December 29, 2015 § 27 Comments
Snow began in the night, and I did chores in the half-light of a hushed landscape. Down on the town road, I heard the rumble of the plow as it passed, the scrape of the blade, the rattle of the tire chains. I hitched Pip to a fence post and milked, snow falling atop both our backs. I’d slept cold and woken colder, but the warmth of my morning fire stayed with me, and I did not hurry. My family was gone, encamped deep in the woods. I had only the animals and myself to serve.
Back inside, eating my eggs and drinking my coffee, I heard on the radio that Lemmy died. This made me think of my friend Jim, who died nearly five years ago. Jim didn’t listen to Motorhead as often as I did – he was way too classy for that – but it still happened from time to time. It was Jim’s old sawmill that milled much of the lumber we built into the barn I’m sitting in right now. Actually, I can see the sawmill from where I’m sitting right now. I need to get it fired up again; I’ve got a beautiful spalted maple log I’m keen to open up.
Here’s something I wrote about Jim a while back. I hope you like it.
• • •
It has been almost two years since my friend Jim died in his sleep. He was 43 when he died, and less than three weeks away from adopting newborn twin girls with his wife, Nancy. It had taken them nearly four years to line up this adoption. They’d come close to becoming parents before, to babies that for one reason or another had become unavailable at some heart-wrenching last minute. But they’d never come this close. They had a carriage. They had a crib. They even had diapers. This time, it was going to happen.
I didn’t actually know about the impending adoption until after Jim’s death, because I hadn’t talked to him in a couple of months. But that was ok, because that was the sort of friendship we had: We could go a few months without seeing each other, and then fall right back into it. Often we’d come together over a project, or one of the blueberry pies he baked every year for my birthday. I can’t remember how or when that tradition started, but I remember the pies and I remember the company. I remember that Jim would eat three pieces, each with two or three scoops of ice cream. He’d always been like that. The boy could eat.
I won’t say that Jim was my best friend, if only because he had a lot of friends who would claim him as such and I have no more right to that claim than any of them. What’s remarkable, really, is that so many thought of him as their best friend, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought of them all as his best friend. He was the sort of guy whose life was big enough for that, whose sense of himself was sound enough that the energy most of us expend just trying to figure out who the hell we are could instead be invested into his relationships with others, like a low voltage electrical current. Which is a funny way to put it, now that I think about it: Jim and Nancy installed renewable energy systems for a living.
So maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t my best friend, but in either case, he was a good friend, and had been for more than 25 years. Jim and I went to high school together; he was a couple years ahead of me, which meant that he graduated at about the same time I dropped out. We both had a fondness for Rush, motorcycles, and driving too fast, in approximately that order. We wanted to be tougher than we were, but we were just too damn sensitive and neither of us could quite muster it. I have no doubt we recognized this in each other, and that it is in part why we sought each other’s company.
In adulthood, Jim and I came to embody some very fundamental differences. He became a strict vegetarian, while I came to be a connoisseur of animal flesh, raising and personally slaughtering my family’s meat. He became an overtly spiritual man, a seeker of and, it seemed to me, a vessel for a particular wisdom that I suspect will always elude me. He was neat, if not meticulous. When he and Nancy bought a new rug for their living room, Jim chose one that was white. A white rug: It was something I could hardly fathom, something that, in my house, would remain unsullied for approximately as long as it took to unfurl. After he died, I was helping Nancy pack up some things and every time I walked across that rug I worried over what might be on the bottom of my shoes. Because damned if that thing wasn’t as white as the day he brought it home so many years before. It was as if that rug had been blessed by Mr. Clean.
But despite all these differences, we remained close. When our oldest son was born, Jim was the first person other than Penny and me to hold him. Our second son took his first steps with his soft fist enclosed in Jim’s big work-calloused hand. Everywhere I look in our house, there is evidence of Jim: The door we built together, the solar panels we installed together, the drywall we hung. Starting in the second week of every August, we pick blueberries from the young whips he helped plant way back in 1998.
Jim and Nancy lived next door to Jim’s parents in a house Jim built before he and Nancy met. It’s an amazing place, full of thoughtful and carefully crafted details. I put in my share of hours during its construction, and one day, as we were working on some task or another, Jim showed me a photo of the slate stone flower he’d fashioned at the roof’s peak. I remember asking Jim why he’d gone to the considerable trouble of making the flower, and then installing it where no one was likely to see it. “Someday after I’m gone, someone will be up on this roof and I want them to know I cared,” is what he said. I said nothing. I mean, what the hell could I say to that?
After his death, Jim’s family did an amazing and unusual thing: They left his body where it lay, in Jim and Nancy’s bed, for three full days. And Nancy invited anyone and everyone to come say goodbye. Or hello. Or whatever they wanted. I remember sitting on the bed with my friend, crying my friggin’ eyes out. I remember how at first I’d thought that maybe I couldn’t do it, couldn’t handle seeing his body like that, in his bed, exactly as he died. I remember thinking that I couldn’t imagine how his family could just leave him there and open the door. But sitting there with him, and gathering with so many of the people whose lives had somehow become intertwined with his (and it was a lot), I realized I couldn’t imagine it being any other way.
Three days after he died, we lifted Jim into a homemade coffin and buried him on the land. That was another thing I wasn’t sure I could handle and yet another thing that, having done it, I couldn’t imagine not having done. It poured that day, as it had on so many of the previous days, and we pumped hundreds of gallons of water out of the hastily excavated gravesite, a steady, brown stream of collected rain and diluted soil, and I thought about how Jim’s body would eventually merge with the earth just as the soil and water had merged. And then I realized how I’d unconsciously begun to distinguish between Jim and Jim’s body. I tried to pinpoint when this had happened, but I couldn’t.
We set the coffin into the ground and started backfilling. The soil was wet and heavy in the palm of my spade. For the time, it had stopped raining, but we could see the next wave of clouds building in the sky. Penny took a turn with the shovel. Jim’s father was next to me, shoveling. The soil thumped against the coffin lid. It made a noise that reminded me of a horse’s gallop. Claudia, another of Jim’s best friends, starting singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” We all joined in.
Two weeks later, I was at the hospital with Jim’s family and a handful of friends, awaiting the arrival of the twins Nancy would adopt.
Not long after the twins arrived, and not long after my grief had evolved into gratitude in the way that all grief deserves to evolve, I had a dream about Jim. It was short, or at least the portion I remember was short. He was sitting in one of the wooden Adirondack chairs my parents gave Penny and me for our wedding. I was above him, from some undefined vantage point. Was I in a tree? Maybe. On a ladder? I don’t think so, but it could be. Perhaps I was merely levitating. Whatever the case, my view of Jim – and not just his physical being, but everything about him – was complete. He was wearing the big, mirrored aviator sunglasses he used to wear and his hair was pulled back into his trademark ponytail. His face was tilted toward the sky, but he could not see me. And he was laughing.
December 28, 2015 § 33 Comments
On Christmas Eve I drove through the darkening streets of a small town not far from home. The roads were wet with the remnants of a passing storm, and the wind had blown with such force that a tree had fallen atop a power line. Now the electricity was out, and there was something comforting in the sight of all those unlit store windows, as if, at 4:30 in the afternoon, everybody had already gone home to stoke the fire and put the kettle on for tea. But of course the roads and sidewalks were still busy, and I felt a small, passing sadness for those who had counted on these last few minutes of electronic commerce to fulfill their gift-giving obligations.
Once home I stoked my own fire, filled a pot of water to heat for dishes, ground coffee, spooned lard into a skillet, then cut an onion into crude slices with my pocketknife. When the pan was hot, I dropped in the onion and salted it down. Let it burn a little at the edges. Then the steak, a ribeye latticed with fat in gelatinous veins. I tossed a stick of paper birch on the fire to bring some quick heat. The onion and steak and lard were throwing a bit of smoke, but I sat back and let it rip just until the fat was crisped up nice and the inside was still a half-shade darker than red. Almost purple, really. Warm-ish. The coffee bubbled on the stove.
I sat by the stove and ate from the pan with fingers and knife, drinking black coffee and considering the temptation of further retreat. There are times I see a small cabin, a length of off-kilter stove pipe jutting from a wall, shotgun hanging on a peg by the door. Somewhere along the way toward inhabiting this cabin, I took up pipe tobacco and swore off shaving. You’d have to walk a good 20 minutes into the woods to find my family and me, and it’d be all uphill, and for half of those 20 minutes we would’ve known you were coming by the preceding birdcalls. We’d invite you in, serve stew thick with last year’s potatoes and hunks of indeterminate meat. “What’s this?” you’d ask, holding forth your laden spoon, and in answer I’d exhale a cloud of pungent smoke and raise my eyebrows. Let your imagination run wild.
Way up there in the woods, with the trees and encroaching darkness and pipe smoke insulating us from this crazy, mixed-up world where everyone seems so damn frightened (and therefore, it seems, angry) all the time, and worse yet for all the wrong reasons, we’d eat until our bellies are full-to-bursting. We’d sit a spell, listen to the sounds of the on-coming night, and tell the stories that have been told so many times before. You know the ones I’m talking about.
Then we’d have pie.
• • •
I’ll leave you with a few gems from an interview with Stephen Jenkinson, in the August ’15 issue of The Sun. I highly recommend it.
The dominant culture of North America is not being killed by global warming or too few whales or anything like that. It just doesn’t know how to live, how to take up the task of loving life, even how to grieve its own grievous history.
North Americans need a great awakening. What we thought was so isn’t so; what we once believed to be true isn’t true and never was. Here are some of the lies we’re told: There’s enough for everyone; we’ve just got a distribution problem. As long as we pay the sticker price for something, we’re entitled to have it. We get of a vote in anything of real significance or importance. Dying is a rupture in the natural order of things.
Health is not the absence of disease or hardship or brokenness. Health includes all of that. It includes dying… I see our health as like a tripod, a dynamic thing: One leg is your relationship with all other human beings. It’s not possible for you to be healthy when there are people living under a freeway overpass in cardboard boxes. Your health is dependent on theirs. The second leg is your relationship with all in the world that’s not human. If you have only these two legs, you can try to live a good life, but it’s like walking on stilts. The third leg is what gives you a place to rest, and that leg is your relationship with the unseen world, everything not described by the other two. Having all three constitutes health. That’s where it lives. This tripod sustains you. You don’t exist as an individual without these relationships.
December 17, 2015 § 28 Comments
The current stretch of warmth seems unconquerable and at times surreal. Even the nights remain above freezing, and we live amidst a sea of mud, wallowing our way from barn to house, in reverse of historical norms. “That’s how they used to do it,” is what the old timers say when I tell them we’re living in the barn while we build the house. I think their tone is one of nostalgia, but I could be wrong: It could be pity.
Last night our friend Michael came over with a sill he’d made for our front door and we worked by headlamp to install the jamb and hang the door. As we worked, the misting rain made a partial turn toward snow, and we moved quickly, our movements made efficient not only by our individual embodied knowledge, but also by a deep familiarity with one another’s habits.
Michael and I have worked together a fair bit over the years, and it occasionally feels to me as if we operate as extensions of one another, each of us anticipating the others’ next move, quick to have the appropriate tool at hand or a measurement at the ready. His skills are greater than mine (he is a full-time builder and logger), but not so much greater that we cannot work as near-equals, and not so much greater that I cannot understand what he’s doing and why. For this reason, I rarely fail to glean some little nugget or another from working with Michael, and this is pleasing to me. So too does the fact that Michael and I do not want for laughter as we work.
Charles wrote a great essay on the fallacy of numbers-based climate accounting; you can find it here. I don’t have much to add, except that while reading it, I was unable to avoid considering the parallels between the ways we talk about and quantify climate and the ways we talk about and quantify education.
Charles writes: … by focusing on a measurable quantity we devalue that which we cannot measure or choose not to measure. Such issues such as mining, biodiversity, toxic pollution, ecosystem disruption, etc. recede in urgency, because after all, unlike global levels of CO2 they do not pose an existential threat. Certainly one can make carbon-based arguments on all these issues, but to do so is to step onto dangerous ground. Imagine that you are trying to stop a strip mine by citing the fuel use of the equipment and the lost carbon sink of the forest that needs to be cleared, and the mining company says, “OK, we’re going to do this in the most green way possible; we are going to fuel our bulldozers with biofuels, run our computers on solar power, and plant two trees for every tree we chop down.” You get into a tangle of arithmetic, none of which touches the real reason you want to stop the mine — because you love that mountaintop, that forest, those waters that would be poisoned.
I am certain we will not “save our planet” (or at least the ecological basis of civilization) by merely being more clever in our deployment of Earth’s “resources”. We will not escape this crisis so long as we see the planet and everything on it as instruments of our utility. The present climate change narrative veers too close to instrumental utilitarian logic — that we should value the earth because of what will happen to us if we don’t. Where did we develop the habit of making choices based on maximizing or minimizing a number? We got it from the money world. We are seeking to apply our numbers games to a new target, CO2 rather than dollars. I don’t think that is a deep enough revolution. We need a revolution in means, not only a revolution in ends.
Our culture’s contemporary model for education is also derived from the money world, which is to say it is engineered to transform children into productive economic units. Whether or not our dominant educational system does this effectively is entirely open to debate, but there is little doubt that creating an employable workforce is its primary objective. Perhaps not its only objective, but certainly the one that prevails above all others.
The problem with measuring a child’s education in numerical terms is the same as the problem with measuring the climate in numerical terms: We can only measure what we know how to measure, and therefore, we are trapped in a vacuum of the quantifiable, in the process devaluing that which exists beyond the vacuum, if we’re even able to acknowledge its existence at all. I suppose that’s just a fancy way of saying we don’t know what we don’t know. Or how about this: We don’t feel what we no longer know is possible to feel. Yes. That, too.
This is one of the reasons I become so frustrated when those who’ve chosen alternative educational paths insist on touting the “success” of their children in the context of that vacuum. It is also one of the reasons that I no longer talk much about our educational choices and experiences: I have come to understand that most people want answers I cannot provide, and frankly am not terribly interested in trying to provide. It is almost as if we speak different languages. No doubt it is as indicative of my close-mindedness that I no longer attempt to speak their language as it is of theirs that they do not attempt to speak mine. But there are only so many hours in the day and many ways to pass them.
There is, of course, a correlation between our numbers-based understanding of education and so-called educational solutions and our numbers-based understanding of climate and so-called climate solutions. They are joined at the hip, and, as I suspect Charles might agree, meaningful change in one is unlikely to occur without meaningful change in the other. As to whether these changes happen consecutively or concurrently, well, your guess is as good as mine. As to whether they happen despite or because of our actions and intentions, again, I have no idea.
But most days I do believe they will happen, and that when they do, we will, as Charles writes … realize the importance of those things that we’d relegated to low priority: the mangrove swamps, the deep aquifers, the sacred sites, the biodiversity hotspots, the virgin forests, the elephants, the whales… all the beings that, in mysterious ways invisible to our numbers, maintain the balance of our living planet. Then will we realize that as we do to any part of nature, so, inescapably, we do to ourselves. The current climate change narrative is but a first step toward that understanding.
And on the days I do not believe these things will happen? That’s simple: I visit the cows.
December 15, 2015 § 3 Comments
The spoons are sold out; Rye thanks you. He is not taking any more custom orders until he gets on top of his current backlog. Sorry for the delays in getting back to some of you. We remain (mostly happily) without internet access at home.
December 11, 2015 § 32 Comments
A few days ago, back when it was almost cold enough to feel seasonable, back before the thin skim of snow had melted into the softening ground, I drove over to our friend Luke’s place, where I pawed through a stack of rough boards he’d pulled off his sawmill a while back. The boards were covered with a layer of dust and chicken shit, but beneath this visage I could see faint lines of spalting running through the wood, like little rivers.Luke helped me haul his planer out of the shop, and while I set to planing, he went back to welding a broken tractor loader for a neighbor.
I like going to Luke’s place; there’s always something interesting going on, something broken being put right, or something that once existed only as figment of his imagination being given form. For instance, the sawmill. He basically fabricated the whole damn thing.There’s a lot of what most people would consider junk lying around, but I know Luke well enough to know he sees something that other people don’t see in every single piece of it. “Oh, that’s a project,” he’ll say, if I ask him about something specific. He smiles when he says this, although the truth is, he’s almost always smiling. He’s one of those people who seem to be perpetually amused by nothing in particular. Or maybe everything specifically. Mirthful, I guess you’d say. He’s also a repository of delightful quips. Once, when I mentioned that our truck was running a little rough, he replied, “Have you given her a good hot supper lately?” It took me a second to realize what he was asking.
To make his living, Luke drives a dump truck, does some welding, and fixes stuff. He’s good with pretty much anything related to internal combustion, and many things that are not. He’s fixed lots of stuff for us over the years, and he never charges much. I almost wrote that he never charges enough, but I think that’s wrong: I think he does charge enough. He charges just enough to support the modest lifestyle that is satisfying to him: A small house on a small piece of land, surrounded by the tools and detritus of his trade. Because this is as much as he needs to realize material contentment, his services remain affordable to others of humble means.
I believe that Luke is a genius, although I suspect his particular brand of genius was once much more common than it is today. My friend Doug Flack likes to talk about “cultural amnesia,” a term he uses to describe all the useful things we’ve forgotten along the road to drive-through vegan lattes and Donald Trump. One of the things I appreciate most about living in a rural community is that it is inhabited by people who still remember, who haven’t succumbed to this amnesia. I think it’s more than just the skills; I think it’s also a way of being, of finding contentment in the commonplace nature of their lives and the small happenings around them.
Even Luke’s perpetual sense of amusement strikes me as an endangered quality, for who anymore can afford to be amused? There’s an awful lot of unfunny shit going down in the waning days of 2015. Why, it’s enough to keep a body up nights with the fantods. But sometimes I wonder if perhaps the best antidote to it all is to just keep finding humor everywhere we can. And there’s still a lot of humor to be found. We just gotta remember to look.
It took me a couple hours to plane enough material to trim our windows. I shut the planer down and pulled it back over to the shop, where Luke was still working on the tractor loader. I paid him what he asked and then paid a little more to cover my use of the planer. It was a better-than-fair deal, and if he’d asked for more, I would have paid that, too, and I suspect he knew this.
Luke walked out to my truck to check out the boards. “Aren’t those nice?” he said. “See that reddish one there? That’s the birch.” He ran a hand over a newly smooth board, for no particular reason, just for the feel of it. Like petting a cat. He smiled his little smile, and I got into my truck and drove away.
PS: Rye is offering a limited selection (as in the three you see here) of one-of-a-kind hand carved spoons for your ice-cream consuming pleasure. From top to bottom:
6.75″ cherry $12
8.75″ maple $15
11″ cherry $25
$5 shipping for each spoon.
You can pay via the generosity enabler in the right hand margin of the homepage; please don’t forget to specify which spoon you’d like! When they’re gone, they’re gone, although he is also taking a limited number of orders for custom spoons.
December 4, 2015 § 31 Comments
It snowed steadily all day, and by evening chores nearly four inches covered the ground. At lunch, we put the winter tires on the truck, and the floor jack wouldn’t roll through the accumulated snow, so I lay on my back, pushing and huffing, trying to position it in place. It was not a pleasant task: The heavy jack, the slushy snow, already soaking through my pants by the second wheel and swallowing the lug nuts that dropped through my numbing fingers. And perhaps worst of all, the lurking knowledge that if only we’d done this the day before, it would’ve been half the job.
That night, just before bed, I walked down to the shed where we keep the freezers. I’d half-heartedly tried to guilt one of the boys into doing it for me, but they weren’t biting, so I donned my still-damp clothing, tucked my feet into my chore boots, and grabbed a headlamp.
It’s not a long walk – just enough to limber the legs and get the blood flowing, is all – and I turned the headlamp off, letting the luminescence of the fresh snow guide me. I passed the cows, huddled under the protective shelter of their run-in shed. I could not see them, but I could feel their presence, their sheer mass, the heat of all that flesh. I passed the newly shod truck and the rows of round bales, smelled the sweetness of the fermented hay. It was flurrying still. Just a little. Winding down.
At the freezers, I made a pouch of my jacket front, filled it with food. Meat and berries and broth. I was thinking about the book reading I’d been to a couple of nights prior, where Brett Stancui read from her new novel.
Brett is an excellent writer and a fine reader, and it was a pleasure to sit and listen for a time. She’d attracted a full house despite dodgy road conditions, and as one who has drawn plenty of half and even quarter-houses to my readings, and therefore knows the particular despair of driving three hours home from a six-person audience (but hey! Two of them bought books!), I was happy for her.
Listening to her read, it was obvious how carefully she chooses her words and equally important, I think, how well she understands rhythm. Or maybe she doesn’t understand it; maybe she just feels it, the way some people can just feel their way into music or dance.
I sliced hot bread, buttered it, and cut the pieces into triangles. Listening to his voice in the other room reading that familiar story about the old man who called children horrid things, I stared down at the bread triangles. My mother had always cut sandwiches in this way for me. I had always eaten the inner points first.
Lucien said, “What a mean old man.”
I put tea, cups, bread, on a tray and carried it into the living room.
“Tea time!” Tansy sang.
Lucien said, “Tea time?”
I handed him a mug of tea. “We’d go mad as hatters in the cold seasons, without some civility.”
He leaned over the steaming tea and breathed in deeply, his eyes closed, smiling. “Mint,” he said with contentment. He sipped the tea. “That’s good.”
His smile drew at the awfulness in me, how near to tears I was.
Tansy asked Lucien to read the book’s table of contents to her. At each story title, she said, “Ooh, I love that one. That one’s so funny.”
Lucien rubbed a hand over his skinny belly, as if he could feel the warm tea settling in.
I handed him a triangle of bread.
He took it from me.
To my thinking, rhythm is one of the most elusive, unteachable aspects of good writing (or maybe it’s just elusive to me, unteachable by me). It’s more than merely varying the length of words, sentences, paragraphs (though there’s certainly something to this); it’s the myriad ways all these units of language and sound interact. It’s the ways all the types of language and sound interact. This becomes especially clear when someone’s reading aloud. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m thoroughly convinced that the easiest way for anyone to improve their writing is to read it aloud, even if only to themselves.
Anyway, Brett’s book is very good and even if you give a fig for rhythm, I would like for you to buy it, in part because I think you’ll enjoy it and in part because I want for Brett to enjoy the success she deserves.
I walked back up the hill with my family’s sustenance. I was glad I’d let the cows into the run-in. I mean, they would’ve been fine if I hadn’t, they’re sturdy beasts. But sometimes we all need a little break.