My Big Brother

This photo was taken just a couple of months ago. We were going out to lunch, and we had a blast. A really great memory!

The phone call came in the middle of the night – my brother passed away. He had been in a nursing home for a very long time – close to two years I think – with deteriorating health leading to congestive heart failure at the end.

He was eighty years old, so this is not a tragic loss, but he is my only brother. I can say that I’m ready to deal with this, that it’s been a long road for him, and us, through this illness, but in all honesty I’m not sure that anyone is ever really ready.

Memories rush forward in my mind, in a slide show of sorts, playing out the years.  Funny things, sad things, crazy things, all in a jumble. Perhaps I’ll be able to make sense of it as I go through the next few days. Iggy (I have no idea where that nickname came from) was a lot older than me; he had already graduated from high school when I was born, so we weren’t growing-up-together-siblings in the traditional sense of the word, but he did live with us off and on over the years, and when he wasn’t living with us he was still close by.

I think I was about eight years old in this picture — my big brother was really BIG!

I have no regrets, and that’s one of the best things. In July 2010, he had to have part of one leg amputated and I drove often to see him in the hospital. A day or two after the surgery he asked me not to leave him, and I was able to stay all night. The hospital staff was great – they brought me one of those recliners that all hospitals have, and I dozed off and on while the Three Stooges Marathon roared in the background. He also dozed, and we talked off and on. He told me secrets and talked about his dreams and regrets about his life; that night was the closest we had ever been. Our conversation was what I imagine siblings sometimes share, however rare it might be, and I will ever be thankful for that. The funniest postscript is that afterwards he didn’t remember that I was there! I’m OK with it, though – I remember.

I was in high school when he performed this prank. You can’t tell, but he drove across the lawn onto a narrow walkway between the patio and in-ground swimming pool. He was probably three feet away from the edge, although no one even blinked.

I wrote this poem last January, after a visit with him. Somehow it says more than I can manage right now:

On Visiting My Brother

He had just graduated high school
when I was born –
starting out to have his own life,
as I was, too.

He belonged to an older generation,
not really brotherly
as I was growing up,
but I adored him, and
he did offer to beat up
any boys who bothered me.

As the eldest sibling, his job
was to look after me,
but he was the one always in trouble.

He had a Harley, rode fast
with the Hell’s Angels –
I still can’t believe
our mother didn’t know.

So it seems only fitting, now
that he’s in hospice care
that I should look after him.
I, too, have a Harley.

Somehow, though, it’s not the same.

Retirement 101: The First Year

Just before I walked out the door for the last time

A year ago, give or take a couple of weeks, I took a photo of my emptied classroom and walked out the door for the last time. I posted that photo on Facebook recently as part of the “Photo-A-Day” project (the day’s topic was “empty”), and a friend asked me how “retirement 101” has been, which of course got me thinking, and so here is my testament to the year. It’s a bit ironic that I still seem to measure out the year in terms of the school year rather than the “traditional” calendar. Maybe that’s just the way it will always be, but I’m OK with that!

I was eager, in June, to start this new phase of my life, and my husband and I had big plans marked on the calendar for the first few months. We were not quite finished with some home renovations, and in July we began our 2011 Great Adventure, a cross-country road trip that took us 11,000 miles and nearly three months away from home. We returned to New Hampshire in late October, just a few days ahead of twenty inches of snow that had us wishing for the southern warmth we had so recently left behind. We finished our house project just before Christmas, and then the winter settled in.

I’ve never been fond of winter. I don’t like the dark or the cold, and I normally get the “winter blues” right after Christmas. But this year, since I was retired and home most of the time, it seemed to be darker and colder.  I did a LOT of reading. While we were on our Great Adventure, I had joined Goodreads, a social networking site based on reading — it’s a great site and I recommend it if you like to read. I entered many books I had previously read, and then started logging my current reads and even occasionally writing some reviews, something I had always wanted to do but never was able to keep up. Tally so far in my retirement: 44 books!

Being able to get away when it’s not a school vacation week is a wondrous thing! I flew to Florida to spend a few days with my sister, and to South Dakota to spend a few days with my son and his family. In April, we drove to Virginia to visit with good friends there. A couple of times, different friends “from away” came to spend a few days with us; one of the great things about our home renovation is that we now have space for guests to sleep. Yay!

In January I self-published a small volume of my poetry. The really exciting part about this is that people actually bought copies of it, and some even asked me to sign their books! (If you’ve been meaning to get one, here’s the link: All Stories Have a Beginning, Middle, and End.)

One of the biggest changes in our household this year has been my return to the kitchen. My husband retired a number of years ago, and he willingly and cheerfully took over the cooking so that I wouldn’t have to when I came home from work. (Lucky me!) But now it was my turn, and not only have I done that, but I’ve also learned how to cook differently. We eat more fresh foods, more organic, less meat, and virtually nothing processed. I’ve also learned to bake bread. Buying all that fresh food has been expensive, though, and we’ve decided to grow our own veggies this summer for the first time in many years. Not sure how all the rain we’ve been getting is going to impact the results, but our investment has been small and hopefully it won’t be a total disaster. A friend is organizing a community market for our town this summer, and I’m looking forward to having that as a great resource, too.

Creative pursuits have continued. In January I launched a “poem a day” project. Today is the 155th day of the year, and I have written 158 poems so far. There are many days when I don’t write, but there are other days when I pen more than one, so that goal is being met. The quality of the writing is another whole matter, and I’m not sure that the daily drill is worth it in the long run. The best poems were written in January and February, when I was not only motivated but had fewer distractions (because it was winter) and was able to spend time reading published works and thinking poetically (yes, it’s a mindset). Once the warmer weather arrived (starting with a crazy and unprecedented week in March), I’ve spent much time outside working in the yard, and less time thinking about writing poems. I tell myself that even bad writing can give me material to revise later, but the sheer quantity of work might make that impractical. I shall continue with the project, but it likely will be modified in years to come. I do want to maintain the regular practice of writing poetry, but I think a more flexible regimen will be more practical and will raise the bar of excellence. Maybe the daily practice can be modified to include reading (I can log what I read) as well as writing.

I love the “super zoom” on this camera; it’s equivalent to an 800 mm lens, and it’s great for the wildlife shots I like to take.

My interest in creative photography has expanded. I was able to purchase a new camera this winter, and with the arrival of birds and flowers I am having a lot of fun with it. Over the years, and especially as I posted photos of our 2011 Great Adventure, I’ve considered setting up a small business, selling my pictures. At first I envisioned doing this at craft shows, but watching my dear friend become a slave to that process turned me away from that idea. Another friend then steered me toward online selling and I am almost ready to launch my new photo gallery! I’ll definitely be writing more about that in the next few days and weeks.

Now that I look back on the year, it is clear that I have not been a slug after all!  I know I am hard on myself, and I continue to struggle with a need to accomplish something purposeful every day. I think my goal for the second year of retirement (see, there I go again, having to set another goal) will be to lighten up and enjoy myself. Sounds like I need to plan to be spontaneous . . . I think I can, I think I can!

Life is good, and I am truly grateful.

Creative Every Day

When I take myself too seriously, I think about my visit to the Spam Museum. It's impossible to take yourself seriously when you go there!

I’ve written a bit this year about my project to write a poem every day, something I had always wanted to do but knew I couldn’t. Until this year, that is. One of the perks of retirement is having time to do things one has always wanted to do. I am really excited to announce that I have written 118 poems so far this year, and today, as I write this article, it is the 113th day of the year, so I’m ahead of the game.

I decided early on that I was not going to obsess about this project, and if a day here or there went by with no poem written, then I would write more than one on other days. I also decided to turn off my inner critic. It’s not about writing my very best work every day, which could be terribly time-consuming – it’s about the process. So even when I know I’m writing badly, I’m OK with that. I can always go back and revise. On the other hand, I’ve been thrilled when I have written well; there are quite a few poems that I’m really happy with, and it’s always a good day when that happens.

Today I made a fun discovery that melds nicely with my poem-a-day project. Creative Every Day is a WordPress blog that encourages creativity in whatever form it might take. Its author, Leah Piken Kolidas, also offers two different creative challenges: Creative Every Day, which she started in 2008, and Art Every Day Month, which runs each year in November.

I like a few things about her challenges. Creativity doesn’t have to be only art, or photography, or any one thing; it can be anything, including playing with your kids! She includes monthly themes to help participants “deal with the dry spells” (which I wrote about in my last post!), and she encourages people to break the rules. One’s creativity doesn’t have to take the same form all the time; the suggested themes are only suggestions; to “prove” one’s daily creativity, one might post on a blog, or on Twitter, or on flickr, or even in weekly emails to her. Having fun and being creative are at the heart of the projects, and I think it doesn’t get any better than that when it comes to encouraging one’s originality/imagination/inspiration/art.

Because I’m excited about this, I have embedded the Creative Every Day button in my sidebar, and while it isn’t a link to the blog, I did include a link in the sidebar blogroll. (If you have arrived on this page as a separate link from my home page, the sidebar won’t show. To see it, just click on the Harleywoman Writes header at the top of the page.) Please visit Leah’s blog, and think about joining the challenge! Just for the fun of it!

P.S.  As I write this post, I am realizing that I have been taking myself much too seriously lately, so today’s discovery is already making me smile. Whenever I take myself too seriously I try to remember to think about my 2002 visit to the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, with my friends Lorna and Rachael and that ALWAYS makes me smile. Maybe I’ll write a poem about that . . .

Life is good.

Dealing With the Dry Spells

This photo helped me out of a writing slump. What works for you?

I’ve been in a writing slump for a few weeks. The hardest part about being in a writing slump is recognizing it for what it is. I feel slow, like I’m walking through jell-o all day. I have a constant sense that something is wrong, but I don’t know what. My emotions become flat – no great joys and also no deep sorrows. It’s tough, when this happens. Sometimes I even have the realization that if I would just write something, I would feel better. But the writing doesn’t come easily and it’s lousy writing and I start to beat myself up.

Then something happens that turns the switch in my brain back on, and the “aha” moment of realization lights the light, and I’m back.

This time, a few simultaneous things ignited the fire. As I write this, we are away from home, visiting dear friends, and Kathy reminded me yesterday that I need to keep writing no matter what. There was also some new activity on this blog that brought me back to the site and to some new blogs I hadn’t seen before. (Thank you, poetart!) And yesterday some new inspiration enabled me to write a poem that was much improved over recent mediocre lines.

It’s weird how inspiration arrives, sometimes. Yesterday it was a quick glance at one of my laptop’s desktop photos. I have a bunch of pictures that rotate every minute; they are all from our “Great Adventure” travels of last summer, so there’s nothing new there. But this one shot of Capitol Reef National Park suddenly put a poem in my head and I wrote it out quickly.

Perhaps the next time I’m drowning in a writing slump, I’ll recognize the signs for what they really are, and I’ll remember what I need to do in order to pull myself up over the edge:

  • Be patient — don’t beat myself up
  • Read favorite poems
  • Read favorite poets
  • Read my own blog
  • Read other blogs about writing and poetry
  • Remember that I need to write as much as I need to breathe

Here’s a question for other writers: What do YOU do to pull yourself out of a dry spell?

Life is good.

That’s What Friends Are For

English: Albert Einstein Français : portrait d...

Albert Einstein - Image via Wikipedia

A week ago I learned that a former student of mine died; he was only 23, and it was unexpected, one of those tragedies that force people to step back for a minute and think about how precious life is. This student’s mother had been a paraprofessional in my classroom for a number of years, so I reached out to see what I could do to help. Turns out, there was a lot that she needed help with.

Fortunately, I was able to get a few other people to help, too, and sharing the load makes a huge difference.  It made me remember why I have always loved living in this small town. When the important stuff happens, people are willing and glad to come forward to help. And it’s good, because people will say, “I can’t do more than this, but I can do this,” so everyone knows where the boundaries are. There were enough people pitching in this week to truly ease the burden on the family, and I’m glad we were able to do it.

For a small town, though, we seem to have had more than our share of death among our young people. For years, I’ve kept a hidden list, and written several poems about the losses. Illnesses and accidents, some of the deaths were even violent – far too many tragedies in a town with a population of fewer than 5,000 residents. With this week’s loss, I’ve decided to stop counting. It’s just too sad, and I think adding someone’s name to a list demeans the significance of that person’s life.

At the memorial service, which was held in the largest funeral home in the area, it was standing room only and of course many attendees were this young man’s friends – all too young to have to say good-bye this way. At the end of the service anyone who wanted to share a story or memory was invited to do so, and several friends and relatives came forward.

Most of them spoke about all that they had learned from him, and it really got me thinking. This young man was not a star student in school, although he did enough good work to pass. I found it intriguing that his friends and family spoke with great emphasis about how much wisdom he possessed, and how smart he was.  We never can know what goes on inside a person’s mind, and he was paying attention to his own curriculum, which did not necessarily include writing research papers and citing sources.

I save lists of topics that students choose for certain projects, and it’s in my records that he chose to do his hero project on Albert Einstein. It fits with all the remarks made at the funeral.  I am truly glad that his friends and family paid attention to his wisdom.

I think that when a person is born, there is a ripple effect in the universe, like the ripple in still waters, and all the people who know that person are affected and influenced by that person. It changes history, even if it’s just a little bit. The ripple this young man made in the universe while he was with us will make a difference, and his legacy will live on in the good things his friends and family will hold in their hearts.

Life is good.

Learning to Bake Bread

When I was married the first time, my then husband baked all of our bread, and he took pride in that. Rightfully so – it was good bread, with special ingredients that would keep us all healthy and fit. I grew the vegetables, did the work to preserve the food – putting up jars of good relishes and tomato products, and freezing a whole winter’s supply of broccoli and other veggies. So we each had our domain, and that’s the way it was.

Twenty-two years ago we divorced, and eventually I fell in love again and remarried. In all that time, I never tried to bake bread, or make anything that included yeast. I can bake a mean, tender pie crust, great quick breads or coffee cakes, but there was always a deep reluctance to take on bread. It just seemed much too hard.

I watched my baking friends with envy and joyfully munched on their home baked breads, pizza crusts, and cinnamon rolls, wishing all the time that I could do that. So one of my goals in my newly retired status has been to take it on, but I was afraid to try. When my friend Lorna was visiting a couple of weeks ago, I talked about it with her and she declared that we would bake great bread together that very day – but of course we ran out of time and it didn’t happen.

Her visit ended, and then I flew out to South Dakota to visit my son’s family. My daughter-in-law not only bakes ALL their breads, she also grinds her own wheat into flour to ensure the quality and nutrition is at its peak. I’ve always admired her for that, and she makes it look so easy! When I returned home, I wished I had asked her to walk me through the steps – I’m sure she would have been delighted to do so. But I didn’t think of it until I got back to New Hampshire, realized that I’ve been retired nine months now, and still hadn’t made any progress.

How hard could it be? I convinced myself to just give it a shot. All I had to lose was some flour and part of one day. Yesterday, I just made up my mind to do it. A couple of years ago Kiersten gave me a recipe for oatmeal bread (my favorite) that she declared a good starter recipe, so I dug it out of the back of my recipe box, assembled the ingredients on the kitchen counter, and began.

I wasn’t at all self-confident while the project was underway. The recipe didn’t say how long it would take for the dough to rise, and it seemed endless. I had to guess at some other parts, too, but I’ve been at home in the kitchen long enough that I was able to just go with it and use my intuition, and eventually I had three loaves sitting on the top of the stove, rising. I was stunned when the dish towel actually had three good sized bumps – it was really rising! Into the oven with them, set the timer, and wait. It smelled yeasty and yummy, so I was cautiously optimistic.

When the timer buzzed the end of baking, I pulled out the three golden loaves, put them out on a rack to cool, and made the soup for dinner. When it was time to cut the finished product into slices – I was excited and nervous. I took a couple of photos first, wanting to remember this moment.

The slices looked great. On goes the butter – and – oh, it was heavenly. A little touch of sweet (molasses in the mixture) and great texture from the oatmeal. I could have eaten nothing but bread, forget the soup.

At the end of the day, I felt grateful – I had overcome an obstacle that I had built around myself, oh so many years ago. What a great feeling. It’s more than just about the bread; it’s about trusting yourself and taking a chance.

Life is good.

A Book That Will Change My Life

Cover of "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Y...

Cover via Amazon

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, borrowed from a dear friend, has sat on my bookshelf for an embarrassingly long time. At the time, I just wasn’t all that excited to read about what I should or should not do regarding my eating habits. During the interim, however, my whole relationship with food changed, I lost 80 pounds, and gained infinitely more energy, so when my friend Lorna suggested I take that book to read on my recent trip to visit family in South Dakota, I agreed. She said she would loan me her copy but she didn’t know where it was. That was when I ‘fessed up to having her book; fortunately she wasn’t angry with me.

It’s true, what they say about the right book falling into the right hands at the right time. It’s February, with a few weeks left before the planting-seeds-indoors time begins here in New Hampshire. My husband and I have time now to plan for growing a vegetable garden this summer, for the first time in perhaps 14 years. When my children were very young, I planted rows of peas, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, and even carrots, and there are photos of Geoff hefting a huge zucchini, and picking peas. So I come to this decision armed with the knowledge of how much work it can be, especially during the harvest times. I’m excited about the chance to once again put up batches of tomato-apple relish, and freeze ratatouille to be enjoyed later in the year.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has worked its magic on me. It’s not preachy at all, although I’m certain I was not ready to read it those few years ago. It’s enlightening at the very least, inspiring for certain, and definitely worth talking about. Kingsolver, whose other literary accomplishments include The Poisonwood Bible, and The Bean Trees, wrote this memoir of her family’s one year commitment to take charge of where their food came from, which includes delightful adventures and histories of certain foods as well as the disturbing story of where most of the food available in the US comes from and how it’s processed.

All of Kingsolver’s references are listed in the book, and there is also a web site, http://www.animalvegetablemiracle.com/ where you can find recipes, links, and more information. Some of the factual information in this book is important for everyone to know, so here are some excerpts that I found particularly notable.

  • Thinking about where all of our food comes from? It is winter in New Hampshire, and yet I can buy almost any variety of fruit or vegetable at my local grocery.  On page 5: “Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles . . . Energy calories consumed by production, packaging, and shipping far outweigh the energy calories we receive from the food.”
  • Can it really make a difference if I choose local or organic food? On page 5: “If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week. That’s not gallons, but barrels.”
  • What do American farms grow, anyway? On page 14: “ . . . 70 percent of all our midwestern agricultural land shifted gradually into single-crop corn or soybean farms, each one of them, on average, the size of Manhattan. . . U.S. farmers now produce 3,900 calories per U.S. citizen, per day. That is twice what we need, and 700 calories a day more than they grew in 1980. . . . Most of these calories enter our mouths [as] high fructose corn syrup, lecithin, citric acid, maltodextrin, sorbitol, and xanthan gum. . .  Soybeans also become animal flesh, or . . . ‘added fats.’” Kingsolver expands this idea as part of the reasons why we have an obesity problem in our country.

You may be thinking now that this book is all doom and gloom, and it isn’t, really. But the information about the state of our food industry is important for us to know about – and I, for one, had no idea that it was as serious as it really is. This part of the book was the hardest to read, and I did put it down for a few days just to let it rest in my brain.

Kingsolver also reveals that while our nation’s farmers were pretty much forced into limiting their crops, the top seed producers were working hard to gain control of whatever they could grab; “six companies now control 98 percent of the world’s seed sales” (51). Even smaller, trusted seed houses such as Johnny’s is forced to obtain seeds from these sources. “Garden seed inventories show that while about 5,000 nonhybrid vegetable varieties were available from catalogs in 1981, the number in 1998 was down to 600” (52).

These companies also have patents for genetically modifying seeds. These genetic changes include such qualities as shape conformity for convenient packaging, how long they will remain “fresh” (albeit flavorless) during shipping, and even the ability to stay alive when the field is sprayed with Roundup, which kills the weeds.

Ewwww!

There is good news, though, in the form of several organizations which have come together to exchange and save heirloom seeds. Vegetables grown from heirloom seeds have been handed down, sometimes for many generations, and have the best flavor and other qualities – that’s why the seeds have been saved. The Seed Savers’ Exchange, Native Seeds/SEARCH, North American Fruit Explorers, Slow Food International and Slow Food USA are all working to keep these heirloom varieties growing! This link http://www.animalvegetablemiracle.com/Resources2.html will take you to all the resources listed in the book.

And let’s not forget about Fair Trade foods, such as coffee. Fair Trade is an indicator that even though the food may have been imported from distant lands, the local farmer will benefit from the purchase and the food has been grown under healthy, self-sustaining conditions. Local farmers, wherever they live, need all the help they can get!

Probably there are few families prepared and able to eat only locally grown food. But now that I’ve read this book, I shall be much more supportive of local sources. It may be a challenge to change old habits but the thought of where “regular” food has been and the genetic modifications made to it is simply horrifying.

And I’m starting, in March, with a few packets of heirloom seeds.

Life is good.