Friday, June 29, 2012

When you go out to play

Dill patch, so far unsuccessful.  Jerusalem artichoke, horseradish, rhubarb, echinacea--in clockwise from bottom right.
Then this paragraph from Raymond Carver:
He pulled a chair out and sat down at the kitchen table in front of the big ashtray. He closed his eyes and opened them. He moved the curtain aside and looked out at the backyard. He saw a bicycle without a front wheel standing upside down. He saw weeds growing along the redwood fence.
That paragraph is perfect.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Do the things we choose

Didn't work as well as I'd hoped. Maybe my ribbon is dying, in addition to crumpling and ripping through. Physically decaying as I type. As far as I know it hasn't been changed since my grandmother's time, so it's not a big surprise. That's the next step--find a ribbon, buy some anti-corrosion oil, figure out why I can't get a justified left margin or a single space when I hit the space bar. Still. This was fun. I'm absolutely addicted to my Hermes Rocket. Some photos:

My desk--basil, Burroway, siblings, coffee, typewriter
Crumpling ribbon driving me crazy.  One does understand Jack Kerouac better than previously.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Check one, check two

All the seedlings should be in the garden already.  They're not.  The flowering plant, however, was brought back from beyond the grave. 
What I really want to be writing about, most of the time, is food. How since food is the only thing I need in life, other than art, it behooves me to learn how to grow it. Or maybe it's just Grandpa Jenks in my DNA, speaking down through the century. Those dairy and potato farms understood the value of pulling things up out of the earth.

Maybe it's why I've chosen farming as my avocation, although calling what we do here, on a plot barely bigger than a garden, is by no means farming. Maybe I just want to reclaim that word, and the idea that one can be a farmer simply by stating that intention, to create something of value for my own body by cultivating the soil and the things that grow from that soil. Recently I asked our cooperative extension representative at what point a garden stops being a garden and starts becoming a farm and even she didn't have an answer.

Why have all of us suddenly returned to a goal of being able to provide our own food for ourselves? It seems a good sign. Today was documentary Sunday on Maine public television, maybe my favorite television day of the week, and the best one was about Bhutan, whose benevolent philosopher-king has instituted a policy of “gross domestic happiness.” GDH is founded on environmental responsibility, economic development, good governance, and a strong connection to a unique culture.

Watching the interviews of families of sustenance farmers in the countryside, families collected together in hot springs, laughing together in the steam, or cultivating their rice fields in the mountains—it seemed the idyllic version of reality I so often envision. Government officials emphasizing the importance of leisure time for the families, and chances to pursue individual spiritual practice. Everyone seemed engaged in art as well as farming—people played native guitars, or sang, or danced, or designed elaborate costumes or masks, or practiced archery. Most of the country folk hadn't even heard of the national policy on happiness. But the happiness itself glowed from their faces and was present in their words. They spoke of the debilitating effects of advertising, now that electricity and television are reaching the farthest flung areas. Advertising creates desire, and desire creates suffering. No wonder so many Americans are so miserable.

“Money?” they ask, almost to a person. “What good is money? If I had money I'd just be afraid of losing it. Happiness comes from inside, and no one can take that away.”

They say it better. Perhaps because they know it better than I ever will.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Mark and his wife in their Pittsburgh farm

One Father God
One Mother Earth
One life to live
For what that's worth
Everyone born
Is bound to die
Let us love now
And not ask why
For we are all God's children, oh
We are all God's children, yeah
We are all God's children

--Mark Williams, “All God's Children”
 I'd like to officially stage an online barter, as a child of the internet.  My acquaintance Mark Williams, husband of my sister's best friend, is an artist, a singer-songwriter.  I stole his album long ago, and have benefited from it for many years.  I'd like to trade a review for the album, work for work.  As the essays I've been paid for most frequently are music reviews, I'd hope it's a fair trade.

The album is Borrowed and Blue, a suite of songs recorded for his wedding, and released only as a party favor, unfortunately unavailable on iTunes and Amazon.  Maybe if you send him ten bucks he'll burn you a copy.  The songs are incandescent, joyful.  Every time my iTunes shuffle gives them to me, on the wings of amor fatie, I accept them, love them more, weep silently at my desk.

As a songwriter, Mark finds a balance between the grand faith of hymns and the intimacy of a prayer.  It's so rare to find artists with this level of optimism in their lyrics, optimism but not an ounce of sentimentality.  His lyrics soar, admitting the reality of death and fear and brokenness but denying evil its power, proving, by the richness of his voice and the dense furry breadth of his guitar, the truth of his lyrics.

Williams is a deep thinker and a careful poet, a theologian and a mystic.  It's a constant surprise to me that he's never received fame, although whether he'd look at such a fate as a gift remains uncertain.

He'd probably take it as he takes most things:  with hope, and faith, and music.  His voice has a raspy immediacy that makes me these raw recordings feel like he's singing to his closest friends, as, in fact, he is.  Like Nick Drake's basement recordings or Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, the music has a fearless honesty underlining his earnestness.  This is someone who believes that Jesus can save us.  Who believes that the only way to meet our greatest doubts is with art.

Each song on the album feels inspired.  “Walkin' Down the Road” colors his world with the reality of darkness.  “I've been mean, I've been cold / I've done things I've never told,” he sings, and all of us are there with him.  “I have lied and I have bled,” as have we all.  “I Shall Not Fear” brings an interpretation of a biblical song, the 23rd psalm, continuing the ongoing metaphor of life as a road we walk down, one heavy foot in front of another.  “Every traveler on this road / Is forced to bear a heavy load.”  But--
When the cold winds blows
And I'm all alone
When I'm tired and lost and all alone
I'll speak the truth with every breath
And walk this road, yea, unto death

And I shall not fear
I shall not fear
The one that gets me every time is "More (Give It All Away)." So much of American culture is about always needing more, wanting more--it's in every commercial, every heart.  We want more money, more cheap plastic crap, more of everything.  But Williams subverts that concept, makes “more” mean so much more, making it into something different.  More is our siren call, but God Himself gives us more.
I am less than I desire to be
And there's no question that the fire in me
Wants more, more

Then I offer on my own
Wander off too far from home
To return
Then he soars into the bridge:
For we must
Give it all away
Give it all away
Give it all away
Give it all away
To return
That's honest, unabashed Christianity. It's an anthem.  He admits to pain and brokenness, but is honest about the things that Christ actually said, the way Christ asked us to live, to follow his “Way,” the path he followed.

Or this line, again from “Walkin' Down the Road”:
Jesus Christ, I am afraid
That you've seen the mess I've made
All along I've been ashamed
Such exquisite honesty. It's the best kind of gospel music, in the sense that he's telling us good news.

For those who think “Christian music” is an oxymoron, for those doubtful of a spiritual realm, for “every boy and girl dying to be free,” Borrowed and Blue is a profound work of art.  Williams said in this recent interview that he considers his songs “modern field music.”  Although for many of us the fields where we work have changed, the need for a call and response that creates unity among our many voices remains.  That's what this album is, and each song here is a masterpiece.

Williams is a farmer and an artist.  His day job is running an urban farm in the city of Pittsburgh, a program that had its funding slashed by government austerity measures this year.  But Mark keeps walking down his road, blazing a path for the rest of us who want to plant gardens and make art.  I can only aspire to be like him to build community by growing food, by walking down my own road.

Erica Jenks Henry, my sister, called me out in her interview, for the half-thieving magpie way I have of assembling music, a guilty obsession I've tried to justify publicly on these pages.  But I hope by writing these words that not only can I justify my theft, but also  can prove that it's been for a greater purpose, because more people need to hear Mark's music.

He ends the album with one last song, “Hallelujah.”
This world got a hold on me
Breaking my bones
Tying me down
Lord knows I want to be free
On my own I don't know how
I don't know how

So I sing hallelujah
The chorus echoes with of its own hallelujah chorus, a mournful harmonica underlining the truth of our own pain.  It's that way for all of us.  Call and response.  Hope and despair.  One imagines the hymn ringing out in the voices of those growing our fields, building the new life that all of us can imagine, if we build it together.  On our own, we don't know how.  But if we have artists like Mark Williams leading the way, maybe we'll find our way to the home he imagines.
Love the Lord
With all your heart
Love your neighbor
And there's a start
For we are all God's children
We are all God's children

In this life there's no guarantee
Tomorrow's a day we'll never see
I don't care about yesterday
All I want to know is who you're going to love today

We are all God's children, oh
We are all God's children
We are all God's children

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Loch raven

June sky
The sky today was low and lean, the shade of purple it only gets this time of June. I forget how lucky we are, in these long, long days. The sun only hits at this angle this far in the north. Only here do we get this quality of light. Praise be to God.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I will not give up on you

Clippings from the lettuce (and radish!!) as apertif

This weekend, at the tractor pull, I met a new Aroostookrat—a disc-golf enthusiast who lived for a year on Cape Cod. We talked about belonging, how I'll never belong in a place as thoroughly as he does in the County.

He said, “Yeah. But there's all kinds of belonging."

And it's so true, how he can belong here and not, not the way his brother or his cousin do, his brother who runs the grader at the pull and his cousin the heavy-equipment mechanic for John Deere.

So. To belong and not to belong. How everything I do is an action towards home, when home is nothing but belonging.

I'm reminded of Animal Dreams. Two sisters: both sojourners—but one carries home with her wherever she goes, and the other constantly hungers, yearns after it, and never finds it. I want home.

Or some other of the characters from “Boogie Nights,” Don Cheadle and Melora Walters, who fall in love: one's black, one's white. Maybe that doesn't matter, or shouldn't matter, but is it wrong to love the experiment Anderson performs with the concept of race, by pairing those two up, without ever mentioning race, or interracial romance, or miscegenation, or the horror of the fight for civil rights, or any of the other Faulkner-esque topics perhaps only fraught with significance for those who spent formative years in the American south?

It's beautiful, almost a party trick, the way their bodies crowd together in every shot, the contrast in their pigment merely a thing of aesthetic beauty.

A digression. But maybe not. Because they, too, find home with each other. They belong nestled together, on the screen and in our consciousness, finding happiness in a mirror image, like a photo's negative.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Tell the rose not to bloom

Full moon behind clouds

Today the first radishes, spread at their cut slices with butter and salt. And the greens, chopped in pasta sauce. Yet it doesn't feel like summer, yet. I guess it isn't—every year I forget how late the season comes.

I've been thinking a lot about the prodigal son. Here's the painting:

I love how Rembrandt echoes Jesus in his telling. Henri Nouwen wrote a whole book about it, The Return of the Prodigal Son , telling the story of the the painting as one of homecoming. How the parable teaches us that even though one son runs off to spend his inheritance on whiskey and women, and the other stays at home to farm, that both have merely the challenge of loving, and being loved. When the prodigal son returns, after being forced to eat pig slop, his father welcomes him. With an embrace, and a celebration. With no condemnation. With nothing but love. All of us are asked to be all three of those people. This, at least, is according to my brother, who's been encouraging me to read it.

I see it in the painting, though. The surrender of the prodigal. The constant love of the father. The qualms of the brother.

How much of my faith is tied into feelings of constant guilt? Perhaps it's being raised a Baptist, or an American evangelical, descended from the Puritans, or just my own familial culture. But I am tormented by guilt.

I feel guilty for not planting kale and carrots and radishes earlier. I feel guilty for not being able to thin my little precious baby seedlings, but then I feel guilty if I thin them. I feel guilty for eating too much, for not doing yoga enough, for failing as a farmer and a writer and a woman and a human being.

I'm not exaggerating. Is it ridiculous? Yes. Am I aware of that now? More. Maybe. Yes. But it doesn't change that I do this whole farming thing, and the business of living, with fear and trembling.

I'm fighting it now, a lot more than I ever did before. And you know what that parable says? That no matter what you do, no matter who you are, no matter how far you run, no matter the ways you fail, you'll always be welcomed by the father.

I watched the movie “Boogie Nights” the other week for the first time. At the end, the young porn star Dirk Diggler, after running away from the family he's created for himself, has lost himself in drugs and has spent all of his earning. He comes back, finally, to the only family he knows. He comes in and says:
DIRK: Can you please help me?



Dirk has broken down in Jack's arms. Jack hugs him and pets his head. AMBER
enters, brings Dirk a glass of water and sits next to them on the couch.

JACK: It's alright, boy. It's alright.
It's another of these sacramental moments, when I realize just how big love can be, just how big it has to be. Dirk Diggler is exactly the prodigal son, as, I suppose are all of us. Or me, certainly. Maybe only me. And everything is forgiven.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

I know that you would take my hand

Asparagus roots

When putting asparagus plants in the ground, one digs a trench twelve inches deep. As the asparagus grows, one fills in the trench around it. It spreads out a network of roots that eventually shoot up in the spring, at which point one cuts down the asparagus. Sort of like fiddleheads, the one wild-foraged vegetable around here that really seems worth it.

We gathered probably two pounds of fiddleheads, the immature fronts of nascent ferns, last weekend, for omelets and stir-fry, and they were delicious. So I've finally eaten fiddleheads from right here, and maybe, in a couple of years, I'll eat asparagus, too. Those are the actual roots in the photograph up there. Real roots.

I'm digging in real roots. It's actually the first time that I've invested money in something that I then put in the ground to be there, like, really, forever. Or not. Twenty years is average for an asparagus, but Crockett, of whom I am a garden disciple, says he saw a plant in Kew Gardens that had been producing spears for 118 years.

So, theoretically, those wispy roots could be pumping out asparagus when I am long dead. It's a sobering feeling. I write a lot about home, about what it really means, but maybe that's it. Digging things in the dirt that will last a long time. Making plans to stay in a place for a while. It's so alien to me, and yet, already, in my second year, I'm happy to be able to identify the wildflowers.