A low-level funk is like a low-grade fever, in that it leaves you far more uncomfortable without the dramatic cleansing blaze of a fully feverish kiln-bake. Being semi-blue lingers. My body even feels it. I don’t like mid-range. I don’t even put fans on Medium, it’s go full-blast or go off altogether. This is the having of an itch you can’t find. You chase it listlessly for the sweet small relief of scratching, but wherever you go it vanishes from your fingertips and you’re left twitchy and dissatisfied. I need a purifying burn, a rake over the coals. I think it’s mostly the silly suburban allergies complaint. New spring life brings chartreuse tender leaves but also great phosphor clouds of prickly yellow mini-stars invading all my soft and vulnerable places. I wish I could sneeze.
originally published in November 2011 on shareable.net
Sometime in the darkest and grayest folds of winter, we have a “false spring” here in Northern California. It usually comes sometime after the glittering artificiality of the holidays are over, when the trees are just gray slashes against a sky so bleak that it has a yellow cast. The syrup of sunlight and warmth is like a gift and I wake up full of energy, with plans for the seedlings I’ve been nurturing on the windowsills. Neighbors emerge stumbling from their front doors, eyes blinking at the return of the light, greeting each other with the surprised shouts of unwitting hermits delighting in sudden fellowship. I fall for it every time, too. I take the heavy drapes down, throw open the windows, begin to plant the spring garden, and stow the coats in the trunk in the basement.
The chickens are smarter. They still hold their necks tucked under their wings in the semi-hibernation mode they go into, eating little and laying no eggs. They slowly swivel their heads our way and regard us with a jaundiced eye, as if to say, “are you really going to do this again?” It’s long weeks after this false spring that they begin their joyful chatter and busy-ness. The groundhog’s shadow is irrelevant; the tilt of the earth an alarm set by larger forces.
We’re not close to that time, yet. Here in my town, the leaves have turned and the wind has begun to sweep that golden-red glory away into bulging bags tied tidily at the curbs. Park visits end early as we tuck our chins down into the collars of our jackets. Beds are gaining layers of comforters, more every night. Mornings hold the visible frost of our words, moistening our itchy scarves pulled up high against the cold.
We won’t get our false spring until we’ve settled into our real winter, and remembering that gives me a sick, scared feeling. I don’t readily accept the gifts winter brings, and mostly I just bear up against the darkness as best I can, usually not without massive support efforts on the part of my friends and loved ones. The crowd around me presses on strong, and sometimes I just lift my fists up to my ears and close my eyes, and let them carry me along by my elbows.
The other day I was creekside along the trail near our house. There was a fire there early this past summer, and it was alarming to see the trucks speeding to the roaring blaze to put it out. Our trail is redolent with life. Wild turkeys fear nothing, and they’ll run towards a bicycle in motion. Skunks and raccoons come out around sunset or just past, and you can see the reflection of their eyes as they wait their turn to roam the neighborhood. We all share this strip of relative wilderness: Canada geese, quail, the feral cat population, as well as the rumpled drifters who find shelter under the footbridge.
The site of the fire has become a microclimate of sorts, showing its own “false spring.” In between and around the stiff black splayed fingers of burnt branches are sprigs of fennel, blazing chartreuse and yellow. Oaks suffering the devastation of browned leaves and singed bark show their bold olive-green new growth, as if challenging the growing cold. The earth that was black and bleak now looks loamy and welcoming, in this spot. Animals crouch low in the hunt for bugs. This is an area that was scorched, where new life is making itself stubbornly apparent.
We are just barely into this dark time. False spring is so far away, and real spring an almost unfathomable part of a distant future. The light leaves–and when it does, it leaves for a long time. It stays gone until you wonder if it will ever come back, and then when it finally does, and you feel like you are warm for the first time in months and can come safely out of your hole, it goes away again. The task for me is to go back to the scene of the fire and see the small signs of life there, some small spring.
(a version of this appeared in my ongoing diary of recession living over at shareable.net)
And then there’s the foraging we are able to do when we’re communing so close to the neighborhood flora. Blackberry bramble grows wild all over our town, and many consider it a menace. It’s invasive, and it will choke everything out and take your fence down in the process. It’s easy to identify, with spreading thorn-covered vines and broad elliptical leaves. Sometime in the late spring, it’s covered with white blossoms that eventually turn into tight, chartreuse clusters that mature until they become soft, darkly purple berries by July or August. It’s hard to buy blackberries: they’re fragile, and so expensive. You pay a king’s ransom for a half-pint container, and by the time you get home, the bottom layer has burst and run with juice, and maybe you’ll find one with a faint moldy fur that quickly overtakes the rest.
I’m not sure why more people don’t pick them. It’s true, you have to keep your eye on them so you don’t miss the window of time after they’re no longer too sour and before the summer sun has finally had its way with them and they’ve become hard, shriveled black husks. There are micro-climates, like the broad swath of shade underneath the highway where they ripen more slowly but in far larger numbers, you need to notice that. You also have to be prepared to wrangle with the thorns. It’s not like roses (to which they’re related,) where you can clearly identify the spikes and avoid them if you’re careful: blackberry bramble has those big visible spines too, but they also have a more insidious, fine and imperceptible brand of prickles that seem soft until they’ve covered your forearms with itchy misery.
So what I’m saying is, you have to be observant and you have to protect yourself. We kept watch on them every time we’d pass a patch on foot or on our bikes. Over and over, we’d come across new thickets of them hidden along roadsides or beside the trails. You can really get good at spotting them if you know what you’re looking for, and in the spring when they’re blanketed with blossoms, it’s like a patch of melted snow where the sun hasn’t quite reached. We watched, made note, and shouted to each other about what we saw: there’s more here, we need to remember this spot. There’s some pink on the berries now. When the time had come, we piled the kids into the big orange gardening wagon and set off for some of the closer thickets, just to start. We brought jelly jars, but not big ones—big ones would mean too much weight on the bottom layers. Larry and I traded wagon-pulling duty with Rainer, who moaned and complained. It was hot, and we were wearing long-sleeved shirts as armor against the thorns.
When we got to the best, most abundant spot, we propped a long wide plank up against the bramble to give access to the higher areas. Everyone had a jar, and we wore layers of latex surgical gloves and stripped them off as they became shredded. We worked quietly, some happy buzzing but mostly just commenting on finding a good one or avoiding a bee. Molly worked too. Everyone ate about one for every three picked, which was the tax we exacted for our labor. We talked a little about what we’d do with them: Rainer wanted to freeze a few quart bags for smoothies. Molly does most of the chicken chores, so she wanted them to have the ones that weren’t quite ready. “Dan’s got peaches ripening,” Larry said. “I’ll bring a few jars to trade.”
Some teenage boys passed us on the other side of the busy street. They asked us what we were picking, and then if they could come join us. I glanced over at Rainer to search for embarrassment and found none, so I handed them some gloves and a jar. I asked them, “Did you grow up here?” and was surprised when one said yes, they had. I wondered: do their parents not care about blackberries? Because you’d have to actively not care. Here were blackberries! So cherished that they cost about the same as caviar. They’re available for such a short time, and specific to this part of the country. There aren’t many places on earth where something so succulent comes at such low cost: the only price you pay is in scratched up hands and stained fingertips. The new pickers took awhile to get the appropriate technique down, and Molly warned them against the ones that have “too many red bubbles,” as they are too tart and not yet sweet and juicy.
We worked for a few hours, long enough that the teens who joined us eventually mounted their skateboards, leaned back, and rolled off with lackadaisical efficiency. They didn’t say goodbye, but it was a benevolent parting, and it was clear we had earned a little of their admiration. After that, we got quieter and more focused as it became harder to find worthy berries. Rainer looked up at me and said something after awhile; I was busy and lost in thought, and I couldn’t be sure I heard her right. I had her repeat it: “I love our life,” she said. “I’m so glad we’re doing this.” And I am glad that she won’t have to grow up in northern California without ever having learned about picking blackberries.
reposted from my blog about surviving the Great Recession over at shareable.net
I am a happy poor person. There are many things I have had to give up and get adjusted to, going from a comfortably middle-class, corporate-suburban existence to living a lifestyle far below the poverty line. But make no mistake: I’m happy. Extraordinarily so. More than I have ever been. I’m not sure I talk about that enough. It’s time to rhapsodize.
We live in a neighborhood that is not as safe as it could be, not pristine, not the suburban enclave we once enjoyed, but it’s filled with joyous secrets. There’s the hot pink fire hydrant at the base of the hill covered in volunteer daisies and ivy, the giant, bald tattoo artist in the well-manicured house across the street, the Russian family that comes over to cheerfully pluck apples from our tree. There’s the trail head that you can see from our backyard, which leads to patches of blackberry bramble, glens of lichen-covered oaks, and pebble-covered beaches where the kids can frolic and wade in the clear, bubbling water. We take that trail for miles and miles; without a car in our lives, its narrow curving path has become our major thoroughfare for pretty much anywhere we have to go.
Have I told you about the library? It’s designed like a hobbit fortress, with a vaulted ceiling twenty feet high topped with stained glass. So cool and dark in there, and there are hot days when we stay for hours and hours, away from our intolerably hot house. The librarians know the children, and don’t comment on their bare feet and rowdy ways. Over an arched and ancient footbridge, there is a playground that is canopied by old-growth trees, so much so that it’s ten- to twenty degrees cooler there on a hot summer day. There’s a painted dolphin statue and a turtle, too, and kids can climb them. There’s a tennis court in this wooded park, and casual players shout smack at each other on the cracked asphalt ground while the balls go Thock! Thock! Mexican families have birthday parties on the long rows of aluminum picnic tables; there is always a piñata and a radio plugged into the street light pole.
Our street is short and zoned partially commercial, but there is the childless couple next door who never show up at our house without four cold bottles of beer in hand. The day we moved in, the wife shouted, “Hey! Do you need help?” And before we could answer, she had pushed the sleeves up of her corporate casual and proceeded to give us two or three hours of grueling labor. And we didn’t even get her name ‘til halfway through, she was too busy hauling. Now, they give me monthly rides to Costco, and we repay them with mismatched dozens of eggs in a bright pink crate, when the hens are productive.
If a neighbor sees a rogue chicken, they will run and catch it and bring it home to us.
When our internet was shut off, we had more than one offer to hitch a ride on a neighbor’s Wifi when needed. I sat on someone else’s porch with my creaky laptop, paying bills and responding to emails. We share tools and harvests with the neighbors, too. As a group, we all erected and planted raised garden beds in the front of our house, on the driveway concrete pad that hadn’t had a car parked on it for the year since we sold ours. There was a big hill of soil dropped off from the nursery, and we all had shovels. We would stop for beer breaks and watch the children climb up and down the loamy pile.
The other night after the babies went to sleep and I was alone, curled on the couch and reading, I heard shouts and happy laughter out front. Then I heard apples falling—lots of them, all at once. I suddenly remembered a neighbor whose wife works at a garden supply store had told me he was going to cull the early apples to support the future harvest. I looked out between the blinds and saw him in a crook of the trunk, shaking the branches with all his might, while the tattoo-artist guy shoveled loads of tart, tiny green apples into the compost bin. The wives were there, too, helping, shouting encouragement, gathering the bigger apples that might be good to eat. All of this in the dark of a late summer evening, under a clear night sky with a cool delta breeze blowing just enough to break the heat of the long June day.
I lost my wallet at the grocery store, and a stranger bought our small bag’s worth of groceries while I wiped away tears of frustration and desperate gratitude.
There is the giant, somewhat-dilapidated old rental house that is our creaking ship in these recession-rocked seas, complete with sails made of patchwork quilts. We’ve painted every room a different color, and the spiral staircase is wrapped with fairy lights. No longer do we live in the fancy new suburban home with the balcony, but in this place the children can wrestle and climb, erect forts, and raise up baby chicks under a warming light without us having to be concerned. This is a house in which you can ride tricycles.
Getting everywhere by riding bikes and walking—exclusively—means you might notice the patch of strawberries growing on the curb outside the Goodwill parking lot, or the smell of the night-blooming jasmine as you bike back from a late evening concert, or the blackberries as they begin to ripen on the trail. What would be a quick weekend errand by car ends up being a day of adventure and, sometimes, travail. But then you have a story to relive: “Remember that day? We must have walked for miles, and we never found it. . . . ” More things happen by accident, like the day we ran out of water waiting for a bus that never came, and ended up playing in the sprinklers outside an office building, drinking from a broken, bubbling pipe. We went home muddy, pink, so happy and tired.
Everything takes an extraordinarily long time to get done, but I look back and wonder what I was in a hurry to do when everything could be accomplished with money. It was as though fun and happiness were something that required planning, provisions, and car seats, whereas now it just happens on the walk to the grocery store. And they know all the kids because we go there to escape the heat, too.
There is noticing the red glitter shoe-cubby shelf left on the curb, there is the energy and time to bring it home. There is the excitement of finding just the perfect glorious castoff versus the twinge of guilt that comes after spending at the big store. Sometimes there is wanting, when making-do becomes a struggle, and the electronics are wheezing and dying one by one. But the cost exacted to acquire, replace, keep up, and obtain is too dear. The thrift store is so much more fun than the mall.
I was so afraid to lose what I had when we were making good money and “living well.” The panic of what if: “What if I lose my job and can’t make the car payment? What if we have to move from this safe neighborhood? The kids will miss the pool! The school is so good . . . “
Now, I feel peace and joy while we ride the rocky waves. The crests are so much higher than I thought they’d be, and the troughs are filled with other people, treading water and holding out a hand.