A mature garden is like …

I took advantage of the beautiful weather – spring at last? – yesterday to clean up one of my perennial gardens, the first I planted when we moved to this acreage four years ago. In the process I was struck by how much a mature garden is like a mature woman, in some ways like myself.

After the winter, my garden takes some time and some doing to wake up and look fresh, just as I do after a long night’s sleep. Raking away the leaves and cleaning the paths is like combing my hair. Areas to untangle. Spent foliage to remove. Mulch where it doesn’t belong. Quite the mess.

My garden wakes up in stages, sending out one plant and then another as though recognizing it is not necessary or possible or even advisable to appear in full flower all at once. First the brilliant yellows and deep purples of daffodils and hyacinths. Then the pink and purple blossoms of the pulmonaria. With last year’s foliage cleared way, the first tender shoots of the hostas emerge. I, too, wake by stages. A long walk. A cup of coffee. The newspaper, before I am ready to face the day. Though I am not so bright as spring’s first flowers!

My garden is comfortable in its predictability. I know which plants will eventually appear even if I may forget about them until they come forth, just as I know my own talents and patterns of responses to opportunities and crises. I do not have to approach every situation as though it never happened before. I do not have to learn it all for the first time. After all these years, I know myself. For the most part.

But there is still room for the ‘new,’ for surprises, even in a mature garden. It takes three years for some plants to become fully established and when they do all of a sudden you have offshoots springing up everywhere. Virginia bluebells appear like magic yards from their parent. Purple Palace hucheras and Raspberry Splash pulmonaria pop up at random.

As a result, a mature garden like a mature woman has much to share. Hostas that have overgrown the path can be divided. All those baby bluebells, huchera and pulmonaria go off to populate the gardens of my friends.

When I finished my garden work, I saw patches of bare ground, areas that were rough and wrinkled. The area was clean but looking a little tattered. But I know that in a few weeks, hostas, astilbe, huchera, sage, purple cone flowers, daisies, black-eyed susans will fill in. My garden will be dressed in all its glory. And I know the old girl will look pretty good.

Salute to Librarians

This coming week – April 12-18 – is National Library Week. An annual celebration of the contributions of our nation’s libraries and librarians. The theme this year: “Worlds connect @ your library.

I am personally indebted, past and present, to libraries and librarians for connecting me to the world. As a child, I climbed the steps of the Maquoketa Public Library on many a Saturday to disappear in the stacks in search of Zane Grey and the wild west or Jack London and the northern wilderness or Tarzan in the African jungles. These days, I visit libraries state wide sharing the stories of my book, Growing Up Country. In visits with people across the state, I learn how closely the worlds of people who grew up on farms and rural communities connect, regardless of age or location.

So go check out the world at your local library this week. Thank the librarians for being there, helping us all connect with our worlds.

Our stories connect us

After taking a couple of months (the really cold, really snowy ones) off, I’m back on the road again, doing readings, discussions and signing events at Iowa libraries. Three weeks ago, Maquoketa; last week, Bettendorf, this week, Clermont and Elgin.

The more people I talk to, the more I discover how common the experiences of growing up in rural Iowa are. And the most common experiences are the ones I least expected. Chickens, for instance. The smell of wet chicken feathers. The sight of a chicken with its head cut off. The fear of being attacked by a territorial rooster. The sudden, sharp, startling peck of a setting hen defending her nest. Who would have imagined that traumatic chicken experiences would connect so many people?

Whether people are 90 or 60 or 40 or 20, someone starts to tell stories of growing up in Iowa and all of a sudden memories come flooding back. Doing laundry. Milking cows. Weeding the garden. Driving tractor. One story leads to another and all of a sudden people who didn’t know each other at all are reminiscing as though they’d grown up in the same house. Sharing stories – connecting with – people about growing up in rural Iowa is one of the great, unexpected pleasures of my life these days.

Failure worries dog life insurers

“Failure worries dog life insurers”  This was a headline in the Des Moines Register yesterday.  When I read this, I thought that with all the economic woes the country is facing, the failure of people who insure dogs just could not be high enough on the list to be the lead on the business page.  I launched into reading the article fully prepared to tsk and cluck and shake my head at a country so flush we can have dog insurance.  I also thought of the two Mastiffs my son and his wife keep and wondered if they have insurance for their animals.

Several paragraphs into the article, I couldn’t find anything about dogs.  I went back to the beginning. Maybe in my haste, I had read past the point.  All the way to the end. Still nothing about dogs.
 
I read the headline again.  I have been known to misread headlines.  But no. It said “Failure worries dog life insurers.”  
 
I read it again and again.  Finally. Finally. Finally, I realized dog was the verb. Worries was the subject!  I didn’t exactly slap my head, but I had to laugh.  “Hey, David,” I called to my husband. “Listen to this!”  We had a good laugh over my misread of the headline.  
 
I love a day that starts with a laugh.  And I’ll take a good laugh when I can get one. Even at my own expense. That headline is a keeper.

Throwing away money

Okay, visualize this.  Every day as you drive home from work, you reach in your pocket, pull out a nickel, and throw it out the car window.  Every day.  Sometimes you throw out a dime.  By the end of the work week, you’ve thrown out a quarter or more. By the end of the month, more than a dollar. Does this make any sense?  Of course not.  But people are doing it.

I know this because I take a walk most mornings and along the way I see pop bottles and cans, beer bottles and cans, liquor bottles.  Each worth five cents. I know people throw these containers out their windows every day because I carry a plastic bag just so I can pick up this refuse. No sooner have I cleaned up the roadway than it is littered again.  I can pick up a dollar or more – each day.  
 
Lazy. Disrespectful. Flagrant. Annoying. The people who throw out trash along the road defy my understanding. For crying out loud, just put it in the waste basket when you get home! Even more astounding is people who throw away money. My husband has seen people at gas stations take bottles and cans out of their vehicles and deposit them in the trash cans just outside the convenience store door.  They could have taken those bottles and cans five steps further and collected the deposit. 
 
Governor Culver over reached during the last legislative session.  He had the door open to add juice and water containers to the Bottle Bill in Iowa. Then he got greedy and added a tax to the process.  As a result, the whole thing went down.  Too bad. We needed that addition. 
 
But I guess this proves one thing. Clearly the economy is not as bad as we’re led to believe if people are still rolling down their car windows and throwing out nickels!

One new idea every day

When I published my memoir, Growing Up Country, my goal was to implement one new marketing idea every day.  With marketing I was finally in my comfort zone! After 30 years in marketing, I knew that even the best product in the world wouldn’t sell one unit if no one knew about it.

I was reasonably successful with that lofty goal and book sales showed it.  Now that I’ve had books in hand for over a year, I’ve backed off demanding ‘one new idea every day,’ but the week doesn’t go by that I don’t think about getting in front of people with my book somehow.
 
My latest marketing approach is to look for opportunities to write about childhood or farm memories. As we Boomers age, nostalgia is a natural and more media are responding to this interest. My book mention comes in the descriptive author tag.  Just last week, I wrote such a piece for the Des Moines Register’s fiftysomething insert.  Titled “Playing in the sky,” my recollection was about Dad and Mom helping us kids build and learn to fly kites. 
 
Whether this piece will result directly in book sales or not remains to be seen.  But what I do know is that having my name and book title in front of my target market pays off over time.  A gentle reminder.  

Just right

Along with many millions of other residents of Planet Earth, I was glued to my TV yesterday watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama.  As a public relations counselor for more than 30 years, I listened to his inauguration speech with one ear tuned to my own reaction and the other ear gauging how the speech would be received by the media and the public.

As President Obama spoke, I listened to the structure, the cadence, the content, the meaning, the message.  I listened for the memorable sound bite.  President Obama is certainly capable of soaring rhetoric, he could stand toe to toe with Martin Luther King, Jr., but in this speech, he did not deliver the one phrase that stands above all else nor did he whip the crowd to a frenzied peak. Was this a mistake?  I believe not.
 
Our new President spoke to the world on the topics and in a manner that were most appropriate to the occasion.
  • He spoke to who he is: “I stand here today, humbled by the task … grateful for the trust … mindful of the sacrifices” 
  • He spoke to a new outlook: “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord”
  • He spoke to our pride: “there are some who question the scale of our ambitions … but their memories are short. For they have forgotten … what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage’
  • He spoke to the world of a new America: ‘we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals’
  • He spoke to our strength: “I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. … But know this, America – they will be met.’
As I watched the faces in the crowd, I saw that people were drawing from the speech, the day, the experience, just what they needed. Each person would hear the phrase that spoke to him or her. President Obama didn’t deliver one phrase for everyone, he delivered one phrase to each listener’s heart.
 
He was presidential. He was a statesman. He was true to who he is – an intelligent, thoughtful, wise man. A leader.

What do you need?

Recently I stopped at a deli for lunch.  When I walked up, tray in hand, the young man at the cash register said, as they always do, “How are you today? Did you get everything you need?”  I said – as I always do – “I’m well, and yes I did.”  I said this as I fished through my purse for the money to pay. Then, I hesitated, remembering my some-time vow to note and call people by name, so I looked up, caught his name from the badge, and added, “It’s a nice day. And how are you, Jason? Got big plans for the weekend?”

“I’m looking forward to seeing my family. They’re coming in from Colorado. Thank you for asking how I am,” Jason said.  
 
Our little exchange lasted maybe 30 seconds.  But it was his comment, Thank you for asking how I am, that has had me thinking ever since. 
 
We interact with people every day, many of whom provide us some service. I value all these people who facilitate my life, I truly do. But it’s easy to look past them. Easy to be in a rush. Easy to stay lost in my own thoughts, my own agenda, my own problems. Easy to overlook that another human being has just entered the sphere of my life.
 
It is quite likely that Jason did not see running a cash register as the job he’d most like to have in the world. Just as likely that after taking money from hand after hand, he felt more like a robot than a person. So when someone called him by name, he was pulled out of anonymity, validated as a person in some small way. 
 
I am glad he noted that my comment meant something to him.  Because when he did, he made me think about what I need, perhaps what any of us needs. What we really need may be for someone to take a moment to see us – and talk to us – like real people.
 

Using the right equipment

People tell me writing a blog should be easy. After all, they say, I’m a writer. But from my perspective, being a writer makes it all the harder. I know how much I labor over the words in the articles I write, in the book I published. To spend precious time writing something that I don’t have to write … well. At the same time, I keep tripping across little things – having these little experiences – that I just know I’m supposed to notice, and write about. Today the little thing is YakTrax.

 
I’m a walker. Almost every day, regardless of weather, I head outside for a walk. Mother nature has thrown down the gauntlet this winter in Iowa, rotating ice and snow on a weekly basis. But I am not deterred. If the Alaskans and Norwegians can survive and thrive in all that snow, so can I. 
 
My theory is it’s all in being prepared, having the right equipment.  A face mask against the wind. Mittens that let me expose my fingers without freezing my hands. Still, before my husband came home with YakTrax, I resigned myself to the treadmill at winter’s first sign of ice. Walking every step afraid I’d fall just wasn’t worth it. But once I slipped these little gizmos made of rubber and metal coils over the soles of my shoes, I found I had traction. I could step out with confidence. I didn’t worry about falling.
 
In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about how important it is for writers to have the right tools in their writing kits.  Perhaps writing a blog will be like YakTrax. One more piece of equipment I’ll discover lets me step out with confidence.