Archives for category: minimalism

Having a dog often entails bundling up, venturing out late into the night, and blasting away any warmth and sleepiness you’ve been building up all evening, to give her some needed relief and exercise.

As yet another snowfall blankets the Midwest, even a winter lover like myself sighs a big sigh. It will be March in a few days. The birds know it; I heard the first of their springtime tweeting just yesterday morning.

But on go the boots and on goes the leash to a jubilant, bright-eyed, hip-swaying dog who’s ready for some excitement.

Once we’re outside and I close the door to the warmth and light and noise of the kids’ electronics, I feel like Sugar and I have just stepped onto the Moon. No one is out, no moving cars in sight. While Sugar sniffs wildly under bushes and pokes her nose into rabbit tracks, looking up comically with a snow cone nose, my steps make that crisp, chunky sound that only happens in extreme cold and feels like walking on Styrofoam.

After walking several blocks we come across three little pines still bleakly blinking their colored holiday lights (still?). It’s at this point that I realize I can’t feel my fingers or toes… time to head back. We turn, and I see not lights now but glitter, silver glitter sprinkled liberally and twinkling brightly across every snow bank. Perhaps a combination of the temperature and fresh moisture, but never before have I seen such an animated brilliance to the newly fallen snow.

Now I’m scary cold (Sugar seems oblivious) so we high-step run as best we can through the fresh soft inches covering the old rock hard inches of this winter’s accumulation.

Before heading in, we stop for a few more moments to bask in the darkness, the brightness, the peaceful silence, of a late winter’s snow.

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I stood in the pet store aisle considering the object in my hand. It was a brightly colored plastic stick-shaped dog toy. “Scented!” read the copy. “It floats!” said the packaging. I was thinking that this might be great to buy for my upcoming trip with our Shepherd/lab mix Sugar. We would be lakeside for two weeks, and I envisioned myself hurling the toy over and over into Lake Superior as she joyously splashed into the water to swim and retrieve.

But then I stopped and remembered: we will be right on this Great Lake. We have a sandy beach and we are in the forest. What exists there naturally, and in huge abundance?

Driftwood. Sticks. Of all shapes and sizes. Fun to throw, easy to float. And they must smell of fish and animals and insects and earth and rain and sunshine and all the things dogs intensely love to sniff.

I glanced around the store and thought about what else Sugar might need. But other than food and a few necessities, what Sugar needs is not on these shelves or hanging from these displays.

What she needs is eye contact, a friendly voice, a comforting stroke of the hand. She needs a loving home, long walks, and crazy playtime. She needs quiet, regular reassurance that she is a Good Dog and that she is doing the Right Thing.

I put back the chemical laden manufactured product and thought about walking the beach and the woods with Sugar, looking for the perfect piece of natural wood for that day’s play.

 

The morning birds are chirping and the days are getting longer, but it’s a stretch to say that spring is in the air. Not in Chicago. Usually not ’til May, because we are known to skip straight to summer, seemingly bypassing the season of rebirth altogether.

Personally, this winter has tested my resolve in many ways, least of all the globally-reported weather. Yet out of winter’s dormancy comes growth.

Somehow this season has always been a comfort, despite the howling winds. An Ayurvedic doctor suggested it was in my Northern European blood. I’m more content on gloomy days than on sunny days; a mild storm does me better than a picture perfect day. I veer straight away from drama and chaos, but if a gray cloud wants to settle above me for awhile, I’m okay with that.

So I don’t mind still facing down the snowbanks, teetering cautiously on ice, and moon walking on two feet of packed snow to get to the compost bin. It’s only February; the winter wolf is still roaming these parts.

Time will move forward and as we approach the vernal equinox, I’ll be ready. A spring morning with the scent of new earth, a balmy and still summer afternoon, a succulent summer night. I look forward to all of these.

But I will still bid a longing goodbye to winter.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to go whale watching. I think that if I was lucky enough to encounter a sperm whale bursting out of the ocean just a few feet away, those fleeting, thrilling moments would last a lifetime.

We often go through a lot of effort and expense to have a great experience that lasts a short time but remains forever in our mind’s eye. We wait in line for 45 minutes for a 2 minute ride at the amusement park. We travel halfway around the world to see with our own eyes a historical landmark or a natural wonder.

And sometimes, very rarely, these moments come to you. I had a landlocked version of the whale experience many years ago, and I still think of it surprisingly often.

When I went to college in a small Southern town, I rode a motorcycle (a beloved vintage ’73 Honda CB350) everywhere I went and for a short time lived on a farm 25 miles out of town. It was literally an over-the-river-and-through-the-woods commute.

Riding home late one perfect Autumn evening, I was heading out of a wooded area into open land. Even with the din of the motor and with my helmet on, I heard a loud, crazy screeching sound. For some reason I glanced up and what I saw was the white underbelly of a massive Barn Owl just a foot or two above my head. Its impressive wingspan fanned over me, at the same speed I was traveling, and I swear I also heard the whoosh of its wings. I don’t know if it dove down to fly above me or if it noticed me at all, but I felt like a mere mortal in the presence of a higher being. It was an absolutely magical moment, and it lasted probably four seconds. Then, as quickly as it made itself known, the owl disappeared into the night.

This experience was perhaps more modest in scale to a sperm whale bursting out of the ocean, but it was equally transforming. And I remember it as one of the best moments of my life.

I love to get rid of things. If I were more patient about it, I would make a little money selling on eBay or Craigslist (which I do sometimes). I’ve given up holding yard sales as well. As I feel unnecessary objects piling up around me, I get very restless. I feel the weight of excess ownership upon me. So I clean the offending items up and donate them to my favorite resale shop whose proceeds benefit a local charity. (The financial balance is that the donations are tax deductible).

Lately I’ve been focusing on books. To my mind, books are highly worthy objects, so this has not been easy. But as I looked over my overstuffed bookcases, I knew it was time to make choices.

Several years ago, I started discovering book sale sections at local libraries. I would spend hours with these shelves and bring home armloads of books for which I only spent a few dollars. What I wound up with are books about Tolkien and his writings, books about gardening, health, nature, hiking, art, essays, poetry, all the things I love to read about. When faced with personal loss, I picked up book after book about grieving and loss, hoping they would help me process my emotions. But the reality is, I didn’t read most of these books cover to cover. They were simply objects that represented my interests.

And owning these books wasn’t really enhancing my life; it was overkill, clutter.

So this week, I pared them down dramatically. I still have one book, or several, on everything that interests me. I still have my old Tolkien trilogy and my newer Hunger Games trilogy. I just no longer have different versions of these books or companion books or anything else.

I also went through the books I bought through the years for my children. This was especially difficult, but I realized that I was the one tied up with these books, not my kids. I was emotionally invested because I had made the choices in bringing these books home to expand my kids’ horizons on one topic or another. Most books had simply been outgrown; a few never interested them much in the first place. But of course I kept some beautiful classics and old favorites.

When it was all done, I had three big heavy boxes to bring to the store. And looking back to my newly open shelves and more carefully curated book collection, I saw that the books I loved most were no longer hidden in the shadows of the others. They were right there for me, as they had been all along.

Last Thursday, a few days before the equinox, I stepped outside after an evening yoga class and looked eastward toward the late twilight sky. The amber moon was stunning, immense. It hung low and heavy, like ripe fruit.

So mesmerizing was this moon, I couldn’t turn away. I wanted to feel closer. And to me, closer to the moon means closer to the water. Lucky to live near the Lake Michigan shoreline, I headed toward the beach.

As I stood and watched, the waves roared and sparkled in silver and black then broke languidly into the sand. I just needed time to feel the night breeze, to gaze at the placid moon while it seemed to gaze back at me.

How many other beings, I wondered, are spending a few quiet moments with the moon, elsewhere in the world, as I am now?

It’s hard to resist the pull of the full Harvest Moon, bringing with it a procession of moonlit nights. On this night, I finally turned away and headed home, feeling oddly and greatly at peace.

This very simple recipe is elevated by the quality of its seasonal ingredients, making beautiful use of all those ripe tomatoes you have in your garden or just picked up at the farmers’ market. It’s super healthy because it really doesn’t need dressing; the ripe tomatoes and all of the flavors just meld into a celebration of summer.

6-8 Ripe summer tomatoes, thinly sliced  (no need to peel or remove seeds)

2 Sweet or Vidalia onions, very thinly sliced

2 Cucumbers, peeled if not organic, very thinly sliced

Salt

Fresh ground pepper

A bit of chopped fresh basil, dill, or parsley if desired

Layer the bottom of a large salad bowl with cucumber slices.  Follow with onion slices, then layer on tomato slices. Generously season with salt, pepper, and herbs if you are using. Continue layering in this order until all ingredients are used. Chill in the refrigerator for about two hours to allow flavors to blend.

April is National Poetry Month… designated so in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets.

(I once sent in a poem to Poetry magazine, based here in Chicago, which they promptly but very politely… rejected. But it was like job hunting; I appreciated that they took my work seriously enough to email a personalized rejection!)

National Poetry Month is an effort to recognize and promote poetry as an accessible art form for everyone. Too many people, I think, see poetry as an avant-garde art form, like free form jazz or abstract painting or spoken word performance. Conversely, some might view poetry as an archaic medium, in line with opera, classical music, and Shakespeare – created long ago and certainly not modern.

As someone who tends toward minimalism, I love poetry’s spare piecing together of carefully chosen words. Although there are epic poems that are page turners in themselves, my favorites tend to be poems that explore simple topics and evoke powerful imagery.

As an example, I turn to a work by Ted Kooser, contemporary poet and U.S. Poet Laureate (2004-2006) who is known for his clear and honest verse.

Tattoo

What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

from Delights & Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA 2004

Does this poem not create a story in your mind? Reading it is like watching a scene in a movie, only your imagination does the job of envisioning the man at the yard sale. The moment is familiar and real. And the poem is written from an observational point of view, as if you were sitting behind the sale table just noticing this person and perhaps wondering a bit about his past.

I also lean toward poetry about nature and stillness, but you can find poetry about every topic and walk of life imaginable.

And the practical part about reading poetry? It only a few minutes to read a poem! You can carry a slim volume in your bag to read when waiting in line or in your parked car.

And I feel the best way to end the day is with a mug of herbal tea and a poem, giving me something to focus and reflect upon as I drift off to sleep…

Poetry is ancient; poetry is as modern as today. Check out the Poetry section of your local library or book shop and you are sure to find a title that you can relate to and a poem that stirs in you.

Focus is magic. To pull yourself, for a few minutes or a few hours, away from distraction and find focus is sheer luxury. Good hard work, but nonetheless a luxury of the mind.

I once took a drawing class, working in pencil and graphite. That’s it. A subject, white paper, and an instrument in your hand. To face this for two hours takes a bit of skill… not in actual drawing, but in decompressing, in clearing your mind, until all you are thinking about is the width of a line, the depth of a shade. A fabulous way to foster an active and focused yet meditative mind.

Not surprisingly, practicing yoga promotes this as well, bringing the body into play. The bend of an arm, the angle of a hip, a slight deepening of a fold. The learning is infinite.

Heaven!

Being more a purpose-driven than recreational shopper, I don’t get out that much in the chain retail world. However, on a recent excursion, this item stopped me in my tracks.

Product: Decorative Wine Corks
Store: Bed, Bath, and Beyond
Website description: A stylish way to re-use discarded wine toppers, these assorted corks are great for filling tabletop vases or bowls to enhance their decorative appeal.

Discarded wine toppers? Do you mean corks? So if you love wine (ahem, as I do) enough to want to decorate with wine corks, would you not have the corks from drinking the wine? And if you don’t enjoy wine, why would you want to decorate with wine corks? I guess this product is for an emergency wine cork situation… you need to decorate FAST and have just recycled your corks at Whole Foods…