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Theory of Minor Demons

Theory of Minor Demons


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

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

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

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

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

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

Minor Demons, he reminded me.

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

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

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

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

On Quitting my Day Job

On Quitting my Day Job



I took the leap.

I gave notice at my day job.

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

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

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

There is no time to waste.

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

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

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

And now it’s time to leap.

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Woodpile as Life Lesson …

Woodpile as Life Lesson …



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

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

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

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

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

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

My lizard brain is convinced the Wood Will Run Out.

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

Hulk Baby Jesus

Hulk Baby Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

Best Food Writing 2010

Best Food Writing 2010

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

From Kim Carlson at Culinate:

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

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

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


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

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

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

Okay, enough celebrating. Back to work!

Roger Ebert, My New Hero

Roger Ebert, My New Hero

photo credit: Chris Jones, Esquire Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a Boy!

It’s a Boy!

My dear friend Nina, she of the miracle-twins who restored our collective belief that things might work out in this world, has had her fifth baby this afternoon. The first boy! He’s a big beautiful healthy boy, and she’s just fine, and now I’m slightly crazed to be here in Montana while they’re all in LA. Yargh.

And I have to say, as much as I love her four girls, my “fake children” as I like to call them — it’s a very girly house over there. I’m sort of psyched to have a boy to play with — I’m famous among those girls for my inability to do hair. I came from a family of seven boy cousins to me and my one girl cousin Jennifer — I thought I was a boy until I was about ten. So a little boy! What fun! I just mailed off an outfit.

A new president and a new baby. What more could we want from a week?

Yes We Did!

Yes We Did!

Inaguration Day 2009 We are flying the flag today for Barack Obama, for the restoration of the Constitution of the United States of America, for the revival of the American Dream.

I hate crowds, but there’s part of me that now wishes I’d somehow managed to go to DC. What a day. What a miraculous day. I have a staff meeting that starts just when he’s supposed to take the oath and I think that I’m just going to have to call in late. I can watch the speech on TiVo, but I need to see, in real time, that this actually happens. That it’s real.

I really have no words to express how proud I am of America. How thrilled I am that the long long shadow of the Reagan revolution, a shadow that has fallen over my entire adult life, might now be lifted. That selfishness disguised as individualism might no longer be the norm, that working for the collective good, that working to raise those who among us who are least able to help themselves might once more be seen as a civic duty, that millions and millions of little children will see that yes, we can.

The waterworks are starting already. It’s going to be a very emotional day.

Books of the Week: Home, and Gilead

Books of the Week: Home, and Gilead

Part of my decision to get rid of most of my cable service grew out of my resolution these past few months to turn the TV off in the evening. I spend my working days plugged into two different computer screens, where I’m working, emailing, IMing and generally being bombarded by electronic communications. It’s insane.

Last summer was the beginning of my escape from the TV — I spent most evenings outside, in the backyard, with a fire in the firepit reading a book by the light of the Coleman lantern hanging from the apple tree. It was bliss. Now it’s winter, and the wind is blowing 40 miles an hour and I’m hunkered inside, but still trying to wean myself off the screens and remind myself that not only was I once a novelist, but that I love reading novels. I wanted to write because I love to read, love that feeling when you’re deep inside a book, inside another consciousness, inside another life. And so, a resolution for the new year, a book a week, and a review a week.

What I find alarming is how difficult it is to sit down to a book after spending my days all plugged in to the pulsing electronic world of the internet. It takes me a long time now to get  to the place where I can calm the jittery, jangly feeling of being “connected” all day on multiple electronic devices and begin to enter once again the quiet interior world of a book. It takes a long time for the interior voices to come forth. To allow one’s imagination to fire up again. (And if I feel this way, the girl who went through six different elementary schools with my nose always in a book, the girl who read The Second Sex on the New York subway one winter when I wanted something hard so I’d have to concentrate and wouldn’t have to fully experience the subway, well, then I hate to say it but no wonder the publishing industry is going under.)

At any rate, it’s been a joy to get back to reading again, especially since Marilynne Robinson has given us two new books in the last couple of years. It’s been 28 years since Robinson published her now-classic Housekeeping and for most of that time it seemed that perhaps she was going to be one of those novelists who write one great book, and that’s it. Which was fine. If I had even one book as amazing as Housekeeping in me I’d be more than happy. But then, suddenly, in the last two years, we have two new novels from her. Gilead and Home are bookends to one another — portraits of two elderly pastors in small-town Iowa, portraits of the spiritual challenges that parenthood brings to each of them. I’m sort of fascinated by the history of Protestant thought in American history right now — I think it’s the way Obama’s speeches are so full of allusions to Lincoln and Winthrop and King. I’m also a sucker for novels about how difficult it is to be a good person, and these fall squarely into that category.

These two books are deeply entwined with one another, just as the Ames and Boughton families have been entwined. While Gilead is John Ames’s story, and Home is the story of his oldest friend and fellow minister Robert Boughton, the two books magnify one another when read sequentially. Because it had been a while, I reread Gilead before picking up Home, and after reading Home I wanted nothing more than to pick up Gilead again and read it in light of the events of the second book. They are entwined the way memory is entwined, and they are mysterious to one another the way we are all mysterious to one another. The precipitating event of both books is the return of Boughton’s long-lost prodigal son, Jack. Jack, the boy who never seemed to fit in to his own family, the one they all adored, and who disappointed them again and again, fleeing for good after getting an illiterate farm girl pregnant, a girl and her baby who despite the ministrations of the remaining Boughtons come to a bad end and left them stained with an enduring shame. But then, after twenty years, Jack returns home, shaky and alcoholic and thin and wary and desperate in only the way that someone hoping to save his own life can be, and thus begins a story of one father’s enduring and tender love for the son he cannot seem to help. Both Boughton and Ames are Protestants of the Puritan strain — Boughton a Presbyterian and Ames a Congregationalist. I’m enough of a Catholic that all Protestants seem strange to me, and one of the enduring wonders of these two novels is the way they dramatize the lived experience of a Calvinist worldview. Jack’s struggle is, in many ways, with the doctrine of predestination itself — what if he is cast out, what if that is indeed, the source of his lifelong discomfort and self-consciousness? His father loves Jack with a deep and tender love: “So many times, over the years, I’ve tried not to love you so much,” he admits.  “I never got anywhere with it, but I tried.” And yet, Jack cannot seem to make a go of it: “Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?” he asks.

It is the glory of these two books that this question, that these big questions — how do we love one another, how does one live a life, how does one live a good life, what constitutes a good life? These questions take on the sort of desperate, if quiet, narrative tension that illuminates all great works — the stakes are high here, as high as they can be — will an elderly father’s heart at last be broken? will a life-long friendship survive? will a faithful sister’s love be forsaken? will a soul be irretreivably lost? In Marilynne Robinson’s hands, these novels shine with a quiet beauty, and will, despite the quietude of their setting, have you on the edge of your chair wondering, as one does with all the greatest books, what will become of these people?

Around the World with Chris and Debi

Around the World with Chris and Debi

My lovely friends Chris and Debi Lorenc have gone off on an adventure worth reading about. Chris and I met in a workshop during the very first year of the Art of the Wild workshop at Squaw Valley. I was workshopping the very first chapter of Place Last Seen, and Chris was working on a luminous manuscript about the Santa Cruz mountains as an ancient spiritual site. He’s a beautiful writer, and he and his wife Debi are spiritual people in the deepest, sweetest sense — true seekers. I love them dearly and their dispatches make me kvell on a regular basis.
They posted a new entry this morning in their fabulous blog, Red Egg Gallery. They’re in the middle of reinventing their lives, on a pilgrimmage to find artists who practice with real heart and soul. It’s a beautiful story… one I think you all will like.