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


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


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 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.


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.