The Things We’ve Created

Before the snow
Before the snow

Yesterday I drove to Boston for an interview on WBUR and a reading at Brookline Booksmith. I do not as a rule mind these excursions; in some regards, I daresay I enjoy them, though there is always a certain amount of anxiety involved. For instance: I own exactly two sets of attire that might (might, I say!) be deemed appropriate for public appearances beyond the boundaries of my rusticated existence, and there is the lurking complication of getting from the bedroom, down the stairs, across the kitchen, over the porch, and into the car without malodorous or gelatinous (or worse yet, both) substances adhering to me. I’d give the boys a goodbye hug, but they are wearing the same outfits they wore the day before, and the day before that, and the… eh, you get the point. Truth is, even the car isn’t a safe haven, what with the sundry effects of the boys’ hunting and trapping exploits and the greasy layer of mudshitsnowmelt pooled atop the floor mats.

And then Boston, and 45 minutes of driving in confounding circles until finally I call my publicist (who lives and is based there) to talk me onto Commonwealth Ave. And then I go to park, only to remember that the door locks in our car do not. Lock, that is. Well, actually, they lock, it’s just the unlocking process that has become, shall we say, tenuous. So I can’t lock the car for fear I won’t be able to unlock it (and how convoluted a situation is that?), which only makes me more anxious until I suddenly realize (wave of sweet relief washing over me) it needn’t, since what on heaven’s earth could any nefarious Bostonian desire to liberate from our Subaru? A muskrat trap? A homemade axe sheath with the inconsistent stitching of my younger son’s hand? A dog-eared copy of the Vermont Atlas and Gazetteer? Ah, I know: The Complete Classic Rock Collection on CD, volume 5, which includes such gems as Foreigner’s Urgent and No More Mister Nice Guy by Alice Cooper his ownbadself. Hell, they can have it. (Though not volume 6, no way. Why? Because that one contains Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper, that’s why) I am suddenly grateful to realize how little of what we own has value to anyone but us and I know there is an important lesson in that realization. Perhaps for another day.

In my mind’s eye, however bleary and half-lidded it might be, I like to see myself as one of those people who embodies the particular type of resourcefulness that allows him (me) to thrive in any environment. You know one of those people, right? Always cool and collected, always comfortable in their own skin, always sure of their place in this great and beautiful mess of a world. Not quite cocksure but close enough to it. Yeah, that’s how I like to think of myself. That’s the guy I want to be.

Of course, the reality is somewhat different, and the city always crumbles my façade, generally in as much time as it takes for me to become well and truly lost, turning down one-way streets in the two-way direction, shutting off the radio as if the absence of its chatter will somehow imbue me with directional super powers. I suppose that’s why I sometimes resort to haughtily poking fun at urbanity – it’s really just a reflection of my own insecurity, of the way all that concrete and steel and motion and noise and commotion exposes me as the rube I am. Not cool. Not collected. Not comfortable in my own skin. And sure and shootin’ not cocksure. Just a bewildered rural fool backing up traffic on Beacon Street, lost among the masses.

Yet there is something strangely beautiful in the chaos of the city. I see the bike commuters bundled against the cold, making their way through traffic as if impervious to its perils. It blows my mind, the speed and fearlessness of these cyclists. The fluidity. I am jealous. I want to grab a bike and do something improbable, like ride across the city in the middle of a November night, thumping my bared chest with a clenched fist and screaming into the frozen air. Alas, that would likely be the last anyone would ever hear from me.

And I see the noodle shops and the people on the trains and on the sidewalks and how in their own, quiet, unassuming way, everyone makes room for everyone else. You don’t need to do that where I come from, you know – there’s space for everyone to do their thing and no one has to make room because there’s all the friggin’ room in the world – and it occurs to me that it’s a skill worth having. Not merely making room, but navigating the chaos of humankind, pedaling with all your might to shoot the slim gaps between the hard edges of the things we’ve created.



50 thoughts on “The Things We’ve Created”

  1. I hear you! Because on the farm we are so often in raggedy anne clothes, when I put on something clean I feel smart. And then I go to town and realise that what for me is smart, is 10 years old, and doesn’t really fit any more, and is slightly sun faded and definitely not in fashion and all those good feelings I had when I left the farm (having dodged the excrement of whichever animal isn’t where it should be, or the cow pats at the gate) and having somehow managed to close the car doors without caking my clothes with dust or mud, disappear as you say – and my self confidence in the face of all these fashionistas plummets to the concrete pathway as I realise I am a dag, and an old one, and sun worn and wrinkled with splayed working hands and dirt under my nails (despite my best efforts) and I don’t fit in . . . that childhood feeling of not belonging.

    Still I smile at strangers and gradually regain my sense of myself despite my farm couture, and finally when my chores are done I can leave and wend my long way home to my own kingdom where my clothes don’t matter, just the skin I am in and my own comfort with who I am and how I love and how I continue to learn and grow, and the land which holds and nurtures me, and the animals who see my soul, and don’t care how old or daggy or dirty or holey my clothes are.

    1. Be bold! Just fly in the face of convention! Maybe I’m just a brat but after I finish a horseback ride and go to the local store in my sweaty clothes with horse hair all over and dirty boots I enjoy the “looks” that the hoity toity matrons give me. I think Ha ha! I have a life and YOU don’t. So there! Farm Fashionista! Stand tall! Go forth and conquer!

    2. Farm Couture!! that’s great.

      Over the weekend I saw a woman browsing the jewelery counter at the grocery store (large grocery that’s not Wal-Mart). She was there for more than half an hour, working with a salesperson. She was wearing a too-big faded blue sweatshirt and dirty jeans tucked into Muck Boots almost ready for retirement. I was pleasantly surprised at how much attention she was getting, especially considering how many other people in “city clothes” were browsing as well.

      I’ve told myself this for a long time to help myself through situations making me ancy… “Just act like you own the place.” Acting confident has a way of making you actually confident.

  2. PLEASE remember you (or any of your family) are welcome to bunk with us in our cozy Belmont condo (just 15 minutes from Boston). Truly you would “make our day!” Boston is richer today for your visit.

  3. You made me smile the whole way through, and giggle at some points – imagining the hay sticking to that pressed suit, or picturing you trying to hide those valued possessions under unlocked car seat. Made my morning! Holy cow. And great comment Sophie. Some of us never fit in, city, country, one continent, another. On your farm you hide among the cows, in the city you hide among the masses. In fact, may be easier to hide in the city, as you can somewhat hide from yourself.

    I was thinking of the serenity of your posts, and wondering: does this man ever lose his cool? Well you kinda answered that in this one. Thanks again for a beautiful piece. Will go listen to the interview and read the older post you referenced. I find these thoughts where you cross over to that other world of airports, cities, and masses, the most valuable.

      1. my father is not going to appreciate his high school graduation photo used for your sly poetic purposes

      2. No Ben. You’re “cute”. As in the guy next door look.
        Eumaeus is “hot”, as in the ‘bad boy’.

      3. Am I the only serious 🙂 person around here? Eumaeus morphs from a meek eyed calf into an authoritarian ringleader, the “cute” guy next door pedaling bare chested between the hard edges (still giggling). . . What happened to the mission statement, to the brand? 🙂
        Seeking JS, like your blog. Will be reaching out to you with some questions.

  4. Sorry, one hour later, still laughing at the image of Ben riding his bike bare chested during the November cold screaming in the air. My 6 yr old came in wondering why I am laughing so hard tears coming out of my eyes. 🙂
    That would be some publicity stunt, would propel you to the bestseller. Not a very appropriate image for us unschoolers though.

  5. Know the feeling. As a recovering city-dweller (left for good in 79) I experience the same mixture of savviness and helplessness when venturing into urban territory. Is it age, or does the city ask more of us than it once did? I’m 76–here I feel about 10 years younger than that, but down there ten years older.

  6. Now I’m going to have ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ stuck in my head all day. (That’s not a complaint.)

    My little ’97 has faulty locks too, but I learned a handy trick from the maintenance man at the post office after accidentally locking myself out once. A bent coat hanger, slid through the window, will open that door in two seconds flat. That’s a way better rate than the cursed key, but it would probably look weird for me to carry a coat hanger around in my jeans pocket every time I go out, so I just take the chance that no one will steal my own valuable music collection (a single Guns & Roses – or maybe Green Day; something with a G anyway – cassette tape that was stuck for years, but someone recently worked out.)

    Really enjoyed this one.

  7. “…to shoot the slim gaps between the hard edges of the things we’ve created.” Excellent metaphor for life. I think it applies everywhere, not just in the cities.

    And I plan to thoroughly enjoy my Thanksgiving weekend in NYC, thank you very much, though I won’t be going near a Starbucks, such overpriced nonsense they peddle.

  8. I completely relate to the harrowing experience of driving into Boston, given my own experiences as a young woman growing up in NH. My brother and I can still make each other cry laughing talking about one time we got completely lost and thought we might die. But who could resist the thrill? And I was just reading the comment’s under WBUR’s link to that radio interview. One gentleman says, “Not sending their children to school is going to leave them unprepared with how to deal with the misery and tedium of most jobs.” I thought, why on earth would those boys need to take miserable and tedious jobs? We are also unschooling our two kids, and our lives are very different than yours, but the whole point, I think, is to prepare them to make their livings doing things that are rewarding and good.

  9. Proper Prior Planning Promotes Positive Professional Performance.

    If you didn’t have a feel for where you were going, you could have done a “mapquest” that could have reduced your level of anxiety and confusion.

    I prefer not to drive in Boston, rather I park and take the “T” if possible. I’m not a “city person”, preferring the solitude and space of Las Animas and Park Counties, but an hour riding the “T” exposes a person to move diversity than a year or more in either of those Colorado locations would have.

  10. At least you are at home in your Vermont. I feel a misfit in any world I inhabit – urban, rural, suburban. Always feeling as though I am an imposter.

    Anxiety is who we want to be. Peace is who we are.

    Having the courage to live authentically, always, is what I strive for.
    (And of course, having a sense of humor is always helpful.)

  11. Hellz yeah there is beauty in the city… nothing better than riding the green line to harvard sq. (I could ride all day – looking at the peoples faces), walking thru public gardens the common, rollerblading (yes, rollerbalding) to china town, biking down beacon hill, trying to levitate over the charles river, ferrying over to charles town across the water…
    damn i love that city.

    And let me just say one indecipherable thing:



    If we don’t hear from you – Happy Birthday.

    1. Oh man, there IS beauty in the cities, of course, too much sometimes, if you are just visiting. Did you ever sneak through the alleys in Prague to avoid the tourist traps? And eat rabbit stew and mussels in Brussels listening to some locals talk? Or aimlessly took the tube in London just so you can hear “Mind the Gap!” Or walked the old-own of Vilnius wondering how it looked 600 yrs ago with sewer sludge being dumped in the small gutters by the street. Or the contrast of grandeur of Paris with the tired faces of locals in the local grocery line waiting for baguette and wine. Or counted with amazement how many beers a German can drink in Cologne. And that is just before lunch time. Or strolled through the good old Chicago listening to the L approaching. Or million others. Cities are adventures, for the young, or young at heart. . . But it surely feels good to get back to your own green grass pasture, to not worry about the smelly underarms or plaque on the teeth, and slip into the galoshes and work pants. And maybe even the hat that Penny keeps saying is very unflattering. 🙂
      Happy Birthday Ben!!!!! I’ll go eat some ice cream from Cabot VT in your honor before I get lost in the misery and tedium of a job. But still wondering how the city folk would have reacted if, in your interview, you painted a picture of Finn and Rye skinning and charring and eating up the chipmunk.

      1. E, if you hadn’t then you’d be sitting there biting your nails that you hadn’t, like I am right now biting my nails, darn, I wished I did get to roller blade to chinatown in Boston. 🙂 Well, not so much, it would look much worse than Ben slipping on that first slushy snow.

        One good point that I took away from Homegrown is this thought that Ben said: when we choose to do one thing we by default choose not to do something else. Not sure why this did not occur to me before he said that, but that really put me at ease with the unschooling idea.

  12. Nice interview, they were very positive towards you, no antagonism. I am so glad unschooling is getting some traction. Too funny that it is always mentioned – what if the child wants to be an astrophysicist that requires regimented learning? Seriously, does any one 7 year old benefit from regimented astrophysics studies?

    “Not sending their children to school is going to leave them unprepared with how to deal with the misery and tedium of most jobs.” Please. That’s very logical. . I would like to find that magic school which does prepare you for that misery (well not really). For those of us who did spend 18 or more years behind classroom walls, the misery would be reduced by 18 years had I spent them traveling the world or picking blueberries in the woods.

  13. I have been wearing my clothes for weeks lately, I think my record right now is three weeks on the same t-shirt and pare of pants. This is mostly cause of my living situation. I do have some pretty stylie clothes and they come in handy when I feel like sprucing up, I like being able to shape shift from my grungy self to slim and clean for certain occasions. I appreciate the chitty in small doses, though I just watched a documentary on NYC concerning it’s sewage system, that made me think about all of those city problems the “experts” are trying to consistently solve. Sewage is f-ing gross, and cities really magnify humanity’s problems, no matter what city it is, though some are better than others. I also think ,Ben, that it’s good for them city folk to be exposed to people like you, everyone is quick to forget what it’s like out there beyond the walls of towering buildings, and endless neighborhoods, your literally coming from a different reality entering another one. Those people got to wonder what your life is like out in the country, even just one thought. I think farmers markets are good for more than just getting decent food, but also for exposing city dwellers to the natural world, food and people. It would probably be taken as hoax if you arrived all polished up driving a Prius or whatever, that’s just not what it’s like, the part that’s most important is passion, and wellness, people can sense that like a bloodhound.

  14. The bike lane revolutions happening in cities is really cool. When in NYC, take a bike to the high line and be amazed. This is not your /my grandpas nyc

  15. I’m from VT. I drove in Boston once, 1979, in a beat-up, rusted out Honda wagon. Came to a traffic circle (VT didn’t have traffic circles then) and got confused. Slowed down, then stopped very briefly. A car entering the circle rammed me, backed up and rammed me a second time. No harm done, and I think that driver felt better.

  16. I admit I can be a pretty anti-city, sometimes more vehemently than others, though I have done many of the things BeeHappee speaks of and am grateful I had the chance to do them. It’s funny to see how that fish-out-of-water feeling affects city-dwellers when they come out here. I’ve had the not-surprising “It’s so DARK out here” and “WHAT did I just step in?” comments. One of the funniest though, was someone who asked if we had some curtains to put up on the window of the bedroom she was sleeping in so nothing could look in at her. Um, the only thing that might look in on you is a deer or maybe a wandering barn cat. Apparently, that creeped her out. I have to say, it was something I never would have thought of but I sure would want some curtains on my window in a city. Funny what we’re threatened or made uneasy by. Getting lost in a city is way up there on the list for me. Just reading about it makes my hands sweat.
    Looking forward to listening to the interview. Also just saw you were interviewed by Home Education magazine for the upcoming issue. Will be eager to read that article, too.

    1. My friend who grew up in NYC says she feels safer there than in the country. But Lisa darling I says there are so many more people there to do bad things. I feel the same way you do NC

  17. I LOVE Boston. I don’t love getting there though. My daughter has lived there for four years. It took me two years to dare to drive there…once. If daughter lived more than a half mile, straight shot from the interstate I probably wouldn’t have driven. I would probably pull over, cry and call for help if I got lost. Ok, not probably. I would bawl. I usually drive to Bangor and take the bus. I do enjoy Boston. It’s a great little city. I LOVE leaving Boston to come home to the woods. A day is plenty.

  18. Your post causes me to reflect on the time I lived in Boston in ’83. I used to ride my bike from my flophouse in Kenmore Square across the Harvard Bridge to my shit job in Central Square, Cambridge. I would then spend much of the day driving vans and box trucks to Allston, Newton, Brookline and Somerville. If you asked me to do any of that today, I think I would curl up into the fetal position and weep hysterically.

  19. Loved the part about the cyclists and the vision of you joining them! Those ballsy city cyclists always amaze me. I swear they must see it as a game, a very dangerous puzzle they have to slice and time their way through.

  20. I love that whole post and especially the part about making room for each other. I have a neighbor who hates my front yard because it’s so junky and I think she called the city on me but I know she looks out for me, too. So I try not to leave everything too hillbilly-looking and it’s for her and I’m glad to do it. It’s like we’re family. I think someone else would misunderstand her and make her miserable so I am glad we have her. And she has us: a couple of loud kids and some lady with too many chairs and plastic structures and no grass and trees dropping guava all over and other kids coming by and skateboards and scooters all afternoon when she much prefers a decent lawn and peace and quiet. We really do make room for each other. In the country she would have no one to grumble about and I would have one less funny story about getting ticketed on grounds of offending the local urban aesthetics.

  21. Perfectly timed post, we just returned from San Francisco, to our small no stop light town. I was glad to take the kids and show them entire different lifestyle, they have been to cities before, just not immersion in one of the largest in the country. Concerts, museums, homeless, three block long lines, iconic architecture, gridlock, sparkling city lights for miles, and statues with penises (we got a lot of mileage out of that one!). My thirteen year old summed it up perfectly: Beautiful, frightening, magical and weird.

    The best part was I walked enough to cleanout the sheepchickenpig shit from the bottom of my 6 year old shoes. Nice leaving part of the farm there!

  22. When I’m in the city I feel like Heidi and the street noise should be wind in the pines. The edifices of the Financial District for example should be sandstone canyons. When I was 18 I couldn’t wait to get there from the plains of the Mid-West. Now I’m 65 and although I know exactly how to be there, I can’t. Just too much visual noise. No place for the eye to rest.

  23. I find it amusing when “city folk” bring “white noise” generators with them to the country, ’cause it is too quiet and they don’t sleep well without background noise.

  24. Tres Jolie, nice comparison to Heidi.

    Ben, have you and the family watched Dersu Uzala? I just remembered it being one of my favorite films it has some of the country/city stuff.

    My grandma lived on her farm into her 80s, carrying full buckets of water, alone. When her daughter would take her into the city apartment for the winter, she would count the days till springtime to be free at the farm.

    Jeff, why white noise machine, can just bring chickens and goats into the house. 🙂 Which is funny, it is off topic, but the image of bringing the animals in the house reminded me of the good Jewish tale:

  25. Mr. Hewitt….You wouldn’t REALLY give up, ”No More Mister Nice Guy” by Alice Cooper, would you? Can I have it? Saw him perform it live in 1974 and never forgot it! It was right after he cut off his head in the guillotine.

    Tom Gorton
    Nanning, China

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