Hope and the Human Spirit: Postcard from Home

Hope and the Human Spirit: Postcard from Home
Market Square in Knoxville, TN, circa 1910

Knoxville’s downtown Market Square once held an imposing masonry building that served as a center for thriving commerce, including a beloved farmer’s market that purveyed meat, poultry, dairy, produce, and flowers trucked in from the city’s rural outskirts. A 14-year-old boy set it ablaze lighting a cigarette in the late 1950s, goes the story, gutting most of the building and sparking a controversy that would persist ‘til the city finally demolished what remained of it in 1960.

So ended an institution that began in 1854, and which never fully recovered. Sure, the square was revitalized in recent years in the same way so many downtowns have undergone renewal, but the demolition of that building marked the end of an era. Nowadays there’s an outdoor farmer’s market a couple of days a week during the season, set against the backdrop of hipster shops and restaurants that dot the square; for better or worse, life goes on.

There is no formula for grief: everybody grieves uniquely, and that is the truth. I’ve written about it before, how I wiped away the fog from my mirror after horrific losses: family, home, my hard-won business—some of them gone instantly, the rest in a matter of weeks or months. Loss takes no prisoners: it surely knocked the wind out of me, leaving me coughing and sputtering, blue in the face, bent double with my hands on my knees.

After what seemed an eternity I drew in a long breath and stood erect again, but sifting through smoldering ruins for surviving bits found only unpleasant epiphanies to keep me company. Your life has been a train wreck for years, they jeered. Worse still, they continued, you’ve become ugly; there is much work to do, and it’s getting late.

Loss continued to follow me down a new path. It persisted in the shadows behind me for a thousand miles, across time and space, and stubbornly insinuated itself in horrifying ways. What choice does one have, except to soldier on?

And just when I imagined I might not survive, there was hope, in the guise of a beautiful outstretched hand that insisted otherwise. I was more fortunate than most.

How much can the human spirit bear before it’s damaged for good, though? This question has troubled me all week while East Tennessee burned, with stories of unrelenting devastation and human suffering unfolding all around. It’s an epic tragedy long familiar to others, but this time struck close to home: the foothills and mountains where my ancestors settled a century and a half ago—is everything gone now? The kitschy hamlet where my family vacationed in the summers lay in ruins, its citizenry shell-shocked, livelihoods snatched away in minutes, wildlife and livestock wiped out, officials standing dumbfounded before the press to tick off names of the missing and the dead. We will rebuild, they insist while volunteers pour in. I know this refrain, and it is exhausting—the ruins will smolder for a long time, forever for some.

Monumental losses still haunt me like the drone of bagpipes, always there no matter how ardently one wishes to silence them, even in the subconscious: but then life’s melody unfolds on top of the drone, sometimes majestic in its tenor, rich with texture and beauty and joy, and occasionally hope.

Tragedy defies reason always, discriminates never. But every exhausted, beleaguered life in this world needs hope, because the alternative is unthinkable. And life will go on.

Farm Stand and General Store: Evolved New England Institutions

Old Building, New Concept
Old Building, New Concept

The concept of the general store revealed itself to me the instant I had boots on the ground in my new home state of Vermont. Most small farming communities here have one (and so that would be most of Vermont, which is largely made of small farming communities). But their store offerings vary widely, to say nothing of what you can expect to pay for the stuff on the shelves. The most “complete” general store I ever patronized was Coburn’s, just over the mountain from my erstwhile home in Sharon, Vermont, on Route 132 in the small town of South Strafford.

Coburn’s is one-stop shopping in a vernacular white clapboard building like so many others that dot the landscape in these parts—you can find a decent selection of reasonably priced groceries there, dairy and not-bad-looking produce, and sliced deli meat at the counter in the back. You’ll also find a respectable bottle of Argentinian Malbec, sturdy work gloves, fire starter logs (important for a Southern girl whose fire building skills are wanting), a small newsstand, full-service post office and bank, and two gas pumps out front. Really, what more could anybody need, except possibly longer store hours?

Other communities are not so fortunate. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I had a long-running joke about one general store in particular where we occasionally stopped for gas but avoided the inside of the store like plague because of its rotting produce, overpriced groceries, surly counter help, and general filth. If one of us had to dash inside for something, the other would ask, Need a box of seven-dollar Triscuits? Those folks are doing the locals a disservice and getting away with it because they’re the only game in town.

The best of these small businesses, if they are not running a smooth operation like Coburn’s, have evolved into a modern iteration of themselves, changing with the times if you will. Five Corners is one of them, not too far down the road in the Massachusetts Berskhires, at a busy Williamstown intersection. We had a couple of primo sandwiches there yesterday on our way to Pittsfield erranding. (And you can’t beat the beauty of the Berkshires on a gorgeous summer day.)

Five Corners Market 3 A

Five Corners Market 2 A

To be fair, this exquisite little place is no longer a general store in the true sense of the term. It’s got pricey, gifty stuff, and coolers stocked with high-end charcuterie and cheeses, but you can also grab a half-gallon of milk and a few other necessaries in a pinch. There’s a long, rustic table in the center of the main space where folks plunk down on a wide bench with their laptops and cuppa Joe (which is also top-shelf brew). The sandwiches are interesting (not your average ham and cheese) and the pastry is to die for.

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I’m okay with this version of the general store—there’s no filth in sight, not a single head of expensive rusty iceberg, it’s a creative use of the space, and the building itself has been artfully preserved—it’s better than an empty, derelict building by a long shot, and there are plenty of those around here. You might not see farmers hanging out here, and you shouldn’t expect to buy groceries at this place between city trips to the supermarket. But there is still local community building going on.

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It’s high summer here with the faintest hint of fall in the air, and the produce is exceptional. Which brings me to the Vermont farm stand, another venerable institution, not to be confused with the farmer’s market, which is also seen in abundance in New England communities. But the farm stand as it exists in these parts is new to me—what I know as a farm stand from my life in Tennessee is typically a roadside lean-to (or even the bed of a pickup) purveying a single item, or a couple, from a local farm. You can get incredible seasonal produce if you’re lucky enough to stumble on one of these at just the right moment.

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What I’ve noticed in these parts is a bit more evolved, although the simple roadside farm stand lives here, too. But with the growing season as short as it is, the big, established farms set up seasonal retail shops in respectable quarters with regular hours. Clear Brook Farm is happily about halfway between home and work, a sizeable operation that offers local meat and dairy, lush produce, but also bedding plants, flowers, and landscaping supplies. Their stuff is at its peak about now; some time in late October or thereabouts they’ll close up shop ’til next spring.

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I hate New England winters. There, I said it. Springtime in New England is not the prize, as some have suggested (they have not seen springtime in East Tennessee). This moment in late August—this moment is the prize. The impossibly rocky soil here produces a surprisingly robust and gorgeous summertime yield; it is ephemeral.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may (or hibiscus, if you prefer) and get thee to a local farm stand.

Agricultural Reflections: Cycling on the Battenkill

People here in Vermont are much closer to the land than they are in other states where I’ve lived. The state as a whole is sparsely populated, sparsely developed, and most of us live within spitting distance of at least one working farm. The road where I ride my bicycle is dotted with them, and an occasional gentleman’s farm, abundant second homes for city-dwelling folk in adjacent states, and a smattering of full-time residents.

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About now the second home owners are beginning to trickle back across our state lines and shake the winter out of their riverside cottages. Meanwhile, working life continues unchecked on the farms in the area, whose farmstands will soon overflow with the season’s abundant offerings; we take full advantage—there is nothing like fresh produce just pulled from the ground.

Nolan Farm 1

I love riding past this farm in particular; on Friday I saw firsthand exactly how the rolled hay bales are wrapped in their distinctive white plastic, making them look for all the world like giant marshmallows. The farmer who was bent to this task as I pedalled past expertly speared each bale with his forklift-like machine, wrapping it with a mechanical arm the way a spider does an insect caught up in its web, and then depositing it in a neat pile, all in a matter of seconds.

It was right around suppertime for most people when I passed his place, not yet quitting time for him, with several unwrapped bales to go. The second time I passed I saw that he had finished them all. I wondered what had been set on the table in the cheerful yellow farmhouse just across the road, where hens are always scratching and pecking in the yard, a playset on one side, and toys strewn everywhere: the children in that household are immersed in the life of the American farm.

In my erstwhile home state of Tennessee there are also a lot of farms, but they are removed from city dwellers by geography and by generations. I have deep agricultural roots of my own in Tennessee, traced through my mother’s family, going back past her mother, and her mother’s mother, and two generations beyond them, reaching to her great-great-grandmother’s family, who were apple farmers in an area of Appalachia known as Tuckaleechee Cove: it is picturesque and largely unspoiled, although in recent years has become attractive to developers keen to capitalize on tourism—it is very near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the country.

But it did not take long for a finger of my Irish-born family to migrate towards difficult city life. Their Knoxville neighborhood was and is still known as Mechanicsville, a charming collection of tidy working class Victorian-era homes. The neighborhood got its name because it was home to skilled mechanics employed by the Knoxville Iron Company, area mills, and the railroad, says its historical marker. My forebears were among them, one Dennis Donovan in particular helping to lay some of the first railroad tracks to stretch through downtown Knoxville.

My great-grandmother told me stories about her life in Mechanicsville as a child, but the one that left the deepest imprint on me was the day her younger sister Bess burned her foot badly playing in the alley behind the house, stepping barefoot in the corrosive runoff that is a byproduct of lye soap making. My grandmother’s telling of the story was always so evocative I could almost smell that alleyway, and visualize the episode, the distraught child and her tears, and more likely than not the reprimand that followed, as if any were needed after that. I made her tell it to me again and again.

Not long after the lye soap incident Bess died of dysentery, soon after the deaths of her premature triplet siblings, who lived their short lives on the open door of the kitchen stove: there were no NICUs, nor life-sustaining machinery or modern medicine to save the day. So in the space of less than three weeks my great-grandmother’s parents lost three newborns and a five-year-old child; my great-grandmother Gracie, a couple of years older than Bess, was the sole surviving child in that awful chapter of my family’s life.

Ultimately Mechanicsville itself was doomed, divided by the imposing Interstate 40 when it blazed through Knoxville in the mid-twentieth century. It suffered decline like other neighborhoods of its ilk, but has shown signs of rebounding in the last twenty years as it has ridden the coattails of renewal in other older parts of the city. I wonder whether my grandmother’s family missed the uncluttered landscape of the mountains during their life in Mechanicsville; it is impossible to know.

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Knoxville’s old Mechanicsville is a thousand miles and multiple generations removed from the here and now on Vermont’s Battenkill. Agriculture has its own smells, very different from Victorian-era urban smells, and they are wide open on this stretch of river.

Vermont is attractive, I am told, for people raising families (less so for their college-bound kids, who often leave and do not always choose to return). I understand that appeal, far removed as rural Vermont is from the seamier influences of city life, with its fresher air, agrarian sensibilities and values, and a more intimate sense of community. There are disadvantages: city life has an energy and an abundance of cultural opportunities that elude us here—and in spite of that, the same big-city problems people ostensibly hope to avoid—violent crime, opioid addiction, and even environmental issues—are problems here, too. (Vermont is known for its burgeoning heroin addiction and related problems; and drinking water in wells tainted by none other than industrial waste—very, very close to home—has made national news recently.)

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There is no paradise.

But there is springtime in Vermont along the Battenkill, and for the time being anyway, it is intoxicating in its own glorious way. I don’t know whether generations of my family members in Knoxville, Tennessee forged machine parts that might have made their way north to Vermont; it’s pure speculation, of course, but would be a nice connection were it true.

The land connects us all, though, whatever our provenance.

New York View on the Battenkill 1

Bedlam Farm Takeaways: The Katz Effect

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The spring open house at Bedlam Farm was a couple of weeks ago, Jon Katz and Maria Wulf’s generous semi-annual sharing of their farm and lifestyle with fans, animal lovers, other artisans, and curiosity seekers. I’ve been to three of these now, with gathering interest and meaning, and what I think you could fairly call genuine community building. Jon instigated a creative group using social media some years ago with the idea that the creative itch so many possess is never realized for fear of reprisal. He basically made a safe place for people to exchange support for the creative habit; there is no room for destructive criticism, and the little of that to emerge has been banished from the kingdom in short order. So much beauty has unfolded from the group in the intervening years since its inception: artistic triumphs, some jolly good failures, and several contributors have realized their first professional creative work for the first time ever from within the group’s fold.

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Breakfast at Roundhouse Café, Cambridge, New York

Probably the most exciting thing to come of it though, speaking only for myself, is the opportunity to finally meet so many of these creative and thoughtful people face to face. It happens at Jon and Maria’s to be sure, but the Bedlam Farm bug has pushed beyond its boundaries to include gatherings at the Roundhouse Café in Cambridge, an evening barbecue at the Granville home of a “Farmie” photographer and blogger, and creative workshops, to say nothing of new virtual friendships and collaborations via the World Wide Web, and just plain friendships that have nothing to do with the group. Many in fact are good virtual friends, and now some of us are in-the-flesh friends. The open house is an occasion for those giddy connections to be realized for the first time, and it is a joy to see.

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Red at Roundhouse

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 Fate

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Jon’s Border Collie Red is an amazing creature, and that is all. I never tire of watching him do the work he is driven to do, nor of Jon’s telling of that story to the focused crowds who gather under the enormous tree at the paddock gate to hear it. This time there was Fate, the new puppy whose arrival so many of us followed in the days and weeks leading to the open house; there was understandably much anticipation and excitement to see her. She demonstrated a beautiful and accommodating temperament and work ethic and will grow into a brilliant herding dog, I am sure. Still, I am drawn to Red for his maturity and serious demeanor, matched only by his generosity and affection. I am always struck by his intelligence and now also by his tolerance for a young interloper. They each seem to understand the new world order and comply willingly with it.

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Poet Doug Anderson, Jon

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Tom Atkins

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Kate Rantilla, who understands how I feel about poetry

I’ve been paying closer attention to the open house poetry readings. It’s hard for me. I’ve never been drawn to poetry the way so many are, never attempted to write it unless I had to, and in my prep school and undergrad years tolerated it through the lens of academia, where I always felt I was the last one to catch on. And once the authentic meaning of a stanza was finally revealed, it seemed brilliantly clear. So it was a lesson in humiliation for me, and left me feeling flawed. Prose was always my friend, and felt satisfying to me: we’re drawn to our strengths. Listening to artists from varied backgrounds read their work has been a push in the past; this time something was different. Maybe it’s a sign of personal growth, and that itself is a small triumph. I love that it was Mary Kellogg’s work in particular to serve as the impetus for the start of the creative group; I finally had an accidental and joyous encounter with her in Maria’s studio. She is hugely inspiring and it is no wonder Jon is so smitten with her.

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Mary Kellogg with Jon

Jon Katz’ words are enriching, disturbing, funny, inspiring. He has taken a beating for his position on animals and their place in the lives of people, and for speaking his mind loud and clear. It takes courage. I’ve been there but in a different arena. A wise person once observed, the instant you raise your head above the throng to do a worthwhile thing, people will take shots at it. This is the truth. I’ve experienced it a couple of times, have watched others close to me experience the same. Mainly I shrink from controversy. (Mainly.) The Bedlam Farm takeaway for me is a deeper understanding of the relationship between farmers and animals, and the disconnect for most of the rest of us, who possess only a tiny shred of understanding—if that, even—of animals’ place in the firmament.

Mostly I walk away from Jon and Maria’s feeling enriched. I’d never have heard of the New York City carriage horse controversy were it not for his deep involvement in it, nor of a local farmer whose unrelenting (and unjustifiable) pursuit by local authorities has made recent headlines in these parts, nor of acclaimed photographer George Forss, nor poet Doug Anderson. Nor would I see Maria’s beautiful textiles firsthand, to say nothing of the other participating artists. It’s all part and parcel of an open house weekend at Bedlam Farm.

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The next step for me is the fall workshop ahead of the October open house. I’m taking Jon’s classes on writing and blogging, and I welcome his criticism; I count myself lucky to write for a living, and I want to improve my chops. Ballet has been my world for most of my life, and it can be cruel: you really have to learn to take it on the chin, and there is no hiding in a roomful of mirrors. I think I took that ethic with me to school—academic school—where I always appreciated a paper that came back to me marked up in red. It’s how we become better, stronger writers. In this age of entitlement, it’s a lost value; too bad for an entire generation (or more). I’m also planning to attend the photography leg of the workshop, where I will be on the bottommost rung of a very tall ladder. I know nothing, as you can see here. Tabula rasa. I want to learn, and have until October to find a camera.

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Flo-the-Cat

Bedlam Farm takeaways. The Katz effect. Personal growth. In a few months I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

Promise, Renewal

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Friday was stunning, Saturday overcast, and today cold, rainy, and windy as hell. So windy in fact that a big whoosh felled a tree near the house (good-sized maple), bouncing off Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s new car—big damage—and hitting the ground next to mine, but not before completely taking out a tail light on my Subi and leaving a branch-shaped dent in its roof. So now we have stuff to deal with. Meh. Life goes on, and that part of it is dull as dirt.

What is interesting is the promise of a new life and a new community, vows renewed in a longish weekend that started Friday evening. That photo up there was my attempt to capture the vista—at a particularly delicious time of day—from the upstate New York farm of one Jeff Anderson, photographer, new friend, and fellow “farmie:” the self-describing moniker for a creative group that author Jon Katz jump-started via social media some time ago. Friday late afternoon and evening barbecue at Jeff’s included a trek on his sizeable piece of land, cameras snapping all around willy-nilly, while the photographers among us (I am not one of them) took advantage of incredible imagery near and far.

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The promise of new friendship and community is intoxicating and meaningful. Saturday morning at the Round House Café in Cambridge was life-affirming and meaningful, as was the day spent at Jon and Maria’s place. There was so much to take away, important and meaningful messages exchanged with the gathering of friends yesterday. And today—today marked the (almost) end of my transition out of one place and into another, the loving HCB arising at dawn to brave the wind and rain to drive over to my old place with a friend for the last of my things—the difficult, big, bulky things. More renewal, more adventure.

There were baby woodpeckers nesting deep inside the trunk of the tree that came down this morning. We could hear them squawking, their anguished mother flitting about trying to locate them, and nothing for us to do about it. They will not survive, but will be food for somebody else; I walked away from Bedlam Farm yesterday with renewed sensibilities about animals, people, life. Nature has her own sensibilities.

Meanwhile, I am driven by the promise of not only renewed friendship and community, but also of enrichment, a fall writer’s workshop, encouragement from friends to pick up a camera—a real one—and learn how to make pictures. The creative group is a ministry of encouragement after all. So many new stories to tell. ‘Til soon.

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It’s the Little Things

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I think it must be a function of age and want. I don’t recall ever getting so excited over ripe tomatoes. And crispy local green beans. And fresh ears of corn just arrived from Georgia, and expensive organic strawberries like the pint I bought as a special treat last Friday, and my Sunday morning yoga class. Three years ago, at the threshold of big changes, I was driven by fear and survival (mainly fear), the rug freshly yanked out from under me; those feelings were reprised just last October. The fear remains, but with cautious optimism I am savoring ordinary things with renewed ferocity, things I once took for granted.

It’s also life in Vermont. I love so much about this place, but the jury’s emphatically out on others, to wit: the sun never gets quite overhead on a winter’s day, and darkness comes early. I hate that. Hate. It’s a strong word that should be reserved for occasions when one really means it, like now. And it would be just fine with this Southern girl if we got about a tenth the amount of annual snowfall we get here. And ticks and deerflies—they contribute nothing to the world order except agony, and we’ve got them in droves.

But there is salvation in that tomato, which is almost as tender and juicy and sweet as a Southern-grown tomato. Almost. And when I returned home from my delicious yoga class this morning, I made a delicious salad with it, and a number of other beautiful ingredients, many of them locally grown. It is nothing short of a miracle, in my humble opinion, that the farm I pass twice daily on my commute to and from work was harboring the infant version of that beautiful tomato in one of its many greenhouses, when I was still sliding all over the icy highway using my slow-to-improve Vermontish driving skills. (See fear, above.)

See what I mean? It does not take too much to get me excited these days. Like this salad I made—this salad is pretty dang exciting.

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I will make another similar one and take it to a barbecue potluck in a couple of weeks. That’s exciting, too: being invited to a potluck with new New England friends.

And this is exciting:

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Those are the beautiful layers of pastry stratigraphy in the opera cake (yes, opera cake is a thing) Handsome Chef Boyfriend made and brought home for the second teenagery birthday celebration in the space of only a couple of weeks, this time for the 16-year-old. I think of it as high art. And I am duly impressed with HCB, not just because he can make something that gorgeous and delectable, but because he is also in a period of transition, self-motivated, doing some creative reinventing, moving into the culinary world of sweet after a long and successful career mainly in savory.

Which brings me right back to the little things. When you spend long hours on your feet poring over recipes, scaling out ingredients in a busy commercial kitchen, turning out beautiful baked goods right and left (things for which people sometimes drive long distances), you deserve some time to yourself enjoying the little things.

But HCB tends to latch on to the little things with even more ferocity than I.

Case in point: cake fails. You know the ones: once in a while some hilarious image of a badly decorated cake with raunchy pastry work and egregious grammatical errors floats by on social media. Sometimes it’s a whole collection of them, and I admit they often make me laugh. Yesterday I shared an especially awful one with HCB, which then inspired him to go find others. And others. And still others. This went on for some time; the giggling coming from the vicinity of his desk was contagious, long after I gave up looking at the cakes gone bad.

But then came the other obsession, the one that has gathered intensity of late: eBay.

It started innocently a few weeks ago with teenager number two and a particular piece of outerwear he wanted which costs a king’s ransom if you buy it off the rack in a store. Out of the question. So eBay it was: jacket located, auction won (hooray!), and we thought we were done.

Except when it came, it was not the material we thought it would be, and there was some question whether the teenager would like or want this particular version.

On to auction number two, where HCB once again enjoyed success, and the jacket was much closer to the mark. We gave the boy both for his birthday, and he seemed pretty happy.

Golf clubs, Super Mario Bros. toys (long story), Spanish saffron, car parts—he’s found all of them, and joyously, on eBay auctions. What I find the most entertaining about HCB’s new obsession with this particular flavor of e-commerce is his excited play-by-play description of what is happening near the end of an auction. It’s comical and endearing, even if I have to throw something at him to get his attention. Last night I said I would get a little bell and just whap it every time there’s a bit of auction news:

“I’m the high bidder again!”

<ding!>

“I’m waiting ’til the last 30 seconds!”

<ding!>

“I found a whole boxed set of Audrey Hepburn DVDs for you!”

<ding!>

“Wait, they’re from the UK, nevermind.”

<bummer.>

Tomatoes, eBay, cake fails, deep snow, short winter days, sometimes-sullen teenagers, ever shifting planets. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I are in it together, obsessions notwithstanding, and that’s no small thing.

Farmstand Outing, Big Questions

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I had some loose change rattling around in my pocket this afternoon and precious little else. My fiscal landscape changed dramatically a couple of weeks ago–not by way of a little hiccup, but a big, loud, stinky belch. (It did not even have the decency to cover its gaping mouth.) I realized my cupboard was nearly bare and I had no plan for tonight’s dinner. So I did what any sensible poor person would do and stopped at this beautiful farmstand on my way home from work. No store-bought lettuce for me tonight, no sir. Best to get it while you can, to my way of thinking; before you know it we’ll be dealing with ice and snow and making our peace with anemic-looking winter tomatoes.

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I am a Halloween curmudgeon; to me it’s just an excuse for people who know better to behave badly. I am okay with little kids getting excited about the candy and jack-o-lanterns, but that’s where my enthusiasm ends. Still, who can resist the sight of all those cheerful pumpkins and squash and gourds?

Lately I’ve been thinking about bad behavior in the context of Rosh Hashanah and my annual reading of Gershon’s Monster.  I love the idea of self-examination, atonement, and redemption. For the last couple of years I have had plenty of time to reflect on the notion of bad behavior in varied contexts. When we are children–if we are lucky–we have adults in our lives who help us walk the straight and narrow, and let us know when we are straying from it. When we do there are consequences, and we hopefully learn from them. The same is true when we learn to take a pencil in hand and write. We all need editing when we are starting out, but also continued editing as we move forward.

Who edits us once we’ve struck out on our own, though, when we desperately need it? This is a question that has bothered me for a while now. I would like to think there are natural consequences for transgressions, for being inconsiderate, for hurting others. I remain unconvinced on this point. I think a more likely scenario is surrounding ourselves with people we know will affirm our bad behavior so we can go right on behaving badly. (See Gershon, above.) Poor editing, if you ask me.

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A Vermont farmstand on a sunny fall afternoon is as good a place as any to contemplate life’s big questions. As I said, best to get this bounty while you can. I found that the tough leaves of this beautiful escarole stood in stark contrast to the tender baby arugula I usually buy boxed at the supermarket. What a treat. A couple of late season tomatoes and a few Empire apples finished my sunny afternoon outing.

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Dinner was soup I made from scratch a couple of nights ago the way my Handsome Chef Boyfriend does it, with found ingredients. (He once told me his favorite time to cook is when there is almost nothing left in the pantry.) Some would call it stone soup; I call it kitchen sink soup. It is wicked good, with salad from the farm and iced tea, and soon I’ll finish with a bite of dark chocolate.

And then I’ll think some more about editing.

Mad Tom Apples: Sunday Photo Essay

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My Irish ancestors settled in the Tuckaleechee Cove area of the Great Smoky Mountains in the 19th century and made their living as apple farmers. I wonder how they would view New England’s landscape, where harvesting apples in the fall is woven into the fabric of life and where the topography is at times so evocative of the Smokies. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I and his family picked apples this morning at Mad Tom Orchard in East Dorset: Honeycrisp, Gala, Empire, McIntosh, and Macoun tumbled out of our overfull bags as we moved through rows of still-full trees–it is early in the season. Home again, a family kitchen project yielded magic.

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Finding Family

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This has been a Handsome Chef Boyfriend weekend through and through. I am writing from his place this weekend, hanging around an extra day on the chance I can meet a deadline in a foreign and yet ever familiar environment. It is messy and inconvenient for everybody concerned; tomorrow morning will come early, and I know I will feel at least a litte underfoot as we all launch for the first day of our work and school weeks.

Mainly, though, I feel privileged to be here.

Yesterday I felt privileged to be with HCB’s sweet mama and two of his out-of-town sibs for the afternoon and evening. HCB and I had a purposefully unhurried morning drive to Brattleboro, hoping to hit a few tag sales on our way. I am not ashamed in the least to say that breakfast was a bag of apple cider doughnuts from Clear Brook Farm, eaten straight from our laps in the car, washed down with hot McDonald’s coffee and jokes about lawsuits. We licked the sugar from our fingers and swept crumbs to the floor. Could breakfast be better?

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The cool and  slightly rainy day had prompted merchants to begin breaking down their tents by the time we arrived at the big farmers’ and flea market in Wilmington but we still scored some beautiful yellow mums to take to Brattleboro, along with two gorgeous pepper plants for ourselves, and probably the best tomatoes I’ve seen all summer. Gracie would approve.

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The trees are starting to show color now, especially at higher elevations. We stopped on Hogback Mountain and took in stunning views of the Greens stretching all the way into Connecticut and Massachusetts. I still have a long way to go before I will feel accustomed to Vermont winters but I can never tire of this, which in so many ways reminds me of the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, where I spent the last three decades of my life:

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Time stands still when we are with HCB’s family, a reality that is nice in so many ways. In the last two years I have had occasion to meet many of his extended family members during holidays, at one big wedding, and a summer reunion, where I have tried like crazy to remember names and get a handle on which baby belongs to whom, how many cousins and aunts and uncles there are, how they are all connected. These occasions are loud and happy and push me outside my comfort zone. But I welcome the chance to sit quietly and chat with HCB’s mama and his sibs with no distractions. Yesterday was like that–lots of conversation, a few household chores, a rainy day of watching scores of birds avail themselves of an abundance of seeds in the backyard feeders.

We finished the day in the company of a crowd of hardy Vermonters gathered at the Evening Star Grange in Dummerston for a chicken and biscuit dinner, courtesy of HCB’s mama. This multi-generational phenomenon–the chicken dinner–was new to me on my arrival in New England. You can find them in churches and community centers all over the place (and in this case, the grange, which you will see has its roots in agriculture as a social, community, and political meeting place, if you Google it). I have observed signs scrawled in marker and poked in the ground on street corners announcing these dinners, which are open to anyone inclined to go. A modest fee gets you a ticket at the door; once inside you hand it over and in turn receive more food and dessert than you can shake a stick at, as Gracie would say, second helpings offered generously while supplies last. We sat at long tables dressed in checkered tablecloths and enjoyed the kind of dinner I could easily imagine a group of people a century ago might have also.

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There is also a palpable, down-home sense of community. Lots of people know each other and shout friendly greetings. Last night a gentleman asked a woman in line ahead of us whether she had ever gotten her new bathtub installed. Nope, she smiled, it’s not time for my annual bath yet! That, friends, is deliciously Vermont. There are also plenty of folks who do not know each other, but who make each other’s acquaintance by the end of the evening if they’ve broken bread together at the same table.

The singular experience of immersion in a social network of this sort, or a huge extended family gathering, was never really part of my childhood. My brother and I had a few cousins, none of them close to our age, and we really only had limited exposure to them and to other members of our extended family. A week in summer and the occasional Christmas away from home–that pretty much describes our extended family life. It was not a bad experience–just a different one.

Now I find myself coming into a different kind of fold. I sat with a very close friend of HCB’s family at a wedding brunch a little over a year ago. We talked for a long time about varied topics, but the conversation ultimately found its way to family, to this family.

“They absorb you,” he told me, with a broad smile.

I’ve never been happier to be absorbed.

Clear Brook Farm, 180 Degrees

IMG_20140720_115217We are spoiled in Vermont during the summer growing season with an abundance of gorgeous produce to be had in local Saturday farmers’ markets and elsewhere. (I am okay with being spoiled, or spoilt as a Southern friend likes to say; the flip side of that is Vermont winter.) I have observed before that the farmers’ markets here are a bit different than the ones I frequented in the South–the food is maybe a little fresher, more abundant, and the selection of plant species is better. I think this is owing in large part to Vermont’s agrarian economy, and also the strength of its dairy industry.

The other local outlet for all that produce is the farmstand. When I think of this the way I did in the South, I imagine a guy selling a couple of items off the back of his pickup (or crudely constructed lean-to, if we are being generous) on the side of a suburban highway. The produce–peaches, watermelon, strawberries, et al.–can be amazing. But his farm is usually somewhere far away.

Here the farmstand is more of an institution that is built (literally) right on the farm, and significantly, most of the food on its shelves is grown right there. Once in a while I find myself driving past this one, which I love and patronize when I can.

Lately I have been reading Michael Pollan’s writing about food, about how disconnected we have come from the farm, how processing has had an impact on American obesity, and about moderation. I hope to write more about this in the near future. One thing is certain about buying from local farms (which Mr. Pollan advocates): it is expensive. Being on a tight budget demands balancing quality with frugality. This can be a huge challenge. I find myself always looking for new ways to live small, but well. I think Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I do a fair-to-middlin’ job of this, as we say down South.

Yesterday we visited the Clearbrook Farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont. We found the first peaches of the season (imported from Georgia, not yet ripe enough to eat), along with some beautiful corn on the cob, tomatoes, and lettuce, which formed the bulk of our dinner last night. I did not do the math, so I don’t know exactly how the cost of our beautiful summer dinner would stack up against something made with ingredients purchased exclusively from the supermarket (but far less than dinner out, to be sure). And what we ate was supplemented by ingredients HCB had on hand already. I still like the idea of shopping for a meal, buying local, eating well, and feeling good. Much more to come.

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