The Haiku Debate


As more and more haikus are scribbled into my journal, it’s entirely clear to me that my interest in the form has turned into nothing less than an obsession. Naturally, I set out to learn as much I could, which means I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject of haikus and collections of haikus.

Between backtracking to the classics and getting a sense of the modern aesthetic, my understanding of the form has changed significantly. All my life I’d been taught that haiku is essentially a rigid form: three lines with 17 syllables arranged in a 5-7-5 layout.  Imagine my surprise when I realized that this is almost completely wrong!

It’s true Japanese haiku is poetry consisting of 17 beats (technically not syllables), but that beat count applies to the Japanese language which naturally falls into that rhythm. The idea of a syllable count came about when haiku migrated to the English language and it was seen as a excellent way to teach children how to count syllables.

Even more surprising is that the concept of three lines is quite the myth. Most Japanese haiku is written in a single line, which is usually vertical. Once again, the idea of three lines in the 5-7-5 layout evolved from the translation into English. While a misnomer, the format stuck until English language poets began to experiment and break out of the three line division.

At it’s core, haiku is about capturing a single moment or experience. Nature usually serves as the backdrop, but modern poets are even pushing that traditional boundary, by mixing humanity with natural elements. Modern haiku ignores syllable counts and focuses instead on clean, crisp language that hones in a small detail. The resulting poem is often far less than 17 syllables with no set line count.

Polar opposite visions of haiku naturally lead to a debate. On one side, there’s the 17 syllable, 5-7-5, 3 line format and on the other there’s the modernist approach with few restrictions other than maintaining the essence of haiku. As a poet enthralled with the idea of haiku, I find myself stuck in the middle.

The so-called traditional 5-7-5 layout has been around for a long time.  Even though the connection between this format and the original Japanese haiku is shaky at best, it’s a form that everyone knows. It’s part of the poetic psyche and allows just about anyone to be a poet, (how cool is that?).

On this side of the argument, I feel my childhood holding tight to what I’ve been taught. I like the rigidity of the 5-7-5 layout. The finite quality of it forces me to work within certain parameters and choose my words carefully, but it also pushes my creativity to go to places I never would have considered.

Most modern haiku poets have dismissed the 5-7-5 layout as passé, given it’s disconnect to the traditional Japanese form. They certainly have a point as the whole idea of 17 syllables is an invention rather than a hardcore sentiment of tradition. Hence, there’s no point in counting syllables if they are kept to a minimum.

As for line counts, modern haikus are all over the place. Some poets prefer single lines, while others will employ three. There’s no steadfast rule, so words and/or subject matter dictate how lines are constructed. For modernists, line divisions can have meaning that goes beyond form.

I like the fact that modern haiku is sparse and poignant. Like the “traditional” 5-7-5, the challenge of operating with limited syllable and line counts pushes me to be particular about my words and focus on small details. However, the complete lack of a set syllable and line count creates a sense of uncertainty that can be a little daunting. In many ways, it’s that daunting element that reminds me to keep an open mind and embrace the freedom.

The verdict: There’s something beautiful about both. I find myself dabbling in the rigid form of the 5-7-5 haiku, while also wandering into the new waters of modern haiku. Despite the fact that the majority of modern haiku writers discredit the 5-7-5 form, I believe it still has a place on the poetic stage…

Birch bark peels; white curls
summer breeze, fluttering leaves
silver branches sway

Yet, one the same page I’ll happily write two lines with 4 syllables each …

Wind scattered leaves
life’s broken pieces

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Recommended Reading:

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c.b.w. 2014


10 Great Christmas Books


Every year the bookstore clears a space for Christmas themed books. Some are sappy stories or romance novels, while others are the classics that stand the test of time. I can’t remember the last time I bought a Christmas book, but I do remember my favorite Christmas reads.

The books I read as a child still bring a smile to my face as they are still wonderful stories. I can still hear my Grandma reading the Tale of the Christmas Mouse and I will always love the Grinch. However, as an adult, my voracious need to read finally motivated me to read Dickens’ iconic tale along with historical accounts of the origins of Christmas.

My DVD shelf is loaded with a ridiculous number of Christmas movies, but this year I think I’m going to settle into the couch with a stack of my favorite Christmas books. The thin books worn by years of use will bring back memories of believing in Santa, while those thick with pages will give me something to contemplate by the light of my Christmas tree.

10 Great Christmas Books

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I’ll admit I didn’t read this book until I was in my 30s. Dickens has never been among my favorite writers, but A Christmas Carol is absolutely fantastic. Surprisingly, it is far more intense than most film adaptations.

Tale of the Christmas Mouse by Judith Fringuello

This adorable little book is now out of print, but there are plenty of copies hanging out in the secondary market, (and it should not be mistaken for A Christmas Mouse by Anne Mortimer). My Grandma read this book to my sister and I every year. A little boy tells the story of a mouse who lives under the floorboards of his house. The mouse gets the house ready for Santa’s arrival by cleaning up and trimming the tree. Too cute!

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

Who doesn’t love that scrunched up face and those grumpy eyes? The flamboyant language of Dr. Seuss and the heartwarming story of a crabby hermit who discovers the joy of Christmas makes this classic a must read.

Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore

When I was a little girl, my Grandma made a recording of herself reading this poem. She used jingle bells to tell us when to turn the page and she made thumping sounds for the reindeer hooves. This poem along with my Grandma’s spirited version made me believe in Santa.

The Battle for Christmas by Steven Nissenbaum

I first read this book in college and was fascinated right from the first page. Nissenbaum traces the earliest origins of Christmas traditions and investigates how the holiday has transformed over time. Written with an emphasis on social history, it focuses on how people celebrated in the past and how traditions developed into what they are today.

The Origins of Christmas by Joseph F. Kelly

What’s Christmas without a little debate? In opposition to Nissenbaum’s social history approach, Kelly traces the history of Christmas from a Biblical standpoint. Between the two books, readers walk away with much to contemplate.

The Smurf’s Christmas by Peyo (Graphic Novel)

Anything with a retro Smurf has my stamp of approval. As Christmas approaches, Gargamel is lurking with his latest evil plan. Along with Gargemel, snow, fun, dragons, and surprises surround the Smurf village as they “smurf” to save Christmas.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert May (author) and Denver Gillen (illustrator)

While the TV special is cute, try reading the original story. It’s just as heartwarming and special.

Frosty the Snowman by Diane Muldrow and Golden Books

Based on the TV special, this cute little book covers the story from to finish – right down to that ridiculous hat!

A Charlie Brown Christmas by Charles M. Schulz

Anyone who searches the tree lot for a Charlie Brown Christmas tree knows the the warmth and joy of this wonderful story. If you missed the televised special, this book will more than make up for it.

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Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!

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c.b.w. 2013

Sewing With Grandma


One of the most precious memories I have of my Grandma is how much she loved to sew. She made beautiful patchwork quilts, pillows, and placemats out of calico prints and scraps of fabric. I loved watching her choose a color scheme, trace the pattern, and cut out the pieces. It was like watching an artist create a masterpiece.

One summer, my Grandma decided to make the most difficult quilt she’d ever attempted.  The flower basket pattern looks simple enough, but the difficulty lies in making sure each and every corner meets up without a gap. There’s about three dozen geometric pieces in each block! On top of that, she wanted to cover the borders and empty spaces with intricate stitch designs.

For most sewers this is a challenge, but my Grandma added a bonus challenge. She believed that patchwork quilts were best when made by hand. That meant tracing and cutting each piece individually and hand-sewing every single stitch. I remember watching her at the kitchen table with stacks of fabric and quilt templates. And how could I forget her sewing blocks together while in the car (it was a looooong drive into town) and even when flying (back in the days when it was okay to bring scissors on a plane).

A few years ago, my Grandma passed her crowning achievement to me. I’ve always treasured it, but now that she’s gone, her flower basket quilt is absolutely priceless.

Grandma's Handiwork: Flower Basket Quilt

Grandma’s Handiwork: Flower Basket Quilt

I love how I can still see her pencil marks and that I can remember her sewing some of the petal stitches. In particular, I have a distinct memory of her using pink thread to make the flowers in the upper right corner.

Grandma's stitched flowers and swirls.

Grandma’s stitched flowers and swirls.

As soon as I was old enough to hold a needle without hurting myself, my Grandma started to teach me how to sew. She taught me how to make invisible knots and how to evenly space stitches. Just like her, I learned how to do everything by hand. To this day, I make my quilts the traditional way.

I made my first micro-quilt when I was about nine years old.  While she was working on a larger Tumbler pattern quilt, I used a few scrap pieces to make a smaller version:

Tumbler Quilts. Grandma made the big one and I made the little one.

Tumbler Quilts. Grandma made the big one and I made the little one.

The bright yellow piece on my quilt was actually sewn in on purpose. One of the special things my Grandma taught me was to make sure there was an “oddball” piece or a mistake in every quilt. This was important because it paid homage to the pioneers who used nothing but scraps to make quilts. They didn’t have beautiful fabrics or the luxury of perfectly matching colors and we shouldn’t forget that tradition. Can you find the “mistake” in her quilt?

One of the last projects we ever worked on together was a quilt I started when I was sixteen. It took ten years for me to complete all the blocks (college kind of distracted me), but she was still there to help me lay out the border and trace the quilting lines. Then, there was one evening when we were both on the floor rolling out the backing and pinning all the layers together. I couldn’t have done it without her!

Another few years went by before I finally finished the quilt. I am so grateful that she got to see it before she passed away. Along with her flower basket quilt, my eight-point star quilt holds memories that will stay with me for a lifetime.

The last quilt I worked on with my Grandma.

The last quilt I worked on with my Grandma.

Yes, there are a few on-purpose mistakes in this quilt! Can you find them?

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c.b.w. 2013

An Adventure in Rural China


There’s nothing quite like getting stuck in the mud . . . in rural China.  Just outside Changchun in northern China there are large stretches of cornfields and grazing livestock.  In some respects, it looks a lot like the Midwest in the United States, but there are definite reminders that this isn’t Kansas.

After spending a lot of time in large, crowded cities, I was delighted to head out to the countryside and explore a small village in the middle of nowhere.  The plan was to have a dinner with a local farming family and attend a traditional bonfire show put on by the locals.

The drive was long, but relatively easy until paved roads started to give way to dirt. The first challenge was a small herd of cows intent on taking over all lanes of traffic.  We had to stop and wait for the very slow moving cattle to clear the road.  While waiting for the cows to move, I took in my surroundings and was very surprised to see so much corn growing in vast fields.  And the further we went, the more cornfields I saw.  I never thought of China as a huge corn-growing mecca, but I was wrong!

As we traveled down the rutted road, simple homes made of mud brick and woven plant fibers dot the landscape.  Some served as a family home, while others were in disrepair.  It’s a hard life and not everyone can make ends meet.  The same is true most everywhere.

Cow blockage turned out to be far less of a worry when the dirt roads went from sand to mud. As we moved deeper into the heart of the rural community, the mud got increasingly deep and thick thanks to a recent rainstorm. The road got really bumpy and it felt more like an off-road adventure than leisurely drive in the country.  After one big bump, we came to a screeching halt.  The bus was stuck in a huge rut and we couldn’t go any further.  Everyone was told to get off and to start walking.  What a perfect day to wear sandals! Luckily, we aren’t too far off from our destination.  By some miracle, my practically bare foot did not land in mud pile.

Along the way, I got to meet some locals, who were incredibly nice and very curious about us.  One woman in particular was very excited to show us how she calls her chickens when its time to feed them.  When she grabbed a wooden spoon and beat a metal bowl the chickens came flying towards her from all directions.

The woman’s husband was a proud man who was intent on showing us his home and bragging about the success of his son who lived right next door.  It’s a big deal for a son to move away and establish his own homestead in this region.  Farming doesn’t exactly bring in the big money, so multi-generational homes are the norm, (three generations of one family often live under the same roof).  For his son to be successful enough to strike out on his own, is a huge source of pride for his parents.

While poverty is apparent throughout the village, there were indicators of progress peeking out from unexpected corners.  Technology is relatively low in this region as rural communities are not usually able afford modern conveniences, but there are always exceptions to the rule.  At one point, I spotted a brand new Volkswagen parked next to a well-built brick house.  The disparity of wealth and poverty is quite extreme everywhere in China, even in the boondocks.

I spent the evening enjoying a large dinner prepared by a local family.  All the food was grown in the fields of the surrounding farms and it was absolutely delicious.  It was here where I indulged in the delicacy of the “thousand year old” egg.  Essentially, an egg is buried in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice hulls for several weeks to several months.  It looked disgusting on the plate as it had the unappetizing color of greenish gray, but the taste more than made up for the icky appearance.  I was the only one brave enough to try it and I ate the whole thing.  No one believed me when I said it tastes like a hard-boiled Easter egg with a lot of salt and a few extra spices.

After dinner we went outside and enjoyed a lesson in traditional folk dancing.  Once again, I confirmed I have no rhythm, but I enjoyed the experience of bonding with people despite a language barrier.  Music and dance really do bring people together in ways that can’t be explained.

It was dark by the time we started heading back to the bus.  Street lights are non-existent, so it was pitch black once we left the home of our host.  I had a small flashlight, but it barely cut through the darkness.  Mud was still everywhere and it threatened to swallow any misplaced foot.  My sandles eventually became caked in mud chunks, but thankfully my foot never sunk below ground level, (which is more than I can say for a few friends of mine).  Before boarding the bus, I remembered to look to up at the sky.  With no city lights, the Chinese sky lit up with millions of stars. I smiled at such a  fitting end to an adventure I’ll never forget.

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c.b. 2012

Amish Friendship Bread


Over the last 40 days (or so) I’ve been caught up in a baking frenzy that has swept my workplace: Amish Friendship Bread.  It all started when a colleague brought a freshly baked loaf of sweet bread and told us all to help ourselves.  I am already a nut for Amish baked goods after years of going to an Amish farm market in Indiana, (every year I head to Indy to visit my dad in the summer), so I dug right in!  I can’t even begin to say how excited I was to nosh on Amish bread well before my usual August binge.  It was so good, I asked if she would be willing to share the recipe so I could make it for myself.  Instead of writing it out for me, she handed over a large ziplock bag filled with pale goo and piece of paper with directions on what to do with my “starter.”

For the next six days, that goo sat on my counter and bubbled.  In between mushing the goo each day, I have to admit I was pretty fascinated with watching the yeast ferment.  On the sixth day, I got to add some ingredients and mush the bag some more until Day 10 or baking day arrived.

Baking day is where the real message of Amish Friendship bread comes through loud and clear. During the process, four cups of batter are pulled out and bagged for new starters.  These starters are then distributed to friends, family, neighbors, etc., while one is kept for yourself.  This creates an immediate connection with everyone in the circle as the next bake day arrives.  As the starter chain grows, the community grows and so does the sense of doing something meaningful.  Over the course of four batches, I realized I wasn’t baking alone and that created an instant kinship with every single person who had received a starter, including the people before and after my link in the chain. There is something magical and very warm about doing the same thing at the same time as those in my inner circle and beyond.  Every ten days that feeling comes back when I bake the next batch.

Better still, each batch yields two loaves of bread.  The sharing doesn’t end with starters!  It only continues as one loaf stays at home and the other is shared with others.  The office at work has been loaded with yummy loaves and muffins for weeks, while my grandparents always have a fresh loaf on their counter thanks to the baking efforts of me and my sister.

Batch #4 of Amish Friendship Bread

This experience has been very rewarding and tasty, so I thought I’d pass it along to my friends in the blogosphere.  The recipe for the starter is usually kept under wraps in order to keep the spirit of sharing alive, but I managed to find a starter recipe that matches up with the baking directions I received for my bread.  If you’re interested in starting an Amish Friendship Bread chain, go here for starter and baking recipes.

May we all be inspired to strengthen the bonds of friendship and keep strong the tradition of sharing.

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c.b. 2012