Saturday, October 28, 2017

The harvest is over, the summer is gone

I just got the official title for my book yesterday. I'd been calling it A Flame in the Night; the publisher decided to go with just Flame in the Night. It'll also have a subtitle, which they say is important now for making it more findable in internet searches: A Novel of Resistance in Vichy France.

I also have a release date--well, not a date but a season: Fall 2018.

It's awhile (thankfully, because there's still plenty of work to do to make the book perfect) but I'm already excited...

I had a whole complicated post planned for today, but I don't have time to write it, because the weather finally remembered it's almost the end of October and we're finally getting frost. Followed (allegedly) by an actual hard freeze tonight, so it's time to get everything in. I spent Thursday morning gathering my squash and digging most of my sweet potatoes, and yesterday afternoon pulling turnips, digging carrots, and picking my little handful of late-planted pumpkins, still mottled green and orange, in hopes they'll ripen up further inside.

The soil is moist and soft and cold, and clings to the roots as they come out. In the woods in the distance you can hear the chattering of a couple hundred migrating grackles. This has been my favorite time of year since I started farming--especially in the two or three years I ran the CSA section of our now defunct communal farm. The last couple weeks of the CSA, packing boxes filled with squash and potatoes and onions and garlic, hearing those birds chatter with hundreds of voices in the bright woods. They'd fly up in black clouds from one section of woods to another. I'd watch them, relishing the nip of cold air after pouring so much sweat all summer into the land, relishing down to my toes the sensation of slowing down, the anticipation of a warm fireside and immobility. Sweet, sweet immobility.

We used to work so hard, you guys.

I remember the first year I did that job. It was a year of upheaval, the farm manager quitting before the season was half done; I had to take over the CSA garden in mid-season as well. The CSA shares had been paid already. My job was to make sure we didn't have to refund the money. I was theoretically a half-time worker. I remember working eleven hours one day. I worked till my vision was blurry, till I was literally stumbling with weariness. It's hard to explain that sheer bodily exhaustion, in a world where work is mostly made of mental labor and coffee and stress. Which I know is hard too. But that draining of your body, it's different, because you can reach a point (and I routinely did, that year) when there is literally nothing left. You can't do anything more.

I mean maybe if a bear came out of the woods. Maybe then.

And I used to get through it by dreaming about fall. The last CSA share, the first big freeze, were my continual daydream. Something about that combination: abundance and rest. I used to sing the hymn to myself all through September: "All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin..." That was the key, safely gathered. Everything neatly in the fridge, in the root cellar, in the pantry--then you could relax. It wasn't a tidy process. The weather people would announce a freeze and we'd scramble--the potatoes aren't all dug, quick, the squash are still in bins outside the barn and also we need to empty the hoses so the freeze doesn't burst them--we'd scramble, check the temperatures, make our calculations whether we had time to get things up to a heated building, or whether the temperatures meant our produce would be all right if we just shut the doors of the barn. Once during a scramble--a really hard freeze was coming, I guess--I carried fifty pounds of garlic up our steep woods trail, in two very inconveniently sized bags. Which kept slipping. I weighed them when I got to the top; I wanted to at least have some bragging rights to show for that. I don't remember why I couldn't use the truck.

There was something about it, though. The years I worked so hard, by fall I felt this sensation of power in my body, even alongside the tiredness; going up the trail carrying nothing was so easy as to be a pleasure, feeling that extra energy coursing through your veins. Like a runner's high or something. And the weariness lent such a sweetness to the anticipation of being able to stop, to rest. Even thinking about it was lovely. How could simply not moving possibly seem so sweet? The way a warm and lighted house seems sweet from outside in the cold and the dark. You take it for granted, when you've been inside it for hours and hours. Not so much, out on the road.

What was I working for, pouring my sweat into the land for, those years? I was working to save the farm. I knew I had done my part, a distinctly measurable part, to save the farm that year. I was proud of that. I also knew the saving was temporary: we don't go under this year. But it seemed hopeful. The new farm manager was making good changes, sensible ones--and he was a guy you could work with, too. It makes a difference. But what can you do in a system completely stacked against the small farmer--what can you do when Mother Nature decides to get in a few licks as well? Disease reduced the yield of the strawberries. The bitter, bitter cold winter my son was born half-killed the blueberry bushes. The raspberry canes started dying the year after that, from a combination of an aggressive fruit fly and disease. There's a verse from Isaiah that I learned from our farm, that I never would have understood without it: The harvest is over, the summer is gone, and we are not saved.

What was I working for? I'm not even sure. The farm went under. Almost everyone is gone. But the land is still here. The garden I tilled for the CSA, I still grow food in it, for anyone who can use it. The soil is moist and soft and cold, and clings to the roots as I pull them out of the ground. Big lumpy sweet potatoes, flattened and bulging in odd places, like flexed muscles, out of that soil I've come to love. Because I do love it. Having your hands in it till they're drawn to it, rootlike, pouring your sweat into it day after day, will do that. I know that soil. It's my friend.

It could be that I worked for. I'm not sure.

Sunday, October 22, 2017


When he called us, we had just spent two days repairing our nets.

Not storm days, either; we had just spent two good fishing days sitting on the shore tying knots. We had to. Our last net had torn the day before, the big one; we'd been trying to make it through on that one till the next chance to make repairs, and then it caught on a rock deep under the lake and tore a long gash all through it. Simon claimed we'd caught some strange creature that had thrashed its way loose through our net; I told him we were lucky that rock hadn't been any higher, and he'd better remember the place so we could avoid it from now on. We had plenty of time to argue on it, sitting there tying hundreds of little knots, watching Zebedee and his sons out there on the water hauling up gleaming loads of fish.

And I have to say Simon never stopped tying, even to gesture about that creature of his, though anyone who's met him knows Simon scarcely has the patience for a job like that. But he'll do what he has to do. And if there's one thing a fisherman has to do, it's care for his boat and his nets. A fisherman's roof can leak, his door can hang broken for months, but his nets and his boat, they're his life. He depends on those to fill the bellies under that roof.

So as I say, we were fishing that evening with our new-mended nets; an early start, out on the water as soon as the sky'd grown dark enough so you couldn't see a shadow. Fish'll flee from the shadow of a boat, and we couldn't afford to go without a catch after two days mending. We had just found a good place and were laying out our biggest net, spreading it through the water in as wide a circle as we could get with just the two of us. It's delicate work; you can't let the net fold down over itself, or it'll tangle instead of spreading, and the fish will flee while you haul the thing out to start again. We were almost done, and a neat job too, when Simon turns and looks at the shore.

“Simon!” I say. “Look to what you're doing!”

“It's him,” he says. “Over there.”

Him? I glanced over. And it was him, and my hand lost all sense of how the net was meant to go, and Simon dropped his end, and the net folded instantly and tangled. Because it was the man himself, Jesus, out on the shore in the dusk light, and his hands were cupped around his mouth, calling, and it was plainer every second he was calling to us.

I hadn't even been certain we'd see him again. John the Baptizer had pointed to him and told us he was the Messiah, and we'd thought the time was at hand, and then he'd left and gone home to Galilee and John had been killed for a stupid king's pride. So Simon and I had gone home to Galilee too, because what else do you do when things fall apart? We came home and found our nets still there where we'd stored them. When nets fall apart, you can mend them with your own two hands.

Simon turned the sail and tacked into the wind, trying to get near enough to hear what the man—the Messiah!—was saying. He was making broad gestures now, beckoning us in. I pulled on the net, trying to set right the tangle, but the sudden turn made it worse. It was in such a snarl now it was all I could hope to haul it up without another tear. I could see another hour wasted, sitting on the shore untangling the thing. I got most of it in the boat, till something snagged down near the waterline; then I turned again to the shore, where the wind was carrying Jesus' words to us over the water.

“Come with me!”

With him? I looked at Simon, who didn't look back at me, his hand on the tiller and his gaze locked on the man. Did he really mean come with him—not just—
“Come with me, and I will make you fishers of people!”

He did mean come with him. Him. Us to be disciples of the Messiah? Fishing for people. To bring people in to follow him, did he mean—the Messiah—
Simon didn't take his eyes off him, but me, I looked back at the nets. This wasn't like going off to the Jordan for a time to be baptized and hear what John had to teach. If the Messiah wanted us—the Messiah!—well, then we'd mended our nets for nothing, that's what.

The boat beached in a crunch of sand and slap of waves, and Simon jumped out into the shallow water and began to run up the sand. I gave another tug on the nets, my eyes picking out the mended places, all those knots we'd tied. The end of the net still trailed in the water, and I couldn't bring it up over the side. What was going to happen to our boat? Who would take it—would they care for it? Would they scrape the hull over rocks and fail to mend it? What would we live on without our nets to pull fish from the lake? We had no other skill. Only fishing.

And fishing for people—perhaps we had that skill. He seemed to think so. He himself!

“Should we come with you now, Teacher?” Simon was saying. “Where are you staying? What are you doing?”

“Yes, come with me. I am going round Galilee preaching the good news. The kingdom of God is among us now.”

The kingdom of God. The Messiah wanted us, to join him, to fish people into the kingdom of God. If his kingdom was among us, God must have these things in hand. What are you so afraid of, Andrew? Do you still think it will all fall apart? So many things do, in this world. For a moment I thought of God's hands tying knots. Hundreds of knots.

Millions of knots.

I left the end of the net trailing in the water, and jumped out of the boat.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A different kind of hard

So I was talking on the phone with a dear friend the other day, and I found myself saying this: "When you're doing the work you're called to do, it is hard--very hard sometimes--but it's a different kind of hard."

It made sense in the context of what we were discussing--work that's driven by guilt, or the guilt of not doing it, work that crushes rather than fulfills. But afterward I kept thinking about it. What did I really mean? How could I explain it better?

See... I'm lucky. I get to do the work I choose to do. Due to some choices I'll discuss sometime, I live an extremely quiet life where I stay on the same land basically all the time because I can't afford a car. In the same bargain (so to speak, and leaving out a lot) I also received three or four quiet hours a day in which to write. I think I got the good end of the deal. But I didn't realize just how true that was till halfway through writing this book.

It's a long story. Maybe I'll tell it to you sometime. But in writing this book I found my calling. Found that I'd been writing, not because it was my skill, but because I was supposed to. It came out of nowhere. It was... really hard to explain.

But here's the thing. It was hard. Very hard. When I entered the phase of the book where I was truly doing my real work, here was my routine: Sit at computer playing digital Mahjongg, trying to force myself to get up and go to my writing room. (A small bare room in the empty apartment next door. While our friends still lived in the upstairs part, I got my husband to sabotage my computer's connection with their wireless. No internet.) Go over to my writing room, berating myself for not going sooner. Sit down at the desk, open my laptop.

Stare at the screen for twenty minutes, scared to death.

Start writing.

The writing wrung me out, mentally and physically, exhausted me. I felt the story in my body, my characters' tension and fear, the hard spiritual work of making choices that they could never step back from, choices in the dark. It was like wrestling. In my mind I stopped calling the little bare cave my writing room. I called it my battle room.

If I was saying it now, after thinking about it, I would add this: it's a different kind of hard. Like battle, or surviving in the wilderness. Not hard like being abused. It's completely different. Work you're not called to, done out of guilt, can crush you. Beat you down with your inadequacy, your failure to ever measure up. Because how can you measure up, when it's not your work?

(I mean, when we're failing to do our true work, when we're procrastinating past the point of shame, when we've let that beat us, we can feel like that sometimes. But when we're doing it--never.)

I think of the descriptions of wilderness survival in Hatchet and its sequels. You're very rarely comfortable. (Mosquitoes. Everywhere.) You have to put your whole strength, your whole mind, into what you're doing. There's hard work and discomfort and pain and fear and sudden danger. There are continual small joys, the deep, ever-fresh pleasure of food for real hunger. There are also breathtaking, transcendent moments of beauty and awe that you wouldn't trade for anything. And you can't decide when those moments will come--you have absolutely no control. They are given you--by a hushed lake under the stars, by a sunrise, even by a wild animal leading you on your path. They come from outside--from God.

And the whole time, in the good moments and the bad, you are alive.

It's like that.

There's something else it's not like, too. I've been listening to the Story Grid podcast recently, and Tim Grahl, who's starting a nonfiction book on how not to let procrastination and shame overcome you in creative work, describes a terrible moment in his life. It was the moment when he had gained everything he'd been working toward. He'd struck out on his own as a writer and book marketer, he'd built his business, he'd marketed a book into bestsellerdom, he had made it.

And it turned out he was completely miserable.

Now I've already made this pretty long, so I'll cut to the chase here. Doing the work you're called to do is also not like being on drugs.

"Success" is a drug. And what I mean by that is fame is a drug. I mean, I wouldn't know, but I can darned well guess. Because I know that even attention is a drug, at least in the form of "likes" and upvotes--anonymous attention, not flowing back and forth face-to-face, just a little signal in a vacuum that says you are now a little bit more worthy.

You get a "hit." It feels incredible. It fades.

You want another.

I read an article on (just so you know there's language & stuff) about stupid things we believe about rich people. The writer says money doesn't make rich people happy, which we all know and few of us believe. To make her point, she gives us a sentence about "Rich people never have to worry about money, they have so much money they don't have any real problems," etc, and suggests we replace the word "money" with "cocaine."

Because money, in that kind of quantity, is also a drug.

And what do drugs do? Weaken you. Destroy you.

I know it in myself. The mood in which I go to the internet looking for a hit is a terrible thing. I can well imagine why Tim Grahl wasn't happy. You work and you work towards success, and you think that you will make it and then you can bask. But you can't bask. The hit fades. And you feel miserable.

Human beings weren't made to bask.

I don't know everything about how, not having read the book he's just starting, but I gather Tim fought his way through from that bad place. One of the things he says he wants to tell everyone is that meaning and joy are found in the work itself. In the doing, in the struggle. And that's what I find too.

You're rarely comfortable. There's hard work and fear and failure and having to start all over again. And there are transcendent moments, unforgettable, unexplainable moments.

And in the good and the bad times, you are alive.

(But at least there aren't any mosquitoes.)

Makes me think of G.K. Chesterton's poem The Hunting of the Dragon, about how beautiful the world is in the midst of the struggle, and how it fades in our eyes when we've been too long at rest:

Beauty on beauty called us back
When we could rise and ride,
And a woman looked out of every window
As wonderful as a bride...

...For the hunting of the Dragon,
That is the life of a man.

There is no heaven on earth, no nirvana-like state of resting, unchanging bliss. There is only the struggle. But if we are blessed to be given the good struggle, in which the work itself is its reward, let's not flee it. It is the good. It's a gift to us, a gift of meaning. It is the kindness of God.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Being small and not despising

You know, I work pretty hard on blog posts. Some weeks. If I have the energy. Some weeks I'm just too worn out, so I post something previously-written, or just kind of run my mouth a little. Last week was one of those. I was really just running my mouth.

I'm... kind of surprised how many people felt it was something worth reading, and worth sharing.

I wonder--is it maybe that we all feel like we're making applesauce in a world falling apart?

That it's so awful, and we don't know what to do, what will make a difference, and pray and we send some money, and the crisis just keeps on going and maybe our money helped a little but it was only a little and the appeals keep rolling in and it's all still awful. And we don't know what to do but do the work that's put in front of us, we don't know what to do but make applesauce.

And we also feel somewhere deep down--in our hearts? in the earth beneath our feet?--that applesauce is worth something. That putting our roots down and holding on is worth something. That in spite of it all there's a future and we need to be ready to survive and to share.

Are any of those how you feel?

I don't really know what to say, again, today. I'm tired again. I've made a lot of applesauce and a fair amount of apple butter, and Paul and I between the two of us even managed to clean the kitchen floor afterward. (Ever boiled applesauce? It goes "Splat. Splat." and spits itself at you. And the floor. Protective gear is in order.) The world is still an awful mess. It doesn't clean up so easy.

My cat killed another chipmunk yesterday. I wish she'd stop. She doesn't eat them, doesn't even try. I love her, but she is quite frankly a clueless, overbred lap cat whose entire goal in life is to get people to pet her. She's beautiful and appealing, with big eyes and big paws and incredibly soft, long gray fur, and whoever bred her for these qualities managed to get rid of almost all the common sense. If I'm forced to walk anywhere in her company I'm sure I look ridiculous; I adopt this wide-set waddle, my boots swinging far around to each side, to avoid kicking her as she continually positions herself right in front of my feet no matter which way I turn. In hopes I'll pet her. Good luck, kitty. (The Boy & I call her Love Cat. She has a theme song.)

I saved the chipmunk. Not in the sense I would have liked--it was fully dead, limp and warm in my hand. No, I hesitate to admit this, but I saved it in the fridge.

Is it strange that I didn't want it to go to waste?

There are three barn cats in what we call the Valley, where the barns are and where the farm section of the communal land begins. They're two brothers and a sister, all ginger; their mother was a wiry little feral cat and a great hunter, but they grew up under someone's porch with food available, and they've had some trouble resigning themselves to barn cat status. (My cat came from under that porch herself--just showed up one day, no clues as to where she came from, rail-thin under her long fur, like a mangy gray lion. We were catless at the time and adopted her--the owners of the porch couldn't possibly handle one more cat, and the idea of her surviving on her own is just laughable.) They're healthy but on the thin side, always thinking about where their next meal will come from--and asking that exact question, quite loudly, to any humans they see. The Boy and I always wish, when we go down to the Valley, that we had brought something for them.

So I'll be bringing them something today.

I'm raising the Boy to believe you should never kill anything unless you have to. It just seemed the best thing. I don't like to see kids stepping on bugs just because they can, and he doesn't do that. Yet I still feel a little odd sometimes at how comfortable he actually seems with the idea of death and killing--he switches back and forth, now at almost four years old, between the point of view of the hunter and the hunted, between detachment and empathy. Sometimes even in the same game. But I couldn't teach him hunting was bad. Not when I was trying to teach him the animals in our woods here, half of whom live by it; not when he opened one of my National Geographics to a picture of an Amazon tribesman, wiry and smiling, his very long bow held loosely and alertly in his hand. "Where that man lives, there isn't any store," I told him. "They can't buy food. He knows how to hunt animals with his bow to get meat for his family." We played hunting for days. We pretended to make a little fire and cook the meat. He loved feeding his "family." I think he'll fully understand giving the chipmunk to the barn cats. I think he'll approve.

I even believe, to some extent, in never killing plants you don't have to. I know, it's nuts. But I have a notion, which I've never been able to carry out, that to truly respect the woods as God's creation, maybe you should never kill a tree you can't identify--even a sapling, even a seedling. What if it's something needed, something beautiful and rare? (Yesterday I had five actual living mature American chestnuts pointed out to me, standing around an isolated farmhouse. I wouldn't have known them.) I can't identify all the saplings. Maybe someday. I'm working on it. But at least I know enough to hold off a bit. When Paul and I moved here, we decided we wanted a redbud in the backyard. We almost pulled out the scrubby little sapling that was there instead, to make room. But we waited a year. And it bloomed.

It was a redbud.

When I weeded my inherited flowerbeds after arriving here, I was careful, knowing just how much I didn't know. I took out only weeds I recognized. Everything else I waited to see bloom. One odd dark-green vine--in my herb garden of all places, which I broke ground for myself--I left for years, simply because I'd never seen its like anywhere in the woods. Last year it bloomed. It was clematis, hundreds of little white star-flowers. I've seen the same one for sale at a nursery. This year I built it a trellis for it, and it brightened my garden, in the fall when all else began to fade.

I think it's worth something, being careful with things. A lot of the time I do it simply because I have to, because I live a small life with little money, but it's become a habit partly because I've found such nourishment in it. Waiting for the gift rather than taking it, it feels more like a gift. It's been that way more and more for me, as I've grown into this life.

It's about not despising things, I guess. It's about seeing the gift, even when the gift is small. It's about being okay with being small yourself, and not despising yourself for it. We have been taught for so long, in our culture, that we are either great or worthless.

It's a lie.

The chipmunk was not worthless. I respect it by not wasting its death. The small things that grow out of the earth are not worthless. I respect them by not uprooting without need. I am small, and give small gifts, and rejoice in small gifts, and am not worthless.

Same to you.