Friday, April 29, 2011

Aroostook County, Maine, to Grand Rapids, Michigan

Today I flew into Grand Rapids. To get here, from Aroostook County, I started at six o’clock this morning, and caught three successive buses—the first to Bangor, thence Portland, thence Boston. Then a plane to Chicago, and finally, at 10:25 pm, Grand Rapids. I drove straight to the nursing home with my brother to see my grandmother.

She is actively dying. She and my grandfather were married for 64 years, and although I can’t quite accept it, I believe that she held onto her cancer-ridden body just long enough to see her husband through the gate. Now she’s choosing to follow him. She’s always been known for her quiet, forceful strength. If anyone could will herself to life, and now to death, it’s her.

This process has been so long, and we’ve been grieving their passing for so long, but I still wasn't prepared. I can’t stop thinking about two summers ago, August 2009, when my grandmother fed me from her own garden for the last time. I couldn’t believe then, I still can’t believe now, that it really was the last time. I can’t believe that if I pull into her driveway, open the door to her house, that there won’t be chocolate cake waiting for me. I can’t believe that I’ll never again walk through her hallway and smell beef roasting, hear the table being set.

No matter when death comes, we’re not ready. It’s the nature of death. My grandmother, at least, follows her husband. As she did in life, so in death.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

She’s a rebel

Picking rhubarb, last summer, at the old homestead

My grandfather died this morning, so on Friday I’m headed back to Grand Rapids to be with my family. Just when the snow is off the ground and the mosquitoes beginning to buzz above the pond. Just when the horse manure is shoveled in the garden. Just when I’m beginning to feel like I’ve come home.

But it’s all right. My grandfather was 92, and I find myself thinking of him more and more, the more deeply I get my hands dug into the earth. He was the one who woke up every morning at four to milk the cows in the Michigan winter, the one who took his award-winning smooth-skinned potatoes to the agricultural fair in Chicago, the one who always had the biggest tomatoes from his garden. He retired young, and spent the last years of his life pouring himself into carpentry, the Bible, and the half-acre of dirt behind his home.

My grandfather and grandmother are lions in my memory, inspirations. We would tell stories about them, shaking our heads in simultaneous awe and disgust. How they didn’t have garbage pickup for forty years, how even meat scraps went in the compost, so my grandpa had to keep away the raccoons with a .22. But every summer we ate up the rhubarb pies, the raspberries on vanilla ice cream.

My dad tells a story of how my grandfather would eat an entire row of lettuce in one sitting. Cut the whole thing, put it in a big bowl, sprinkle it with some vinegar and salt, and wolf it. I find myself thinking of all these questions I wish I could ask him now—what kind of lettuce? How did he start his seeds? Is it okay to plant when it’s wet out? What dirt did he use? What tools?

Why is it that we never think of the important questions to ask until too late? I want my own lettuce, some year when I can spend May digging my hands into my own dirt.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Hallelujah

It finally felt like spring today. I made quiche and listened to the entire Handel's Messiah and watched the resident blue heron wander around snapping up little frogs from the edge of the beaver pond. The garden is tilled, ready for my leeks and lettuce. Today I feel like it's truly Easter, in the old sense of the world--the dead god had arisen from his winter slumber. He is risen indeed.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Me as the eagle

Bean sprouts

On the boat, I had some of the same struggles that I’m having here in Aroostook County. There are some odd similarities between eking out an existence in the frozen north and on a deserted beach. The temperature is different, but in many ways, the landscape is the same. I even had a dream about it when I first arrived, imagining a windswept beach, with sand the color of snow.

One thing is the difficult of eating healthily without fresh things. It’s one of these ironies of our modern existence. All we seem to be able to talk about is health and wellness, and the way we can maintain the strength and youth of our bodies, at the same time as the health of the earth. But what if those things are mutually incompatible? Isn’t Earth Day today? I’m realizing how incompatible our desire for fresh fruit and vegetables is with any kind of connection to the earth’s natural rhythm.

I’m Greek by descent, and the so-called Mediterranean diet is my favorite—there’s little better in the world than sun-warmed tomatoes, fresh basil, and sliced feta drizzled with olive oil. Up here, far from the equatorial sun, you’re lucky if you can get kale to grow by July. So what do you eat in the winter? Potatoes. Moose. More potatoes. All of the things the television tells me are no longer “healthy.”

The produce department gets by only with the help of massive amounts of fossil fuels. When we talk about the developing world wanting the luxuries that we have, what they want are salads, grapes, strawberries. I don’t think it’s a conundrum we can solve. I’m trying to find that balance between what will bring my human body health and what will bring the earth health, and I don’t think it’s to be found in organic sprouted-wheat bread shipped from Australia, nor found in endless quantities of deer jerky.

My lettuce seedlings are nascent in the glass room/greenhouse, and I’m learning to sprout beans and sunflower seeds, to at least get some freshness in my diet. But I can’t resist the romaine lettuce or the mealy hothouse tomatoes at the grocery store, either. Nor can the rest of America, which is the reason for the climate fix we’re in now. Eat more foraged fungi, people. I suppose it’s the best we can do.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

You want me, my love

Full moon behind clouds

When I was in college, I was one of those girls that liked “every kind of music but country,” but now it’s pretty much my favorite music. Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams—they’ve all got to be top ten. That’s six out of the top ten slots, if I were to geek out all High Fidelity-style.

Not to mention Hank Williams, he of the honky tonk blues. Stories about Hank Williams abound. My favorite is the one where he went into a record producer’s office and promising him he could turn in a song by the next day on any topic the producer could name. The producer looked out the window and saw the hills surrounding Nashville. “A big house on a hill,” he said. The next morning, Hank showed up with “Mansion on the Hill,” one of his greatest classics.

He and his drifting cowboys summed up an essential part of what it is to be an American. A country singer is always getting into trouble because of drinking and partying in the woods, but loves his ma and his sweetheart just as much as he loves Jesus. I used to hear legends that Hank's song “I Saw the Light” was included in old Baptist hymnals. I’ve searched pew after pew, though, and haven’t found it.

And his yodel! A friend of mine on the PCT (shout-out to Solid) claimed that humanity’s two greatest artistic triumphs were break-dancing and the yodel, and I’m inclined to agree. Something about the way a human voice can jump from one register to another in a guttural slide echoes our saddest hearts, just like it does for aboriginal Australians or lederhosed Swiss. Those backwoods southern Scotch-Irish knew their way around sadness.

Hank's songs about heartbreak are his best. He’s a master of tragedy. “You only build me up to let me down,” he croons. His greatest song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” never mentions his lost love at all. It hovers around the things in his landscape, the lonesome whippoorwill and the sad moon all reflecting his own loneliness. The world outside echoes his internal world, and tells the only story he needs to tell.

Hank Williams died at 29, partly of spina bifida that plagued him, but mainly of hard living. There has to be a special level in heaven for great artists that die in the prime of their youth--Hank Williams and John Keats and Elliott Smith and Kurt Cobain. He left a legacy of heartbreak on vinyl, a record in song that’s perhaps America’s greatest.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Question authority?

Mind mapping. Maybe too much information if you zoom in.


A piece below I'm submitting to The Sun, on the topic of Authority. More mind-mapping this weekend... I hope it's all taking me somewhere important... And on the plus side, although my toes are numb right now, it is beginning to feel like spring here.

The first garden plot is finally half-free of snow, and Crockett says we can put peas into the ground April 20! Woo-woo!

**

James Dean is the rebel, his stodgy father is the authority. Lyra is the rebel, and The Authority is dying in a bombed-out popemobile. The dorm girls who listen to The Cure and wear black eyeliner are the rebels, my dorm dad, Uncle Art, is the authority.

I’ve never claimed or respected any authority. I’ve always placed myself on the other side of that line. The introverted girl on the sidelines, or the sneering teenager, leaning against a figurative motorcycle, or the twenty-year-old blowing smoke into a cop’s face. Questioning everything appeals more than having authority.

Like James Dean, I chose to question authority. I attended a boarding school for the children of missionaries in Manila, and my dorm dad took issue with any questioning. Especially of him. It didn’t matter how logical my question, how well-thought-out a position. Questioning authority itself was to be condemned, a punishable offense.

In my dreams, to this day, I’m chased by mysterious “administration officials” out to get me. I’m haunted by the administration as a symbol of the unforgiving God of my childhood, the God that mimics Lyra’s Authority, a heartless, cold, controlling bastard.

Authority isn’t cool. As I wave at thirty zooming by, I realize I’m at the age past which Bob Dylan, the apostle of cool himself, says I can’t be trusted. As I age, I find myself changing my opinion about authority, too. The jaded aura of cool that used to mean so much to me means less as my years pass. Instead, I realize that it’s always easier to stand against something than it is to stand for something.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be an authority on something. “Author” is hidden inside of the word neatly. What I most want is to author my own reality, to shape my future. I want my questions have the same value that Uncle Art’s answers did. I want to possess moral authority, for my opinion to have weight, and substance.

Part of that moral authority, and part of the answers to those questions, is coming to terms with the God of my childhood. I’ve come to understand that I can stand for something, but I can also submit to the will of a higher power. That the true author doesn’t mind questions—welcomes them, in fact. And that as much as I try to create my own reality, I’m not the Creator.

Maybe the essence of authority is knowing when to stand for something, and knowing when to let go. I’m still the rebel. The Creator has the authority.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Friday, April 15, 2011

We know that day will come

Reading the Sojourners blog the other day, I came across this interview with Rob Bell. In it comes the quote: “I’ve never felt more loved than when I realized I was doing exactly what I was created to do.”

Today I drew a mind-map for one of my characters. I taped a 18”x12” sheet of drawing paper to the cantina, and took two colors of pens, and drew a picture of what I knew. I’m not sure that I came up with anything, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

I woke up late this morning, because I was up playing motorcycle-racing games at the neighbor’s bus until one o’clock in the morning. Then a midnight snack of bean sprouts and rice (K’s first successful attempt to sprout mung beans!) and this morning I woke up to dirty laundry and a blank page. So I spent two hours mind-mapping.

I went for a walk, which I could do without snowshoes, because it was 32 degrees. If it’s under 35 degrees the snow is crunchy enough to walk on top of. I took photographs of the moon.

After coming home, I put cedar in the wood stove and burned my hand. My second serious burn in less than a week. A Vitamin E capsule broken open and rubbed into it works wonders. Then a dinner of chili in the crock pot, an episode of Fringe, some Buena Vista Social Club. It’s 11:47. I’m doing some child’s pose and going to bed.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

California-style, I found myself singin'

Little house at the edge of the woods

I wanted to post these Lessons from 10 Days of Self-Help. When I was in Chicago with my sister, we gave each other a yoga retreat, right in the apartment, while the girls were napping. We’d talk about life, where we were, and we came to the conclusions below.

I finally feel like I’m anchored here, like I can remember what happiness feels like. I don’t think you ever really know when you’re happy, but you know afterward. Every day I wake up, and think: was I happy yesterday? And I answer: yes.

It’s mainly because I’ve been following the path my sister and I talked about.

1. If you can't do it from a place of love, don't do it.
2. There are only ever really two options: do the dishes or don't them. (See below.)
3. Let it go.
4. No regrets.
5. Tell people how you really feel. Don't try to small talk if you can't.
6. If you don't have anything to say, just ask how others are doing and really listen.
7. Nobody is bad at yoga. Just like nobody is bad at anything else in life. Someone just may not have practiced a pose enough yet.
8. Practice makes perfect, or however that famous Buddhist guy says it. [“Practice, and all is coming.” Sri Pattabhi Jois]
9. Get rid of useless stuff that just drags you down in life. Each thing you own is one more thing to worry about.
10. Take care of yourself. Treat yourself kindly. Do not harm yourself.
11. Don't be scared to try the next difficult step, in yoga, and in life. You can't fail.
12. Quiet your thoughts. Let them drift by.
13. Don't try to do a million things at once and fit as many activities and achievements into a period of time (be it five minutes or a lifetime) as possible. Meditating, even amid the chaos, is just as important as getting stuff done. Often it is more important, because it allows you to know what must be done.
14. Peel off the band-aid. Admit you have a mouse problem. Or a rat problem. Or a lice problem. Or an alcohol problem.
15. Procrastination is fear.
16. Don't agonize about loading the dishwasher, doing the laundry, sweeping the floor. Do it or don't do it. Then you can do yoga.

Here’s the “do the dishes or don’t do the dishes” story, courtesy of festivus.net. (Click for the original post.)

I read another story that I’ve been trying to keep in mind when I get crazy angry about all the unfair things. The story was about a woman whose husband no longer drank, but was still what they call a “dry drunk” — still exhibiting all the symptoms of alcoholism, just no longer drunk while doing it. And she began to exhibit the symptoms of a dry drunk’s wife, still trying to control him, make him behave the way she wanted, believing it was his behavior that caused their unhappiness, and if she could change it, everything would be better.

She decided that things would be better if he took more responsibility for household chores, so informed him that he would now be doing the dishes from now on (this is called: setting yourself up for disappointment). The first night he was supposed to do the dishes, he just got up and left the house after dinner. She called an Al-Anon friend in a rage, explained the situation. “And so now if I do the dishes, he’ll think he doesn’t have to!” she said. “So don’t do the dishes,” her friend said. “But then the dishes won’t be done!” “So do the dishes,” her friend said. “But then he won’t!” “So don’t do the dishes.” “But they have to get done!” “So do them!”

Eventually she realized that these were truly her only two options. Should they be the only two options? Were they fair options? Those questions don’t really matter, because they don’t change the fact that those are the only two options. The third option, “Fix my husband,” doesn’t actually exist, but putting all your energy into it provides a great distraction from reality, and a great scapegoat for your problems. “If only he would do the dishes,” instead of, “If only I would stop trying to force him to change in order to fix my unhappiness.”

I think about that story a lot, whenever I get into a rage. I try to simplify my options. My co-worker, for example. Goddamn, I hate her. I hate that she asks me questions. I hate that she does her job wrong. I hate that I have to clean up after her… hey, wait a second. I don’t have to clean up after her. But if I don’t, then the work won’t get done! Then clean up after her. But if I do clean up after her, then she just keeps getting away with it. Then don’t clean up after her.

Monday, April 11, 2011

It’s a hard rain

Aroostook County clouds

Today I’m listening to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”, one of the albums my sister gave me in Chicago. I have a consistent weakness for 1970s singer-songwriters. In his song “From Hank to Hendrix,” he says: “the same thing that makes you live can kill you in the end.” What are those things that make you live but kill you in the end? Maine could be one of those things. It’s a tough life up here, a tough winter, and I’m beginning to understand why Mainers are so tough.

I saw the outdoor thermometer hit sixty today, for the first time. I still snowshoed across to the beaver pond. The snow is more and more swampy by the day, but clinging on. At least two feet in the front yard. Maybe rain tomorrow, maybe another layer carried away, so I can plant my peas.

I find myself thinking a lot about weather up here. Even though I’m one of those people bored by weather, typically. I have a hard time making choices based on weather. But living in Aroostook County, it’s almost as important as it was on the boat. I have to watch the fronts move through, watch them closely and pay attention.

I’m consciously choosing a life where things aren’t easy. As the snow melts down, up comes the mud. I saw the season’s first flies today, too. I’m doing it because:
“The only way to know the truth [about a character] is to witness her make choices under pressure.” --Robert McKee, by way of Donald Miller (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years)

Adventure makes you live. Beauty makes you live. Challenging relationships force us to define ourselves in opposition to other people. I’m walking a path where I experience greater extremes, both of joy and of pain. I’m choosing to live more courageously. Some days, as Neil Young says:
“Sometimes the beauty of love just comes ringing through. New glass in the window. New leaf on the tree. New distance between us, you and me. Can we get it together, can we still walk side by side?"

And as Ezekiel says: “When I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live. I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

Today’s lectionary. An apt metaphor for spring, as we approach Easter. As we watch for the natural world to wake.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

It had to die

Global warming? Not here.

My life here in northern Maine means a number of things, one of which is that I have time to catch up on all the New Yorkers I’ve avoided reading over the last two years. I’m reading the issue of January 4, 2010, right now, which has an article in it about Vincent Van Gogh. You know, he of the Don McLean song. “This world was never made for one as beautiful as you.”

Van Gogh, though is a central type of the modern artist. He doesn’t sell anything while he lives. He goes crazy. He kills himself.

It’s so cliched now as to be almost boring. But the point of the article is that he’s more than that. Gopnik says, “The real community is not that of charmed artists living like monks but the distant dependencies of isolated artists and equally isolated viewers, who together make the one kind of community that modernity allows.”

And then, “On the outer edge of art there is madness to pity, meanness to deplore, and courage to admire, and we can’t ever quite keep them from each other.”

Maybe the article means so much to me because I’ve retreated into my own Yellow House, to spend time in an isolated rural community, to devote myself to a calling. How many Van Goghs were there? “We all make our wagers, and the cumulative lottery builds museums and lecture halls and revisionist biographies. But the artist does more. He bets his life.”

I’m betting my life. I’m going all-in, throwing the dice, and betting it all on one throw.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Never knowing who to cling to

April Fools!

On Wednesday I wrote about faith being a full system of being, a thought that I have continued to mull over these last few snow-haunted days. I’ve written before about the challenge of mutually incompatible systems of belief. Maybe it comes from having parents that are missionaries, parents that are evangelists in the true sense of that word. They make it their life's work to change people’s systems of belief, from one thing to another.

The thing is, in our culture, we don’t believe that any system should impose itself on anyone else. That’s what we mean when we talk about “moral relativism.” I don’t want Aroostook County to impose its system on me, or vice versa. But certain systems of being cannot exist in the same world, mine and Osama bin Laden’s, as an example.

He can’t live in a world where women like me are allowed to live legitimate, solo, lives with purpose. According to him, my life should come only from my family, either from my father or my husband. It’s hard for me to believe that any religious text could completely support the suppression of half of the human race, but many Muslims interpret their religious scripture as saying exactly that. There are also Islamic feminists who have an avant-garde, progressive, feminist interpretations of the Koran, who interpret Islam in a cultural context, who support the equivalent of liberation theology.

That’s neither here nor there. My point is that I do attempt to convince other people that my system of being is the right one. That it’s correct for me to be out here in the woods, separate from the world, devoting my days and nights to the written word. I want other people to find the joy that I find in art, in the outdoors, in a life of withdrawal from our consumer addictions. I am an evangelist in my own right.

But if everyone were to live the way I do, our economy would fall apart.

Thoughts on a snowy April evening, alone, with the wood stove burning. A foot of snow falls tonight, as I write, on the first of April. Heavy, dense, wet snow, forecast to bring down power lines, according to the weatherman. I’m trying not to get discouraged. I’m trying to muster the courage to plant my little radish seedlings, to look through seed catalogs, to build a cold frame, to believe that spring is really, really right around the corner. It is, right? April is the cruelest month, indeed. It won’t be breeding any lilacs out of the dead ground up here.

It makes me remember my old masthead, the sailing vessel of the coast of New England, and all of the hope and freedom it conveyed to me, the blues and the purples. Things are different up here. Photographs, even. They're all black and white.