Dead Leg …


This is Hank, with the deer leg he’s been carrying and hiding on our morning dog walk for the past couple of weeks. I posted it to Twitter, and was slightly shocked by a couple of people who were grossed out.

It’s one of the things about living out here where people hunt (and illegally dump hides and bones) and where there are non-human predators who hunt as well. The woods are littered with bones.

Bones of deer and elk and sometimes cattle who just died out there, or who were killed by something — a bear, a mountain lion, a coyote, a wolf. A couple of years ago, Himself and I were hiking in Yellowstone, up on the Blacktail plateau where the wolves roam and we found a rocky cove, a kind of a gully that the wolves had been using as an abbatoir. Looked like they’d been driving ungulates up in there for years, then killing them when they couldn’t get out. The bone pile was impressive.

Our morning walk isn’t particularly wild. There’s a road with a steep hillside to the west and a swamp to the east. On the far side of the swamp is the highway. It’s a spur of the old road, mostly quiet although with enough traffic that we’ve had to do a remedial course in “do not herd the vehicles”.  Upstream from the swampiest part are a couple of fields with a very small herd of cattle.

A few weeks ago, one of the cattle died. It was a weird sight, the cow lying on it’s side, dead. Dead does not look like sleeping, although one sort of hoped, but when we came back twenty minutes later and the cow was still there, still with the raven perched atop, it was pretty clear. Dead cow.

Things die. That was an old cow, or perhaps a bull, it was fairly far away and my eyesight is not so terrific. It was there for a day or two, then the rancher hauled it away, I think just deeper into the woods where the bears and the coyotes and the birds will eat it.

And there’s Hank every morning, my bright and shining new boy, so pleased with his deer leg, bounding up the road eager to see what other treats might be waiting. I like it, that it’s all here mixed up together. Deer leg and new dog. Dead cow and new baby calves. Sandhill cranes singing their weird clacking breeding songs and Canadian geese squawking at us, and redwing blackbirds calling from the cattails below. It’s all the same.


New Project?


I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been so much more compelled this past year by sewing clothes and knitting than I have been by writing.

While I made real progress last year on my memoir manuscript, and sent it out to readers and agents, it’s clear that it just doesn’t work yet. It’s not bad, it’s just not right. And more important, it’s not the book I want to write. There’s a lot of good content there, and while I was pleased finally to get the voice I was after, the book itself just wasn’t working. There are things I don’t love about memoir, and they’re fundamental to the form — self-disclosure for one, and the imposition of a clean narrative on the messiness of experience for another. I kept trying to find ways to subvert those formal constraints, but found myself just fighting the manuscript most of the time. And then I came up on a chunk of content that I just couldn’t bring myself to revisit.

And so, I sewed. I was still being creative. I was really involved in chasing down patterns and shapes I like, figuring out what mix of minimalist silhouette and pattern that I wanted. I finally discovered what Pinterest is good for — chasing down technique tutorials and finding fashion ideas for what I was sewing. The whole process was deeply satisfying. And for the first time in a decade, I have a closet filled with clothing I like, that fits, and that makes me feel good wearing it.

None of that was a waste of time, but I wasn’t writing. I’ve been through long periods of not writing before (since it’s been 15 years between books that seems self evident). I have a fiction project I’ve returned to that I like, and that I’m determined to draft all the way to the end, but I’ve been thinking all week while dog walking about what it would take to be as genuinely interested in my writing again as I have been in sewing.

And then the tiny flame of an idea for a new project came to me. It’s far too soon to talk about, but it gives me that same sense of excitement that the sewing has done this year, that sense of being really interested, of wanting to go out and do a bunch of research and see if, by putting it into the concept buckets I’ve outlined in my head (and in a new Scrivener file), whether I can make something of this. It has that maker thrill that sewing has held all year.

So I started where I always do — by re-organizing. I cleaned out my office bookshelves, and scoured the basement storage library for the threads I’m thinking of pulling together, and ordered a few things online, and grouped my shelves by topic. It’s sort of like an idea board. I can now stand in front of my shelves, and see the terrain.

It feels like setting out on a new voyage, and most thrilling, it’s a voyage that synchs with the fiction project that’s in progress, so I don’t feel like I’m dropping that, I’m adding on a complementary project. Like adding knitting to my sewing. They don’t cancel one another out, they flow from the same desire to make things.

We’ll see. It’s early days yet. But that thrill is back, the one that made me want to write in the first place.




Ambition and Making Things


Anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows I like to make things. The first decade or so, I seemed mostly making food and a garden and renovating the house in various ways, and this last year, since turning 50, I’ve been sewing.

I wrote a few pieces on Tumblr about sewing this year. This one, about rethinking clothes in my 50s, and there’s a roundup of what I made this summer, and my foray into Japanese Pattern books in the spring.

The dress in the photo above is Dress E from the Stylish Dress Book by Yoshiko Tsukiori. Google it or search for it on Pinterest and you’ll discover it’s wildly popular — and for good reason. It’s a cinch to make, and if you take out some of the excess ease (I cut nearly 2 inches out of each side of the front piece, and about an inch out of the back), you get this cute, swingy, comfortable dress to wear with leggings or jeans. I did one this spring without sleeves, and I think I like it much better with them — I’ll probably make a couple in lighter fabrics for summer.

This is what has happened to my brain. I should be writing, but lately, what I think about is making clothes. Pinterest makes sense at last — you can see what popular patterns look like on actual people. If there’s a technique you want to learn, you can find tutorials. And don’t even get me started on knitting — I’ve discovered Fair Isle/stranded knitting. I’m about to start a pair of socks. On these teeny tiny double-pointed needles.

It makes me feel slightly insane.

And yet, it’s the farthest thing from insane. When faced with a choice between working on my novel, a project I like (unlike the memoir, where the agent I queried rightly noted that the parts I didn’t want to write were really showing), or making a new dress, the dress is so appealing. I can cut out and finish a dress in two days, and then wear it right off. It’s such instant gratification.

My novel. Oy. I’ve been working on it for years. And I’m not terribly good at holding it in mind in the face of a workweek. It takes a day of noodling around the house and several days of making no plans with anyone before I can find the thread again. There’s a reason it’s been 15 years between books.

And one of them is that while it’s true I wanted to be a writer, it’s more true that I just wanted a life I like. I have my house and my sweetheart and my pets and the garden and now I’m figuring out how to make cute clothes. There was a lot I didn’t love about publishing a book — the tour, the questions from strangers, the sense of personal exposure and feeling obliged to do the Dancing Bear. I never really wanted to go to book parties or teach at conferences. Pretty much all I want to do is to stay home, write some, putter in my garden, have dinner with my Person, hike, play with the dogs, meet friends for drinks.

So I’m trying to treat this book project like learning to make clothes — this one is a new genre, so I’m reading a bunch of old and new theory (I know, doesn’t sound fun, but is). I’m spending time doing exercises with minor characters. I’m finding smaller goals so it feels like perhaps I’m making progress.

And I’m trying to let myself off the hook a little bit. All things considered, that I have a home and a Person and pets and a level of financial security is such a bloody fucking miracle that really, even if I only ever publish that one novel, I made a success of my life. And if I can find my way through this new one, well, as Ray Carver once famously said, then “it’s all gravy.”


Woodpile as Life Lesson …



We put in a woodstove this fall, and I’m discovering that if you are a saver, as I am, a woodpile poses a specific challenge. One of the reasons I wanted a little house like this one, and one of the reasons I’ve spent the past decade learning how to grow so much of my own food, is that I’m by nature a person who feels that disaster is just one small step away.

Maybe it’s all that moving house we did as little kids — every time you’d get settled in to a new school, finally make some friends, feel like you were on an even keep again, one of our parents would feel the need for a Big Life Change and we’d be off again, dragged to a new town or plopped in a new school. Then there was the slide down the economic ladder — both parents moving from house to rental house to apartment to someone’s back room to a new apartment to another apartment in a crappier neighborhood. With brief forays into stability or a year or so of being flush and living in a fancy neighborhood until that vanished again.

Patrick used to tease me because when I get nervous, I start hoarding dried pasta. He’d come home, look in the pantry and then over his glasses. “The famine is not coming,” he’d say. “You’re not getting fired.”

“You never know,” I’d tell him. “If it does, we can live a long time on dried pasta, oil and garlic.”

So. The woodpile. The big woodpile is at the back of the yard, where there’s a gate that opens out into the alley so the guys I buy wood from can unload. I had about half a cord I split myself from some log-cabin ends Himself bestowed on me, and I bought two cords from the guys at the end of my alley who sell wood. It wasn’t expensive. I’m not broke.

And yet. Every week as I restock the woodpile by the back door, every time I bring in an armload, I find myself doing mental calculations. How fast is the pile going down? Will it last? Do I need to order another cord? When?

My lizard brain is convinced the Wood Will Run Out.

And so, I’m finding having a woodstove something of a small spiritual lesson. An everyday encounter with my Fear of Disaster. The woodpile is going down, as it must. However, this is not the end of the world. More wood can be acquired. Or that’s what I tell myself as I feel that tiny panicky clench in the bottom of my gut. The daily wrestle with a minor inner demon.

New Year, New Dog, Old Blog …

Hank_babySo here’s Hank — actually, this is Hank back in July when I first brought him home. Now he’s a great, big, galumphing, lovely dog. His mother was a nice little merle Australian Shepherd, and all I know about his dad is that he was “the border collie next door.” Hank has border collie markings, but we think there’s also something bigger in the mix — my guess is Great Pyrennes — he’s got feet like frying pans, a coat so thick he slept outside all summer as a puppy, and a big square head on him.

He’s also the smartest dog I’ve ever had. Owen was smart, but spoiled and willful, and Raymond, my dear departed Raymond was a dog of much heart, but very little brain. At eight months old, this one is better behaved than both of them ever were. He comes when you call him. He sticks close in the woods. He was quiet on New Years day while we waited an hour at the cabin for a herd of 200 elk to move through (so magical neither of us even thought to get out a camera, sorry), and then, when we finally let him out, he sat on the top step of the back porch for a good five minutes, sniffing the air, trying to figure out what had happened.

He’s not perfect, of course. I was pretty annoyed when he chewed a hole in the carpet the other night. He and the kitty have an interspecies love that is quite something — there’s a lot of play fighting, some real fighting, and then she’ll sit on a kitchen chair, he’ll put his head on the seat, and she’ll lick his head like she’s his mother.

So here we are in 2015 and I still have things I want to blog about. I hope some of you might still be out there … because it seems that with oil prices in the basement, and jobs coming back, that everyone has forgotten the lessons of the recession. I swear, I had to edge past a Suburban-like truck in the grocery store parking lot this morning that was bigger than my first apartment in New York. And I’m still here, still in my wee house in Montana, still making things and trying to bring my carbon footprint down and reading and writing and rolling into a new year. We’ll see what it brings us …

Pets Old and New

Raymond Dog
Raymond Dog

New year’s day was a sad one around here.  My sweet Raymond-dog, who has been ailing for a couple of months, shuffled off his mortal coil. Only inconsiderate thing he’s ever done, waiting for a holiday when I’d have to pay emergency vet fees, but there wasn’t any option. Poor bunny. He had a great life, and my only regret is that I couldn’t  spare him that last three or four hours. But our local vet was wonderful, and we should all get such a peaceful end. He was a good dog, and now he’s stowed on a shelf in the new greenhouse room, waiting for spring when I’ll buy a new rosebush and plant him in the garden with everyone else.

Owen, Chickens taking dust baths

So, I sort of thought that Owen, also known as “Little Lord Fauntleroy” around here, would be pleased to be an only dog, but he seemed lonely. He’s never really been an only pet.

I’ve also had a mouse problem the past few months. Early in the fall, there was an infestation in the pantry, and Himself, who is an accomplished setter of mousetraps (he has several vacation rentals) managed to get them. About two weeks ago, there was another one! A bold mouse, scampering around on my pantry shelves in broad daylight. Owen was useless.

So Monday, drove out to the Humane Society. I told Gwen, who was working the desk, that I was looking for a cat who was good with dogs, and might catch my pantry mouse. “Oh!” she said. “You want Van Gogh!”


We had a little meet-and-greet with Owen in the Humane Society office. It all seemed well. So “Van Gogh” (note the missing ear, she’d been abandoned in Clyde Park over the deep freeze, and lost half an ear) came home with us. We kicked around some names. I crowdsourced on Facebook. Then Himself came home. “Holyfield is too long,” he said. “What about Getty?” Getty also sounds a lot like kitty, but I didn’t want a pet’s name I was going to have to explain all the time, so she’s become Betty. Betty seems to have stuck.

And then yesterday, while I was down here on the post-new-year treadmill desk, Betty came down to the basement. She was all over the place. Up in the rafters, behind the dryer, up in the pipes. Then I went upstairs to get more tea, and found her in the pantry, stalking the mouse. Five minutes later, Betty-cat showed up in the basement, mouse in her mouth. Good kitty! You can stay.

So there we are, 2014, minus our Raymond, who we loved, but with a new member of the household.


Writing and Backyard Farming in Small Town Montana