May 31, 2016 § 12 Comments
In the morning I find Pip’s russet coat flecked with apple blossoms that have fallen from the pasture trees. The blossoms remind me of the leaf boats my sons used to float in the stream behind our former home. They spent hours there, following the boats downstream, until one calamity or another claimed the fragile crafts: A protruding stick or stone, a change in the stream’s topography and the small roil of water waiting at its bottom, the snags from a deadfall.
I think, too, of the ones that survived past the inherent deficit of a toddler’s attention. He retreats back upstream on those stumpy toddler legs, his mind already fixated on the launch of another leaf, while the one before floats toward an unknowable fate.
May 27, 2016 § 16 Comments
There’s not been much picture-taking going on these days. But I’m sort of liking the idea of my work standing on its own for the time being, anyway. Besides, this piece is nearly 500 words, which I’ve been told is worth at least half a photo.
Last night around seven, before the heat of the day had dispersed in full, I walked through the orchard to the pool my sons formed in the stream. They’d stacked rocks into a crude dam to stem the water’s flow, and I remember thinking it futile at the time, but obviously I’d been wrong. Sometimes it feels like I’m wrong a lot.
The orchard is old and long neglected, the trees twisted and bent at unlikely angles. Some branches extend skyward, others begin that upward journey before looping back toward the ground, still others split the difference, and most are gnarled in a way that reminds me of arthritic fingers reaching for something that’s always just out of reach. The trees are in blossom now, and I tried to note the variations of smell of each tree’s flowers as I passed, but could not. I’d done this recently with the cows, too, walking from one to the other for a quick sniff, but I soon became self-conscious – what sort of fool goes around smelling his cows?? – so I stopped three animals in, and the results were inconclusive.
At the stream I stripped naked and stepped into the pool in that tip-toed way one steps into seriously cold water, a rash of goosebumps prickling the backs of my arms and the tops of my thighs. Even at it’s deepest, the pool is shallow, and I knew I’d have to force my legs out from underneath me in order to submerge my upper body and head. And so for a time I just stood there. It was a small bravery I was asking of myself, but like so many requests for small bravery, it felt big in the moment, as if something truly consequential was riding on the outcome of my decision to plunge or to retreat.
The funny thing is, I knew I would drop fully into that water. There’d never been a question. No one walks ass deep into an icy stream and then turns tail, at least not around these parts. I mean, maybe they do that down in southern Vermont, or in Massachusetts, but around here? No way, no how, no sir. But still I put it off, lulled by the stream sounds, enjoying that quickened sense of foreboding. The air tasted particularly sweet and clean, the sun was dropping fast in the western sky, and again the light had that delightful transitory quality I wrote of last week.
So I stood. And I stood a little more. And then, finally, when the cold in my legs began to take on a certain in-the-bones sensation, and I knew I could not bear it much longer, I kicked my feet out from under me and fell into the water.
May 26, 2016 § 18 Comments
Up in the woods there is a spot where the ledge rises out of the ground at the apex of a small hill. It is smooth, exposed for the entire width of an old logging road and just a little more, maybe 25 feet long. I have this idea that I will someday build a cabin atop it. I’ll cantilever the carrying timbers over the arc of the stone, as if the structure were balanced on the rock. As if it were caught in the midst of a fall.
More and more I like the idea of dwellings that are not intended to outlive their occupants, that decay in some approximation of human time, useful to the rattle-breath end (maybe a bucket here, a bucket there to catch the rainwater seeping through the roof, and if it falls on the bed, move the bed), but then allowed to slide back into the ground.
Leave it be. Let it rot. Let those who come behind me build their own damn house. Let them make it simple and just sturdy enough to outlast them by a day, maybe two. I’ll tell them not to mind the cracks in its facade any more than they mind the lines on their face; suggest that they accept the lean of its foundation as they accept (if only because they must) the tilt of an aging body; point out that the quirks of a house in decline are not dissimilar to the peculiarities of human character that only develop with time, experience, and a certain amount of hardship.
Oh, and one other small piece of advice: Put the bed on wheels.
May 24, 2016 § 12 Comments
A few summers ago, during one of the periods when our neighbor Melvin was farming alone, the boys and I stopped down to help unload a couple of wagons. I remember it was second cut hay – funny how a thing like that sticks – so I’m guessing it was sometime in August. I know it was evening, and I know it was hot, if only because it’s always hot when there’s hay to be moved.
It wasn’t long after we arrived and had set to slinging bales that some other folks showed up, a middle-aged couple in an old pickup. They got out of their truck. He was drinking a Mountain Dew. Big guy. Not fat, just big. She was smoking a cigarette, and looked like she’d a fair shake of practice in that department, the way a lifelong smoker just sort of looks at home with a cigarette between their fingers, almost like it’s as much a part of their body as the fingers themselves. Truth is, they both looked like they’d done their share (and maybe a little more than their share) of hard living; it wasn’t anything specific, but rather an accumulation of small details – the soda, the cigarette, the old truck, the fact that she walked on a prosthetic leg, a certain subtle haggardness to each of them. I don’t know. Maybe I’m not being fair.
Anyway. Melvin led them over to where my sons and I were unloading hay, and introduced us, and when she heard my name, she cocked her head and squinted at me through the smoke curling off her ciggy. It smelled to me like one of those mentholated deals, though I’m no expert. “Hewitt?” she said. And again: “Hewitt?” Voice like a gravel road in a dry spell. “Are you Geof Hewitt’s son?” She shifted her weight, adjusted the lean of her prosthetic leg. It didn’t look comfortable.
(As an aside, pretty much everywhere I go people ask me if I’m Geof Hewitt’s son, to which I’ve taken to replying “No. But he’s my father.” I’m not sure it makes any sense, but it’s pleasing to me in a vaguely subversive way)
Anyway. This was before I’d come up with my stock response, so to the woman in Melvin’s barnyard I just said Yeah. I am. I am. How do you know him?
Her eyes lit right up. I mean, she just beamed. There’s really no other way to put it. “He taught my writing class in prison! I love that guy!” She took a drag off her cigarette, exhaled in our direction. Menthol. Definitely menthol.
I don’t know why I thought of that this morning, but I did, and I’m glad I did, because it’s sort of a nice way to start the day.
If you want to register your child for this summer’s Woodscraft camp, which is run by our friend Luke Boushee, and promises to be a fine time, you should know that the deadline for registration is June 7. You can find more details here.
May 20, 2016 § 20 Comments
This morning I awoke early, thinking of a moment from the evening before. I’d fed the still-unnamed calf his afternoon bottle, then stood watching at the gate as he cavorted, running circles around the perimeter of his small, fenced-in world, kicking and twisting and stumbling on spindly legs, full of that particular new-to-this-world glee.
I tend to sleep soundly but am often restless at the half-lit hour of rising, and in recalling the calf I decided to run into the woods. Once upon a time I ran frequently, six or seven or even eight miles without pause, and I still remember the deep thrum of oxygenated blood, that muscle-bone-and-air way of being, and better still the strange, almost ethereal comingling of exhaustion and exultation. Runner’s high, I guess it’s called, but that always seemed to me like too crude a definition.
But all of this was long ago, and my strides this morning felt like a repeating cycle of stumbles and just-in-time-recoveries. There was none of the calf’s apparent glee, none of the effortless grace I once knew when I ran. I pushed on, shoulders tilted into the slope and, I imagined, the engrained inertia of body and mind. My lungs felt raw and scraped; my legs were weak and quivery, as if questioning their fealty to the task, and who could blame them. I’d not asked such in many years.
I earned the height of the land, then turned westward to traverse the sugarbush. The sun had risen by now but only just, and the light filtering through the canopy had that fluid, transitory quality I love so much. And now I was pleased to feel my body becoming fluid like the light, not completely, not perfectly, but enough that I sensed my mind unsticking, too.
I thought about many things, among them circumstance (or what passes for circumstance in our logic-driven brains), and then a comment someone left about the futility of trying to be a better writer, and whether that might be true, and what is the difference between good writing and bad, anyway? And who best to decide, writer or reader? Because sometimes I post things here that I think are halfway decent, and no one seems to give half a shit, and sometimes I post things that I think are pretty weak, at least in hindsight, and people seem to love it. And then I thought about the emails I’d recently exchanged with someone about our respective paths with writing (and life, yeah, that too), a continuation of a conversation I referenced here not long ago. It was a good conversation. They were good emails.
But mostly, I thought of habits I’ve held for too long, and particularly my tendency to resist doing some of the things I want to do (or claim to want to do), purportedly for lack of time or energy or money or any combination of the three. Of course, there are kernels of truth in all of these excuses, which is precisely what makes them so effective, and isn’t that always the case?
I ran a little farther, reached the stream where it crosses onto this land, and turned to follow it home. Not really running now, more of a stilted trot, the forest floor too choppy and the trees too tight for speed. I crossed over the stream and then back again, stepping quick and careful on the water-slick rocks. Now thinking of nothing but balance and dry feet and the stream sounds, and glad for it.
Then I was home, and it was light enough for chores. I could see the calf at the paddock gate, and I knew that he was hungry, so I gathered up the milk bucket and his bottle and set about my day.
May 18, 2016 § 33 Comments
Someone said to me lately that my writing here has improved in recent months, and I was sort of embarrassed at how good that made me feel, probably because in truth I have been trying in recent months, at least at those time when I’m willing to try. This is something new for me. I know this contradicts what I wrote recently, about my lack of enthusiasm for the craft, but so be it. I am human, therefore I contradict myself. Besides, the older I get, the more clearly I understand how two seemingly disparate truths can co-exist without diminishing one another.
I’ve long suspected that writing is one of those things that can’t really be taught. I mean, certain aspects can be learned, little tips and techniques and whatnot, but at its core, good writing springs from a place that does not fall under the sway of human will and intervention. But now I’m wavering in this belief, at least a bit. I think maybe my assumption came from my own laziness, my own unwillingness to really apply myself to those interventions.
Anyway. All this made me think of a post I wrote a while back, which in the spirit of the aforementioned laziness, I offer again. I’m not even sure I agree with all of it anymore, but I still think there’s some value in it.
• • •
Other than dropping trapdoor-like through the second story floor of Melvin’s barn while retrieving a round bale, only to find myself plunging directly into the milking parlor below to land amongst a row of startled yearling heifers, yesterday was relatively unremarkable.
I landed directly on my feet, and stood there in stunned silence for a moment, while Melvin and Janet and the boys stared in wide-eyed wonder, unsure of whether to burst into laughter or call an ambulance. Fortunately, for me everything was pretty much exactly the same. I was just 10-feet lower than I’d been a quarter-second prior, courtesy of the fact that like most old barns, Melvin’s features a variety of boarded-over cut-outs, the known purpose of which died with one previous owner or another. Only, this cut out was wasn’t so much boarded-over, as cardboarded-over (it wasn’t literally cardboard, but some sort flimsy, long discarded quarter-inch building board), with the intention of keeping the cold air of the unheated upper floor from sinking into the milk room. Melvin knew where the hole was. Melvin typically retrieves the bales. At one point, months ago, Melvin had even drawn my attention to the hole, saying something like “you might not want to step there.” Ergo, the covering need not bear a human’s weight.
I’ve never really liked being told what to do, so I went ahead and stepped where I damn well pleased.
Anyway. I got a great question via email last night, and although I was actually planning to take the day away from this space, this question really got me thinking. Besides, I’m so grateful to have survived last night’s adventure with nary a scratch that I’m feeling particularly delighted with life, which I’ve found is generally a good frame of mind from which to answer questions.
How did you go about developing your ‘voice’? Your writing comes across as very “voice-y” (if that’s a word). I’m guessing it comes down to lots of practice, lots of blog posts, 10,000 hours, polishing, perfecting, sweating, just writing, fewer distractions, etc. It may not be a conscious thing anyway, how that develops.
Just wanted to get a quick thought on that. Maybe though you just came out of the womb with a keyboard in hand, ready to go.
And I really loved this part of the email, which isn’t a question, but I still wanted to share:
I count storytelling as the purest form of manufacturing. Out of such simple inputs come these great big, glorious outputs, more powerful than any car, airplane, or building.
Back to the question. How does one develop voice in his or her writing? Well, here’s one thing: People often talk about writers “finding their voice,” but I’ve never really understood that. I don’t think you can “find” your voice, because the moment you go looking for your voice, you’re screwed. It’s like looking for love, or for a contact lens in a lake. I mean, it might happen, but it ain’t too friggin’ likely.
To my way of thinking, your voice finds you. And it finds you through everything you do and all the influences that surround you. The music you listen to. The friends you keep. Where you live. The people you love. What you read, of course. And on and on and on. My family is in my written voice. Melvin and his barn with the hole I fell through last night. Our cows. This house. My affection for this land. Lately, Jason Isbell. Certainly, my parents. The simple fact that I’m about to go hand milk a cow in five-degree-below-zero weather. That’s all in my voice.
But of course these influences don’t just spring forth fully formed into good or even not-so-good writing (and lord knows, I’ve produced my share of the latter). You do have to write. You have to write a lot. I think, most importantly, you have to become as close to unselfconscious as you can become, because when you get to that place, that’s when your voice will make itself truly known.
Another thing: In my experience, voice is not static. My voice is somewhat (though not entirely) different in this space than it is in my magazine articles, or books. I think that’s because it’s simply too exhausting for both the reader and myself to carry the energy and pacing of these shorter blog posts into longer work. I’ve tried, and it just doesn’t work. I sort of wish it did, because I most enjoy the voice that comes through in this space. Maybe someday I’ll learn how to bring it to the page.
And voice is always evolving. I’m sure there are some foundational aspects that will stay with me for my entire life, but I’m equally sure that my writing voice will change over the years. Maybe for the better; maybe not. I don’t know that I can control it, really. The only thing I know is that if I can remain as unselfconscious as possible and keep on talking (remembering that often it’s the fewest words that say the most), folks just might want to hear my stories.
To sum it all up. Voice: Don’t go looking. Be unafraid. Write. And let everything in.
Hope this helps.
Addendum: I was thinking about this a bit more during chores and realized two things. First, my advice to “be unafraid” is a bit flip. On some level or another, I think everybody’s afraid of revealing themselves through their writing (or otherwise). So maybe it’s more accurate to say “be less afraid.” And remember that just as fear is learned, so is fearlessness. Or increased fearlessness.
Second, I don’t think you have to be either happy or unhappy to write well. But you sure as hell better be interested.
May 16, 2016 § 25 Comments
The rain changed over to snow just as the light was leaving the sky, and by this morning any hint of spring had been erased. Gone the wash of green I wrote of only yesterday; gone the tufts of newly lush grass; gone the stilled suppleness of the early air, like a finely woven fabric almost too soft to feel. Gone chores in a shirt pushed up to the elbows, feet warm in rubber boots, bird and frog song everywhere, the mind liberated by the body’s contentment, flitting from one thought to the next, and none of them meaning much of anything. This morning all I could think about was the cold soaking through the knees of my jeans as I knelt to milk, the stiffness in my fingers and my recalcitrant right elbow, and the brief, repeating blasts of wind driving all of it deeper. And hardly any birdsong.
So. Gone the comfort, too.
Though none of it’s gone, really; just obscured. Deferred.
Over the weekend I accompanied our older son to a direct action campaign in the city of Albany, New York for the purpose of disrupting the flow of Bakken crude oil. The oil travels by train, hundreds upon hundreds of rail cars streaming through the city’s most economically challenged (and primarily African American) neighborhoods. The people who live in these communities are subjected to the worst of the ancillary pollution, and also placed at the highest risk of a disastrous incident such as the one that occurred in Lac-Megantic, Quebec a few years back, when train cars carrying crude oil crashed and exploded, killing 47 and displacing many others. So you see: The risk is not theoretical.
I am not inherently drawn toward this type of activism, though I sympathize with the cause and am saddened and angered by the injustices inflicted on those with the fewest resources to defend themselves. But my boy is drawn to this work, or at least curious about it, and because of this, and because I think it is healthy to occasionally remove one’s self from one’s comfort zone, which this trip would certainly do for me, I said ok. Let’s go.
We rode a chartered bus to Albany, and slept fitfully on a church floor, surrounded by the night noises of a 100 or so other fitful sleepers, and it was not restful for me, at least in part because I had difficultly not thinking about everything that needed doing at home. In the morning, we made by foot for the park that served as gathering spot for what would ultimately be nearly 2,000 other activists.
About halfway to the park we came upon a bus stop inhabited by a small group of middle age men, all of them black. I do not think they were waiting for bus, though I could be wrong. But it seemed to me as if they’d gathered there to socialize, to watch the world roll by on a Saturday morning, or at least the small sliver of the world comprised by that block of South Pearl Street in Albany, New York.
“Where are you going?” one of them asked. “Where are you from?” (was it that obvious that we weren’t from around there? It was. It very much was). We told them about the trains, which they knew about already, and we told them about the gathering, which they didn’t know about, and then we suggested they join us. “Come sing with us,” someone in our group said, and they laughed, and then one of them said “he can sing,” pointing to one of his companions.
And then what happened is that this man stepped forward and began to sing to our little group of privileged white folks from out-of-town, and I could see that many of his teeth were capped in silver (or something that looked like silver), and many of the ones that weren’t capped were simply missing, and I could hear that his voice truly was something special. Maybe even sacred. It was a gospel song, not one I recognized (as if I’d recognize any), and we just stood there. Dumbstruck, I’d say, but that’s not quite right, because it felt to me like one of those moments when a deep and abiding intelligence is being revealed and you know right then and there that you now understand something you never had before, something you never even understood you needed to understand. If that makes any sense.
When he finished, we all clapped, then everyone laughed together, then they shook our hands in flurry of complicated patterns that I fumbled through best I could, and as we walked away my son said “that was amazing.”
And I just nodded my head, in part because I did not trust the strength of my own voice at that very moment, and in part because I did not know what else to say.