Ringing in the Holidays 2021

A’s 18th birthday! A birthday party, music composition software, attending the (in-person!) symphony, and almost all the college applications in. He’s such a joy.

Inordinately proud of my bundt ring o’ stuffing and pecan-pumpkin pie. Dear B made most everything else; K made amazing mashed potatoes and C wowed us all with her lemon-blackberry fruit tart; best gf shortbread crust EVER.

The front table has turned into a bit of a shrine to S in St. Andrews–we’re missing her this year already!

Lookee: I made hooded towels for the nieces and nephews!

A late summer garden alphabet

The first aster of the season:

One of our wild bunny family:

Early morning calendula:

Daisies!

Excellent crop of little golden yellow bok choy seeds coming along:

Foxglove:

Simply glowing: the small Japanese maple

So much low-growing holly cleared away to make space for other good things:

Into the envelopes: saving seeds for gifts and next year’s plantings. These are white rose campion, which does best when planted in the fall for a spring germination.

A. helped harvest and make mulled jam from blackberries!

The kale is quite happy this year:

Lavender ready to be made into simple syrup:

Apple mint

Nascent roses:

The oregano flowers haven’t attracted the same number of pollinators as in previous years and it makes me wonder what’s happening in our neighborhood ecosystem.

Perry pears:

The bamboo grove made quite a lovely backdrop for A’s senior photos!

The last of the raspberries:

The next flush of everbearing strawberries is coming along:

The indigo rose tomatoes are slow this year.

Useful things from holly-wood: hair sticks in progress

Very cute friends: the tiny bunnies and the big gray squirrels frolic on the lawn every evening around 5. The bunnies look like Nuttall’s Cottontails and the squirrels are almost certainly Eastern grays.

The wisteria’s little last hurrah:

A few pictures of an extra-cute Tasha for S, who turns 21 today in Scotland. So much love!

Yellow lady’s mantle:

This zucchini is up to something here–cross-pollination magic?

Ten books

The Night Watchman was announced last month as winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Set in North Dakota and Minneapolis in 1953-54, during the Termination Era, it addresses the part Mormons played in efforts to eradicate Indigenous cultures. The novel traces the line of influence from Joseph Smith, to Utah senator Arthur Watkins, to young missionaries trying to proselytize on the reservation. Also addresses violence against Native women, particularly when they are subsumed into cities. These parts of the book are juxtaposed with the richness of traditions that have been keep alive, families that assiduously care for each other, and the nuances of identity as it develops. So, so good.

I read Klara and the Sun with an eye for whether it would be suitable for freshman English students. I made my way through this novel during the same period that I was listening to Braiding Sweetgrass, and the two kept intersecting as I considered gift economies, assuming good intent, personification of the natural world.

There was an aching emptiness at the end that made me cry. Klara is, in some ways, the most moral creature I’ve ever seen written. Everything she is is in service to others; her life’s purpose is curiosity, noticing details of others’ emotional landscapes and assuming good intent on the part of others. But does it make her happy? Does it create a life of fullness? At the end, in her Slow Fade, she reassures the Manager that she was well treated and that her life was a good one. But I didn’t feel she was well-treated.

Ethical relationships are characterized by some degree of reciprocity, of mutual care-taking. There was very little of that in Klara’s life. 

The slow fade. Is that the most any of us can look forward to? It feels graceful and yet not enough. Is that all our life is?

The book is set in a future world in which there is an over-emphasis on cognitive intelligence and not enough emphasis on emotional intelligence–not so different from our own world. I absolutely think it would be good for 9th graders. The parallels to Frankenstein are quite interesting. In Ishiguro’s world, we ourselves have edited our genes and made monsters of ourselves by risking the health and lives of children, and Klara is the artificial creature who is the tabula rasa, curious, noticing, keen observer of others, always assuming good intent on the part of others.

There are errors built into her, though; she assumes that because she is solar-powered, others will benefit massively from the sun as well. Or maybe the book is part magical realism, with the sunshine actually helping to heal Josie. I don’t like that as much as a natural explanation, which is that Klara is making a primary error. 

Maybe am I resisting magical realism. I don’t like Klara bargaining with the sun or bargaining at all. But is that part of the gift economy? Or is that counter to a gift economy?

I’d like to know more about the features of a gift economy.

Braiding Sweetgrass has been on my to-read list for a long time, and it’s the ultimate gardening listen. So much of this book resonated deeply, from approaches to teaching and practicing gratitude, to honoring indigenous wisdom and re-making traditions that draw from old and contemporary ways of being that center gift-giving and reciprocity.

Ok, Eileen was a strangely compelling listen. Summer literary read (shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize).

The Comfort Crisis is part science reporting, part personal narrative. Some of my favorite bits:

–Solitude’s healthy properties have been shown to improve productivity, creativity, empathy, and happiness, and decrease self-consciousness. Matthew Bowker, PhD, professor of psychology at Medaille College says, “If you develop that capacity to be alone, then instead of feeling lonely, you could see solitude as an opportunity to have a meaningful and enjoyable time to get to know yourself a little better. To essentially build a relationship with yourself. I know this sounds cheesy, but it’s critical. I think a goal we should all have is to try to transform feelings of loneliness into feelings of rich solitude.”

–The Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, the gold standard for gauging creativity, is a threefold better predictor of children’s future accomplishments compared to IQ scores. And one of the main drivers of creativity is mind-wandering, doing nothing overtly productive with our minds.

–“In the early 1980s, as Japan was becoming more urban and tech focused, the country’s forest agency created a nature-based wellness program. They even coined a marketing term, shinrin-yoku, which translates to ‘forest bathing.’ The program essentially promoted sitting or walking in the woods and ‘taking in’ nature. The Japanese government told its citizens to improve their health by forest bathing. They even created parks across the country to do so. Japanese scientists then started to probe whether the tax-funded program had any positive impact. They’ve since published a flood of studies on shinrin-yoku–and pushed biophilia from hypothesis to hard science.”

U.S. scientists studying the same thing have found that even a 20-minute stroll through a city park can cause profound changes in the neurological structure of our brains. The state of ‘soft fascination’ in lightly focusing outwardly on the nature around oneself lowers cortisol and triggers a cascade of other health-promoting benefits.

–Rucking may be the ultimate life-long exercise, as carrying weight in a backpack while moving at a sustainable pace is strength training and cardio in one. “It takes an approachable exercise like walking and allows a person to increase the strain to their heart incrementally.”

Forest Bathing is a beautiful book just to page through; it’s filled with photographs of various forests and the text is large-print, blocked in thought-sized paragraphs. Reading it is akin to taking a walk through a forest in a state of soft fascination.

The Menopause Manifesto is so good. Gunter discusses the ramifications of the patriarchy having colonized women’s medicine, the grandmother hypothesis, the pitfalls of using compounding pharmacies for hormone supplements. Credible and useful information throughout.

The Alcohol Experiment is a title I read for the clinic’s library; I really like this approach that seems to draw a good deal from CBT techniques and the idea of replacement rather than willpower.

Bill Bryson’s The Body is informative for the lay person, worth having in a clinic library.

CANCER: The Emperor of all Maladies | SparshBio

The Emperor of All Maladies has been on my to-read list for a decade, and it’s just fascinating. The “slow crawl of cancer” is one of the things that’s on my mind. Also, the complexity of the importance of catching pre-cancerous lesions on one hand and the incidence of false positives and indolent cancers on the other.

Mt Townsend

Mount Townsend upper trail on a sunny July weekend day: not crowded! Year 45 round the sun for me: my eldest kiddo has talked me into using sunblock and/or physical barriers like my favorite white shirts.

Six Books

HBO just paid seven figures for the rights to Brit Bennett's The Vanishing  Half. ‹ Literary Hub
'That Story Keeps on Repeating Itself': An Interview with Kei Miller |  Hazlitt

Girls With Bright Futures is a satire of the college admissions rigamarole/racket as it plays out for students, parents, counselors, and administrators. Set in Seattle, this is a delightful send-up of bad actors who game the system. Beach read/laundry listen.

Catherine House is dark academia sci-fi gothic, another beach read/laundry listen. The Vanishing Half is really good–well-constructed and thought-provoking. It’s about colorism and racialized identity as well as family ties that we choose to sever or nurture. If I Had Your Face is comprised of interwoven narratives of four women in contemporary Seoul that provide lucid commentary on beauty standards and capitalism. The WaPo review calls it “a novel about female strength, spirit, resilience — and the solace that friendship can sometimes provide.”

I read Augustown in the actual hardback book version as opposed to listening to it, annotating my way through to suss out its potential as a title to teach. I think it may work well in a unit on the individual and society; set in Jamaica, the novel interrogates the way societal structures (family, gangs, education systems, economic systems, and economic and racial hierarchies) shape individuals. I found the second half of the novel particularly compelling.

Being Wrong is a good listen. I keep thinking about treacheries of memory, errors of inductive reasoning, and the ironic hubris that allows us to trust our judgment at all. Touches on the subject of why we can’t use our emotions as a guide to truth. In a follow-up interview, author Katherine Schultz says, “when we’re really attached to a belief, we will come up with unbelievably wild theories to justify it.”

I read these books before school ended, and now I have a giant stack of new ones to read. Summer is truly here, never more welcome with its long stretches of reading time.

May via April, March, and February

S. took this photo at about 4:15 a.m. off of Point White. The May full moon, also known as a flower moon, underwent a total eclipse early this morning, close to the point in its orbit when it’s closest to the earth–giving us a super flower blood moon.

It’s been wonderful having S. home, though it’s bittersweet for her to be missing a lot of her university experience during this second semester of her junior year. Fingers crossed that she’ll be able to return to Scotland soon!

Last weekend was full of things that inspire joyful, tangible focus: a weekend visit from fully-vaccinated extended family, including Baby G bonding with S, making books for students, and writing letters.

My students’ poetry is especially poignant against the backdrop of this past year.

April: a turning point in the year, with vaccine clinics going full-speed and volunteers spending hours upon hours of their time helping out. Here I have a cart full of gratitude baskets and hope.
Breezy, gusty March

The giant camellia tree in the front yard divides the year in half: for the past six months, it has been blooming with especially riotous abundance, and now that its final blossoms are all coming down brown-edged and decaying, it’s ushering in the second half of the year.

This gorgeous bloom graced the March shift back into the classroom. Like all of us this year, it’s delicate in certain ways and also hardy, resilient, robust.

Mid-February, when we got a nice snowfall. The winter of snow forts, puzzles, cooking, burrowed in and huddled down.

The value of reimagined extracurricular activities

Here we are in November and the coronavirus numbers keep climbing in the locations of both Student A (high school junior) and Student S (university junior). 

Student A’s school continues to send messaging to students and families that they are planning a return to in-person learning for the second semester. Student S’s university, on the other hand, is in no way planning for a relaxation of in-person gathering guidelines, even for educational purposes, during the second semester. In fact, they have messaged quite clearly to students and families that the winter holidays will doubtless drive up infection numbers and that they are begging students to make responsible choices. Principal Sally Mapstone writes, “Our numbers remain low in comparison to many other places, but the pattern of the last two weeks underlines how fragile this position is. The extent to which we are able to maintain our low levels of infection, and the current freedoms they allow, is in your hands.” They seem to understand that it is irresponsible to be giving students hope that in-person education will return before significant measures to combat the virus (widespread availability of a vaccine, potent antivirals, etc) have been developed. 

They also seemed to understand very early on in the school year that given a year of isolation and distance learning, they were responsible for some organized effort to address depression, anxiety, and burnout. I’m struck by the university’s Can Do program, which separates out university-organized, social-emotional extracurricular opportunities from the academic offerings, which of necessity are currently done almost entirely virtually. 

They have set up a Can-Do guide and established places on campus where limited numbers of students can gather in socially distanced ways. Students have been involved in the process of determining suitable spaces; “the Can Do Marquee is split into four areas, known as ‘pods’, which are suitable for various different types of activities. The four pods were named by University of St Andrews students after famous St Andrews cats.” The university is also actively soliciting activity ideas from students

We know that one of the most important elements of mental health is a feeling of efficacy, of having some control over one’s life. It strikes me as quite brilliant to involve students’ ideas in the Can-Do program, as the idea-generating process itself supports mental and emotional wellbeing.

Student A’s school has yet to implement widespread Can-Do opportunities that address social-emotional wellbeing other than screen-dependent virtual gatherings, though they are beginning to try out small-scale activities on campus for select individuals. Rather than envisioning a year of distance learning from the outset, Student A’s school is adjusting as they go and has decreased the academic intensity from what it was at the beginning of the year, now giving him approximately 27 ½ hours of required screentime a week, down from 36 at the beginning of the year.

Student S’s school experience and required screentime has been largely the same as it was when she started. Though this year is far less fun than her prior years at university, she has benefitted from the consistency of expectations that were set at the beginning of the year.

In free time, Student S has been cooking a lot and running, and Student A has been learning music theory, starting to compose, and teaching tennis lessons. Both have been watching movies online with their friends and meeting up in socially-distanced ways with one friend at a time. Both seem to feel that it could be much worse and both students express a sense of gratitude for the support they have.

Halloween 2020

Quietest Halloween we’ve ever had, with a gorgeously sunny, crisp day, dinner by jack o’lantern, stew with the newly-harvested Thumbelina and Little Finger carrots.

The best thing I’ve read this week is Zadie Smith’s essay collection Intimations, about the impact of the coronavirus, especially in the United States. Suffering, shifting relationships, the urge to make, grow, do, within confines that we’ve never experienced before.

The song I’ve been working on is opus 46 no. 8 by Sibelius, “the extraordinarily beautiful ‘Death of Mélisande'”. The piano music I’m working from was a gift from a friend who bought it in a used bookstore in Sweden; it was printed in 1910 in Berlin, and it’s titled “Die Sonne sinkt…”. The entire opus was first performed at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki in 1905, conducted by the composer).