November 29, 2013 § 6 Comments
Four degrees this morning, the coldest one yet this season, and the snow creaked under my feet as I made my rounds. The cows’ water was frozen solid, so I tipped the trough on its side and stomped it until my foot hurt and most of the ice had been dislodged. All night, the beasts exhalations had frozen to the hairs along the sides of their faces, and the morning sun illuminated the icy tendrils of their very breath, like some essential truth revealed.
Thanksgiving was quiet, but good. Over the past few years, our home has become something of a repository for friends who for varying reasons have no other place to go for the holiday. But this year, for our own varying reasons, we kept it small: My parents, Penny’s parents, Melvin and Janet. And although I missed the boisterousness of prior years (me being a fan of boisterousness and all), there was something decidedly relaxing about the gathering that imbued me with a sense of knowing precisely how I fit into this world. That’s a little vague, I realize, but I guess I’m not sure how else to say it.
I don’t think I’m very good at gratitude. Or perhaps I’m just not good at expressing it. The other night, at the Rural Vermont story-telling event, a woman told the story of slaughtering one of her lambs, and of how she lay the animal down and chanted and cried and felt such deep thankfulness for the creature’s gift of meat and life. To be honest, I felt a little jealous. It must be a beautiful thing to feel such tenderness and reverence.
But despite being such a coarse, ungrateful clod, I sure do like Thanksgiving. I like cleaning the house in anticipation of guests (darn good thing we have guests from time-to-time, or this place would really go to the dogs), I like cooking with Penny in the hours before the meal, I like gathering around the kitchen and chatting with our parents and neighbors while I feed the cook stove and do the dance necessitated by cooking on wood, and I sure do like eating. We had beef and lamb this year, both of which were born and died on this little piece of land, and they were quite delicious, thank you very much.
So yeah, I like all these things and I suppose, if pressed, I might even say I’m thankful for them. And it occurs to me that perhaps a big part of being thankful is simply acknowledging all those things which grant us a sense of knowing how we fit into this world.
Huh. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.
November 27, 2013 § 15 Comments
My birthday was on Saturday, and it was a good day. Rye and I got up early to go deer hunting, a two-hour ramble through our woods and into Melvin’s back pasture. We didn’t see anything, and we probably should have found a likely spot and sat with our backs against a tree or stonewall, but that’s not what we wanted to do. It was cold and the walking felt nice, the exertion pushing blood into our cheeks, where it bloomed tiny roses. We stopped down at the barn to chat with Melvin and Janet and then we walked back across the fields to breakfast.
We don’t make a big deal over birthdays. We decided, many years ago, to keep them small and simple. If there were to be any gifts of all, they would be of our own hands or the passing along of some natural curiosity or another. For this birthday, my 42nd, Fin made me a knife sheath from a piece of hide once worn by our steer, Cinco. My belt knife – the blade forged by a local blacksmith, the handle I carved from a piece of spalted maple – fits it perfectly. Penny made me hat hook from a piece of birch root. Oh, and a cheesecake. Rye drew me a picture of our dog, Daisy, superimposed over a heart. My fawning over Daisy, who is as noble, regal, and loyal a hound as has ever strode this good Earth, is something of a family joke.
I do not mind growing older. Part of this is because my physical capacities and my general capabilities are still on the increase. At 42, I am more able than I was at 32, and damned if I don’t see any reason why I won’t be able to say the same at 52. At some point, of course, I will cross the inevitable divide between this improvement and the decline of my physical and perhaps mental being. So be it. It is only natural.
As I get older, I’ve begun to draw a certain quiet inspiration from some of the elders around me. Invariably, I am drawn to those whose lives are not easy, who – whether by choice or circumstance – are at 70 doing much the same as they did at 40. I suspect this is merely a projection of what I wish for myself, but then, isn’t that really what all inspiration is?
It is not hard for me to imagine being old, although I’m sure there will be many surprises, some of which are likely to be unpleasant. But for now, I have the luxury of believing a particular image I hold in my head, of myself walking back across the field in the early morning, much the way I do now. Penny is moving along the cow path at the height of the land, on her way to collect the animals for morning milking, much as she does now. And the boys? Whatever stories they write with their lives are not mine to imagine.
It may seem ridiculous to project like this; it may seem like hubris to assume that, 30 years from now, Penny and I will still be moving across this land the same way we do now. Perhaps it is. But I’ve been around long enough to know that in two or three decades, I’ll look back to the year I turned 42, the same year I first went deer hunting with my sons, the same year my older boy made me the knife sheath that still hangs from my belt, and all those intervening birthdays will disappear. They will be like nothing, a sliver of time that in its passing has become as impossible to hold as smoke from a fire.
This too is only natural. It is the way of things. It is a good, even, because if nothing else it serves as a reminder that all our lives are fleeting things. As such, we might as well live them the best way we know how.
November 22, 2013 § 11 Comments
Crikey, almost forgot: I’ll be emceeing and telling a story at Rural Vermont’s Black Market Bounty Storytelling and Potluck event this Sunday in Montpeculiar. Come on down!
This morning we awoke to an uncommitted snow, just enough to soften the air and lend a milky haze to everything. I walked up to the barn in a fine mood, whistling tunelessly, the small flakes melting into my skin as quickly as they landed. I love the austere dullness of November, the gradations of color reduced to slim subtleties, beauty defined as much by what is absent, as by what is present.
I am working hard these days, or at least hard as I define it, which means I’m spending the bulk of my time at my desk and very little time out-of-doors, engaged in some brute task or another. My body and mind reject this schedule; both feel at once balky and mushy. It’s funny, but I’ve come to understand that my brain is better exercised by physical labor than by the focused thought necessitated by my paying work.
No complaints. This is merely one of those phases every self-employed person goes through from time-to-time and, as I am fond of saying, “it sure as hell beats working for a living.” Times like these, when I get a sort-of taste of what it is like to be confined to a desk for 40-hours each week, I am particularly thankful for the routine of chores, for the unrelenting needs of the animals under our care. They draw me up and out each and every morning, and again each and every afternoon. They suffer no excuses, and they respect no deadlines but those imposed by their need for food and water.
In a way, I see how our animals’ lives are as uncomplicated and austerely perfect as this very month. Maybe that’s what I love about these creatures so much; maybe that’s what I love about November so much. They’re both a reminder of how little we really need, of how simple life can be, if only we just let it.
November 18, 2013 § 5 Comments
I have much to say and write, but for the time being am focused on finishing one book, beginning another, and keeping up with the multitude of going’s on around the home front. In all likelihood, posting will be somewhat less frequent than normal over the next couple of weeks. Thanks for your understanding and remember: Ya get what ya pay for. And sometimes, you get more!
November 14, 2013 § 16 Comments
If you want to hear some great music, tune into VPR at about 12:30 and again this evening at 7:30-ish. Kelly Ravin, the lead singer/guitar hero of Waylon Speed, is playing on Vermont Edition. He’s got a new solo album.
Our friend Erik was here the other day; he spends one morning each week with Rye, usually accompanying him deep into the woods to explore some previously uncharted vale or basin, some small corner of the world that harbors more secrets than the human mind can fathom.
As has become habit, after he and Rye rambled, Erik joined us for lunch. Lunch is our big meal of the day; we tend to eat lightly at dinner, so as not to retire with overburdened bellies. Besides which, it’s mighty nice to take a midday break, to lay down our respective tasks and gather ’round the table for the noonday feed.
Also as has become our habit, we talked with Erik for some time about our respective challenges and triumphs. For Penny and me, one of these challenges has been how best to go about sharing our accumulated (and admittedly esoteric) store of knowledge and experience. For reasons I don’t fully understand, but am nonetheless heartened to witness, there has been of late a tremendous surge of interest in the practices and skills we employ in our smallholding. This is a wonderful and humbling thing, but as I mentioned a few posts back, we are struggling a bit with how to navigate this reality. Anyway, and particularly because Erik works for an organization that is also trying to determine how best to share the knowledge and experience it holds, this struggle became the chief topic of conversation.
Erik is only 28. Or maybe he’s 29 by now, but whatever the case, the fellow is far too wise for his age, and as is so often the case, he managed to distill the whole shootin’ match of our discussion to a handful of memorable words: “So long as you always act from a place of generosity, you’ll be fine,” is what he said, or something close enough to it. Penny and I looked at one another across the table, and I could see it written on her face as plainly as she could see it written on mine: Yes.
Now, as so often seems to be the case in my life, which I have come to view as being ruled by serendipity as much as anything else, the boys received a letter from their friend Nate, who has become something of a trapping mentor to them. It is not my place to quote from such a private communication in such a public space, but I do feel comfortable reprinting the line most pertinent to the subject at hand. “Our first task is to treat each other well, for when we learn to always offer respect, kindness, and generosity to those around us, it spreads outward into our relationships with the rest of the world, and the Earth opens up to us in ways we never imagined.”
This could be a good place to talk about the role of mentors in our sons’ lives, which has been nothing short of profound. But the truth is, the positive influence of these mentors is itself the result of exceptional generosity: Were they not willing to give of their time and experience, this influence would not be realized. So I will not allow myself to become too sidetracked.
I’m still not sure precisely how to fully manifest generosity in a world that is not always so generous in return, but I believe that both Erik and Nate are correct: When we act from a place of generosity, we will be ok. When we act from a place of generosity, the Earth opens to us in ways we never imagined. And not merely the Earth, but the people and animals that inhabit the Earth. To me, the very fact that Erik and Nate are in our lives is proof of this.
Yet there remains an unpaid property tax bill on my desk (don’t worry: We have the money to pay it, we just haven’t done so). Yet our truck is at the shop, undergoing some procedure or another that is not likely to be inexpensive. Yet our health care coverage is about to expire, and the new mandates will make it more expensive for us to remain covered. And so we must find ways to strike that balance between generosity toward others and a certain generosity toward ourselves, to be sure that we can still afford the fundamentals of modern life.
What does that balance look like? I cannot say for certain, but I can say that these serendipitous events – our conversation with Erik, the letter from Nate – which seem to have come at precisely the time we needed them to come, are pointing us in one direction: When in doubt, be generous.
I will close with one more line from Nate’s letter. It’s not even a full line, just a piece of a longer sentence that grabbed me and, for some reason that lies beyond logic and intellectual knowing, made me feel even more certain of my path in life. “The easiest thing to do is what everyone else is doing.”
These are the beautiful struggles of our lives, the ones that are worthy of our full attention and respect: To not always do what is easiest. And to always, always act from a place of generosity.
November 13, 2013 § 16 Comments
It was a dozen degrees this morning, the coldest of the season yet, and I knew it the moment I awoke in the thick dark of 5 a.m., because I could feel the tendril of frigid air snaking through the window opening. We’ve always slept with a window open; I can’t remember a night we haven’t, and it wasn’t so long ago that I thought it folly, just another of Penny’s quirks that I, with my enormous reserve of good nature and general kindness, deign to accommodate. But damned if the habit hasn’t snuck up on me. There’s something about waking to an immediate small understanding of the world beyond the sheltered protection of home and fire that reminds me of my place in grand scheme of things.
It’s not winter yet, but it might as well be. The animals are off pasture, and we’ve been feeding hay for the past two weeks. Already, there’s a sizable dent in our stores, but that’s ok. We know how much is there, and it’s sure enough. We’ve handled each of those bales twice already, once off the baler chute, and once into the barn, 75,000-pounds or more of lift and stack and push, and our knowledge of that hay could only be more complete if we ate the damn stuff ourselves. Which, in a way, we do.
The other night I went out with my friend Michael, a bit of a going away get-together, since he’s heading to Hawaii for the winter with his partner and year-old son. He’s a little nervous, I think: He’s maybe not so much a stick-in-the-mud as myself, but he knows the comfort of home as well as anyone, and maybe a little better. As we were talking, I got to thinking about just how much I have come to depend on winter. And not merely winter, but that deep sense of security and satisfaction that comes of knowing you are prepared. Hay in the barn, wood in the shed, and so much food in the pantry, root cellar, and freezers that you might literally be able to go a year without venturing to the grocery store.
There’s a certain urgency to making these things happen that’s maybe a bit addictive, a jangled-tired feeling, the weight of all those bales in your bones, or the way a splitting maul becomes an extension of muscles and will. These things have become my comfort zone, and as unflatteringly unadventurous as it makes me sound, I can hardly imagine giving them up, even if for only a year. “Honestly, I don’t know if I could leave for a winter,” I told Michael the other night, and he nodded. He’s put up his share of hay. He’s split his share of wood. He knows the feeling, too. But he’s braver than I, which means he’ll spend the next few months in shorts and flip flops, whilst I spend it waking up to ribbons of single-degree air sliding across my face.
Go ahead, try it. It feels real good.
November 12, 2013 § 11 Comments
Almost forgot: I’ll be at my hometown library tonight @ 7 for a reading and discussion. Ya’ll should come on down. Afterwards, we’ll go out to… actually, forget it. There’s nowhere to go out to. But we’ll have us a grand ole time, anyhow.
I am in the final stages of completing the first draft of my upcoming book on unschooling. Actually, it’s about a lot more than unschooling, because the way our children learn cannot be separated from the way we live, or from where we live. So the book is also about how and where we live and how we got here, and about how all these things inform the ecosystem of Fin and Rye’s learning. And not just of Fin and Rye’s learning, but also how Penny and I learn. And not just how we learn, but also how we unlearn, because the humbling truth is that we’ve probably had to unlearn more than we’ve had to learn. Maybe by the time we die, we’ll finally have unlearned everything there is to unlearn. Maybe that’s when we’ll really start learning. Hey, better late than never, eh?
A few folks have asked how I juggle my paying (writing) work and farm/family duties. To be honest, time management’s never been too much of an issue for me. There’s simply too much stuff I want to be doing away from my desk to make frittering away my office time an attractive option. Certainly, some days are more productive than others, but I’ve learned to recognize when I’m banging my poor, soft melon against the wall (because, you know, it hurts). On those days, it’s almost always more productive in the long haul if I just walk away. That’s one of the great luxuries of working for one’s self, and also of having other work that feels important to me. If the words ain’t flowing, there is always firewood or milling or tinkering with the tractor or scratching the pigs behind the ears or whatever.
I generally ride the desk from about 7:30 to noon, and maybe again from about 1:00 to 2:30 or so. At least one day per workweek, I cut the writing short, which means I’ll be at my desk from 7:30 to 10 or so, and then again in the late afternoon for maybe a half-hour, attending to email and whatnot. My office schedule also shifts according to season and deadlines, with summer being devoted primarily to the land and animals.
Having said all this, I should note that it’s becoming increasing difficult for me to distinguish between the varying aspects of my life. Writing, farm, family, teaching, work, learning, leisure, unlearning, and play: The older I get, the more connected they all become, with one informing the other, often in ways that are only revealed through the lens of perspective that requires months, if not years, to ripen.
To be sure, there is a tangible physical divide between what I do to earn my living and what I do to simply live, and for that I am by turns grateful and bemoaning. I love physical labor and I know how much my mind and body crave it. But I also know that as I grow even older and feebler of muscle and flesh (goodness, is such a thing is even possible?), I might well be glad that my income is not entirely dependent on my too-frail body.
I am enormously grateful that my life has evolved to a place where it’s hard to distinguish between what is work and what is not, what is family time and what is not, what is time for learning and what is not, what is leisure and what is not. I know the compartmentalization of these things works for some people; I know that some folks revel in leaving work at work and home at home. I do not have this luxury. But for me, at least, the greater luxury is living as if the boundaries between these things didn’t exist in the first place.