We woke up to rain. Big droplets clinging to the rhododendron and sunflowers outside the bedroom window. Every day on the weekend I ask myself the same thing: Should we stay home and clean, or leave and spend money?
It would be a stay home and clean kind of day.
Usually I welcome fall with open arms. If the fact that we named our daughter ‘Autumn’ is any indication…But this year I’m just not as warm to fall. The summer was long, and scorching. One of our farm cats perished in the 108 degree heat. More positively, we managed to get some family time in with loved ones. Long overdue visits and quality connections as we somehow managed to not even get the Coronavirus. Several times, I thought we had. This most recent time impacted A’s experience at preschool — she missed her first whole week. Over a cold. But we rolled with it. Rolling with it is just the way now. Things change all the time. With headlines like, “National Guard Deployed to Drive School Busses in Massachusetts” and “UN is seeking $606 Million in Emergency Aid for Afghanistan After Taliban Takeover,” we’re living in a totally new reality. Disappointments are common place.
I started gardening this summer. With a lot of cooperation from my fiancé and our neighbors, a plot of food erected itself, now in view from our bedroom window, beyond the rhododendron and sunflowers. My life is layered and rich. We have tomatoes and peppers piling up in the kitchen, and are running out of freezer space. I’m going to miss the days of summer…stretching on and on. Brown shoulders. Blackberries. Golden sunsets.
With the rain, the environment feels to have shifted beyond its allotted amount while we slept. The moon when I last looked was half full — now it appears almost completely full. It is waxing and ready to shine. Last night, a coyote was howling — more like yelping — and it wouldn’t stop. I went outside to make sure it wasn’t down with the chickens, having a feast and tipping us off with its cries. Barefoot on the dry pale grass, it felt like no one was aware of this animal but me. It was ten o’ clock at night and everyone else was sleeping. I shone my cellphone flashlight in the general direction of the coyote — like what was that going to do? When I went back inside and crawled into bed, the yelping suddenly stopped.
Maybe the coyote doesn’t want summer to end, either.
This pandemic, hanging over us like a curse, feels just a little lighter in the summer. We can pretend that things are sunny, even when they’re not.
Then I came across this quote, which I felt echoed the changing season:
“Historically, the Waxing Gibbous Moon symbolized the concept of ‘final steps.’ It is a time of the month in which people strive to complete their projects, just as the moon strives to become full. As such, it represents the hardest part of the month for many people. How the Waxing Gibbous Moon behaves is instructional for our lives. For instance, it doesn’t require the hard work of change. Instead, it trusts nature and energies and always transitions to the full moon, without fail. Thus, we should try to do the same.”
The words were an antidote. Meant to counteract the insecurities I am currently feeling about Autumn being in preschool and, more specifically, my routine changing as a result of that. I used to be on the farm all the time, now I will be in town two days per week, minimum. A temporary sacrifice to provide Autumn with her Montessori preschool experience. I don’t want to give up my work-from-home life, but when quotes like the above one jump out at me, I’m sensing that I need to adapt. I need to have some faith that something good can come from being in town. (It just goes against my instincts. Hashtag hillbilly.)
I will leave you with this, “Through the unknown, we find the new.” If you, like me, are feeling negative about the future because you just can’t predict it; then what better time to attract the things–and places–that feel right to us? My life is a blank page, waiting to be filled with all the right things. Finally, at thirty five years old, I feel like I can trust myself to choose wisely what will ground me. No matter where I am.
At the beginning of June we went home to visit my roots. We drove the four hours from here to Northern California. I didn’t just see my dad, but I revisited the land that, in some respects, raised me. The waters that taught me how to swim. The trees that taught me how to climb. The land that taught me how to respect it. Or at least, how to see it. How to listen.
Autumn and I spent one sunny morning away from the campsite and on the sandy banks of the Smith River. Usually extremely cold in early June, the water was fine. The deep jade pools were manageable to swim in wetsuit-less, because the snow melt had been so little. I wasn’t expecting it, but I’d worn my blue one-piece Speedo just in case. I also brought along my mask and goggles. Plus one extra pair. The others stayed with the children on the shore, while my friend Alice (we’d worked together at the Oregon Caves) and I swam and snorkeled.
We traversed the widest part of the river. A front-stroke and dive ever so often to catch a glimpse underneath the glasslike water. We took our time. Reaching the other side, sea-lioned atop two slabs of rock, we waved big mama waves to our little ones–who now appeared even smaller–on the sandy shore. They waved back.
We leisurely swam up stream, underneath Second Bridge, and my body pointed–briefly–in the direction of home. My true north. Alice didn’t know it, but a roaring gorge was further up the canyon. An impassable part of the river for most, and certainly for me. A passage that a male cousin of mine rafted down once, and swore he’d never do again. A passage that Dad ran on an inflatable air mattress. So many stories. So many laughs. So many dives this life of mine has taken.
I dove to the bottom of the river and dug my palms into the satiny sand. Eyelids safe inside my airtight mask, I let the sand sift through my fingers, certain that no other person had touched this exact pile of sand before. My feet rested on the bottom. I briefly wondered if Alice might want to play underwater tea-party, like us kids did when we were young, in this very river.
But Alice was floating on her back under the bridge. And in a few short weeks she’d be flying back to Germany.
The river back home, near our farm, was shoulder high and a little murky.
I pushed up from the riverbottom with my right foot, darting toward the surface, light filtering through the water the same way it did in nearby redwood groves. Coming up, I blew hard on the snorkel, and water blasted toward the blue sky. I was a little out-of-practice, but it was coming back already. The snorkeling.
(I was a fish. I’d almost forgotten.)
Back on the shore, Alice and I nursed the little ones, and dug our legs into the almost-hot sand. Satisfied smiles rested on our faces. A man and two women around our age showed up. They shook their towels out on the sand and pulled out their phones.
We had our phones too, of course. We had all snapped a few photos together, snorkel on my head, dry hair. I’d taken a few photos of Autumn exploring the shoreline. The same shoreline I’d first dipped my toes into.
We politely tried not to notice as the two women, probably our age, took off their layers and walked to the edge of the shore. Tip toeing on the river rocks, they held their phones in their hands. “Jump in!” Their companion hollered. “It’s not cold when you get in. It’s cold when you get out.”
I shivered, thinking: he’s totally right.
The women waded into the river carefully, up to their waists. They could have been locals. I’m sure they loved this river. Who was I to judge. Then one of the women tipped back her head just enough to wet her hair up to her hairline. She motioned for her friend to take her photo. They wanted, we all gathered from the shore, to capture that slicked-back, wet “look.”
The background was striking: deep pools of emerald-teal water. But from this vantage point, having just come from that same water, I worried that the women were missing something. Not seeing. Not hearing.
It wasn’t long before they got out of the water and huddled together on their towels, noses in their phones. I’m not saying I don’t relate to them, I do. I do relate to them, and that’s what I’m saying.
Just not on this day.
On this day the snapshot I took was scooping two handfuls of silky sand into my palms, and letting my past filter through my fingertips.
On this day the snapshot I took was my inhale/exhale through the snorkel as my body cut through the surface of the water.
So the contrast of these two things: the realness of that, of what I’d just experienced, and the falseness of a pretty photo, well, it got me thinking. Doing it for the ‘Gram is fine. But doing it for yourself is 100% better. It’s something I’ve always known, and now I feel compelled to share. Whatever it is, I’m in it for the realness of it. A pretty picture is just a bonus.
I have this thing where I ask myself: Do I need to make my world big today, or do I need to make my world small today? Big days are off-farm days. Small days are days like today.
I am mostly a small day kind of person. For me, it’s not about adding things, it’s about subtracting them. (Of course I sometimes–maybe even often–forget this and try to fill the void with material things or quick distractions.)
In-between housework and Zoom calls and farming and writing, I have been reading a book titled “Hare Krishna in America.” I am neck-deep in the memoir-writing process now, and I have a three day retreat upcoming at the end of June. Going into that memoir rewriting retreat, I want to better understand what Krishna Consciousness is. What Krishna Consciousness has meant to other Americans. I write about my narrow slice of experience with Krishna Consciousness in my memoir extensively, but I have always lacked a birds-eye view of the religion (or cult; even the label is controversial). The author, E. Burke Rochford, Jr., immersed himself in Krishna Consciousness in the late 1970s. Rochford worked to maintain his position as an un-bias journalist, while experiencing all that one would experience undergoing the transformation–the journey to becoming–a Hare Krishna devotee in America.
The scenes that Rochford describes echo my experiences. They tell me that those memories I have written down are true. In many instances, Rochford is referring to temples whose grounds I have walked on with my own bare feet. And perhaps most astoundingly, he describes Krishna Consciousness as a sect of Hinduism that branched in large part due to beliefs of inclusivity: Hinduism as a religion adhered to the idea that only members of a certain caste could achieve spiritual liberation.
“Caitanya preached that all people, regardless of their caste or station in life, could be self-realized through their activities performed in the service of Krishna.” E. Burke Rochford, Jr.
It was no wonder why my twenty-five year old father, who was set apart due to a disability he suffered, in conjunction with a near-death experience, was (and still is) drawn to Krishna Consciousness. Given the background that I am learning about, through this book and other personal stories I am reading about online about Krishna Consciousness in America, it is easy to see how Dad extracted so much meaning, and so much hope, from the Movement. Many Americans, disillusioned with their own culture, did and still do derive meaning from Krishna Consciousness.
In a final act of transparency, my good friend who will also be completing the writing retreat with me in June, is writing about her childhood raised in another counterculture, one that is more commonly perhaps than Krishna Consciousness, referred to as a cult. That group was the Children of God. For fourteen years I have known this friend and we have connected over many things but this, somehow, the shared experience of being raised in very strict religious households or communes, was never at the center of our dialogue. Until now.
~ ~ ~
I have been having a hard time sleeping at night. I just don’t want to sleep or go to bed. I find it boring. Life is so much more interesting right now. My creative and emotional energy is high. I can’t quite put my finger on why. So after I nurse Autumn to sleep, too tired to write, I’ve been watching This is Us, an NBC family drama streamed from Hulu.
In it, the character Randall is reconnecting with his biological father, who disappeared from his life almost as soon as he was born. (If you know anything about my personal journey, it is easy to see why I feel kinship with this character. I, too, lost a biological parent very early on.) Anyway, there is a hilariously embarrassing scene where Randall is trying to express an artistic part of him that he believes is somewhere inside him, because his father was so artistic, he must be too. Randall is clearly trying to win his fathers approval, and bridge the years between them in a very short amount of time. It is painful to watch, because Randall sings a song and plays piano in front of a live audience, and totally bombs it. His intentions were good, but Randall momentarily lost sight of his strengths, of who he is, and how to best express himself. The vulnerability in that scene is heartbreaking, and heartening.
I can relate.
Sometime in 2013 or so, I took my poetry in front of a live audience. I didn’t rehearse like I should have. I think I cried. I think I’ve cried every time I’ve recited my poetry in front of a live audience. People I knew and loved were there. They told me “good job,” but, probably, they felt kind of sorry for me. My performance fell flat.
I should have asked myself that day, “Do I need to make my world big today, or do I need to make my world small today?”
I am a small day kind of person. Recently, someone asked me what my “happiness trigger” was. My answer: peace and quiet. Does that count?
I don’t know if it’s the Hare Krishna in me. The little calm devotee. But I am getting more and more comfortable with who I am, and saying “forget it,” to who I am not. I am not a performer. I am a writer. It is time to edit. To cut. To whisper. To be quiet in my surroundings, and loud and performative on the page.
My mind is poised toward this writing retreat, and my daily happenings are becoming more and more narrowly focused toward this one goal of sharing my story, my memoir, with the world.
Friday always punctuates the end of our work week. We always get plenty of time on the farm during the weekend, and these days rarely even leave the farm, but Friday is special because we take our weekly poultry delivery to Eugene.
Last Friday, after our delivery, I pulled up our long gravel drive, parked next to the white Dodge truck that never leaves the farm, and noticed a duckling lying outside of its poultry tractor out on the pasture. Although it is rare, I immediately figured it must have died inside of the tractor somehow, maybe suffered a trampling from other ducklings last night, and Steve had placed it outside the tractor before heading to work in the morning. He must have forgotten to go and chuck it in the blackberry bushes on the edge of the property, our standard way of handling the rogue dead duckling or chick. That way a coyote, or whoever eats those things, could get it. Back to nature.
I helped Autumn out of her car seat and started unpacking some of the groceries. I hollered to Autumn from our back door, when I noticed she had neared the poultry tractor. She was standing, staring down at the duckling.
“I’m just looking at the duck, mama,” she told me.
“Okay…” I responded wearily, and approached. “Honey that duck die—” just as I was about to finish saying “died,” the duck blinked.
I looked at its body: pale-yellow, stiff, big, blue veins. I looked at the sky: gray, wet, big droplets of rain. The other ducklings were moving around inside the tractor, they were dry, but this guy. This guy had gotten wet. He was freezing. He was barely alive.
And by default, I knew we were to blame. I just wish these things didn’t have to happen, ever.
I didn’t have time to wonder what went wrong. The duck hadn’t blinked again. He was not visibly breathing. He was barely hanging on. My mind began to grip on to what I knew was in store for me…a mercy kill.
I took one or two breaths, devising a plan, and then grabbed Autumn’s rubber chore gloves from the mudroom. I handed them to her. I knew the task of putting those rubber gloves over every single one of her eight fingers and two thumbs would take enough of her attention—and time—that I could sever the ducklings head on the chopping block, or near it, with an ax before she noticed.
Because I hate suffering more than death. I’d had to do this before, mind you. Not only here on our farm, but when I worked on a larger poultry farm for a season. (The more ducks, the more death. And ducklings, actually, tend to fair better than baby chicks do. Mercy kills? It all just comes with the territory.)
Based on the ducklings visible paralysis, and the fact that its beady black eyeballs were a notch closer to gray than black, I had confidence that I was making the right decision—though I could not know for sure.
Nonetheless, I carefully carried the duckling in my gloved hands over to a grassy area near the chopping block. I was already chanting the Mahamantra. As a kid with one foot in the Hare Krishna Movement, old habits die hard.
I remembered a time when I was eight years old and my dad was called on by a neighbor to put a kitten who’d snapped their neck out of its misery. I have no doubt that as he placed the writhing kitten on the chopping block, he was saying the same thing under his breath: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
There is something about how when you say that, God has their hand in carrying the soul over to be reincarnated. Or something like that.
“If you’re ever dying,” Dad told me. “Just think of God.”
If you’re ever killing. Just think of God.
A couple of minutes later, though, the conviction in my choice to kill the duckling (rather than try to resuscitate him) was brought into question again as I rounded the corner of the poultry tractor to find three more ducklings, two splayed out, and one barely holding upright, in the rain. I eyed the heat lamps that were inside the tractor, unplugged. I would plug them in, even though we usually only kept the lights on at night. It was still early in the season. The real problem wasn’t the heat lamps, though. It was how these four Pekin ducklings got out from under cover in the first place, and into the rain. That’s what had gotten them.
Wet duck. Wet duck meant that I had to take two more stiff, nonresponsive ducklings to the chopping block, defeated. They must have wriggled their way through a small gap in the chicken wire. They were out in the rain the entire day while we were out running errands. I identified the hole, then wrapped the wire around a small nail a few times, hoping to secure it temporarily. Though it didn’t look like any more ducklings were trying to get out.
“Honey, I want you to go inside and get your rain jacket,” I said as I carefully handled the ducklings, placing them in an empty rubber tub to carry over near the chopping block.
Should I have dried them with a blowdryer? I knew placing them under the heat lamps they would just get trampled on. The one duckling, the upright one I was trying to save, was holding court under a lamp in the north corner of the tractor and the other ducklings seemed, more or less, to be leaving him alone. (Eventually he would die, too.)
The other two were mostly muerto, however. To give you some sense of the scale, these ducklings were from a group of one hundred and fifty ducklings. I just wanted to get the business done and go get started on dinner.
“I’m so sorry buddy,” I said to the ducklings, breaking my habitual, under-the-breath chanting. (Clearly a coping mechanism.)
I repeated what I did with the first duckling: placing it down in the grass, instead of directly on the chopping block. I thought that it might have some semblance of habitat as it crossed over. I wasn’t sure if I was making the right choice, but I was making a choice, which, sometimes, is the best one can do.
Later, Googling “hypothermia in ducklings,” I learned that one thing I could have tried was filling the sink with warm water, then gently placing the duckling, holding it’s head above water, into the sink. Had I done that times four, I might have saved the day. I’m not saying I was happy with my choice to cull them outright. And now that the experience has resulted in me gaining more knowledge about what to do next time, I feel good about that. As good as a farm mama can feel just having put baby things “out of their misery.”
“Did you use the ax on the ducks in the grass?” Autumn asked me, having retrieved her purple rain jacket with the rabbit ears in good time.
It was a literal observation that I didn’t have a good answer to. “Honey, sometimes animals die, okay?” I tried, and then we went to toss their carcasses to the coyotes (kie-yotes) and finish bringing in the groceries.
Dreams of a Rocking Pony is the first self-published title I feel really good about putting out there and promoting. Not one single typo, cover-to-cover, glossy finish, attractive artwork, “Luminare Press” stamp at the bottom of the first, beautiful blue page. The book makes me feel alive. It makes me feel like me. The me who writes–and publishes–books.
But I can’t really take the credit…money can.
I have been writing poetry, essays, memoir and children’s books for well over a decade. I began writing in high school, and in 2023 I will have been out of high school for 20 years! I have multiple projects just sitting in my writing den collecting dust bunnies. There’s the big project, a memoir, which I have spent most of my creative time on: I’ve workshopped it, critiqued it, hired a professional editor, had my best writing friend beta read it, and I’m critiquing it again, now. It still doesn’t feel perfect, but in August I will be pitching it at a professional writers’ conference. (Fingers and toes all crossed.)
My other projects include: “Do Nothing, Alone,” a children’s book on meditation, “Earthside and Other Everyday Miracles,” a collection of essays, “Mama Bird,” a farm memoir…I also have two other projects that don’t have names, but tons of material has already been written for those books, too.
Dreams isn’t the best representation of my work. (I realize that saying this risks putting you in the position of not wanting to buy the children’s book. But don’t let what I’m about to say stop you, just hear me out.) Dreams is the best representation of my grandmother, the illustrator’s, work. The book also illustrates the level of professionalism that comes from hiring a publisher to print it, and what a little money, used with the right intention, can do.
This experience–publishing Dreams–will probably change my outlook on self-publishing forever. In short, I will never do the formatting, cover design, and publishing work again all on my own. I will only hire professionals from here on out…as long as I can afford to. (And if I can’t afford to, I will save the money until I can!)
My first two self-published titles–Love, Blues, Balance and New Moon, were 100% free and 100% created by me. It was a painstaking process formatting the pages, creating a table-of-contents, and getting it all to line up appropriately formatting-wise on KDP (Amazon’s direct publishing platform). I don’t even think that one of the books has page numbers. It was perfect at the time, however, because it cost me nothing. It was a good experience and I had fun. Especially designing the covers.
But I didn’t LOVE the books. I could see all the little errors.
Fast-forward 5 years and my grandmother and I have just co-created Dreams. (I wrote about that experience here, in my previous blog post.) We joked about having the book published for real and I knew that self-publishing a children’s book myself through KDP was going to be a challenge. Publishing a book with illustrations was next level! I would need some help.
Honestly at first, when I got the price quote, I tabled the idea for many months. The pandemic was dragging on and on and, finally, while taking stock of my life and priorities, I decided that publishing a book with my grandmother was the thing I wanted to do most. My intentions around book publishing came into clearer focus when I received an unexpected financial boost. And yet the entire experience has taught me that I should value my work enough to have it bound professionally, even if I have to save money all year to do it.
Writers write. Book cover designers create book covers. Publishing presses print books. I learned through all of this to let others do what they do best. And then do what you do best. For a long time, I thought I had to become all of those other things…just to bring my words into the light. Now I know better. Now I see the piles of dusty papers in my writer’s den from a new, more optimistic, angle. They will, someday, get published. And I credit this book, Dreams of a Rocking Pony, for teaching me a valuable lesson about writing and publishing: That for 1/3 the price of a used car, I can bind–and sell–a beautiful freaking book.
By the time you get around to reading this I hopefully will have packaged up about 25 pre-orders of “Dreams of a Rocking Pony,” shipping them off to Cottonwood, Arizona; West Palm Beach, Florida; and Austin, Texas, to a name a few. The book is going to some cold places too, like Billings, Montana, which is currently buried in snow.
In light of this incredible milestone of publishing a book with my grandmother, I wanted to share the story of what got us here, of how we came to complete this passion project, together.
In the Spring of 2019, when Autumn was just a few months old, we were visiting her Great Grandmother Peggy (I’ve always just called her “Peggy”). Peggy had recently, in the last year or so, completed a series of paintings of whimsical, playful animals. She was a lifelong painter so this was no surprise. Then Peggy made copies of the paintings and pasted them together in a book. She wrote small descriptions of the animals, such as, “a trick skunk black-and-white.” She presented the book to Autumn as a gift, gluing a piece of rabbit fur on the book bind, a little detail that was in perfect Peggy-fashion.
Autumn loved the book (as much as babies can express themselves anyway) and so did we. Peggy then asked me to help toy with the wording, creating more of a storyline to accompany to illustrations. We put in some time on the wording and joked about having the book published together someday (clearly once you see the illustrations, most, if not all, of the credit goes to her!).
Then the pandemic happened. The visits to Arizona stopped. The book got read and worn and read some more. I started taking stock of what was most important to me (I think we all did) during this time. I thought about the things I wanted to invest in. I thought: What if I did pursue publishing that book? Wouldn’t that be cool?
During this time I researched publication for children’s books, eventually settling on Luminare Press in Eugene (which is to say we didn’t settle at all, they are fantastic!). I decided to surprise Peggy with the book, and did just that when she received her proof copy in the mail on January 19th!
Now, almost a month later, and the book is live and ready-to-order on Amazon. Come February 11th we will celebrate our true “Pub Day,” when we receive a box of 75 books ready to be shipped directly to our readers.
It feels good to be typing this. Not because I am super proud of myself, I am not. I am most proud of my grandmother, the illustrator. I am most proud of the publishing house, including their cover design artist, Claire. And I am most proud of my daughter, Autumn, for inspiring it all. It feels good to be typing this because this was our pandemic silver lining. This book was a beautiful glimmer of something different and luminous in 2020. And honestly, I think you’ll like it a lot, too.
I heard something really interesting and inspiring on NPR this morning. NPRs poet-in-residence Kwame Alexander recently put out a call for poetry starting with the words “I Dream a World…”. If you have the time, you can listen to the segment here. Naturally, I felt I had to participate in the poetry challenge. Please enjoy these words, and never stop dreaming of a better world.
I Dream a World by Terah Van Dusen
I dream a world where our sisters and brothers across the globe can feel, can see, can empathize with one another’s plights.
I dream a world not that has no starvation no famine—no, I dream a world where, when these things exist, others can go without, so that a belly can be full elsewhere, a life can be saved, and cherished.
I dream a world where when immigrants come knocking on the door, folks can envision the horrors they are escaping. That we have some sense of what these families have seen and witnessed. That we feel the collective pain they have endured, and empathize, as we would want others to empathize with our own trials and traumas.
I dream a world based on shared resources not the capitalist society we live in so clearly benefiting the few, the one or two, so brazenly guilty and full at the tip top of our species.
I dream a world where woman does not pack lunch for a man and man does not pack lunch for a woman but they both pack their lunches for themselves.
I dream a world where children are more familiar with flora and fauna, than Belle and Madonna.
I dream a world where when one falls, others do not kick them.
I dream a world where mothers and fathers take responsibility for their offspring…sheltering them from harm, gore, and neglect.
I dream a world that cares for its ecosystems by replenishing them with buffalo, and quenching them by refusing to bottle city water and then reselling it to its people labelled “Mountain Spring.”
I dream a world where big box store demolition is a favorite pastime.
I dream a world where Native American culture is restored and revered, guiding us to walking lighter on our this shared earth.
I dream a world that is a collective, and land that is sacred, and life that is equally as valued as the next one.
I dream a world where we are utilizing all our senses, sight, sound, taste, touch to understand each other, to create harmony together, in our own little tribes and families, with a clear understanding of the challenges facing those less fortunate in, on the periphery, or outside our own circles.
I dream of a world where we understand that every choice has a butterfly effect.
I dream a world where less is more.
I dream a world where minimalism is magnified.
I dream a world (not an earth) that is ours for the taking that is ours for the making.
A few months ago, I deactivated my social media accounts. I posted an index card on my bulletin board that read, “No Social Media. No Corporations. No Amazon. More creativity & blogging” next to a poster I clipped out of a magazine that reads “Keep Calm & Save Money” in bold red lettering.
Three clear thumb tacks lined up neatly below the messages—reinforcing one thing that was resounding through my mind and soul lately: minimalism.
Minimalism: a style or technique, that can be applied to a lifestyle, characterized by extreme sparseness and simplicity.
Deactivating my social media accounts was my way of extending the concept of minimalism even further. Everything felt so cluttered.
It started out okay, as I explained in this blog post from September. Gone were the feelings of embarrassment I’d felt during those rare but inevitable moments of “oversharing.” Gone were the unnecessary hours spent scrolling, or “managing” my various accounts—I have two personal accounts, and three business ones. Gone was the feeling that I needed to “capture” everything: a good meal, Autumn collecting eggs from the chicken coop, an innocent walk to the creek.
All the time the world offered came tumbling back in, and I began to experience more productivity at work, and creatively too. Things were happening. Actually happening. I became a more productive team member at work, a more present mother, and more conscious partner to my fiancé. I even took the final steps toward completing a huge creative project.
The days turned into weeks turned into months. During this time, I posted several times on my blog—a significant increase from previous months (years, really). But I could tell that my creative social network had gotten really, really small.
There was my small handful of loyal readers who reached out to me via text or by responding directly to my posts. I am grateful for these folks with a capital G, but I began to wonder if I could get through the rest of the pandemic, and election year, with my “capsule” of friends. I was starting to feel a little lonely.
Late one night, after a productive day of freelancing from home, I found myself borderline distraught. I lay in our bed, without the glow of my cell phone, and I said dramatically into the dark room, “I just feel like something is missing.”
In the silence that followed my—for lack of a better term—wail, I thought of my vow against social media…it wasn’t that, was it?
Not jumping to conclusions, I continued to wake, live and sleep every day without the companionship of social media. A few people reached out, but where were my other 538 friends? I realized, as I’m sure we all have, the predicament these social platforms present: they are an instant doorway to our families, and some relationships that are quite important to us. So why would we want to give up that? Honestly, especially now in a pandemic, how else are we going to get to know our new cousin’s baby, Jaxon? Or even remember his name? It’s all there, on Facebook. We understand that the heart emoji doesn’t convey all we want to say, but it does convey something.
In addition to working more intentionally—both personally and professionally—I toyed with the idea of letter-writing. I wrote a letter to Elizabeth, my longtime pen pal who resides in the Yosemite Valley. She wrote me back, as did our mutual friend, David. But David’s letter was so long and rich, I wondered how my response could even compare, or come close to being as meaningful as his letter had been, as he described the terror of wildfires looming near his home on Caves Highway this summer. If social media was intimidating, trying exchanging letters with intellectuals. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this, either. Anyway, I knew I couldn’t exchange letters with as many people as I loved. (I love a lot of people!)
I don’t remember the exact day I reinstalled the apps on my phone. Only the approximate number of people who interacted with the photo I posted. Warily, I “liked” all of their responses. But where were these folks when I sat at home for four months? Autumn and I had both celebrated our birthdays—her 2nd, my 35th. Was it me who’d left them or they who’d left me? In this day and age, I’m honestly not sure.
In the meantime, I began to value my work relationships more, and my relationships with my family members who don’t use social media, my blog readers, and my neighbors began to deepen—it was as if I could suddenly see that they’d needed attention, too.
I am on social media now, and I do feel more connected to those that I’d lost touch with. I at least like knowing that such-and-such person is there if I need them, even if we’re not interacting every day.
But friendship can’t survive solely that way, and neither can a creative or professional dream. The inspiration—the ideas and conversations and plans—they need to lead somewhere. I’ve learned that “breaking the spell,” ie taking a break, is the perfect antidote for that. So just one question remains: can I take what I’ve learned and apply it? Can I use social media as a tool, to share my art and give and receive love from my friends, while still setting a healthy boundary with these websites and apps? It is hard to know for sure, but I have hope. Hope that I can either find the balance, or at least recognize when my “real” life needs more attention.
After waiting a full five minutes for the lodge’s hot water to kick on in the shower, I wash my hair twice with 2-in-1 Shampoo and Conditioner. Autumn sits on the shower floor, folding and unfolding a damp washcloth. We are on a girl’s trip to track down Dad, who lives off-grid in Northern California.
Sometimes I don’t know if my writing frees or pains me, if it liberates me or holds me captive. We tried watching TV but turned it down to hear the creek outside–Patrick Creek–a tributary to the Smith. Now I bounce Autumn on my foot, trying to soothe her toddler boredom, and somehow keep my pen to paper, too. I’d say she can’t sit still, but the same would have to be true for me as well. (Proof: I couldn’t stay put on the farm this weekend. I simply woke with the urge to ramble home.)
I told myself it was justified to see Dad. Steve gave me his blessing, and then tried to suggest routes and game-plans. But I already had it mapped out in my mind; we’d get a hotel room closest to home. Hiouchi Motel or Patrick Creek Lodge.
The rooms at Patrick Creek Lodge have mission-style furniture and vaulted redwood ceilings. In the past I would have camped in the van or a tent or on my best friend’s couch in Crescent City. But the pandemic has changed everything. You know that.
Driving south on the I-5, the words “Do whatever you have to do to feel alive” came to mind. So maybe that’s what this is really about, more than seeing Dad.
I’d forgotten how when we travel, it upsets Autumn’s natural rhythm. She gets antsy and angsty and now she sits across from me indian-style on the white 70s-style bedspread. “Let’s talk,” she says so we talk about what’s outside the window: bushes, trees, lights, leaves. There are no other cars in the parking lot and I am uncertain if there is an overnight watch person or not. The friendly fellow who checked us in said he was “locking up and heading home for the night.”
A couple and a lady stumbled out of the bar around 7:30 p.m., piled into a full-sized pickup and drove south toward Gasquet (gas-gee). Other than that, crickets (metaphorically of course, because it’s winter in these woods). The temperature registered at 34 degrees but it was sunny and t-shirt weather all day. Of course we only got out at a rest stop somewhere near Riddle, Oregon.
Pacific madrone and redwoods, that’s what I came for. Other than to connect with Dad, the man who raised me. Pacific madrone with its smooth chopstick bark, the redwood groves already shooting up toward the sky, just seven or ten miles into California.
When the sun set we decided it would be best to surprise Dad first thing in the morning, rather than an hour or two after dusk. Dad, like me, is better in the morning. Freshest and sharpest and most optimistic. We both like to have our coffee, too.
As a girl, Dad took me to this very lodge once for breakfast. The waitress seated us by a window where we could watch Patrick Creek flow by. A small porcelain ramekin held strawberry and grape jelly packets. I chose grape jelly to smear on my sourdough toast, not because I liked grape best, but because there were just two choices: grape or strawberry. I knew that a better family, one that would come in next, would have a little girl or boy who would prefer strawberry, and that kids from better families always got what they wanted because of people like us. I knew that my going without kept everything in balance.
The grape jelly kind of tasted like the liquid cough syrup Dad sometimes had to force down my throat. He’d either pin me down on the cabin floor, knees holding down my kid-arms, or convince me that if I plugged my nose I couldn’t taste it, so then I’d just drink it myself. I hoped that kid enjoyed his strawberry jam, whoever he was. I was in heaven just with the butter alone and the creek flowing by.
Dad sometimes liked to elbow his way in to a class above our own–the ski lodge at Mt. Bachelor in Oregon, riding elevators in the business district in San Francisco, the fine dining restaurant in The Wharf where we just ordered appetizers, then sheepishly paid and left. Dad has a penchant for experiences he can’t quite afford, and if I am being honest, so do I. But at least it’s a penchant for experiences, not a penchant for things.
“What are we going to do tomorrow, mama?”
“Well, we are going to get up…”
“Use the restroom?”
“Yes, use the restroom.”
“And then what?”
“And then we are going to make mama some coffee and Autumn some breakfast.”
“Yep. And then we’re going to take a walk down to the creek. Patrick Creek.”
In my minds eye I can see the dirt path leading from the lodge, then along Patrick Creek, and under a bridge to where the creek forms a confluence with the middle fork of the Smith River. In a past life, before Autumn, I would make a pit stop here. The middle fork of the river meanders southeast through mossy canyon walls until it intersects with the south fork of the river. You head up the south fork, and that’s where I’m from. I was raised in a single-room cabin that burned down in a fire in the year 2010. Now Dad lives in a fifth-wheel his ex-girlfriend gave him.
“And then?” Autumn asks.
“And then, after our walk, we are going to see Grandpa Rob!”
“See Grandpa Rob?” Autumn repeats, in her high-pitched voice. It’s as if the higher pitched her voice, the more likely she will get an answer she’s satisfied with.
We haven’t seen Grandpa Rob since Father’s Day–five months ago–when we met up with him halfway between his home and ours and ate salmon bagel sandwiches on the bank of the Umpqua River. He didn’t eat much that day, and it worried me. But I am always worried about Dad: worried about him driving distracted, worried about him choosing nutritious over junk food, worried about the steel parts collecting on his property, worried about his future. But mainly, I’m worried that he’s sad, and that I had something to do with that sadness.
Autumn is snoring now. She is laying on her back, mouth slightly open, arms and legs splayed, sleeping off the day. Today was a big day. She said the word “California” and dealt with her mother’s impulsive need to “connect with her roots,” enduring what turned into a 4-hour drive. She kept asking for “Nana” and “Grandpa Norm,” her father’s folks who she is more acquainted with than Grandpa Rob. Dodging fallen granite from rock slides in the road, and manuevering corners I haven’t seen since Aunt Dort’s memorial in March of 2018, I tried to explain, “No, honey, this is mama’s family. Mama has family too.”
“No, I wan’ see Nana.”
I don’t know what to expect in the morning. That’s the thing about mama’s family. It’s the reason we pulled back at dusk, instead of gunning it forward. In the past, I slept on riverbanks or friends couches, desperate to connect with my dad but not willing to endure his lifestyle off-the-grid, which due to his disability and a variety of factors, has degraded some through the years.
But my soft place to land has always been these hills, fog hanging in the treetops like ghosts, white fingers wrapped around the branches of the evergreens. This place hasn’t moved an inch since I left home. Oh, but it has. I’ll be lucky if I can still recognize myself in the mirrored reflection on the water.
I close my journal, place my writing pen beside it on the nightstand, and open up a new Sun Magazine. Barbara Kingsolver’s essay “The Only Real Story” jumps off the page:
“A world is looking over my shoulder as I write these words; my censors are bobcats and mountains. I have a place from which to tell my stories. So do you, I expect. We sing the song of our home because we are animals, and an animal is no better or wiser or safer than its habitat. Among the greatest of all gifts is to know our place.”
I didn’t know what to expect in the morning. I didn’t know that we would arrive just in time for coffee, and that Dad would pour me two steaming cups, before hitting the trails just outside the doorframe.
I didn’t know that Dad would be fine, not sad at all.
I didn’t know that we would hike the land of my youth until noon, with Autumn on his shoulders.
I didn’t know that we would crouch by the rivers and streams and say blessings.
I didn’t know that I would harvest bay laurel and Dad would locate a field of matsutake mushrooms.
I don’t know that when no one was looking I would press my forehead into the earth, addicted to the feeling of the damp soil crushing into my third eye.
I don’t know that Dad would go on and on about God, as he always does, and I would just gesture at the nature all around us as if to say, “Yeah, but…this.”
I didn’t know that it would all be intact: the land and the dad, just as I’d left them.
This pandemic has given me something: the ability to identify what truly matters to me. What I need around me and what I don’t. Who matters to me. What brings the most joy. How to uplift myself. What to keep. What to let go.
This morning I signed a document for publishing services for a children’s book that my grandmother illustrated and we both co-wrote. The book “Dreams of a Rocking Pony” will be in print sometime during the spring of 2021!
Several months ago, pre-pandemic, Peggy (Peggy is my grandmother’s name, which I’ve always called her by) and I loosely inquired about getting “Dreams of a Rocking Pony” published. Peggy is a fine artist by trade, who works with acrylic, and she’d sent Autumn a book she wrote and illustrated (pictured above) around the time of her birth. I got to fiddling with the wording some more and the next thing you knew we’d created a children’s book together! We didn’t pursue the book contract at the time, we weren’t sure how much we wanted to pay for our little project. And then the pandemic happened, so it was like whatever.
Fast forward to now. The long, drawn out months of the pandemic have given me more time than usual in my writing den (an office Steve and I share overlooking the sheep in the meadow). I kept coming back to the “Rocking Pony” project. Publishing a book with Peggy, what a neat thing that would be! Peggy, who is 86 now, still lives near Tucson. But we talk just about everyday.
So now, without her knowledge, but with her previous blessing, I reached out to the publishing house in Eugene, again. Only this time I submitted the illustrations, text and contract for the publication of a children’s book!
This surprising turn of events is inspiring me to think outside-the-box more. To try to see what’s already there. To celebrate the accomplishment that sat right in front of us: a playful exchange of art, morphing into a marketable book for children. A thing to reverberate our love out into the world. To prove that we were here, together.
You may not know, but along with my stacks of personal essays and boxes of memoir, I have two children’s books. Those manuscripts were written during a passionate period of writing in my twenties, and I hope to someday find an illustrator to complete them for publication. (But more on those later.) I know Peggy won’t be that illustrator. In the past four years alone I have seen her eyesight and mobility escaping her more and more. The “Dreams of a Rocking Pony” painting series (the illustrations are copies of a larger work) may end up being one of her last.
Between now and the end of our three month publishing deadline, I am sure to be dreaming of the joy I hope will come after revealing this surprise to my grandmother. (Of course I couldn’t get it together in time for Christmas. Doh!)
More about “Dreams of a Rocking Pony” when it’s published! NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) has been good to me this year, I’ve been extra focused on editing and publishing, and have another title in the works. Send a prayer for Peggy, this pandemic has been unkind.