Friday, December 16, 2011

Deem True



Every time my dad and I attempt to talk, in our feebly literary ways, about literature, we reach a standoff. My dad says, “I don’t like fiction,” at which point I start reminding him of the fiction I know he has loved—Alistair MacLeod’s Island, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Hemingway's stories.
“But that’s not fiction,” he says. My dad is a carpenter and farmer who lives on the land where he was born.
“Yes, it is fiction!” I say, exacerbated by this old run-around. “All of those ‘I’s’ in Island are not actually Alistair MacLeod! How many different mothers do you think he had?”
“But I still don’t consider it fiction,” he says, stubbornly. “Because he’s capturing a real time and place.”
Okay. Now we have reached a platform of rational discussion. For we agree, deeply, on this matter. We both like literature, “fiction” or “non,” that captures what we consider to be a “real” time and place. Is this a failure of imagination on our part? Or because we feel discomfort in realms outside of the “real?” We are both earth signs. Both inextricably attached to the ground where we were born and raised (which happens to be the same, knobby, rock-laden ground). We both tend towards the pragmatic side of things. So are we suppressing the capacity of fiction, to create worlds unknown and unreal, and limiting the craft the service of documentary-like exactitude?
If there is one thing my thirties has taught me, it is to cherish who you are. And with that comes cherishing your particular tastes and preferences. Later in the conversation my dad asks me what the latest trends in literature are, and I confess I have no idea. That even though my husband and I receive The New Yorker each week I don’t always read the stories.
“Why not?” he asks. “I would think that as a fiction writer…”
I try to explain my aversion to the over-consumption of literature. Something happened to me in graduate school that was related to reading too much. It had to do with reading as a consumer rather than as a lover. I want to be swept away by the books I read, rather than marking them off some grand checklist, as some birders travel to the Galapagos and Sanibel merely in order to check a few birds off their list. I also have a sudden aversion to filling the crevices of my brain with the mediocre. By this, I mean my take on mediocre. Which, admittedly, I find many of the stories in The New Yorker to be. Astoundingly crafted? Yes. Each sentence a gem? Undoubtedly so. But is it a story or situation that moves me deeply, within which I feel the reverberations of necessity? Often, no.
Necessity. I am a broken record in my correspondences with friends regarding this word and literature. It’s something I feel I can sniff out almost immediately in a piece, often in the first paragraph. Did the author need to write this story? Or were he/she just toying around? Another way to put it might be: was it divinely inspired, or come from the narrow caverns of a very clever and adept mind? I want the wind of inspiration and the dark ravines of necessity rifting through what I read, and if I don’t find them there, well, then, I guess I’d rather be out taking a walk than reading a book. A lot to ask? Yes. Hard to achieve? Near impossible. But I’d rather read a few astoundingly beautiful books in my life than a million okay ones. I want literature to rest in the highest branches of that nearly unachievable ideal, rather than in the pedestrian realm of the achievable everyday.
And what does this—necessity, or divine inspiration—have to do with the rendering of a “real time and place?” They almost sound like polar opposites: holy imagination versus pedantic realism. Call me crazy, but almost all of the most stunning works of fiction that I’ve read, the ones that do feel most necessary, happen to be linked with a very real time and place. I can’t help but think, always, of that abandoned villa in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I think of the smoke-filled houses and the gray oceans of Alistair MacLeod’s Island. I think of the snow-dusted fields of Anna Karennina. I think of the rooms and rivers and boats of French colonial Vietnam in Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. I think of Flannery O’Connor’s dust and peacock filled farmyards. I think of Robert Olmstead’s renderings of rural Vermont and New Hampshire in River Dogs. These books contain mythic beauty, the kind that transcends the clutter of the everyday, the kind that changes the way I see the world around me and the way I face the trials I encounter. They change the very light outside my door. They change the way I walk, and the way I see. They turn the “real” into something that, rather than wanting to escape, I want to pay deep attention to. They make me see and cherish the moment and the things very present outside my door. They make me feel deeply and almost breathtakingly alive. And they do so by lovingly rendering the artifacts of the very real.
Time and place. I don’t conceive of humans without them. I can’t see or recognize a life without the context of them. Am I nearly alone in this? Maybe. Am I owning it with pride? Yes. Don’t just give me a snapshot of landscape in order to tell me where my character lives. Show me how a life entwines with a place over time. Show me the smallness of my human trials in the context of something larger and more lasting, be it history or land. Show me how we can and might and do weave our lives together with the light and the trees and streets and the highways of our particular places in order to find more meaning, more depth, more universality, more contentment, more stillness, more beauty. Show me how one lives a good life. Show me how to see. Show me how to step out of the narrow confines of myself through noticing, or touching, or digging my hands into, or smelling the world around me. Show me how we are shaped by history (wars, natural disasters, tragedies) and how we are shaped by land (streets, horizons, climates). Show me how to love in the face of loss. Show me how to grow old through time. Show me what the horizon can teach me. Show me how time changes everything, and nothing, too.
Because books are our teachers. They can entertain, yes. But mostly they are our teachers. And I want the arrow of that lesson aimed at true. Which is, admittedly, not really fiction. It is truth. Expressed through story, containing the body of real time and place, in order that we may transcend the limited boundaries of our interior minds.
And so my dad and I agree, entirely, after all. Our squabbles are mere linguistics. I will keep writing what I call fiction. And he will keep telling me he doesn’t like fiction. And I will keep aspiring to write something, for both his sake and mine, expanded by time and place, that we both deem true.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Home


I spent the morning in my mother’s kitchen with canning gear, a large bag full of Bosc pears, fresh ginger, lemon, and Liana Krissoff’s book Canning for a New Generation. NPR was on (as it always is in that house), the wood cook stove was blazing, a tea-kettle simmered, and my parents’ dog Sadie lay sprawled on the floor. Outside it rained (the rain I predicted yesterday, yes, melting the thin membrane of white snow) and the last leaves fluttered off the trees. Chickadees scurried to and from the feeders.

I filled my mother’s large hot-water-bath pan, peeled pears, and grated ginger. I zested lemons and listened to the talk radio shows and sterilized my Ball canning jars and put the brew on the stove to simmer.

Before I continue, I need to say this: I love my house. I have the most beautiful kitchen that I could possibly imagine, salvaged and/or built by my husband’s hands from wood cut off this land.

But I loved, this morning, cooking in my mother’s kitchen. I loved the smell of the wood counters, seasoned with years of onion and garlic and lemon and spice. I loved its cluttered disarray, its dusty houseplants that always look on the verge of dying but somehow never do (is it because each time I go there I sneak them cups of water?). I loved the wooden crates of ripening tomatoes stored near the door and the ticking of the old-fashioned clock and the radiant heat from the antique, Stanley wood stove and the permeated smell of wood-smoke.

It is the first house I knew, the house where I was born (in the Southeast corner of the living room), the house where I first learned to cook, the house where I began to write, and the first house that I ever considered, very much, my own. I haven’t ever grieved the loss of that house, but I felt that grief this morning, and the gift of returning--to its old shapes and smells and sounds, to being alone there in my labor, to slipping, for a few hours, into the shell of the girl and young woman who once lived and grew and came to know herself there within those walls.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Morning


5:30 AM and I rise, unable to sleep. What a lovely watch to keep. I’m thinking about the story I read last night: Paul Yoon’s “The Woodcutter’s Daughter,” about his glimmering fictional island off the southern coast of South Korea, and about how tender both good love and good fiction are. I’m thinking about my daughter, asleep in the room adjacent to mine, and with what passion she lives and breathes, and how helpless I am in the face of that passion—how it is hers alone to own. I’m thinking of T, asleep for a few moments longer, and the arcs of melody that must weave their way through his dreams. I’m thinking of this small one inside me, size, I am told, of a turnip, and how I cannot wait to know its name, its shape, the color of its eyes, its yearnings. Thinking, also, how I cannot imagine being mother to anything more than I am already, for having the capacity to give, or love, more. And so I think about how it will rain tomorrow, or the next day, melting the thin membrane of white snow that covers the earth and grass and trees and gardens outside our door. I think about the things I will make today: bread, preserves, soup. The thing I wish I could make today: a new story. I think about how the light settles so beautifully on these hills in December, how the sky weaves itself between leafless trees, how our bodies settle willingly into winter. I think about gratitude, which is everything and of which there is never enough. And then I hear a rustling, and footsteps. Terry Tempest Williams’ mother told her, before she died, that she had never had enough solitude in her life. It’s a line and a sentiment I’ll never forget. Gratitude and solitude and love—the great weaving. The footsteps approach. A sliver of light rises from between the pines in the east. Hello you. Hello light. Hello world. And me? Until tomorrow’s restless morning.

Today's Menu

Reading: "Canning for a New Generation" by Liana Krissoff

Making: Pear and Ginger Preserves/Pear, Clementine and Pecan Conserve/& Honeyed Fig Jam with Sesame Seeds

Thinking: This is the last thing I purchased before our "buy no new" year began on July 1st. It is a rockin' collection of delicious, eclectic recipes for year-round preserving that manages to both honor the tradition of canning and upend my notions of what it means to stand over that steaming hot water bath with thick rubber gloves on. Yes, industrious. Also: artful and fun.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: Once the Shore by Paul Yoon

Drinking: Ginger tea (and wanting a strong cup of joe)

Thinking: In the last few months I'd almost become disillusioned by fiction. It had been so long since I'd read something I found astoundingly beautiful. Which is what I want when I read: to be astounded. And then I read the first page of the first story in this book (which I had picked up, second hand, on a whim in order to fulfill a free shipping quota), and felt my world expand in the way I am always, when reading, looking for it to expand. The sentences blew wind through my mind with their beauty. Like this one, from page 1:

At this, she laughed quietly and almost at once grew silent and looked out toward the distant hills and the coast where, long after sunset, the East China Sea lay undulant, its surface of silver reflections folding over one another like the linking of fingers.
I heard Hemingway in that sentence, but also Alistair MacLeod, whose book Island remains one of my all-time favorites. I felt myself fully immersed in a vividly rendered landscape which I have never known (nor imagined). I found its layers of history rendered three-dimensional through voice and flesh and imagery and emotion. And isn't this what I'm after? What I'm always after? Beauty linked with history linked with place linked with heart and emotion? Yes!
Before I go, one more sentence to offer you in the hopes that you will someday read this book, too:

And Bev bathed in the luminous dark of the coast, scrubbing his back and soaking his hair and beard. He stood upright to clean his chest. In his sadness he opened his mouth up toward the metallic stars and waited for one to fall.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Name


It’s the name we fall in love with first. It sounds like November leaves, scuttling across dry earth. It sounds like “love” and it sounds like “milk” and it sounds bold, too, like it could contain the multitudes of a soul that will surely need to break out of any and all seams. That's all we know: that we can’t settle on any other; that it’s the one that keeps ringing in our ears; that it seems to have (already) slipped a taproot down into our tawny earth. It’s a first name and a middle and a last. It sounds right both indoors and out, accommodates wood, seasons, light. It is not gaudy. Does not need a paint job. Reverberates on the lips and on the tongue. Name: the glass light filters through, the vessel a spirit fills. Through it we begin to imagine him, her, it—heart beating, lungs wailing. We begin to feel the beam of light coursing from that one millennial, astronomical, tender, suckling, needy, milky source that will utterly change our lives forever. And so we say it, but try not to say it too often. We slip it into our pockets. Take it for walks. Whisper it to each other at night. Name. Name. Name. Hear it? Name. Isn't it a beauty?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: Imagination in Place, by Wendell Berry

Drinking: Tea

Thinking: The ground outside my windows is covered in four inches of snow and for the first time in months I am lying in bed in the morning with a book. It's odd that it has taken me this long to read Wendell Berry--almost an intentional distance in order to differentiate my thoughts from his, just as it might take years for one to start singing the songs ones grandmother sang.

What I've noticed so far: how transparent his thinking is (for more on transparency in non-fiction I highly recommend this essay by Jennifer Bowen Hicks in Brevity); how political; how well read. There's no uninformed romanticism of living off the land here, or oversimplification, rather the pragmatism of a farmer who also toils with thoughts and words and the interminable question of how to live a good life. "Imagination" for Berry is no lighthearted jaunt through the trial and tribulations of the everyday, rather it's the necessary alternative to the cycle of violence that we, as a nation, have been trapped in since the Civil War.

Not a light read for this light and snow filled morning, but I find my heart reverberant with reverence for this ground around me and the virtue of the words we find to make sense of our lives upon it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Make the Wildwood Ring

So honored to have my essay about my grandmother's life and work, "Make the Wildwood Ring," up at the amazing Orion Magazine!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Fever, Late June


This evening in late June I lie in bed next to your small, fevered, body thinking how the teenagers must all be getting laid. In fields. Abandoned cabins. Near the river in the backs of cars. What else could they possibly be doing on a night like this? Buttercups, red clover, and daisies fill the ditches; fireflies tangle; the air turns sweet with honeysuckle, burnt with rotting wood. Your fever reaches one-hundred-and-five.
The night I graduated I slept in a hayfield with six friends amidst the cocaine buzz of early summer: Crickets. Rivers. Cars. Beer. Fire. Skin. That dangerous, thrilling high. Not once thinking about the farmers—people I now know well—and how it must have made them grimace, or smile: our headlights, shrieking, debauchery and fire ravaging their uncut hay not two-hundred-feet from their farmhouse door.
But isn’t eighteen the age for not thinking about such things? A ticket for oblivion? Cheap, with wine? I brush my palm across your head, learning to gauge the temperature with my hand. Fevered child, butterball of love, who likes to undress at the pond, in the yard, outside dressing room doors. “Mama,” you said the last time, slipping under the TJ Max door, trouble lacing your voice, “I’m taking off my shoes.”
“Mama,” stepping away. “I’m taking off my shirt. It’s off now.” “Mama, my pants,” while I tried to wrestle some jeans on over my thighs, tried to cajole you into coming back to me.
“Mama,” laughing, screeching with joy, “I’m…NAKED!” running down the florescent-lit hall.
Whose child are you? From what wild garden did you descend? You have my grandmother’s face and eyes. Everyone tells me. “My god,” they say, stopping me on the street. “She looks just like her.”
“I know,” I reply, thinking of the dream I had in the weeks after I’d conceived, the dream in which Margaret, my grandma, had come back as a trapeze-flying blond-headed girl. “It’s a she,” I told T that night. “We’re having a girl,” thinking of that wildness, that fear, that unharnessed tongue, riding on a few thin ropes up towards the sky.
Now I brush your lava-hot head with my lips, blow on your beaded lids, and wonder what those teenagers are drinking. Jegermeister? Jack Daniels? Miller Light? Outside the open windows the skies grow auburn with dusk. Leaves flicker. The pines groan. Are they in love? I don’t yet think of the mothers, and whatever it is they’re thinking. Hear that? I don’t yet think of, or think like, the mothers. All I think of is that fevered, reverent pitch. That harrowing fear. The way the world was so god damn open. So open! Anything could happen. Anything. You don’t even know, child. You don’t even know how hot it will get. The chills that will wrack you. How close we all come, at some point, to dying.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

July

I realize woodbird has been pretty quiet for the last couple of months; here are a few photos in lieu of an explanation:




I look forward to getting back to my desk in the fall!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Home Before the End of the World

Thank you, Mayumi Shimose Poe, for leading me to Adelheid Fischer's wonderful essay on the importance of naming, "A Home Before the End of the World."


Some favorite quotes:

"Does it matter that so many of the stories we tell take place in some ecological make-believe, where plants and animals are treated as little more than the living wallpaper of a stage set for human actions or as interchangeable ciphers for conveying life lessons?"

"Words reveal — often betray — what we attend to, what we value, what we need to carry out a full life."

"Names are the alphabetic fragments with which we build a language of knowing. And knowing opens up the possibility of caring, the root of which is the Old English cearu, which means to guard or watch, "to trouble oneself." In the face of the planetary holocaust, troubling ourselves is nothing short of an ethical charge. For writers it means, at the very least, taking the time to get the ecological details right on the page, differentiating a hawk from a nighthawk. It means swearing a pledge of allegiance to the particulars of the world."

"How we use words to portray the world in acts of imagination is a serious matter. Metaphors have the power to structure attitudes that express themselves in actions."

"We will love the earth more competently, more effectively, by being able to name and know something about the life it sustains...Can you ... imagine a satisfying love relationship with someone whose name you do not know? I can't. It is perhaps the quintessentially human characteristic that we cannot know or love what we have not named. Names are passwords to our hearts, and it is there, in the end, that we will find the room for a whole world."

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Year of Anti-Consumerist Thinking




A few months back our friends Doug and Erika announced that they were challenging one another to a year of buying-nothing-new. They posted a Wikipedia link to the rules of a social and environmental movement called “The Compact,” initiated and named by a group of friends in San Francisco. The Compact is not extremist; one can buy food and anything necessary for one’s health or safety, essential supplies such as brake fluid and toilet paper, anything second hand, and even download music and keep one’s subscriptions. Radical but not insane. I thought, briefly, about joining them. But I excused myself by (quietly) proclaiming that I’m not really much of a consumer, anyway; that I haven’t bought a pair of new jeans in two years; that I can count on my two hands (literally) the number of things I’ve bought new for my two-and-a-half year-old daughter during her lifetime; that it wouldn’t change the world, me not buying the little I do. Plus, I said, also quietly, I have a penchant for buying myself the occasional pretty thing. Don’t I deserve that?

Then, yesterday, I came across an article in the current issue of Orion magazine by Scott Russell Sanders entitled “Breaking the Spell of Money.” In the essay, Sanders argues that in order to fix our economy and our environment we need to break our cultural mythology of wealth. He writes, “Money derives its meaning from society, not from those who own the largest piles of it. Recognizing this fact is the first move toward liberating ourselves from the thrall of concentrated capital. We need to desanctify money, reminding ourselves that it is not a god ordained to rule over us…We need to see and to declare that the money game as it is currently played in America produces a few big winners, who thereby acquire tyrannical power over the rest of us as great as that of any dictator or monarch…and that the net result of this money game is to degrade the real sources of our well being.”

Liberating ourselves…desanctifying money…tyrannical power…well being. Those words chilled me.

Sanders goes on to quote Victor Lebow, a retail analyst who wrote, in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction [and] our ego satisfaction in consumption.” Sanders continues by saying that, in America, consumption has become compensation for whatever else might be missing from our lives, such as meaningful work, intact families, safe streets, a healthy environment, a nation at peace, leisure time, neighborliness, community engagement, happiness, and “other fast-disappearing and entirely vanishing boons.”

By this point I knew I was in.

I thought back to my initial reaction to the pact. Sure, I don’t buy much new stuff. But how much to I relish the limited buying that I do? How much do I equate that buying with self-love? How giddy do I become? And fanatic? And confused, and slightly crazed? I realized, reading Sanders’ article, that my resistance to “the Compact” proved that I am, by no means, immune from our cultural materialistic (and corporate-imposed) fetishizing, that my resistance was a sign that my own sense of spirit and ego is, indeed, entwined with consuming, at which point I walked outside and told my sweetheart we were in. No buying anything new for an entire year. Starting next week.

The Wikipedia of The Compact outlines the movement’s goals:

1. To go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socio-economic impacts of U.S. consumer culture, to resist global corporatism, and to support local businesses, farms, etc;

2. To reduce clutter and waste in our homes (as in trash Compact-er);

3. To simplify our lives (as in Calm-pact


It also lays out the rules:

“Members of The Compact are only allowed to buy underwear, food, and health and safety items such as brake fluid and toilet paper. During their one-year vow the Compact members must shop only at second hand stores. They can also barter or simply share with each other for goods they want. Members of the Compact frown upon material consumerism. However, they are allowed to use services such as movies, theaters, museums, massages, haircuts, and music downloads.”

As I said earlier, this is a radical but not undoable pact. It is not like the sensationalist carbon-zero activists who refused to use toilet paper or take public transportation for a year. It is, instead, a very simple commitment that many of us, without much sweat, could (and can) do. I, for one, am most interested to discover the subtle ways in which it does (or does not) affect me. What will I learn about my own desire? About my attachment to materialistic things and the act of consumption itself? And what are the unexpected, positive outcomes? Already it has brought our household a sense of purpose; this unobtrusive but publicly assertive statement about values is a way to make not-having an active state as opposed to a passive one. A way to affirm and recognize one’s impulse towards simplicity as a choice rather than a result of circumstances.

And it excites, also. When I was a kid I rarely bought new clothes; thrift stores were the treasure troves of my life, a cheap and environmentally friendly way to get my materialistic buzz on. Our household frugality also encouraged creativity and resourcefulness; if I wanted a certain kind of bag, I made it. If I wanted a new bed, or doll house, or desk, I convinced my dad to help me build one. It’s a kind of resourcefulness I want to teach my daughter, and re-teach myself as well; it encourages us to be creative with our materialistic impulses and to alter our aesthetics to match our environmental and social beliefs, rather than having our aesthetics determined by a corporate society we proclaim to hate.

I’m not swearing off buying new things forever—I enjoy and plan on, in the future, supporting my local businesses. But for now I want to learn how to accurately differentiate between wanting and needing. I feel inspired by the challenge of making next winter's Christmas presents and scavenging thrift stores for a raincoat for my daughter. And I’m excited to discover how the pact will (or will not) effect our family’s holidays, finances, time, productivity, levels of satisfaction, relationships and happiness.

I have always believed that limitations make us happier people; that the cause of so much of our cultural angst is the limitless possibilities that flower before us at every turn. This will test that theory. I may end up in tears in late winter, crooning after some pretty, spring-escent, aqua-colored dress. But for now I can say this: that since committing, my life feels simpler, saner, more purposeful, more clear, more directed, more exciting, more integrity-filled, more youthful and more free.

Why on earth would I trade a few things for all that?


To join us in this pact, or find out more, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Compact

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Today's Menu


Reading: Ecotone 11

Drinking: tea tea tea tea tea

Thinking: Ack! So good. So far completely smitten by the cover, Poe Valentine's essay, "Hope," James Harm's poem, "Where is My Tree House?," the photographs of Magdalena Sole (and Rick Bragg's text), and both introductions.

This, from Ben George: "So much is beyond the control of the writer--and the editor, for that matter. Perception cannot be channeled. Reception cannot be managed. In the end, the work itself is the only thing fully in one's power...."

And this, from David Gessner: "'Strange to have come through the whole century and find that the most interesting thing is the birds," John said to me during our very first walk together. "Or maybe it's just the human mind is more interesting when focusing on something other than itself.'"

Happy reading, friends.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Of One's Own


6:30 AM and I sneak out my front door, computer in tow, to the cabin, nestled amidst trees a hundred feet from our house, that I built when I was sixteen. I say “sneak” because that’s what I have to do these days to get away. If my daughter sees me leaving the house she’ll pull on my pant legs and whine and whimper and create a noisy, babbling, endless scene of drama and drawn-out love until I cave and sit down on the floor with her to read a book and kiss her soft and earth-smelling head. But if I make my footsteps feather-light, and peel the door open and closed, lifting it just so, applying pressure in the right places so it doesn’t creak? Then I’m free.

The cabin: 14 x14, hemlock framing, pine floors, pine walls, a south-facing wall of small-paned salvaged windows. A few panes fell out last winter which means there is a nice woodland breeze: scents of pine and hemlock and spruce, sounds of cheerful robins and sparrows and woven between, the subtler, haunting song of the veery. When I was sixteen this square, windowed room was a necessity, a sanctuary, my saving grace. It was a place to bring boyfriends and smoke and drink wine, yes. But mostly it was a place to be myself. A sleeping loft, a vintage, mint-green gas stove for making coffee or tea, a table for a typewriter and notebook. At night I read by candle-light—Eva Luna, 100 Years of Solitude, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Jane Eyre, Siddhartha, The English Patient. The pages curled in the woods’ damp and moths dove into the candle’s flame and died there. There was a harrowing loneliness and necessity in all of it; an adolescent and thus existential desire to be both lost and found. On the typewriter I wrote poems, essays, fragments of fiction. No one read or heard a word of it, except my three-year-old cousin who came by one day. “What are you writing?” he asked with such earnest curiosity I couldn’t deny him.

I read a poem about the desert. When I was done he looked at me. “I didn’t really understand all of it, but I got a really nice feeling, just though the sound.” I smiled.

High school was, for me, a bust. My mother and I were fighting. But this cabin—

My dad and I built it together. Cut a few trees and made two corner posts out of stumps, the other two of make-shift piles of stone. We bought a few hundred dollars of milled hemlock and pine, collected old windows and pounded nails until I had a square box with a wall of glass (dissolution between the boundaries of inside and out) and a door (also made of glass) that faced the trees. And that was all it was--a box.

I didn’t cook elaborate meals here or plant a vegetable garden or invite anyone else to make it their own. Mice moved in every winter and had to be evacuated each spring. Mosquitos and blackflies and moths flew in through the open eaves. But other than these woodland creatures it was mine, and mine alone. I owed nothing to anyone while within these walls. I felt free and vanquished and frighteningly alone. I was sometimes too frightened to read my novels—the disappearance of myself so completely in those pages, with no one nearby to bring me back, was too much. I should have read poetry, but at that age didn’t know how. So I wrote it. Fragments made of words, scattered across white pages. A way to mark my presence (and ensure it). The creation of narrative in order to weave an identity through which to know my name. The walls provided the safe space, the sanctuary of silence and protection and light that every good church provides, at a time when that was what I most needed.

And I think they might just provide them again.

The cabin's not what it was then. Right now it houses: cross-country skis, my daughter’s sleds, boxes of winter kindling, Red Heart the Ticker CDs, life-jackets, mouse nests, old shoes, tools. Symbolic, in every way, of the generous and inhabited vessel my life has become—mother, wife, teacher, aunt, band member, board member, friend. But with a few hours of clearing out…The wall of glass is still here, the pine floors, the pine walls, the surrounding woods, the open eaves. My typewriter sits in the corner. I could move the stove back in for making tea. Haul in a table. Maybe even a daybed. When I perform or teach for high school students I tell them this: if you can, build yourself a cabin. Or convert an old garden shed. Or even an abandoned car. A room of one’s own, I say, imploring.

Because it’s as necessary now as it was when I was sixteen—this marking, this narrating, these walls, this vaulted, diaphanous space to call my own. This morning the birds sing their majestic and over-enthusiastic love songs, mist rises off the viridescent and aqua hills, and my daughter, whom I adore more than I can put into words, doesn’t know where I am. Which means I’m free to drink this tea, scratch words onto a page, say here!, fict, get lost, and through that strange and exalted road—one always hopes—get found.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: Patricia Hampl's beautiful and lyric memoir The Florist's Daughter.

Drinking: h20

Thinking: Just lovely.

And about this: "He could accept the notion of my being "a poet" better than my mother's idea that I was "a writer." Poets are innocents, they belong to the ether and the earth. They don't narrow their eyes and tell tales as "writers" do, proving in their mean-spirited way that the earthlings are filled with greed and envy, that the world is a spiral of small-minded gestures. Poets, at least, don't tell tales on other people. They celebrate beauty. They make much of little. Flowers, birds, and the names of things are important to them. So being a poet was all right, though hopeless." (P112)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Yesterday AM





Yesterday I was a guest blogger for Hunger Mountain, and at the last minute was asked if I could contribute some photos to accompany my words. At first I panicked: my daughter was with me all day--how could I get away to take decent pictures? But then I threw some food into a bag, strapped her into her car seat, put my camera in my jean-jacket pocket, and started driving.

"Where we going, Mama?"

"Ummm...we're just going for a little drive."

"Why?" (Her favorite, two-and-a-half-year-old question.)

"Because I need to take some pictures."

"Of what?"

"Ummm...(driving, looking)...of things I like. Of things I find interesting. Of things that catch my eye. Here. Want this apple?"

In my grandmother's field recordings from the early '60s you can hear my two-year-old aunt in the background of many tracks. It's one of my favorite elements--this record of how my grandmother followed her passion and made a career happen for herself despite the fact that she was a mother of five without childcare. It also speaks to my ideals of parenting: that our children our incorporated into all aspects of our lives--not just our gardening and cooking and housecleaning but our art-making as well.

We stop at an abandoned farmhouse and snap pictures of broken windows behind which sixty-year-old curtains still hang. We drive to the lake, slip off our shoes and dip our feet into the cool water. We climb back into the car and drive past the dairy farm down the road where I try to surreptitiously snap photos of the broken machinery littering the yard without stopping long enough to let anyone catch me looking and acting like an ass. We snake through the skinny back roads of Guilford, going slow.

"What you looking for, Mama?" She asks, crunching on her apple.

"Umm...some kind of interesting house to take a picture of." The truth? A turquoise colored trailer I once saw down this way, somewhere.

"Our house would be good. How about our house?"

I laugh. There's no one like your two-year-old to call you out on your habit of aestheticizing poverty. Why not our house, or any of the well-manicured and recently-built ones we're passing?

After thirty minutes or so I think she's getting restless, that we should turn around, but soon she's joining in. "Oh Mama! I saw something!"

"What? What was it?"

"It was a really pretty tree." And so I stop the car, back it up a few yards and she points out a Maple with a towering crown. It is pretty. I climb out and snap a photo. I show her the shot. We both smile.

I heard Sally Mann speak once about how she was always throwing her kids into the back of her van and setting off through her Virginia landscape to take pictures. I'm sure there was a fair amount of eye rolling and complaining from her young cohorts, but this trip with A has me thinking. About how, through this enforced road trip, I'm giving her a window into my creative life, something that, with writing anyway, usually happens behind closed doors. How I'm teaching her the art of looking. How I'm modeling how to be both artist and mother and revealing the expression on my face when I'm passionately and creatively engaged.

And best of all? We're having fun. We're listening to music we both love, and feeling the warm breeze on our faces, and talking. On the way home she drifts into sleep and I drive the skinny back roads home, my eyes still scanning the front windows for that evasive turquoise trailer, but glancing into the rear view mirror a whole lot as well. To watch: my daughter's apple-and-dirt-stained sleeping face. And think: what a friend I have, and how she and I might just have to start doing this kind of photo-essay-road-tripping, by car or by foot, more often.

Hunger Mountain


A heartfelt thanks to the winsome literary journal Hunger Mountain for inviting me to be May's Guest Blogger. You can read a few of my current thoughts about writing and the writing life here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Today's Menu

Today's Menu: Ecotone, The Sex & Death Issue

Drinking: Red

Thinking: How spectacular to find a literary journal one loves so. Read: Thomas Kennedy's essay "Gas-Pump Girl, 1966." You can find a tease here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Porous (Or, Why my Tiny, Not-finished House is Just Fine)

I’ve been re-reading Gary Snyder’s collection of essays, A Place in Space, of late. It’s a book I bought at nineteen while living in my grandparents’ carport in the heart of Tucson. The floor of that carport was dirt and the walls made of ocotillo fence through which I could see, on one side, an alley lined with crumbling adobes and on the other, my grandparents’ scrub yard. I set up a tent, a rug, and a Coleman stove and woke at dawn each morning to the sound of the neighborhood dogs barking and mourning doves singing and the smell of the Chinese food wafting in from the house next door. I would step out of my tent, make a cup of black coffee, and climb up onto my grandparents’ roof to watch the sun blaze pink across the Santa Catalina Mountains north of town.

I had left my Ivy League college that spring, without plans of returning. My dorm there didn’t suit me: a square room with navy carpet and a couple of bunk beds on the second story of a large concrete building with blasting radiators and stiff windows. I wanted, desperately, to know where my heat came from and where the shit I flushed down the toilet escaped to and I wanted a landscape I could make contact with, intimately. Neither did the classes suit me; they were intently focused on what I considered to be arcane and inconsequential knowledge: narrow visioned close readings, intertextual referencing, historical name tagging. I can see the benefit (joy, meaning, significance) in all of that now, but at nineteen I was after a bigger question: How does one live a good life? And so I left Brown for a carport in a city in the desert.

And found: Gary Snyder. In his essay, “The Porous World” Snyder writes: “One can choose to live in a place as a sort of visitor, or try to become an inhabitant.” I spent that spring working for a potter in the mornings and, in the afternoons, driving my grandmother’s 1978 Toyota Corolla (a car I will perennially love) to the foothills, taking off my shoes, and walking barefoot up into the mountains. I never brought much with me: a water bottle and, if I remembered, sunscreen. One day I took a long hike: six hours or so, with just a few scraps of food, climbing up out of the desert (saguaros, ocotillos, and palo verdes) into the higher manzanita plateaus, then circling east until I found another trail leading back down again.

Snyder goes on to say that he and his family set out to live a “porous and permeable” life amidst the hills, without screens or fences or dogs to keep out deer, mosquitoes, wasps, bees, mud-daubers or mice, and that by doing so they found an intimate knowledge of place and self that took on both ecological and spiritual dimensions. My bare feet were an attempt, similarly, to perforate the boundaries between the landscape and myself, to become an inhabitant of a place, to build a true relationship with the non-human world around me. I thought often of scorpions and rattlesnakes and the mountain lions that populate those mountains and how, if I came across one, it would be a lesson in many things. Humility, for one. The need to learn a new language of forgiveness and reckoning, for another.

At the end of that spring I moved home, and that next fall went back to college, where I decided to study religion, the only place where that perennial question—how does one live a good life—seemed to come into play. I studied Buddhism, and Christian mysticism, and moved off campus into an apartment in a Portuguese neighborhood where the smell of the downstairs neighbors’ cooking chicken wafted through the cracks in the floor and the windows were drafty and pigeons cooed on the rooftops.

I stopped, at some point after that, reading Gary Snyder, and after college, stopped even thinking much about Buddhism or the mysticism I’d studied. But returning to his essays at thirty-three is like returning to a home I didn’t remember leaving. I haven’t stopped thinking about the subject matter, or asking the questions, I’d merely forgotten the language. The porous and permeable is something I think about obsessively regarding the literature that moves me, the music I aspire to make, and yes, the spaces I inhabit. It’s why I don’t particularly like screened porches or raised decks or garages; it is why I’ve needed a fire-escape in every city apartment I’ve lived in; it is why I love French doors and open-air patios and houses built close to the ground; it is why I like minimal square-footage (forcing you to make the yard an extension of your living room), and trailers, and RV parks and tents.

As Snyder writes, porousness is a reflection of the Buddhist philosophy of interconnection, which is the one thing I walked away from college believing in: that happiness comes from dissolving the boundaries between the self and the world outside the self. The Buddhists aren’t the only ones: Willa Cather wrote, “That is happiness, to dissolved into something complete and great.” Leonard Cohen sang, “The cracks are where the light gets in.” And the mystics of pretty much any world tradition would agree. How does one live a good life? There are a million answers, but living a porous, permeable lifestyle is a decent start. Open doors, bare feet, open minds, open windows, untrustworthy cars (that could deposit you, empty handed, in any given place), forgiveness, small houses. You and it and that are me and I am you. This reengagement with the language of inhabitance makes me proud of that circuitous, confused route I took in college—that need to answer some vague and un-discussed question—and makes me see how that young quest led me here: to this small, earth-nestled, French-door infested drafty house in the woods, a place where my aesthetics, politics, ethics and spirituality are so wholly (yet full of holes) fused.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: A Place in Space; Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds by Gary Snyder

Drinking: Tea

Thinking: What a treat it is to return to these books of my desert-dwelling post-adolescence. The political and spiritual implications of ecology...New Nature Poetics...tawny grammar...the permeable, porous life...reinhabitation...the "art of the wild"; I am delighted.

Friday, May 6, 2011

No place is a place until things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monuments. Fictions serve as well as facts.”

Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs

Spring Beauties

Thursday, May 5, 2011

[Avifaunae]

[Avifaunae:The birds present in a region, an area, an environment, or a period of time]

My grandfather asks Avah and I, from his hospital bed, if the wildflowers are in bloom. My answer? I don’t know. And so that afternoon we set off into the woods. And find: spring beauties, trout lilies, red trillium about to open, and colts foot littering the side of the road. Yes, we tell him later that afternoon, and name our finds.

My grandfather knows the name and song of every New England bird. Even with his hearing aid he hears them singing long before I do, his mind forever tuned for those other, quieter voices. His eyes will drift towards the woods, glance upward. Song sparrow? He’ll ask, hoping my young ears will help his old ones. It’s a source of continual shame that I’ve never been able to help him in that quest for recognition. Gary Snyder said that to be a poet you must learn the names of things. I read that when I was twenty, living in the desert, learning the names of desert plants, which at this point, I’ve mostly forgotten. I didn’t quite believe Snyder then, but I do now. Learning the names of one’s flora and fauna and birds teaches one the language of place, teaches one to look closely and listen carefully, teaches one to step outside of the self on a regular basis.

My grandfather’s side of the family were intellectual naturalists—friends with Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, emotionally reserved and naturally attuned. I was always drawn towards my grandmother’s side of the family: desert-dwelling redneck artists, lives rife with tragedy and hot with emotion. We made my grandparents a bumper-sticker a few years back: Warning, Combustible Material: Musician and Physicist on Board. And me? I spent my youth learning country songs, not bird.

On our way back from our wildflower walkabout we hear the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker and Avah, (whose name comes from avis, latin for bird, sign, omen, and portent) looks up into the trees. “Sapsucker,” she says, and I smile. A few weeks ago a sapsucker hit my grandfather’s glass windows and she and my dad went out into the grass and held its stunned body in their hands, then watched if fly away. Sapsucker: medium sized woodpecker with a red forehead and yellow breast.

We walk home through the swamp behind my parents’ house, a jungle of moss-covered fallen trees, sponging water under foot, and upturned roots that still smell like bear. In my grandfather’s sickness the birds have been his greatest comfort, and we have kept his two birdfeeders well stocked. A constant flutter of cardinals, juncos, finches, chickadees, and sparrows have kept him company. There’s a bear coming around on a regular basis, too. One night my grandfather woke to the sound of it knocking his feeder off the window. He got up and opened the window and he and the bear stood staring at one another, both upright on unstable legs. “Shoo!” My grandfather called out into the dark, and the bear fled.

In the evening, on our way home from the hospital, we stop our car by the beaver pond and watch two beavers nibbling sticks. We breathe quietly. Hold hands. Avah asks why Grandpa is sleeping at the hospital when she is sleeping at home. I tell her that he doesn’t have a mother to take care of him when he is sick, like she does. She nods. We are grazing the surface of truth. I don’t yet know what I’ll tell her if he dies. She knows about death from watching the seedlings we started a month ago: the ones we left out in the cold died; the ones we overwatered died. I can tell by the concern on her face and the joy she brings to that hospital room that she understands much more than she has the words to convey. But I’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now we just watch the beavers doing their work: hauling their sticks, piercing the slick surface of the water with their spiky heads, changing this habitat just as my grandfather and his offspring have done for the last sixty-five years. We hear the familiar honk-honk of geese flying overhead and look up to see a pair flying north. “Our friends the geese!” Avah cries out, pointing up towards where they disappear behind the crowns of birch, hemlock, maple and pine. In the morning we'll go back to the hospital and tell my grandfather about this: about the creatures we saw and their industrious labors, about how we sat so still and listened, about how we are learning, one at a time, and together, the names of things.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Birds

My grandfather, a life-long lover of birds, is in the hospital. This article, "A Disturbance of Birds," by Terry Tempest Williams, brings me much joy.

The art of living as we are dying is a terrifying beauty. --T.T. Williams

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

This Life is In Your Hands

Thirty-three years ago today I was born in the southeast corner of my parents’ half-finished house. That year my mother was pregnant my parents cleared (with chainsaws and an ax) a driveway and an acre of forest, dug a foundation, turned trees into logs (by hand with an adze), milled their pine into boards, laid a field-stone foundation, collected old many-paned windows, and built themselves a house. A few weeks before my birth my parents and three-year-old brother moved up the hill from the cabin they’d built ten years earlier to the “new house.” There’s an amazing slide somewhere of my mother, nine-months pregnant at the top of a ten-foot-tall ladder, nailing clapboards.

I’ve been thinking about all of this since reading Melissa Coleman’s memoir This Life is In Your Hands. The daughter of homesteaders and organic farming pioneers Eliot and Sue Coleman, the book is a heart-breaking testament to the brutal challenges of truly attempting to live the Nearings' “simple life.” As Ms. Coleman puts it: “It was by the force of (my father’s) will alone that we had lasted as long as we did. His was the strength the pioneers had possessed, but the world had become an easier place since then, and people didn’t need to work so hard to survive, so they didn’t. It was insanity to do so.”

I started out with many criticisms of the book, primarily the overly florid and precious writing style, but I ended it feeling extreme gratefulness for Melissa's brave decision (there was a devastating tragedy in the family) to write the story she did. Woven into the narrative is an illuminating and thorough history of the homesteading movement and the origins of our modern-day and now ubiquitous organic farming culture. And the book is an amazingly honest rendering of the psychological taxation, particularly for women, of the homesteading lifestyle: relentless work, long winters without electricity (or B Vitamin supplements to counteract the depression), isolation, and as Melissa notes, pioneer lifestyle without the religious faith those pioneers depended on for consolation.

My parents’ life was similar to the Coleman’s in some ways, and dissimilar in others. They tried to grow as much of their food as possible, did everything with their own hands (except hiring someone to bull-doze stumps out of their newly cleared field), lived without electricity, were continually broke, drove ancient, completely undependable cars. But my parents did not abide by the Nearings’ sanctimonious and zealous creed. They had a telephone, a rototiller and eventually, a tractor. They liked to party and drink beer and take road trips. Maybe most importantly, they lived near extended family and were actively involved in their community. They were living “the good life” but only because it brought them pleasure, not because they thought it was necessarily a better way to live.

I saw Melissa Coleman read a few days ago, and afterwards someone asked her about her life now: how was she choosing to raise her own daughters, having been raised the way she was? Melissa said that there’s a balance: her girls don’t watch TV, she has a vegetable garden, and cooks as much of her own food as possible. But other than that, her life is pretty modern. As is mine, on my thirty-third birthday. In a time when the wings of enthusiasm for homesteading have, yet again, taken off (just about everyone I know here in Vermont is growing a vegetable garden, raising chickens, talking about getting goats, learning to can and spending hours looking at ‘mama blogs’ where women make adorable home-made smocks and wool sweaters for their children), I find there’s a lot I don’t say. Of course those are all healthy things for the world. But I’m not partaking. I’ve lived the “simple life” enough to know that it’s exhausting and leaves little room for much of anything else. I want fresh vegetables, but I don’t want to break my back all summer growing them. I want to bake bread sometimes. I used to knit. I don’t particularly like canning.

The first thing my grandmother did when their farmhouse got running water was buy herself a dishwasher, and she was, for as long as she lived, continually trying to buy her homesteading daughter-in-laws dishwashers of their own. “Freedom!” She’d cry out. “Get yourself away from that sink!” My grandmother’s dishwasher, it could be said, enabled her to pursue a musical career. She didn’t want to be just one thing, or abide by anyone else’s code for living, or be homebound. Like my grandmother, I’m aiming for my own definition of “the good life.” My husband and I built our own house in the woods, we have a vegetable garden, my daughter and I help my mother with her berry farm and sugaring operation and chickens. But that's about the extent of it. Like most things, it comes down to knowing who you are, and finding balance between the things you love. Like Melissa, I’ll take Scott Nearing’s line “This Life is In Your Hands” my own way: I will embrace technology for the ways in which it will set me free, buy most of my vegetables from my mother’s stand, buy my daughter’s clothes at the thrift store, and then, in the time that's left, plant, water and tend, with all the enthusiasm and devotion of those beautiful idealists of forty years ago, the seeds of my choosing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: This Life is in Your Hands, a memoir by Melissa Coleman, the daughter of famous homesteaders and organic gardeners Sue and Eliot Coleman.

Drinking: Typhoo (what else?)

Thinking: A lot of things: About the clumsy, stretched-out nature of so many memoirs; about my parents', grandparents', and great-grandparents' back-to-the-land idealism; and about how to write good, not-self-indulgent, not-sentimental non-fiction about family. I'd love some good recommendations if you have any. And for now, I'll read on...More soon.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Your Name In Secret I Would Write

I wish my breast was made of glass and in it you might behold
your name in secret I would write in letters of bright gold
in letters of bright gold, true love
pray believe me what I say--
you are the one that I love best until the dying day.


--My Dearest Dear (Traditional)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: Maile Meloy's "Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It"

Drinking: Tea

Thinking: Such clean, precise stories. Do I love that in a story? Not yet sure. Thinking maybe I prefer the ragged heart.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Wings

Today is the last day of sugaring for the season. My parents will fill the back pan with water, draw off the last of the syrup, pour the half-syrup into buckets for a neighbor to boil down on his kitchen stove. My daughter asks, “Why it over?” and I explain about buds and leaves and why sap runs through the trees in the first place. Her eyes drift out the car window to the grey and brown and dirty-white landscape around her and I wonder if she even remembers what it looked like around here when the leaves were green.

I spend a lot of time, during spring in Vermont, wondering why we don’t live other places. I start thinking how we’ve never lived in California, and why the hell wouldn’t we? I start thinking of going back to Brooklyn or Philadelphia, to my grandparents’ empty adobe in Tucson, to my aunt’s shack at the edge of town in West Texas. Places are my porn: I travel not to see other places, but to feel the potential of my life lived there. I imagine what my body would feel like waking to those other scents, sounds, temperatures & breezes. What a consistent dose of sunlight (or streets) would do for my limbs, my aspirations, my mood, my daughter. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure game of the mind: I believe so strongly that place (architecture, landscape, climate, culture) affect who we are and how we see the world that how could I not play this game of wondering, of place fantasy, when the stakes are so very reverberant and real?

There was a time in my life when I consisted on a constant dose of travel in order to feel that lightness and possibility in my bones. Enter a new town and you know, deep down, that you can become anyone you want to become. I dreamt only of new apartments, shacks, trailers and roads where my life could be written anew.

But at a certain point I realized I wanted to write deep as well: know myself through what I chose, rather than through the windows of possibility. It was a terrifying moment and decision. It’s the same as choosing trying (at the risk of failing) over not trying at all. Yes: so much harder to say than no. At that point I got married, moved home, built a house, got pregnant, planted a peach tree, went to graduate school. Yes yes yes yes yes and yes. Rooted, in every sense of the word.

And I don’t regret it. I know myself so much the better. But there is a loophole built into the system.

I write fiction.

In fiction there is no marriage, no house, no child. No one piece of land, no mud season. No peach tree. Close my eyes and I can be anywhere I want to be, and anyone. I take it most seriously. And when I am without it—when days go by without traveling into other spaces—a desperation begins to slip in. A constriction. A fear. At which point the dishes stop getting washed. The laundry piles up. Wings sprout from my shoulders. The mother bird slips away. To the desert. To the city. To an empty house nearby. Where no one, not even the most spectacular and loving creatures she knows, can find her, or know her, or claim her as their own.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

AM Monsoon

It’s 3:30 AM and I’m in my kitchen, listening to rain falling on our tin roof of our small house. Occasionally I hear shifting bodies from upstairs: my daughter in her room directly above me, Ty in the loft above the living room. It’s a lovely watch to keep, as the singer Greg Brown said in a song he wrote years ago when his daughters were young. The windows radiate black; the clock ticks; the cat gets up off the couch and wanders into the bathroom for a sip of water.

I should go back to sleep; I know this. But instead I make myself a cup of black tea, spoon some honey into it, pour milk. Mornings to myself are what I miss most since having a child. She wakes early, most mornings too early, and this precious hazy dawning of the mind has been, for the most part, lost to me.

I lived, when I was nineteen, for a while in Tucson, Arizona. I would wake at five each morning, early enough to watch the day break, and sit in the cool yard drinking instant coffee and watching the sky flame peach and tangerine over the ocotillo fences and palo verde trees of my neighborhood, listening to dogs and birds alike waking.

They feel both secretive and capacious, these dawn hours. So sweetly my own. In the summer my mother wakes at four-thirty, drinks a cup of black coffee on the porch, and sets off down the hill to the garden. In Taos my aunt and uncle wake at four and drink coffee for two hours before starting their long days welding iron and corralling horses.

Is it genetic, this intoxication for dawn and pre-dawn? For the world before it sets itself into motion?

The rain has let up. If I turn off the kitchen light a faint glow would emanate from behind the trees east of me. I hear my daughter roll over in the bed upstairs. Before she fell asleep I told her a summertime story, as I often do: treks through woods, blueberry picking, baby birds. We are all trying to get through this early April —snow, rain, snow, rain. It’s suicide season around here. Every year: someone.

Snow shifts off the roof and I think of going back to bed, but pass. There is a long day in front of me: the thinning and ecstatic limbs of my daughter to follow. Later we will put on our woolen layers, our raincoats, our mud boots, and make our way out into the wet and cold: this cool monsoon. We will become fully absorbed into daylight and motion and thrumming tongues. Which is what makes this now 4AM dark so precious, and so spectacular: the moment before the show begins. The anticipatory hum as the world gathers steam. My body, alone, in the near dark, rising, at just the right pace, to the occasion.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: Music in Rural New England: Family & Community Life by Jennifer Post

Drinking: Typhoo

Thinking: So much to learn

Liner Notes

I’ve been trying, for the last week, to write the liner notes for Red Heart the Ticker’s new record. I want to say something succinct and not-too-sentimental about my grandmother and her music making and this place and why I’ve chosen to make a record of my own from the songs she collected. But the trouble is this: I keep wanting to expand each sentence beyond the appropriate confines of record liner notes. I want to write about how my grandmother came to this part of Southern Vermont at twenty, the mother of a two-year-old with another on the way (my dad), and lived, for a year, in a sugar house in the woods below her in-laws’ house before finding a place of their own. And how that place they did find—what is now a beautifully restored 1803 farmhouse on a hill with a view with running water and a furnace and dishwasher and light switches et al—at that point was a shell of a house: white paint chipping, broken windows and doors, floors eaten by porcupines, without insulation, or electricity, or running water, or telephone lines, or neighbors. Of how, too broke to hire anyone else to work on the house, my grandfather worked two jobs (teaching science at the newborn Marlboro College and, on weekends, working at the Estey Organ factory in Brattleboro), cut fifteen chords of wood each summer, and fixed the house, inch by inch, nail by nail, in his “free time.” And my grandmother? A mother of two, with yet another on the way, planted an enormous vegetable garden and started baking mountains of whole-wheat bread.

What I want to write about is how my grandmother’s relationship with these old songs I am singing is so different than my own; how she learned them and sang them as a way to fend off the deep loneliness that found her. She bore five children before the house got electricity, or telephone poles. My grandfather’s brother was doing research in Panama and my grandfather would join him there, for stretches of the winter, to help count birds and bugs and identify plant leaves, leaving my grandmother, with three, four, five babies to tend to, in a house on a nearly impassable road, without neighbors, without lights, for weeks at a time. What did she do? She sang these songs. To her children. Around the fire. They were wild children; still are. But they sat still for old ballads about murders and drownings and lost loves and Robin Hood’s merciless protection of the poor. It makes my singing seem so blithe.

But see? Here I am, meandering, taking excursions, telling too much of this human story, when all I really need to say is the name of my grandmother, and the name of the songs.

And I would want to say, too, how my grandmother used to work as an artist in the schools in Tucson, Arizona, and found that the only way to get the kids on the wrong side of the tracks to be quiet was to sing the murder ballads—the real dark and bloody ones—and how that has always seemed to me an amazing cross-cultural phenomenon.

Or of how, when my grandmother was a girl, she lived in a National Forest near Bakersfield, California and rode thirty minutes on the mail truck through the lettuce fields with a kid named Fernando to get to school, singing songs in Spanish the entire way.

See? Too much!

Too much for liner notes, too little for a book. And there’s another problem, too: I can’t help but make it sentimental. See how it leaks out, a tender juice, between the lines? I am reading Wells Tower now, a funny writer, a smart writer, a loquacious writer, who does not defer to these sentimental pinings. He writes with wit and irony and a perceptive eye, not drooping, as I do, can’t help but do, towards the purple heart.

But oh well. Tender-juiced I am. And these liner notes? What will they be? And more importantly, what will become of all that gets discarded?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Good Stuff

I am very much into the artwork of Hannah Dancing.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: The last few pages of Lorrie Moore’s “Birds of America”

Drinking: Typhoo
Thinking: I don't know why, but until last week I've stubbornly resisted reading "Birds of America." I think it has something to do with the jacket descriptions; the word “funny” has always been a turn-off for me, a sign of my morbid disposition and tenacious suspicion of superficiality. I saw that the stories in the collection had no universal theme—no place they resided from, no political or cultural persuasion or mission—and thus decided that Ms. Moore was a mere suave linguist with just the right mix of contemporary zeal and humor to please the gentile New Yorker reading set.
And so I nearly almost never read her. How foolish I nearly was. Or maybe it is that books come to us (if we’re lucky) at just the right moment in our writing and reading lives.
A year ago I wrote an essay about landscape in contemporary fiction in which I said that I found myself disconnected from much contemporary landscape-less fiction. I wrote, “This includes much of the fiction in The Best American series and in The New Yorker. I find myself asking, “So what?” (quietly, and in the confines of my own home) while reading stories about the interpersonal dynamics of people without the context of place.”
“Birds of America” is very much about the interpersonal dynamics of people, without a fixed context of place. It is very much what Annie Proulx termed “interior fiction”; fiction (influenced by Freud) that delves into personal psychology without dwarfing that personal with the larger context of time and place. And it has an even more challenging asset: the stories are about academics, artists, writers, and rich (and failing) actresses. If I had known that, I may have never picked up the book. I have a particular aversion to the literary complaints of the privileged elite. Oh you poor thing...you are not enjoying yourself at the Hyatt? Are bored by your stay in a European mansion, or on a bed-and-breakfast road trip: Oh DEAR!
And yet. And yet! I found “Birds of America” to be an astoundingly and arrestingly beautiful book of fiction. Part of it is Lorrie’s prose. My god, it’s so fresh and surprising and beautiful. The collection is speckled with radiant and arresting sentences that make you pause and smile and begin to see the world in a different way.
And part of it is her intelligence. Once I allowed myself to disengage my interior critic, I found that I empathized quite a bit with her privileged, literary characters. Questioning love, questioning our mothers, questioning our artistic and intellectual aims. If I’m honest with myself I’ll acknowledge that those are the pressing questions of my life, so why do I not deem them worthy of fiction? Does fiction always have to have a political or social mission to illuminate lives other than our own? By writing about the poor or displaced or outcast, “the others” (because let’s face it, the audiences for short stories are the New Yorker crowd, or at least we all want them to be,) we are attempting to shed light on other kinds of lives and cause buds of empathy to pop in less than down-and-out hearts. But isn’t fiction that causes self-reflection also worthy? Isn’t it one of the most glorious mystical acts of literary artifice? That we can learn not just about others, but see our own weaknesses and fears and ugliness reflected, glaringly, back at us? Isn’t it amazing to be guided by someone smart enough and lyrical enough to undress the neat clothes of our comfortable lives, and leave us standing naked amidst our own bazaar and absurd and empty and sad strangeness?
And one last thing. Lorrie Moore may not be writing about landscape, but she uses it, sparingly and beautifully, in ways that are so original and surprising and fresh it made my arm hairs stand on end. Her snapshots of the natural world do something essential for her work (as do the “birds” that litter her pages); they exist as contrast to the un-groundedness of her characters' lives. They manage to do what Annie Proulx’s extensive landscapes do, in very few words: portray the smallness of our human lives, not in contrast to a sublime landscape, but to a natural landscape that is, in many ways, just as small, and bazaar, and sad as the human lives she depicts. It’s a new way of using landscape, with new language to describe those landscapes. It’s lovely. And perfect. And an inspiration.
I will never be a Lorrie Moore. I do not have the same eye for absurdity she does, or the bazaar, or her air-borne twisted tongue. But I think it is a blessed gift when we encounter art that challenges our notions of our own taste and style; when we read a book that makes us want to throw out everything we’ve ever written. Not because we should try to become that other writer, or really throw out our doted-on manuscripts, but because that art leaves us standing naked amidst our own fictional dressings, able to see clearly and with new eyes what, up to this point, we have made. Able to see (at last!) our crusty habits and predictable tropes. And because in that seeing lies the ability to see (at last!) a new vision for what our words might, someday, have the fresh-sprung capacity to become.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Connectivity


A few nights ago we had an old friend from high school, Emily Sweeney, and her husband Bilwa for dinner. Emily is a talented dancer and choreographer who has lived and worked, since we graduated in 1997, in many places other than Southern Vermont, most recently Philadelphia, Vienna, and Berlin. But this past summer Emily and Bilwa moved back here for a teaching job, and so we found ourselves sitting around the fire drinking wine and talking about what Ty and I always talk about with old friends who grew up here with us; the push and pull towards and against this place we still, at some level, all consider home.

I have stopped questioning whether or not this is the place I should be. I’m planning on sticking around, at least for a while. But Emily isn’t. She talked about how the place has changed for her since coming back, how the hazy romanticism of memory has fallen away, and what she’s found here isn’t, in fact, a place she feels at home or wants to be for long. I asked her what she thought it would be like before she came, and she said she thought it would be like it was in high school: “Train bridges and fields and bonfires.” She smiled. “Like it is in Red Heart the Ticker songs.”

She asked what it’s like for me, and I said that we wrote most of the previous songs on our first two RHTT albums while living other places: Philadelphia and New York. I talked about how our yearning for this place created those songs (as yearning informs, in my book, all art). And I talked about how different it is to write about this place from within its landscape, as opposed to from away, and how I keep writing in order to keep that vision of this place alive.

Bilwa is an electronic musician who grew up in North Philly and has, like Emily, lived all over the world living amidst circuits of avant-garde artists and musicians. He doesn’t pussyfoot around the fact that as much as he likes to visit Brattleboro, he doesn’t ever want to live here again. He wants to live places where there is motion, movement, dialogue, and constant opportunities for connectivity. Berlin is his favorite place in the whole world. He wants to be able to see shows any night of the week, meet people to collaborate with every day, and have more streets to walk down.

We poured more glasses of wine and talked about the various archetypes of the artist. I said I have always imagined being the loner in the cabin in the woods, the Emily Dickenson type, who finds a place so quiet and still she hear her own original and authentic and true voice. But now that I’m here, I’m discovering that’s not all I want. I want dialogue and communication and collaboration, too. Emily said it’s the same for her. Vermont and Berlin. Isolation and connectivity. She talked about this landscape and how it shapes our community and the art we make; how the rolling hills make for pockets of thought and creativity rather than flee-flowing lines. She talked about how green things will grow up between any two spaces if you let them, immediately thwarting direct and open dialogue.

It got late, the wine got drunk, and Emily and Bilwa said goodbye and stumbled down our ice-covered path towards their car. After turning off the lights I lay in bed feeling inspired by the conversation, thrilled to have had it, but wistful, too. Emily and Bilwa will move back to Berlin, or somewhere else, at the end of 2011. We will be staying here in our cabin in the woods amidst small rolling hills, extended family and close-knit trees. It’s hard on us when people like this move away.

But my insomniac wistfulness led me to think about different planes of connectivity, too. Of how we live here in a house we built ourselves made out of trees cleared from this land. About the fact that my daughter is growing up on the same land that I grew up on, which is the same land my dad grew up on, and how she will learn to see landscape as interwoven with story and history and artifact, just like I did. (This is the place the barn burned; this is the section of creek your great-uncle named “Towering Beauty Falls;” this is where the pot plants grew.) Of how well my daughter knows her grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, great-aunts, and the roads that lead between them. Of how she knows, intimately, where her food comes from and how the milk we drink comes from the teats of the cows down the road. It reminded me how shocked I was at eighteen to find myself living in a dorm in a city where no one knew where their electricity or heat or water came from, or where their shit went, or cared, and how that made me feel physically strange and sad and alone. It made me think of these trees outside my windows, and how much peace they bring me, and how there are sometimes birds in them, and how I am learning to identify the songs those birds sing. It’s not the intellectual or artistic kind of connectivity we have chosen for ourselves here, but the natural and familial.

If I have to choose (and I think, to some extent, I do,) I’ll choose this one, for now, because it’s the kind of connectivity I want my daughter to know in her bones. She can go looking for all sorts of other kinds later, but this is the kind I want her to know beyond the terrain of doubt. Because I believe (hope) it will teach her about humility, and responsibility, and belonging, and the expansive world beyond the human.
Emily said, in a later conversation, “I am still grateful to the landscape here for giving me clear eyes and wakeful skin.” I hope it will give my daughter such clear eyes and wakeful skin, teach her about quiet and sublimity and the true song of herself. And then she can go out into the world, and do what she will, and feel the electricity, and hear the noise. But still have this place, and this kind of knowing, like all my old high school friends, whether in body or in mind, for short periods or long, to return to.