6:07, with Milk Chin

Periphylla S. Haddock / MBARI biolum.eemb.ucsb.edu

The light, at 6:07, has gone opal, where just last week it was oyster and the week before that, a furry, caterpillar grey. I don’t know if my son notices the difference; he is up at 6, or 6:05, or 6:17 regardless of pitch. Only when it rains does he sleep longer. We all do.

The seasons are switching gears, and so am I. I’ve turned in a revision of my second book that I have good feelings about, which I will keep telling myself even if the feelings turn out to be singular. It was not the revision that was asked for, exactly, but I think it’s better. At any rate, I’m returning, again, to my third book, the one with time travel and the depths of the sea and turn-of-the-century Australians. Something’s been keeping me from finishing its final chapters, for all I know their bones. (Or think I know. Endings are not so predictable as sunrise.)

When I get like this, balky, shifty, I often throw myself into research (many of the grad students I know complain — endlessly — of deadlines and dead-eyed undergrads and the high chance of being placed in (the horror) Nebraska, or Tulsa — and maybe, in their shoes, so would I. But as I’m not, the idea of having years to not only explore but expound upon a topic, or link topics together, or, goodness, do nothing but read and write fiction… Well, it doesn’t sound so far from heaven.).

Ctenophore S. Haddock / MBARI biolum.eemb.ucsb.edu

Last night, I watched the BBC Earth’s Deep Sea special. 1,000 meters down, what the ocean looks like most is … Manhattan, at midnight. The bioluminescence of the porous and fanged and massive-eyed inhabitants sparks bright blue or, in the bathyscaphe’s light, neon pink and yellow and green, sliding continuously around a comb jelly’s petals.

Wonderous, and claustrophobic, but my mind was too watery for research alone to spark. And so I turned to reading. Not fiction, this time, but a handful of blogs that I’ve returned to year after year. Two of them are, ostensibly, about food — but it is food as prompt. Really, they are essays about place, and family, and history; they are windows into lives that look quite different from my own, and all the more inspiring for it. They are updated monthly or bi-annually or not at all; their authors, though talented enough to be full-time writers, have taken other paths. The writing is timeless; any of them could be a book of essays I would gladly pay for.

  1. The Yellow House

I spent the summer of 2015 engaged in an office running competition that had me, for the first time, doing my long runs on the weekdays. I will say that first, NOTHING makes me feel more self-satisfied than running ten miles before eight a.m. But second, the thing I really remember of this time is not the runs themselves but the half-hour or so preceding them. I would get up a bit before six, make some coffee and toast, and consume them while reading The Yellow House. That I ended up winning the competition can be partly contributed to one coworker’s decision to go to Lollapalooza and partly to this wonderful blog. The writer, Sarah, is about my age, but seems much wiser. The tentpoles of her life — a small, old house and growing garden in a verdant corner of northern Virginia, a government job in DC, the 1.5 hour commute that connects them, a partner who works on a vineyard, a vast extended family — emerge directly and indirectly through her posts on a week of dinners, on deviled eggs, on skillet greens and beans. Last night, I read How to Pickle a Beet. There is no (spoiler alert) guide for pickling root vegetables in this post. What there is, instead, is a story of a farm matriarch, a mother of seventeen, a pinochle champ. It’s a story of saving when you can so you can eat when you can’t, and of building, year over year, a family, a homestead worth wedging yourself onto its last strip of kitchen linoleum for. In this and every post, the writing is consistently surprising, with a Virginia-lush vocabulary and a midwestern economy of pacing and narrative. And the recipes, needless to say, are fantastic.

2. Coffee in the Woodshed

Another deeply placey blog with formative roots in Virginia. I’ve spent so little time in all but the northernmost reaches of the state, but the verdant imagery and the season-attuned thoughtfulness in this blog and Sarah’s make me want to change that — and bring to mind another Virginian ode: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Indeed, like Dillard, Lisa, the author of Coffee in the Woodshed, has the ability to suss out the wild and original ecosystems  of settled, even suburban landscapes, writing of them as a naturalist might. Take this entry, a reflection on a move to Maryland’s eastern shore, on the eve of its departure:

But my son was still little and my daughter was still a couple months from her inaugural cry. It broke my heart to realize he wouldn’t remember our farm, but I came to understand, and relish, that the dunes and the mud flats and the wide creeks twining through the salt marsh would give to him what thick woods and rolling hills gave to me. He will know why the horseshoe crabs come, I thought. He will recognize milkweed and glossy ibis and whelk egg case. He will know how to walk at low tide without sinking in the mud. He will know how cold it has to get before the bay freezes. He will swim in tea-colored lakes among pines and white cedars. He will slap at greenheads, and cry as crabs pinch his toes, and hold luminescent comb jellies in his palm at dusk.

My heart spasmed, reading that, but not unpleasantly. What will my son’s comb jellies be, I wondered.

Lisa was, for years, a farmer, first in Virginia and then in the Hudson Valley. She can wreak magic from a few winter vegetables, but if her writing on nature is poetry, her recipes are prose in the best way: homey, unfussy, communal. The last, especially. In her posts, someone is always dropping off a sack of zucchini or a loaf of banana bread or just stopping in for a cup of coffee, and reading about food through this lens makes me want to be the sort of person who hosts weekly potlucks and bakes up an extra loaf of banana bread. (First, I need to learn to bake banana bread.)

3. Lazy Mill Hill Farm

This one is not about food, though there is eating. It’s snapshots, epistles, some longer than other. Some about raising two boys — or rather, about letting the boys raise themselves, at least during school hours. Some about northern Vermont, where winter stretches from Mid-November into April. Real winter, when the moon casts “ethereal light, enough to forgo a headlamp, even in the deep woods, and the trees seemed to stretch upward forever against the blue-black sky.” Some about animals. Some about slaughter. Some about the hot-asphalt smell of summer. Some about fall “the way God the tourism department intended.” Some about the town mechanic, or a hitchhiker or two women on a loveseat watching a goat. Some about the bartering that still endures in places where trust allows it. The language is beautiful, both stark, almost religious even, and also anecdotal, elliptical. It’s probably the language above all that keeps me coming back — but it’s also the perspective. I don’t know if I could ever, would ever build a house from scratch, or live in a place with 5 months of winter, or muster the courage to kill a pig, or muster a different, fiercer courage and unschool my kids, but then again, maybe.

Reflecting back on these three blogs, it strikes me that they articulate my sometimes fierce desire for that ghost ship life. It’s a desire shared, I think, by many New Yorkers, particularly those with children. Get ourselves back to the garden, etc. And yet. Last week, a friend of mine, a war journalist who lives, mostly, in Nairobi, sent me this article. It’s a portrait of, and love letter to, the city of Laos, a city of 21 million, a city of optimists, aunties, generators, and barbeque served hacked, in old newspaper. The city, in the author’s telling, thrums with life. Not the life of ferns or whelks or chicks, but, to quote Dickon, “it’s as wick as you or me.” Reading it, I felt both a keen interest in Laos, and a reminder, yet again, of why I’d come to New York in the first place.

Anyway. Read the article. Read the three blogs. They’re cups of kindness, each, and sure to make you think.

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  1. Ben Hewitt

    This is one of the most gratifying descriptions of my writing I’ve read. It’s so nice to hear how it resonates. Thank you, deeply. And I’m so pleased to be introduced to your wonderful blog. Looking forward to exploring it more.

  2. Claire

    Ben, your writing’s been such a lodestar for me over the years (I never comment but you have a very thoughtful community of commenters!). Thank you for it!

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