Hannah Attempts to Garden


When I visited my parents over Christmas, they gave me a few cloves of garlic from a bulb that had sprouted. (No, the sprouting garlic was not their Christmas present to me. They're not that mean.) I like to cook with fresh garlic, and it was already determined to grow where it was on the kitchen counter, so it seemed to me that only good things would come if I simply plopped the cloves in some dirt.

I drove home with five cloves of garlic sealed in a Ziploc bag in my trunk. I unloaded my back pack and box of Christmas treasures and left the garlic where it was, intending to plant it in a day or two.

And suddenly it was February.

After a weekend trip to Montana, I noticed that my car smelled strongly of garlic. I don't know if it was the sub-zero temperatures of the mountains followed by the warm spell that Spokane was experiencing that made the five forgotten cloves wake up and recall their true purpose as vampire repellent, but for whatever reason, I hadn't noticed the smell until then. My only passengers, my boyfriend and a hitchhiker, hadn't said anything. The odor took me completely by surprise.

The garlic had thrived in its dark, airless, plastic prison. The shoots were longer and a healthy green color. I resolved to plant them after work the very next day. Still, a week passed and the bag of garlic remained in my trunk. On Valentine's day I suggested to Dominic that we take his car to the movies. I drove with my windows down for a few days. Finally, I removed the grocery bag with the lively garlic and the plastic pots my parents gave me, and left it on the porch.

Finally again, I planted them indoors.

The cloves were not happy in their new home. In return for lovingly tucking them under a blanket of fluffy potting soil and giving them a sunny window, their pretty green stems turned yellow and they stank up the living room. Thinking it was the warmer temperature that caused this downturn in their health, I banished them to the front yard.

I can see them from here, looking down from the living room window. Wilted and colored like a bruised apple, it is obvious that they have lost the will to live.

The garlic incident is not unique in my history of gardening attempts. Last summer I started some herbs from seeds in a couple of trays outside. I forgot to water them and they dried out completely, then, a rain storm washed away half the dirt. The lemon balm pulled through, but I was demoralized by the limp strawberries and crusty marigolds, the ants and the sandy soil around my house. In the fall, the Christmas cactus I inherited at work quickly went from bad to worse under my care.

The apple tree I planted six years ago is doing fine, but I suspect that's only because I moved to the other side of the state. The tulips I planted are poking out of the ground just in time for spring, but again I can't give myself much credit because I buried at least two hundred of the things, practically guaranteeing that some of them would grow.

My parents gave me a little herb-growing kit for Christmas. I read the instruction booklet studiously and set a reminder on my phone to sow the seeds on March 20, about six weeks before the last frost. Predictably, I didn't get around to it until last night. This was supposed to be the easiest thing in the world. Four seed packets, four cardboard pots, four pellets of dirt. The dirt pellets had to be soaked in warm water for ten minutes to expand, then that same water I just added had to be squeezed out until the soil was moist but not likely to make the seeds mold. So there I was at ten o'clock at night, standing over the kitchen sink squeezing fist-fulls of soggy dirt, generally making a muddy mess of things, when there was a perfectly good bag of ready-to-use potting soil in the garage.

And now, I have little pots that promise basil, cilantro, parsley, and chives, sitting in front of the living room window. Behind them, through the glass, the yellow garlic stems can be seen, a mocking reminder of my most recent failure.

It's also Easter, and although the preacher didn't talk about plants or springtime this morning, my brain is making connections to the theme of resurrection and new life. I suck at gardening. If any plant in my care grows, it is despite my attentions, not because of them. So in 14 to 21 days, when little green faces are supposed to poke out of the re-hydrated, moist but not too-moist soil, I'll know it's a small Easter miracle.

Mom the Search Engine


One of the enduring mysteries of the human experience is how people managed to make it into adulthood before the existence of Google. I can easily imagine how old people and children survived those dark times: old people already have the knowledge and skills necessary to keep themselves alive, and children are protected from their own stupidity by the old people. It's the young adults I wonder about.

It's tough world out there, and for a young adult newly flown from her parents' nest, any number of things could turn deadly: laundry, shower mold, extreme sodium levels from a diet of Top Ramen and pizza, scheduling her own dentist appointments... Humans learn by trial and error, but only if we survive the errors.

It is my own estimation that the survival rate for young people living without the close supervision of older, wiser adults was probably only 70%, perhaps as low as 50%, in the time before Google. But if that was the case, you may ask, wouldn't our parents tell us about one third or half of their friends dying? Surely that would have been a pretty significant event in their lives!

I would agree that watching your friends drop off one by one – some suffocating under piles of dirty laundry, others suffering from a brain collapse when they couldn't recall the correct lyrics to a song – would be difficult. But you must remember that this was a normal, deeply ingrained part of culture that every generation went through. Perhaps our parents just don't think it's worth mentioning their old friend Jerry who died of shame when he sang the wrong words to a Jimi Hendrix song at the top of his lungs at a party, a tragedy that could have easily been avoided by simply googling the lyrics, had that been an option.

What did our parents do without the Internet? According to my mom, they called their mother. And if she didn't know, they called grandma. It was a simpler time, when instead of instant access to 500 different “perfect” pancake recipes from everyone's grandma and their aunt, there was only one perfect pancake recipe and you had to use a land line to get it.

I wonder how I would hold up if I didn't have Google to guide me... *cue the imagination sound effect* For some of the problems I encounter as a clueless 21-year-old, my mom would be a valuable resource in helping me avoid death by stupidity:


For others... I doubt she could provide any useful information:


And then there are the questions that Mom probably knows the answers to, but I wouldn't want her to know about:


If the Internet ever disappears from our lives, it's nice to know that we have moms as a back up solution for some of our burning questions, at least.







Valuable Lessons from Chrétien de Troyes' “Arthurian Romances”

A few months ago, I was in the break room at Lowe's making my way through “Cligés,” one of the Arthurian Romances. One of fellows who worked there, lets call him Joe, saw what I was reading and said to me, “Ah, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Don't you wish we had the same values of chivalry in today's society? Don't you admire the code they lived by?”

My response: “I'm a woman. So... no.”

Joe was taken slightly aback by my firm “no.” I didn't have a high opinion of Joe's intelligence – that may or may not be relevant since I hear a lot of people bemoaning the loss of chivalric values – but he was friendly and I was always nice to him because a lot of the employees made fun of him or griped about him behind his back. Joe was also the only person there who I knew was a Christian (at the time), which I have to admit I wasn't too happy about because, come on, that guy has to be the one who is very open about his faith? The guy that nobody likes?

That all is beside the point. I said, “No. I'm a woman, and all women got to do was embroider and get married off and watch men hit each other with lances. No thanks.”

To attempt at fairness, the ideals of chivalry aren't all sexist and macho-manly, there's some good stuff in there too. Defending the weak (which means pretty damsels, in this time period), being good to your word, giving mercy to your opponent, a strong sense of duty, courage and bravery, hospitality, religious devotion... that's some nice stuff. However, here's something we should keep in mind when we talk about the good ol' days of chivalry that we read about in the tales of King Arthur's court: we are romanticizing romance literature written in the 12th century that was romanticizing the good ol' days of the 5th century. At least that's what I gathered about Chrétien.

Here's what Chrétien says in the introduction to his tale about Sir Yvain, the knight with the awesome pet lion: “But today very few serve love: nearly everyone has abandoned it; and love is greatly abased, because those who loved in bygone days were known to be courtly and valiant and generous and honourable. Now love is reduced to empty pleasantries, since those who know nothing about it claim that they love, but they lie, and those who boast of loving and have no right to do so make a lie and a mockery of it.”

Doesn't that sound familiar?

Without getting carried away any more than I already have, here are the valuable insights I learned from reading the “Arthurian Romances.”

1. All ugly people are evil.
You can bet, if someone has any kind of physical deformity or is just plain ugly, he or she is a bad person out to harm you.

2. People with dwarfism are doubly ugly and doubly evil.
Really, it's safe to assume that any little people you encounter are working for the Devil.

3. Naturally, beautiful people are good people.
The best knights – the strongest, most honorable, and kindest – are incredibly handsome. And ladies are presumed to be virtuous and good based on their looks alone. There might be one exception to this rule: toward the end of “The Story of the Grail” Sir Gawain meets the “malevolent maid” who likes to taunt and goad knights into getting themselves killed, for no good reason. Her face and neck are “whiter than snow,” so we know she's pretty, but those are all the words Chrétien used to describe her. Compared to all the other ladies the author lavishes description on, perhaps it's safe to assume that the malevolent maid was just average.

I think the reason the simplification of pretty=good, ugly=bad bothered me so much is because there are so many references to Christianity and religion in this book. Views and attitudes that go against my understanding of Christianity, expressed in a book that is weighed down by Christian symbolism and references to God, is just a little bit frustrating to read. We know from the Bible AND J.R.R. Tolkein that looks don't always match one's good-evil alignment:
  • Proverbs 31:30: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain.”
  • 1 Peter 3:3-4: “Do not let your adorning be external … but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart.”
  • 1 Samuel 16:7: “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
  • Frodo Baggins: “I think one of [the enemy's] spies would – well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.”
4. Winning honor and fame is THE most important goal for a knight, and you do that by accepting any dare, no matter how stupid.
Actually, you don't even have to double-dog-dare one of King Arthur's knights to get them to try something that has killed everyone else who ever made an attempt – he'll do it without being dared first, with you begging him to not do it! Now, if there's a damsel to rescue or you gave your word that you would complete a quest, then it seems to me that risking your head is the honorable thing to do. But there were so many times when a knight did something completely nuts just because someone said, “everyone else who tried to do this died.”

5. Knights must defend the helpless... upper-class ladies.
No poor people were defended. There were some females dressed in rags who were defended, but they turned out to be disenfranchised noblewomen.

6. It is proper procedure to always promise to help a damsel before asking what she wants.
This can lead to problems, such as when King Arthur promises to defend one sister, and then finds out she's completely selfish and wicked, and Sir Yvain promises to defend the other sister. Yvain ends up having to fight his best friend, Gawain, because of the king's foolish promise. There is no lesson learned, and sure enough, throughout the rest of the book it's still common practice for a knight to immediately pledge his sword in the service of any weeping damsel he encounters, even though she's a complete stranger.

8. The Welsh are really stupid.
And I mean reeeaaally stupid.

9. All women secretly want to be raped.
Ok, just to be fair, the man who espoused this view was one of the bad guys, named “The Haughty Knight of the Heath,” so it is entirely probable that the reader is meant to disagree with him. Either way, here's this gem. The Haughty Knight is explaining to Sir Percival why he is leading his sweetheart around on a starving nag, dressed in rags, and generally treating her harshly; it is because she committed the evil deed of allowing herself to be sexually assaulted:
“Then, by chance, along came a young Welshman, I don't know where he was headed, but he managed to force her to kiss him, so she told me. If she lied to me, what harm is there in it? But if he even kissed her against her will, wouldn't he have taken advantage of her afterwards? Indeed yes! And no one will ever believe he kissed her without doing more, for one thing leads to another: if a man kisses a woman and nothing more, when they are all alone together, I think there's something wrong with him. A woman who lets herself be kissed easily gives the rest if someone insists upon it; and even if she resists, it's a well-known fact that a woman wants to win every battle but this one: though she may grab a man by the throat, and scratch and bite him until he's nearly dead, still she wants to be conquered. She puts up a fight against it but is eager for it; she is so afraid to give in, she wants to be taken by force, but then never shows her gratitude. Therefore I believe this Welshman lay with her.” (From “The Story of the Grail”)


What can I say after that?

More Book Thoughts: "The God of Small Things" and "the sun and her flowers"

The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy

It's difficult to find words to describe this one. It's written like a poem; it blends Malayalam and English and the secret language of twins; it spins events in the present and the past and the future into an intricate web. It takes place in Kerala, India, a region I know nothing about, with a family of socially elite Syrian Christians, a people group I had never heard of, mostly in the year 1969 with a backdrop of a communist movement sweeping through the district, an event I never learned about. Big themes such as love, caste, colonialism, abuse, and misogyny are seen through the eyes of 7-year old fraternal twins trying to make sense of the world.

I cannot stress enough how beautiful the language is, how, even when the events described are horrific or... troubling... to my moral compass, the imagery used is precise and spectacular. I already returned the book to the library, so I can't provide examples of the lines that made me gasp out of wonder, but believe me, there were more than a few of them.

Arundhati Roy's book was awarded the Booker Prize and was highly praised around the world. She faced an obscenity charge for it in her own country, but it was eventually dropped.


the sun and her flowers” by Rupi Kaur

The next book I read was a book of poems by Rupi Kaur. I don't read much poetry, I'd heard Kaur's name but I hadn't read anything by her; I just bought the book on a whim because the cover art was pretty and I was intrigued by the few poems I flipped through while blocking an aisle in the store. I bought it as a gift for a friend who likes poetry, and I could hardly present someone with a book without reading it first, could I?

I liked it a lot. I read it as though it were a novel, all in one sitting, and what I really enjoyed about it (as a person who doesn't read much poetry) is that it tells one story. I imagine that all poetry collections, just like music albums and art collections, should tell a unified story and not be just a jumble of what the artist considers to be her best work. It helps that “the sun and her flowers” is split into chapters – Wilting, Falling, Rooting, and Blooming – that make the movements of the poet's journey really easy to spot. Again, as a not-poetry person, I appreciated the road signs.

My favorite poems were all of the ones about her mother, the ones that made me think of Dominic, and “the underrated heartache.”

Book Thoughts: "Etta and Otto and Russel and James" by Emma Hooper

Am I the only one who has the occasional urge to throw on a pair of sneakers and just... walk? Walk until I am forced by geography to stop, until I reach an ocean, until I reach a boundary that bridges can't span and eyes can't pierce. (Or until my feet fall off, which would certainly happen first.) It would have to be the Atlantic Ocean, since I'm from a port town and a two mile stroll probably wouldn't cut it as an epic spiritual journey.

Etta Vogel is an 83-year old woman who does just that. She sets out early one morning with a shotgun and extra socks from somewhere near Regina, Saskatchewan, and heads toward the ocean that's farther away by 2,000 miles. Otto is her husband, who she left behind to struggle with 3x5 recipe cards and the art of papier-mâché. Russel is their neighbor and Otto's de facto brother ever since he showed up one evening at supper time; he developed a crush on their young school teacher, Etta Kinnik, before Otto did. And James is a coyote who joins Etta on her journey, and sometimes talks to her.

The novel braids together the three friends' childhood memories from the depression era, falling in love during World War II, and their experiences as old people when Etta suddenly leaves. A touch of magical realism is the ingredient that binds the story together.

I liked it. I liked the matter-of-fact writing style, the intense practicality of the characters, and the almost fairy-tale feeling. I don't often get the chance to know characters from the very beginning to the end of their stories, and Emma Hooper's novel took on 80 years of story with grace, presenting a lifetime as if it were something small you can keep in your pocket as well as something enormous, spanning prairies and oceans.  

(Constantly) Under Construction

Bear with me folks, I'm still trying to make this blog look pretty. The first theme I was using made weirdness happen. The current theme is called "Simple." It's boring, but hopefully the weirdness will be minimized.

I realize now that I should have tried a more sophisticated platform than Blogger, but it's what I'm used to and I'd rather keep the enemy I know than trade it in for a different one.

I will also be sharing my posts on Facebook since what is the point of keeping a blog if no one looks at it? It's like writing in a diary every week and leaving it tucked away in a library among a bajillion other books and diaries with flashier covers and better card-indexing. It's somewhat comforting to know that not many people will see the mundane stuff I've written (mostly book reviews), but there's no reward in it. 

In anticipation of more people reading my blog in the future, I, Hannah McCollum, formally apologize for the infrequent and uninteresting posts that are sure to come, and my overzealous use of parentheses and run-on sentences. (I do love parenthetical asides.)


Further apologies for not using a scanner, or being able to find any blank white paper in the whole house. Also sorry that my speech bubble lines are bad. That is some weirdness I cannot blame on Blogger. 

Things that are pleasing

Things that are pleasing:
  • [Link] When the sky is clear and you can see Mt. Baker all the way down to Mt. Rainier, dressed in white for the winter. 
  • Finding something that was lost. 
  • Meeting old friends. 
  • Hearing a good cover of a good song. 
  • The sound of pages turning.
  • Closing a novel after coming to the end. 
  • The first clump of pine trees as you enter Spokane County.
  • Parallel parking perfectly on your first try. 
  • Expecting a kiss from someone you haven't seen in a long while.
  • Kissing someone you haven't seen in a long while. 
  • The rhythmic whirrrr-chaclunk-clunk of a copy machine.
  • Office supplies. 
  • When your old favorite radio station comes into range as you descend Snoqualmie pass and near your childhood home. 
  • The smell of engine grease on your hands and clothes. 
  • Clean glasses. 
  • Finding the perfect Spotify playlist.  
  • Clacking away on a noisy keyboard. 
  • A warm mug of tea. 
  • When you come out of that slight bend in I-90 and catch the view of Spokane below you, from atop Sunset Hill, and know that your journey is almost complete. [Link

Book Thoughts: “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” by Douglas Adams

This one took some effort for me to get into, as the plot took sudden turns in a way that at first felt directionless rather than clever and unexpected. However, once I accepted that I was on a journey through a neighborhood filled with cul-de-sacs and a complete disregard for cardinal directions, with speed limit signage that made as much sense as a platypus does, I was much happier abandoning the road-map of the conventional novel and letting Douglas Adams drive.

Now that I think about it, the plot line followed private holistic detective Dirk Gently's own philosophy on investigating and getting around in general, “investigating the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” Meaning that anything and everything could provide the needed clue to solve his mystery, so Dirk will pick a clue on a whim and follow it wherever it leads, even if it's away from the problem at hand. He does the same thing when he gets drives: “He had a tremendous propensity for getting lost when driving. This was largely because of his 'Zen' method of navigation, which was simply to find any car that looked as if it knew where it was going and follow it. The results were more often surprising than successful, but he felt it was worth it for the sake of the few occasions when it was both.”

“The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” featured characters with the most affable of flaws. Kate Schechter, a New Yorker living in London, who enjoys harassing pizza joints on the telephone with demands that they deliver to her apartment, an americanism that apparently hadn't caught on in Britain in the 80s. A private detective who seems to be really, really bad at his job. And a couple of Norse gods struggling to adapt to the modern western lifestyle.

All of it written in Adams' wonderfully understated, sardonic voice that I can never get enough of. For a few afternoons of whimsical enjoyment surrounding a murder-mystery, go read this book.  

Reformation Sunday is better with cosplay

A couple Sundays ago I attended my first Lutheran church service. It was a special event to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation's beginnings in Wittenberg, combining the choirs of a few different Lutheran churches in Spokane, a booming organ, and a trumpet. I was lured to St. John's because a former co-worker, Dave, was performing in a short play that he also wrote, and I stayed for the traditional German dinner served afterwards.

I found a seat in the folding chairs against the back wall of the sanctuary, which was fairly small and designed with great acoustics. When it was time for the choir to perform, almost half the congregation stood up. They sang triumphant, stately hymns at a thunderous volume, with the organ not passively accompanying but leading the battle charge of music.

Later I learned that the organ at St. John’s doesn’t have a swell box, which would give the organist more control over the volume. As you can see in this photo, the organ’s pipes are exposed in the sanctuary. Sometimes, a section of pipes is enclosed in a case with shutters that can be opened or closed to change the loudness. At St. John’s, it was full blast or nothing.

The performance was the conversation that William Tyndale and Philip Melanchthon would have had if they had ever met, complete with period costumes and codpieces. Both were leading figures in the Protestant Reformation: Melanchthon was Luther’s BFF and a founder of Lutheranism, and Tyndale, played by Dave, translated the Bible into modern English. In Dave’s play, they were overjoyed to meet after having heard about each other and reading each other’s works. The main theme that I got out of it was the level of importance that these two reformers placed on scripture. They were both committed to making Bibles available to people in a language that they could read and understand, and convinced of the power of God’s word to open eyes and change hearts.

In the sermon afterwards, the pastor asked us to consider whether the Reformation should be celebrated, as the Lutherans do, or mourned because of the loss of unity with the Roman Catholic Church, the domino effect of new protestant denominations forming anytime there’s a disagreement, or, you know, all the wars and bloodshed. Ultimately, the pastor decided that he’ll keep celebrating.

Why? The original aim of Luther and the early reformers wasn't to break with the only church in western Europe; they wanted the church to reform itself, to get back in line with the teachings of the Bible. They failed. And the relationship between Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters remains broken to some degree, even if it's only snide remarks made about the other group.

But something else did happen. Something the historical characters wearing funny hats and tights were overjoyed about. The gospel was set free. Access to God's word was increasing and it was shaking people's worlds. And that is worth celebrating.

Afterwards, we continued our celebration by enjoying that traditional German dinner we had been smelling for the last hour, complete with sauerkraut. Dave and his wife, Joy, helped me pilfer a meal and shared their silverware with me, since I wasn't on the list.

Overall, I had a fantastic time.

Montana is big

The other weekend I headed east to Montana to visit a dear friend at Carroll College in Helena and attend a wedding in Missoula. I had never been to Montana before; I found it to be just as big, beautiful, and populated by cows as I had been led to believe. Billboards beside I-90 advertise locations an hour up ahead, to give you plenty of time to work up an appetite for famous chocolate milkshakes. Certainly the oddest billboard I saw was for the annual Testicle Festival at Rock Creek Lodge.

I listened to “My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry” by Fredrik Backman. It is a delightful and curious novel about an almost-8-year-old girl who is sent on a quest by her grandmother just before she dies, which blends real life with the make-believe world she shared with her granny. In some ways, the make-believe world is more real than the real one.

I was going to listen to “The Pilgrim's Progress” because I've never read it and it's one of those books that everyone's supposed to have read already, but I couldn't get past the author's note. A preface in which the author apologizes at length for the work you are about to read – which he only published because his friends insisted, and which he would never ever claim to be any good, and some people seemed to like it but he's not boasting, he's really a humble guy, he hopes you'll like it too but he won't be offended if you don't, anyways he tried his best, signed Paul Bunyan – is bad enough. In rhyming couplets, it's unbearable. I got as far as Spokane Valley before I ejected it.

The stretch of highway just east of Coeur d'Alene, looking over the lake, is stunning. Maybe one day, when I have a functioning motorcycle (and who knows, maybe by then I'll have started my ladies' motorcycle gang), I'll ride all the way around it.


A lot of Montana (at least the small bit that I saw) looked like this:


A bit of Montana that I'm lucky I saw, because it was behind a rest area building and I only walked down there on a whim, looked like this:



If you ever find yourself heading west on I-90 going past Bearmouth, stop at that rest area! Nicest road-side bathroom I've had the pleasure of visiting. Make sure you walk down the hill behind the building to sit on one of the benches and admire the reflectivity of this pond.

For reference, Montana is big:


Today I learned...

Today I learned that the word “seminary” in Middle English (English spoken c. 1100-1500) meant a seedbed or nursery, from the Latin seminarium, from the root semen, seed. While seminarium was often used figuratively in Latin to refer to the cultivating and growing of minds, or any kind of breeding ground, English took it further until the original botanical use of “seminary” was forgotten. 

Similarly, “kindergarten” literally means “garden of children” in German. The word was coined and the practice was invented by Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), an educational reformer who believed in the importance of early education and the role of “self-activity” and play.

I enjoy the vision of green shoots and bright flowers tended to with care that the words “seminary” and “kindergarten” invoke; the gardener works so that each seed will flourish and grow into a strong, healthy plant, so that each flower will bloom and display its unique beauty. It opposes the grand collectivism of “university” and “college” with the idea of individuality and care. 

Sources:
http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=seminary
http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=kindergarten
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Friedrich-Froebel