muddy feet memoirs

The Chronicle of My Comeback

My Girl Deserves to Thrive

Beautiful young woman jumping on  a green meadow with a colored tissue

Last year I started asking around about homeschooling – not because I was interested in homeschooling particularly, but because I needed to bone up on my teaching skills.  I figured homeschooling sites would have good advice around helping your kids learn, especially once the curricula surpassed what I knew with ease… which was happening, even in the elementary school grades.

Of course we had a lot going on in our home, so it was understandable that the kids were slipping in their work – and we parents were slipping in helping them with their work.  I let last year’s school term end with the silent promise to be a better parent when the new school year began, once we all had the chance to recover from Jay’s death.  And now that I have only one child to focus on I have returned to the homeschooling websites for advice.

Stella had the good fortune of having excellent teachers K-3.  Last year her teacher was comparatively mediocre, and Stella was astute enough to recognize that.  She struggled socially – 4th-grade aged kids start separating into cliques and gender groups – and she began developing self-esteem issues around “not being good” at her studies, especially math.  At the time part of me thought “well, that’s what it’s like to be in school – some teachers are better than others,” yet part of me also recognized that I had been lackadaisical in Stella’s learning.

Now that 5th grade has begun I can see how overwhelmed and unhappy My Girl is. I find myself wondering if it is really just because of one year of a mediocre teaching experience, or is it because the system around her isn’t tailored to Stella’s learning style – and as she ages the gap grows wider?  Homeschooling is big on individualized learning – obviously something nearly impossible in a class of 30+ kids (I realize that after 5 years serving on the school board it seems almost heretical to say it, but it’s the trade-off made with large-scale learning).  Some kids need less individualized attention than others –  I wondered if Stella wasn’t on the side of needing more.

One way that secular homeschooling families determine the learning style of their kids is through the Myers-Briggs test.  In fact, they use it to determine the teaching style of the parent as well.  There are many online opportunities to take the Myers-Briggs test, even ones to determine the personality type of the child.  The results were so spot-on it blew my mind.  More importantly, it has helped me refocus on Stella’s learning dilemma, and strategize on how to help her.

Stella tested as ENFP – the personality type blogger Penelope Trunk asserts is the one most likely to be crushed in the standard classroom (I tested as INFJ, for the record).  They struggle with focus and follow through, being more inclined towards big-picture ideas and interpersonal relationships.  They are creative to the point that their fanciful imagination derails them from anything routine.  What people think of them matters deeply.  They tend to have greater test anxiety than most kids and become very emotional when criticized.  They are artists and creative problem solvers – and often not interested in expressing what they know in only one way.  They are motivated by meaning and relationships, not by grades.

My Girl’s brain freezes when I ask her the simplest math problem these days, not because she doesn’t know the answer but because her self-esteem is so entangled with doubt that she literally fails to think, like a deer caught in the headlights.  She is trapped in a self-fulfilling downward spiral of the “I’m stupid”s.  She wasn’t like this in the 3rd grade, though I can recollect some foreshadowing to what took shape last year and what has clearly has me worried this year – Stella’s feelings of self-loathing and impotence when it comes to learning.  Wow, maybe she is being crushed in the classroom.

Of course, my responsibility is to help her out of this pit of despair and to re-establish her joy of learning – which every child is born with in spades.  This trend can be reversed, and I must re-commit myself to Stella in every way.  I’m not ready to make the leap into homeschooling, but it’s clear she needs something from me that I have to deliver – and if it’s an alternative to the classroom I’m willing to consider it.  My Girl deserves to thrive.

Homesteading for the Single Gal

Laura and Guy Waterman

      Laura and Guy Waterman

My great uncle Guy and his wife Laura were homesteaders in Vermont.  They were legends in their small world – acclaimed authors, wilderness heroes, backwoods aficionados.  They moved to Vermont and built their tiny mountain home in the early 1970’s, inspired less by hippy culture than the pioneering couple Scott and Helen Nearing, whose book Living The Good Life was first published in 1954.  

I knew nothing of Helen and Scott Nearing until I read Laura’s book Losing the Garden, the chronicle of her life with Guy (and his ultimate suicide after 30+ years in the woods).  I ordered it immediately and began to see how substantially Laura and Guy had patterned their life after the Nearings.  Guy was a staunch Republican, Scott clearly a Marxist, but other than those two distinctions what I read was – without a doubt – the How-To guide Guy and Laura had used to make their move.  They even became vegetarians and moved to Vermont, just as the Nearings had.  They signed everything jointly, with the wife’s name always first, just as the Nearings did.  As stated in the first chapter of Living The Good Life, “We maintain that a couple, of any age from twenty to fifty, with a minimum of health, intelligence and capital, can adapt themselves to country living, learn its crafts, overcome its difficulties, and build up a life pattern rich in simple values and productive of personal and social good.”  That’s exactly what Laura and Guy did for decades, but when Guy died Laura moved to town.

Therein lies the heart of my dilemma.  First off, as appealing as leaving the urban center is to me, I am here now.  I have a home in a City with sirens and litter and people cussing at the bus stop around the corner.  In two years (when my mortgage modification allows) I may decide to live more remotely, but for now I am here, and it is here I am to homestead.  Secondly, I am no longer part of a couple.  And I have a 10 year old kid.  The Nearing’s How-To guide – and the life that Guy and Laura exemplified – is dependent on the division of labor between two adults, the caring of children clearly absent from their roster of country chores.  Even in the delightfully simplistic The “Have-More” Plan, by Ed and Carolyn Robinson – which showcases their success as homesteaders with a young son (and their decidedly 1940’s relationship!) – the weight is distributed across the shoulders of two adults.

The Nearings speak much about community-building but mostly for political ends, not their homesteading work.  Laura and Guy’s writings focus largely on ethics and wilderness, and though known as the ultimate backwoods hosts, rarely relied on others for their livelihood once their home was built – and never wrote about it.  The Robinsons, understanding that self-reliance can come in varying degrees, ironically stake out the most reasonable options for the majority of us – but still, the use of community is absent from their “plan.”  Is it unreasonable to create greater networks of reliance among your neighbors?  Is homesteading some kind of macho, separatist thing?

To my mind, homesteading is about meeting your family’s needs as independently from the money economy as possible.  It is not about proving that you can do it alone.  It is about simplifying things down to their most rewarding elements, and liberating ourselves from the monetary pressures that enslave us.  My future is dependent on my figuring out how to do it without a partner, but I do not believe it is about doing it alone.  So far no one has written the book Homesteading for the Single Gal.  Maybe it’s up to me.

That’s it for now.  Thanks for stopping by.

 

Dear Jay #3: It’s Over Between Us

Relationships are dynamic – when they stop being collaborative they die on the vine.

I’ve tried to think of us as the ultimate long distance relationship, but the thing is this:  I keep growing, and I’m growing past you.  You’re static, exactly where we left off, but I’m light years past that now.  Your death, and ALL the bullshit that came along afterwards, has propelled me into a completely different world.  I try to imagine you in bed next to me giving me one of your pep talks, but it’s just a memory.  I’m alone with this – all of it.  Erin’s heartlessness, the pointless fight over your Life Insurance money, losing the kids, the ruinous debacle at the school, my decision to not run for office, the blooming 8ft weeds in the backyard, the broken cars, my empty bank account, my debilitating depression…  fuck.

I’m glad to hear that you’re visiting friends in their dreams – it sounds like you, the stories they report, and so I believe that you are with us.  I’d love it if you came to me in a dream again, but that’s all I have to hope for with you – a cryptic vision from my subconscious, a Jungian interpretation.  What I don’t have is your support.  I don’t have you to forge ahead with.

I took my wedding ring off.  I know you’re not coming back.  It’s over.

 

PTSD & My Fucked Up Heart

In the five + months since Jay died I have known 3 people diagnosed with cancer and three people die of cancer – the majority of them young.  This does not include the folks in my cancer support group and their escalating maladies – the majority of them are young as well.  I have a lot to offer these patients and family members – insights from four years in the trenches – but the onslaught has me hiding under my covers.  Trench warfare can leave you with emotional trauma.  Do I have PTSD?

I find myself reflecting on the people who disappeared when Jay was in treatment with renewed compassion.  Some people were uncharacteristically mean, some shockingly glib, some total chicken-shit – folks I would have never expected to behave the way they did…  but seen through the lens of trauma I think I understand.  I do understand.  I have found myself glib lately too, uncharacteristically so.  I look into myself for reserves to share with people who have given me so much and instead I find anxiety and exhaustion.  That PTSD question was rhetorical.  I know the answer.

I am not sure how well I can support my friends-in-need while hiding under my covers – I’m open to suggestions.  But I do know that forgiveness is healing, and whatever grudges I’ve held towards anyone who failed us I can feel melt away with my new understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder & my own fucked up heart.

No hard feelings.

 

 

Hanging with Gandhi at the Beach

Gandhi at the beach

I spent a few nights this week sleeping on the beach, meditating on three particular situations in my life.  All three I’ve historically considered key elements of my future, and all three are looking pretty dubious right now.  One has to do with my family – something I’ve blogged a lot about.  One has to do with my farm, or rather the expansion of the farm, and the last has to do with my so-called political career.  Three seemingly distinct endeavors with one thing linking them together – me.  And when all three seem to teeter on the brink of obsolescence I can only look to myself for answers.  What are the common threads, what are the similar relationships, at what time did I sacrifice my power to someone else?   With the possibility of wiping the slate clean, am I able to create a future with my own best interests in mind – and what does that look like?

I was reminded over my mid-week reading that early-on, Mahatma Gandhi was a married man with kids and a pretty swanky law career.  As a young professional he was a loyal citizen of the British Empire, one who thought himself to have a certain amount of political clout with the policy makers.  He wore tailored suits.  However, it was through his law practice – his public service – that he became radicalized, and at some point he had to surrender that supposed clout to continue his work as a humanitarian.  Had he not done that I’m sure he would have died a decent man with a pretty-good pension, but because he renounced his earlier plans we have a world saint – and he saw the end of British rule in India.  He says in his essay The Gita and Satyagraha, “Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants.  This alone promotes real happiness and contentment, and increases the capacity for service.”  Clearly one ‘reduction’ he saw early on was the egotism he had tied up in his law career.  In hindsight it seems like an obvious choice, but I feel confident it was not.  He followed his own self-realization through service to others, and at some point had to go it alone to continue forward.

In politics I find myself entangled not only by my own egotism but also complicit in other people’s ego-driven ends, often just through association.  I can see how disassociation would free me and “increase my capacity for service.” Five years ago I can honestly tell you that I was called to serve, and considering the radical turn-around we’ve seen during that time I can only feel pride, but now my term of service is complete.  I was considering another political position – one in which I could act as a watch-dog over this system, serve from a slightly more removed position – but perhaps Gandhi’s message is to seek a greater change.  Perhaps it’s time for me to go it alone….

The expansion of my farm is also a conundrum, essentially due to the blind trust I showed in another self-serving person (I’m detecting a theme!).  Fear of the future had me constantly desiring the comfort of a “plan,” and since I knew I had a future in farming – and a capacity for animal slaughter (sorry, Gandhi!)- I conceived of the Bone Yard (see past entries).  On one hand I regret blindly trusting this supposed partner to keep my best interests in mind, but on the other hand I have yet again been offered the lesson of less-is-more – and in this case, before I really had to extricate myself from something messy.  Again, my ego is involved.  I had PLANS.  I finessed relationships to realize them, and now I’m on the outs…  I am less nervous about making money than I am about losing face.  My grasping at hopeful strategies of self-support during Jay’s demise is understandable – I even feel compassion for myself in that regard – but again, it seems more driven by ego than actual, urgent financial need.  As Gandhi asserts in the same essay, “How can one seek Truth, or cherish Love [both words for God] without fearlessness?….  Fearlessness connotes freedom from all external fear – fear of disease, bodily injury and death, of dispossession, of losing one’s nearest and dearest, of losing reputation or giving offence, and so on.”  Freedom from dependence on the benefactor as well as the false-friend is probably best for me.  It was my fear that drove me to depend on them.  I do not need to excel at some fabricated business.  What I need to do is – yet again – avoid being used by others as a means to their own end.

On one hand I see that I should redouble my efforts to serve, but on the other hand I must remove myself from the situations in which my service can be manipulated by others to their own ends.  I must look out for my needs while serving the needs of others.

Sadly, I cannot see how service to Jay and the kids could have ended any differently.  It is the one example of tonight’s exam that I leave as-is.  I knew Erin was planning to screw me while I served my family, and still I welcomed her into my home.  I chose the path of service without blinders, clear about her intentions and clear about my priorities.  “Non-violence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering.  It does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.”  Jay’s death was inevitable, but my response to it was not.  My love for him and my kids cannot be undone, despite the “will of the tyrant.”  Jay’s life and death with cancer was a catalyst for me – an exercise in fearlessness and love.  His gift is my future.  And like all saints, his message transcends his death.  Clean Slate.

Dear Jay #2: I’ve been talking at your picture lately

jay and his bike

Hey baby,

I changed my screensaver to one of my favorite pictures of you – when you posed with your new bicycle right in front of the roses, the bike the kids and I bought for you.  There are a lot of pictures of you from that time – it was one of those birthdays we thought would be your last (but you made it practically another 2 years!).  I remember the importance of buying you something that had value and shelf-life…  it was symbolic on a host of levels.  Years before you sold your original bicycle just after your divorce.  It was like cutting off a limb, but it fed your kids…  Having something to ride again was profound, especially since that heavy cloud hung above us suggesting “why buy something for the guy who will be dead before he can enjoy it?”.  The look on your face in this photo is the unspoken retort.  You are my most beautiful Jay in this picture.  You even have on the clothes I imagine you have on right now:  those Old Navy cargo shorts, the long-sleeved brown Henley you loved, and your well-worn Oregon hat you wore daily – backwards.  And that handsome grin, with those sideburns and that beard you worked so hard to have.  My perfect Jay.  When I boot up my computer I take a minute with you every time.  I love you, baby.

I’ve been talking at your picture lately.

I took the last few days off to go to the beach with Nina and Stella.  I’ve had a lot on my mind, and though I kept talking to your picture I wasn’t getting a lot of feedback, so I went to listen to the beach instead.  We stayed at Doran Beach – you remember that time we took Stella for the day and it was so rainy and windy no one dared the water?  And Stella begged to take her clothes off, so when I said ‘no’ she ran into the water fully clothed?!  We were there, but this time Stella wore swim clothes…  she was still the only person in the water, but at least she had something to change into afterwards.

Anyways, I’ve really missed you lately.  Missed you as a partner, as a parent.  As a sounding board.  I’ve had so much on my mind.

The night before we left, Stella and I watched part of a PBS series on Ghandi – I asked her to please watch it with me.  I was then inspired to pluck a collection of his works from the bookshelf to bring to the beach.  If your gorgeous picture wasn’t going to talk back to me I might as well try another, less attractive saint.  I think it might have worked.  It’s a good thing saints talk through the ages, because Ghandi’s writings were largely from the 1920’s.

I read about service without attachment to the fruits of work, about truth-force, community, refusing to be an agent of deceit, sacrifice, remembering everything is a gift from God in service to our realization of him…  I got sunburned at the beach (praise him!).

We all returned home with a fatigue that only days at the beach can produce.  Stella and I showered & lounged in our towels, too lethargic to say or do much of anything, until Stella piped up saying “I’m sad”, looking at the bookshelf displaying Quinn’s most precious belongings.  “Me too,” I said back.

I look at the kids’ things and remember how fractured we are.  I look at your picture and remember how whole we became.  I miss you, baby.  I wish you could talk back.  My insights from hanging with Ghandi on the beach will come soon.  Until then, please know that I love you and I will likely never stop talking at your picture.  If you have time, please visit me in my dreams.

Yours,

A

Gone Fishin’

gone fishin'

I’m heading to the beach tomorrow.  A beach campground in Northern California where I will sleep on the sand for a couple of nights.  I need to sleep on the sand for a couple of nights.  Stella and I will join our friend Nina in celebration of her 55th birthday.  Our Thursday night dinner posse might even make the trek up the coast to chow with us!  I look forward to the ions in the air and the excuse to separate myself from my cell phone.  Too much political nonsense in my life right now.  Too much pointless Machiavellian whoo-ha.  I need a reality check before I make the decision to run for office again.  I need to get clear about truth and justice.  I need to eat s’mores under the night sky, listening to the surf.  I’m outta here – Gone Fishin’.  See you in a few days.

Ciao for now,

A

Tonight’s Ode to the Brave and Lovely Stella

Stella asleep

Note our dog Cow, ever-alert at the window!

Losing the kids has been the hardest part for Stella.  We held our collective breath after school let out and prayed it wouldn’t happen, but we eventually admitted what I knew was going to be true – Quinn and Mac weren’t coming back enough to justify Quinn having her own room…  so I moved Mac into it.  Then we held our breath for another good-long-time until we figured we may never have them live here again…  and I moved their things into Stella’s room.  I spent over 2 months of the summer cleaning, moving, cleaning & moving Mac and Quinn’s belongings.  At some point I delivered 4 lawn-sized garbage bags of the kids’ things to Erin’s front porch – I find some satisfaction seeing that she can’t make eye contact with me – and honed their collections of valuables for the day they either return or are able to care for them themselves.

The deconstruction of the kids’ life here has been the unspoken heartbreak of Stella’s summer.

At first I thought the extra bedroom should be rented to a local medical student, so I kept a pine dresser and platform bed in the space.  I then staged an extra bookshelf, an antique oak desk with a wicker chair, some small table lamps and a tiny carpet beside the bed…  and before I could rent it, kept it as an office for myself.  A clean well-lighted place to write.  I am writing from this room right now.

And Stella is asleep next to me.

I’ve made a point of coming to this room to write everyday since I cleared it.  Stella’s been clingy since Jay died, which I assume is true of my other two…  and though she has her own room she’s asked me for three nights now, “Are you gonna write tonight, mama?” – her code for falling asleep next to me as I work.  Better that than hosting her in my bed, which has been true all summer.  We have found a middle-ground in the room filled with the most grief.  Is it possible that that’s always true of grief?  My guess is Yes.

Since before her second birthday it’s basically been just me and Stella, and one day soon I will write the Ode she really deserves…  but tonight I send her off to dreamland with this:  You will always have a place to rest beside me as long as I live.  I love you, my girl.

 

The Chronicle of My Comeback

Unmade Bed, Sally Strand sallystrand.com

“Unmade Bed”        Sally Strand

 

This morning I changed the tagline of this blog.  It used to read “Growing Kids, Raising Vegetables, Building Family, and Facing Cancer.”  Now it simply reads “The Chronicle of My Comeback.”

My first blog post was written right before I collected Jay from the hospital, just after his first lung surgery.  In fact I was late picking him up because I was so enthralled with the start of it!  Muddy Feet Memoirs was meant to be a forum to explore our backyard farming and self-sufficiency experiments, but over time it became a cancer blog more than anything else. Now I’m not sure what it is.

I’m back down to one kid, Stella, though I look forward to when Quinn and Mac decide to run away from their awful mother and come back.  Door’s always open.

My garden has gone to seed, though Food Rescue keeps me pretty well stocked with produce.  It’s hard to relearn how to cook for one or two, and I feel kind of deflated when I garden without Jay, but my backyard homestead is the cornerstone of my future, so back in the saddle I climb.

I am writing a book.  I am finishing Jay’s book.  I am raising a daughter alone.  I plan on selling heritage meats (chicken, turkey, rabbit), teaching canning workshops, stocking my larder and reclaiming my backyard farm.  I will grow herbs for my cancer-patient friends.  I will finish the grey water system and survive the drought.  I may or may not run for office again.  I’ll occasionally leave the house and make the scene.  I still wear my wedding ring and sleep on my side of the bed.  I will learn to enjoy solitude.

These are a few topics for Muddy Feet Memoirs 2.0, the chronicle of my comeback.  I’m actually starting to look forward to it.

 

The Hard Road of New Beginnings

newmoon

Depression has been overtaking me lately.  It’s been hard not to have Jay’s shoulders to lean on, ears to bend, brain to pick.  He could always tell when I started to slip – he said my eyes got grey.  If he were here now he would say it looked like rain.  His kids are gone, the garden has gone to seed, Food Rescue needs attention…  I dreamt that Jay held my face in his hands and said “It’s your time now,” but I don’t know how to make anything of it.  I cry a lot.  Decisions that I would have shared with him, insights, crossroads, are all mine to face alone.  I guess it’s my time now.

One strange benefit of grief is that it changes the filter through which you view your everyday life.  Yes, on certain days my joy seems to leach out of me through my tear ducts.  The work that once brought me meaning can seem hollow.  I am no longer the mother of three, the partner of the dying saint… my school board term is up and I failed to prepare my farm for much of anything.   With so much stripped away at least I can observe what’s left with a certain level of detachment (and a touch of malaise).  Grief has given me distance and a new perspective on the things that make up my life.

For instance, tonight I find myself considering the difference between service and servitude, and I think the distinction lies in whether you are able to serve yourself in the equation.  Service has always been a constant theme in my life, and I expect it will continue to be, but as I consider the future I have to challenge myself – where do I factor in?  Do I serve at my own expense?  If so, that’s no way to build a future.  It’s my time now.

I write this on what was supposed to be the luckiest astrological day of the year for me – the new moon in Leo – yet I could barely get out of bed.  If I am going to make my own luck I’ll to have to start conceptually, reevaluating what’s left in my life and seeing if it makes the cut – if it serves my future as I serve others.  Am I valued?  Am I able to grow?  Is there a clear benefit for me, and is it understood by the people involved?  Is there respect?  Do I like the path forward?  Yes, I know – I come to this kind of thinking late, my 47th birthday in just a few weeks.  Still, it’s my time now.  No time like the present.  I just wish Jay were here for it.

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