Why I won’t be moving anytime soon

Before we bought the house I am now in, I had moved twenty-five times in about as many years. For the first eight years of my life, my dad was in the Navy, so of course we moved every time he was transferred to a new duty station: to Nova Scotia, then Florida, then California, then Tennessee, criss-crossing the country. When he had shore duty, my mother and brother and I moved with him; when he was at sea, we returned to my grandparents’ house in Kentucky while we waited for his ship to return. At the early age of two, I learned to hold tight to my favorite doll on moving day and not lay her down even for a moment, lest she get packed into a box and disappear for a year or more.

Even after dad got out of the Navy, we continued to move every eighteen months, as though he were still receiving orders to ship out. Those were unhappy years for my parents, but I didn’t know that at the time. Usually we just moved from one rental house to another, so I didn’t have to change schools that often. But I must surely hold some kind of record for having lived in the most houses that have since been torn down and turned into parking lots. (When we used to go back to my hometown and I would point out the places where I used to live, my children thought I had actually lived in the parking lots.) There was the two-story house my grandparents owned on Jackson Street, the three-story mansion on Hamilton Street, the small frame house on Clayton Avenue that we rented from the college, the large farmhouse across the tracks, the two-story bungalow on Willis Avenue, and the one-story bungalow on Walnut Street. Possibly there were others that I am not aware of.

Now I find it almost impossible to believe that I have been in the same house since 1989. And it’s not because it was my dream house or anything. There are plenty of things not to like about this house. In fact, if I had known I would end up staying here so long, I would have bought a different house, one with more character, more yard, less suburbia. One with an actual garage that was attached to the driveway and not bizarrely located down the steps. I do like the wooded back lot, however. You’d think, though, that having moved so often in the past, I would have plunked my furniture down here and refused to move another thing. But instead, over the years I have completely rearranged the house numerous times. I’m not talking about moving the couch from one wall to the other. I’m talking about completely repurposing rooms over and over again. Maybe, like my dad, I’m still searching for something I can’t find, only within a smaller frame of reference.

Now that the children have grown, and it’s just the two of us most of the time, our latest plan is to turn the downstairs den into a space where we can hold old-time music jams and square-dance parties. But obviously, we won’t be dancing and playing music all the time, so I’d also like it to be a multi-purpose room, where we can sit by the wood stove and read or knit or work on projects. We need an open space for dancing, but we also need decent storage and work space for our projects. We need plenty of straight-backed chairs for musicians, but we also need comfy chairs for reading. We need a smooth surface for dancing, but we also need rugs for the coziness factor.

Last spring we hired a contractor to take out a wall (one we had actually put in ourselves years ago to make a bedroom for my older son when he was a teenager and needed to get away from his little brother). Before the contractor came, we had to move everything out of what had been a fairly traditional bedroom and a den (in the bedroom a queen-size bed, a dresser, a wardrobe, and large shelves full of boxes of things left behind by the boys when they moved out; in the living room a love seat, a rocking chair, a coffee table, a television and stand, shelves and shelves of books, a NordicTrack; and in the “hall” between the two a chest freezer and a four-drawer file cabinet). Now that the space has been cleared out, we are trying to be very thoughtful about what we move back in.

I have decided this challenge definitely requires a professional, so I have made an appointment with a designer this week. I have great hopes that he will be able to come up with an awesome plan. The same designer picked out a fabric for a wing chair I had reupholstered last summer, and I am loving it. It was exactly the right fabric, but I didn’t know it until I saw the chair next to my stone fireplace.

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Summer Reading

Note: Apparently I wrote this post last year but never published it. So here you go! It’s still mostly true.

I have very fond memories of the Busy Bee Summer Reading Program at the local public library when I was growing up. I especially enjoyed the requirement to read books in various categories that I might not read, left to my own devices—fantasy, science fiction, adventure, biography, travel, history—and I had no trouble reading enough books over a summer to fill out my card and then some. I would have been reading anyway, out on a blanket in the yard or up in the crotch of a tree or on the front-porch swing or in the musty reading room in the public library.

I devoured books, the way my mom had when she was young and would climb up on the garage roof to read, within easy reach of the ripe peaches. In fact, many of the books I enjoyed as a child were ones she had passed down to me—The Middle Moffat; Betsy and Tacy; Five Little Peppers and How They Grew; Little Women; Mary Poppins; The Little Colonel; The Boxcar Children—all with peach stains on the brittle and yellowing war-issue paper.

There is nothing like the feeling of escaping into a book on a lazy summer day, with all the time in the world and no real responsibilities. I still enjoy books, but it’s not the same as before. I generally don’t get “lost” in books the way I once did—with the possible exception of the Harry Potter books and a book called The Thirteenth Tale that my mother gave me, or the series about the girl with the dragon tattoo—and I seldom have the luxury of reading all day long like I did when I was young. Mostly those feelings are connected with a different time and place—before central air conditioning, before Internet, before life got complicated.

But I am a voracious and democratic reader, who always has way too many books going at once. I tend to read more nonfiction than fiction, but I still enjoy a good story about interesting characters. Here are the books I am currently reading:

  • Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D Seeley–This fascinating book is about how honeybee swarms choose a new home
  • Get Up Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite by Bruce E. Levine–I am hoping this book will at some point provide some inspiration and practical actions I can take, but so far it is just reminding me of all the problems that this country faces and how powerless I feel to solve them.
  • At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson–This book reminds me of Bryson’s earlier book, A Short History of Almost Everything
  • Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce by Cathy Thomas
  • Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain by Pete Egoscue with Roger Gittiner

Here are ones I completed most recently:

  • Hour Game by David Baldacci
  • How Did the Government Get in Your Backyard by Jeff Gillman and Eric Hererlig
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I don’t know why I can’t just read one book at a time until I’m finished and then start the next, except that I see interesting books on the new-book shelf at the library and know they won’t stay on that shelf forever, or friends recommend something, or I forgot to take the book I’m currently reading to work and then at lunch pick up whatever is lying around on the table in the break room. (Maybe the same reason I also have three knitting projects going at the moment: a baby hat for a friend at work, an afghan for a very belated wedding present for my younger son and his wife, and a shawl for myself from beautiful yarn that my son picked up for me in New Zealand.)

The Quest for the Perfect Hive (and Other Books I Read in 2011)

illustration of Neighbour's Improved Cottage Hive from  1878

Neighbour's Improved Cottage Hive (1878) is one of the hives discussed in The Quest for the Perfect Hive by Gene Kritsky

I just spent a wonderful weekend with my aunt, during which we spent much of our time talking about books we have read and books we want to read. We are both avid readers of “real books” and don’t believe the dire predictions that e-books will take over the market so that no more paper books will be published. I mean seriously, you can’t read your iPad in the bath tub. My aunt prefers extremely long, well-researched biographies and current history and politics with hundreds of footnotes, but she also read a couple novels in 2011, including several science fiction books written by Philip K Dick in the 1960s and 1970s that have been reissued by the Library of America.

After hearing about the books she has read, I decided to go back and see if I could remember what I read during 2011. My list is less focused than hers. Many of the books I read are ones that people gave me or that I ran across on the new book shelf at the library or picked up in the break room at work. Here are the books I was clever enough to have written down (otherwise, I’m not sure I would have remembered all these):

Fiction

  1. The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. (I listed to this one in the car on our trip to Kentucky to attend the Christmas Country Dance School in Berea.)
  2. Deception Point by Dan Brown (I picked this one up in the break room at work; a very enjoyable fast read, with lots of twists in the plot)
  3. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (This one I borrowed from a friend, who thought it was extremely funny. She had gotten it from her 94-year-old father. The story was about an old man who married a young woman and upset his children. Some of the story was quite funny but the overall situation perhaps reminded me a little too much of gold diggers we have known.)
  4. The Saturday Big Tent Wedding by Alexander McCall (One of the charming books about the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency. How can you go wrong?)
  5. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (I borrowed this one from my mom and really should return to her, but I loved it so much, I am tempted to hang on to it. Reading this book brought me close to the old feelings I used to get when I had the luxury of reading all day during the summers, up in a tree or on a blanket in the yard. I read Prodigal Summer basically in one setting. The novel “weaves together three stories of human love within a larger tapestry of lives inhabiting the forested mountains and struggling small farms of southern Appalachia.” I loved the characters, the setting, and the stories.)
  6. Hour Game by David Baldacci (I don’t usually read murder mysteries, but I picked this up in the break room at work and found myself hooked.)

Nonfiction

  1. Ghosts of the Bluegrass by James McCormick and Macy Wyatt. (This was a birthday gift from mom, written by two of my professors from college.)
  2. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. (I re-read this while at my mom’s.)
  3. I am America, and So Can You by Stephen Colbert. (We checked this CD out from the library and listened to it in short segments on the way to and from work each day. What a great way to take the stress out of a commute.)
  4. Dave Barry’s Book of Money Secrets: Like, Why is There a Giant Eyeball on the Dollar. (Another CD from the library that kept us laughing on our daily commutes to work.)
  5. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (I had read this one before but decided to read it again when my daughter-in-law brought it back after having borrowed it. Still seems odd to list it with the nonfiction.)
  6. Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise (I bought this one as a possible gift for my brother last Christmas, but didn’t get it in time, so I kept it and read it myself. Hey Skip, if you want your Christmas present now, just let me know. It was a good read.)
  7. Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (This was a birthday gift from mom, which I had put off reading for a while, because I thought it would be depressing. When I finally got around to reading it, though, I found the book very inspiring, even though the author writes about difficult subjects; I’d like to read more about her and about the topics she addresses; much to think about and try to figure out.)
  8. Four Seasons in Rome (This was a Christmas gift from mom, who thought I would enjoy the memoir about raising twin boys while trying to write a novel in a foreign country, and she was right about that; I’ve especially enjoyed the beautiful in-depth reflections on a city that I just barely met on a four-day trip with my son one Thanksgiving.)
  9. Hard Times Guide to Retirement by Mark Miller (Basically, the advice here was if you are lucky enough to still have a job during hard times, hold on to it and wait as long as possible to retire. Not was I was looking for.)
  10. Why Do Bees Buzz? By Elizabeth Capaldi Evans and Carol A. Butler (This book provided straightforward answers to lots of questions about bees, including: Do bees bleed? How do bees’ wings work? Do bees ever get fooled by predators? Do bees sleep? What is piping behavior? Not much of a plot, but interesting nevertheless.)
  11. The Quest for the Perfect Hive: A History of Innovation in Bee Culture by Gene Kritsky (This book traces the evolution of hive design from ancient Egypt to the present and includes illustrations of some fascinating designs used by beekeepers before the invention of the Langstroth hive, which has been in use for the last century.)
  12. One Year to an Organized Life by Regina Leeds (It’s been almost a year since I read the next four books, and my life is still not organized, but I haven’t given up hope.)
  13. The Fast and Furious Five Step Organizing Solution by Susan C. Pinsky
  14. House Works: How to Live Clean, Green, and Organized at Home by Cynthia Townley Ewer
  15. The Office Clutter Cure: Get Organized, Get Results! By Don Aslett
  16. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (I love Bryson’s books. In this one, he sets out to “write a history of the world without leaving home.”
  17. Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce by Cathy Thomas
  18. Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain by Pete Egoscue with Roger Gittiner
  19. Wrong: Why Experts* Keep Failing Us–And How to Know When Not to Trust Them by David Freedman. (This one was more than a little depressing.)
  20. Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D Seeley (This fascinating book discussed the ways honeybees communicate and make group decisions, as when they are searching for a new hive.)
  21. Get Up Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite by Bruce E. Levine (This one left me feeling a bit unenergized and defeated.)
  22. How Did the Government Get in Your Backyard by Jeff Gillman and Eric Hererlig (I really enjoyed all the background information the authors provided on the science and the politics of many environmental issues I care about.)
  23. Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica by Nicholas Johnson (a fascinating book about contemporary life at McMurdo and South Pole, which my son let me borrow just before his most recent trip to Antarctica; apparently this is slated to be a TV series soon; too bad I don’t have a TV. I would totally watch this one.)
  24. The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith (to be truthful, I did not read all of this classic book on liberal philosophy.)
An illustration of a bee hive in a hollow log.

A horizontal hollow log hive (Butterworth 1892) from The Quest for the Perfect Hive

Children’s Books

  1. The Invisible String by Patricia Harst (a picture book that I bought for my grandchildren during my son’s most recent deployment, this time to Afghanistan)
  2. A Paper Hug by Stephanie Skolmoski (another picture book on deployment that I bought for my grandchildren before my son had to leave again to attend captain school)
  3. 39 Clues (I read this and several other books whose titles now escape me, while trying to decide which ones to bring along when we took the grandchildren to dance camp this past summer. I had forgotten how much I love to read children’s books. Those authors can’t afford to waste any time getting to the heart of a story, or the audience gets bored.)
  4. Fablehaven by Brandon Mull (This is the one we finally settled on, a book about grandparents who ran a sanctuary for mystical animals. While at dance camp with our grandchildren in July, we read a chapter or two aloud each night before bed.)
  5. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (we listened to this on CD while driving home from dance camp)
  6. The White Fox Chronicles by Gary Paulsen (a sci-fi book that my 11-year-old grandson wanted me to read, and I was very happy I did, not just for the insight into how he thinks, but it also happened to be a gripping story.)

At the moment I am about halfway through reading The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson and The Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus. (I often have more than one book going at a time.)  I came home from my aunt’s with a 983-page novel called The Kindly Ones, originally written in French by Johnathan Littell and winner of two prestigious French literary awards. It is “the chilling fictional memoir of Dr. Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi officer who has reinvented himself, many years after the war, as a middle-class family man and factory owner in France.” My aunt  warned me that it is morally difficult reading but said it explained a lot of things that she often thinks about.

Could I live with just 100 things?

I’m intrigued by the 100-Thing Challenge. Apparently, it’s been around for a while, but I first heard about it in an article in my alumni magazine about a first-year resident who has decreased the items he owns from more than 700 to 86. The article was accompanied by a photograph of him with 39 of his possessions that fit into his backpack. Although I find the minimalist urge admirable, I do question the way he counts. For example, since he is living with his mother-in-law during his residency, he doesn’t count any of her furniture or possessions, including dishes and pots and pans. He also doesn’t count his wife’s belongings or any of the things he left in his permanent home when he came up here for his residency. However, from what I can tell, this bargaining appears to be a common theme, once people realize how very few items it takes to reach 100.

I have been trying to simplify my life for years and have made quite a bit of progress. By some standards, I don’t have a lot of clutter, but I sure own a whole lot more than 100 things. So when I start thinking this would be a fun challenge to take on, I immediately slip into the same sort of bargaining: Do I count all my books as 1? What about the china cabinet filled with dishes? Can I count them all as 2 (1 for the set of dishes that belonged to my grandmother + 1 for the set of dishes that belonged to my husband’s grandmother)? By that logic, the table and four chairs would be another 1. And the stereo and CDs—only 1! Hey, this is easier than I thought! At this rate I’ll be down to 100 items in no time!

1 set of dishes + 1 set of dishes = 2 things, right?

Organic Food: Safer, Friendlier, Better?

This is the title of Chapter 2 in a great little book we picked up from our local public library called How the Government Got in Your Backyard: Superweeds, Frankenfoods, Lawn Wars, and the (Nonpartisan) Truth About Environmental Policies. I told myself I was not going to get into politics in my blog, but truth is, I think about politics a lot and am fascinated by power struggles and wild differences of opinion. I also happen to subscribe to the belief that the personal is political, so there you go. After spending a week with my dad recently and wondering every minute how we could have ended up so far apart politically while at the same time holding such basic core values in common (e.g., independence, self-governance, fiscal responsibility, stewardship, and an abiding appreciation for “nature”), I especially appreciate this book for its head-on, scientific, nonpartisan approach to some of the biggest environmental issues we face.

The authors are Jeff Gillman, an associate professor in the Department of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota, and Eric Heberlig, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. They do an excellent job presenting the complexities surrounding key environmental issues; each chapter focuses on a single issue—organic food, pesticides, fertilizers, alternative energy, genetic engineering, plant patents, invasive plants, legal and illegal plants, local restrictions, global warming—all issues I am deeply interested in but do not know enough about. Each chapter includes essential scientific information about the issue, relevant governmental policies and policy options, ratings from left-wing and right-wing perspectives, plus the “bottom line.” The introductory sections also provide a clear overview of how science and political science interact, as the authors compare the contradictory roles of various players (politicians, scientists, lobbyists, the public), making it abundantly clear why it is so hard to get at the truth of these issues—not least because “politics is about making value judgments,” while “value judgments are outside the realm of science.” So policymakers are left having to decide what outcomes are desirable and at what cost, without the benefit of “hard science” to guide them, because science, which can be contested or modified with future study, does not offer The Truth, but often raises more questions. Add in the conflicting pressures from the public and the lobbyists, with their often narrowly defined self interests, and it is very difficult to know what is the right thing to do.

As I read the chapter on organic food, I found myself thinking in new ways about where I stand on the continuum between increased government regulations and letting producers do what they need to do to raise crops. Where the environment is concerned, I generally weigh in on the side of increased government regulations for the protection of people and the Earth, while my dad generally weighs in on the side of free market and entrepreneurs.  I generally distrust businesses that have profit as their primary motivation, while dad thinks bureaucrats put too many limits on business owners who need flexibility to respond to the market. We both mistrust large corporations, but I lean toward increased regulation to try to protect consumers, while he recommends lowering their taxes and getting the government off their backs so they could be more competitive in giving consumers what they want.

But I can see how the lines could get blurry. For example, I don’t want the city or the neighborhood association to tell me I can’t grow native perennials or vegetables in my front yard but must have a perfectly manicured and weed free (i.e., chemically treated) lawn, so in that instance I would be anti-regulation, I suppose.  As a gardener who tries to raise plants “as organically as possible” but who sometimes reaches for pesticides or fertilizers to solve particular problems, I can appreciate on a small scale how challenging it is to find a balance between philosophical ideals and practical applications. But I definitely want the label to tell me what is in that bottle of spray so I can make an informed decision before I use it. Even if the ingredients are labelled “natural” or “organic,” I prefer to know about any potential dangers they might pose to honeybees or other beneficial insects before I spray my grape vines. I also know that I am one of the lucky ones who can afford to pay a little more for organic and locally produced food, a luxury that many, many people do not have in today’s economy. Given all that, is it right to mandate numerous regulations that increase the overall cost of production and impose undue burdens on small producers, when we have no guarantee that organic methods are superior to conventional methods, or to restrict the ability of large producers to produce foods in the most cost-efficient ways possible?

The authors do a very good job of raising some of the questions that I generally avoid thinking about too deeply. For example, I happen to believe that growing organically is better for our health and better for our planet,  but is it then preferable to buy from a large-scale organic farm, even if they must use nonrenewable fossil fuels to ship their produce to my town, or is it better to buy from a small local farm, even if the farmer occasionally uses pesticides and fertilizers? If a local milk or meat producer avoids the use of hormones, treats her animals humanely, allows them plenty of time outside to graze, and does not put animal waste products or other questionable ingredients in their feed, but does occasionally treat them with antibiotics when they get sick, should the farm lose its credentialing as an organic producer? If a farmer returns from the weekly market with bushels of unsold turnips and lettuce and other produce, should he be allowed to feed it to his pigs at the end of the day, knowing it will go to waste before next Saturday’s market? Or should the state, in an attempt to protect people’s health, be allowed to define the unsold turnips as “garbage” and thus outlaw feeding it to animals that will be sold for meat? These are important but difficult questions that we all weigh in on every time we put food to mouth.

Don’t worry, Ma, your room is almost ready!

Of course, I’ve turned this into a bigger project than necessary, as usual. To prepare for my mom’s upcoming visit during Thanksgiving week, I could have just changed the sheets and vacuumed the rug in the spare bedroom, put away the mailing supplies for the care packages I’ve been sending to soldiers in Afghanistan, filed the papers that have piled up near the computer desk (or not), and called it good. She would have been perfectly happy with the accommodations. But no. For some reason, I had to make this into the kind of project where I pull all the books off the shelves, empty all the drawers, and drag all the boxes from under the bed and out of the closet in order to “sort things out.”

It started with a small bookshelf just inside the door. I was simply going to remove the books, dust, pull the shelf away from the wall so I could vacuum behind it, and then put the books back where they had been. But as I took a closer look, I noticed that the shelf held few actual books. Mostly, it was loaded with back issues of magazines, old catalogs, manuals for computer programs that probably don’t even work on Windows XP, ring binders of handouts from various workshops I’ve taken over the years (e.g., water quality monitoring, tree keepers), and a notebook of brochures I had picked up when we remodeled our kitchen three years ago. So naturally, I decided I should clear out the clutter this week before my mom arrives.

Well, one thing led to another, and by the time I finished with the bookshelf, I had filled two boxes and one large bag with recycled paper. I filled another box with empty ring binders, and I relocated a collection of books about traditional American dance music to the newly emptied bookshelf. In the process, I went through all the boxes and shelves in the closet.

While digging through the closet, I ran across a box of my old piano music books, which I decided I simply must have out where I can see them—I suppose in case someone stops by the house sometime and asks me to play my old recital pieces again. Not that I have time to play piano, mind you, because I also rediscovered two large bags of wool that I have been meaning to spin into yarn, a table-top loom, and twelve knitted squares that I was planning to sew together into an afghan.  I have a little over a week before mom arrives. I still need to change the sheets on the bed and vacuum the carpet and file those papers that have piled up near the computer.

At least, I didn’t do as my mammaw was known to do when company was coming and decide this would be an absolutely great time to repaint the walls and perhaps replace the carpet, as well (although I must say, the thought did cross my mind). Mom still tells about the year we arrived at mammaw’s house for Christmas to find paint buckets in the guest room and plastic draped over the furniture. Apparently, mammaw had big plans but then abandoned the painting project halfway through, realizing, I suppose, that it was high time to start making pies before company showed up at her doorstep. The remodeling project would have to wait.

I remember that as the year my younger cousin drank turpentine and there was a big discussion about whether to take him to the clinic an hour and a half away or just give him some raw egg. No one actually saw him drink turpentine, but we smelled it on his shirt when he came in to tell someone “that don’t taste good.” But he seemed all right, so no one got too upset. When he later said that the raw egg “don’t taste good, either” and refused to take it, the consensus was that he must not have had that much turpentine, after all, and he would probably be fine. There’s nothing quite like spending time with family for the holidays.

The paper clutter is driving me over the edge!

The “paperless revolution” we hoped for when computers first made their appearance certainly has not come to fruition. Apparently digitizing everything only made it that much easier to print multiple copies of everything. It seems as though I spend half my free time sorting through papers of all kinds, trying to figure out what to keep and what to throw away, and then feeling overwhelmed by all the papers I’ve held onto over the years, and guilty for the boxes and bags full that I’ve sent to the landfills and recycling centers. (Maybe I had the right idea, after all, the summer before college when I threw all my juvenile journals into a wire bin and set fire to them.)


It would be difficult enough if I only had to go through the papers I have collected myself over the years—journals and notebooks, poetry manuscripts, old calendars, school papers, scrapbooks and photo albums, postcards and letters, my children’s drawings, clippings of garden designs, brochures I’ve picked up along the way, maps of places I’ve been, address books, tax forms, insurance policies, old checkbook registers, and on and on. But in addition to all that, every day except Sunday the postman brings another pile of paper for me to deal with.  Ironically, today in my email, I received an invitation to register for a three-day workshop in Montreal for “professional organizers.” (Don’t even get me started on email clutter!)

Some weeks I try to go through the mail as soon as it arrives, but usually after a day or two of that, I get overwhelmed and just let all the bills, the fliers offering package deals on cable and Internet services, and those pleas for worthy causes pile up again. And then there are the magazines I don’t have time to read and the catalogs of things I can’t afford or don’t want. I admit I ordered some of these myself, deliberately inviting the clutter into my home, but I did not ask for the businesses to share my name and address with other businesses that think they might somehow talk me into buying even more magazines and ordering from more catalogs. But sometimes I fall for it, despite my better judgment. Just this week I accepted the offer of a free magazine called Yes!, which is printed on 100% post-consumer waste paper by some nonprofit organization called the positive futures network or some such. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

I should just go ahead and buy one of those monster shredders like my son, the ex-CID agent, uses—the kind that will shred an entire envelope full of fake credit cards, CDs, card stock, and multiple pieces of paper. But my shredder only takes six thin pieces of paper at a time (and that grudgingly), so I always open every single envelope and sort the contents. The bits that have my personal information on them I shred, and  the rest I recycle. Lately I have even begun taking the time to tear my address off the backs of catalogs before recycling the rest, although I know my address is not in any way private information and could easily go into the black plastic garbage bags that I put out on the curb each Wednesday.

Opening each envelope the way I do, and being a print junky as I am, means I tend to read all those “personalized” letters from environmental and political organizations, urging me to take action, quickly, before it’s too late, so in addition to feeling guilty for the sheer waste of all this paper, I also feel guilty for  not responding to the pleas to help such worthy causes. These marketers know that if they can get me to focus on just one individual prisoner of conscience or one oil-covered bird or one wolf pup about to be shot from a low-flying helicopter or one cancer victim or one child  suffering from cleft palate or orphaned by the latest natural disaster, I am more likely to write that check.

And yet, it’s not paper in general that I object to. It’s the cheapness of certain paper, the slimy, gritty feel of the sales ads; the garish colors of the catalogs; the invasive type screaming at me to sign up for cable for only $59.95 a month for life, although I do not own a television. But good paper is something entirely different. I love fine stationery, quality drawing paper, watercolor paper, well-made journals, clever scrapbook paper, heavy textured hand-made paper with deckled edges, marbled end papers, brightly colored tissue paper, delicate origami paper, clean new notebooks with unbroken covers. I value the paper for itself—the look and feel of it—but also for the promise it holds of beautiful drawings or insightful writings. I think about stories I have heard of people living under repressive regimes around the world, who dared to write in tiny script on precious scraps of paper.

Recently, my son, who is in Afghanistan with the Fourth Infantry, told me that the only thing the children in his village have asked for has been paper and pens. I can imagine how they must feel, to have something important to say but no place to record it. Even though I had plenty of paper and crayons and markers as a child, having been raised in a family of college professors, I loved getting new school supplies each year. Something about those clean notebooks and new pencils made it seem that anything was possible. I also remember when a shiny piece of white shirt board was a treasure, and I would take my time before deciding how to use it because it might be awhile before I got another one just like it. So when my son told me about the children wanting something to write on, I immediately went out and bought thirty composition books and sixty pens and packaged them up to send across the sea. I only wish I might have a chance someday to read what the children write.

Where did the summer go?

You can tell it’s fall because what used to be a five-minute commute from home to campus now takes twenty to thirty minutes, since 31,000 University students descended on our fair city. These days if you arrive at the office past 7:45 a.m., you must park on the roof of the garage because all the spaces on the first four levels are taken. If you decide later to take a walk during your morning break, you must make your way through crowds of sorority pledges who stroll four abreast on the sidewalks, wearing their look-alike dresses and non-sensible shoes.  And you must dodge the students who careen along the sidewalks on their bicycles, as well as the slow-moving students who text while walking between classes. At lunch time, when you go to meet your friends at Shakespeare’s Pizza, expect to spend most of the hour standing in line waiting for veggie pizza slices to come out of the oven. On the plus side, most of the construction on the steam tunnel that runs underground between the power plant and the hospital has moved on past central campus, so the roads and sidewalks are no longer blocked off as hard-hat areas, and the dump trucks have stopped rumbling past our building.The campus landscape services have replaced the sod between the law school and the alumni building and are making plans for new perennial beds. The gospel choir could be heard singing a capella from the speakers circle the other day, and a man wearing a gorilla suit was playing accordion outside the library. Ah, fall!

Of course, there are other, more conventional signs of fall, as well, such as the yellowing leaves and hard green walnuts raining down on our driveway, the perennials gone to seed in the garden and the flashing goldfinches feasting among them, the bee hives filled with capped honey.  And lately when we sit down to our dinner of fresh local vegetables, we wonder what we will find to eat when winter comes. We are already mourning the absence of peaches and cantaloupes and new potatoes, the dwindling supply of green beans and corn on the cob, even as we enjoy vine-ripened tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini and start to look forward to crisp apples and pumpkin pie.

Some people might think I wasted my summer, because I did not go swimming or boating or camping or backpacking, and I bicycled very little. I also did not keep up with the gardens as I had hoped or spend near enough time outdoors or take a real vacation. Mostly I went to work in an office every day and then spent the too-short evenings doing nothing in particular. But this was still a very good summer. For the first time in  years I got caught up in the kind of summer reading I used to enjoy so much when I was a child, when I had all the time in the world and could read anything I wanted just for the fun of it, lying on a blanket in the back yard  in the sun or curled up in the green branches of a tree, carried away on adventures that took me far from my ordinary life. I also got reacquainted with my local public library, which is a lively place if there ever was one. Over the summer, I read everything I could get my hands on—from good old-fashioned novels with morally upstanding characters and unbelievably happy endings to contemporary action thrillers filled with sex and violence of the most depraved variety.  As though I were back in the Busy Bee Summer Reading Club, I read many different kinds of books: real-life adventure, mystery, action thriller, historical novel, romance, spiritual biography, war memoir, science, history. I read old favorites and recent best sellers. I enjoyed them all.

When I was not reading, I poked through family photos and old letters and reminisced about my grandparents. I started a heritage scrapbook, which felt exactly like playing paper dolls when I was a kid. Sitting on the floor for hours with piles of colorful paper, scissors, bits of ribbon, and glue brought back many happy memories. I also continued my yoga practice this summer, with sessions on campus two or three times a week. We watched a couple good movies at Ragtag, our local independent theater, including Winter’s Bones and Cyrus. We went to a few old-time square dances in a small town nearby; attended an Irish concert by our friends Helen Gubbins and Tim Langan; saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops at a street concert outside the Blue Note downtown; played a little piano and banjo; had friends over for dinner; went blueberry picking; and kept watch over a pair of wrens, who nested in the space above our front window, until the babies fledged. We went to the farmers market regularly: the large one on Saturday morning and the smaller ones on Monday and Thursday afternoons.

Earlier in the summer when the Missouri River was exceptionally high, we started a new tradition, which is sure to become a favorite in years to come: nearly every time we drive out of town to check on the bees, we stop at Coopers Landing on the way back to watch the river go by, enjoy a beer and some Thai food, listen to music, visit with friends, and watch the sun set over the water. Once when the river was  over the road and we couldn’t make it to the landing, we saw a hawk walking awkwardly along the side of the road stretching its wings, taking awkward little hops but not flying even when we drove up right next to it. At first we thought it had been injured and were trying to figure out how to call the raptor rehabilitation group at the University, until we heard a larger hawk screeching encouragement or warning from the tree above the road and realized this must be a juvenile hawk we were watching.

The high point of the summer was my younger son’s wedding, which took place at Stephens Lake on June 26 and brought friends and family from far away to celebrate. (More about this later.) The low point was when my older son deployed on July 19 for a year in Afghanistan. (More about this later, as well.)

Summer Reading List

  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  • Anthologist: A Novel by Nicholson Baker
  • Borderline by Anna Pigeon
  • Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter
  • Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter
  • Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson
  • Kaboom by Matthew Gallagher
  • Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter
  • Kentuckians by Janice Holt Giles
  • La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox
  • Morality for Beautiful Girls (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Book 3)
  • Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Winter Study by Anna Pigeon
  • Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journal Through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows by Kent Nerburn
  • Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

I am currently reading Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World’s Fair on the Brink of War by James Mauro.

We have promised ourselves a vacation in mid-October.

Garden Books

I like it when different parts of my life converge, even in small ways. Since spring finally arrived, I have, of course, been busy in the gardens and the beeyard, and I’ve let the house go. (If you are curious what I’ve been doing in the gardens, check out my other blog, What’s the Buzz.) But one cool and cloudy day I decided to pick up where I’d left off with my decluttering project, and I found to my delight that the next shelf of books contains mostly garden books. It was like reconnecting with old friends. Most of the books were published in the 1990s, but a few were published in the mid 1970s. These I remember having had when I first left home and was trying to grow my own vegetable gardens.

One year, not long after graduating from college, we rented a large garden plot—about  25 x 50 feet, as I recall—where I grew tomatoes, green beans, corn, cucumbers, watermelons, and squash, space-hungry plants I couldn’t grow at the apartment where we lived. That first garden must have been fairly successful, because about that time I also bought a pressure canner and other canning supplies. I vaguely remember feelings of pride as I looked at a pantry shelf filled with colorful jars of tomatoes, bread and butter pickles, and green beans.

I liked canning vegetables because it reminded me of my paternal grandmother, who lived in the foothills of Appalachia and who regularly put up hundreds of jars of green beans and tomatoes in the summertime. Even when she lived in town and ran a restaurant or worked at her husband’s grocery store, she would still put up vegetables, buying them fresh at the farmers market during the summer and canning them for the winter. Gardening makes me feel connected with something important, a whole way of living that could too easily be lost if we don’t pay attention.  My maternal grandfather was also an avid gardener, who taught economics during the school year and then had his summers off to garden. When I go back to my hometown these days and look at the parking lot that once held his house and gardens and fruit trees, not to mention my swing set and sand box, the space seems unbelievably small compared to the lush gardens I remember once occupied this land.

On this shelf of garden books, there is a noticeable absence of books published during the 1980s, the years when I was raising  young children and going to graduate school and teaching part-time. During those years, the best I could do was plant a few bulbs in front of the porch in the fall and then, after the tulips had bloomed and faded, sow cosmos or zinnia seeds in the same place, which would bloom until frost. We did rent a community garden space through the city parks department for a couple of years during that time, and my sons got to share my amazement at how such small seeds can grow into such large plants, and I got to tell them a few stories about their great grandparents, but the community plots did not have a ready source of water, the summers were often hot and dry, and the swings and slides at the nearby playground beckoned.

You could probably guess by the number of gardening books from the 1990s that we bought our house in 1989. Although it was not the small farm I dreamed of owning someday, I finally had a piece of land where I could grow something besides annuals and a few bulbs. Still, a traditional single-row vegetable garden was out of the question, as the back yard was wooded and the front yard was partly shaded by a Bradford pear and the neighbor’s huge sycamore tree. Furthermore, the soil was typical construction fill and heavy clay, with little topsoil. I decided to start by growing native perennials and herbs, especially those that do well in poor to average soil and don’t need constant pampering, as my children were still young.

The books collected from this time period include general gardening reference books that covered everything from designing your garden to planting and maintaining to solving common problems. Some of these reference books are arranged topically, some alphabetically, and some by seasons. There are several books focusing specifically on herbs; of these my favorite is The Country Diary Herbal by Sarah Hollis, which includes delicate watercolor illustrations that remind me of old botanical books and paintings.

Not having given up completely on my dream of someday owning a larger piece of property, I also have a book on solar gardening and one called Country Life: A Handbook for Realists and Dreamers by Paul Heiney, published by DK, which has numerous photos on home farming and includes sections on fencing, farm machinery, animal husbandry, orchards, harvesting, and processing foods. The shelf also holds several books on native landscaping. These books show how to use nature’s designs to plan your yard, and they are typically organized by growing conditions (e.g., the sunny garden, the dry sunny garden, the moist sunny garden, the shady garden) or by regions (e.g., Eastern woodland, alpine desert, California native garden) or by themes (e.g., Japanese stroll garden, bird and butterfly garden, scent garden). Some include charts that show what month each plant blooms; others include charts arranged by color of bloom. They almost always address ways to attract wildlife to the garden (meaning, apparently, birds and butterflies, not groundhogs and deer) and sometimes draw a connection between gardening and spirituality, as is most apparent in Cultivating Sacred Space: Gardening for the Soul by Elizabeth Murray.

But the books that really capture my imagination are literary reflections on gardening, two of which I rediscovered on my shelf. One is called Second Nature by Michael Pollan, which I had been meaning to reread, especially for what he has to say in his chapter “Weeds Are Us.” The other is An Island Garden, which is a reproduction of a book first published in 1894, illustrated with Impressionist paintings by Childe Hassam. The cloth binding is decorated with gold leaf in the Art Nouveau style that was common in the late nineteenth century, and the text brings back the joy and wonder I felt as a child wandering through my grandfather’s vegetable patch or picking flowers from his cutting beds or climbing up into the fruit trees to read. The author of this book, which I bought many years ago, is Celia Thaxter. Who knew I would eventually meet and marry a man named Thaxter? Perhaps someday we will make a trip to see her island garden ourselves.

Searching for Meaning

This little project I have given myself—to look through all the compartments I have set up over the years (the shelves, the drawers, the boxes, the bags, the baskets) in an effort to figure out what I value, what I would try to save in a fire, what I want to destroy before I die, what I would grieve if it were forever lost to me, what I want to pass on to my descendants—has shown me how easily I allow myself to be distracted in my search for meaning and purpose. I have always admired those who single-mindedly follow their passion, those who believe without doubt in their calling, those who willingly sacrifice things of value for an ideal, a belief, or end.

I have never been like that; I  never wanted to choose a single path, nor did I feel that I was specially “called” for anything, although I do recognize that I have some gifts, and I have at times felt guilty during certain Sunday school lessons about “hiding one’s talents beneath a bushel.”  Even when I try to focus on what is before me, I am continually amazed at how quickly thoughts and insights and observations are gone before I can put them into words and how the act of trying to capture them changes the experience itself. I find myself continually noticing things that I want to explore “later, when I have more time,” but then later, something else has caught my attention or I have forgotten what it was I meant to think about. Occasionally, I may pick up a theme again as in a complicated fugue, but many things have been lost to memory over the years.

I think I know what I will find on my third shelf: books about spirituality and the unseen aspects of life, books that explore the mystery of why we are here, books about lucid dreaming and the dreams of women, about Earth religions and Celtic mythology, faery tales, books about mindfulness, books about the goddesses in every woman and the gods in every man, books about feng shui, books that could send me to prison in repressive governments. And I do find those books I was expecting, but in addition, I find a beautifully illustrated book I had forgotten I owned, given to me by my brother and his wife, written by their friend and former pastor, Jan Richardson, the woman who performed the ceremony at my niece’s wedding.

The book is called In Wisdom’s Path, and I have been reading it with great pleasure this past week, every morning as I drink my tea, before I get ready to face the day. The title refers to the Wisdom of God, portrayed in Proverbs and in apocryphal books as a woman who danced with God at creation and dwelled with God from the beginning of time. I like that. She is depicted as a woman “who had an active hand in history, who cries out for justice, who bids us to feast at her table, who calls out to us to follow her path.” I want to go with her. Jan’s book consists of strikingly beautiful paper collages, brief personal essays, scriptures, and poems depicting her ongoing search for god and the spiritual pilgrimage she made after leaving her position as associate pastor of a large Methodist congregation in Orlando.

The book follows the Christian liturgical year, beginning with “The Cave of the Heart” (Advent), continuing through “Showings and Encounters” (Epiphany), “Art from the Dark” (Lent), and  “Walking Out of the Wound” (Easter). The last section is on “Ordinary Time.” The author wrote this book while serving as artist-in-residence at San Pedro Center for Art and Contemplation, where she lived in a small cabin in the woods near a lake. In this beautiful book, she describes her spiritual pilgrimage and her encounters with God “in some of her forms and in some of his guises.” I feel blessed after having glimpsed a little of what she saw along the way.