Summer’s Passing An (only slightly bitter) ode to the southern garden

Every year is different, but the momentous shifts always resonate in the same way. There has not been a day that quite felt cool yet, but the sun hangs lower in the sky. In our home–designed to suck in the winter rays–the shift is not subtle. The tulip poplar leaves have started to fall; a few places that are usually shaded now see dappled sunlight.

The anticipation of my favorite time of year builds every day. I can almost smell it–though not quite yet.

Past are the exhausting weeks of late July when you resent planting such a big garden because every spare moment is spent frenetically processing the harvest and the heat and mosquitoes make it miserable to be outside. There’s no time to enjoy anything because all your hard work will have been in vain if you let it rot in the field because you didn’t make time to put it up.

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The people who write garden books do not live in the South. If you leave your beans to dry on the vine, you get sprouted beans. Though Weston A. Price would pat me on the back, I can’t save these for next year’s crop.

Past are the ugly weeks of early August when everything is diseased and you want to move to Maine. The weeks where you almost pull out the tomatoes because half of them are blighted, but you don’t because you have a vague memory that there comes a point where some of them overcome adversity and make something else worth eating. The weeks where nothing is fun because it really is too early to do any fall garden preparation of any kind, so you can’t even pretend like it’s time to move on.

We are nearing the end of the long, wretched couple of months when doing garden tasks actually requires having childcare or just hoping the kids don’t kill each other because no one will even contemplate coming outside with you. You’ve also uncovered various nests of baby copperheads among your vegetables and the fire ants are everywhere, so you don’t really want them to join you, anyway.

Radical acceptance is not just for parenting. There came a point when you realized that you clearly planted your garden just so the bugs would be well nourished. They eat different things each year, and you mourn and try not to count the hours you spent getting the crop established.

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It’s okay, you can have the beans. You are really lovely and there are a lot of beans.

Well, I was excited about my sour gherkins and have gotten almost none because of you. But I think you are eating them instead of my squash, so...

Well, I was excited about my sour gherkins and have gotten almost none because of you. But I think you are eating them instead of my squash, so…

Tasty fennel.

Tasty fennel.

No, really, go right ahead.

No, really, go right ahead.

Tomato horn worm being eaten from the inside out by parasitic wasps. Justice. Is. Served.

Tomato horn worm being eaten from the inside out by parasitic wasps. Justice. Is. Served.

Eating all my parsley. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great.

Eating all my parsley. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great.

The history of the Great Plains.

The history of the Great Plains.

It has taken a decade to become proficient in the garden. My expectations and time horizon for doing and learning have stretched with each season that passes. In the early years I was likely to be more upset when things went “wrong.” I still cried when the birds ate my entire sorghum crop this year, but I’ve learned to start enough experimental crops that something is likely to go right.

Being a scientist means that I don’t like taking other people’s word for things, so I often try to grow crops that everyone says can’t be grown here or attempt what seems an ingenious solution to a problem, only to realize there’s a damn good reason people don’t do it that way. But there are also successes, and I take note of the failures and move on. My soil gets better every year. The garden gets bigger with less effort each year as I become a better steward of the earth I work with.

They say don't plant moldy ginger or turmeric roots. Well, some of it was moldy so I planted it separately to study performance. In the foreground you see the handful of survivors in the moldy plot; in the background are the healthy roots. Don't plant moldy roots.

They say don’t plant moldy ginger or turmeric roots. Well, some of it was moldy so I planted it separately to study performance. In the foreground you see the handful of survivors in the moldy plot; in the background are the healthy roots. Don’t plant moldy roots.

This lone chard plant was still going strong when the rest bit it. I left it in. Turns out it made an excellent trap crop for the bugs that might otherwise be feasting on my new tender seedlings.

This lone chard plant was still going strong when the rest bit it. I left it in. Turns out it made an excellent trap crop for the bugs that might otherwise be feasting on my new tender seedlings.

My bean trellis turned into an arbor and starved my entire pepper crop.

My bean trellis turned into an arbor and starved my entire pepper crop, but it turned out to be the perfect place to start late summer lettuce for the fall.

All my fig fruit was killed by a late frost, but now they are trying again. Fingers crossed!

All my fig fruit was killed by a late frost, but now they are trying again. Fingers crossed!

At some point this summer I stopped worrying and started bringing the camera to the garden. It’s early September. The plants that are going to survive have made up their minds to do so. Much of the fall garden is planted and this year the seedlings are actually thriving. Arugula, radishes, tatsoi, collards, carrots, parsley, dill, fennel, kale, and lettuce are raising their tender heads.

Orb weaver eating a grasshopper. I've not harvested near this spot for weeks so this lovely won't be disturbed.

Orb weaver eating a grasshopper. I’ve not harvested near this spot for weeks so this lovely won’t be disturbed.

Butterfly weed going to seed.

Butterfly weed going to seed.

Sickly ladybug

Sickly ladybug

I have fallen in love with beans. These Cherokee Trail of Tear beans make my heart sing.

I have fallen in love with beans. These Cherokee Trail of Tear beans make my heart sing.

Hello baby tree frog!

Hello baby tree frog!

Camouflaged dragonfly resting

Camouflaged dragonfly resting

The Common Wealth Seminole Waltham F5 cross is going strong despite squash bug pressure.

The Common Wealth Seminole Waltham F5 cross is going strong despite squash bug pressure.

Mini pumpkins! Ancient seed I planted with no expectations, and the only thing that survived besides the winter squash.

Mini pumpkins! Ancient seed I planted with no expectations, and the only thing that survived besides the winter squash.

I still suit up in my loose long sleeves and pants tucked into my socks before heading out. I still end up with ant bites in odd places. But this morning it was 67 degrees and the winter squash and pumpkins are screaming autumn. So much of the spring is spent planning for summer, but it’s the least pleasant time to actually be in the garden.

Goodbye summer, thank you for all the fresh food you gave us. We’ll remember you all through the fall as we enjoy the tomatoes sauce, pesto, pickled cucumbers, and gallons of beans I’ve put up these past few months.

But to be perfectly honest, I’m not the slightest bit sad to see you go.

Brother Love and the fabulous impotence of parenting siblings

Parenting, by nature, is a lesson in radical acceptance and humility. But there is something about the nature of sibling relationships that brings a new level of impotence to my days.

Sure, sometimes it’s trying to understand how their ability to ignore you and push your buttons seems to increase exponentially with the number of children. They feed off each other’s insanity and you simply try not to get caught in the crossfire.

But sometimes it’s a breathtakingly profound and beautiful kind of impotence. When the six year old whispers to you at bedtime that you are the person who makes him feel safest and most special, but that his brother is who he loves most in the world. He’s worried it will hurt your feelings, but it takes no effort to smile. You try not to cry and tell him that’s the whole point. His brother is who he’ll have beside him long after you are gone.

Or when you drop off your older child at class and the toddler screams his brother’s name until he is hoarse and hiccoughing. He cries for what seems like forever and you can’t fix it because you aren’t his brother. But after a bagel and some thrift store sunglasses, he finally falls asleep in the car. When he wakes up his brother is home and he runs into the house on his chubby toddler legs, screeching his brother’s name with uninhibited glee.

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In the time it took to write this they have brawled and made peace again. They are unified in their indignant rage that I won’t let the big one dump a box of blocks on the small one’s head, which they both think is a wonderful idea.

It used to be that if I heard the baby upset, his brother had knocked him down or taken something from him. Now a newly minted two year old, it’s usually his own inability to keep agreements and respect gently set boundaries that causes him to scream. Or simply the failure of his budding fine motor skills. Usually the proximate cause of distress is the destruction of a block creation; an undignified attempt to “help.”

Tonight my six year old looks at me, eyes wide and tearful, and says “I feel like he doesn’t care that he hurt my feelings.” He feels indignant but is so clearly searching for an alternate interpretation because he doesn’t want to think poorly of his brother. I explain about his sibling’s unformed prefrontal cortex–his lack of rational brain power and inability to control his impulses. How it will come. I point out all the ways his little brother shows that he cares, even when he knows he’s done wrong. My son soaks it in, nodding.

Even when the toddler cannot control his impulses, he expresses deep empathy for his brother. After having done something outrageously awful he crawls into his brother’s lap and wraps his little arms around him and puckers his lips up for the elusive kiss (they are only rarely offered and never consented to, if requested). Without fail his older sibling looks down into his eyes, caresses his face or returns the embrace, with the tears of rage still fresh on his cheeks.

I’ve never seen love as big and un-ashamed and overwhelming as what they share. It almost hurts to look at.

It might seem crazy, but this is why I had children. I didn’t have them for me, I had them for this. So I could watch them be better to each other than I’ve ever been to anyone. It washes away all the fights and yelling and obstinate refusals to cooperate and we are left with this gorgeous thing.

I mean, last night we were left with me cursing at them both while on the verge of tears because they couldn’t stop horsing around in the bed…but tonight it’s this gorgeous thing 😉

 

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Being a super-woman is never enough

There are days when you give everything you have and it’s nowhere near enough for anyone. And it’s okay, in the long run. You tell yourself a true tale about how healthy it is for all of us to have moments when we know we are loved tremendously and yet cannot come first, for good reasons. These are the very best life lessons, as long as they don’t last forever. And yet they feel like shit.

This too, is alright. Feeling horrible after doing your very best is 90% of mothering, as far as I can tell. Okay, maybe not 90%. But it was a shockingly new feeling for me as a competent childless adult, and has become utterly quotidian.

It’s those days when you have a sleeping toddler chewing on your nipple and your six year old comes downstairs quietly to tell you he’s not feeling well (after just spending the whole morning with his bed-ridden grandmother and infant cousin, who have now all been exposed to whatever summer crud he was incubating).

His big eyes are bright and he energetically tells you how strange it is to be freezing cold in his thick Harry Potter robe when it’s nearly 80 degrees, with much hand waving. And the fever just goes up and up over the course of the night. By 1:30am his fever nightmares awaken him and your spouse spends the rest of the night with him downstairs on the couch because you have a teething piranha on top of you.

You wake up with the baby at 6:45 am (well, you also woke up at 3:30, 4:30, and 5:30…and of course several times before midnight) and feel kind of guilty for your spouse who never came back to bed but at the same time know that you would sleep all day if permitted. But you aren’t. So you get up and tell the distraught toddler where his sibling and father are, because it is a Big Deal that they aren’t where they were supposed to be when he woke up.

The fever breaks and then comes back with a vengeance. Your spouse showers and leaves for work. You watch him walking to the car like one of the poor souls on the Titanic as the last life boat cuts loose.

And it turns out that the newly minted two year old deals with distress and anxiety by hitting. He loves his big brother to pieces and doesn’t know what to do when his wild and boisterous super brother–by some evil magic–turns into a sad, vulnerable, miserable small child. So he runs up to him as he lies pathetically on the couch–eyes closed, breathing shallowly–and slaps him in the face as hard as he can. And then leans over and kisses him on the mouth. Every time you turn around.

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brother love on a normal day

It’s not like you are doing your nails, but people need feeding, your sick baby needs a wet wash cloth on his forehead, you HAVE to drink some coffee. But you feel your heart being ripped out every time you turn your back for a second and realize your 2 year old is savaging his sick sibling. You acknowledge his feelings and talk about how hitting hurts, you sooth his brothers’ tears, you try to distract the toddler with activities and food. Nothing works. Your sick kid is too sick to be alone, he needs you, but having you means having his brother–who at the moment is an evil gremlin hell-bent on destroying everything good and decent in the world.

You tenderly lift all 60 pounds of your first born and carry him up the stairs and put him to bed. Sick babies are light as a feather. Unfortunately, taking him away from his brother means taking him away from you and that is so not okay right now. Cooing at him through the monitor is not enough by half. You are at home full time with these two kids every day and you’ve never felt so incompetent.

Your partner has only been gone two hours when you call and ask him to come home. You feel like a failure because how can it possibly take two parents to take care of one sick kid? He has to keep working but at least he can be a warm body in the room so that when your sad boy wakes from his delirium every 30 minutes, he doesn’t wake up scared and alone.

The icing on the cake is when you hear the distressed clucking of the hens that means the fucking black snake (that you know you are supposed to love because it eats rodents and probably the baby copperheads that almost killed your children, but you can’t because it eats your eggs everyday and you are just pouring greenbacks down its throat) is in the nesting box. You sling the sleepy toddler you just woke up from his nipple-chewing nap across your hip and stomp out to the chicken yard, snatching up one of your son’s many homemade swords on the way.

Yes, you literally battle a fucking 5 foot black snake in shorts and flip flops with a big wooden sword and a baby on your hip and it hisses at you and rattles it’s tail like a rattlesnake and eats the egg you just shoved out of its mouth anyway, all while staring at you with total sass.

You stomp back inside, throw the baby at his grandfather (really it takes three adults to care for a sick kid), put on more appropriate clothing and head back to the fray. You trap the snake and it escapes. You shake it from its hiding place and accidentally drop a pallet on its neck, which makes you feel like a horrible human being. You run for the shovel to finish the job so you will at least feel like a decent person, but it’s gone by the time you get back.

You spend an hour literally shuttling back and forth between the toddler destroying the house and reading to the sick kid. At 5pm you leave your toddler screaming to attend a school meeting. You only stay for an hour. But it doesn’t matter; it was too long. When you get home your husband looks like he’s been dragged behind a truck for several miles and the sick kid has a glazed semiconscious expression that tells you he should have been asleep hours ago. Probably before you left. The toddler is very happy. He wants to be held while you pee because he loves you so much.

You put the sick kid to bed. You finally eat dinner. You nurse the toddler. You start writing. You accidentally delete what you wrote even though it perfectly expressed your complex emotional state. You don’t cry, you just start over.

Because this is it. You have had way worse days. Your worst days are better than so many women’s everydays. It’s all worth telling. It’s all real.

The snake got the egg, again. But my little baby boy saw me fight a big fucking snake with a big fucking sword and if that’s not a win for feminism, I don’t know what is.

None of my beloveds got what they needed from me today and they all felt the loss. But they know they are loved and they know that today is one of the days that happens.

 

today. orlando. emily doe. the big things and small things, always together

Today my kid’s morning plans fell through because his friends were sick. Mama hustled, rustled up some buddies, and forged ahead. At the museum he ran away from us and got lost. Luckily (I guess) he found a friend and mooched lunch off his Grandma and gave her my cell. She was taking care of three kids under five but fed and rescued mine. Only 30 minutes spent searching the 84 acre park. Could have been so much worse.

I was freaked out and angry and frustrated. He should have known better. But he was scared and hungry and tired. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but I was exhausted. Getting a lecture from your six year old that when they get lost is the least appropriate time to get mad will take you down a notch. He was right. I felt like an asshole.

Then his afternoon plans fell through. His friend canceled at the eleventh hour. I spent 45 minutes (while stuck under a sleeping toddler) trying to arrange an alternate playdate. He was disappointed and crying. I felt great sympathy and told him how hard I was trying and how sorry I was. But it was almost dinner time. Sometimes life gives you lemons.

In his ferocious sadness he took a swipe at one of our house plants, uprooting it by accident. He came and told on himself, like he always does. Just a fucking house plant. One my dad had nurtured for decades and that I’d brought to my home when he died of cancer. I felt burned for my efforts and utterly unappreciated. It all seemed so trivial and yet so all consuming. My super mama powers were failing miserably.

Maybe some music would help. Some random bluegrass station. It was all stalker music. I tried a different station. Also stalker music. Apparently every song every written is about women ruining men’s lives just by being. They know where we live and know if there are lights on someone’s home. They talk about our bodies and how it’s all our fault that they can’t help themselves for being out of control “in love” with us. I couldn’t do it, not today.

Everything felt like shit. Today’s problems were small but the world’s problems were big. Fifty people dead in Orlando. A world full of assholes running free after ruining women’s lives. Over and over again.

So I put on the wild super mama cape my kid made as a gift for me during quiet time (before he killed my plant), made from stapled together fabric and ribbon with a pocket for putting things. I turned on some Bev Grant and The Human Condition. Her song about Clifford Glover played softly. That was 1973 but it seems like nothing’s changed. I cried.

Then I went next door and told my mother in law about my day. It was like dredging the bottom of a dirty river looking for a dead body that you maybe did or didn’t want to find. She smiled at me and said “You know, parents have to be therapists all day long, but they never get to be the client.”

I watched my son sitting in the yard picking clover flowers, the late afternoon sun shining on his bent head. He brought me a sweaty handful and kissed me. “These are for you mama.”

The Gardener’s Mantra

It was like a horror film slowly playing out, with one shock after another sucking the juice from my adrenal glands.

One day there were nibbled pea shoots. A bunny or mysterious insect perhaps? Then the strawberry leaves. The defoliated mulberry gave it away. The squash and melons that mysteriously never came up but had nuzzly nose prints in the holes and dainty hoof prints beside the bed.

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I had thought I was safe. We’d taken all the precautions and for three years never had a security breach. The 7 foot fence around our land received regular inspections and had 3 foot welded wire reinforcement at the bottom.

I tromped down the yard furiously with a fresh roll of fencing under my arm to raise the barrier at a spot that looked jumpable, tears welling as the image of my sweet, innocent strawberries–decapitated with cold hearted viciousness–swam across my vision. My fists clenched at the thought of those soft hearted suburbanites who croon over them and post pictures of their babies on Facebook. The rage begins to take over. Okay, okay, reign it in mama. Deep breaths. Do your mantra.

They are also alive. 

They were here first. 

They are feeding their babies, just like you. 

And you will kill them all when you learn how to shoot with a bow and arrow. Vengeance will be yours. 

I breathe deeply to drown the blood lust and nearly stumble over her. My little blue Orpington looking frazzled and missing feathers on her back. “What has your sister done to you?!” These two had gone broody and been moved into a light-weight tractor in the yard for a few days to keep them off the eggs. Maybe they were fussy about the move.

She looks at me with head cocked to one side. “What sister?” she seems to say. I gather her up in my arms to return her to her tractor…the tractor that is not where I left it. The tractor that has been dragged in a semicircle and is full of feathers, but no hen.

What sister, indeed.

I follow the piles of feathers in their meandering path into the neighbor’s yard and out into the driveway. I trace little tufts of sadness toward the woods until I can find no more.

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It isn’t even 8 o’clock in the morning.

I feel a strong desire to burn down the forest, so I tell myself wise stories about how we share the world. Time for the mantra again.

How my homesteading is a healthy engagement with the natural world that forces me to be humble, to remember that we are out here at nature’s mercy.

How the choice to be here in deer and fox and coyote and owl and hawk territory means so many good things.

How I love looking up at the sky and watching graceful hawks circling…and smile when a murder of crows chases them off.

How I listen to the coyote pups calling to each other at night and marvel at how happily unconquered the wilds really are, no matter how we try to fool ourselves.

How the spring peepers sing us to sleep after long spring rains.

Mostly, my mantra works. l say the right things when it’s time to explain it all to my children. I’m sure life will go back to normal, it always does. I am a loving person. A kind person. Yes, I am.

Deep down I believe my mantra. This is all a balance and we humans have taken more than our fair share.

But you, deer and you, eater-of-hens, you are real damn lucky I don’t know where you live.

In the mean time, we are perfecting our barriers. As I walk the fence with my father in law he says out of nowhere, “Now this is something Trump would actually be good for!” I doubt it, but the image makes me smile.

Neighbors and family together, moving the offending mulch mountain and raising the deer fence.

Neighbors and family together, moving the offending mulch mountain and raising the deer fence.

UPDATED:

For two more days this deer breached the fence, but with vigilance and team work we patched the holes and got her out again. The third day she appeared with her brand new baby fawn beside her. It was very very very cute. If I’d had my camera I would have shared pictures. The mantra is good.

After polling the neighborhood my brother in law informed me he’d seen a fox crossing our driveway with a “chicken sized something” in its mouth. Mystery solved!

Ten years of that life

A decade ago, today, I went to a bar I really hated. My sister was celebrating graduation from university and I wanted to support her. A blue cups bar with cheap beer and undergraduates; it was as awful as I expected, except for the company. My sister and her childhood best friend were celebrating together.

You were there because my sister’s childhood best friend is your sister.

I have known you, from afar, for about as much of my life as I can remember. Mostly I knew your family and your home, because video games were your life at age 11 and hanging out with your sister’s friends was so not cool. I remember hot dusty drives in our un-air conditioned station wagon down the long gravel road to your house in the woods. I loved that house.

I had a dream about you once and a crush on you for, like, at least two weeks in middle school. I asked you to dance to Stairway to Heaven at a middle school dance. You said yes to be polite, but you were a foot taller than me and the song was 7:58 long. You recused yourself partway through and I was mortified for at least 30 minutes.

For fifteen years I forgot about you except for some vague awareness that you grew up and did something with computers. But before the graduation party I had seen you one other time, six months before. I was out on the town with our sisters and we ran into you, out on the town with your friends.

I told your sister you were hot.

She told me you were getting married in May.

I reluctantly forgot about you again.

But on May 9, 2006 there you were, looking sweet. I laughingly told your sister so, with an eye roll in honor of your impending nuptials. She turned to me with an expression I couldn’t quite interpret and smiled. “Well you know, he’s not getting married anymore.”

I’m sure I excused myself politely. I can’t remember. I do remember the shirt you were wearing. And what a kind smile you had.

And there we were, you and I, wrapped up in conversation for the rest of the evening, all my senses on high alert. I could feel it.

Then the evening was over. I didn’t have your number. My sister was moving to Japan in a few days. I had no excuse to see you again.

Yet somehow out of a stadium full of 75,000 people we stumbled across each other two days later at graduation. That kicked off a week of unlikely, just barely possible chances. And we took every one of them and spun them into a life as fast as we could. We had both been on pause after long spells of not-quite-right with someone else. We were ready for the life we wanted. A life I still think isn’t quite possible and can’t really believe is mine.

A life back on this marvelous land, in the home I loved as a girl. A life with you. With the babies we made together. With our families. A life of commitment with one of those maturing marriages that I’d heard of but never witnessed in person. The ones where you fight less over time and help each other become better. I always thought those partnerships were some kind of gigantic hoax.

Then, not long ago, I realized I was in one. May 9th was when we began.

It’s not always pretty, but damn, it’s good.

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Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, on our honeymoon

 

Following my bliss, inspite of myself

When I was young my mother used to talk to me about “following my bliss.” It was eye-roll worthy in the most adolescent way. I was a pragmatist and a realist and cynical and tough. I did not do bliss-following. I didn’t care if Joseph Campbell was some sort of genius. If my mother suggested it, it could not possibly be a good idea.

I still have a slightly allergic response to the phrase, perhaps because it just sounds so…mushy. I do not do yoga. I do not meditate. I do Useful Things and am Very Efficient. I am a planner; I always think wayyyyyy ahead. Following your bliss sounds like something a long haired hippy does while wandering barefoot through a field of wildflowers. The very image makes me itch. Who does that? There are chiggers and ticks and copperheads and how do you plan for health care needs or retirement just chasing bliss (whatever that is) wherever it leads?

Yet when I sat down to write this post about gardening (yup, that’s where this was headed. We get there eventually), I was surprised to find I had misrepresented my own story…to myself. My biggest and best life-altering decisions had, in fact, been made by following my gut when it was in sync with my heart, which is really the crux of what Campbell meant about following your bliss.

When I was 21 my then-boyfriend and I planned to walk the Camino de Santiago during the summer. Five hundred miles in 28 days across northern Spain. He was from the Basque Country and had walked parts of the Camino with his own father as a teenager. We trained together, walking 15 or 20 miles in a day along the roads and paths in our town. Then he found out he couldn’t get the time off from his lab. It was terrifying, but I decided to go by myself. It had become something I needed to do.

On the way to Spain I was robbed of everything I owned except my backpack of clothes and gear for the Camino. After a harrowing adventure securing a new passport and ticket with no identification and no money, I finally arrived…and promptly came down with the worst stomach virus I’ve ever had. I was forced to seek refuge with my boyfriend’s family, the only people I knew in the whole country. After 5 days in bed I had  lost all the stamina built up from months of training. His mother nudged me out of the house to walk around the village and I was exhausted and ready to crawl back in bed after ten minutes. But there was no more time. I had to go or not; I couldn’t postpone indefinitely. The trip had an end date.

I convinced my boyfriend’s sister to drop me off at the tiny village of Roncesvalles at the French border with no money, no cell phone, no credit card, and my insides glued together with Fortasec. I got up at 5am and walked 15 miles the next day. Other pilgrims offered me food because they thought my diet of plain bread was due to lack of money, which was also true. The first day a couple from Barcelona saw my feet and showed me how to sew a loop of thread through a blister after treating it with iodine in order to keep walking without getting an infection.

Going alone was the best thing I could have done. I saw in ways I would not have with a partner and interacted with others in ways I would not have, had I gone with company. The people I met became dear friends. Those 28 days remain the most formative of my entire life. It was–literally and figuratively–a moment of choosing a path, and one that would have been so, so easy to say no to.

Three years later, I made another unlikely, uncomfortable, path-shifting decision. I was about to move to Chicago to work with an amazing scholar in a PhD program I was deeply excited about. I had found a roommate and we were apartment shopping. But I had just fallen in love with a hometown boy. After two weeks dating we knew. He was going to commute between North Carolina and Chicago to be with me while I was in graduate school. I was on my path!

And then one day I was out for a run and, on the side of a busy road, I just stopped. My life with this person was the path. Why was I continuing on the old path as if nothing had changed?

I decided in that moment to stay in my home town and not go off to school. I felt my brain doing somersaults. All my plans and expectations shifted in the blink of an eye. A week later we moved in together. He was so excited he promised never to eat fast food again–a promise he has mostly kept (except on our wedding day when his friends kidnapped him and took him to Bojangles).

I thought everyone would think I was crazy. Mostly they did. I had to arrange a meeting with my most beloved professor and tell him why I wasn’t going off to school, despite the wonderful letter he’d written me and all his advocacy on my behalf. He encouraged me to apply to the local R1 universities and find a way to make it work if graduate school was still what I really wanted (it was and I did).

I worried that my mother would worry about me giving up my life plans for a man. It was just about the least feminist thing a girl could do. But I should have known. My mother smiled and hugged me and said “I wondered whether you might consider staying.” She for sure figured I was following my bliss, but probably knew better than to say it.

I do not look back on these experiences and tell myself I should be a more impetuous and spontaneous person. They do not make me want to buy an open ended ticket to somewhere wild and hope it works out. Most of what has gone well in my life has been the result of good planning and research. But when it came to getting the really big, scary decisions “right,” planning and research only got me part way there.

There have been big decisions since then: choosing to have a baby while in graduate school, asking my family to uproot itself and travel with me for my dissertation, choosing to finish my program even after realizing that I did not want a career until after my children were bigger (if then), choosing not to work for money, having another baby…but all of these life choices were less loaded because the overall trajectory seemed “right.” The stakes were lower because of these pivotal moments where I gave myself permission to find out how strong and capable I really was and take a chance on what I really wanted.

What got me thinking about my mom’s well worn advice to follow my bliss was my gardening problem (told you we’d get here eventually).

Today I went to visit the backyard of our old house, which I fenced off when we let go of the house and moved further out of town. My gardening makes no sense. It is a liability. I spend way too much time on it, and when I am honest with myself I know this to be actually, truly true. My partner is more supportive than I could ask for and only periodically complains that on the weekends he doesn’t see me. I don’t need him to point out that paying for childcare so you can grow food is inefficient. Or that when I say “I just need to go grab a couple of herbs for dinner” it is for sure going to be at least half an hour. Or that maintaining a second large garden 15 minutes away from where we live is ridiculous. I tell myself and everyone else that it’s to save money, to be more self sufficient. None of that is untrue, but well, it kind of is.

What is real is that I don’t listen to the radio when I drive out there because my mind needs empty space. When I open the fence and stoop under the branches of the huge magnolia and into my secret garden, full of song birds and color, everything else disappears and my burdens fall away. Today I worked for three hours in a drenching rain. I worked until my fingers hurt. I didn’t think about anything except pulling weeds and planting sweet potatoes. It’s rare that I get alone time in the garden because I’m with my kids full time. When I head home after gardening alone it’s like coming up for air after being underwater for a long time.

I am not a religious person, or even especially spiritual. I find dirt and stars amazing and that’s enough wonder for a lifetime. I still don’t do yoga or meditate. Campbell suggests that doors will open to your path when you find your “sacred space” and give your mind uncluttered room to connect with your soul. I find it hard to get past all the mysticism, but once I do I can see the moments in my life when I’ve been in that place.

The long hours of solitude on the Camino were a concentrated dose of what I’d attained in fleeting moments throughout my childhood. Dancing vigorously. Doing physically arduous yard work for my dad. Sitting in the silent woods behind my mom’s trailer in winter. Playing hide and seek with my sister in the corn field across the road. Nights around a campfire in the mountains. The natural world and empowering physical effort were clearly at the heart of this. But now I’m busy so often I no longer make these opportunities for myself. Except that I’ve found a way: in my garden.

I’ve been “following my bliss” without realizing it, in spite of my disdain for the concept. I would call my mama to laugh about it together, but I think she already knows. Maybe I will anyway.

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barre off

I haven’t danced in 13 years, but today I went back to class. Not to a modern class, where I would have been more comfortable, but to ballet, where I knew I’d make a fool of myself. I didn’t want to go easy. I needed to see what all had atrophied after two babies and more than a decade away.

My younger self–the teenager who went to a boarding school for professional dancers-in-training–could never have imagined going a week without dancing, let alone a year. Or a decade. Periodically that old self peeks in and tries to ask why I quit. I have closed the door in that me’s face every time.

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In class at the American Dance Festival in 1996

There was nothing special about today, except that I opened the door when my old self came around…because I could. For a long time I couldn’t, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t scary anymore.

Dance and choreography were my life. I had potential but I always had to fight for technique. I loved the fight. Ballet was my weakest area and my favorite. For years dancing made me happier than I’d ever been. It was ferociously physical and I felt strong and powerful. But eventually poor nutrition took its toll and I broke bones first in one foot, then the other a year later. It stopped being fun.

When I quit, I quit completely without looking back because it was necessary. My favorite dance teacher telling me how lovely and skinny I looked when I was at my sickest was the memory that for years floated to the surface whenever I contemplated going back. I didn’t dance because I was in some combination of mourning and withdrawal. Dancing and I didn’t deserve each other until I could go back with joy.

Later, I was traveling and focused on scholarship. Then I was focused on my marriage. Then my family. I fell in love with gardening and mothering. I make excellent exercise out of both these things, but there were long periods of pregnancy and nursing where I just felt sort of swollen all the time and that was not how I remembered feeling while dancing. I liked the idea of going back sometime when my body felt more my own again and I wouldn’t pee on myself or start leaking milk in the middle of class.

Perhaps I’ve been ready for a while, but I started noticing a new tightness in my hamstrings when I leaned over to pull weeds. I felt the urge to stretch my legs and point my toes. Rocking out with my kids in the living room was suddenly insufficient. I felt this voracious hunger. It surprised me because the feeling was so familiar, but I hadn’t felt it in such a long time. I needed to dance.

But would I have forgotten everything? Would I completely embarrass myself? Would it be miserable because I was so bad? I picked a non-professional studio with drop in classes to minimize the odds of being in a room full of teenagers. I remember what I thought of the saggy middle aged moms in my dance classes when I was that age.

Today was the day, so of course the elder child who sleeps like an angel woke up coughing at 3am and no one ever got back to sleep. I pulled on my slightly musty smelling pink tights, one of the beloved leotards that our seamstress made for us by hand at my dancing school, and my stiff slippers–none of which have seen the light of day since I was in college–and tossed back one more coffee.

And yes, it turns out I had forgotten quite a lot. I was pretty embarrassed. It would be a stretch to say it was fun. But I felt great afterward (even though I can barely walk), and I only fell once. I was almost late because…kids…so I didn’t get to set low expectations with the teacher before the start of class. Being almost late also meant I was at the end of the barre and therefore had no one to stare at when I couldn’t remember what to do every time we switched sides.

But there was some magic, too. I am not the same person that I was the last time I stood in front of a studio mirror. I spent years memorizing every line of my own body, comparing it ruthlessly with what the movement ought to look like, what the instructor looked like, what the better students looked like. I know what I used to look like. But I haven’t put on a leotard and tights in a long time. I don’t look at myself with that kind of scrutiny anymore, thankfully. But it meant I was starting out with no idea what I’d find when I stepped up to the barre.

And there I was, looking just fine. I have a more solid middle than I used to, but I find I like my new shape. I feel sturdy. My arms are stronger and have more definition from carrying heavy children around for 6 years. Those arms that used to be the first part to tire at the end of class didn’t struggle at all today. My body remembered so many little lessons, along with poignant images from amazing teachers and classmates I haven’t thought about in years.

Perhaps most surprisingly, I just didn’t look in the mirror much. I was too busy trying to dance. It was perfect, and I can’t wait to go back.

 

 

This is the year

To the boy who made us parents:

You have completed six years of life. It was a special birthday for both of us, though we couldn’t really put our finger on why. You told me “this year feels more important,” and it did.

As a scholar I’d say it was probably our completely average timing of entry into middle childhood, which is really a much more dramatic stage than its name suggests. The age when archaeologists tell us most children were finally weaned. When baby teeth begin to fall out. When, in traditional societies, children would be expected to start taking on roles with responsibility in the home and community. The precursor to the precursor of adolescence.

In our home it was just a special year, no more and no less.

This was the year that you completed the transition from wanting only me to none of me at all, if there were other children to play with. Even though you felt guilty for not wanting me, I didn’t mind. I’ve been wanted enough for several lifetimes.

This was the year you began to offer to do helpful things when you saw me struggling, and make a point of letting me know you were sorry when I didn’t get enough sleep or had a bad day.

The year you stopped napping. The year you started reading. The year you stopped being nervous at the idea of being dropped off for an activity without me. The year you started seeing your baby brother as a person and appreciating his potential as a playmate and friend.

This was the year you stopped being afraid that anyone who came to play would take All. Your. Things.

The year you started helping me in the garden, and did the work to make your own bed. And decided you wanted to make your own birthday cake (phew).

The year you learned to save your allowance. And started choosing your own clothes (unfortunately, as we’ve got you covered for the next year but now all bottoms must have belt loops).

The year you started exploring the woods alone. And I didn’t know where you were or what was happening. And it was okay. Better than okay. It was good. Really good.

This was the year you asked big questions about your big disappointments and sadnesses and then paid focused attention to my answers, knowing that I would take you seriously and that if you stayed still you’d find out what you needed to know…like why your brother gets more of my time. You sit perfectly still as I explain about the development of small humans, and how you were when you were his age, and how it won’t last forever. And you take it inside you and put it away in the places it needs to go. Figuring out what you need to be okay. A brunch date, please, a few hours just us? Yes. I can’t wait.

There will be other amazing years. Or perhaps all years will start to look amazing. Maybe the pace of change will remain fast and this will just seem like the first year of the new normal.

I don’t expect to know anymore. To have any idea what lies in store. I don’t care. This is good. You are good.

Happy birthday.

 

frugality vs. minimalism

This is a quintessential unbalancing act that I’ve struggled with over the years. Frugality is fundamentally about achieving your goals with what you have on hand and without spending a lot of money. Minimalism is about reducing the amount of stuff in your life. If you have ever tried to prioritize both of these at once you realize that there is a permanent tension between the two that simply cannot be resolved.

One might think that the shared goal of making do without having to acquire more stuff would be a point in common. There are a few neat and tidy examples of this, like making your own cleaning products. On one little shelf you have baking soda, white vinegar, castile soap, hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, maybe coconut oil and olive oil. These replace a bajillion other things–in our house everything from window cleaner to toothpaste (and exploding volcanoes). A small collection of ingredients replaces many other bottles and containers, they are exponentially cheaper, and actually fast to make and use. Boom! Frugality and minimalism living in harmony.

But in most cases they only overlap well if you can make do without having exactly what you need, a lot of the time. Sometimes one can and (arguably) should, but not always.

It might seem like a first world problem, but it’s more complicated than that. Frugality is a necessity if you are poor. But if you are poor in an urban setting where you don’t have a lot of space, some frugal options simply don’t exist (buying things in bulk or in season to save money is a huge one). In addition, a lot of money saving tricks for the household take both time, research, up front resources, and sometimes even having access to particular physical resources or social networks. Minimalism, forced or chosen, can be very expensive.

In my own life I’ve wobbled back and forth. My mom cleaned things with vinegar when I was a kid. I thought she was a hippy and disregarded her methods with adolescent disdain. She bought the cheapest but most efficient new cars she could find–she commuted an hour and a half to work everyday and needed something reliable. All I noticed was the lack of AC during the blistering southern summers. She bought second hand clothes. I remember one of the few times that for some special occasion I got to buy a new outfit. I don’t remember much from way back, but boy I remember that.

She was a doctor, she could have made more money. Instead she did the worst paid job in medicine (which tells you something about our national priorities)–a county public health pediatrician. Poor kids, nobody pays for that. And 60% time, so she could be home when we got home from school. I valued all of those things and accepted the complicated feelings of wanting more, but appreciated what she stood for and the sacrifice she made. For the past decade she’s lived in an off the grid tiny house she built, doing the most amazing job of doing without and making do.

Looking back on it, I’d always struck a funky balance. In graduate school I’d keep my apartment freezing cold in the winter to save on heat, but if I was going to buy one new pair of shoes every 10 years it would be some damn nice Campers. I embraced the thrift store life; I loved feeling like I could shop guilt free.

It was culture shock when I met my husband. I’d been living on a graduate student budget forever on the oh-so-common track of perpetual higher education, while he had gone to work straight out of school. I hadn’t thought of myself as frugal or thrifty until we started living together. But this guy bought magazines at the airport when we traveled (gasp!), ate out for lunch with coworkers daily, and threw things away that could be recycled. He’d rebelled against his parents by being mainstream. Just about sent us to couples’ therapy. But he has no stuff, no squirreled away boxes of memorabilia, no crap. He’d also been a regular working adult for a lot longer than me, so had a lot more experience managing a household budget.

I was both un-frugal and un-minimalist in my new non-single life. A lot of space and money got wasted as I found my footing. I’d buy a case of 32 oz bottles of molasses and call it thrifty because buying in bulk saved me 10% on the per bottle cost. But it took me a decade to use it up and I had to store it all that time. That’s a cheap example, there were worse. We won’t talk about the chickens. Well, we might talk about the chickens, later.

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but they are so cute!

The big life shift, which got me thinking about this tension, came three years ago, today. We wanted more space. We wanted different space. But we didn’t want to take on more debt and tie ourselves to the labor market any longer than we had to. We had been on the road for my dissertation field research and loved living out of a suit case and being all together. We wanted my husband to be able to work less while he was still young.

After exploring a lot of options we went with the craziest one. His parents invited us to add on to their home–the home he grew up in–just about 15 minutes from where we were already living. There was more space. It was out in the woods. The community was incredible. We would take over a part of their house they didn’t use much anymore now that their kids were grown, and build on just a kitchen and living room. In some ways that was another example of frugality and minimalism going together. We built just what we needed and repurposed something that my in-laws had been paying to heat and cool without really needing.

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We’d be able to pool resources, work together on house maintenance, get childcare help without them having to get in the car, but still have our own space. It was much less expensive than our existing mortgage, yet we added enough space to have room for a second baby. At the same time, my husband’s sister and her husband built a tiny house and parked it across the driveway. We call it the family compound.

The property was covered in lumber. My father in law had been saving any potentially useful scrap of wood for 35 years. To me it looked cluttered (now, you should see my porch, I’m such a hypocrite). I won’t make this the incredible story of my husband’s family home, which deserves its own telling, but my father in law had built this amazing house himself. In the three years that we have lived here, he built a garden shed below the house, trimmed and paneled a room that had been unfinished, built a loft in our kid’s room, handmade super tall raised beds for his wife so she didn’t have to bend down to tend her plants, and built lovely shelves and storage spaces around the house and porches…all with leftover wood. And wood with good stories, too. Wood from old tobacco barns he’d salvaged. Wood from really old homes being torn down. Beautiful wood.

When I designed and built a chicken tractor, I dug out some old galvanized tin roofing he’d saved to cover it. When I decided I was actually going to pasture my chickens, I pulled rolls of old deer fence out from under the house and tied it all around the yard with scraps of old clothesline and other string he had neatly rolled up and saved. Between me and our 6 year old, who is a wild maker of enormous creations, we pillage Grandpa’s horde on a regular basis. We all resolve household needs on a regular basis with the materials that he has painstakingly saved over a generation. I’ve come to see it as a gold mine rather than clutter. It is the very definition of frugality. It comes from a place of not having money for replacing or buying new things, so saving anything that might be useful. It is messy. It is utterly not minimalist. It is good.

The way my father in law is about lumber, I am about containers. I save seed starting containers so I don’t have to buy them again. I save jars large and small for my salves, home remedies, and cleaning supplies. I save baskets and dishes for organizing the kid’s things, for their sorting and mine. These are all parts of what makes me who I am. It’s part of being frugal. But it all takes up space.

IMG_20150802_154409021Preserving the harvest is the same way. Right now there are three big stacked plastic organizers in the middle of the hall with sweet potatoes in them. There’s not really space for them and they look ugly. But I found these organizers under the shed and they ventilate perfectly. And this spot in the mudroom hall is the only place I can plop something dirty down and leave it for 6 months without it being in the way of life. The huge matte of tangled garlic hangs beside it. That, I think is beautiful. I’m not sure my husband feels the same way, actually I know he doesn’t. But this is how I do my part of feeding the family and he let’s go a lot of his minimalist aesthetic and anti-clutter preferences without complaint.

I have tried that “get rid of things you haven’t used in a year” routine, yet quite frequently I really needed whatever it was about every 18 months and not having it meant buying it again. Sometimes I can be all frugal and borrow it from someone. But sometimes it takes two weeks to find and acquire the loan, with a lot of gas used and a lot of time spent on coordination. I am the full time parent of two kids at home, so the economist in me tallies up the opportunity cost of arranging (sometimes paid) childcare to get the time, as well as the gas, and often buying it is actually cheaper. There you see a loss on both fronts, frugality and minimalism. If it’s some ghastly hunk of plastic crap I wish the world didn’t need more of, sometimes I do all that anyway to keep another evil widget from leaving the factory, but that hurts my economist brain (until I remember the social and environmental externalities associated with the production of said widget and feel a wee bit better).

Clothes are the perfect example. I have a reasonable closet by most standards, but adhering to a minimalist ideology would cost me a lot of money. In the past 6 years I’ve fluctuated size in extremes over two pregnancies and everything in between. I was teaching. I was doing interviews. I do serious gardening in red clay country. I have to be out with my children in all weather. I have clothes for all that in several sizes and since I may not be done having kids, I’m not tossing things. I keep maternity and baby gear in constant rotation to friends and family to keep our closet sane, but that first kid keeps growing, darn him, and the bigger they get the more space their clothes take up.

Where’s the edge? I purge until purging more would require doing laundry faster. Since I already do at least one load a day and folks still periodically run out of underwear, there’s little wiggle room. We even have a “once worn” clothes pile for items that can take another wear, which is decidedly untidy and takes up space, yet saves washing energy and money. So I look at the closet with more things in it than I’ll use in a year–or two–and call it good.

I built a chicken tractor. I designed it and paid a handy friend to construct it. All my research said that for it to function it needed real wheels. I spent $50 on two good wheels. It’s true, it needed those wheels. When our lawn mower died for good and true, I asked my husband to remove the wheels before taking it to the dump. Those are really nice wheels. That will save me $100 next time I need good wheels. Until then, they take up space.

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Children’s art supplies? Don’t get me started. Yes, it’s a privilege and a super first world problem. But yes, I have seen a huge difference in how much they explore art when the materials are decent and on hand. You have to let them waste some (this kills me, I cannot handle wasting, I die inside). And then there are the mommy art supplies you pretend are kid art supplies so that you can excuse the space they take up. This is one I will never ever feel bad about.

My elder child is an exuberant maker. I can’t put a price tag on what it’s worth to me that he can go outside and rummage through things and find cool materials that he can actually make something interesting with. I can’t count how many times I almost threw something away and thought “but he’ll make something great with that.” And he did. Sometimes six months or a year later. Sure, he’d never have known if we hadn’t had those materials on hand. But they’ve made his experience immeasurably richer.

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I am a hoarder by nature, and the minimalists in my life–my husband, his sister in the tiny house, my mother–are an important counter balance. I pay attention to the time it takes to curate The Stuff and as I get older I get better at knowing what matters and what doesn’t. We have no attic and no storage space now, which requires constant thoughtfulness about whether to bring something home to begin with and, if so, what needs to leave to make room for it. I like that. I’m inspired by the tiny house dwellers, though I’m grateful not to have to make some of their hard choices.

Holding a minimalist aesthetic as an inspiration for keeping physical spaces neat helps me keep the clutter under control. It makes my brain feel healthier and happier. But frugality as a culture to live by is more important to who I am, and at the end of the day trumps minimalism when I have to choose. The real challenge is accepting this unbalance for what it is and remembering the good reasons behind the struggle.