The Blog

Day Four: A New Name

It took me fifty years to really love my name.

I was thinking about this after seeing the luminous, hilarious, almost-perfect film Ladybird, about a girl named Christine who re-christens herself. What “Ladybird” means is never explained, and I am trying to slow down enough to think about all the reasons why she might have chosen that name. I never (really) tried to re-name myself, though I have thought about it. Once, a newspaper typo-d my name as “Ngrissa” which I loved so much that I wished I could change it to that. It’s got a good growl to it. I picture Ngrissa as an African warrior princess. I hear it pronounced in a Nigerian accent, with a rolling “r” and a long “i”, like “Lisa.”

The trucks are back. The burly surly men are digging the foundation as I write this. I wonder what they think of me. By accident, I said the word “Trump” when I meant to say “stump” (as in, “I wonder if now would be a good time to take down the stumps around the fence”). They all looked uncomfortable. I know my contractor didn’t vote for 45. But I can’t say the same for his crew.

I wish there wasn’t this discomfort. I wish politics was something we could work around, ignore, see as something abstract, the way I see people’s religions (or lack thereof) today. Right now, I can’t.

Both of my beta-readers have given me an extraordinary amount of their time and attention. I have some good solutions to some problems that have dogged my book. I want to push everything in my life to the side right now and focus on my novel. I am so close, and it needs me! But today, I need to call the Parlor Room to schedule our Christmas Show (Dec. 16 at 2pm in Northampton, so glad you asked). I have to clean my house. I have to go to my voice lesson. I have to pick up the dry cleaning that I was supposed to pick up 10 days ago. (This is why I never ever ever dry clean anything). I have to get Roxane Gay’s Hunger and Ruth Lehrer’s Being Fishkill from Broadside Books. I have to get my nephew some birthday presents, and I have to go to Trader Joe’s. Tonight, I will write.

Yesterday, Tom and I pushed aside all of the everything else, and drove up to West Cummington for church. The morning sun was incredible against the stormy sky, and I just watched it light up the lichen on the bare trees. It was like the best movie, ever. I played “Imagine” and “Hallelujah” on the grand piano and listened to Steve talk about male violence, and how that is at the root of everything wrong with the world. “Why do we think ‘women’s issues’ are education and health care?” he asked. “When women’s issues are men.”

Just as we white people need to shut up and listen to black people, men who consider themselves pro-feminist may need to step back and listen for awhile, Steve said. Yup. I love the men in my life so much it makes my soft palate ache. There are so many good, gentle, funny, humble men that I have been blessed to know. Even so, these days, I want to wear a necklace of bones, like Kali. I am even angrier this Thanksgiving than I was last year at this time. I think I will bring Ngrissa along.

Day Three: Foundations

I am writing this from Whole Foods in Hadley. I just came from the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, where I heard my friend and Big Yellow writer Ruth Lehrer read from her new novel Being Fishkill. This book started on my red couch, and it’s now a thing of beauty and in

spiration. I cannot wait to read it, and I plan to give it to several worthy folk for Christmas. Tom and I have a date night, and we are going to see Ladybird, which, according to its preview, shares some similar elements with Fishkill I can’t believe how lucky I am to get this afternoon/evening of culture. And speaking of which, I’ll make this a trifecta: last night I finished one of the best novels I’ve ever read: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (it won the National Book Award in 2011). I’ll write more on these tomorrow.

Now that the trees are down, the beautiful red maple feels like queen of the yard. Every time I look out my kitchen window, I see her giant Y, a big Yes.

Can you see the Y?

The ground is cold. There have been robberies in our neighborhood, so we are keeping all the doors locked. This is one of my favorite times of year, even with the light fading. I love to walk by the river with my dog, my kids and my friends and see the land so clearly, now that the leaves are down. Her contours. The river is still flowing. Everything is dying back, but it is still, essentially, alive.

I have three beta readers for The Big Idea. Two of them have given me extensive feedback, but I want to corner them and sit them down and interrogate them about every single sentence they highlit, or every chapter they suggest I cut. I want this process to be over, and I want it never to end. I want to keep working on this book for the rest of my life, and I want to move on and write something else. But I want most of all to get it right, and it is still not quite right.

Today, the backhoe is idle, with its long claw extended like a tired brontosaurus. Next week, they will dig the foundation, and, I am guessing, dig trenches in our yard to lay the pipes for the sewer and electrical systems. There is so much to do at the earliest stages of any project. When one is building a house, that lesson could not be more cogent. We are wrestling with the question of how much steel to put in the foundation. Our contractor says less. Our engineer says more. I will have more to say about this tomorrow, after I have seen Ladybird, I think.

Day Two: The Trees, The Trees

I don’t feel quite as happy today. The trees all came down. Big, graceful pine trees, four of them, hundreds of feet high. I watched one arc in slo-mo toward my house, shaking the ground as it hit. Now the logs are lying across the barn’s old foundation like bodies.

The trees before.

The city of Northampton has a strict policy. When you cut down trees of a certain size, you need to replace them. There’s a complex formula, but suffice it to say that we are going to be planting fourteen trees of 2′ or more diameter in what is now our de-forested backyard. But that won’t happen until next spring at the earliest; the new structure has to go up first. So we will be staring at our treeless yard for quite a while.

It rained yesterday, and our yard became a swamp. Hudson and I watched the tractors and dump trucks crawl back and forth. The excavators asked me to move our cars, and so I took Hudson to get a haircut. By bizarre coincidence, who was there but my old dog Stella!

They met. Hudson was intrigued, but Stella was not. I held her face in my hands and kissed her, but she is not my dog anymore.

The news about Al Franken broke my heart. I hate that I have to be consistent in my denouncement of disgusting male behavior, but I will be. It’s not OK what he did. It’s not OK what Bill Clinton did, what JFK did, what Woody Allen did, what Bill Cosby did. All these men (and more; men I will not mention; men of whose sins I remain ignorant) I love and want to forgive. But the male-dominated culture needs to change. We need to change it. People can not treat people like objects, toys, jokes, substances to abuse. Enough.

(But where are the lines? In my own mind, there is a difference between pedophilia and adultery. There is a difference between drugging a woman in order to rape her and having your oral surgeon grope you as you are leaving his office, still slightly drugged from the general anesthesia. Both are still horrible. I am wrestling with whole-scale condemnation. I am wrestling with some people in my own life who have been accused, and whom I hope are innocent. But I am also a Sister, and my inclination is to believe every woman. I am going to listen and learn.)

I am glad for the dialogue.

At the end of the day, all the trees but one had been taken down. Besides the four huge pines, there were a bunch of junk maples and saplings that my landscaper called “big weeds.” As the trees fell, as we were crying over them, as we were grieving about our war zone, we looked out the window and saw this.

The trees gone, mostly…

Now visible from our back window, a large red maple. She is naked today, but with the other trees out of her way, we will get to watch her, year after year, grow new leaves, shade our new structure, and turn red and orange and gold come fall. Without the removal of the junk trees, we never would have noticed she was there.

Day One: The Barn Comes Down

As I write this, our barn is coming down. By the end of the post, it will be gone. It’s happening that fast.The splinters of its rotten wood are being pulled out of its old foundation, which itself is a thing of beauty: all brick and mortar and river rocks. There is a dumpster that up until a moment ago had a sister, equally full of remains. A bobcat stands idle, its claw resting on the November earth, waiting for its driver to return from lunch. The sun is shining for the first time in days, and I am not sad. I wasn’t sad yesterday, either, when I stood under an empty bird’s nest and said goodbye to my barn. I turned to the excavators and said, “I’d so hoped I wouldn’t have to tear this down. I wanted to build upon this existing structure.”

“No, you don’t,” said one of the men. Men. They love to destroy things.Yesterday afternoon, as the claw went for the metal roof, I was alerted to the return home from school of my son and his friend by their yells of joy. Are you kidding me? This is happening, right here in my backyard????? This morning, my son and our (male) dog sat transfixed as the claw went for the back wall, one window still framing a piece of our neighbor’s backyard.  And the boy in me dashed out with my camera to video the falling down of the last wall. But I was too slow to catch it–by the time i got there, it was already down.

Destruction is fascinating, said one of my (male) characters in the first third of my novel. He said that a few days ago, and I dutifully wrote it down during my weekend writing retreat. My contractor called me yesterday, as we were all sitting on the kitchen couch, watching the destruction, unable to do anything else. “How’re you doing?” he asked, in his friendly Texan drawl.

“Fine,” I said. “Why?”

“Well, I just know you loved that barn.”

“I did.”

I did love that barn. And contrary to my nice mansplaining excavators, I did really want to renovate it rather than tear it down and start over. I am a hoarder by nature, and even now, we are picking out many timbers of the old barn to use for the new one. But I’d come to terms with this demolition, and I feel profoundly peaceful right now, watching the action in my backyard.

As I have written, I am squarely in midlife. Some women get plastic surgery when they are my age. I want to re-do every room in my house. But I am living with a wise man and an eco-conscious daughter. The two of them hold me in check, even as my nine-year-old son eggs me on. If he had his way, we would build additions that would make our house look like something from the space age. I would, too. In my dreams, I am always discovering new rooms to my house.

Why I Am Not Going To Eat Tofu for 365 Days in a Row

As I stroll merrily through menopause, my daughter has become a vegetarian. She is eleven. She is at an age and stage in which morality is crystal clear. She has been hearing about Climate Change since her parents came home from their first post-baby date (Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth.) When she was two months old, her parents bought a VW diesel Jetta which they ran on biodiesel, until the fuel dealer went MIA. The year she was two, she ate only local food. She grew up being dragged around to CSOs, knows all her favorite alt-brands at our food co-op, and marched in last year’s women’s march. She sings Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie songs, and comes with me to vote every election day. Nowadays, as soon as I turn the key in my van she says, “Mama, put away your phone! Drive! You’re wasting gas!” And when I fantasize about flying somewhere exotic, like, um, Virginia, she snaps, “That’ll destroy our carbon footprint for the year.” So it shouldn’t have come as any kind of surprise that she doesn’t want to eat meat.

I, on the other hand, have had my own lifelong issues with food that have led me to what most would consider an extremely rigid food plan. I haven’t eaten flour or sugar in almost 20 years; I don’t eat processed food at all; I eat copious amounts of vegetables (nearly two pounds a day–and that’s a recent decrease), healthy fats, low-carb fruits, and nuts. But I do eat meat. All kinds of meat. We’re talking bacon, people. Sugar-free paleo, but still. We’re talking grass-fed burgers, the occasional slow-cooker pulled pork, roast duck on Thanksgiving (saving those drippings in which to cook my eggs the next day for breakfast), and closest to my heart, my mother’s recipe for roast chicken. I have tried to be vegetarian at various points in my life. Suffice it to say, it didn’t work. My blood sugar is ridiculously sensitive. Over the years, I have had to give up such healthy foods such as lentils, carrots and apples, as their natural sugars affect me adversely. I love the way I eat. No one is asking me to change it.

But given the seeming epidemic of cancer surrounding us (in my own life, at least ten of my nearest and dearest are diagnosed), I am always on the lookout for the healthiest meal plan available. There is something else nagging at me. I am very good at taking care of my own nutritional needs, but I have been quite laissez-faire when it comes to the rest of my family. Peanut butter and jelly every day? Ok, that’s fine. Mac and Cheese more than three nights a week? Great. Easy and cheap. Just give me my salmon and veggies and don’t complain. My daughter’s new consciousness has raised my own, and so I was toying with the idea of going vegetarian for a year. Everyone who loves me (Judy, Tom, even my daughter) tells me that that’s crazy. I limit myself enough around food, and I don’t need yet another way to obsess about it. Still, I argued, I would like to be a better Mama Bear and bring some mindfulness to menu planning that has so long eluded me. And maybe the estrogens in tofu would be good for my hormonally-challenged body.

I haven’t written for this blog in a committed way since London. My last (please, God) draft of The Big Idea is about to go to the agent, and after it’s done, I will need to turn my attention  to writing songs for our next album.

Writing a blog on a daily basis helps me to know who I am. I write, therefore I think. Working on this novel, I forget who I am. I lose touch with myself, and get myself confused with the characters I am writing. I missed the boat on both NaNoWriMo and 30 Poems in November, but here we are at Day 15 of this Noble Month. Something inside me is urging me back to a daily writing practice, and so I am going to try to write every day again. Yes, it’s better to have a focus––say, a food blog called Tofu365 in which the author tries out a different tofu recipe every day for a year. But, like I said, I have good friends who love me, and they all pursed their lips and shook their heads when I pitched this idea.

So instead, I am going to just show up and report and see where the writing and my life take me. There is, for one thing, the story of the barn to tell.