would-be memoirist writes less-well than she should



Changing How We Mow the Lawn Changed Who We Are


Sometimes a lawn mower can change everything.

I always associated nice weather with the deafening “rrrrrrrrrrrr” of lawn mowers.  It’s not a bad sound for most of us; it’s generally something that brings to mind summer days, backyards, and the smell of cut grass.  To start a lawn mower generally requires some level of finesse: the perfect amount of fuel to prime the motor, followed by meaningful yanks to the pull cord.  Having too much machine for the job is, supposedly and in some places, a uniquely American point of pride. A lawn mower is a classic symbol of suburbia, a perfectly-manicured carpet of grass the reward for its conscientious use.  Stroll through any big box hardware store and you can see them, lined up and shining, some of them even ride-on style, costing as much as a cheap used car.

We added our own din to that noisy chorus of weekend lawn mowing in our own neighborhood until, at a yard sale about year ago, we came across a barely-used, old-fashioned push reel mower. We might not have bought it if our gas-powered one had been working, but it had mysteriously stopped functioning two weeks before, and we were watching our weedy front lawn grow long and feeling reluctant to part with the cash to buy a replacement. But here was an alternative staring us right in the face: fifteen dollars for a simple, people-powered option.


We toted our reel mower home and started to use it. I was really excited for a few days, maybe for the same reasons I like vacuuming and find the chore soothing. It was so easy to pull it out and scoot around the yard with it, and I could even do it with my young children nearby. I could hear them if they needed me, I could stop what I was doing and tend to their needs, then easily come back and pick up where I left off.

Why don’t more people use push reel mowers? After using and loving ours, I was baffled by their relative rarity, so I did a little research: it turns out, getting sticks caught in the blades is an irritation for some. Also, if you have a really bumpy, hilly yard, you probably won’t get the precision cut you might prefer. And you can’t let your grass grow really long before you mow, because the blades will tend to just fold the grass over rather than cut it. Compare those negatives to the estimate that operating a gas mower for an hour is the pollution equivalent to driving a car three hundred miles.

What was more unexpected was the cascade of events that happened as a result of switching lawn mowers. The first thing was, neighbors started to ask to borrow it. I had never lent or borrowed lawn equipment; I don’t know exactly why.  Something about seeing us with our quirky, unusual and primitive mower in the front yard captured people’s interest. What grew from that is: it’s the official lawn mower of our block, now.  And we borrow the electric weed eater from another neighbor, because I can’t figure out an unpowered way to do the edging.  We’re all sharing tools, sending each other quick texts or Facebook messages, saying, “Can I use the mower tomorrow? Is it in its usual spot?”


I also didn’t expect some of the other subtle changes the new mower brought about. The simplicity of its operation gave me a confidence in outdoor chores I hadn’t previously had. I grew more excited about trying my hand at growing vegetables, and instigated a raised-bed garden building project one weekend. Now, three growing seasons later, I know how to amend soil properly, start my veggies from seed, and have a successful compost pile.

I don’t want to overstate how this small change in our family’s lawn care choice affected us, but I will say this: it’s remarkably powerful to stop what you’re doing, disrupt the status quo, and say, “Why?” And, “is there a better way?” Can holding a tool in my hand and operating it using the strength of my body lead me to a certain kind of empowerment in other parts of my life? I can mow our little patch of grass and look over at the new vegetable garden that’s growing the food that’s powering the muscles that are mowing this lawn. And our machines shouldn’t take that sort of simple pleasure away from us.


Yes! Magazine: Living Right on the Wrong Side of Town

I wrote this piece on the recession and how it has affected my family

Some Small Spring

originally published in November 2011 on

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.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Our iPhones

Corbyn in the mirror with her link to the world.

There are times when our new ways make me feel liberated and peaceful, and times when I feel strangely broken and vulnerable. My tongue returns to the holes my molars have left behind, and I’m reminded that if I had managed to keep all of my insurance, my failed root canals would not have had such dire consequences. I see people living on the street, missing teeth and too-tanned from time spent walking long distances by the side of the road. Pulling my children in a wagon to a distant destination and feeling the relentless sun on my back makes me wonder how far I am from this. When I am feeling low, it seems closer.

This month has sapped some of my joy with its stresses. We have gotten letters taped to our door notifying us that foreclosure is imminent, as our landlord has not paid his mortgage in the year we have been here. Moving to this rambling, cheap house was our anchor through this storm, and thinking of moving again forces me to reckon with myself and assess what elements of our struggle are recession-related, and which are really my Own Damn Fault. If I had been forward-thinking, I could have and would have saved a great majority of my income when I was so very gainfully employed. I didn’t need the nicest, safest SUV complete with leather seats and XM radio.

God knows I probably didn’t need an iPhone. I’m typing this on my iPhone now, even while we struggle to pay the electric bill. It’s a link to a lost lifestyle (about which I feel conflicted and more than a little embarrassed), but more importantly, it’s my everything now. With no cable and no Internet connectivity at home, it has become my link to a virtual community, to entertainment… and to work, like writing this blog.

I find the idea of living without my iPhone almost incomprehensible. It reminds me not to feel too pious about the sacrifices we have made. I can look at environmental catastrophes and feel holy that we are living car-free, going without air conditioning, shopping at thrift stores or not at all, and growing organic produce.

But if I am honest, I have to acknowledge that the most dramatic changes we have made were those that were forced upon us. There are current circumstances that make poverty easier to weather: a global recession that means less pariah status and more resources for surviving, and environmental concerns that make living simply worthy of high regard.

Not long ago, the thought of going without cable, a car, Internet, a cool and comfortable home on a hot summer day were unthinkable. One by one, we got rid of these. Not only did we survive each one of these in turn, we actually found glorious benefits hidden in each decision. Our struggles have created stronger, quicker, deeper, and more rewarding bonds with our friends and neighbors. The relationships we create now feel like survival. Our friends are intimately involved with us, and we rely on each other more than we used to.

It begs the question: could I give up my iPhone and find similar benefits? For some reason, I feel like this might have to be my lone holdout. Virtual communities like Facebook makes so much of this tolerable. I rely on my good phone to save me when I am lost on my bicycle with my kids. I count on emails, texts, and social networking to pull me through the emotional isolation of joblessness, poverty, and a frightening illness. Writing this blog is also a link to my successful, working identity.

In two days, I have relatively-minor exploratory surgery for what may turn out to be a horrifying prognosis. I have the support of my community, both the 3D and the ethereal version. I will be driven to the specialist while my children are lovingly cared for. I will update my status. Friends will bring beer and pizza. I will write this blog, gain comfort in my garden, find solace in the air conditioned library, and play Facebook Scrabble with a friend from high school while I convalesce. I am loathe to give up any type of community, my most abundant and important luxury.

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