October 31, 2011 § 6 Comments
Three days away, and I dropped back into my life, grateful for all its odd little concerns and pleasures.
I was hardly off the plane before being presented with the first: Would our 22-year old, $1200 Chevy, which has of late exhibited a stubborn recalcitrance when the key is turned, even start? Or would I be stranded at the Burlington airport, a cruelty made all the more acute by the fact that I’d just spent a full 12-hours in either car, airport, or airplane, half-stranded by the big October snowstorm?
The truck was in a jolly mood, firing with nary a hitch to fill the parking garage with its 80’s-era rumble, and I realized the unique joy of the freedom afforded by an unexpectedly cooperative vehicle. Suddenly heady with the realization that I would in fact see my family in little more than an hour, I basked in a surge of delight, pondering the truth that the pleasure of a running rig is best realized with the threat of it not running is most acute. Not exactly a revelation, I know, and one that can be extended to pretty much every facet of life. Health is not appreciated until we are unhealthy, money until we are poor, friends until we are friendless.
Still, as I motored down Interstate 89, pushing the ol’ beast to its top speed of 68 mph, I could not help but consider how many of my most-savored moments are preceded by hardships, albeit mostly small (had I been stranded by my two tons of cold steel and rubber, how tragic would it really have been? The answer, of course, is not very). The food we grow, and effort put forth. The firewood we cut, split, and stack each year. The sap hauled bucket-by-bucket, to be boiled for hours down to the sweet distillation of our efforts.
And then the further irony (if that’s the right word), which is the creeping recognition that because it is the so-called hardships making the pleasures that much more acute, the hardships aren’t actually hardships at all. They are part and parcel of the reward, because without them, there is no reward.
This is difficult to explain and I fear I am not doing it well. So I’ll conclude with this: I’m grateful my truck started. But in no small way, I’m equally grateful that it might not have.
October 20, 2011 § 4 Comments
The day was supposed to work out differently than it has, which is to say the tractor was not supposed to end up stuck beyond all possible means of self-extraction, under circumstances that are so wretchedly self-inflicted I can only laugh at my own stupidity. Learning, learning… always learning.
The time spent mucking about with the loutish machine is time I cannot spare, or at least perceive I cannot spare. Of late, I have not done a particularly good job of striking a healthy balance between paying work, the farm, and my family, and the result is the sense that I can’t quite get on top of my life, that things have developed their own chaotic momentum, leaving me with little choice but to hang on until I reach the bottom of my list of commitments.
If it sounds like I’m complaining, I don’t mean for it to. This is chaos that, like the miring of our tractor, is entirely of my own doing and is in its own way enjoyable. Each and every project on my plate feels like an opportunity, rather than a burden, and it is only when they are gathered into a whole that it sometimes feels like I’m carrying more than I should.
I’ve been to this place before, both in regards to the tractor, and the fickle balance of my life. I’m not sure if I should find this comforting (hey, I got through it then; I’ll get through it now) or dispiriting (I’m still doing this shit?!?).
Hell with it. I’m just going to choose one. And I choose “comforting.”
October 11, 2011 § 2 Comments
A long stretch of summer-like weather is nearing its end. It has made the mornings particularly peaceful, and I’ve worn only a tee shirt (and pants. I’ve worn pants, too) during my 6 a.m. rounds. Milk for the pigs, the door opened on the chicken coop, a bit of hay to the cows and sheep, a supplement to the waning pasture. Within weeks, it will be all hay, and I remind them to enjoy the green grass while it lasts. I’m not sure they understand.
It seems like things should be slowing down around the farm, but they are not. We have many projects either partially completed or not even begun, and just to complicate matters I am about to embark on a fairly intense period of work-related travel. This is hard for all of us, but none more so than Penny, who is left to prop up both farm and family. Still, it is necessary, and I chose not to complain about it, because I am lucky to be able to do what I do.
This recognition hasn’t kept me from thinking about my work-life balance, and how to tilt it even more in favor of life. Which is not to say the two must be mutually exclusive, or that I do not enjoy my paying work. It is only to say that I am more and more cognizant of what makes my mind and body feel most-tuned to the unheard note humming through the thread of my existence. And it is life, although I suppose in my case life looks an awful lot like work to an awful lot of people. That’s ok. I don’t need anyone to think I’m rational.
There is really only one way for me to affect this balance: Spend less. Get cheaper. Tighten the belt. We do not have much in the way of savings; what we had, we pretty much obliterated on this summer’s pond project. So it’s not as if we can supplement my income by siphoning off our savings. Therefore, I must rely on the truth that a dollar not spent is a dollar I don’t have to earn. Actually, given self-employment taxes, it’s more like a buck-and-a-quarter I don’t have to earn.
I’m pretty good at thrifty, but Penny is even better than me. When we needed pillowcases, the old ones gone threadbare and patched to the point of no return, she dug through a box of old tee shirts. When we needed a reading light in our bedroom, the old one having been shattered into unglueable shards, she disappeared into the basement and emerged with one of those cheap metal job site clip lamps. Works just fine, and what with the tee shirt pillowcases, gives the room a sort of post-modern, neo-industrial, extreme frugality theme. If that makes any sense.
I derive a certain unique satisfaction from making do, and I believe strongly that it is a worthy value to instill in the boys. I want them to understand that on a global scale, we are among the elite and that in a world of fixed resources, that which we consume impacts others. I also want them to never feel as if their happiness is dependent on buying things. Already, they know not to expect anything new. Toys, bikes, clothing, books: By-and-large, we make them, borrow them, or find cast-offs. This is not to say that we have never – or never will – buy things new, only that we try to first exhaust all possible options for finding used.
The extent of unconscious consumption in our culture is something that strikes me, and it is a regular topic of conversation in our home. I see it everywhere, even in the frugal hollows of northern Vermont. Even in the homes of people who grasp, on an intellectual level, the damage it does. Even, at times, in our home.
I appreciate these views, as they only strengthen my resolve to do with less. I know there’s a bottom end to all this, a place where my satisfaction of making do crosses a threshold of discomfort, either physical or emotional. But I ain’t there yet.
October 4, 2011 § 3 Comments
The weekend past was the first weekend of true fall. The rain was relentless and cold, and when I returned home on Sunday afternoon having spent a half-dozen hours helping a friend frame a small roof, it felt as if the water had soaked not merely through my clothing, but through my skin. There was a fire in the cookstove; Penny and the boys were making applesauce. I ate a bowl of warm apple mush and felt better.
I feel prepared for what will come. The wood pile is tall, straight, and dry. The root cellar is nearly full, and the freezers almost overflowing with what amounts to frozen sunshine: Berries and butter and grass-fed beef. It’s an absurd, almost embarrassing store of wealth, though I can’t help being struck by the fact that the majority of my fellow Americans probably wouldn’t see it the same. Whatever. I’ll take my version of affluence – food, livestock, land, and family-rich but cash-poor – over the prevailing view any day.
We’re not far from snow, although the forecast speaks of sun and warmth in the near future. But I’ve lived in these hills for nearly 40 years. I know how quickly things can change.