On Sodom Pond

Postcards from rural Vermont


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Taking back time

I have been on sabbatical for these past four months, which means I have been able to organize my days pretty much as I want. There are of course chores and errands, family, community, and a project I am supposed to be working on, but I have, for the most part, started my day in bed reading and thinking without the crunch of the clock.

A friend was recently bemoaning the lack of this. She couldn’t find time to do all the personal work she wanted to before going to her nine to five job. For my friend these means a variety of spiritual, even mystical, pursuits. For another friend who started a new job this week, it’s writing and working out.

Where can we find the time?

This week I traveled to Boston to give a talk. Though the trip had nothing to do with my job in Boston I was surprised at how ruffled up I got over going down to the city. It was an inconvenience! And it made me think sooner than I wanted to about the end of my sabbatical and my free mornings.

But I wonder: if we believe that we create our reality with what we think, then abundance is a frame of mind. I would be able to shift into an expansive mindset even if I have only fifteen minutes of preparing for my day. If we expand ourselves when time shrinks, we can feel at ease. And so on.

And while I believe and practice these things, I can’t help but wonder if the frustration of not having enough morning time (or any time) is that we don’t want to be limited. To know that I have only so much time in a day. That every choice I make matters.

When I go back to work, I’ll only be able to do a few things on a workday besides my job. (Couple this with the life of a struggling artist of any kind who must practice their craft while they are earning a living, and you have even a less fortunate equation of free time; though, for the working artist, I suspect, time with their art is free time, joyful work, etc.)

People are oppressed by time these days. They claim they are too busy. Too busy to meet, to go to that show, to write that book, and on and on. Overwhelm is temptation. You don’t have to take responsibility for time, to feel the disappointment at how limited it is. How, as humans, we are limited beings.

This morning I had an idea and said to myself, “Gee, that would make a fun podcast,” and then I thought about all the podcasts out there, and how the work would soon become how to get that podcast heard in the floating seas of thousands of podcasts out there, and I felt exhausted.

I feel this often—that the promotion of the thing has become the thing. The platform, the image, the selling of it. Everyone’s a venture capitalist. Or something like that.

Being heard by “the world” hardly feels worth it. The solution, of course, is to go local. Community. Real people. Real time.

A local writing workshop planned with my friend will reach just a few compared to “the world.” That kind of limitation can feel brutal. Do I want to work and be known in such small circles? Well, if that means I can be known, then the answer has to be yes. If that means that the joy can come from the planning and execution of the workshop—from the doing—and not with promoting the idea of something, then yes. I take smallness.

My greatest desire is to be part of a scene. To be with people who are game.

I envy all those digital go-getters, though. FOMO is real. But so is the Jamaican lunch I will be having with my friend at the cooperative-run chocolate & coffee shop in town today, and the excitement of sharing ideas and good food. We are sure to laugh, to imagine, to rejoice in the space with the sofas and chocolate samples and movie playing on the wall and all the other Rabble Rousers in view.

It will be few good hours spent. I can’t ask for more than that.

(the picture is my room at Esalen, where I am not now but was in 2011.)

 


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Leaving Amazon

A week hasn’t even passed, and I already peeked at Amazon. How am I faring without it?

Well.

This morning I started reading Robert Caro’s Working, his essays on a life in journalism in which his sole aim was to study power: what it is, how people get it, and how it affects us all. He wrote with such a desire to understand—in order to explain it to his readers—that he did things like move to Texas where Lyndon B. Johnson grew up in order to understand how that man was formed. He stayed three years and in the process learned about things like pioneer women, telling some of their stories that would have been lost had he not told them.

Caro is my kind of man.

So, I went to Thrift Books to see what books of his they had. I looked up Bob Greene, too, the award-winning investigative reporter at Newsday who was his mentor. The prices seemed a little…high. Then they didn’t have an audio book in which Caro speaks on power. They were also sold out of many copies of Caro.

The site seemed a little grim. Not splashy and overstimulating, telling me what other books I might want, and what other readers are reading, and…

So I went over to Amazon to look up Caro and Bob Greene and there were ALL THEIR BOOKS, gloriously listed and available for order in about three seconds on my Amazon credit card (DANGER).

I could break my vow, I heard a voice say. Who would know?

I would, I sighed. And I want to be a person who honors her commitments. Who means what she says, and says what she means. I want to be a person of integrity.

So I closed out of all windows and shut my tablet and dropped it on the quilts. Lest you think I am some kind of Buddha here, let me share what happened next.

I began to think: I’ll have to wait. I’ll have to think about it a bit more, to see if I really want those books. Maybe preview them at the library or a bookstore. And maybe wait until I have the time to read the 1100-page The Power Broker, which I don’t think is now because I promised Tamar I’d read War and Peace with her this winter. Hey, my neighbor Barbara has the Caro book and said I could borrow it…and so on.

This wasn’t really comfortable. It’s not what I’m used to. Delay. Imagination. Looking forward. On Amazon, I would press ORDER without a thought. I would GET THAT BOOK. I take action—click!– to (re)solve a feeling I don’t want to have. Want. Desire. Discomfort. Pain (yes, small compared to most pains).

In other words, I would kill my love of Caro in that moment. In securing him for all time to be MINE ON MY BOOKSHELVES UNTIL I DIE, the part of me that feels would end and the whole subject would be done with.

In case you haven’t noticed, everything I am describing is addiction. Taking an action in order not to feel.

The reason I quit Amazon, I think, in addition to its troubling business practices, is selfish. Amazon feeds into my own impulsivity, and creates more of it. Amazon makes me click-happy. Things arrive in my mailbox, and as soon as they do, I want more. I crave when I use Amazon. My relationship to buying, to money, to books, to the whole material world becomes hateful. Amazon is a way to manage my feelings, not truly get what I want and need.

I did not know this. Or, rather, I did, in the way that we know what we don’t want to know because it would require us to act on our own behalf. Which, of course, is an act of love.

 

 

 

 


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If a Tree Falls

It is wet and windy this morning after a  stretch of idyllic golden days. I’m sipping coffee in bed, the kitties perched, one on my lap, one at my knees. The waterfall rushes below. I am home, grateful, at ease.

Then: Pop! Pop! Like hail, but it’s not raining. Wind jiggling the panes? A squirrel’s dropped nut?

The kitties look around. After we hear this a few more times, I hear a louder pop-pop-pop over the bank in the woods out back. I assume it’s a rifle shot and then an awful splitting follows and I know now: it’s a tree. I can hear it wrench loose from its base, crackling, twisting, like a tooth being pulled free of its root, and then it falls to the ground with a boom.

Trees are a reality out here. Yesterday at the Subaru dealer, the mechanic pointed out four indentations the size of golf balls along the side of the hood. “A tree,” my neighbor said. “For sure.”

Last year or so a tall maple out back came down in a windstorm, missing the cabin by a few feet. Scared the kitties to death. I stood frozen, listening. The energy that came off that tree, in that wind of death, was electrifying.

I called Ben to cut it up. He’s a tree man-in-training, so he charges less. Then I cut it up last summer with my friend John, who brought his splitter. It was a manual hydraulic splitter, quiet and easy to use, and we talked and got eaten by black flies as we split all the wood.

A few years ago I had Ben take some top branches off a yellow birch and a young ash to make more sun for an old apple tree. The ash was dying but I couldn’t bear for him to take it down. It still had life in it.

I have another ash, much much larger, that is also sick. Not the emerald ash borer, but from a fungus, said the previous owner of my cabin, also a tree man. It will have to come down. It will make good firewood. It will be noisy and expensive and take a lot of summertime days. So I am waiting. Half its branches still blossom and leaf.

Someone asked on the Front Porch Forum the other day if maples could turn gold one year and red another? He thought he had a tree like that.

On Saturday they will be removing a tree by crane in front of the Maple Corner community center, and lifting it over the building to cut up. It’s dead five feet up, John says, and no man in the village dare take a chain saw to it.

When my ex used to cut trees I helped him tie it down to help guide its fall. It always felt tragic, like some ancient wise ancestor was falling to its knees. Something glorious brought low.

Newly cut wood is damp. It smells like an old schoolroom. In the woods I used to dream of books.

In the wind, trees moan and sigh. In sub-zero weather they shriek and crack, which always makes me think of a giant in the woods cracking his knuckles.

Sometimes a tree falls across a road out here and you have to get out and move it, or cut it up if you have a chain saw in your truck or car. I turn around and find another way home.

 


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The Slow Moon Climbs

The title here is from a poem by Tennyson, “Ulysses,” which says, “The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs…” The poem is about middle-age: “Come, my friends,/’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” It reminds me of what a friend said some years ago when my life fell apart. “The end of Eden was the beginning of the world as we know it. Go forth and build worlds.”

The title here is also that of a new book which I saw in The New Yorker the other day and gasped. I have been waiting for this book like for a compelling acquaintance who promised to call but never got in touch. I ordered it right away. I am reading it very slowly. Every page makes my head explode.

Susan Mattern’s new book is a socio-cultural-evolutionary biological look at menopause.

I was 45 when my slow moon began climbing. I had clues. Rising at night, hot behind the knees. Car windows down in winter. And then back up. Like my cardigan. On. Off. On. When I got a letter from my doctor confirming what I knew, I wanted to (or maybe I did) scream NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. It was all finished by the time I was 47.

It was too soon. I was too young. I hadn’t made use of all my biological reproductive options yet (though, really, I had). But not having the choice. Being limited, denied. Like a waiter taking away your plate before you’re finished. That’s what scalded.

As did the moments of discomfort and confusion. Lying comfortably on the sofa reading I would be caught by a slow rise of heat and for a split second, panic that I couldn’t move or breathe. Driving down dirt back roads I would suddenly not know where I was and fear I couldn’t get home. My body expanded into new shapes I didn’t like. Its weather patterns annoyed me.

I woke up every day thinking there wasn’t any point in going on. I broke into tears at a traffic signal. I felt like something had control of me and as its hostage, I was giving up hope.

I read Christiane Northrup and Gail Sheehy and Germain Greer on the “climacteric,” but the medical view wasn’t satisfying. Friends not there yet had nothing to say. Friends who knew told me to take black kohosh (which, thankfully, I did). But what I knew deep down, Susan Mattern is now validating for me in her dense, fascinating study.

Post-reproductive women have an important role to play in society and are the reason why we have survived. For most species, the end of reproduction is the end of life. They do not have a menopause. One rare exception is a Japanese aphid that undergoes, in older life, what entomologists called a “glue-bomb” phase, where their infertile abdomens produce a sticky substance. When a predator attacks the colony, they throw themselves into the battle, sticking to the predators and saving the rest at the cost of their lives. (They are also all females, and clone in “virgin births.”)

For women, the years after fertility are important. “Menopause is probably adaptive…not a mistake or an artifact of modern life whereby women live past some natural test of usefulness.” But it is a puzzle.

I love being a mystery. I love being independent and whole and able to give. I love living in a community where women of a certain age lead the pack with their experience and wisdom.

Our cultural narrative about menopause is that it is beastly, unfair. It makes us moody, hysterical. Menopause is the butt of jokes, including by us, as we become unseen, unheard, undesirable.

The narrative I have always hoped to see–and that this new book is refreshingly grounding me in–is that as post-reproductive women; as people past the age of bearing children; as women now free to turn our talents and skills toward what we must do in  our lives and our communities and our culture; we are, finally, and completely, unbound.

In Japan and other Asian cultures, a woman’s 60th birthday is her most important. Called kanreki, it celebrates a “return to the calendar.” She has completed a full life cycle (based on their calendar) and now begins a new life.

Gifts for a woman turning 60 in Japan are red. The color of power. Of blood. Of fire.

Life.

 

 

 

 

 


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A House of Books

“Books don’t need to be read to be helpful,” I just read in a book. “Their presence affects us.”

I have a lot of books. I am building a library for them in my loft space. But I will still have books on shelves in the living room, on my bedside table, in my study, in piles on chairs. I live in a house of books. Their presence softens my life. They arouse hope and mystery. They draw me to different rooms in myself. I have books here from childhood, from college, from different houses and friends and lovers, books I bought last week or last year or ten years ago and still haven’t read yet but am interacting with every day.

A few years ago I discovered that I have probably been depressive all my life. I used to cry a lot and sometimes a trap door would open inside and I would fall through it like sand. I relied on books to get me out. If I was teaching a class or having tea with someone I would think of a favorite book or writer and I would get enough energy to go on.

When someone comes into my house and loves my books I know there is something we share that I can never name or see. When people are surprised or start talking about how they got rid of all their books I feel sad. I grew up in a house with few books, but I began to get them anywhere I could. They calmed the craziness outside and inside. I have carried books with me from apartment to apartment, city to city, life to life for 30 years. I am going to add to the library a corner “wing” with a reading nook stuffed with pillows and curtains you can close if you want to be alone with your book. I will leave a flashlight.

I buy books freely. I go to libraries and bookstores often. My favorite bookstore in the city was called Diskover and it was around the corner from my house in Allston, then moved to Brighton. It was run by a Peruvian woman with cats. Diskover overflowed with books. There were sections but nothing was organized. You had to dig. There was nothing I liked more than wandering around fiction, self-help, or poetry, listening to the old jazz LP’s she played and petting her cats. The black fluffy one was called Magic. There were old Dell paperbacks you could hold in the palm of your hand. Contemporary novels. Rare books. Odd books.

Some people might be overwhelmed at Diskover or at my house even, and though I am prey to this feeling often, I can’t locate it around books. I loved driving up to Diskover on a winter night and arriving at its book- and light-filled front window not knowing what I would find. It was my speedball, my rocket ship, my Orient Express, my jam session, my orgasm, my prayer, my cross-country trip in the back of a Greyhound with a bunch of strangers I have yet to meet.

One night years ago I met a hobo in the cafe car of an Amtrak going from Chicago to New York. He was young, like me, mid-20s. We were going home for the holidays. He was reading and he raved about how he loved getting lost inside a novel. How his life became, while reading it, those places, those people, those emotions. Someone else I know said she didn’t read fiction because she didn’t want to have the feelings. In the morning, the hobo left me a note on a piece of sparkly red stationery and envelope, which I still have and think I will put somewhere in the new library or maybe in the reading nook. It left no name or address. It said only: Slip through the cracks and disappear.

I am trying. I want to disappear in books, in life, and now writing my own books, too.


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Late afternoon

Sitting by the fire, socks off, kittens curled on the hearth rug, and then I read this by Joan Didion: “A globalizing impulse…the fallback position of the depressive.” I couldn’t help but think of all of us fighting despair like the flu.

Beware! Do not blow this up. Do not fall prey to doom. Do not, as a friend seems to be doing, let your mind lock in interminable loops of injury. “But they’ll…” “But they…” “But….”

What’s important is getting to the truth.

“No analysis can absolve you of your own responsibility.”

There is still time to find the truth.

And then do what you must.


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Be the Water

This waterfall sits behind my cabin. It’s a pretty powerful thing see–and hear–every day. Waterfalls are sudden drops in a stream. They fall over harder rock, seeking softer rock below. Waterfalls have powered textile mills and power plants. Like all sources of moving water, waterfalls release negative ions, which increases serotonin levels in our brain. So waterfalls have an anti-depressive effect. They are also aesthetically pleasing, relaxing, and good for respiration as they are usually in places of clean air.

It’s a good time to channel the waterfall’s anti-negative properties. After last week’s election, it’s easy to be angry and hopeless. But we must get moving and not stop. Like the falls. Keep reaching out. There’s lots to do. They say the softer stones get shaped by the force of the water, but it’s not time to be a stone. Be the water. Roar.