July 28, 2014 § 25 Comments
The boys returned home from Canada full of stories and fish. For five days they slept in a remote wall tent, fished all day, and lived off what they caught. If they missed Penny and me, they would not say, and I believe they would have been happy to stay up there for another week or more. Probably much more. They are fiercely drawn to the wild, undeterred by the mild discomforts and deprivations that living in nature demands. When they are not in the wild, they are reading about it. When they are not reading about it, they are planning for it or recounting it. It seems almost inevitable that we will lose them to a place of wider spaces and less human intrusion (they talk as if we live in suburbia), although of course much could change over the coming half-decade. But from what we’ve seen over the past few years, it’s hard to believe the die have not been cast. I suppose time will tell, as it generally does.
The day after the boys’ return, I drove to Woodstock, VT for the Bookstock literary festival, where I was to do a short reading and presentation. It was my first live reading from Home Grown, and I was a little anxious; I literally had not looked at the material for nearly six months, ever since I handed in the final round of edits. This the way it goes for me: By the time I’m finished with a project of such scope, I’m pretty well sick of it and furthermore certain it’s a load of rubbish. It’s inevitable, I think. You can only read something so many times before the varnish wears thin.
Anyway, the reading went well, and I was pleased to not hate the material quite so much as I’d feared. Indeed, there might even have been a handful of halfway decent sentences tucked into the selection I chose. For that, I am grateful.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about, because on the way down to Woodstock, I listened to the radio and on the radio I heard a call-in talk show about childhood wellbeing in Vermont. And it made me really sad.
I will cut to the chase and say that the discussion focused primarily on poverty and on the urgent need to create economic opportunities for Vermont’s underprivileged families because, according to the experts convened for the show, the best way to improve childhood wellbeing in Vermont is to eradicate poverty. Apparently, it all hinges on money.
Quickly, a personal aside: According strictly to financial metrics, we are poor. Our income last year placed us just below the poverty line for a family of four, a line we’ve flirted with for many years, although 2013 was the first time we’ve officially dipped below it. As anyone who reads this space knows, we do not consider ourselves poor in any sense of the word, but according to statistics and official metrics, we are. I mention this simply to provide a bit more context on my views regarding childhood wellbeing and its relationship to poverty.
I’m going to cut to the chase again: The problem isn’t lack of money. I mean, maybe it is to a certain extent; hell, we all need a little scratch to get by. But the bigger problem is that these families simply don’t have the resources to prosper outside the moneyed economy. They don’t have access to land. Or maybe they do, but they don’t have the skills to utilize that access. Or maybe they have those, too, but because they’re working two minimum wage jobs in their futile quest to keep pace with the economic treadmill, they simply don’t have the time to use these skills on their own behalf.
I thought about this a lot this weekend, as we gathered numerous pounds of chanterelle mushrooms from the woods below our house. I thought about how much of our prosperity is dependent on the skills and resources we’ve been so fortunate to cultivate and collect over the past 20 years or so. I thought about how, if we didn’t have these skills and resources, we truly would be poor. Struggling. I thought about how much of our freedom is based on nothing more than the simple fact that we are able to equal so many of our needs without relying on others. Or without relying on industry, anyway, because of course we rely on others. We rely on lots and lots of others, just as others rely on us. This interpersonal reliance is ok. It is as it should be.
We can live this way because we have land and because on that land, we have cultivated both the soil and our skills. We can do this because we have generous friends who have shown us how to do many of the things we once could not. We can do this because we do not expect to have more – or much more, anyway – than we need.
I’m going to cut to the chase once more (last time, I promise!): So long as we believe that the only way to improve childhood (or for that matter, adult) wellbeing is to lift everyone out of poverty, the treadmill continues. No, it doesn’t just continue: It speeds up. Steepens. Because for everyone lifted, someone, somewhere, is lowered. They may not live in our neighborhoods, or even our states. They may not live in our nation. But just because we cannot see them, the truth remains: There cannot be only winners, because if there are only winners, there are no winners.
There: Chew on that one awhile.
July 24, 2014 § 9 Comments
The boys are due home today, necessitating a whirlwind clean-up of all our unflattering habits. Gone the empty pork rind bags Penny dropped at her feet once the last crumbs had disappeared down her insatiable maw. Gone the crumpled Genny Cream Ale cans, all 37 of them. Gone the piles of flaked ash from the stogies we shared nightly, propped up in bed while we alternated between Fox News and Duck Dynasty on the widescreen television that has since been returned to WalMart from where we purchased it four days ago. And the Fruit Loop boxes? Not merely recycled, but burned beyond all possible recognition. We shall not be found out.
It has been quiet around here, to be sure. And busy. Over the past year or so the boys’ helpfulness has snuck up on us, and we did not fully appreciate how much they contribute to family and farm until they were not here to contribute it. We decided early in our parenting careers that we would not mandate any chores but those necessitated by Fin’s and Rye’s own animals.Our theory was that by not forcing them to help but instead by modeling our own appreciation of the work at hand, they would slowly come to embody that appreciation themselves and contribute of their own free will. We know too many adults whose memories of rural youth are tainted by the daily grind of chores they hated.
For years we struggled with this decision. Often, we second-guessed it, if only because for a while there, our theory seemed not to hold much water. It’s not that the boys wouldn’t help in times of obvious crisis. The fellas have always been drawn to tasks demanding urgency: Escaped cows, a mired plow truck, and so on. But until recently, their participation in the workaday chores – rolling up the sides on the greenhouses, for instance, or stacking firewood, or collecting eggs, or the million-and-a-half other tasks that have become as natural a part of our life as breathing – was less than gracious and at times Penny and I have thought ourselves fools. Soft. Naive. Perhaps even worse, guilty of failing to instill a proper work ethic in our children.
For reasons I do not fully understand, the boys have begun to contribute of their own volition. Or, at the very least, they have begun responding to our requests for assistance with something approaching good cheer. Indeed, earlier this summer it got to the point where we consciously stopped asking for their help, out of fear we were pushing our luck. Maybe our original theory was correct: That by modeling appreciation of honest labor and equanimity in the face of the occasional overwhelming nature of this life, we could instill these qualities in our sons. Or maybe the boys are simply developing a conscience; they see how we bumble and sputter, and they feel too damn guilty not to help. Yikes. I sure hope it’s not that.
When it comes to parenting and our children’s education and pretty much everything else having to do with our small life on this small hill, we don’t have any grand plan. True, we think a lot about our relationship with our boys and how to make it as strong and healthy as possible. We think a lot about cultivating autonomy, pleasure, and appreciation in our day-in, day-out lives. But mostly those thoughts lead us to a place of acting from our guts, rather than our intellects. From intuition, I guess, though that’s a fancier notion than I’m entirely comfortable with.
Sometimes I think we all know more than we think we know, but we allow the ceaseless noise of the world interfere. We let the constant clamor of expert analysis and metrics of progress and other people’s opinions stifle the quiet knowledge we all hold. For all the debate over the immersive nature of modern technology and whether it makes us smarter or dumber or thinner or fatter or happier or sadder, I often wonder if the real issue isn’t even being addressed: We don’t even have the opportunity to listen to ourselves anymore.
By-the-by, I’m doing a reading at Bookstock tomorrow. Ya’ll should come on down.
July 21, 2014 § 9 Comments
Nate took the boys on a five-day wilderness canoe-camping and fishing trip a couple hours north of Montreal. Fin and Rye are 12 and 9, respectively, and they went unhesitatingly, excitedly. They have never before been away from us for more than 24 hours. They will have no contact with us before their return. They will live in a wall tent and eat what they catch and probably not see another human until they emerge from the wild.
Penny and I watched them pull out the driveway yesterday morning, shed a few inevitable tears, and then did what I presume any long-married couple would do when suddenly liberated from their children: Lugged the carcass of the pig we’d killed the day prior into the kitchen and took up our knives. It was a welcome distraction.
I hear parents talk about “letting go” of their children. I may even have used such language before. But don’t kid yourself: We’re not letting go of them. They’re letting go of us.
As usual, we only think we’re in control.
July 18, 2014 § 14 Comments
One of the things you’re supposed to do between the time you finish writing a book and when it’s actually published is solicit blurbs. Blurbs are the fawning quotes printed on the covers of most books. You know, like this one, from my mother: “To my immense surprise, Ben Hewitt’s new book is actually halfway decent.” Or the following, from dear old dad: “Whilst I did doze off in the midst of the second chapter, it was only for a short while and I was able to finish it off without further somnolence.” (he’s always been fond of big words like “somnolence”)
I’m pretty uncomfortable asking for blurbs. For one, I know how busy most writers are, and I do not relish asking for their time. For another, I occasionally run into the issue of writers who write blurbs without actually reading the manuscript. One author I approached wanted to see only a couple paragraph synopses and the table of contents, presumably because she didn’t have the time to actually read the material but also wasn’t comfortable simply saying “no.” Honestly, I’d rather hear “no.” And that’s the other issue: There’s a bit of an unspoken agreement between writers that we’ll write complimentary blurbs for one another, whether we actually like the book or not. Whether we actually read it or not. It becomes a bit of a blurb factory, a system of quid pro quo back scratching that can feel vaguely icky, as if the person whose back you’re scratching forgot to shave it first (try getting that image out of your head!). My friend Rowan and I once joked that it’d be fun to write the exact same blurb for one another’s book and see if anyone notices.
Despite all this, I can’t just pretend that blurbs don’t matter to potential readers. I think they do, at least a little. I know that if I see that a writer I admire has nice things to say about a book I’m perusing, I’m more likely to actually buy that book. Or at least get it from the library. And that’s even with me knowing how the blurb game is often played. I mean, just imagine the power of a good blurb over the ignorant, unwashed massed who actually thinks it means something!
Except, sometimes I think it does mean something. I feel like I was incredibly fortunate with my blurbs for Home Grown, because it was really clear to me that the vast majority of those I asked for blurbs actually read the book. Charles Eisenstein and I had a fairly extensive back-and-forth exchange before he agreed to look at the manuscript; he’s gotten leery of writing blurbs for exactly the reasons I mention above and originally declined my request. “There’s no integrity in it,” is what he said, or something like that. To which I replied, perhaps a bit presumptuously, “there’s exactly as much integrity as we bring to it.” Ultimately, his blurb is perhaps the one I’m most fond of, in part because I know Charles wouldn’t have offered it if he didn’t truly mean it.
I really appreciated Richard Louv’s blurb, because I know he also read the book. Richard put me off, and then put me off again, and just when I’d about given up on him, his blurb appeared along with a real nice note. Honestly, I didn’t expect it. He’s a wicked busy guy with a NY Times Best Seller to his name. He didn’t have to do it. Scratching my (butter smooth) back wasn’t gonna do him a damn bit of good. And Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting, actually called me after he read the manuscript. We talked for something like an hour-and-a-half.
Anyway. I got a lot of blurbs for this book from people I greatly respect. I appreciate all of them, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have found authors who seemed genuinely unwilling to play the blurb game the way it’s too often played. Because I think what I said to Charles – however presumptuous it may have been – is true: There is exactly as much integrity as we bring to it.
Which, if you think about it, makes it no different than anything else.
July 17, 2014 § 18 Comments
I received the nifty shirt pictured above in the mail. Someone who reads this space made it and passed it along to my Uncle Kent who sent it to me, attached to a request for a photo of the shirt being used the way a shirt should be used on a small farm, which in this case was as a buffer between my pale, sunken (but deceptively strong and capable!) chest and the pig I dressed yesterday afternoon. I liked the shirt when I got it. I like it better now that it’s broken in.
Unless they’re gifted, I don’t get new clothes very often. None of us do. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time; probably it was early 2013, when Penny came home from the annual Darn Tough factory sock sale lugging something like 40 pairs of wool hosiery she’d paid less than $100 for. Not bad, and let me tell you, them are some good socks.
Most of our clothes come from thrift stores or yard sales. Penny’s real good about walking a fine line between thinking a season or two ahead and outright hoarding; really, that’s the only way to be a thrift store shopper. If you wait until you actually need something, you’re too late. I mean, you might find what you’re looking for. Then again, you might not.
One of the benefits of having children who don’t attend school is that they’re almost completely unselfconscious about what they wear. The fellas think nothing of wearing second-hand clothing and they’re not bothered the least by the occasional “girly” print or style. The other benefit is that there’s really no reason for their clothes to be clean, at least not a regular basis. So we simply don’t need as much clothing. Nor do we need to do as much laundry. I guess that’s what’s called a win-win.
It’s stunning to me how much people are willing to pay for clothing. Not long after Penny brought me home a real nice pair of Johnson Woolen Mills wool pants she bought for a ten spot, I got online to see what they’d cost new. I can’t remember the exact price, but it was closing in on $200. Wowza. Or even a new pair of work pants – hell, you can spend $50 for a pair of Carhartts. It’s not that either of these items aren’t worth it; truth is, if I had to buy new clothes, I’d pay what I needed to get the right stuff. We use our clothes hard and we’re outside a lot at times of the year when nudity is a really bad idea (the rest of the year, it’s a like friggin’ free love artist colony for all the skin we’re flashing. There. That’ll sure-as-shootin’ keep you from stopping by unannounced)
To be fair, I am working off a stash of brandy-new work pants I bought on deep discount a bunch of years back. Sometimes, I think the only thing standing between me and letting my waistline go all to hell is the simple fact that I’ve still got all those pants I need to fit into. I don’t mind a paunch; it’s the idea of losing those pants that kills me. I think I have three pair left; once those are gone, I’m really gonna start stuffing face. I’m also slowly working my way through a quartet of leather work boots I bought at Willey’s in nearby Greensboro maybe a half-decade ago. They were having a huge closeout sale and I got all four pairs for less than $100. That was a good score.
Penny’s even more frugal than me. With some frequency, she still wears a pair of shorts she owned in high school. I remember her having those shorts patched by a seamstress for $1 in a little fishing village on the island of Tobago, where we went for a bike tour a few years before we started breeding. I remember telling her maybe it was time to retire those old shorts. That was at least 15 years ago.
Anyway. My intent was merely to post the photo of me in my new pig-blood-christened shirt and say “thank you” to the kindly person to sent it my way. But as usual, I got to blabbing. I guess old habits die hard.
July 16, 2014 § 23 Comments
I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the things I really dislike about this medium is how one-dimensional it is. Or maybe not one-dimensional, but certainly lacking the complexity and nuance of what it really means to live as we do. Some of this is my fault, of course. For instance, I could post pictures of what I lovingly call the “white trash zone” directly outside the walkout door from our basement. This is where our garbage accumulates between our annual dump runs, and where we store the cast-off minutia of our rusticated existence. A half-full bucket of hydraulic fluid. Old windows. A random assortment of metal roofing pieces, too small to be of any real use and too big to discard without the nagging sense that someday we’ll wish hadn’t gotten rid of them. Of course, this never happens and the pile only grows bigger and you’d think after enough years of this, we’d put two and two together. But no one said we was the sharpest knives in the drawer.
Or I could be more honest about how difficult certain tasks are and how even now, six or seven hours before we’re due to begin, I’m already half-dreading slaughtering the pigs. “You make killing pigs sound so easy,” someone said to me recently and I felt a little guilty. Because it’s not easy. Actually, it’s pretty friggin’ hard. Messy, too. I don’t love it. I love being done with it. I love what it results in. I love knowing I can do it. But actually doing it? Actually spending the afternoon elbow deep in fat and muscle and blood and guts, sweat beading down my face? Not fun.
Or you might have noticed I haven’t posted many pictures of the inside of our house. Part of that is because we don’t spend a whole lot of time indoors. But the other part is because it’s often pretty messy. I mean, not disgusting or anything, but not something any sane person would aspire to. Piles of clothes in random places. Stacks of books where stacks of books don’t necessarily belong. Right now, a kitchen table covered with fishing tackle, as the boys prepare for a trip with Nate. Mud on the floor. And so on.
I think this is one of the dangers of this whole social media thing. We see what people let us see and generally what people let us see are the things that make them look good and perhaps, by comparison, make us look (and therefore, feel) bad. In a sense this is no different than real life, except in real life as you become closer to people all the other stuff is slowly and inevitably revealed and they either learn to embrace you for the holistic person you are or decide you’re an asshole and move on. But in this medium, we can keep hidden anything and everything we choose to hide. We let the rest of the world peer into the fractional view we offer and if they feel in some small ways (or perhaps in large ones) their own lives don’t measure up, it’s no concern of ours.
Of course, I have no idea if that happens here. Perhaps I flatter myself to even consider it a possibility; more likely, people see what’s going on ‘round these parts and thank their lucky stars they don’t live like those irredeemable hicks up in Cabot. In a way, I sort of hope they do. It makes me uncomfortable to think that anyone might aspire to our life. That’s not what this space is about, although I can see how to a certain extent, I’ve unconsciously cultivated an element of that. I post the pretty pictures. I write the pretty words. But the ugly stuff? I keep that to myself.
So, let me be clear: The house is a mess. The boys just finished squabbling over something ridiculous and although they are at peace now, I know them well enough to know another squabble is forthcoming. I do not look forward to killing the pigs and what’s more, the area immediately beyond our basement door is approaching squalor status. And did you know my office is a shithole? It’s true. The walls are unpainted and the floor is unfinished and I think I might last have swept it during that slow period in December 2012.
Like all of you, I’m guessing, we’re just doing the best we can. And the truth is, it’s not necessarily something to aspire to. It’s just a life.