Categories
Reading

My year in reading, 2023

Pictured above are all of the books I finished in 2023. I know this thanks to a spreadsheet that I use to track what I’ve read since I stopped using Goodreads in 2022. (My timing was apt; the platform’s power over book publishing has only grown more complex and morally troubling since then.)

But back to my reading, which was distracted and sometimes uninspiring in 2023. What can I say? I have a toddler and a growing business and a completist mind that sometimes works to my own disadvantage. Yet as always, I found much to love in books that I read last year. Here are 15 of my favorites:

Nonfiction

Inciting Joy by Ross Gay
What a gorgeous book. This was an incredibly important reading experience that came at the right time in life for me. (A very apt Christmas gift from Ryan.) Gay’s ideas about education and gardening and basketball and skateboarding are all really about community care, which is to say, how we care for each other at our most human.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
This is a deeply empathetic and thoroughly reported ethnography about housing in America, particularly low-income housing in Milwaukee, both in a majority-white trailer park and in the Black slums. Nothing has opened my eyes as much to this crucial pillar of basic need that so often falls by the wayside for those on the margins.

Stay True by Hua Hsu
A moving look at late 90s nostalgia, including college fashion and identity, mixtapes, photography, and the comfort of hanging out with people who you don’t really know when you don’t quite know who you’re becoming yet, either.

Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in An American City by Andrea Elliott
Incredible storytelling about a family struggling against racism and persistent poverty and all the attendant emotional fatigue that comes along with both systemic issues. Dasani’s story is told beautifully and realistically — which is saying something, considering how conditioned we are to hope for a reductive happy ending.

You or Someone You Love by Hannah Matthews

Stunning, worldview-changing book. I had no idea how much this book would resonate with me – it taught me a lot about community care and mutual aid and why these movements are critical and essential forms of showing up for one another.

Soil: A Black Mother’s Garden by Camille T. Dungy

What a wonderful, complex, self-assured memoir. I loved learning from Dungy about gardening as a way to nurture local species of flora and fauna, and how her hobby intersects with her life as a Black woman, mother, neighbor and teacher.

Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl

This author beautifully braids stories from the natural world along with those of her own grief and complexity as she cares for her aging parents. Renkl sets a brilliant example in disclosing that she is a passionate but equivocal gardener. (Should humans intervene in wildlife? Should we even be setting out bird feeders?!)

Doppelganger by Naomi Klein

No other book has offered such resoluteness and clarity on the time we’re living in as this one. Funny, heartbreaking, and wickedly smart. I need to reread this book before the next election cycle ends.

Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult by Maria Bamford
I have always loved everything that comedian Maria Bamford has put into the world, and this memoir was no exception. (Listen to the audiobook, please — she’s a prolific voice-over artist and her parents are absolutely her best subject matter.)

Fiction

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
This novel is a lyrical, fascinating mix of folklore, literary fiction, western, and coming-of-age tale. You’ve never read an American origin story quite like it.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Strange and enchanting but ultimately beautiful book about compassion and what it means to trust others.

The Guest by Emma Cline
Sexy, dark, delicious novel that I gobbled up quickly. I endured the suspense (and even enjoyed it) as Cline wove a story that skewers affluence, class, insularity and gender norms.

Land of Milk and Honey by C. Pam Zhang
I didn’t know a dystopia could sound (or taste?) this good, but Zhang’s second novel was a sensuous delight, rich in detail and humanity.

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
Diving into an Ann Patchett novel for the first time may be the highlight of my reading experience on this earth. This story made me feel understood and cozy and cared for — gentle and hopeful and emotionally savvy in all the right places.

Family Meal by Bryan Washington
This book was such a surprising bright spot. It’s a novel about loss and grief, but also about sex and food and control and desire and family. To me, Washington’s tenderness and growth came through more in this novel than in his previous work.

This line from Washington’s author’s note in Family Meal is my 2024 motto, in reading and beyond: “Care and slowness are two gifts that we deserve, boundless pools we can offer ourselves and those we hold dear.”

Categories
Miscellany

100 things that made my year in 2023

1. Embracing toddler chaos during 8:00 Mass. Taking trips to the book box. Letting Maeve pick out her donut on hospitality days.

2. Family hikes with the kid carrier backpack.

3. Gyoza and greens with chile butter.

4. Burning candles and incense after cleaning the house on Saturdays.

5. Thinking about building my own repertoire of repair.

6. Maeve’s loving devotion to the neighborhood cats, Bowie, Freddie and Ruby.

7. Walking to the neighborhood library branch and visiting the local goats and chickens.

8. Seeing Lauren Groff with Judith at the Schnitz. Learning that she writes her drafts longhand on legal pads and then throws away her previous draft when starting the next one.  

9. A February beach trip. Walking barefoot in the cold sand and getting cozy by the fire. Green winter hikes and old family board games.

10. Joining Jenni Gritters’ ADAPT business coaching group for women with constraints, and then becoming a member of her SUSTAIN group. Building community with other women who run freelance businesses. Tackling business registration paperwork and finally opening business bank accounts.  

11. Cleaning one shelf/cupboard/drawer per day during Lent.

12. Hanging out at playgrounds and encouraging Maeve to brave the slides.

13. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. The photography of Nan Goldin and Peggy Nolan. Learning from artists how to see what is.

14. Buying a humidifier and so many boxes of Kleenex. Losing sleep to sicknesses. Bulking up our medicine cabinet.

15. A quick trip to Key West for a wedding. Tequila sunrises and actual sunsets. Catching up with friends around the pool.

16. Weaning Maeve after 14 months of breastfeeding. Wearing cabbage leaves in my bra for a week. Experiencing a bleak bout of post-weaning depression and then slowly returning to myself — and appreciating my body for all it does for both of us.

17. Early Girl tomatoes from our potted plant on the front porch.

18. Impromptu urgent care visits to ZoomCare and Brave Care.

19. How Maeve stacks stickers on top of each other when she’s making artwork.

20. Drawing cats for Maeve in my morning notebook.

21. Chugging along through John Updike’s Rabbit series as part of The Pulitzer Project.

22. Going to Peninsula Park when the roses were in bloom. Watching Maeve run through the splash pad and crawl through playground tunnels.

23. The afternoon when Ryan and I were taking out the recycling and the trash and Maeve locked herself in the house. Panicking for 45 minutes until the locksmith showed up. Trying to soothe an upset toddler through a closed window.

24. Reading Sandra Boynton books over and over at bedtime.

25. Opening the front door and standing on the stoop to listen to a hard downpour.

26. Maeve starting part-time daycare in March and moving to a full-time schedule in November.

27. Estimated quarterly income tax payments.

28. Going back to the movies. Taking our nephew to see The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Wonka. Seeing Love Again with Teresa. Wearing pink to see Barbie with Mom and my sisters.

29. Leaving out Maeve’s discarded or leftover snacks for the squirrels and crows.

30. Accidentally bringing the norovirus with us to Kansas City. Taking Ryan to the ER for Zofran and IV fluids. Eating bland chicken and rice instead of barbecue on our spring family visit.

31. Maeve’s enthusiasm for our very limited yardwork tasks. Pulling weeds, picking up cherries, sweeping leaves, overwatering the flowers and tomatoes.

32. Cottage cheese with apples, cinnamon and walnuts for breakfast.

33. Walking to the Sellwood farmers market for summer fruit and focaccia.

34. Playing tourist at the new MCI single-terminal airport. Admiring the art and buying local goodies.

35. Enduring so, so many episodes of Ms. Rachel on YouTube.

36. Kicking off a Wilmes family camp-out with a hibachi dinner in Grandma’s front yard. Going for a chaotic group bike ride. Making giant bubbles on the blacktop. Maeve playing in the bounce house and lounging in the ball pit.

37. A perfect day date in Kansas City: lunch at Baba’s Pantry, Messenger Coffee, shopping at Hammerpress, BLK + BRWN. and Mills Record Co., drinks at Ca Va, dinner at Fox and Pearl.

38. Long text conversations with fellow moms. Sending voice memos instead of calling voicemail inboxes. The monthly Letterloop with my dearest friends.

39. Taking neighborhood walks on toddler time.

40. A little splash of Soda Press Co. syrup in my soda water.

41. Hiking with Ryan amongst wildflowers on Mother’s Day.

42. How Maeve calls pasta with marinara sauce “pizza noodles.”

43. Eating PB&Js on the hiking trail.

44. Crying in therapy.

45. Open play gym mornings at Sellwood Community House.

46. A pizza and ice cream date at Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty.

47. Calling the pediatric triage nurse.

48. Talking to other parents at drop-off and pick-up. Texting with daycare providers. Checking the school app a little too often.

49. You or Someone You Love by Hannah Matthews.

50. Mourning the general demise of X (fka Twitter). Appreciating the perspective that Cory Doctorow provides.

51. Thinking about opting out of optimization culture.

52. Learning that Maeve was biting other kids at daycare and not being able to do much about it. The way her pediatrician laughed it off and said, “oh, my son did that and now he’s an honor student.”

53. Friends visiting Portland. A zoo date with the Grays and the Whitakers. Casey and her boys dropping in for a visit. Pizza on the patio at Dimo’s with Kris and Jack, and then with the Orjalas.

54. Watching the Danny McBride back catalog after cracking up at the silly antics of The Righteous Gemstones. Becoming an Edi Patterson fangirl. Vice Principals. Eastbound and Down.

55. Trader Joe’s canned Lentil Vegetable Soup.

56. Soaking at Knot Springs and eating lunch at Nicholas on a day date with Ryan.

57. Using the neighborhood theater as a concession stand. Eating popcorn and Sour Patch Kids while watching movies at home.

58. Going for walks to observe a nutria near the local creek and naming them Norm.

59. Maeve calling for us from her crib in the mornings: “Mamadada!”

60. “Multitudes” by Feist. Her Song Exploder episode about making the track “In Lightning.”

61. Ezra Klein’s formula for a good day.

62. Visiting my sister in the hospital after my niece was born and bringing her a bag of Trader Joe’s Popcorn with Herbs & Spices.

63. Taking Maeve grocery shopping, where she picked out shelled edamame — and then actually ate it back at home.

64. Finally getting covid.

65. Getting strep.

66. Getting the flu.

67. Listening to “Animal Freeze Dance” and “Finger Family” and “Hop Little Bunnies” on endless repeat. Learning from Chelsea Kim Long that I can hide kid music from my algorithm.

68. Appreciating the gift (and joy) of making weird art.

69. Baked farro with summer vegetables.

70. Nightly TV time from 7:30-9:30 pm. Season 2 of The Bear. Beef. Jury Duty. Rap Sh!t. Watching the final seasons of The Crown, Sex Education, Reservation Dogs and The Other Two. Abbott Elementary. The Last of Us. Yellowjackets. Couples Therapy. 100 Foot Wave.

71. Amoxicillin and Augmentin for Maeve.

72. Maeve singing nursery rhymes in her sweet, high voice.

73. Showing up every two weeks for Zoom writing group. Reuniting with the guys in December at a suburban restaurant and having no shame as we did a big group hug. Reading genres that I wouldn’t read without the group’s recommendations.

74. Patio dinners at Flying Fish Co. Maeve’s delight in the little plastic shark she chose from their treasure box. Sharing French fries.

75. Maeve learning new words and saying them over and over until we understood. Her pronunciation of spiders (“sibers”) and puzzles (“zupples”).

76. Buying a new bed frame.

77. Vanilla soft-serve cones for Maeve at Dairy Queen and the county fair. Sharing spoonfuls of my scoops from the local ice cream shop. Giving her ice cream one day for dessert and her telling me it was “too cold.”

78. A week at the coast with my in-laws. Going to the Tillamook Creamery and the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Nestucca Bay wildlife refuge. Shopping in Depoe Bay and tidepooling in Pacific City. Building sandcastles and making fires. Splashing around in the surf.

79. Buying art supplies and little gifts at Collage.

80. Tom Lake by Ann Patchett.

81. Teaching Maeve how to lay down so that I could trace her outline in sidewalk chalk. Drawing shapes and animal outlines so that she could color them in.

82. Tension headaches. Laying on the acupressure mat. Insurance-covered deep tissue massages.

83. Pomegranate spritzes.

84. Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore album GUTS. Watching her first in-house Tiny Desk Concert and feeling that pure teenage pleasure at being alive and discovering self-expression.

85. Maeve dressed as a black cat for Halloween. Meeting the neighbors while trick-or-treating. Maeve’s love for holiday decorations, which started with “spooky ghosts” and pumpkins in October.

86. Playing records while making dinner.

87. Going to Chicago to celebrate our fourth anniversary in October. Walking 5 or 6 miles every day. Eating out at Frontera Grill. Shopping and drinking so many lattes. Buying books and clothes. Discovering Remedios Varo at the Art Institute of Chicago. Watching The Daytrippers on the Amtrak ride back to Kansas City.

88. Maeve dipping everything (fruit, noodles, potatoes, chicken, eggs) in ketchup.

89. Happy hour dates before daycare pick-up.

90. Coming late to Laufey and Samara Joy. Loving an old soul in a young voice.

91. Buying occasional coffee drinks from Portland Ca Phe on the way home from drop-off.

92. Swimming and bike riding at Sunriver in August. Staying inside during poor air quality days and playing Mario Kart on the Nintendo Switch. A short hike at Lava Lands. Exploring the nature center. Lunch at Timberline Lodge on the drive home.

93. Writing about the books that I didn’t read in 2023.

94. Seeing deer, snakes, woodpeckers and barred owls on our walks in Oaks Bottom.

95. Bringing home cans of Olipop as a grocery-store treat for Ryan.

96. Regulating my nervous system.

97. Listening to the audiobook of Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult by Maria Bamford, which is read by her and brought me wholehearted joy.

98. Hanging Maeve’s drawings on the fridge. The way that our  9-year-old nephew referred to her scribbles as “abstract art.” My retired friend painting portraits from photos.

99. Attempting to join the congregation of “The Church Of Minding One’s Own Business.”  

100. Exuberant open-armed hugs from Maeve.

You can read all of my lists for past years here.

Categories
Miscellany

The question of a good day

I loved this recent interview with the prolific, relentlessly curious Ezra Klein (in GQ of all places.) I’ve identified with so much of his perspective as a parent of young children, like how parenthood has transformed his idea of adhering to a daily routine:

It’s been a shift, because what I have now are responsibilities—not just responsibilities, relationships—and the more I understand them, the more I realize they can’t effectively be optimized. They are chaotic systems, so to speak—certainly children are. The question is how I’m able to show up in them, and how I’m able to show up in them knowing that I can’t control the day that comes before it. I’ve been forced out of the illusion of control. I’m much more interested in the question of, what can I do to make it likeliest that I can meet the situations I’m in with a better rather than worse version of myself—and a more present rather than a more distracted form of my attention? 

I love this, and I think about it nearly constantly as I juggle creative and professional work and parenthood and rest. Klein’s philosophy reminds me of Oliver Burkeman’s thesis in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals; essentially, that finitude is all we have, and accepting that fact liberates us from trying to accomplish it all in lieu of turning to the next right thing.

Or in Klein’s words, “I’m just much more interested in the question of a good day than a tightly managed day.”

I could have written Klein’s formula for a good day in my own notebook (and I did, copied from the GQ article).

Categories
Miscellany

Opting out of optimization culture

The deeper I wade into my own desires and needs as a mother, business owner, spouse, and human on this planet in 2023, the less interested I find myself in optimizing my decisions. That’s not to say that I’m immune to user reviews when buying practically anything. It’s easy to tumble down a rabbit hole of planning spreadsheets when you set out to buy anything or travel anywhere these days. Some of us even turn our tendency to be a “maximizer” into a core personality trait.

Ryan and I recently bought a new bed frame (yes, one that was probably first marketed to us on Instagram), and before I clicked the purchase button, we had spent weeks sending each other lists of links and scouring websites and sharing Wirecutter listicles until we finally persuaded ourselves that we had enough information to trust our decision.

Despite what I think is my desire for beautiful lamps, a more “charming” home, and the perfect linen shirt, when I dig down beneath what I’m served by being a daily user of the internet, I know what I want. I want the freedom — the liberation — that comes with embracing things as they are, linoleum floors and all. My calling on this earth is not to beautify my home and squeeze maximum efficiency out of my work days and raise my child perfectly. It’s to be present to my life.

My one-year-old demonstrates a very good lesson in not optimizing the kitty sticker book. Her philosophy is generally “exuberance, not perfection.”

As Molly Wizenberg writes about her “Frankenkitchen,” which she has cooked in since the early days of her career as a food writer, “It is a very nice kitchen, which is to say that we can cook everything we want in it.”

In a few years, when our new bed frame has scratches or squeaks slightly or doesn’t quite seem level, I hope that I can remember what it has supported: not a fully-optimized experience to add to ratings spreadsheets and my social media feed, but a life underpinned by love and deep rest and comfort.

Categories
Family Nature

Taking a walk on toddler time

Nothing has taught me as much about slowing down and experiencing the moment like accompanying my toddler on a walk around the block. (And I thought living through the early days of the pandemic was an exercise in presence!)

My knee-jerk reaction is to keep her moving — to make our walk the verb that it’s supposed to be. But Maeve wants to stop and pick up rocks. She wants to point out balls in neighbors’ yards and to touch the tulips. She’s delighted when she can spend several minutes with the cats down the block. She knows when we get to a certain hedge, we’ll probably play a quick game of hide-and-seek.

So I’ve learned to slow down and to let her lead, even when she doesn’t take us anywhere but to a particular flowering rosemary bush to watch the bees do their work for several long minutes.

As Jenny Odell says in Saving Time, “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.”

Categories
Reading

The Pulitzer Project

I’ve been undertaking something I coined The Pulitzer Project for about five years now, in which I read the Pulitzer winner in fiction for every year of my life. There are some real clunkers in the list, and others were already favorites (Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr), but it’s been perhaps most fascinating to read books that I otherwise never would have picked up because of how they’ve aged in the cultural discourse.

I’m currently in the midst of John Updike’s Rabbit series, and it’s a wild, politically incorrect ride. As entertaining and instructive as the books themselves is reading both historical reviews of the novels and more contemporary analyses. As Patricia Lockwood writes:

After Rabbit, Run, the books cease to be interesting primarily for their art but become essential recordings of American life. They continue to be speedily readable – the present tense works on Updike the way boutique transfusions of young blood work on billionaires – and perfectly replicate the experience of eating a hot dog in quasi-wartime on a lush crew-cut lawn that has been invisibly poisoned by industry, while men argue politics in the background and a Nice Ass lurks somewhere on the horizon, like the presence of God.

This project has also brought me some beautiful books that I otherwise may not have encountered, like the winner for my birth year (1986), Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.

While I’m not always a completist, I suspect that I’ll keep chipping away at this project whenever I fall into a lull in my reading habits. I loved this take on experiencing “every example of a given thing” in a recent issue of Rob Walker’s newsletter The Art of Noticing:

These Every Single X projects tend not to have a time limit — they’re often ongoing and even open-ended.

And, I think crucially, some are almost destined to “fail” (as things close, things open, the world changes). That’s okay. The project/mission/quest is its own reward. (Plus, I love Ryan Lancaster’s extra rule of not going out of the way, which kind of subverts the whole “mission” idea in a really satisfying manner: you can set any parameters you want!)

Categories
Miscellany

Finding a new frame of reference

Daffodils, March 2020

The calendar is creeping back toward March 13, a date that now feels definitive and fateful in my memories and, it seems, on a cellular level, too. I see loaves of sourdough bread popping back up in my Instagram feed, parents posting photos of their children playing in the early spring sun while admitting that four years on, they still feel seized by an existential sense of dread when the days begin to lengthen. In March 2020, we instantly realized that we weren’t sure anymore what was safe or promised to us, if we’d ever had the privilege of believing so. (I would argue that across the sociopolitical spectrum, we still don’t know, or if we feel we do, we aren’t willing to hear anyone else’s perspective on it.)

As Jon Mooallem explains it in his recent piece on spending time with a Covid oral history project: “Anomie sets in when a society’s values, routines and customs are losing their validity but new norms have not yet solidified.”

Put another way, that “normlessness” left us all hungry in early 2020 for a frame of reference, a clear list of guidelines, a way to bring meaning to our suffering and fear and uncertainty.

And yet here we are in spring 2023, and despite the ways in which we consider the pandemic “over” to varying degrees, we’re still mired in limbo. Mooallem’s explanation of this felt, to me, like gears clicking into place: “We tend to gloss history into a sequence of precursors that carried society to the present — and to think of that present as a permanent condition that we’ll inhabit from now on. We have started glossing the pandemic in this way already. But because we don’t totally understand where that experience has delivered us, we don’t know the right gloss to give it.”

But if we’re fortunate, or just trying to survive with our dignity and our sense of joy intact, we homed in on something clarifying from that muddled time — “repertoires of repair,” or practices meant to bring about some sense of normalcy.

My own repertoire of repair includes activities that make life more peaceful even in good times: playing with my child, reading, getting familiar with the plants and animals around me.

I’ll end with this quote that is giving me great comfort as I consider how to make space for (and sense of) art as a part of my repertoire, from another interactive NYT piece published a year into the pandemic:

“I think if I could go back in time and give myself a message, it would be to reiterate that my value as an artist doesn’t come from how much I create. I think that mind-set is yoked to capitalism. Being an artist is about how and why you touch people’s lives, even if it’s one person. Even if that’s yourself, in the process of art-making.”

Amanda Gorman
Categories
Miscellany

Repair as an act of self-care

photo by Riho Kitagawa on Unsplash

If I had to pick a word of the year for 2022, knowing what I do now about the past 12 months, it would be “embodiment.”

I have not lost myself in parenthood as I feared I might, and yet everything — even the way my brain functions — has changed. Through it all, one of the best practices I have done (and can do) for my physical and mental wellness is to trust the wisdom of my body.

This can look like:

As Bessel van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps the Score, “Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”

My 36-year-old body, one that has been shaped and reshaped by life and childbearing and stress and personal growth, can better receive the benefits of movement and nourishment than it could at age 15 or 27.

Lately, I’ve been wondering what it would mean to apply this framework to my home and belongings. I often think about making decisions based on my values through a lens of environmentalism or anti-capitalism or social responsibility, for example, attempting to repair an appliance instead of immediately buying a new one. But what if, say, mending a hole in a sock could benefit my nervous system as well as the planet?

I’m reminded of the Japanese practice of kintsugi, in which cracks in a piece of pottery are repaired by being filled with powdered gold. The mending emphasizes the flaws rather than camouflaging them, adding beauty to the brokenness.

Artist Molly Martin says this about repair (in her case, mending clothing) as an act of care and a reflection on the self:

We carry the knocks of life on our bodies, like an old, much-loved and patched-up pair of trousers. Our wrinkles are a sign of time, of weather and of life. Old age is inescapable, but if we are honest about it, there can be grace and beauty in it. Surely, we can see that this must be so, and when we try to deny it by avoiding old things that are worn, rather than learning to love them, we somehow deny our own reality.

This is the sense of care and intentionality I am trying to live out as life continues to pick up speed and blurs the memories of simplicity imposed by lockdowns and social distancing.

(I keep chanting to myself a new spin on the 90s-era PSA: “Mend, heal, repair.”)

Categories
Miscellany

Getting going to feel good

It’s late October now, and the high still hasn’t dropped below 70 degrees. We haven’t seen any significant rain for months. This week, the sky looks and smells like an ashtray, and we’ve been stuck indoors, feeling uneasy about the world. (Somewhere along the way, October 2022 has been branded “Augtober,” which is obnoxious but also feels about right.)

It can be tempting for me to think that I just need to hit upon the right piece of inspiration or muscle my way into the right mindset to feel motivated to do, well, anything when I feel unsettled. Instead, I’ve been reminding myself of a concept I came across in the spring of 2021: I don’t need to feel good to get going; I need to get going to give myself a chance to feel good.

This most obviously applies to exercise, which is how Lindsay Crouse, a runner and writer at The New York Times, wrote about it after struggling with pandemic burnout. But I’ve found it also can help me reconnect with creativity in the kitchen, at my desk, and in my relationships, too.

As performance coach Brad Stulberg puts it: “Show up — even when you don’t want to — and act in service of your core values. That’s the only way you’ll become them.”

Austin Kleon says it more succinctly: “Forget the noun, do the verb.”

Categories
Nature

A bioregion in my backyard

Flowering salmonberry, Oregon grape, Western trillium, all spotted on a local hike

I used to think that knowing the names of flowers or birds or trees was a lost art, something left only to hobby gardeners and birders.

Then the pandemic shrunk my world down to my home and my yard most days. I looked out of the front window and watched plants bloom and grow leaves and shed them and go bare as the seasons changed.

I grew interested enough to download an app to help me identify the birds hopping around and the flowers as they blossomed. Then came a couple of bird feeders, a pair of binoculars with an arm that holds my phone so I can take photos, and some field guides from the library.

I hardly bat an eyelash now when I walk through the neighborhood, cataloguing the neighbors’ yards: forsythia, hyacinth, weeping cherry.

Appreciating backyard nature has become a way for me to mark the changing of the seasons and the passing of time. It’s also a practice that keeps me grounded in place when I’ve otherwise been disconnected from local community.

As Jenny Odell writes in her book How to Do Nothing, “Similar to many indigenous cultures’ relationships to land, bioregionalism is first and foremost based on observation and recognition of what grows where, as well as an appreciation for the complex web of relationships among those actors. More than observation, it also suggests a way of identifying with place, weaving oneself into a region through observation of and responsibility to the local ecosystem.”

I’ve seen this curiosity blossom among my peers, too, with friends in their 30s and 40s ordering seed catalogues and sharing bulbs and veggie starts. Ryan and I recently dropped in on some retired friends and our conversation turned to bird-friendly backyard habitats. My friend Mike taught me that English ivy is an invasive species in the Northwest, and now I can’t unsee it on hikes, steadily making its way up the trunks of every tree in local parks and green spaces.

Like all ordinary endeavors, the habit of paying attention to the plants and creatures that live where we do changes us, one day at a time.

“Redwoods, oaks, and blackberry shrubs will never be ‘a bunch of green,’ writes Odell. “A towhee will never simply be ‘a bird’ to me again, even if I wanted it to be. And it follows that this place can no longer be any place.”