July 31, 2016 § 57 Comments
The photo above is of the house I’m sitting in right now, where the wood stove is spitting out just enough heat to perc my coffee and, soon as I’m finished writing this, fry a couple eggs. Maybe three; I’m hungry. I like a fire on these cool mornings that don’t really need a fire. It won’t be long before I don’t have the luxury of choosing between fire and no fire.
The view of the house is on the way back from feeding the pigs; they’re at the height of a little knobbed hill we’re clearing for pasture. You can’t really see it, but between the lens of the camera and the garden, there’s a steep slope; not long ago, it was densely wooded – spruce, mostly – but I cleared it this spring, piled the brush in windrows, and then we planted blueberries between the windrows. Forty of them, I think. They’re doing pretty good.
I guess it’s not a very flattering photo of our home, but it’s an honest one. You might be able to see that many of the windows don’t match; that’s because I bought all but two of them used. One of them has a big crack in an upper sash, but I got it real cheap, and we’ve sorta gotten used to the crack, hardly notice it anymore. We own the siding – spruce clapboards stacked inconveniently in that little nub of a room poking out the south-faced gable end of the house – and it’s nice to think about covering up that tar paper, but it’s been difficult to make a priority of it. Thought it would happen this spring, but it didn’t, then thought it would happen this summer, but it hasn’t. And this fall is looking pretty full already. Ah, well. Keeps the taxes down, I suppose.
We started on the house almost exactly a year ago, maybe a little less. We’d just finished getting tin over the barn, which we’d made a priority because we hoped to get the roof on in time to stack the first cutting of hay under it. We made it with three days to spare. At that point, it was clear we probably weren’t going to get the house closed in by winter, so we spent another couple weeks making the upstairs of the barn kindasorta livable, and that’s where we stayed for the first three months we moved up here. It wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t too warm, either.
It’s remarkable to me how quickly and profoundly humans can remake a piece of land. A year ago, that house site was a piece of woods, that garden space was under a thicket of wild brambles, and if I’d taken a photo from the same vantage point, all you would’ve seen is a wall of trees. Gone, now. We’ve taken over, I guess.
This house is less than half the size of our previous home, and despite its still-rough edges, I like it better. It’s simpler, more humble, feels more manageable. No one seems to miss the extra space, though I don’t think we’d want anything smaller. We’ve got somewhere around $35k into the house, and could probably polish all those rough edges for another few grand. So it’ll be a $40,000-ish home by the time it’s finished. It could be done cheaper, for sure, by someone with more time and resourcefulness than we possess. Then again, it could also be done a whole lot more expensively.
I’ve written about this before, and I know it sounds sort of strange, but I’m ok with knowing that someday, this house will be gone. Rotted right into the ground. Someday, all the land I cleared, the trees I took, all that stuff, will return. Or at least I hope they will. I guess I have this sense of us merely borrowing this place, arranging it to suit our temporary needs. Maybe our kids will stay on or maybe they won’t, and maybe our kids’ kids will stay on or maybe they won’t, and maybe somewhere along the way someone will sell it to someone else, and who knows what they will or won’t do with it.
For now, though, I’m glad to have this tight roof over my head. I’m glad for the cook stove fire, coffee burbling, bacon grease heating for eggs. I’m pleased about those little berry bushes on the hill. They’re not much to look at now, but in a few years, they’ll start bearing like crazy. Come to think of it, I’m glad, even, for that cracked window sash. Because when I stand in front of it, everything looks just a little different.
Musically speaking, today I’d like to introduce John Moreland. Please, please do yourself a favor and give a listen. If you can honestly tell me you don’t like it, I’ll send you… hell, I don’t know, but something.
July 28, 2016 § 5 Comments
A while back – two years? three? – I was interviewed by a fellow who does a lot of interviews for the Sun. For those of you not familiar, the Sun is a literary magazine that also runs some of the most interesting interviews I have the pleasure of reading; I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned it before.
Anyway. It was winter and I was sick as a dog the day our interview was scheduled, but I’d already rescheduled once for other reasons, so I stuck with it despite wanting to do what I generally do when I get sick, which is curl into a fetal ball and moan incessantly while my family caters to my every whim.
I think I gave the worst interview of my life. I really do. My heart just wasn’t in it, my brain felt cotton-y and insubstantial (even more so than usual), and furthermore, I just didn’t get the questions I was being asked. It seemed to me at the time that my interviewer was trying to get at some really deep shit – these were BIG questions, about the meaning of life and whatnot – and truth is, I don’t do too good with BIG questions. I much prefer small questions of the sort that evolve into conversation; that’s how I generally approach interviews when I’m on the other side of the equation, and that’s how I’ve always preferred to be interviewed. Small questions. Just chatting. In my experience, that’s where the really good stuff comes from.
The interview never ran, and I understand why. I could tell my answers were disappointing to my interviewer even as I gave voice to them; hell, they were disappointing to me. I felt bad for the dude, having to go home and polish that turd. I’m sure he tried his best, just as I tried my best to put the whole sorry affair out of my mind.
I was reminded of this because there’s yet again another superb interview in the Sun that you all might read. It’s with a psychotherapist named Gary Greenberg, and it’s about mental illness and the state of the mental illness industry (my term). The whole thing is fantastic; I’ll leave you with just a couple of teasers.
“… I also think we are indebted to history – and not just familial history, but cultural history, political history, and economic history – for our understanding of ourselves. Comprehending the way we’re situated in the world helps us comprehend suffering, come to terms with it, and maybe relieve it.
Let’s say I’m talking to a young person who is struggling to figure out what to do with his life. I might talk about how that dilemma has changed over the last twenty-five to thirty years. I might let him know that the question didn’t always create as much anxiety as it does now. Success today requires a narrower set of skills and talents and temperaments. It’s gotten harder to establish yourself in a career. So his anxiety is not caused just by his nervous system being on overdrive. It reflects a changing reality in which we all have to work harder than the next person to have a satisfying, meaningful, comfortable life.
Here’s a different example: Somebody comes in who works in a defense plant making nuclear weapons, and she’s feeling depressed and anxious. Therapy wouldn’t typically delve into the moral quandary of spending her days making weapons of mass destruction, but maybe it should.”
“A drug company can’t just sell Prozac as a product that will make you feel better – let alone change your personality (even though that is pretty much what it does) – because it would violate our ideal of who we are supposed to be. But if you can persuade people that their malaise is an illness, a biochemical imbalance no different in some respects from diabetes, then you can also persuade them to take drugs for it without violating that tenet of self-reliance. This has profound implications, not only for how we understand our suffering, but for what it means to be human. The medical industry is using its power to shape us into not only consumers of drugs but also people who think of consciousness as a function of brain chemistry.”
It’s worth noting that Greenberg does not dismiss drugs outright; he’s merely wary of the extent to which we’ve come to rely on them, which itself relates to the ever-expanding list of diagnosable mental illnesses.
That’s all. Except for a couple more tunes for your listening pleasure.
July 26, 2016 § 30 Comments
We live in a town that is not really such, to the extent that when one considers the term, the usual town-ish accouterments come to mind: Shops and sidewalks, pavement and parking spaces. A certain atmosphere of bustle, even if only in a modest way. In our town, there is town hall that’s open four hours each week, the church I’ve mentioned many times over, and the chainsaw repair shop I wrote about here and here. Indeed, our town is so small it does not have its own zip code, and instead shares one with another small (but not quite so small) town a few miles down a winding gravel road.
I was told recently – by someone who knows such things, so I believe it – that our shared zip code holds the distinction of having the highest free and reduced school lunch rate in Vermont. This might not mean it’s actually the poorest zip code in Vermont, but it’s certainly an indicator that poverty is very real and very present. This is not quite so obvious in the half of the zip code comprised by the town we inhabit; while there’s certainly plenty of economic hardship in these hills, it tends to be tucked away in the folds and creases of the land, there if you want to see it, but easy enough to avoid if you don’t. And it’s obvious that many of those living here do have some resources, as evidenced by large and well-kept homes on sprawling plots of land.
I have noticed lately, during the many times I drive down the Main Street of the town down the road that shares our zip code, that I almost never fail to see children playing outside; some of you might remember this little vignette, which occurred along this particular Main Street. Running, riding bikes, hula hooping, sliding on the little slide at the little playground in the middle of the little town. And noticing this, I realize how rarely I see children playing outside beyond the borders of this community, even in wealthier zip codes, where one might presume a relatively high degree of awareness around the value of a child’s play.
I wonder why this is. Perhaps the children of the small town down the road possess fewer material distractions, lack the multi-hundred-channel TV packages, the high speed Internet and the associated devices. More soberingly, maybe they pass their days outside in order to avoid whatever awaits them inside. Or perhaps I’m wrong about the degree to which child’s play is valued in more prosperous communities – maybe there’s an even greater value placed on the awareness that to get ahead in this world, one does not spend one’s childhood playing. Could it be that simple play has become an economically disadvantaging factor in modern America? It saddens me to consider this, but yes, I think it could.
The truth is, one of the reasons I no longer write much about education – and specifically, my children’s education – is that my ideas on the subject have softened and broadened with time. I remain grateful to have chosen the path we chose; indeed, even more so as my children mature, and I witness their evolution in ways I believe are at least to some degree related to their atypical path. But I also meet many wonderful and engaging children who are embarked on a more conventional educational journey, and by all appearances happily so, and I think what do I know? In truth, I think this pretty frequently, and relating to many more subjects than education and childhood, and I have come to believe that for me, at least, one of the great benefits of aging is the accruing wisdom to recognize how little I really do know and understand, and how comfortable I can be with that.
But I still know this: I am grateful to have been privileged enough to offer my boys the opportunity of unstructured play, as much and as often as they’ve desired. I do not think I will ever regret that. And I know this, too: When I drive down the street in the town down the road, and I see children playing – sometimes, many, many children, more than one might imagine could even live in such a small town – I always slow down a little, just to watch.
Because it makes me really, really happy.
Music of the day:
Jeff Tweedy putting music to Woody Guthrie’s lyrics: Remember the Mountain Bed
Bill Mallonnee and the Vigilantes of Love: Nothing Like a Train
Chad Stokes: Our Lives Our Time
And just because I can. Turn it up!
July 24, 2016 § 14 Comments
Yesterday evening, after dinner, after chores, after the heaviest of the rain had passed and what lingered felt soft and inviting, I walked into the woods. I love being in the woods when it’s raining, the way the wetness amplifies color and smell and the sound of the mountain stream that borders this land. Indeed, that’s what drew me in the first place; I wanted to see the rain-swollen stream, kick off my shoes and wade into it, feel the push of the water against me. Maybe even push back a little, because sometimes it’s nice to have something to push back against.
I have been stymied lately by a case of tendonitis in my right elbow; it was brought on by last summer’s frenzy of hammering, then retreated to a tolerable level for the winter, only to return with a vengeance this spring in the aftermath of heavy chainsaw work, then further exacerbated by haying. I applied my favorite remedy – denial – until my arm was essentially unusable for the pain, at which point I began experimenting with my least favorite therapy: Rest (coupled with ice, heat, massage, and still, in ever smaller doses, denial). It is recovering, but in the achingly slow manner of injuries long ignored, a lingering reminder of my pig-headedness.
Physical work is important to me for all sorts of reasons – it feels good, it gets things done, it clears my mind (and yet it’s also when most of my ideas come, how strange) – and it is difficult for me to stop dwelling on all the things I wish to be doing, but for the time being cannot: Building fence for the cows, cutting and splitting firewood, siding the house, and so on. I am glad for my nascent running habit, though leery too of the toll running can take on the body, and thus always holding something in reserve, rarely running as far as I’d like, and generally not on consecutive days. Still. It’s good.
I think often about how deeply we crave certainty and security, both individually and collectively, and how, to a certain extent, we are fools for doing so. Or at the very least, how we are fooling ourselves to think we can achieve these things in any permanent way. Impermanence is one of the few certainties of life, right up there with death and taxes, and it is where many of our most meaningful experiences reside. And yet still we resist, clinging to the idea that our well-being depends on things being and remaining a particular way. It is easy to see this playing out on the national stage right now; indeed, it is part-and-parcel of the modern political process, the ceaseless promises of safety and prosperity, and I cannot not understand why we continue to believe these promises. Simple desperation, I guess, some deep-seated human desire to move away from the discomfort of impermanence and its inevitable uncertainty.
I think it’s more difficult to stand in objective witness of how this process occurs on a personal level (and isn’t this always the case?); I think it’s more difficult to accept that our lives will always be in a certain degree of flux, that things will come together and fall apart, and then come together again, and then, inevitably, fall apart again, and that this will happen over and over again until the day we die. This is just the nature of things. It cannot be avoided. Better to make peace with it. Easier said than done, I know.
I came out of the woods after a half-hour or so, my shirt folded into a pouch, the pouch full of chanterelles. I never made it to the stream; the mushrooms proved too tempting a distraction, and I ended up wandering the woods until dark had nearly settled, the air still full of humidity but rinsed of the day’s heavy heat (you see, it’s actually not the humidity; it’s the heat, and don’t let anyone ever tell you different!).
I went inside, set the mushrooms on the counter for breakfast, dissolved Epsom salts in hot water to soak my tender elbow, suddenly pleased to realize it wasn’t as painful as when I’d soaked it the evening before. It’s getting better. Soon, it’s going to be just fine.
July 19, 2016 § 3 Comments
I awoke this morning at my usual hour, and lay for few minutes in the half-light, listening to animal sounds: The low breathings of my family in sleep, the pacing cats, eager for the outside world and the hapless mice that await, the lusty crowing of Blood, our rooster, interspersed with the plaintive bleating of Rye’s goats. And the soft lowing of Frodo the calf, hungry for his morning bottles. The pigs, I knew, were still bedded down, well out of earshot, but certainly snoring. Pigs snore to beat the band. Or ours do, at least.
One of the things I like best about living with animals is the simple pleasure of imaging the fullness of their lives beyond the moments I am with them; I think of them often in the night when I waken to pee or to pull up the blanket, or just because, and I derive a small comfort from the thought of all those warm bodies in such proximity. Bedded down. Resting. Dreaming their animal dreams, dreams I like to think are unencumbered by the complexity of humanness, so much of it self-imposed. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe being a cow is more complicated than it looks.
I rose, did chores (indeed, the pigs were snoring, I knew it!), then ran graveled roads, for a time following in the tracks of a deer, pressed deep into the soft shoulder. And I imagined it, too, running in the night, perhaps spooked by a car, or maybe just enjoying the openness of the roadway, unencumbered by the brush and branches of its usual habitat. What a treat that must be.
Penny and the boys are scheming a summer trip to the annual Traditional Ways Gathering in Wisconsin next month. As a fund raising scheme, they have created some hand-crafted finery, though what you see below is actually all from Penny’s hands; the fella’s goods were snapped up by doting relatives before they could make it to this space.
Photos by Dylan Griffin.
Large spoons, approx 12″, all cherry: $50
Small spoons, approx 7″, birch, cherry, black walnut (light to dark): $25
If you want a specific spoon, please identify it (i.e., 3rd from left, 2nd from right, etc).
Black ash baskets; logs were harvested from our land and pounded by hand to make splints. Many blisters ensued. Larger basket is approximately 7″ tall, smaller is about 5″ tall. Put stuff in them, or just admire. $40 each.
Birch bark star decorations. For, um, decorating. $10 each.
We prefer checks and/or cash (email email@example.com to make arrangements) but Paypal is also an option. You can use the link below. Please add $5 for shipping. Thanks!
Couple of other things. First, more music!
The Devil Makes Three. Thanks to Michael for reminding me! Love this band with VT roots; not really sure how to describe them, so I’ll leave you with a few offerings and let you come up with your own description. This, this, and this are favorites.
Magnolia Electric Company. Brilliant and poignant songwriting by the late Jason Molina. I’m particularly fond of North Star, Don’t This Look Like The Dark, and The Dark Don’t Hide It. Fair warning: This is some pretty melancholy stuff, and probably not best for those late nights when you’re drinking alone and feeling shitty about your life.
Fred Eaglesmith. Not sure what to say about Fred, except that he’s about the least pretentious songwriter I’ve heard, which is one of the reasons I love him so damn much. Well, that, and he sings about trains, guns, and extending a raised middle finger to the powers that be. How can you go wrong? Here, here, here. Oh, and here.
Finally, a quick note on a project I’m collaborating on (this makes it sound like I’m doing a lot more than I actually am, which is precisely why I said it like that) with my friends Dylan and Nina Griffin, a husband and wife photography and writing team from North Ferrisburg, VT. It’s called State14 (because VT was the 14th state in the union… but you knew that, right?), and it’s a digital magazine rooted in Vermont-based story telling. There’s one of them new-fangled Instaounce accounts, too, if that’s your bag. I won’t say too much more about it here, except that I really appreciate Dylan and Nina’s vision, and am looking forward to the opportunity to exploring stories that aren’t likely to find a home on the pages of other Vermont-centric magazines. State14 just launched today, and I’m stoked to seeing how it evolves and grows. If there are stories you’d like to read, or if you have any other feedback, please don’t hesitate to be in touch.
Over and out.
July 15, 2016 § 14 Comments
Owing to freak circumstances involving the passing of sustenance between canoe and kayak in the midst of Lake Willoughby, Penny’s camera (ensconced in a custom woodchuck hide and felted wool case she made from a hide the boys tanned) found its way to a watery grave. A sad, sad day, indeed. So. No pictures for a while. Or maybe just old ones.
Just a couple of things I wanted to share. The first is a passage of particularly excellent writing, from the ending of an article on Trump and his followers in the most recent New Yorker by George Saunders. I love everything about these paragraphs, both regarding the sheer mastery of the craft, and the sentiments expressed. I figured some of you might like them, too.
From the beginning, America has been of two minds about the Other. One mind says, Be suspicious of it, dominate it, deport it, exploit it, enslave it, kill it as needed. The other mind denies that there can be any such thing as the Other, in the face of the claim that all are created equal.
The first mind has always held violence nearby, to use as needed, and that violence has infused everything we do – our entertainments, our sex, our schools, our ads, our jokes, our view of the earth, and somehow even our food. It sends our young people abroad in heavy armor, fills public spaces with gunshots, drives people quietly insane in their homes.
And here it comes again, that brittle frontier spirit, that lone lean guy in our heads, with a gun and a fear of encroachment. But he’s picked up a few tricks along the way, has learned to come at us in a form we know and have forgotten to be suspicious of, from TV: famous, likably cranky, a fan of winning by any means necessary, exploiting our recent dullness and our aversion to calling stupidity stupidity, lest we seem too precious.
“DONALD J TRUMP A GUARDIAN ANGEL FROM HEAVEN,” reads a poster I retrieved from the floor of the Rothschild rally. “HIS SPIRIT AND HARD WORK AS PRESIDENT WILL MAKE THE PEOPLE AND AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!!!”
Although, to me, Trump seems the very opposite of a guardian angel, I thank him for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail.
But I imagine it that way now.
Secondly, I received this comment recently:
How much for me to subscribe to a monthly service where you inform my inbox about incredible music about which I’m ignorant? Seriously, I love your writing and insights into the ordinary… but your random mentions of great (unknown to me) musicians ensure I’ll never leave.🙂
Music plays a central role in our lives, and I love nothing more than stumbling across a great songwriter or band. In this spirit, I’m offering a brief list of the music that’s captivated us over the past year or so. Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comment section.
Davy Knowles. I love, love, love this guy. Amazing blues guitar player and song writer, and absolutely kills it live. For those of you in New England, he’s coming to the Iron Horse in Northampton, MA on August 3, Higher Ground in Burlington, VT on August 19, and the Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry, NH on August 20. If you see me at one (or more) of these shows shaking my skinny ass, say hi. Try this, this, and this.
Blackberry Smoke. Straight up fantastic southern-tinged rock n’ roll. But way more than that, too. Saw them about 18 months ago at Higher Ground and again in NH last summer; hoping they make it this far north again soon. Here, here, and here.
Jason Isbell. I don’t even know what to say. In my mind, the preeminent living American songwriter. How about this, this, and this. Screw it: Just listen to this entire show. We got lucky enough catch him a couple years ago before he went at got all famous and started commanding $50/ticket.
James McMurty. Such an amazing story teller. I really like Lights of Cheyenne, Copper Canteen, and No More Buffalo. Oh, and Carlisle’s Haul. But as with all these recommendations, it’s hard to go wrong. We’ve seen James twice in the past year… he’s honestly not the most exciting performer, but that’s ok: His music sort of speaks for itself.
Kelly Ravin. Our favorite local guy. An excellent and prolific songwriter, and just a great guy all around. Here, here, and here. Kelly plays all over the region, usually for nothing more than tips. Check him out and be generous!
Ok. There’s more, but I’m out of time for now.
July 13, 2016 § 14 Comments
I ran in the heat of the day, 90-degrees and the humidity so thick you’d swear you could feel its weight on your shoulders. From the get-go, I could feel the heaviness in my legs, too; this was nothing like the mountain run I wrote of last, when I felt so strong and sure of myself, and I thought again of all the ways in which extended physical exertion reminds me of writing and by extension life itself, how it can be nearly effortless one day, and excruciating the next. And how, if you can just get past your own absurdist expectations and just sit with whatever it is, this is actually pretty damn cool.
I plodded along my usual route, to the Dead End sign and a just a little farther to where the road actually ends. And then just a little farther than that, down onto the snowmobile trail where on the 4th of this month I’d ambled past two teenage boys extracting a small hitch of firewood with an old, hoodless lawn tractor. It was not even 10:00 a.m. and they rode the tractor with open beers in hand. We nodded the curt nods rural men tend to offer in greeting, and then wished each other a good 4th, and I was glad for the meeting, it made me happy in a way I can’t quite explain. Maybe because when I was their age, I would have loved to be in their shoes.
On my way to the turn around, I’d stepped quick over a road-kill grouse, and on my way back, near the spot where the small, shattered body lay along the road’s shoulder, I came across a clutch of young grouse, chattering and nervous, darting this way and that, and I realized that the dead bird was probably their mother. I figured the young would probably be ok. They looked big enough to make it on their own, once they calmed down a bit.
From the roadside, I’d already gleaned a styrofoam coffee cup (16-ounces, Dart brand), a grease-stained paper plate, a Kit Kat wrapper (king size, no less), and an empty quart container that had once held organic chocolate milk from a local creamery. The lattermost delighted me for it’s inherent incongruity, for who, exactly, litters local, organic food packaging? And so I passed a goodly portion of my run determining the container’s path to its resting spot: Surely it had taken flight from the interior of a seafoam blue Prius, with its inevitable “Feel the Bern” and Euro-style NPR bumper stickers. Surely the driver was listening to mealy-mouthed neo-folk. Surely it was a he, if only because I find it difficult to consider a female litterer. And then came the lightning bolt realization that of course the container had come from the Prius’s rear seat, hurled by an insolent child too young to realize the wretchedness of his action, the parent too distracted from trying to make out numb-lipped lyrics to notice the exiting plastic.
The container’s story thus determined, I carried on, legs still heavy and slow, shirt sweated through, hands full of roadside detritus. Glad to be almost home.