I have written extensively about the desire to live simply, intentionally, in the moment. Minimalist, anti-materialist living is kind of an aspiration of mine (a lofty one I will never truly realize). Taken far enough, one enters into conversations about living off the grid. It is one thing to fantasize about such an extreme existence while maintaining a much more mainstream lifestyle. It is quite another to actually go for it when the opportunity presents itself. This is the situation we found our family in this summer. For two years we have rented a lovely house just outside of Plattsburgh. My only complaint has been that it is too much house. Too much empty space to clean and heat and look conspicuously spartan.
The homeowner, our landlord, surprised us with the news she wanted to move back into her own house. We are vehemently opposed to buying a house in the near future, preferring the relative freedom of renting. But it comes at a cost. Like being kicked to the curb in an area with little to no family rentals. Rather than stress about committing to a new lease under pressure we started thinking about how we could live month by month. With limited options we came to an exciting conclusion: let’s camp! After all, summer in the North Country is idyllic. And our kids are finally old enough for camping to be more fun than frustrating (barely).
We moved everything we own into a one car garage sized storage unit and we pitched a tent for a week at Au Sable Point while pursuing the few leads we had on new housing. The leads fell through. Camping, on the other hand, was a success. In fact, we liked it so much we started having those off the grid conversations. But this wasn’t a couple hipsters soap-boxing at a cafe with exorbitantly priced coffee. This was for real.
Turns out it’s not so easy to not have an address. Or electricity. Or space. But for many people these things are debilitating realities. So we have no right to complain about a voluntary, temporary change of lifestyle. After a couple weeks of decision making and marathon errands and obsessive organizing our new way of life started to take shape. Tenting worked out great when it conincided with our homeschool co-op’s camp week. I had moral support and built in entertainment for the girls. But once we committed to the idea of living in the woods for a couple months, sleeping on the ground and having everything get rained on every few days wasn’t so appealing.
The obvious solution was to start hunting for a used camper. A cheap camper. A vintage camper. My dream tiny house on wheels. After only a few days I went to look at a travel trailer I’d heard about at a rural intersection outside of town. As soon as I set eyes on it I knew we had to have it. I laid the money down and by nightfall we were making up beds in it. It was the only camper I had seen that was built before 1980. Its previous owner claimed it after finding it in the woods so it’s kind of a mutt. No papers. No marks indicative of its make. Though a quick Google search leads us to believe it is a Trotwood manufactured sometime in the 40s. Vague vintage is good enough for me. It’s identical to a Trotwood featured on Tiny House Blog.
Plus, my daughter recently reminded me of a member of the Muppet band Electric Mayhem so I figure we’re crunchy enough to go bohemian:
For many families, self-sustainability is a key value taught in the home. Whether through farming or gardening or learning other life skills. It does not simply mean shedding all possessions or living like a hermit. It means prioritizing values; structuring a life where physical belongings and modern living are not all consuming pursuits. Choosing to live in a camper affords us time to find a new house. Of course it wasn’t the only option. But we saw it as a family experiment. A time to truly demonstrate to our daughters that security and shelter doesn’t look the same for everyone. To live out our belief that family and home are about togetherness. To prove to the girls that people can live with less stuff, less distractions. We still have bills and responsibilities. But we also have fewer constraints than ever. This is a unique time in our life; a daily adventure. Summer just got a lot more fun.
Growing up, one of my favorite stories was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Though to some the book may seem sentimental and folksy, Alcott counted Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller as family friends. Alcott belonged to a group of intellectual transcendentalists and as an adult supported women’s suffrage and the abolitionist movement. As a young girl I was drawn to Alcott’s affinity for family and feminist ideals. What spoke to me in particular was the profound connection she wrote about between mothers, daughters and sisters. I grew up in a family of three girls, though my sisters are 8 and 16 years younger. The fact that we were never peers only added to my desire to be a mother, as I grew up taking care of children and loving them as I now love my own girls. I was thrilled to end up with three daughters. I truly love living in a house full of girls.
At the end of May my husband went out of town for a week and I was a little wary of how it would go. He tends to bring a sense of calm to the family. Like I’m always talking too loud and playing music too loud and dragging the kids out of bed to see how cool the moon looks and he’s like, “let’s calm it down just a bit.” I’m glad he’s there to balance the craziness. But even though we did have a few 8 o’clock dinners while he was away, we didn’t completely implode. My girls and I also spent extra time snuggling in my bed every morning. We went for hikes and stopped at the park on a whim when I should have been home starting dinner. There were marathon story times and dance parties. We saw the biggest snake of my life on a trail. The girls got in a fight at the grocery store over which veggies to get (yay!). They put on a fashion show with my clothes and jewelry. And one night after the rain cleared we went for a walk and they picked a slug out of my shoe while I just stood there freaking out.
We also marked a milestone. We’ve had children for nearly a decade but have never brought them to the movies. Animated movies are generally the bane of my existence. Look, if there had been a Hayao Miyazaki film at our local cinema I would’ve had our kids there for the premiere. I’m a film snob and I admit it. Imagine how excited I was to find out there was a classic film playing at The Strand Theater downtown, a venue in the midst of being restored to its 1924 Vaudevillian glory. I was sure a Buster Keaton silent film and live Wurlitzer organ concert would go over well. I mean, what kid doesn’t like slapstick? The girls laughed their heads off, along with an entire theater of gray headed moviegoers. During intermission I introduced the girls to the young organist and told him they’d been playing air organ, which he took as a compliment. (The girls swooned over his British accent, which is typically female but which I attribute to their love for all things Narnia.)
After my husband got back into town we spent a Sunday in Montreal as a family. We had a picnic lunch in Parc du Mont-Royal, strolled downtown where the girls were treated to overpriced ice cream cones and a free show by a fire-juggling street performer and enjoyed the most pleasant spring weather we’ve had yet. Before moving to Plattsburgh, days like this were rare. My husband’s vacation time and weekends were used for freelance work. People like to say it’s nice we can afford for me to be a stay-at-home mother. But we didn’t start a family saying, “we’re so wealthy we might as well live on one income.” It required making hard choices and accepting lifestyle limits. It meant earning (and financing) a college degree I might not practically use for the foreseeable future. It guaranteed that my husband’s career would be critically important to our family, determining where and how we live. The decision to stay home with our children rather than enter the workforce was complicated; there are costs to it.
My husband has never expressed the idea that I belong in the home. It was the desire of my heart. As a mother in 2014, I can’t think of anything more feminist than my husband supporting my choice to be at home with my children. Though he can’t shake the suspicion I somehow willed myself to have all girls, I can’t imagine a better man to be a father to three daughters. He is thoughtful and gentle and sentimental. He knows each girl as an individual. He makes them laugh. He inspires them to draw every day and to care for all creatures (even slugs). They miss him when he’s at work. When he comes home they climb on him and talk nonstop because they know he’ll tickle them and listen to them and ask questions about their day. They’re crazy about him. Today my oldest said to me, “Daddy’s your BFF, Mama.” So with that in mind, Happy Father’s Day to my BFF and all the other awesome dads out there!
We cast no shadows in the park on Sunday afternoon. We bring fruit on ice and books to read and blankets to spread. The pages of my book are blinding. The fruit warms, purple juice sweating all over our fingers. The girls run up and down steps, skin their knees, roll down the hill until their faces are red and their hair is shining. They beg to go down to the water. There is a high wall overlooking the lake and it is lined with men, all shirtless, all in work boots and with fishing lines running out to the water. There is a staircase cut out of the wall. The girls could kneel on the bottom step where the water is deep, scoop cold water into their cupped palms. I want to feel it, too. But there is only one set of steps and many people at the park today. I send the girls across the hill to a patch of shade, long and narrow, under the trees. On my back I take off my shoes, roll up my jeans, shade my eyes with my arm. When I turn my head I see shapes and movements of the girls through the green grass. Feet intertwined they laze, trying to instigate an argument. They pick burrs from the bushes. I hear their laughter, the water slapping the wall where the men aren’t catching fish, birds calling from the branches bending to the girls. Looking straight up I see only blue, clouds. I think of the masts I love to watch in the harbors dotting the lake. How they dip and rock and seem to belong more to the sky than the sea. Bare and docked and lonely they rise like grand architecture. The masts exist for the water but still there is a sense they climb like ladders into the water’s blue twin, into the cold of the clouds.
In all the conversation this week surrounding the killing rampage that took place in California, there has been a recurring quote by Margaret Atwood on social media,
Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.
The killer was motivated by insecurity stemming from issues surrounding his sexuality; he felt ignored by women and threatened by other men. And though people are outraged, nobody is surprised. Mental illness may be a factor but part of the root of his psychosis is real. And archaic.
Consider some of the oldest slander on earth: the role of Eve’s sex in bringing sin into the world. On the page we read that Eve and Adam lived in perfect relationship with God and with one another (and had no shame about their sexuality, by the way) and yet each chose to sin. But at some point in extra-biblical history Eve’s sexuality became serpentined throughout the story. Adam was not tempted by his own flesh to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Eve used her fleshly enticements to deceive him. Throughout time and cultures women have been associated with the origination of sin, having a greater inclination toward it and a knack for leading their counterpart astray. Females have been made into symbols of temptation and lust; sin incarnate; something to be conquered. Continue reading
In the waiting there is rain
gray thick enough to grasp
to wrap in folds like a shroud
brought low and near by silence
or everything that fills it
the day becomes the night
no light to tell the time
and there is only one window
which when opened reveals
prisms and watermarks
a day’s worth of color
blushing in surprise
released in a wash
the sun and its luxuries
suspended in the interlude
I was somewhere along the Ausable River when the drugs began to take hold, a heady mix of caffeine, white water rapids and some kind of ear blasting optimistic music. I pushed our old blue hybrid as much as I dared. Two bucket seats, 60 miles per gallon and any number of service warning lights all indications this was not the family car. This was the desperate drive after a week that had started with a breakfast tray and an audience in my bed on Mother’s Day and come to a frantic conclusion in the form of a marathon cleaning binge. Washing all the laundry and all the kids, leaving the house in shipshape not out of the goodness of my heart as much as a selfish desire to not have it all waiting for me when I returned in a day. Continue reading
In honor of Mother’s Day, an excerpt from a manuscript I’m currently working on.
When I am introduced to someone in Rwanda I learn their name and also their scent. They reach for my hand with two hands sticky and warm and evenly calloused so as to be smooth when they are clasped around mine. And when we embrace their clothes and skin are damp with the meaty smell of sweat. It clings to me as I am released. If we meet again I search my memory for their name and what I breathed of them. This sense of smell is a physical intimacy. A reminder of the connection we share through the common form we inhabit. Continue reading
Last Friday we attended the opening night of T.E. Breitenbach’s 45 year art retrospective at Albany Center Gallery. The artist was born in Queens, studied at the University of Notre Dame and in Italy and makes his life as an artist in upstate New York. T.E. Breitenbach: Then & Now showcases his diverse body of work, including a grandfather clock he handcrafted as a teenager, props from his musical about medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch and an impressive collection of decades of oil paintings. Continue reading
Waiting on a season change
one which turned
nightly in illusions of brightness watching for
cracks in the soundless
white walls on the mountainside listening for
the faintest trickle and
all at once a flow
of what winter had built
melting from the cloud heights
to the cradling places of earth
standing long and lonely
at the edge willing
movement into reality, this
quiet pool transformed into its
memory of sea
it is hungry, dangerous
on the highest paths where the land
reaches out like fingers
its rage licks at something to swallow
and in quiet draped curves the waterline
rises dark on the rock
where they once stood