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Monday, December 31, 2012

Little Free Libraries: A Mighty Idea

Miniature houses seem to have a magnetic pull on me. I find them fascinating. It may stem from my attachment to our childhood dollhouse. Birdhouses. Miniatures towns at the model railroad museum. Dog houses. Playhouses. Gingerbread houses. Barbie’s very pink mansion. What is it about small-scale houses? I like them all! Is it because I am such a nester? Home represents comfort to me, warmth, familiarity, nurturing, a soft spot to land. Perhaps a small version of home taps into the happy feelings I have about home. Or maybe it’s because miniature things are so adorable. Even the toughest dude will turn into putty inside a dollhouse accessories store.

I passed a tiny house a few days ago while visiting my family for Christmas. It was positioned near a bench in a landscaped wedge of land behind a strip of stores. It was placed there for people to discover as they walked by. There was no giant neon arrow pointing it out. I liked that it was there for walkers to happen upon, like an unexpected present, or like running into a good friend.

The more I think about it, the more I see that a house-shaped box is an ideal shape for a free neighborhood library. At some people’s houses there is a welcome message on the doormat or an open door to show hospitality. The little library’s house shape invites you closer, underscoring its goal of welcoming, lending and fostering a neighborhood sensibility. After finding the little library, I checked its website ( and learned more about why little free libraries exist. From the website:

“The idea is to promote literacy and community-building by supporting book exchanges specifically in smaller communities that do not have their own public library. Hundreds of small communities throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the other 48 states are without public libraries.”

One goal is to build more than 2,510 libraries around the world (more than Andrew Carnegie!).

The founders of these libraries say, “The unique, personal touch seems to matter, as does the understanding that real people are sharing their favorite books. Leaving notes or bookmarks, having one-of-a-kind artwork on the Library or constantly re-stocking it with different and interesting books can make all the difference.”

The little libraries take free books a step beyond what city libraries do. At city libraries you need to get a library card (they are free) and while you are welcome to borrow any item, you are held accountable if it is lost or damaged. The little libraries may be how libraries originally started: based on trust. No one will know if you don’t return a book. No notices of overdue fines will follow you. Of course, I’m not advocating taking books without returning them. You should treat this privilege with care, But I find it nice that trust is given so freely. I also find it charming that the little libraries include a sense of serendipity. Who knows which books will be there when you next look? The surprise element is part of the fun.

Of course, a little library containing a few books is different from a big city library and all it offers. There are no mini computers inside the little libraries, available for anyone to use. There are no teeny cds to borrow, or tiny librarians who can help you find a book. No miniature story time on Thursdays. But they do serve a purpose, and they are delightful in how back-to-basics they are. These simple little libraries hold the appeal of a hand-written letter during an age when most of us communicate by email. The libraries foster a sharing, helping community spirit that aided in the survival of the first settlers in this country, when neighbors were more connected to one another than we are today, in an era of self-reliance.

As a side note I should say that I love city libraries and go almost every week to various branches around the city. My appreciation for these little free libraries does not change my passion for the city-run libraries. But it’s a fun discovery and I think they probably work in harmony. I was a little surprised that my parent’s city has a little free library, which is located a mere two blocks from the city’s library! But clearly people like and use the little free library.

When I passed the tiny house a few days ago I didn’t have my camera with me so I stopped by again later. In the morning there had been two books inside, and by mid-afternoon there were seven. It was fun to imagine people stopping by the little library in the hours since I’d discovered it. The doll-sized house reminded me of my own childhood dollhouse but it also brought back another childhood memory of the most basic motto learned in Kindergarten: share. It’s easy to do but it’s also easy to forget when our lives become very busy. This little library reminded me about how good it feels to share. Sometimes you learn something big when you go back to basics.

There are many quotes about reading online but I found two that spoke to me:
“Reading takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.
--- journalist Hazel Rochman
“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.”
― author and journalist Anna Quindlen

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Cleaning Song

Four days ago we celebrated Christmas. The kids frolicked in a sea of wrapping paper and ribbon, high on the joys of toys. The parents staggered across the finish line that marks Dec. 25, relieved to have survived the marathon that is Christmas preparation. We collapsed onto couches, whispering to ourselves in awe, “I made it. I actually got everything done for today.” I’ve had three days to recuperate but today another big event arrived: the post-Christmas clean-up. We have tons of stuff everywhere: mittens, toys, and candy wrappers on the floor, boxes and art supplies covering the table, Christmas stockings kicked under the couch, empty gift bags piled almost as high as the Christmas tree. If we had a chandelier, I’m sure we’d have a live reindeer swinging on it. The clutter is getting to me so I finally decided to tackle the mess today. Below is a song I improvised while crouched on the living room floor, gathering up dozens of puzzle pieces, scraping lollypop goo off other puzzle pieces, muttering about how much stuff is everywhere, and wondering if I’d ever make a noticeable dent in all this post-Christmas debris. I realized the song could cheer on other overwhelmed parents who also may be tackling the post-game mess. The weary parents of the world need an anthem. Since I also needed a break from the clean-a-thon, I abandoned the mix of puzzle pieces and pine needles and hobbled down the hall to the computer to write down the words to this fight song before my frazzled brain forgets why I’ve hobbled down the hall. Dedicated to tired post-Christmas parents everywhere:  

The Cleaning Song
(To be sung to the tune of “Old McDonald had a Farm”)

Mama Sarah cleaned all day.

(Woe is woe is me.)

She tried so hard to put stuff away.

(Woe is woe is me.)

Every time she turned around

(Woe is woe is me.)

Another mess was on the ground.

(Woe is woe is me.)

With a sweep, sweep here

And a sweep, sweep there

Here I sweep, there I sweep

Pine needles under our feet.

Mama Sarah cleaned all day

(Woe is woe is me.)

Oh Calgon, Calgon take me away.

(Woe is woe is me.)

Who Knew?

Have you ever thrown yourself a surprise party? If not, you don’t know what you’re missing! Before you worry that I’ve finally lost it, let me explain. You’re skeptical about how one could throw a surprise party for oneself. It’s a reasonable question, but let’s not let reason or logic get in the way of our fun.
Let me describe how today’s surprise garden party happened. (Mind you, I’m piecing this together as I go, since the planning part is still a mystery to me, the planner.) I’ll explain this in reverse order, as that’s how the whole thing was revealed to me.
A few minutes ago I decided to pull some plants out of a flower bed. They were getting very long and sagging onto the ground. I decided they might grow better if given a pre-spring haircut. I pulled out several feet worth of flowerless stems, and discovered something hidden under all the long stems. It was a 5 or 6” flower pot with something growing inside. What? Where did this come from? I don’t remember putting a pot here, although sometimes I toss bulbs into a pot and let nature be her own time-keeper. Nature is a lot better than I am at remembering her schedule of when to plant and when to water. I must have put bulbs into some dirt a few months ago because today when I unearthed the pot I discovered several healthy green shoots popping out of the soil, their curled leaves tapering into a point, like on a calligraphy pen.

Upon further investigation I found there were twelve shoots. Who knew? You might think that I, the gardener, knew. But the great thing about planting something and forgetting about it is that you get to enjoy the surprise in several stages! Since I love plants, today’s discovery did feel like I’d thrown myself a surprise party—one of which I was completely unaware! (Not just anyone can pull that off. You have to be quite busy, fairly forgetful, and have a garden that is not immaculately manicured. See what the completely organized people of the world are missing? The absent-minded among us are the ones who can genuinely enjoy their own self-designed surprise party!)

I’ve rambled before about how much I love plants. You know I have a garden at home and that I participate in a local community garden. So today’s happy surprise in the garden is right up my alley. I think gardening has been in my soul for a long time. When I was little, Mom read to my sister and me each night and one of the books I remember clearly was The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (If you haven’t read it, go to your library right this minute and borrow it. It is wonderful!) I bought a copy five years ago and although it had been decades since I’d first known this book, the wonder of it came right back to me as I read each page. The book was published in 1911 but it resonates with people more than a hundred years later. It truly is timeless because the joy of growing plants is timeless. In the book, a young orphan named Mary discovers a walled-in garden that has been locked up for more than ten years. Although she knows nothing about gardening, she is fascinated by the garden, and begins to tend the plants inside. It becomes her refuge. Just as the flowers and trees wake up and bloom that spring, so does Mary. There, her body and spirit become stronger and her life changes.

My discovery today made me feel like Mary, when she first entered the garden. It’s exciting to discover something you didn’t know was there. It’s a thrill to realize that something has been growing on its own, waiting to surprise you. I think these may be young tulips. I do recall buying tulip bulbs a while back but I’d forgotten until I found the pot hiding under the long stems above. A present from me…to me! It’s not exactly spring time (even in San Diego) but my garden is always working on something new for me to discover. My garden throws me a surprise party every day!





Sunday, December 23, 2012

Get Your Jingle Bell On!

In case you’ve missed the thousands of tv, radio, internet and print ads, the lights on houses, the snowmen on lawns, and the red-and-green decorations that went up in stores on Sept. 1, Christmas is coming. Soon.

It’s two days away, specifically. Like many parents, I still have loads to do. You see, although Santa Claus does a lot of the work to make Christmas magic, parents still have a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation as well. I’ve been very busy with Christmas events at school, getting cards out, making lists (and checking them twice or twenty times)—and the messy state of this house is proof that when December comes and parents go into overdrive, Santa doesn’t send elves to help put away laundry or wash dishes. Yesterday I would have loved one of Santa’s helpers to help me separate our outgoing cards into the following piles:

Addressed, stamped and sealed;

Stamped but still needs address;

Addressed and needs hand-delivering;


Addressed but needs double-checking that I have the husband’s name right.

You might think that it’s strange that I’m blogging when I have so much Christmasy stuff to do. Yes, this may seem contradictory. But sometimes a tired Mrs. Claus mom needs to do something completely unrelated to her long to do list in order to have a shred of balance in her life!
Besides, I wanted to share with you a few fun photos I took this month, when I was able to sneak away from Santa’s workshop. (The big guy in red runs a tight ship but he does follow labor laws and I did get the mandated coffee breaks.) If only I could figure out how to charge for overtime, then I’d be set…
I like how this neighbor decorated the tiki carving that adorns their front lawn. They incorporated the tiki head into their holiday decorating scheme. It’s an element of the unexpected, which is always fun.

These next photos show a house that epitomizes holiday cheer. The homeowners start in November, putting up a small building on the lawn where the master of magic sits, selecting music to play in coordination with the changing light display on the lawn. I have never seen so many lights and decorations at one house. They have a giant arch at the parkway strip, at least fifteen feet tall. Every character imaginable is perched on the lawn, contributing to the celebration. There are thousands of lights overhead, lights at your feet, music swirling around your head, over your shoulders, and through your arms, lifting them until you find yourself dancing with abandon to “Jingle Bell Rock.” Icicles glow and snowflakes spin. Reindeer in every color of the rainbow nod their heads to the music. Old friends like Charlie Brown and Mickey Mouse grin from their stations. Even a smiling Grinch has converted and is part of the festivities. Cars cruise slowly by, taking in the wonder. The man behind all this magic sits in the booth he’s put up for this season, wearing earphones and studying his playlist. Children’s faces glow with excitement. Adult’s faces beam at the spectacle. It’s better than Main Street at Disneyland. And it’s there for everyone to enjoy. It’s one homeowner’s gift to the city, an oasis of color and light on a dark December night.

I’m so glad I saw this house of splendor. In a season filled with long to do lists but short on time, this house was a good reminder to slow down for a minute and to savor the excitement. Whether you think of it as a religious season or a time of giving to those you love, it’s a special part of each year, one to enjoy. Let’s take in the colored lights, notice the scent of pine, and appreciate the music and the cheer. Let’s revel in this winter time celebration. After all, in a few days, the stores will be putting up the July 4th decorations!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Garden

Today I walked out my front door to the quiet that only Sunday morning guarantees. I was on my way to the community garden I joined last summer. The street was sunny and silent. Most people were still sleeping or just opting for a slower pace. The only movement on my block was from a few houses down. My neighbor Jean was standing in her driveway. I said hello and we chit-chatted for a few minutes. I don’t see her very often and I asked how she was doing. She’s seventy or seventy-five and had heart surgery a few years ago. She said she is mostly fine and I thought she looked and sounded well. I reminded her that we’re just a stone’s throw away and to call if she needs anything. We said goodbye and I continued my walk.

A short time later my phone rang. It was Jean and she made an offer I couldn’t refuse. She said she had some stuff in her garage that she was never going to use. She thought I might be into crafts and wondered if I wanted to come over and get some fabric she’d bought when she still sewed. Did I want fabric? Do fish like water? Heck, YES!
Jean has lived in her house for forty or fifty years. Like most of us, she has some stuff in her garage. Not a crazy amount, really, for having been there so long. But she’s ready to part with things she no longer uses and I was thrilled to help take the unused fabric off her hands! We looked at some of the fabric together and I knew I’d love to have some of it but wouldn’t use it all. Certain colors or prints didn’t appeal to me but I had an idea. I asked Jean if she’d be interested in my donating the fabric I didn’t plan to use. When I learned to use my sewing machine I took a free class through the community college’s continuing education department. In the corner of the sewing room was a table with free pieces of fabric on it. People brought stuff in that was no longer needed. It was like the penny plate you see near cash registers. Take one if you need it or leave one for the next customer. A simple gesture of goodwill. (Hey, the world has plenty of strife and we should appreciate small acts of kindness when they come our way, and then pay them forward.)

After thanking Jean again and again, I brought two big boxes of fabric home. Giddily, I sorted through the stash and squealed with joy over some of the pieces. Some I would not use, and they went into a huge plastic bag that I can bring to the sewing room next week. But I want to keep some pieces and I’m excited to find a project for each one. There are all kinds of fabrics and a number of them may have been sitting in Jean’s garage for several decades. There are patterns from the 1960s! There is stretchy fabric for ‘70s pantsuits. Pieces of lime and tangerine chiffon. The boxes are time capsules and I’m having a blast!

Today’s fabric buffet gives me a picture into Jean’s world, too. Seeing which hobbies a person chooses, and what’s in her garage is like a sociology study. Fascinating! Today’s surprise gift makes me feel happy about being a good neighbor and having friendly neighbors, too. Neighbors help you out when there’s a problem. You lend neighbors tools. They give you fruit from their trees. You pick up their mail when they’re away. In a world in which we’re more self-sufficient than in the past, small acts of neighborly kindness are happy reminders that while we may not need neighbors in the way people once did, we still benefit from being a nearby friend, and from having people who want to help us, too. Two boxes of fabric have brought me some happiness and have cleared a small area in Jean’s garage. It doesn’t have to be a big thing that brings people together. We are social beings and we are happier when we have contact with others. So go on, love thy neighbor! You’ll get something from it, too.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

It's a Sign...of Something (Maybe)

When something unusual happens people sometimes say, “It’s a sign.” I’m not sure if I believe in that stuff but I’m not sure I don’t.

Take yesterday, for example. I was walking on the sidewalk when I glanced up at a small airplane flying lower than usual. The next thing I knew, I was in a crumpled heap on someone’s grassy parkway strip, clutching my ankle. It was sprained and it hurt! Naturally, it was the same ankle I’d sprained badly exactly twelve months before.

Some people would insist that my ankle injury was a sign. Of what, I’d ask? A sign that I should watch where I’m walking? (This argument does hold some water—or in this case an ice pack—because last December’s ankle sprain occurred when I waved at a neighbor and managed to turn my ankle off the sidewalk and onto the parkway strip.) Of course, I can’t buy into that sign because I’m female and therefore I multi-task. Usually I can walk and do something else at the same time. Furthermore, the point of getting outdoors is to experience what is there, and I cannot subscribe to a life spent staring at the sidewalk.

So was yesterday’s fall a sign? Maybe it’s a sign that December will hold injury for me. Period. It’s a busy month. Maybe I’m extra distracted because I’m extra busy getting ready for Santa’s arrival. Perhaps I need to clad myself in full body armor between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Injury happens. Be ready.

Some people might interpret yesterday’s fall as a sign that I need to slow down. Pfffft. I think not. I need to speed up! I have tons to do and not enough time! Of course, some might say that falling, and thus needing to ice the ankle, could lead to my finishing projects I can do while seated. It will force me to catch up on my many half-finished projects. Hmmmm. There may be something to this. But is it a sign? No, but it might be a silver lining.

Maybe it’s a sign that I need to live in a neighborhood where there is no drop-off between the sidewalk and the parkway strip. I need a gently-sloped ramp going from the sidewalk to the street. Edges are problematic for people like me. Being that I’ve banged my shoulders and hands into door frames a million times, I think I also need to live in a curved, padded house and maybe a cornerless universe!  

Who can say whether my injury is a sign? I’m just relieved that my ankle isn’t sprained as badly as it was last year. It isn’t swollen and bruised, like last December. It’s no picnic but I’ll deal. Maybe Santa could let me borrow the sleigh for a few weeks since I can’t walk as well as usual. I would return it by Dec. 24.

I guess my New Year’s resolution could be to pay a tiny bit more attention to uneven surfaces below my feet. 2013 is only a few weeks away. Although some people are superstitious about the number 13, maybe it will be my luckiest year yet. Maybe I’ll be injury-free. I need to go look for signs. Does anyone have the horoscope section?