Friday, December 16, 2011
Thursday, December 15, 2011
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
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.
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
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
Friday, October 28, 2011
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
Friday, September 2, 2011
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.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
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
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
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
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
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 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."
"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.
Monday, May 23, 2011
Monday, May 16, 2011
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
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
Thursday, May 5, 2011
[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
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
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
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 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
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
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
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
Thinking: So much to learn
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?