Monthly Archives: July 2011

I’m the only one who thinks I’m funny

Summer’s ward

Sweat carves a path across my ribs
invades the field of my stomach
marching with an ant’s prickling feet.

Hands full of laundry, clutching
clothespins the color of old barns
arms exalting the line drawn between two trees
I wait for a bite that never comes.

At my waistband the advancing drop
retreats into the cover of woven cotton
disappears into a darker shadow of itself.

Mosquitoes claim territory
erecting mounds at back
of knee and crest of ankle.
Redoubts built of saliva and histamine
red and worried and
forgotten before they even fade.

Trails of tiny blisters mark
the pale belly of my wrist,
pointillist lashes wander among the
fine hairs of my hands.
Vines wilt in the bottom of the trash bin
while blushing root ends plot sure revenge.

The squash plant has boundary issues.

Spearmint in a clay pot probes
tiny white fingers through drain holes
feeling for new ground to colonize.

The light changes.
Fireflies
circumscribe the yard,
their drawn borders a brief flare
first here
now there.

Beyond the fence
the understory
is a black wall.

Cicadas rattle bone castanets
and do not wait for a response.

Trust issues

Let me take you on a bit of a ramble:

We’ll start with plants. On my ride to work, there’s a stretch of road with no shoulder. Just a hair past the white line, the asphalt ends, and a steep bank climbs up for thirty or forty feet, eventually leveling out where Interstate 40 passes overhead. In hilly terrain, this isn’t unusual–roads here are carved out of ridges, blasted through mountains, trenched between wooded slopes. The “shoulder” is forever trying to reclaim the paved-over territory, reaching out with branch and vine and shoot. Fleets of blades are sent forth every day to mow, trim, clip, and saw all this lushness back from signposts and guardrails. The work must seem neverending, and I imagine it’s easy to adopt a win at all costs attitude toward all that relentless vegetation.

About two weeks ago, on this same stretch of road, I noticed something different about the wall of green off my right elbow. Seven or eight feet up, a distinct, horizontal line had appeared. Everything above it was still an insistent emerald facade, leaves overlapping like tight shingles, the bank behind invisible. Everything below–the lower half of small locust trees, mostly–was yellow going to brown, three months too soon.

I don’t know what they sprayed, or when they sprayed it. I don’t know if I breathed it in some damp morning, spread it a little farther down the road on my tires, or picked up a film of it on my arms, my legs, my clothes. I do know it ended up in the river, because everywhere is a watershed. I do know that I generally don’t believe them when they tell me something that kills so effectively, so indiscriminantly, is safe and not to worry my pretty little head about it.

Consider:

Persistent Herbicides in Compost

“Environmentally-Friendly” Herbicide Isn’t

Higher than expected rates of herbicide volatilization

Monsanto creates yet another monster

How a “safe” herbicide still kills frogs and bees

I could go on.

But it only makes me feel both full of rage and completely helpless (much like when I watched Gasland a few weeks ago–a movie you should see, too, despite the yucky feelings it will engender), and that’s not a pleasant sensation.

Here’s what I’m having a hard time with: I take it as a given that shady doings are in progress every day–shady doings that endanger your health and mine, all for the sake of lining a few select pockets. Shady doings that the masses participate in and accept as normal (eg: using nasty chemicals to clean, deweed, and impart a “fresh” scent to their home and yard; using a car to travel less than two miles; eating factory-farmed, highly processed “food” because it’s cheaper on the front end; and so on) because that’s the end result of effective spin. Shady doings that are becoming more firmly entrenched and exempt from legal oversight.

I know this happens, and it probably happens even more than I suspect, even on my most paranoid, cynical, angry, depressed days. I know it, but I’m still surprised to see it. Maybe some part of my brain is still trying to hold on to the notion that people are inherently good, and that’s the part that registers surprise. Maybe, as an act of self-preservation, I’m practicing some sort of unconscious, selective amnesia, so that I forget the rampant bad stuff until it appears again.

Whatever the case, I’m not sure which is worse: my impotent rage in the face of injustice, or my naive wounding every time I’m reminded of something I already know. Either way, I feel like a cranky kid, wanting to scream and smash things until somebody makes it better.

I don’t want to be a cranky kid. I grew up for a reason, right?

(Right?)

But all this paranoia only breeds more paranoia. And paranoia, I’ve decided, has roughly the consistency of creamy peanut butter. A little bit is compelling. Too much, and it sticks to the roof of your mouth. More than that, you slowly lose the ability to chew at all. Your jaw is paralyzed; your airway blocked with nutty brown goo. Then you choke and die.

Here’s a sequence of events for you:
1. Notice liberal application of herbicide on roadway, presumably by city or other government entity. 2. Recall the raspberries along the greenway are just ripening, and that you planned to pick some this week. 3. Remember who owns the greenway. 4. And what sort of landscape maintenance methods they prefer. 5. Decide the raspberries have probably been poisoned. 6. But, raspberries! 7. Consider risking it. You can wash them, right? Maybe not. 8. Recall everything you’ve ever read about persistent environmental toxins. 9. Which reminds you that modern life is, by its very nature and despite your best efforts to avoid it, toxic. 10. Fill with rage; weep in despair. 11. Overthink it until the gears in your brainbox seize up and begin to smoke. 12. Choke, die. (And still no raspberries.)

I have to admit that this sequence of events–or something very like it, minus the death part–happens inside my head more often than is probably healthy.

Something happens when a thinking person confronts the world as it is. If the thinking person has been going to yoga class regularly, reading Pema Chodron, and can maintain at least arms’ distance during this confrontation, she can cling to some scrap of something that might pass for compassion or simple, neutral open-heartedness. But without all that (and let me tell you, my schedule hasn’t allowed for yoga class lately), she just thinks. And thinks some more. And I’ve not found that thinking gets one to anyplace warm or fuzzy. Thinking, analyzing, stripping and ordering facts, in fact, paints a fairly dismal picture of the way things are.

Maybe I’m genetically encoded for a tendency toward pessimism. Maybe it’s simple cognitive bias. Maybe I’m just right (boy, I hope not). But I can’t recall the last time my brain was overwhelmed with a snowballing, steamrolling, relentless mass of good observations about the world. They come, but they come in ones or twos–quite easy to get down without the too-much-peanut-butter effect.

But I suppose there’s this: even in smaller quantities, the good stuff is a pretty effective antidote to the seized, smoking brain-gears. You have to go looking for them, or at least make sure your eyes are open and ready to see them when they pass your way, but they’re there. Despite it all.

A short list from the last 24 hours:
Last night’s fireflies. (Every night’s fireflies.)
The farmer’s market bouquet on my desk.
Lemon cucumbers on a vine I grew from seed.
The good book I just finished, sitting on the coffee table.
Cold sparkling water after a few hot hours weeding.
A kiss from my fella.
Hearing from an old friend.
Stories about people in boats motoring toward gunfire, trying to help.
This photo of two women, married at last.

Mistrust–that general, world-as-a-shitty-place feeling–is a choice. Distrust–of Big Ag, of politicians, of the guy who used to live two doors down who never had his aggressive dog on a leash–is specific, and earned. A subtle difference, but important. It’s easy to conflate the two, and the byproduct of their unholy mating is paranoia-nut-butter. (Choke, die.) That gets us nowhere.

Keep the dis- alive–it is the fuel for action that change requires. What I’m working on is reining in the mis-, which feeds on the vague, stubborn negativity spilling into me from headlines, talk radio, internet forums, and watercooler bitching. I’m countering it with a little pure, prefix-free trust, gleaned from my short list.

It helps.

Baby, it’s hot outside

It’s hot. You’ve probably noticed. While I wilt and the dogs lie directly in front of the big box fan, my eggplant luxuriates in it. Its black container soaks up the heat, and its fruits seem to double in size from one day to the next. Everything else in our patio garden droops by mid-afternoon, watered or not. I’ve actually turned the air conditioner on in the afternoon, for three days in a row now, if only to avoid heat stroke in the kitchen.

The upshot to this weather, when it’s 80 degrees and muggy inside the house, even with the AC on? I have absolutely no worries about my bread rising.

Not the most comfortable baking weather, this. I’d rather subsist on salads, watermelon, and berries. But we’ve got some R&D to get through (there’s a hint, if ever there was one), and the smell of rising dough makes up for some of the discomfort.

I picked up this week’s CSA vegetables, and I am happy to report that I cleaned Tom out of the season’s first fresh okra. (I’d apologize to anyone who came after me looking for some, but, truth be told, I’m really not sorry about it.) Summertime eating, as I keep saying, is a damn-near magical thing. Just the color of the produce on my kitchen counter is a feast by itself; nevermind the fact that it’s all so flavorful it’s best eaten naked (the veggies, not you–although, who am I to judge, in this heat?).

Even the dogs are in on it: this afternoon, while I was hanging clothes on the line, I caught our smaller dog threading his way between garden containers with a suspicious look about him. He trotted out from under a plant, dropped his score on the deck, gave it a curious lick, then bit down. Tomato seeds sprayed in every direction. He looked wholly satisfied. And another garden thief enthusiast is born.

I hope you’re eating a fresh tomato tonight, or savory squash, sweet-tart berries, crisp cucumbers. If you’re lucky enough to find some sorrel, eat it like this, without delay. That dish has become a weekly indulgence for us, and we’ll keep it up as long as the sorrel holds out.

Whatever you’re having, take a moment to listen over the air conditioner and the fans and cracking of the ice in your glass to the cicadas, when they really get going. Better yet, listen for the birds tonight, once it gets about as cool out there as it’s going to get. There’s music, even when nothing else about the day makes you smile.

Not work/life, just life/life

On an Asheville Pedal Punks ride last week, I had a short conversation with some other riders about our history with bicycles. Most agreed that our rides–rambling through neighborhoods, just fast enough to be taxing but slow enough to stay fun–reminded them of being a kid on a bike, roaming until dark.

I don’t have those memories. Our closest neighbors were my grandmother–who lived, quite literally, over the river (okay, stream) and through the woods–and a couple of farmers on their own considerable pieces of land, out of sight of our house. Our road was rutted dirt and rock; the closest highway was narrow, winding, and fast.

At the Asheville on Bikes Summer Cycle, I watched an absolutely fearless little girl on a pink mountain bike bomb down hilly roads, doing tricks with her feet on her top tube and her skirt flapping in the wind. I had a momentary pang, wishing someone had thrust a bike into my hands before kindergarten and showed me how to navigate the terrain I was given–though mountain biking was still in its infancy in the early 80′s, and nigh unheard-of in rural Appalachia. Of course, if I were now that girl all grown up, I’d probably not be sitting here on a muggy Sunday morning; I’d be out riding. But its never too late: my own mountain bike has been relieved of its commuter duties and is again sporting fat tires. It’ll get its first spin on a bunny trail sometime soon.

If you grew up in a neighborhood, with sidewalks and paved roads, you might not realize that some of your most treasured childhood possessions were out of the question for us country kids. I went through a period where I lusted after skateboards. I wanted to zoom around on my two feet, going over sweet jumps and doing tricks. But skateboards don’t get far on gravel and grass–even our Big Wheels were stymied by the ground beneath them.

And there other differences: for a rural kid, trips to the store can seem like adventures–particularly once-monthly trips to the “real” grocery stores across the mountain, in the city. The sheer size of the place! The lights! The multiple registers! The parking lots! The shopping cart corrals! The McDonald’s next door! Talk about excitement. I don’t know what it’s like now, when even my little home town has internet and cell phones (though still no stop light). Plenty of families drive across that mountain daily, for work or for school or just because. As we get older, time draws in; the years go by faster and faster. Maybe, too, with distance–what once felt a little like a trip to the moon could very well be a regular commute now.

But even with all that shrinkage, one thing hasn’t changed: my mailbox is still just a little bit magical. Growing up the way I did, mail order was a totally normal, commonplace way to get stuff. We weren’t really mall people, and, besides, the mall was too damn far away anyhow. Not to mention that JC Penney catalogs lived several lives as sources of entertainment: after the window shopping was done, out came the scissors for the crafting. And then, of course, there are the pretty colors that glossy, full-color catalog pages made in the fire…

I don’t do much shopping, and I’ve gotten myself taken off most mailing lists to save the paper, but I do love it when the Lehman’s catalog shows up in the mail. Where the kid me once looked at the matched outfits and shiny gadgets on those catalog pages and imagined having just such a coordinated, grown-up life for myself one day, the grown-up me now looks at pages of canning supplies and hand-cranked coffee mills and old-timey farm tools and has the same pang of desire. I could cancel the Lehman’s catalog, too–they may sell an Amish-inspired lifestyle, but they do have a website–but I still love the feel of the paper in my hands, and the surprise when it shows up in the mailbox. Part of the world out there comes to me, unbidden but welcome, and reminds me about where we want to go with our own lives.

In that vein, we’ve given the postman a bit of a workout lately. I mentioned change was afoot around here. It is, and it’s pretty big. We’re doing quite a bit of research and planning, and we’ve exhausted the local resources (one of our few rules for good living: spend the money locally first, always) and have turned to the big name book merchants. A box of seven volumes spent a rainy afternoon on our front porch Friday, but the books inside were none the worse for it. We’re devouring information, dog-earing pages, taking notes, and planning, planning, planning. The end result will be a blurring of the line between work and life, something that conventional wisdom deems a Bad Idea.

I’ve become less and less confident in the wisdom of the conventional, myself.

As I was born with a blue collar, work is something that will always be a part of my life. It may be inside or outside my home, for myself or for another boss, for a paycheck or for something that more directly sustains me, but it will always be there. Shouldn’t it follow, then, that I’d be better off with work that aligns with my values and interests, that does more closely resemble my “real” life? I’ve had those jobs that I walled off like a contaminated site, kept separate from the rest of my life. You’ve probably had them too–the jobs we hated, the jobs that were in constant danger of contaminating the rest of our life with their stresses, their irritations, their ennui.

That wall is a bummer. That wall is a symbol of the fact that part of you is in a state of constant rejection of another part of you. That’s not a good way to live. Better to find work that doesn’t require the wall to be erected in the first place. I’m not talking a dream job, necessarily–I’m talking about a dream life, when taken as a whole. The work might not be perfect, and it might not make you rich, but if there’s something about it that lets that wall come down, it’s good work. Life should have an open floor plan, so the sunlight can reach every nook of it.

I won’t lie about my trepidation here: what we’re planning involves a leap of faith off a rather tall cliff, and so I’m inclined to be stingy with details, at least for a little while. I’m not being coy; I just don’t want to scare this new future away with too much talk. But I can already tell you that the work of this work–the effort that’s going into building the foundation, into getting started–is already more fun than many of the things I’ve done for a paycheck. And that’s a fantastic sign.

Dilemma

Do I eat the blossoms, or wait for squash?

Or just sit back and admire that golden sunlight at play?