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!

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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!

Timeout for Art: Return to Me

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One hundred years ago (or so it seems), I, with a brand new printing press, resuscitated a theme I’d been working on many years earlier, while a graduate student at Michigan State University. I took common materials – in this case, scraps of paper, tea leaves, a coffee filter – and, with color and placement, elevated them above their simple origins.

I made a dozen collagraphs from the plate, each one unique in color choices and mood. I titled the work “Patter Song,” referring to the playful riff involved in their creation. I matted them, framed them, and sent them out into the world. Last week, one of them came back to me.

I was watering the plants on the side of the hardware store when a friend stopped by. “One of your pieces of art is at the Re-Sale Shop,” she told me. My heart sank. What a disappointment!

The Island Treasures Re-Sale Shop, run by volunteers from our Fire Department Auxiliary, is the place to drop off gently used items that no longer fit on your body or in your life. Profits benefit our fire department. On this island where getting rid of things can be every bit as costly and difficult as acquiring them, it is a wonderful service. I drop off clothing and housewares that are no longer useful to me; I find bargains and treasures to bring home. It’s a lovely little business, and part of the fabric of Beaver Island.

Still, it is not the place I want to find my own work! I was even offended – several years ago – to find one of the many warm but funky crocheted hats I’d made and sold at a little gallery here, donated and up for sale at the Re-Sale Shop. Now, a framed piece of art. Ugh!

On my lunch break, I went to investigate. My friend, Marge, explained that a house had been vacated – due to the owner’s death or move to assisted living – and was being cleared out. I was buoyed to see that a couple nice, framed batiks were sharing space with my piece, in the back of the store, not yet up for sale. They weren’t sure what to do with it, whether it was proper to try to sell it, and how to price it. They had already consulted with a gallery owner (who carries my work) about its value.

I was uncomfortable on several levels. One, though the colors are friendly and the design is one I’m comfortable with, this is not my best work. At the time that I made this piece, I was still learning the ins and outs of the hand-coloring process, and the quirks of my new press. If I’d made it today, it would have been on the reject pile. Two, it would seem bad business to have work by the same artist featured at a fine island gallery in company with other artists…and two blocks away at the Re-Sale Shop in company with used appliances and hand-me-downs. No offense, but.

So, I decided to take the piece home with me. I wrote the check for one hundred and fifty dollars, which is – I think – the same amount or maybe just a little more than I sold it for twenty years ago. They would have let it go for much less…but their thoughtful kindness warmed my heart, and the money goes to a good cause. And why, after all, devalue my own work? Especially because, in their research, the piece had been given a label. Personally, I think it adds to it!

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What Happened to Me?

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“What happened to you?”

The question was voiced by my sister, Cheryl, just a few weeks ago. Two of my sisters, Brenda and Cheryl, were visiting here. We were at the family farmhouse, where my Aunt Katie lived until her death last August. I was not involved in whatever activity – meal preparation, or cleaning, or sorting – my two sisters were busy with at the kitchen table, so when the dryer stopped, I stepped into the shed to fold the laundry.

Cheryl followed a few minutes later. That’s when she said it:

“Cindy, what happened to you?”

Her tone was kind and curious, yet clearly she was disappointed in me.

The question was driven by the towels I had just folded. Though they were folded – because I’d asked – the way that Mom had taught us (in half twice the long way, then in thirds from the other direction for bath towels; in half twice the long way, then in half from the other direction for kitchen towels and hand towels; in half, then in half from the other direction to make squares of washcloths and dishcloths), my corners did not perfectly line up. As she neatened and refolded the ones I had done, she asked again, incredulous, “What happened to you?”

She added, “You are the one that taught me this,” as she helped me fold the rest of the load, with all of her corners and edges lining up perfectly. I blinked. I shrugged. I gave a little smile. I didn’t know what to say. I was kind of embarrassed. I felt a little bit ashamed. I knew what she was talking about, sure.

Growing up in our large household, I was in charge of laundry. And I took it very seriously. I arranged the piles of clothes around the perimeter of the round, heavy wood table in age order for each family member. Socks and underwear were stacked separately, in an inner circle, so that they wouldn’t topple the tall piles. All had to be put away, to make room for folding diapers and towels.

Though I never used cloth diapers with my own children, I can still remember the way to fold them. I have altered the way I fold towels (once in half long-wise, then in thirds from the other direction, then in half again for bath towels; in thirds from the short ends, then in half long-wise for kitchen towels, hand towels, washcloths and dishcloths) to better fit the space in my cupboards and drawers, but I still know the way Mom had us fold them. Muscle memory, from so much practice.

And I was precise. There was one right way, and things had to be done to those exact standards. I insisted that each of my younger siblings were just as careful as I was. Later, my own daughters struggled under my clothes-folding rules. They despised the job, as they seemed never able to meet my standards. They rebelled by folding their own clothes however they wanted, or not at all. To this day, I doubt they ever fold two towels exactly the same way, just to spite me!

So, what happened to me? When did I lose the precision in clothes-folding that made such an impression on Cheryl? I didn’t know how to answer, when asked, and I’ve been wondering about it ever since.

There were times that my reasoning got defensive.

“I’m too busy,” I tell myself, “no time to worry about precisely lined-up corners!” I am not as busy as Cheryl. She works two jobs as an administrator for two separate school systems. She is divorced, like me, so is solely responsible for the maintenance of her home and yard, as I am. I have to admit, she does a better job of it than I do. She also spends more quality time with her children and grandchildren every single month than I do with mine in a full year. In addition, she dates, goes to social events, and plays Words with Friends. “Too busy” does not work in comparison to Cheryl.

“Life is too short,” I say, “to worry about perfectly folded towels!” Yet all the things that have caused me to realize that life is short – the deaths of both parents and several siblings – happened to Cheryl, too. Plus, she had cancer. If I were the cancer survivor, you can bet that I’d be throwing that in her face! With a superior tone, I’d say, “Once you live through cancer, my dear, you realize that life is too short to worry about petty things like towel edges.” But, no. She’s got that one cornered, too.

So, without defensiveness, what has happened to me? When, exactly, did I quit caring, and why?  It has been on my mind quite a bit since the question was posed. I don’t like to think that my standards have gone out the window. Could it be something else?

I do not have, in my adult life, a “clothes-folding table” like I used when I was growing up. Actually, I have that exact table now, but it sits in the dining room, far from the laundry area, and is generally loaded with a vase of flowers, a couple candles, and whatever paperwork I am currently working on. I fold clothes using the surface of the top of the washing machine. A much smaller space. That could be a reason.

Yesterday, a beautiful, breezy warm day for putting laundry on the clothesline, I thought of another. Though I tighten my clotheslines regularly, the lines still sag with the weight of the wet laundry. It causes things to dry slightly misshapen. Because I dry my towels outside, they do not have corners that will line up. So there! Unless or until I learn that Cheryl also has a clothesline, and dries her towels outside, and still manages perfectly aligned corners…that is my answer to what happened to me!

 

The 52 Lists (for Happiness) Project #24

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List every color you can think of and what mood you associate with each color:

  • Blue, in almost every shade, evokes a feeling of calm.
  • Red is energy, and passion, and intensity. Almost always. There is no “light red.” It was my mother’s favorite color; it is mine, too. In recent collages, I’ve been using large expanses of a velvet-rich, deep “catsup” shade of red, juxtaposed with thin lines of  baby blue and bright lime green. Used in this way, red offers a quiet strength.
  • Yellow is happy, in bright shades, but a sad, weak color in paler versions. Bitter, when it leans toward green.
  • Purple, in it’s truest balance, shows power. If it leans toward red, it becomes loud and cloying; too much blue and it is weakened. Pastel versions lack strength.
  • Orange can be rich, joyous and friendly. It needs to be strong in red, and have brown undertones to pull it off, though.
  • Green can be beautiful. Deep forest green is welcoming. Many blue-green hues suggest the tranquility of water. There is often an association with money, or riches, and the variety of greens in a spring landscape are always a joy to see. Some  shades, though, are almost repulsive to me. My least favorite colors are all shades of green, evoking thoughts of illness, spoilage, meanness and death.
  • Brown offers solidity and quiet. There are no neon shades of brown. There are, sadly, some ugly shades of brown out there, though.
  • Black is rich, deep and mysterious.
  • White is elegant, though vacuous.
  • Pink, along with most pastel colors, can evoke a wide spectrum of moods, depending on value, intensity and tone. From deep coral tones to hot pink to palest blush, pink can be joyful or sappy, fun, light-hearted or sad.