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Poetry Made Visible (2017) is described as “a guidebook for tourists and natives of the Boston Area, for students and teachers, for lovers of poetry and lovers of public art.” Well, in order to review the book and write about it, I knew I had to use the book. So I began with the first chapter focused on the main branch of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. As I walked around what Bresler refers to as “the temple of poetry,” an amazing thing began to happen. I walked around the library with an open book, reading, pausing, looking, and guess what? People began to notice me. They too paused and looked and, since they had no book in-hand, their brows furrowed as they tried to see what I might be seeing, carved into stone or sculpted into a door.

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Poetry with her halo, McKim building door

As I traveled around the library, I found myself engaging with librarians. While Bresler does an amazing job of pointing out the poetry integrated into the library’s exterior and interior structure, the challenge is that the Boston Public Library’s interior design is quite dynamic and in the past year there have been major renovations and redecoration. So I had to converse with the librarians to ascertain where certain sculptures had been moved because the book’s walking directions don’t always match up.

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Dare I say that I believe that the librarians had a great time helping me to track down the various sculptures mentioned, and peering into the book because it was a resource that was helping them to see their building with fresh perspective. And I think that’s the strength of this book. As the title suggests, Bresler truly does make poetry visible. I’ve lived in Boston long enough that I take the Boston Public Library for granted, but with his book in-hand I paused and peered up and truly looked at what was there. And so did the little kid next to me.

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Throughout the book he asks thought-provoking questions. They cannot be answered by “yes” or “no.” One must actually pause, ponder, reflect. I can imagine a teacher or a parent using excerpts of this book to help guide their students or children in seeing the world around them and exploring how something done so long ago, whether the poem or the sculpture, has relevance to their lives today.

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Maya Angelou Bust in Boston Public Library

You’ve heard of a date movie? This is a date book.” So it says on the back cover. Well, when you look at the list of Dispersed Sites of poetry that he has compiled, I can see that it would be fun to make a date with a friend to see a site, to reflect upon the poets remembered, and the contemporary artists capturing their spirit in stone and more.

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As has the Boston Public Library, the City of Boston and surrounding areas will continually change. I do hope that the sculptures and other public artworks that Bresler has captured survive over time. I think Bresler’s book is a wonderful reminder of the literary heritage of the Greater Boston area and the important role of poetry in society.

Poetry Made Visible: Boston Sites for Poetry Lovers, Art Lovers & Lovers

 

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There’s one positive to the long winter/long early spring commutes in Boston when your primary form of transportation is the train and bus. Plenty of time to read. Two books have been in my bag of late that I’d like share in some fashion. Very different books, indeed, but there is a common thread of poetry and the poetic. First up, Army Life in a Black Regiment, first published in 1869.

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In November 1861, shortly after the start of the U.S. Civil War, the Union fleet took command of Port Royal, South Carolina and neighboring sea islands including St. Helena and Hilton Head. Plantation owners fled leaving behind 10,000 slaves, and a bumper crop of sea island cotton.

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A project was conceived known as the Port Royal Experiment. Its purpose? By working with this group of 10,000 freed slaves, in a relatively contained area, perhaps solutions could be found for the greater looming challenge of how to integrate into society millions of emancipated slaves.

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At least three different groups were involved in the experiment, including Northern missionaries who focused on education and training, entrepreneurs who wanted to show the profitability of free labor versus slave labor, and the U.S. government which, most immediately, needed more men on the battlefield. These groups sometimes worked together but were more often at odds. For an excellent scholarly analysis of the Port Royal Experiment, please read Willie Lee Rose’s Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment.

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port royal students

Teachers immediately went to work setting up schools. Entrepreneurs began implementing their free labor experiment offering to pay the former slaves to cultivate the cotton.  But as for volunteering to fight for the military?

 

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escaped slaves wearing old union uniforms

Since the beginning of the war, Union officers in the field saw the need for trained black troops. Early attempts to recruit  had met with poor results and had little initial support from Lincoln’s White House. But finally, with Port Royal, a new more coordinated effort was to be made.  In November 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson received a letter from Brigadier General Rufus Saxton. “I am organizing the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, with every prospect of success. Your name has been spoken of, in connection with the command of this regiment, by some friends in whose judgement I have confidence. I take great pleasure in offering you the position of Colonel in it … I shall not fill the place until I hear from you …”

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Higginson was a poet, biographer and novelist as well as a Unitarian minister. From a prominent, wealthy New England family, he had long been a staunch abolitionist, social reformer and a major supporter of John Brown. Once the Civil War began, he joined the Union Army. Though he already served another regiment, he accepted Saxton’s invitation to visit Port Royal. He doubted he would accept the commission but, after meeting the people, he accepted his new role without hesitation.

During his time with the regiment he would record detailed entries in his diary about the people, the Sea Island landscape, and of course about the regiments military actions. After becoming ill, in 1864, he would return to New England, resign his commission, and resume researching and writing. Essays about his wartime experiences with the First Regiment appeared infrequently in the Atlantic. By 1869, he compiled the essays, diary excerpts and other work into the book, Army Life in a Black Regiment and Other Writings.

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First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry

In the introduction to his diary entries, Higginson tells the reader:

I am under pretty heavy bonds to tell the truth, and only the truth; for those who look back to the newspaper correspondence of that period will see that this particular regiment lived for months in the glare of publicity, such as tests any regiment severely, and certainly prevents all subsequent romancing in its historian. As the scene of the only effort on the Atlantic coast to arm the negro, our camp attracted a continuous stream of visitors, military and civil. A battalion of black soldiers, a spectacle since so common, seemed then the most daring of innovations, and the whole demeanor of the particular regiment was watched with microscopic scrutiny by friends and foes. I felt sometimes as if we were a plant trying to take root, but constantly pulled up to see if we were growing.”

Of discipline there was great need … Some of the men had already been under fire but they were very ignorant of drill and camp duty. The officers, being appointed from a dozen different States … had all that diversity of methods which so confused our army in those early days. The first need, therefore, was an unbroken interval of training. During this period, which fortunately lasted nearly two months, I rarely left camp … Camp life was a wonderfully strange sensation to almost all volunteer officers, and mine lay among eight hundred men suddenly transformed from slaves into soldiers …

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Infantry Members

Each subsequent diary entry reveals Higginson’s poetic nature. “Yesterday afternoon we were steaming over a summer sea, the deck level as a parlor-floor, no land in sight, no sail, until at last appeared one light-house … The sun set, a great illuminated bubble, submerged in one vast bank of rosy suffusion; it grew dark; after tea all were on deck, the people sang hymns; then the moon set, a moon two days old, a curved pencil of light, reclining backwards on a radiant couch which seemed to rise from the waves to receive it…”(November 24, 1862)

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Dress Parade of the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry

“… One adapts one’s self so readily to new surroundings that already the full zest of the novelty seems passing away from my perceptions, and I write these lines in an eager effort to retain all I can. Already I am growing used to the experience, at first so novel, of living among five hundred men, and scarce a white face to be seen, — of seeing them go through all their daily processes, eating, frolicking, talking, just as if they were white. Each day at dress-parade I stand with the customary folding of the arms before a regimental line of countenances so black that I can hardly tell whether the men stand steadily or not; black is every hand which moves in ready cadence as I vociferate, “Battalion! Shoulder arms!” nor is it till the line of white officers move forward, as parade is dismissed, that I am reminded that my own face is not the color of coal.” (November 27, 1862)

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Infantry Member Henry Williams

Higginson paints a poetic picture of both people and place. “All the excitements of war are quadrupled by darkness; and as I rode along our outer lines at night, and watched the glimmering flames which at regular intervals starred the opposite river-shore, the longing was irresistible to cross the barrier of dusk, and see whether it were men or ghosts who hovered round those dying embers. I had yielded to these impulses in boat-adventures by night … and fascinating indeed it was to glide along, noiselessly paddling, with a dusky guide, the reed-birds, which wailed and fled away into the darkness, and penetrating several miles into the interior, between hostile fires, where discovery might be death.

The book is a time capsule chronicling an important period in American history. These soldiers predated the more famous Massachusetts 54th regiment led by Robert Gould Shaw. Higginson brings to life the courage, the ingenuity and discipline of these early troops.  He shows them to be as human as their white counterparts, their brothers in arms. And though the people of the Sea Islands, for the most part, had known nothing other than slavery, they were prepared with the right training to fight for and defend their freedom and that abstract thing known as “the Union” that their labor had sustained for generations.

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Higginson’s book reminded me of the unique nature of the Sea Islands, a uniqueness that Higginson remarks upon in a post-war essay about the Negro as a Soldier. “I had not allowed for the extreme remoteness and seclusion of their lives, especially among the Sea Island. Many of them had literally spend their whole existence on some lonely island or remote plantation, where the master never came, and the overseer only once or twice a week.”

Under these conditions the slaves developed a patois that is now known as Gullah, a blending of standard English and its Southern regionalisms with different West African languages. By the time the Civil War began, there were over 400,000 slaves in South Carolina alone. Such a large investment in labor was needed for the labor intensive yet highly profitable cultivation of cotton and especially rice.

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During one expedition along the Edisto River with his now-trained troops, Higginson confronts the enemy near some of these rice fields.

“The battery — whether fixed or movable we knew not — met us with a promptness that proved very short-lived. After three shots it was silent, but we could not tell why. The bluff was wooded, and we could see but little. The only course was to land, under cover of the guns. As the firing ceased and the smoke cleared away, I looked across the rice-fields which lay beneath the bluff. The first sunbeams glowed upon their emerald levels, and on the blossoming hedges along the rectangular dikes. What were those black dots which everywhere appeared? Those meadows had become alive with human heads, and along each narrow path came a straggling file of men and women, all on a run for the riverside. I went ashore with a boat-load of troops at once. The landing was difficult and marshy. The astonished negroes tugged us up the bank …They kept arriving by land much faster than we could come by water … What a scene it was! With the wild faces, eager figures, strange garments, it seemed, as one of the poor things reverently suggested, [like judgment day]. “

Bless you” and “Bless the Lord,” were the exclamations Higginson remembers hearing over and over again. “Women brought children on their shoulders; small black boys carried on their backs little brothers … Never had I seen human beings so clad, or rather so unclad … How weak is imagination, how cold is memory, that I ever cease, for a day of my life, to see before me the picture of that astounding scene!” That day they rescued approximately two hundred slaves.

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escaped slaves 1862

 

Higginson, with his Boston Brahmin background, was an outsider looking into another culture. There is condescension on occasion but while he may refer to the former slaves as docile, he makes clear he knew they were not mentally deficient as so many others would report in northern publications. “I cannot conceive what people at the North mean by speaking of the negroes as a bestial or brutal race. … I learned to think that we abolitionists had underrated the suffering produced by slavery among the negroes, but had overrated the demoralization.”

Higginson viewed his troops as human beings who had been denied basic human privileges, privileges he had literally fought for long before the Civil War. Throughout the book he presents the former slaves as active participants in shaping their own destiny.”One half of military duty lies in obedience, the other half in self-respect,” Higginson writes. “A soldier without self-respect is useless.” Recognizing what he describes as the bequest of slavery, Higginson worked with his officers to “impress upon [the troops] they did not obey their officers because they were white, but because they were their officers, just as the Captain must obey me, and I the general; that we were all subject to military law, and protected by it in turn.”

Over time, more black regiments were formed. In 1864 the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry’s name was changed to the Thirty-Third United States Colored Troops. The men served until February 1866 when the troop was finally mustered out. “It is not my province to write their story, not to vindicate them … Yet this, at least, may be said. The operation on the South Atlantic coast, which long seemed a merely subordinate and incidental part of the great contest, proved to be one of the final pivots on which it turned. All now admit that the fate of the Confederacy was decided by Sherman’s march to the sea. Port Royal was the objective point to which he marched, and he found the Department of the South, when he reached it, held almost exclusively by colored troops. Next to the merit of those who made the march was that of those who held open the door. That service will always remain among the laurels of the black regiments.”

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson

“… we who served with the black troops,” Higgins writes, “have this peculiar satisfaction, that, whatever dignity or sacredness the memories of the war may have to others, they have more to us. … We had touched upon the pivot of the war. Whether this vast and dusky mass should prove the weakness of the nation or its strength, must depend in great measure, we knew, upon our efforts. Till the blacks were armed, there was no guaranty of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.”

 

Sources and Additional Reading

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1st_South_Carolina_Volunteers

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Wentworth_Higginson

Army Life of a Black Regiment

Army Life in a Black Regiment (Amazon)

http://www.bostonathenaeum.org/library/book-recommendations/athenaeum-authors/colonel-thomas-wentworth-higginson

https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/thomas_wentworth_higginson

https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/rehearsal-for-reconstruction/

https://www.lowcountryafricana.com/project/history-of-the-33rd-united-states-colored-troops-usct/

http://www.drbronsontours.com/bronsonportroyalexperiment.html

https://www.sciway.net/afam/slavery/population.html

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1862).Bombardment of Port Royal, S.C. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-f9a8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (1861 – 1865).Two views. Dress parade of the First South Carolina Regiment (Colored), near Beaufort, S.C. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-c8e9-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Please note that the Library of Congress has an extensive collection of photographs available online from this period in U.S. history.

 

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The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde presents yet another side of the complicated Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). Scion of a wealthy New York family, sickly as a child, Roosevelt’s enduring image is that of a rough and tumble soldier, a politician with a big stick foreign policy and a big game hunter extraordinaire. Lunde’s book focuses on Roosevelt the naturalist.

In 1867, just a couple years before his father Theodore Roosevelt Sr invested in the creation of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Roosevelt started his own natural history museum in the family house. Twelve specimen would soon grow to include hundreds of mice, shrews and birds. Though the museum would soon be relocated by family decree especially after “he acquired a live snapping turtle – an aggressive pond-dweller covered in algae and decorated with a gruesome frill of leeches,” a passion had been borne that would stay with Roosevelt throughout his life.

Roosevelt lived during the Victorian Age. Nature study was common and encouraged especially among his social class.  Never formally trained, he would teach himself the necessary skills, including taxidermy. The Naturalist provides unflinching accounts of how natural history museums of that era built their vast animal collections, collections that are scientific boons for researchers today but at what cost? Even then, ethical and moral questions arose around the killing of animals. Though museums in general collected far more animals than he did, Roosevelt took the brunt of criticism later in his life from animal rights advocates as the media reported graphic details of Roosevelt’s big game hunts in Africa.

Lunde is a Supervisory Museum Specialist in the Division of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He’s clear in his affinity for Roosevelt the naturalist and also in his concern about the growing disconnect between people and nature. At the end of the book he raises questions about the changing perception of what it means to be a naturalist. He points out that “To really understand Roosevelt the naturalist, we need to locate him in the naturalists’ world that he knew  — a world that wholeheartedly embraced guns, hunting, and taxidermy as equally important to the naturalist’s craft.”

The book reads like an American Experience documentary and I mean that in the best possible way. The book is chock full of historical facts and details and yet it is not in anyway overwhelming.  The narrative flows carrying the reader along on a thought-provoking journey in the life of one of America’s great iconic figures.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this honest review.

Additional Links …

The Naturalist

Darrin Lunde

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In short, from front to back, each page of The Flower Workshop is a treat. Am I biased? Perhaps. This is the kind of book that I can imagine on the table in front of me as I sip sweet tea, just flipping through the pages. Strangely enough, it was my younger brother who recently reminded me that that is exactly what I used to do as a child with my mom’s gardening books. Just sit and peruse them over and over again. Well-written and beautifully photographed, the book provides step-by-step instruction for producing 45 floral arrangements. But beyond those specific projects, the reader is truly educated in how to “branch out” and experiment with how to work with flowers, foliage, fruit and more to create what I consider to be ephemeral works of art.

Will I be producing a flowering dogwood display anytime soon? No but I do have a greater appreciation for the skill as well as imagination behind such displays that I had perhaps taken for granted in churches, hotels and even the homes of friends. And I also take away a deeper understanding of everything from the rule of three to the subtle use of color to establish mood.  There’s a nice index and seasonal flower guide. Simply a lovely resource.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this honest review. Please check out the following links for more information.

Website of Ariella Chezar

Details about the book: The Flower Workshop

Photographer Erin Kunkel

 

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My mother kept a bucket of chickens next to the back porch.  It was a big white bucket like an old stew pot.  Hens and chicks was what she called the little spiky plants growing in there. No matter how hot the summers, no matter how many other flowers and vegetables died in the baking Virginia sun, those plants survived to flourish the following year. They were easy to transplant. I remember picking up the little ones … they just popped right up out of the soil … and tossing them into another little cup of dirt. My mom told me to stop doing that because she’d specifically positioned her pot of chickens. Their singular location, next to the porch, was part of her garden design.

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Now my mom and I did not formally speak of things like garden design and water-saving plants like her cacti. My dad did not discuss these things either though I remember he kept a barrel to collect rainwater and that he rotated crops in our little vegetable garden. He didn’t really explain the why of his actions. It was just what you did if you understood the system of which you were a part.

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That’s what stands out for me in books like The Water-Saving Garden by Pam Penick.  Penick invites readers who are interested in gardening to deepen their understanding of how their world works.  My parents grew up in a time and place and were of a generation that knew the sources of their water and understood that those sources were not guaranteed. For all sorts of reasons that knowledge was lost as human ingenuity and engineering made water readily available in many places and seemingly endless.  Today, people are aware that engineering is not enough. We are a part of a complicated system. Water is not endlessly available for our needs. But what if you really want a garden?

It almost seems selfish but I have to admit I’m one of those people. If at all possible, for my peace of mind, I like to see something green growing around me and know I had something to do with it. And despite my fond memories of my mother’s chickens, I don’t necessarily want to grow them. What are my other choices in a water-saving garden?

photo by cynthia staples

photo by cynthia staples

Pennick’s book stretches one’s imagination about what form that garden can take. She reminds and encourages people to take the time to understand the landscape and climate particular to their region. Humor is sprinkled throughout the book (e.g. “Think of your plants as astronaut-explorers, boldly going where no plant has gone before.”) as well as lovely and informative pictures.

The Water-Saving Garden is content rich and makes a nice addition to the reference shelf. Every idea can’t be tried all at once. It’s a resource I can imagine filling the margins with notes of lessons learned as I try to garden more wisely while still having fun.

You can learn more about this book via the following links. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this honest review.

Additional Links

About Pam Penick: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/152546/pam-penick/

http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/246914/the-water-saving-garden-by-pam-penick/

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Bees are not the only pollinators in this world but they are a major one. There are many different species of bees. Growing up in Virginia, I’d heard of sweat bees, and knew bumblebees on sight, but it was the honeybee with its soft gold and black coloring that I most thought of when I heard the word bee. I took for granted its production of honey and the wax harvested from colonies for my candles.  And I was quick to bat the insect away when I walked through a field of flowers. As for its role as pollinator, I didn’t think too much about that nor did many until reports of colony collapse disorder made national and international news.

photo by cynthia staples

As noted in the introduction of The Bee-Friendly Garden, “over 70 percent of the world’s plants depend on the pollination services of bees, including many nuts, fruits, tomatoes, peppers, or berries.” While the world might survive without bees, it would be a very different place to say the least.

One of the delights of this book is that the authors, a professional garden designer and an ecologist, educate, inspire and encourage.  Regarding the U.S., they describe the difference between native bee species and honeybees, and how bees and wasps look similar but behave very differently.  Honeybees with their yellow and black banded bodies are probably the most common image of bees, but native bees come in many shapes, sizes and colors, their bodies evolved to collect the pollen from a wide variety of plants, shrubs and trees.  Lists are provided by region of bee-friendly garden compositions, and in turns out that many of those same gardens — a mix of annuals, perennials and more — can attract and support other important pollinators like bats, butterflies and hummingbirds.

The book is an incredible resource and reference guide and I would suggest it as a wonderful addition to one’s gardening library.  The authors make clear with straightforward content that you don’t need to be a master gardener or landscape designer in order to create beauty around you and do some good in the world as well. As some of you know, I love to give seeds and plants to friends and family who live across the U.S.  This year I will certainly be using this book’s regional plants lists to help guide my selection of seeds.

photo by cynthia staples

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this honest review.  Detailed book information available via this link: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/243475/the-bee-friendly-garden-by-kate-frey-and-gretchen-lebuhn/

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I have to admit that when I clicked the box to request the book, I wasn’t really paying attention.  I thought I’d selected Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.  But I hadn’t.  I’d selected the complementary lined journal.  I thought, “Well, heck.” I flipped through the compact little book, a mostly traditional lined journal denoting month and day but no actual year.  On the top right corner of the right pages, every now and then would flash the question, “Does it spark joy?” Then every once in a while would pop up turquoise pages with white print.  I liked Joy manifests itself in the body and Make your life shine.  Not all of the statements resonated with me but they were all thought-provoking.  They made me pause and ponder.  And I think it is that behavior– of pausing — that is part of the life-changing magic.

Even after I put the book aside, unsure of what to do with it, and even as I went about my life, I found myself asking the question at the wierdest moments, “Hmmm, does this spark joy in my life?”  I have asked similar questions of other people for much of my adult life, but it is not often that I ask it of myself.  That’s the beauty of the little book for me.

While I apply that question, Does it spark joy?, to all sorts of activities, I think the origin of Ms. Kondo’s query had to do with helping people literally organize their lives.  To declutter. I don’t have a problem with clutter but I think we can all be reminded to pause and reflect upon what is bringing us joy in this world.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this honest review.

More information …

http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/536430/life-changing-magic-a-journal-by-marie-kondo/

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-origin-story-of-marie-kondos-decluttering-empire

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