My mom’s side of the family were early pioneers. They came over shortly after the Mayflower and took a covered wagon out west settling in Kansas. They lived in mud Hogan’s and survived however they could in a new land. My dad’s side are from Italy and came later - my great grandmother traveled on her own in her late teens, to meet her brothers who had already settled in upstate New York. They were brick makers - cutting clay from the Hudson River. I come from hearty stock. Strong women who had to make it work.
It's no surprise that I tend to attract pioneer spirited women into my life. Michele and I met when our kids were little and they had just arrived in Fairfax. The fact that her most recent home was Mendocino meant she was rooted in the land. As I got to know her, I found out she grew up in California Gold Country and that her parents had run a gas station. Her mom had three kids, all close in age, by the time she was in her early 20's. She set up her sewing machine in the gas station "office" and would make clothes for the kids, take in odd jobs and make sure their home was filled with beautiful things even though they didn't have much money. My favorite Michele growing up story is that her mom let her drive to school when she was 10! She sat on a pile of pillows and coasted most of the way, but she did it. Until the principal called her mom and explained that she could not let her 10 year old daughter drive to school!
Michele and I have always joked about “packing the wagons” when we want to get back to the land and out of the crazy tech based culture we are currently living in. At the time we meant covered wagons. But as I worked on a piece of art for her to honor her move back to Mendocino, I realized she has a wagon! A Volvo wagon -it hit me all of a sudden that we call long cars “wagons”and it’s still a part of our language and culture. I have a mini van but it’s also a modern day wagon. I’m prepared for most adventures at any given moment. The back of my car currently has: a bag of beach toys (even though it’s December), blankets for sitting on sand or grass, cloth grocery bags, a cooler bag for cold items, a kids potty from Ikea, sun hats, baby powder, diapers (Dax no longer needs them, but someone else might!), yoga mat and more. Even though we are just braving getting kids to school, going for a hike, to the beach or on a road trip, we are prepared and perhaps it goes back to where we came from - women striking out most likely not because they wanted to but because they had to - to be safe, to make a better life for themselves and their children, to find work for their husbands and brothers. But none the less, it was an adventure that they survived and maybe even thrived in.
At this point in history packing the wagons might happen due to climate change. My thoughts are always looping back to how can I help my kids have a stable future in an unstable world. I want them to learn to grow food, build shelter, make things of value. Maybe it's a romanticised version of the post apocalyptic world but I feel like our future depends on us learning the things we have cast aside in the name of progress and convenience. And I want to pack my wagon and head north, to find land and community and a connection to something deeper that will last even if everything else doesn't. In the meantime, I'll visit Michele on The Farm and get a glimpse of what it's like to really pack a wagon and head back to the place that is truly home.
It's easy to think of a hero as someone who does grand gestures of bravery - firefighters, doctors and athletes. But I think more often than not, heroes are all around us. As I was driving to Fairfax early last Saturday morning, on my way to help host the 10th annual Fairfax Craft Faire, I got off the freeway on 5th street in San Rafael. It was a cold drizzly grey morning but the world felt fresh after a week of long awaited rain. This part of San Rafael is a little dodgy - right near the freeway, two motels that are host to all sorts of odd activity, tiny rentals and several apartment buildings. Along the way was an old house with a large group of people filtering out. Many on the sidewalk, talking and smoking. I can't be entirely sure but most likely it was an AA meeting that had just finished. It made me think of my mom. She tried AA and at times, maybe it helped her. But she was so stubborn and "smart" that mostly it bothered her. She found a million reasons why they were wrong or not for her. Watching all these people on a cold and rainy morning - knowing that they had all gotten up before 7 to make it to a meeting, on a Saturday morning, most likely, after a long week of work, I thought "they are heroes." To choose to take it one day at a time and to show up even when it's not convienant or fun or easy, that is heroic.
I have often wondered why some can commit to recovery and why my mom could not. Anne Lamott is the most famous example, at least to me. She is a hero. A messy, imperfect hero. Who was able to find a way to take all her quirks and her demons and let them see the light of day, share them with all of us through her writing and as a result we all feel a little bit better about how messy and imperfect we all are. When I first read Bird by Bird it was on the suggestion of an art teacher at Art Center. I had never thought to read Bird by Bird because it's about writing. But my teacher said it's about the creative process - and it's funny! I had been living in LA for several years by then and reading about "old Marin" - Anne grew up in Tiburon in the 60's - filled me with nostalgia for my childhood. I relished her descriptions of the Marin I held in my heart but that had changed so much. And I laughed! She is so funny - I would be reading in the hallway, waiting for class to start and laughing like a crazy person. When I told my mom that I was reading Bird by Bird and loved it SO much and loved reading about Mill Valley and Sausalito as it used to be, she said "oh yeah, I met her in AA - she's CRAZY." It definitely took the wind out of my sails. But as I have pondered this statement over the years, I realize yes, she is crazy and she has made it work for her. She has let us see in her closet with all it's ghosts and cobwebs and she has gone to church and she has gone to AA and she has raised her son and made a living as a writer and she is helping to raise her grandson. She is alive and well. My mom is not alive and well. She did not follow her creative callings, she did not keep going to AA.
When we moved back to Marin it was to Fairfax, the last "hippy" town left in Marin. And in 2005 you could still call it a hippy town. Turns out Anne lived there too. And I have seen her over the years, walking her dog, taking her grandson to school, living her life. And I never told her, "you are my hero". Because she just wants to walk her dog and live her life. But when I see her, I wonder, what made it possible that you could do this, that you could show up everyday and make a choice to be sober. And to be here. And my mom could not.
I have been lucky to receive bushels of apples from friends this fall. Especially from Michele who likes to leave things on my porch like an elf. She’ll often drop things off on her way to Mendocino, from Marin. We met over thirteen years ago when they moved to Fairfax to be closer to work for her husband. We connected in so many ways but mostly around making things and raising “free range” kids. We often joked that we were ready to pack the wagons when life felt too rushed and our kids cared more about iPads than climbing a tree or going to the beach. Her kids are older than mine and now that two are in their 20's and her youngest is 15, she is packing her wagon this month, for real. Moving back to the beautiful property full of apple trees and redwoods in Mendocino. Back to the land and a more connected life, not to technology but to the earth.
The apples she brings me are turning into lots of applesauce. I make it now without much thought but there was a time when I would buy it in jars or worse yet, little plastic “cups” for my kids. I guess I thought it was hard to make? I know I’m not the only one who has thought that - people are literally buying presliced apples now, wrapped in plastic and more likely to go bad than a fresh apple sitting on your counter waiting patiently to be eaten at the just the right time. One day I had too many apples and I thought, how hard can it be? So I sliced and peeled and put all the apples in a pot with a tiny (SO much less than what you think you need) bit of water and cooked on low for 20 minutes, then mashed the soft apples into a sauce and it was the best apple sauce I had had since Catherine’s mom, Alice made home canned apple sauce when I was a kid. It was SO easy and SO yummy!
And then there are French fries - available prepackaged if you want to “make” them at home. When I did Whole 30 a few months ago I wanted to make fries that didn’t have any added ingredients like rice flour and strange vegetable oils. So I sliced up some potatoes and put them on parchment paper, drizzled lots of oilive oil over them and sprinkled salt and pepper. Roasted at 425 for about 20 minutes and they made the yummiest fries! And the craziest part, that still amazes me is that you can make so many fries from 2 or 3 potatoes. When I used to buy them in a bag, I was getting a plastic bag I had to throw away and there were not that many in a bag so sometimes I had to buy two for my family of five. Expensive and wasteful - fresh potatoes cut up and baked are a much better solution. And now my family prefers homemade fries and gets so excited on “burger night”.
We are not doing handwork anymore - we think it’s easier and faster not to. Instead we keep our hands busy with keypads and screens. We feel kind of empty and unhappy and we wonder why. I think it's because our hands want to MAKE things! Just imagine all the packaging you avoid when you cook from scratch. It’s the way food was meant to be prepared and going “backwards” is the solution for a better future. What do you make now that you used to buy? What could you be making at home instead of buying it?
As we face PG&E shutdowns for wildfire safety in California, I am feeling the intensity of being on the front lines of climate change. And as part of that I am pondering what can we do to be less fearful and more empowered? Well we know that for several hundred years before us, people ate food but they had little to no refrigeration.
Some of the things they did: collect and harvest food at the height of the season and then preserve and/or store it. Canning, pickling, salting, smoking and root cellars or cold storage of root vegetables and onions. Fresh dairy meant you had a cow, goat or sheep and milked them daily or you traded with someone who had a cow, goat or sheep. I know a modern day mom who is part of a milk share - one cow, many families. And to make that dairy last even longer, make cheese.
Fermented foods are trendy right now, because we are realizing we need the beneficial bacteria that are present when we preserve food in this traditional way. What I am fascinated by is that they also do not require refrigeration.
If you have chickens or buy eggs from someone you know, you don't have to wash them. Unwashed eggs have a coating that keeps them fresh without refrigeration. The list goes on and on. It's worth considering how much food security we have handed over to big agriculture or even the local grocery store. When the power went out for most of Marin County (the county next to where I now live and where I grew up) the stores were closed, you could not get food, gas or money and by day four, panic set in, what would we do if this lasted weeks? years? I think the best thing we can do is start now, learn how to do things the way we used to do them, take the best of old and new technology and move forward stronger and happier into a brave new future.
Sometimes I wonder if I was born in the right time... I long for a bygone era and yet I dream of a future that holds the best of technology mixed with the “old ways” that are so much gentler on us and the earth.