December 30, 2016 § 33 Comments
Before the snow. Feeding chickadees
The snow began falling late yesterday morning. I was deep in the woods extracting a large ash I’d dropped months before but had been too busy to retrieve, moving slow because I’m sick but still enjoying the way the forest feels on the cusp of a storm. Quiet but with a gathering energy, the midday sky shades of steel. I halved the length of ash for easier extraction, choked the two halves, and drew them in with the winch. A nice, nice piece of firewood, 70-feet long if it were an inch, nearly a foot-and-half across at the base. It’d been half-dead on the stump already. All dead now.
I skidded the tree down to the house, bucked it, and the four of us set to splitting, though I ducked into the house for a time to dry out and drink some tea, during which I watched my family through the window, listening to the metronomic thwacks of the splitting mauls, the murmur of a conversation I strained to make out but could not. Feeling a little guilty over my proximity to the fire while they labored in the snow. But not too guilty. I’d done my share. I’d do more before the day was out.
This morning the snow was falling still, though short of forecasts; there was maybe five-inches on the ground at daybreak, not the expected ten or more. Beautiful nonetheless. I blazed fresh trails on my chore rounds – to the cow water, to the layers, to the pigs. Still sick, still moving slow, the energy of yesterday now tempered by the quieting sensation of the new fallen snow. I never really wanted to live anywhere it doesn’t snow, though come April I’ll be weary of it like everyone else, watching it slowly disappear from the north-facing hills, wishing for a warm rain to wash the last of it away.
• • •
It’s almost the New Year, which seems like an appropriate time to mention how much I appreciate all my readers. I feel incredibly grateful to have such a kind, thoughtful, and supportive readership. Honestly, writing here wouldn’t be the same without you. Thank you.
December 26, 2016 § 22 Comments
I take my gloves off for milking and lay them on Pip’s back, directly across the knobbed ridge of her spine. Palms down so the curve of the gloves match the curve of her ribs. I always do it this way.
Later, when it’s time to go to the woods to finish bucking the red maples I’d dropped the day prior, I cannot find my gloves. I do the usual things: Search the designated cubby in the mudroom, check the warming shelf of the cookstove (three other pairs, but none mine), blame the boys. Always, blame the boys.
And I then remember. Of course. Pip’s back.
I gather the saw, chaps, helmet. Drink some water, because I don’t like being thirsty when I’m working in the woods, and though I could bring water with me, it’s more than I wish to carry. So I toss back a pint, enough to see me through, but not so much I’ll have to pee. Because the other thing I don’t like when I’m working in the woods is stopping to pee, all that fumbling of chaps, pants, underwear. The balance between thirst and peeing is a tricky one, and I don’t always get it right.
I gas the saw, carry it bare-handed to where the cows are gathered around the remnants of a round bale. They look particularly resigned today. And yes: There they are, my gloves, still atop Pip’s back, exactly as I’d left them nearly two hours before, and I wonder why she hasn’t tried to shake them off, or if she’s even noticed their small weight, or perhaps been broken to it by all the mornings I’ve laid them atop her.
I set the saw down, pluck them off her back, slide them on. Glad for them. Because they’re good gloves, and good gloves don’t grow on trees.
Music: The Turnpike Troubadours doing Doreen. Fan-freaking-tastic!
December 23, 2016 § 33 Comments
Empty Wagon. A summer photo
I grew up mostly without a television. I say “mostly” because there was a period of time (a year? Maybe two?) when we had a TV; it was very small, and black & white, and it didn’t last too long. I don’t remember what happened to it; I just remember that it stopped working and that despite my cajoling we never got another one. Like most parents, mine did things that were wrong and things that were right. I think one of the most right things they did was to not have a television.
At some point in my childhood, I got in the habit of waking up real early to read before school. I’d get up at 4:30 or so, and read in bed for two hours before I had to rouse myself for breakfast. I was not a popular child – too fat, too bumbling, and wanting too much to not be these things – and reading was a cheap and easy way to escape these circumstances. Or maybe I just liked good stories. Who doesn’t?
In high school I quit reading so much, though never gave it up in full. I smoked a fair bit of pot and maybe a bit more, got into my fair share of trouble and maybe a bit more. Lost all that extra weight, as chronicled in the space a while back. I wasn’t a bad kid, but for various reasons, I sometimes behaved like one. I guess all kids do this at some point or another, though maybe not the same extent.
I’m pretty sure that growing up without a television saved my life. That’s maybe a touch dramatic, but it’s also maybe not. Certainly, it improved the quality of my life – both then and now – immeasurably. It was a huge, huge gift, and I’m tremendously grateful for it, and if I had just one piece of advice to offer new parents, it’d be to ditch the TV. Yeah, sure, there can be some good stuff on there, but in balance, it’s just not worth it. Not for your kids. Not for you. If it makes it any easier, consider it an act of civil disobedience. Or patriotism. And aren’t they really one and the same?
I still like waking up early, though now it’s generally to write, not read. I usually get up around 5:00 or maybe 5:30. I don’t use an alarm. On the rare occasion I sleep past 6:00, I have the sense of the day passing me by, and I sort of mourn this quiet hour to myself, sitting by the wood stove like I am right now, drinking coffee. The cats milling about. Everyone else asleep.
Yesterday, in the newly-lengthening afternoon, I started cutting next year’s firewood. I had only time to run one tank through the saw, and I ran out of gas in the midst of making a notch cut in a nice-size red maple. I left the wounded tree and carried the dry saw back to the barn, walking slow through the snow. I’ll finish it off today.
December 20, 2016 § 29 Comments
Running lard through the grinder to facilitate rendering. We go through at least a quart per week. More if I get a hankering for fried chicken. Which I often do
On Saturday a pelting rain fell, turning the snow to slush. I ran in the heaviest of the precipitation, foolishly underdressed, churning my legs fast as possible to build body heat. By the time I turned back, where the road turns from third class to fourth, and the snowplow stops plowing, I was soaked through but warm enough.
The day before I’d skied late in the day, up through a sloping hayfield and into a high elevation sugarwoods Penny and I had first explored the day before that. It’s a beautiful, open, untapped bush; I can ski from here to there in 20 minutes or less, and then the options are boundless. This town perches on the edge of wilderness, or what passes for wilderness in Vermont. Sometimes this feels isolating to me. Sometimes it feels liberating.
I’m pretty sure I’m in the best shape of my life right now. I’ve always been in pretty good condition – this life does not suffer sloth, and we eat real clean. But this year I’ve been tending to my body with increased awareness and intent, and I like the way it feels. Even my bouncing pouch of gut fat – an, old, old friend – is much reduced. This despite frequent and liberal applications of lard and cream and bacon. Friends, let me remind you: Eating fat does not make you fat. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with being fat or at least part of the way there – I think our culture is way, way too obsessed with body weight and appearance. But my point remains: Do not fall for the lie that dietary fat equates to body fat. It’s a load of hooey.
I don’t write about food much, and I’m probably not going to start. But I will say that I think in general people get way too wound up about how they eat. I think it’s unhealthy as all get out. And I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out, or even care to have it all figured out. We eat the way we do mostly because it fits our life and our budget and our ethos, and because we observe how good it makes us feel in body, mind, and spirit. That’s pretty much the long and short of it. Heather and I keep joking about putting on a “No Bullshit Diet” workshop, but then we realize that probably no one would sign up for a workshop that’s comprised of pretty much one sentence: Avoid processed foods and stop worrying, already. Because sometimes it seems to me that people like fussing over how they eat. Can’t for the life of me figure out why, but that does seem to be the case.
Anyway. It has gotten cold, and what snow remains has frozen into an iced-over sheet. There’ll be no skiing until more snow falls, but that’s ok. And anyway, I keep replaying a moment from my ski on Friday, when I was sluicing down a steep hill through the trees and flushed a fat deer. It bounded across my path in big, arcing leaps, suddenly in a hurry to be somewhere else. I pulled up short and watched it disappear.
December 17, 2016 § 38 Comments
Yesterday morning the temperature was a rousing twelve degrees below zero. The air was still when I awoke, but the wind had howled throughout much of the night, forming graceful wave-like patterns in the accumulated snow. I love this weather, the cold not merely a factor but a force. There is an emotional quality to any weather, of course, but for me, nothing is so evocative as deep cold. I’m not sure why.
It has been a very long time since I’ve written about education, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Mostly I’ve been thinking about how my ideas have broadened and softened with time, not from any specific experience, but rather, I think, from an evolving understanding that rigidness in thought is a precursor to assumption. Or, as someone put it to me recently, a great deal of certainty leads to judgment, while an acceptance of uncertainty fosters compassion. And not merely for others, but for oneself. Naturally, this applies to so much more than one’s beliefs around education.
I think the homeschooling (and particularly those of us following an even less conventional path) community often finds itself a defensive posture, perhaps in no small part due to the certainty of others that our educational choices are not valid. And when one feels judged in such a manner, the most natural thing to do is to dig in, to deflect that judgment and with it – let’s be honest – the possibility of substance in the views behind that judgment. And so, rather than acknowledging our own uncertainty (and I know of very, very few home and unschoolers who do not at times experience uncertainty) and the inherent vulnerability that comes with uncertainty, we double down in the opposite direction.
(This may be patronizingly obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: This pattern is precisely why we find ourselves in such a divisive political landscape)
I say this with our older son having just completed a self-designed independent study program through a nearby high school, focused on guitar building and blues guitar playing. He loved it, and not just for the study itself, but for the opportunity to be part of the school community, albeit on a very part-time basis. He is currently designing an independent study for the coming semester around issues of climate justice and direct action, and I am incredibly grateful for the doors his advisor is opening for him, and the mentors who are offering their time and experience. An interesting aside: When it became clear that he wanted something more than what we could offer at home, we visited a half-dozen schools in the area (our town has school choice, which made all this possible). How shocking to experience the vast differences in offerings and overall “vibe” between these public schools, and how fortunate we feel to have found this unique program within reasonable driving distance.
I guess this isn’t really a post about education after all. It’s really just about certainty vs uncertainty, and therefore, judgment vs compassion. It is only now, late-learner that I am, that I’m coming to understand how being less certain can be liberating. And I think it’s liberating because it aligns with an inescapable truth: Life is uncertain. It is fraught and messy and beautiful and hard and I suppose the best thing we can do through it all is try to remain compassionate and curious. We’re are going to fail at this, over and over and over. With our kids, with our partners, with our friends. With ourselves.
But failure too is good and important because it is also an inescapable truth. You can try all you want to avoid it, and indeed, this is what we are taught to do. So yeah, go ahead and try to avoid. But know this: You’re going to fail.
December 15, 2016 § 19 Comments
This is a picture of our 14 yr old son, Fin, building his electric guitar. The incredibly talented and ever-generous Creston Lea mentored him through the process. We are grateful.
This is a picture of Fin playing his new guitar. It’s safe to say he loves it a whole bunch.
PS: Hey, Dylan, recognize the shirts?
Now when I milk I kneel atop a layer of snow, compacted from repetition of the act, all those hoof and knee prints and even the weight of the milk itself as it gathers in the bucket. In the woods, the snow lies a foot deep or more, and we ski nearly every day. I grew up skiing, and I’m grateful for it, I love that sense of fluidity and grace, and the surefootedness I feel on skis. It’s a big part of the reason I’m so fond of winter.
I haven’t had much time to write much of anything but what I’ve committed to for work, but I will soon. In the meantime, Penny has a few more humble offerings. The birch bark birds pictured directly below are $15, plus $5 shipping and handling for any quantity. They are really pretty and satisfying to hold. I like to run naked around the house with one in each hand, making little tweeting sounds.
Up next, you’ll find a collection of fine art cards featuring her photographs. Perfect for sending notes to friends, or maybe to our new president-elect. These cards are $5 each, or receive the entire set of 12 for $45, shipping included.
Here are all the different images you’ll receive if you buy the whole set:
Finally, she still has a handful of birch bark stars available for $10 plus $5 shipping.
You can order any of the above right here, or you can email me at email@example.com to arrange payment by carrier pigeon. Thank you.
December 8, 2016 § 16 Comments
Down the road a little ways, just before the Dead End sign, I startle a small herd of black angus. They’re tight to the fence line on my approach, but quickly scurry deeper into the pasture, heads high in vigilance. I watch them as I trot past, enjoying the contrast of their inky blackness against the snow-covered trees on the hillside rising behind. Above that, a sullen sky, draining of the late afternoon light. I can smell the cows, all that warmth and sweetness in the cold air.
As I pass the cows, I’m listening to Jason Molina’s North Star, which in my humble opinion contains some of the best song lyrics ever written (they’re made particularly poignant by the fact of Molina’s life-long battle with depression and alcoholism, which eventually claimed his life). See if you don’t agree:
You used to say I had what it takes
I think I did if you meant too little too late
I can tell by the looks that I’m gettin’
I made some big mistakes
And I thought you said I was great
Shoot straight and give it my best try
I made my heart as hard as nails
That may be the way you live your life
But it’s almost got me killed
Darling I’m not giving in
That happened miles ago
I heard the north star saying
Kid you’re so lost even I can’t bring you home
Did you think that we were going to last
Honey you know you don’t have to answer that
Half of that was my kind of joke
I don’t remember which half
I didn’t know how blue I’d get
I didn’t know how I’d get blamed for it
I didn’t choose to go down this road
No one chooses to be sick
I’m saying everything is fine
By the look in my eye
But you know darling
Half of what a man says is a lie
It’s your last chance to forget me now
Then it’s done for good
You always said I’d make it out
Somehow darling I knew I never would
I run a short ways past the angus, then turn. They watch me pass again, heads swiveling to mark my progress. Still wary. The snow falls lazily enough that I entertain myself by identifying individual flakes from a half-dozen paces, then seeing if I can catch them in my mouth. Flake after flake after flake, I miss. They either fall to fast, or too slow, or drift in unpredicted directions, and I can’t seem to correct my course quickly enough to make the catch, though not for lack of spastic lurches.
But then I think of those cows, serious and watchful in their field, and there’s something in that image of them – the stark contrast of colors, I think it is, maybe the alertness, too – that sobers me. So I leave the snowflakes alone and run for home.