Kind winter books

If you are thinking what I am thinking right now (“How can it snow so much when it is so cold?”) and if temperatures are heading to -12F later this week, then you are in need of the comfort books can provide. These two titles  provide rest and ease, and a drink of clear water from another time.

They also are cheap because they have been forgotten.

The Woman’s Day Book of House Plantsbook of houseplants

The author is Jean Hersey; the illustrator is Harry Marinksy. It is worth noting both their names. Hersey writes about houseplants as if they were friends, and Marinksy draws them the same way.

The tenderness of this book!   You have to be in a certain mood to appreciate it, but if you are (say, on a snowed-in weekend), the book can make you happy. For example:

“Perhaps a window garden is at its best on a chilly winter day when icicles fringe the eaves, when the wind howls in the chimney, and when the sun shines on your small indoor tropic. . . . You draw up a chair beside your plants, perhaps you water, turn a plant, trim off a straggle, or maybe you just sit. Soon your awareness quickens , you begin noticing new things.”

An aside: I know grammar; it is one of the things I am paid to know, and it is a faint surprise to see Hersey’s adeptness with a sentence. I doubt she was an English major, either.

Abebooks has it for prices ranging from $1 to $4.

Goldfish Varieties and Water Gardensgoldfish book

I cannot reproduce the state of mind I was in when I bought this book for a few dollars at Abebooks last year; maybe I just knew a bargain when I saw it. This 1947 volume by William T. Innes is richly illustrated with both drawings and photographs.

I don’t know anything about goldfish or water gardens, which is why reading around in this book is such a pleasant, naive experience. Innes communicates his experience, which is considerable, and his enjoyment, also considerable. I looked him up once; he lived well into his nineties, healthy and productive to the end.

Like Hersey, Innes is a freaking fantastic grammarian. He knows his way around a sentence. This is how the book begins:

“A lady wrote the author, I have just bought eight pretty goldfish in a cute little globe. I feed them three good meals a day and change the water often, but they are always at the top of the water with their mouths partly in the air. This makes a little sound. Do you think they are trying to speak to me?

This letter sounds funny, of course, but it really was not intended as a humorous effect. That makes it sad. Those four short sentences are unique in that they have compressed or crystallized  into a few simple words the substance of a vast popular ignorance on the subjects treated in this chapter. The lady should be awarded a medal for crowding the greatest amount of aquarium ignorance into the fewest possible words.”

This book can get pricy because some sellers have noticed how beautiful it is. But it still can be had at Abebooks for $9-$15.

Being there

I was on vacation in western New York for not long enough.  It was so good that when I returned, rather than feeling comforted by the familiarity of being home, I felt as though I were moving into a sublet. How convenient that the place has laundry soap and food in the cupboards, and that I have a key that fits the lock on the front door. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with me, even though the mail has my name on it, and I have the mysterious ability to pay bills and do work.

Convenient. But not home. Home is the place where I was. (Why, yes, it was a great time.)

One of the best things about getting away is how it reorganizes priorities. Things that were routine go out the window. New things crowd it. In the time I was away I never turned on a television; for some reason, the idea made me flinch. I think it was because I was in the midst of the REAL. Doing things, being places—not watching electronic reproductions of all that.

I used the iPad to keep up with email—you have to—and uploaded a few photos to Facebook. Checked the local weather. That was it for the internet. My work and all the nonsense I use to distract myself from work fell away as if it were made of mist.

So I am here at this Pennsylvania sublet with my name on it. Mentally and spiritually I am still in western New York, by the lake.


Porch and parrot, Chautauqua, New York

The Artist’s Way Week 12: Annie on the couch

This is my sixth blog about The Artist’s Way course. The first five are Everything Is Connected, Fasten Your Seat Belts, Reading Deprivation, Do Fury Honor, and Becalmed.

Week 12 is the final week of the course.  Not that the course is ever supposed to be “over.” The two key actions—morning pages and a weekly artist date—are meant to continue forever.

Morning pages

For twelve weeks, seven days a week, I have been writing three pages in longhand before I start the work of the day. By “writing” I do not mean WRITING. I mean putting down whatever comes to mind. Sometimes these pages are meditative. Sometimes they are really boring. When I re-read them after nine weeks, I was surprised at the insight and clarity that bloomed amidst the boring parts.

To do morning pages, you need to make up your mind to do them. That’s the main thing. Then you need a cheap notebook—Walgreens has them, and you could beat their price at Walmart. You should use a pen that feels good to the hand, because you are going to be holding that pen a lot. I like Papermate Ink Joy.

The morning pages are therapy. As therapy goes, they are an astonishing bargain. Your cost is about a half hour a day and the price of the pens and notebooks.

As I write these pages, I often think of the movie Annie Hall. Alvy and Annie spent a lot of time in their respective therapists’ offices, thinking out loud about their lives. With the morning pages, you write out loud about your life. “If I do X, then Y will happen. But if I don’t do X . . . .”

(Come to think of it, Annie was not on a couch. Her therapist had her sitting up in a chair.)

Here’s the thing: morning pages work the way that talk therapy does. You remember the same dreams, you work out the same issues, you return again and again to the same meaningful themes.

I didn’t know that to do talk therapy, you don’t actually have to pay anyone to listen. Writing gets it done.

Space now

I’ve spent the last month or so decluttering the place. I’ve donated things, made trips to Goodwill, and done all the throwing out, rearranging, and repurposing that came when I paid attention to things I had stopped looking at. I repotted the two permanent indoor plants and very happy they were that I finally noticed how cramped and suffering they were in old pots that they had long since outgrown.

At last! Things that should be put away are put away. Things I don’t like are gone. I know what I own. I found not only what I wanted to get rid of but peace_lilyalso good stuff I had forgotten I had.

There is space now. I can’t call it new because it has been there all the time.

Physical clutter and mental clutter have things in common.

Everyone instinctively knows what mental clutter is. It is the stuff that stands in your way, yammering about the past. It is old habits that no longer serve a purpose, or never did.  It is fears based not on reality but on self-talk. Such clutter does not go away easily. But it does,  like spring coming. Which spring is actually doing right now, peeking up through the snow and cold.

Shopping at Ruthfred: an update


Well, the bank is gone. It just packed up and left a couple months ago.

I am sorry about this because Ruthfred Acres Shopping Center ought to have a bank.  This place—dating from the 1940s—is western Pennsylvania’s first strip mall. In 2009 I wrote a blog called Shopping at Ruthfred (where?). It was one of the most popular things I ever posted. I figured it was time for an update.

Without seeing Ruthfred, it is hard to visualize how tiny it  is. You could walk from one end of it to the other in about a minute. Yet in that minute you would pass a grocery store, a three-story hardware store (it had to expand vertically), a deli, a dry cleaner, a pharmacy, and the offices of a lawyer and a primary care doctor.

The pharmacy  is new. The old place, O’Briens, had always the look of a business waiting to be sold. Last year the business was taken over by a local chain called Spartan Pharmacy. The place is light, warm, and inviting—not an easy look for a drugstore to pull off.

At the front are an overstuffed couch and comfortable chairs. More candles for sale in proportion to its size than I have ever seen in any drugstore. One line of candles is made by a company called A Cheerful Giver. Burt’s Bees are there. So is Sarris candy.

The primary care doctor next door to Spartan happens to be mine, which is how I found Ruthfred in the first place. (An insurance change necessitated a change in doctors.)  Although she practices thoroughly modern medicine, her office is plain. Friendly and welcoming, but plain. Her office has imbued character from its surroundings.

The last time I was there, my doctor mentioned that when the deli next door makes macaroni and cheese, everyone can smell it cooking through the wall. This is Ruthfred. “You  can talk to me” this office says. “This is life.”

I hope my doctor is never forced to move to an isolated healthcare citadel—a place a sane person would flee from. No one in all of Ruthfred’s history has ever wanted to flee from it. I would bet money on this.

In 2o12, Ruthfred Market won a Tribune  Reader’s Choice Gold Award for “favorite grocery store.”

Little, Big

I know people who get tens of thousands of  hits a month on their blogs, but I am not one of them. Barring some freakish celebrity, this will not happen. Should I stop blogging, knowing this?

Sometimes it is claimed that numbers below a certain benchmark are equivalent to “nothing” or “nobody.” (This benchmark is determined arrogantly by those who have a stake in believing it.) But in blogs, as in so much else in life, small can be beautiful. The people I reach and who reach me through Writer’s Rest are—believe me—a very, very, VERY far cry from nobody. I learn from them and they from me. The campfire that is my blog has attracted some choice readers.

This is not nothing. It is not even small. Considering that every act reverberates forward, we don’t know (and often would not believe) the scope of our influence.

This came clear when I was thinking about, of all things, sewing. A woman from another time who sewed beautiful things for her family and friends would not be on board with the suggestion that she was sewing for “nobody.” She would not consider her numbers to be inadequate. Nor would they reflect on the quality of her work. The recipients of her gifts got to feel lucky. Especially lucky.

Everyone loves to discover something the greater world has not tuned in on yet. A little restaurant. A great store. An inn that flies under the radar. This is the world I live in, and it is a good place.


What small things make big differences in your life?

The Zone: an update

In 2009 I tried writing about the Zone. This blog is another try.

The Zone is that place where the road is wide open, and all the lights are green. Time fades out and doubt disappears. Anyone wholly absorbed in a task can find themselves in the Zone.

Color of money

In the 1986 Martin Scorsese movie The Color of Money, Tom Cruise plays Vincent Lauria, a kid with a gift for playing pool. Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson, who is trying to teach Vincent to be a pool hustler.

One night Vincent rebels against Fast Eddie’s lessons and starts playing the way he knows he can. For about 3 minutes, The Color of Money is about being in the Zone.


Shirley Jackson must have been in the Zone when she wrote The Lottery.

She conceived the story one spring morning while pushing her toddler daughter uphill in a stroller also laden with groceries. She was pregnant with her third child. After she put away the groceries and settled her daughter in the playpen, she started writing. By the time her oldest child came home from kindergarten, she had finished her masterpiece.

She describes the experience in “Biography of a Story”:

I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. . . . The story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft. This, as any writer of stories can tell you, is not a usual thing. All I know is that when I came to read the story over I felt strongly that I didn’t want to fuss with it. I didn’t think it was perfect, but I didn’t want to fuss with it.

Her agent didn’t like “The Lottery” but sold it to The New Yorker, which didn’t like it either but published it to a firestorm of controversy in 1948.

She often was asked how she came up with the stark, shocking plot. “It was a warm morning and the hill was steep,” she said unhelpfully.

As Jackson’s comment proves, the Zone can be hard to explain. For some reason, listening to John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” helps me get to it while writing. No idea why.

The other day I heard “Wild Night” by Van Morrison: “Everything looks so complete / When you’re walking out on the street / And the wind will catch your feet / And send you flying.”

“Zone,” I thought.

When have you been working on something and found yourself in the Zone?

What movies, books, art, or music come to mind?

The funniest show in the world

When I make a list of things that make life worth living—and gratitude has been upmost in my mind recently—there is a permanent place for  Mystery Science Theater 3000. When it was firing on all cylinders,  it was the funniest show in the world.

The premise was simple: show bad movies and shorts while wisecracking about them. They were good at it.

Two hours of helpless laughter on a weekly basis. It would be something to do that once. The folks at Minnesota-based Best Brains made it happen over and over.

I don’t remember how I found MST3K, but I do remember the first episode I saw: Monster A Go Go. The smiling effects from my chance encounter with that appalling movie continue to this day.

The heart of Deep 13

I found MST3K in the mid-1990s, which meant that the glory days of the funniest show in the world coincided with the start of the personal computer revolution.  MST3K used to ask viewers to send letters (on paper! in envelopes! with stamps!). But it also ran in the early days of social media.

On CompuServe was a Special Interest Group (SIG) for fans called Deep 13. That SIG had some powerful mojo. Because of it, friendships formed that endure to this day. Marriages happened.

Last month I went to Chicago to see two friends I met originally in Deep 13. We saw some bad movies, and we had ourselves some laughs.

Now playing: Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax

The people who made the funniest show in the world continue to do what they do. They split into two groups: Cinematic Titanic, created by Joel Hodgson, the original creator of MST3K; and Rifftrax (“we don’t make movies . . . we make them funny”).

Rifftrax is live in movie theaters several times a year. In Chicago we saw the Rifftax crew—Kevin Murphy, Mike Nelson, and Bill Corbett—riff  Manos, The Hands of Fate. Manos might not be the worst movie ever made, but it is a contender.

Restoration comedy

In 1998 I was seriously ill. Thanks to a friend in Deep 13, the folks at Best Brains sent me a get well card.

My message to them in September 2012: Guys, you’ve still got it. And I am doing fine.

The other side of the stretch

First, the other side of the stretch feels wonderful.

The trip to Scotland is over. A lot of travel (five planes, five airports, customs, security,  jet lag) for the prize: a week spent living in Aberdeen, a very old city. Living there, not just seeing the tourist highlights. Nothing was familiar, everything was new.

The green in Scotland is not like the green in Pennsylvania. Scottish trees and plants are luminous. I understand why people thought magical creatures lived in those forests—which are living invitation to contemplate beauty and mystery.

“I want this trip,” I thought, and it was a pull like  a tractor beam, bigger and stronger than my sensible objections.

Now the negative voices are quiet, with nothing to say.

Something more subtle is going on, too. It has to do with leaving home and coming back again. Great things can happen after a trip, not least of which is that the traveler sees home with fresh eyes. Old habits and rutted routines become obvious. The stiffness that comes with living low and narrow is no good anymore. The traveler wonders why she ever thought it was.

I used to wonder why anyone who had been through a bad experience (eg, a serious illness, loss of a job) could look back afterward and say it was the best thing that ever happened to them. Yet some people do, and I know a few of them.

Now I think I know why: that bad experience was another country. They went to that place. They came home. Then they cleaned house, and washed and mended what was torn. They started fresh, and the starting brought good things, the way spring does.

Zen gets my attention

Understand this: I am not a Buddhist. I cannot define “zen” articulately. Yet in passing, John Tarrant made me sit up and listen. He is a Western Zen teacher, and director of the Pacific Zen Institute in Santa Rosa, California. I came across Tarrant’s web site via the blog Beyond the Fields We Know.

Here is how Tarrant got my attention:

In an article called Pity To Waste A Good Crisis, he wrote this:

When I had cancer, I thought that it might be inconvenient or frightening, but it turned out to be interesting. It made me a lot less lazy about being present. There was a time when diagnosis, course of treatment, and outcome were all uncertain and, in that condition, my mind reached for certainty over and over again. That quest, being hopeless, brought pain. But when my mind stopped reaching out and fell back into the warm dark of uncertainty, time stretched out infinite on either side and there was a pool of joy that seemed bottomless—joy in breathing, joy in hearing the birds in the cold before dawn. Having cancer was much more exciting than sitting in an armchair, watching the game on Sunday. And everything I looked at had the aspect of tenderness and delicacy. I looked into the checkout clerk’s eyes and saw the universe looking back.

How can he say such a thing, even on a really, really good day? Yet he does, and he has the right to say it, too. His perspective is not theoretical.

That was Tuesday. It was the first working day after the holiday, and it was snowing, and I had to do some errands I was not eager to do: (1) call my mortgage company and find out why a late charge had been attached to my bill when payment was not late and (2) find out what happened to a prescription refill that should have been called in last week. Plus work.

“What is so bad about those things?” I asked myself while the snow swirled down. I relaxed. This I attribute entirely to having encountered John Tarrant in a state of total ignorance about Buddism and zen—a state that persists.

So the call to the mortgage company ended up an offer of refinancing that will save serious money,  for real. Prescription turned out to have been called in after all, and I got to pharmacy between snow squalls (one of the few times  when it was not snowing). Picked up prescription, bought soup ingredients at the grocery next door, and wished all a happy new year.

Because I was smiling.

How do I  hold on to that sudden encounter with enlightenment? Can I learn to turn off the ego chatter at will? I read another article by Tarrant called Unicorns Come All by Themselves:

” If you throw away everything you believe about your difficulties you will notice that many of them disappear and the rest become interesting. When you get the hang of being more interested in life than in agreeing with your thoughts, then you will get the life you get. And you will be able to have as much happiness as you want with almost no effort whatsoever. When you stop believing your thoughts, you look around just for you, just because it is interesting to look around. Some people call that enlightenment. But you won’t call it that. You’ll be too interested in the new view. And you’ll notice that wherever you look there will be nothing but those damned unicorns.

I wrote this blog partly so I could find Tarrant’s web site again without any trouble. (My bookmark list is nothing BUT trouble at this point; it is out of control like rampaging crown vetch.) But I also wrote this post as a way of saying Happy New Year. Maybe you will want to find it again sometime, too.

Tarrant  has written two books: Bring Me the Rhinoceros and other Zen Koans to Save Your Life and The Light Inside the Dark. I like the sound of the first one.

Fantasy is spirituality’s playground

The first time I realized this was when I was reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Dickinson—a spectacularly gifted fantasist and no slouch in the spirituality department—used fantasy to explore the deepest mysteries of existence, or the “noiseless noise” as she put it.

The worlds out of sight—whether within the mind, within nature, or within the locked universe of the dead—are Dickinson’s primary poetic themes, even her obsessions. Through fantasy she can explore these ungraspable worlds, while still acknowledging that they are ungraspable. She captures mysteries without destroying their mysteriousness, without reducing
them to rational terms and limited, logical explanations.

I just finished a science fiction novel called The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. In it, the exploration of an alien planet by a mission financed and partly consisting of Jesuit priests results in some thoughtful and lively storytelling. Questions about evil, the nature of God, the nature of life itself—all find themselves happily at home in a world with unfamiliar boundaries and inhabitants.

When a child reads a fairy tale, she stretches her imagination beyond the immediate world she lives in. In the play of the stories, she learns to consider realities she cannot touch or see.

The world is teeming with mysteries. Some people understand more than others, but none of us can see the big picture; that is not in us. Dickinson knew:

But nature is a stranger yet;
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those that know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.