On making.

It has long seemed to me that what we need to make is a difference.  If we are making ephemeral things, I’d always thought, we aren’t really making much, or doing justice to the world, because what it needs is change, contribution, brilliance, systems, products that last, that improve our lives in concrete  ways.  Like health care reform.  Like voter registration systems.  Like healthy local food production.

And here I am, listening to my thirteen-year-old niece draw the most extraordinary sounds from her cello, basking in the resonance, this sound that wraps around me like a hug and reaches into my knees like a kiss.  This, I can tell, is sacred; this is true.  This is worth any amount of practice, money, and inconvenience.  This is important in the world.

I remember my own youthful engagement with music, which always filled me up but which was, I felt, not important enough in the world.  Which is to say: it did not stop fights or help my parents like each other.  It did not contribute to household income, at least not for a while.  But I can see, now, that it helped hold things together for me and perhaps for us…maybe even when we should have fallen apart.

I now see that that’s the point: to help us hold it together; to help us fall apart.  It’s the point of music, of painting, of poetry, of knitting and spinning and dying yarn.  It’s the point of collage, of letterpress, of papier-mâché.  It’s the point of song, of singing, of dance.  It’s the point of anything that we make ourselves, with our tiny hearts and striving souls.  It’s the point of all these many ways we hold up the specificity of our lives, ourselves, against the incoherence and fray of the universe.  Making is what we have, the action that demonstrates choice and will and art and resourcefulness.  It makes us human, of course, and no art or craft more than any other.

My niece’s playing reminds me that what is sacred is the yearning, the creativity, the hope embedded in the action.  It’s what we are.

On the generative power of dialogue. Or, learning by talking.

I’m an idea person.  I have a lot of them, and I like to talk about them.  I like other people’s ideas, too, and not much makes me happier than an exchange of ideas, especially in person.  (With good food and bev, preferably, though not necessarily.)  So when I have a big new idea, I like to talk it out.

My latest big idea is a new blog.  I’ll be announcing it here once I get it formed and fleshed enough that it’s ready for public engagement.  And in the meantime, I’m seeking out smart people to help me think about its scope and ambition.   Here’s a sampling of those conversations and what I’ve learned from them.

In a friend’s living room, with various babies crawling around, I chatted with a woman I’ve known for a long time but never really had a chance to buttonhole before.  And I’ve wanted to.  She’s an organizer who works on smart and interesting issues, always justice-oriented, always thinking about the experiences of EVERYONE, not just the mainstream folks.  She has a huge, flamboyant personality, full of hugs and squeezes and prone to sitting on the floor and touching you while she talks.  She reminds me that my own large, noisy self is usually toned down, and that sometimes I’d like it not to be.  She reminds me that it’s okay to laugh loudly and share big enthusiasms and ask hard questions.  When I mentioned my incipient blog, she said that she had one, too, and that she’d been NOT writing it for three years (hurray! I’m not the only one!) but that now she was going to begin, because you can only wait so long to achieve Full and Perfect Knowledge of your topic, and sometimes you just have to START, to get your ideas OUT there.  She cited Myles Horton, which makes me want to reread We Make the Road By Walking.  She proposed the concept paper as a way of sharing what needs to be shared, and I love it.  I love her.  I am inspired.

I talk to my program-officer husband about my project all the time, and to my amazing friend Kate who blends love and justice seamlessly in her many commitments at home, on her farm, in her paid work teaching new immigrants English, in her support of important causes.  Both of them agree that the divide between what we do at home, what our homes are LIKE, how they are run, what they contain, who they include, and what we do outside in our paid work, our board work, our volunteer work, our social commitments and attitudes…that divide is far too great and far too thoughtless.  Whether or not you work outside the home, I’ve decided, is no longer primarily a feminist question, because it’s determined by too many issues beyond our control.  But HOW we live, how we conceptualize and raise our families, those are fundamentally feminist questions, human questions, and also questions of justice across spiritual, economic, financial, social, and environmental domains.  My friend and husband help me see this.

A third (fourth?) conversation that wants to be mentioned here just happened on the phone.  My dad, who has a complicated life and who has done social and humanitarian work in a bunch of contexts and had a career with the UN, caught up with me on the phone after a bit of tag.  I caught up with him, really, as he had just finished some tractor work at his house — a totally off-grid, locally- and self-built timber-frame on nineteen acres with lots of forest, much garden, and some open field.  He sat down in the tractor bucket to talk, pleased, I think, with this rudimentary and totally available seat.  I could picture the cold wind up there chilling his phone hand; I imagine he switched hands a couple of times to warm up the other one.  We talked about jobs, and work, and writing, and my boys; we chewed on the problems of civil society and an economy that has screwed itself by overprivileging the few at the expense of the many.  He reminded me, when I mentioned my new blog and my hopes that it will serve as an idea-bank for a whole range of issues spanning love and justice, at home and in the world, that every conversation is just a conversation.  And it helps to have an introduction, and it helps to have back-up materials, but mostly it is just a conversation.  And people are kind and sometimes this conversation is their work, so get on in there.

As we hung up, he explained that he would now climb out of the tractor bucket.

Perhaps that what I’m trying to do today: have a conversation, then get out of the tractor bucket and have another.

 

On a lesson of abundance.

We went to a friend’s fifth birthday party today.  And I don’t believe I’ve ever said this about a youthful birthday party before, but I really learned a lot there.

Guests were instructed to bring no gifts.  “No gifts, please.”  Right on the invitation.  So you couldn’t really bring one without being rude.  Which is awesome clarity.

There was a vast array of homemade local food of all kinds and goodnesses, and a huge sheet cake decorated in dinosaur style from a bakery in town.  There was a volcano made entirely of icing.  That alone is a lesson worth learning, no?

There were any number of people from all sorts of walks of life, and everyone was open and friendly and interesting.  Many hands were shaken.  Many babies were nursed.  One man was barefoot the whole time.  A tractor was ridden by way too many kids, and the birthday boy’s grandfather took all the kids for a nature walk in the fields and woods.

But here’s my favorite, of all the things I learned: that they weren’t kidding when they said that coming to the party was the best gift of all.  In fact, the parents worked with their sons in advance of the party to create a list of all their best memories and associations with each of the guests, and the parents read this aloud at the party, before cake.  Which meant that every last one of us was welcomed, celebrated, honored, held up for specific contributions to their family’s life.  I’ve never even HEARD of such a generous tradition, let alone seen it in person.  These people are human-interaction GENIUSES.  I adore them.

Then, after cake was eaten and chickens were chased and trees were climbed and the sun began to set, we headed out to our cars.  The party favors were to be collected en route from a beautiful split-ash basket: baby pumpkins.

I sigh, overwhelmed with abundance.  The givingness and gifts of this world are sometimes just too much.

On agrarianism.

This is a strange little post, perhaps, because I’m describing a work in progress, but it’s so darn exciting that it feels worth sharing.

So for a few years I’ve been leading reading and discussion groups for the Maine Humanities Council through their “Let’s Talk About It” program.  This time, I’m creating a brand new series for them: “People, Purpose, Place: Agrarian Novels in the USA.”

What is agrarianism, you ask?  A range of things.  But mostly a philosophy and a practice of living on the land, asking, as Wendell  Berry has put it, “what the land requires of us.”  Berry is a key voice of contemporary or “new” agrarianism, and he’s a handy figure because he’s one of the few people writing both critical AND literary work within and about the theme.

The “new” before “agrarian” is important, some argue, because the last folks to claim that title were Twelve Southerners who in 1930 published a manifesto called “I’ll Take My Stand” which was basically a rant against industrialism and a defense of a land-based, individualist and communitarian way of life.  New agrarianism similarly argues against technology for technology’s sake and is similarly committed to exploring the real, human and environmental costs of contemporary ways of life.  New agrarianism is, however, inclined to treat both women and minorities with greater respect and perhaps to more deeply understand the world as the large, complex, and interconnected beast that it is.  The new folks are also more likely to actually BE farmers; the first crew were largely poets and writers with a commitment to the idea of farming.  (And if you want more of the theory on this, see the essay collections The Essential Agrarian ReaderThe Unsettling of America; and The New Agrarianism for more.)

If you’re yawning, bear with me.  This stuff makes for amazing novels, full of generosity and landscape and primal sex.  Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer was our first; Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth came next.  In November we read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; December will bring John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War; January Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation.  Other hot contenders have included Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and Edna Ferber’s So Big.  Even on the Berry front, it’s unclear whether Jayber Crow would be a better choice than A Place on Earth; I chose the latter because of its insistence on the slow and patient pace of agrarian life and its complex ecosystem of characters and families, engaging in their lives through and across a staggering array of forces.

Some folks have said that there’s too much sadness in these novels.  Some have said that they move to slowly.  No one, however, accuses them of idealizing life on the land, which makes for a nice change from the genre of the idyllic pastoral.  In fact, it strikes me that all of them demonstrate a commitment to a kind of clear vision, a seeing of the world as it is and as it should be, that sounds almost more Buddhist than American (if we’re willing to accept as “American” the bustle and pressure and meaninglessness of advanced capitalist life).  Across the board, these writers are asking questions about value and about survival, about community and the meaning of our work and our capacity to feed ourselves, or not.  I couldn’t believe it when Steinbeck elbowed his way into this series, but there he was…you can’t discuss agrarianism at ALL in this country without understanding that historical perspective on the engineered migration of human lives and labor based on the application of corporate profit mandates to the land itself.  Plus, the ending of that novel is the most poignant statement of human resilience and generosity EVER.  (Go back.  It’s gotten better since high school.)

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments if you want to read along with us!  As a sometime college lit teacher, nothing pleases me more than writing and talking and thinking with others about books and what they mean…so jump on in!

On recovery.

It’s been a long week for all of us, including flu shots and incipient molars as well as a host of other, more significant challenges.  Friday comes and we’re pretty much beat.  More than beat, we’re beaten down, a little, by circumstances and the persistent tiredness of not being able to see what comes next that might fix the things that need it.

So what else is there to do, really, but head out into the evening garden for potatoes?  The fingerlings have gone untouched so far, since they were planted late and we harvested the yellow potatoes earlier and are still working through them.  But I wanted fingerlings, specifically, to go with the local lamb burgers and sauteed kale I was planning, and the boys surely needed some kind of existential shift.  We all did.  So out we went, with pitchfork and hod, and I dug and sifted while the boys pulled the bright beads from the soil.  Some were serious potatoes, but most were the kind of thumb-sized beauties that gave rise to their name.  Every time one came to light, Ezra would shout with joy, and he had a hard time taking turns with his brother (assisted, no doubt, by said brother’s stubby one-year-old arms).  Two-thirds of the crop is still in the ground, since the bugs found us shortly after we hit our stride, and we had enough for dinner, anyway.

While we were out there, we brought in a massive bunch of kale, a smaller assortment of late zinnias, marigolds, and bachelor’s buttons, as well as a few carrots whose impressive tops made us pull them just out of curiosity.  (Our fridge is full of carrots already.)  And of course, the raspberries have been loving this frost-free October, putting forth nearly as much ripe fruit as they did all summer, and better.  It was an evening to remember.

Every time we bring in flowers, Ezra helps arrange them in a vase, and then he says, in a tight, excited voice: “We have to have a celebration!  To celebrate these flowers!”  And indeed we do.  Three-year-old vision is sometimes so impeccably clear.

Best of all was Ezra’s request, at dinner, that we give thanks (which we do sometimes, but not often enough).  We held hands, and I spoke my gratitude for these sweet men, for this good food and the land on which it grew.  A few bites later, Ezra wanted more: Papa gave thanks for our family, and for all the love, and for the many people who grew the food we eat.  And then, Ezra himself spoke a bit later:

“Thank you for the good Ezra-Mama-Chi day and for whole-family-day tomorrow.

Thank you for the fruit and flowers that grow all around us.

And for the vegetables that grow all around us.”

As I write, my heart spilling over, my eyes rise to the prints on my desk, gifts from my artist friend Kim Crichton: “Grow.”  “Nurture.”  “Sow.”  (You have to see the images to really get them, but when you do, you’ll see why I’m all weepy over all this together.)  From a day when it seemed like nothing could come together, I all of a sudden see that in this moment, everything has.

On the warming and strengthening properties of snuggles.

It was cold this morning as I opened Ezra’s door and peeked inside.  Just a few moments earlier, he had hollered for me in a particularly full-voiced and dramatic way, with a long tapering tail, suggesting he was wide awake.  But in the dimness, I couldn’t see him.  Turns out he had pulled his covers up over his head.  As I pile onto his bed, hugging the (to me) enormous lump of his self under the covers, he peeks out his head.

“Mama.”

“Yes,” I reply.  “Cold Mama.”

“I will warm you with my snuggles.”

“EXCELLENT.”  And he does, wrapping me up with the one arm that has fully emerged from his nest, and pressing his sweet warm cheek against me.

He says, “I have six snuggles for you.”  And he counts them.  Then…

“I have six more snuggles.  Seven, eight, nine, ten.”  We discuss subtraction and the number four and the number twelve, and he counts out my remaining measure of snuggles.

Then, curious, I ask: “How many snuggles do you have, anyway?”

“Twenty.”

Oh!  “So giving me twelve is a pretty big deal.”

“Yup.”

“But what happens when you use those up?  Do you make more?”  Yes, as it turns out.

“Where do you keep your snuggles?” I ask.

“In my ribcage.  In my ribs.”

I point out that that makes good sense, since snuggles are so strong and the ribcage does such important work protecting the heart and the lungs.  I’m sure the ribs benefit from the presence of all those snuggles.

As we head downstairs, later, he explains the whole thing to Papa, how he warmed me, and where the snuggles live, and how they are useful there.

But all this is shortly forgotten as he piles animals into an airplane and an ambulance for their trip to North Africa.  Some frogs live on planes, he points out.  Well, sure.

On being a social creature.

I’ve always been social.  Part of it is clearly personality; much of it is growing up in a context where social connections outside of the home were vital — in the original sense of not just important but necessary to life.  And social anxiety has been part of the scene all along, as well, complicating mightily the basic impulse to connect.  But here’s what I know now that I’m forty:

1. People are awesome. They are interesting and complicated and varied and often not in the ways you’d expect.  There’s always more to learn, about them and therefore about you.  And there’s always poignancy, humor, rage, disapproval, astonishment, respect, and joy in knowing others.

2. I like to have people in my life.  Not just my completely fabulous husband and sons…other people, too.  I want people who do different things, think different ways, hold different values.  And I want people who are like-minded, too, who model for me how I want to be, what I wish I had the courage or the skill to achieve.  I like the beauty of other people: their style, their generosity, their quirky natures.  They take me out of myself and remind me how much bigger and more important the world is.

3. I like my people to like my other people.  This is what we call community…well, either the liking bit or just being-together-despite-not-really-liking, but in this era of isolation, I’ll go ahead and say that community in my life is having a group of people who all like each other and choose to spend time together.  I like us to have reasons to get together at least once a month.

4. For whatever set of reasons, that’s really hard to achieve.  When I lived in Iowa, I was part of a group who all valued good food and good company and who all got a little bored (and maybe antsy?) living in such a small town.  So we started a Thursday night potluck dinner.  Location rotated; themes were often international; food and companionship were always excellent.  I’ve missed that like crazy.  I tried, when we first moved here, to arrange lots of gatherings, but I always felt that no one came, so I gave up.  I slipped into the culture of isolation that, we are told, is typical to the cold Northeast.  But I don’t like it.  So I’m not going to do it anymore.

5.  Announcing that people are awesome and that therefore they will gather with other awesome people seems like a good strategy.  I launched that recently and got some positive responses.  And yet it continues to feel strange to engineer our social lives to this extent…we persist in the illusion that community develops naturally, that we fall together with the people we like to be together with.  And maybe that’s true for those who have careers and lives they’ve managed to fill with evenly balanced activities.  For me, and for many people (especially moms) I know, it’s a much harder thing.  We need the intentionality or else we end up alone, every night, watching Netflix with a glass of wine.  (Which could be a lot worse, which is why we do it.  But you see my point here, I think.)

In a nutshell, then, my strategy is like my friend April’s.  When I saw her by surprise at one point, she held out her arms and said, “Hug me!”.  Exactly.  People rock and I adore them and they need to hang out with me more.  And hug me.  And clearly it’s up to me to tell them so.

On vision and its alternatives.

There was a heavy mist this morning, the kind that layers itself into a dense fog, wiping out the neighbors, the trees, the lane lines, everything but the headlights of approaching cars.  A morning like this takes faith: that you’ll see the sun again; that you’ll find your way; that terrifying or immovable objects won’t materialize before you.

The year I turned twenty-two, everything had changed for me.  I was in therapy; I had broken off a toxic long-term relationship; I was beginning to see with my own eyes and to understand that I had a heart.  (Note: graduate school is not always the best environment for this kind of learning, but you take what you get.)  It was wildly uncomfortable.  Feeling lost and alone and bold and exhilarated, I took off by myself over fall break, heading to the coast of Maine in my little Toyota and ultimately ending up at my dad’s little lakeside cabin in New Hampshire.  He was away, and I had the place all to myself.

The morning of my actual birthday, I awoke to a vague and even brightness: the gloaming before sunrise broadcast through a heavy fog.  It was cold enough for more layers than I had brought, and I buttoned my father’s old wool shirt over my own clothes.  After stoking up the woodstove against my return, I went out into the dew-soaked grass, along the mulch path to the canoe, overturned on its sawhorses.  I flipped it, thrilled to be handling a boat again, and lifted it by its gunwale down to the shore.  The water was one of those things you take on faith; until it holds you up, you can’t quite be sure it’s there.

I knew the shape of the lake, and the point of entry to the bog at one end.  I headed there, my j-strokes silent and sure in the stillness, my vision awake but helpless in the whiteness.  I felt the bog before I saw it, the scratching arms of swamp laurels against the canoe, the susurration of pickerelweed beneath the keel.  I spent a timeless hour in there, paddling slowly or not at all, soaking in the smells and sounds of the water and its creatures.  At last, hungry and aware that the mist was rising, I made my way back to open water, just as the sun turned yellow.  I watched the first breeze swirl the lifting fog, saw the water shift beneath it, a conversation so sure and swift I ached to belong to it.

I had no idea, you see, where I was, and no idea where I was going.  I was disembodied, alone in a craft I could both trust and handle, and entirely unclear on what was ahead.  It was when I began to see: what’s ahead is not, perhaps, what matters.

Barbara Kingsolver says, in Animal Dreams, “What keeps you going isn’t some fine destination.  It’s just the road you’re on and the fact that you know how to drive.”  I always thought the destination mattered, too, that if you didn’t have a map and a plan and ideally a pretty firm schedule, you’d never get anywhere.  And that seemed to work okay for me until, oh, thirty-five.  But then I had to learn it all over again: being here, and loving it, is how we live.

We complain about the fog because it makes it harder for us to see.  But “seeing” is perhaps the problem.

Kingsolver again, this time in Prodigal Summer, says that moths fly all crazy-like because they lack binocular vision.  We humans focus on a thing in the distance and head for it in a straight line.  This is our paradigm for progress, for productivity, even for pleasure.  We “achieve,” with all the interwoven senses of attaining and possessing and completing.  But what else do we filter out in order to make this kind of movement, this achievement, possible?  A moth moves not by vision but by olfaction, testing the air at impossibly frequent intervals for the highest concentration of the scent they desire.  They adjust their flight path accordingly, first one way, then the next.  And while they look lost, confused, even foolish to our straight-line minds, they do find what they seek.

We, on the other hand, so often find what we thought we sought.  What we did once seek.  But our desires may have changed; we may have missed important possibles; the very air in which our “goal” hangs may be toxic in ways we simply could not see.

A little less light?  A little more fog?  A quieter, more sniffing-out approach?  A spot of stillness, where we let the light shine down however it will, and welcome it?  I can’t say.  And I wouldn’t, anyway.  But I will add that as I headed down the road this morning and the wind blew orange leaves from below my wipers, I smiled into the fog before me.

On counting with children. And aging.

We’re at the breakfast table.  Ezra (3) says he has no idea how to count to twenty.  Papa says, “Of course you do!  You count to twenty all the time in your counting book!”  Ezra denies this.  He insists he has no idea.  I offer this: you count to ten and I’ll count with you up to twenty.  So we do.

At twenty, Ezra wails, “But there are lots of other numbers!”  Indeed.

So we keep counting.  At twenty-three, I realize that we’re enumerating the years of my life, and I try to recall each one.  I know I loved twenty-eight, the birthday I first held my PhD and had a job I loved and a husband and a house and two beautiful dogs and a keen sense of gratitude about all of it.  Thirty was lovely, too, building a new community of amazing friendships in a new and welcoming area.  Thirty-three and -four were stressful for a bunch of reasons; thirty-five was when I got pregnant, finally, and went through massive, life-altering and transformative changes deciding to leave my job/career.  “Thirty-six is how old I was when you were born,” I say to Ezra.  “Thirty-eight is how old I was when your brother was born.  Thirty-nine is how old I am today, and forty is how old I turn soon.”

Hurray!  Birthdays!  We love those!  A brief flurry of shouting.  And then…

“Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three…”

And I head for my computer, smiling to myself, because how can little kids offer such wisdom and perspective?  After all, that’s what this birthday thing is, right?  Another step, another day, another year, stretching out in front of us.  God willing.  I hear Ezra chanting from the kitchen: “Fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six…”

On getting off the couch (or not).

I have this strange rhythm to my life, with two days a week of daycare and all my “work” crammed into those two days.  I say this not to discount the important work of homemaking and childrearing and keeping our lives moving ahead that fill all the rest of my days; I say it because I’m guessing lots of other people struggle to differentiate between paid (or pay-able) work and the other critical unpaid occupations of our lives.

Anyway, I jam these childcare days FULL of expectations.  I schedule appointments and meetings and regular commitments; I plan major writing initiatives; I intend to do research and also tackle the big household projects I can’t take care of with kids around.  But then I end up overwhelmed.  My task management app, Any.Do, invites me DAILY to “manage my to-do’s.”  Clearly it thinks I’m overwhelmed, too.

Today, for example, I left the house shortly after 7 am to take Ezra to a specialist appointment in Portland.  An hour down, fifteen minutes with the doc, and an hour back.  I make good use of the time singing endless rounds of ABCs and “Three Little Birds” with Ezra, so that feels fulfilling, at least.  And then I go straight to the gym after dropping him at daycare.  (Let me stop right here to say that I’ve contemplated saving time by skipping the gym, but apparently I have the good fortune of a crappy back that causes pain if I skip my lifting regimen for more than three days, so I guess I’ll run with that.  But don’t mistake this exercise commitment for either Virtue or Vanity.  It’s simple self-preservation.)  Anyway, I’m home, dripping with sweat, by 10:30, and I’m so starving that I have to eat right away rather than shower.  So then I’m disgusting but dry, and I figure I’ll Get Things Done before I shower, and that lands me on the couch with the computer, and from there on out, my friends, it’s game over.  I’ve cleaned out my inbox; followed up on old business; drafted letters of recommendation for former students (in my head).  I’ve played innumerable games of Bubble as I strategize my next move, and I’ve strongly considered showering.  And napping.  And Doing things.  But to consider, alas, is not to do.  And when I get this tired, there’s a whole phenomenon of not-caring that kicks in.  I need to mobilize to CARE and then I’ll do things.  Or I can just get really hard-nosed about it all and force myself to do things, assuming the caring will follow…the arranged-marriage version of life-planning.  Huh.

And there, you see, is the rub.  It’s a considering kind of day, not a caring kind of day.  I want to loaf about.  I want to read novels and watch bad tv and sip cocoa.  Is that so wrong?  Am I allowed to just DO that?  It feels like no, not with the board meeting tonight that I need to present at, the upcoming discussion group I need to plan and write an email to, the three novels by my bedside I need to finish before I can finalize the discussion group work.  Not to mention the excellent contacts I need to get back to regarding the Possibility of Paid Work.  Sigh.  Perhaps I should organize my day into segments: gym; computer; existing work; board work; potential work; house/yard work.  Maybe that would get me off the couch.

Or not.