November 30, 2012 § 6 Comments

Laughing over spilt milk

Our friend Ryan lives in a run-down travel trailer set deep in the woods at the end of an unplowed town road. It’s not far from here, although it’s impossible to get there without feeling like you’re far from pretty much everything. He’s modified the trailer a bit by installing a wood stove and cutting a hole in its roof in order to access the second floor he built atop the trailer with rough logs and salvaged lumber. He has no running water or electricity, although he does run a light, a radio, and occasionally a laptop off one of the two car batteries he swaps in and out of his old Toyota in order to keep them charged.

Ryan has little interest in money, nor in working for money. He is clearly not lazy; in fact, he is almost always laboring, usually on the trailer, or on the pole building he’s constructing, or on one of his dilapidated vehicles, or tending to his copious gardens, carved out of a stony patch of wooded soil. He maintains just enough employment to ensure just enough income to cover the basic essentials of his survival. He’s not picky about what he does: Construction, farm work, car repair. I once asked him how much money he considered to be an adequate safety net. “I like to have $300 saved up,” is what he told me.

At this point in my life, I could not live as ascetic a lifestyle as Ryan does. Actually, that’s not quite true: I’m sure I could. I just don’t want to. But I appreciate what he’s doing, not so much because I think there’s anything noble or enviable in the rustic particulars of his life, but because I think there’s something noble and enviable in the ethos of living the life that nourishes you, even when (especially when) that life is far outside the boundaries of contemporary American expectations of success. When viewed from a certain angle, Ryan is not successful and might even be a failure. But when viewed with an understanding that success is a word and an idea that need not be bound to material goods and monetary wealth, that it can be as much about happiness and simple contentment and autonomy over one’s days and life, well, then, I’d say Ryan’s about as successful as anyone I know.

And simply for that, for choosing to write and more importantly live his own definition of wealth, when there is little-to-no acknowledgement or support for this definition in modern America, I admire the hell out of him.




November 29, 2012 § 5 Comments

In the mornings, early, often before it is fully light, I walk down the rutted farm road to feed the cows. We have them fenced into a two-acre logging cut that we’re gradually returning to pasture; I say “returning” because from the rock piles and farm detritus we uncovered during logging, it is clear the history of this small parcel included ruminant animals. I find this strangely comforting, as if it absolves me from the devastation wrought by saw and skidder.

Hay has a certain smell or, more precisely, many certain smells, depending on many particulars. First cut, or second? Square bales (dry) or round (usually fermented, but not always)? If round, at what stage of fermentation? If square, freshly cut, or mid-winter? I love all of these smells, each with its own season and reason, although I suppose my favorite hay smell is the one that hangs in the air around the barn in the few days after we fill it with just-baled first cut. It’s an almost indescribably sweet and comforting smell, I suspect in no small part because it embodies both the labor involved and the relief inherent to the knowledge that, for another winter at least, our animals will be fed.

I am am just realizing, late learner that I am, how much the smells of our little farm add to my life. Every morning and evening, the hay. At least once a day, one or more of the cows, who kindly tolerate my burying my face in their soft hides and simple breathing for a minute, one of the small, strange luxuries in my small, strange life. Fresh cut wood; this morning, fir and spruce, thick and sweet. The saw that did the cutting, the particular acridness of a two-stroke motor run hot and fast. Everywhere, the soft piles of cow shit, and anyone who thinks that cow shit smells bad has never see what it’ll do for a hayfield or a garden. Every morning this time of year, before anything else, the first, hungry flames of the cookstove fire and then the burnt odor of coffee bubbling over onto the stovetop. Even snow – or perhaps more accurately, the air that portends and carries snow – has a smell. It’s clean, like fresh laundry. A freshly laid egg: Have you ever smelled a warm egg? I’m not even sure what to say about that.

I believe that the more we allow ourselves to experience a particular place, the more we come to appreciate it. And the more we come to appreciate it, the more we allow ourselves to experience it, to become immersed in it, to view ourselves as being little more than a thread woven into its fabric. The truth, of course, is that most places would do just fine – and arguably even better – without us. In short, we need place more than it needs us. Or I do, at least.

It can be a little uncomfortable to acknowledge just how inconsequential I am, that were I to die to tomorrow, this place wouldn’t mourn my passing for even a second. This is not a relationship built on mutual need and attraction: I pine for it, but it does not pine for me, and nothing I do will ever change that.

But that won’t stop me from enjoying the hell out of it while I’m here.

Give It Good

November 28, 2012 § 9 Comments

My birthday was last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. We don’t make a big deal over birthdays in our house; more specifically, we don’t make a big deal over birthday gifts in our house. I received precisely three material objects for my 41st birthday: From Fin, a paper mache snake. From Rye, a round of elm with holes drilled to hold pens on my desk. From Penny, a hand carved spoon of apple wood. In the evening, we ate leftover pumpkin pie from the previous day’s gathering, and Penny made ice cream from our own cream and eggs and our friend’s maple syrup, and I am happy to report that my new spoon did its job exceedingly well. In the morning, I helped a friend slaughter a pig and went rabbit hunting with Rye. I honestly can’t remember what I did in the afternoon, which either means it wasn’t very memorable, or that I’m getting old. Probably a little of each.

We have pretty much – though not entirely – abandoned obligatory gift-giving in our household in favor of spontaneous gifting, often in the form of things that hardly resemble our culture’s contemporized expectation of what constitutes a gift, and I am constantly reminded what a powerful thing this can be. The day before Thanksgiving, a friend stopped by on his bicycle with a card he’d drawn; inside the card was a note expressing his gratitude for our friendship, and on the back was a poem. I can promise you there is nothing anyone could have bought me at any black Friday salebration that could have made me feel half as damn good as it did to get that card, and I think this was in part because it was totally unexpected. It was an expression of appreciation completely unsullied by obligation.

I have been thinking about this an awful lot, particularly in the context of the rampant consumerism associated with the season. So many gifts, so much shopping, and so often done begrudgingly, out of sheer obligation. This does not mean the people exchanging these gifts do not genuinely care for one another; in only means they are capitulating to cultural expectations in a way that diminishes the giving. Everyone expects gifts this time of year, and everyone knows that the gifts they receive are given, at least in part, because they are expected to be given.

I tend to shy away from offering overt advice in this space, because I generally believe that advice unasked for is advice best not given. Still and all, here is a radical notion: Stop giving gifts when they are expected or, at the very least, make them materially minimal. Instead, give in ways and at times that are entirely unexpected, that carry no sense of obligation and are therefore pure in their intent. And give of what your family and true friends really want and need: You. Your time, your art, your words, your simple gratitude for having them in your life. Things that can’t be bought, that have a value that is at once unmeasurably small and boundlessly infinite.

And if this isn’t what they want? Give it to ’em anyway.

Easy Livin’

November 21, 2012 § 4 Comments

On Saturday, we slammed out afternoon chores early, loaded the famdamnily into our sad sack of a Subaru and motored three hours south to Northampton, MA for a Fred Eaglesmith concert. It was an expensive outing; $120 just for the tickets, never mind the dozen or so gallons of petrol we vaporized along I91.By Hewitt standards, this was a major outlay, an exorbitance of epic proportions. But we all have a serious weakness for live music, and no more so than for Fred, who is perhaps the best least-known songwriter in North America. (The second best, if you’re wondering, is Vermont’s own Waylon Speed. Anyone who’s half as into hopped up, dirt bag rock n’ roll as we are should check ’em out)

Fred is the real damn deal. He grew up on a farm in Ontario with eight siblings, before hopping a freight train at the tender age of 15 to see what the world (or Canada, at least) had to offer. He’s 55 now, and drives from gig-to-gig — he plays something like 250 shows annually across the US and Canada — in a old bus converted to run on veggie oil. His bus was parked outside the venue in Northampton, and the sorry ass thing looked as if it were waiting for a tow truck to come along and haul it to a junkyard for a quick and painless mercy killing. The beast was covered by a film of road grime and, if I’m not mistaken, a healthy bloom of mold. The passenger side rearview mirror was smashed into a dozen barely-held-together shards, like one of those fun house mirrors, and there was a significant quantity of fresh oil underneath the engine bay.

It’s not that Fred’s a particularly talented musician. What his is, I think, is a particularly talented story teller. Each of his songs is like a three-minute novel, more often than not featuring trains, farmin’, quiet desperation, guns, and hard people doing some seriously hard livin’. Sometimes, all five. But the real beauty of Fred’s stories is that despite their unapologetic grit and not-infrequent tragedy, they are strangely uplifting.

For a few days after the show (which was worth every damn penny, even though the couple next to us proceeded to get stumble-drunk and sang along at top volume for the second half of the set), I struggled to figure out precisely how this can be so. How can a song about a farm auction be uplifting? Why does the song York Road, a tale of drought, departed loved ones, and a desperate, lonely man hunting not for sport but for survival so satisfying?

The context for all this can be found in perhaps the most-frequent topic of discussion between Penny and myself which, to oversimplify a great bit, is that our entire family has become rather spoiled. We work hard, yes, but our true hardships are few, if any. When we need or want something, we generally get it. No doubt it is helpful that we have set fairly low expectations regarding what we need or want; there’s no desire to drive a new car, or take the family to Disney, or whatever. But if the boys want, say, a used deer rifle, they get one. If we want to drop 120 clams on a Fred concert, we drop ’em. Yes, there are times when things are truly tight, and over the past few years, our income has hovered in the $30,000 range; hardly extravagant for a family of four. But I honestly can’t remember a single instance when we’ve gone without something we really wanted.

It seems absurd to complain that we have it too easy, that we have too much, particularly in a world where so many people have it too hard and have too little. But I wonder if one of the reasons we love Fred’s stories is found in our recognition of the uncomfortable truth that living without some degree of hardship does not equate to a life well lived. Hardship, I believe, is a precursor to character, to gratitude, and ultimately, perhaps, to happiness. Without hardship, our appreciation for plenty – or even just enough – wanes. I think what I’m hearing in Fred’s songs that I find so poignant and uplifting is an unspoken acknowledgement of this truth, that the beauty in life is most fully realized when it is juxtaposed by events and conditions that must, to some degree and for some period of time, be not just tolerated, but endured.

And with that, Happy Thanksgiving.



Not For Sale

November 19, 2012 § 5 Comments

So we stand on the threshold of holiday insanity, the season of cut-rate electronics, trampled-to-death shoppers, and maxed out credit cards as we attempt to meet the tragically flawed assumptions of what constitutes contentment in twenty-first century America.

It will likely surprise none of you that our family has long ago abandoned the hollow, commercialized version of the season. This is not to say we do not celebrate, or give gifts, only that our celebrations at this time of year do not revolve around gift giving and the gifts we give (and tend to receive) are of modest monetary value, if their value can be measured in monetary terms at all. Last year I made the boys a pair of step stools from chunks of spalted maple I pulled from our neighbor’s sugarwoods. Penny knit some hats and something else that slips my mind. The boys get stockings full of the small, utilitarian particulars that help fill their days: .22 rounds, electrical tape, colored pencils, arrow fletching. Sometimes, someone gets a book. And that’s about it.

It is sad to me to see the continued expansion of the holiday shopping season, which now seems to include the one holiday that has somehow managed to avoided becoming overtly commercialized: Thanksgiving. Because as it turns out, this November certain of our nation’s largest retail chains will open on Thanksgiving night for the first time. Ah, yes, nothing better than a good session at Wal Mart to truly honor the spirit of the day. Whatever. I love Thanksgiving, and will continue to love it, in no small part because I love to eat, but also because it seems to me as pure an expression of inclusionary celebration as any that currently exists. For the past few years, we’ve hosted an open door Thanksgiving that includes whatever friends and family members would like to join us. It’s generally an eclectic group, ranging in age from 3 to 73, full of folks who would probably never break bread together otherwise. I love them all, but of course if any of them leave early to hit the opening bell at Wal Mart, I will beat them about the head with half-gnawed drumstick.

To those whose livelihood depends on the glut of material consumption associated with the next six or so weeks, I am sorry: You will be seeing few, if any, of my dollars. It is not that I don’t like you, or think that you are bad. Rather, it is simply that I have evolved into a mighty sense of where my own happiness and contentment are fed and watered. And it is not at a cash register.




Hard Sell

November 1, 2012 § 3 Comments

I dig this program. So much so that despite being excruciatingly cheap, I actually threw some money in the ring. Perhaps you will be compelled to do the same.


Swimming Upstream

November 1, 2012 § 3 Comments

We decided long ago that candy has no place in our home. I’m sure some will disagree,but this seems to me an entirely reasonable position, given the nutritive properties of the average Skittle. The boys have been remarkably receptive to this rule, in no small part because we (well, ok, Penny) have endeavored to provide occasional treats comprised of actual food over the years. According to Fin and Rye, who are not at all opposed to rampant whining over perceived deprivations, they do not feel deprived by the lack of candy in their life.

Ah, but Halloween. I must admit that for a few years we struggled. And there were times when I actually felt a little sad for the boys, whose excitement for designing and donning costumes, carving pumpkins, and huddling around a bonfire eating homemade “soul cakes” whilst all their friends went begging for Nestle’s finest was so unrestrained and pure it almost bordered on pathos. My goodness, I would think, my kids are total rubes (which should come as no surprise, because of course what am I but a total rube?).

But something has shifted over the past couple of years, perhaps in part because we have made an annual tradition of joining in neighboring town’s street parade: Think impromptu brass band, waving torches, and a hundred or so fellow rubes dressed in costumes of their own creation. The boys march with zeal, often banging on something or another in questionable time to the music. This year, we went to a friend’s house for soup, pumpkin pie, and firecrackers before the parade, and although these friends would be going trick-or-treating later and we would not, and although they spoke with wide-eyed fondness of sweets to be consumed, Fin and Rye expressed little more than curiosity. Later, in the car, they peppered us with questions about how the trick-or-treat transaction actually happens, and about what sort of costumes Penny and I wore as children, and what sort of candy we liked best. But when we asked them if they’d like to go trick-or-treating, they demurred. “The parade is better,” said Rye. “Yeah,” said Fin, from between the ridiculous toilet-paper-tube elf ears he’d fashioned, “I like the parade.”

There are so many moments that I question the wisdom of swimming against convention, which we do in so many aspects of our life. And my questioning never seems more poignant than when it relates to the boys; in full honesty, there are times when I can’t help but think we risk irreparable harm by so flagrantly thumbing our nose at cultural norms.

And then there are times when I see how damn happy they are just to make a pair of elf ears and a paper mache raccoon mask, eat a bowl of soup and a piece of pumpkin pie with friends, and stomp around the darkened streets of a small Vermont town on a cool October evening. And in these too-rare moments, I think one thing and one thing only:

Screw convention.  

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