Our suburban backyard does not boast a pool or a hot tub or a swing set, but it does have bird feeders. Right outside our breakfast nook, I can see a small birdbath and two suet feeders. The combination of water and food ensures that birds will visit on a regular basis. We see robins, sparrows, catbirds, and jays. We see cardinals, chickadees, tufted titmice, and finches. We see pigeons, mocking birds, wrens, and doves. We see downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red breasted woodpeckers, and flickers. Each bird has its own habits. Some prefer to eat early, while others show up later. Some are brave and chase away much larger birds if it is their turn at the feeder. Others are timid, flitting in for a brief dip in the water and a quick bite of suet. Some are comic, jumping between the two feeders and the nearby bushes. Their voices range from the chipping of the cardinal to the mimics of the mockingbird. A tiny investment provides endless hours of entertainment. 

Some birdwatchers keep life lists, travel to exotic locations to boast a sighting of a rare species. While I do pay attention when I travel to the local flora and fauna, I haven’t used a bird as an excuse to visit a particular environment, and I do not have a list of all the birds I’ve seen. I prefer a more casual approach. Sure, we have a couple of guide books, but those are to help identify the outliers, the birds who only come to the feeder on occasion, or the ones we spot on walks. Birdwatching is not an obsession. 

Birdwatching allows me to look outside, to take a deep breath, to take stock of the world. As the birds come to the feeder, I notice what is going on in nature on those absolutely normal days that are far from ordinary. The days, the months, the seasons go by too quickly if I do not take the time to really absorb what is going on. The birds force me to notice the changes that happen every day. Lilacs and lily of the valley have been replaced by columbine and peonies. The maples are putting out helicopters in the May breeze. The backyard is full of violets and buttercups. Without the movement of the birds to draw my eyes outdoors, I miss too much.

One of my favorite poems by Wordsworth begins with these lines:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

When I watch my birds, my heart is connected to Nature (yes, with a capital N), and I forget about the world and its pressure to get and spend. I’m a happier person, a more relaxed person, a nicer person to be around.

I just noticed a goldfinch at the feeder. It’s time for me to pay attention to the birds. 



In the beginning

I dread beginnings, the uncertainty, the commitment, the difficulty of bringing something to completion. Each project is fraught with perils, whether it is a pair of socks (Will this color work with this stitch pattern? Will these needles produce the right gauge so they will fit? Will I remember how to turn the heel, to pick up stitches to form the gusset?), a set of placemats (Are they big enough for my dishes? Will the color look good in the kitchen? Will the binding provide the right amount of contrast?), or a piece of writing (Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Is my topic just silly?). Part of my trepidation is because of my inbred desire to please, but I also detest wasting time on an undeserving project. I should devote my energy to something that matters.

This morning I began a sewing endeavor, a graduation present. I can’t say exactly what I’m making so the recipient will be surprised, but I can say I am worried about its outcome. Sewing requires careful attention to detail, especially at the beginning. Once the fabric is cut, it cannot be uncut. The carpentry mantra of measure twice, cut once is equally true with sewing. So it is with great anxiety that I place and pin the pattern pieces and cut into the cloth. There are curves that must match, so even a fraction of an inch can introduce an error that can’t be corrected later. That is probably why I spent most of the morning circling the project before cutting into the fabric. But now the deed is done. There is no turning back, other than abandoning the project altogether. Abandonment is certainly an option, but I’ve invested in the pattern, the fabric, and the worry already. Since I was so very careful in the cutting, I’m reasonably certain that the technical parts will succeed. After all, I’ve been sewing for over 40 years, and the pattern is not that difficult. Practice might not make perfect, but at least it takes away surprises.

Writing is a different beast. Beginnings do not predict success or failure. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott gives her readers permission to write “shitty first drafts.” Unlike sewing, it is more important to put some words on the page than to wait for just the right words. The honing, the craftsmanship can come later. Writers will still procrastinate, but we should not stop ourselves from writing because we don’t have a perfect draft in our minds. In fact, the very word “essay” comes from the French “to try.” Writing gives us an opportunity to figure out how we feel, and it is only after making complete hash of language and ideas that we can discover what it is that a particular piece of writing is about. I would even argue that words that spring from our brains like Athena fully armed from Zeus’s forehead are often without merit, just so much fluff.

Writers need to struggle with their thoughts, with their intentions. A piece of writing that begins in one place often justifiably ends up somewhere far, far away, mainly because we are often not sure of what with think or what we feel about our topic. Our students might begin writing an argument against the current education system because that is what they heard on Fox News, but as they warm to their subject (and begin researching and actually thinking), they might discover the problems in education can be traced to poverty. If they had limited themselves to writing what they thought they knew, their writing would have merely parroted a single source. Their first draft might have followed the rules of argument and grammar, but it would not bring the students to a better understanding of the problem.

Writing is not about following a pattern to get to a predicted outcome. It is about struggle and discovery. It is about the joy of putting together words in a unique way, a way that only this writer could express herself at this particular moment. It is about telling our own stories in our own words. When we share our writing, it is inevitable that we find something we would like to change, but if we wait for perfection, we will never be a part of the discussion.

Thank you for letting me be a part of the Slice of Life discussion.

What are you really reading?

For over 30 years, I taught literature. I never flinched as I introduced classic books to my students, and almost without exception the kids loved them. At the end of the school year they asked me for a list of my favorite books, even though they knew it would not influence their grades. As an extension of my job, friends have asked for book recommendations, and I have never hesitated to suggest challenging books. I have been known to say, “You have to read A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Or “The Things They Carried is an amazing read.” Or “I think you’ll love Consider the Lobster.” I have argued with a university professor at an airport over the necessity of teaching The Scarlet Letter and Shakespeare. In other words, anyone listening would consider me a literary snob. And the listener would be right.
However, just as gourmet chefs sometimes have a secret love for junk food, English teachers may also enjoy books that would not appear on the top-100 list for Ivy League students. At least this English teacher does. I can get absorbed in mysteries set in tearooms or knit shops. The protagonist can be a caterer or a pet groomer. I can usually guess the murderer on page two, but I still enjoy watching the story unravel—if the characters are interesting.
My two reading worlds have been a little like Berlin before the fall of the wall, and there has been no reason for me to acknowledge my guilty pleasure. However, my husband and I have been spending a lot of time in the car, and when we are driving eight hours to visit friends, we don’t always have access to our favorite NPR programs. We’ve filled in the gap with books that I’ve downloaded to my smart phone. It is not that easy to find books that we both enjoy. First of all, the esoteric history books that my husband usually prefers are not good candidates for listening. The same holds true for the books on my A list. A case in point is Cormac McCarthy’s On the Road. It is one of the greatest books written in the past twenty years, so I thought it would be a great book for us to share as we drove to visit friends. It is a powerful read, but it left us too depressed to enjoy our vacation.
Some books have been successful. Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures was the perfect combination of story and history to keep both of us entertained. The Swan Thieves, on the other hand, did not hold my husband’s interest at all. The True History of the Kelly Gang was good, but we missed a lot of the story because it was told in a heavy Australian accent. They used “adjectival” the way someone today might use a particularly harsh expletive, but I haven’t been able to find where it comes from, and hearing it bothered me throughout the 15 hours we listened.
I knew we would be driving this week, so I decided to take a risk and share one of my favorite mystery writers with my husband. This decision was more serious than you might imagine. Yes, he knows that I read books with lurid titles (Scones and Bones is one that he found particularly humorous), but I don’t want him to think that my reading taste is completely frivolous. So, I’m introducing him to Louise Penny through Bury Your Dead. The protagonist is a police detective, at least, and not a caterer who solves mysteries on the side. The setting is in and around Quebec, where we spent our honeymoon. As we started listening I worried that it would not engage my husband who never reads mysteries. I worried that he wouldn’t have enough background to follow the characters who reappear in most of the books that are set in Three Pines. I worried that he would find the story too fluffy, too unsophisticated. For the first fifteen minutes or so, the story jumped around from one set of characters to another without any apparent link, and I could see a furrow form. But before long, Penny’s beautiful prose, her quiet humor, her deftly-handled characters had my husband smiling, chuckling, and even talking about the characters when we stopped to stretch our legs.
Now I’m sharing my story, and this book, with you. This disclosure has given me the courage to reveal what is actually on my nightstand instead of the more literary book that is waiting in the wings for me to have the concentration required to complete a difficult text. I hope you don’t think any less of me. Maybe you’ll even look for a copy of Scones and Bones.

A picture is worth a thousand words, but memories are more precious

This morning I took pictures of my mother’s gardens. This weekly ritual began a month ago, capturing the blooms she has planted over the past forty years. The yard is large, and the gardens are expansive, acres that she has carefully tended.
My mother rearranges her gardens the way some people change the sheets on their beds. She is constantly puttering, moving a clump of flowers to allow more sun, or less. Sometimes she wants to adjust the color scheme. Other times she transplants the volunteers to create yet more garden beds. There is always a reason for the change, just as there is a reason for taking pictures.
My mother is 77. A young 77, but 77 nonetheless. Her yard is overpowering, especially after a winter like this past one. The last of the beech trees on the property, well over a hundred years old, was felled in one of the many ice storms. The azaleas in the front woods were eaten by ravenous deer. She is sad to see the damage but sadder to acknowledge that caring for this place is becoming too difficult for her.
She has asked me to take pictures to remember her gardens if she decides to move to a smaller house with a smaller yard. She takes me to specific places in the yard, directs specific angles, captures specific vistas. We discovered trees that were gorgeous yesterday had already passed their prime. I took the pictures anyway. To me, they were still beautiful.
Mom had wanted to capture each week with a sketch, but since she had to choose between drawing her gardens and digging in the earth, the earth won handily. Photos will have to remind her of the best of each week of the growing season. I am happy that she has asked me to document her landscaping because it allows me to have some special time alone with her, but also because it lets me see the garden through her eyes.
Despite my rich heritage of gardeners on both my mother and father’s sides of the family, I have a brown thumb. I either over or under water anything I try to grow. I am not fond of the grunt work of gardening, the weeding and trimming, and I am not good at planning. The Burpee catalog’s pictures of gardens have disappointed me too many times. They show everything in flower at the same time rather than showing the progression of blooms. My mother knows which flowers will bloom when and knows to leave space for each. She appreciates the spaces between. I am impatient. I want everything to look perfect the entire season, but without experiment and change, a garden is dull and lifeless.
My mother’s gardens are never boring. Sometimes they are overgrown by weeds or by flowers past their prime, but there is room for disorder in my mother’s world. I don’t have her ability to accept what life brings her way, in her garden and in her life. My temperament turns toward ranting and raving when things go wrong, not making lemonade from life’s lemons.
As I was getting in the car to go home, Mom noticed that the redbud tree near the driveway was in full bloom. I volunteered to take a picture, but she said we had taken enough for one day. She knows she can rely on her memory to capture those purple blossoms, and the picture in her mind’s eye will be more real than any photograph. My pictures are just triggers for the memories she has stored.