In the night the skies were clear and the moon was fat, and when I awoke the light through the windows was so bright that for a moment I thought I’d overslept. I slipped down the stairs for a pee, close enough to the cows that I could hear their exhales, watch the rise and fall of their long ribcages. Those big, big lungs. I could picture the mottled pinkness of them, could almost feel the rubbery warmth of them in my hands. Heavier than you’d think.
I thought to stand for a moment longer than my business necessitated, but it was zero or maybe less, so once relieved I made fast for the nest of our bed. I slept soundly in that strange milky light, dreaming of nothing (or nothing I remember), and when I rose again, the moon was faint in the sky.
In the evenings we sprawl across a trio of futons unrolled from the corner of the barn, and the seven of us – four humans, two cats, one dog – slumber shoulder-to-paw, hip-to-tail. While we sleep, the fire dies and the barn goes cold, and in the morning the single-pane windows are opaque with the frozen accumulation of our exhalations. I light the fire by headlamp, slip out of the barn, shuffle to the house in the newly-fallen snow – every night now another inch or two – and light a second fire. I make coffee and wait for daylight. Then chores.
On Saturday, we traveled to Burlington to see Davy Knowles. You may not be familiar with Davy – he’s not exactly a household name – but for anyone drawn to contemporary blues, or for anyone who appreciates prodigious musical talent, or for anyone who simply wants to hear SOME OF THE MOST FRIGGIN’ AMAZING MUSIC ON THE FACE OF THE GREAT SPINNING BALL OF SOIL AND STONE WE CALL EARTH, I cannot recommend him highly enough. (Try this, this, and especially this)
We do what we always do at small, general admission shows, which is arrive early enough to stake a claim at the very edge of the stage. As such, I could tell from the moment Davy and his bandmates walked out that this was going to be a good show – I could see the smiles on their faces, the bounce in their steps, the frequent brief exchanges between them. In short, it was clear they were happy to be there. Maybe they were excited by the size of the crowd, which had grown to 300 or perhaps a bit more. Maybe they were still riding the buzz of a fine meal, a beer or two. Maybe they were just in a good mood. But for whatever reason, they were into it, and I could tell. Everyone could tell.
Davy is young (late 20’s), and a guitar prodigy. Story goes he started playing at 11 when he heard Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing on the radio and figured it out by ear; Mark Knopfler is not exactly your standard beginner’s material. A lot of technically proficient musicians seem to sacrifice something to their proficiency; call it “soul,” if you will, or think of less-trite terminology. Or maybe it’s exuberance that’s lost. Yeah. Exuberance. I think that might be it.
There was no exuberance lost on that stage, that’s for sure. About halfway through the show, I realized my face hurt; I’d been smiling so widely and constantly, the muscles in my cheeks actually ached. Yet still I could not stop, for there was such purity of joy in the performance, it simply could not be denied.
At the end of the show, with the crowd erupting, Davy and his band walked off stage. As Davy was departing, he came to where we stood, knelt down, and gave each of my sons a big smile and one of the guitar picks he’d just used to play the music that had made my face hurt. Then he was gone.
I can’t quite stop thinking about Davy’s performance (and his band – because Davy’s a bit of a guitar hero, his bandmates maybe don’t get as much attention as they deserve). But equally, I can’t stop thinking about his gesture of graciousness toward my sons. It was nothing, really – just a couple chips of nylon, just a couple seconds of his time – but it was one of those small acts that transcends its own boundaries, if that makes any sense.
Someone once explained to me that kindness is like throwing sparks. You throw and you throw and you throw, and most of the time, those sparks just sort of sputter and die. Or they land in water. Or they’re simply rebuffed. Because there’s a certain vulnerability to kindness, there’s a certain inherent risk, and as such, it’s easy to get discouraged. It can feel as if it’s easier to stop throwing, stop risking.
But every so often, one of those sparks strikes a bit of tinder. I believe that’s why I’m still thinking about that concert. In part, it’s because I was witness to an artist entirely in his element, and as a so-called “creative,” I felt the impact of that deeply, and with it, the desire to capture some of Davy’s energy in my own work, although I have no idea whether or not that’s possible, though I think it is.
But it was Davy’s small kindness toward my sons that struck me the most, because it forced me to acknowledge the ways in which I have not been similarly gracious. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, it makes me uncomfortable when people email me to say that something I’ve written has touched them, and so sometimes I simply do not reply, leaving them exposed in their vulnerability, and worse yet, perhaps less likely to risk such vulnerability again. From time-to-time, something similar happens in person, and I although I am generally a fairly warm and out-going fellow, I suspect I do not always respond with equivalent grace.
Now I wish I had a guitar pick to send to everyone who’s every emailed, or left a comment, or just read something I wrote. But I don’t, and maybe that’s good, because the logistics are frankly a little overwhelming. So I guess I’ll just say thanks and resolve to be better about responding with the sort of graciousness everyone deserves. For those whose notes have gone unanswered, I am sorry. I’ll try to do better next time.
Finally, if I may be so bold, I’d like to ask a small favor of you all. If you are ever in a position to do someone a small kindness like the one Davy did for my boys, please, please don’t pass it up.
To be sure, nothing may come of it.
Then again, something might.
• • •
Speaking of kindness and whatnot, we are working to establish a scholarship fund for our Teen Wilderness Program through Lazy Mill Living Arts. If any of you have the ability and inclination to contribute at any level, it would be deeply appreciated. All funds go directly to paying our mentors a livable wage, while enabling us to include children who would not otherwise be able to attend. Please email us firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss. Thank you.
Progress on the house has slowed to a steady trickle. This is due in part to finances, but equally to myriad other demands on our time, as well as the inherent nature of house-building: The end-stage always demands deep reserves of patience. Any semi-competent fool can frame and put a roof on a modest house inside of a handful of weeks, and it’s easy to be lulled into a sense of accomplishment by the speed with which the outline of a structure can rise into a space where there was once only air. If all you did was frame and roof houses, you’d think yourself superhuman, a conjuror of shelter, a home-whisperer, a king among the commoners. But a frame and a roof do not a habitable home make, and thus my delusions of self-grandeur have died a quick and pitiless death. As they deserved to do.
We are closing in on three months of living in a single room with no running water and only a wood stove for both heat and cooking. As such, it sometimes feels to me as if we live inside that old Buddist saying Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. Which inevitably raises the question: Are we before or after enlightenment? I suppose the fact that I cannot say is answer enough. Furthermore, I assure you that nothing about the way we’re currently living feels particularly enlightened. It is just living, by turns difficult, joyous, frustrating, gratifying, tiresome, energizing, and probably a few other things I can’t think of right now.
I’m not sure exactly what I’ll ultimately take from this summer and fall, not to mention the experience of living with my family in such humble circumstances. Perhaps it will simply become a footnote in our lives, an anecdote to recall at some later date while we finger feed each other lobster tails in the Jacuzzi. That would be fine. I have no designs or expectations.
But even now, in the midst of it all, I am aware of one thing: That my own resourcefulness has expanded, and for this I am grateful. It’s not just the increased depth of skills and experience (though that’s part of it, to be sure, and it doesn’t hurt a bit). Mostly, it’s the confirmation of something I’ve long suspected, but am nonetheless relieved to have corroborated: Much of what I might have assumed necessary to live contentedly was, in fact, superfluous. Two thousand-square feet did not make me any more (or, let’s be honest, any less) content than 500; a shower every day (or, let’s be honest, every other day) did not make me any more content than a sponge bath every week, though it might well have made me smell a little better. At the risk of sounding a bit trite, it’s actually a fairly powerful thing to be reminded of this.
There’s some sort of lesson here, I suppose, but I’m not really in the mood to figure it out. Or maybe I’ve divulged it already, and am just too thick to realize such. In any case, this house ain’t gonna finish itself. I’ve gotta get back to work.
Also, I wanted to draw your attention to our upcoming winter/spring session of Teen Earthskills Immersion Camp, run by our dear friend Luke Boushee. The fall session far exceeded our expectations, and there’s a whole lot more fun in store. Here are more details.
The cold dropped like a hammer, and with it that certain stillness of middle winter. I awoke to iced-over windows and kindled a fire before stepping into my chore boots and then down the narrow stairway that services our current quarters.
While I milked, two ravens wheeled overhead; I could hear the rush of the air displaced by their passing. I followed their flight path with my gaze until they reached the old church steeple, then became specks against the backdrop of the snow-white field to the north, then disappeared from view.
My fingers stung from the cold. To distract myself from the pain, I began to compile a mental list of everything we need to do to finish the house, but this soon become more painful than my fingers, so I quit, and then my fingers hurt again, and because I was milking for the pigs, I allowed myself the luxury of dipping them into the bucket of warm milk. I knew the pigs wouldn’t mind, and it made all the difference in the world.