A hard day on a hard week (Monday thanks)

pear chocolate nutmeg muffin

It’s been a big week. Count me among the devastated. But the list of things bringing me quiet solace right now feels a mile long: the perfume of the thorny olive blossoms; lingering woodsmoke in my hair and my clothes; these aching blue skies; cold nights under goose down; my first efforts at fermenting milk kefir; stolen minutes (sometimes seconds) with my book; a fridge cleanout; this trusty soup and a half dozen friends around my table; the smell of the woods as the leaf mulch thickens and begins to decay; my fierce toddler and my tender 7-year old and our Twister mat spread wide in front of the fireplace; our inherited barn cat, half feral in the year we’ve been here, now ready for ear scratches; pulling another bag of July blueberries from the freezer for pancakes; naps. Not my own, alas. But my hilarious, determined, curious, headstrong daughter…maaaaan, the girl is non-stop. (I say it like Leslie Odom Jr. so I don’t forget to laugh!)

There was an afternoon last week when we stopped at the bay, just for a minute, just to see it was still there, just to remember to breathe. I parked at the end of the road and kept both hands on the wheel. I remember the tide was quite high. Both kids begged to get out and play, and I want to be the mom who forgets her to-do list and says yes to that, and I think I am that mom really, but this was a hard day on a hard week and I was aching for an hour where no one needed anything. So instead we went home, and my daughter napped, and I pulled The Homemade Kitchen from the shelf, because what I needed was a promise that if we keep sitting down to eat and listening while we chew, then things will be okay. Alana is very good at that sort of reminder. I randomly opened to her words about the peace she finds alone in a quiet morning kitchen, and I thought, I want that. I read her master muffin recipe and thought, I want those! And then I remembered that I make a pretty mean muffin myself, a muffin that has seen me through some other hard times, so I made those instead. I found a sad pear in the crisper, pretty bruised from a day (or maybe two) in the snack bag and with a bite already taken out of it. Perfect. I grabbed some chocolate chips, I grabbed the nutmeg, I got to work.

It’s not enough, the down comforters and the woodsmoke and the muffins. But it’s how I’m getting through the week. And while I measure and stir, somewhere underneath, I am figuring out what to do next.

Monday thanks, or, I can certainly raise my glass to that.

early autumn window sill

I spent almost a month in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest in late August and early September. It was a wild and wonderful trip, full of tasty food and even tastier conversations with people I have been wanting to hug in person for years and years, and Big Thoughts about the value of a less filtered life. Thoughts for another post!

When I was in Portland I discovered I had packed for late summer on the wrong coast. I had to buy two pairs of jeans and some shoes that were not sandals and I was thoroughly convinced it was time to dig up our hats and scarves and bake a lot of gingerbread. Then we flew home and sweated our way right through baggage claim and I thought, oh right; technically we’re south of the Mason-Dixon line and I guess (sigh) those woolens can hibernate a little longer yet.

But fall has found us at last, even here, and last Tuesday morning I sipped my second cup of coffee and flipped the calendar. November is here. On Saturday my son turned seven (!!). Tomorrow I am crowding into the voting booth with both kids. Later in the month one of my oldest friends will turn into our driveway and my kids will leap on her before she is even unbuckled because they adore this person who, after my beloved cousin, is the closest thing they have to an aunt on this coast. Together we will eat turkey and butternut something-or-the-other and cranberry sauce (this is the one; I’ve stopped searching now), and the next day we will have leftovers on good bread for lunch (either that or this turkey pho, which I haven’t made in a few years but which is really terrific) and we will absolutely crack open some porters and watch the new Gilmore Girls. A little over a month later she is moving all the way to Colorado. People seem to love it there and I wish the same ease and satisfaction in my friend’s fresh start, but I’d be lying to say I don’t also feel bereft. Colorado is much further away than her current home in the Hudson Valley.

But I’ll try not to think about it too much, not while she’s right in front of me to hug. I’m happier than I can say that she’s coming for Thanksgiving. I get to spend the holiday that puts gratitude front and fore with one of the people I’m most grateful to have found my way to in this life. I can certainly raise my glass to that.

I’m going to try doing it here too! It’s been seven months since I wrote here. There’s a lot I could say about why, but the truest and simplest answer is that I’ve been doing other things. I’ve been learning a whole lot of amazing things with my kids, and I’ve been reading a ton, and I’ve been curling up on the couch with my husband watching shows and movies featuring quite a lot of snow. What else? Crazy Eights, mornings by the fire pit, potlucks, the sometimes awesome/sometimes thankless/always necessary task of feeding my family. Walks along the bay. Making hummus and banana bread and meatballs with a group of awesome first and second graders. Chicken coop troubleshooting. A weekend trip to Annapolis. Hamilton!

It’s a tough season for writing, but I love this space, so I’m going to try a gratitude practice here on the blog this month: Monday Thanks. It’s possibly too ambitious, if we’re to judge according to earlier efforts at this sort of thing. And I’m a little nervous to write here instead of in a more immediate and arguably more intimate place like Instagram or Facebook. But when it comes down to it, the stakes are pretty low and the potential returns (I get to flex my writing muscles again, I get to connect with some of you again, and I get to be happier because that’s what happens when you think about what makes you happy) are significant. So here we go!

Maybe this year

Grocery store lot, March 2016.

Imagine, if you will, an enormous industrial stovetop. Six back burners. Imagine every burner with a pot on it, every pot asimmer. The whole kitchen smells like waking to somebody already cooking breakfast, like Thanksgiving, like a happy childhood. Yeah, so those pots are the stories I want to tell here. Nothing’s ready to eat yet, of course. Shall we stretch this metaphor to the very edge of its usefulness? Can I say I guess these stories really do need a good long braise? Shall we turn around and look out the kitchen window while we wait?

Because y’all, here at our house near the salt marsh, it is spring. Spring! Spring is better than winter! It looks a lot like you might expect, especially if you also live in the Northeast. The daffodils opened up a few weeks ago, and then I saw the roadside maples with their blood-red buds, and then it was just BAM! BAM! BAM! Magnolias! Forsythia! Sandals!

And then there is all the stuff that feels so particular to living right here, surrounded by wetlands, supported by the summertime crowds, waiting for vegetables. Most of the ice cream shops have opened back up, for one, which I really should have said before all that bosh about back burners. The crab shacks and seafood markets are open again too. We’re still waiting for mini-golf and the bread stand, but the peepers are singing their lovesick chorus and my husband is turning all that winter cover crop back into the soil and so we know it can’t be long. My brain is racing happily: When are signups for swim lessons? Can my kids stay awake for the Friday night frog hikes in the trails around the lighthouse? Can we help tag horseshoe crabs this year? The pear tree behind the oldest barn, the one loaded with a welcoming committee of juicy fruit when we moved twenty minutes up the road last November, went from tiny green buds to full bloom in the span of just a couple days this week. We didn’t do much more than cram the pears into our mouths during our first walks here last fall, but maybe this year there will be jam or pies or something poached.

Here’s to my own gentle simmers and to spring’s wild rumpus!

Maple buds, March 2016.Bridal veil spirea/Spiraea prunifolia, March 2016.East Point Light, March 2016.Eggs, April 2016.

Three things (you should be making with sweet potatoes right now)

sweet potato slips

1) DINNER | Melissa Clark’s Chicken Curry with Sweet Potatoes (via Luisa at The Wednesday Chef) I would love to tell you my farm kids eat everything, but HARDY HAR HAR, says the universe, DID YOU THINK YOU WERE IN CONTROL HERE? But friends, they eat this. I don’t really have an explanation. I’d like to say it’s because it is over-the-top, knock-your-socks-clean-off, shout-it-from-the-mountaintops good (WHICH IT IS), but so, for example, is this soup, and my oldest won’t touch that with a ten-foot spoon. I’m learning not to parse these things for too much meaning and instead to just say thank you.

2) BRUNCH | These apple and sweet potato cakes with poached (or fried) eggs and a sweet mustard sauce (via Tasty Kitchen) This morning my son ate eggs and toast and clementines with my husband before he (the latter) went to work, and my daughter ate leftover roast chicken and roughly her own weight in pistachios. She ate those while sitting right in the middle of the dining room table because there are mornings when I have no fight left in me. This was after she emptied her whole bookshelf but before she dumped two giant bins of Legos when I thought it might be okay to pee alone and before she dumped the box of Christmas ornaments I may or may not get put away by April. This is how it came to be nearly eleven o’clock and I only had two cups of coffee in me. This is a long way of saying I love my my fine fine father, who FaceTimed with my kids so I could feed myself these.

3) BREAKFAST/SECOND BREAKFAST/ELEVENSES/AFTERNOON TEA/DESSERT | Nancie McDermott’s Sweet Potato Pound Cake (via our old farm blog, which is looking a bit rusty and which I need to dismantle but can’t quite) Always exactly what I want to eat.

This is not the writing I wrote about, not exactly, but like I said, I’ve been cleaning up a lot of Legos. Also kissing a lot of stubbed toes, homeschooling, moving (again), and watching the sun set over the salt marsh. It’s been kind of a lot.

I’ll be back here when I can figure out how to be. In the meantime, we’ve all got to eat. Make some of this good food! And tell me too how you’re warming your own belly and soul this winter.

sweet potato harvest

My haphazard phenology

Hemerocallis fulva/tiger daylily/ditch lily

I want to be a writer.

I’m not talking about someone who sits back while her muse serves up exquisite turns of phrase on a silver platter. I don’t daydream about an advance that pays the bills. I’m not thinking about getting an MFA. I’m thinking about Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote night after night, after her children were asleep, throughout her “tired thirties.” I’m remembering when I would rise at 5 to get in an hour of words before anyone else was awake. And I’m still sitting with this episode of On Being. It made me cry about eight times (about par for the course), including when Maria Popova remarked:

“Those ideas, the best of them came to me at the gym or on my bike or in the shower. And I used to have these elaborate theories that maybe there was something about the movement of the body and the water that magically sparked a deeper consciousness. But I’ve really come to realize the kind of obvious thing which is that these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life, the moments in which I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, with my own experience. And there’s nothing magical, at least not in the mystical sense, about that. It’s just a kind of ordinary magic that’s available to each of us just by default if only we made that deliberate choice to make room for it and to invite it in.”

Campsis radicans/trumpet creeper

These early years of motherhood are startling in – nearly defined by – their paucity of uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, but it’s there. It’s there when I’m nursing my daughter in the pre-dawn hush, when I’m driving to the grocery store, even in that fraction of a moment when I take my first sip of coffee. I used to say I did my best writing in those delicious (and pen-less) moments, but real writing is something I can share with someone else. Real writing is a decision to push through the distractions and exhaustions that reappear as soon as I put the coffee cup back down. Real writing is work.

When I do the work, life is really good. I get words to look back on, hindsight casting a gentle glow on a time I thought I was stumbling through the dark. I get to wade through the mush of my mom brain and figure out what I really think. I get to talk to you, to other writers and readers. And that’s when a remembered bowl of corn flakes and a downpour in the grocery store parking lot and the quiet wilderness of my little backyard turn blogging into something useful: an instrument of encounter.

But when I don’t do the work, all that fades, like so many July blossoms.

Rudbeckia/black-eyed Susan

My haphazard phenology is as concrete a metaphor as I can come up with for why I want to write. Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycles, especially as influenced by available sunlight, temperature, and precipitation. The most valuable phenology happens at regular intervals and focuses on a discrete physical area – the span of backyard you can see from the bottom step where you sip your coffee every morning, for example, or the same 10-meter stretch of shoreline.

But even my amateur and slipshod observations have worth. They help me understand where I have landed. They help me teach my children about death and patience and wonder, lessons that seemed so easy when we lived on farms and which seemed so hard at first when we didn’t anymore. And these tiny heralds all around us – poison ivy’s first leaves, tiny and carmine; the first whelk egg cases to wash up along the wrack line; February’s robins puffing their feathers and settling into a westward position on bare oak branches to absorb the last of the day’s thin sunlight; even the cocklebur I step on and curse in the dunes during the dog’s morning walk – they tether me, at least for a moment, in time and in place. These years are tricky. My children are one day asleep in the crook of my elbow, the next day climbing the bookshelves, and the next day teaching themselves to read. They need water and toast and a new shirt and kisses and I have not had any coffee yet. She wants to whisk the pancake batter and he wants to know which species of sharks give birth to live pups and I struggle to gain purchase. But I pry the bur from my heel and drop it in my pocket and look it up online when we get home. I think that perhaps the whelk egg cases are a little earlier this year. I am not startled now to unearth a clutch of horseshoe crab eggs when we dig moats for June’s high tides to fill. Patterns emerge from the welter. I am reminded that life – marine and my own – is unfolding with a sound beauty.

Albizia julibrissin/mimosaMay I be resolved and stubborn enough to do more showing up, more noticing, more work.

Weekending

inside the block

A week ago Sunday I made myself a second cup of coffee and settled myself not into my spot at the end of the couch against the bay window, and not onto a warm patch of bayside sand while my children splashed, but into a patio chair on my friend’s terrace in the East Village. It was the last day of a sweet and chockablock week in the city, and after so much time climbing slides and eating bagels and chatting with strangers and boarding ferries and buses and subway cars, it was good to exhale. My son finished up his second bowl of corn flakes inside and called out to me his plans to make Minecraft weapons from an old egg carton. My daughter stacked and unstacked and restacked flower pots. I sipped my coffee and lifted my face to the hot May sun and took in the Sunday morning sounds of the East Village (church bells, bus brakes and engines, mourning doves, my son’s spoon clanking merrily against his cereal bowl). It’s easy to forget that the city ever slows down, but it does.

My friend’s terrace looks out over the inside of the block, a motley vista of fire escapes and ivy and air conditioners and unlikely trees. It’s such a comfort to me to look out over these bones and muscles of city living. It’s not a quiet place to live, of course, and daily life with small children anywhere is full of questions and bumps and tears and fart jokes and throwing, so much throwing. But sometimes there’s a moment when the exigencies have been deftly met or benignly ignored, when your children are immersed in their own work and you are not needed. I guess that’s going to keep happening, isn’t it?

Sunday though, I didn’t fret about how fast they’re growing. I looked at bricks I’d looked at a hundred times and wondered for the first time whose hands had laid them. I noticed a pigeon in a flower pot and wondered if she had a nest there. I saw an empty six-pack on a fire escape and smiled, thinking of that passage from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn about the people who go to early mass:

Oh, what a wonderful day was Saturday in Brooklyn. Oh, how wonderful anywhere! People were paid on Saturday and it was a holiday without the rigidness of a Sunday. People had money to go out and buy things.They ate well for once, got drunk, had dates, made love and stayed up until all hours; singing, playing music, fighting and dancing because the morrow was their own free day. They could sleep late – until late mass anyhow.

On Sunday, most people crowded into the eleven o’clock mass. Well, some people, a few, went to early six o’clock mass. They were given credit for this but they deserved none for they were the ones who had stayed out so late that it was morning when they got home. So they went to this early mass, got it over with and went home and slept all day with a free conscience.

We’re home now. Horseshoe crab spawning season, one of the most magical and curious times of our year, is upon us. I wrote a post a couple weeks ago but never finished it and thus didn’t post it, in which I talked about how much I like easing past the first lusty weeks of spring, all frogsong and snowdrops and cracked open windows, and into spring proper. But in our week away another shift happened. The daffodils that were just past peak are now fully wizened on their stems. There’s a fine film of pollen on everything and we keep the windows open 24/7 except when it rains. And of course the farm goings-on are full tilt.

Here’s to spring’s wild rumpus! Here’s to my Mother’s Day breakfast in bed and a long solo morning, to our favorite beach bar opening back up, to muddy kids and hungry red knots and strawberries just around the corner. To picnic dinners at the bay and all the baby pigs and even to mosquitoes. To the familiar feeling of it all. To home!

(I may pop back in here and add some of our NYC photos, because I know I’ll be glad to look back on them. But for now: hello again!) 

(joining Karen and company)

Pigheaded hope

dispatch

It is, almost unbelievably to me, nearing ten years since I left New York City. When I lived there I worked as part of a small anti-poverty non-profit, accompanying families as they dealt with the compounding instabilities of housing crises, school frustrations, health issues, family separation, convoluted legal and criminal justice systems, and social isolation. These situations were simultaneously acute and chronic, in ways that left me sometimes angry, sometimes overwhelmed, sometimes all fired up – but never desperate. I didn’t feel desperate because families took me in. We sat at kitchen tables drinking coffee and eating pork chops and laughing at toddlers. We read books and flew kites and made s’mores and clung to one another on ice skates and ate pie. I didn’t feel desperate because we took those struggles and worked to craft something beautiful and constructive and necessary from them: poems, speeches, books, campaigns, relationships. I didn’t feel desperate because I didn’t have a right to wallow or to pity or to sensationalize; I had a responsibility to bear witness, and not only to what was hard but also to the incredible knowledge and tenacity and resourcefulness I saw. I didn’t feel desperate because I was part of a community that shared an extraordinary ethos rooted in relationship and respect, and a vision of a world where every person is known and treated as a whole human being.

Frontinella communis 1

There’s a ghost. Mine. She’s pretty quiet these days, not too sad. But she still walks the fields of our old farm in Virginia, and I think maybe she always will. Blackberry juice stains her lips and fingertips. She crouches low in the grey half-light of dawn, studying the Frontinella communis and Florinda coccinea webs spangled with dew. She stands, puts one hand on my son’s shoulder, points out the wild persimmons ripening against a cloudless October sky. She stops to scratch my goat Lulu under her jaw, and then she’s off again, skirting a vernal pool filled with tadpoles, kicking off her sandals, crossing the creek. I keep her company sometimes, late at night usually, too late. These hours are untrustworthy. Good for writing, terrible for making decisions. These are the hours when the deep disappointment and disillusionment in articles like these (about the challenges of making a living at farming) resonate. Eventually, though, I sleep, and in the light of day, that sorrow evaporates, is replaced with a steadier, more discerning take on our story and on farming in general. My rested self finds the articles too grim, the blame too pat. My rested self is not angry. Sad about what we left behind? Sure. Probably always. Regretful? Probably not. We could have done without the financial albatross of a farm we sank a ton of money into and then struggled to sell. But what about everything those acres gave us? What about the hard-won but enduring lessons about how to (and how not to!) run a business with the person you love, efficiently and compassionately manage a crew, make sound decisions about equipment and markets and infrastructure? What about the food we coaxed from the soil to fuel our bodies and fill our baby’s belly? What about quiet nights on the back porch with a beer, listening to the CoolBot hum and the crickets sing? What about the high of a good day at market, when you’re running on four hours’ sleep and three cups of coffee and the heady potpourri of Ambrosia muskmelons and basil and the steady passing back and forth of tomatoes, cash, recipes, well wishes? What about the barter economy among food producers, our tomatoes for your strawberries and honey, our tractor to till your garden in return for a lamb shoulder from your freezer? What about the easy generosity of other farmers, the potlucks and equipment loans and shoptalk? What about trying your damnedest, getting some sleep, and trying again tomorrow? In the end, whether we’re hilling potatoes or writing grant proposals or soothing away nightmares or waiting tables or waiting on test results or teaching declensions, that’s what we all do, isn’t?

I am grateful for every bit of that. I wouldn’t unlive any of it to protect myself from the heartbreak of walking away from our farm. I do wish for: more discussion about the economics of farming, easier answers to hard questions about the costs of good health, every belly full every single night.

whelk egg case

I’ve been thinking about all this, about these places I’ve called home, about the fire inside me. In this season of my life I’m not facilitating writing workshops or speaking at the United Nations or hustling tomatoes or helping anyone cook their way through a seemingly interminable eggplant glut. I am at home, nursing my baby, roasting vegetables, learning about bivalves and monarchs and hawks with my son, thinking (and thinking and thinking) about how children learn and about what my role should be. This season is, all at once, quieter and more contained and so much deeper than everything that came before.

I have chosen not to share much about our school plans here. And maybe that’s a mistake – so much hangs in the balance of that decision, and I’m so unsettled by that knowledge sometimes. The mama hive is rich with guidance, solidarity, and reminders to take a deep breath and just put one foot in front of the other. Maybe I should be articulating my biggest doubts here and asking for your help! But something in me feels this is not the space, at least not now, to talk about the details.

Still, I think I can say this: recently I am enormously comforted to realize that my current preoccupation with this big question is rooted in a deeply familiar instinct. The place where I thrive has always been the place where people come together full of pigheaded hope. This means I am right where I need to be.

Now who wants coffee?