Monday, August 29, 2016

"Life is Compost"

Have you ever maintained a compost pile?

 This is mine - a yucky looking mess of coffee grounds, filters, banana peels, apple peels, crushed eggshells, a branch the dogs broke off in their antics, discarded lettuce, carrot peels, and other such stuff that will decompose. The trick is keeping the wet/dry balance correct. If it is too wet, add newspaper, straw, or other dry materials. If it is too dry (which we deal with here in our arid climate), add more greenery or veggie materials. I go heavy on the coffee grounds and kitchen waste because they add a lot of good, wet matter. Any material that will decompose will eventually turn into compost. Could be years. If you want to speed up the process, a correct balance of wet/dry makes a big difference in the time the pile takes to decompose and become use-able compost.

The result, over time, is this:
a rich, dark colored loamy soil to spread around plants as a mulch, or mix into the soil that will offer minerals and a healthy dose of food and encouragement the plants need.

There are different methods of keeping a compost pile. Mine is in a big plastic bin. Others use an open, fenced in enclosure, or make one out of old pallets. Some use several piles, at different stages of completion. As I keep one pile, adding to it every few days, I have to dig into the pile to get to the good stuff, and sometimes I need to screen out the in-process compost from the completed product.

It is really not complicated. You don't need fancy equipment or chemical additives or a compost starter. Compost will happen.

I loved reading this quote, from Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. Her character, Vida Winter (an author), is speaking. Puts a thoughtful spin on compost.

"Life is compost.
You think that a strange thing to say, but it's true. All my life and all my experience, the events that have befallen me, the people I have known, all my memories, dreams, fantasies, everything I have ever read, all of that has been chucked onto the compost heap, where over time, it has rotted down to a dark, rich, organic mulch. The process of cellular breakdown makes it unrecognizable. Other people call it the imagination. I think of it as a compost heap. Every so often I take an idea, plant it in the compost, and wait. It feeds on that black stuff that used to be a life, takes its energy for its own. It germinates. Takes root. Produces shoots. And so on and so forth, until one fine day I have a story or a novel."

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Four Seasons in Rome

No, I'm not headed off to Rome for a year.

Anthony Doerr did, as part of a year-long artist fellowship he won. He, his wife and six month old twin boys traveled from their home in Idaho to an unknown apartment in an unknown city in an unknown culture speaking an unknown language (except the four hour crash course in Italian he took on a Saturday morning before they left). The journal he kept during that year became this book, Four Seasons in Rome.

"A good journal entry - like a good song, or sketch, or photograph - ought to break up the film that forms over the eye, the finger, the tongue, the heart. A good journal entry ought to be a love letter to the world."
The stories of their walk through the four seasons there, a few blocks from the Vatican, is subtitled, On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the World. Beyond recording the events, the adjustments, and the challenges, the book, for me, is a lesson in How-to-Journal.

"A journal entry is for its writer; it helps its writer refine, perceive, and process the world."
The five senses are recorded throughout - a means he uses to process his memories, and a vibrant way for the reader to be involved in the scenes he records. Sights, smells, tastes, touch, and sounds - all carefully, thoughtfully woven through his words. Standing shoulder to shoulder with mourners as the pope dies, and later, pushing their double stroller through the crowd of celebrants as the new pope is chosen. Describing to a baker, the rich bread smells around them, the focaccia bread he wants to order, misunderstanding the frustration, realizing later he was asking, in his broken Italian, for grapefruit sauce. Discovering new foods, making new friends, listening to the language, learning to understand it. Hunting down those vivid details, linking them together to build a sequence of thought, to "stay alert to the miracles of the world."

"A year is an infinity of perceptions: not just the shapes of starlings and the death of the pope and watching our sons learn to walk, but the smell of roasting meat in an alley, the dark brown eyes of a beggar on a church step, a single dandelion seed settling soundlessly onto the habit of a nun who is riding the train. This year has been composed of a trillion such moments; they flood the memory, spill over the edge of journal entries. What is it physicists tell us? Even in a finite volume, there are an infinite number of points."

In a way, this is discouraging. An infinite number of points? How could I ever catch them all? But that's not the point. Grab one. Grab two. Catch three. Record those vivid details, link together the sentences that help a reader (and me, the writer!) to see, smell, touch, taste and hear a world of beauty and miracles.

Anthony Doerr quotes Marilynne Robinson,
"There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient."

I think of Mary Oliver's poem,
Keeping a journal has been important to me for years. I have a box of old journals stashed in a closet. Never for publication, but for me to thumb back through if I am looking for notes, or find when something happened, or just for browsing. This book, Four Seasons in Rome, is not only an interesting read of their year as a family, as an artist, as an author, as part of a community, but also of the way he perceived and responded to the world around him, brilliant at capturing those images, and how he stayed alert to the miracles of the world. Now, when I write in my journal, I pay attention - not just recording feelings (as in emotions), but capturing a moment in time, using the senses as a means of paying attention, and searching for the right words.

I tried to find a good example of how he incorporates the senses in his sentences. It is an overall impression he leaves. I would call his journals, Impressionistic Journaling. Like the impressionist painters that paint in various dots and smudges and blends of color, but leave a distinct image on the canvas, he paints images with his words that leave a distinct image. Powerful, beautiful writing.

"Everything is radiant. Distant trees toss, faraway walls gleam. The mountains at the horizon have switched on like streetlights, stark and defined, giving way to more distant ranges.
Then everything goes dark again, the clouds knitted together, the mountains sucked back into silhouette, Rome sinking into shadow."

Monday, July 4, 2016

This Flag

"This flag, which we honor and under which we serve, is the emblem of our unity, our power, our thought and purpose as a nation. It has no other character than that which we give it from generation to generation. The choices are ours."

                                                                             -Woodrow Wilson

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Road Less Traveled

The Road Not Taken

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

This poem, by Robert Frost, is a favorite. I have probably quoted it here, before.
We found this painting at a thrift store, and "had" to add it to our collection of mountain paintings, destined for our cabin walls once they are finished, beyond the stud stage.  

Since the time change, I have noticed new lighting patterns, the shift of the sun's position and the timing of the sun glow across the walls and floors. Right now, the evening sun shafts across this road, framing it in gold, making what is around that corner almost visible.

Our cabin in the mountains could be right around that corner, the road, its invitation to come and stroll, to welcome the quiet, or hear the wind waves through the trees. 

Signed Stanley Awbrey, 1973, it could have been painted on the road we take, the road to our cabin, one autumn day. I imagine a few deer strolled by while he sat and painted, a chipmunk paused a moment to watch, and blue jays chattered overhead at his plen-air intrusion into their quiet world. I have no idea who Stanley Awbrey is, or where he is now, or what he was like, but I am grateful he took the time to create this moment, preserved in time, for us to enjoy years later.

If I could be like Edmund and Lucy and Eustace and jump into a picture, this would be it. Oh, wait. We do jump into this painting when we go to the mountains, creating our place, there. This reminds me what a privilege that is, and I am grateful.

Monday, February 29, 2016

What I Learned in February

Looking back through my journal each month is surprising and interesting. Off the top of my head, I would have said I didn't learn much in February. Well, actually, by my journal entries, it was an amazing month. I am grateful to Emily and the monthly challenge on her blog to post what we learned, because, otherwise, I would barrel ahead and miss the chance to review and recoup.

#1 The name of a paint color is very important to me. In fact, I would not paint a color if it has an objectionable name. On a design blog, I saw a wall painted a deep green - beautiful! When I tracked down the color, it was from an English paint company. I ordered the sample chips, then found out their paint is not available around here - but I can do a formula match at our local orange home store.

Looking over the six fold brochure of color chips, I realized I wasn't even looking at the colors - just reading the words. "Mouse's Back." Ah, no. Won't be painting my walls that color. "Elephant's Breath." Somehow the idea of an elephant breathing on me all night is not a pleasant thought. "Salon Drab." Sounds charming. "Swiss Mocha." Yes, please. "Dead Salmon." Shudder... Are they serious? Maybe it doesn't matter to other people, but there is no way I'm going to paint a wall, or anything for that matter, "Arsenic." I am not making this up.

Come to think of it, the color I love is "Green Smoke," a deep gray green. Since our state has legalized a certain green plant to smoke, and since our cabin is in a potential wildfire area, maybe I don't want to use a paint called, "Green Smoke." The color doesn't come out well in this photo, but it is a perfect color for our mountain cabin. Maybe I'll just have to get over the name.

#2 For our February front door wreath, I clipped branches from the Nine Bark shrub, the Russian Sage, and the Butterfly Bush, and shaped them into a heart. Well, sorta. When I tied the top to pull it into the heart shape, it pulled the cross bar up and made it look like a great big frowny face on our front door. I untied it and let it relax back into a straight line. A little better.
When my husband got home from work, he looked at it and said, "A heart?" Well, at least he recognized what it was supposed to be. What did I learn from this? First, an attempt counts, even if it isn't perfection. And, after I made it, I read (think it was on an Ikea decorating post) that if you soak the wood in the bathtub, the branches become pliable and you can shape them easily. Next time, I'll know what to do. For Easter, I'll add an upright to make a cross, and change the bow color. Keep it simple.

#3 I love Landscape Design. Plunker, would be more apt for me, I thought. Have plant, plunk it in somewhere. Because of a xeriscape article I wrote for our local newspaper, a neighbor contacted me and asked me to help her re-design her back yard, to eliminate half her grass area and install water wise plants. We walked around her yard, discussing options and her ideas. Somehow, nothing clicked for me until I thought of the word, "immerse." There I go with my word mania again. Her yard should be a place where she wants to immerse herself, to enjoy and use the space fully, not just have it to look at. With that, I quickly drew up a flagstone walkway planted with groundcovers, and a raised berm on the west side that will pick up the evening sunlight, filled with ornamental grasses, tall agastache, salvias and plants that glow with the low sunlight shining through them. The raised berm closest to her patio, where she sits outside in the summer is for scented plants. The berm next to the back part of her yard is a bit wilder, with bright yellow and purple flowers (her color choices). She can meander the flagstone walkway, admiring and enjoying her water wise plantings.
It is not a professional drawing. She knew, and wasn't expecting a professional task. She wanted ideas and a different perspective - she said it was just what she wanted, and couldn't have come up with that design on her own. Success! And I had a blast thinking, planning, creating a plant list, and drawing it up. Better than plunking.

This book arrived this month. Read it through quickly, going back through it now, accepting the challenges and taking steps. His writing is kind of in-your-face, yet practical, challenging and encouraging.

"How can you show your work even when you have nothing to show? The first step is to scoop up the scraps and residue of your process and shape them into some interesting bit of media you can share. You have to turn the invisible into something that other people can see."

"Whether you share it or not, documenting and recording your process as you go along has its own rewards: You'll start to see the work you're doing more clearly and feel like you're making progress. And when you're ready to share, you'll have a surplus of material to choose from."

-Austin Kleon

#5 Last year, a daughter shared with me her Passion Planner. Three of us have been using it for a year, now, and I just ordered a new one. It has lots of goal-sparking ideas and pages for planning - it is good for me to be on an irregular year schedule - to be past the typical goal and planning focus of January, and to have my own time of review and beginning again with a fresh planner. There has been a long learning curve - weeks we did little, and weeks we plowed away at the tasks. During one conversation with the girls, one of them said, "Before, it felt like a checklist I was not getting done so I wouldn't even open it out of shame. Now, that it is a creative outlet, I open it to jot down a quote or doodle and am seeing my list." We play with creative lettering, sketching silly drawings, using lots of color, sharing quotes to copy, or whatever. Oh, and our to-do lists. I love the thought of it being a creative outlet - perfect with my one-word for 2016, CREATE. Each page becomes its own creation.

# 6 I wanted to learn how to make kitchen scrubbies out of netting. Looked it up on YouTube, looked easy. Hah! First, I tried crochet - couldn't manage to not get all tangled up in the holes, even though I used a huge hook. Pulled all that out and tried knitting. It is working, sort of. Won't say I have learned it yet. Will keep trying. If I don't figure it out, I'll pass it on to our knitting savvy daughter.
Won't she be thrilled?

#7 A  great blog post by momastery, Three Rules for Surviving a Creative Life, had this graphic:


Oh, the liberty this gives! Create, and don't fret over the hate. Yay!

#8 Ann Voskamp is coming out with a new book in September - another Yay!

#9 A quote on a chopstick package at the restaurant:
"Talk does not cook rice."
-Chinese Proverb

#10 Lid on my Dutch Brother's White Chocolate Mocha:
"You Got This."
Made me smile.

May your March be full of smiles, profitable lessons, and creativity.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

January, What I Learned

On our library website, if the book I want isn't on their book list, I can request a purchase! My library savvy daughter suggested this - she works in a library, and one of her tasks is book purchaser. Of course, the books are reviewed, but so far, the three I requested have been purchased - and that puts me as number one on the hold list for when it arrives. Habitat: A Field Guide to Decorating, is a new book recommended on several of the blogs I read. As a design book, it is full of photos, heavy duty paper, and gorgeous design, which all come with a big price tag. Perfect for my first request through the library. It came through this month, and I am delighted. Lauren Liess is a designer, and she does a beautiful job of suggesting and guiding and directing without making me feel like a less-than-smart-homemaker. With four young children herself, she knows a bit about messes and practical solutions.

She writes it as a field guide, with definitions, based on her favorite book and pastime as she grew up - a nature field guide she carried around with her everywhere, making notes, learning about plants and developing a growing love of nature. This love of nature is incorporated into every room; bringing the outside in is her favorite theme.

Now, if I had just known this little library trick back when Marie Kondo's book, The Magic of Tidying Up, came out, I wouldn't have been #80 (or whatever number I was,don't remember exactly), when I finally got around to putting a hold on it. I'm down to #7 now, looking forward to reading it soon.

My method: How To Organize, 101. Empty out the drawer or shelf or surface. Don't leave the things you know you will put back anyway, or the plant on the island, or the favorite shirt. Empty it all out. All of it. Empty. I am not repeating this because I think you didn't hear me, but because I have to repeat it to myself when I am attempting to organize. Pull it all out. Move it to a different place. On the bed, where it has to be cleared off before bedtime. On the table, where it will have to be cleared before dinner. Somewhere where you have to take steps, to see the stuff in a completely different context. Then, put back only what you really, really want to keep and will use.

I suppose I did know all this already, but this month, I re-learned it. Mostly, with our kitchen island, but I did several drawers this way, too. Since before Thanksgiving, I've had a few plants on the end of the island, and for some reason I cannot explain, since then, there have been piles of stuff. Random stuff, piled on the island. This month, I moved the plants, found places for everything else, and the island is again, empty. If I'm cooking, yes, there is a cookbook and measuring spoons and bowls and splatters. But when I'm done, it is amazingly easy to wipe it all down, and have it all cleared off again. Love it that way. I have space. Even if the rest of the counters are, let's say, busy with stuff, I have the relief of the island space. For me, it has to be extreme to make it work.

Now, if I could just do this consistently, through the whole house...

A new cast iron fry pan gives me new recipes and techniques to learn. For the most part, successful. One recipe was yummy, but the cooking time given was way too long. I burned a section along the side. You're not supposed to soak cast iron, it could rust, so I was afraid to try my usual technique of soaking damp baking soda on the spot overnight. I scrubbed and rubbed. Still stuck-on spots. I put a big blob of coconut oil on the spots, and let it sit overnight. In the morning, the mess wiped right off. Yay!


A book I received for Christmas inspired my reading list for 2016. A Writer's Garden, How gardens inspired our best loved authors, by Jackie Bennett, has a chapter for twenty different authors, like Beatrix Potter, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Roald Dahl, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen. They are described in their gardens, with anecdotes from the time they lived there, gorgeous photos, lists of the books they wrote while living at that location, and how those books were influenced by where they lived and gardened. Photos of their studios, or sometimes garden sheds are inspiring. The paths they walked daily, their favorite plants, or the guests they entertained there, give you a glimpse into their private inspirations.

I have already read some of their classic books, but my plan is to read at least one book from each of the authors. Next up, Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, the play that became My Fair Lady. Then, something by Agatha Christie. I just finished The Lake House, by Kate Morton. I'm generally not a mystery fan, but have really enjoyed Kate Morton's mysteries. Have not ever read Agatha Christie, but it seemed a good choice since I'm on a mystery theme. Any recommendations for one of her mysteries?

A book about writers, their books, and their gardens, a perfect topic for me.

One of our daughters sent me this:
"Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit.
Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
Philosophy is wondering if that means ketchup is a smoothie."
I am already ready for spring. Put in a large order for seeds: flowers and vegetables.  This month, I want to build a cold frame and set up my grow lights in the basement to start some seedlings come March. Or maybe in February, if I can't wait, maybe on February's extra day. My hoop cover is keeping chard, spinach, kale, carrots and beets snug, even though it was 12 degrees last night and snow is piled around.

My inside blooms - eight buds on one amaryllis bulb. Winter consolation.

Audrey Hepburn said, "To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow."
One more thing I learned this month:
Bill Keane, the Family Circus author and illustrator said,
"If you are afraid to make a mistake, you won't make anything."
In two areas, I am applying this. My writing for here, on this blog, and my garden writing, for the local newspaper and the Master Gardener newsletters. It is too easy for me to do nothing, to be afraid of a mistake, to not want to put anything "out there," because I am afraid. So, here's to making things, (create, my one-word for 2016), even if what I make is a mistake.

This list linked with Emily Freeman, Chatting at the Sky. There you can read what other writers learned in January.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Code Your Goals

The last week of January. Already. How are your goals coming along? Did you just roll your eyes at me? Crazy, isn't it? The way the hands on the clock keep going around and around and around. Those weekly calendar pages check off, one by one by one.

I purposely made my goals a bit vague this year. Rule number one about making goals: make them specific, actionable, measurable, and time sensitive. I thought, maybe, if I kept the goals in general terms, I wouldn't roll my eyes at myself as time slips by, unproductive, ineffective, goals undone.

Well, I'm not so sure about my vague goals. Perhaps there is wisdom in having a clear, focused idea of where I am headed each day. The journey is important, yes. But a destination is critical, too.

This photo, cropped from the first one, focuses in on the details of the snowflakes. At least as well as my camera and my photography skills can do. Amazing, this morning, seeing the light snowfall we had last night, the flakes, each crisp and ornate and beautiful. Beautiful as a whole, but even more impressive as unique and individual.

An idea I read: when Gretchen Rubin worked through her Happiness Project, writing it, developing her monthly goals and plans, she blogged her process. Her chapters contain some of the comments she received along the way. One of them really stuck with me. The gal suggested to use your passwords as goal reminders. How many times a day do you plug in certain passwords? Use those effectively. Say, you want to exercise five times a week. Set up a password like, RnwlkX5#.

I am not advising you on your password safety. There are general suggested structures for a secure password, and various sites have different guidelines. In general, at least eight characters are recommended, that it does not contain a complete word, and it includes four types of characters: uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers, and special symbols. And, I would add, something easy for you to remember.

Take a goal you want to be reminded of, often. Turn it into a personalized, coded password, and remember it often as you type it on your keyboard, multiple times a day.

In my head, spring is not far away. I know, for a fact, that reality is a bit different than that. Our last frost date is May 12th, and we have seen snow on the last three Mother's Days. That is three and a half months away. What will I have accomplished by then? Will my vague, general goals still be vague and general by then? Yes, unless I change my way of thinking about them.

The last weeks of December, I jotted down a list of things I wanted to do in 2016; a random list, as things came to mind. Now, looking at the list again, I see a need to quantify them. What, how, and when will I do these? How can I make them specific, actionable, measurable, and timed? I made a note in my planner, on May 15th, to reevaluate the list. And, I made up a new password to remind me of a key, priority goal.

What do you think of making a new password, unique to your goals?