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I’ve moved the Newsletter back over to Substack. If you were subscribed, I moved you over, if you’re new, you can subscribe here.
You can also always leave me a comment here.
I made an orange corduroy skirt a few weeks back, and I’ve been wearing it everywhere. It’s cut so it curves in at the hem, makes a sort of bubble, an inverted bell. It’s a riff on my favorite Japanese pattern book big skirt that has gathers at the bottom, on each side seam. Gathers would have been too bulky for corduroy, so I got out my French curve, and I cut the shape I wanted into the pattern. And then I cut it into the fabric. And then I sewed it up and it worked, it made the shape I wanted.
My sewing practice is all about making myself into a shape in space. I am no longer young, and I was never tall, and middle age has made me even blockier than I was as a young woman.
The corduroy is very 1978. I had two pairs of corduroy jeans going into my junior year in high school, one a sort of rusty orange, and one a kind of plum color. My mother had put me on a strict diet that summer, the first summer I hadn’t spent at camp, the first summer I stayed home. I lost a bunch of weight, probably as much due to riding my bike five or six miles each way to teach day camp, then waiting tables or washing dishes at night in the swimming and tennis club she was running, as by that diet. But my mother, a lifelong semi-anorexic was so pleased we’d dieted together, so pleased we were getting your weight under control. Then there were fights when I went back to my father’s house for the school year, fights between them, between them and me. My mother had a bad habit of sending me into a fight with my father as her surrogate, and because for a very long time my most treasured hope was that my mother would not be mad at me, I fell for it. Every time. Nonetheless, those two pairs of jeans felt cool, felt fashionable in a way I never was fashionable. I was fifteen, with weird curly hair and braces, but I had cool jeans for once.
This corduroy is heavier than that corduroy was. This is probably eight rows to the inch, which is how corduroy is measured. It’s a nice, soft, heavy corduroy. It’s a rusty orange. And I made a skirt in the shape of an inverted bell, that cuts in at my calves, and is cinched with both elastic and a drawstring. It has big cozy pockets.
Worn with the blue tweed jacket I made last year, the jacket where the tweed is a nice medium blue with pink and bright blue flecks in it, a jacket lined in a watery floral cotton, worn with that jacket, and a big scarf, and boots, it’s a good winter look. I’m warm. I’m comfortable. I like the shape I make in space.
Charlie Porter comes up on my Instagram feed, talking about Ottoline Morell’s giant jodhpurs in the Charleston collection. He’s wearing a pair of very short shorts, that don’t appear to have been hemmed, that appear to have the slightly ragged edges that come when you cut a piece of woven fabric and let the edges fray. He’s wearing a shirt, longer in the back than the front, pleated or gathered at the neckline, as though he hasn’t cut the fabric, but has simply pulled the front fabric up and back, pinned then sewed it in place to turn a two-dimensional flat piece into a three dimensional shirt. The shirt sleeves are short, and also unhemmed. There are stringy bits hanging down.
In the comments, someone asks: What’s the matter with this poor chaps outfit?! Is it fashion?
To which Porter replies:
hello Sarita, I started making my own clothes during the research for the exhibition, in response to the artist Vanessa Bell. She did so with freedom, and in the exhibition I explore how we can encourage more people to make their own clothes, as well as reuse clothing they no longer own. Making my own clothes has also helped me deal with grief, as I lost both my parents in during the past 18 months. Grieving through making has become living through making, and I hope that more will be encouraged to try making clothes for themselves
How cold is it getting in England? I wonder in a way that’s both slightly maternal, and, to my chagrin, slightly uncomfortable with how odd his outfit is. Is he going to wear those shorts all winter?
Echoes of my mother. You’re going to wear that?
This is not the voice I want in my head, but it lives there nonetheless. My mother, who loved nothing more than putting together “a nice outfit” for me. My mother, who I fought with about clothes my entire life.
We were late for my brother Michael’s funeral because my mother and I were fighting over a dress. I wanted to wear the dress with the pockets like big strawberries. I loved that dress. It was the first dress I was allowed to pick out for myself. My Aunt Daphne had taken me and Dede downtown to I. Magnin where we got to each pick a dress (from the curated group she’d pulled off the racks for us). I picked that one. It made me feel good.
My mother wanted me to wear one of those Liberty print dresses she loved, the ones with the puffed sleeves and the shirring across the front and I was furious. That was a dress for a baby. I was not a baby. I was big enough to be going to my brother’s funeral. I was big enough that I’d been told for months to be strong for Mommy, to be cheerful for Mommy, to help take care of Patrick, to help take care of our toddler cousin Jennifer once we’d been exiled to our Aunt Lynn’s house in Wisconsin. And now she wanted me to dress like a baby.
People thought I’d killed myself, she said for decades, telling this story, the story of my sartorial rebellion. And it was just you. Fighting me over a dress.
Porter writes, in Bring No Clothes about beginning to sew, and how he’s sewing by instinct, without patterns, without really learning technique. He’s sewing by feel. He describes liking the way these shirts he’s been making feel — how they seem to hug his body, how they’re fun to go dancing in because the linen breathes, how they make him feel like himself. The shorts too — he writes a lot about Duncan Grant in this book, about how Grant always seems to be in a state of undress, how he can’t keep his pants on.
I think of Iggy Pop, who my partner loves. Iggy, who even now, as an old man, refuses to stop performing, and refuses to wear a shirt. He’s still losing his pants most of the time, slipping down his skinny old-man hips. Iggy was always coming out of his clothes as a younger performer, back in the days when he had crazy eyes, back in the day when he was all howl, all flinging himself into the crowd. And he’s still doing it.
I’m curious to see what Charlie Porter is going to wear in the winter.
And as someone who does sew, I kind of wish he’d learn some technique. This is me projecting of course, like the woman who commented on Instagram. Can’t you tidy up those hems? Can’t you learn how to construct a proper shirt? Why are you running around half-naked?
When my brother Patrick died, I was sorry not to be Jewish. I wanted to rend my clothing. I wanted to sit shivva. I wanted to sit on a box, with my best jacket cut, ruined. I wanted to cover the mirrors. I wanted a week to sit in the dark wearing rags. I wanted to be allowed this. I wanted this to be expected, for people to come quietly into my darkened room, asking at the doorway how is she? While bringing boxes of baked goods. I wanted other people in that darkened room, talking softly, or maybe laughing at a story, over there, in a corner, while I sat on my box wearing rags.
Instead, I made jokes about drag as I packed my “nicest” clothes into my biggest suitcase, hoping that on top of everything else, I wouldn’t have to deal with my mother weeping over my clothes as she did when she helped me move at the beginning of grad school. I came home from checking in at the department, sure I wouldn’t be on the roster, sure they’d made a mistake, sure I’d given up my pocket-tiny house in Telluride, sure I’d packed all my belongings and had driven two days across the desert with my mother only to arrive and have it not be real.
I came home that day and my mother had unpacked all my clothes from the garbage bags I’d stuffed them in so they’d fit into the UHaul. She had them in little piles around the room. “I thought we could try on some cute outfits,” she said. Smoking.
It ended in tears. It ended with her shouting that she was ashamed of me, that I lived like a bag lady, while I carried armload after armload of clothes out to the dumpster, trying to appease her.
There’s a black chintz skirt with big flowers on it I still regret throwing out that day.
I like that Charlie Porter is wearing his version of shivva. I like that he’s doing it in public, while talking about the clothing of this group of odd people who lived last century. I like the way he’s owning it.
I’m sure I have some friends who are embarrassed about my clothing, in the way I wish Charlie Porter would fix his hems. I’m at that age where what we wear, as the generation-of-the-mother is always going to be mortifying to the girls. I expected that. What I didn’t expect is how a whole tranche of my friends have gotten so conservative as their kids hit adulthood. It’s a shock to me. That the disapproving looks have started now? I mean, who cares what any of us wear at this point? We’re at the age where we’re invisible anyway. I was always sort of invisible because I’m short and was never conventionally pretty. Men have been having conversations over my head for as long as I can remember, dismissing me because I’m down there somewhere and they can’t be bothered.
At my age, really. You can move through the world like a ghost.
I just want to do it like a ghost in a shape that I like.
I like that Charlie Porter, a person who has been writing about art and clothes and fashion for decades, is stepping out in his odd clothes.
I like that Charlie Porter, a person who is in fashion is encouraging people to Bring no Clothes, to break the social strictures around clothing, to dress by feel.
When I turned fifty I told myself I wasn’t going to wear clothes anymore that were uncomfortable. I was no longer going to walk around feeling constricted, or bad about my body shape because of the ready-to-wear clothes that never fit me. I’m very short. I am not thin. Store clothes were always too long and too narrow and just reminded me all day long that I was not right, not normal.
I found a world of independent pattern makers online. I found Japanese pattern books, with very simple but interesting patterns. I like very nice fabrics and if I sew it myself, I can afford clothing in nicer fabric than anything I can afford to buy in a shop. I don’t sew anything fitted, or complicated, or that has a zipper. I will do buttonholes, though I sort of fell in love with snaps last winter. I like the clean line. My sewing machine doesn’t do terrific buttonholes anyway, and they tend to fray.
I have a pants pattern that fits me, that feels comfortable, and that I have made in linen and wool and corduroy and jeans. I’m currently making one blouse pattern over and over. In summer I wear them over a tee shirt, in winter over a long-sleeved wool tee. I don’t make tees or underwear, in part because I hate sewing with knits. I have one dress, the Eva Dress, from an Australian shop that I have also made over and over again. I made one in a dark flat suiting wool. It’s the dress I wear to funerals now.
My mother’s entire generation is dying. There are a lot of funerals.
There’s a “kimono” pattern, actually haori is the proper Japanese term for this kind of a jacket. I’ve made these in linen for summer and wool for winter. There’s a lightweight navy wool one that is perhaps my favorite garment ever.
I have an entire wardrobe at this point that I have made. I’ve fiddled with patterns and figured out how I want these garments to fit my body.
I get to decide that now, not some store.
I’m not dependent on some store changing up the cuts and fits of their pants every year so they can sell you new ones.
I made myself the shape in space that I want to be.
At the end, my mother refused to wear clothes. She’d put on a robe when I came to visit because she could see it upset me, the sight of my 80 pound mother, in her adult diaper and a tee shirt, settled in that one corner of her sofa, giant ashtray on the table, glass of vodka, cup of black coffee, piles of magazines and catalogs, treats for the dog.
Her hip hurt, so she usually had one matchstick leg folded up beside her, hugging the knee.
They grew up in just underpants, her two sisters, her brother Mike, the four of them mostly naked in the summers, on the farm. We did too, as little kids. Babysitters worried when we refused pajamas, insisted on sleeping in just our underpants. Famously, the owner of the town mercantile in the tiny Illinois farm town where my mother spent summers as a child, called my grandmother one morning. “Jane,” he said. “They have to wear clothes when they come into town. All four of them came into the store this morning, drove right through town in the buckboard, in just their underpants.”
She could still put it on though, her nice-lady outfit. One of the last videos I have of her, on my phone, she’s at a wedding. My mother in a bright red dress, being swirled around the dance floor in her wheelchair by a handsome laughing twenty-something boy in a dark suit, one of the gang of kids who thought she was a hoot. She’s kicking her feet up in delight. Laughing. Having a great time.
Traci and Robert, the couple who helped her out, were entirely unbothered by my mother’s lack of modesty. They were in and out of the apartment all day, and at the end, Traci let me pay her, but not enough for what she was doing. They loved my wizened, alcoholic, foul-mouthed mother. They thought she was a hoot.
At the end, she seemed to revert to a childish state. An ancient, wizened, chain smoking, vodka drinking naked child. In the emergency room that last hospitalization, they’d run out of tiny adult diapers, had her in one that was too big. She had her shirt off, her bare flat chest exposed. She was feverish, and hot. Arms akimbo, posing for Traci “I’m a sumo wrestler!” she exclaimed, cracking them all up.
I loved both of Charlie Porter’s recent books: What Artists Wear, and Bring No Clothes. I love the way that Theory, which when I was in grad school was an overbearing set of dogmas has, in the past 25 years, opened up for writers like Porter, or Kate Briggs, or Kate Zambreno or Lauren Elkin, into a tool writers are using to, as the expression goes, “think with.” Charlie Porter is thinking with clothing, and artists, and queerness — and trying to unpick some of the things that what we wear says about who we are, or who we want to be.
A recent Toast magazine portrait of Porter opens: “It’s no coincidence that last summer Charlie Porter started sewing his own clothes. “Vanessa Bell saw making as part of a holistic creative life rather than a hobby. Now it’s just something I do; yesterday I pickled plums and made apricot jam. It’s been a fundamental life change.” He attributes this seismic shift to his latest project, curating Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion, the inaugural exhibition at Charleston’s new space in Lewes.”
As someone who has been thinking with my garden, and thinking with cooking, and thinking with making clothes for these past twenty years or so, as someone who was dropped by an agent when I proposed writing a book about these topics, because she wasn’t interested “in that kind of thing,” I find it tremendously exciting to see these ideas that I’ve been so engaged with, coming into the discourse.
The world is shifting, and if one of the shifts is that making things in a non-capitalistic, non-professional, artistic manner is bubbling up through the zeitgeist, is becoming an ethic of care, a means of caring for ourselves and others, well, here’s to it.
Fraying hems, rebellious nakedness, odd shapes and all.
Hello lovely readers and welcome new subscribers! It’s been a minute, for a bunch of reasons. I have a few new things I’m working on, but in the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote for The Dark Mountain Project a couple of years back. Since the valley is full of (mostly) guys in blaze orange, and since I just had my annual beer with one of my managers, who comes up to hunt with a couple of buddies, I thought perhaps you all might be interested in this essay about meat, and killing, and what a local food system looks like in our little corner of America. Oh! And it has recipes!
On an afternoon at the tail end of summer in Livingston, Montana, I’m in my backyard, killing chickens. As I work, I can hear another oil train lumber past, three blocks away. This is a railroad town, former headquarters of the Northern Pacific Railway, and we’re all so used to the sound of trains that we don’t notice much anymore. Except that for the past several years, the trains have increasingly been long strings of black tanker cars, bearing oil from the North Dakota fields to the ports on the Pacific coast. It’s the same oil that so many of my neighbors drove out to Standing Rock to protest, caravans of folks bearing all the blankets and knitted hats and fifty pound bags of rice that we could send. And yet, a year and a half later, here we are, train cars of oil rumbling through town, at the tail end of summer, skies hazy with the smoke of forest fires and our roads clogged with the huge RVs that have come out to visit Yellowstone park, and who drive past the Yellowstone river, uncharacteristically empty of fishing boats because it’s been closed due to a massive fish kill caused by rising water temperatures.
All of which makes killing my hens feel especially apocalyptic. I’ve kept chickens for nine years now, and this is the third batch I’ve had to kill. I dread it every time, but my yard isn’t big enough to keep chickens who aren’t laying anymore. I raised these hens from tiny chicks. I’ve fed and watered them for three years, kept them dry and warm in the winter, dosed them when they got mites, have washed off their poopy butts when they’ve been poorly. In return they’ve made eggs and fertilizer for me, and as the compost heap is in their coop, they’ve turned and turned and turned the compost. But a small town yard can’t handle nine birds, and so, these older ladies have to go. I’ve gotten good at it, and can dispatch a hen humanely and quickly, and although I’m not religious anymore, I do thank them and say a little prayer as I send them off to their next incarnation.
And then I get to work at enacting the ancient solution to hens who no longer lay. I pluck and gut and clean my four hens, saving the golden yellow fat pads for schmaltz, packing the carcasses in ziplock bags for the freezer. They’ll make delicious stock, my girls. After three years of organic feed, and backyard grass, and kitchen scraps and bugs, they’re nice solid birds, although I usually need to leave them in the freezer for a bit until I get past having known them.
The decision to eat animals or not eat animals is a fraught one. I live in the middle of one of the most productive swathes of forest and pasture ecology in the world. This is still largely an agricultural area, and while these soils are not well suited for growing anything but grass, it is because they grow such terrific grass that we are surrounded by enormous herds of deer, elk and antelope (we’d have herds of bison as well, but for a hundred years of bitter political opposition from cattle ranchers). We can grow a few crops here, but primarily what our area grows is meat.
I choose to eat meat because meat is what we grow here. Plant based diets, especially those based on soy, rely on vast networks of industrial machinery. I grew up in part on a corn and soybean farm in Illinois, and I’ve seen how dependent those crops are on heavy equipment and chemical inputs, to say nothing of the oil it takes to ship and process them, to run the factories that turn those pale hard yellow beans into tofu and fake sausage.
While it might make sense to substitute plant protein for meat if you live in a city, and can only buy your food in stores, we’re lucky here to have a degree of food independence that is increasingly rare. Earlier this spring, the Washington Post had to add a correction to a story naming Montana’s Mussellshell County the worst “food desert” in the US. Mussellshell county comprises about 1800 square miles and only has 4500 residents. There are two grocery stores that serve the whole county, and it was grocery sales figures upon which the study was based. Since most folks in rural parts of the state don’t buy their food in the store, the study was skewed, and the Post had to run a correction to that effect. Mussellshell County is ranch country, where people grow big gardens and put food up for the winter. They home butcher ranch-raised cattle, pork or sheep, and they hunt in the fall. In a follow up story in the Billings Gazette, 69 year old retired rancher Harvey Turner said as much to a reporter. “What I don’t raise myself, I generally don’t buy,” Turner said. “I just come here to get off the place, walk around, kill some time.”
My choice has been to eat where I live, and here we’re surrounded by small cattle ranches, and enormous herds of wild ungulates. My partner Chuck has a cabin south of town, and all winter we watch as the great Yellowstone elk herd streams through our yard and down the hill. They glean our neighbor Alvin’s alfalfa field, where for much of the winter, they graze right alongside his cattle. On a normal winter morning we might have twenty-five to fifty elk bedded in the yard, with another several hundred spread up and down the valley. As the day warms up, they stream up our driveway to move back onto the mountain where they bed down in the forest, then as evening falls, they come back down again, spend their nights in the hayfields below us.
Tonight I’m cooking elk for dinner, a rectangular piece of elk shoulder that’s so dark red it’s nearly purple. Dan, a former sweetheart, sometimes brings me meat in the fall, as neither Chuck nor I hunt. I would hunt but I have terrible eyesight, and I’m a bad shot, while Chuck, doesn’t hunt because he didn’t grow up around it, and we have enough friends who do hunt to provide us with meat. As non hunters though, we play a role in our local food economy. We’re the ones gifted in the fall with whatever is left in the freezers, as our hunter friends make room for their current harvest.
Dan usually shows up on my porch sometime in December, with a couple of grocery bags full of packages wrapped in white butcher paper. Elk and venison and local domestic meat — oxtails last fall, and a lovely leg of lamb. It varies from year to year. The last year we were together, Dan put in for an antelope tag for me, and although by the time hunting season rolled around we’d broken up, he still took me out to shoot an antelope. They’re my favorite of our game animals, lean like lamb, or goat. We took one in an alfalfa field near town where he had permission to hunt. It was not romantic, we didn’t stalk an animal all day, we drove out and Dan sighted the gun across the hood of the pickup truck. Then I ducked up between his arms, looked through the scope and pulled the trigger (and managed not to give myself a black eye from the recoil). It was neither easy, nor traumatic, and I was mostly grateful the antelope went down right away. With my bad eyesight, I’d been afraid I’d just wound it. An antelope is small, so Dan and I together could field dress it, which we did in something of a hurry. There wasn’t a lot of ceremony, as a dead animal that you intend to eat in a warm autumn field is not something you want to tarry over. I thanked the animal in my own pagan way as we loaded it into the truck and we drove back to town, eager to hang the carcass and strip the hide to cool the meat so it wouldn’t spoil. Dan hung the carcass in his garage for a week or so, then I went over to help him butcher it. Everything got used. Meat in long muscles he stripped from the skeleton, carefully removing the silverskin before handing one and two pound hunks to me to wrap in plastic wrap, then freezer paper. Scraps went into a big bag, and later, our local butcher ground them for me, and those too got packaged up for winter.
Unlike in the UK where hunting seems restricted mostly to the upper classes, here in Montana, and in many other parts of the rural US, it hunting for meat is for rural and poor people. The wealthy hunt for trophies. The men and women I know who hunt do so because they love getting out in the mountains during those six weeks every fall, because they love handing down the tradition to their kids and grandkids, but also because they can provide for their families through the fruits of their own hard work. A bull elk averages about 500 pounds on the hoof, while cows come in at about 350 or 400 pounds. Butchered and boned, that’s 150 to 200 pounds of meat, enough to feed a family for a year. Hunting is regulated by licensing here, and the difference between in-state and out-of-state tags reflects this cultural gulf. In state hunters tend to be hunting for the freezer, while out of state hunters are generally looking for trophies. My antelope tag cost me $19, but for a hunter coming from out of state, it’d be $205. An elk tag is also $19 in state, but $530 for out-of-state hunters.
After the last presidential election, many of us went into a panic, and started tallying whether we could survive up here on our own if we had to. We still have a functioning local food economy. Local ranchers provide much of the meat for our schools, senior center, and hospital. One night, when I was in a panic, thinking about selling up and moving back to the expensive but politically progressive West Coast, Chuck talked me off the ledge. If it got really bad, he said, he’d learn to hunt. We’d have meat. I have a huge vegetable garden. My friend Seabring, who with her husband owns the local hot springs resort said “We’ve got the geothermal greenhouse. If we need to, we’ll just build some more of them.” We tend to be a self-sufficient lot up here, and practices like canning and putting food up are less the purview of hipsters than they are of grandmothers and Hutterite colonies.
Hunting wild game is not a solution to the global crises facing us. But if we’re looking at a world that where local communities are going to have to rely once again on one another and on local resources, then I think we’re in better shape than a lot of bigger or more trendy communities. We live among people who have not lost their connection to raising crops and livestock, nor to handling and processing meat both wild and domestic. And all through town are backyard chicken coops, bee hives, vegetable gardens, and lots of fruit trees.
And yet, three blocks from my house the tankers full of oil roll past. Climate change is increasingly visible. Every year, we watch the mountainsides stained rust-brown as more and more trees fall to beetle kill. Our sparse rainfall, about 16 inches per year, grows ever more sparse. Summer temperatures routinely spike into the 100s and the hot weather stretches into late October. And every year, the forest fires grow more catastrophic, the water temperatures in the Yellowstone rise, killing the trout fishery upon which we depend.
I can’t change those things, and my individual choices don’t have much impact on the global issues. But what I can do is participate fully in the food economy we’ve built here, and be grateful, as we were last Christmas, for the venison loin we all shared from the first deer that sixteen-year-old Isabelle killed with her dad. We were grateful to that deer, and to Isabelle, who not only killed and field dressed that animal, but who cooked a perfectly-done loin, a lovely piece of meat we sliced thin, and handed around that room in which we have gathered, year after year now, to celebrate our friendship and love, and our gratitude that we are lucky enough to live in such a beautiful and fruitful place.
Slice the raw antelope loin as thin as you possibly can. This is best achieved when the meat is in a near-frozen state. Arrange the thin slices of antelope on a platter.
Mince one to two shallots very finely, and strew across the antelope. Sprinkle it with capers, and coarse salt. Drizzle with the best olive oil you have, and serve with lemon wedges.
Slice the elk into thin strips, as you would for a stir fry. Salt and pepper the meat, and toss it in flour to coat. I use a cast iron pan, but any heavy sauté pan will do. On medium-high heat, using the oil of your choice (or butter), sauté the meat until golden. Put the meat aside and add the chopped onion and mushrooms to the pan, with more butter or oil if needed. What you want to do is both deglaze the pan using the moisture from the vegetables, and begin making a light roux from the leftover meat and flour residue. When your onions turn translucent, add the garlic and tomato paste. Fry the tomato paste for a few moments until it loses it’s bright red color, then add the meat back into the pan. Add a nice slug of sherry to deglaze the pan, then add the broth along with the Worcestershire or fish sauce. Scrape up all the lovely caramelized bits on the bottom of the pan and simmer for about 20 minutes. Timing is variable depending on the age and tenderness of your elk. When the elk seems cooked through to your liking, add the sour cream and stir to make a creamy sauce. Do not let the sauce boil after adding the sour cream, or it will break.
Serve over buttered egg noodles or potatoes, garnished with the chopped parsley.
I got home from California just in time to spend most of last week running around trying to get ready for the snow and cold temperatures that blew in late in the week. There was an actual hatch to batten on the greenhouse shed, storm windows to put up, tomatoes and herbs and flowers to harvest, strawberries and herbs to bury in straw, and a chicken coop that needed winterizing.
All while working my regular job (which thankfully was a little slow last week, for the first time since June).
We had a very odd fall this year. We never did get a hard frost, until we got snow. I’m hoping my wee cherry trees will be okay, and as usual, by this time of year, I’m ready for the garden to be done. There are some hardy greens I’m hoping made it through the single digits, we lucked out and got over a foot of snow to insulate them, so later this week, as it warms up, I’ll probably have to do one more mad harvest, complete with chopping and blanching and freezing. It’s worth it though to have my own greens to eat this winter.
My week away was really wonderful. It was the perfect combination of actual vacation, as in sitting in a beach chair with my toes in the water reading a book all afternoon vacation, and Something To Do. Pam Houston and I knew one another a little bit as younger women, our paths crossed and recrossed over several years. She was at Utah when I was at Davis, and I was at Utah when she went to teach at Davis. We knew a lot of people in common, and both behaved, at times, like the ambitious and slightly broken young women we were. Nonetheless, she was nice enough to blurb my book when it came out, and I’ve seen her a few times at events over the intervening decades.
Seeing what she has built with Writing by Writers was incredibly impressive. She’s built a true community, mostly of women but not exclusively, a space where groups of people come together and do the real work of digging deep, and writing the truth about our lived experiences. There was an open reading toward the end of the week that I almost skipped. Anyone who has been around writing communities for any amount of time has gritted their teeth through more terrible open readings than we’d like to admit, but that was absolutely not the case here. I wasn’t going to read, but the younger writers told me I had to, and so I signed up. As did several other women my age who had hesitated. It was a joyful occasion in which the limit was 250 words, and everyone got up there with astonishing work. Funny pieces. Pieces that made you think oh. we’re going there. Pieces that made us all weep, in the best, non-manipulative way, weep from the true joy of seeing someone stand up and say something absolutely bedrock true about their experience.
It was an absolute joy.
Over the decades I have lost faith, more than once, in the larger project that is writing. The world is so full of books, and blog posts, and essays. And despite the fact that as always, I probably talked too much in workshop, it was such a joyful, supportive group of really smart people ranging in age from their 20s to our 60s and 70s that it gave me faith in the larger project again. Faith that writing matters. That our writing matters. All of us.
I’m deeply grateful. It was a truly wonderful experience.
And now, at the end of the weekend, as the temperatures are starting to warm up again, as the sun is bouncing off snow, glorious snow, and the peaks are shining white against western skies so blue that it’s astonishing a color can even do that, I’ve got a wee lasagne put together for Himself, who will be home soon.
Home. Perhaps the best thing about a vacation for me, is having a home, a real home, to come back to. And now, as the darkness sets in for the winter, I can see the shape of this book, and it’s time to hunker down, write my way through to the end. Because the other gift of last week was finding out that it works. There are some rough edges, but the voice, the tone, the trajectory — they work.
For me, the work and the life, they’ve always been entwined. While I haven’t been publishing much, an essay here and there, not a book for way too long, I have been writing. There is work in the hopper. There are greens in the freezer. There is so much jam this year. Eight kilos of plums off my tree, all jammed now, and being given all over the neighborhood. There’s this newsletter, and the reading, and the notes, and the writing that is getting down on the page is, at last, working. The work and the life, they’re all the same. The work is working.
I almost pulled the plug on this trip.
I’m doing a writer’s workshop that starts tomorrow. I booked this trip back in April when I was closing my mother’s affairs and planning the funeral, a process that was much more complicated and ongoing than it seemed like it should have been. I found this little cottage across the street from the workshop venue (I’m way too old to share a room with a stranger), and then, exhausted by estate stuff and funeral planning, I added days. A full week by the ocean. A vacation. Normal people take vacations.
Sunshine and fog. Humidity. The smell of salt. (Chuck, in Chicago last spring, looking at crashing waves on Lake Michigan “but where’s the salt?”) California produce and local cheese and some of the most amazing local smoked salmon I’ve ever had that I bought in a roadside store that looked like it was just a place to pick up a carton of milk and a six pack of beer.
But three weeks ago, one of those calls. My beloved 90 year old godfather had fallen, broken a hip, pneumonia. My godfather, a relation that for most Americans doesn’t mean much. Someone who stood up for you as a baby, who was a friend or relation of your parents when you were small. In our case, my godparents have been like parents to me and my late brother Patrick. Every Christmas or Thanksgiving I ever had “at home” was shared with them, and together our families have buried two babies and two adult sons (one in each family), and my mother. And now my Uncle Denny has died.
That I’m not there is a source of deep grief and guilt. I almost cancelled this whole trip. Chuck talked me out of it. There’s no funeral scheduled yet. I can’t really be of help. But I feel terrible. This is my family. This is another death in the family and I’m here, on the Pacific coast, taking walks on the beach, and going to a writers conference.
Selfish. I can hear my dead mother’s voice. Selfish for getting out. Selfish for having a life away from them all. Selfish for writing. Selfish for telling. Stories were currency. They were all enthusiastic and unreliable narrators. She never wanted me to leave, hated that we both left. Every time she came to California when we lived here, the pursed lips, the “well, this isn’t very nice.”
And yet, one of the constellation of people who have been texting and calling as this all unfolded, a person I would never have thought would be supportive said, late last week, as I was panicking — said Go! We loved your novel. We’ve been waiting for you to write another book. Go.
My mother is dead. Patrick is dead. I don’t have to worry about supporting anyone but myself anymore. I have one more year in corporate life and then I should be able to “retire” which for me has always been synonymous with “having enough money to write.” And so here I am, at a writers workshop as a participant, trying not to be self-conscious about having dropped my literary career, trying not to feel like the Ghost of Christmas Past, dragging the clanking chains of my out-of-print novel and unused PhD behind me. Here to test out a chapter on good readers, the kind of people who are my audience. Here to remind myself of the joy in reading one another’s work, responding in real time, in a room, to our collective efforts to make art. Here to remember why we do this.
This morning, I got some words on a page. Then I walked on a foggy beach where it was still warm enough to take off my shoes, let the Pacific ocean wash over my feet, soak the hem of my skirt. I talked to some nice dogs and their people. I saw a seal. The seal saw me. I bought more salmon at the unlikely store and came back to this little cottage and called Chuck to check in, to remind myself that I have a home, and it’s not Chicago, even though I feel like I should be there, and then I read some more.
And tomorrow, I’ll walk up the hill to the workshop, and get to see my friend Toni who is teaching, and work with Fenton Johnson, whose Keeping Faith is a touchstone, and I’ll hope that my family are okay, and I’ll still jump every time the silenced phone vibrates, and I’ll wait to see when there’s a funeral, and if I can get there, and I will continue to feel torn, will continue to feel the tug of grief and home, even as I have to, finally, get down to the work of writing these books that have been in pieces so long, these books that are scattered around the yard of my mental house like cars on blocks, missing wheels and bumpers and doors, but that are, nonetheless, recognizable as cars.
A few weeks ago, before I definitively killed my Twitter account, this tweet came across my feed from the British nature writer Robert Macfarlane:
Hello — I’ve been away a while, following a river to the sea, this river, who turned me upside-down & shook me out like nothing I’ve known before, & was powerfully alive in ways that exceed the sum of the lives it contains & enables. Tell me of the most alive river you know?
It immediately stuck in my craw. We’re categorizing rivers as more or less alive? We’re valorizing those rivers we feel are more alive than others? When those sad rivers, the ones that are not sufficiently alive are probably in that state because we’ve used them for centuries as power sources, transportation vectors, and sewers?
Now, to be fair, this is Robert Macfarlane. His whole gig is nature ecstasy, and he writes about it beautifully. This is the guy who made his name by standing in a tree during a rainstorm and having an experience. We all have writers like this we love. I’ve defended poor old Henry David for years, even though he took his laundry home to his mother, and burned up a big chunk of forest by accident (as did Mark Twain, another topic, Writers and Fire). And he was very nice to Twitter with. However, the question, the question about more alive than what? and where does that leave our not alive rivers reminded me that he’s also the writer that Kathleen Jamie used as the prime example of “the Lone Enraptured Male:”
What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words. When he compounds this by declaring that ‘to reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history,’ I’m not just groaning but banging my head on the table.
She’s talking about Scotland, but she could just as easily be talking about Montana. Our version comes clad in Patagonia, posting pretty Instagram photos from high peaks in Yellowstone Park and our surrounding wilderness areas. Critiquing Macfarlane, especially for a throwaway tweet like this one, well, it’s kind of not fair. This is his schtick. He sells zillions of books by Going Forth To Experience …
And this, this is the part that sticks in my craw. What are we valorizing here? Nature? Wilderness? Some undefined quality of “aliveness”?
We all know what he’s talking about. He’s talking about all the tropes of wild nature, crashing rivers, scenic peaks, that we see in every single advertisement for the “outdoor recreation and tourism” industry. The same tropes that have graced every Sierra Club and Wilderness Society calendar for our whole lives. The same tropes which now, horrifyingly, are the backdrop for every “sport utility” vehicle sold in America, those commercials where going forth to encounter nature seems to be defined as seeing-it-through-your-car-window, ideally while driving said vehicle with abandon through streambanks and fragile salt pans, across mountain meadows and along beaches.
Wild Nature. It’s something “out there” that we should either save, or recreate in. And if we’re sending off a few dollars to “save” a wild place, or plant trees to “offset” our plane trips, then we’re good, right? We love nature! Nature is great!
I walked around chewing on my own crankiness over this for several days, muttering to myself on dog walks, confusing Hank-dog who thought I was talking to him. As is my normal routine at the end of our dog walks, I hopped up on the concrete edge of the irrigation ditch junction box to say the Heart Sutra:
And so, in emptiness there is no form,
No sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness …
Doh! I thought, looking down the ditch at the cottonwood tree where an eagle sometimes hangs out in the winter. Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form. No wonder distinctions like Macfarlanes’ bug the shit out of me.
I am not a real Buddhist. I don’t have a sangha. I don’t go on retreats. But ever since I studied with Gary Snyder back in the early nineties, I’ve had a tiny practice which mostly involves reciting his translation of the Heart Sutra on dog walks. Or hikes. It’s quite good when you need to make a little noise to let bears know you’re coming.
I was always prone to wanting to collapse distinctions, but thirty years of thinking about it, even in a sort of amateur way, well the values of non-discrimination are now deeply ingrained in my being.
Of course we all love a crashing river with rocks and whitewater and all the rest. All that water in the air feels good, I think there’s studies about ozone being released? It’s all fresh and dynamic and wonderful. That’s why there’s a million pictures of rushing rivers used for advertisements, and why people come from all around the world to ride down the Yellowstone, just over the edge of the bluff from my irrigation ditch, both to catch fish and just to enjoy the day.
The Yellowstone is not quite as vibrant as it once was, and it’s certainly not a wilderness experience — on a summer day the stream of fishing boats, rafts, kayaks, inner tubes, and SUPs is pretty unbroken — and with climate change, late summer sees lower and lower river levels and hotter temperatures. We’ve had fish kills. People are all panicky about warm-water fish like bass getting into the trout fishery, because distinctions. Trout fishing is classy, and an art — just ask Hemingway, Norman Maclean, or Jim Harrison — while warm water fishing is not. A topic for another post.
At any rate, this is just to say that it’s also easy to be cranky about nature writers making these kinds of distinctions, valorizing one kind of river over the others, when I live along the Yellowstone. I remember well, coming back to college after summers in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a big wilderness along the Canada/Minnesota border, and the dismay with which I watched the murky, slow, Rock River slide past the Beloit College “boathouse” where I earned some work-study money on Sunday afternoons. No one came to the boathouse, much less took the old sailboats out on the polluted river. No one fished the Rock River. The only fish I ever saw were giant carp who scared the wee out of us one night when I was keeping an eye on several friends who were tripping. They’d come up to the surface to feed, which was … unexpected.
So I know the difference. I know what it means to be trapped in places where it feels like there’s no wild nature at all, where wildness only survives in the ditches between subdivisions, where the natural world feels like it’s been entirely subsumed by industry and agriculture and suburbia and cities.
One of the things I’ve admired about the “New Nature Writers” of the UK is their freedom. American nature writers are haunted by the spectre of the GOP and Industry and all the people who would just LOVE to deregulate the small patches of wilderness we’ve managed to put by. “Is it good for Wilderness?” is the question that haunts us. “Is it good for The Wild?” This defensive crouch is one reason we all argued for decades (arguments that happen still in the bars here in Livingston after a reading) about whether wilderness is an idea or a place, and whether academic discussions about how wilderness as an idea (an idea that defines actual places) is a human construct is good or bad for The Wild.
The UK has no “wild” — they have a few empty places, a lot of walking paths, but with no real predators, they don’t really have wilderness. It’s hard to explain, but you can feel it. When we’ve camped in parts of the state (fewer and fewer these days) where there are no grizzly bears, it does feel different. Most of the time it’s cool, living with apex predators, and then there’s an evening when word goes out that someone has been killed by one, a few short miles from the cabin, a guy who is “horn hunting” for shed antlers, and your beloved person, who you only found late in life is also out there, alone, with his phone turned off, and while you know he’s in an entirely different part of the valley, nonetheless you panic quietly until you see his car drive in and then freak him out by bursting into tears when he walks in the door. That part, not so fun.
Even less fun for the widow and three kids of the very nice man who stumbled into a day bed with a sleeping grizzly on it.
Which brings me back to my irrigation ditch. I’ve written about it before. I love this ditch. If I was a Very Rich Person building a garden at my Very Rich Person second (third? fifth?) home on a ranch here in the Paradise Valley, I would make a ditch with a distribution box like this one as the centerpiece of that garden.
Everything about The West (capitalized like The Wild or The Bear) is captured by this distribution box. The history of water rights, including the bonkers definitions of who gets what water, and the use-it-or-lose-it nature of said rights. The way we’ve always channelized water for our own uses. The fact that this ditch flows along a bluff above the Yellowstone itself, through a “State section” of land that is public, but for part of some years also has privately-owned cattle on it. And the amazing view from the distribution box. I stand on that box ledge, often above a really ucky pile of foam and sticks that has clogged up in the eddy where the water emerges, and try, for the length of a Heart Sutra, to contemplate non-discrimination. Wild/not-Wild. The highway is 100 yards uphill, and noisy most mornings, and yet, especially in winter, there’s a bald eagle, maybe 2, in the cottonwood. This summer there was a golden eagle who perched on the bluff a few times, a golden eagle half as tall as I am (I’m short but still). And then there’s cows. Cows across the river. Sometimes we can’t walk this section because there are cattle.
It’s all of it. It’s a man-made body of water that for me, at least, is very much alive, even though it’s turned off from October to May.
It’s not “wild” but it is alive.
I guess, what I’m trying to say, from my irrigation box overlooking a gigantic wilderness, from my position of deep nature privilege, is maybe these kinds of distinctions no longer serve us? We need to save it all. We need to save ourselves. We’re burning up the planet. And while it’s fabulous that rushing wild rivers that can turn a person’s soul upside down exist, and while for everyone I know who loves wild nature, it was those experiences, particularly in our youths, that turned us into people who will try to find a way, any way, to live where we can walk the dog in close proximity to eagles, perhaps it would behoove all of us to think about how “no sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness,” might help us save the scraps of the world we have left?
My brain has been on fire over Lauren Elkin’s Art Monsters , and Charlie Porter’s Bring No Clothes, books that each take on the questions of what it means to build a life as an artist. Not an influencer life, but an artists life.
Reading each of these (and underlining, and filling the pages with sticky notes, and copying out whole passages) has lit me up with a flame of hope that finally, the discourse of art might be moving away from the notion that art is only measured by how it sells. I’ve been writing about this all through these long decades of neoliberal “free market” bullshit where the only thing that mattered was money, well, it’s just felt like shouting into the wind. So my joy and relief and excitement at these two books who examine, among other things, what it means to build a life as an artist, what it means to make making art the central task of your life, well, my poor brain has been at something of a fever pitch thinking about it.
One of the things I’m finding so fascinating about both of these books is the way they both examine Vanessa Bell’s life and work as a central example of a successful, if hard won, artistic life. Vanessa Bell, usually known in my writerly circles for being the sister of Virginia Woolf, was an important artist of the early decades of the twentieth century. Both Elkin and Porter seem drawn to her as someone who didn’t just produce pictures, but who built a whole artistic world around herself. Charleston House, Bell’s home, is a museum now, and is known for the decoration of the walls and the wardrobes and the lampshades, all painted not in the coordinated-decor way of modern interior design, but in what seems to be a more spontaneous manner. Oh look! There’s a blank surface over here, what can I fill it with to look interesting? What colors will interact with the rest of the room, with my clothes, with my sense that it’s all art? It’s very like my beloved Derek Jarman, whose Prospect Cottage is also an entire world.
I came late to Virginia Woolf. Her work didn’t open up to me until I was well into my 30s, in graduate school. And while I am ride or die for both To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, it was the letters and the diaries that really helped me see how Woolf and Leonard, and her sister and her menage, and the whole Bloomsbury group were trying to find new ways to live, and create, and love. (Also, her letters are very funny. Anyone who thinks of Woolf as that drooping serious dour thing that her image sometimes suggests need only read the letters to see how funny she was, and what a gossip.
One of the sections of the book I found most exciting was Elkin’s examination of Bell’s portrait of Virginia, and her choice to leave the face blank.
This portrait, for me, addresses all the problems I have been exploring throughout this book. The problem of how to overthrow story the as pre-eminent way of speaking a woman’s experiences as a body. How to address the materiality of body through art. How to depict the female body without either catering to or rejecting the male gaze. How to deal with the instability of identity, which rushes to any attempt to depict the self, or the sister whose face one knows as well, or better, than one’s own. How to be an artist, or a writer, how to live up to the challenge, to embody it. How to live our lives in all their fullness and ambiguity admitting nothing, relinquishing nothing. (269)
This paragraph set my hair on fire. I have struggled with this issue of identity, and story in the book about my brothers that I’ve been working on for so long. Subject matter, the sheer volume of sorrow and grief and incident, has been a challenge. I have no issues with subject matter when writing about food. But writing about family trauma, that’s trickier. While the “misery memoir” served a purpose, to give voice to those who had been abused in ways that previously were illegible, that there was money to be made meant publishing went through a significant period in which it behooved authors to emphasize the outrageous, and the bathetic.
I struggled with this for a long time. Early readers often said “you need more Patrick on the page,” and it annoyed me. So I put it in the text. In an early version I wrote: “No matter how I try, I’ll never be able to get Patrick on the page.” To which a reader replied, “why not?”
As I noted in Write as If You Were Dying,
I could not get Patrick on the page because Patrick was a living, breathing human being with a complex interiority, some of which I had access to, but much of which I did not. He was not a character, not a story.
And he was gone.
That Vanessa Bell solved this problem by refusing to paint the face of her beloved feels like an answer. Representation is a core problem in painting, and that she solved it by showing her sister, in a chair, her being, her body, her shape, and that this non-literal representation is what allows her to convey the intimacy of the sisterly relation, well. That’s the goal. How to get what my brother meant on the page, his humor, and kindness, and how he was my rock. He was, and remains, the one person on earth who I knew, in my bones, loved me. As I am.
The Bloomsbury group gets a lot of side-eye for the fact that they all grew up in what the English call “middle class” privilege — that is, they were wealthy, but not aristocratic — but what I’ve always found so inspiring about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf is how they escaped the prison of their upbringing, and how they made full, rich, artistic lives for themselves. It was a long seven years for the sisters between the deaths of their parents, when they were trapped in their father’s house, obligated to dress and serve tea and run the household and were held hostage to his every mood and self-pitying whim. All the while, being dressed and controlled by their older half-brother, who insisted they accompany him into society, and who raped both of them for years. Seven years. Woolf never recovered. As we learn more about the lifetime effects of childhood sexual abuse, her “madness” seems less mad, her achievements all the more heroic.
That none of this abuse was exceptional for their class, even if no one, even Freud could admit how common it was, made it all the worse. There was nowhere to turn, and so after being set free by the death of their father, the four youngest children fled, the two full brothers gave them cover as “chaperones” and they all set up house together. This was the start of the “Bloomsbury group.”
The difficulties of extricating oneself from an upper class life can seem trivial to everyone else, who is struggling to get by. I’ve often said that the great salvation of my life is that we lost all our money when I was so young. I never had to compete in that arena, even if my mother would have liked me to. I went to a few debutante parties in outfits my mother conjured out of the equivalent of Scarlett O’Hara’s curtains, and my brother dated a few young women whose mothers told them not to lead him on, because he was a nice boy, but didn’t have any money. It became clear very early on, that if we wanted to stay in that world, it would be as the kind of high-class servant that rich people can pretend aren’t servants: as horse trainers or personal assistants or interior decorators. People who work for you, but who are also presentable enough to fill an empty chair at a dinner party.
Other women I grew up with though, the ones whose parents were trying to climb up that ladder we were sliding down, they didn’t have that escape hatch. Those are the girls whose mothers told them not to say anything when someone’s dad trapped them in a back hallway at a debutante party, not to say anything when the rich boy abused them on the drive home. Those are the women whose mothers made them break up with the college boyfriends from regular middle class families to marry the boy from the “good family.” The women who grew up and told their husbands that they’d never divorce them, but if they wanted to keep a woman in the city, go right ahead.
I fled early, and for a lot of reasons, but high on the list was the stifling nature of upper class life. Reading Woolf’s diaries and letters when I was in graduate school, reading the biographies, reading about how the Bloomsbury group built a rich, artistic, often queer circle of people who wrote and painted and attempted to make the world a better place, well it was huge for me in my 30s. When I came looking for an artsy town in which to settle, it was in the hopes of finding other people who were interested in building lives that centered around something other than the making and spending of money. As much as I gripe about Livingston changing, it is still a remarkable small town in this respect. We’re not Bloomsbury, but even with the new rich people and right-wingers who think they’ve moved to the set of that television show, I’m still lucky enough to live in a town, and a state, where being a writer or painter or musician is pretty normal. Years ago, at a conference, one of my grad school friends looked at me and asked “What is this? Do all the writers in Montana know each other?” And I had to say yeah, pretty much, or if we don’t there’s usually one person in between we can call for an introduction.
Reading about Woolf and Bell fundamentally influenced what I thought an artistic life was, and after a couple of decades of whatever it is that we’ve all been through as a culture, the strange collision of unbridled capitalism in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union combined with the rise of the internet and influencer culture, well, I guess this whole essay is to say that I’m so deeply grateful to Elkin and Porter (more about his books soon) and what appears to be a group of writers younger than I am who are working to critique all the ways we might learn from these artists, and how we all might build our own versions of engaged, creative, artistic lives. May their work continue to flower.
The weather is changing, the garden is full of tomatoes and greens and herbs and zucchini, and I’ve been slightly obsessed with making dumplings.
The past few years, the cookbooks I’ve been most intrigued with are those by writers who are describing the cooking traditions of Ukraine, Georgia, the Causcaus, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Writers like Olia Hercules, Alissa Timoshkina, and Caroline Eden. One thing these regions have in common is dumplings …
I mean, who doesn’t like a dumpling? Even the word is endearing. Look at those little dumplings up there in the photo! No wonder we call babies “my little dumpling.”
We often have leftover mashed potatoes around here, and I have never yet managed to make a gnocchi that isn’t, well, leaden, so I’ve been thinking for weeks about how to use mashed potato as a base for a veggie dumpling. These ones have potato, some sauteed greens, carrot and onion, lots of parmesan, some riccotta, and I think an egg. There are two tricks I’ve discovered — one is to put it all in the Cuisinart so there are no poking-up bits to break the pasta, and the other is to use some breadcrumbs to stiffen it up. The first batch I made yesterday, the mix was a too loose, it was hard to work with, and kept oozing out of the seams. This second batch held up better.
While I have a few traditional ravioli trays that I also like using, I splashed out a whole 9 or 10 dollars on Amazon for one of these pelmeni makers. You roll out a disk of dough until it covers the unit, put fillings in the little holes, roll another round of dough out, lay it on top, and roll over the whole thing with a pin until it cuts the dough. Then you turn it over and whack them out onto your sheet pan. Some Pam and flour on the metal thing help a lot. They don’t have the adorable tortellini shape of true pelmeni, but they’re quick to make.
I was thinking this morning as I walked the dog about how to make the too-loose potato-based ravioli mixture work better, and it occurred to me that this process of figuring out how to make the thing I want to make is actually what I like best about projects like this. How can I find something interesting to do with leftover mashed potato?
This is what I mean by frugality as practice. Since I keep chickens, I worry less than most people about food waste — because mine comes back as companionable animals who make eggs — but I do think that somewhere in the last 30 years we all lost the plot when it comes to cooking and frugality. Food blogs are full of comments about people who “won’t eat leftovers …” Um. Okay. End of the empire, as Himself would say. The disposable culture of “have it your way” in combination with a food industry who LOVES to sell you single-serving items, who loves to encourage you not to learn to cook for real, who just wants you buying more garbage processed food from the middle of the supermarket, is the same capitalist energy that is burning up our planet.
One thing I love about cookbooks like Carpathia, or Home Food, or Salt and Time is that they write about food as something precious. Delicious, but precious. Frugality and thrift both connote a sort of pinched-mouth parsimony, a negation of generosity, when the truth is they are expressions of deep generosity. What is more generous than thinking through what you have so that you can feed people? So that you can make something wholesome go further? So you can delight someone by magicking a dinner out of what you have on hand?
There’s also the pleasure of learning new handwork. For me, a few days of walking around thinking about how to make dumplings is not lost time. And while I’m not doing the more handcrafted method, I’m not rolling out dough and cutting it into rounds, doing that fold and twist that characterizes a true pelmeni, merely figuring out how the mold works and what can I do with it is interesting. Learning a new skill that I hope will mean, eventually, that I can make a batch or two on a Sunday morning with leftovers we’re tired of and freeze them so one of these nights, when I’m fried from a long day at work, there’s something delicious and easy to eat for dinner?
As someone who learned to shop and to cook after our dad left because there was no money, and who has cooked my way through long years of being really, truly, utterly broke, I find frugality a creative challenge. I’m always slightly shocked by younger people in the food media who learned to cook from late-period Food Network, when everything was cheffy or competitive — or by people who only learned to cook in culinary school, and who don’t have any real lived experience of home cooking as an everyday practice. It was a brilliant ploy on the part of capitalism, to commodify home cooking as something “aspirational,” something that relies on recipes. Which drains the fun, and creativity, and every-dayness out of cooking.
For me, frugality as a practice isn’t just about saving money. I’m so much more stable now that there’s some wiggle room in my budget. But for me, frugality as a practice is, among other things, a practice of care, of respect. If we respect the world around us, a world coming apart at the seams because of our utterly wasteful ways, then learning to use what we have, instead of always going out to buy more more more, becomes part and parcel of respecting the material world in which we live. It’s part of respecting our communities, and the people who work to grow, harvest, butcher and manufacture our foodstuffs. It’s part of respecting that food security is a gift.
So on those days that I’m wandering around thinking about what I can make from these odds and ends around my house so I can feed us both in a way that is delicious, that’s part of the same respect for the world as waiting in winter for the elk to clear out of the yard before taking the dog out, and, I suppose, even though I’m terrible at it — probably part of the same generosity that I should be extending to the tourists who drive me so crazy.
In the meantime, while I work on my Zen of Tourists, I’m going to keep playing around with dumplings. I’m completely looking forward to thinking about what I can stuff in a dumpling this winter. The meat dumplings I made are …. fine, but they could be much more delicious, so there’s a challenge. And the great thing about the circular mold is that it’s easy to use, doesn’t require mechanical equipment, and makes dumplings in bulk. I have two big bags of frozen dumplings now — one bag of meat, one of non-meat. I spent a lovely Sunday morning in the kitchen with a BBC mystery on the computer, rolling out dough, filling the little holes, rolling out more dough, then popping out enough dumplings to keep us fed for a few more weeks.
Dumplings. Food for the soul.
SEP 5, 2023
Here’s another in my series of older essays I’m reprinting here as we all get to know one another. This was originally published in Culinate, in probably 2009. The site is long gone now, but it’s an essay, and a topic that still informs much of my work, and as the rains have hit here, and as I’m too busy to go out this year, it’s also a sort of salve to balm the sorrow of not being able to get out in the woods right now.
About three years into my doctoral program, my health broke down. The low-grade fever I’d run for a couple of years — a fever I referred to as my Victorian Illness, for its lack of specificity and its ability to render me prone on my futon, propped up with a novel like some swooning maiden — finally blew up on me. My entire mouth erupted in canker sores.
Because the regular doctors at my Utah university’s clinic didn’t have any good treatment for either the canker sores or the Victorian Illness, I wound up in a traditional Chinese-medicine clinic in a strip mall. There, I was told that the problem was “damp heat” and “mental overstimulation.” I was told to rest, to eat broccoli and beets and brown rice, and to not eat sugar or coffee or garlic or spices.
I was also told to walk. Not on a treadmill in a gym, but outside, in nature.
Since I couldn’t concentrate enough to get any work done, I took this advice. It was early fall, just after the monsoonal rains had swept in across the desert and rescued us all from the crushing heat of summer, and some nearly forgotten part of me could feel that there were mushrooms growing out there. I remembered that someone in my department had said that she’d found boletes up in the Uinta Mountains on the Wyoming border. So I got out my map and found a small road out of Kamas that looked like it’d take me up to the top of the plateau. About 90 minutes later, I parked at the trailhead and — after stuffing my daypack with a mushroom book, a trail map, some water, and a sandwich — I got out and started to walk.
I wasn’t hiking, exactly. “Hiking” implies a more vigorous activity than I was up for. I was still exhausted. I still ran fevers on and off with some regularity. I didn’t have any energy, I couldn’t concentrate, and although the canker sores had mostly healed, I lived in a state of constant vigilance, terrified of a return of that painful eruption.
So when I got out of my car on that rainy Wednesday afternoon, I was really hoping that I wouldn’t run into a group of those cheery, athletic types Utah is so full of. I’d been outdoorsy in my 20s — leading canoe trips, working as a raft guide, ski bumming, rock climbing — and now I found myself, a decrepit 30-something in a 10-year-old jacket, stopping every 100 yards or so to rest.
But mushroom hunting rewards the slow and the halt. Mushroom hunting requires very slow hiking. It requires that you pay attention. It gives you a reason to creep through the woods, stooped over like the prematurely old woman you feel yourself to be. It also gives you a reason to just look at everything: roots, rocks, leaves.
And after a while, you start to see that what looked like a weird yellow leaf is actually a chanterelle. And then you notice the other chanterelles around it. And then you’re seeing mushrooms everywhere. One minute it’s a bare forest floor, the next it’s covered with mushrooms you couldn’t see before. It’s eerie. It makes you understand why there’s so much folklore linking mushrooms with fairies and magic.
When I began hunting that first year, I only really knew how to identify oyster mushrooms and chanterelles. I’d never found boletes before, but I’d read enough to know those were what I was really after. King boletes (Boletus edulis) are also known as cèpes, porcini, Steinpilzen, and, in England, as penny buns for their round, toasted-brown-bun appearance.
The key to the boletes is that, instead of gills, they have spongy-looking masses of tiny tubes on the undersides of their caps. This makes it exceedingly easy to tell if you’ve found a member of the genus. There are many boletes, including the slimy but wonderfully named Suillus tomentosus, but once you’ve found a real cèpe, it’s unmistakable. There’s just something about the heft of one — about the bulbous stalk, about the toasty color of the nice dry cap — that makes a king bolete memorable. And it does look as edible as a penny bun at a bakery.
I spent a day or two a week up in the Uintas that fall. My Chinese acupuncturist was right; getting out in nature and walking started to cure my Victorian Illness. True to form, I felt like a character out of one of those books, like Mary in The Secret Garden, who was cured of her sickliness by fresh air and everyday contact with the earth. The smell of the damp forest, the rain on my parka, and the clean air did the same for me.
By the time I got sick, I’d been locked in a small studio apartment for a couple of years, living almost exclusively inside my head. The irony was that I had holed up to write a novel that takes place entirely outdoors, in the mountains of California’s Desolation Wilderness area. At the same time, I was engaged on the academic front in a fierce battle with a number of literary, ecological, and religious theories. My brain had been spinning like a gyroscope for months.
Getting out of town, getting in my car and driving for an hour and a half up to the top of that plateau, getting out into the actual physical world — a world of smell and taste and touch — did me as much good as anything could have. Mushroom hunting was both meditative and active; I got some very moderate exercise, and I was forced to pay close attention to something other than words on a page.
Mushroom hunting brought me back to my body and allowed me some mastery of that most basic of human skills: finding and preserving food. I’d come home from the mountains and my mushroom meditations would continue as I cleaned and trimmed and put up my bounty. While I stood at the sink, rinsing, trimming and cutting chanterelles into chunks, I had a chance to think about how the woods must have looked to my characters, who were searching a different terrain altogether, but who were nonetheless spending their days walking slowly through the woods looking for something, too.
I sautéed my harvest until all the liquid cooked off. It gave me a chance to just slow down and watch something cook, a chance to slow down and smell something delicious, a chance to slow down and know that I was going to have enough Ziploc bags of chanterelles in butter stashed in the freezer to see me through the long winter to come. The porcini I ate fresh or cut into slices and strung on thread in my kitchen to dry. My little studio apartment smelled all woodsy and mushroomy that fall as, slowly, my health returned and I managed to finish my doctorate.
Sometimes life tells you the hard way that you have to pay attention. Sometimes life rises up and smacks you in the mouth and reminds you that you need to learn to feed yourself, that you need to learn to feed your body and your soul and that you are a part of nature. For me, this was the lesson of the Victorian Illness: that my illness was a symptom of a life out of kilter. I healed myself by walking very slowly through the woods, looking for the delicious things that nature has provided for us. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me, the questions I’ve asked as I’ve moved on to other places, other jobs, other homes: Will I be able to walk outside in nature every day? Is there a chance I’ll find a delicious surprise?
When I was in high school, we’d take the train in from the suburbs to spend the weekend with our mother, who had moved back to Chicago when we went to live with our dad. It was a weird time in a lot of ways, but what I loved about the train, what I’ve loved about trains in lots of places, is the glimpse we got into people’s backyards. There was one stretch of the Chicago and Northwestern line where we’d pass by small brick 2 story buildings that had major vegetable gardens in the back. Green from wall to wall in production quantities. These were not raised-bed gardens like the one I built a few years back, the sort of yuppie gardens of today — these were immigrant backyards where people were growing the tomatoes and peppers and eggplants and fig trees and grapevines of home. When Rosetta Constantino’s book, My Calabria came out decades later, I thought of those backyards. I was mesmerized by them, and for years, as I kicked around the American west, living in rentals without yards, growing tomatoes in pots and herbs in windowboxes, I dreamed of my own backyard full of food.
And so, when I finally bought my little house here in Montana, the first thing I did was reconfigure the existing 15 x 25 foot vegetable plot, which was pretty much just sunflowers and feral carrots when I moved in. At this point there have been three major garden bed rebuilds. During the same 20 years, the local food system has gotten way more varied and robust as well, which is wonderful. You can buy a lot of stuff locally now that you couldn’t when I got here — and so, this year, my garden is a delightfully chaotic mess, and because we had such a late spring, is mostly herbs and flowers.
I’m a big fan of broadcast sowing, which I did a lot of this spring as I was clearing out some old seed stock. There’s all sorts of nonsense out there. Lots of dill and parsley, a bunch of self-seeded fennel from last year, then borage, calendula, and nasturtium taking over everyplace else. I was wandering around watering things when I noticed a lone cilantro plant that had bolted.
I sowed a lot of cilantro seed this spring, but most of it seems to have been crowded out, which is too bad because if there’s anything I love it’s green coriander seeds. They’re delicious, and have the most satisfying pop when you bite one. Absentmindedly, I picked a couple of umbrels-worth and put them in a little dish in the kitchen. Later, I thought, what if I put them in the mortar and pestle with some herbs and chile and salt? I crushed them up, added a teensy bit of garlic, a lot of salt, and a couple of tiny chiles from the garden. It was a perfect hit of green and herb and heat.
Earlier this summer, I cut big bunches of tarragon, chives, dill and fennel fronds, sage, summer savory, and parsley to do a dry salt preserve. I chopped them all up, and spread them out on a sheet pan with salt, scrunched it all together and put it in the oven on the bread proof setting to dehydrate. I’ll use this herby salt all winter, on everything — it’s particularly great for salting a chicken.
But what about a wet salt, I thought? Olia Hercules, a cookbook writer I adore, described both the red and green salts of Georgia in her book Kaukasis. Salt-preserving herbs is nothing new. If you do a quick google a lot of things turn up including herbes salées, a traditional Quebeqois method of preservation, mostly, it appears, used in pea soups over the winter. What if I did that mix I made in a little dish, but did more of it, and stuck it in the fridge so I’ll have it in the dead of winter? We can get a lot of things here now, but I refuse to buy small herb bundles in plastic clamshells. For one thing, plastic clamshells. Fuck plastic.
These are the kinds of techniques I love — things that aren’t recipes, because they’re not standardized, but that nonetheless open up a space into which a person can experiment, and play around. A ‘truc” is a little trick, or sometimes the little morsel a cook keeps for themself. These are the things I find most fascinating, the things I scour cookbooks and food memoirs for.
I don’t want to learn how to make a recipe. Learning a recipe is a consumerist approach to cooking. Leaning on recipes keeps us hooked on external sources of validation. Leaning on recipes keeps us in that state where consumer capitalism wants us to be, always feeling that we’re lacking something, that we’re not quite right, that we can’t do it ourselves. It’s part of the Big Lie in which we all live, but, as my original tag line for this blog noted, we can subvert that big lie by learning to do things for ourselves, by experimenting in order to learn, for ourselves, what we actually like, rather than what we’ve been told to like.
This is the core impulse in my now 20 year project of learning how to cook and preserve and make the most out of what I have, right here. This is why I’ve looked to food writers like Patience Gray, or Elizabeth Luard, or Rosetta Costantino, or Olia Hercules — food writers who give you the thinking behind food practices, and who are interested in keeping alive ways of cooking that don’t rely on recipes. Pasta Grannies is another source for this kind of info. How does a woman in her 80s make the thing she’s always made with one paring knife, a rolling pin, and a regular kitchen fork? Those are the trucs I’m interested in.
If you don’t have an overgrown herb garden like I do this summer, I’m sure you can manage to buy too many herbs this time of year at your local farmer’s market — but the point is, don’t set out to use the herb combination I did — use what you have. For instance, the Georgian salts Olia Hercules describes all use a lot of fenungreek, which I don’t have, and which Himself really dislikes. I’m not making an authentic Georgian herb salt, I’m making a Montana backyard herb salt. Do the same. Use what’s good where you live.
To make my Montana herb salt, I stripped the lovely green coriander seeds off my one sweet plant, and then looked to see what else is good. Right now, there’s a lot of tarragon, chives, parsley, summer savory (I adore summer savory, more people should grow it), and fennel fronds. The dill is just setting seed so I cut a few heads that haven’t gone hard and brown yet, as well as a bunch of umbrellas of parsley flowers. My pepper plants are sort of limping along, but there’s a small hot variety I bought as starts that is really nice as a hot green pepper, so I cut a few of those, and a green cayenne. On the way back to the house, I cut a few sprigs of mint from the long border in the perennial bed.
I did get out the mortar and pestle, but it was clear I had way more herbs than I had time to lovingly crush by hand, so I brought out the Cuisinart. I rough chopped the herbs and chiles, added a couple of cloves of new garlic, and the zest of a lemon, and whizzed it all up. Then I added salt. What I wanted was a ratio that felt like damp sand. So I just added salt until it seemed right to me. I’m keeping them in the fridge, so I’m not too worried — and there’s definitely enough salt in there to keep it from molding. This isn’t going to be a ferment, although that’s also an interesting idea. Hmm. I did ferment a LOT of walking onions this spring (a particularly pungent green onion that came with the garden, and that I adore). Maybe lacto-fermented herbs? I’m plannning to do another batch of this when the fennel starts setting seed — green fennel seeds as the base? But a fermented batch? That might be interesting …
So here’s lunch this afternoon. Toast with quark (which we can finally get here), backyard tomatoes, and green salt. It was delicious.
Over the years, at LivingSmall — here are a few posts I’ve written about making things with the herbs in my yard:
Playing with your food is fun.
Let’s stop being so aspirational and just start playing around more. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t — but every time you try something, you learn something.
To kick off the LivingSmall at 20 series, here’s an essay I wrote for a workshop with Alexander Chee a couple of years back. It’s never seemed like something to send out, but it’s a pretty good summation of the long-term project.
The email from the agent was good, but it was a clear no. She loved the writing. She could see there was a real story. But, she said, she could also see the places where I didn’t want to write it. The seams were showing. She couldn’t take it on.
“Oh good” I thought. “I don’t have to write this book.”
It was a reaction so visceral and odd that it surprised even me. But my relief was enormous. I didn’t have to write this book.
This was the third time I’d tried to write this. Three major drafts, maybe four if you counted the one I wrote as fiction, and the second big draft in three years. The previous version was all about the aftermath of my brother’s death, about the life I’d built for myself from the rubble. Much of the content was culled from the Living Small blog I’d kept for years, in which I documented my Montana project. That project was about growing and cooking and putting up my own food, about chickens and foraging for mushrooms, about wilderness and clotheslines. About how I’d landed in this place I hadn’t expected to be, how I’d found this odd man and our unconventional love for one another, and how I’d come to a place of safety in our relationship, my house, this town, the community.
Readers said it was fine, but because I’d left out Patrick’s death, and the family stuff, because I’d left out the disaster that fueled it all, it didn’t work. You have to put Patrick on the page, they told me.
And so I did. I sat back down and wrote it all out, from the coroner arriving in my yard to my mother disowning me after the funeral. Plus clotheslines, and garden and cooking and wilderness. This was the draft the agent was responding to. The draft in which I tried to tell what happened, and why my brother and I were so close, and why losing him meant my world caved in — without letting my parents have too much room on the page. They’d done such damage, and we’d worked so hard to get out from under it. I didn’t want to let them take over the story. It’s sexy, that part of the story, their bad behavior. Bad behavior is always more compelling than good behavior. But I was damned if I was going to give them my book. And this nice agent was telling me she could see where I was shoving them offstage, and that it wasn’t working.
At the time the “oh good. I don’t have to write this thing” feeling was very weird. I had not been given permission to quit, this was not at all what her email said. But I read it that way. It wasn’t the first time I’d given up on the book, nor was it the first time I’d given up on the book with a huge sense of relief.
I knew I didn’t have to write this. Just because I’d written one book, just because I’d published one very dark novel didn’t mean that I had to plumb this experience next—the devastation of losing my younger brother just before my 40th birthday, and the subsequent breakdown of what residual relationships I had with my parents. Giving up meant I wasn’t going to have to write about how Patrick was the second brother I’d buried, or the craziness of our childhood and how that left us closer than many sibling pairs. I wasn’t going to have to write about the ongoing, never-ending war with my mother, or about how she’d thrown me out a couple of days after the second funeral, the one “at home” in the fancy suburb where we’d grown up broke among rich people. I wasn’t going to have to write about any of it, because I’d just spent another solid year working on the draft I’d sent this agent, and it didn’t work.
I didn’t know how to write it. Which meant I didn’t have to write it.
And so I thanked the agent for her response, and went downstairs to my basement sewing room, and cut out a dress pattern. It was a new pattern, one I’d been thinking about for days. I could see in my head how it was going to look, and how in this dress, made from a straw-colored linen I’d ordered online several weeks ago, how I’d look interesting. The pattern reminded me of a designer I like from Australia, Sark Studio. For years her website landing page was an overhead shot of herself on a bicycle. A woman a few years older than I am, on a bike, in a chic skirt made from nice linen, a skirt that had a real shape to it and yet was also a skirt that you could ride a bicycle in, and she wore a jacket in a similar linen, slightly fitted but a jacket you could move in. These were the clothes of a woman who did things, a woman who knew how to present her aging body as an interesting shape moving through space.
That’s what I wanted. That’s what I’d been exploring down there in my basement, where it was cool in the late August heat, where the smoke from forest fires couldn’t choke me as I worked. I closed my laptop, and went downstairs to pin a paper pattern to linen, to cut it out, and to spend the afternoon sewing up a dress, a dress that let me present myself as the self I wanted to present.
I didn’t have to write the book.
I couldn’t write the book.
I could do other things.
I’d moved to Livingston, MT, because when I was in graduate school at UC Davis, Gary Snyder told me that if I wanted artistic freedom, I should find a place where I could afford to buy and pay off a house. Places with cheap housing attract artists, he said. And if your house is paid off you won’t have to go teach in places where you don’t want to live. It took me nearly ten years after that to get to a place where I could even think about buying a house, but when I finally had the resources, it was Gary’s advice that guided my search.
After finishing my PhD, I spent four years working as a technical editor for Cisco Systems. My brother Patrick and I had moved in together, hoping to repair some of the damage our alcoholic family had done, hoping that if we could figure out how to make a home with one another, then perhaps we could transfer those skills to other people.
I liked my Cisco job, and I liked having some financial stability. My novel had sold just after I’d started at Cisco, and although it did fine for a first novel, it certainly never made me enough money to live on. I bought a couple of pieces of art, paid off some bills, went a few places to do readings, sold a small movie option, and then it was over. The Cisco job though, that was perennial. And I liked it. I liked figuring out how to write instructional material, liked the people I worked with, and liked that they were willing to let me move away and telecommute.
What I didn’t like was the Bay Area. It was too big and too crowded and my entire identity was as a Cisco person, not as a writer. I was bad at the few writer events I went to, lurking in corners and failing to schmooze. We lived way out in an unfashionable suburb, in a nice townhouse up against a huge regional park. We could afford that. We couldn’t afford to live in the city, or Berkeley, or even Oakland. I was commuting to San Jose and by then Patrick was commuting all the way up to Sears Point, almost two hours drive. It was alienating. I didn’t have any real friends. And I never wanted to owe anyone the kind of money it would have taken to buy a place in the greater Bay Area.
I knew about Livingston because I knew there were writers here. And I wanted to get back to the Rockies. I’d lived in the Rockies long enough to have a sense of where the enclaves were — towns with some artsy people, old houses that could be had for not that much money, mountains and wilderness close enough to walk every day. The Bay Area was so expensive, and the money drive was gaining momentum in a way that alienated me. While making enough money to have a house and a car and be essentially okay was crucial to me, I was utterly disinterested in getting rich, or in people who were interested in getting rich. I’d grown up among the wealthy, and that held no glamour for me. I’d fled that world when I fled Lake Forest at 21, in search of some sweet spot where there were artists and wilderness both. Livingston looked like it might be a place like that, so I came up, looked at some houses, and within months found myself signing a mortgage on this two bedroom house two blocks from downtown, built in 1903, with a vegetable plot in the backyard, four apple trees, two plum trees and a line of lilacs along one property line.
I finally had a place to settle in, and a place to build a real garden. I’d been growing things in and around rental apartments forever. I grew flowers in a window box overlooking the Fifth street offramp that summer I worked in Seattle, cultivated a rocky vegetable garden behind my tiny house in Telluride at 9000 feet, and grew tomatoes in old recycling bins in the alley behind my Salt Lake apartment building in grad school. Finally, I had a real garden, and I was in a place where they sold canning equipment in the grocery store, and where people had a freezers in their basements so they could store the elk and venison and antelope meat that nearly everyone hunted each fall. I was back in a place where people knew how to do things.
I was ready to make a home, and although Patrick coming along wasn’t part of the plan, that he loved it here and wanted to stay was good. We loved one another. That Livingston was the kind of place where making a home was not synonymous with being married or having kids only made it easier. It was a town full of artists. And carpenters. And hunting and fishing guides. It’s a railroad town and as my 83 year old friend John Fryer says, it’s always been transient, and it’s always been a little odd. So buying a house as a single woman wasn’t weird here, nor was settling into a social life. It’s not the kind of place where everything is couples, or couples with kids. Happy hour on Friday is just that, everyone together for a drink, come as you are.
By the time I responded to editorial rejection by going downstairs to make a dress, I’d been making things pretty steadily for the fifteen years since Patrick had died. I always made things, we come from a family who makes things. Part of it was because we were always broke. I was sent off to pre-debutante dances in a taffeta skirt my mother had made, a skirt whose unfinished elastic waist was concealed by a cummerbund she pulled together and then safety-pinned me into. She couldn’t make a waistband or a buttonhole, but she could make a clever cummerbund. My grandmother was famous for running up three matching dresses of an evening for my mother and my aunts, because she’d rather do that than do laundry. And when we were all little, she made playhouses out of plywood for us, built a bed for my cousin Adam in the shape of a barn, with his bed in the “hayloft.” There’s a very old photo I cherish, of my great-aunt Marie, in about 1910 or so, up to her elbows in the engine of her Model T, sleeves rolled up on her shirtwaist.
I’ve never really understood people who don’t make things, or who are afraid to make things. People don’t even cook. I’ve had arguments with people who are convinced that eating out is cheaper than eating in, that cooking every night is some sort of weird affectation. I’ve always cooked, and having a garden only made that more interesting. The first ten years or so that I had this house, especially when I was writing the blog and reviewing cookbooks, I cooked a lot. I cooked the year after Patrick died so that I could invite people over, fill the house with good energy again. I cooked for myself to stave off despair. I learned to cook desserts because as the single woman invited to the party, what people will usually let you bring is a dessert.
And because I had the garden, I learned how to put things up. I blanched and froze greens, made pickles, learned to make jam. I found out where the mushrooms grow here, and found then preserved morels and chanterelles, oyster mushrooms and boletes.
The thing about making stuff is that you have learned to do a real thing with your hands and your mind and your imagination. Whether it’s painting the kitchen or knitting a sweater or raising a chicken or growing a tomato, you have brought something into the world that wasn’t there before. And for me, during those long years when I couldn’t seem to figure out how to write this book, there was enormous satisfaction in that. I couldn’t figure out the story, but I could make a frangipane raspberry tart to take to a party, or knit a pair of hand warmers for one of my nieces, or find enough porcini in the woods to keep me in dried mushrooms for a year.
It was Bernard Cooper’s memoir about art school, My Avant-Garde Education that caused me to rethink all the making. I’d felt guilty about it, as though every day spent in the garden, every weekend spent sewing up a jacket, every steamy afternoon spent canning tomatoes was time stolen from the books I should have been writing.
Because I felt like a failure. I was succeeding at making a home, but I was not succeeding as a writer. My novel was fading farther and farther into the past, and while I’d published essays here and there, had been in one of those Best of anthologies, and had blogged for nearly a decade, I still didn’t have a second book. If I wasn’t publishing, then I wasn’t a writer. I’d become that thing I so hated when I was young, the person who shows up at the workshop with a manuscript and the line “I do XXX for a living, but really I’m a writer.”
It wasn’t too hard to accept being a failure as a writer, since I’d already failed at my one true job, fixing the life that Patrick and I shared. Patrick was dead because I didn’t take his keys that night at the bar when the little voice in my head told me I should. It was an actual voice. Take his keys, he’s going to do something stupid. I didn’t take his keys because there was a woman flirting with him, and the woman who had broken up with him was on the other side of the room, and for the first night in months he was out, and having fun, and being his big expansive self. I didn’t want to make a scene. I didn’t want to make my brother, who had been slogging through a long dark spell of the worst depression I’d ever seen him wrestle with, feel even worse. I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of the woman. I wanted him to go home with her, get laid, feel a little better.
So I left him there. The woman didn’t go home with him, and he drove a friend home, fifteen miles outside of town, on a bad gravel road, and didn’t make it back. The coroner came into my yard, into the yard of my little house I’d bought to keep us safe, came into my yard past the cosmos and the four o’clock’s and the sunflowers blooming in the bed outside my living room windows, put one big hand on my shoulder and said “Ma’am, there’s no good way to say this. There was an accident last night. Your brother is dead.”
I’d been calling him all day. Trying to figure out where he was. His phone had been ringing out there in that willow thicket off the Cokedale road.
After failing at that, quitting writing was easy. Or rather, I never quit writing, but I did quit trying to be a writer. I wrote things, and published sometimes. I went back to that second novel, the one I’d abandoned when Patrick died. I wrote a mystery novel. And every few years, I’d pick up this book again, pick up my failed memoir, the one I couldn’t figure out how to write, and take another run at it.
Bernard Cooper taught at Utah while I was there, and although I never studied with him directly, I remembered liking him. He was kind, a quality in short supply in that program. So when My Avant-Garde Education came out, I bought it in hardcover. Cooper had gone to art school, not a writing program. This was a world I was utterly ignorant of, but reading Cooper’s sentimental education clicked something for me, something about how the concept of process could be useful for a writer. It’s not something we value much. Writers are all about publication, all about the product. We lost a local writer a few years back, a lovely gentle man who, as every one of his fellow male writers pointed out at the memorial service we had for him, had published more than 80 novels. Most of those were genre — western or mysteries — and while they weren’t my thing, you had to admire the production. Capitalist America, where we admire production. Dick wrote every day, all day, and his books made money, so Dick was a Real Writer.
I was ten, fifteen, then twenty years between books, and so I was not.
But here was Bernard Cooper talking about something else entirely, talking about process. The question that took Cooper’s head off as a young art student was “Is it possible to make a work of art that is not embodied in an object?” He recalls that “In a classroom in Manhattan, on a rainy day, my perception of art was changed forever. …Vito Acconci’s pedagogy was a mixture of persistent inquiry, faith in the invisible, and nudges toward the unknown. It struck me for the first time that art might find forms beyond painting and sculpture.” And it struck me that even though I hadn’t written another book, even though I hadn’t produced a writerly object, that didn’t mean I hadn’t been involved in an extended art project, one that revolved around this house I’d bought.
I might not be a writer, but perhaps I’d been engaging in a 20 year piece of performance art?
I started the Living Small blog the year I bought the house. The original tagline was “Thoughts on Literature, Food, Faith and the Subversive Power of Living Small.” It was a project. It had always been a project. I’d moved to Livingston not only because there were artists and writers and because I found a lovely cheap house, but because I deliberately wanted to find a way to live outside the consumerist norms that had bugged me since I went sideways at the end of high school, since I found the wilderness people and left to lead canoe trips and read Thoreau. “Live deep and suck out the marrow from life,” lodged in my being like a splinter. “I went to the woods to live deliberately.” I came to Livingston to live deliberately. To build a home and find a community and to figure out a way to make myself safe against a future that looked like disaster bearing down: too many people, rising sea levels, hotter temperatures, systemic collapse.
If there’s one thing you learn from a childhood like mine it’s how to sense disaster looming.
I just never anticipated that disaster would come so fast, or that it would claim Patrick.
Cooper’s story of his artistic youth reminded me of where I’d started, leading canoe trips in my teens, trips where my friend Dennis and I tried to parse out what a genuine life would look like, and how we could live one. We wrote one another the sincere questing letters of early adulthood. What does a good life look like? How can we build one? What role does wilderness play in that life? I didn’t follow Denny to the small college on Lake Superior (that Patrick later attended), but rather took a different path to France and Ireland and then to New York, before rejoining him in North Carolina where we both worked for a hippie rafting company, a community of people who were all trying to figure out how to build an authentic life together. The tension between art and wilderness, city life and wild country was central to everything I wrestled with in my artistic and intellectual and actual life during most of my 20s and 30s. And no matter how hard I tried after grad school to pretend I was an ordinary tech worker, driving my Honda to my cubicle on the Cisco campus, Starbucks in the cup holder, I knew I wasn’t living deliberately. I wasn’t making something of my life. And so I moved to Livingston, bought my little house, and set out to see whether I could find a way to build a deliberate life while remaining employed.
What Cooper’s book gave me was a way to understand that although I hadn’t been publishing much, I had been working on this larger project of building a life, particularly in the wake of Patrick’s death. Losing Patrick had broken for good those hopes I’d held out of being able to fix my family, and I’d come home to Livingston after the Lake Forest funeral a hollow shell. I was here. I was still breathing. But it was gone. Everything was gone. Patrick was gone. My mother had turned me out. Dad was making sympathetic noises from Prague but he was so long gone that those didn’t even count.
I had to build a new life. I didn’t have a husband or kids. I had a house and two dogs. I had a town that had rallied around me.
This house had been my true grand passion. This little two bedroom house on a regular city lot is one of the key reasons I’m fine with not marrying my sweetheart Chuck even after more than a decade together. I bought this house myself, with my own money. I’ve fixed it up and paid it off and it’s mine. After our youngest brother Michael died and our parents split up, Patrick and I watched the fifteen acre horse farm go, then the house in Lake Forest go, then the condo in Madison, then even after we moved in with our father it was one house, then a smaller house, then a series of apartments in Chicago until finally Dad fled to Prague and was gone. There was no home then. Our mother too was always moving out of one place she couldn’t afford and into another, smaller, more precarious place. And when she had a head injury three years after Patrick died, and I went back to help her out, we searched from Lake Forest up to Milwaukee, looking for someplace she could afford to rent on the social security that was all she had to live on. We looked at senior complexes, and low-income units in urban redevelopment projects and Section 8 housing. We finally found her an apartment that she wound up hating, and blaming me for, but that was another story. The story here is that for a person who moved every eighteen months or so during childhood, who watched her parents zoom up and then down the ladder of financial success — there was never anyplace safe to live.
I might have given up writing more than once in the years since Patrick died, but I’d never given up making. If what the conceptual artists said was true, then perhaps I hadn’t been making things all these years as a way of hiding out, as a way of keeping busy during the long hours that make up a day when you’re alone, but perhaps I’d been, without knowing it, involved in an absorbing art project. If you took the blog into account, I’d not only been making things, but I’d been documenting the things I was making, and how this ongoing process was part of this larger project of making a home, of finding a community, of resisting the pressures of consumer capitalism, of trying to find a way to live that might slow down the climate catastrophe bearing down on us, or if that proved impossible, at least might provide the kinds of skills that would help me and the people I love survive that catastrophe.
And one of those skills is writing. One of those skills is being able to research a topic, and think about it, and make a thing, and document the making of the thing, and then move on and perhaps think about what the thing I’ve just made means. As we come out of the Trump years, as we still struggle, particularly here in Montana, to beat back the tides of aggressive stupidity and fascist authoritarianism, knowing how to think about something, knowing how to write about a thing, these too are crucial skills. Skills it turns out that I’ve been practicing for decades.
One day there will be another book, but in the meantime there are essays and blog posts and conversations with friends. In the meantime there are meals shared around tables, and jars of jam, exchanged at Christmas for so long that we’re all just giving one another back the jars they gave us last year. There is a river that rises in the spring and falls in the autumn. There are elk that come back in the winter, graze in the yard of our cabin, keep us company through the window as we pour the coffee. There is this beautiful world that we love, even in its diminished state, this beautiful world that we love and the work we all keep making, work that portrays how we feel about it.