As The Most Beautiful Sunset

In the bank yesterday the teller offered me a cup of coffee and I heard myself say, "I don't really drink coffee anymore, but thank you."

And then for a moment I thought about that. 

I mostly gave up coffee. Not because I think coffee is bad for you, but because I find tea to be a less harsh choice in the morning. 

I cut off a whole bunch of my hair earlier this week.
I stopped drinking booze almost six years ago.
I no longer use a cell phone.
After years of joking about the gluten-free movement, I actually found that my body was having trouble processing wheat products, and so I had to adopt a gluten-free diet this winter.

I guess I never thought that as I grew older I would be subtracting rather than adding. Lightening the load, maybe.

Yesterday I went to church with my mother at noon, then I walked around all day with a dark smudge on my forehead. I loved it. For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of the ashes. I mean, I really understood it.

It felt so good to be alive and so good to make a very public declaration that I am going to die.

Am I slowly subtracting things from my life in preparation for death? Naturally, I don't think my dying time is imminent, but it could be. It will come — death does not depend on my willingness to be accepting of it. I am surrounded by death: I live in a house bounded on two sides by graveyards; I make visits to people in hospice care, sometimes four days a week. Right now I'm reading George Saunders' new book, Lincoln in the Bardo. It takes place over the course of one night, and almost all of the characters are dead. 

To say I am intrigued by death would be be partly true. I would put it like this: I am looking forward to what I believe will be beautiful, expansive and light-filled, this thing we call death. My only regret is that I won't be able to write about it.

One of the very best children's books I know is called Cry Heart But Never Break. It is the story of four children and their dying grandmother. The children love her and so naturally they don't want her to die. When death comes, Death appears as a grandfatherly figure and is said to have "a heart as red as the most beautiful sunset [that] beats with a great love of life."

Even as we honor Ash Wednesday, a reminder that we will one day become dust, again, the sap is running wildly through the trees here in Vermont. The syrup makers are collecting it as fast as they can; everywhere you go there are sap houses with steam rising from the top. Life is flowing beneath our feet, up through the trees and being made into food to feed our hungry bodies. 

I stopped at the Larson Farm to inquire about riding lessons on my way home yesterday. Coco and I are both hoping to get back on a horse this spring; she started riding when she was three and I learned when I was 15 and living in Kentucky. The farm was humming with life: a new barn is under construction and there were several pregnant ponies. A young woman was having trouble moving a large generator into the garage, so I helped her. It had quite a bit of grease on it and something broke on her end while we were moving it, but we got it where it was going.

"Do you need to wash your hands?" she asked.

"No, that's fine," I said, and wiped them on the grass.

"There's some still...on your forehead," she said, as I turned to leave.

It made me laugh. "It's Ash Wednesday, " I told her, "and I went to church."

And then I left, with some fresh Larson Farm butter and yogurt, with greasy hands and an ashy forehead, and a deep and great love of this magnificent life. Amen.

Your Carriage and Life

There was a good pile of hair on the floor the other day when Paige finished her work. She is a talented woman, charming and insightful, in the way I have always imagined women who work with hair could be. Part psychologist, part stylist, I think it must be interesting to listen to people share their life stories while you're cutting their hair. It's quite the ministry.

Paige calls herself "The Kitchen Beautician." How cute is that? She comes to your house to cut your hair. It's dreamy. 

So there it was, the hair I have been carrying around for many years, in a pile on the floor. 

I saw both of my former husbands that day and they said the same thing: "You haven't had hair that short in a long time." It made me smile. To feel known to them.

The grass is slowly greening up. It's March, and if you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I hate March. Because March swallowed up Josh and then Reid. The weather is so weird in March; I don't like the vacillation between warm and cold air. Several years ago I was in Alaska for a few weeks in March and I noticed that the tromp toward spring there was much more steady. The temperature rose in small increments as the days passed. Here in Vermont it's quite unsettling: 60 degrees one day; snowing and 28 the next. 

Perhaps this accounts for the jarring segue I am about to attempt.

From Paige, with love.

From Paige, with love.

I was thinking last night about my refusal to name things. In the days when I exhibited my photography, I didn't give the photos names. This bothered some people, but I didn't want to play along with the usual artsy habit of reducing a piece of work to a word or phrase. I wanted the viewer to have an untainted experience with the photo. To me, it could be a road in South Dakota; to someone looking at the photograph, it might bring memories of a childhood adventure; it could conjure up sorrow, or desire to travel. My thinking was this: All I did was capture the moment; the viewer owns the story. I'm channeling, the viewer brings their own unique experience to the moment.

The same is true of the sermons I share on Sundays. I don't entitle them. I did when I first started at the church, but it felt awkward, contrived, so I stopped. I'm channeling; the listener brings their own unique experience to the moment.

I have never wanted to get in the way of that. Mostly, I've wanted to get out of the way: here is what I have seen, heard, felt...take it, it's yours.

It still feels kind of weird, to stand before other people and think that I have any greater skills or insight in interpreting scripture. "Preach the gospel at all times and only when necessary use words," was said by someone wise. Saint Francis, maybe. 

That's really what I believe. Preach the gospel at all times. With your life, your actions. Show love, be kind, be gracious, listen carefully, hold hands, ask, every day, "how can I help?" 

It's a humble stance, to preach the gospel at all times. It's a worthy goal.

George Fox, Quaker founder, said it really well:
Be patterns, be examples, in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them bless you.

I'm going to try to be OK with March this year. Welcome the winds that carry the spirits I so love. Ask them to help me keep learning how to preach with my life. God, it's hard work, but I'm game. I'm in. Amen.

Before you go, though, take a look at this bit of wonder. It's my very favorite place on the world wide web: wind.

As Love

The first job I had after college was as an intern in a kindergarten classroom at a private school in Bedford, New York. I still have the notebook I kept that year of the funny things the kids said. I remember those little guys so clearly. Here's a terrifying thought: they're now in their mid-30s, with kindergarteners of their own. The little girl who was a chubby delight is now a yoga teacher; the daughter of a famous actress followed in her mother's footsteps; the shy little boy is now a heavily-tattooed and immensely talented photographer. 

I have found that spending time in the company of dementia patients is a lot like being with kindergarteners. How odd and interesting that so many of us do seem to return to that early condition, at end of life. Having a conversation with someone who is moving in and out of the present is fascinating, and, of course, much easier to enjoy when the person isn't someone you knew when they had full powers of cognition. I find that the company of someone in the twilight of dementia puts me in a kind of gauzy state. They say funny things ("I can't remember where she lives...somewhere near Lake Shampoo.") and they move seamlessly from one time period to another. One minute we are in the room together, talking about lunch, and the next we are on the farm, waiting for Dad to get in from the barn. Dead husbands sent flowers yesterday and children are coming later to take them home. Reality bends back and forth. One of the most interesting things I find is how many cannot recall the number of children they have or what their names are. 

This life!

How funny, the ways in which we travel back around to where we were before. 

I want to tell you one of the most beautiful stories of my life.

Baby Nate, 1998.

Baby Nate, 1998.

In 1999 I was married and living in southern Vermont, with two young boys. For reasons still mysterious to me, I found myself deeply unhappy in my marriage. It might have been the isolation, it might have been that I was disconnected from my teaching life. Perhaps I was unprepared for the realities of motherhood. Maybe my husband, Scott, and I didn't know one another well enough to navigate the challenges we faced then. We got married not long after his first wife had left, and then we had two kids in quick succession. Who knows? 

I left the marriage, moved in with my parents just up the road and began working on an M.Ed. at UVM. A couple of years later, I moved north, leaving behind the small town of my married life and the members of Scott's family who live there: his parents, Marion and Lee, and his brother and his wife and kids. To say that I disappointed them and broke their hearts is probably an understatement. Though I was happy in my new life, as a student, living in a larger town, dating the man who would become my second husband, I know my happiness did not extend to the people who had loved and welcomed me into the McChesney family.

Fast-forward seventeen years: I am writing this today sitting at the kitchen counter in Marion and Lee's house in Pawlet. I'm care-taking their home while they are traveling. I live here, now, again. I came back two years ago to be the pastor of the church where I married Scott and our two boys were baptised.

Marion and Lee come to church every Sunday, faithfully. They began doing this after I took to the pulpit; they had not previously been very churchy. They come and sit in the pew and listen to me, the woman who left their son, who left their family and broke their hearts, preach. 

Please don't go through your life closing doors and moving on. Go back. Look at it again. Be humble. Be very willing to say...what I did was wrong. Life is going to circle you back around anyway. Chances are good that one day you will need help eating or walking, again. Allow the experiences of your life to remain with you so that the truth will emerge, as grace, as compassion, as art, as love. Amen.





Emily's Reader

Many years ago I made weekly visits to a nursing home in Lake Placid, where I lived in my early 20s. There, I sat with a woman named Emily Alden Pierce, who, like me, loved literature. That winter into spring I became Emily's reader. She was blind, in her 70s, I think, small and very kind. 

I have always loved reading aloud and being read to. I believe with my whole heart that books and the stories contained therein are among the great treasures of this life. I love the way it feels when you open a new book, the freshness of the pages and the wonder of what might be alive inside. I love reading at night, before I go to sleep. I love libraries and bookstores. When I was a teacher, I loved reading to my kids more than anything else. The power of the story cannot be underestimated. 

The other morning I woke up thinking about my friends, Ashlee and Matt. For some reason my thoughts were drawn back to the day when I stood with them, high on Matt's father's property in Salem, New York, and walked with them through their wedding ceremony. It's a breathtaking place, absolutely perfect for a wedding, but more than the landscape, I was thinking about the way the two of them were that day. There was stress, of course, the day before their wedding, but what I noticed was how kind Matt was to Ashlee. How patient he was with her, in her pre-wedding state. I saw the roots of their bond and I knew that it was good.

It did not surprise me in the least when I learned, about a year after Ashlee and Matt got married, that they were fostering a baby boy. And then, that they had chosen to adopt him. Even though Ash and Matt had two girls of their own and were both very busy with their work: photography and farming, they had chosen to bring into their lives another life, one that came fraught with medical issues and adoption issues—very great needs that required attention and devotion. Still, they welcomed this new life, little Matthew.

On the day that I had the honor of joining them in matrimony, I read to Ashlee and Matt the words of their neighbor, one of my great theologian heroes, Frederick Buechner: Every wedding is a dream, and every word that is spoken there means more than it says, and every gesture - the clasping of hands, the giving of rings - is rich with mystery. And so it is that we hope with every bride and groom, that the love they bear one another, and the joy they take in one another, may help them grow in love for this whole world where their final joy lies.

This whole world does, indeed, hold our final joy, and we have a responsibility to caretake this. To take the myriad blessings of our own existence and to offer them as a gift to this world. I have time...I will visit with you; I have eyes...I will come and read to you; we have room in our home and in our will come and live with us here and we will love you.

We learn so many things in school as we grow up: that we are meant to persevere and that we must get good grades in order to succeed in this life. We must read and write and compute and try, if possible, to have original thoughts. But what they forget to teach us is this: we already have gifts, we come locked and loaded into this life with treasures buried deep inside. The goal is to find the treasure, honor it and then return it back to the world. We did not come here to be miserly; there's a reason that miserly and miserable sound so similar. You are a gift; you are frankincense, gold, blood and bones, you are sunlight and moonlight and music and springtime. Spend it all before you are dust again. Amen.

It Is All One

When I was young I went through a phase when I was profoundly obsessed with food and healthy eating. I had a subscription to a magazine called Prevention, I shopped in health food stores, back when we still called them health food stores, and I wanted to go to Cornell to study nutrition. Until I got wind of the notion that the only thing one could do with a degree in nutrition, in 1987, was work in a hospital or some other institution. That killed that small dream, but my love of food and everything culinary has only intensified over the years. I am mad for all of it: eating, cookbooks, gardening and beekeeping and foodie films. I have devoured books by M.F.K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl, Gabrielle Hamilton and Amanda Hesser. I once made it my life's ambition to eat at Alice Waters' restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley. That has been checked off the list, replaced now by a gnawing desire to experience the food at Noma in Copenhagen. Not going to happen any time soon, but a girl should never be caught without at least one juicy dream in her back pocket.

Leave it to Helen Cooper Hood Eyre to decide that hers was to compete on a cooking show on television.

I have learned that when Coco Eyre places something in the crosshairs of her 12-year-old life, she will, indeed, hit her target. She possesses a tenacity and a drive with which I am wholly unfamiliar. Also, she is fiercely competitive, another quality lacking in my character make-up. Who she is, I'm not really sure, but it's an awful lot of fun to watch her flow through this life.

So Coco got this fantastic food bee in her bonnet and then a wonderful thing happened that I can only call a Vermont thing. I don't mean, of course, to discount the 49 other states and the ways people live in those places, but it does seem to me that we have something peculiar and special in this tiny state. In no time at all a pit crew formed around Coco and her dream, made-up of all of our foodie friends: Amy Chamberlain at the Perfect Wife restaurant in Manchester and Julianne Murat at Vergennes Laundry. Thad Buck, who used to chef at Verde in Stratton and now runs the show at the Ekwanok. Our beloved Ben Niese, who blesses the kids at Skidmore with his culinary prowess, and Rick Benson at the Little Garden Market in Charlotte. Bob Herbert, who owns Bob's Diner in Manchester and Stacey Fraser, who runs the test kitchen at Eating Well Magazine. Margaret McChesney, who owns the Barn Restaurant here in Pawlet—all of these people stepped forward and offered some version of the same thing: if Coco wants to practice...let me know. Every single one of them asked how they could help, how they could support Coco and her dream. Amy invited her to be the first kid ever on her cooking show; Thad loaned her his leather knife satchel; Stacy invited a bunch of kids to cook in the Eating Well kitchen on a Friday night and Margaret. My god, Margaret spent hours and hours with Coco, in the kitchen, cooking and cooking and talking and dreaming and cooking.

Think about that. 

I already knew that we possess an embarrassment of riches when it comes to friends, but I don't think that I had taken the time to realize just how many people we know who are foodies. And I mean deeply, genuinely in love with and devoted to all things food. How many people we know who are cooking and growing and raising food. I think it's easy to forget, when one lives in Vermont for any stretch of time, just how amazing the food situation is here. To wit: there are two year-round honor system food shops with five miles of our home. One run by the wonderful folks at Someday Farm, in Dorset, and the other at Smokey House, in Danby. At either of those places, I can pick up milk, eggs, coffee, maple syrup, locally-raised meat and any number of vegetables, depending on the season. Our friend, Hadley, and her family, are raising pigs in West Pawlet and their bacon is unreal. Jed, at Dorset Rising, bakes the bread we so love. Lauren's chickens lay the most beautiful eggs, and, too, Lauren makes pies that make you cry, they are perfection. Annie O'Brien is in with that crew; my mom has never made a pie I didn't love. I stopped in to visit Beverly and Leo at their food truck in Dorset the other evening, and I saw there so much more than the ingredients for the meals they are making. I saw a passion and a devotion and I recognized it because I feel the same way about writing: I can't not do it. Leo can't not make food for us. And because Beverly loves Leo, she loves, too, what he loves. They are making food, but they are also making, for us to consume, love. Believe me when I tell you, it makes their pizza delicious.

In the yard of the house where we live, there are apple trees and blueberry, raspberry and blackberry bushes. And in the spring I will plant the garden of which I dream during these bone-chilling winter days: eggplant and tomatoes, carrots and onions, peppers, lettuce, radishes, pumpkins, and the herbs. From tiny seeds many meals are born. It's magic! The sap has been running already and the late-winter talk is turning to maple syrup here. I made a decision at the new year that I wanted to learn how to butcher. I feel, as a meat-consumer, that I have an obligation to understand better the process by which a living animal becomes my meal. 

I think, quite frankly, that this is how we're supposed to live. That this should not be considered a privilege, to live close to the source of one's food. 

The ways we relate to food say a lot about who we are. We eat and our food becomes our flesh and our flesh is our very life. It is impossible to pull these things apart. Thirty-five years ago I pasted a quote by M.F.K. Fisher into a book I started keeping, of recipes and sketches and thoughts having to do with food: "It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled...we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So that when I am writing about hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it...and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied...and it is all one."