The good life


I used to be poor, when my kids were little. My kids tell me now they never knew we were poor because we had a great quality of life. My husband’s annual income was about $9,000 and there were  5 of us.  I was a stay-at-home mom, so we had a garden, and access to our neighbors’ goats and chickens. We heated with wood, and drank fresh spring water.  I cooked almost everything from scratch, canned things from the garden, and made my own yogurt, bread, and maple syrup.  I made Christmas presents throughout the year and made many of my kids’ clothes, sometimes to their own specifications. My kids didn’t need many toys because they had the woods outside to play in. They made great forts and tree houses and they learned how to run and climb and swim. They learned to think and plan, and prepare. They learned how to survive in nature, in all kinds of weather. And they learned social skills, like how to get along with different kinds of kids, of all different ages. The big kids learned how to take care of the little ones, and helped them develop skills like how to balance on a fallen log over the creek, or which branches to trust as they climbed a tree.  The big kids also learned to set a good example for the little ones.  When you’re 10 and trying out new things, like swearing or smoking, all it takes is one look at your 7 year old sister to realize that this is not behavior you want to model.  My kids learned how to organize their own teams, and write their own rules, and get themselves to the playing field using an ancient,  eco-friendly transportation system called walking.  They learned how to take care of each other. They learned self-confidence and respect for each other and all living things. They learned to be thankful for the little things.  It turns out the little things really are the big things—love and community and respect and self-reliance.  Looking back, I realize that this quality of life was only possible because our environment was the natural world. The earth kept us safe, gave us food and water and even beauty that we could never have purchased. Nature gave my kids a playground, and that playground taught them more than any school ever could. This is our birthright as children of this planet. Nature sustains us, and we sustain her. And none of it cost us a penny.  Nature is not only free—nature is the antithesis of money.  The more we pursue money, the further we move away from Nature and from life.


Our Mean State

This is a very small fishbowl we all live in. Man throws a chicken bone out the kitchen window and a brick lands on his brother’s head. And then we all cry “Why me, Lord?” We use words like yours and mine and theirs and ours…like they mean something. To some people those words mean everything. But we’re all just rats fighting over the garbage,  killing each other over something that’s gonna turn to shit anyway. The richest person among us is the one who looks at his neighbor, under the rags, under the scowl, under the addiction and sees himself.

(photo credit: Dean Zeller)bleak

What kind of house did you live in and what was your old neighborhood like?

sunday dinner

I grew up just a few blocks from Little Italy, in Erie, PA in the same house my father grew up in. We lived upstairs and my grandmother lived downstairs. All my life this home was the center of our extended family—and still is, after 70 years. Every Sunday my two uncles and their families would come for Sunday dinner “downstairs Mama’s house.” My grandmother would make sauce for all 16 of us. “Sauce” is a euphemism for some kind of pasta—either raviolis, fettuccine, or cavatelli—all homemade. “Sauce” also implies all the fixings, including antipasto, meatballs, sauce pork, and wedding soup. Mama always had cookies too, usually knots, pizzelles, or fried cookies, or pies—chocolate or banana cream or apple. For that many people, Mama made her pies in cookies sheets, not pie tins. The house always smelled like oregano, anise, and garlic. One of my earliest memories was being sent outside to pick some fresh “mint” for Mama’s cooking. I had no idea what to look for, so I picked a handful of everything. Mama would select the oregano (mint) from what I gathered and use it in her sauce.

Next door lived Eddie Beck. The Becks were not Italian but they figured just as prominently in my family as my own flesh and blood. The Becks were Danish and German and their house smelled like pickles, home canned tomatoes, and mustard. Every Sunday morning after Mass I went to Eddie Beck’s house for cinnamon toast. We walked to school every day with the Becks. We played in the Becks’ yard after school every day and all summer, even though the Becks spent all summer at their cottage on the lake. The Becks’ house used to be a farm, and half the yard was sand, with an old chicken coop that we played in and called the Dollhouse. In one part of the sand they had an enormous homemade iron swing set. When I wasn’t playing there, or at the playground at the school on the corner, I was riding my bike. When I was younger I was only allowed to ride on the sidewalks around my block and the block across the street, so I would go around and around all day. It was fun to zip past the houses and smell all the different smells, especially at supper time. I was always alone so I used to sing a lot on my rides where, ironically, I felt entirely private. As I got older I rode further and further from home, where the smells were even more interesting and mysterious. Many times I rode to the beach, about 4 miles away, and I would drink in the smells and sounds of the lake, the cookouts, the sunbathers and the birds.

I was always eager for the end of summer, when the Becks had to come home for the first day of school. Eddie was the leader of the neighborhood, not because he was the biggest, or toughest, or the coolest kid but because he was the nicest. Eddie Beck pulled the whole neighborhood together, befriending everybody and making sure everyone got along. I was never chosen for any teams, and Eddie knew it, so he always chose me first.

My bedroom was on the third floor, in the attic. My room was tiny, about 5×10, barely large enough for a bed, with no standing room under the slanting attic ceiling. It had no windows, no dresser, no closet. There was room for a small cedar chest, where I did my homework and where I saved most of my belongings. As a teenager I used to sit at the window at the top of the attic stairs and watch Eddie Beck and the other neighborhood boys play basketball in the driveway down below.

One of my favorite memories: my grandparents’ visitors. After my grandfather’s stroke they came to sit with him on the front porch: old men with rolled up shirt sleeves and trousers pulled up to their chests, smelling of garlic and drinking homemade wine, speaking with him in Italian and laughing at us kids, who were always clueless. And once a month mama had card party. I always laid on the floor in our dining room and listened to the sounds coming up the floor register of her and her siblings and their spouses speaking Italian. The next day I’d go downstairs to see if there were any homemade cream puffs left over.

Another favorite memory: helping my dad work on the house. On Saturdays he’d light up a cigar and work on little building projects. I learned to love the smell of those cigars and the smell of lumber cut by a saw. I learned to wait patiently and watch him work, anticipating his next move so I could hand him the tool he needed. Watching my dad I learned to think, plan, think again, and re-plan before taking action. I learned to save everything, every screw, every nail, every bit of wire, every scrap of wood, and to organize these things carefully in case I needed them again someday. I loved to listen to him whistling or humming while he worked, an endless, formless tune that was not really a song. It seemed to serve some purpose, like fuel he was burning to keep his mind churning in the background. He seemed to be entirely at peace during these times, and I shared that peace with him.

Finally, I have to mention the birds. As I sift through memories to try and capture what my house and neighborhood were like, I suddenly realize that every memory is accompanied by the sounds of birds. In my backyard memories, birds and children both laid claim to the gigantic maple tree we climbed in Eddie Beck’s yard. Climbing that tree, or even walking on the roof of the car port, or jumping out of the hay loft into the sand, you’d be dive-bombed by sentinel robins. All in good fun, of course. In the front yard, on the north side of the house, where it was shady and quiet, and where adults outnumbered the kids any day of the week, sparrows and wrens protected their territories with songs that echoed under the porch awnings, and down between the houses.  Their songs wafted through the open windows, amplified by the pavement below, morning songs stirring your heart to wake, evening songs soothing as a lullaby. At noon, in the ancient towering Lombardy poplars at the school on the corner, white throated sparrows whistled like squeaky chains on swings in the playground, while my dad passed on his walk home for lunch each day, whistling his famous, nameless tune. On Sundays, when the cousins came to visit, Uncle Tee would call us all home from all over the neighborhood, with one of his ear-piercing, heart-stopping whistles, sounding something like a cross between the territorial call of a mountain chickadee and the imperial summons of a Greek god.


Seeking brotherhood, not homogeneity

When we lump each other into categories and decide to hate those we disagree with, we alienate good people who could be our friends and allies. No one is a “liberal” or a “conservative.”  Those adjectives describe an idea we have, but those words are too limited to describe the whole of anyone’s entire personality.

Tell me, for instance, what category you think I belong to: I believe that less government is better, so in that sense I am a conservative tending toward anarchism. Yet I believe that I am my brother’s keeper, so I believe we have a responsibility to provide social services–does that make me a liberal? I am a feminist, but I don’t believe women are any better than men–in fact most of them are horrible. I would never, ever have an abortion, and if I knew someone else who was having one, I would do everything in my power to convince them otherwise, including offering to adopt the baby myself–but I believe women should be free to make that choice for themselves. I hate guns, but I will not try to take yours away. I am a born-again Christian who refuses to proselytize and encourages atheists and skeptics to exercise their right to not only disagree with my beliefs at every opportunity, but to live their lives according the dictates of their own conscience–even if that means they never believe as I do.

Not that anyone cares about these details of my character, but my point is this–if you knew me you would not be able to classify me. I suspect that is true of most people. If we so narrowly define our expectations of others, we will each of us have only ourselves on our “side.” Then all of our causes will be lost and we will be doomed to hate our own lives as much as we hate what the world has become.

We have a choice to make the world a better place by letting the American dream live, if not in our government, then at least in our hearts. Let’s join together, with all our differences, and see if we can’t find a way to live together without tearing each other down.flag

If this is the end, I’m eating strawberries

May 23, 2010

This is not just an oil spill, folks. I suspect this is a fissure in the earth’s crust. It can’t be fixed. We just signed the earth’s death warrant. If they try to fix it by blowing it up, it will only get worse. While we argue over strategies, blame, and political capital, while we struggle to provide relief for those sickened by their proximity to ground zero, the ocean will die–not just the fish and other creatures–the ocean herself will die, poisoned by oil and chemicals. The wind and the currents will whip it around the planet, covered with a layer of oil that gets thicker every day. Oil floats on the top of water. That means no more water will evaporate into the atmosphere. That means no more clouds, and no more rain. That means no more fresh water to drink, and no more crops. No broccoli, no big macs, no cigarettes. The birds and animals, the trees and grasses, yes, even that nasty crabgrass you’ve been spraying for years–all will die. When that happens, dandelions will be a delicacy, until even their memory disappears. The earth will be one barren scorching desert. Neighbors and friends will turn on each other for dwindling resources. Eventually, even family members will prey on each other. We can eat bugs for a while, till we suffocate on the fumes–when the ocean catches fire there will be no way to put it out. Until all the oxygen on the planet disappears, and the sun finally completes our attempt to turn the earth into the stinking global toxic dump we’ve been building all these years. The final poetic contribution to our global landfill will be our starved and stinking corpses.

There’s only one thing you can do at this point. Don’t waste another minute. Get out of your house, get out of your car, take off your shoes and sink your bare feet into the rich soil bursting with bugs and worms and other beneficent creatures; take a deep breath of relatively clean air, soak in all the green your eyes can find, enjoy a juicy strawberry as though it were your last–and commit all of this experience to memory, to get you through the next painful years of your life.

If you are going to pray, don’t bother praying for help. Of course God can turn this around, although it will take eons. He will start, no doubt, as soon as we are gone. No, it’s too late to ask for help. And we missed all the chances we had to say thanks. I think it’s time we prayed for forgiveness. We’re going to need it sooner than you think.

Fall line-up

Fall line-up

My window tells me it’s hunting season in the forest; the animals arrive in droves. Wild turkeys nosh in the ragged edges of high grass near gas wells and fence lines. Deer sample delicacies in my front yard and garden, stepping gingerly through the rock garden in stiletto heels like yuppies at Starbucks. A possum steals cat food from a bowl by the front door. Last week a puma cornered my cat under the house. Truckloads of humans skid down the gravel road, slowing only for open fields that show promise. Beer cans pitch from open windows while search lights lase the night with surgical precision. A mama bear and three cubs pad gently over wet leaves toward the beaver dam where something surfaces and dives again with a splash. Everyone is laying up stores for the long winter ahead.