Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Things She Carries: Luanne Armstrong

The things she carries:

On the 33 bus, she looks across the aisle and there is a mirror and a laden down old woman looking back at her. Sunglasses, walking stick, keys, purse, bag, computer, books, notebooks, a good pen, eyedrops, heart pills. She wears comfortable shoes and a sun hat. Once she ran outside early, barefoot, cold dew on her feet. She shrugged on a t-shirt and shorts. Into the garden for a few peas, a couple of strawberries, carrots with the dirt rubbed off. And then to the beach in the grey dawn, fishing rod in hand, a line, a small hook, a glass jar of worms.
On the bus to the university, she is the only one without earphones. She looks through her sunglasses at the bright-sun streets. If only she could read on the bus.
As my mother got older, leaving the house got more difficult. Even going for a walk to the beach required remembering. The right shoes. A coat? Was it cold, she would ask me? She was afraid of cold. Even on hot days, she might need a coat at the beach. Or should she change her shoes. Had she turned off the stove? Did she need her glasses? Sunglasses? I was patient; I betrayed my mother in that patience. Once I would have snapped at her. No you don’t need a stupid coat. Now I waited. Behind her fear of cold, her fear of the wrong shoes, was her and my real fear, the forgetting, the losing it, the really getting old fear.
Each morning, for two weeks I ride the #33 to the university. One morning, a woman gets on and drops her bus pass. She lurches into the seat next to me as the bus takes off. “Oh no,” she says, leaning over, scrabbling with her fingers under the seat. The bus pass, impossibly, has slid into a thin heating vent, a slit under the seats. I lean over, lending more if not physical support, as she slowly creaks to her knees, pushes her arm under the seat and retrieves it.
“I have this theory that inanimate objects are out to get us.” I say.
“They certainly are. Last week, just as my neighbour was getting into the elevator in our building, she dropped her keys and they fell through the crack between the elevator floor and the building floor and all the way down the elevator shaft. They had to shut down the elevator. Took two days to retrieve them.”
“Seems whenever I pick something up, a milk jug, a tub of yogurt, it is plotting to spill out of my hands.”
“There’s something to that,” she agrees. We nod, smiling and talking until she gets of the bus, her bus pass now safely contained in her purse.
“Everyone should write a memoir,” I tell my class. “Otherwise personal history, family history, disappears in two or three generations.” Another students says that things that matter, family heirlooms, also lose their meaning in a couple of generations. She is planning on having her name, her mother’s name and her grandmother’s name engraved on an art-deco bracelet given to her by her grandmother. Provenance, the history that things carry with them. When my father died, we threw out all the things he had collected, all his treasures, now junk, the vacuum cleaner that he had wired together so it sparked and shocked anyone but him who used it. The toaster that no longer popped out toast. The record player. The reel to reel tape recorder. Truckloads of his treasured accumulated layered stuff went to the dump. He had spent years going to garage sales, bring home things that almost worked, things that only he could fix.
My daughter and I are talking about this. “After I die, you can throw everything away,” I say, “except my journals and all those bags of letters.” She laughs but her face is suddenly shocked. Her mother’s journals, once private, once books she sneaked into when she was a child to catch a glimpse of her mother’s tortured inner life, will be just more writing. And what will they mean to anyone when I am no longer here to explain what I meant? The one excuse writers can never make – this is what I meant to say.
The things we carry that fill our lives, that stack on shelves and in drawers, markers, records, each with provenance, each sticky with memories and meaning. Some have more meaning than others; old photos, books, journals. But I will never know, now, why my father loved his junk. He was poor his whole life; he hated spending money, he liked to tinker. But the stuff was far more important to him than that.
I am weighted with all the books I have read and stories I know and people I’ve met and things I’ve done and places I’ve seen. I am weighted with letters and conversations and emails and books I’ve written. I am a freighter, low gunneled in heavy seas. I am a walking encyclopedia, I am a freight train going both ways from the past to the future, a muddle of metaphors, walking slow. I carry the world and its many deaths, its huddle of lives.
Animals are without kindness but full of care. As I work, again and again, I pass the new swallow nestlings, silent on the clothesline beside their nest, still being fed by their parents. They watch without fear. I look away. I am not dangerous, I say. I carry pots of plants. I carry seedlings to the garden and weeds away from the garden and mulch to the garden and vegetables to the house sink. I carry the hose and sprinklers from place to place, moving each sprinkler every couple of hourse., I carry a bag of soil to the greenhouse. I carry buckets and baskets and later, I carry raspberries and cherries, caught in plastic, to the freezer.

I had twin daughters. Getting out of the house to go for a walk with them in the stroller always seemed impossibly complicated; like planning a safari, bottles, diapers, toys, crackers, jackets in case it rained, my wallet, my shoes, my own jacket. Going anywhere with children still seems impossibly complicated. But now that I am old, sometimes when my nine year old grandson comes to visit, we get in the car with only money and drive twenty miles to buy a milkshake. When he first arrives at the farm, he takes off his clothes, he jumps on the trampoline naked, he wears the same shirt for two weeks. As he jumps on the trampoline, penis bobbing, he puts his head back, looks at the sky, yells, “I’m free, I’m free.”

On my desk, books and pieces of paper stack up, totter, slip, slide, hide under the printer, accumulate dust, cat hair, dog hair, skin cells, the ones I need most disappear; the ones that hover lose all meaning.
Even at the farm, going to the beach for a lazy afternoon, she carries a bag with: drinks, a towel, a notebook, a paperback, pens, pencils, drawing pad, and once at the beach, she sets up an umbrella, a chair, a table; things from the bag are spread on the table, she sits, her eyes closed against the light.

The summer table. She rests.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

How to Pit Soft Cherries by K.L.Kivi

There is a tree by the side of the road. Every year around this time, I climb it. From the rocky bank, I put my foot up onto its curving, fat trunk and hoist myself up. There are two trunks actually, each as grey and thick as an elephant’s leg. But what do I know of elephants? This tree is like my elephant, a large, steady ear-flapping pachyderm that offers up its back to give me a ride again and again.

Up the tree I climb, straddling the large gaps between the steps in its branches, moving between the trunks until they are too far apart to bridge. Up I go even further, pulling myself up onto the soft springy branches thinner than my wrist. There, I find the small, burgundy black globes of sweetness hanging among the eye-shaped leaves: cherries.

Tonight, as I climbed and reached and picked into the bucket hung from my waist by a leather belt, I said to my friends: I come here as much to climb this tree as I do to pick cherries. Don’t get me wrong - I love the cherries. Every year, I pick honey buckets full of them, rendering them into clafoutis, jams and just plain canned cherries. These are not the firm, large cherries one buys in stores and snacks on like bonbons. This variety, whose name I do not know, it is not one that lends itself to storage or transport. Very quickly, these soft pungently sweet cherries will turn to brown mush. The trick is to act quickly.

I set my two buckets on the fridge in the basement where it is cooler than my house on this hot July night. In the morning, I will begin the process. Some I will can whole, cherries packed into quart jars, covered with boiling water, lidded and processed in a hot canning bath. These I will take to gatherings in the winter, where my friends will sit around eating summer sunlight one red droplet at a time, carefully spitting the pits into a communal spittoon-bowl. We will talk of summer. We will feel warm. I will be in my tree again.

(You could say, that whenever I am not in this tree, I am out of my tree. I once read a very smart response to the accusation, “you’re out of your tree!” “It’s not my tree,” the person replied.)

Another portion of the cherries, I will pit and freeze, and others yet, I will pit and turn into cherry jam. Once the raspberries and Saskatoon berries are ready, I will combine the three to make a concoction that is food and delight and nourishment all in one. You need a cherry pitter, friends have said to me. What do I need another gadget for? Tomorrow morning I will fire up the best, most efficient cherry pitter in the world: my lips. Yes, it is true! With these soft cherries, it is possible to suck the pit out of them and leave all of the flesh and most of the juice behind. Of course, some juice will splatter on the wall behind the sink and another quantity will stream down the outsides of my arms and drip off my elbows, but there’s enough juice in these gems for all that and the jar.

And thus, my love affair with the tree will continue as I place my puckered lips on each cherry, lovingly extracting their pits. Kissing. That’s what I do. Let it be known: I’m an unrepentant cherry kisser.

I kiss many cherries, maybe twenty or thirty, before I spit out a mouthful of the hard seeds. And then I kiss some more. The cherries go into a pie shell to await custard or into the pot to await jamification. I kiss until my lips and chin and cheeks and clothes are smeared with indelible red. I kiss until I burp up red bubbles. And then I kiss some more. At some point, I run out of cherries. Sated for this year, I go up to the garden. The raspberries will be ripe in another week!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The price of staying put: by Luanne Armstrong

I am writing this in Vancouver, working at the university, buying books, going out to eat in restaurants. Of course I enjoy part of this but it is also contrary to how I want to live and what I believe. I do it to stay alive both financially and creatively.

Staying and living in one place runs counter in every way to the North American vision and dream of independence, making lots of money, self-creation, hustling, moving, road movies, re-creation of self and family and onwards. Not that this is a particularly successful vision in some ways. Yes, it lets people get rich and build enormous houses on pieces of land where they have no sense of where they are, it encourages people to wander on and re-create who and what they are over and over until they are so lonely and lost they will hang on to anything that gives them a sense of stability.
What living at the farm for sixty years has taught me, is to love every blade of grass, every insect, every tree, to wander around, to live outside time, to be irritated and suspicious of strange people, to farm, to grow food, to listen to every noise, to live intensely with animals, to listen to swallows and crickets and frogs and ospreys and say hello and goodbye to them at the right times.
And nothing of these is worth any money, nothing is translatable into values recognized by mainstream society. So, I get to go outside and be weird and eccentric and wave at ravens. I get to be poor again and have time to write and dream. I get to live in a world of flowers and plants and gardens and neighbours who are neighbours and come if I need them. I get to think about my grandchildren living here without me. I get to plant trees and wonder what they will look like in a 100 years. I get to dream.
All good and all romantic. And there’s the niche, the rub. It isn’t romantic or idyllic; it isn’t stately mansions. It’s dirt and work and food. It’s ordinary. And it has a price, just not the one people usually imagine.

Friedrich Engels coined the phrase, “the idiocy of rural life,” at a time when poor people who lived rurally were part of a definitive class system. The romance and idyllic ideas of rural life came from poets and the upper class. The two crucial factors in making the difference between idyll and misery were money and education.
These days, when I read many and frequent discussions on the internet about food and agriculture in the days of declining oil supply, I am amazed at how confused and simply ignorant most people are about the nature of small, mixed, sustainable farming. And this is even more surprising given that many people still have at least grandparents who were farmers. And given that both Canada and the United States were pioneered and settled by people who were prepared, who had to be, independent, self-sufficient and skilled in multiple ways. How can we have forgotten this so quickly?
So talking about small farming runs up immediately against the soup of contradictions; it is idyllic, romantic; no, it is backbreaking work, lonely, dirty, smelly, covered with germs, a long fight against the forces of nature; no, it is being one with the land, close to the land, learning from the land.
And of course, as is usual with clich├ęs, all of these contain a small kernel of truth and not much more than that. And in fact, within all these small kernels of truth is the reality that not much has changed in the rural parts of North American and until there is some kind of real apocalyptic crisis, it isn’t likely to.
In both the US and Canada, over the last thirty years, the working-class rural population has mostly fled to the cities. In my community, and in many others, they have been replaced with summer people, or people on vacation or tourists, people for whom the outdoors-rural-wild is a place they can purchase, either by buying land or renting time, to have fun, not a place to live and work. The services, the amenities, the educational facilities, and most of all, the jobs and money, are all still in cities. It is still impossibly difficult to make a living as a small farmer, although a small farmer can live and eat well, and subsist. So for anyone who chooses to stay, who chooses land, who chooses the place they love, who chooses actual rurality, they must and will choose it over a ‘career’, an education, chances to advance up any kind of economic ladder.
Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, Bright Sided, about the negative side of positive thinking, writes about the amount of leisure time that people living in medieval villages actually had. Farmers, except at specific times of the year such as planting and harvest, could work three or four days a week and still have time for festivals and celebrations. Village life was often marked by holidays, fetes, celebrations, religious ritual and community events, far more than it is today. In fact, rural life often tended to fairly celebratory. What made it idiotic and difficult wasn’t the nature of rural life but the nature of the class system, that prevented people from getting an education or better health care, or being literate or traveling.
A healthy functioning rural community that has access to good education, where people are socially and communally minded, is still a good place to live, a good place to raise a family, a good place in which to learn and understand the intricate web of economic, cultural and ecological relationships that connect humans to the places where they live. Industrialization, industrial agriculture, urbanization, suburban ecological deserts, have almost destroyed this life but not quite. Many people miss it and they want it back. They may not even know what it is they miss. But the impulse to form community and to love where one lives is a deep and basic a human instinct and won’t ever quite go away.
If any of the multiple apocalyptic catastrophes being proposed come about, then it is indeed possible that small farming and rural community, a return to true ‘peasantry’, meaning, being from a region or a rural district, may again arise, may indeed be the saving of people. But that is all in the future.
For now, I and many other rural people survive in a fragmented and class-driven rural society where, unless someone comes with money and education, opportunities for education, health care, a decent job, and the ability to make any money as a farmer are still very limited. The price is paid in travel, in time, in being split between here and there, in urban and rural, in watching our children and grandchildren go away and be sucked into the busy-ness and madness of cities, of progress, of ‘careers’, all with a price to pay as well.