Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bridgewater, Maine

Only in Maine do we have pink moss

Today is the first full day of my true solitude. K. has left, drifted away with the wind for a stint on the Maine Appalachian Trail. He claims he's getting to the New Hampshire border and turning around, but I know the wiles of the trail. She's an alluring mistress. I know if I was hiking Maine, I'd hear the siren song of Springer, calling from Georgia.

So I'm here alone, here with photographs to nail to the walls, seedlings to start and plants to set, beds to build and compost to stir, fires to stoke and dishes to wash. I do a good impression of a female alone in the wilderness most days, but for the next few weeks it'll be true.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Aroostook County, Maine

Sky above the clouds

My first seeds are in the ground, although not the real ground, the fake ground that I put into plastic six-packs and keep in the sun in the glass room. Although K.'s been hard at work here, and in the real ground, his real ground—we already have garlic peeping up, planted last fall, and beets and spinach and chard—and a pea sprouting. And one hardy lettuce, the one I used to think was a speckled romaine, wintered over in the cold frame. Believe it or not.

These things are so enjoyable to me, and I always hesitate to speak of them because it feels like bragging but I'm beginning to believe that maybe I'm somewhat good at this. Not really, because even just a generic search of farm and garden blogs makes me realize that I'm way down on the totem pole. There are people out there, in Maine, already eating garden greens. It took us till June last year, and maybe it'll take us that long again.

I called Johnny Seed today and they are out of asparagus and blueberry plants. They run out in January. Who knew? And my never-ending war with the herbs goes on. I persist, but I can't get them to turn into the provencal herb garden of my dreams.

It feels good here, workmanlike. The snow has passed. I forget how much I miss the green earth, the green world, the green tunnel that closes me in on my long walks to the back of the land. It's black and white for six months, and then the green comes back. I battle with place, but this place is drawing me in, claiming me.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

En route from Chicago, Illinois, to Aroostook County, Maine

1385 statute miles
SW winds 5mph

At the gate now, heading back to the place that's the closest thing to home, I sit beside blonde college students in a purple headband and skinny jeans, reading George RR Martin, across from a middle-aged man in an orange baseball cap, reading The Economist, catty-corner from a younger man with Bose headphones and a Columbia fleece reading on his iPad. On the plane from O'Hare to Hartsfield-Jackson, on my way back from the airplane's head, I counted fully twenty people reading books on paper or LCD, no matter which. Methinks the death of prose has been greatly exaggerated. It's good to reminded of such things after filling my cup to overflowing at the font of literature, good to be reminded that all we do who write is not in vain.

Back to the earth I go now, back to plant lettuce and chard and broccoli, to dig my hands in the soil and walk while I watch the sky. I learned a couple of important things that have stayed with me after the festival, and I want to put them into words before I or anyone else forget them. First: the subconscious. I became aware that writers, in writing, are painting on the cave walls of the subconscious mind of the audience, which is why it's so crucial that writers pay attention to their own subconscious. All art, and I include in this category adventuring, and farming, is not about creation as much as allowing the spirit to flow free. It's about “getting out of the way of the story,” as Marilynne Robinson put it.

Second: specificity. Unexpectedly, this word came from the two essayists of the bunch, writers exploring the quotidiana of their lives. But Robinson spoke of that, too, of “creation being continually addressed to us.” That's a quote from Calvin himself, who believed that all of reality is a gift, each moment of reality a part of a slate wiped clean by God. And only in seeing reality as a gift can we see it as it really is.

Third: stories can only be told after the trauma of experiencing the story is over. This lesson I learned from Kate Braestrup, the only Maine writer at the conference, and the chaplain for the Game Warden Service here. It's a smaller lesson, perhaps, but just as important, and I feel that the link between all three is an emphasis on allowing one's art to flow within the larger flow of the river. “We step into the river. We are and we are not,” says Herodotus. “Time goes slowly when you're lost in a dream,” says Dylan.

It's all cinched together by the homily preached by Marilynne Robinson. Perfect love casts out all fear, says the Bible. Is it really that simple? Don't be afraid, and do what you love. Jesus says our burden is light. It's possible that's all he meant.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Underlying themes thread their way in golden type through these days of feasting, of literary inspiration and intellectual challenge—one, of course, my newly acute awareness of the subconscious. Larry Woiwode, in his proem masquerading as a lecture, spoke of the mirroring pool of metaphor all artists draw from, how drawing detail from that well allows something new to be created between the mind of the writer and the reader. Jonathan Safran Foer said that when he writes the word “tree,” the reader conjures a tree. The writer writes, the tree appears, like magic, on the blank screen of the imagination.

This morning, Brian Doyle and Patrick Madden (yes, I realize all of them are men. Shall I diatribe? No) explored the genre of essay, and I finally realized what I've been doing here all of this time—betwixt all of the food writing and travel writing and spiritual writing and sports writing--I've been writing short, unworked, mostly bad essays. Patrick Madden's website is called quotidiana, and he uses it as an overarching metaphor for his work, the idea that in the essay we draw from the ordinariness of our quotidian lives, finding in them the realization that there is nothing ordinary. We need to sharpen our attentiveness to the daily holiness in each moment. I was given permission, the permission I didn't know I craved, to follow my trail of associations down the rabbit holes they lead me, as they always do.

Yesterday morning, in a bad mood after a panel in which my questions were not answered, intimidated by the participants and fearing my journey might be wasted, I dawdled by an entranceway, waiting for my sister. I heard a girl on her cell phone, her closer shoulder pointing in towards the wall, grinning, face bright with joy, blonde hair curled. She ducked away from me so I couldn't hear, so I couldn't steal her secret. Still, I heard: “I better go. I love you,” she said. I walked away. When I came back, she was still talking, still transcendent with love, maybe first love, newborn. It's been a long time since I've seen it.

New love is a sharp thing, with edges unworn by time and lethargy. I'm still very much in love, but a love aged, by life, experience, pain.

Then, today, a different girl, hair slicked back against her head, intent, focused, her knees knocked together, sitting on the steps outside the student union, a phone clutched to her ear. (Is it any wonder we name these things after a prisoner's cage?) I only caught a fragment--”yes, I know, but when you yell at me, I...” and then the sentence carried away by the rain. How long between those two eternities? How long?

Brian Doyle says I don't need to close here, to tie up my daily meanderings with some hard-won wisdom. I don't need to, in short, preach. I can let those two images hang together in time, drawing up story from the collective pool that rests below all of us.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Border five miles from here

Yesterday morning I awoke at 5:30 a.m. to pull on jeans and sweatshirt and drive the four-and-a-half hours to Portland, where I left my car in long-term parking and took two planes and another four-hour car ride to arrive here. I'm in Grand Rapids, home of Calvin College and its Festival of Faith and Writing, and today I heard: Larry Woiwode, Kathryn Erskine, Jonathan Safroen Foer, Amy Frykholm, Gary D. Schmidt, Bethany Pierce and half a dozen more. I heard from Christian writers and Jewish writers and Muslim writers and people who write about sex and the Sabbath and blind typists and eating disorders and from a panel of four—count them, four—Dutch-Canadians.

The night before I left, I dreamed of giving my grandmother's intricate glazed ceramic tea cups away. I gave them away to careless students who broke them as together we drank tea. Breaking my grandmother's tea cups—my subconscious came up with a better metaphor than I ever could have for squandering her inheritance.

But am I, in fact? No. At the end of the first of three thirteen-hour days I am full, replete, overflowing. “Anything worth saying is unsayable,” said Kevin Moffett, quoted in a lecture today, “that's why we tell stories.” I'm in my communitas, people who believe in the power of words skillfully strung to together, who believe on building word atop stubborn word, who believe that all art carries meaning.

This prayer, from another writer, whose name blew away from me as ephemeral as wind: “God, although You needed no help from us, you named us to be namers.”
That's the calling.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Aroostook County, Maine


Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum
Are throwing knives into the tree
Two big bags of dead man's bones
Got their noses to the grindstone.
The first lines from Bob Dylan's “Love & Theft” seem to be a jab at violent, capitalistic America and how ridiculous it is. I recently saw for the first time Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, and although the film fell into some narrative cliches, it reopened to me the world of Lewis Carroll, one of the original magical realists. I don't know if Carroll meant to poke fun at capitalists with his doddering Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, but Dylan certainly does. What good do they do echoing the words of someone else, parroting each other?

What good does it do them to keep their noses to the grindstone? What good does it do us?

These are questions I've been asking myself as I return to my triune vocation: adventurer, writer, and now farmer. Money is an idea that I return to repeatedly as I explore how to survive in that vocation. I keep thinking about money itself, what it is but slips of paper representing obscure and possibly irrelevant concepts. It represents nothing but calcified energy.

In my mailbox when I arrived here was a brochure from a retreat center in the Berkshires, the Rowe Camp, and I noticed that they accept the possibility of barter. The vegetables I grew last season, now briny and spiced in mason jars, are also preserved labor. Why does the work I put into those not have the same value as dollar bills?

These thoughts come to mind especially as I spend my inheritance, the prodigal daughter, on another conference, for the chance at finding an agent for my unpublished book. It's just money, I tell myself, just dollars in the bank. I have to follow these leads if I'm going to believe that I'll achieve success in this field. I want to believe that it's God guiding my steps, that the people I admire most are the ones, like Lin and Larry of Seraffyn (see above), who followed their dreams and didn't let any ostensible obstacles stop them.

But my heart quails.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

En route from Marion, Massachusetts, to Aroostook County, Maine

The day of our departure, we were able to visit a wooden boat yard and see Seraffyn of Victoria herself, an amazing privilege. More photographs later. It certainly wasn't the best thing for a person trying to convince herself to stay put aground.

436 statute miles
38° F
Winds calm
Arrival time: 6:30 am

In the car last night, driving from Buzzards Bay north, around Boston, through the bright lights of the big dig, across the highways that bridge New Hampshire and again into Maine, I kept thinking how I was going home. It felt alien, the feeling foreign to the point of being uncomfortable. But there's part of me that feels that way, even now that I'm here, nesting my knees beneath my desk, my fingers on the keys. Home is merely something I convince myself of.

We towed the new boat behind the Volvo, the new boat whose coat of green paint is bringing out a host of possible names: Pickled. Pistachio. Pequod. Brillig, which has nothing to do with green, but is my personal favorite.

Today, after a five-hour morning nap, I pulled the first couple of rows of rocks from the ground, rocks cleared last fall that frost has heaved up to meet my fingers. Fifty mile-an-hour gusts during one storm while we were away broke a sheet of glass from the cold frame, and now hairline-fractured plate glass paves half of the garden. It's already past time to plant peas and spinach, past time to start beet seedlings. The earth is calling.

And so are the words. After this journey, this conference ostensibly undertaken for other people, I decided to pursue a trip this summer just for me, for the sake of my own art, and now a multitude of possibilities are heaped upon me, and I don't know which I should choose. I've been gone too long. Part of me just wants to hole up, with my desk, my words, to spend mornings with the blank page and afternoons with my fingers in the soil. Is that just fear calling? Or is it home?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

There she goes

The new boat, at Meadow Island

When Easter rolled around on Sunday, I wanted to write a post about Ishtar, and Isis, and how the Christian year mimics that of the pagans, but how that doesn't make the celebration of Easter, and the blood of the Lamb, the dying God become the risen Lord, any less legitimate. Now it's Wednesday, and my Lenten discipline is over, meaning that I can watch English premiere league soccer (Queens Park versus Swansea) and eat popcorn to my heart's content, without having to worry about posting links to global warming articles or quotes from Moby Dick before midnight. (Actually, it's Moby-Dick. There's a hyphen.)

I didn't do so badly this Lent, other than my failure, most days, to post before midnight. Do these Lenten disciplines make any difference? Make anything better? That's the larger question. If I had to answer it, I'd say Lent is about that cycle of death and rebirth, the eternal circle that all of us celebrate every year, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Because that's what the season of darkness is about, the season of darkness and now the season of light that begins. It's about death and rebirth, and how the green fuse drives the flower back up from the ground, and how we remind ourselves of that by taking things away from ourselves and then giving them back. My sister posted her Thailand pictures today, though, and I'm reminded how I hate the seasons, how I want it to be 95 degrees year-round. Everyone, at least in Maine, uses that as a selling point: we have all four seasons!

But what if I just want one? Endless, never-ending, unchanging summer?

So God dies and is reborn, and crops die and our reborn, and the sun goes away and comes back, and we celebrate that now, during spring, celebrate our own return from the darkness and depression. The passage of the seasons, the cycle of the church calendar, they remind me of the passage of time, how every day that changes is different, and new. Maybe that's why we want to drift from those reminders, into a world separated from the earth, and plants, and the cycle of growing things, how we want to dissolve into a digital world of pixels, of fictional equatorial sun, a place that only exists in the imagination, and, perhaps, at the actual equator. No matter how we separate ourselves from them, the seasons still pass.

Now Lent is over, and spring begins in truth. Nothing for it but to roll on, into the cruelest month.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Friday, April 06, 2012

There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried evangelist, St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling, watery prairies and Potters' Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slubmerers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.
--Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Sorry to keep quoting our American master, but he strings words together with such aching beauty, such melodious sorrow, enough to sing me to sleep--it seems a tragedy that he spent the last nineteen years of his working life as a customs inspector. I'm glad I didn't read him on the boat, for to read such words of the sea--the ineffable put into words--would have made me despair forever. Heck, it almost makes me despair now. Some writers are just too good. It makes one think the well has dried up.

Read this book: Why Read Moby Dick.

And this one:

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Gotta start feeding our souls

Pavement shadow (not my photograph)

Why are we always cruelest to those we love the most? I know at this point it's almost a cliche, or at least a truism, but it remains true. Maybe we take those closest to us for granted, or maybe we're trying to drive them away. Maybe it's a way to avoid looking at ourselves too closely, to avoid being present in each moment as we love. It's a Christian cliche that love is not a feeling, but an action, but whichever it is we--or at least I--fail to love actively, consistently, kindly.

I made it to a yoga class this evening, for the first time since I've been in Massachusetts, and I was reminded of the first limb of yoga, ahimsa, the principle of non-violence. It's a fundamental tenet that no practice should involve violence to yourself or another, hence no pain, and no competition. Because all competition is a form of violence, the desire to defeat the other, a desire to be better.

It's that ahimsa that perhaps is lacking in our closest relationships as we compete with each other for attention, for regard, over who's working harder or doing things better. We even compete about who's right and who's wrong, who folds tee-shirts or steams vegetables correctly.

Coming back from yoga I glow with the attention I've given myself for the past 75 minutes, the mindfulness I've gained of my own core strength, the power of my own breath, my ability to overcome challenge and discomfort. But only by not competing with myself, by not harming myself, by not causing myself pain. And as long as I beat myself up, I beat up others around me. I've been reviewing by Julia Cameron, and I found this reminder last night:
"If I had more time, I'd have more fun," we like to tell ourselves, but this is seldom the truth. To test the validity of the assertion, ask yourself how much time you allot each week to fun: pure, unadulterated, nonproductive fun?

For most blocked creatives, fun is something they avoid almost as assiduously as their creativity. Why? Fun leads to creativity. It leads to rebellion. It leads to feeling our own power, and that is scary.
It may seen a non sequitur, but it's not. Fun is the opposite of cruelty. Fun is the food of love and creativity both. Yoga felt like nonproductive play tonight, with no violence, no competition. It's a good reminder to carry that joy around with me, as a weapon against the toxic sludge I can allow to steal my mindfulness.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

"Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things." --Edgar Degas