Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Please, please listen to me children

Memorial Day cat

Mason Jennings continues to speak to me, so much so that I urge you again—go give him some money. If I must use these bytes to make fund-raising pleas for the artists I believe in, then so be it. I'll repeat, as I did in March:

The sun comes up and we start again
The sun comes up and we start again
Be here now
No other place to be
This whole world keeps changing
Come change with me

The whole world does keep changing. Winter metamorphoses into spring, which shifts, subtly, slowly, to summer. Time turns this place into home, despite all of my restlessness. I'm investing in photo frames, hanging pictures on the walls. Investing in blueberry and asparagus plants. Sinking roots into the soil.

Part of that means becoming genuinely part of the community around me, to grow where I'm planted. I resist jealousy when I hear fellow farmers are planting on days when I'm slacking. Farming is like yoga, right? No competition in farming. Just getting things to come up from the ground.

I went out on an all-terrain vehicle for the first time yesterday, along the road they call Deep Woods, a rutted, dusty farm access road. It was a blast—the sky studded with clouds and blue and the fields all around and the wind and dirt in my hair. I loved it. Carbon consequences be damned. Then we went back to R.'s and had a bonfire and barbecued steaks and hot dogs and ate them with mustard pickle from last year's garden.

God's in his heaven and all's right with the world. Be here now. There's no other place to be.

All the doubts that linger
Just set them free
And let good things happen
Let the future come

I'll plant more tomorrow, build more. One more day older. One fewer day to live. And still, only now is given.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The cotton is high

Photographs from this evening:

Walking to the neighbor's for some cable television

Moths on the screen remind me of Annie Dillard.
K.'s photo.

After fourteen months, finally putting up pictures--a lithograph a friend made in college, plus others.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Like time indefinite

Blue beetles nibble at young alder. Or maybe poplar.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Could you lie

Tonight a pallet bonfire, the first of the season, burning the old wood that clutters the lawn. We must have five lawnmower cages, and still the yard burns with dandelion blossom. It's the weekend, time to survey the work of the week: cucumber and pepper and squash planted in the glass room, beets at last in the garden. All by the sweat of our brow, as per Genesis.

The first butterflies and mosquitoes and black flies. And the hummingbirds are back, the little jerks. It's a good thing they're so cute, what with spending the winter in Costa Rica. I wish I could fly along with them.

I woke up this morning to find a little goldfinch, its chest as yellow as sunlight, battering itself against my bedroom window. I tried to rescue him, but I don't know if he could be rescued. He wanted to get behind the glass, or at the pretty little goldfinch in the glass itself. His name should have been Narcissus.

Monday, May 14, 2012

I cannot sit sadly by your side

First trillium

Walking uphill to the neighbor's bus last night, where he has a bonfire most Saturdays of the summer—and although we're still only hitting low fifties during the day, we only have a month until days start shortening again, so as far as I'm concerned, summer is in full swing—I walked between the two beaver ponds, one on each side of the dirt road. The peepers are so loud by now that standing in the midst of them like that almost hurts my ears. I guess summer is in full swing for them, too. I can almost drown in the sound, the sound of warmth, of heat, of long days.

I stand still in the middle for a minute, let the noise wash over me. Wash me clean. Although not so clean, because I'm standing there with a bloody mary in my hand. And that's what it means for me to be a flawed person in a physical world.

It's why I love Jesus, the bloody specificity of his being, of God interceding in human history at one moment in time, to badly paraphrase C.S. Lewis.

I feel like my post from Friday is a coming out of the closet in some ways, a public admittance of my desire to be a being of pure thought, to leave my flawed body behind. No wonder gnosticism was the most dangerous heresy for the early church. Jesus was fully human and fully God. He lived here in this messy, ugly, broken, breathtaking world with the rest of us.

Sometimes I feel convinced I need to start a church of Annie Dillard. We need to exegete Pilgrim at Tinker Creek like it's Scripture. Next rant about American culture and supermodels, just tell me to take a hike. Then I can walk past the bare stumps that soon will succumb to moss, past the alder gnawed by blue beetles, and remember, as Annie Dillard taught me, that beauty and death are two sides of the same coin. The peepers remind me. The trillium reminds me. Even my own aging body reminds me.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Oh lord, big fat woman

Great-great-grandma. We share DNA.

I'm sitting at my desk, listening to Leadbelly croon the above-quoted song, from 1936. Here are some lyrics:
Big fat woman
With her meat hanging on her bone
She was born and raised in old Kentucky home
I love my woman and I tell you what I do
I love my woman and I tell you what I do
I love my woman and I tell the world I do
Oh Lord
She's so good to me just like I do you

I woke up this morning and I found my baby gone
I woke up this morning and I found my baby gone
I was so mistreated
But I wouldn't let on
Today we're told that food is bad, that it possesses a moral quantity. We're told to deprive ourselves of food. We're told that food should bring no joy. We're told that the highest good, the most possible value we can have, especially as women, is to look like this photograph:

You can never be too skinny or too rich, say the fashion magazines. She who wins, dies, read the pro-anorexic sites I used to frequent.

The fact is that farm wives look like the first photograph, my great-great grandmother, not like the second. Being a farm wife means spending all winter eating potatoes, and sauerkraut, and sausages made from the nasty bits of the pig you slaughter in the fall. It means spending all winter gathering layers of clothing and fat around yourself, to prepare yourself for the dearth of nutrients you'll suffer through during the cold season. That's what it used to mean. Now it just means self-hatred.

These beliefs are completely dysfunctional, and they drive all of us, those of us on the wrong side of the line, the vast cultural divide that no one who's ever been skinny understands, straight into the arms of the donut. It doesn't help for you to call me disgusting, to roll your eyes, to say: “I don't eat that. I eat healthy food. Do you really need to eat that?”

Another song, from 2008:
I cannot emphasize enough that my body
Is a badly designed, poorly put together vessel
Harboring these diminishing so called vital organs
Hope my heart goes first, I hope my heart goes first

We are beautiful, we are doomed
--Los Campesinos! [Buy an album.]
People have been telling me that I'm fat, or “beefy,” as my mom likes to put it, since I was eight years old. At a certain point, say when I was eight-and-a-half, I started believing it. Even the day I finished the Appalachian Trail, when I was burning 7000 calories a day, I was a full fifteen pounds heavier than the medically approved median weight for my height. What hope does that leave for me with a career as a writer, spent with an ass spreading in a chair made of wood, and a winter spent eating potatoes and shoring my body up against the cold?

And still, even now, people on television tell me how disgusting and repulsive I am. Last night on The Colbert Report, the director of the National Institutes of Health brought in a five-pound chunk of fat and slapped it on the table to show all of us overweight Americans how horrible we are, how much better we need to be doing. As if I don't punish myself enough already. As if I don't know how to punish myself further. It makes me, it makes all of us, want to obliterate ourselves with a pound of ice cream and a shotgun blast to the head.

You don't know how it feels, I want to scream to all of you skinny bastards. You don't know how it feels to know: I'm never going to be a normal person. I'm never going to be able to eat like a normal person. I'm never going to be able to eat when I'm hungry. I can never eat what I'm hungry for. I can never listen to my body and answer it. Not without guilt, without shame, without punishment from the culture at large, condemnation from the people I love, and judgment from numbers on a scale. No. What you want from me, what you've always wanted from me, is for me to starve myself. You want me to be miserable. You want me to suffer.

Childhood obesity is a problem. But I know, from personal experience, what it does to a child to tell her that she's somehow less, by being bigger, than everyone else. We have a giant cultural problem with food, clearly. It's a more dangerous addiction for us than alcohol, drugs, or sex, far more dangerous than any addiction except, perhaps, gasoline or television, but still our culture sandwiches ads for Weight Watchers in between ads for Burger King and ads for heartburn drugs.

It's not a problem of farming, or advertising, or big food companies. It's a problem of psychology. Until you can teach me not to hate myself, not to spend my life trying to be something other than I am, it's a problem for which I have no solution. If I did, I'd be a Victoria's Secret model.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

I want to reach out

Today is drear, gray, and overcast, the poplars just beginning to be touched by green along Snow Road. The rain is making the loggers take the day off, which means blessed silence, except for the U2 I blare at my desk. Make hay while the sun shines, they say, another adage that has real meaning now that I live on a farm. I should have planted my beets and broccoli this weekend, when I had sun, even if it was Sunday, my Sabbath.

We have a single lettuce that over-wintered in the cold frame, from which I have already eaten several delicate leaves. It's a lettuce I thought was speckled romaine, last year, but which now looks closer to a spotted trout-back, according to Johnny Seed, and which becomes far too bitter to eat by June. So we did get vegetables in May, despite our spring vacation. It's the time of year when there's too much to do, in every area—dirt to be tilled and enriched and sown, new beds to put in, new crops to try—and I don't always feel like doing any of it.

It's days like this one that I'm happy farming is merely my avocation. I'm trying to be more focused, more driven, even more disciplined, dare I use that loathsome word. I loath that word, but it's one people keep chirping at me, as if it's the solution to life, the universe, and everything. Often I believe that's the opposite of being true, that discipline is dust in the mouth, and the true answer is joy, joy in all things.

Life is a daily practice of mindfulness, of coming to my desk, coming to the blank page, coming to the earth, coming to the mat. I know it, and as Bob Dylan says, still I'm learning it these days. How do I become strong? By a daily delight of being in a single place, of being present in time as time moves forward.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Talking to your picture


My neighbor is cutting trees: beech and birch and cedar, spruce and tamarack and ash. It's decimated back there. At first I believed in the sustainability of Maine's forestry initiatives, that the state didn't allow clear-cutting on the scale I've seen in Alabama. But as it wears on, day by day, the endless drone of the chainsaw, a crunch like bone as another tree collapses, the whine of the skitter sullying my Aroostook County quiet, I feel like I'm about to collapse, too.

I'm aware of my hypocrisy. I burn cedar all winter in the wood stove, for heat, and I feel especially hypocritical about it now when it's a bare forty degrees outside and there's a full moon—and still I burn the wood. I don't want to burn diesel in the furnace, I don't want to smell petroleum roasting in my house. I also don't want to start a big fire for little ole me.

But I'm cold. I'm still a hothouse flower, a cutting of jasmine from tropical shores. So I burn the wood that my neighbor next door cuts, if only in a figurative sense—I burn the cast-off wood from the lumber mill the next road over. I don't know where he's taking the trees he's cut that border my road, what he's doing with their carcasses, but there's a good chance I'll end up burning their cast-off ends, too.

I believe in well-managed forests, in biomass energy as one of the few solutions to the carbon crisis, but when it's happening right next to me, when the trees that are feet away from my walking path, are turning into nothing but barren, shuddering corpses... I find it difficult to stomach. Not to be melodramatic or anything. My desk is made from wood. My house, table, chairs. It's just the view of it up close that's so painful, that makes me want to swear off the stuff altogether.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Tears are in your eyes

I'm working right now in connection with AMG International, the organization my parents were missionaries with when I was a child, on a project driven partly from my desire to better the world, a desire born of my time spent in Bangkok and Manila. I remember driving past “Smokey Mountain,” the towering pile of garbage that housed thousands of families, on my way to the airport in Manila. That was when I was on my way home to Bangkok, home for Christmas or fall break, to spend two or three weeks with my family before coming back to boarding school. My earliest awareness was of being surrounded by constant poverty, fully aware of the presence of suffering in human life.

Clean water is clearly one of world's foremost development problems, and Vestergaard-Frandsen, the organization AMG is partnered with, operates under the principle of profit with a purpose. It's an interesting financial model, one I've worked on before, at Opportunity International, which when I was there was working on a project to open the first for-profit bank aimed at the poor, the Opportunity Microfinance Bank. These are beautiful financial models for those in favor of pure capitalism, that a profit motive doesn't have to be soulless.

It reminds me of this quote I heard (and quoted—it bears repeating) last month from Ana Martino, a New Zealand activist: “We have to reassess the fundamental structure of the modern market, rather than trying to fit all unpaid and informal labor into the existing market parameters. Now the process of reassessing those structures should seek to move the conversation away from classical economic examinations of selfishness, scarcity, competition, and efficiency, and towards examinations of necessity, surplus, consumption, and community.”

I heard a similar idea from Gar Alperovitz, a political economist who wants a new economic paradigm. “There is an emerging 'new economy,'” he says, “which empowers communities and workers, not corporations.” Keep in mind that these communities and workers will still be making money, be for-profit enterprises, but they'll be making that money for themselves. In such models, management would make about five times the average worker's salary, instead of 343 times as much, as at the nation's largest companies, according to CNNMoney.

He speaks of new for-profit community models, where workers take over a specific industry, say, towel-washing for a large hospital, and themselves share the profits for an environmentally sound and locally sourced business model. I can see such things blooming, see rows of attached greenhouses connected to schools, see carpenter's shops and musician's guilds, see the whole medieval village of my dreams, but functional, with each part fitting into the next.

And Lifestraw could be part of that, if only in the largest possible sense, which is of bringing basic services to those whose biggest health concern is diarrhea. My favorite product is LifeStraw Family, which offers water cooler style water for easy access. And if we can fund clean water, using the best practices of capitalism, then why wouldn't we?