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would-be memoirist writes less-well than she should

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What Happens to the Apples


apples Start with a dilapidated but cheap house. Move there under duress perhaps, maybe because it’s cheaper or because you need safe haven from things that are harming you. Make sure the tree is there, in front where it can greet you with low branches, and soften the sun’s glare with its canopy. It must be really big and full of blossoms when you pull up with your moving trucks containing everything you value. It has to have been there awhile, it must have witnessed families come and go before yours.

The house should get abundant shade from that tree. This must be a sort of house that is old and has no air conditioning, a house where you throw open the windows on the first hot day after you arrive and welcome the outdoors in, and even where there are no screens, you tolerate the bug visitors because you can smell your tree and feel the breeze and its comfort. There is no hum of a machine to cool you, only the shouts of neighbors and the bugs and this tree, and a wide open front door.The blossoms need to fall, the way blossoms do when the fruit is on its way, and you should probably feel surprised at the beauty of the carpet of petals that densely covers your porch and front walk. You remember the days that petals on your car would bother you in spring, the way they would cling to your window shield after a rain and get caught in the wipers and then rot. But these are petals, and they’re beautiful, and they’re causing you no problems, even when the children track them in on their shoes.

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When the apples start to fall, they’re green and bitter and they get smashed on the street out front. Bees and flies flutter around the pulp, and neighbors kick the crushed ones back toward your yard with some irritation. This is the work, this is where it starts. The same irritable neighbors come over periodically and help you manage this early growth, irritation is softened, and you climb branches and shake the trunk and all of you laugh at the hail storm of new fruit when it hits the ground with a knocking sound and rolls around like ball bearings, making you stumble like you’re already drunk on its fermentation.

Create games on the fly. Start keeping score: who can pitch the most apples into the compost bin, without missing? Have a running tally with the guy across the street that goes on for days; shout your number with a challenging tone. Welcome the gardening couple who have no children and have time to read about what to do for the tree, let them help you prune and cull and fertilize with compost tea.

Provide beer. Sit on the porch and chat.

And when there have been some days when too many have fallen and there are too many frustrations, go gather. Make the kids do it when your back goes out. There’s always more. Pile what isn’t salvageable into baskets and dump it into the chickens’ feed bin, and stop and spend some time watching them bob their heads and dart their beaks into the crunchiest sections, leaving the mush for you to rinse out later.

What you have gathered is good but needs care. First there’s the washing—be thorough—and then of course much coring and chopping. Leave the peel on, and put the pieces through a juicer. There will be a lot of foam on the top, and it might be too tart for the children at first. Pour it through a strainer and sweeten it slightly with honey or maple syrup.

Then you must strain again. You need to rid yourself of the bitter foam and remember the delicate beauty of those blossoms when the tree greeted you. You need to do the work and make it right, make the sweetness linger on the tongue, soften the sharpness of too much disappointment that led to this bushel of fruit that must be processed in order to nourish you. You freeze some for the long winter that seems far away but that’s really right around the corner, when the tree is bare and scratching against gunmetal skies, relentlessly holding its arms out and waiting for the spark of light to return. Those are hard months and you will miss this sweetness.

It’s bound to be surprising, how many tart little apples it takes to make a quart of golden juice that makes the children smack their lips and stop what they’re doing to savor. You pour it out in measured doses so it’s not taken for granted. Each mouthful contains some small story of the year that’s passed.

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Changing How We Mow the Lawn Changed Who We Are


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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.

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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?”

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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.

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


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

Reflecting on a Year of Shareable Living


(reprinted from my blog about surviving the recession over at shareable.net)

I’m writing this on Earth Day, 2011. I’ve watered the seedlings in the raised garden beds; the tomato plants have blooms, and the variety of squashes and pole beans are straining upward, still small but impressively strong, with their broad leaves facing toward the sun. Yesterday we feasted on the first truly awesome strawberries of this spring, red all the way through, without the slightly-too-tart tang of previous early-season pints. We tried to savor them, to make them last, to appreciate each strawberry for how it’s slightly different from the rest. The way the sparkling flavor and the seeds make it taste almost carbonated, like a festival, a joyous clarion heralding the long sunny days through the power of sensory memory.

even the tween helps with bed-building

even the tween helps with bed-building

Our raised beds are new. We erected them in an unexpected place: atop the concrete pad of our unused driveway. The symbolism was not lost on us.

The other day, an acquaintance posted a status update on Facebook that she was newly car-less, due to a failed transmission where the repair exceeded the cost of the vehicle itself. I added a comment to the thread, something along the lines of “try going intentionally car-free, and see how it feels! It might work for you,” probably followed by a smiling emoticon to make sure she understood I intended no pressure. (I’m sensitive to sounding like a tree-hugging crank.) Immediately after I posted that, though, someone else wrote, “WHATEVER. Living without a car in this age isn’t realistic in ANY WAY, unless of course you’re Amish. But even they have horse-drawn carriages.”

A little over one year ago, we sold our car and embarked on a new phase of our family’s story. Looking back over that year, I’m remembering the freedom we felt at making the decision to liquidate and downsize, to buy ourselves time during a time of financial crisis that had come to a head. It started with just a couple text messages floated in the middle of the day, back and forth with my husband, in which we decided not to replace the car we were selling. “Screw it,” I typed. “I’m thinking we should consider not getting another car at all. Let’s just outfit everyone for biking instead.”  I was surprised when he wrote back, “Tell me more . . . ”

group effort

group effort

There were some hard lessons learned in the early days, straight off. One thing you realize is how important it is to fully plan each day’s outings, making sure you have all equipment and necessities for every task. My husband had to do the six-mile ride between our house and my son’s swimming lessons four times in one day, when he arrived sans swimsuit and towel at the first go-‘round. Ouch. We had a few other debacles that stick out, mostly during the long rainy winter, when there was someplace we had to be, with cold wet miles stretching between us and the destination, and not enough time to make alternate arrangements. I assure you, a rain-soaked skirt clinging to your thighs after getting caught in an unexpected downpour on the way to your oldest child’s choir performance is not an enviable experience.

Our learning curve has been long, not steep. I expected we’d have all this mastered by now, but we still cheerfully fail at every turn, sometimes in fantastic ways. It seems like each lesson squeaks uncomfortably through an opening cluttered with the comforts we once enjoyed. Oh, interesting, we can’t haul home four-foot-long planks of wood on the bike trailers, what now? Hmmm, can’t fit both preschoolers and that fifty-pound bag of chicken feed, I guess I’ll have to make this seven-mile bike ride again, alone next time . . .

Hilda the hen

Hilda the hen

I’ve written a lot about the ways simplifying has brought new color, beauty, and grace to our lives, but the real gift is much harder to put into words, but it is this: the year of strife has opened us to a way of living that is so much more reliant on how intertwined we are with our neighbors and friends. We had some dental and medical crises come up this year also, and because of our situation, we were open to some unconventional arrangements with our caregivers. Our dentist greets us with hugs; her staff has cared for our children for hours on end, with crayons on the floor and the kind of barefoot comfort that feels like family. The dentist hopped into her car between patients and drove me to the endodontist. Just being open with your needs can result in surprisingly-loving connections with those you’d least expect. Our letter-carrier was reluctant to deliver the foreclosure notice she worried would devastate us, and even suggested we not sign for it. The diner owner sent us on our way after a rare meal out, trusting us to return after our debit card got unexpectedly declined (turns out it was a clerical error, whew.)

Once we took the bus to the supermarket, but found out that the bus we had taken to get there was the last bus running that route, and that we’d be stranded. There was a moment of regret and frustration with what seems to be at times a constant barrage of small obstacles, but then relief and comfort when we realized there were literally a half-dozen or more people who would be able to come scoop us up in an instant, whenever needed.

Social resources, for us, have proven more valuable to our lives than financial resources. Or rather, when financial resources are less available, social resources fill in the gap in a more rewarding way, like replacing a missing table leg with a gold-painted cherub holding its arm upright. Instead of finding a lid for the jar, you get a bouquet of flowers to put in it.

apple and pear trees are "blooming most recklessly"

apple and pear trees are “blooming most recklessly”

I don’t mean to overstate the case. What with our landlord’s foreclosure crisis, the scary era when we were waiting for biopsy results, and the thefts we’ve (thankfully, rarely) endured, there have been threats to safety and security coming from every direction. But it is no exaggeration to say that this has been the watershed year of our lives, in the best possible of ways. Things and people have fallen away, but what has taken occupation in exchange has been everything we didn’t know we needed.

The other day, we built new raised beds in our unused driveway. A truck dumped the delivery of beautiful soil into a black and loamy heap on the sidewalk, and neighbors came over with shovels, advice, cold beers, and spare seedlings. We’re all planning for a big harvest trade, maybe a “family” grill-out with all the folks on our ragtag block using the zucchinis soon to come in that charmingly vulgar, over-abundant way that they do. Our chickens have been loud but prolific, and true to the roots of Easter celebrations, there are plenty of eggs for all of us right now.

yep, those are eggs from our hens--undyed!

yep, those are eggs from our hens–undyed!

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