Books

I’ll never forget my eldest daughter’s first word other than “mama”.  My mother worked in bookshop at the time and when we entered the door she looked about in wonder.  “Book!  Book!  Book!”  At 9 months old she knew them well.  I read to her morning, noon and night and when she nursed I read my own books.  Today she is still a reader and her most prized possessions line her bookshelves.

My mom is also a book lover and like me, she enjoys the escape and possibilities.  There is always a wish list on Amazon, gift certificates for holidays and books tucked into care packages.

So many possibilities…

Years ago when we moved to Holland, few possessions went with us.  With a meager weight allowance for relocation we left all but the essentials behind.  Discovering the English section at the library, consisting of one bookcase, felt like locating treasure and I must have read at least half of the volumes on offer.  We were excited when we stumbled upon books we could read at flea market stalls and scarcity made them precious.

I feel dismay when I notice the half-empty shelves at the library and see the collection diminishing.  Patrons are more likely to be surfing the internet than borrowing books and the library may be building up the collection of e-books due to popular demand.  I understand scarce resources and hard decisions, but miss exploring the aisles and coming home with a stack of books.  For 6 weeks I can learn about anything, and return the book so that someone else can do the same.  I like the ideas contained in books, and love the idea of circulation to keep the knowledge flowing.

“A Walk Across America” inspired me to walk from LA to DC.  When I was expecting babies and made the unusual choice to give birth at home, authors like Sheila Kitzinger and Janet Balaskas shared their wisdom and became trusted guides.  When I moved to Europe, the Internet was not what it is today and reading books was my way of preparing for the unknown.  Reading with my children awakened imagination and made new friends come to life.  Students loved it when I rewarded good behavior with stories and even “did the voices.”

Someone once said I was an open book.  Somehow “you’re a charged e-reader” doesn’t have the same ring.  Long live writers, readers, learners and books.

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Think Inside the Box: With Constraints Come Freedom

Creativity may bring to mind brainstorming and unlimited possibilities.  It appears to be free-flowing, expansive, open.  It may be anti-intuitive, but limitations can boost creativity.  Constraints provide boundaries and clarity so that the artist can focus on the problem or challenge at hand.  They’re a decisive starting place that leads to clear results.

Challenge:  Using a 4′ x 4′ square of cardboard, design and construct a chair capable of bearing your weight when seated.  You may fold, score or cut the cardboard, but no pieces may be removed and you may not use any type of adhesive.

Industrial design students were given this assignment – a more difficult task than it appears.  Because of the limitations – 4×4, cardboard, no pieces cut out and no glue – and the requirements – you must be able to sit on it – they could focus on the creative aspects.  What shape would function best?  How can I make something functional and elegant from this simple material?  How will it all fit together?

Cardboard Chair

Cardboard Chair

My “400 Words” writing practice is much the same on a smaller scale.  When I set a manageable limit there are no excuses.  The title, centered and bold, serves as the starting line and the 400th word is the finish.  I’m free to say anything about the chosen topic, but it ends at 400.

I also like the concept of limitations when it comes to space.  Living in a small apartment means looking at usable space with a different perspective and finding creative solutions such as multifunctional furniture or equipment.  Bookshelves are installed in the space above the door.  Beds have drawers beneath.  Tables expand and chairs stack.  Futons are rolled and beds fold into walls.  If something new comes into the house, something else must leave out of necessity.  Even better are boats.  Have you ever seen a sailboat with an attached garage or basement?  With limited space, you’re confined to essentials and there is beauty in the smallest detail.

Today, try thinking inside the box.  Make a feast from the contents of your pantry and fridge.  Draw a masterpiece the size of a business card.  Instead of a coffee break, write a haiku.  Read 20 pages, walk 2 miles until the sun rises, fill a flat rate box with surprises and send it to someone you love.  As my daughter, the designer, says, “With constraints come creative freedom.”

Cardboard Chair

Beauty, Form and Function

The Penny Project

Another 400 word essay!

Today I will purchase a roll of pennies, and for half a dollar I will make 50 people happy.  I will leave pennies on benches, drop them on sidewalks, scatter them like seeds, one at a time.

Do you remember the rhyme?

                     Find a penny

                     Pick it up

                     All day long

                     You’ll have good luck.

I believed that saying when I was a child, and remember the joy I felt when I found a penny lying on the ground.  It promised abundance and I expected good fortune the rest of the day.  Every happy coincidence confirmed that a single penny had brightened my life.

It doesn’t matter if the penny is old and well-worn or shiny copper.  If it looks old, a child will look carefully at the date it was made.  She may marvel at this small coin that passed from pocket to purse, hand to hand, for years before her own birth.  If the coin is newly minted, its brilliance will make the finder want to keep it in a jar to admire later like a firefly trapped on a summer evening.  Even an ordinary dull penny promises the same luck.  And if the newly discovered penny is then thrown into a wishing well or fountain, good fortune is increased as well as being passed on to others.

I remember when a penny had real value.  I was best friends with a twin brother and sister, and after school we would stop at the Ben Franklin before continuing the walk home.  There we could choose from bins of penny candy, some costing 1¢, some costing a nickel, but always less than a dime.  It was difficult to choose between so many types and flavors.  The store was a dime store with wooden floors and merchandise stacked nearly to the ceiling.  The choice  was incredible if you were looking for plastic dolls, paper doilies, artificial flowers or small jars of bubbles.

A few years ago I went back to my neighborhood and drove by the “Five and Dime.”  I had told my daughters about my walks home, the traditional stop, and wanted to let them feel the boards creak under their feet.  It had been replaced by a pet supermarket, the bubbles and doilies now gourmet dog biscuits and squeaky toys.  And nothing cost a penny.

Still, I think that I’ll go to the bank and get a roll.

Apples and Cinnamon

This time of the year I feel anticipation.  The fall is more like my New Year as we prepare for school, buy supplies and get ready for a year routine.  But I also feel the light change, days getting shorter and wait for cooler evenings even though I know they’re at least a month away in this warm southern climate.  And even though they’re now available year round, I look forward to apples.

I used to think that apples were quite ordinary and Red Delicious still does not delight my palate.  Later I discovered Braeburns and Pink Lady and then tried various new varieties for baking when I lived in England.  Texas is not apple country and I have yet to branch out to more exotic heirloom and local varieties found in other regions.  We’re not growers, but I appreciate those who are working to preserve the old-timers with their distinct personalities, flavors and unusual names and pass on ancient grafts and cultivation practices.  As with all produce, the best is here and now – local and in season.  And organic is even better!

Like those who celebrate with Beaujolais Nouveau the third Thursday of each year, I have my own annual ritual.  Each autumn I buy a gallon of Louisburg Apple Cider, produced just a few miles from where I grew up and made from Missouri apples, and I celebrate autumn and the taste of home.  Its flavor is unforgettable, and I’ve shared it with others who have been equally pleased and surprised by its intense apple flavor.

Apple pairs perfectly with cinnamon, which is now readily available but was once highly treasured.  Centuries ago, cinnamon was considered a gift worthy of offering to kings and gods and the spice was praised in Song of Solomon.  Cinnamon and other spices were transported from Southeast Asia to the port of Alexandria and then to Rome.  Valuable and rare, spices shaped history as nations fought to dominate markets and gain access to Asia.  Cinnamon is still anything but ordinary, with its ability to awaken the senses and to heal with its anti-viral and anti-microbial properties.

The aroma of apple and cinnamon, whether baked in a pie or warmed in mulled cider, stirs feelings of autumn leaves and crisp blue skies.  They’re comfort foods with an ancient history.  For me, they are simple and satisfying and they smell and taste like home.

apples and cinnamon

apples and cinnamon

The Art of Baking

When my first daughter was a baby, I tried my hand at baking bread.  I loved the smell of bread in the oven, loved the taste of a warm slice spread with butter.

Homemade Bread

We didn’t have much money for cookbooks then, and didn’t have the internet with its millions of recipes.  So I went to the library, checked out books on baking, and set to work.  My first attempts weren’t too bad, but the results were irregular.  Sometimes the dough didn’t rise well, sometimes the finished bread was dark brown and hard.  I tried white loaves, healthy whole wheat, and even attempted to make French baguettes.

I continued baking over the years, and then met my friend Carlo.  Carlo was Italian, and returned from visits to his family with olive oil his father had pressed and jars of tomato sauce from his mother’s kitchen.  Carlo’s family often ate pizza, and he told me how his mama made the dough for the pizza crust.  “She has the touch.  Not everyone has it, you know.”  I knew what he meant, and I listened carefully as he shared her dough-making secrets.

Every Friday I made pizza.  I had cheated for a couple of years and used a kit bought from the grocery store.  The pizzas were fine, but I wanted to have the touch like Carlo’s mother.   I followed the directions that had been given like a gift to me.  The ingredients were simple, but it was the technique that counted.  Week after week I mixed and kneaded and baked, and as I worked with the dough I connected with generations of women all over the world who made bread with nothing but flour, yeast, water, salt and oil.  With the same ingredients I learned to make pita bread and foccacia, and with extra eggs, milk and butter I braided challah.  After many years of practice, I, too, had the touch.  I learned that I had to feel the dough and know what it needed.  The process became so familiar that I didn’t even have to think.

Now I am someone’s mama, and I bake bread.  Two of my daughters have already left home, and sometimes they miss our weekly tradition.  Every once in awhile on a Friday, one will call and ask, “Are you eating pizza?”  She may even tell her friends, “My mother has the touch.”  Not everyone does, you know.

Challah Bread

Homemade Challah

Bird Watching

Here’s another “400 Words” essay I wrote awhile back.  I’m also submitting it in response to this week’s writing challenge:  “From Mundane to Meaningful.”

A funny thing just happened.  I was sitting here at my desk, trying to squeeze some inspiration from the scribblings in my little notebook.  My brain moaned in protest as I tapped the keyboard, and I waited for some jewel to drop from the sky onto my screen.

I looked through the open blinds and noticed little sparrows flitting around my yard.  They resembled dead leaves, grayish brown and fluttering from tree to fence to tree.  One bird was blue with an orange chest, the only color in a dull winter landscape.  Suddenly, a little sparrow flew right toward my window and hit the glass in front of my eyes.  The creature then took off sideways and hit another pane, and once again headed my direction.  Finally, it lighted on a very narrow space on the lower ledge.  Looking for footing, it clung to the screen, and I watched without moving, not wanting to startle it further.  I could see it breathing rapidly, and its chest quivering.  After a few minutes the sparrow seemed to calm down and its breathing was more even.  Another bird just swooped down, gave it a tap, and it flew off to perch on the edge of the gutter on the roof as if nothing had happened.

That sparrow was telling me something.  I watched as it hit the glass – three times!  The bird was like me, floundering one way then another, hitting obstacles left and right.  But then it found a place to recover, catch its breath, and regain its sense of direction.  The little sparrow then flew off again when the time was right.

I’ve never been like those ducks and geese that fly south for the winter in a perfect “V”.  There is no doubt of their timing or destination.  It’s something that they’re born with, that sense of direction.  They follow the leader in formation, never deviating from the plan.  I’m more like the sparrows. They migrate too, in well defined routes, and go with the flow to find warmer places.  But each bird has its own pattern and flies in circles and swoops and hops and waves.

I marvel at the geese with their strong wings flapping regularly, necks outstretched and head like the tip of an arrow.  They are so sure of themselves.  But I’m more delighted by the sparrows, weaving their invisible maypole ribbons just outside my window.

Doors

Hi All!  In another post I introduced “400 Words” – a practice I’ve used to free up creativity and get the juices flowing.  It’s simple.

  1. Think of an everyday word or concept and type it in bold font, centered at the top.
  2. Start writing about the word and the experiences and feelings that come to mind.  For example, “Ice Cream” might lead to an essay about a favorite childhood birthday or the creeper in the ice cream truck.  Who knows!
  3. Don’t worry too much and keep the words and ideas flowing.
  4. Use the “word count” feature to make sure it’s exactly 400 words.
  5. Make a few edits if you want.
  6. Stop.

Doors

When I lived in London, I traveled lightly.  I walked out the door of my apartment with three things in my pocket:  a front door key, my travel card, and a debit card.  Even though I was mother to three children, with many responsibilities, I didn’t need a large bag crammed with band-aids, tissues, snacks, remote controls, or phones.  With two cards and a key I could travel the city by bus or tube, I could purchase anything I needed, and could enter my only door.  My mother-in-law worried that we only had two locks and used one, but we lived five years in the building without incident or fear.

Now I’m back in the U.S. and things have changed.  I’m a homeowner for the first time.  I have three doors, a garage door, two cars and a security system.  On my key ring dangles a mess of keys and remote controls to open gates, boxes, doors.  But rather than representing open gates and promising possibilities, each feels like a weight on my mind as well as in my pocket.  When I leave the house, I no longer pat my pocket reassuringly, feeling the small wallet with the two important cards, and lock my door without another care.  Instead, I check front, back and garage entrances, set the alarm, hop in the car, close the garage door.  I test each door, consciously watch the garage door slide down, wonder if intruders will try to invade my property.

I remember visiting my grandparents who lived in a small town.  The front door was always unlocked, just like all the others in town.  Relatives and neighbors would drop by and call out a cheery “hello” as they walked freely through the screen door.  The only security system necessary was my great-great-aunt who lived alone next door or the neighbors across the street sitting on the front porch swing, talking, laughing and drinking iced tea.   I wonder if things have changed in that town.  Do people pass each other without greetings?  Do locked doors change guests into possible intruders?

I’m grateful for my house, for the things I own and use.  But I hope those things don’t own me.  I won’t build brick walls around myself, install a security system that triggers alarm with life’s little invasions.  I want a mind with an open door, and a heart with a big porch swing.