Category Archives: Life

Things that matter

IMG_2398

This morning’s Facebook feed had one of those “your memories” photos from a year ago today. I’m wrapped in a blanket, one eye and part of my nose showing, and wishing it would be warm. Last winter was brutal, no doubt about it. Today is very different, with blue sky and sunshine currently holding out against the encroaching clouds that are pushing in over the mountain. According to the weather channels, the gray skies are going to win, but right now the sun glinting on last night’s very crunchy snow is beautiful.

When I pulled into our driveway last night, I had to brake hard. Standing in about fifteen feet from the road and grazing on the grass at the edge of the pavement were two deer. One spooked instantly and ran off to the north, but the other stared at me as if to say, “Oh, is this your driveway?” It sauntered off into the yard about 75 feet away, stopped, and looked back at me. I’m pretty sure it said, “Could you drive on now? That patch of grass is pretty tasty, and you’re in my way.”

I peeked out at it once I was in the house and it was right back where it had been, and stayed there for about fifteen minutes. The gardener in me kind of wanted to shoo it away, since the rotten animals have been nibbling the tips off of all my young trees in that field, but I’m still always so amazed to see them, and feel kind of honored that they stop in our yard.

Moments like these–sparkly snow, deer so close you feel like you could walk up and pet them–are good reminders of what matters in the world.

It’s 5:31 p.m. and as dark as midnight

I haven’t posted much since early spring. But I have been writing every day.  As I go about my chores, sit and stare out the window, hang out with friends, I’m composing at a furious rate.

I’ve written about my “a-HA!” garden moment, when I realized that all of the things I’ve been doing to be a “good organic gardener” have gotten in the way of being a sane organic gardener…and therefore, kept me from being a particularly good one.

I’ve written about my excitement over growing more than 19 carrots (10 pounds!).

I’ve written about the presidential primaries, and the candidates on display for our amusement entertainment education.

I’ve written about my frustration, sadness, and impatience with the fact that Larry’s company won’t let him work from the farm, though it’s fully possible.

I’ve written about the abundance of flowers that grow around the house and land, and how they make every day better.

I’ve written about being overwhelmed by peppers and spaghetti squash, and finding recipes to help use them. (Jalapeno-Bacon Poppers with an Avocado, Cream Cheese, and Cheddar filling.  Trust me.)

I’ve written about working as a personal chef, and having it go well while being absolutely exhausting, and figuring out how I want it to look so that I enjoy it.  (Cooking in other people’s houses for them, and putting it on their tables family-style, and hearing the hum of conversation and laughter.)

I’ve written about the hesitation I feel about becoming “an official business.”

I’ve written about missing-not missing the classroom and teaching. Wow, do I miss talking to kids about good books.

I’ve written about the amazing (mostly) books that I’ve read.

I haven’t written any of it down, though, because I have really felt that the world is so very loud and full of words already.  It seems like we are all so busy trying to be heard that no one is listening anymore.  I’ve enjoyed (mostly) just listening.

But now it’s 5:31 p.m. and as dark as midnight, and I’m going to need to fill the dark with something, because the garden is almost done and winter will be long.  So it’s possible that I’ll be here a little more often.  At least until spring, when the light is back and there are seeds to plant.

Except for this

Our house seemed like the dividing line for tonight’s sky. To the north of us, the clouds were a heavy, low-hanging gray with one bright circle of blue. To the south of us, puffs of clouds scooted across toward Vermont, while the sky around them was a clear-all-the-way-to-another-galaxy icy blue. At the tree line between us and the neighbors, a herd of deer stopped to graze on the newly uncovered ground.

The wind is gusting at us from the northwest, but the spruce trees outside my window seem to only be doing a slow-motion wave in response. Those trees are currently home to a male and female cardinal, a whole bevy of black-capped chickadees, and other birds that I see flitting about but haven’t yet been able to identify.

With the turning of the calendar to March, the earth around us seems to be breathing again. The ice that had everything locked in its grip is losing its hold, and the snow and low temperatures seem unable to stick around for very long. The air outside no longer feels like a slap with an accompanying two-fingered jab up my nose, and when I was scrabbling around in the garden this morning, I found chives starting to poke their pointy green heads out of the ground. Green things! Growing!

As the snow and the earth start to melt, gravity and the slope of the valley are pulling the water toward the lake to our east. The driveway has a creek running down its right side, and the culvert opening across the street by our mailbox has a whoosh of water flowing out of it. At night, the puddles in the yard crust over with ice again so that our evening walks include that satisfying crackling-crunching noise.

Most of the main vegetable garden is showing again, and the tiny hoop tunnel I put over the escarole last November is still standing (though I’m placing no bets on the remaining two escarole plants). The garlic and shallots are still covered by their blanket of leaves, and the row of asparagus gleams a faint yellow when the sun hits the layers of straw. Last fall, I planted daffodils and tulips at the ends of rows, and I walk by and squint to see if any of them are making an appearance. Not yet, though it won’t be long.

I have celeriac, onions, and parsley seeded, a gentle easing-in to the extensive seeding that will happen in April. There are forsythia, lilac, and apple blossoms just around the corner. (And mud. A lot of mud.) The clothesline will be stretched between buildings soon, and that fresh smell will fill the drawers again. The grill will be rolled out, fired up, and cooking by Easter weekend.

I don’t particularly like winter, except for this: without winter, the euphoria that is spring in the Northeast doesn’t happen. I am reveling in the changes.

Love me, love my unpainted walls

     The southeast corner of our bedroom had to be repaired two years ago. The drywall corners hadn’t been sealed by tape and mud, so over time the corners pulled away from each other. We had a contractor repair the problem, and said that I’d paint.
     It’s still unpainted.
     The hallway upstairs needs to be painted; the closed doors in my office need to be painted; the drywall in the living room needs to be painted.
     I get tired of painting. So I live with the consequences of not doing it. Consequences that, in the scheme of things, are not so bad. I’m a little embarrassed when I give a tour of the house to someone visiting for the first time, but I just brightly say, “We still have some work to do!” Eventually, I’ll get all of that painting done. Love me, love my unpainted walls…or something like that.
     One of the things that I have learned about myself is that I can live with a certain amount of dirt and mess (as long as no one is coming over) if there are other things I’d rather be focusing on (and there usually are). The dog hair tumbleweeds into corners, the piles of cookbooks and recipes and life’s paper trail multiply, a jacket lives on a chair-back for a week. But I might be absorbed in a good book, or cooking a bunch of new recipes, or planting seeds, and that thing is more important than the other stuff (as long as no one is coming over). I tell myself that we’re building up our resistance to germs. (My mother is probably banging her forehead on her computer desk right now. I know, Mom, you taught me better. Love you!) The exception is my cooking area, which I keep cluttered-but-clean. Because otherwise, gross.
     I know this isn’t particularly socially acceptable—we’re all supposed to have sterile-looking Pottery Barn houses—but I don’t particularly care, usually. There are, of course, those days when I look around and say, “Holy cow, this place is a pigsty!” and I get busy with the vacuum and dust rag. Or there are days, like today, when I have to clean up after our latest construction project. (Today’s is red brick dust from our chimney repair. Worth it, but ugh, that stuff is EVERYWHERE.) But I’d rather read, or write, or try out new recipes, or…you get the picture.
     I’m learning to stop beating myself up about these things, because as that meme/poem/thingy that goes around the internet every so often says, dust if you must, but there’s more to living than a clean house. As long as no one is coming over.

I’m sorry, Ms. Heard

I am supposed to be writing about my writing space
but the snow is melting so fast
I think I can hear it.
The sun is moving west over the mountain
and its light is golden on the
winter-browned and tangled grass.
The breeze is blowing the oak tree’s branches
and the tips of them are a reddish brown
waiting to push out their new leaves.
The water is running in rivulets down the drive
and along the road; it puddles in low spots
and forms a rapid through the culvert.
At first glance, everything is destruction,
but a closer look reveals the swelling buds
that will be peach blossoms.

Inner Critic

“What makes you think you have anything new to say?”
“That’s not interesting to anyone but you.”
“No one’s listening to you.”

“You have no culinary training; anyone can read a recipe; you’re not doing anything anyone else can’t do.”

Here’s the thing:
That inner critic is really, really loud. It yammers on constantly, and is especially loud whenever I “put myself out there” in a vulnerable way, like with writing or starting a personal chef service. It is reinforced by every negative comment someone makes, intentional or not. It’s a hungry beast that feeds on every idea I have, sometimes turning them to bloodied corpses before they even get past vague thoughts.

I really, really fucking hate the inner critic. There are days it’s so loud, I just want to scream so I can drown it out. But then it reminds me that random screaming isn’t socially acceptable.

For as non-rule-following as I can be, my inner critic is hyper aware of what’s acceptable, what’s “normal,” and what could make me stand out in an undesirable way. I am walking proof that women absorb the messages sent in commercials, magazines, classrooms, etc. One of the loudest voices is about my weight. What the hell does weight have to do with gardening well, writing well, or trying to start a new business? Absolutely nothing, but our culture has told me that my weight makes me less-than, and that attitude creeps insidiously into every corner of what goes on in my head.

At the same time, every other part of me is shrieking, “I DON’T CARE!” If this is what other women experience, then it really isn’t so surprising that stepping outside the normal boundaries of what has been seen as acceptable has sent so many women around the bend. To look at everything society says we should be, and then reject the bits that just don’t fit, takes chasm-jumping confidence. Being ourselves, as every motivational speaker says we should be, is just not as easy as that trite, two-word saying makes it sound.

But the cost of not being who I am is too dear. And so when the inner critic gets too loud, I have to make it go away. I tell it to fuck off. (Lady-like isn’t one of the socially acceptable things I’m particularly concerned with being.) I get absorbed in something else: a book, a recipe, the garden. Idle hands aren’t only the devil’s work, they’re also a cue for that inner critic to start its monologue. The busier I am, especially if I’m doing something I love, the easier it is to tune that voice out. It may be loud when I start, but as I get more involved, the voice gets quieter and quieter, and then fades away entirely.

In a recent post on the blog Orangette, Molly Wizenberg referenced the NPR show “Invisibilia,” and an episode on fear. There is discussion of the equation that thinking + time=fear. The truth of that whacked me so hard on the head that I had to laugh. It might not be true for everyone, but it sure is for me. That fear is my inner critic doing its thing.

I didn’t look forward to this exercise in Heard’s book when I read about it this morning. Because who’s interested in reading about my emo-inner voice, right? But I decided to tell that inner voice to fuck off, and here I am.

And here’s this morning’s sunrise. Thrilled to have been awake for it.
IMG_1121

Writing Hides

Writing hides in the fluffed tail of the fox
and the crushed grass under the spruce
where the fox rested for an hour.

It hides in the earthy smell of the dirt
and the miniscule celeriac seeds in the packet
that I cradle in the seed trays.

Writing hides in the browned patches of grass
and the broken lily stems in the rock garden
where the snow is slowly receding.

It hides in the earlier rise of the sun
and the lavender light on the mountain
as Spring makes its way north.

This morning’s thinking-about-writing with Georgia Heard’s book asks, “Where does writing hide?” The chapter starts with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” which I have loved since the first time it was read to me. It was my Valentine’s Day poem for my students every year, and then we wrote our own versions. Today’s is my most recent incarnation–some ideas never get too old to explore. I love that this is different every time I write it. This was an especially comforting writing today, since it’s snowing again.

Again Today

The fox came again today,
trotting along the garden fence and
making a right toward the house.
I watched him from the kitchen window,
where I was washing breakfast dishes that
I decided could wait.

He settled in an ever-expanding patch of grass
beneath one of the spruce trees, and I
settled in a crouch by the office window.
He groomed his ragged tail until
it fluffed out to twice its size, and then
gave the rest of himself a good going-over.

My knees decided we needed a different perch
so we stood at the bathroom window.
After a quarter of an hour, he curled up and
went to sleep, and I went back to dishes,
keeping my eyeglasses on and
checking on him every few seconds.

The fox slept under the tree for about an hour,
gracing us with his presence.
Though I knew that we had nothing to do with it,
I liked thinking that he felt safe with us.

The “Poetry Inside Us All”

Still following along with Georgia Heard. I didn’t quite follow directions…but those who know me probably aren’t surprised.

The Fox

Yesterday, a fox ran by the bay window
where I sat at my computer.
He was a tawny-beige,
black legs, black ears and
a black tuft where his body and tail met.
His tail was lighter, almost blonde,
with a circle of fur stripped away.
Thin and furtive, he moved with no hurry
stopping to sniff the patch of grass where
a bird lost a fight last fall.
I moved from window to window
to follow him, startled
by how close he was to the house.
Winter has been a deep freeze for weeks,
with more clouds than sun.
Watching him, I imagine that
we feel the same hunger.

IMG_1101
Not the best photo…but here’s the fox!

Pockets of home

I’m re-reading Georgia Heard’s book Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way, to try and jump-start my writing each morning. Her first chapter is about querencia, which is the Spanish idea of “a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home.” It took some thought to land where I did, drifting first over the places where I’ve lived with my parents and other family, through bookstores, and around the house in New York, but none of them felt quite right.

I realized that’s because I feel most at home in the kitchen and the garden and the classroom. I am in control—though I know that to some extent, that control is an illusion—in those spaces. A cutting board of ingredients, a tangle of weeds , a group of young faces—I know what to do with all of these. I relish the challenge and the familiarity they simultaneously provide. My sense of querencia is directly affected by how capable I feel in these spaces. Any kitchen, any garden, any classroom can make me feel like I am in my safe space.

While I love trying new recipes, and my wall of cookbooks can attest to that, my favorite cooking is intuitive. What do I have in the refrigerator? A small cabbage, parmesan cheese, some corn, a pound of ground beef? In the pantry I have canned tomatoes, garlic, onions, and elbow pasta. I pile them all on the counter in front of me and begin the chopping: halve the cabbage through its core, insert the knife point into the top of the cabbage’s core and cut down to the base, enjoying the cool slice-and-crunch sound it makes. Repeat on the other side of the core, and then repeat with the other half of the cabbage. Pop out the core and begin the rhythmic slicing into thin ribbons, the clack of the knife on the cutting board making a soothing pattern of sound.

By the time I have made the ingredients their appropriate sizes, I know I’m going to make a soup. There’s no broth, but that doesn’t matter. Water will pull the flavor it needs from the vegetables, and dried herbs– bay, thyme, peppercorns—will help tie things together.

In the garden, the smell of the soil under my hands is a subtle scent on a dry day and more pungent after a rain. I set out with a list of chores, but once I run my hands over the sage and dust my shirt with yellow pollen as I walk through the tomatoes that list becomes a vague sense of, “I should…”. The smells of the garden addle my brain. I stop where I am and attend to what needs doing right there and then. This tomato needs tying up, that section needs weeding, those beans need picking. Hours later, I mentally surface and find that I’ve completed most of the things I planned to do and have forgotten some. I have also forgotten to stop for lunch. I achieve total focus—in a strangely unfocused way–in a garden in a way I seem unable to find in other places.

The classroom is a different kind of home, though there is some overlap. I always had a list of things to do, but when dealing with adolescent humans that list could be side-tracked easily. Sometimes, we had to deal with misconceptions that arose, and other times, we had to follow where a student’s connecting idea led. Sometimes, we stuck to the list. Regardless of what happened, the interplay of words and laughter and furrowed brows as we all puzzled through and thought about new things gave me a sense of contentment. Watching the unfolding of learning on student faces—it could show up in a face that went suddenly, completely still with wonder; in the quirk of an eyebrow; in an actual shout of, “Oh my god, I get it!”—was the reason I knew no other job on the planet could be as important.

Leaving that last home has been hard, and perhaps its absence is why there have been many days since last June that I felt adrift. There have been many spaces in my new life where I haven’t felt skilled, and at 43, feeling unskilled leaves me less comfortable than it did at 23 or 33. It has been more challenging since winter began, which means the garden ended. To an extent, we carry home within us, but when we are disconnected from the actual place of home, calling it up inside of us is sometimes a poor substitute. I am learning that I have to make new pockets of home, teach myself new capabilities, so that on the unsettled days I can reach a hand into a pocket and wrap my fingers around its comforts, like a smooth, rounded stone that fits just so in the palm.