Thursday, December 22, 2011

Said the night wind

Apartment and cat in Chicago (note land line and answering machine)

Back when I had a cohesive iTunes library, I loved listening to John Prine. Heck, I still love John Prine. (Go buy his album immediately.) He sings:
The man down the street, the kid on the stoop
All agreed that life stank. All the world smelled like poop.
Baby poop, that is. The worst kind.

The funniest thing about baby poop is that it's only gross to those of us who don't have kids. My sister listened to that song and said—what is he talking about? Baby poop isn't gross at all.

We shoveled four truckloads of horse manure into the garden this spring, and my parents are trying to find manure for their garden here in Chattanooga. If they were to find some, I'm sure they'd be able to grow peas and spinach year-round. Even now, in their feeble rock-hard clay, they have snap peas hovering above the ground.

I've been dreaming about heaping piles of waste in overflowing outhouses. Gross, I know. But I came together with my artist friends this last weekend, and we discussed the metaphors of dreams, specifically how images like that speak to us about fertility—the fecundity of the subconscious mind. And now I'm going through all of this shit from my past (I can use no better word)--heaps and heaps of files and photographs and ripped, moldy, stained clothes—and I can't part with them. But from all of that waste, the detritus from my past—comes the most potent fertilizer for my present.

What I have realized about the past is the truth, and the truth is how much I've grown. I am no longer the person I was. I realize how much I've grown. How, like Jesus in his missing years, I can walk away from the poop with only what I need.

I've filled up the trunk of a Camry with the manure I need for another year. Tomorrow I head back north, to the land of ice and snow. I leave behind my past, one more time. I carry only what I need, only what will help me to grow.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Stainless styled

I'm heading out the door to a cabin in Alabama to spend the weekend with some artist friends. We're going to celebrate Christmas/solstice, dance around a bonfire, do dream work. Or that's my plan, and in getting ready, I dug into a box I had taped up since 2004, since before I began hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Opening it up was like finding a time machine, instantaneous transportation into my past. I found photo albums from France, from the epic trip my sister and I took around Central America, from our bicycle trips up the east coast. I found clothes I didn't even remember I had, things that are so ratty and old I can't believe I packed them away. I found books I thought I had lost.

Most amazing, I found journal after journal, the record of my life in Chicago, the record of a girl I thought was gone forever. I can't wait to dig into them, and yet a part of me wants to savor every minute of rediscovering my past. These are things things I thought were gone forever. It's a good reminder to me to let go of things, and then when they're given back to accept them as a gift.

Now I'm going to go dive into my dreams. Into my subconscious. Mine what I can from that lode. More than anything, it's a reminder to me that I'm never sorry that I've written things down. Ever. Even if they're destroyed. It's my futile fight against entropy, against perpetual time that wears down all things. But some feeble scraps make it through. These words, for instance. They may be lost, they may survive. But with each word I make my stand against time.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Chattanooga, Tennessee

When I was a little girl, just learning to read, I knew immediately I'd found my calling. After I read my first book. I learned to read at three, and in my faulty memory, that's when I knew I wanted to write books. Knew it with a vast, unshakeable certainty, the way I knew that Jesus loved me. Or that the sun was warm.

Not just any books, either. I wanted to tell stories. Whoever it was who created these amazing things, stories (in my memory they are an old-school Cinderella who spent three nights at the ball, the Giant Turnip [which I grew in my garden this year], and Stone Soup)--I wanted to be one of them. Annie Dillard says “books swept me away by their lights, because I believed them.” I believed them. It was that simple. I was only really alive when I was inside of a book.

So, in my unreliable and faulty memory, I say, to my mom, looking up from a Ladybird Early Reader: “I want to be a writer when I grow up.” In my memory, she says, without missing a beat: “You can be a writer if you want, but you'll have to find another way to make a living.” What went off inside of me was less of a death knell and more of a silent huh. So that's how it is.

And I've spent the last thirty years figuring out what side profession will give me the best chance to be a secret writer. I've finally found it, I believe. For the price of a gas and a shovel, I was able to fill two Aroostook County gardens with horse manure. For the price of dollar-store seed packets and canning jars, I was able to preserve enough food to carry me well through the winter. For the cost of my precious time, working freelance and at minimum wage, I was able to save up enough to buy 70 pounds of rice and 100 pounds of flour. I heat with wood, and still hope to fill the freezer with half a cow or a deer. And then, for the rest of the winter, all I have is snow and time.

So. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about electronic media and the future of publishing. More specifically, I think about the possibilities of electronic media to pay for my gas and shovels and seed packets. In case you haven't noticed, there's a revolution on. In 100 years, books will be as obsolete as records. The publishing industry as we know it, is dying.

I'm not foolish enough to believe that people will stop reading books, stop telling stories. People have done that since the beginning of people, just as they've brewed beer, made music, and danced around bonfires. The question is: what's the new economic model? Was my mom right? Is the only way to survive telling stories to build my own audience, make my own living, grow my own vegetables?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Bearing gifts we travel so far

When I'm away from civilization, I long for Wikipedia and Flickr and YouTube, all of the digital distractions that masquerade as genuine tools for accomplishing things. But I forget about online shopping and celebrity gossip and angry birds and all the other endless rabbit holes that I can fall down. I forget how much time I lose here. Nonetheless, I'm happy to be reconnected, if only for a little while, with friends from my past. Instantaneous email is good, if it means I can maintain relationships with people I love. Even if it comes at the cost of Britney Spears impersonator video clips.

And one of the things that comes of returning to the inter-web is a return to these pages. I've been planning a coming-out-of-the closet post for some time now, so here goes: I wouldn't be writing here, in public, if I didn't home to make my living eventually, not as a farmer or an adventurer (although I wouldn't mind either of those sideline careers, if possible), but as a fiction writer. And not just any fiction writer, either. As a novelist.

Dare I admit it in public? It's merely an undercurrent in this blog because I'm hesitant about being public with my darkest and most private dream. There are people who keep whole ASPIRING NOVELIST!!! blogs, and I couldn't be one of them. The only reason I've managed to write here is by exploring other topics: adventures, backpacking, farming, hiking, sailing, bicycling, music, art, electronic media. Nonetheless, the beating heart of all of it is my true, secret desire.

If I have to be brutally honest, I'd say that the real reason I cast off from boat life was because I couldn't figure out a way to be both a full-time sailor and a full-time writer. I know people do it—I just couldn't figure how to be one of them. As I get older, more and more I believe life is about clarifying, again, annually, monthly, weekly, sometimes even daily—what do I want?

What do I want most? What is my heart's desire? How can I pay attention to my own inner teacher, whatever you call it, the Holy Spirit living inside me or my own truest self or both of those things in alignment?

Maybe it's returning to my desk, the basement office I built for myself here in Chattanooga, that's makes me realize the progress I've made in the last three years. Maybe it's the recovery I've made from what I experienced as a major setback in October. My electronic life is slowly returning to neutral—I'm recovering what files I can from hard copies, old computers, email, and compact discs, and finding more than I expected. But loss always makes me ask that same question—what do I want? Am I on track?

And my answer is, simply—yes. I've found a place where I can sustain myself, where, as I wrote a fellow missionary-kid friend this evening, I'm “in danger of putting down roots.” I've completed an intermediate draft of my first book. I've published. I believe, and hope, that with each word I scratch on paper my prose becomes stronger. I live more sustainably now, in closer connection to the earth, in closer connection to my own body, in closer connection to my own values. I have people in my life whom I love, who love me back.

Not a bad way to celebrate the last month of the year.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

En route from Aroostook County, Maine, to Chattanooga, Tennessee



So that's one reason for my continued silence. The other is endless computer challenges, to use a polite euphemism. I'm writing now in the Boston airport, whence my plane departs in twenty minutes. What is it about travel that always makes me want to expound with annoying verbosity to the universe? Maybe it's because travel is still the thing that makes me feel the most existentially alive. That's not redundant, is it?

What I mean is--alive in an existential way. Every inch of me on edge in every bus station, airports, or train station--alert to any change in my environment and those surrounding me. Speaking foreign languages does the same thing, forcing me to be aware to the subtle nonverbal cues I generally ignore.

Maybe it's because I've been traveling alone since I was eleven, or maybe it's just because I can be so oblivious to my physical environment in my daily life. Maybe it's just good for any of us, at any moment, to take a step outside of our normal. So the experts say, at least, if the change is only a different way home from work.

I'm beginning to come out of my fog of loss, a depression lasting an inordinate length of time. Luckily, a month of explosive creativity and the last week of giving thanks have allowed me to move past my grief. My Thanksgiving was small, just three of us plus Shadow, with a wide happy smiling mouth at all of his ham fat and turkey bones. It was intimate but joyous--the first Thanksgiving where I've brought food from the earth to the table myself. Our harvest included leeks in the stuffing, mashed turnips, roasted carrots and parsley roots, and acorn squash pie. It's a microcosm of how the Pilgrims must have felt, looking at the laden table and realizing--this is the fruit of this year's labor.

And now the winter. In traveling 1400 miles, I'm gaining two hours of daylight and thirty degrees of warmth. Part of me feels guilty for abandoning the frozen north at this time of year. A different part of me believes that it's precisely the Maine winter giving me an excuse to wander.

Bringing in tubers from the soil and soaring at 30,000 feet are two things that could not be much more different. How do I reconcile them? I'm not sure I do. I don't know if I'll ever be able to cure myself of wanderlust. I do know that I don't want to.

Maybe I'm just profoundly damaged from being uprooted at such a young age, as any leek or turnip would be. But it's now change that I long for, small adventures to stave off despair. All I can hope for is a balance between movement and stability, my lifelong quest. Now, at least, I have a place that is becoming the stable center around which I move.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Monks aren’t going to make money anymore!

A fragment of a blog post that I managed to salvage from my crash... What did I mean? I have no idea. Obviously, I was thinking a lot about issues of financial ethics, even before my computer crisis.

It's been a month now, so I'm beginning to to let my grief go, and it is seeping away, slowly. I keep trying to explain to myself and to others what it was I lost. My obsession with data perhaps borders on the clinical. I spent a year (2010) figuring out how to salvage metadata—not just song files themselves, but also play counts, play dates, ratings, and album art—from my two previous computers.

Not just how to salvage it, but how to combine libraries together so that they became a seamless whole, and in February of this year, after a full year of trying, I managed to do it. So I experienced exactly eight months with my beautiful, whole, complete iTunes library, which gave me more pleasure than perhaps is reasonable. I obsessively catalog actual photographs from actual concerts for each of my Bob Dylan and Bob Marley bootlegs, for each Elliott Smith demo, for each inherited mp3. When a song plays, I check the last-played date and remember where I was when I last heard a song.

Remember that night when we sat around and listened to _____ while we both spread art all over the floor and collaged and drew? Remember where we were on __/__/10? Remember the last song we played on Secret? Remember that night when friends came over and we stayed up until three in the morning listening to ____? When I see the long strings of __/__/11s, I remember.

I did. But all of those blanks are now empty forever. It's like losing a year of my life. Even if I get all of the music back that I remember I had, which I should be able to do for the most part, that metadata is gone. And losing all of that photographs from that year, too—losing my catalog of the summer's wildflowers that were supposed to sustain me through the long winter, losing the film of my niece painting in her bedroom in Oak Park, losing the footage of my runs through the back of the land with Shadow in front of me, the footage I wanted to compile into an Aroostook County documentary. The loss is the destruction of memory, and that's what hurts.

The worst thing is that it came from a company I trusted. Maybe the only company I continued to trust. I feel so foolish for trusting it wouldn't happen, for trusting a multi-national corporation that doesn't give a crap about me or my data. They've been extremely helpful, but it's still a matter of corporations having absolute and complete control over most of our lives. If they control our memories, then don't they control our lives?

I can't help but think that all of them would be happier if lost my data forever because then I'll be forced to buy it again, forced to participate in the consumer economy and contribute to their bottom line.

My politics have become rather radicalized as a result of living in Maine, and I encountered complete shock last week when I realized a friend living elsewhere hadn't even heard of the Occupy movement. It's increasingly difficult for me to sustain a belief that money itself is not inherently evil. That what's evil is the influence that people with money have over our lives and our politics.

Listen to this podcast, if you have a spare second: Republic Lost

Lawrence Lessig believes that the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement need to unite, which is the most revolutionary idea I've heard in a while. Free-market capitalism and liberal politics are not contradictory. Crony capitalism and liberal politics are. Crony capitalism, the way that corporations and the rich control policy through campaign contributions, is corruption, pure and simple. All of us can agree on that, and all of us can insist on change. I believe in democracy, in the Republic and I hope I can do my small part to again seize control of my own life.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Represent

My guilt, the bad karma that I believe brought this on myself, was not paying artists for their work. But do I really believe that? No.

I keep thinking about electronic copies of media—books that friends download on their iPads, how CDs are just promotional items, ripped and passed on, that help musicians sell concert tickets. How do artists make money in an age when no one spends money on art? When everyone, even me on occasion, believes it should be free? I've never been the kind of person who buys albums, but I always accumulate music. When I buy albums, but I buy them from the very-scratched bin at the used CD store for 97 cents. Even now.

I swap books on paperbackswap.com, I check out CDs from libraries, and when I do pay for a “new” book, I buy it from a used bookseller on Amazon. Even though I'm an avid book and music consumer, there are few artists who have ever earned a penny off me. I do go to concerts, or I used to. I used to buy new books, too, back when I wasn't suffering through the economic indignity of trying to write them.

It's not the end of the world for the publishing industry or the record industry. No, it's a brave new world. We need new economic models for the arts, models that deliver money to the people who need it most, the people sacrificing to create the art. Every album, every book, should be available from each artist's individual website, for less than what it costs to buy it used on Amazon. Maybe. That's one idea.

How very much money do I spending for data recovery, how very much money I spend on electronics that deliver media. How much money all of us give to telecommunications companies to bring us data, to stream movies on our cell phones or listen to music delivered live by fiber-optic cable. But the people actually creating what's streamed to us--bloggers and filmmakers and rappers—get nary a piece of that money. Maybe they need a cut.

I don't have a Ph.D in Economics. I can't answer these questions. I'm attending an Occupy Aroostook march on Friday, where I plan to chant: We Are the 99 Percent. Occupy Aroostook is the local branch of Occupy Wall Street, although I don't believe there's even a single one-percenter in the County.

But I stand with all these protesters in saying our financial system is fundamentally broken. The rich get richer and the poor make art. The poor grow vegetables in urban gardens. The poor start businesses and don't have health insurance and lose money in the stock market. We need a new economic model, one where the market is truly free. In the sense that it brings freedom to all.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

"We're pretty certain that this life was the life that we were born to live"

--horse ranchers from British Columbia, on CBC's 75th anniversary special.

I'm sitting on the couch, watching Canadian television, received on an antenna over the air from Nova Scotia. When J., who has a smart-phone, comes over from Caribou, it blows the signal out. Canadian television is one of the best things about living in northern Maine. Tonight they're airing "1 Day, 24 Hours, 34 Million Lives," a day in the life of Canada, where all Canadians everywhere sent in footage of themselves on a single day in late April this year. In a little inn in California, on the Pacific Crest Trail, I saw a coffee-table book that had a similar theme--Life magazine had sent out photographers to each corner of the country to film an entire day in the United States in the late 1970s-early 1980s. It's one of the coolest collections of photography I remember seeing, but I haven't seen anything similar since. The first photograph in the collection, of course, was sunrise atop Mount Katahdin.

So this documentary series one of the best I've seen, with self-filmed footage of people from Prince Edward Island to Alberta, and my tolerance for documentaries has become extremely high with all the PBS I watch. We also get must less spectacular television from Canada, for example, Battle of the Blades. It's a reality show with ex-hockey players ice dancing with ex-figure skaters. Not as compelling as it sounds, believe me--I tried to watch.

You'd think with fewer channels I'd watch less television, but I find instead that my tolerance for crap, and documentaries, just increases, especially when I'm depressed, and winter looms, and I don't have internet access at home or a computer that works to do any of the things I love. Except to put text into a blank text document—that I can still do, and am beginning to do again, although with every word I type that evil demon that lives inside of my head says: crap, crap, crap. If every word I type is ephemeral as wind, then what's the point? Might as well go watch some Canadian television.

I press on. I'm enrolled in National Novel Writing Month again this year, although already marvelously behind. I have to believe that the simple exercise of putting words onto the page has to have some value. One of the stories I keep telling myself is that of my grandfather, who used to troll bookstalls in both Cairo and Manhattan, looking for elusive out-of-print theology texts, many of which still line the bookshelves of my parents’ basement. I keep thinking about those books that he spent his whole life collecting, how they're just as easily destroyed as the books and music and photographs that I lost last month. My sister has a friend who built two houses in the last five years, both of which burned to the ground. Another Chattanooga acquaintance had her childhood home, an antebellum mansion with a colonnade, go up in flames just two weeks ago. All of that material, lost forever.

Time's arrow moves in only one direction. If I had to say one good thing that has come out of this disaster, is that I'm trying to live more fully in the moment. We all know it's all we have, but it doesn't mean we live like it.

The theologians who wrote those books in my parents' basement are long gone, their families long since dead. The author's heirs have stopped collecting royalties, and most of the books are in eminent domain. Most likely no one will read those books again. The theories propounded in them are debunked or outdated. People want to read new theology, post-deconstructionalism, theories of God in the digital age, shiny new trade paperbacks or e-books on their iPads and Kindles. My grandfather's books gather dust, await fire.

In some ways, this whole argument is about money. If I had $3000, I could get my data back. That's what data-recovery services cost. But I'd much rather give that $3000 to musicians and artists, the people creating the art stored in digital form. That's my resolution—to spend as much money as I spend on recovery on art, and the amount's already climbing slowly upward. My next investment has to be a new circuit board for the hard drive, because I'm unwilling to give up yet, even though I know the hunt is rapidly attaining the level of an obsession.

Some days I give up. I retreat to my crocheting on the couch, and watch Canadian television. I watch horse ranchers who wake up at one in the morning to check on their foaling mares. I think about the life that God has given me to live, with its foolishness and grief. And I post Psalm 90 above my desk:

Lord, you turn men back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep men away in the sleep of death;
they are like the new grass of the morning—
though in the morning it springs up new,
by evening it is dry and withered.
Relent, O Lord! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Locandiera

Self-portrait in despair and hunter orange

"There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own." --Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Rebuilding directory… Speed reduced by disk malfunction: 357,263 failed attempts to access data.

"The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." --Job

I'm beginning to feel like Ahab with his white whale. All he lost was his leg. What does what I lost matter? It doesn't.

I don't side with Job on this one, though. There are far worse losses than mine, his included. People get sick and die, houses burn down, children have their throats slit and are thrown down wells. Maybe I have even experienced personally far worse losses, but this one feels so purposefully malicious, so pointlessly brutal, so capricious--in short, so cruel, and so clearly an act of God, that I can't let it go.

There seems to be no point except: nothing you do matters, Melissa.

If nothing I do matters, then what does this post matter? What do my words on page matter? What do stories matter? What's the point of putting them down? It's all ephemeral as dust. As electrons charging and recharging.

"Every word is a meaningless stain on silence and nothingness." That one's Samuel Beckett. I'm with him.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The things I see in life

I do realize I’m obsessing about my computer and needing to let it go. I need to let it go, somehow. I’m running software still, trying to get everything back, but the hunt is stealing my time and energy and money. Is it worth it?

I don’t know. Should I just return to the paper and pencil, write new stories, take new photographs, listen to different music? Like the hip-hop album I’m listening to right now, by Immortal Technique, amazing stuff—everyone should go to his website right now and hit his donate button. I hope he has one.

Is life just about letting things go? Should I become Buddhist? What’s wrong is my desire for the data, my yearning after it. I’ve lost data before. I lost a whole computer, a hand-written story I have yet to return to. It was about a musician living in a bus in Aroostook County, a Chicago indie musician who runs in with his moose poaching neighbor.

The Psalmist says: delight yourself also in the Lord and He shall give you the desires of your heart. I pray. I have faith. Does faith matter for anything? Or is faith just another way to break my heart, to scour out any of the matter inside of me?

I’m working the photographs I salvaged from my camera. Uploading more than I have in days. The graffiti comes from months ago. Is that why? Why?

That little friend of mine

"Directory of disk eGo cannot be rebuilt. Disk is still in use. Quit all other applications or restart from Disk Warrior disk and then try again. Error codes: 2153, 4903."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Maybe I’ve crossed some wrong rivers

Autumn sunset, off the camera's memory card

Thinking about the future of the publishing industry today, with my guilty post of last week about my pirated music. I’d like to draw a line between myself and those who download music wholesale off the internet, but am I any better? Almost all of my music comes from actual CDs, uploaded to my database. So the artist was paid for the music. How is it any different than the books (real pieces of paper, bound together with glue) that my friends and I trade among ourselves?


**

The seed of this post was written two weeks ago before I realized, in vivid detail, the difference. The difference is that they all can be lost in one fell swoop, in a sweeping fleeting moment. I keep thinking about the burning of the library of Alexandria, although such a comparison may be melodramatic. I’m sure it is. But that’s how it feels at some cosmic level. I had dreams of apocalyptic fungi, white cosmic snot, wrapping the sides of my face.

I can’t help but believe that all of this destruction is karma, is my fault for not spending enough money on artists, for singing the praises of digital archives. There’s something clinical about my inherent theology that whenever something bad happens, it’s God punishing me for something I did wrong. I believe, at some level, that I haven’t cast off enough, I haven’t stripped myself bare to the bone enough. After eight months here, I’m still living off the contents of one suitcase and a carry-on. One pair of jeans, two tee-shirts. My glasses are broken.

I’ve stripped away almost everything of financial value in my attempt to live authentically, whatever the hell that means. What’s the one thing I still prize? I still rely on? I still shuffle through cold gray short days? My music.

My library connects me to everyone I love: my brother and sister, my brother- and sister-in-laws and their brothers and wives, friends from my past, from college, from the boat, from Chattanooga. I share music, yes, but I also buy music: new, from bn.com, Bob Dylan’s most recent album as a gift for my sister; used from my local CD store in Tennessee, McKay’s, Dar Williams’s debut. Do the artists get enough for that? Are they making a living? Because the writers aren’t doing so hot.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Complete unknown

Dropping a line to say that my computer died--hence my long absence. Then my new computer--a brand new one, with all the bells and whistles, a huge splurge and the most money I've spent on anything since Secret--ate the data off my external hard drive, including all of my music, photographs, and writing files.

I'd appreciate as many prayers as you can spare.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tell me why love isn’t enough

I woke up this morning at my friend the artist’s house, in her red guest bedroom, after a night spend discussing the problems of the universe. Which for me are reducing themselves down to three: waste, farming, and art. The only way we solve the central challenges of civilization is by figuring out what we do with our waste, how we grow our food, and what it’s all worth. It come back to those three chewy dilemmas and C. (the artist) is busy writing her master’s thesis on the combination of the latter two.

The last piece—art—is the one that’s forgotten by the ecological movement. But what good are the rest of the solutions without it? Art—the stories we tell each other, the music we sing, the dances we make—is what holds us together. It’s the only way we achieve community.

I’ve been thinking a lot about community. I read this pickle post, and Tea and Cookies says it better than I can, telling the story of how we can come together as a community to preserve the food we need for the cold season. We use preserving as an excuse, but the real reason we gather is to tell each other stories, to play songs, to cook meals, to bake bread. Canning and pickling is one of the arts that’s being reclaimed, but things like barn-building and quilt-sewing used to be excuses for the gatherings, also.

We’re busy planning another venture, after discovering that C. has a cider press stashed in her shed. I’ve been stalking my neighbor’s rotted-out cider press for months now, and to discover one, whole and in the flesh, filled me with joy. So the plan, as of now, is to gather together garbage cans full of apples and make gallons of cider for the winter. As any regular reader of these pages knows, many of my best-laid plans come to naught. I am often better at envisioning an accomplishment than accomplishing it. Nevertheless, a vast community cider-making operation is a beautiful dream. And if not this year, then the next.

So I woke up late, and wandered across the grass in sunshine, to where the chickens scratched in the dirt. We breakfasted on fresh eggs in a broccoli, chive, and feta frittata, and discussed more over coffee: the coming Big Melt, farmers’ livelihoods and big farms versus little, the purpose of symbolism in art, the advent of digital media, the value of knowing the history of music rather than directly experiencing that music. Again: waste, farming, art.

After spending a day traveling, visiting friends scattered from Caribou to Castle Hill, I wish we were all closer, able to get together to pickle beets and bake zucchini bread, every weekend, or more than that. All of us are scattered across a rural county, looking for companions on the journey, and grabbing on tight when we find them. Even here, I always want something I can’t have. A commune full of friends, a utopian world without poverty or injustice. Instead, I choose to enjoy what I do—a network of people engaged with living life sustainably, who share my joys and values. What else do I need?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lower east side of Rome

One of my favorite old CDs, now existing solely on my computer, is one from Marcel, a fellow sailor I met anchored at the base of the Statue of Liberty. He was a crazy French-Canadian fireman, so crazy that he melted his entire keel, more than 5000 pounds worth, in his backyard from bicycle tire leads. He burned me a CD with MP3s his nephew had bit-torrented for him and his wife before they set sail from Montreal, down towards Lake Champlain. It’s still in my iTunes library, named “Marcel’s Country Classics.”

(It begs a whole series of other questions, I know, about electronic rights, a question that becomes more pertinent to me as I now aim to sell a book. I believe in authors and artists making money, but I’m also a music historian. I keep everything my iTunes library lays its hands on, from Aaliyah to Zappa. I hope that the musicians end up making money off of me, either from libraries buying their albums, or Pandora stations I name after them. Books and music are among the few things I think are worth spending money on, but do I spend enough? I can never tell. Okay—here’s how I earn my keep—everyone go buy a John Prine album on Amazon or iTunes. Take your pick—we only get two choices anymore, in politics as in the rest of life.)

Which brings me to my point: John Prine. He was among the artists on Marcel’s Country Classics. I’d only heard him one other place, on a mix tape made for me by an ex-boyfriend. (See, I was pirating music long before iTunes.) The song is “Jesus (The Missing Years)” and it has to earn a place at least in the top ten songs of all time.

I used to be one of those girls who liked every kind of music but country, another song, by Robbie Fulks. Now I think it’s the best kind of music there is. All that took to turn me was spectacular song-writing, and Bob Dylan, as usual. The irony of rock and roll is stripped away in country music, and artists sing honestly, painfully so, about pain and loss and longing. John Prine sings about home, and about Jesus, unapologetically. He sings about country music itself, art as a calling, paying homage to its heroes: old George Jones, among others.

I don’t know why I love “Jesus (The Missing Years)” so very much. I love thinking about Jesus as a child, as lost as I was at that age, wandering around the world, hunting down home. I love thinking about him living an ordinary life, with a wife and children and poop (baby poop, that is, the worst kind). I love thinking about those eighteen lost years, when he could have been as human and as profane as I am.

I’ve been reading some, on the web, from those of the Christian persuasion, and I hate to say it, but a lot of it sounds like a crock. The worst thing about the community of faith is the hypocrisy. People refuse to tell the truth about how broken they are, about the kind of messes they get themselves into. But Jesus doesn't. Not in his missing years, and not in the Bible. He brings together the human and the divine. And he brings us together, me and John Prine, and me and Marcel, and now I think back to my own history, to facing the endless horizon at sea, to friends far gone, and to the music that holds us together.

Friday, September 23, 2011

You’re a part-time lover

Fungi

It’s fall here in the north woods, which means that the leaves are turning orange and falling. This season is when the leaf peepers and the partridge come out. I’m in a good mood, mainly because it got back up to 73 degrees again today. Maybe for the last time. But all the Mainers have been saying that for the last two months. I learn quick.

I’m not impersonating a peeper, but it is nice to appreciate the leaves as they turn. I understand why the Canadians chose the maple leaf—those suckers are red. The road itself seems to change color by the season—the black-and-white of winter, the green of spring and summer, and now a low-toned glowing yellow. I catch new colors every day, and I’ve never been one to celebrate the dying of a season.

There’s a smell that has meant the Maine woods for me since I finished hiking the Appalachian Trail—a deep, musky smell, slightly sweet, slightly smelling of garlic. I love the smell, and I can’t describe it. On the trail, I smelled it when we crossed high ridges, when the moss was thin on the rocks. Here, there’s one spot in the back of the land where I catch a whiff of it, just at the edge of the field.

I walked back there with a companion the other day, and I asked what the smell was. He said: It’s something dead.

The smell I love is the smell of death. A dense smell, combined with the smell of things growing from the earth, fungi, and weeds, and blackberry bramble. It smells so rich, and dark. Maybe it’s the same reason we celebrate the fall. The death, from which all life comes.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It’s bloodied and broke

Autumn begins

Another in my ongoing series of little book posts. I don’t know why I keep going back to the little books I kept on the boat for source material. Or I do. The time I lived aboard was a dream come true, a dream that some days I wish I hadn’t woken up from. And then I find a note like this one:

more space

Each word underlined individually, as if a prayer. There are things that I miss about the boat, and there are thing I don’t—the daily olfactory onslaught of an onboard septic system is one. I kept lists and lists of designers and names, boats I longed for, and what they all had in common was more space.

Space I now have in spades. I have acres of space. I look out the horizon at Canada, at the single white pine that sticks above the tree line. I go for mile-long walks and have miles to spare.

Is it true that we always want what we cannot have? I stood at the bottom of my lawn the other day, chasing the last ray of sun as the line of shadow crept across the grass. I looked up, over the beaver pond, at my neighbor’s bus, on top of the hill, blessed by a full hour more of sun. If I were to start my own religion, a la Ron Hubbard, it would be a Ra the Sun God revival.

Then I remembered the last of the ten commandments: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, or wife, or animals, or manservant, or maidservant, or prime piece of real estate. No wonder God said that. How easy is it to cast my eyes up the hill, to covet the fruit from his apple trees, to not appreciate the jewel that rests in my own hand.

Then I came home, and K. said: Just wait till winter, and the wind’s howling at the top of that hill.

So. On the boat I wanted vast openness, and now I crave heat, and motion, and international travel. Maybe that’s why I write here, to explore the choice between those two lives. This blog began as a record of my travel by sail, and it continues as a record of my search for stability.

I wrote one of those six-word Hemingway autobiographical short-shorts, once upon a time. It reads:
A traveler learns to stay still.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Saeglopur

Another boat on my list of dream boats is a 42’ Wharram catamaran. On Secret we had about five old Cruising Worlds, donated by the previous owner, and one had a full-page spread of a Wharram cat, under full crab-rig Chinese sails, coming into harbor. It was like a centerfold. I pored over the article again and again.

It’s hard for me when sailing friends say I’ve swallowed the anchor, when I meet people whose husbands used to race boats in the Gulf of Mexico. The internal battle I feel between motion and stillness is ongoing. It’s merely a peace treaty I’ve signed. I want to be here, yes, in my Snuggie with my foot heater on, frost beginning to show on the buttercup squash, but I also want to be raising sail under a waning moon, setting my sights on Hispaniola. I want to know what the next adventure will be. I want more stamps in my passport, my passport that expired thirteen days ago.

I do cherish the sun more with every day. Every day my walk inches closer toward noon, even now, even before the equinox. I try to tell myself that sun is not a limited resource, that what I lose in autumn here, I make up for in spring and summer. Heat, however, is. It’s not logical, my internal Mr. Spock says. Why would human beings choose to live above the thirtieth degree? More logical is a life closer to the equator.

Still today, wood was lugged, and split, and stacked. I ground up radishes for relish, made brine for pickled peppers. My apples await a magical not-yet-established process to turn them into cider. The basil, which may already be dead from frost, now adorns the glass room. Still no fire. Still no heat.

Today, Garrison Keillor of Minnesota said, half-joking: Then October, and the suffering resumes.

I’m doing my absolute best not to complain. But not complaining is different than acknowledging and dealing with reality. Maybe I’m still unprepared, when on nights like this one, when the temperature dips below 40 degrees, I start daydreaming of setting a course by the stars, of bathing suits and sunscreen, of clinging to a mast while breeze blows off the bow.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bad breaks, setbacks

Flowers on the banks of the Saint John's River

Waking up at two o’clock yesterday afternoon made me realize that my schedule has shifted too far deep into the night-time, and also that no one in the world of the internet cares about my translation of Sanskrit, my thoughts on yoga and enlightenment. I’m mourning the disappearance of my friends, and grieving the loss of another school semester. It’s one more fall I could have spent reading Sartre and Stein. I’ve been spending too much time in Presque Isle, the big city, and not enough time at my desk. Even tonight, now, I’m writing at 12:54 am.

And yet: I need friends. I need a community. The worst thing about living here is the isolation. It’s also the best thing.

I was out in the moonlight and I said: I just have to accept that I’m a night person.

The response: then why are you obsessed with daylight and the sun?

I don’t know. I’m a dysfunctional night person.

I connected to this website recently: dodie-bellamy.blogspot.com

Dodie Bellamy also wrote a book, the buddhist, a collection of blog posts that’s been turned into a book. It’s actually the first book like that I’ve begun to read—I knew it would happen, but I didn’t know it had happened. I’ve read books by ex-bloggers, books based on blogs, but never one that actually is a collection of posts, posts as lyric essays, each one dated and self-referential.

Word to the wise: bloggers should not read the blogs of poets. Or: they should. Every little thing I write now seems consumed by disgusting cliché. This is what I believe right now. Sometimes something else is so profoundly good that it makes me want to shoot myself in the head. How can I measure up? It makes me wonder if I’ve lost my ability to read deeply, that maybe my words only do well with the 140-character attention span. I hate that.

So what do I do? Conscious predatory plagiaristic exercises?

I’m waking up two hours into afternoon, bare leg curled out in sunlight, hips braced against the wall. I never sleep this late, yet here I am, watered-down orange juice on the headboard.
No. Today I spent fighting my bank for all of the money that some hacker cleared out to order flowers on FTD. Who steals a credit card and orders flowers? I reading recently the idea that people should just replace the F-bomb with racist. I’m still fighting the bank for all the money that some racist cleared out.

Ha.

Then, this evening, I attended a community meeting, a group of women artists coming together, and almost 20 of us showed up. It proved what I have believed for a long time, that art can save the world. Seeing women at all stages of their lives joining forces made me feel like I was part of something primal, something feminine, in the original sense of that word, femininity as strength. It takes courage for women to come away from their men and their children and their homes and come together and speak with their own voices. It takes courage for Dodie Bellamy to tell the truth about religion, and sex, and the internet and the digital age and how it is changing our personal relationships.

My goal is to speak that same kind of truth. And to believe, as David Foster Wallace said, that simple ideas are more powerful than complex ones.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Losing touch

The sky is blue in the water

I walked over two beaver dams today to get to the other side of the pond, and I’m writing right now while sitting on moss, surrounded by lily pads and felled cedar. I have about fifteen minutes before the real sun dips below the pines, and already it’s 58 degrees. My intention, all summer, has been to put on boots and trek over here, but when it’s warm enough to leave the long underwear behind, the bugs are too bad to sit still. I was inspired this morning, reading Glenna Smith.

She says, at 85, “At last I’ve learned to be aware of the world around me. I use all my senses all the time.” And she quotes Goldie Hawn, of all people: “Today, I’m the youngest I’ll ever be, and I had better make the most of it.”

Today is what constitutes a big outing in Aroostook County. I should have brought a thermos of coffee and a picnic. I’m trying to go into winter full armed this year, and this afternoon, spent with the alder and the fungi, will be an arrow in my quiver. It’s hard to feel, every day, the loss of another fifteen minutes of daylight. Once the dark descents, most nights I click on the television, and I'm realizing how corrosive that is.

Maybe what made my blog so interesting on the boat and on the trail wasn’t so much any adventure, but the lack of a television. I was forced to entertain myself, spending hours staring into a campfire or watching a sea cucumber pump sand through its digestive tract. We used to spend hours listening to music, playing cards by candlelight, the way people amused themselves before electricity. I still have gin rummy scores carefully notes in my little notebooks.

Now I feel peeved if I miss Jon Stewart, thankfully syndicated on Canadian channels. In the winter, the addiction to television gets worse. I wish I were brave enough to kill it entirely. I’ve never bought a TV, in my life, but I’ve been given at least a dozen. Misery loves company. But the hardest thing is kripalu, having compassion for myself, not condemning myself for my own weakness. I keep meeting yogis who attended trainings at an institute named for kripalu, the Sanskrit word for compassion.

To merely sit and be at peace for this moment, grateful for this place, for the warmth still in the atmosphere, for the dragonflies and spiders, for electricity and heat, grateful even for modern media. I want to assert my control over these digital influences. Maybe the true victory will be when I can own a television and still choose to spend an evening playing cards by candlelight.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Covering the bills

Backpack full of apples

Shadow waited patiently today as I pulled apples off the trees in the back of the land. Most of the fruit were barely golf-ball sized, off of trees that haven’t been maintained for years, but their higher branches held shocking quantities. It feels like such a fall occupation, as I know it is. I feel like Robert Frost. The seasons move so quickly here in Maine that it’s dizzying. Already the first maples are turning red.

Our frost date here is supposed to be September 20, although I’m hoping for a late summer since spring was so late. Today I shredded cabbage, carrots, and green pepper, all from the garden, for a late coleslaw, and began to work on a radish relish, with the radishes that still proliferate. Even with the tomatoes gone, I’m feeling overwhelmed by the massive quantities of vegetables that remain to be preserved. Maybe I just need to accept that I’m going to lose some of them.

The melancholy that comes with this time of year is also pervasive. I hate watching the days shorten, I hate closing the windows at night, I hate that I’m wearing a sweater right now. I know I’m not supposed to complain about the weather. Maybe I’m just out of sorts because the best friends I’ve made up here are leaving in two weeks, for fairer climes and better job prospects. I love living so close to the land, but I don’t like the isolation that comes with it.

Still, the sun shone into my bedroom window, making it laundry day. The apples are sweet and tangy. My soup of greens that I made for dinner was less tasty, but still ambitious. The thing that’s torturous about the quickly moving seasons is how I feel each day slipping through my fingers almost tangibly. All that does is motivate me to enjoy each one as thoroughly as I can.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Bridgewater, Maine

Echinacea and tire

Gifting is an odd phenomenon. I try to keep a list of gift ideas, things that occur to me over the year, so that when a birthday or Christmas pops up, I have the perfect thing to buy someone in my life. Sometimes I’ll wake in the middle of the night (as I did the other day for my sister) with the perfect idea for Christmas, and by the morning it’ll dissolve into the ether along with my dreams. Other times I spend years knitting gifts, losing and finding errant projects, inventing new patterns after I’ve lost the old, until I’m finally left with something misshapen and out of style.

Not only is exchanging gifts a universal cultural phenomenon, but it’s also one of the languages of love, one of the ways that people communicate love to each other. I’ve been given some extraordinary gifts in my life—things that met me at exactly the right moment in time, when I desperately needed them. Yet the practice confounds me. I rebel against alleged materialism, or I’m merely ashamed at what my starving artist’s budget can afford. I hate to break it to you, if you’re one of the people expecting a gift from me this holiday season, but you may end up with canned turnip greens beneath the tree.

In case you’re worried, I’m not really obsessing about the holidays already. I’m more thinking about the various ways we love each other. I do my best when it comes to gifts, tracking the things that I think will bring people in my life joy. Long phone calls sometimes, or shared afternoons, or loaves of bread. I love cooking for people, and I’m beginning to arrive at a place here where I can invite guests into my kitchen to share food and wine.

One thing I’m concluding, in my ongoing quest to save the world, is that I can’t do it alone. The only way anything changes is through building community, and communities are built on love, and kindness, and ritual. In the idealistic utopian village of my dreams, the village that it takes, we have massive celebrations. We eat and drink and make art and play music together. We tell each other stories and dance around bonfires and pray for rain or sun. We cook and eat and give and receive gifts. We argue and fight and come to consensus. We celebrate the first harvest, and the full moon, and the summer solstice, and the New Year.

There are much more practical ways to save the world, but unless we can find a way to come together, to build actual community, in the sense of the commune, or communion, or communication, or even commerce, we’re never going to be able to find creative solutions to what ails us. I read a story about an anthropologist who traveled from island to island in the Pacific, where the chief of each tribe would give as an unmerited gift a bracelet made of shells to the chief of the next tribe. On and on it went, each chief giving and receiving bracelets that were treasured, but worthless, with no monetary value, even in the currency of the archipelago. It was a practice for which the anthropologist had no reference point.

I don’t get it either. As Mr. Spock would say, it isn’t logical. But I keep my list.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Aroostook County, Maine

I drove back this week and it's an odd feeling. As regular readers know, I have a difficult time with the word home, but driving back this week. Every state that passed I breathed easier. When I saw that sign above the road that reads "Maine: The Way Life Should Be," I thought yes. This is the way life should be.

Today I drove to the big city and took pictures of graffiti under the bridge, at the edge of the St. John's River, while our last weekend of summer beamed down. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for an Indian summer and a late snow. I'm also putting a moratorium on complaining about the weather. My goal is to do my best to enjoy every last minute of the fall.

Tonight I'm back with my community of artists, two of which are departing for warmer climes before the end of the month. We're busy solving the problems of the world, talking about how everyone lived the way we did our economic system would collapse. How we envy the people in Cuba, who have cars from the 50s in pristine condition and universal healthcare. Not that I think things are going to be that great after the apocalypse. But at least I'll know what to do about tomato blight.

Everyone has it now. The potato farmers are killing all of their plants so that they can harvest the potatoes. No one has tomatoes. Now I'm thrilled that I managed to harvest 50 pounds of green tomatoes before the trip down to Massachusetts. At least I have thirty quarts canned.

So it's back to the farm life.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Marion, Massachusetts

Hunkering down today because of the alleged hurricane caused me to think about electricity. The storm itself died before it reached New England, as I suspected all long during the last week of mass panic, but after the wind arrived it was still strong enough to knock down countless trees and the power for the entire day. In some ways, it was the best day of my mini-vacation: I played pool, darts, and the piano, read back issues of magazines and the newspaper, ate food I had forgotten about and would otherwise go bad, and engaged in candlelit conversations on the deck while maples surrounding the house dipped and swayed.

The other source of entertainment was the police scanner. In between reports of yet another branch fallen on power lines, there were stories about domestic disturbances, children abandoned to swim in the storm surge, drunk women swaying through the parking lot of the local package store, and flooded causeways. As if everyone went crazy without electronic devices and televisions to keep their hunger at bay. Even the doctor and his wife across the street, outdoor enthusiasts and runners, broke out their giant battery-powered halogen lamp, as if light alone could keep away boredom.

It made me think about even a hundred years ago, when people had to do things like play games, make music, draw pictures, and write letters to keep themselves amused. How things have changed. A day without electricity made me realize that it’s the central source of civilized change, the civilization that I’m not always sure is a good thing. The times in my life when I’ve been happiest are those when I didn’t have electricity. When I lived in a tarp and spent my evenings gazing into campfires, or when I lived on a boat and burned hurricane lamps while I played cards.

I don’t want to minimize the benefits of the electronic age. I couldn’t be writing these words without electricity and its accoutrements. Yesterday I took a field trip to the Boston Museum of Science, where they have the world’s largest Van de Graaff generator, a device that generates lightning indoors. It was awe-inspiring and loud and made me feel like a kid again as I plugged my ears. But it was also shocking (ha!) to see how powerful are the forces that run our lives. To envision the fluid stream of electrons animating our wires, our walls, and our fingers.

As dusk fell tonight, we broke out candles, Shabbas votives made in the Dominican Republic. Maybe I’m not ready to give up my electricity, but a furlough from it every now and again seems a good thing. Sometimes my furlough lasts months or years, on a trail or a boat. Sometimes just a day. Maybe those of the Jewish faith are correct in taking that Sabbath every week. If I were brave enough, maybe I would too.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My heart is wrapped in ice

Meadow Island

I’m away in Massachusetts, which allows all of my habits to drift away—good in some ways, bad in the others. Whenever I’m spending time with family I have this tendency to allow guilt to settle down around my shoulders, to believe that I should be doing more for them, with them. It’s mainly guilt that I live so far away from the people I love. There’s also an element of feeling like I’m back to civilization. There are restaurants and stores on every block, sometimes two restaurants in one mini-mall. In the County, I have to drive 24 miles for the nearest egg roll, and fifteen for a diner.

So today we stopped for lobster bisque, and if you’re ever along the southern edge of the Cape, you absolutely must stop for the world’s greatest bisque, at Vell’s. Each bite is like heaven on the spoon. So much lobster is in each bowl, that legend has it the meat from an entire claw was once found at the bottom. I haven’t lived here in years, and not very long then, but parts of it still feel like home—the broiled schrod and stuffed seafood casserole on the menu, the Keno, the cranberry bogs stretching out along the highway.

There are the good parts of civilization, and then the bad. The bad is cable television, so tonight I’m catching up on my Anthony Bourdain, and oddly enough, his feature is Maine. It’s funny how some place looks so much more authentic on television, even when I’ve been living in it for six months now. The people look sexier, the food more delicious, the destinations exotic.

Bourdain featured a restaurant outside of Portland, down east, where everything they serve comes from animals and vegetables grown right on site. They slaughter their hogs and use everything, nose to tail. It looks delicious, and is exactly the kind of thing I’d like to be capable of doing (in ten years). But even that carries the gloss of the screen, when I know the reality is much less sexy, much more hard work. I guess it’s good to be able to look through the eyes of an outsider every once in a while, whether here or there.

Friday, August 19, 2011

They were once at peace

When life gives you blight, make green-tomato salsa

I’ve been procrastinating this post, for obvious reason—we killed Schafe on Monday, and I’m having a difficult time with the decision. Even though I’m convinced that it was absolutely the right thing to do. Monday morning K. found maggots in the cat’s hip wound, flies actually flying from his body. He showed me, and I’m glad I looked, even though it may have been the most awful, repellent thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It was the heart of darkness, the face of death, everything that I live fighting to destroy, even though I know the flies themselves are just fighting for their own damned lives.

When I saw it, I knew it was Schafe’s time, one way or another. I wanted to drive him to the vet. I knew they still would have put him down, unless we insisted, cruelly, that they do surgery or give him antibiotics or do something equally ridiculous. It was still the most awful thing. But we decided that it was crueler for Schafe, to drive him to Presque Isle, to put him in an awful situation with other animals screaming and having a doctor poke around at his wounds with bright lights and cold instruments and then the same result, but not at the home he loved. So instead we found bullets for the .22.

We planted marigolds on his grave, the place he chose before he died, and had a real funeral, watching a slideshow of pictures of him from ten years ago. He also may be the first cat to enjoy a full-on Irish wake. I can’t say enough good about him. He used to be a car cat, riding around, wrapped around his driver’s shoulders. He used to fit in a tee-shirt pocket. He used to push my pen with his head, purring, as I wrote.

These things still bring me to tears. When I told my sister, she reminded me of a story I don’t think I had heard before, of when my grandfather was a teenager and had to shoot every single cat on his Michigan farm, at least thirty of them. He spoke of it as if it was the worst thing he ever had to do. It made me feel better to know that even someone as strong as he was struggled with death. Maybe that’s what makes farm life so hard—the reality of death, its presence, looking into its face daily.

It’s been a rough stretch. Hail, blight, animal suffering. Maybe it’ll get easier. In the meantime, we grieve. Grief is as real as anything else in life, and I don’t want to deprive myself of its lessons.

I’m in Massachusetts now, visiting family for a week or so. Knowing I don't have to worry about a cat or tomatoes makes our absence a lot easier, and it also makes me want to celebrate life with the people I love.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Little kids I’ve yet to have

Blight on the tomatoes

Another two-in-the-morning post. 1:29 am, to be exact. Schafe is under my feet, on the heater. He got a bath today, and some dewormer—maybe he’ll make it through another winter. In other news, we found blight on our tomatoes yesterday, and tore up three of every four plants.

It was heartbreaking. Cliché, perhaps, but I don’t know how else to describe it. I felt nausea, physical pain in my chest, staring at the plants that I’ve cultivated so meticulously for the last three months. Smelling that foliage scent on my fingers, that tomato smell that’s maybe my favorite in the world, that I wish could bottle. Smelling my fingers as I watch the pile of destroyed plants.

I had that much emotion for a first-time garden, one that’s little more than a hobby, probably twelve plants in all. I can’t imagine how a farmer feels, watching his entire crop destroyed, plant after plant, in an irresistible tide. The blight up here, “Late Blight,” is the same stuff that wiped out all of the Irish potatoes in the Great Potato Famine. It’s common only among potatoes and tomatoes, and endemic in the United State mainly in places where there are large commercial potato growers. Large-scale farmers can use fungicides and sprayers to protect their crops, but it’s basically a lost cause for home gardeners, unless tomato plants are meticulously treated with a copper spray every week before onset of the blight. All information based on hearsay, Google, and our local cooperative extension.

The crazy thing? Tonight Food Inc. was the documentary of choice on PBS. I resisted watching it until now—shots of deformed cows unable to walk to the slaughter is something I have a hard time stomaching. And I’m someone who eats burger. Despite the relentless exposure of our system’s ills, the documentary made some optimistic points. The filmmakers actually believe we can make better choices, that we can influence corporations by what we demand, by the choices we make with our dollars.

The danger of pulling back the curtain on our food production is that it can make me feel hopeless, and go to the fridge for another frozen pizza, some more ice cream, or a bowl of chips to forget about the pain. I’m bad about emotional eating—and it’s almost perverse the way I turn to food when I feel bad about food. Even if I know, beyond doubt, that fresh peas with butter taste better than chips. And I can grow them, and maybe even raise my own dairy someday.

It’s not the easy choice. It’s the more honest choice. It means work, and pain, and heartbreak. It takes sweat, and hailstorms, and beetles. And blight.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Lights are shut down

My parents in the 70s. Part of an ongoing series of familial photographs.

My cat may be dying. He’s not exactly my cat, but a cat that I’ve lived with, off and on, here in Maine, for almost eight years, so he feels like mine. I’m one of several humans whose lips he deigns to claw while I sleep. Not anymore, though. Now he curls up in various corners, beneath end tables, on door steps, in front of bathtubs, and doesn’t eat. I bought him the fanciest cat food I could find, and he exploded all over the house. He nibbled at steak chopped in little pieces, but eventually turned his nose up. This morning, he threw up raw tilapia.

He’s an old cat, an old tom, and he’s had a fair share of adventures, and is almost into his third decade. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to watch his bones jut out at every step, to feel his scapulae distinct beneath his dense white fur. He weighs barely three pounds now.

It’s a peril we take, loving things, people, animals. Danger lurks all around. I remember the muriatic acid we kept on the boat, for what purpose now escapes me, but I felt morbid terror when I cushioned that gallon of toxic chemical against our hull. What if it leaked? What if it corroded a hole in the hull while I slept?

But every moment we live, we cradle muriatic acid against the hull of our hearts. Every being we love can hurt us, can sink us. Buddha spoke of desire causing suffering, a philosophy that I’ve struggled with for years. It’s patently true—every thing I want can cause me pain. But to absent myself from that risk, the risk of pain, feels inhuman. In loving, in desiring good for other beings, I risk suffering.

I want Schafe, the cat, to live forever. It’s a desire that will not be fulfilled.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Train goin’ by

It was rainy and dreary this morning, the result of a persistent low-pressure system that’s been located over Maine for the entire summer. It was fifteen degrees colder than usual today, and more rain is expected all week. According to our meteorologist, it’s because of the consistent high pressure located over Oklahoma and the central US, which has been forcing all of the precipitation north. We’ve had eighteen more inches of rain than normal since the first of June.

Good for the crops, perhaps—I’ve had three ripe tomatoes already, more than my family in Chattanooga—but bad for my sun deficiency. I feel dumb always complaining about it, but the fact remains that I’m constantly living at a twenty-degree deficit up here. So why do I live up here? It’s a compromise. This area is one of few in the country where I can live at my income level.

The ironic thing is that my laundry is hanging on the line. I’m reading Old Maine Woman by Glenna Smith, an Aroostook County writer I met recently, a brilliant book about the way things really used to be. Her mom did laundry every Monday, no matter the weather forecast. Didn’t your grandma? I figured I could do the same. They’ll hang out there until they dry, I suppose. My grandma didn’t have to contend with climate change.

The garden’s going full-bore, producing faster than I can figure out ways to preserve, which I keep telling myself is a good problem to have. I spent all weekend with a group of friends, artists and homesteaders. Somehow I have managed to find a brilliant community of like-minded people. I keep quoting this article from the editor of Mother Earth News, who says rather than the doomsday attitude most environmentalists have, we need to envision the future we want, to envision success if we’re to achieve it.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about that. If we want to change the world, how do we actually go about that, practically? What’s the first small step? How can I be the change I wish to see? I just keep thinking about community models that can be replicated. I know it’s idealistic, and ambitious, but if we don't have idealism and ambition, we’ll never achieve success.

It’s not just rain that’s getting me down. Every time I hear the news, the political bickering, reports from the corporate hegemony, I become a little more frustrated by the paralysis of the people. We can take back our country, we can take back our world. We just have to do it a little bit at a time.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Nocturne

It’s 1:04 in the morning and a Quebecois movie is on Canadian television about a six-year-old Catholic boy given the ability to heal people. I’m listening to Chopin as I read French subtitles. My garden was hit by hail this week, the day after I posted all of those pictures, which was depressing to the point that I haven’t been out there lately. My chard has immense amounts of tiny little holes in it. The plants that have fruit are less wounded, but it’s still tough to face.

The frustrating thing is that I’ve been meaning to harvest the chard for weeks now. I knew it was edible ages ago, but I was distracted by massive quantities of radishes and turnip greens and radish tops. It’s a good problem to have, a problem I wouldn’t have expected to have even in March of this year. I didn’t realize how much of the task of a garden is keeping up with the harvest and finding ways to cook and eat things. My grandma always made sauteed chard to go with her meat and potatoes, but I don’t cook meat and potatoes that often. Today I had holey sauteed chard for dinner. With macaroni.

I’ve been reading my little boat notebook again, never a good sign when I’m looking for stability. I read this notation today: I can tie a bowline now!! 7-7-07

Except I can’t. Try as I might, that knowledge has slipped away from me. I can’t get the rabbit to go around the tree and into its hole. I know I could look it up, relearn it, but I keep expecting the knowledge to magically reappear. I guess I’m learning new things, that chard is still delicious with holes poked in it, and how to eat it with pasta and horseradish cheddar. Time moves on. The past slips away, and its lessons go with it.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

I think you are strange

Cabbage

Friends from Caribou are camping in the backyard this evening. We woke and fed them boiled eggs and maple jelly. My day felt strangely empty, today, but also joyful. I typed “the end” yesterday, and today’s my Sabbath.

I wandered around the yard, tying up tomatoes, transplanting things, watering the cilantro seedlings that have finally sprouted, weeding the row of peppers—garden tasks I’d been putting off for weeks. It felt free and empty and the same time. We made burgers and my overloaded-with-greens fried rice, my new way of disposing of all of the stuff from the garden. So. Things are good. Not much to report.

I’m impressed by the concept of the Sabbath, one of the things that has been a boon to my life here. I don’t write, walk, or do yoga on the Sabbath, which gives me time to do things I don’t do other days. Let the sun get on my shoulders in the mid-morning. Explore the Subarus in the front yard. Reorganize both the freezer and the cupboards. Blanch greens. Cook.

For the next few weeks my only tasks are to clamber among the clouds and exist. Now I’m listening to The Notorious BIG and loading photos of the garden, as July rolls around to August. The campfire outside burns down.

Friday, July 29, 2011

He’s a drugstore truck-drivin’ man

First peppers

Another character wrapped up today. Sorry to keep talking about it. I’m just rather overwhelmed with success. I know it’s boring to everyone except me, but I can’t believe that I could actually be finished with a halfway-decent manuscript tomorrow. I’ve been spending three hours at it a day this week rather than two, and it’s amazing how much more exhausted I am after three hours of work.

It’s odd to me how writing is the thing I’ve always wanted to do and it’s still the thing I have the hardest thing talking about. I’m happy writing blog posts about moose in the garden or sailing on a beam reach or hiking 23 miles in a day, but actually writing about the thing that means the most to me? It’s excruciating. I’m afraid that someone will just come out and say: you suck. There’s no hope. Give up now and quit embarrassing yourself.

There’s this crazy balance you have to do as an artist, which is, after all, what I’m trying to be. I have to believe, simultaneously, that what I’m doing is the worst thing ever and the best thing ever. Unless I believe it’s the worst, I won’t keep working at it, making it better. And unless I believe it’s the best, I won’t believe that the excruciating work is worth doing at all. It’s just too hard.

Forgive me. Of course I am quite convinced that what I’m doing is not close to the best, or even publishable at this point. But if I don’t think there’s a possibility that what I’m doing is good, then I won’t be able to keep the faith. I have to keep the faith. I’m not even sure why, but I do.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

When I opened my eyes

When I lived in Chicago, one of the alternate careers I dreamed of was being a divemaster in Roatan or Manzanillo. I wanted to live in the tropics, to spend as much time as my hemoglobin would bear 100 feet below the water. I don’t know if I believe in there being the ancient four Greek elements, but something in my body seems to connect to the water. Maybe it just feels like home.

Now, the career I dream of is farmer, as I live in a climate where I have yet to immerse my body in the water. Maybe I can connect to the earth in the same way, draw things up from the ground. But I’m spending more time at my writing career. My self-imposed deadline is the end of this month—hence the blog distraction. It’s funny to me that I started my college career as an aspiring chemical engineer, when I’m so far from that now.

I saw a special the other day on women in science, and I felt some guilt for abandoning the possibility of being a female scientist. As cliched as it continues to be, I had to follow my heart. I remember when I realized that, walking home from campus one spring day in 1996. As cliched as it is, it felt like a lightning bolt from heaven.

I prayed today, in my Wednesday night church service (our farm congregation abandons Sunday services in summer): “send me out into the world in peace to do the work God has given me to do.” One character’s storyline tied up yesterday morning. Two more to go, before the end of the month. I believe I’m going to make it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

I’m gonna dance hall, dance hall every day

Hollyhock about to bloom, at my new friend the artist's house

The cat woke me this morning, kneading his claws against my lips, as he likes to do in the morning when he wants to be stroked. That, and the sun striping my calves, and I woke up early to coffee and an egg sandwich, and then straight to my desk. The list of things I write each morning is getting longer—a stream-of-consciousness journal entry, then my dream from the night before, a way to mine my subconscious for the real work—the book that gets closer to being finished every day. My self-imposed deadline is July 31, and I feel my breath catch in my throat every time I realize I may just make it.

I’m on my last chapter right now, and it’s one of these things, like my desk, like my garden, that I can hardly believe. How can I be this person who has almost finished such a beautiful thing? Even if I tie the manuscript up in a neat knot and put it in my bottom drawer and never again show it daylight, every time I remember its existence feels like a drug. I don’t know what happens next, what happens on August 1, and right now I don’t care.

Then I put down these words, and after these words I go into the garden to harvest radishes, snap peas, turnip greens, spinach, and basil for macaroni salad for a friend’s birthday. Then maybe a walk in the woods or yoga, before I walk up the hill for pork ribs on the barbecue. Tomorrow, I can chose between a bluegrass festival, an Afro-Cuban drum workshop, and a local township’s annual festival on a dirt road, camping in the Maine wilderness. I feel like I’m living someone else’s dream of my life, as if I was mysteriously transplanted into JK Rowling’s world, or something. And I’m broke.

But even there comes synchronicity. Late last night, celebrating with another set of friends their anniversary, the potato harvest was mentioned. The idea of pulling potatoes up out of the ground, working in the open air, breathing nothing but oxygen and herbicide, and making enough money to get halfway through the winter, seems like another gift. Every day I breathe in faith, breathe out faith.

Monday, July 18, 2011

One day up near Salinas

Sitting on my boat, in the companionway, I used to cry my eyes out listening to Me and Bobby McGee. I don’t know what it is about that song. I fell in love with it in France, where I used to play it on my cassette player, hooked up to French speakers that cost 20 francs at the dollar store. I’d sit in my little apartment in the old village, freezing my ass off, watching the champignons bloom from the leaky roof. I’d move one of the apartment’s two chairs in front of the bookcase by itself, and turn up the walkman as loud as it would go, and let tears stream down my face.

I did the same thing on Secret, listening on my little solar-powered computer, with the sun streaming in.

Something about that song. Something about having such happiness that you’d trade all your tomorrows for it. Something about looking for that home, and hoping you find it. Something about freedom being just another word, about having nothing left to lose. It used to be the saddest idea in the world—nothing left to lose.

Now I see it a different way. Maybe the most beautiful thing in the world is having nothing left to lose. To be able to hold life so loosely that no matter what happens, I’m free.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Now here comes the preacher

Beets today in the garden. You can see rocky the soil is here, and also how I'm not such a good weeder.

It was 81 degrees out today—yay. I have such a hard time on these sunny days. I feel like I should be spending every waking hour outside, in as much sun as I can find, soaking up all of it, but that means not being inside my office, where the work that’s most important to me takes place. I always feel that cognitive dissonance, wanting to be indoors and outdoors at the same time. That's one of the things about writing—it’s an indoor sport.

The thing is to do it like the farmers say: early to bed and early to rise. As another adage goes: easier said than done. I’d love to be one of those people, like my Papou the writer, who woke at dawn. I once read that National Geographic only publishes photographs taken at dawn or dusk. So if you don’t wake up at dawn, you’re halving your chances.

But I don’t believe in that crap. I wake up when the sun slants across my ankles, or as close to it as my dreams will let me. And then I come to my little sun room and put some words into the computer. Sometimes they are good words. Sometimes they are bad words.

As now, when I have been to the top of the hill celebrating the midsummer full moon a day late, the first, and last, of the true summer. I’m told it just gets colder from here on out. I don’t believe it, not yet. But it’s possible. I’m no longer supposed to plant endive, according to my book.

I suppose I’m spending enough time outdoors. I spent an hour in the garden this afternoon, getting sun on my shoulders and waging war against the cucumber beetles and deer flies, weeding the pepper plants and putting in another row of radishes. The garden’s beautiful, and brings me more joy than almost anything on a sunny day. But it’s still hard not to feel this conflict. The mornings I spend inside, and as much bravery as I have for the rest of the day outside.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My brother’s standing on the welfare line

The door onto my grandparents' garden

For a long time now, I’ve had a theory about Bob Dylan’s album Blood on the Tracks. As everyone knows, Dylan composed this album in the middle of his break-up with Sara, the love of his life, mother of his four children. It is, without doubt, the greatest break-up album of all time. My theory is that for each break-up, all of them, throughout all human history, there is a matching song on Blood on the Tracks.

Bitter break-ups: Idiot Wind.
One-night stands: Simple Twist of Fate.
A slow, gentle infatuation that has no chance at a future: You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. Et cetera.

My theory expands beyond that. When a person is inside of a relationship, and can identify which break-up song is the break-up song for that particular relationship, that is the moment when it’s over. I’ve had that miserable experience, when I lived in Chicago, where I had at least one Idiot Wind and a couple of If You See Her, Say Hellos.

Since growing older, I’ve noticed that Dylan is one of many artists that sings plenty of songs about the fevered beginning of relationships and their hollow ends, but almost no songs about the middle. Which is, of course, the hard part. Falling in love isn’t difficult. Leaving, most of the time, is easier than staying. But the middle is the meat of the thing.

Staying with a person requires desperate faith and hope, and an almost unassailable belief in the power of truth. I’ve been learning that lately, or trying to. To just tell the truth. Even if it’s: I really want to paint a wall of the kitchen red. Or: I bought ice cream. Or: I feel awful today.

The song I think comes closest, at least on Blood on the Tracks, is You’re a Big Girl Now.

Our conversation was short and sweet
It nearly swept me
Off of my feet.
You are on a dry land
You made it there somehow

Bird on the horizon sitting on a fence
He’s singing a song for me,
at his own expense
And I’m just like that bird,
singing just for you
I hope you can hear me
Singing through these tears

Time is a jet plane
It moves too fast
But what a shame
If all we’ve shared can’t last
I can change, I swear.
See what you can do
I can make it through
You can make it, too.

Love is so simple
To coin a phrase
You’ve known it all along
I’m learning it these days

I can change, I swear, he says. Don't we all feel like that? I am changing, day by day. I watch my plants grow and some days it feels like they’ve metamorphosed since yesterday. They’re changing, and I am, too, and my prayer is to grow together, to flower, to produce the fruit of the Spirit. I’m just like that bird, singing. Love is so simple, and I’m learning it these days.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Is it worth it

I’m sitting on a blanket in the grass right now, sitting in the sun, but edging the shade. Today is free music in the park in Presque Isle, and it’s the first time I’ve been. Listening to some Brooklyn band pour out their hearts into their harmonicas while old people and young people and people with down’s syndrome sway in the shade give sme hope for the future of humanity. It’s summer, and summer means music in the park, and life is beautiful.

Although I don’t know why these crazy Mainiacs, who have canopies on their folding chairs, insist on crowing into the two patches of shade that exist. Seriously. It’s cold eleven months of the year—they can’t sit in the sun for the one month of the year that it’s warm? It’s like they’re allergic. Or crazy.

At least it’s 85 degrees out, and we have at least thirty more days of heat. Activities are piling up—the Potato Blossom Festival all this week, a street dance next weekend, the Land Speed Record Race at Loring Air Force Base, and then the County Fair beginning in August. Then summer’s done. Then snow starts falling.

Just joking, but it does make me want to spend as much time as possible outside in full sun, every minute that it’s shining. It does make me appreciate these beautiful days of music and heat. Even the band, Spirit Family Reunion, is good, as Brooklyn neo-folk tends to be.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Happiness, come back a while

Grandpa Jenks, the gardener, electrical cord clearly visible

It’d be nice, when attempting to live a back-to-the-land lifestyle, to have a trio of men to perform each of these essential tasks: electronics, mechanics, and plumbing. Someone proficient in electronics could help with circuitry, soldering, and wiring; a mechanic could fix cars, small engines, lawnmowers; a plumber could help with heating, septic systems, drainage. Who can imagine a family with all three of these skills? No one.

I don’t know why I’m so fascinated by families that are different than mine. My grandfather focused all of his life on books, theory, and theology, as though the world of ideas was what mattered, not the world of things. He spent his life waking at dawn to write, most of his life in an office. The story my grandma tells, was that when she asked him to dig a hole in the backyard for some tomatoes, he dug the spade in, looked at her, and said, “Why, Joan? Why?”

My grandfather from the other side, who carpeted his garden with scraps from his living room to keep down weeds, who built a tomato trellis out of old electrical cord, who composted styrofoam and meat scraps, so that he had to keep the raccoons away with a .22, who never had garbage pick-up in forty years, so that he burned his old tires cut up into his basement furnace, was much more in touch with the physical world. The last meal my grandmother cooked for me, two years before her death, was ham, scalloped potatoes, braised chard, sliced tomatoes with mayo, zucchini bread, and ice cream with raspberries. Four things came from their garden.

The two sides of myself at war: my grandfather the intellectual and my grandfather the pragmatist. I spend half of my day locked up in my office, with books and papers piled around myself, and the other half picking cucumber beetles off my squash plants (we’ve determined they’re cucumber, not potato beetles), weeding the beets, heading basil. Maybe I can get them to peacefully coexist. I always end up immersing myself in the world of things, the world in which I’m much less comfortable. Biking, sailing, farming… All of those things require the ability to respond to sensory data. But that’s the point. It’s a challenge. And life’s no fun without a challenge.