Favorite Books: Nonfiction

“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Robert Pirsig, 1974

‘What’s new?’ is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question ‘What is best?,’ a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.”

“Author’s note: What follows…should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.

The first philosophical book that punctured my mind’s shell and led me to think seriously about the cultural American norms of quantity over quality, and fall in love with the foundations of logic. I was assigned this book in Governor’s School in philosophy class but I only skimmed it then. I was 17, in the English concentration, so I had a lot of other reading to do. I came back to it a few years later, a much better age to read this book. It needs to be read thoroughly and slowly. I am re-reading it now.

Also, back in my brief middle management days, I insisted on hiring a manager based almost solely on her answer to my question “What is your favorite book?” The woman who conducted the interview with me thought I was nuts, but the applicant’s answer of the above book got her the job with no management experience and she was fabulous at it.

“The Four Agreements”
Miguel Ruiz, 1997

Be impeccable with your word
Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

Don’t take anything personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Don’t make assumptions
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

Always do your best
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

This is a life-changing book, a small, powerful book that helped me break my social phobias. I was assigned this book in a graduate class around 2005. I keep a copy of the summary of the Four Agreements above on my office wall where I can refer to them often. These agreements seem simple, but they are difficult in practice. Don’t let the cultish sounding “Toltec wisdom” and some of the more new-agey prose put you off. Give it a chance.

“Up in the Old Hotel”
Joseph Mitchell, 1992

The best talk is artless, the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun, grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels.”

“You can hate a place with all your heart and soul and still be homesick for it.

It would be natural to assume that I love this book because Joseph Mitchell is from my hometown and he was my grandfather’s cousin. I didn’t know about him, however, until after he died in 1996, which kills me because I think that he and I would have had some great conversations. For years all I knew about “Cousin Joe,” as my family referred to him, was that he “wrote for some magazine up north.” It wasn’t until I googled him that I learned that magazine was the New Yorker, and that he was internationally famous! He was another fish out of water in Robeson County, North Carolina, but he also could not put his hometown away. I could write a whole post about Joseph Mitchell, but I won’t. Arguably, this book should be on my fiction page. He is known as a news reporter and essayist, so I’m putting it here. This anthology contains pretty much everything he wrote. Read it. It’s fascinating.

“The Botany of Desire”
Michael Pollan, 2001.

When I first heard Michael Pollan interviewed about this book on NPR, I knew that I wanted to read it, but I had no idea how much it would change my ideas not only about agriculture and plants, but the entire relationship of humans with nature. In a nutshell, we have co-evolved with plants.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard, 1974

Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

Another book for my re-read list. After I first read it, I pronounced it my desert island book. That was a long time ago and I need to see if it is still true. I suspect that it might be.

“Peace is Every Step”
Thich Nhat Hanh, 1990

We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.

A book that helped me get through my undiagnosed panic attacks in the 90s. I learned to love washing the dishes, and I stopped to breathe when the phone rang. A sweet, simple guide about mindfulness.

“Bird by Bird”
Anne Lamott, 1994

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

This book is about so much more than writing. After I read it, I went on a tear of reading Lamott’s fiction, and bought several of her other non-fiction books. Sadly, I’m not as crazy about the others. But her writing about writing? Wonderful stuff. I know professors who regularly assign the chapter about shitty first drafts.

The Snow Leopard
Peter Matthiessen, 1978

The sun is roaring, it fills to bursting each crystal of snow. I flush with feeling, moved beyond my comprehension, and once again, the warm tears freeze upon my face. These rocks and mountains, all this matter, the snow itself, the air – the earth is ringing. All is moving, full of power, full of light.”

“Have you seen the snow leopard? No! Isn’t that wonderful?

When I was working for minimum wage in a small bookstore, I could not imagine that I would ever have enough money or time off to travel beyond the occasional weekend camping trip nearby. I sank into travel literature like it was manna from heaven. This book did double-duty by feeding my anxious heart with the teachings of Buddhism as well as transporting me to the land of Nepal.

Outside Lies Magic
John Stilgoe, 1998

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, experts advised men to have their kitchens painted apple-green. The experts believed that apple-green quieted nervous people, and especially wives beginning to think of suffrage, of careers beyond the home. Today the explorer of color schemes finds in old houses and apartments the apple-green paint still gracing the inside of the cabinet under the kitchen sink, and the hallways of old police stations and insane asylums.

This small volume took me back to a free-range childhood in which I was a fearless bicycling explorer of the woods, crumbling old buildings, and back roads of my rural hometown. That child still exists within me, and she still has questions about light poles and doorknobs. Full of surprising microhistory that you probably never considered, reading this book will make you look at the ordinary world in a different way. It is a favorite of public historians for good reason.

To be continued…

Favorite Books: An introduction


I’ve been a voracious reader all my life and my years spent working in bookstores were truly like heaven, except for the physical agony part. If I could have afforded it and my body would have cooperated, I would have stayed in bookselling all of my life. A Masters in Library Science was a brief consideration, until I realized that it was not just about books and I’d have to do group projects. I have had too many student experiences where a group project meant that I did most of the work while begging the others to do theirs. At my grumpy age, I’d probably clench my teeth to the point of breaking all my crowns, and I can’t afford that.

One of my favorite childhood memories is the smell of the inside of the county library bookmobile that visited Marietta during the summer. The librarian selected a stack of books for me and I would have read them all by the time they came back. I don’t remember not being able to read, and there is a family legend of me picking up the newspaper and reading aloud from it before I was in kindergarten, to the shock of the others. Mama read to me from the time I was born. I always wanted to read books that were “above my head” or “inappropriate” for my age. When I ran out of books to read, I read the encyclopedia. One of the items I made sure that I kept from Mama’s house was the set of World Book encyclopedia from 1952. I have a weakness for collecting old encyclopedia volumes and dictionaries to this day.

Anyway, this book list project is going to be my blogging focus this month, maybe even this week if I get really into it. Once I make the posts, I’m going to copy them to pages where I can add to them. Most of the books will be older because I am looking backwards to the ones that turned my head around. Some I have pulled off the shelf to re-read, even though I have about a hundred newer unread books on the shelf waiting for me.

I always thought that I might set up a used bookstore one day, maybe in conjunction with a coffee shop or art space. I don’t think that will happen now for several good reasons, and I am downsizing furiously in case that we need to move. These will be the books that I keep.

I welcome your comments, as always.

Saturday morning coffee pot post


A quick post before I go to the farmers market and buy some of that delicious corn from Rudd Farm.

I’m working on moving away from the hole. I’ve been circling it for a while and I don’t want to change meds. A higher dose worked but it also made my heart race, and that upped my anxiety considerably. Now I’m considering therapy to help me cope. The fact that I am writing this post shows that I am moving forward. I’m still feeling OC as hell, but I have been functional. The main thing I need to avoid is getting agoraphobic again. That’s a nasty downward spin.

I registered for this online tapestry class: Fringeless, co-taught by Sarah Swett, who I have worshiped as my favorite artist forever, and Rebecca Mezoff, who has become THE online teacher of tapestry. As much as I have shied away from online classes in the past, this seems to be the year for it.

Speaking of which, the photo at the top is of the progress of my stitched piece I’m doing for India Flint’s “Gardens of the Heart” collaborative project. We were assigned a number when we signed up – mine is the third line of a three line poem. I won’t know what the first two lines will be. There are several hundred people worldwide doing this and India will put the lines together in the exhibit. There will probably be a website and a book, which is good since the exhibit will be in Australia. The cloth is actually very blue because I dipped it in indigo after I printed it with leaves. The silk/cotton thread was tied around dye bundles too.

My friend Susanne wasn’t around to stop me, so I volunteered to help with Tapestry Weavers South’s social media accounts. This really shouldn’t be a problem for me, though. I’m not doing it on my own, so if I spiral out, I hope that I won’t feel any guilt. I got so burned out doing Slow Food and Sierra Club and Friends of the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market and trying to revive the weaver’s guild here about 10-15 years ago that it is taking me a long time to recover. The Friends of the Market was the worst experience ever. That group is now defunct because it got closed down by lies and crazy accusations in the local right wing press. So sad, and so typical of our times.

So, Tapestry Weavers South is basically the only group that I am involved in now, and I love the members of TWS so much that it will truly be a labor of love. I belong to the local chapter of the Sierra Club and Slow Food Asheville too, but I’m not an active participant in those groups.

Okay, it’s getting late and it’s getting hot. Time to go to the farmer’s market. Teaser: I am working on a few blog posts about my favorite books. It will be fun. And in conclusion, the groundhogs are leaving my basil and foxglove seedlings alone, so this bed will be beautiful next spring.


Sunday Morning Coffee Pot Post


Ugh, what an awful week the past week was. Back to work, bored out of my mind, no mental energy to do anything much when I got home at night other than numb my anxious mind with playing solitaire and watching TV. I spent time researching emigration to various countries, and reading advice from ex-pats online. At least I cooked two nights and got laundry done. Friday night and Saturday was fun, though.

So, my staycation. Yes. I got so revved up about purging the studio that I plunged into it and didn’t do much of anything else for the rest of the week! It was great, though. I doubled my goal of getting rid of five large boxes of stuff. Much of it went to Reconsidered Goods, some went to a teacher at Hirsch Wellness Network, and I’m still putting stuff to the side for Goodwill or wherever. I got all the cardboard boxes off the floor, condensed most of them into one or two boxes, and cleaned the floor and the rugs. It took so much more time that I thought it would, but it was totally worth taking the week off to do it. On the weekend, Sandy and I moved everything off the front porch and mopped and cleaned and repainted a chair and got rid of a lot of stuff that was cluttering it up. Bought new cushions for the swing and the wicker chairs. We found a wicker table at Reconsidered Goods that matches my mother’s wicker rocker perfectly! Pablocito had a couple of tough days because we consigned his wobbly cat perch to the garbage bin, but he seems to have adjusted now.

Because the state of North Carolina often gives its employees extra time off and small bonuses in lieu of adequate pay raises, I am rich in vacation time. For the most part, I love this. I spent years working at places that didn’t give sick time at all, maybe one week of vacation, or they required you to work so much that you couldn’t take it anyway. As I am looking retirement in the face, I can see that as far as my Social Security goes it would have been better to have the salary increases. Sandy and I are making a will, finally, in case that we both go at the same time, and considering our retirement options. Sandy is now on Medicare, and is going to try to wait until age 70 for his Social Security. I am considering taking my Social Security and 85% of my state pension at age 62, which is about five years from now. I can’t leave this job until I get to age 62, at least. Then I’ll look at my options. Sandy deserves to retire and perhaps we will emigrate. It would be best if we did it together. Maybe we will check out Portugal next year. Costa Rica? Sadly, I don’t think that we could afford Ireland. I’d prefer an English-speaking country, since I can barely make myself understood in English, much less other languages. I’ve taken French, Spanish, and Italian, and now I get them all mixed up and can’t even get my numbers right. I realize that we will probably end up here, but I’d like to have the option of leaving. I worry that by the time I am 62, no other countries will let us in, and who could blame them?

I think that the greatest and the worst thing about the staycation is that it showed me a little of what life might be like after retirement on a daily living scale. The difference being that Sandy would be at home all day, and we would probably eventually get on each other’s nerves. It would be nice to have the time and energy to keep this house clean and cook healthy meals, not to mention the studio time I’d have.

Physically, I am better. I saw a new chiropractor for twelve adjustments and there is a big difference in my neck and shoulders. My hips are still a problem, but much better. There really isn’t much more that can be done since arthritis is the ultimate cause and it can’t be reversed. But it can be managed a lot better than I’ve been doing, and I’m not taking nearly as much ibuprofen. There are exercises that I need to remember to do! I have switched over to taking turmeric and I’ll still see both my chiropractor and massage therapist once a month to keep me on track with my progress. My elbow and hands, well, I just have to take a lot of breaks.

Friday night we went to the Solstice celebration at Weatherspoon Art Museum, which is just a block from our house, and saw the exhibits and took a photo in the “photo booth.” There is a film showing there in one of the small galleries on the first floor, migration (empire) that is stunningly beautiful and I recommend it highly. I might go back and watch it again.

Summer Solstice photo booth

We went to the Greensboro Summer Solstice Festival on Saturday afternoon, which gets bigger and more spectacular every year. I didn’t have a good charge on my camera so I only took one photo – I think that this guy had the most impressive costume, although he had a lot of competition.


And the Back Forty is in transition. I’ve transferred what lettuce seedlings I could find to the container on the front steps wall, and moved a few tomato seedlings back to where the Jacob’s Cattle beans were. Ground cherry plants have popped up randomly here and there and I’m happy to see them! The groundhog family (yes, I’m pretty sure I saw a baby) are in control. They finally pushed over the wire cage I had staked down over my broccoli in one of the planters and ate the rest of it. Also, carrot tops are gone. So I’m concentrating on tomatoes and herbs that they don’t like back there, like basil and mint. Nothing worked to deter them. The water jet spray, the repellent spray, the flashy hologram tapes hanging from the wire cages and fig tree and blueberry bush, all useless. I hope that I might at least get to eat some of my blueberries this year, but if I don’t, a friend is bringing me plenty from her yard. I don’t have the mental energy to trap them.




Curiously, the tromboncino squashes are doing quite well in the shade. I suppose that their flowers will be eaten by Woody and company, so I’m not expecting any harvest.

The hugelkultur bed is full of flowers, most not in bloom yet. There are a few hollyhocks that I’ll likely need to move next year. We’ll see. I’ve been moving some plants from the south side of the front yard over to this area since they will probably get trampled when the arborist takes out the silver maple tree in a couple of weeks.


I have a tiny Sugar Baby watermelon and a few ripe cherry tomatoes. It will have to do for now. There will be plenty of Roma and Principe Borghese tomatoes for sauce and drying later this year, and it’s almost time to dig up my red potatoes.



Okay, enough blogging. Studio time.