Today, I was supposed to be sitting at a table, selling soap at a Valentine’s-themed craft fair, while working on the braided rag rug I started for a Christmas present for the fellow the first year we were dating (it’s still a growing coiled ball of fabric plaiting, but someday will be flat and round and cozy… hopefully about the same time we have a place to spread it out), all while watching a burlesque show that was the scheduled entertainment for the market. My spot was reserved (and paid for) a month ago. I baked fresh Alewoof Canine Cookies cut into puppy love hearts and bones (with spent grain, grated apple, peanut butter, sorgum, and supplements- they’re yummy, and I’ve been snacking on them in the meantime- good enough for people but made for pooches) and made new batches of Mocha Brownie and Mint Chocolate Chip soaps. All my boxes and bins of soap and display items are packed, and with the folding table, are mostly blocking the narrow aisle at the entrance of our studio.
What I hoped would have been a quick flat fix on the bike trailer needed to haul all this stuff 40-50 minutes across town this morning turned into more than I could handle (flat fixing, while relatively simple, for some reason is a HUGE mental block for me… I don’t mind patching the tube but the rest of the process cause me undue amounts of consternation and occasional wailing and gnashing of teeth. Ok, I exaggerate, but not by much), and quickly consumed more time than I had- I fixed three of the four(!) holes I found in the inner tube so far… but it became apparent that if I were going to finish that, load up, feed and give fresh water to our chickens a couple blocks away, and check on the frozen pipes at our house (it was 28 degrees in there yesterday before I went to work, and I didn’t realize that Alefellow had turned off the space heater under the kitchen sink during our recent warm spell- the faucet was frozen solid, but nothing burst (so far) and the bathroom plumbing was ok (that heater was on and the door closed). Mental triage- I decided I needed to call the market a wash, and buckle down around here- I haven’t stayed home since Wednesday and things are getting out of hand.
Alefellow is out of town, again- last week he was gone for seven days to visit his ailing grandmother in Florida (the longest we’ve ever been apart since meeting over three and a half years ago), and this weekend he’s in Cincinnati helping a friend sort through and pack up the house our friend grew up in, so that his mother can move to an assisted care facility. The week in between I worked late every night, coming home usually right before or sometimes after he was going to bed. We haven’t seen very much of each other lately, which is hard enough, but he’s been giving me a hard time about it. We’re not used to this, and it’s tough. It makes us cranky, and unsettled, and small troubles seem like large ones. I miss him, and he misses me. I know, go throw up in your mouth a little, but it’s true.
Everyone’s been working double-time to get a new aquaponic system ready for the fish that we drove 7 hours in the snow (crazy traffic) to pick up on Friday, and everything is happening at a frantic pace at the farm and with the various building projects, new tenants, and progress, and the to-do lists are long and mental-reserves are thin. The pH of our tap water is ridiculously high (or our meter is giving whacky readings), and we’re having a hard time balancing the system- they’re all ok so far, but I worry, a little bit about everything. While we’re cycling, stocking, hanging lights, drilling planting boards and working out the plumbing kinks in bed two, bed one is shifting into full production mode…
Endlessly testing different varieties, harvesting and sowing a floating field of arugula, with a ramp-up in record-keeping needs and timing, and a backlog of data to enter and collect- water quality parameters, weights of food in and food out, timing, cycles, observations, figuring out and fixing problems on the fly… in short, stress with a capitol S. I’m getting another intern, and my helper from last semester knows what he’s doing, and is back from vacation and coming in to volunteer and lead tours. A farmer friend wants to come help with the grow systems during her off-season break from outdoor planting. Our volunteers, engineer, and our newest team member (builder and aquaponics guy) are kicking butt on the build-out and they know their stuff. John, Nick, and Dave now have an intern to help direct and coordinate our endlessly amazing list of volunteers and tasks so that they can knock down projects, walls, and deadlines. It will be alright. It’s all very exciting, and slightly exhausting as it unfolds. And it’s all absolutely beautiful and delicious, and even with the challenges I remind myself every day how lucky I am to be a part of it.
The Factory Farm, on the other hand, is a sad sight… drab, brown, frostbitten, hibernating, and quite shaggy- if I stop picking up the trash for even a couple days it billows in and snags in every barren branch- chip bags, snack cake wrappers, foam plates, liquor bottles, newspaper, fast food packaging, bus cards, lottery tickets… luckily an equal number of plastic bags snag in the raspberry canes and fence rows to hold them all on the way to the dumpster. It’s Sisyphean task that never lets up. I try to stay detached as I do it, make it a meditation in letting go and not overthink it- but I can’t fathom the world-view in which this is ok, and it alternately angers and saddens me. I feel alternately purposeful, irate or very very tired as I pick it up… I feel better after, when it looks like a sleeping garden again and not a rubbish heap, but there are only so many hours in the day. The raspberries and roses want pruning… and a good haul of mulch would give the whole place a facelift it sorely needs… the city used to deliver it, but can’t pay the drivers anymore… I’ve emailed a tree company about mulch, and hopefully I can find one or several that could drop off a pile or at least tree trimmings and we can dust off the chipper and sharpen the blades.
Our studio looks like a garage sale and an estate auction mated and exploded, and it’s a struggle just to keep a clear aisle to walk through, which drives me crazy. We have piles of stuff to sort through, store, sell, craigslist, put on etsy or ebay, or materials just waiting for the point in the house rehab when we’ll need them. We each have our own little footholds of order- his is the middle sink (we have a 3 compartment stainless bar sink)- it must always be empty, no matter how many clean dishes are piled to the right or dirty ones to the left. Once I figured out what a big deal this was to him, I’ve almost never slipped up (I prefer no dirty dishes anyway, only clean ones, and try to do them as I go along lest they become overwhelming, but it’s not always a perfect world). My smallholdings are a few surfaces- first of all, that the cutting board is sacred (to quote a chef from school) and is only for prepping food… and to keep it, and your knife, always clean and ready to use at a moments notice.
Work clean was a mantra that was drilled into our heads in every class at Kendall, and while crowded, my little kitchen alcove has a place for most things within an arms reach- I like to be able to reach up for the measuring cup, butcher’s steel, sifter, strainer, or whatnot that I know will be there- does wonders for the oft-frazzled mind of this cook. I dream of the dedicated pantry, with wide shelves, and more cabinets and counter space that we’ll have when the cabin is done, and a basement root cellar for the overflow (a deep stock of staples and shelf-stable stuff that could see us through any blizzard, hard times, unanticipated need, unexpected guests, or what-have-you), and a separate work area for soaps and craft materials, and for the fellow’s brew kitchen and grain storage… after every canning project or grocery trip it’s a major process to figure out how and where to put them all, and to maneuver around the buckets of honey and soap oils stacked in the makeshift pantry aisle… and we end up ordering pizza on brewing days more often than I’m proud of, as our quarters are really too tight with overlapping traffic areas to share the space without a struggle. However, there are worse problems than abundance and activity… and no shame in not always doing it all.
My next tiny battle is the table, and this one is hard. It doubles as my desk and the fellow’s dumping ground (ok, sometimes mine), and also as the social center we gather around when friends and neighbors stop by, which is often… I feel so much more at peace when it’s clear but it usually is a big pile. We unfortunately don’t eat many meals at home these days- I pack a big lunch for the fellow to have at his desk, as he prefers his big meal in the middle of the day… I usually eat with and often cook for coworkers and volunteers at work. It’s kind of a bummer sometimes to not share our meals but at least saves me from feeling that I need to get home and have dinner ready too… the butcher block/end table and the counters I like clean, clutter-free, and wiped down, but I live with a collector so it’s an endless battle to find homes for everything and keep them that way. While I do, I remember past poems, breathe deep, and try to keep moving:
“THE IMAGE, AS IN A
The image, as in a Hexagram:
The Hermit locks his door against the blizzard.
He keeps the cabin warm.
All winter long he sorts out all he has.
What was well started shall be finished.
What was not, should be thrown away.
In spring he emerges with one garment
and a single book.
The cabin is very clean.
Except for that, you’d never guess
anyone lived there.”
- Collected Poems 1950-1971
I sometimes do dream of that proverbial “room of one’s own”, serene, sunlit (our studio is a cave, and the house is currently curtained and dim) and spare, a simple and comfortable space where I could roll out my carpets, put down some pillows and really stretch, just a very few pieces of furniture and all my books in order again. I know that someday, someday, the cabin will be our snug stage for all of this and more… but right now there’s no end in sight. A foreclosed house across the street from the cabin is going to be for sale soon. I’ve often daydreamed about buying this little brick cottage, putting in a woodstove (a Vermont Bun Baker!) and setting up a real kitchen, having a bedroom with a closet, and finished walls, and listening to the freights rumble on the rails across the alley… and of the space that would free up in our workspace (you know? so we could work there?) and the pressure it would lift from the long remodel that our DIY, low-cost, low-energy cabin rehab will certainly be… That house has been empty for a year or more I believe, but miraculously doesn’t appear to have been vandalized like the one next door was, which sold for $19,900 this winter, sans wiring and plumbing, and is still boarded up). Two flats on our block in various states have all been under $50,000 this last year… and I wonder how much work this little house needs, and how much it will list for…
It has a garage that would make a great goat barn! I could get a big dog and finally feel safe walking alone down our street anytime (not just when I get to “borrow” my homegirl, Harley the 90# wannabe-lapdog rottie lovebug from our neighbor at the studio while he’s at work)…
Part of me is already mentally unpacking my things, arranging rooms, and looking out the window to keep an eye on our cabin and coop… being able to supervise the construction more closely, check the chickens many times a day, plant trees, keep an eye on the activity in the street… or just to look out and watch the weather, to see the sun rise and set through a window as I work or write, bookending the day… It’s been a long time, and will be a long time before the cabin is done.
But then I remember that I work a part-time job for a not-for-profit (which I LOVE and am ever so grateful to be getting paid to do), and not enough savings for a down payment because I have student loans still to pay off (though I’m living like a pauper and giving that hussy Sallie Mae all I’ve got, and will have her off my back lickety-split… or at least in the next year, and then on to tackle the other half the same way…). No way a bank is giving me a mortgage, in this economy, even if it works out to be the same or less than I’m paying for my portion of the studio rent, and I abhor debt… but still, it would be a calming bit of security, a place to be, and then later to rent for a little bit of income (or at least easily cover the minuscule mortgage, assessments, and improvements). It would also let us choose some of our neighbors in the future, and charge affordable rent to a nice family or young couple, preferably other urban farmers… but really anyone no matter what their interests as long as they aren’t selling drugs from the front porch to folks who use their car horn as a doorbell, shouting, shooting, or otherwise disturbing the peace would do just fine.
All this aging business (the fellow’s grandmother, our friend’s mom, losing my own grandma last year, and saying goodby to my twenties) has me thinking about my own parents (who luckily are still quite young, working, and healthy- a large blessing, that), and how if it came to that someday I would want to be able to take care of them and have them nearby, if they wanted to be… and who knows if homes in the area will be still be affordable when that time comes.
And so I cling to projects and small improvements, grind grain, bake bread, preserve lemons (they’re in season, and on sale, and I miss the wonderfully complex salty tang that the fermented rinds give to pasta and potato salads and rice dishes) can pasta sauce (five quarts, with italian sausage, canned tomatoes, and oyster mushrooms from The Plant), sip coffee with cocoa, bury myself in books and writing, patch four pairs of pants, and try to let all those little worries wash away. I do laundry, hang clothes, fold them, and try to find places to put it all away. I put extra quilts on the bed and wait for the warmth of the fellow, who will be back tomorrow evening. Sometimes I miss the mark, or the market… or break down in tears on the phone with him over scheduling his dad’s birthday dinner with his folks for mid-week (smack in-between going to our ward meeting as a Valentine’s day date to inquire about “our” vacant lot, and watching our friend play guitar at the Blvd. Bike Shop happy hour on Thursday), and worry that something will come up and I’ll be late again- I missed our friends’ puppet show performance last week and was an hour and a half late to a dinner at another’s the next night while working late… and I’m always trying to squeeze in one more thing, one more thing… and often spreading myself way too thin.
I’ve got to step back, slow down, and regroup.
I’m going to cut back on the craft markets I commit to for awhile (only doing the ones that I know in the past have been an adequate payoff for my time, and are nearby), focus on work and getting our home(s) in order, planning for the summer garden, and trying not to obsess too much over the small stuff. Otherwise I work myself into a tither, crash, and then work myself into another lather trying to catch up again- it’s stressful for me, and stressful for my partner who has to watch and hear all my complaints, and give out his always rational advice… which would be what I’m about to do- finishing fixing that tire, unpack my market things, check a few things off the list but don’t try to do them all at once. Then I’m making construction paper hearts and going to put a little love in (on) our house, on the door and windows for all to see. The neighborhood, and I, could use it.