restriction. The form is as follows, where each numeral indicates the stanza position and the letters represent end-words:

1. ABCDEF
2. FAEBDC
3. CFDABE
4. ECBFAD
5. DEACFB
6. BDFECA
7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

I have tried to write sestinas and have not met with an iota of success. Yet. I figure if I keep reading poetry and writing and living, maybe one day will be my day for the sestina. If you are interested in this form, here are a few more notable examples:

Sestina, by Elizabeth Bishop

Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape, by John Ashbery

Operation Memory, by David Lehman

Sestina: Like, by A. E. Stallings

New Year Haiku

I’m enjoying my new approach to haiku in 2015—focusing more on something in the day, something beautiful, something significant. (As opposed to more or less describing my day, which is what I’d been doing in 2014.) Perhaps, not surprisingly, I’m finding this a lot more fun. Here are a few examples:

January 1

sun on the window
as the bus rumbles along
warming my cold heart

January 2

what’s all this honking?
hundreds of Canada geese
not a car in sight

January 5

frozen for hours
I thought the rabbit was dead
then it hopped away

January 6

it’s below zero
but a long day with a friend
warms me from within

January 7

watching the backyard
flash of blue at the birdbath
first jay of the year

I hope your year is as beautiful!

December Reprise

December was an indoor month, with cooking and baking, writing Christmas cards and making Christmas gifts, and, unfortunately, the flu. I also read 15 books in December, 6 each of nonfiction and poetry, and 3 novels. Most of the books were mediocre (possibly due more to my mood and my busyness rather than the books themselves). The only book I feel compelled to rave about is The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons, and I’ve already written about it. But in case you missed that post, here is an additional poem from the book that I loved:

Crow Ride

When the crow
lands, the
tip of the sprung spruce

bough weighs
so low, the
system so friction-free,

the bobbing lasts
way past any
interest in the subject.

–A. R. Ammons

I love poetry that makes me laugh.

potatoesI did quite of a bit of cooking in December, but nothing new or challenging: ginger jam, applesauce, tuna hotdish (vastly improved with buttermilk), roasted red potatoes with rosemary, peanut butter cookies (with Hershey kisses), oatmeal raisin cookies, apple-cranberry crisp, spaghetti, chicken adobo, meatloaf, roasted vegetables, and red fruit salad. And I have indeed decided to go ahead with my “learn how to make one new thing each month” project, even though I haven’t identified the particular 12 items. I have only decided for certain on beef stroganoff for January. I do have a list of ideas, but I also like the idea of being flexible, leaving space for context, whimsy, and inspiration.

I didn’t do a lot of herbal work in December—merely decanted a few items (hops tincture, St. Johns’ Wort oil, and St. John’s Wort tincture). There were also herbs in a number of the Christmas gifts I made, but since we missed Christmas and the gifts are still to be given, and some of my family occasionally read this blog, I will not elaborate for now. Suffice it to say I had a very fine day of making and packaging gifts.

I continued the Haiku Project in December—my 14th month! I’ve enjoyed it so much I’ve decided to continue, and Lori (my Montana friend) has happily agreed to continue collecting them for me. I’m looking forward to growing my poetry in the coming year. I want to explore other poetry forms (starting with the triolet). I guess I will have to rename it the Poetry Postcard Project. As you might guess, I am particularly interested in short forms which lend themselves to postcards.

MNI’ve also continued the Obama postcard project (28 cards so far) and will definitely continue that in 2015. I think it’s important that our public officials hear from us, and if a few other people read your ideas along the way, all the better.

December was a month of minor mishaps: my car battery died (again), the dryer started making a horrible racket (now repaired), the cat peed on my chair, and we had the flu on Christmas Day.

snow treesThe biggest thing that happened in December was the Winter Solstice. Finally the days are getting longer, and I like to think that I can already notice it. We had a brown Christmas, but on December 27 we woke up to five inches of fluffy snow. Beautiful.

Still beautiful.

Tanka: Kind of Like Haiku

ChulaI addition to the villanelle and haiku, tanka is one of my favorite poetry forms. Like haiku, the tanka form comes from Japan. The tanka is similar to the haiku, but it is longer. Rather than the three-line (5-7-5) haiku, tanka has five lines (5-7-5-7-7).

Margaret Chula is one of my favorite tanka poets, and here is one of my favorite poems, from her book Always Filling Always Full:

now that fallen leaves
have left gaps between branches
of the copper beech
the cold light of the moon
enters our room unbeckoned

Sometimes I have so much to say about a day (or in this case a dream) that my daily haiku turns into a tanka. Here’s an example from August:

Dream

big dark house, empty
puzzle pieces on the floor
there must be thousands
I can’t help stepping on them
they are all turned upside down

And a couple of weeks ago, after a small temper tantrum when I slammed a drawer under the bed and it fell off the tracks so I couldn’t get it open, I penned this tanka:

in a fit of pique
I’ve slammed and jammed my pants drawer
no clean pants for me!
in a sorry stinky state
I learn this lesson, again

Many of my postcard missives to President Obama lend themselves to tanka. Here’s one from September:

convert a golf course
into an urban forest—
carbon reduction.
allotments and urban farms—
local food, local power

I’ve started a new book of tanka, Urban Tumbleweed, by Harryette Mullen. The author writes her tanka in three lines: “While embracing the notational spirit of this tradition, I depart from established convention in both languages [Japanese and English], choosing instead a flexible three-line form with a variable number of syllables per line.”

I’m not so sure how I feel about this. Or at least I’m not sure it’s really tanka. That said, some of the poems are lovely indeed. For example:

Instead of scanning newspaper headlines,
I spend the morning reading names
of flowers and trees in the botanical garden.

However, I find myself not picking the book up very much, because I want it to be tanka and it doesn’t feel like tanka. To be fair, she calls her work an adaptation of the traditional form. Perhaps I’m too rigid, but I just can’t wrap my head around three-line tanka.

On the other hand, it is not at all uncommon for writers in English to eschew the syllabic rules for both haiku and tanka. I understand why this would be the case when translating the forms, but I don’t quite understand why it’s so very common when penning them in English. We do, after all, have plenty of short words that lend themselves to short poems. But still, I find much more haiku (tanka is less common so I can’t generalize) departing from the form than adhering.

And on that note, I will close with another tanka from Always Filling Always Full.

alone and brooding
why do I think of you
—it’s the honeysuckle
and that uncertain slant
of early evening light