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Archive for the category “books”

my little blue book


For me, today begins Year 4 of keeping a journal. I have a little blue book called One Line a Day, which is a 5-year diary. There’s a page for each date, with five ruled blocks beneath, each containing only six lines. I’d always wanted to keep a journal, but I wasn’t confident that I had the discipline to make entries on a daily basis. When I came across this book though I thought, surely I can take the time to fill six lines every night? And I have. At this point I feel so invested that the thought of having a blank entry is repugnant.

I’m enchanted with journals, both nonfiction (The Diary of Anne Frank) and fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale). I’m currently following a blog called Ella & I, which shares daily entries from a series of diaries kept by Ella Warner Fisher of Vergennes VT from the late 1890s through 1932. As the author of this blog describes, Ella and her husband had eight children and “she washed and mended and churned and sold eggs and chickens and made lots of pies and bread and was active in her church and the D.A.R.” Through these records and the generosity of the blogger who’s taking the time to share them, I enjoy a view of another’s long-ago daily rhythms as well as (with the advantage of hindsight) cultural and historic forces at work.

When I was young, my grandfather’s journal from World War I intrigued me. Reading his young-man thoughts and perceptions documented in his own handwriting gave me a tangible connection to and a more complete picture of the elderly taciturn man I knew only through once-a-year visits. His diary let me see him as someone like me, with fears, yearnings, private thoughts, petty complaints and joyful moments. There are mysteries too: who’s that person he mentions? Why did he record this particular event? Why did he skip writing on these days?

Both of my parents died relatively young, and my adult self longs to ask them questions that my younger self never thought to ask. I don’t know if my children or potential grandchildren will be curious about me, who I am/was, my motivations or why I made the choices I’ve made, but my leaving clues like my little blue book, letters I’ve written and my blog might allow them a glimpse.


My little blue book also serves me in a way I didn’t anticipate. Now that I’ve been diary-keeping for a few years, I’m able to revisit and reflect on what I’d written on that same date years before. What had seemed to weigh heavily has been dealt with, overcome, and passed. As a parent of teenager/young adults, this practice of nightly reflection allows me to see how much I’ve grown as a parent and a person and how my children have stumbled, made mistakes, hit obstacles and grown wiser. I go to bed each night reminded of the value of fortitude, patience, love and gratitude.

fit to be tied–a quilt finish


We finally had some sunshine yesterday, so in between cooking and eating Thanksgiving dinner, we managed to take a few photos of the tie quilt for my in-laws.


Construction could not have been simpler: four panels, 15 x 62 inches, with 3-inch sashing and borders.


For the back, I used fabric I found on the sale table (score!) and a couple of strips pieced from the leftovers on the front.


For the binding, I found a subtle black/brown houndstooth in the Mizzou fabric endcap display–perfect, especially since my father-in-law graduated from Mizzou (school colors: gold and black). I like how it fits the menswear theme, picks up the black in the tie fabric and creates the sense of a frame.

By far, the greatest challenge with this quilt was the free-motion quilting (FMQ): finding the optimal machine set-up, choosing the right FMQ designs and executing them. I had never FMQ’d a quilt this size before, so wrestling with it under the machine took some effort.


Fortunately I came across some timely posts, which bolstered my confidence and offered some great tips. As part of her virtual quilting bee, Amy Smart provided links to a quilt basting tutorial and a FMQ quilting tutorial, both by Kati Spencer of From A Blue Chair. The best suggestion was to move the sewing machine to the kitchen table. My sewing machine usually sits on an old, generously sized drafting table of my husband’s. The problem with this set-up is that the table is pushed against a window, which means a large quilt runs into the window as I quilt! Here at the dining table, the quilt had support and plenty of room to move.

I also found that gloves are a necessity when working with a quilt this size. They allow a greater sense of control. I looked at quilting gloves at Joann’s: $20-$30! Forget it. I stopped at Lowe’s and bought an inexpensive pair of rubber-coated gardening gloves (they will now be dedicated to the sewing room)–they worked well.

As for the actual FMQing . . . well, let’s just say I need lots more practice! I don’t think I’ll ever reach the 10,000-Hour Rule (which Malcolm Gladwell espouses in his book, Outliers) when it comes to FMQing–20 hours a week for 10 years?!–but I do recognize that with practice come experience, knowledge and improvement.


In addition to the tutorials mentioned above, two books were great references: Free-Motion Quilting by Angela Walters and The Modern Quilt Workshop by Weeks Ringle and Bill Kerr. I used Walters’ wavy line design for the horizontal panels and a wonky box design for the vertical borders–I figured that with these designs my “mistakes” would be less noticeable.


As for the horizontal sashing, I took my cue from Lori at the Inbox Jaunt: I drew on “rails” with my chalk pencil and


FMQ’d rows of simple wonky ties!

While I consider the Ringle/Weeks book a valuable resource for great modern quilt designs, what I found most helpful was their encouragement to the novice quilter:

Slow down, take your time, be willing to try a new technique, and reap the rewards of good craftsmanship. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun. . . . Remember also that, in the end, it’s your quilt, and all that matters is that you like it and that you had fun making it.


Details: 68″ x 75″

seed saving for prairie restoration


Friends are working to restore some of their farmland to prairie. Over the summer it was exciting to watch the barbed-wire fences come down, the fields controlled-burned and seeded, and the native grasses emerge. They plan to seed again in December with little bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass, and side oats grama as well as native wildflowers. Here’s where I am making a small contribution.


In my suburban garden, I have tried to incorporate native species to attract butterflies and hummingbirds: coneflowers, blazing star, milkweed, coreopsis. And although it’s not native and considered a weed by many, Queen Anne’s lace is a key player. This plant is tricky: an annual with a long taproot, it’s hard to transplant so is best grown from seed.


In late September, once the seed heads were dry, I collected several envelopes full of Queen Anne’s lace seed. This seed is a marvel of evolutionary design. Look at all of those little spines–perfect for hitching a ride on a passerby, hanging onto the blade of an established plant and staking a claim in the soil.


I also gathered seed from my stand of blazing star (Liatris spicata). You can tell by this seed’s inverted umbrella design that it relies on the wind for dispersal.


And I collected seed from two varieties of milkweed: swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata–pink flowers) and blood flower (Asclepias curassavica–red-orange flowers). Like the blazing star seed, this seed has wispy tendrils to catch the wind, with the seedhead acting as a parachutist.

I saved the seed in envelopes and stored them the garage. I just gave the last of the seeds I collected to my friends to add to their seed mix. I look forward to seeing their bit of prairie take root and grow.

Enriching the Earth
To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass
to grow and die.  I have plowed in the seeds
of winter grains and of various legumes,
their growth to be plowed in to enrich the earth.
I have stirred into the ground the offal
and the decay of the growth of past seasons
and so mended the earth and made its yield increase.
All this serves the dark.  I am slowly falling
into the fund of things.  And yet to serve the earth,
not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness
and a delight to the air, and my days
do not wholly pass.  It is the mind’s service,
for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.
After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth.  And so what was heaviest
and most mute is at last raised up into song.

Wendell Berry (from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry)

pumpkins and a wicked weed


As is our family tradition, we went to Rombachs Farms to pick pumpkins last weekend. Many families made the pilgrimage that sunny Saturday, towing wagons, pushing strollers, and taking photos of ruddy-cheeked children among the pumpkins.


We enjoyed walking through the demonstration gardens. The sunflowers were drooping, looking penitent. Most everything had gone to seed–cotton, okra, broom straw–but the bees were still at work among the pumpkins.


In the pumpkin fields we noticed these low-rise plants with purple, squash-like blossoms.


They looked innocent enough, but the seed pods had a menacing appearance.


When we got home, I did some research and learned that, indeed, it is a wicked plant: Datura stramonium, aka Jimson weed, a member of the nightshade family. The name Jimson weed is an elided version of its original moniker: Jamestown weed. Amy Stewart, in Wicked Plants, explains that some of the first settlers of Jamestown Island in Virginia ate this weed and died horrible deaths. Seventy years later, the survivors and their offspring, remembering the effects of ingesting this plant, fed it to unsuspecting British soldiers when the soldiers arrived to deal with Bacon’s Rebellion. According to Stewart, “the British soldiers did not die, but they did go crazy for eleven days, temporarily giving the colonists the upper hand.” The seeds and the leaves can induce hallucinations, fevers and seizures and cause death.

There’s a scary Halloween story for you!

between the East of my youth and the West of my future


On our way home last weekend, after drinking far too much coffee at the Frontier Café in Grinnell, I needed a rest stop. We came upon one west of Iowa City and I dashed in, paying attention only to the location of the restrooms. Afterward, no longer distracted, I recognized the literary theme of the design of the place. Each picnic shelter has a steel wall featuring a laser-cut quote by an author or poet. The ones above are my favorites. With the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in nearby Iowa City, Paul Engle’s words here are fitting. With the trees, cornfields and sky visible through the cut-out text, reading “maybe it’s up in the hills under the leaves” had a visual and visceral impact.

This rest area is in Tiffin, Iowa, I-80, mile marker 237.

painted ladies and E.O. Wilson


While I replaced nectar in the hummingbird feeders this morning, this little butterfly swooped and circled around me. I looked her up on the Missouri Department of Conservation website and learned that she is a painted lady. She was smaller than a monarch or a swallowtail, and I can’t say I ever noticed this type of butterfly before. I love the googly eyes on her hindwings.


Coincidentally, I recently read about painted ladies. Last week I finished Letters to a Young Scientist by E.O. Wilson, the Pulitzer Prizewinning biologist. In a series of letter-essays, Wilson gives advice to young aspiring scientists as well as recounts his own career trajectory. While living in Washington, DC in the 1930s as a boy, he became fascinated with butterflies, collecting them and visiting the insect collections at the National Museum of Natural History. He writes,

Returning in 1940 with my family to Mobile, I plunged into the rich new fauna of butterflies. The semitropical climate and nearby swamps were a close realization of my earlier dreams. To the red admirals, painted ladies, great spangled fritillaries, and mourning cloaks characteristic of the more northern climes I added snout butterflies, Gulf fritillaries, Brazilian skippers, great purple hair streaks, and several magnificent swallowtails–giant, zebra, spicebush.

Aren’t those wonderfully descriptive names?

I enjoyed reading about Wilson’s path to entomology (his true passion is ants) and his philosophy, distilled from decades as a scientist, researcher, teacher and mentor, as to what makes a good scientist. It’s not being a math whiz (though having some mathematical competence is necessary). Rather, it’s finding what “you are interested in and that stirs passion and promises pleasure from a lifetime of devotion,” being restless and curious, and being willing to try something no one else has ever thought of or dared.

At this point in my life, it’s a little late to begin a career as a scientist! But as a citizen-scientist, I can continue to observe, marvel and learn in my own backyard.

tops & bottoms


The harvest yesterday was all root vegetables or “bottoms” as my family calls them.


When my kids were little, they were tickled by Tops & Bottoms by Janet Stevens–we read our well-worn copy over and over. In this clever trickster tale, an industrious laborer rabbit and a lazy landowner bear agree to “split” the harvest, with the rabbit on the winning end until the bear realizes he needs to do his own farm work.

Tomorrow it’ll be time to harvest some “tops”–lettuce, fennel fronds and rhubarb.

the radish cure


I grew up reading Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald.  I credit both Mrs. MacDonald and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle for making the 8-year-old me understand the importance of regular bathing, which was not my natural childhood inclination.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

In the book, to cure Patsy Waters, the won’t-take-a-bath problem child, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle plants radish seeds in the dirt on Patsy’s skin–yikes. If that imagery doesn’t make you want to jump in a bath and scrub, nothing will.

Since I began growing vegetables on my own, I have come to understand why the author chose to have Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle plant radish seeds rather than carrot or lettuce seeds: radishes grow incredibly fast!

This week I picked the rest of the radishes we planted just a few weeks ago. What to do with them? In a recent New York Times article, Martha Rose Shulman shared recipes for pickling weirdo vegetables–including one for radishes. Jackpot!


Her recipe for pickled radishes is the quick pickle type–no canning necessary. You simply prepare the brine, add it to the sliced radishes, stick the container in the refrigerator, wait a few days and eat. The radishes turn a beautiful ruby color, ideal for a Memorial Day picnic–enjoy!

literary amnesia

stones in the gardenRecently members of my book club were discussing potential books via e-mail, and a book by Marilynne Robinson was suggested. I reminded the group that we had read another book of hers, Home, back in 2009. Some did not recall having read it and were dismayed at this lapse of book memory. I confess that the only reason I remember is that it had been my pick. The responsibility of choosing a book for others to read is weighty and leaves a deeper impression.

Today Daughter #2 told me that her literature class is working on a poetry unit: did I have any poems I suggest she read? What a delicious invitation.

This evening I pulled poetry books from the shelves and we began to read our favorites out loud. We came upon this one by Billy Collins.


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never
even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses good-bye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Billy Collins
Sailing Alone Around the Room

The Elements of Expression

As a bookworm, English major, and former editor, I am a sucker for books about language. Arthur Plotnik, the author of The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words, knows his stuff.

He calls on writers to eliminate dead and faded metaphors; throw away “clichés, crutch words (‘really,’ ‘just’), and redundancies (‘completely empty’)”; and reach for language that is fresh, succinct, and inventive.

I found the book slow to start. By Chapter 5 (Steps Toward Expressiveness), Mr. Plotnik picks up the pace and offers concrete steps to take, which he distills to “Read–Listen–Savor–Keep a journal. Pause–Scan–Choose–Invent–Polish.”

Mr. Plotnik himself is a talented, nimble writer. Here are some of his gems:

We stuff verbal straw into the spaces between our spoken statements.

Given the same meaning, the smaller package of words–the grenade–usually delivers more force than a fusillade of blanks.

Empowerment comes from precision, precision, precision; from language that harpoons the exact meaning, the nuance, for the intended audience.

Sincerity requires language that reaches outside the ordinary to signal importance, yet avoids the pitfalls of contrivance, fraudulence, and self-indulgence. . . . It takes . . . language that stands on its toes but doesn’t leave the ground.

And his chapter Make my Day: The Power of Tough Talk made me laugh:

When Americans get going–especially to impress tough-talking peers–they can caulk an entire narrative with the word [f*ck], working it into every grammatical crevice and jamming it between syllables as an infix: “unf*ckingbelieveable!”

This book served as an entertaining, get-back-in-focus language manual for me. Since reading it, I am paying more attention to oral and written language (mine and others), and I am working to avoid the cliché ruts, tired vocabulary, and monotonous structures my brain reverts to when lazy. Mr. Plotnik’s suggestion of keeping a writer’s journal to log expressive words and well-turned phrases is one I’d like to try.

To me, the biggest challenge is finding that authentic voice and feeling comfortable using it. We are taught all sorts of language rules and then we are exhorted to have the courage to express ourselves uniquely. No wonder I feel conflicted about writing!

Soon after finishing this book, I heard Diane Rehm’s conversation with Barbara Kingsolver about Ms. Kingsolver’s new book, Flight Behavior. If you want to hear expressive language, listen to Ms.Kingsolver read pp. 13-14 of her book during this interview. Her writing is exquisite.

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