Sweet distraction

Who doesn’t like honey? Even if you’re not the type to get a daily fix of it, you probably like the concept of it: Sweet, sticky, translucent gold, 100 percent natural. It is, perhaps, rare to find someone who likes bees. In concept, they’re all right, crucial players in the ecosystem, but up close, they’re bugs. Who sting.

In the end though, you can’t have honey without bees. Sue Monk Kidd’s book The Secret Life of Bees might inspire affection for those honey makers. Bees are major characters in this story set in South Carolina in 1964. Here’s one scene that encourages admiration of the bees, not just the honey:

According to August, if you’ve never seen a cluster of beehives first thing in the morning, you’ve missed the eighth wonder of the world. … Fifty feet away you will hear it, a humming that sounds like it came from another planet. At thirty feet your skin will start to vibrate. The hair will lift on your neck. Your head will say, Don’t go any farther, but your heart will send you straight into the hum, where you will be swallowed by it. You will stand there and think, I am in the center of the universe, where everything is sung to life.

Kidd’s way with words speaks to my heart. She describes feeling as ribbons trailing behind a character and climatic events that might cause the moon to break loose and fall out of the sky.

Secret Life of BeesImmediately, I fell in love with Lily, the poor little white girl longing for her mother who died under mysterious circumstances when Lily was 4. That mystery propels the story along as Lily is led to the home of three eccentric black sisters who sell honey and worship Our Lady of Chains, a black Madonna. Along the way, Lily witnesses racism, engages in a first kiss, experiences sorrow and learns the values of writing a journal.

The story ends satisfactorily, too, which is nice for having invested several hours in the reading. And then I found out Kidd started our writing memoirs, so maybe I need to read more of her work.

The book came out in 2002 and has been on the bestseller list, so I’m late to the party (as usual), but if you haven’t read The Secret Life of Bees, you might enjoy learning the secret.

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The tide will come in and out

I woke up this morning to an order from my husband as he set his phone on the nightstand. “I’m going out to blow snow. Answer my phone if it rings.”

He disappeared into the ether of the morning while I lay in bed trying to breathe. I am in the midst of a good winter cold, good meaning one that fills one’s head with snot. When the decongestant of the night before wears off, waking up is just a reminder that one is not “up to snuff,” as they say Minnesota’s high country.

To summarize: It is the middle of February. My Beloved pressed his snow blower into service yet again this season. And I have the sort of blasted upper respiratory infection that keeps Kleenex factories in business. It’s the sort of day that requires one to remember. To remember that no winter lasts forever.

So I dug through some photos of a trip long past (well, two years ago, not that long past), and I found this lovely shot of some healthy thistles on the California coastline.

Tides come and go

And even though a sigh today is one filled with jagged boogers, I’m sighing in relief.

 

Cold enough, eh?

Well. wouldn’tcha know it, the third week of January came a week late this year. The same sloppy Polar Vortex that can’t keep its boundaries straight can’t read a calendar either.

I haven’t written a blog in nearly a week because I have no inspiration. And if I had inspiration, my motivation has slipped through the door to (and fallen on the ice, no doubt). It’s tough to work up a head of steam when it’s so cold, the hairs in your nose freeze.

frost

That’s sunshine behind them thar frost covered windows.

It was 24 degrees below zero this morning in southern Wisconsin, if my Beloved’s Weather Underground app can be believed. Every square inch of the windows in our unheated entryway was covered in frost. Jack Frost comes out to play when Old Man Winter gets unseemly.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to go outside. I worked upstairs in my home office with the space heater on and a hot cup of tea. But many of my Midwestern friends posted pictures or videos of their car temperatures, the wide-open roads bereft of rush hour traffic and even shows of boiling water vaporizing in the frigid air.

This is crazy cold, the stuff of legend. “You remember that January in ’19 when it got down to 30 below zero? My car wouldn’t start even when I had it plugged in! My eyelids froze shut! I didn’t warm up until Valentine’s Day!”

[Did that reference to plugging in your car go over your head, my sweet Southern friend? Up here in God’s country, we have devices known as block heaters that, when powered with an extension cord, keep the oil in a car’s oil pan liquified (or at least viscous enough to flow through the engine). Yup, that’s Scandihoovian ingenuity at work, you betcha.]

We Midwesterners endure run-of-the-mill cold every year. Like, the high temperature hasn’t risen into double digits for a week, and when it finally does, a foot of snow drops out of the sky. That kind of thing happens every year. But temperatures fifty or sixty degrees below freezing? Well, that’s once-in-a-generation type of cold. That’s the stuff a good Minnesotan takes pride in. “Twenty below? That’s nothing! I go ice fishing when it gets 20 degrees below zero–just makes the beer taste better! Now forty below, that’s something to see. Or feel, rather. Only the toughest endure that kind of cold.”

Fortunately, February is quite literally right around the corner and she’s bringing balmier weather with her and the distraction of the Superbowl being played in Atlanta. We Midwesterners don’t care much about a couple of teams from the coasts trying the best one another in a Southern city, but heck, we like any reason to make a hot dip or place a friendly bet. We’re just glad the cold gave us our chance to exercise our bragging rights.

At risk of sounding like a broken record, may I remind you: It is the dreaded third week of January

snow on cedars

Here we are, deep into the third week in January, and the snow is falling down like God hasn’t paid for roof repairs in a century.

Just about nothing brightens the third week of January, which I have often described as the worst week of the year. Doesn’t matter where you live, it’s a week without redemption (and it’s even worse this year if you’re a Saints fan).

The third week of January is filled with despair and bitter cold and meatloaf. This is the week you give up all hope of ever seeing anything green, lush or radiant (like the sun) ever again. Old people who were hanging on through the holidays die, bankruptcies are filed, divorces become final, flu sets in, children fail spelling tests.

I proclaim the worstness of this week based on my years of experience as a native Minnesotan who has witnessed a fair portion of bitterly cold and ridiculously snowy winters (and they’re only marginally better in southern Wisconsin). I have no actual evidence of the horrible terribleness of this weather during this week, but believe me, it’s true. I can feel it in my bones. And today I can see it through the windowpane.

We observe this melancholy time with a single intention: By witnessing the sorrow wrought by lack of light, grouchy SAD sufferers, partial government shutdowns and falling skies, we know that days in June (and honestly, the days of any other week of the year) will be all the sweeter.

I know that pain is the most important thing in the universes. Greater than survival, greater than love, greater even than the beauty it brings about. For without pain, there can be no pleasure. Without sadness, there can be no happiness. Without misery there can be no beauty. And without these, life is endless, hopeless, doomed and damned.

~ Harlan Ellison, science fiction author

 

 

Two families face housing crisis and changing worlds in Kingsolver novel

When I saw a novel by Barbara Kingsolver sitting on the “New” display at Barnes & Noble before Christmas, I snatched it up conspiratorially. I bought it and hid it because I thought for sure someone would be giving it to me for Christmas, I’m such a fan of Kingsolver fiction.

unshelteredBut I was safe. No one gave it to me for Christmas, so Unsheltered was the first book I cracked open when I made a New Year’s resolution to read 26 books this year.

As much as I anticipated it, it was a weird one starting out. Another reviewer described the beginning as a lecture in world economics, finance and domestic politics. Kingsolver also introduces 10 characters in two families living in two centuries in the first two chapters. It wasn’t easy to keep everything straight but I persevered, and I was rewarded.

It’s a thinker, tackling difficult subjects like parenting, unemployment and entomology. If you’re looking for an escape from your unending bills or your insufferable in-laws or your know-it-all 20something kid or the ants in your yard, you won’t find a respite here—they all play a role in Unsheltered.

As usual in Kingsolver novels, she throws in some history, some real people, some food, and some memorable characters. She mixes all the prickly parts together and gets a pretty good story, heavy on metaphor, I think. If you’ve read Kingsolver’s Lacuna or The Poisonwood Bible, you know what you’re in for.

As for the real people, one of the historical figures in this story is Mary Treat, a lady scientist who lived in Vineland, New Jersey, during the second half of the 19th century, when the historical part of this novel is set. Kingsolver’s noteworthy research brings Treat to life on these pages. Another real person is the Bullhorn, clearly a description of Donald Trump, who was running away with the Republican primaries during the course of the modern part of the book. Just a warning: If you’re a Trump fan, you might not like Unsheltered; Kingsolver is clearly not a fan, and Trump is a two-dimensional villain here.

The novel’s title comes from another character in the book: A house in Vineland where both families live. It’s falling down in both centuries, a crumbling, leaking, poorly built structure that barely keeps it together through the story. The title also addresses how the world looks when it becomes apparent the emperor has no clothes. In the late 19th century, the world is faced with scientific discoveries that turn religious belief, especially the belief that God created man from his own image and woman from one of man’s ribs, on its head (Charles Darwin plays a big role in Unsheltered). In the 21st century, the main character Willa, who believes people who work hard deserve a nice house and their children deserve more than their parents, is confronted with evidence to the contrary.

As mentioned, Unsheltered makes one think. About economic growth. About what babies and aging women deserve. About recycling. Even about press freedom. And if a fictional novel can do all that, it’s saying something. That’s a story worth reading.

Memories of my brother

Not a January 17th can pass without me thinking of my little brother.

Curt died 20 years ago today in a car accident during a blizzard. I suggested to my sister we should do something significant and showy to remember him on this milestone day, and she said, “I don’t want to memorialize his death. I would rather remember his life.”

She made a valid point, so I will not be doing a Facebook fundraiser or lighting a trail of luminaries or visiting his grave (it’s too blasted cold to be visiting graves in Minnesota this time of year anyway).

Instead, I will remember his sweetness and light.

I was six years his senior, and alas, I did not get to know my little brother very well as an adult. I had other priorities at the time. Those other interests now seem dim and self-important, but that pretty much summarizes me at that time in my life—dim and self-important. What can I say? I was 32, and I thought I knew it all. At least now I understand how uninformed I really am.

But other people with better perspective who knew him well offered beautiful eulogies at the time of his passing. There was a newspaper story about his death in the local paper, and one of his friends said, “He was kind.” The copyeditor ended up using that quote as the headline, and it seemed like—still seems like—the best thing anyone would ever want to have said about them once they’re gone: “He was kind.” We should have put it on his headstone. The whole world could use more kindness.

Several months before he died, I found out he spent his last dollar bailing a friend out of jail, and at the time I thought that was just stupid. But really, it was evidence of his kindness. And after he died, my parents found a movie ticket stub on his grave; we learned a friend with whom he shared a love of movies had left it there, and he was missing Curt profoundly. That’s the thing a kind friend does—he makes a bright spot in your week by going to the movies with you and debating their relative quality afterwards when no one else will.

My Beloved would have loved my brother, but he came along too late to have the pleasure. More importantly, my brother would have loved him and his “go big or go home” approach to life. But the truth is, my brother probably would have loved anyone I loved; he and my ex-husband got along famously, and if Curt had anything bad to say about the guy I ended up leaving, he kept it to himself. That’s how Curt was. He looked for the best in people and found it, even if it was a little hard for other people to see.

Curt was built that way, full of compassion for bugs and animals and people, from the very beginning. When he was 9, he made me, his mostly inattentive teenage sister who was only interested in cute boys her own age, a Valentine. I ran across it not long ago in my Judy Blume diary from the time, and it made me laugh because it showed his sweetness and his sense of humor. Who needs rhyme in a “roses are red” verse when you’re getting straight to the heart of the holiday?

curt valentine's card

Isn’t that sweet? (And in pretty good condition for being 40 years old; they don’t make construction paper like that anymore!).

That was Curt. Full of love and laughter and willing to share it. The world is a little bit emptier for not having him in it the past 20 years. I miss him.

Halloween 1978

Minnesota Transplant as an artist, her sister as Raggedy Ann and her brother as Superman at Halloween in 1978. Superman was kind, too.

The comedy—and the underlying drama—of ‘9 to 5’ stands up 40 years later

Begin typing “Is Dabney Coleman …” into Google’s search line, and you’ll be prompted to finish it with “alive?” Google will helpfully turn up 107,000 results that say, yes, he is going strong at 87.

I was among searchers over the weekend on this question. After my Beloved queued up a playlist of “1980s pop” on Spotify and I sang along to Dolly Parton’s hit “9 to 5,” I summoned Hulu to play the movie for my viewing pleasure (my Beloved retired to bed—the 1980s pop music brought him to his limit of cheesy throwbacks).

I marveled at Dabney Coleman’s comedic feats, but also his willingness to make fun of men who are “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigots” in the workplace. “So I have a few faults?” he cracks, as the unlikable boss in the 1980s hit movie that also starred Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

I remember watching the original in the darkened Cozy Theatre, the classic movie venue of my hometown (still playing movies for the viewing public, by the way), but I can’t find evidence of it Dear Diary, which I stashed away and periodically review, lo, these many years later.

The movie stands up to another viewing 40 years after it was made; the American Film Institute lists it as No. 74 on its “AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Laughs” list. I laughed out loud more than once, and I appreciated the writing that gave us the classic song, “your women’s lib crap” and images of a boss imprisoned by S&M gear.

Women are still fighting the same fights. The #MeToo movement proves we haven’t come far enough from “the pink collar ghetto.” I’m harassed at my workplace, too, but I’m married to the boss, so it kind of comes with the territory.

Fonda, Parton and Tomlin are rumored to be starring in a sequel that re-examines the “9 to 5” issues of today at Consolidated Companies, the fictional workplace filled with cubicles and corporate cadavers, and after re-enjoying the original, I’m looking forward to it.