Monday, April 19, 2010

Spring? Bah! Humbug!

Some things are so clich├ęd in their ordinariness that even though they occupy my mind intensely, can’t be written about without immediately appearing to be dreary.

Spring, for instance. I could write pages on the thrill of seeing green buds on the Maple tree, the roses reasserting themselves, and waiting for my tansy (illicit though it is in New England) to start it’s summer spread. We use it as an insect repellant.

I could, but I won’t. You’re feeling the same things I am. There’s nothing unique in this to any of us, and nothing unique to this particular year. Yet we all share a sense of surprise, as though each of us has just discovered spring for the first time, and we can’t wait to tell the neighbors “Look!! Winter’s over!” – as though it hasn’t happened before.

Even the miracle, if that’s what it is, of rebirth (not really, just re-growth), new beginnings (perhaps, if you’re a leaf) and warmer days (now that’s a miracle I can believe in!) is dulled by the necessity of itself. Routine, the cycle of the seasons, is all that this is. Winter is as necessary as spring.

The prospect of eating fresh produce direct from the garden in a few weeks from now is a delight. Not even I would argue with that. But remember also the sweat of starting the mower for the first time and lying awake at night unable to sleep in the humid air.

Did anyone celebrate the first ice-storm when that came? Or rejoice at firing up the snow-blower so you could skate your car to work? Shouldn’t we have?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Journal of an Ex-Smoker

Friday, February 12th

Tomorrow I re-start my life. Tomorrow I die inside. I say good bye to an old friend who was killing me, who defined my life in every respect. I wish so much this was unnecessary, that I could continue to enjoy the smooth cooling, relaxing inhale of smoke, that I could somehow jump this moment and emerge unscathed on the other side.

“You’re going to die” is how my doctor put it.

“If I’m scaring you, I’m glad. I’m scared for you, and I don’t want you dying on my watch.”

It didn’t take long, not much thinking, to recognize the words I’d always thought applied to everyone else, but which were now my sentence. My turn to make tough decisions, right away. No time to consider all the reasons I’d always given myself about how I’d do it one of these days… I knew it had to happen, but only somewhere in the future where - god knows how – it wouldn’t fall to me to make this decision about my own life, my own health.

I have two children, and a grandchild coming in the summer. And next to no life insurance, nothing to leave them at all if I were to die at my own hand, which is what this amounts to.

So it’s now. And NOW. No putting it off anymore. Time for me to step up, to admit I’ve been fooling myself all along. To stop using the excuse of all those friends I know in their seventies who’re happily smoking and tell me how they’ll die when it’s their time, and how their grandfathers died “of smoking-related illness” in their nineties, so how bad can it be anyway?

I believed them for a short while, because I wanted to, and I imagined myself living well into my eighties as a smoker. Sure, maybe a cough, but nothing worse than that. Until I didn’t believe them anymore. And then it was time. Who knows what caused the penny to drop – I have no idea. All I know is that suddenly, somehow, I knew I wasn’t going to be one of them, I wasn’t going to live forever and die happily even though I smoke. I was going to die. A heart attack if I’m lucky, emphysema if I’m not. Whatever method death takes, it wasn’t going to be pretty, or honorable.

Now I face the inevitable. Twenty-four hours from now I’ll be a non-smoker. I’m determined to do it. I have the patch, I’ve pressed my stubborn button, I’m exalted and thrilled to start my new life.

And I’m terrified. My neck and shoulders are tight to the point of agony. What if I fail? I made a point of telling everyone I know – even on Facebook – that I’m doing this. I want the pressure of my friends reminding me that I committed to this. I want no escape for me. I want to be held accountable.

But I’m frightened, and worried that I can’t live up to the standards I set myself. I’m nowhere near as strong as I pretend to be, and even though I’m certain this is what I want and need to do, I’m scared that I’ll fail and that all the people I’ve told will scorn me and laugh and tell me they KNEW I couldn’t do it.

Which makes me more determined to prove them wrong and more anxious because maybe they’re right…..

One more day. One more evening at the bar. Where I can walk outside and have a smoke with impunity. I can even joke about it – “I’m smoking while I can…” and I see the skepticism in their eyes. “You’ll be back, smoking like the rest of us…..”

How do I convince them now? Do I need to? If I drag myself above my own self-doubt, all I have to do is prove them wrong, and then probably they’ll owe me a beer!

For now, I try to keep my equanimity, an even keel. Meditate, breathe, remind myself that all I have to do is get through the next few minutes and the need will dissipate.

And keep in mind that this will pass, that this will give me more time in my day, fewer hangovers, a longer life – actually, screw that, just a better life – which could end in a fiery minute if a bus hits me.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Flea Market

Another row of cabbages should do it, if it comes to that, I thought. The business was failing, and I hadn’t paid my mortgage in months. I’d stopped opening my mail, and had begun to allow myself to consider a range of ideas that only a year before I’d have discarded before they formed. Thoughts and wild dreams about schemes that would make enough money to allow me to keep the farm, and not have to work in a “proper” job again.

The garden kept us fed, thank God. The weather sweet enough that we could plant and harvest, all year round. Fruit, and berries and asparagus and corn. Greens planted in beautifully straight rows, covering at least an acre. The olive trees didn’t work out – too much groundwater for their roots, but my herbs were large and healthy. We didn’t go hungry. I gave my children each a basket and told them to go and choose their lunch from the rows. It was an adventure for them, and gave me time to breathe, to allow my face to fall for a short moment before they returned to the kitchen and I put my brave smile back on.

So I built a reed enclosure, intending to rent out space to crafters and artists in the area, to create a small market that would bring some money. We were too far off the main road, really, but I persuaded myself that with some signs on the tar road we’d be able to entice customers to visit us, despite the badly maintained dirt road they had to use.

We dug toilets of a sort – long drops we called them. A hole in the ground covered by a wooden hut and with a seat that would blister you if you were lucky, and splinter you if not. Water was brought to the market in drums, and a barbecue pit was built, all using materials readily available. The rocks on the ground made attractive building blocks, even though they were so irregular that an undue amount of cement was needed to hold the structure together.

For my part I gathered books from my library, thinking they’d make an interesting addition to the crafts we had on display. We spoke to friends who made jewelry, others who offered baked goods – cakes, and cookies and rusks. An acquaintance sewed hippy-style clothing and dresses, so we put a hanging rail in her area of the market. We put together baskets of fresh vegetables, sweet potatoes, broccoli, beans, cauliflower, and added jars of home-made pickles, relishes and jams.

The Sunday morning we opened, I hitched the trailer – really, just the bed of an old caravan with sheets of steel welded to it – behind my tractor, and loaded it with garden chairs and a table, along with the water and goods we hoped to sell that day. I started, slowly, very slowly, along the rut of a road that led, after half a mile, to the market.

It was the first corner that did it, I think. The wheels on the left tipped deeply into a hole in the road, and the table, along with most of the load, gently and gracefully slid into the veldt grass. And the mud. The table snapped. I was able to tape it together, but it was never the same, always listing to one side and often taking a glass of wine with it when some unsuspecting guest happened to look away for an instant.

We unloaded, and started arranging our wares, hoping to see the first of what we were certain would be a continuous line of cars coming towards us. Cars with city tourists, out enjoying the winter sunshine, and admiring our mountain range against the northern sky. Kids in the back seat, not yet bored as they would be later in the day.

I lit my gas grill and arranged bacon slices on the griddle. Neatly, no slice overlapping another, and stood back to look for Bill Harrop’s Hot Air Balloons, due overhead within minutes. With any luck he’d have to land on one of my fields and that would give me a quick shot of cash. He’d been nervous lately, after one of my friends brought suit against him, claiming that the “whoosh” of the burners on his balloons had frightened several hundred of his chickens to death.

Our vendors arrived about then, with their beads and clothing and cakes, all laughter and smiles. It was going to be great, a wonderful, profitable day. We’d eat sausage and bacon on bread-rolls, and enjoy the warmth of the day. We’d get dusty, and the cracked winter air would sting our nostrils, but there was hope and cheer among us. A new thing, a beginning, endless chance and excitement snapped between us.

I heard the balloons rather than saw them. The wind had carried them to the other side of the valley, far from where we stood. Our first customers arrived, looked around from inside their car, and drove away. The next arrivals walked around our stalls, glancing at a few of them, then left. Later, after we’d drunk the champagne we brought as a celebration, and started on the beer and wine we kept in reserve, we decided that really, truly, all we wanted was to spend time outside with each other. The food was good, the beer better, and sitting in the dirt alongside our forgotten wares turned out to be healing after all.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Harbor Towns

Harbor towns yield their history slowly. The fog crawls and covers enough to let casual observers recognize the possibility of something indefinable smoldering beneath it.

The first sailors to land here trod carefully, uncertain of their own footing after weeks at sea. The land was unfamiliar. No memories existed to guide them as they began routines that were familiar and comforting in the homes they’d left behind. The trees they cut were strange to them. Danger – or perceived danger – was everywhere, and vigilance was their only shield.

Enough of their early craft remains to taunt and remind me of what they faced. Their stories hang in the air, in the mist. I want to slip the curtain to show me their faces, to listen to their lives and fears and deaths. I want to smell their rankness, hear them cursing and praying.

They’re still out there, some of them. There was too much at stake, they’d left too much of their essence to make departing the town possible. Witches and priests and farmers joined in a twisted struggle to understand and survive elements they couldn’t defeat. Fear drove them often, sometimes to inexplicable cruelty.

More often they tried to preserve their humanity, or at least the simpler among them did. It’s no surprise that their leaders were frequently willing to discard their souls in pursuit of power. Nor that the lower ranks permitted this as they spent themselves daily keeping favor with god and their bellies.

The houses and tools and jetties they built are gone now, but the streets they laid contain them.

And the Irish bar that stands where they sweated is filled. Gum stuck beneath the counter, and television that screams, belie the holiness. Tourists crowd them with plastic and tread on their graves.


Maine winters have the color sucked out of them. Even the evergreens seem to be in black and white. Ice-snow crackles underfoot and the air itself is brittle, as though you could snap a piece of it in your hand.

This morning, with my coffee and cigarette, three crows cawed on a nearby tree. Three. These death-feasters gather energy in this weather, and roust on the gloom.

I’m done with it, this cold and indoor time, despite my promises to myself (made in summer) that this time I’ll use the enforced pattern to finally tidy up my papers, start a new file for this new year, and get rid of the scatter of papers on my desk. There’s no satisfaction in a new routine, not when my body is yelling at me to strip to a T-Shirt and shorts and drink beer while I barbecue and sweat.

The grill has a hat of snow, no using that now. I could if I wanted to I suppose, but it’s easier and more seasonal to remain indoors and make stew. Stew, again! Salads and beer don’t have the same crisp cut to the tongue as they do when it’s 80 degrees and humid.

So stew it is, and soup. And hide from the world, and watch television, and dream of the Spring. Grow fat, and lazy, and pretend that it’s all okay. I’ll lose it in the warmer months. I’ll walk the dog when the ground doesn’t threaten to snatch me as he tugs at the lead, looking for a rabbit or a squirrel.

Write then – use the time given you! Or wish it away, and age when I should be draining each day no matter what the weather is.

I have a neighbor who runs by the house, walks his dog, every day. I watch him from my porch, smoking, or drinking coffee in the mornings and whisky at night, thinking that he has to be freezing. I am too, but I flatten my smoke and go back inside to the warmth and my sleeping dog. Fat and doleful as I am.

A large brisket defrosts (slowly) in the kitchen, its head upturned from my forcing it into the freezer on the day I bought it. More slow food, another reason to stay in on Sunday and gently, slowly, lazily cook this great slice of sloth. It’ll be good, I know, delicious even. Root vegetables, and gravy and rice and warm comfort with only the thought of flannel sheets and indolence to follow.

Tomorrow I’m going to wake early, maybe even wake the dog early too, and leave my sleepy wife to walk the pup in the crispness. Home to bacon, and eggs, and a morning filled with activity so I can chill all afternoon. I’ll earn my nap, with a warm and snoring dog across my legs. Well, that’s the plan. More likely I’ll stay up late, enjoy the inside warmth of my home when it’s cold and shitty outside, and drink too much whisky. All the while telling myself how good the day will be. How much I’ll accomplish. I’ll clean the basement, tidy my life, cook a glorious meal for my bride and spend an evening filled with conversation and love and time.

So, back to the crows. All three of them, waiting for me. Noisy and noxious. Impervious to the air, and hungry for flesh. Any will do, really, as long as it doesn’t fight back.

I don’t have a chance, honestly. They’re stronger than I am, and insistent. They’re just waiting.