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.