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Pruning and Despair

Pruning and Despair

Pruned Plum Tree
Pruned plum tree (and hand-me-down boy)

After calling in for the Orwellian “Tele Town Hall” my GOP Senator, Steve Daines held last night, and after this morning’s news that the GOP Congress has approved Scott Pruitt for EPA, I’m filled with despair and heartbreak. And anger at every single upper middle class person I know, which is pretty much every one I know, who continues to blithely fly around on airplanes and drive SUVs and buy new stuff just because they feel like it. We, the generation of selfish overconsumers, who have ruined the world for everyone else.

To all “my” kids — to the whole gang of you — I’m so so sorry for what we’ve done. We’re leaving you a blazing hellscape of a planet, with ruined water and oligarchs who we’ve allowed to buy up all the resources so they will be able to hold them hostage when you’re grown.

So I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do and I’m angry, and agitated, and picking fights with people I shouldn’t be picking fights with on Facebook. I went out into the garden. It’s been warm here, and most of our snow has melted. The ground is still frozen, but I had pruning that needed to be done.

The little plum tree in the picture (behind the charming little boy statue that Biba, my neighbor, left me about a decade ago when she upped and moved to Argentina), that plum tree suffered bad damage in our freak freeze three years ago that killed all the cherry trees. It went from the 60s, to minus 20 in less than 12 hours, then came back up into the 40s. It was the freeze/thaw cycle that apparently did most of the damage, and we didn’t even know until spring that the cherries were all dead. I planted two new baby cherry trees last spring, but I think it’s going to be a while until I get fruit. This plum tree turns out to be a greengage. It has been an uneven bearer — fruiting every three or four years. The first year, I kept waiting for the fruit to turn purple, and it wasn’t until I was sitting in the backyard reading a book one afternoon, and a plum fell off it was so ripe, that I realized they’re greengages. They are utterly delicious, and I only ever get a peck or two.

Last year I was laid up with the ankle surgery, and I was waiting to see what parts of the tree would come back. By this spring, the dead parts were very dry and dead and easy to identify. So I got in there this afternoon, in my agitation, and cut out suckers, and sawed off the dead tops, and generally cleaned the little thicket that is my greengage patch out. I also took a shot at the gooseberry bushes while I was at it, and the currents (which are pretty battered by Hank-and-his-big-blue-play-ball). I pulled the thick layer of straw off the komatsuna and the kales, which were green underneath, and in general, started puttering around. (Oh, and cleaned up a lot of dog shit).

It won’t help with the state of our nation or the world. For that, I keep making my phone calls, and registering to go pester our GOP Senator who won’t speak to us, and trying to be patient as I explain to angry white Evangelicals that no, I’ve never had any of my Muslim friends try to impose Sharia law on me, the only people who have ever tried to impose their religious beliefs on me are white Evangelicals. I feel like we’re living in any number of dystopian novels, from Orwell to Margaret Atwood, and I’m thoroughly heartbroken about it.

But the world is turning a wee bit. The sun is coming back. There’s pruning to be done, which at the very least lets me burn off a little physical energy. And maybe, just maybe, there will be greengages this summer. To eat amidst the flaming ruins of our Democracy.

Theory of Minor Demons

Theory of Minor Demons

minordemon

Himself has a theory about minor demons — minor demons are what beset you when you are unduly annoyed by other people, usually other people who are just going about being the other people that they are, without any intention of bothering anyone.

The first time we encountered minor demons was years ago, when we were hiking in the Columbia Gorge on a trip to Portland, and we Could Not Get Away from these two chattery teenage girls on the trail. We’d hustle to get ahead and get some space between us, and they’d pick up their pace. We’d drop behind to let them get ahead, and they’d stop at a fork in the trail, chatting innocuously, but loudly, and loitering until we’d caught up with them again. Then they’d fall in, right behind us, chattering. On a trail. In the woods. Where we’d hiked to have a little peace and quiet. Could not shake them.

Minor Demons, Himself said after we finally managed to escape them, just as we re-entered the crowded trail from the waterfall, when it was too late and it didn’t matter anymore.

I had a week of Minor Demons. There have been too many people here in town — there was a big free concert on Main Street, a huge success, ten thousand people packed into three blocks having a great time and spending money in local businesses. I’m two blocks away, so starting mid-afternoon, my street filled up, there were crowds heading over, there were just people hanging around. It was fine, I told myself. People like this kind of thing. Its good for the town. And it was. I was on a deadline, and had to work, but people were happy, they liked it, they danced and sang along and had a great time.

But then, three days later, the PBR Bull Riding at the Rodeo Grounds across from Himself’s house. It was raining. I was still on a deadline and was working. I left here late and went over to his house and there was not a parking spot for blocks. It was raining, and I was tired, and I’d been working two jobs all day and I was Just Over It. Plus, there was loudspeaker announcing in that Gee-Shucks rodeo voice that is so annoying, and did I mention, even in my tiny new car, there was no where to park for blocks?

I came storming into Himself’s house In A State.

Minor Demons, he reminded me.

I hate crowds. It’s one reason I moved to Montana. There’s fewer than a million people in a state the size of most of the northeast. I am a short person and I get enormously claustrophobic in crowds and this summer, with the highest-ever visitor numbers to Yellowstone and through town, it has been A Trial. I like my nice quiet life that just hums along on its steady baseline of routine, and there have been too many people, and too much noise, and sirens and car wrecks and forest fires and crowds and by Saturday night I had just Had It.

And this is the minor demon part. Minor demons are things like this, things sent to test us. I don’t work in tourism, but most of my friends and fellow townspeople do. Tourism is great for our local economy, and is quickly becoming the major economic driver of the state. Which is great for things like pushing back against the two gold mines they want to build in the Paradise Valley, and perhaps might even help us save the grizzly bear after delisting.

I know all this. But Saturday night, when I was tired, and there were too many people, I lost my damn mind. Minor demons. They’re sent here to test us. I might not believe in big-G G-d anymore, but I certainly believe in minor demons. And Saturday night they got me.

We had a rare open night at Himself’s cabin last night, and one peaceful sleep, with no noise other than coyotes hunting bunnies in the willow thicket, went a long way toward quelling the minor demons.

On Quitting my Day Job

On Quitting my Day Job

 

flying_Denny

I took the leap.

I gave notice at my day job.

It’s pretty terrifying. I have a few things in the pipeline, but it’s a big risk. I’ve got another month of steady work, then it’s me and my little freelance shingle, hoping I can make it work.

And this is the photo I’ve been looking at every time I get spooked. That’s my friend Dennis, who died last month. Denny was the first person outside of my family who truly saw me. We spent the summer after I graduated from high school leading canoe trips in the Boundary Waters and talking. It was one of those summers you hope for any young person you love — we were besotted with each other. We spent every waking moment together, and most of it we spent talking (no surprise to anyone who knows either of us). He was never my boyfriend — he was three years older than I am and had a girlfriend at college he was moving in with, and I was a very young 17 year old that way. But we loved one another. I have the letters he wrote me on birchbark to remind me. And then, years later, when I was suffocating in New York City, and flailing around trying to figure out what to do with myself and frightened I’d made a terrible mistake and had ruined my life, Denny came to the rescue again. He got me a job at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and backed me up when my mother was furious I’d left a good job in New York City to go be a raft guide, and loaned me a boat so I could learn to really paddle. Denny was in love with Nancy by then, who he married, and had two gorgeous girls with, and just left behind.

Dennis lived every single day to the fullest. He was the most enthusiastic person I’ve ever known, and the most authentic. He spent a lifetime teaching wilderness EMT courses, and saving people’s lives. He and Nancy took their girls on an adventure of a childhood, living in an RV while they taught courses all over, from the Southeast, to Alaska, to Arizona and finally settling, in a real house, in Maine. That Denny could get a chronic illness, and then a very quick cancer and then die has shaken even me, the woman who has lost so many people I really love, to the core.

There is no time to waste.

And so, I’m jumping off the rock even though the timing is not ideal. Look at that photo. It’s cold in that photo. Denny’s jumping in even though it’s so cold there’s no leaves yet on the trees – that water is COLD — and yet, there he is, leaping into the river — for what, I’m not sure. To demonstrate something for a river rescue class, perhaps to actually rescue someone, perhaps because he’s Denny and he always jumped in.

The house is paid for. There are two half-written novels and a pile of essays that might, someday come back into a nonfiction book. There are environmental issues I want to write about and essays I’ve been dictating into my phone on morning dog walks about knitting and sewing and creativity. I went to a reading last week, and for the first time in fifteen years looked up and thought I’m ready to get back up on that stage.

I accomplished my goal at my day job. I paid off my PhD. I paid off my house. I have money in my retirement savings.

And now it’s time to leap.

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On Paying Off My Mortgage

On Paying Off My Mortgage

Livingsmall Goal # 1 Done! House is paid off!

On Friday, I wired the last payment on my house.

I own my own house. No one can make me move, ever again, if I don’t want to. For someone who went to six grammar schools and moved pretty much every 2 years until I was 35, this is huge.

This has been the primary goal of LivingSmall since day one. I moved to Montana because it’s beautiful of course, but primarily I moved here because I could buy an inexpensive house. A house I could afford to pay off.

I did my masters degree at UC Davis, where I applied in large part to study with Gary Snyder. I’m not a poet, but I figured if Gary was there, something cool must be going on. Gary’s biggest advice to us budding writers was not about poetry, or even about writing. “Find a cheap house,” he said. “Someplace you can pay off. If it’s cheap and you want to live there, there’s probably also other artists there.” That’s what he did all those decades ago on the Yuba Ridge, and what I was looking for in Livingston was something similar.

So that’s what I did. I came up here in 2002, seeking a cheap house, and a found one in a town full of artists, and writers, and musicians, and fishing guides, and electricians and carpenters and schoolteachers.

I built a garden, and fixed things up bit by bit. I paid cash for everything I did on the house and while I’ll need a new roof next year, and I have to repaint some things, and while there are always things I want to do in the garden, I own my house, free and clear.

In the process I built a life. A life that as some of you who have followed me a long time know, was nearly derailed entirely the first year I was here. As I tell people when the story comes up, if you’re going to have a disaster, have it in Livingston. Everyone came. My kitchen filled up with people that first night, and they’re all still here. I’m still here. We are all here together. We’ve seen one another through other disasters. We’ve all brought food to the Elks club for funeral parties, but we’ve celebrated kids birthdays, and book launches, and year after year of rodeo parades.

It was not a mistake, my project of living small. There’s more big news to come, but for now, I’m going to take a moment in my back garden, where the beans are shooting above the trellis, where the sunflowers and hollyhocks are blooming great shoots of color into the sky, where the chickens I just deloused are clucking around in their coop while I wait for Himself to come home for dinner and a Red Sox game on TV. It is not the life I thought I wanted, but it is a better life than I ever could have envisioned.

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Woodpile as Life Lesson …

Woodpile as Life Lesson …

 

woodpile

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.

Hulk Baby Jesus

Hulk Baby Jesus

I have a huge weakness for Nativity sets — I think I probably own three or four of them. It’s the dollhouse effect. You can play with them — I remember as a kid acting our elaborate nativity pageants in the days leading up to Christmas.

Patrick gave me this set when we lived in California. It was the Christmas my friend Deb came to stay with us after her marriage came apart — the Christmas of Mr. Potato Head. She was very frayed around the edges, and Patrick gave her a Mr. Potato Head. The perfect present. She’s having a tough Christmas this year too — so I took a photo of what we’ve come to call “Lou Ferigno Baby Jesus” who has come to save us all with his bulk and his Magic Red Shorts. He’s a very sturdy baby Jesus, this one. I emailed it to her to remind her that even though both our faiths have morphed into something decidedly untraditional, “baby Jesus” is still a source of hope and comfort and faith. Even if it’s just faith that somehow, some way, the current crisis will pass.

Lou Ferigno Baby Jesus has gained some company in the past few years. He’s got the lovely antique Angels my aunt sent me a couple of years ago from the set they all had as children, and many animals that my borrowed kids found when they unpacked all my old dollhouse furniture a couple of years ago. The pig I made in 3rd grade and kept because I loved the texture of the white glaze. I think of him as “marshmallow pig.” And the funny little lead draft horse that I think belonged to my grandmother. The pets from my childhood dollhouse. An elephant that either Patrick or I made as kids.  I love the hodgepodge of nativity sets.

When I was little we went to Mass at the local girl’s Catholic high school, which was run by wonderful, loving lefty nuns. Christmas eve was all about the kid’s pageant. While there was always a live pageant, and one year Patrick was a magnificent wise man in a gold wrapping paper turban and a purple velour bathrobe, there was also a procession involving every kid in the church — it must have been during communion, since so many of us were too little to take communion yet. If you were a toddler,  you got a china lamb to carry up and put in the manger. If you were a “big kid” you got a lighted taper. There’s still a part of me that thinks Christmas eve smells like the scent of beeswax and singed mink coats. (And then there was the year the poinsiettias on the altar caught fire — but that’s another story. Altar boys in polyester robes stomping out fire! on the altar!)

My mother believed in creativity for kids above all else, and one year we made a nativity set from clay. Somehow the pieces got fired but never glazed, so every year, we’d pull these mysterious terra-cotta lumps out of their packing, and bicker affectionately over which lump represented which character. Although that set has been long lost, it’s still sort of my favorite. For what’s the story all about if not all of us returning to it once a year, mulling it over, thinking about what it means to be young and persecuted and pregnant and homeless? Santa’s all well and good, and I realize not everyone is Christian, but there’s an enduring power to the story of kindness and light during this, the darkest part of the year. So that’s why every year, despite my heartbreak about the Catholic church to which I can no longer belong in good faith, I unpack my nativity set, and arrange all those little figures, who have travelled far to come see the miracle that is Lou Ferigno Baby Jesus.

Home Again, Home Again

Home Again, Home Again

My week in Seattle was just lovely, but I’m so glad to be home again. It takes leaving for a few days to realize that I’m sometimes unfair to those of you out there in the “real” world — the wear and tear of ordinary things like commuting, or spending all day in a building lit with florescent lights and no fresh air, and the wear and tear for those of us introverts of just being around other people and talking all day. (I know, I know — I’m what one might call a chatty introvert, since I can certainly hold my own, but like all introverts, I find being around other people essentially draining, not energizing). At any rate, it must be very wearing, and if people too often can’t manage to cook their own dinner, well, it starts to make a little more sense after a week like this last one.

It was fun putting on a cute outfit and heading out on the bus to work, and fun going to an office for a couple of days, but essentially, the life I have is the one I want. My wee quiet life. Dogs. My sweetheart. The garden and the chickens and my pink front room that serves as an office. And after years of being terrified every time I left that my entire world was going to disappear behind me à la Robert Redford Speaking French, it was nice to finally find myself over that anxiety hump as well. I went away, I worked and socialized some, and back I came. Nothing changed. There comes a time in life, when that’s the best gift of all.

Best Food Writing 2010

Best Food Writing 2010

Here’s what was waiting in my inbox this morning:

From Kim Carlson at Culinate:

We’ve been sitting on this news for a little while, just to be sure it materialized: Your piece on croquembouchehas been selected to appear in the book Best Food Writing 2010.

It’s a great piece, Charlotte, and this is much deserved. Congrats!

You’ll get a free copy of the book when it’s released in mid-October (it’ll probably be sent to us, and we’ll forward it to you).

Bravo!
Kim

I’m beyond thrilled! As I replied to Kim this morning, it wasn’t that long ago I was buying those volumes trying to figure out what it was that I loved about food writing, and how I could do it. And of course, it wasn’t until I got a bee in my bonnet about something, and just sat down to figure it out in sentences, that I wrote something that really spoke to people.

It’s been a big year. When I got laid off last summer, I told myself that it was time to really get back to writing, and trying to publish (something I am a terrible coward about. Lo and behold, it seems to be starting to work! My first published story (“Robert Redford Speaking French” linked above) in Big Sky Journal, and now this.

And a big thanks go out to all of you, who I think of as my “twelve faithful readers” — the blog has, over the years, given me a place to practice nonfiction, to figure out how to say what I want to say, and you’ve all been so kind in the comments. Scarcely a troll in sight!

Okay, enough celebrating. Back to work!

Roger Ebert, My New Hero

Roger Ebert, My New Hero

photo credit: Chris Jones, Esquire Magazine

If you haven’t read Chris Jones’ profile of Roger Ebert in the lastest issue of Esquire Magazine, go there now. It’s incredibly affecting.

I remember my surprise a couple of years ago when I discovered how amazing Ebert’s written criticism is — like so many, I’d thought of him as the thumbs up/thumbs down guy, or as the guy my creative writing instructor at the University of Illinois, the unforgettable Rocco Fumento, used to brag had once been in his class. The U of I and I were not a good fit, and that class summed up many of the reasons why, and so, for years, I unfairly assumed that Ebert too must be somehow second-rate. The idiocy of youth.

So when I was trying to learn to write book reviews, I got Ebert’s books out of the library. If you haven’t, already, you should go get yourself a copy of The Great Movies or The Great Movies II. They’re brilliant, enormous fun to read, and a real education in modern movies. He’s a brilliant writer, who has the unlikely ability to critique a genre while always allowing his deep love for it to shine through.

Ebert’s been all over the place lately. If you’re not following his twitter feed, you should be. It’s delightful and surprising and kind. I caught him on Oprah yesterday (trivia item — Roger Ebert and Oprah dated back in the day!), and at the end of the piece, he had this to say about the ordeal he’s been through the past several years:

“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and I am happy that I lived long enough to find it out.”

I think that’s going on the board above my desk.