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


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.