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On Paying Off My Mortgage

On Paying Off My Mortgage

Livingsmall Goal # 1 Done! House is paid off!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hulk Baby Jesus

Hulk Baby Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

Home Again, Home Again

Home Again, Home Again

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

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

Best Food Writing 2010

Best Food Writing 2010

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

From Kim Carlson at Culinate:

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

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

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


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!

Making up for Lost Time …

Making up for Lost Time …

sunny garden june 08 In the garden that is — it was a long weekend out there — but so much fun. This year, I added containers with flowers to my garden. I bought some pretty Martha Washington geraniums that I didn’t have time to plant right away so I just stuck them out there until I could get around to doing the pots in the front of the house. But they were so pretty, and I’ve been spending so much time out there lately, that I decided to do the pots in the veggie garden itself. See — pretty! flowerpot

I also took the wall-o-waters off the tomatoes this weekend. Here’s the before photo: wall o waters and here’s what they look like now: tomatoes strung up I saw this trellis method when I was in the south of France a couple of years ago. The tomatoes are trained up a string. I like this because it’s pretty, and because it’s easier to get in and see what’s going on with the tomatoes than when they’re in a cage. Depending on how much support they need, I may put more horizontal supports on these trellises as needed. I also mulched them in a deep bed of straw. I seem to be obsessed by straw mulch this year — I like the way it looks, and if I can cut down on the watering, that will be a good thing. The other thing I did is to write the name of the tomato and pepper varieties right on the raised bed. By the time things get ripe, the tongue depressors I use for plant markers have generally fallen apart. So this way, I figure I’ll have a pretty good record, and it’ll fade before next year.  names on beds

Doris Lessing wins the Nobel!

Doris Lessing wins the Nobel!

What a surprise — I know she’s been shortlisted forever, but it never occurred to me that they’d actually give it to her — but then again, the Nobel committee seems to like decidedly odd writers — and Lessing is certainly odd.

I can’t overstate how important The Golden Notebook was to me in my twenties when I was trying to figure out how to be a writer, trying to figure out how to build what Anna Wulf describes as a “free” life. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a wife and a mother, but I didn’t want to be bound by those options — I didn’t want those to be the only options. And even at lefty Beloit College where all of us girls had every intention of entering a profession — the jungle drums were still beating — one still felt the pressure to find a boyfriend, and to turn that boyfriend into a husband in due course. One still felt the jungle drums that this was your true task.

And while some abstract part of me wanted a boyfriend and a husband, I was much more interested in figuring out how to become some sort of intellectual, my true obsession was figuring out how to be a writer. I wanted to be an adventurous person, one who left the Midwest and didn’t wind up trapped in some house with a bunch of kids and a husband who was never around and who resorted, as did the women in my family, to drink and despair.

Lessing was the first writer I found who honestly described a woman’s inner struggle to be liked by men, to be agreeable to them, and yet somehow to be true to one’s own self. She wrote the felt experience of womanhood in a way that I wasn’t finding in anyone else at the time — later Woolf was to have much the same impact on me, but I couldn’t read Woolf in my 20s, I found her too drifty, too upper-class, too interior. In Lessing I found someone writing honestly about what it felt like to be female and smart and ambitious. I found someone writing about the problems of finding love when you were female and smart and ambitious. And as a writer, the structural aspects of The Golden Notebook fascinated me in much the same way as the structural aspects of Ulysses did — I wanted to figure out how she used all those different sections, how she made the structural disorientation toward the end reflect Anna’s interior disorientation — I loved it all. I read that book until the covers fell off.

One of the things I’ve always admired in Lessing’s work (and that I miss in the current lot of twee fiction), is the portrait of what it felt like to live in a particular political situation — whether it’s colonial Africa, or the Communist left of the 40s and 50s — it’s what I loved about the Children of Violence series, and about autobiographies (including The Sweetest Dream which she wrote as a novel after abandoning the third volume of the autobiography because too many people were still living). I’m no fan of her science fiction, and some of the dystopian novels are just too dystopian for me, but I love that she wrote them. I love that she wrote what she wanted to write, what she felt compelled to write — I’m always shocked when I hear writers I know talk in a calculated way about their work, always shocked when I hear someone I know saying they wouldn’t write a book a particular way because that’s not what’s being published right now. (Of course, these are writers who both finish and sell more books than I do, so perhaps I should be paying more attention.) I’ve always admired uneven writers who try a lot of different things more than those writers who seem to write the same book over and over again — and no one can accuse Doris Lessing of writing the same book over and over again.

At any rate, I couldn’t be more thrilled with this morning’s news — Lessing isn’t trendy, she’s never been particularly accomodating, she’s actually kind of a pain — all of which I adore about her. Here’s a link to a picture that sums is all up for me — Lessing sitting on her front step, talking to the reporters. No false modesty for her: “I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one. I’m delighted to win them all, the whole lot . . . It’s a royal flush.”

I can’t wait for her Nobel speech — I’m sure, as always, she’ll have something interesting to say to us all.

Patti Smith on the Big Questions

Patti Smith on the Big Questions

On the eve of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Patti Smith, as always, asks all the really interesting questions:

Should an artist working within the revolutionary landscape of rock accept laurels from an institution? Should laurels be offered? Am I a worthy recipient? I have wrestled with these questions and my conscience leads me back to Fred and those like him — the maverick souls who may never be afforded such honors. Thus in his name I will accept with gratitude. Fred Sonic Smith was of the people, and I am none but him: one who has loved rock ’n’ roll and crawled from the ranks to the stage, to salute history and plant seeds for the erratic magic landscape of the new guard …Rock ’n’ roll drew me from my mother’s hand and led me to experience. In the end it was my neighbors who put everything in perspective. An approving nod from the old Italian woman who sells me pasta. A high five from the postman. An embrace from the notary and his wife. And a shout from the sanitation man driving down my street: “Hey, Patti, Hall of Fame. One for us.”

Art. Revolution. Questioning one’s worthiness. Questioning the validity of accolades to begin with — it’s like a message in a bottle from another time when we were all less cynical, less interested in pure celebrity, less liable to equate success with sales figures.

One of the many things I’ve always admired about Patti Smith is that she never seemed to take her iconic stature seriously. She lives in Detroit. In a neighborhood. She raised her kids and went to the store and never fell into the trappings of celebrity that would have been so easy with someone who appeared in all those iconic Mappelthorpe photos (Mapplethorpe — another message in a bottle. Remember the hysteria over that museum show? Remember those flowers? Remember all those gorgeous men, dead now?).

And when the Rock and Roll hall of fame came knocking, she still had the sense to ask “is this a good thing?” I’m glad she’s accepting. I’m glad she’s accepting in the spirit she is. I’m more than glad she’s still out there reminding us to ask the questions.

They’re back!

They’re back!

Because Heather pointed it out in the comments, and because it needs to be shouted from the rooftops, let’s point out that the Oxford American Magazine is back! May I suggest that this fine publication would be a terrific Christmas gift for anyone on your list who is interested in good writing, southern life and literature, and FABULOUS music. The whole subscription is worth it for the annual music issue, which comes with a CD that will make you dance with happiness around your living room.

The other good cause I’m supporting this year, is Heifer Project International. I’m buying animals for several people on my list, especially for a couple of the kids who are big enough to play with the little toy chickens I’m giving them, and think about the kids in China or Guatamala or Africa who now have a flock of chickens … a flock of chickens that will provide eggs and meat and cash, a flock of chickens that can be leveraged into a better life. Of course, the kids will still get markers and art supplies, because that’s the kind of auntie I am — the art supply kind of auntie.

Anyhow, those are my suggestions for stemming the tide of silly stuff none of us really needs this year. My idea of a great Christmas is where we all just spend our money on good food and good wine and are grateful to be together. Hokey, yeah, but it’s Christmas, the season of hokieness …



My friend Nina’s twin girls arrived today — two little girls with full heads of black hair, who came out squalling and who each bit the doctor!

Nina is my dear friend, the one I called when that assistant coroner was sitting in his truck in front of my house a year ago, waiting to see if I had someone who would come. Nina came, and she cooked pot roast for days and took care of me and everyone else who gathered in my kitchen that week.

Nina’s last pregnancy ended in stillbirth, so this one has been fraught. We’ve all been scared to death. Twins, she’s not young any more, she was about as high risk as a person could be, and the good hospital is over in Billings, an hour and a half away. It’s been a long summer of worrying about Nina, and these babies, and so I was not the only one in town weeping when I heard the news. There have been happy, weepy phone calls going around town all night.

Nina is fine. The babies seem fine. They’re a little early, and we won’t know about their lungs for a day or so, but this evening we’re all filled with gratitude that everyone is alive, and seems to be okay. Thanksgiving came a little early this year.