I'm a writer and editor based in Livingston, Montana. I moved to Livingston from the San Francisco Bay area in 2002 in search of affordable housing and a small community with a vibrant arts community. I found both.
LivingSmall details my experience buying and renovating a house, building a garden, becoming a part of this community. It also chronicles my efforts to rebuild my life after the sudden death of my younger brother, and closest companion, Patrick in a car wreck.
The weather finally broke. Yesterday was all clouds and soft showers. Today is the same. We had a couple of small frosts in September, but for the most part, it was more fire weather. Hot dry days and wind. So dry that watering doesn’t really work anymore. The last few weeks, I’ve just been survival watering. Trying to keep new plants alive, trying to keep trees from dying. You can feel the water evaporating as it comes out of the hose, puddling up on ground that’s gone hard as clay.
According to the local paper, we’ve had 8.36 inches of rain this year. Normal is about 11 inches. Neither of those is enough, which is why our agriculture, and our gardens, rely on irrigation. The ditch above probably has a day or two of water left in it, it’s been going down steadily the last few days. I’m pretty sure it’s been turned off at the headgate. The Yellowstone is all gravel bars, lower than I’ve ever seen it this time of year.
Despite being ready for it all just to end, being impatient for snow, an impatience along the lines of “burn it all down” but in this case “freeze it all” — despite that, my nasturtiums came in so late, the weeks of 100 degree temps put them in suspended animation for most of June and July, just little 2 leaf sprouts, neither dying nor growing — they came in so late that I wanted to draw them out, revel in the their perfect green and gold and orange and deep red. So I got out the old sheets, the long white frost tarps, and swaddled the nasturtiums, the cosmos, the last of the tomatoes. Monday we’re due for snow, so I expect this weekend I’ll be pulling the tender annuals, piling them in the compost, shovelling chicken-litter-straw into the raised beds to protect them for winter, to add organic matter to the soil.
It feels a little tiny bit like some of the pressure of the summer is lifting. We still have the worst COVID infection rates in the nation, but folks seem to be back in masks in the store. The worst of the tourists seem to have dispersed, and the traffic to my morning dog walk is not fraught with so many people passing multiple vehicles at one time. The hunters will be here soon, but we’re in that brief moment between seasons, when we stack wood, and I put up preserves, and we get ready for what should be six or seven months of snow and cold weather.
You can feel it sometimes, when the pent-up energy starts to break. I got headhunted for what looks to be a really great new job, with people who have been so welcoming and nice that even someone as skittish about corporate life as I am is feeling hopeful. Himself sold a house he bought 20 years ago and has rented long term ever since — it was his version of saving for retirement, and so now there’s a little cushion, which is making us both breathe easier. And we’ve got a tiny vacation coming up — a few days drive around the Olympic peninsula, down the Oregon coast. I’m not an ocean person, but I’ve been desperate for cold and fog and big crashing waves.
And my book has a shape. I fought to write a piece for weeks this summer, before realizing I’d already written it, that I had it in a draft I’d discarded. Turns out it’s all pretty much there — a skeleton of a book, with 60K words, most of which need a rewrite, but now that I can see them, can see the shape of the thing, well, it’s another reason to look forward to winter.
All the big problems are still there, as the world as we know it cracks at the seams, but for the moment we have a little breather. I walked this morning, and while everything is still dry, there’s a lovely wet fog hanging in the grass. I came back with wet boots, and a wet dog. We have a moment to stack the wood, and dry the mushrooms, and stock the freezer and hope that the healing snows we need descend on us soon.
My cousin called last night from Telluride. “Remember that year you sent mushrooms to me in New York?” she asked. “That was so amazing, and I was so busy that year. We’re having the best mushroom season here in ages. Can I return the favor?” I told her yes, I’d love that. I said we’d finally got some rain, and I’m seeing social media pictures of mushrooms, but I’m working too much to get out in the middle of the week, and it’s too crowded on weekends. I’m under water on about six different fronts just now.
“What do you want?” she asked. “I have boletes and chanterelles …” I asked for mostly boletes, with some chanterelles, and then we caught up on our aging parents, her kids, her plans for fall, and all the other stuff that family catches up on. We don’t talk as often as we should these days, but there’s something so comforting about a conversation with someone you’ve known all your life, and in our case, we spent our twenties together in Taiwan and Telluride.
It got me thinking about the restorative power of a day spent hunting mushrooms, and since Culinate, who originally published this piece, are no longer around, here’s an older essay I wrote about how walking very slowly through the woods in search of mushrooms saved my health in grad school.
The Walking Cure
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?
I made a little soup this week. Sautéed some onion and backyard garlic in a nice glug of olive oil. Added diced potato and carrot, salt, water to cover. Let them simmer until they were getting soft, then added local green beans, not mine, mine didn’t come in this year, but nice local green beans, cut into soup-spoon lengths. Let them cook until they were done. No crunchy green beans for me. Then some orzo added at the end. No stock, a splash of fish sauce was all it needed. Topped with the first few garden tomatoes, some basil, a little more olive oil, some parmesan. A piece of bread. Lunch.
Soup seemed to steady the existential wobble of these past weeks. Weeks when day after day temperatures have been in the 90s, pushing 100. Weeks when the sky has been white with wildfire smoke. We haven’t seen blue skies since June. However, it’s good to know that even when it’s apocalyptic outside, I can rustle up a delicious meal out of things that are in my house and garden. Which was, after all, one of the cornerstones of the project I started in this house all those years ago.
It’s what I do when I don’t know what to do. I make something. Often in the kitchen.
I learned to cook in the wake of my parents’ divorce. We moved to Madison when I was just starting 7th grade, to a condo in a development full of divorced moms and latchkey kids. After a couple of false starts, my mother, who never expected to have to work, found a job as a travel agent. So we’d come home from school, and would be on our own for a couple of hours. After a while, she started teaching me to get dinner started over the phone. I’d slice onions and put a pot roast in the covered aluminum roaster (that I still have, and still use for this) with a can of tomatoes, a can of beef broth, and a packet of French onion soup mix. How did we not die from the salt? In the oven it would go, and we’d head back out to play various strange and competitive kid games in the cul-de-sac. Dad was not great about paying the child support, so there was a lot of scrimping.
Groceries were always someplace my mother figured we could stretch the money. Pot roasts from cuts Mom wasn’t familiar with, but that were big, and cheap. Pot roast, then sandwiches, then pasta, then soup — same with turkey. There was a lot of turkey on an out-of-season frozen Butterball for three people. Same cadence: roast, then sandwiches, then on pasta, then soup. When I turned sixteen, she handed me the car keys, the list, and a signed check. “Don’t spend more than fifty dollars,” she’d say. Later I spent two years broke in New York City, working for a cookbook packager — I had no money at all after rent and bills, but I had access to a big cookbook library. So I started reading up on cucina povera. How to stretch a dollar and also eat really well? It was New York, so I had the tiny shop down 2nd Avenue that only sold fresh mozzarella and olives, the Union Square Farmer’s Market when it was just getting off the ground, and there were still bakeries, and butcher shops and fish mongers. I remember asking a fishmonger what to do with a mackerel, because it was so beautiful and so cheap.
When people complained about cooking every night during the pandemic, my first grumpy thought was “well we cooked dinner every night when I grew up and no one complained,” and then I remembered the housekeepers and the country clubs. I grew up in a wealthy suburb where most families had housekeepers. They’d feed the little kids in the kitchen before they left for the night, leave something that could be heated up later for the parents and the big kids. I remember a world where families didn’t eat out like they do now, but we had country clubs, where you were obligated to pay a certain amount for the restaurant every month whether you ate there or not. So that’s where people took kids, or ate out on a Tuesday night. When we were little, before the bankruptcy, we ate at the club after tennis or swimming most of the summer. When people do that nostalgic thing about “your grandmother’s cooking” — oh boy. Mine did not cook. Neither did her mother. When my great-grandparents money ran out at the end, and people couldn’t afford house servants, my great-grandmother refused to learn to cook. So my very proper great-grandfather learned.
Alicia Kennedy and I got chatting on Twitter this week about food media. I was bemoaning the way the focus shifted, sometime around the launch of Lucky Peach, from home cooking to celebrity chef and restaurant cooking. There’s a whole generation (or maybe two?) behind me who didn’t grow up cooking. Who either microwaved something frozen, or ordered takeout, or went out as a matter of course. Now there’s services like DoorDash (although not here in Livingston) and UberEats as well. There’s a whole cohort of younger folks who seem to equate “cooking” with the performative cooking of TV food shows and restaurants. Even my old standby, “The Splendid Table”, no longer has the call-in feature where folks ask what to do with a tree’s worth of apricots, or how to cook with some ingredient they found on their travels. Francis Lam sounds like a lovely guy, but his background is cookbooks, which are currently centered around chefs and restaurants.
Because making something from what I have has always been the place I turn to when I’m feeling as existentially wobbly as I have these past weeks of hot wind and smoky skies, I pulled out the Elizabeth Luard cookbooks again. I discovered her during pandemic. I can’t remember how? But I found her via her memoir Family Life, and then her two big cookbooks, European Peasant Cookery, and The Old World Kitchen. Luard grew up wealthy but her father died in WW2, and her stepfather came to dislike her and her brother, as if they were cuckoos in the nest of his own children. She married a charming bounder, and found herself with four kids, living in Spain, with almost no money at all. She learned to feed them all from her housekeeper, and became fascinated by traditional peasant cooking even as she could see it disappearing around her. This is not showy cooking. This is not television cooking, or the hottest restaurant, or even a food truck popup. This is the cooking of making something delicious from what you have. In a single pot, over one heat source … because heat is money. The cooking of going out into the garden or to the local market, and seeing what is ready this week. Here, it’s been unseasonably hot and dry after a spring that was characterized by several very late frosts. I’ve been watering, but my garden is only now beginning to produce — and in tiny quantities. A few cherry tomatoes. The first skinny zucchini. Chard at last. Peppers and parsley. That’s about it. Luckily, our local Hutterite colonies are showing up with lovely onions and carrots and green beans and pickling cucumbers. And a family that ran roadside stands in the Boston area for decades retired here, built a greenhouse, and opened a stand for us.
And so, as it was all coming off the rails, I went into the kitchen to rustle up a soup. A simple soup made from local stuff I had on hand. A soup that didn’t have a recipe. A soup I’ve made a million times, in a million different ways. A soup that has saved me more than once over the years.
Sometimes cooking is just cooking. It’s what you do to feed yourself and your loved ones. And it’s what you do over, and over, and over again. Because you can. Because you are still here, even if under skies of smoke, and a hot wind. We’re all still here, and people need something good to eat, something that will feed their souls. For me, that’s always soup.
I’ve been trying really hard not to write about how difficult this summer has been, but I can’t seem to find a way around it. I want to be cheerful, really I do. I’m so tired of being filled with fury and grief.
I thought I knew something about grief, having lost both brothers, one as a child, the other as an adult. I thought I knew about grieving after our father left the country when I was in my twenties, after our mother chose the bottle over us time and time again. I thought I knew how to do this. I thought I had strategies. Strategies that would apply in some useful way to the climate disaster, that I’d be able to use my experience as a metaphor somehow, salvage some nugget of solace.
But I’ve got nothing. I’ve been deep in the weeds of depression and rage for weeks now. My beautiful home has turned into an apocalyptic hellscape and I don’t know how to handle it.
We’ve been socked in under opaque, smoky skies since early June. Some days you can taste the burning forests, other days it’s just this scrim that’s descended over everything. The light’s all weird. It’s glittery. Temperatures are soaring into the high nineties, low 100s, day after day after day. Nights aren’t cooling down. The authorities have closed afternoon and evening fishing across the state, and Yellowstone park has banned fishing entirely. The roads are clogged with tourists, who are camping in all sorts of places that are not actual campsites, and the vibe is one of frantic excess. Driving down valley to walk the dog has become a terror. It’s a two lane highway, and the RVs, or SUVs pulling boat trailers, or farm equipment sometimes slow traffic, which backs up, and then impatient people try passing multiple vehicles. You’ll be driving along and suddenly there’s someone coming right at you, in your lane. I’ve nearly been driven into the ditch more than once.
I’ve been stuck indoors with the blinds drawn against the heat and my ears ring from the constant whir of fans and air conditioners. It’s too hot to do anything outside, including enjoy my garden. The trails are crowded (and Hank is not good with other dogs) so I’ve been walking him along my beloved irrigation ditch, the one I’ve written about before. It’s a good walk for him because he’s in and out of the ditch, which is clean water, and keeps my black dog with the heavy coat cool. There are swallows to chase, and gophers to try to dig up, and sometimes there are big raptors in the cottonwood tree — bald eagles, red tail hawks, osprey. The ditch has been leaking for a while, I think it’s the gophers, and I called all the authorities I could find to report it. But no one has fixed it, and so there’s this swampy area at the top of the cliff along the Yellowstone, just north of the official fishing access and campsite. Sometimes Hank likes a little wallow there, lowering his nether regions into the cool water, rubbing his face in the long wet grass.
Despite the death defying 10 minute drive, it’s been my one place this summer. The one place where I didn’t feel like I was under siege. The one place where I could walk in peace, where even though I can hardly see the mountain range three miles away through the smoke, at least there were birds, and the river, and the burbling ditch. I’ve been saying the Heart Sutra there in the mornings, trying to bring my frantic mind back into some kind of headspace that isn’t all anger and despair.
The other morning, I came down the hill and found the damage in that photo at the top of the post. Someone had unlatched the gate, which is posted “No Motorized Vehicles” and had driven down the two-track, and onto the flat area at the top of the cliff. Because the ditch has been leaking for weeks, it’s swampy, and they clearly got stuck, and tore it all up getting themselves out.
I was heartsick.
I am heartsick.
I go down there in the mornings now and there’s this scar on the land. And it’s not going to go away. Despite the leaky ditch, this is high desert. The tracks from whoever came this spring to clear debris out before they turned the water on, they’re still there. The grasses never bounced back. And now this.
I’ve known climate catastrophe was bearing down on us for as long as I can remember. I moved here in large part because the Bay Area seemed utterly unsustainable. There were too many houses, too many people. There were earthquakes and fires and rolling electrical blackouts even then, 20 years ago when I left. I came to Livingston because there were writers and artists here, because houses were still very cheap, and because with the Yellowstone river and these three mountain ranges, it seemed like someplace the water would hold out.
And now houses are expensive, an entire generation of writers have died, and our snowpack and summer water supplies are dangerously low. The great forests of the western United States are on fire. We’re breathing them in all day long.
I’m trying to roll all this ruin into my Heart Sutra practice. I’m not really a Buddhist but I’ve had a tiny practice for decades, largely based around Gary Snyder’s translation of the Heart Sutra. He gave it to us during the one astonishing class I took from him in grad school, a class on Zen and classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form. In my toughest moments, I’ve turned to the Heart Sutra. Sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness are all likewise like this. I’ve been standing at the diversion gate all summer, looking down the ditch toward the mountains I can hardly see through the smoke, trying to remind myself that, as Snyder once said to Terry Gross in an interview, when she asked him why there were poems about his truck in a book about nature: “It’s all just phenomena Terry.” The ditch and the ruts and the mountain and the Sandhill cranes and the river are all just phenomena. We like some of them better than others, but that’s sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness.
As we hurl into this era of climate catastrophe, I’m trying to accept the ruin. The careless, or perhaps deliberate ruin of those ruts. The ruin of our smoky skies. The ruin of a garden I can hardly keep wet enough to grow anything this summer. The ruin of people so bamboozled by propaganda and greed and fear that they won’t wear a mask in a pandemic, won’t get vaccinated to help stop it, won’t stop coming to our town as tourists and spreading it.
Middle age is a funny space. You were humming along thinking you’re building a life and then you turn around one day and it seems to be built. For better or worse. This is your life now and it’s kind of too late to go start all over. There are relationships and responsibilities and you kind of just are what you are. And then the world changes around you. Your town full of artists becomes a town full of rich people. Your clear skies and fifty mile view of the valley surrounded by mountains fills with opaque smoke and your mountains are now just shapes.
And so you look for small things to cling to.
The wizened black cat who returned after a year. The red tailed hawk scrying into the air over your dog walk. A chance encounter with an old friend, the discussion circling around as it does these days to “where would we go?” We’ve had Christmas together for nearly 20 years. Where would we go? Who would know us like that?
This too is phenomena. These tiny moments. Sometimes they’re enough. Sometimes we just have to have faith that they’re enough.
“But where would we go?” It’s the question that keeps coming up in conversations. Our funky little town has gone the way of all the other funky little towns in the West. Housing prices went through the roof last year, and we’ve seen an influx of both really aggressive dumb white Trump people, and less toxic but nonetheless annoying rich retirees and second homeowners.
No one who works here can afford to live here anymore.
I ranted a little bit about it on the bird site this morning, and got responses ranging from Ugh to “you should move because it’s like a bad marriage and is never going to get better.” Which also, ugh. I was freaked out because I’d gone to the Post Office, the office supply store, and the bougie bakery our food bank started to raise funds (and to bake for food banks across the state). No one was wearing a mask. We’re still getting 7-8 new infections a DAY. The CDC site lists Park County in red, as HIGH transmissions. Only 41% of the county is vaccinated, and it’s probably not going to get much better than that because all the evangelicals and Trump people and ex-cult members (CUT, it was an actual, gigantic cult that mostly went bust about 10 years ago) “don’t believe” in vaccinations.
I moved here in 2002 because I found a cheap house, there was a good internet connection so I could bring my job, and there were writers here. I moved here because there are three mountain ranges and a valley so beautiful that I remembered it from years earlier, when I’d stopped to look agape at Sandhill Cranes, when I called my brother Patrick from a campground pay phone in Yellowstone. “No wonder all the writers live there,” I said. “It’s more beautiful than you can imagine.”
I stayed after Patrick died because I found a real community, full of interesting people, who absolutely carried me through that disaster. I also stayed because even though the writer and artist types were fairly bougie, there was also a solid core of plumbers and carpenters and ranchers, of hunting and fishing guides, of small business owners. Houses here are small, it was a railroad town. There were still railroad folks here, union working people who’d been royally screwed over when Burlington Northern bought out the Great Northern railway. It wasn’t Bozeman. It wasn’t fancy. It was a funky, slightly run down town with the kinds of interesting people who like things on the shaggy side.
Over the 20 years I’ve been here, there have been booms and busts. Housing prices went way up before 2008, then there was a wave of foreclosures. We have a serious meth problem that waxes and wanes. We have the highest suicide rate in the state with the highest rate in the nation. Most kids qualify for free school meals. But many of the same retirees I complain about have also brought huge energy and drive with them. They’ve built a food system that integrates local food producers, a community garden, a Farm to Schools program, the Food Resource Center and the local restaurant economy to make sure that no one goes hungry. There are community Thanksgiving and Christmas meals at the Civic Center that bring together church groups and elderly folks who live alone, and single moms with kids, and just regular folks who like to stop by because it’s nice.
Which is why the aggro dudes in the pickup trucks with the Trump flags are so upsetting. There are a lot of them. Even the ones not sporting the flags have taken to tailgating me when I drive down valley to walk the dog in the morning. Something about a lady of a certain age, driving a Subaru, wearing a straw hat (I sunburn) really enrages them. This, this fury, this is new.
I spent a lot of the pandemic looking at little houses in the French countryside, houses that are nice — fixed up, with little gardens. Houses that are substantially less expensive than what I could sell this one for. I could sell this house, move to France, find a house in a village. Walk to the bakery in the morning, build a new garden, drive myself mad trying to navigate French bureacracy. Retire a few years early, live off the money from this house, write.
But Himself isn’t going to move to France. I’d be alone. My French is terrible, which is sort of charming from a tourist, but making friends in a foreign country is no small matter. I’m good on my own, and while the idea has its appeal, it’s not going to happen. I love Himself. He loves me. I was single long enough to know how rare that is, how odd we both are, how good it is that we found one another.
“The thing is,” he said to me earlier in the pandemic when I was really freaking out, when I was worried we were headed for a Bosnian-war-level breakdown, when I told him that if it happened, I knew which surly white man neighbor was coming for my house, “the thing is, we’re range bound. Where are we going to go?”
He meant it in the ecological sense. We see animal herds here who are range bound — the Greater Yellowstone Area is pretty big compared to other chunks of wild land in the country, but our elk herd is always going to be restricted by the fact that there’s an interstate, and a lot of fenced agricultural land between here and the next range.
Where are we going to go?
We’ve all seen the stories from across the country. City dwellers moving out, moving back to be near family, moving to the suburbs so the kids will have a yard now that they can’t be in the parks, folks moving “upstate” in whatever part of the country they’re in. And it’s only going to get worse. Climate change is upon us. I’m typing in my living room, with the shades drawn against the glaring day out there. It went from snow to 100 degrees in two days. My window AC units are both going. There are fans blowing. I’ve been spending an hour or so watering in the morning trying to keep the seedlings from burning up.
All indications are that this fire season in the West is going to be worse than last year. Himself and I were hoping he’d come meet me in October after a writer’s workshop I’m doing by Point Reyes, so we could drive the Oregon coast on the way home. We’re holding off buying tickets until we have some idea how fire season is shaping up. Driving up a coast on fire doesn’t sound like much fun. Crossing states on fire sounds like a nightmare.
The pandemic was climate change (no matter what nonsense they’re currently spouting about Chinese labs). The pandemic is just the first wave. I chose Livingston all those years ago not only for the writers and painters, but because it was out of the way of the rising seas, because it had a river and three mountain ranges. I figured the water would last my lifetime at least. We’ll see.
Where would we go? isn’t just a personal question, but at this point, it’s a question for humanity. We’ve well and truly shat our own bed. The oceans are full of plastic. Soils are depleted and the great rainforests of Brazil are falling under the axe. These rising temperatures are because we pulled stored carbon out of any crevice in which we could find it for industry and cars and fucking synchilla sweaters. We’ve burned up the world for clothes dryers and to fly oranges from Australia out of season and to drag full-sized SUVs behind RVs through the Western National Parks so we don’t have to sleep in hotel rooms. I was pretty hopeful before the pandemic, but seeing what whiny babies people are, how deeply selfish, how unconcerned the general population seems to be about anyone else, how unwilling people, mostly comfortable white people, are to sacrifice anything to save the lives of their fellow citizens. Well, I’m pretty depressed about that.
And so, since there’s no where to go, since we own our houses at this point, and renting the cabin to vacationers is Himself’s retirement plan, there’s nothing to do but settle in and follow the hard advice that Gary Snyder gave us all so many years ago: that the most radical thing you can do is to stay home. Stay home and take care of your range. Make peace with your neighbors. Try to make the place you are a little bit better than it is now.
And because he’s Snyder, he also means sit down, and tend your own inner home. Sit with your self. Your whole self, good and bad.
The engine of American consumer culture runs on the idea that boundaries are to be broken, that you should strive always for more, for better, to optimize your performance, to go everywhere, to refuse to accept no as an answer.
But the world, as it will, is telling us something different. If there’s one thing I learned from living through the cancer epidemic of the 70s that killed my youngest brother and several others in our very wealthy suburb on the shores of Lake Michigan, and the AIDs epidemic in the 80s and 90s that killed my beloved Uncle Jack, my college friend Michael, and half the men in my NYC neighborhood, it’s that the world has actual limits. Despite the television nonsense about American exceptionalism and Elon Musk’s space dreams and consumerist madness about how “you deserve” a trip to Disneyland or Cancun or on one of those hellscape cruise ships, the world has limits. We’ve just refused, as a spoiled, late-empire society to acknowledge them.
I live in a beautiful place that is currently beset by some really dangerous nonsense. I’m angry that there is this cohort now who find it entertaining to frighten me. Because they do.
But then I remind myself that there are nice neighbors across the alley, and although I haven’t seen them in ages, I still have solid friends here, people I love. If the transmission numbers come down, if the vaccination numbers go up, maybe I’ll see them at Happy Hour again. There are chickens and a dog and two cats who are trying to learn to get along. There’s Himself, the unexpected gift of a person who loves and gets me, and I him. There’s this garden. I can’t even manage the Post Office right now without losing my nut, but I can manage to keep some tomatoes alive, and the masses of poppies I planted in the front look like they might be fabulous, and if worse comes to worst, I can live off eggs and greens. I might not be going out there for a while, but I’ll be back here, cultivating my garden, doing what I can to make this range to which I’m bound as fruitful as it can be.
I hit a writerly speed bump the past couple of weeks. This happens. I’ve made a lot of progress on this book project since New Years, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. There’s a shape I can see. There are several new essays that need honing, and some older ones that need reworking, and it feels like a narrative trajectory is shaping up. I’ve been sending things out, and a couple of them have caught, and a few have come back and for the first time in years that process does not feel life or death, does not feel like a referendum on my ability to do this thing. But about two weeks ago, I hit a blank. There just wasn’t anything in the tank. This too, used to freak me out, but now, I know not to fight it, know that when I find myself looking at the cursor, or dicking around on Twitter too much, that means it’s time to go do something else for a while.
So I’ve been out in the garden getting that up and running for the year. There are greens and onions and parsley all coming up already. In the front, the bulbs I planted last fall are blooming, and the cherry trees are getting ready to burst into blossom, and I’m starting to see some seedlings sprouting from the buckets of wildflower and poppy seeds I’ve strewn out there. And I’ve been reading fiction again! I’ve been tearing through Maggie O’Farrell’s novels (while I wait for Hamnet to come out in paperback because I read it on the kindle, and I want to read it in my hands). And sewing. A lot of it is utility sewing — more pants (I have a pants template that is easy, fits my odd bod, and only takes a couple of hours to run up), and a couple of simple long skirts. But I also made a jacket. The Merchant and Mills Foreman Jacket. It’s a menswear pattern, but I made it in a lovely soft robin’s-egg blue linen, and I love it. I told my bestie that I’d made the Monty Don jacket of my dreams and she said “It’s a garden show! Not fashion!” But really, that’s my favorite look — rumpled, comfortable, lots of pockets. So now I have my much shortened Monty Don jacket in soft blue, and a bunch of new pants and long skirts in brown and olive linen, and I’m ready for spring.
The past couple of years it’s people talking and writing about making art who have been the most useful when I get stuck. I think its because of the way contemporary art has shifted it’s focus from the object, to the practice. I haven’t sold a book in decades, and I really only publish a couple of pieces a year, so my production of literary objects is … sparse. But I write, and make things and garden pretty much every day. If I have a practice, this is it. The Talk Art podcast, for instance, is a joy. Driving down valley to walk the dog I listen to Russell Tovey and Robert Diament talking to artists about what they make, and how they make it, and what they want to make. It’s very joyful, and manages to almost never be about the commerce of art.
It’s always been the commerce side of writing that I’ve found impossible. I got paid so little for my first book that it was very very clear that I was not going to be able to make any kind of a living as a writer. And I sold it to a big publisher. When Patrick died three years after my novel had come out, I was about half way through a new novel, which I abandoned. It was about horse people and class, and my grandmother and in that moment of crisis it seemed absolutely dead, and meaningless, and I put it away. It seemed clear to me that I was going to have to write about the experience of losing him, of losing a second brother as an adult after we’d survived the death of our toddler brother as children. Patrick and I had been dining out for years on stories about our family, about the bad behavior of both of our parents, and at that point, in the early 2000s, the misery memoir was just gaining steam. People were telling me this might be the time, the time for that story. But I was such a wreck, and couldn’t see any trajectory at all.
We used to have a little film festival during the winter on Sunday afternoons, and that winter after Patrick died, the Andy Goldsworthy movie, Rivers and Tides, came to town. Goldsworthy went out every day to make something, and he didn’t know what he was going to make until he did it. There’s a point in the movie where he sort of bellows that at his wife (in a funny way, not in an art monster way). And he made things that essentially could not be sold. Icicles stuck together that then melted. Leaves pinned together with thorns, and suspended from twigs that eventually showered down upon his head. Rocks piled in shapes. That they couldn’t be sold brought me a real kind of joy. That he was just out there making things. For a while I had this Goldsworthy-inspired practice where I pulled a slip of paper with a topic on it out of a jar every day, and wrote about it. I wasn’t striving for a particular word count. And if it was too painful a topic, I put it back for another day. It was a really useful practice that year, when I was so sad, and missed my brother so much, and was tasked with rebuilding myself as someone who didn’t have siblings, someone alone. I generated a lot of content that way, content I’ve used over the years in various forms.
I’ve written some other things since then, but I keep coming back to the idea of writing that memoir. It became a sort of white whale. I need to write the memoir. I need to get it out of the way. After a really great workshop with Alexander Chee a couple of summers ago, I came home and wrote out the whole narrative of the trauma that was losing Patrick. It’s not bad. I got it down, and said the things I needed to say. But it’s still not the book I want to write — in part, because of the commerce aspect. Just as I was so panicked about clearing up Patrick’s so-called estate all those years ago, just as I recoiled at the prospect of having to sell all his belongings in the street, I discovered in the process of writing that material out that I don’t want to sell our story, don’t want to have to go on the road and answer questions about it.
And it’s fine! I wrote it all. I found that out. It was great practice.
All that work was not for nought. I have all that content, and a lot of it is coming into these essays that I do want to write — essays about grief and climate change, trauma on the private and planetary level, gardens and land art and representation and the practices by which we save our own lives, and perhaps, by sharing them, teach other folks how to save their lives as well. Essays about what it means, as my old Beloit College prof John Wyatt used to say, to live a good life.
This is my great-great aunt, Marie Plamondon in her WW1 Women’s Auxiliary uniform. For a while, I used her as my Twitter avatar, from this photo. She grew up in Chicago, in a Catholic family of some wealth, with two sisters and two brothers. Her parents were industrialists who died on the Lusitania when she was in her twenties, a death that rocked the entire family. They were close. They loved one another, and Marie and Charlotte, my great-grandmother and namesake, were close companions their entire life. Years later, when the settlement came through from the German government, Marie inherited more than her siblings because she was a spinster, who would have relied more heavily than they did on her parents support.
As you can see, Marie was not exactly gender conforming. Although she “came out” to society (no not came out like that) as did her two sisters, she was one of those women who usually dressed in menswear on the top, with a skirt and heavy brogues on the bottom. I’m sure they were tailored. She was wealthy, and although I don’t remember her, I do remember her chauffeur, Doc. He was a very tall, very elegant black man. There was a reason she was known not just to us, but around Chicago as “The Duchess.”
Along with her cousin Mary Agnes Amberg, she started The Madonna Center on the southwest side. It was a settlement house along the lines of Hull House, but specifically aimed at the Catholic immigrant communities that were coming into the city at that time. The Catholic Church was worried that Hull House would make Protestants out of people by helping them, so they stepped up. Marie and Mary Agnes spent nearly fifty years together, and although they were proper Catholic religious spinsters, it was pretty clear to everyone that they were also a couple.
I’m always cautious about ascribing contemporary definitions of sexuality to those who came before us, but my aunt Molly who remembers them well is very clear that they loved one another deeply. And that yes, it did not appear to be a platonic love.
The Duchess was a beloved member of the family, as was her brother The Colonel (they had a thing for titles, that generation). The Colonel was a lifelong bachelor, an actual colonel, and my grandmother’s favorite person in the world. There are stacks of letters between them from her earliest childhood when he was in WW1 all the way through to his death. He taught her to ride, let her play polo with his cavalry units, and they adored one another. We were going through pictures when she was quite old, and it was clear to those of us who are younger that the Colonel was not unlucky in love, he was a very handsome man who appeared to have had a number of deeply loved male companions in life. “He had terrible psoriasis,” my grandmother said, to explain his bachelorhood. My aunt and I burst out laughing.
I’ve been thinking about them a lot these past weeks as people have been yammering on about trans kids, and trying to pass laws about gender conformity. The North Carolina law seems particularly insidious to me because it demands that those who work with children police them for “symptoms of gender dysphoria, gender nonconformity, or otherwise demonstrates a desire to be treated in a manner incongruent with the minor’s sex.” Should they see such symptoms, they are required to notify the child’s parents in writing.
Here’s another picture of The Duchess. One of my favorites. This is The Duchess up to her elbows in her own Model A. She and her sister, my great-grandmother, were two of the first women to get driving licenses. Their mother and her sister Kate also sued a pile of male relatives their father had brought over from Ireland, including a priest, for the right to inherit their own farm. They’re two of the women who established that in the State of Illinois, unlike back in the old country, women could inherit property. And they were the ones who wore lovely clothes. Mary caught a rich husband when her sister didn’t want to go up to Chicago on the train, and sent Mary instead. Mary and Charles had just celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary when the Lusitania went down with them onboard.
My grandmother was born in 1911, when children were sort of considered their own gender until say 7, the age of reason, when you got a first communion. And because she was frustrated all her life by the things she couldn’t do because of her gender: compete at polo when it was a huge public sport, take that position Northwestern offered in the medical school, take over her father’s company when her only brother was killed in WW2 — she raised me not to be girly, and told me my whole life to go to school, get a profession, have my own money so I wouldn’t have to rely on a man. When I was 40 or so, she gave me a family ring and said “there, now you have a huge diamond and you didn’t even have to marry anyone for it.” I spent the best bits of my childhood on her farm, the only girl running a gang of younger brothers and boy cousins, riding ponies, shooting BB guns, and generally getting in mild versions of trouble. It was a shock at ten or so when I had to start wearing a shirt.
I would have been busted had that North Carolina bill been on the books during my adolescence and college years. I was very much Not Girly. I liked boys clothes, and had a series of thrifted mens jackets I wore for years. I came back from a summer of camping and field biology in the BWCA with furry legs and armpits, wearing a pair of old army pants I loved because I didn’t have to carry a bag, I could put everything in the pockets. I was terrible at flirting, and when I did wear something girly I usually wore it as a kind of costume.
We were the “Free to Be You and Me” generation. The ones whose parents dressed us in gender-neutral primary colors. The ones who played with gender neutral toys. The ones set loose in the woods to go amuse ourselves until dinner.
I thought the whole point was that we were supposed to get past all that gender nonsense. We were supposed to be able to meet one another as equals. I remember being so upset by one of my dear guy friends in college, someone I loved dearly, and always kind of hoped would like me “that way” but who didn’t, when he fell for a girl from my hometown who was dumb, and blonde, and had big boobs, and who ticked off all the boxes of wealthy preppy girldom at that time. I was so disappointed in him. How could he? With someone like that?
It’s no surprise I was single until halfway through my forties. The family thought of me as the spinster. In a lot of Irish Catholic families it’s sort of understood that one daughter will not marry, will take care of her parents and everyone else. My mother both wanted me to be this spinster (she said, not long ago “I’m so glad you didn’t have children, so you have more time for me.”), and resented the qualities in me that make one a spinster: bossiness, ability to take charge, not really caring that much what other people think. Alarmingly, I also recently saw this list as often-overlooked symptoms of autism in women. Which brings up all kinds of ideas about how the world thinks about both gender and disability, if one definition of disability is not caring much about gender. But I digress. By the time I entered my early 40s, still single, clearly not destined for motherhood, I was reconciling myself with spinsterhood. I had a house I was on the way to owning. My best friend had 5 kids, including a set of twins, so there were always kids who needed tending. I had friends and a community. I had my own money. I was lonely, but pretty much okay.
I would probably still be single, and an official spinster, had I not met Himself, a guy who loves smart mouthy women, who isn’t interested at all in girliness, and whose ex-wife was bisexual. (I knew her first, and she’s so cool it’s one reason I pursued him.) I’m, as the kids would say, cis het — but for at least a decade I’m pretty sure the older ladies in my family thought I must have a secret girlfriend hidden away somewhere. I was single for so long I was waiting for one of them to bring it up, tell me it was okay, I could bring her home. Sadly, there was no secret girlfriend, or boyfriend — just long years of being single, dating unavailable men or living with my brother. And then he died and I was left in the howling wasteland of being alone, and had to consciously go looking for a partner. I was lucky to be in Livingston, where as one of my exes likes to say “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” I wasn’t good at being alone. I’m grateful every day that I found someone who not only loves me, but who doesn’t want to live in my house, and who is dedicated and reliable but doesn’t want to get married. We’re one of those side-by-side couples.
That we’ve come to a place as a society where gender is being reinscribed in these proscriptive ways hurts my ancient feminist heart. I’m one of the people who had hoped the gay rights movement would free us ALL from marriage, would crack society open to new ways of building families, of building relationships, of building communities.
And that the larger world is piling on these kids who are so vulnerable, it kills me. I remember in the 80s when I had guy friends in college who really really didn’t want to be gay. They thought that meant they’d never have a family, or a stable life. One of my students, who was struggling with transition last spring, got impatient with me when I was talking about it. “But being gay is normal,” they said. “Being trans isn’t!”
How far we’ve come and yet how we have not. Coming out in the 80s was terrifying. My circle of friends were nerdy good students, ambitious kids who were not rebels, who hadn’t done drugs in high school and who just wanted what everyone else wanted — a profession, a reasonably successful grownup life — but who had to go home and tell their parents they were gay. As AIDS was emerging? Before anyone ever thought gay people would wind up with marriages, kids, houses in the suburbs. It meant breaking your parents’ hearts.
I hate gender policing of even the mildest kind. I have no proscriptions here, nothing to say other than we’re all fucking weird in our own ways. Imposing conformity has never worked — and I suspect that’s the point. It’s not supposed to “work” — it’s not supposed to bring anyone back into the fold — it’s supposed to scapegoat, and alienate, and bring together a group of people by uniting them in their hatred of someone different. Someone they can expel from the community and thereby think they’ve gotten their purity back.
So if there’s any point to outing my long-dead family members, it’s just to point out that the non-gender-conforming have always been with us. They’re part of us. They’re people we love. If you or your kids or someone you love is not gender conforming, or someone is telling them they don’t exist, or they’re just looking for attention, or whatever bullshit people are on about them with, you are free to wield Marie’s WW1 uniform picture at them. Sexuality and gender have always existed on a spectrum, and during times like these, those of us who are not under direct attack need to circle the wagons around our vulnerable loved ones, remind them they’re loved, and fight back against anyone who’d suggest they’re not.
I leave you with The Duchess, at Christmas with the whole family in probably 1964. She’s in the foreground. What I love about this photo is how ordinary it is. Everyone is hanging out. Together. On Christmas. Including our odd but loved Aunt, in her men’s suit, short hair, and clunky shoes, who is no doubt, bossing people around because that is her nature.
Himself has a stupendous collection of garage sale art. He grew up in an antique-y family, his mother had booths in group shops for years, and he remembers childhood weekends spent in the back of the station wagon, way too early in the morning, heading off to find treasure. The art collection has themes. For example, one room in the detached motel bungalow at the cabin is birds, and the other is vintage western travel swag. The main room at the cabin has a collection of three-legged ungulates, mostly elk, including a needlepointed scene I found at our now-closed Senior Center thrift shop. They had a rule, he and his ex-wife — they couldn’t spend more than a buck for unframed paintings, five bucks for framed ones. The needlepoint cost me ten bucks, but you know, inflation. They weren’t “collecting outsider art” — they were finding cool things to put on their walls.
For decades, he’s done construction work, mostly renovations, and for a long time he sort of specialized in modernizing old cabins. “Why,” he keeps asking me, as the person who grew up among the wealthy, “why do rich people all want exactly the same house?”
You know what he means — out here, the standard-issue second home or retirement home is usually log, dyed that weird orange color, with a green metal roof. There’s a pointy “great room” window, a deck, and usually something that looks like a barn but actually houses an RV, various 4-wheelers, and at least 2 SUVs. Inside the place will be furnished with oversized peeled-log furniture upholstered in fake Pendleton blanket textiles. Often there are chandeliers made from antlers.
You see the same thing with people dressing alike — the Instagram blonde mommies with a naked toddler on a hip, wearing that flat brim hat and photographed wearing a skirt and boots and feeding the chickens. The fly fishermen who all wear exactly the same shirt. The sporty Bozeman yuppies who pay too much money for the Patagonia jacket of the year because that’s what their people wear.
I really noticed this a few years ago when I started making my own clothes. I loved the clothes I was making, and for the first time felt comfortable in my skin. I’m short, have never been skinny, and most ready-to-wear never fit me right. I have a core set of 5 or 6 patterns I turn to for everyday, although I’m feeling like this summer I might shake a few of them up. They’re shapes that look good on me, that are comfortable, and that allow me to do all the things I want to do every day: go for a walk, work in the garden, curl up in a chair and read a book, sit at my desk and do my day job, ride a bike. Even, for those couple of years I was at MSU, teach.
I started sewing again in my late 40s because I kept seeing simple clothes in nice fabrics in fancy stores that were wildly too expensive for me. And so I started making them. I found some good fabric sources online. I bought a nice basic Singer that does zigzag and buttonholes. As I sewed more regularly, I got better at it, and figured out how to modify a pattern, learned how to keep pockets from gapping, learned how to re-cut a garment that didn’t work like I wanted it to.
Himself has a saying: “that’s just lifestyle stuff.” Meaning, that’s just something someone else told you you should want and so you’re chasing it to make yourself look hip, or important, or wealthy, or whatever. The someone else is the giant machine of consumer capitalism, one that’s infiltrated every part of our lives, and like all good structural systems, made itself largely invisible. Consumer capitalism needs for us to keep chasing the hit, over and over and over. Buying stuff then throwing it out to buy different stuff because styles have changed. And styles have changed so you’ll buy new stuff. And go into debt to do it.
In order to keep doing this, capitalism needs to convince us we’re helpless. That we’re helpless even at the level of what we want. Hence the army of “influencers” to tell us what the color of the year is, or the 10 hottest trends in interior design or what your outdoor patio “room” should look like.
Capitalism needs to convince us that we can’t do it ourselves. That cooking is too hard, so we should buy prepared food or order out. That sewing simple clothing or curtains or throw pillows is some mysterious process that won’t work and you’ll look weird and you can’t do it yourself. When you can. When you can actually make something you’d like, and enjoy making it, and then wear it for years. That you can’t pull together a room from things you found at garage sales or inherited from your grandparents or found at junk shops because that won’t be a “look”.
One of my hopes as we come out of the pandemic is that people discover they’re capable of figuring out what they actually like. I love my living room, but it’s a cobbled together collection of furniture, about half of which is hand-me-downs, and family stuff, and piles of books, and some nice pieces of art, and some funny framed things that Himself has given me over the years. It’s warm and cozy and a tiny bit cluttered and it’s exactly how I want it.
Or take my backyard. Now that we’re coming out of pandemic, I’m occasionally having people over, and we’re at that stage of the year where the backyard looks terrible. I mulched the beds in straw over the winter, and it looks very messy right now. The chickens are churning it up, and while there’s a few daffodils poking through, mostly its a lot of straw and my raised-bed veg garden that doesn’t have anything growing in it yet. My apple trees got hit hard by fireblight a few years ago and I didn’t cut them down and start over. One tree has a big dead section, but is regenerating just like one did on the other side of the yard. One tree is dead, with suckers. I grafted a varietal I like better onto a couple of the suckers. We’ll just have to wait and see whether they turn into a real tree. For now, the dead skeleton holds up the twinkle lights I like in the evening when I want to sit out there and read.
Livingston has shifted from being the town full of aging hippies and artists it was when I moved here 20 years ago (there has also always been about half the town made up of conservative ranchers and church people. I’ve heard stories of the epic fights that would break out between the hippie bar and the rancher bar back in the day) to a town with a much bigger contingent of rich retirees and second home owners. And a couple of people from my past, people with money, people whose aesthetic is still very much based on what Himself would call lifestyle have moved here. It has me feeling preemptively defensive about my “messy” garden and my “weird” clothes. I fled that world a long time ago, but the critical voice of the snob is one I can hear in my head without having to try very hard.
Resistance can be tricky. I forget that most people haven’t spent their adult life trying to resist, trying to escape the constraints of corporate jobs and culture. I’ve worked corporate jobs for 20 years, but as a kind of corner case. I’ve worked at home full time. I’ve been a contractor for most of it. I’ve gotten laid off because I had no interest in management or climbing a ladder. I just wanted enough money to pay off my debts, put something away so I don’t starve as an old woman, and have enough to get by day to day. I kept hoping I’d find a clear patch where I could get some traction on the writing, find a way to make it a career. That part didn’t work out, but I did get a house and a garden and a life and a nice partner and some chickens and a dog. I’m getting to where there’s a clear space for the writing. It’s all good.
What I didn’t get, because I did not want it, and never wanted to chase it, was the kind of wealth I grew up around. The kind of wealth that is deeply invested in having the right kind of house in the right kind of place with the right kind of decoration and then showing it off with that slightly hysterical tinge, see? See? Look at our fabulous life?! That some of those folks are showing up here, and bringing that energy with them, is … problematic.
The culture wants us to be consumers, not participants. I love my space, and my odd clothes, but the imposed conformity of capitalism, and the way it seeks to divide and label us by the things we wear and have and drive can leave a person feeling a tiny bit exposed. If I have a utopian dream, it’s a world where we can all be our inner weirdos all the time. That they don’t have to be hidden inner weirdos anymore. Where it’s the ones who don’t have a freak flag to fly who are considered odd.
We’re still on the tippy edge of fascism here as a nation, and conformity is a huge part of that. I think it’s why it bothers me so much that the people who can now afford to move here are the ones who want the same houses. Who want their house to look like everyone else’s, who want to wear the uniform, whether it’s jeans with a crease, boots and a cowboy hat, or the fly fisherman’s shirt, or the blonde girls with the flat-brim hat, tow-headed baby and the boots/skirt combo. There’s such an urge to conform, to choose a lifestyle, and for so many people those lifestyles are connected to a brand. “I just love that Patagonia lifestyle” someone commented on an instagram post my cousin put up for Father’s Day, talking about what a great dad her husband is. He had a Patagonia hat on. Talk about missing the point.
One thing I’m working toward in this longer collection I’m trying to pull together is to articulate why I believe that making things is an act of resistance. All those paintings Himself collected, none of those people thought they were going to be great artists, but you can feel the joy in making something in their work. My garden doesn’t look like one of those English garden shows, and for much of the year it’s really kind of a mess, but for a couple of months in the middle of the summer there are roses and fruit trees and a vegetable garden and hollyhocks and it’s glorious. There’s so much creative energy in the world that’s just gotten channeled into shopping these past few decades, and among the things we’re going to have to do to save ourselves from drowning in our own filth on this planet is to learn to stop fucking shopping. One way to do that is to learn how to make something. Learn to take joy in the process. Learn to like being terrible at something again. Make a painting or a cake or plant some peas or knit a pair of mittens. Take something you already have and reuse it. And if you know how to do something, teach someone else.
Of all the joyful things that have happened in the years I’ve lived here, maybe the best is all those holidays my nieces came over here to cook with me. We’d figure out a project, and hang out, and talk about their lives, and it’s one reason we have real relationships now that they’re starting to be adults. One texted me yesterday, about Easter desserts. We talked about desserts we’ve made over the years, brainstormed what she wanted to cook for her group of folks in LA, talked about a short story she’d written, and what she wanted to do about school next year. Maybe people bond like that over shopping, but I don’t, and that our relationship is built on making stuff is one of the great joys of my childless middle age. So let your freak flag fly, and let it fly on a clothesline, and let’s all try to come out of this pandemic a little smarter than when we went into it.
The spring onions have come in, the chickens are laying again and I’ve been thinking about bodies. My yard is full of bodies — chickens and cats and the dog and myself. Himself, my love, likes the cats, puts up with the dog, but really does not like the chickens at all. Mostly because they shit in the yard. I clean up after them, but chickenshit is a factor in this space. It doesn’t bother me, but I grew up in horse barns, and mucking out was one of my first childhood chores.
The neighborhood is full of bodies too — the weather has warmed up and all the little kids are OUTSIDE and they are YELLING. After a long hiatus in which we didn’t have any littles in the neighborhood, we now have Roman and Ruby next door who are 7 and 4, and Addison and Emerson who are older, 10 & 12 maybe? and who are here on and off when they’re with their dad. There are twins at each end of the alley — one set who are about 8 and one set who are about 2. Across the street there’s 2 houses full of little people. The neighborhood is alive in the afternoons and early evenings with pent up kids playing, and sometimes, a wee witching hour meltdown. More bodies. The 2 year old twins are in love with my prodigal cat, and after a year in lockdown, helping his mom by carrying a sleepy toddler back down the alley was an endorphin hit that nearly knocked me over.
I keep chickens because I like the eggs, and I like their company. I’d rather have chickens than a lawn (they’re hell on grass). They cluck around out there, they dig up bugs, the dog occasionally runs through and sets them all into a panic and I yell at him for it. There’s a rhythm to our days together, that, along with the two to three eggs they produce, feels like we have a little collective going here. I feed and water them and clean out their coop. I pull the Buff Orpington who goes broody off the nesting box and sometimes I have to put her in chicken jail for a little while so her hormones will cool down and she’ll stop trying to hatch sterile eggs. I bring them treats and they stand on the 2 x 4 in a line and sometimes they want to be petted. They cluck around and talk to me all day long. It’s good. I like them, and I like their little bodies out there, and I like taking care of them.
And the spring onions — those spring onions mean the earth really has turned. They’re a different kind of body altogether. They were here when I bought the house, and for a couple of years I didn’t pay attention to keeping them in the vegetable garden and I nearly lost them altogether. There was just one wee patch left in the perennial bed. The original onions. So I let them grow out, until the cluster of tiny bulbs formed on the top of the sturdiest of the onion greens, then I replanted those in the raised beds. Now, 10 years later, I always have some of these onions in the garden. There are older ones, that get a little woody but they reproduce by splitting off at the bulb, and feathery clusters of new ones coming up where a cluster of bulbils fell last fall. They’re semi-perennial and semi-wild and so pungent that they’ve ruined me for store scallions. That they’ve started to come up through the straw cover, that the chickens are starting to lay again, that the bulbs are coming up, and that we’re starting to get vaccinations has me thinking a lot about bodies.
A year ago, we went into lockdown. It was surprising how quickly it happened. I remember telling my students that even if the university didn’t shut down, we were going remote for the rest of the semester. I remember my tech job shutting down before the university did. I remember people on the department hallway who thought we were coming back from spring break. The lockdown started with people bewildered, and frightened, and so cooped up they started growing scallion bottoms in glasses of water. We got locked down and suddenly having a way to grow some of your own food seemed less like a hobby, and more like something we should know how to do. I remember a conference years ago where I heard Donna Haraway, the feminist scholar discussing “practices of memory” the keeping alive of manual skills that the culture was trying to convince us were no longer needed. As we went into lockdown I was glad of the chickens, and the garden, and knowing how to cook and sew and knit.
Its been a long year of people warring over which bodies count. Once it became clear that black and brown people were dying at higher rates than white people, an entire social and political class of white people decided masks were a hoax, and the virus was a hoax and grew increasingly confrontational and violent towards those who were following the global health guidelines and trying to protect themselves and their loved ones. Which bodies count? Then the murder, on camera, of George Floyd that set off a worldwide uprising to proclaim that yes, Black Lives Matter. Black bodies matter. This shouldn’t be controversial, but this is the United States, a nation founded on not just the genocide of native peoples but the active erasure of that genocide. This is the United States, a nation funded by the work of enslaved peoples, people who only counted as bodies. This is the United States, where working women discovered this year that it is impossible to keep your job while also supervising children who are trying to attend school remotely. Women’s financial security across the board took a gigantic hit this year.
Which bodies count? Which bodies count as people, and which ones don’t?
Even to ask this question is to espouse a belief that we’re not all the same bodies, all the same people. I grew up Catholic, which had its problems, but there’s something useful in attesting each week to being one body in Christ. We were very lefty Catholics, so the “in Christ” part was less of an evangelical call than it was a metaphor. We were all one. We were all the same.
Mornings I go out and collect a couple of eggs, which I usually eat for breakfast. Hank dog often gets one on his kibble. Hank and I and the chickens are all one body in that sense. We’re also one in that we’re breathing in the same biome, one that includes chicken (and dog and cat) shit. The chicken litter gets composted and goes on the vegetable garden, where the onions come back to life as the sun warms up the straw.
I’m not brave about the people who won’t wear masks. I’m afraid of the systems collapsing around us. The whole world shut down for a year, something I never even considered as a possibility. It feels like we’re all the big ship in the Suez canal. Everyone is stuck. The angry fearful white people who won’t or can’t think of themselves as part of a bigger whole are stuck in that position of anger and fear. They scare the hell out of me, which is probably why I’ve been building this tiny ark in the backyard.
We’ve all been humming along like the global container trade. It’s so normalized that no one even thinks about it until a gigantic ship gets caught sideways in a narrow canal and suddenly the shiny marvel of just-in-time supply chains is clogged. We were all humming along taking cruises and travelling all over the world on fossil fuel jets and commuting in individual cars and believing the tech bros who told us our experience of life should be seamless, that we deserved everything we want, right now.
We’re at some sort of pause point, and it remains to be seen which way we go. As for me, I’ll be here in the backyard with my friendly chickens, shoveling shit.