When to trim and when to chop

Am I the only one who grew up in a household where holidays meant extra house projects?

Our yard work has continued through this 3-day weekend, primarily in the form of hacking at bushes. My husband hesitated at first, timidly shearing the azaleas, then realizing the futility. The azaleas put on a spectacular show this spring, perhaps due to the gentle hand-clipper trimming last year, but now they had taken over the front yard.

“Are you sure you want me to chop them?” he asked. “I don’t think you’ll like how they’ll look.”

“Do it! Chop away! They need it!”

He hacked mercilessly and now they are indeed quite hideous, half the size and scraggly if not downright naked. Not to worry—they will grow back in a flash. (This is, after all, North Carolina—land of humidity and heat. Plants love it.)

Likewise, the privet hedge in the back yard shrank by half if not two-thirds. It had grown to the unmanageable height where the trimmers had to be held overhead. (The last time we tried that, someone ended up in the ER with a chopped finger.)

The privets look even worse than the azaleas. Spindly sticks with a few scraggly leaves. Like a bad comb-over. But at the same time—much much better.

So when to trim and when to chop? Well, as the non-plant-scientist in the family, my answer is this: when something is out of control, no longer serves its purpose, or requires a new form, hack away mercilessly. If it’s well-behaved, a trim will suffice.

When I write, I’ve learned that I do better when I generate more words rather than less so I can hack away—not indiscriminately, but unflinchingly—to find the right ones. I’ve learned that sometimes a trim is just fine. And I’ve learned that sometimes you have to hack away until the result is naked and ugly, but the space has been made for new words to grow.

Keeping Life Fresh

I bought flowers today, as I do many Fridays, taking advantage of the neighborhood florist’s TGIF half-price sale. I usually get two bouquets, one for the living room and one for the dining room. Today, instead of filling two vases, I decided to make one big arrangement. Hmmm. What made me do that? Hey, it looks good!

Then it struck me that I have been doing a lot of little things—very little things—differently lately.

I bought a new kind of sandwich bread this week. (Remember, I did say very little things.) Not the Oat-Nut-Multigrain-Whole-Wheat-Wheat-Berry brown bread I usually get. Oatmeal bread—whiter and softer than what I’m used to. Hey, it tastes good!

And…I bought a new salad dressing. And new mustard. (What can I say? I’m living on the edge.)

And…last weekend my husband and I walked to the art festival downtown—we didn’t drive or take the bus; we walked the 1.5 miles each way. It was a beautiful day.

And…on the way back from the art festival, we stopped at the new wine shop and bought bottle of wine—just to sit and sip on the porch that evening. Aahhh. It was a beautiful evening.

I realized today how infrequently I divert from my routine. I make the grocery list and follow it. I don’t like to grocery shop, so I want to get in and out. Efficient. Easier to stick with the tried and true bread, turkey, apples.

I wondered why I was noticing this very small shift recently. I wondered if maybe possibly perhaps it was related to writing every day in May, forcing myself to come up with something to post, looking at the world (sometimes frantically) to find something new to write about. I wondered if this shift started when I first sat in the bedroom chair—rather than the office chair or the living room chair—to read and write in my journal.

Perhaps letting go of routine and efficiency creates space for a little more playfulness. Perhaps it relieves the tedium of routine. Perhaps the tiny little changes keep life fresh.

So. How else can I keep things fresh? Hmmm. Maybe it’s time for different annuals in front of the house…vinca are so last year and the year before and the year before…


When I don’t know what to write I turn to poetry exercises. A defined poetic form such as ­a ghazal or pantoum or sonnet, a set of random words required to be used, or a series of instructions about simile, meter, number of words, etc. I tend to use writing books to find exercises, but if you don’t have one to hand, you can simply make up your own constraints.

I think I am drawn to writing exercises for the same reason I am drawn to ballet. The rules exist to give shape and form, and they are not to be ignored or avoided; but they are meant to be transcended. Follow the rules, but go beyond the rules. Make the rules invisible.

Most audience members don’t know all the rules of ballet—they just know when it looks good, great or amazing. Only the most sophisticated realize that 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th are not just positions for practice at the barre—they are required positions for the ballerina’s feet to pass through between each particular step. They are some of the constraints within which the dancers must work. When they transcend those constraints, they soar.

One risk of doing a writing exercise is that you may not get anything “good.” But even when that occurs, a “good” idea frequently manifests later as a result of the exercise.

And occasionally you find an exercise leads you to something amazing and unexpected. Occasionally you achieve transcendence and you, too, soar.

Small actions

After Sunday’s weeding of the vegetable garden, my husband and I scheduled more weeding projects throughout the week. Monday was the strawberry bed. Today was the flower garden along the front and driveway. After weeding comes trimming the bushes in the backyard, trimming the bushes in the front yard, then replacing the languishing pansies with vinca for the summer. Small 1- to 2-hour projects that we can complete in an evening without feeling overtaxed.

All the small efforts throughout the week lead to a well-tended, pleasant outdoor environment. And over the the weekend, we’ll do a goodly amount of front-porch sittin’—while admiring our handiwork.

I realized again how small actions add up as I’ve been compiling my poetry into some semblance of a book. I’ve written sporadically over the years—with an apparent gap of nearly a decade between any serious volume of writing if my computer Save dates are to be trusted. But I wrote. A poem a year, a quarter, a month, or even four in one week—huge variation. But small actions add up like compound interest.

As I’ve weeded through my poetry portfolio I’ve come to the conclusion I am quite well “diversified.” In fact I’m so well diversified that I’m not sure the collection as it stands hangs together as a complete whole. The upside? I now have a better sense of where to focus my writing to create that wholeness.

Bit by bit, small action by small action, poem by poem, I will get there.

Setting a beautiful table

We weeded the garden yesterday after more or less neglecting it since it was planted. The weeds had grown so tall I could hardly distinguish them from the young vegetables (I exaggerate, husband).

I like weeding. It has a soothing quality, similar to finishing the laundry, folding it and putting it away (I do not exaggerate, husband—try it!). A task completed, chaos held at bay, one little corner of the world returned to order.

But not only does weeding benefit the plants by virtue of reducing competition for nutrients, it provides aesthetic nourishment for surrounding humans. Beauty consorts with production.

As we finished clearing one section and started moving to the next, a robin appeared and sat on the concrete that wraps the plot. My husband said, “Wait—he’ll start going for the worms and insects in the soil. They do that when I’m tilling, too.”

Sure enough, Mr. Robin eyed us for a few moments to reassure himself that we were fully occupied with our own task, then hopped onto the soil and began pecking at bugs. Within minutes a second robin appeared. As we worked our way from one end of the garden to the other, the birds continued kissing the soil, gaining comfort and moving closer to us. Familiarity bred fearlessness.

By the time we finished weeding, swept up the dirt, and put away the tools, the birds had a beautifully set table upon which to feast. Bon appétit!

(Incidentally, I have to admit I have no idea if the robins were he’s or she’s or one of each. Apparently, the male of the species has a brighter orange breast and a blacker head, while the female has a duller orange breast and greyer head. Want to learn more? Try this article. I’ll report back if I’m able to distinguish robin sexes next time I’m feeding them dinner. :-))

The Lusty Month of May

After several days of mugginess, the weather was gorgeous today. Sunny, blue sky, mid-70s with low humidity and a gentle breeze. The kind of weather that makes you want to strip your clothes off so you can feel nature on your skin. The perfect May day.

There’s something about spring that gets the senses going, something that encourages the wildness of youth, something that causes us to yearn for mischief. Why did we evolve to be frisky in spring?

I’m too young (young, I say!) to have seen the original Camelot on Broadway, but I’ve always loved the Lerner and Loewe musical. When I was younger (even younger, I say!) I ordered a cassette tape (yes, cassette tape—I was much, much younger!) of the Broadway version, and it arrived with someone other than Julie Andrews in the role of Guenevere. I promptly demanded the shop return it and get me the right one.

Today I’ve been listening to “The Lusty Month of May.”

(Incidentally, the dress Andrews wears at about 0:10 looks remarkably similar to my wedding dress—but my husband did not look anything like Robert Goulet, I swear. He swears.)

Julie Andrews has such a sweet, light distinct voice. Poor Vanessa Redgrave, who was cast as Guenevere in the movie version, could not possibly live up to Andrews’ range and skill. Some viewers find Redgrave to be “sexier” than Andrews, and perhaps she was. But Andrews’ perky, cheery demeanor and pixie haircut lend her an innocence that contrasts with the naughty humor of the song’s lyrics.

Tra la! It’s May!
The lusty month of May!
That lovely month when ev’ryone goes
Blissfully astray.
Tra la! It’s here!
That shocking time of year
When tons of wicked little thoughts
Merrily appear!
It’s May! It’s May!
That gorgeous holiday
When ev’ry maiden prays that her lad
Will be a cad!
It’s mad! It’s gay!
A libelous display!
Those dreary vows that ev’ryone takes,
Ev’ryone breaks.
Ev’ryone makes divine mistakes
The lusty month of May!

Now, let’s get back to the weather. Really I have to say that low humidity is key to the perfect naked May frolic with a beau. My question is, why does that point never get made in song lyrics? How about…

A lovely day with low humidity
helped me lose all my timidity.

No?? 🙂

Halfway through May Manuscripts – Lessons Learned

While project managers monitor progress on an ongoing basis, a really good project manager will periodically pause to see not only whether tasks are getting done but how the project team is functioning, what the team members’ observations are, what lessons have been learned. Armed with new knowledge, the project manager can make a adjustments to the plan as well as share the lessons with other project managers.

I recently agreed to take on a writing challenge with some friends—May Manuscripts: 31 Days of Meeting the Muse. My project plan: 1) produce something daily and 2) publish something daily (not necessarily the same thing!). Halfway through my challenge, I’ve already learned…

Lesson 1: I have more time in my day for writing than I would have acknowledged before.

Aha! Gotcha! We all make excuses—myself included and perhaps especially. By prioritizing my time better, by eliminating TV and newspaper time (some, not all), by not letting myself go to bed before I finished my blog entry, most days I have easily found about two hours to write—on my writing, not business or other “required” writing.

Lesson 2: Writing regularly becomes easier when you simply make the decision to do it.

Once you’ve decided to say yes, it’s no longer an option to say no. Once you’ve decided to write daily, you don’t have to waste energy each day deciding whether or not to write, so…you have more time and energy to write! (Go figure!)

Lesson 3: I am lucky to have a calm, quiet household.

After spending a weekend with my brother and sister and 20-month-old niece, I have learned I cannot write in chaos!!!! I don’t know how parents do it. Journaling is one thing, but “productive” writing was hard for me. I struggled to focus long enough to find any sort of flow. Perhaps I would learn how to write in chaos if I were in that environment regularly. For now, blessings on those of you who face that challenge.

Lesson 4: Taking a break is good.

While I am sticking with my commitment to write and to publish daily in May, I have recognized my brain needs a rest once in a while. Just like it needs a day off from my consulting business, it needs a day off from “productive” writing. It needs a day of no pressure and a chance to take in new ideas and experiences without regard to a project plan. It needs a chance to play.

The second half of the month will, no doubt, teach me new lessons. In the meantime, I will appreciate how good it feels to write something new in my peaceful bedroom with only the sounds of the fans moving the air around me…

Bending towards justice

It started out a close race: 55/45, 53/47, back and forth. But it was early in the night, with few precincts reporting in. The balance shifted mightily to 60/40 and ended 61/39. Amendment One passed.

The citizens of North Carolina chose to embed discrimination in the state constitution.

I had already been embarrassed to have such a proposal on the ballot. Now I was ashamed.

As I wrote about Amendment One, as I spoke and made phone calls, as I stuck that AGAINST sign in my yard, I came to appreciate the battles that have been fought—that continue to be fought—for civil rights. My heart shifted from logic to justice.

I started to feel the impotent rage that many before me must have felt. Anger at the tyranny of the majority, anger at the institutional bigotry, anger at an unfair system.

Relief that it is not my personal life affected. Guilt that I didn’t do more. Guilt that I could so easily put it out of my everyday mind.

Guilt about the curious realization that I might not have been strong enough to fight for civil rights, for women’s equality, for mixed-race marriages.

How do you accept such a defeat and, even in the knowledge that the law may change in 20 years, how do you keep going in the fight? How do you channel the rage for a sustained battle?

I felt bitter, heavy, low.

My salvation came from the unlikeliest of places: the Greater Raleigh Chamber Economic Development Forum.

Joel Kotkin, “uber-geographer” and futurist, spoke for a half hour on where the Triangle ranks in a variety of categories that land it time and again near the top of “Best place to [live/work/your-verb-here]” lists. He spoke of geographic and generational trends. He showered the Triangle with praise.

During the Q&A session, the last question asked was “What will be the impact of passing Amendment One?”

His short answer: Probably not much. Thirty states have similar laws or amendments and we haven’t seen an immediate migration away from those states—mostly because it’s not practical.

His longer answer: Laws like this are an artifact of the past. They are remnants from a prior time. They will go the way of anti-miscegenation laws.

Two main factors tend to influence attitudes on gay marriage, he said: age and where people live. The younger they are and the more urban they are, the more accepting they tend to be of gay marriage. The older and more rural, the less accepting.

Kotkin was confident that anti-same-sex-marriage laws would be removed within his lifetime.

As he spoke, I observed many heads nodding in agreement.

Laws like this are an artifact of the past. That was my new touchstone.

I could tolerate this one step back because I knew the two steps forward would come…with time.


 “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

—Theodore Parker (abolitionist Quaker 1853)

First-World Voting

My husband and I early-voted on Saturday. We didn’t realize the downtown was filled for a street event, so finding a parking spot took longer than expected. Once we hiked to the early-voting location, we took our place at the end of a line that wrapped around two sides of the block. As we stood in the mid-day warmth, marked-up sample ballots in hand, and the line crept forward, we tried to remain patient. We had other errands to run, a full day of activities planned. This was supposed to be a quick in-and-out effort.

We reminded ourselves, more than once, that we were lucky to get to vote.

But as a process improvement analyst in a past life (think Lean and Six Sigma), I couldn’t help but speculate where the bottleneck might be. I predicted it would be at the initial check-in point where the poll worker looked up your record, verified your information, and signed the sheet that said you were you. I knew that since it was an early-voting location it would not be quite as easy as going to the A-L or M-Z station at our regular polling place and pointing to our names in the book.

Indeed the check-in was the bottleneck. My irritation began to show as we stood observing two dozen empty voting booths while only three poll workers checked people in.

“It doesn’t help to complain,” my husband said, more than once.

After an hour of standing in line, we were glad to have cast our ballots—and had completely missed our next appointment.

We reminded ourselves, more than once, that voting was the most important thing on our to-do list that day.

We forget, all of us, we forget on a regular basis, how lucky we are to have the right to vote. Those of us who aren’t white males haven’t always had that right here in the US. (Thank you, 15th and 19th Amendments!)

We forget that people around the world struggle for the opportunity to cast a ballot. We forget that some people have to worry about suicide bombers and armed attacks when they go to the polls. We forget that some people consider a purple thumb precious.

Instead we complain about getting time off work, about waiting in line, about inefficient processes. We complain about having to educate ourselves about who and what is on the ballot.

We forget that our problems are first-world problems.

To all the election workers who staff the polls so the rest of us can simply show up and vote: Thank you.

Marriage Amendments – North Carolina History

During the debate over whether North Carolina should add an anti-same-sex marriage amendment to its state constitution, there have been many articles in the News & Observer, many letters to the editor, many opinion pieces. I found two fascinating stories that provide some historical context in which to view the debate.

How Southerners changed traditional marriage

The first article ran April 19 and was by Patrick O’Neil, an assistant professor of history at Methodist University in Fayetteville.

In response to claims that the definition of marriage should not be changed because it has been the foundation of society throughout history, Professor O’Neil demonstrates that indeed North Carolina itself has made fundamental changes to marital tradition, including that of coverture. In 1868, North Carolina passed the Married Women’s Property Act, allowing women to retain ownership of property they brought to marriage.

It’s an interesting history and O’Neil takes no position on the current debate. He simply points out that our ancestors did not consider marriage a sacred cow.

The marriage amendment, 1875

The second article ran May 5 and was by Gene Nichol, the Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at UNC’s Law School.

Nichol describes how almost all constitutional alterations (Prohibition was an exception) fall into three categories:

  1. they outline foundational liberties,
  2. they restructure government powers and processes, or
  3. they extend rights of membership and participation to new frontiers.

North Carolina’s Amendment One on the May 8 ballot does none of these things.

This isn’t the first time North Carolina has used the state’s guiding document as a way to enshrine discrimination.

In 1875, North Carolina altered its charter to declare that “all marriages between a white person and a Negro or between a white person and a person of Negro descent to the third generation inclusive are, hereby, forever prohibited.”

Both articles are well worth the read.

On May 8, let’s hope we end up on the right side of history.