This Wild and Precious Life

My Wednesday Writing Group is now meeting via email since we are sheltering in place. Our fearless leader’s recent prompt forced me into some deep soul searching. I didn’t know where this piece was going when I picked up my pen, but it turned into something meaningful for me, so meaningful that I’m opening myself up to you now.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Naturalized daffodils in the woods

I remember when our children were young and complained about not having enough time to do the things that really mattered. My go-to response was to remind them that however they spent their time was a demonstration of what truly mattered the most to them (which was often watching TV). Sometimes the response was tears, sometimes an eye roll or two, but it never seemed to change behavior. Maybe that’s because I was better at preaching than practicing. I was chiding myself every bit as much as I was chiding them.

I live in constant awe and envy of many women whose orbit I circle: women who travel to far off places to do good, putting themselves in who-knows-how-much of harm’s way, risking their health and safety. They give their time, their creativity, and their financial resources to help others. They think of others before themselves.

Like theirs, my heart aches for the plight of so many in this world, but that is often as much as I allow. I’m filled with compassion more than passion. I am not moved to activism. A lifetime ago it was different, but I burned my candle down to a nub. I got burned and burned out, and the flame has never reignited.

Still, I find myself looking around me and wondering how I can help, how I can make a difference. I looked close to home—it’s not an easy place to find an answer. I’m surrounded by an enclave of family—theirs, not mine. Much of what they do, all four generations of them, they do together: farming, canning, eating, errands, playing. They are self-contained; they take care of each other. They do not seem to need others, even in times of need.

“Where am I needed? What can I do?”

That was the question I asked myself when one of the older generation among these neighbors received a devastating cancer diagnosis. They certainly didn’t need me to bring food or offer trips to the doctor. I had just recently retired from my far more than  full-time job when it came to me—the one thing I now had that family members did not.

Time. I could visit. While their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are off at work and school, I could give my time.

I had my answer.

At this stage in my own life, it seems the things I have to offer are the small things. A smile, a word of encouragement, a thank you or a compliment. They are indeed small things, but as I look around, they are things the world seems much in need of right now. These things I can do, and I have learned to be on the alert. Not always, not enough, but so much more than when I was so overworked and overwhelmed that I seemed only to live inside myself.

These days I actively watch for opportunities to smile, to make a small gesture. “Is there something I can get for you from that top shelf?” to the older gentleman in his electric shopping cart. “May I help with that?” to the woman struggling to get her arm into the coat sleeve.

I step out of my comfort zone to say something pleasant to a person who seems vulnerable. It’s an indirect way of saying, “You’re not alone. Here is a safe place.” Sometimes I just watch. How is this clerk from Pakistan being treated by her customers? How are those Latino customers being treated by that cashier? I’m ready to step in, though I have no idea how.

I’ve also learned that things I think and say and write can occasionally make a difference. It’s the main reason I continue to write—in hopes that I will sometimes find some combination of words that will touch someone.

In these ever more uncertain times, I believe it is more important than it ever has been—in my lifetime, at least—to look for the small ways I can help improve someone else’s day. Maybe it’s an extra large tip when my server is having a tough time. Maybe it’s a conversation with the overworked cashier at the big box store. Maybe it’s popping a check in the mail to make up for the appointments I’ll miss with my hairdresser for the current stage of the coronavirus shutdown—with a little something extra added in. Maybe it’s looking for a sliver of silver lining someone’s clouds.

What do I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? I plan to plant a little ray of sunshine wherever I can. Carrie Newcomer sings, “Between here now and forever is so precious little time.” With my precious little time I will seek out tiny acts of kindness to perform, following Mother Teresa’s counsel to do small things with great love.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

–Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, 1992

 

 

Our Modern Homesteading Journey

I’m not sure how it started, or when. But I do recall that the Gnome and I were early, early disciples of Mother Earth News Magazine. We landed a first edition copy of the Whole Earth Catalog and thumbed its pages until they were ragged and yellowed. We briefly considered looking for an old farmhouse somewhere in eastern Nova Scotia and learning to grub a subsistence living from the land.

We’re still the proud owners of this 1975 Mother Earth News Almanac. It’s where we found the easy, rib-sticking recipe for potato-cheese soup–the perfect way to cap off a cold day working outdoors.

There was a time, prompted by finances as much as a back-to-the-land ethos, when we quite literally stalked wild asparagus (and wild cherries) in Louisville’s magnificent city parks. We dug day lily tubers from our back yard for food. We made jellies from the thousands of purple violets which had overtaken our lawn and from rampant patches of mint. More than once we attempted a vegetarian lifestyle. (In those days, vegetarianism was considered the true sign of a back-to-the-lander in some quarters.) We got into crafting and selling our wares—mostly weaving and macrame—at local and regional street fairs and festivals. My favorite was ‘barefoot’ sandals. Sound a little hippie? You bet!

The Gnome had always had a hankering to design and build a home with his bare hands. In our first years of marriage, he got a little—and I emphasize little—experience working on home remodeling and repair jobs with a high school shop teacher in summertime and on weekends, which made the itch that much stronger.

Time passed, life intervened, and homesteading on any level seemed an insurmountable pipe dream. But the longing for a more sustainable, self-sufficient way of living never left us. Almost twelve years in, we decided the time had come to take that giant leap. We found a few rocky, sloped acres in the mountains of western North Carolina—way out in the country; sold our Louisville house; packed up children, cats, and our most essential belongings; and headed east.

You can start here to read the nine-part series (it’s long but chock full of fun pictures) about those days living in a tent, clearing land, and self-building our forever home, so I’m going to fast forward—but not before sharing this photo of me putting up corner bracing on our entirely self-built post-and-beam home oh so many years ago.

Too soon,  we found our dream of living an old-fashioned homesteading life a little too big to handle. We both had to find full-time jobs just to pay off the loan on our land, not to mention building materials; the kids were growing up and into extracurricular activities with college in their futures; and more than ever, health insurance was a priority. Jobs turned into careers.

Round and round the circle went. Finally, we were able to retire. Only then were we able to dedicate ourselves to gardening, food preservation, rehabbing our home, drying clothes on the line, cooking and eating at home instead of on the go.

Along the way, the term ‘modern homesteading’ began to surface. As I learned more about it, I realized that’s what we were doing, what we’d been doing all along to one degree or another.

What is modern homesteading? In short, it is a way of finding your own path to a simpler, more self-reliant life. Modern homesteading allows a person to weave old-fashioned skills into modern life. To find what—for you—is the best of both worlds. By this definition, even city-slicker apartment dwellers can be homesteaders. Personal values, life circumstances, and individual demands make both the path and the destination unique for everyone and allow anyone who wants to give it a try.

Our path? We built our own house with our own hands. We’re definitely on the grid, but a chunk of our electricity comes from a community solar garden, and we have lots of south-facing windows for passive solar heat gain.

We compost and recycle. To the extent our skills and tools allow, we do our own maintenance and make our own repairs. We prefer giving and receiving simple gifts, homemade if possible. When the weather cooperates, we line dry our laundry.  For several years, we’ve grown and preserved enough vegetables to pretty much get us through the year. We even continue to forage a little.

Our typical grocery list during gardening season

We support and encourage wildlife. We prefer spending time outdoors to seeing a movie. We support local causes that matter to us personally.
Of course, we’d done some of these things all along, even in the midst of child-rearing and busy careers. Things like recycling, loving the earth, conserving electricity, making do. But now, we have a name for it. And these days we are even more conscious in our earth-friendly decision-making.

We’ve cobbled together a life that teaches us resilience. One that keeps us closer to the land even as we type on our computers, drive our gasoline-powered car, and use electric tools and appliances. We try to live with purpose, asking how little rather than how much is necessary for living the good life. We don’t feel the need for the newest, best, or most. To be sure, it hasn’t always been a smooth journey and we’ve had bouts of backpedaling. But it’s not about perfection. It’s about striving.

Overall, our lifestyle gives us vast satisfaction as well as the confidence that, should circumstances dictate, we might be competent at true self-sufficiency, at least for a while.
We have found our own middle ground. As time and circumstances change, so will our relationship with this lifestyle. Age and illness will have their impact. But we’ll continue to do the best we can to increase our self-reliance and walk gently on this good earth.

That’s what the modern homesteading journey means to us.

The journey is different for everyone, of course.  At its core modern homesteading relies on exercising any or all of what I’ve dubbed The Four Esses: sustainability, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, subsistence.

Do what you can. Do it the best way you can. Do it one baby step at a time. It all matters.

 

Blackberries and Biscuits: A Review

OK, I’m all puffed up with pride and just can’t help it.

I recently received a lovely, validating  note in the mail from someone who had just finished reading Blackberries and Biscuits. She enclosed a review because, as she said, “I truly believe it deserves literary attention and acclaim.” Wow!

Mind you, we are friends and writing colleagues, but her note and review were completely unsolicited, so I accept that her words are totally from the heart. They made my heart sing, and I’ve just gotta share them with you!

By the way, if you’ve read Blackberries and Biscuits, maybe you’d like to leave a review on Amazon–I’d sure appreciate it. Reviews are important in helping customers make buying decisions.

Review: Blackberries and Biscuits: Life and Times of a Smoky Mountain Girl 

This is a love story that spans multiple generations. By love I mean love of a family through deep kindred roots as well as love between a man and woman that intertwines those kindred roots into a captivating story that stands the test of time. Carole Coates has woven a work of words into a personal, up-close exploration of her own family tree. The family tree branches she shares with her readers surpass common features such as names, birth places and tidbits of local color. Coates’ words dig much deeper than that into the grit, hardship, hunger and belief in faith that make a person stronger. Makes them more resilient and committed to the tasks they set out to achieve. Not the least of these strengths is a true appreciation of humor. Oh yes … humor that makes you smile, giggle and grin.

Taking place on the fringes of Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, the life story of Pansy (Pam) Dillard Coates unfolds through an historical sketch of a Daddy, granddaddies, great granddaddies; Mother, grandmothers, great grandmothers; sisters, brothers, cousins and friends. Photos skillfully arranged throughout this novel strengthen the visual image of this family while also providing a micro-cosmic portrayal of a life growing up in the Appalachian mountains – a life, though often hard, that was also rewarding and beautiful.

Kudos to Coates for taking extensive time to research many aspects of this story. She artfully piques the reader’s interest in a time span of history that so few may have encountered or envisioned. She thoughtfully accomplishes what it appears she has set out to do. To engage the reader in reminiscing about family, close ties, anecdotal happenings and the precious sense of timeless love. Truly, Coates has achieved her goal of writing a beautiful, everlasting love story.

Amy C. Millette
Vilas, NC
January 31, 2020

Thanks, Amy! And, in case that isn’t enough shameless self-promotion for one day, if Amy’s review inspires you to read my book, you can find it here.

 

Playing with Words

On several occasions, I have had the delightful fortune of participating in a weekend writing workshop led by a treasure of a writer, teacher, and human being. It is a gift to be in Katerina’s presence, though some of her writing assignments do manage to elicit groans.

In Katerina’s workshop, you can be sure to find one particular exercise. On a flip chart, she provides a list of fifteen or so words with the guidance to write a piece including as many of them as possible. Some of the words are challenging in their own right; to attempt putting them together in any sort of coherent structure is daunting, especially with a brief time limit. The exercise is always good for a laugh.

These were the words we were assigned to incorporate into our writing in the most recent workshop I attended. (Don’t be embarrassed if you have to look up one or two—most of the writers did, as well.)

conjecture     contusion     kleptocrat     polyglot    polymath     cogitate    divulge         strangulate     imminent     eminent     vicissitudes
salubrious     sallow      phlegmatic     congenial      syncope

I decided to have a little fun with this one. Never mind that it will never win any awards—I was happy enough to get in all the words in our limited time. Here’s the result.

* * * * *

A polymath, polyglot, and kleptomaniac walked into a bar [drumroll, please], one vaping; another striking a match to light a bent pipe, a habit she claimed was salubrious; while the third was flicking a lighter for no apparent reason.

The phlegmatic barkeep was congenial but dubious as he cogitated on this odd threesome. One too smart for her own britches, one able to speak every language except street talk, the third a crook of the lowest order. What were they up to?

The imminent arrival of the eminent polygamist physician made the mixologist nervous as he conjectured what might happen once his sallow pyromaniac assistant, who was suspicious of the doc and despised elitists of all stripes, returned from the storeroom.

His anxiety was not unfounded, though the brawl that ensued was not the outcome he had feared. The arrival of the MD, however, turned out to be opportune.

It was later divulged that the polymath’s contusion resulted from a fall precipitated by her syncope rather than by the strangulation prompted by her smart mouth.

Such are the vicissitudes of life.

 

(Image attribution: “dictionary” by stockcatalog is licensed under CC BY 2.0 )

Finding Moments of Joy

Last spring, I heard a writer friend mention the happiness journal—365 days of happiness. I was taken with the concept, but it didn’t quite fit for me. I landed on something similar, but in some ways dramatically different when I began recording one single event each day that I could claim as a personal Moment of Joy (MoJ). I mentioned my Moment of Joy journal here.

I wasn’t looking for things that simply gave me satisfaction or created an exhale of relief. Instead, I wanted to make note of those unexpected moments that take my breath away, that make me want to say to anyone who can hear, “Hey, look at that!” I vowed to exempt personal relationships and everyday happinesses when I recorded a Moment of Joy. Writing that I was happy to wake up next to the GNOME, for instance, could become a cop out and a crutch. Too easy. I’m always happy to wake up next to him. I wanted to become more aware of the little things that are too easy to miss.

I admit I’ve ended a few days scratching my head as I prepared to document an MoJ. Some days are like that. But I’m happy to report that for the most part, I have trouble narrowing down my MoJ experiences to just one or two to record. I’ve been surprised how easy it is to find them. The Gnome’s gotten in on the act, too. We see a rainbow and he says, “That could be your moment of joy today.”

A few months ago, I thought I’d stop keeping an MoJ list. I was practically stumbling over all the moments of joy around me (not a bad thing); maybe I didn’t need a list. But as fall slowly morphed into winter, I changed my mind. I’ve written before about the emotional challenge that the often overcast, always-short-day season can be for me. Of all times to be on intentional alert for moments of joy, this is it.

I’m glad I kept at it. Being attuned to joyful moments after day upon day of gray fog is so good for the soul. As I write this, I glance up every few moments to watch snowflakes lazily drift through the air. Yesterday, all it took was a look outside to notice the heart-stoppingly beautiful scenery with snow on the ground and hoar frost adding its own touch of brilliance to the mountaintops and the tips of branches. The male cardinal wears an especially bright coat of scarlet on days like that.

Last week, we spotted the brightest, biggest, most distinctly colored rainbow I think I’ve ever seen. And when we looked more closely, we could spot an ever-so-faint second rainbow above it. What a WOW moment!

When the world is as naked as it is in winter, I look for subtleties: the patterns and hues of lichen on trees, the grain of tree bark. Winter is the time for noticing the delicate shades of dried grasses in fields and meadows, ranging from sand to bronze to deep burgundy.

My Moments of Joy have ranged from getting an unexpected phone call to listening to wind gusts, from spotting a dandelion puff in winter to discovering a tidbit of information to make an otherwise mundane essay sing, from a stranger’s kindness to seeing five deer standing just outside the window or catching the scent of winter-blooming narcissus.

Being on the lookout for each day’s Moment of Joy quickly became a habit, an almost unconscious one. And that’s the way it should be—being so in the moment and so intuitively aware of the world around me that I never have to be reminded of the many things to be thankful for, of the beauty and potential for joy that surrounds me. Besides, the very best Moments of Joy are those that come unbidden, catching me off guard, sweeping off my feet.

“Hey, look at that!”

 

Modern Homesteading Update and Recipes

When I started this blog (a little over three years ago!), one of my main goals was to write about modern homesteading. Since then, however, I also  began blogging for Mother Earth News. (You can connect to many of those posts here). Since I couldn’t put the same posts in both blogs, Living on the Diagonal began to focus on personal essays, poetry, a philosophical musings, while modern homesteading got short shrift.

But I miss sharing that topic over here, and it feels a little like I’ve abandoned my original blogging idea. And if that’s what you were looking for, I have some good news. I think I finally figured a way to get back to it without encroaching on my Mother Earth News blog posts. My plan is to share modern homesteading tips, my modern homesteading philosophy, and my own learning experiences on this site, dropping them in every month or so. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to delve into single topics in more depth over at Mother Earth News.

To start (since we’re now officially in the winter season), I am linking you to several of my favorite soup recipes (previously printed here and on the M.E.N. blog) along with this perfect go-with, my prize-winning cornbread recipe. Simple and perfect for chilly winter nights.

We use home-ground Painted Mountain corn for this recipe, but store-bought cornmeal works just (well, almost) as well.

And while you’re heating up those winter delicacies, I’ll start getting my modern homesteading writing act together.

Some of these soups take almost no time to prepare and some require a slightly larger time investment—mostly peeling or chopping, but all are simple, simple, simple.

The Gnome and I came across this favorite soup recipe way back from our earliest interest in twentieth- (now twenty-first-) century homesteading. We found it in the 1973 Mother Earth News Almanac, when it was a brand new publication.  The recipe is so easy that it’s embarrassing, but, boy oh boy, is this Cheesy-Potato Soup, the perfect stick-to-your-ribs meal after a day of chopping firewood or cross-country skiing or whatever your favorite winter outdoor activity is.

This little volume has gotten a real workout over the last forty-five years!

It was during that same era when we discovered this delicious and healthful Lentil Soup. It’s also easy to make, still hearty but lighter than the others I’m posting. Best of all, one brief cooking session provides us with several hearty meals.

More recently, we’ve discovered the joys of soups made with winter squash. Either of the following recipes can be made with your choice of winter squash—butternut, pumpkin, hubbard, whatever. And the chili is equally delicious with sweet potatoes.

The yummy Cream of Pumpkin Soup with Cinnamon Croutons could almost be dessert. You’ll need to cook the squash ahead of time or use purchased canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix).

This Slow-Cooker Winter Squash Chili is another real winner. You can start it mid-morning or after lunch, depending on which temperature setting you choose. Perfect for when  you have a busy afternoon ahead. In this case, you start with raw potatoes or squash, peeled, and chunked.

Let your slow cooker do the work for you.

Happy soup-making—and eating!

Resolutions, Habits, and Intention

I can’t remember the last time I made a New Year’s resolution. Certainly not after young adulthood.

Before that, making a long list of things I would change about myself as each new year rolled in was an act I never questioned. But then it came to me. Resolutions rarely accomplish anything—unless it’s to make you feel bad about yourself. If you were like me, you tended to think of resolutions in terms of negatives, things you’d been doing wrong or at least were not doing right.

I made resolutions the wrong way, too: broad generalizations which couldn’t be quantified and which, even if they could, were usually impossible to live up to. New Year’s resolutions were downright disheartening. They emanated from guilt and were generally doomed to create even more.

So, no New Year’s resolutions for me.

But as we rang in 2020, I realized that 2019 had taught me something immensely important. Not about resolutions, but habits. Resolutions are so often built around breaking bad ones. Hard to do. What about building good habits instead? Practically by accident, I developed several new habits—all good—in 2019. Along the way, I discovered good habits are as easy to form as bad ones.

I feel like a genius!

A couple of my habits have taken the form of lists. I began 2019 by listing EACH BOOK I COMPLETED, mostly out of curiosity. How much was I actually reading?. Before I knew it, recording my reading became second nature. Keeping a log of one’s reading material may be kind of neutral as habits go, but I count this list-keeping as a positive, if only because I stuck to it. But there is more to it. My list gives me information to feed on. It helps me remember what I’ve read and reminds me what I want to follow up on. It helps me clarify what I like and why I like it so I can make more informed reading choices in the future. It’s a reference point for issues to develop in my writing, philosophy, and more.

About midway through the year, I began a Moment of Joy (MOJ) journal. I’ll write more about that in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that what began as a whim became a habit, almost overnight—to someone who with a lifelong ineptitude when it comes to keeping any sort of diary or journal. My MOJ journal became something bigger. Unintentionally, it became a practice in intention.

I formed another intentional habit quite unintentionally when I read Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North. She wrote about a spiritual retreat where participants were instructed to chew each bite of food, even their breakfast porridge, thirty times. Was that even possible? I had to give it a try.

It felt a little silly at first, counting every time my teeth met. But as I learned it was possible to chew one type of food thirty times, I wanted to test another. And again, without realizing it, I had developed a new habit. I began to catch myself, just below my consciousness, counting. My mind was at work building an intention, slowly ticking off the chews: twenty-seven . . . twenty-eight . . . twenty-nine . . . thirty. And sometimes up to forty or more. I was no longer chewing for the counting. Counting became a means—a pleasant way to be more intentional about the process of eating.

Not only can thirty chews per bite be done (usually); it has tremendous emotional and physical benefits. I stopped choking on food, something that happens far too often, usually because I’m in a hurry or talking or trying to multitask as I eat. Other digestive problems began to lessen or disappear altogether. I found myself more tranquil, more aware of my surroundings. It turns out that chewing each bite thirty or so times is intensely calming and refreshing. What I took on as a one-time challenge became another intention, one with far-reaching results.

Well, the new year is here and I’ve begun yet another project. This gal never before succeeded in developing a journaling habit just gave herself a five-year, line-a-day journal. It’s really more like four or five lines a day. Three hundred and sixty-seven pages, each with space for five years’ worth of notes for every date on the calendar. I’m hopeful that the constraints of this journal will help me stay on track, especially since I’m incorporating my MOJs into each day’s notekeeping. In 2025 I can, at a mere glance, look back on five years’ worth of entries for any given date for the last half decade. I think the comparison will be fascinating.

Now that I think about it, it’s a huge statement of optimism for a septuagenarian to purchase a blank book in anticipation of adding to it for 1800 days. That’s a pretty hopeful intention itself.

I’ve even started a weather diary–another five-year project.

What I learned during the past year has changed me. I’m learning to think more intentionally about lots of things—to BE more intentional. That will surely lead to more good habits, easy to keep.

Who needs resolutions?