Category Archives: Books

Good Things

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Sometimes it’s easiest to see what’s wrong: with a particular situation, or a day, or with the whole world. It takes more energy to find the good things. Not always, though. There are times when my natural propensity for looking at the negative flies right out the window. I am left, then, with a humble appreciation of my rich life, and all the blessings in it.

I’ve had a lovely weekend. Well-balanced. It was productive, but not in a crazy-making way, where I plan more projects than I could possibly ever finish. Busy, but not too busy. I put laundry on the line…but also sat on the shore, reading, for one entire afternoon. I tended the garden, but also wandered the fields to collect wildflowers. I went over my notes for a class I am planning, and put hanging wires on a dozen framed collages. Then, I spent the rest of the day in my studio in frivolous and playful pursuits. I cooked and cleaned, but also took time to relax.

I could list the things I didn’t accomplish; there are quite a few. But why? They’ll be there, waiting for me. Right now, I’d rather just relish the good things.

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dried Rhododendron flowers make a nice bouquet

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wildflowers make another

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one almost-ripe tomato, two days before I harvested it for a wonderful BLT

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a row of collages, ready for the Museum Week Art Show

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The 52 Lists (for Happiness) Project # 29

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List the happiest and funniest stories and news you’ve heard lately:

  • I cheered, just like everyone else, for the successful rescue of the young boys trapped in a cave. With water rising, monsoon season coming, and the whole world watching, it was high drama with a happy ending.
  • Rain, this week, was a relief for many of us around the state of Michigan. It has been a hot, dry season. Our “extreme fire danger” status has been lifted, which is excellent news in this season that brings so many campers to our woods.
  • My best friend, Linda, turned sixty-six years old yesterday. That’s almost unbelievable…and funny (though not unbelievably funny)…because my birthday is not that far away, and then I’ll be 66, too. How has it happened that we, who met in the sixth grade and bonded over a mutual love of mischief-making, have grown so old?  When we were both eleven-years-old, Linda’s perfect Yogi Bear imitation made me laugh. Over the years, my best – rolling on the floor, laughing ’til my belly hurt, almost peed my pants – laughs have been with Linda. Our lives have carried us from marbles, pull-over sweaters and the Beatles; to husbands, housework and babies; to single-life adventures with teen-aged children; to all the things that make life enjoyable today. One of the best things is having Linda, who maybe knows me better than anyone (possible exception: my sister, Brenda), still in my life. We share interests in feminism, activism, art, cooking, gardening and books. And, after all these years, we still share some of the best laughs.
  • I have this Sunday off, for the first time since April. I’m almost giddy with all the possibilities! What I am not going to do is spend it sitting in this computer chair. So, as my mother used to say, “up and at ’em!”

 

Summer Reading

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One long ago summer, when circumstances of home and kids and job allowed me to spend afternoons at the beach, I ordered three books from the brand new Quality Paperback Book Club. The selections were deemed “perfect for summer reading,” and, in fact, they were.

The first book was The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes, edited  by Donald Hall. Well over one hundred authors, poets and essayists are illuminated through snippets and stories. Easy reading, when the time available might be interrupted by a need to reapply sunscreen, or cool off in the waves. I came away with greater familiarity with the writers I knew, and a desire to acquaint myself with the others.

Ironweed, by William Kennedy, was the second. The writing was magical; the imagery was complex. The book grabbed me from the very first line:

“Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods. The truck was suddenly surrounded by fields of monuments and cenotaphs of kindred design and striking size, all guarding the privileged dead.”

I loved each plain-spoken character. My heart broke with their travails, and soared with their small victories. Though I went on to read all of Kennedy’s intertwined books set in Albany, New York, this one is still my favorite.

The last book was Growing Up by Russell Baker. Though I’ve read many good ones over the years, including wonders by Mary Karr and Alexandra Fuller, this stands as the best autobiography I have ever read. Each paragraph introduces a new character, and through them, Baker’s young life unfolds.

I still have these books on my shelves. I have re-read each of them at least twice. No matter what time of year it is, opening the covers of any of them transports me to lazy, hot summer days on Beaver Island beaches, thirty-five years ago.

In other years, accompanied by my sisters, or with grandchildren along, I’ve made different choices for reading material. Magazines are entertaining, and can be picked up and put down easily. Pulp mystery novels hold my interest well enough. They don’t demand much attention; likewise, they offer little beyond the mystery at hand. Short stories, when I find a good collection, are good for fitting in when there is time to read.

Many books will do just fine to go along with summer activities. In the backyard at the picnic table, in the metal lawn chair near the garden, on the sofa with the afternoon sun streaming in, leaning against a tree at Fox Lake while the dogs explore, or on a blanket on a long stretch of sandy beach, almost any book will do.

This year, though, I am determined to have a summer rich in good books. Books that grab and hold my attention, yes, but also stretch my mind. Books that stir genuine emotion. Books that I will remember long after I’ve turned the last page.

I spent weeks reading reviews before placing the order. Waited excitedly for the delivery. I now have a stack of five books that I have deemed perfect for summer reading:

  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  • Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer
  • Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King

So far, I have only finished the first one. If that book is any indicator, though, I’m in for a summer of good reading!

The 52 Lists (for Happiness) Project #26

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List the times when you felt like you made a difference in someone else’s life:

[This is a harder question than it should be. Sad, too, to think maybe I haven’t made much of a difference.]

  • There are the obvious, big things, of course. I made a difference slowly and consistently, over the long term, in the lives of the people I raised, or helped to raise: my brothers and sisters, other children I took care of, my own children, and my grandchildren. I made a difference, I hope, to the children and adults that I’ve taught, over the years, through the weeks or months of lessons. I’ve made a difference in every job I’ve held, by always applying myself, working to a high standard and showing friendliness and enthusiasm.

[But the directive says “list the times.” That seems to be asking for specific, individual occurrences. Much more difficult.]

  • When my oldest daughter was a young adult, she moved to Texas with her boyfriend when his job sent him there. Though he was a nice young man, and they were in love, things did not go well for her. They had moved there for his [high-paying] job, so her pursuits took the back seat. My daughter found herself falling into a role of  “little wife” and “helpmate.” She cleaned up after her boyfriend and his friends; she packed lunches and delivered them to the job site; she fit her life around his schedule. Far from family and friends, accustomed to having her own job and income, she was having a hard time, becoming increasingly more discouraged and depressed. My concern grew with each telephone conversation. Finally, I flew to Texas for a visit. I didn’t “do” any specific thing, but I believe my presence made a difference. We talked; we laughed; we enjoyed the pool. We were both reading the series of books by Jean M. Auel, and compared our thoughts as we progressed. We explored the city and its outskirts. We looked into colleges, job possibilities, and other programs. It was a good week! By the time I left, my daughter seemed like herself again. She was asserting her place in the relationship with her boyfriend, and in the household. Many things remained exactly as they had been, but she was no longer the “default” person for all of the clean-up. She had enrolled in business school, and was excited about her prospects.

[So is that it?? ONE bullet point? What kind of list is that? I can’t think of another!]

  • So, then there are the little things, impossible to list individually, often done without thought or planning, and hardly remembered, but that I know have sometimes made a difference. This includes: honest compliments, freely offered; kindness in daily interactions; a smile; genuine empathy for another’s plight; a hand-written note of thanks or appreciation; understanding, with or without agreement; and sometime’s just my presence. Each are easy, thoughtless, little things, but I learned the impact of these small kindnesses by noting how it felt when I received them from others. They make a big difference!

 

 

 

Good Things, and Bad

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Often, I feel bombarded with negativity. The news is full of desperation and disaster. I will not go through life with blinders on, but when it all gets to be too much, I narrow my scope. In my small world, there’s always a mix, it seems, of good things and bad.

Good: Yesterday, on our arrival home from an outing to Fox Lake, my big dog charged through the snowball bush, which just happens to be in bloom right now. She came out on the other side, grinning, and covered with white flower petals.

Bad: She was grinning because she’d caught what she was after. She had a large garter snake dangling from that smile. Though I’d really prefer she not kill things, I have to admit, it added to the whimsy.

Bad: I’ve gotten, perhaps, a little too good at my karate-like moves for killing mosquitoes. The other night, one of them was bouncing around on the kitchen window. Lightning-fast, I flung out my open hand to squash it. Which I did. I also broke the glass, which dropped out in large pieces onto the sill and into the sink. Except for one large, jagged piece that is holding firm to the top of the window frame. Unbreakable! I’ve even tried hitting it with the rolling pin! It seems determined to hold its place, looking dangerous, waiting until I least expect it, to drop out and shatter.

Good: The poppies are blooming in my yard!

Bad: A Sunday night rainstorm resulted in two lengthy electrical outages, and foiled my plans to mow the lawn on Monday.

Good: The rain was exactly what the garden needed. Everything looks fresh and healthy.

Bad: While I was emptying the lint trap on top of my dryer, an ink pen freakishly leaped from the basket where I toss items found in pockets, rolled across the dryer and dropped into the hole where the lint trap goes. Now, when I turn that machine on, it rattles and clangs as if it’s going to self-destruct. Until I can take the dryer apart to retrieve the pen, all laundry has to be hung outside on the clothesline to dry.

Bad: The wet weather also foiled my plans for getting laundry done on Monday.

Good: Monday was set to be my day for doing a week’s worth of laundry and hanging it on the line, and for mowing the lawn. When that became impossible, suddenly I had a day off! I could read, or write. I could start a household project. I could spend the day in the studio. Endless possibilities!

Bad: I spent my day off mostly sitting around, watching movies, reading magazines and playing on-line Scrabble. I accomplished almost nothing of consequence.

Good: It was actually a very nice way to spend a day off!

The 52 Lists (for Happiness) Project # 25

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List the ways that you enjoy investing in your mind, body and soul:

[I read that direction last night, so I could think, before falling asleep, about today’s essay. I thought, “Ugh! I’ll be writing about meditation,  prayer and spirituality and other things that I think I should care more about, but don’t, trying to make it sound like I enjoy it, when I don’t…and I hate this assignment!” Maybe it was the word “soul” that threw me into such a fit of discouragement. I am still and always the product of my Catholic upbringing, after all. Anyway, this morning I read the same direction with an entirely different response!]

  • I like mild forms of exercise, in modest doses. I have the tiniest little yoga routine that I try do each morning…but if my back is aching or other activities are pulling me away, I do an abbreviated version of the tiny routine, and have no regrets. I like a bit of Pilates: some stretching, and simple balance and flexibility exercises. I enjoy lifting weights for strength and definition, though the heaviest weights I use are only five pounds. I like walking, swimming and bicycling, but not for speed or distance. I like to avail myself of the fresh air, open spaces and scenery while doing something that is good for me, but I’m not out there to break any records.
  • I enjoy walking. Not for exercise (though that is a bonus, no matter), but with my dogs, a camera, and a couple mesh bags in case I find treasures along the way. For the familiar walkways, the sound of chipmunks and birdsong, and the joy of two dogs sniffing along, walking feeds my soul.
  • I take pleasure in cooking a good meal. It’s better – though rare – when there is someone to share it with and to appreciate it, but still.
  • I make things. Calling myself an artist, it might seem that creating a drawing or painting would give me greater pleasure than, say, crocheting a pair of slippers or making an ornament out of baker’s clay…but it all seems to come from the same place, and the emotional reward is similar.
  • I write. Every morning, or just about, longhand, in a black and white covered theme book. Morning Pages lets me spill out whatever is on my mind, for no one else to see. Sometimes, I surprise myself with a bit of exceptional writing. Mostly, I whine or rant, or write down crazy dreams.
  • I read. I have, at this moment, two self-help books (Sorted by Gillian Perkins and How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind by Dana K. White), a creative expression book (The Creative Formula by Holly Shaw), one book of short stories (Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson) and one historical novel (We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter) underway, so there is always something to read that will suit my mood, and the time that I have.
  • I garden. I grumble about the work involved. Work that is never done, it seems. My aching back and my throbbing knees grumble separately. Still, gardening enriches me. It feeds me. And it provides a steady link to childhood, and to my father. Dad was the gardener in our big family. I say that, knowing that most of the weeding,  watering and harvesting duties fell to his children, and that it was Mom that had to – with bribes and threats, begging and coercion – see that it was done. It was Mom that, with rolled eyes and big sighs, greeted bushel basket after bushel basket of beans or cucumbers or tomatoes or corn into her kitchen. Mom coordinated the work crew – again chosen from her children – and orchestrated the tasks that would get the vegetables cleaned, steamed and canned for the winter. Still, Dad was the gardener. He negotiated with Magabelle, who owned the half-acre lot beside ours, to use the land for his garden. He traded electrical work for truckloads of manure. He rose early after his late shift at the factory to plow up the space. He plotted out the garden each year with stakes and garden twine. When company came, Dad, grinning and with long strides, walked them out through the garden to proudly show it off. When I’m in the garden, I know my father is nearby, and I know that he is pleased.

Happy Father’s Day!

The 52 Lists (for Happiness) Project #22

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List the things you prioritize before doing what really makes you happy:

I imagine a life of rising to coffee, then yoga, then writing, that would then give way to a long walk with my dogs and a spin around the yard and garden before going to the studio. There, I would have time to fully develop concepts, try out guesses and whims and ideas that come to me in dreams, read, explore and grow. Another run through the garden, to gather vegetables for an evening meal, then a shower to signal the end of my work day. Dinner, then, mindfully prepared and enjoyed. Cleaning time next, then the rest of the evening for relaxing activity. I think a life like that would make me happy. But…

  • I prioritize things I have to do. Because my life falls apart if I don’t. Things like laundry, and dishes, and sweeping the floor. My life is so much better – and happier – when these things are done, I even incorporated “cleaning time” in my imagined ideal life. Then there are the seasonal “have-to”s. Like planting the garden or mowing the lawn. When it’s time, other things have to be put aside to make time.
  • I prioritize things I ought to do. I go to funerals. I make an appearance at benefits, showers and retirement parties. I attend the annual meetings of the Beaver Island Boat Company. I am a sitting member of the Amik Circle Society, and serve as secretary at their meetings. I occasionally attend township meetings. I vote. These are obligations. Still, there is satisfaction in fulfilling them.
  • I prioritize the things I need to do. I need to have a job with a paycheck I can count on. Though art sales and art classes have supplemented my income for the past thirty-five years, and I have imagined a hundred different scenarios (and tried out more than a couple) where art-related activities could support me, realistically, I need a job. I will probably have to hold a job for the rest of my life. I call it the “work until death” track. For more than twenty years, I worked as the morning waitress at the Shamrock Bar & Restaurant; I have been working at Powers Hardware for the last sixteen. Though I work because I need to work, I am fortunate that it makes me happy, too. I saved a few lines – I can’t remember the author, but have that written down somewhere, too – that would be perfect for my eulogy: “I slept, and dreamt that life was joy. I woke, and found that life was service. I acted, and found that service was joy.”
  • I prioritize joyous things that come along. Sometimes, it’s a grandchild or two, coming for a visit. Sometimes, it’s a day when I’m simply too exhausted after work to walk the dogs, so I load them into the car – along with a camera, a beer and a book – and we go to Fox Lake. We have the place all to ourselves, the dogs are happy and the water is beautiful, so I stay, ignoring all the things I should be doing. Most recently, it was last week, when two of my sisters and one cousin arrived, to open the farmhouse for the season. I didn’t get into the studio, even for a minute. I didn’t get my lawn mowed. I didn’t get my windows washed. I didn’t continue any of my organizing or deep cleaning. The trade-off was an entire week of family time: dinners around Aunt Katie’s farmhouse table with people that I love; good conversations; evenings of euchre, Bingo and Scrabble; laughter; good hugs; wonderful companionship. Worth every bit of time I could give!

Though my imagined “happy life” is a far cry from my life as it is, I am happy, and my priorities contribute to my contentedness. So!