the year of the year

24 December 2007

Perhaps we are now at the end of the year of the year. Too many writers recently have taken on one-year projects of deprivation or exploration and learned about themselves and the direction and purpose of their lives. Often the products were interesting, but the trope itself has become a bore.

Are food and farm writers more inclined in this direction than others? Or is it present in every subject area, and I just read more food and farm writers?

Happily, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was a delight to read, as is most everything she writes. I don’t know about Plenty by the 100-mile-diet couple, as it has yet to migrate from my books to read list, but I hear good things.

The Year of the Goat, though. Eh. It was fine, I guess. The author was eager and naive, traveling around the country to learn from people raising goats for dairy, fiber, or meat. I read, wide-eyed and hopeful for and with her. But somewhere along her year-long journey with her fiancée, the author’s project and writing were sidetracked by wedding plans. I wish she’d stuck with the goats.

Sometimes I wonder if my interests are esoteric, and then along comes a popular book about goats and I wonder if instead my interests are overly trendy. Generally I hope that more people will care about things like farming, and local food, and the other things that excite me, but I have my cranky old bastard side, too (or whatever the female version of that is). She shows up at the farmers’ market, where I’m glad for the farmers and the planet and the future of the species that crowds are lining up on drizzly Sundays for wintertime produce from farms a few miles away, but then I’m irked that I’m not the only one at the table.

I guess the books that focus on farming and eating and ecology and community in year-long bits are inspiring others for longer spans of time. If they’re going to keep writing year-long books, though, could someone publish “My year of not stepping on the toes of heavily burdened women carrying young children, and other kindnesses at the farmers’ market”?

Flat Stanley gets lost in Seattle

3 December 2007

Flat Stanley visited us this week. He’s a children’s book character who inspired a literacy and geography project for elementary school classes.

Our visitor arrived from LaRue, Ohio, home to my cousin Natalie’s family. Her daughter Avery sent Stanley to visit my daughter Meg. We took him on a tour of Seattle inspired by the book Larry Gets Lost in Seattle.

Stanley wrote a letter to Avery, telling her about his tour. Here’s the letter:
Continue Reading »

the creeps

26 November 2007

We arrived late for our movie, and the lights already were down. We were new at going by ourselves and didn’t know the etiquette. Afraid of disturbing others, we slunk into back-row seats at our local movie house.

Once our eyes adjusted, we noticed a man one row in front of us. He wore a beige Members Only jacket and had dark, shiny hair, possibly combed over. He might have been in his forties.

We probably wouldn’t have been aware of him, except that he turned around and started whispering to us. I don’t remember what he said, except that it was vaguely sexual.

He gave us the creeps.

We didn’t know what to do. Nobody ever warned us about inappropriate attention from grown men, or what to do about it. We weren’t assertive. We were 12.

We decided to leave, and went to the worn red lobby to ponder what to do. Our parents were unreachable. We didn’t think it made sense to tell the popcorn seller, and didn’t know what to say anyway.

So we sat, expecting to wait out the whole movie in the lobby. A few minutes later — probably just long enough for him to decide that we’d be back already if we’d just headed to the bathroom — the guy walked out and gave us an easy farewell. We went back in and watched the show, and met my parents out front afterwards.

Once I saw rage sparkle in my dad’s eyes I understood that our actions were understated and wrongheaded. My dad’s actions — driving us around town trying to find the guy — were overstated and wrongheaded. I still didn’t know the proper response.

That wasn’t the last sexual assault my friend and I experienced. A couple of years later, she survived a rape attempt. A coworker attacked her at her school bus stop, slashing her throat with a box knife as she fought him off. In high school, I sat frozen in a passenger seat as a college lifeguard I’d recently met pulled off the road on the way back from our first (and only) date and maneuvered to lie on top of me.

Not until college did anyone offer tips for dealing with predatory behavior, and then it was only to advise repeatedly what I came to call the “don’t-rape-me walk”: hold your head high and look passing pedestrians in the eye.

As the parent of a daughter, I’m responsible for preparing her for the possibility of violence, including sexual assault. It’s not easy to think about, but avoiding it puts her in greater danger.

Gavin De Becker’s book Protecting the Gift addresses what dangers our children might encounter, dispelling worry in favor of preparedness.

Though De Becker advises that one of the most powerful words a girl can learn is “No,” I would have been prepared to deal appropriately with that guy in the theatre (and the creeps who came after) if I could have said “yes” more than once in response to his Test of Twelve, a tool that helps evaluate a child’s readiness to be out alone. I want my daughter to be able to say no to the creeps, and yes to every question on that test.

silence as assent

2 November 2007

David Allen has been getting a lot of press, including a recent piece in Wired magazine, for the productivity tips he offers in the book Getting Things Done.

I think GTD has improved my sense of control over life in the two and a half years since I implemented a “trusted system.” But as huge a change as it has created in how I deal with my “stuff,” the most interesting thing I’ve read by Allen isn’t in the book. It’s part of his company’s principles and it’s this:

“Silence means we’re OK with what’s going on.”

gaining perspective

1 November 2007

This journal is about books that inform and inspire me. I often find it in an inviting story or a cogent argument — in words. I didn’t expect to find it in pictures.

I’ve read most of the books in our daughter’s library tens of times. Only a few interest me after the first. But I’m probably on the one hundred and eleventh reading of Each Peach Pear Plum. It hasn’t always been in heavy rotation as it is now, but it was one of her first books, and years before she was born I read it frequently to another child in my care.

The text is simple. The plot is minimal. The characters are undeveloped. So why do I so like this book? The illustrations are captivating.

The book’s first illustration is a landscape — a few hills, two houses, a stream, a wheat field, an orchard. Every subsequent page is illustrated. On one leaf is a vignette, on the other, a scene. The scene is from a perspective within that first landscape. The landscape maps the world of the story, and the scene is a pinpoint on the map.

The illustrator gets the perspective just right. What you see from every window or hilltop or bridge is what you would expect to see based on the relationship of locations in the landscape.

My daughter is interested in the book’s rhyme and rhythm, and in the repetition of its reading. I’m fascinated by a setting so carefully crafted that it could be a real place.

the attachment village

14 September 2007
Queen Anne houses
photo: Amy Smith

In Hold On to Your Kids, Gordon Neufeld describes attachment villages as places where children are attached to their parents and through that attachment, connected to other adults; where values are passed from adults to children; where extended families live nearby and children are part of community where all generations participate in cultural activities. Since attachment villages generally no longer exist naturally, he suggests that we need to re-create them consciously, so that our children grow up surrounded by caring adults.

I’ve given some thought to what this means for my family. One thing it has meant is that I have begun scheduling regular time for my daughter and me to spend with family friends. I have chosen people to see regularly who have similar parenting values, who care about my daughter, whose children I care about, and with whom I want to be close. I’m considering how and whether to expand this effort. As much as I want many strong connections for my daughter and value the friendships for myself, I also want to preserve some unstructured time in our lives.

I’ve discussed with other families how we might build connections as whole families, including members who are working during the day. This is something I struggle with, as I don’t know how to balance getting enough time with my own family and having time with others. We’re protective of the time we have as a family, since there’s relatively little of it. We see some friends socially, but not often enough or consciously enough to build those connections.

Another piece of village building for me has been strengthening ties with extended family. I have some family that I value greatly, but who live at quite a distance. As a result, I used to visit them only every few years. When my daughter was born, I started traveling with her to see them each year for a couple of weeks. I also have put a great deal of thought and energy into how to improve my own attachments to my parents and parents-in-law to support the attachment that my daughter has to them.

your market
photo: Amy Smith

Finally, I’ve been thinking about the people who are less immediately part of our lives, but nevertheless part of our community. This part is sometimes challenging to me, since I am socially reserved. We’ve recently moved, and I’ve decided that I want to know families who live nearby. We introduce ourselves to people at the park and on walks. I’m connecting to more neighborhood moms through a neighborhood email group. Meg and I shop at the farmers’ market each week, and I’ve been making the effort to learn the names of people from whom we regularly buy our food, and learn more about them and their farms. I’ve worked directly with a farm to create a community supported agriculture program for buying our meat, and we’ve connected with that farming family. We buy from small businesses in my neighborhood and introduce ourselves and talk to the owners.

My aim is to create a context of caring adults in which to raise my girl. How do you create your attachment village?

a meaningful life

12 September 2007

My aim for this journal is to capture ideas and make connections between them. Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture is an apt starting place because it thoughtfully addresses many things I care about and coherently relates them. I begin with the hope that I can do the same.

Near the end of The Unsettling of America, Berry writes that “it is the overwhelming tendency of our time to assume that a big problem calls for a big solution. I do not believe in the efficacy of big solutions.” He follows this statement with a list of a dozen proposals for solving the big problem of industrial agriculture that he has described throughout the book as being both evidence and cause of disease in ourselves, our communities, and the world. Each of his proposals is ambitious, though arguably “small”. Taken together, they manifest his confidence in a much larger vision of a fundamental shift in our culture such that it would rest on the existence and health of a nation of small family farms.

Berry stands with Jefferson in his belief that “as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state”. I have a fantasy of living on a couple of acres with chickens, goats, bees, and vegetables, so there is much of his vision that’s appealing to me. Still, it wouldn’t work for my family to leave this city and move to the countryside. I have ties to the place I live, as I think most people do. Even if we could un-tether ourselves from our urban lives, where would we go that would allow us the connection to our families’ history, tradition, and heritage that Berry suggests is attendant with a connection to the land? Within my family, that cultural inheritance was disrupted at least a generation ago. With our link to the knowledge of country life broken, and new connections to city life forged, a mass migration from city to countryside significant enough to create the rural-based society Berry advocates seems unlikely.

If we can’t return ourselves and our nation to our agrarian roots, what can we do to heal the cultural wounds he describes – wounds that are as much ecological, communal, and personal as they are agricultural? As I read The Unsettling of America, my own answer came in the form of a question: “What are you doing now?”

The question originated in my reading of Joel Salatin’s You Can Farm. Salatin writes that he is often asked for advice on how to get started farming, and he always responds, “What are you doing now?” He suggests that regardless of your location or other limitations, there are many ways to make farming part of your life.

Though, like the question, this “answer” relates to farming, for me its scope is much broader. “What are you doing now?” is a prompt to identify what I can do in this moment, in this place – to sustain myself, my family, my community, and my world.

This is a profound shift in focus for me, because for my entire adult life I have been looking forward to a future in which I will be doing useful and meaningful work. Only upon becoming a mother did I feel the value of the work I was already doing. As I ponder my growing desire for work in addition to mothering a toddler, I am still looking to the future and what I might become with more education or more time or more something, but I am also able to envision what I can do with what I already have.

So here are a few of the things that I can do, and am doing now. I write, and I feel a sense of pride and satisfaction in that. I create an “attachment village” – a concept from Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s Hold on to Your Kids (more on that later). I get to know my neighbors. I feed my family from local produce, and I know the people who raise it.

These actions help me love where I live and bring more of what I want here, in the words of a friend. They are expressions of and contributions to a meaningful life.