Honoring the Honor System on the Farm

Honoring the Honor System on the FarmWe’ve had a good first couple of weeks in the farm stand.  We’ve sold a few things, made some great strides in signage, and are enjoying the honor of sharing the gifts of this place with other people.

But this morning, I have to confess that my spirit is a bit churned up because yesterday we had two thefts – a dozen eggs and a beautiful glass pendant my friend Jen made for us to sell as support for the farm.  The eggs – I imagine – someone might need.  But when I discovered that the pendant was gone this morning, I felt a bit chipped around my heart.

I’m praying and resting this morning, imagining a tiny hand picking up that pendant because it was pretty – it IS so pretty – and just walking away without the adult nearby noticing.  I’m seeing that little hand lay it by a breakfast plate as a gift for someone loved beyond the measure of words.

The eggs I see frying even now for 4 little mouths, a breakfast for 5 that is mighty to carry them through another hard day.  A meal taken on the weekend when school breakfast is not an option.

I realize that someone might have just taken these things because they can.  We don’t staff the Voting House – we can’t and run the farm and keep our jobs.  So maybe someone just took advantage of our trusting natures.  I’m not naive to believe that’s not possible.

Instead, for the good of my spirit, for the longevity of the farm stand, for the hope of humanity (in a small, farm-rich way), I am choosing to believe there was need, not malice or apathy.  Those thefts do matter to us; they slow down our ability to finish the barn as a retreat space for one.  But if I let them matter too much, then I allow the people who stole those things to do more damage than I’m willing to give to some eggs and a pendant, as beautiful as it was.

Just west of us on the way up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a group of potters sell all their wares through the honor system.  I have always found such beauty in that store, the work itself and the trusting way it is shared.  In fact, that’s where Philip bought our forgiveness goblets that we used for our toast at the wedding.

So today, I raise a coffee-filled goblet to our visitors, those who paid and those who didn’t, because I choose to live with the hope that our dreams can be trusted in the hands of others.

 

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Fold the Writing In: A Writers Write Interview with Lily Iona MacKenzie

When you are a person who loves all things British – especially Irish or Scottish – and a writer named Lily Iona MacKenzie says she will do an interview with you, you get a little smiley and begin to wonder if she is kin (even in a fictional way) to Gabaldon’s MacKenzies.  Enjoy this beautiful woman’s words and be sure to pick up her new novel Fling when it comes out in July.

1. Tell me about your latest project.

Fold the Writing In: An Interview with Author Lily Iona MacKenzie

MacKenzie’s forthcoming novel, Fling

It’s hard to describe a “latest project” since I’m usually working on more than one thing simultaneously. I’m revising my novel Bone Songs that will be published in 2016. I’ve just completed another novel whose focus is a young version of the main character in another novel of mine, Freefall: a Divine Comedy. And I have several short stories in process.

2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?

When I was 13, I started a diary, but I was afraid someone would see what I had written, so I used a coded language that I can’t remember. I would love to see those pages again so I would have a better sense of my writing self at that age. I didn’t start keeping a diary again until I was in my mid-20s and going through a deep depression. The writing was my attempt to understand what was happening. I began then to journal daily not only about what I was thinking and feeling but also recorded my nightly dreams. I’ve continued this practice ever since, learning much about myself in the process. I feel the keeping in close contact with my dreams has fed my writing and enriched my imagination.

3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?

I try to write a minimum of one hour per day. I usually can fit in that amount of time, and I’ve produced an amazing amount of material over the years as a result: three poetry collections, one of which is published; four+ novels, two of which are on their way to being published, and I’m sure the other ones will as well; a short story collection; travel articles; reviews; memoir; and much more.

4. Who are you reading now?

It’s hard to say because I always have so many books on my night stand. I love the Norwegian novelist Per Petterson and have read all of his books except the last one, which is now waiting for me. I recently finished Three Light Years by the Italian author Andrea Canobbio. Francine Prose had praised it highly in The New York Review of Books, and over all it lived up to the accolades. My husband and I will be spending a month in Italy this summer, so we read John Hooker’s The Italians, a wonderful overview of the country and its people. I intersperse fiction and non-fiction with poetry since that’s a genre I also write in. I’ve been impressed with Mark Strand’s Collected Poems and have been going through it. Always much more to read than I have time for!

5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?

I really can’t identify three favorite books. There are too many that I love. But I can say that certain novels had a profound effect on me at different stages of my life for various reasons. When I was working on my BA in English, I took a Modern American Novel class that did exactly what Lionel Trilling said such books should do: they read me as much as I read them. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and his Light in August. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. And many more. Each book made me aware of elements of myself that were also manifested in the characters inhabiting the books.

Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude found me at a time when I needed a model for the magical realism approach that seems natural to me and inhabits much of my work. I LOVE that book and return to it often for inspiration.

In another mode, Roberto Bolano, a Chilean writer, has also inspired me. He diverges from the more familiar magical realist vein and creates his own genre. I’ve read most of his books now, and they create a world that seems like a parallel universe to ours. He also steps beyond the usual fiction boundaries, violating our expectations of how a novel should unfold or end. I’m always entranced by his work.

And I haven’t mentioned W.G. Sebald yet, another writer who died far too young. He’s another writer who invented a new genre, a hybrid novel form. Again, I’ve read all of his work, and I’m stunned by it.

I’m sorry that all of these authors are men when there are so many female authors I love as well, including Anne Enright. I’ll read anything she writes because of her sharp wit and illuminations of contemporary life.

6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?

Platform has become a hated word in my lexicon. I feel we writers have become cogs in the publishing machine instead of masters of it. Of course, we don’t have to create platforms, but most publishers wouldn’t work with us if we didn’t. So I now find myself stealing precious time from my writing to keep up with the demands of social networking, finding reviewers for my novel, writing blog posts, etc. In the last week, I haven’t had time to go near the various projects I’m working on. I’m clearly not doing very well in the balancing category.

7. What is a typical day like for you?

I’m not sure I have a typical day. I teach freshman comp at the University of San Francisco, just one class a semester now. I also am vice-president of the part-time faculty union. Those two responsibilities take a considerable bite out of my day. I’ve already mentioned the marketing demands I’m dealing with. Working out is essential for my mental and physical well being, so I ride a stationary bike for 45 mins each day. Three days a week I also do strength training at a gym. I love to cook and enjoy making healthful meals for my husband and myself. I also am a great tennis and baseball (SF Giants) fan, so I squeeze these activities into some days. The writing I fold into whatever spaces are left.

8. Describe your dream writing space?

I can’t stand to sit at a desk or in one confined space to write. I’m more like a cat, moving around the house (or wherever I am) with my laptop and settling for a while in a comfortable spot.

9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?

I’ve written an essay about the most memorable one that’s been published at this site http://www.nowwhatmfa.com/guest-articles/. It happened while I was enrolled in SF State’s Masters in Creative Writing Program. I was taking a short story class, and the teacher only wrote realistic fiction. She seemed unable to tolerate narratives that didn’t follow that model. At the time, I was still finding my voice. When I tried to do what was natural to me—to write symbolic dramas, Shirley Jacksonist contemporary folktales/fables that retained the details of everyday experience and psychological authenticity—I found that this teacher did not have a context from which to judge them. I met a blank wall. It wasn’t until after I’d graduated from the program and spent some time working on my own that I realized her limitations. Her comments could have shut me down completely if I hadn’t believed in myself.

10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?

Write. Rewrite. Write some more. Get feedback from respected editors. Revise, revise, revise. Keep writing.

 

Fold the Writing In: An Interview with Author Lily Iona MacKenzieA Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in her early years, Lily Iona MacKenzie supported herself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored her into the States). Her novel Fling will be published in July 2015 by Pen-L Publishing. Bone Songs will be published in 2016. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011. She also teaches writing at the University of San Francisco, is vice-president of USF’s part-time faculty union, paints, and travels widely with her husband. Visit her blog at http://lilyionamackenzie.wordpress.com.

A Few Names Closer to Justice

A Few Names Closer to Justice

© 2012 Mrs. Gemstone, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

In a few minutes, Mosey, Meander, and I are headed to Bremo. We’ll be talking with some folks who are particularly interested in the history of the enslaved community there, who asked specifically to come hear about those people rather than see the plantation house or hear the history of the master’s family.

It feels like something is righting itself in a tiny way today.

Yesterday, I spoke with a woman whose husband is descended from Minerva, one of the enslaved women I know the least about on the farm.  This new friend told me about Minerva’s brothers, who I had not known about, and about the family’s move back east to Powhatan County.  She also told me their surname – Drew.  I had never known Minerva’s last name, or the last name of her parents Tom and Daphne or her brothers Madison and Monroe.

It feels like some chasm of silencing is being healed over.

On Monday, I sat in a meeting where a woman asked powerful, hard questions about the nature of slavery and then suggested that we make the presentation of the research we are doing be about these people, not about the place.  “What if we oriented this whole story about these people’s lives?

It feels like justice is beginning to lap in, the first rivulets of a stream that might become a river.

We are so, so late to this knowing, this seeking, this serving.  So very late.  But hopefully not too much so.

May the stories of enslaved people become as common as those of the people who enslaved them. May we ache to see their countenances, long to know their passions, hunger to know their names.  May WE, all of us, come to know all the shapes of our country’s foundations and see the enslaved hands that formed them.  May we hear the thunder of pathways reopened, stories told again, justice, a mighty stream, a cleansing wholeness. 

Harvesting the Gifts at Hand

Harvesting the Gifts at Hand

© 2008 Art Poskanzer, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

The blackberries are going to be abundant this year – heat early and rain.  I can almost taste the tart goodness now.  From my office, I can see at least two stands of them, and we have some coming in the orchard. Plus, just up the road, a pasture has gone wild with the red-switches of their life.

I think I may take up foraging as an act of worship.

Near here on the highways and byways asparagus grows wild, and if you know where to look on the hillsides, you can find morels and those oniony good things we call ramps.

The farm yard boasts lemon balm gone wild, and our grape vine is tendriling out its frame.  Add to that the onions that are about to flower, the lettuce that is blooming with green and red glory, and the few strawberries I’ve allowed to go to fruit, and we have abundance living within steps.

And the corn stalks – those edible grasses – are coming up so that knee-high will come long before the 4th of July.

I am in awe of nature these days. It feels so cliche to say that and not at all so to live it.

Outside my office door, Ms. Tucker’s peonies are burst with a hot pink vibrancy that I usually dismiss on the toy aisle but am now in thrall with.  Our peach trees are rich with tiny fuzzies, and the cherry tree – the one I thought was just ornamental – is already beginning to bend with the weight of those beauties.

Beyond the garden vegetables that we planted in a few minutes of work, we did nothing to earn a bit of this abundance.  We tend – steward, if you will – the gifts that have been placed gently in our fingers, but we did not do the labor of this richness.

This is grace, gift, love in food.  It is my reminder that all I have is gift, every bit, none of it earned except by grace.  But all given freely because Someone looks at me and finds me precious.

On Sunday, I sat on the hillside outside the farm stand and waved to passing cars.  Philip laughed at me, and I told him I was doing “countryside marketing.”  Most people waved as they were slowed down with the delight of Sunday and able to see beyond the next thing they were doing.  But some did not, did not even notice me, a random woman on a hill where there is usually no one.  I live that way most of the day – so busy that I don’t even see.  I am working to change that.

Later this morning, I will take my loppers and trim up the raspberries that are growing too close to the pasture gate. I’ll pull out the spirals of honeysuckle and share all that abundance with the goats, who gobble briars like they are honey.  I’ll make space for the iris fronds that are restoring themselves for next year, and I’ll pull up ground ivy – a prime chicken snack – around the pergola to make way for the sweet scene of jasmine vines.

Sometimes, all life asks is that we slow down, harvest the gifts at hand, tend what is before us, and say a sigh of thank you.  And always, with every breath, that is enough.

 

 

The Radiant Voting House Becomes A Farm Stand

The Radiant Voting House Becomes a Farm Stand

The Voting House from the West

From where I sit on the couch, I can see the back of the voting house by the road.  The building was constructed sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century as the polling place for white people in the town of Radiant.  When I tell other folks about this structure, the first assumption is that it must have been built to serve some other purpose first – post office, school – but everyone here, including folks who voted in that building, says that it was just for voting. An entire building that existed for just one purpose was rare in days when time, supplies, and money were shorter.

Now, we are putting this 14’x14 structure to work as a our farm stand.  We’ve cleaned it up just a bit, leaving as much original as we can, including the wood stove in the center of the space and the voting booth to one side.  We even left up the little shelf where people would have picked up ballots.  In time, I will frame the voting information we found – from 1964 – and put it on the wall.  We want to preserve this history by using it as it is.

The structure has a wide-plank floor and bead-board walls that are painted baby blue.  At some point, someone wired it for electricity, but it has never been hooked into the grid.  We’ll get to that in time – maybe with a solar array.  Two huge windows face east and west, which gives the building plenty of light, and the glass in the frames is wavy and, thus, perfect.

A cinder block chimney rises from the roof near the back of the building, and the exterior is the perfect farm white, the color to which we will return all the outbuildings and the farmhouse here.  It sits on a small rise at the heart of town, directly across from the post office and just a tiny bit up the way from the old Lohr farmstead.  Really, its the quintessential rural pass-through with the town sign for going and for coming on one post.

Our hope is that we’ll keep a little bustle in this place, even as the post office’s hours keep getting cut.  This little crossroads that includes our driveways has held a lot of hearts and opinions and memories.  We’d like to preserve those.

So we’re working hard to build up this farm stand.  Yesterday, Philip dug a deep hole, and we plunged our colorful farm sign into the ground.  We still need to make it brighter and get the farm name up, but that will come.  Then, we’ll add an “open/closed” sign to the side of the building and put up a parking sign to let folks know it’s okay to pull onto the grass.  We’ll build some shelves for the front to display produce and the fresh peonies that Ms. Tucker – the schoolteacher from the two-room school an eighth of a mile up the road – planted here decades back.  And we’ll hope to bring people in to buy what has always been at the heart of Radiant – handwork and produce, a bit of nostalgia and a whole lot of heart.

Please, if you’re in Central Virginia, stop by.  The stand is open as much as possible, and we’d love to see you.  Or if you’re not local, feel free to browse our online Etsy store – we can’t sell fresh lettuce there, but we still have cute stuff.  Every purchase helps us build this dream of a farm as a space for people to come rest and rejuvenate from the hard days of life.