Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Today's Menu

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Drinking: Typhoo

Thinking: Hallelujah, I love this book! I grew up with a homesteading, folk-singing grandmother who traveled around in a VW van and a homesteading, bus-driving mother who once shot a weasel (trying to slink its way into her chicken-coop) with a shotgun from twenty feet away. I have thus always found the majority of women in fiction tepid and passive and mild for my liking. On the flip side, I have found Annie Proulx’s female protagonists (when she occasionally writes them) overly tough-chickened and lacking the heart and tenderness and capacity to question that the women I know all have. So I have been floored and elated and utterly smitten by Megan Mayhew Bergman’s female protagonists in this collection of short stories.
The first lines of the first story (“Housewifely Arts”) gives you a taste:

I am my own housewife, my own breadwinner. I make lunches and change lightbulbs. I kiss bruises and kill copperheads from the backyard creek with a steel hoe. I change sheets and the oil in my car. I can make piecrusts and exterminate humpback crickets in the crawlspace with a homemade glue board, though not at the same time. I like to compliment myself on these things, because there’s no one else around to do it.

In other stories Bergman’s protagonists are veterinarians, urban organic gardeners providing food for the homeless, animal shelter directors, conservation biologists. They all have intimate relationships with the natural world and its creatures (birds, raccoons, dogs, lemurs…). They all have fiercely independent natures. But they are no two-dimensional environmental or women’s lib stand-ins. These women are all also battling very real matters of the heart: watching their parents die, wanting children, not wanting children, wanting to be good mothers, wanting love, wanting to be loved. All without an ounce of sentimentality. All rendered with stunning sentences, like the ones in this last paragraph of “The Urban Coop:”

Ice on the boat was made of frozen seawater. To me, it filled bourbon with the taste of crustaceans, shells, salt, soft-bodied mollusks—the building blocks of living things.
Raise your hips, I’d read, let gravity help the sperm make its way to your legs. I gripped my hip bones and thrust my pelvis into the air.
Just days before, Tiny had lifted up her shirt and showed me her sagging breasts, the jagged white stretch marks surrounding her areolas.
My babies done sucked me dry and moved on, she’d said.
The boat rocked with Mac’s shifting weight. Zydo paced the hallway, keeping one eye on me and one eye on Mac. Though my chances were ugly and greatly diminished, I put my legs up on the wall to hold them all inside.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


I started out in the Virginia mountains
with my grandma’s pansy bed
and my Aunt Maud’s dandelion wine.
We lived on greens and back-fat and biscuits.
My Aunt Maud scrubbed right through the linoleum.
My daddy was a northerner who played drums
and chewed tobacco and gambled.
He married my mama on the rebound.
Who would want an ignorant hill girl with red hair?
They took a Pullman to Indianapolis
and someone stole my daddy’s wallet.
My whole life has been stained with pokeberries.
No man seemed right for me. I was awkward
until I found a good wood-burning stove.
There is no use asking what it means.
With my first piece of ready cash I bought my own
place in Vermont; kerosene lamps, dirt road.
I’m sticking here like a porcupine up a tree.
Like the one the neighbor shot. Its bones and skin
hung there for three years in the orchard.
No amount of knowledge can shake my grandma out of me;
or my Aunt Maud; or my mama, who didn’t just bite an apple
with her big white teeth. She split it in two.

by Ruth Stone, from Second-Hand Coat: Poems New and Selected, Yellow Moon Press, 1991

my parents' purple '49 dodge

Monday, April 16, 2012

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Today's Menu

Reading: Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder

Drinking: Tea

Thinking: Two nights ago I spontaneously hitched a ride to Cambridge with some friends to watch Gary Snyder receive the PEN/New England Thoreau Prize for excellence in environmental writing at MIT. I found Snyder (or his work found me) at an important time in my life (more about that here), and hearing him speak and read was like being doused with of all my eighteen-year-old dreams: live simply, cultivate a clear and attentive mind, spend as much time as possible out of doors, let poetry be a temple of words.

At some point during college I became disillusioned with poetry--the self-indulgence of the "I", the artificiality of broken lines, the pretentious absurdity of calling oneself a poet at the end of the 2oth century when only a small elite reads the stuff and it has (thus) little chance of saving the world or even bringing consolation to a broken heart in need--and so stopped feigning to write it.

But hearing Snyder reminded me how unpretentious broken lines of words on a page can be. Snyder was humble, funny, graceful. He read old poems and not-yet-finished poems. Some of them felt complete to me, some of them did not. Did I care?

Not really. What resonated from his humble demeanor and squinting eyes and carefully chosen words was a deep reverence for the natural world and the written word; a deep sense of responsibility for the life we live and the world around us; a clear reflection of a life spent paying attention and trying to render that deep attention onto the page; and an astounding ability to not his life or his work too seriously. About Thoreau he said that he has had a long and complicated relationship with him: both admiring him deeply and wondering why he didn't just go out and get himself a girlfriend. The crowd erupted in laughter. I thought: I truly like this man.

At the end of the evening I broke my "buy-no-new" pact (again) to buy the 50th Anniversary Edition of Snyder's first collection, Riprap, which has now been combined with his translation of the poems of T'ang Dynasty poet Han-shan.

There are some wonderful poems like this one, by Snyder:

Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days of heat, after five days of rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

And this one, by Han-shan, (a hermit poet who named himself after the place where he lived-- Cold Mountain):

In my first thirty years of life
I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.
Walked rivers through deep green grass
Entered cities of boiling red dust.
Tried drugs, but couldn't make Immortal;
Read books and wrote poems on history.
Today I'm back at Cold Mountain:
I'll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.

There are others that seem unfinished, or not quite right to me. But the overall experience of reading the collection leaves me altered; I walk away from the page feeling more attentive and more reverent and more porous. Snyder writes in his afterword:

I grew up with the poetry of twentieth-century coolness, its hard edges and resilient elitism. Ezra Pound introduced me to Chinese poetry...The idea of a poetry of minimal surface texture, with its complexities hidden at the bottom of the pool, under the bank, a dark and old lurking, no fancy flavor, is ancient. It is what is "haunting" in the best of Scottish and English ballads and is at the heart of the Chinese shi (lyric) aesthetic...

Yes. All of which reminded me of this: that in poetry, it's as much the life, or soul, of the poet I'm after as the words on the page. I want to be taught how to live a good life. Reminded to be reverent. Reminded to live a life aimed towards true. That tin cup of snow-cold water brings me back into the moment in an astounding way. I feel it go down my spine and settle in the soles of my shoes. I feel it purify my ears.

And so I look forward to reading much more poetry. After all, I've got an unborn child inside me who I want, more than anything, to aim towards true and seek out the timeless "complexities hidden at the bottom of the pool...dark and old and lurking."

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Year of Buying (Almost Nothing) New

On July 1st, 2011 my husband and I decided to commit to a year of buying nothing new other than food and health and safety related necessities. The piece I wrote at the start of that venture has recently been republished on the environmental blog Next Starfish, and so I’ve decided it’s time for a little follow-up. How has it gone, these past nine-and-a-half months? Have we been able to pull it off? What have we learned about our lives and about ourselves?
First, I want to offer you the confessions. Yes, I have broken the Compact. I’ve cheated! Or, as No Impact Man’s wife (repeatedly) said, “I had a slip.” Mine started innocently enough. Since our Christmas gifts consisted of hand-made items and home-made preserves, I splurged on new canning jar tops, so my loved ones wouldn’t die of botulism. I also, at Christmas, bought both my daughter and myself two pairs of new wool socks. We live in Vermont, and I consider wool socks (without holes in them) a necessity. Both easily justifiable in the “health and safety” category, right?
But as the winter months have passed, things have begun to get iffier. A few weeks ago my family made a quick jaunt to Florida where my elderly great-aunt lives, and, um, I made a few purchases. First, a bathing suit that my seven-months-pregnant body would fit into. When we entered this pact in July, I had no inkling that I’d find myself pregnant two months later. Really: no inkling. And though I could have worn a large t-shirt on the beach, or a bikini that no longer fit where one would like a bathing suit to fit, I decided that flaunting a large, Vermont-pale belly was enough self-consciousness for me and that I’d just damn like a bathing suit that covered what I needed it to cover. And then, while I was at it, I bought a sun hat. In our last minute packing I couldn’t find one that could be stuffed in a bag, and I’m as fair skinned as milk, so: new hat. But don’t those things kind of fit into the underwear and health categories? Kind of?
The only problem being that those purchases helped spawn yesterday’s all-out blunder. It was springtime and seventy degrees and my daughter were in town for the first time in a week. We got ourselves some baked goods and hot beverages and, while we were waiting for the library to open, stepped into my favorite, locally owned bookstore.
I love books. Being unable to purchase new books has been, by far, the hardest part of the Compact for me. I’ve been able to find many amazing books second hand, but I have missed, dearly, the delicious sensation of browsing in a bookstore you love and catching sight of a book and hearing that book literally sing to you from a shelf and so buying that book, compulsively. It’s such a lucky thing when the right book comes to us at the right moment—such magical confluence—a confluence I’ve dearly missed. I’ve also dearly missed supporting my local, independently owned, politically radical bookstore. I believe in books. I believe in supporting living authors. I believe in (yes!) buying new books. And so…yesterday, in that seventy-degree, slightly caffeinated buzz, I bought some. Yes, some. But here is the caveat (since I now always have one close at hand): they were in the bargain section, marked down to heartbreakingly low prices, and they were books I have long wanted to read. Plus, they sang to me. They were singing to me and it was springtime and seventy degrees and I hadn’t bought a book like this in eight months and I was seven months pregnant and my baby would come before the year of buying nothing new was over and when, oh when, would I ever have another chance to browse in bookstores and buy the books that sang to me if not now? So I bought them (two of them), and then my daughter and I went to the library, and checked out more books, and then to the playground, where she climbed and swung and slid while I sat in the sun with my new books and read the poetry of Galway Kinnell, which had been singing to me from there on the bargain shelf, which made me cry with its heartfelt beauty.
So there you have it. I broke the Compact and bought some flagrantly not-within-the-rules things and one of those things, at least, brought me deep, deep joy.
Those are the confessions. And now, what have we learned about ourselves? Last July I wrote, “I want to learn how to accurately differentiate between wanting and needing…to discover how the pact will (or will not) affect our family’s holidays, finances, time, productivity, levels of satisfaction, relationships and happiness.”
Simplification is an utterly magical act. This past year I threw out every catalog that came our way without glancing between its pages. I made no shopping trips to malls or clothing stores. I spent no time on the Internet looking at things I covet but can’t afford. Instead I fixed a pair of clogs I’d been meaning to fix for several years and cut the legs off a pair of pants when I wanted new shorts. I made Christmas presents with my daughter and frequented used bookstores and the library and occasionally went to thrift stores. Basically, I discovered there is very little we actually need, and even less that we can’t find in good shape second hand. From our (very small) town’s free-cycle site we acquired a filing cabinet, a winter sled, a teakettle and a 15x20’ Persian rug. From Craigslist we bought a second-hand queen-sized mattress. From e-bay I acquired a good pair of walking shoes, several pairs of yoga pants (to accommodate my burgeoning belly), and, on a materialistic bender, a beautiful pair of Frye boots for half the price they cost new. In other words, this year turned out not to be about doing without so much as learning how to find the things you want (the things you really, really want) without either supporting a corporation you don’t want to support or unnecessarily using up the world’s resources or going broke.
And when July comes? Why yes, I am most-likely going to celebrate by going out and buying myself a few things. A book or two, for sure: not from the bargain rack. Also, most likely an item of clothing from the local boutique I love so much I haven’t been able to look inside its doors for eight months straight. But I don’t imagine the shopping binge will last too long. Or that I’ll drive to the mall. Or that next year will actually look that different from this one. I’m willing to say, at the expense of sounding sentimental and romantic, that a year of buying nothing new actually has made our family happier. It has distilled and clarified who we are and who we want to be, what’s important to us, and yes, helped differentiate between want and need. And all of this—though it’s barely making a fingernail scratch of impact on the amount of waste in our overly wasteful world—has given me the finest gifts I could ask for: time and freedom. Time to do more important things. The economic freedom of doing without, or making do. And the psychological freedom of disengaging my sense of self from the act of buying or the things I can afford. And those, by my book, are more valuable and covetable than any pretty dress my hard-earned cash could buy. As John Prine and Iris Dement just happen to be singing on my radio this very moment, No we're not the jet set, we're the old Chevro-let set, but ain't we got love.


You can pretty much track the story of my life through the rooms I live in. At sixteen I built a one-room, uninsulated cabin in the woods near my parents' house. At twenty-five I committed to one love, and we added another one-room, insulated addition without running water or electricity onto the original structure where we would live intermittently between various city-dwellings. At twenty-nine, married and pregnant, we decided to stay here for good. Thus: another 14x16 bump-out, this time including previously lacking water and electricity. And now? Pregnant the second time around, we appear to be breaking soil once again. The last time, we all hope, bringing our "cabin" up to a whopping 1500 square feet. This is not an efficient way to build a house. This is not an easy way to build a house. But, oh, it makes for such interesting nooks, crannies, and corners! Such funky roof-lines. Such mismatched windows. Such a clear wood-and-window narrative of home and life for our children to one-day tell.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012