February 9, 2016 § 6 Comments
We’ve been in the house for a bit over a week now, and are slowly figuring out how to inhabit it. Or maybe how it wants to be inhabited.
This is the second house we’ve built for ourselves, and I suspect it will be the last. But then, I thought that about the first house, so who knows. Truth is, I loved building this house. I mean, I freakin’ loved it. Way more than the first, and I had a pretty good time with that one. In part, I think it’s because this time around we had a much stronger sense of what we wanted; our vision was clearer and more established. Our skills are stronger, too, and that’s no small thing. Plus, we had amazing help. I know I wouldn’t have loved building this place half as much without that help. I guess what I’m saying is that I could actually imagine building another house, crazy as that sounds. The moving part I could do without, but another house? Absolutely.
Early on, we decided we wanted to do all the stuff we hired out on our old place. For instance, we installed the septic system. We developed the spring we found up in the woods, bubbling up from the base of a ledge-y outcropping. We ran the power and phone lines. And so on. Partly, we did these things because doing them saved us a lot of money. But we also did them because we wanted to better understand how these systems worked, if only so we’d know better how to fix them should they fail.
One of the unanticipated benefits of doing this work ourselves is that I now harbor very specific memories. For instance, when I open the tap at our kitchen faucet, I can picture the water running through the pipe my friend Jimmy and I unrolled into the four-foot-deep trench he dug with his excavator. It was a miserable day, raining like all get out, not just cats and dogs but lions and friggin’ wolves, maybe 45 degrees, and I was clambering in and out of the trench, head-to-toe with mud. Not quite shivering, but close, my hands all pruned up and tingly-cold. The roll of pipe was 1,000-feet long, and heavy as fuck, and it was all I could do to keep the damn thing turning. Jimmy spelled me for a bit, and because he is stronger and generally tougher than me, I was glad to see how hard he had to work for it, too.
Not long ago I was talking to one of my magazine editors on the phone. He lives in NYC, where most magazine editors live, and he expressed surprise that we were building our own place. “I didn’t think anyone did that anymore,” is what he said. I thought about it for a minute, and realized I couldn’t think of anyone we know who hasn’t built their own house, isn’t currently building their own house, or doesn’t plan to someday build their own house. Ok, so this is an exaggeration – of course we know people who haven’t built and have no plans to – but it’s not really that far off. Around here, it’s just sort of what you do, at least among the sort of riff-raff we hang with.
I sure don’t think everyone should build their own house, if only because I have a lot of friends in the building trades and I’d hate to see them out of work. But I do think everyone should have at least some idea of how to build a house, even if it’s only to understand the basic fundamentals of it all – how to square up a wall, frame a window opening, set a rafter, use a circular saw. Heck, you could teach this stuff in a week, maybe even less.
It seems to me as if somewhere along the way we decided our children didn’t actually need to learn the skills that are most essential to their survival. In one of his books, Daniel Quinn makes the point that even from the most revered institutions of higher learning in this nation, we are graduating helpless human beings who could no sooner put a roof over their heads than transplant their own heart. Could no sooner grow a carrot or slaughter a hog than fly to Mars, no sooner doctor their own flesh wound or make their own medicine than swim to the bottom of the ocean. Quinn’s larger point is that the loss of these fundamental life skills from our culture is in essence a form of oppression, for it only ensures our continued dependence on the industrialized economy.
I’m not sure where the proper balance lies – I mean, I can put a roof over my head, and I still can’t transplant my own heart, and if I ever do need a heart transplant, I sure as hell want the person on the other side of the scalpel to have graduated from one of those educations of higher learning where they didn’t learn a bloody damn thing ‘cept how to swap out funked-up tickers.
Still, I think Quinn’s right, and it’s not hard to see that how the scales are tipping ever more in the direction of dependence (it’s probably worth differentiating between healthy dependence on one’s family and community, and an unhealthy dependence on institutions that see solely through the lens of money). As I mentioned a while back , American teens now spend an average of nine hours each day on an electronic device, in addition to whatever time spent in school. This is not exactly a recipe for reclaiming essential life skills, though I’m sure there’ll be some swell apps to come of it.
As so happens in this space, I’ve written myself into a bit of a corner, with no real conclusion. So here’s what I’ll do: I’ll leave you with this song, from the concert we saw a few weeks back (skip ahead to 1:30 if you want to miss the banter). It’s about a house. And it’s a real beauty.
February 5, 2016 § 10 Comments
This strange half-winter endures. Last night I drove a narrow dirt lane, the track made almost riverbed-like by mud and standing water. The truck sluiced between the road’s shoulders, riding the ruts and channels, and I passed a sugarhouse in full boil, steam thick above it, obscuring the emerging night sky. The door was open. I knew the people inside, could picture them gathered around the front pan, full of the first boil’s nervous energy. They’d be hot, down to tee shirts, faces shiny with sweat and evaporated water.
I slowed and thought to stop, but already I was late to retrieve my sons from the dairy barn where they do chores twice weekly, so I put my foot back to the gas and kept rolling. Soon the sugarhouse was distant in my rearview mirror, and then I made a right turn onto another mudded road, and when I looked over my shoulder all I could see was that dense cloud of steam hanging in the too-warm February air.
February 3, 2016 § 29 Comments
Over the weekend we began the move from barn to house, hauling our dressers out the sliding door that connects hay storage to the cows’ run-in shed. This necessitated navigating a minefield of bovine feces, frozen into ankle-twisting mounds like some strange winter-blooming ground fruit.
I was in a foul mood for no reason other than I’d chosen to be. I knew this, yet could not bring myself to choose otherwise, and as I trudged between barn and house and back again, bent under the weight of our furnishings, weaving an unsteady path through the shit, I marveled at the fickle nature of human emotion. I could identify no root cause of my sourness; indeed, all evidence supported ebullience or, at the very least, a base level of garden variety contentment, for here we were, after three months of barn living, with its myriad demerits, moving onto greener pastures. A doubling of space, a counter top, a sink, and so on. Eventually, even a shower! Much of it still crude by contemporary first-world standards, but hey.
Someone asked in the comments section a while back if I thought we’d be as content with our rustic circumstances if we didn’t have something more commodious pending, how we’d feel if we understood that rather than a being a mere blip in the timeline of our lives, that single room in the barn was as good as it gets. Good as it’d ever be. From here until forever more, that one room, the cold floor, the two bare bulbs, the iced-over windows. And so on.
I thought about this a while, and that led me to thinking about that interview with Stephen Jenkinson I mentioned a while back, in which he talks about hope, and, specifically, how dangerous it can be. Because of course hope is always a future tense condition; you cannot hope for the present moment or for your current circumstances. Thus hope becomes a leash that pulls you incessantly forward, out of this moment and into some unknown future that, no matter how fervently you hope (pray, dream, aspire, wish), might well be no better than the present.
In this manner, hope becomes (or at the very least risks becoming) an anesthetic, a painkiller for what exists in the here and now. Thus sedated, the urgency to affect real change becomes less pressing. It’s easier to simply endure and continue lathering on the hope. Jenkinson talks about being “hope-free” rather than hopeless, a condition I interpret as one of clear-eyed pragmatism, marked by an understanding that neither hope nor hopelessness ever changes one’s life for the better. I’d also add cynicism to that list, because what is cynicism but hopelessness with intellect?
I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with this view, although it’s true I’m not much of a hoper. But it’s also true that my life is an embarrassment of riches; materially, I want for nothing, and all the hope in the world will have no impact on my family’s continued health and well-being. And while I might bemoan the myriad outrages of our political and economic institutions (to name just two of the institutions that compel me to launch into one of my frequent mouth-foaming tirades, particularly if I’m onto a second beer and in the presence of like-minded company), I know that hoping for their reform will change nothing.
So. Would I have been as content living in our barn if the house were not on the horizon? I suppose I cannot say, because that was never our circumstance. Indeed, we did know the house was pending, and maybe that’s what allowed us to inhabit the barn with relative equanimity, sort of like how you endure quinoa and kale casserole because you know there’s banana cream pie for dessert.
It’s nice to be in the house, although there is still plenty to do: Interior walls to frame, wiring to complete, french doors to hang (arched, no less!), a tub/shower to install, and so on. Enough to keep us busy on a part-time basis for weeks, if not months, to come. But for now, we’re in thrall to all those rediscovered conveniences we lived without for the past few months. Thanks to the handiwork of our friend Paul, who artfully rigged up an antique copper boiler tank to our wood cookstove, we even have hot water at the kitchen sink. Can you imagine? Hot, running water. Sometimes I just stand there, running it over my hands until my palms turns pink and tingly.
January 24, 2016 § 16 Comments
In the night the skies were clear and the moon was fat, and when I awoke the light through the windows was so bright that for a moment I thought I’d overslept. I slipped down the stairs for a pee, close enough to the cows that I could hear their exhales, watch the rise and fall of their long ribcages. Those big, big lungs. I could picture the mottled pinkness of them, could almost feel the rubbery warmth of them in my hands. Heavier than you’d think.
I thought to stand for a moment longer than my business necessitated, but it was zero or maybe less, so once relieved I made fast for the nest of our bed. I slept soundly in that strange milky light, dreaming of nothing (or nothing I remember), and when I rose again, the moon was faint in the sky.
January 20, 2016 § 32 Comments
In the evenings we sprawl across a trio of futons unrolled from the corner of the barn, and the seven of us – four humans, two cats, one dog – slumber shoulder-to-paw, hip-to-tail. While we sleep, the fire dies and the barn goes cold, and in the morning the single-pane windows are opaque with the frozen accumulation of our exhalations. I light the fire by headlamp, slip out of the barn, shuffle to the house in the newly-fallen snow – every night now another inch or two – and light a second fire. I make coffee and wait for daylight. Then chores.
On Saturday, we traveled to Burlington to see Davy Knowles. You may not be familiar with Davy – he’s not exactly a household name – but for anyone drawn to contemporary blues, or for anyone who appreciates prodigious musical talent, or for anyone who simply wants to hear SOME OF THE MOST FRIGGIN’ AMAZING MUSIC ON THE FACE OF THE GREAT SPINNING BALL OF SOIL AND STONE WE CALL EARTH, I cannot recommend him highly enough. (Try this, this, and especially this)
We do what we always do at small, general admission shows, which is arrive early enough to stake a claim at the very edge of the stage. As such, I could tell from the moment Davy and his bandmates walked out that this was going to be a good show – I could see the smiles on their faces, the bounce in their steps, the frequent brief exchanges between them. In short, it was clear they were happy to be there. Maybe they were excited by the size of the crowd, which had grown to 300 or perhaps a bit more. Maybe they were still riding the buzz of a fine meal, a beer or two. Maybe they were just in a good mood. But for whatever reason, they were into it, and I could tell. Everyone could tell.
Davy is young (late 20’s), and a guitar prodigy. Story goes he started playing at 11 when he heard Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing on the radio and figured it out by ear; Mark Knopfler is not exactly your standard beginner’s material. A lot of technically proficient musicians seem to sacrifice something to their proficiency; call it “soul,” if you will, or think of less-trite terminology. Or maybe it’s exuberance that’s lost. Yeah. Exuberance. I think that might be it.
There was no exuberance lost on that stage, that’s for sure. About halfway through the show, I realized my face hurt; I’d been smiling so widely and constantly, the muscles in my cheeks actually ached. Yet still I could not stop, for there was such purity of joy in the performance, it simply could not be denied.
At the end of the show, with the crowd erupting, Davy and his band walked off stage. As Davy was departing, he came to where we stood, knelt down, and gave each of my sons a big smile and one of the guitar picks he’d just used to play the music that had made my face hurt. Then he was gone.
I can’t quite stop thinking about Davy’s performance (and his band – because Davy’s a bit of a guitar hero, his bandmates maybe don’t get as much attention as they deserve). But equally, I can’t stop thinking about his gesture of graciousness toward my sons. It was nothing, really – just a couple chips of nylon, just a couple seconds of his time – but it was one of those small acts that transcends its own boundaries, if that makes any sense.
Someone once explained to me that kindness is like throwing sparks. You throw and you throw and you throw, and most of the time, those sparks just sort of sputter and die. Or they land in water. Or they’re simply rebuffed. Because there’s a certain vulnerability to kindness, there’s a certain inherent risk, and as such, it’s easy to get discouraged. It can feel as if it’s easier to stop throwing, stop risking.
But every so often, one of those sparks strikes a bit of tinder. I believe that’s why I’m still thinking about that concert. In part, it’s because I was witness to an artist entirely in his element, and as a so-called “creative,” I felt the impact of that deeply, and with it, the desire to capture some of Davy’s energy in my own work, although I have no idea whether or not that’s possible, though I think it is.
But it was Davy’s small kindness toward my sons that struck me the most, because it forced me to acknowledge the ways in which I have not been similarly gracious. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, it makes me uncomfortable when people email me to say that something I’ve written has touched them, and so sometimes I simply do not reply, leaving them exposed in their vulnerability, and worse yet, perhaps less likely to risk such vulnerability again. From time-to-time, something similar happens in person, and I although I am generally a fairly warm and out-going fellow, I suspect I do not always respond with equivalent grace.
Now I wish I had a guitar pick to send to everyone who’s every emailed, or left a comment, or just read something I wrote. But I don’t, and maybe that’s good, because the logistics are frankly a little overwhelming. So I guess I’ll just say thanks and resolve to be better about responding with the sort of graciousness everyone deserves. For those whose notes have gone unanswered, I am sorry. I’ll try to do better next time.
Finally, if I may be so bold, I’d like to ask a small favor of you all. If you are ever in a position to do someone a small kindness like the one Davy did for my boys, please, please don’t pass it up.
To be sure, nothing may come of it.
Then again, something might.
• • •
Speaking of kindness and whatnot, we are working to establish a scholarship fund for our Teen Wilderness Program through Lazy Mill Living Arts. If any of you have the ability and inclination to contribute at any level, it would be deeply appreciated. All funds go directly to paying our mentors a livable wage, while enabling us to include children who would not otherwise be able to attend. Please email us firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss. Thank you.
January 13, 2016 § 21 Comments
Progress on the house has slowed to a steady trickle. This is due in part to finances, but equally to myriad other demands on our time, as well as the inherent nature of house-building: The end-stage always demands deep reserves of patience. Any semi-competent fool can frame and put a roof on a modest house inside of a handful of weeks, and it’s easy to be lulled into a sense of accomplishment by the speed with which the outline of a structure can rise into a space where there was once only air. If all you did was frame and roof houses, you’d think yourself superhuman, a conjuror of shelter, a home-whisperer, a king among the commoners. But a frame and a roof do not a habitable home make, and thus my delusions of self-grandeur have died a quick and pitiless death. As they deserved to do.
We are closing in on three months of living in a single room with no running water and only a wood stove for both heat and cooking. As such, it sometimes feels to me as if we live inside that old Buddist saying Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. Which inevitably raises the question: Are we before or after enlightenment? I suppose the fact that I cannot say is answer enough. Furthermore, I assure you that nothing about the way we’re currently living feels particularly enlightened. It is just living, by turns difficult, joyous, frustrating, gratifying, tiresome, energizing, and probably a few other things I can’t think of right now.
I’m not sure exactly what I’ll ultimately take from this summer and fall, not to mention the experience of living with my family in such humble circumstances. Perhaps it will simply become a footnote in our lives, an anecdote to recall at some later date while we finger feed each other lobster tails in the Jacuzzi. That would be fine. I have no designs or expectations.
But even now, in the midst of it all, I am aware of one thing: That my own resourcefulness has expanded, and for this I am grateful. It’s not just the increased depth of skills and experience (though that’s part of it, to be sure, and it doesn’t hurt a bit). Mostly, it’s the confirmation of something I’ve long suspected, but am nonetheless relieved to have corroborated: Much of what I might have assumed necessary to live contentedly was, in fact, superfluous. Two thousand-square feet did not make me any more (or, let’s be honest, any less) content than 500; a shower every day (or, let’s be honest, every other day) did not make me any more content than a sponge bath every week, though it might well have made me smell a little better. At the risk of sounding a bit trite, it’s actually a fairly powerful thing to be reminded of this.
There’s some sort of lesson here, I suppose, but I’m not really in the mood to figure it out. Or maybe I’ve divulged it already, and am just too thick to realize such. In any case, this house ain’t gonna finish itself. I’ve gotta get back to work.
Also, I wanted to draw your attention to our upcoming winter/spring session of Teen Earthskills Immersion Camp, run by our dear friend Luke Boushee. The fall session far exceeded our expectations, and there’s a whole lot more fun in store. Here are more details.
January 4, 2016 § 19 Comments
The cold dropped like a hammer, and with it that certain stillness of middle winter. I awoke to iced-over windows and kindled a fire before stepping into my chore boots and then down the narrow stairway that services our current quarters.
While I milked, two ravens wheeled overhead; I could hear the rush of the air displaced by their passing. I followed their flight path with my gaze until they reached the old church steeple, then became specks against the backdrop of the snow-white field to the north, then disappeared from view.
My fingers stung from the cold. To distract myself from the pain, I began to compile a mental list of everything we need to do to finish the house, but this soon become more painful than my fingers, so I quit, and then my fingers hurt again, and because I was milking for the pigs, I allowed myself the luxury of dipping them into the bucket of warm milk. I knew the pigs wouldn’t mind, and it made all the difference in the world.