Restart Button

RestartButtonIf I were able to make one design change to the human form, I would install a Restart Button. Something easy to get to and push when needed.

Years ago Bob had a dog who, like most dogs had a habit of turning around in a circle before lying down. The only trouble was, she couldn’t stop circling. Round and round she’d go, unable to commit to a particular spot. He said he had to go over and gently push her rump before she would lay down and curl up. I’m feeling like that dog right now.

I’ve been immersed in the service of others these past few days and suddenly all has been said and done, everyone is gone and the housekeeping is completely caught up. Now what? I wander around the house, reviewing my multiple To Do lists in search of a Must Do and nothing presents itself. Nothing is compellingly urgent, yet I can’t help but suspect I’ve missed something extremely important.

“Well then, just relax,” you say. It’s true, this would be the right move with all the time in the world to myself. But I don’t know how to get there from here, or what to ‘do’ to relax. A part of me feels that I really shouldn’t lose my head of steam, that this would be the ideal time to tackle one of the many projects I’ve been shelving for a day like this.

Right here at this moment is where a reset button would come in handy. Lacking an actual button, I’m doing yoga, getting dressed, walking next door to chat with my homies and most likely wander down into the woods for a long walk. My guess is that this will do the trick.

Homeland Security

First stop on Trail Crawl with Jason, Camille, Ray, Tami and JennyDown here at the bend we measure security in terms of community. Unlike places we lived before where neighbors were distant and aloof, here everyone is into potlucks and parties. Which is why we moved here. We came and saw what kind of community Tami and Lyle were building and decided we wanted in.

Fifteen years ago, Tami started Trail Crawl, a ridiculously fun way to build community. When the trout lilies and daffodils have bloomed, neighbors on both sides of Stinking Creek celebrate by opening their homes. Meeting people is work for an introvert like me but Trail Crawl makes it just plain fun.

So last week we started next door and walked the trails with about thirty other people from the Farm to the Burrow to Abeyance. We met new friends, connected with old and enjoyed food and drink set out by four host families. It was glorious! We posted pictures here.

Walking from one end of our seven hundred acre neighborhood to the other has given us a sense of place and belonging. This morning I saw a crow sauntering down the yellow stripe on the Moncure Pittsboro Road and I wondered if it walked all the way from Abeyance. I could picture the place and the people as I thought the word. Bob suggested it was Buddy’s ghost, Janice’s black dog that had a fatal disregard for traffic.

Homeland security means that when Ray is driving to work and sees a truck on fire in someone’s front yard, he pulls in and alerts the owner. When a neighbor is sick, we bring food. When Jim needs some extra hands to install a cupola, he calls Bob who calls Malcolm and Nikolas and they get it done. When you want to share a secret or feel like looking for morels but don’t want to do it alone, you know where to find a friend.

When/if the economy crumbles, we’ll be well-served to know our neighbors. When we can no longer afford fuel to run our cars, I feel secure knowing we’ll figure out a new path as a community. In the meantime, it’s just fun to see what pops into our heads when we see a crow walk down the street.

In Our Backyard

We grow food in our back yard. The Sunken Gardens of Moncure is the name we gave to the old swimming pool Lyle filled in with dirt in 2009 and that Bob fenced in the following year. We have a compost pile, wood pile, fruit trees, two cars, one run on biodiesel, and a few milk crates with recycling. You can see where this is heading. In general, we are doing our best to achieve a small footprint. We lean heavily in the direction of sustainability, self-sufficiency and resiliency.

A little further away, Jason and Haruka grow a lot of organic food on several acres of greenhouse and fenced-in beds. Tomorrow they co-host the first stop of this year’s Trail Crawl with Rachel and Scott who heat their home primarily with wood. Again, we congratulate ourselves for having such groovy activities in our back yard. Down the road, Lyle and Tami are growing fruit and chestnuts and using a big solar array to defray their power demand on the grid.

However, just a mile and a half west of our backyard, 3M is mining rock for gravel, operating a granule manufacturing facility on 2100 acres. Viewed from Google Earth, their operation looks like strip mining a stone’s throw from our little organic homestead. We are dwarfed by an eyesore which we rarely consider to be in our neighborhood.

One evening the four of us, Bob, Jason, Haruka and myself were driving home after dark and were startled by the lights from 3M. It seemed so close, just the other side of a thin tree line. A giant operation right under our noses. I think of this at night when I hear the rumbling of their crushers and picture the lights, the people on night shift, the endless chewing up of the earth. And yet, we depend on the gravel to keep our driveway from turning into a mud hole.



Trail Crawl 2011 creek crossing

Ten miles down the road, Shearon Harris makes nuclear power. A couple of years ago they had an unplanned shut down upon discovering a 1/4″ crack inside the reactor pressure vessel head. They test the evacuation sirens monthly. But we depend on the grid to power our heat and air conditioning, our computers, lights and refrigerator, a grid powered by nuclear power and mountain top removal coal. So, again, we are complicit.

All of this reminds me of a hike I went on with a group of friends about thirty years ago. The idea was to climb to the peak and begin our descent before the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in, but with such a large group we found ourselves above treeline when the first storm hit. Someone had brought a tarp and another a bottle of wine. We huddled underneath the tarp, passing the bottle and listening to the thunder. Somehow we managed to feel safe in our huddle while outside an electrical storm raged.

The same applies to our life here in our bubble of perceived self-sufficiency. We know there are unsustainable practices going on all around us and that we benefit from them. But most of the time, we choose to enjoy the camaraderie of a robust neighborhood and the simple pleasures of eating food we grow in our backyard. Trail Crawl, here we come!

Not in Ghana

Sometimes I wake up and think for a moment I’m still in Kumasi but that notion vanishes as soon as I begin listening to the sounds of the pre-dawn day.

You know you’re not in Ghana anymore when:

  1. The first pre-dawn sounds are tires on asphalt, not half a dozen roosters
  2. Its freezing outside and our windows are closed
  3. There are no ants on the counter, floors, toilet paper, etc.
  4. You can see your breath on the back porch
  5. You smell fire but there’s no plastic in it
  6. There’s ice on the laundry line
  7. You have electricity 99.9% of the time
  8. There isn’t any razor wire on our fences
  9. None of our friends live in razor wire compounds, either
  10. The road outside our house is paved and pothole free
  11. When your car is spoiled you have to get it repaired ASAP because there aren’t any taxis
  12. You can’t just pay three guys $5 each to push the car the seven blocks to the repair shop
  13. You can call for a tow truck, it arrives in twenty minutes and you pay the driver $77 with a credit card
  14. Amy can’t hop on a tro tro from Asheville to Pittsboro
  15. The police don’t stop you in town, looking for money
  16. You go to the DMV and no one is asleep with their head on their arm at the service window
  17. You can’t buy plantain chips off a head pan from the car window, in fact no one is carrying anything on their heads
  18. Fresh donuts are $2.50 each at the local bakery
  19. Not 25 cents from the woman deep frying them over a charcoal fire on the dirt
  20. Children are strapped to car seats, strollers and shopping carts instead of riding on their mothers backs
  21. The dogs look really well fed, glossy almost
  22. The fruit in the shops is pathetic and costs an arm and a leg
  23. You’ve got five pounds of nutritional yeast that no one had to carry in their suitcase
  24. UPS brings just about anything you could possibly want right to your door
  25. You can’t buy antibiotics over the counter for cheap

Not in Ghana

The Exorcists

20140320SparksShortly after sundown on the vernal equinox, a group of people gathered to light a bonfire and exorcise winter from their rural neighborhood in central North Carolina. Dancing, chanting “Winter, go away!” as the flames sent sparks rising to a starlit canopy, they believed they were bringing on a new, warmer season.

Bob and I were part of this group, a handful of long-time friends and neighbors, two eager youngsters and one sweet infant, hanging in a sling off his father’s torso like a mast head.

We had a time getting the fire to flare and were beginning to despair that Winter had won. Jason sacrificed a stack of old waxed produce boxes. Rachel and Linus came back and forth with buckets of dried wire grass. The rest of us worked branches out from the edges of the pile to feed the meager flame.

And then Liz remembered the location of some dry and seasoned wood. Several people went and fetched some robust logs and lay them together in a pyramid over the embers and we fed that.

By the time all light had left the horizon we had a roaring flame going. A white man’s fire which made us all step back a few paces in the face of its heat. A fire to end winter once and for all, showering Cassiopia in orange glitter.

Earlier that day, Liz and I had gone for a walk in the woods and ended up bushwhacking along Stinking Creek to an open area where two very smooth boulders nested amid the icy water of the creek. It was a magical place which captivated our senses. The dappled light, burbling creek, smooth shapes and greening grass all seemed something from the pages of a children’s book.

Liz wore flip flops, her way of nodding goodbye to winter and I soon had my jacket tied around my waist. We felt like explorers, stepping down onto those rocks, feeling them with our hands. Yes, they felt cold, but we imagined them warmed by Summer sun and covered in a spread of picnic lunch. We stepped across the creek and found a wide trail peppered with hoof prints – horse prints, that is. And a plastic robot half buried in the dead grass. We were as delighted by our discoveries as children, happily babbling about our adventure to Jason and Haruka upon our return.

Much later, after the bonfire, I went home and slept soundly. I felt a lightness in my heart, as if I really had helped escort out a cold, drab season in favor of one sunny and green. The next day was promisingly warm and bright and we encountered people wearing shorts, all ignoring forecasts for one more arctic blast next week.

Time will tell if our efforts had the desired effect but whether it snows again or not, the exercise was pleasingly cathartic. We people of the bend had burned winter in effigy, a team of exorcists enacting an age old ritual involving fire, song and dance.


Going Through the Motions

GoingThroughtheMotionsIt’s my morning to write and I can’t think of anything to say. The sun is going through the motions on another cold day, rising to spotlight the branches of the oak across the street. The squirrels are fighting over bird seed. Traffic dribbles down the Moncure Pittsboro Road. The forced air heat and refrigerator condenser hum away.

Winter is hanging on longer than usual and I have to say the joke is getting old. When we returned from the tropics in December we consoled ourselves that we’d missed the first half of winter. Nature, it would seem, is determined to give us the full dose by extending the season.

Bob and I have had our morning cups of coffee and tea. I’ve got sourdough starter pancake mix gestating on the counter and veggeroni sandwich ‘meat’ baking in the oven. Bob has already uncovered the hopeful little lettuce plants in his container garden.

We’re headed to work in an hour or so, me to putter around, prettying up the grounds at the main entrance on the north side of campus and he to continue constructing two greenhouses on the south side of the property. Ray will probably be there making fuel and the farm will be bustling with activity.

Weather Underground says it’ll get warm today, maybe even into the 70′s. Everyone I’ll meet in town will say the same thing, “Ready for Spring, yet?”

Temperatures have been swinging wildly – a few days of tee shirt wearing followed by days of down jacket weather. One morning we wake up with our bedroom windows open and the next to see ice on on them.

If you graphed this years daily highs and lows, it would look like the lie detector test of a naughty five year old.

Apparently, all I can think to write about this morning is how demoralizing it is to weather Mother Nature’s mood swings as she prepares to ovulate. Every day we go through the motions and some days are rewarded by warmth. Those are the days we get a spring in our step, take a deep breath and fling our jackets aside. We call out to the farmers and anyone who comes near, “Isn’t this nice?!”

I’m pretty sure today will be one of those days.


Wisdom of the Ages

My Great Grandmother Mary Ann - bet she could tell me a thing or two.

My Great Grandmother Mary Ann – bet she could tell me a thing or two.

I love those greeting cards that say, “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better – like fine wine.” And it’s true as far as I can tell. I listen to cassette tapes I made in my twenties and cringe at my tone, asserting myself brashly, my insecurity thinly disguised as self-confidence.

Yet, I so appreciate the energy of the earnest young people around me. At least in the circles I haunt, all are genuinely passionate about fixing the world I helped mess up, and most show more humility than I did at their age. I’m comforted by their energy and common sense and feel the planet is in good hands as I wander towards the wings, away from center stage.

I’ll turn sixty this year, an incomprehensible number. My friend Shirley, nineteen years my senior, told me this when she turned sixty: “When you turn fifty everyone tells you how good you look, but when you turn sixty, no matter how good you look you’re still sixty!” Those words have been ringing in my ears for nearly two decades and this year I get to test drive them for myself.

As I slide down the back half of the life expectancy bell curve, I find myself drawn to older women. I spent the first half mostly in the company of men, many of them younger – my brothers and their friends, neighbors and cousins, and the second half seeking the company of women.

My mother, a seasoned life survivor, tops the list of women who are helping me make sense of the world and my place in it. Each week we talk for an hour or two on the phone. For the past year I’ve been transcribing her stories as she tells them, stories about her childhood and how it was affected by the Great Depression, stories about me and my five brothers being born and growing up.

Mom turns eighty-two this year but she still laughs like the little girl who once played in the schoolyard with her friends. Every once in awhile she cries like the thirteen-year old girl who lost her father to an untimely death. Always she loves unconditionally with what surely is the wisdom of the ages.

Even my dead grandmother, my beloved Nana continues coaching me from beyond the grave with maxims like “Cookie, Cookie, don’t have kids – they’ll break your heart,” “Genius is walking in the shadow of madness,” and best of all, “He’s more to be pitied than scorned.”

It’s only recently that I notice myself being drawn to older people. When I walk into a room, I unerringly greet everyone in my path on my way towards the grey-haired folk. A few weeks ago I visited a cat sanctuary and never got much farther than the first person with grey hair. She rewarded me with her perspective on hair color and post-menopausal libido within minutes of meeting. She had nothing to hide, no need to mince words.

On the one hand you’d think I would naturally prefer to share what I’ve learned at this point in my life. Indeed, ten years ago I did think I was transitioning from student to mentor but it was temporary. Instead, I crave the wisdom of the ages. I’m in uncharted waters. I’m no expert in aging, only in being young.

Regardless of how young I feel, the fact is I’m not so young anymore. Neither am I as spiritually evolved as I once thought I was. Or as environmentally conscious. Or well read. I seem to be going backwards. I’m slipping over the falls in a barrel, calling out to those who’ve been around a little longer, ever grateful for the lifeline of their open hearted and unpretentious words.

America’s Welfare Queens

ObamaBudgetIn 1979 an actor turned president coined the phrase “Welfare Queen” in an attempt to promote tax reform. Ronald Regan’s ploy worked. Welfare reform began and was continued by successive administrations. Unfortunately the tax cuts went to the top, benefiting the upper class at the expense of the middle class. Never mind that the welfare queen never actually existed.

Reagan had created a composite, a mythical woman who registered for welfare under multiple identities and was earning $150,000 a year. The public was outraged. Welfare benefits were cut, keeping our tax dollars safe for the people who earned them honestly. Or so we thought.

What most Americans weren’t paying attention to is how the largest employers were benefiting from our welfare programs. Walmart, McDonalds et al were paying many of their employees less than a living wage, forcing them to seek compensation from food stamps and medicaid. Not to mention the military.

But most of us didn’t see what was happening. We were too busy trying to make ends meet and too busy labeling the poor are as lazy moochers to realize that the super corporations were taking advantage of hidden subsidies. Aid for the poor was and still is stigmatized whereas aid for the rich is seen as an entitlement.

Pundits began pointing out that the real Welfare Queens were super corporations who underpaid their staff. As noted in last week’s blog, General Motors was paying their employees the equivalent of $37 an hour in 1955 compared to an average pay rate of $8.80 for Walmart employees today. People poured out into the streets as part of the occupy movement.

Fortunately, inequality and how it has come to be is becoming more and more visible due to the efforts of protesters, nonprofits, educators, columnists, writers and some of our lawmakers. Americans are beginning to see how unfairly the deck is stacked. What I see ahead is a revolution, hopefully not as bloody as the recent happenings in the Ukraine, and the redistribution of power. We need to bring back the middle class!

Kingdom of Serfs

I’ve been watching a lot of videos lately, mostly because I recently discovered the fun at All of which have gotten my philosophical juices flowing. This one in particular featuring Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary of Labor Robert Reich fed a pet theory of mine which I’ll call the Kingdom of Serfs.

KingdomofSerfsThings haven’t changed much since the middle ages. The majority of people still serve the minority, those kings and overlords who sit up there in their castles enjoying the fruits of our labors. Just like in the past, today’s masses want to believe their overlords have their best interests in mind. We call ourselves “The Middle Class” knowing full well that it’s unlikely we actually do fit into this vanishing category. Ultimately, we know in our hearts that those folks at the top are only looking out for themselves.

I’m sure you’ve all heard it before, how the top 1% is way richer than the bottom 99% and how one family, the Waltons is worth as much as the bottom 40%. Their company, Walmart is the largest employer in the country and according to Reich pays their employees on average $8.80 an hour. What was news to my ears was the concept that our welfare programs are actually subsidizing Walmart’s bottom line. Which makes sense because when their employees depend on medicaid or food stamps they are actually being supported in part by our tax dollars.

And yet the notion of raising the minimum wage of $7.25 closer to a living wage is deemed radical and unsafe. As Robert Reich points out in the video above, in 1955 the largest employer in the country, General Motors was paying their employees 37.00 in today’s dollars. Those employees made a living wage in a way that many of Walmart’s employees do not and therefore did not require help from the State.

So in effect, the big companies that don’t pay their employees a living wage are all on what might be termed Corporate Welfare and all of us who want to believe we are part of the kingdom are in reality only serfs.

A Woman in the House

WomanHouseWhen I was a kid, there was a woman in nearly every house. Their children ran together in packs, laughing and getting bruised. We played baseball, football, cops and robbers, cowboys and indians and “Who Dies the Best,” an East Coast version of hide and seek. We rode our bikes and skateboards without helmets, climbed trees and jumped off roofs. When someone got hurt, we ran to the nearest house and brought back an adult.

Today’s landscape looks a lot different. The middle class has all but vanished and the majority of households have become two-income families. The kids stay after school, enrolled in supervised activities¬† or come home to play video games, do homework or watch television while their parents are at work.

Nowadays, there are few women at home and the sound of laughter on the street is an anomaly. Helmet-less children are regarded as victims of neglect. Baseball happens under the watchful eyes of a coach. It’s rare to see a kid in a tree. A new phenomenon called Play Dates has replaced the pack dynamic.

The Chinese symbol for “an” meaning “peaceful, tranquil, quiet” is represented by the combined symbol for woman and house. The woman is in the house, representing security and peace. I realize this sounds sexist and old-fashioned, but we need more women in the house. Were the economic barriers lifted, I believe many women would choose to stay at home to be the center of their families.

My sister-in-law lost her job about a year ago and has become invaluable. She takes care of my mother, her mother and is there for her children and nine grandchildren. Likewise, a long time friend, recently unemployed finds herself running her father-in-law to the doctors several times a week and picking up her two grandsons after school with little time left over for gainful employment.

Both women feel financial pressure to return to the work force. Neither feels they can afford to stay at home and yet, with so many depending on them, the family cannot afford to see them go back to work.

When people ask me what I was doing in Ghana, I blush. “Oh, I just cooked, cleaned, gardened and shopped” I say. Their response is invariably an awkward pause before I jump in with vivid descriptions of a typical National Geographic day in Sub-Saharan Africa. Both of us slightly embarrassed as I talk about markets and menus, wishing I had said I were working on a degree, managing a nonprofit, starting up an export company or something equally compelling.

When it came time to fill our our exit forms, I hesitated to print “housewife” in the box marked “profession.” The word looked so lame on paper. Even “Tourist” would have looked better.

Yet we all knew my contribution to the household was of value. The shared evening meal, counters laden with fresh fruit, clean floors and windows, trim lawn and gardens all brought continuity, comfort and cohesiveness to the house. Everyone was grateful and visitors commented on the nourishing ambiance we were able to provide them.

And now our dear daughter Amy finds herself playing the same, time-honored role of Woman in the House. Between jobs, she has been called on to care for her family because her sisters are too entrenched in their jobs to switch gears. At twenty-four, she is young to accept the caretaking mantle and yet she realizes it is her duty.

We are grateful to Amy for her quiet strength, her sacrifice, her willingness to act as family caretaker. She has joined the undervalued legion of capable women who are there for us. Women who one day discover they are worth more to society as a non-wage earner, knowing full well that their contributions will be marginalized in today’s culture.