the homestead of us

I’m sitting outside in the good spring sun, not even quite 9am and already I’ve rolled up my pajama bottoms and shucked my sweatshirt. The dog is panting with pleasure into the heat, and the birds are filing the spaces between traffic noise and the bell from the nearby school.

Who gets to have a morning like this one? The garden is quiet, shaded until the sun lifts herself higher. Sometimes this is the only morning I want, the only life I want — the sort of life that starts with coffee in the kitchen and a kiss goodbye, continues to notebook and pen and earl words, moves on to weeding, baking, tending, tendering a home. What does it mean to admit this?

I had something close to this once. When I lived in Maine with my ex-wife, there was a year or so when I was a “freelance writer,” which really meant that she supported us while I got up before dawn and wrote at the kitchen table and spent the rest of the day feeling guilty that I didn’t have to go into an office like she did. I planted a thin, leggy garden in the impossibly rocky and acidic soil out back, and spent an hour during the summer mornings out there picking the Japanese beetles off the snow peas and tomatoes. I mowed the lawn and didn’t clean anything inside. I sat on the back porch with my small lunch — late in the summer I could cook with what I’d harvested: some snow peas, a tomato, a tiny eggplant — god, was there anything else that actually set fruit? — and I’d watch the birds swoop around the enormous back yard, diving for insects. I watched the dog lazily snap at the flies and bees that came to investigate his prone black panting body. Most mornings I’d walk the perimeter of the yard, checking the wild blueberries, the wild raspberry canes — there was something else that grew wild there and I can’t remember, I don’t think it was strawberries — any new fruit? I tended my sad garden and tended my mourning and loss. I came inside eventually and did a little writing, took myself online to investigate calls for submissions, generally worked myself into a frenzy of too many options and not enough plan, then, fully ashamed but clotted somewhat with the sense that I’d “done something,” drove the half-hour in to the nearest Borders, bought a coffee, read books about writing, and maybe even wrote a few pages myself.

It wasn’t a terribly productive time, at least outwardly. Inside, I think, I was utterly and necessarily unraveled and unraveling, though god forbid I share that directly with anyone. Most mornings I was glad to see my then-partner go — not because I didn’t love her, but because I thought if I just had enough time alone, I could figure all of my problems out. My mother had been alone in the house we moved into when I was about two, just before (or just as) my sister was born, since my father worked in the city and was gone all day. My mother planted an enormous garden in the rich Nebraska farm soil; she baked bread and raised her babies. She was lonely and struggling, but I didn’t know that then, and had romanticized her life, romanticized the stories of my homesteading foremothers who made homes out of holes dug into the very hillsides in middle and western Nebraska. I wanted to sweep a dirt floor, bake johnnycakes on an iron griddle set atop the woodstove, fetch eggs from the chicken coop and break a daily sweat tending to the garden that would feed the people I loved. Meanwhile, I didn’t actually clean a thing, came about as close to raising chickens as I did to getting a book published, and got defensive when my partner came home and asked how my day had been.

My father used to say to me, when I’d described what we were doing in that country house outside Portland, “It sounds like you want a farm. We have one, you know, all set for you to move in.” Our family farm was in the southern-middle of the state, and all the buildings were falling apart after my last relatives moved out in the late 80s(is that right?) I couldn’t imagine being even more isolated than I we were there in Maine — the Nebraska farm was miles out from the nearest town, and that itself had only about 1000 people.

The truth was that I wasn’t happy for most of the time I lived in that house. I was 27, 28, 29 — my stepfather had been in prison for just a few years, and I couldn’t understand why it was taking me so long to get over his abuse. I was trying to muscle through it, so that I could be a normal person like my then-wife was — someone who could show up for life like an adult, instead of staying up until midnight, 2am, drinking bad red wine and crying, watching late-night sitcom reruns until the programming shifted to the sorts of infomercials for which I was the target audience: diet plans, body sculpting, take control of your life. Yes. This could help me take control of my life. My partner would come downstairs and poke at me, sometimes gently, sometimes with irritation — when are you going to come to bed? I’m coming soon, I would say. Leave me alone, I wouldn’t say (though she heard it anyway). I couldn’t tell her what was wrong.

Weekends, I wanted to get out of dodge, go on road trips, get away from the house; she, who’d been at the office all week (often hours away in her role as a technology consultant), just wanted to stay at home and putter. We couldn’t get our rhythm right, though there were Sunday mornings when she’d cover the picnic table out on the back deck with a cloth and I’d fill it with corncakes and bacon and fried potatoes and hot coffee and fruit, and we’d the radio to NPR and eat while we watched the morning birds find their own breakfast and the dog followed the smells of all the night animals into the thin woods that surrounded the yard. For that hour, we had enough, we were enough, and we held space for our ancestors and their real struggle while we shared all the sweet tastes, leaving bitter and fear away from the meal for just awhile.

I touch all those memories, that regret, that history now as I tend to a new garden, using what I learned then, learned from my mother, learned from books, and, too, what lives in these Nebraska-bred bones. I think about desires that persist even when we do everything we can to break them, to turn away from them — and how hard and simple it is to stop and listen and allow who we are , the homestead of us, to fill us all the way up.

Thank you for this space today, for reading and for your own deep and longing words.

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