Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Just for Her

Photo courtesy Hannes Wolf

Introduction by Ted Kooser: Here David Wagoner, a distinguished poet living in Washington state, vividly describes a peacock courtship, and though it’s a poem about birds, haven’t you seen the males of other species, including ours, look every bit as puffed up, and observed the females’ hilarious indifference?

Peacock Display

He approaches her, trailing his whole fortune,
Perfectly cocksure, and suddenly spreads
The huge fan of his tail for her amazement.

Each turquoise and purple, black-horned, walleyed quill
Comes quivering forward, an amphitheatric shell
For his most fortunate audience: her alone.

He plumes himself. He shakes his brassily gold
Wings and rump in a dance, lifting his claws
Stiff-legged under the great bulge of his breast.

And she strolls calmly away, pecking and pausing,
Not watching him, astonished to discover
All these seeds spread just for her in the dirt.

Reprinted from “Best of Prairie Schooner: Fiction and Poetry,” University of Nebraska Press, 2001, by permission of the author, whose most recent book is Good Morning and Good Night, University of Illinois Press, 2005. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. The column does not accept unsolicited poetry.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Reading A Paris Year: “La Vie Est Faite de Petits Bonheurs”*

Let’s take a break from the everyday adventure of blog redesign to bask in the simple pleasure of a new book!

I got this little beauty in the mail this week:



I’ve been waiting impatiently for it since I used part of my Mother’s Day gift card to preorder it. I loved Paris Letters, and I’m happy to say A Paris Year, while different in format, is also completely delightful.

MacLeod’s love of Paris shines on every page. It’s the love of a woman who has spent time getting to know her beloved intimately through the year’s seasons, through dark and light, through frustrations and delights. Amazon accurately describes it as a love letter to Paris.

Set up in diary format, each page holds photos or art—or both—as well as wonderful little snippets of information. So far, I’ve learned about the Wallace fountains (page 19), “le macaron” (page 59), the Arago Rose Line (page 61), and salt harvesting (page 75). 

Pretty endpapers


My photos don’t do the book justice, but I wanted you to see a little bit of what’s inside.

This is the type of book I’d love to write. Where each page is a delicious little morsel to enjoy, that satisfies a longing for beauty and inspiration.

I’m doing my best to read just a few pages a day so I can savor the experience, rather than gulping it down in one swallow. Something tells me, though, I’ll be finished soon—maybe I’ll go back and reread it, then reread Paris Letters. Why, yes, I’m in the mood for some escapist reading, why do you ask?

Where are you escaping to this summer?

*“Life is full of small pleasures”

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

On the First Day of Summer


“It was June, and the world smelled of roses. The sunshine was like powdered gold
over the grassy hillside.”
—Maud Hart Lovelace

Friday, June 16, 2017

Finding Happiness in the Messy Middle

Photo courtesy Pexels

Yesterday I found myself near tears in the produce section of my local Publix supermarket. No, I don’t have a strange phobia related to cantaloupe and corn on the cob. Let me explain.

For the past 150 years (it seems) I’ve been working on a redesign of Catching Happiness. I’m trying to update its appearance, provide a way for readers to subscribe to posts, and come up with some new goodies for you. These things sound simple, and taken individually they might be, but taken all at once, by me, an impatient, tech-ignorant, semi-perfectionist, they haven’t been simple at all. Just when I think I’ve got one item sorted, some other thing pops up to derail me.

I’m in the messy middle. The messy middle is where you find yourself when the first flush of enthusiasm for a project has drained away, and you can’t quite see the finish line and draw energy from being almost done.

The messy middle is where it gets…messy. Messy with possibilities, both pursued and cast off, messy with decision-making. There is often confusion. Sometimes there is crying. Or cursing. The messy middle is where fear lives.

After taking the afternoon off in favor of grocery shopping and having two cracked teeth repaired at the dentist (if you can call having one’s teeth drilled “taking the afternoon off”), I decided that instead of weeping and tearing my hair out—and writing long, whiny emails to Laure Ferlita—I am going to grit those newly repaired teeth and figure out how to get through the messy middle so I can learn from it, and maybe even find some happiness in it.

Here are some things I came up with to help—maybe they can help you then next time you face the messy middle:

  • Take extra care of my body and mind. While I’m stressed out by uncertainty and frustration, it’s important that I eat healthfully (rather than mainlining cookies), get enough sleep, and continue my regular exercise program. I also need to allow myself some downtime so I don’t let the well run dry
  • Envision the end product. Take a moment to picture what finished looks like, and how it feels. Anyone can persist with what comes easily—how proud will I feel when I stick with it, even though it’s hard?
  • Simplify other areas/streamline. Even though I might be tempted by the next shiny thing, I cannot take on too many different and complex projects right now. I have certain commitments that I’ll keep up with, but I’m not going to undertake any new, major tasks.
  • Seek support. (See: whiny emails to Laure Ferlita.) I don’t have to go it alone. I can ask for help. I stink at this. I hate asking for help, because I know everyone is busy with their own stuff, and I feel like I *should be able to handle this project. However, there is no way around the fact that I can’t handle this project by myself, and I’ve had to reach out for help. And whaddya know? That help has been there.

While I was writing this post, I did a quick Google search of the term “messy middle” because it felt so familiar. I found 72,500 references to the phrase, related to topics like spirituality, management, and creative projects. Apparently the messy middle is A Thing. It’s not just me who struggles during the period between “started” and “done.”

In the past I’ve been guilty of rushing through life to get to the “good parts,” only to find that what I rushed through was the good part. I have a feeling that I’m rushing through this blog redesign just to finish it, rather than taking the opportunity to learn something every step of the way. Laure kept urging me to have fun with the process, and until today, I couldn’t even imagine being able to do that.

So despite the fact that I’ve been talking about and working on blog redesign for 150 years, it’s going to take a bit longer, and I should just get used to it. As Brene Brown writes in Rising Strong, “The middle is messy, but it’s also where the magic happens.”

I think it just did.

Are you in the messy middle of anything? How are you coping?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Father and Son

Photo courtesy swimswim

Introduction by Ted Kooser: Here's a touching father-son poem by Jennifer Gray, who lives in Nebraska. If you're not big enough to push a real mower, well, you make a mower of your own.

Summer Mowing

He has transformed
his Tonka dump truck
into a push mower, using

lumber scraps and duct tape
to construct a handle
on the front end of the dump box.

One brave screw
holds the makeshift
contraption together.

All summer they outline
the edges of these acres,
first Daddy, and then,

behind him
this small echo, each
dodging the same stumps,

pausing to slap a mosquito,
or rest in the shade,
before once again pacing

out into the light,
where first one,
and then the other,

leans forward to guide the mowers
along the bright edges
of this familiar world.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2015 by Jennifer Gray, “Summer Mowing,” from Plainsongs, (Vol. XXXV, no. 3, 2015). Poem reprinted by permission of Jennifer Gray and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2016 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Happy Father’s Day to my husband, my dad, my father-in-law, and all the other dads out there!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Take a Bow

A few weeks ago during a riding lesson, in front of six other students and a couple of watching parents, I made an “unscheduled dismount” from Tank’s back. We were practicing a combination of two small fences called a “bounce”—so named because the horse jumps the first fence then “bounces” over the second one without taking a stride. We’d never done this before and, it became obvious, hadn’t quite figured it out.

On one of our attempts, Tank didn’t have enough impulsion going in and had to make a big effort to get over the second fence, consequently “bouncing” me out of the saddle, where I clung to his neck like a scarf, making heroic efforts to stay aboard. Kind of like this (but with less success):


Tank stopped obligingly while I struggled to stay on, but eventually I slid to the ground, landing on my feet.

When I related this story to my friend Laure, she asked, “Did you take a bow?”

Laure’s question made me think about how some failures really need some form of positive acknowledgment—like taking a bow. After all, when we fail at something, we’re most likely pushing our comfort zones or trying to master something new. A spectacular failure comes from taking a big chance or going hard for something we want. That should be celebrated, even if the outcome wasn’t quite what we intended.

I’ve written about failure before, but coping with it is a lesson that bears repeating. Failing is important. It means you’re stretching, growing, and learning. Instead of hiding our failures, we can at least acknowledge them, if we can’t quite imagine celebrating them.

So the next time you fail, spectacularly or not, take a bow. Acknowledge that beautiful failure, be grateful for it, and move on.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Have You Practiced Today?

Photo courtesy Providence Doucet

“Happiness is a thing to be practiced, 
like the violin.”
—John Lubbock

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Stung

Photo courtesy Alexas_Fotos

Introduction by Ted Kooser: The University of Minnesota Press has published a wonderful new collection of bee poems, If Bees Are Few, which may in some small way help the bees and will certainly offer some honey to poetry lovers. Here's just one poem, by Heid Erdrich, who lives in Minnesota. Her most recent book is Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems from the University of Arizona Press.

Stung

She couldn't help but sting my finger,
clinging a moment before I flung her
to the ground. Her gold is true, not the trick
evening light plays on my roses.
She curls into herself, stinger twitching,
gilt wings folded. Her whole life just a few weeks,
and my pain subsided in a moment.
In the cold, she hardly had her wits to buzz.
No warning from either of us:
she sleeping in the richness of those petals,
then the hand, my hand, cupping the bloom
in devastating force, crushing the petals for the scent.
And she mortally threatened, wholly unaware
that I do this daily, alone with the gold last light,
in what seems to me an act of love.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2016 by Heid Erdrich, “Stung,” from If Bees Are Few: A Hive of Bee Poems (Univ. of Minnesota Pr., James P. Lenfesty, Ed., 2016). Poem reprinted by permission of Heid Erdrich and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2017 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How the Light Gets In


“Perfectionism is our denial of two very basic truths of existence: we are not perfect; and we are not, ultimately, in control. When we absorb the law of perfection, we are infected with the virus of self-doubt, which eats away at every area of our lives. The more perfect we are, we believe, the more valid we are as people. But with every advance in one area, we find ourselves wanting in another. We worry that we are not good enough, and, therefore, on some level that we do not deserve love, happiness, or maybe even life itself.

“We fear our imperfections will expose us as failures when actually they show the places we have grown, the markers of our realizations, our unique situation in the sands of time and cycles of nature. In the words of Leonard Cohen, ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’”
—Lucy H. Pearce, “Overcoming Perfectionism in a Culture That Promotes It,” Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself, ed. by Lori Deschene

Friday, May 19, 2017

Under (Re)construction


I’m in the midst of a redesign and update of Catching Happiness, so it might be a little quieter than usual here for the next week or two, depending on how smoothly the transition takes place, and you know how that goes! I’m excited about the changes, and hope you’ll love the new features, which will include a whole new look, a monthly newsletter, and a special sign up bonus for anyone who joins my brand new mailing list.

I’ll be back to sharing simple pleasures and everyday adventures with you soon!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

No Day Is Promised

Photo courtesy Aaron Burden

Introduction by Ted Kooser: Here's a celebration of one day in the week, the kids with the father, a brownie for breakfast, everything right with the world. January O’Neil lives in Massachusetts, and this poem first appeared in RATTLE. Her most recent book is Misery Islands (Cavankerry Press, 2014).

Sunday

You are the start of the week
or the end of it, and according
to The Beatles you creep in
like a nun. You're the second
full day the kids have been
away with their father, the second
full day of an empty house.
Sunday, I've missed you. I've been
sitting in the backyard with a glass
of Pinot waiting for your arrival.
Did you know the first Sweet 100s
are turning red in the garden,
but the lettuce has grown
too bitter to eat. I am looking
up at the bluest sky I have ever seen,
cerulean blue, a heaven sky
no one would believe I was under.
You are my witness. No day
is promised. You are absolution.
You are my unwritten to-do list,
my dishes in the sink, my brownie
breakfast, my braless day.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2013 by January O'Neil, “Sunday,” from Rattle, (No. 41, Fall 2013). Poem reprinted by permission of January O'Neil and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2017 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Happiness Is Wanting What You Have


Since it’s already 90+ degrees here, I’ve been thinking wistfully of the cooler, drier air we had on our road trip, how invigorating I found it and how nice it was not to be constantly sticky.

I’ve been admiring Debbie’s beautiful flowers, varieties that generally don’t grow well here in central Florida.

And I’m jealous of another friend’s success growing lavender—it doesn’t thrive here in Florida’s humidity.

Enough.

In all this wishing things were different, I’m forgetting the many simple pleasures that are right under my nose. For instance:
  • A backyard my husband is turning into an oasis, not only for us, but also for butterflies and birds:

  • This little face:


  • And this face, too:


  • Beautiful bird life:



I will always wish for a climate less humid, but I am so grateful I have air conditioning to make life livable. (My Florida-native husband grew up in a home without it!)

I’d love to grow peonies, but I’ll make do with the perennials that grow well in our back yard, and the orchids that thrive on the moist air.

It’s time to practice the adage,  “Happiness is not having what you want. It’s wanting what you have.”

Wanting what I have means paying attention rather than taking for granted. It means appreciating what simple pleasures exist in my own back yard, right under my nose, rather than grumpily refusing to acknowledge them because I’d prefer something different. Wanting what I have. And I have so much.

What simple pleasures do you take for granted?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Happiness Advice From Martha Washington


“I am determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may find myself. For I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition.”
—Martha Washington

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A Frame of Air

Photo courtesy Michael Gaida
Introduction by Ted Kooser: Once the carpenter put the sash-weights into the wall next to the window, they were never seen again. Eventually they fell off the ropes and with just one loud outcry fell deeper into the dark. But we propped the windows open with this and that, and forgot about the weights. Here's a poem about those props by Michelle Menting, who lives in Maine, and who was once our assistant at American Life in Poetry. Her forthcoming book is Leaves Surface Like Skin from Dancing Girl Press.

Objects Used to Prop Open a Window

Dog bone, stapler,
cribbage board, garlic press
   because this window is loose—lacks
suction, lacks grip.

Bungee cord, bootstrap,
dog leash, leather belt
   because this window had sash cords.
They frayed. They broke.

Feather duster, thatch of straw, empty
bottle of Elmer's glue
   because this window is loud—its hinges clack
open, clack shut.

Stuffed bear, baby blanket,
single crib newel
   because this window is split. It's dividing
in two.

Velvet moss, sagebrush,
willow branch, robin's wing
   because this window, it's pane-less. It's only
a frame of air.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2013 by Michelle Menting, “Objects Used to Prop Open a Window,” from Decomp Magazine, (February, 2015). Poem reprinted by permission of Michelle Menting and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2017 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Pictures of Rocks--the Meander Continues


Third and final installment of road trip adventures (see part one here, and part two here).

In addition to the striking scenery, good food, and precious hours spent with a friend, one of the best things about my recent trip was the complete break in routine. Routines can become ruts, where life sort of runs on automatic pilot and I don’t think about what I’m doing. After coming home, I have the choice of picking up my previous routines… or not. That’s one of the things I’m still figuring out, two weeks into my return. I feel like I need to change up how I operate.

But I digress.

Before I continue with the travelogue, I have to share with you the Best. Breakfast. Ever.  We ate at Crema in Cottonwood, Arizona both mornings we were in town. If you’re in the area, do not miss it. (No affiliation.)

Crepes with fresh berries and marscapone cheese

Egg sandwich with arugula and sriracha aioli


After fueling up at Crema, we waddled to our car where we took off for further exploration, including: 

The cliff dwellings at Montezuma Castle were home to the Southern Sinagua, and were occupied until the 1400s. Montezuma Castle is one of the best-preserved historic structures of the Southwest. It rises 100 feet above the valley, and consists of five stories and 20 rooms. Early American settlers assumed it was Aztec in origin, so they named it after Montezuma. We walked an easy paved loop trail past the cliff dwellings, down to the river, and back to the visitor’s center.



After the Castle, we stopped by Montezuma Well right at the end of the day, and what a lovely spot it turned out to be! The Well is fed by springs, and more than 1.5 million gallons of water flow into it every day.  The water eventually flows into an irrigation ditch, which has sections that date back over 1,000 years. The Southern Sinagua used water from this well to irrigate crops, and the residents of Rimrock, Arizona currently use it for gardens and livestock. There’s a pretty stiff climb up a hill that leads you to this:



We also climbed down to the water level of the well, and followed a trail along where the water flows out of it. 

In a previous post, I promised striking rock formations, and here they are:



Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte, near Sedona, Arizona. We stopped here briefly before sunset, dinner, and heading back to our hotel for the night.

The last place I’ll take you on this road trip is also one of my favorites: Horseshoe Bend. Horseshoe Bend is near the Grand Canyon, but not technically part of it. You can take an aerial or land tour, but you can also park and walk to the rim for free. Once there, look down 1,000 feet to the Colorado River as it winds around a 270-degree, horseshoe-shaped bend. This is known as an entrenched meander. Isn’t that a wonderful name?



We visited Horseshoe Bend twice, hoping for some good sunset photos, but it was too hazy each time. That didn’t matter—with or without sunset, Horseshoe Bend is photogenic, and the people watching was also entertaining. Stressed-out parents trying to keep their kids safe but still allow them to see and photograph the scene, couples cautiously creeping to the edge of the canyon to take selfies (or foolhardily marching up to the edge), Kerri trying for the perfect shot without losing her camera and tripod into the abyss. Once I snapped my photos, I sat and soaked up the scene while she experimented with settings and tripod placement, letting my eyes wander over the landscape, feeling the slight breeze on my face.

Scenery around Horseshoe Bend

Yes, we were this close to the edge
I hope you’ve enjoyed our little jaunt into Arizona and New Mexico. It’s not always a pleasure to hear about someone else’s adventures when what you really want is to have your own! (Fair warning: there will probably be at least one future Field Trip Friday post based in the Southwest!)

What is your next adventure?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Everyone Should Travel and Here’s Why


“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
—Mark Twain

Monday, April 24, 2017

From Petroglyphs to Ice Caves—the Enchanted Meander* Begins


Installment two of the great Arizona/New Mexico Road Trip...

Let me tell you a little secret about traveling with my friend Kerri. You’d better be ready to GO. She packs more into a day than almost anyone I know. I’m grateful for this, because I’m a bit of a slug by nature. Each day of our trip was chock full of seeing the sights, driving, talking, eating, listening to music or podcasts, hunting that perfect photo, and exploring anything that caught our interest. Last week, I skipped ahead in our trip to write about Antelope Canyon, but now I’m backtracking to our first day’s adventures: 

Petroglyph National Monument is just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, and it was our first stop on the trip. After checking in at the visitor’s center for advice on where to go if we didn’t have much time, we settled on Boca Negra Canyon. It was a beautiful morning, with cobalt blue skies and cool temperatures. A few minutes easy walk brought us into an area of tumbled volcanic rock, and the petroglyphs were easily spotted on the dark surfaces. These markings were created by Native Americans and early Spanish settlers approximately 400-700 years ago. This area is considered a sacred landscape by the American Indians, according to the Park Service brochure.




We also caught glimpses of the wildlife of the area—rabbits, quail, lizards, and what might have been ground squirrels or prairie dogs—they were too fast and too far away to tell.


 Our next stop was a roadside attraction we stumbled upon:



Located in a collapsed lava tube, the ice on the floor is approximately 20 feet deep. The deepest ice dates back to 1100 AD. Arctic algae causes the ice’s green tint.








We finished off the day sunset gazing on the way to Cottonwood, Arizona:





Where we stayed at the delightful Iron Horse Inn.


In our next installment, our intrepid travelers discover perhaps the world’s most delicious breakfasts, cliff dwellings, and even more stunning rock formations.

*Kerri dubbed her Facebook photo album for our trip “An Enchanted Meander”—and I’m shamelessly appropriating the name.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Where the Wind Lives

 

This is installment one of my 2017 Arizona/New Mexico road trip adventures with my friend Kerri. 

As we bumped down the dirt road to the mouth of the canyon, tour company owner Jackie told us that Navajo culture is matriarchal, and the land we were seeing belonged to her mother. The rocky landscape was her home, the place she felt most comfortable. Just before she dropped us off, her words captured my imagination: “This is where the wind lives.”

Antelope Canyon, near Page, Arizona, is one of the most visited slot canyons in the Southwest. (Slot canyons are narrow, deep canyons carved by water.) Tours go to Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon, as well as a few lesser-known canyons. We chose to visit “Canyon X,” with Taadidiin Tours (no affiliation).

After Jackie dropped us off, we descended into the canyon itself, where we were met by a guide. The sandstone curves, swirls, and corkscrews, carved by wind and water into sinuous shapes. Colors range from pale peach to deep purple, depending on the angle of the sun. 




When the sun shines into the canyon just right, you can see the elusive trademark Antelope Canyon shaft of light. As we walked deeper between the curving walls, we saw our first one. (The guides toss fine sand into the air so it shows up in photos.)



If ever there is a place to look up, look down, look all around, it is here.

Looking up
The guides helped us with our camera settings so we would get the best shots, and though they kept an eye on us, they allowed us to freely explore. It wasn’t mobbed with people the way the Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon tours can be, and we were able to take our time exploring, taking photos, and soaking up the peaceful atmosphere. I was even able to sit quietly and make a quick sketch of a section of the canyon. (The challenge will be mixing watercolor representative of the shades of rock I saw!) 

A few more photos: 

Canyon resident

Looking down into the canyon entrance from where we were dropped off.





Canyon X was a magical place, and a not-so-everyday adventure. I highly recommend a visit, and Taadidiin Tours. (See their website, above, or check out their Facebook page here.)