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all but the cats write here ... to remember, to share, to mumble, to shout ... follow along by RSS or email if you like.

Housekeeping

bethany

I’ve never been the most consistent housekeeper, but you all pretty much know that by now. I do make lists often though, so will attempt to briefly update you on what we’ve been up to since the last post about the Land Ho! Art Sale in June.

The Sale is over!

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The Land Ho! sale ran for two weeks, and we sold a nice amount of work! Enough to get a good nest egg going for our Land Fund, even after paying off all of the costs of scans and canvas and paint and shipping supplies. It was a lot of work to get everything ordered, packaged, and shipped, but it felt good to wrap up that whole effort and call it finished. Big thanks to everyone who ordered something, or sent in a donation, it was mightily appreciated!

Finishing up at Keren and Bobby’s …

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After hogging Keren and Bobby’s basement and driveway and back yard for months on end, with all the forging and art making and sprawling that we seem to do, it was time to move on. We had to finish up some work first though that we’d started before the Art Sale became a thing, so we focused on the renovations in the basement that had been started before it was turned into a temporary studio and shipping center. Lots of trim and painting and flooring and sanding and door hanging before we had to call it quits because Michael had a Sol LeWitt job coming up in Cambridge Massachusetts … but first we had to get the trailer to Chicago so the boys and I could help out at my folks while he worked at Harvard.

Getting Out …

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Getting out of any long-term stay is hard, and leaving after 6 months is even more difficult. There was a torn awning to remove and dispose of (sadly), many tools to sort and stow, and a seemingly endless list of things to pack and dispose of and tend to. We badly wanted a few days to ourselves before landing in Chicago, but it seemed like the window was getting so small that we might not have more than a night or two on the road. We had to be there by Friday August 10th at the latest. On August 3rd, we got a call that my Dad had something that appeared at first to be a heart attack, and he was in the hospital. We prayed, packed faster, and managed to get on the road on the 6th. After a few hours of heading over the mountains, we knew that Matilda’s transmission wasn’t just sending out warning signals, it was in its death throes.

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After stopping for a night with Caleb and boys (pure bliss!) we tried to limp North but had to admit that we weren’t going to make it. We were forced into a …

Mini Transmission Vacation!

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It was now Tuesday August 7th and we were in Wilkesboro NC with just 4 days until Michael had to hop on Amtrak in downtown Chicago. It was now looking like Dad had open heart surgery looming in the next week or so as he had some afib and a faulty valve, and they were busy giving him tests to rule out possible complications. We had to find someone who could get and replace the transmission in a 1995 F250 in 2-3 days. We asked God to point us in the right direction, limped into a big truck body shop, got a recommendation for a transmission place in the next town that said they might be able to help, and landed in a VFW campsite nearby.

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After chatting with a friendly veteran, befriending the camp host’s 4 crazy dogs, and getting the camper set up, we took off to see if these folks could indeed help us. Matilda’s 20’ of red and white loveliness looked like the runt of the litter when parked among the rest of the trucks in Gear Jammer Transmission’s crowded lot. The mechanics came on out, crawled under Matilda and poked around, and made a few phone calls. After being assured they could get a new one and put it in in the next 48 hours, we hitched a ride back to our campground with the friendly owner.

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Before collapsing for the night, we took the transmission guy’s recommendation of a hole-in-the-wall BBQ place a short walk from our campsite, devoured a quiet and delicious meal together, and mused on the way in which we were getting my strongly desired “few nights to ourselves” before landing in Chicago. It was hard to fully relax with the worries about Dad and his pending surgery, which ended up suddenly scheduled for Friday the 10th, but it was still lovely to be on our own and puttering for a couple of nights. We got a purring Matilda back late on Thursday, and prepped for an early Friday morning start.

Dad’s Surgery

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Friday was our drive to Chicago day, and Dad’s surgery. I’d talked to him a couple times by phone, and knew he had no fears at all. We trusted that all was in God’s hands, and got on the road. He was scheduled for a valve replacement, a double bypass, and an ablation. He ended up with a quadruple bypass, a new valve to replace what they discovered was an abnormal 2-flap one, and a maze procedure. By the time we arrived in their driveway just before midnight, he was out of anesthesia and back in one piece in the ICU.

Michael and Harvard

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Saturday morning we took stock of the state of things at the house where my brother Stephen and his wife Rene and son Paul were caring for Mom, briefly visited Dad in the hospital, and then Michael packed up in time for me to take him to the train heading downtown, where he’d hop on Amtrak to go East. I must have messed up my Metra schedule while reading it on my phone in the truck the day before, because the train he was to catch only ran on weekdays, and at the last minute I had to hightail it into Chicago to drop him directly at the station. The prospect of Michael being gone for 5 weeks while I was helping with Mom and Dad and the household, while also parenting and homeschooling, loomed large, and I tried to get my head around how to handle it all as I drove back to the house.

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Michael dove deep in Cambridge where he was helping re-install a huge Sol LeWitt wall drawing in a museum on Harvard’s campus. A 5-story atrium with tight spaces and convoluted scaffolding and minimal AC was more challenging than some jobs, and between Harvard’s work rules and delays from the construction crew working in the same space, the job stretched to 7 weeks. Getting him back at the end of that time was pretty delightful.

The Scene at 4N405

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Since we arrived on August 10th, much has changed. Dad was in the hospital for another two weeks after we got here, and was more than ready to come home when they pulled the final drainage tube out. Mom took a pretty steep dive downwards after he went into the hospital, missing the connection of being with him daily, and having seen what happened to him when he passed out while at the park. Their bond is a huge part of what keeps her going, and without seeing him or being able to be with him at all, she lost a lot of ground and basically stopped being able to walk.

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Her care needs increased a lot as a result, and she currently needs 2 or 3 people’s help on a daily basis. They decided to move into the in-law apartment at my brother’s new home, which includes a flat floor plan and wider doorways, and plans are in motion to add a kitchenette and laundry to accommodate their needs. In the meantime, we have added a Hoyer lift, a wheelchair, and a ramp down the front steps to the household. Dad has gained strength steadily, and recovery is going well enough that he’s back to work and up to long walks and carrying boxes to the car. Those boxes would be the result of the sorting of his vast book collection down to one bookcase’s worth to take along to the new place.

 A telegram my grandfather Elmer sent to his fiancée Juanita for Valentine’s Day in 1937, 8 weeks before they were married.

A telegram my grandfather Elmer sent to his fiancée Juanita for Valentine’s Day in 1937, 8 weeks before they were married.

We’re currently taking care of Mom with a lot of help from my sister Martha, working on sorting and emptying the house of a lifetime of accumulation (it is minimal by most standards!), and preparing to fix the house up for sale once they move. There’s a lot to do, and we’re here as long as we’re needed.

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The land we had our eye on is still available, but we’re not focused on it at the moment. We’ve tried to just do what’s in front of us for years now, and the current situation is no different. There are needs, there is work that we know in our hearts is ours to do, and we’re in it with everything we’ve got.

Onward …

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Land Ho! Art Sale, at last ...

bethany

It's been an interesting three months around here.  The "here" being parked in Keren and Bobby's driveway, with Michael pretty much living in the basement studio space that he's been graciously loaned.  The boys have been schooling, forging, and doing a lot of playing with the neighbors.  The number of foam swords, hand-forged knives and dirks and daggers, leather and copper scraps, and rivets and x-acto knives that I trip over daily has been increasing steadily.

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Michael's been painting a good 12-16 hours a day, 6 days a week, and been coming to bed after sunrise most nights.  He's living on coffee with heavy cream, overseeing the occasional forging episode in the back yard, running back and forth to the art store and the hardware store, stopping by Jim's place to drop off and pick up paintings that are being scanned for prints, and taking me with him on most errands so we have time to talk. 

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There's also been the occasional Starbucks, a trip to the Fire on the Mountain Festival in NC to see some master blacksmiths and an iron pour, a couple quick visits to the land to see it in different seasons, strawberry picking, and a very quick trip up to Chicago to help Mom celebrate her 75th birthday.

 2500 degree iron being poured, shot from about 12' away. It was honestly too close ... but fun!

2500 degree iron being poured, shot from about 12' away. It was honestly too close ... but fun!

We also fit in a last-minute trip to Rogersville (our closest town if we get the land) to participate in their Appalachian Spring Art Festival. We wanted to meet local artists and folks, and get to know the place a bit better.  It was tiny, but we had a ball and met a lot of lovely people.

 Michael drawing Guerry, a local artist, master storyteller, and delightful woman!

Michael drawing Guerry, a local artist, master storyteller, and delightful woman!

I've been alternately working on back-end stuff for the art sale (and doing some good procrastinating on those tasks), taking care of life and food and kid stuff, and doing some internal listening that's long overdue.  Bits of hyper-ish activity interspersed with a lot of thinking and some much quieter days.  It's been necessary, and good, and there's more of it to be done, soonish.

But first ...

The Land Ho! Art Sale! 

June 25th to July 8th.


In case you missed it, this is the one that Michael referred to at the end of his last epic post, and the one he's been obsessively painting towards.  The idea that he could do a painting a day for 2 weeks has been changed a wee bit, but 14 new works in 3 months is certainly nothing to sneeze at!  They're all acrylic paintings based on photographs from the trip, ranging from 11" x 14" to 36" x 48". 

 The Getaway ... 24" x 36"

The Getaway ... 24" x 36"

If you want a preview of a lot of the pieces, just head over to the New works section of his website.  There will be prints available of all the new stuff, and in most cases in several sizes.  These will be limited edition Giclee prints, on either paper or canvas.  There will be some older works available also, a few by the boys, and some postcard sets based on trip photos. 

 Oklahoma Chicken Huggers (painted on a roadmap) ... 18" x 37.5"

Oklahoma Chicken Huggers (painted on a roadmap) ... 18" x 37.5"

The pricing runs the gamut from about $40 to just under $6000.  The larger works are priced at gallery rates, which we know are not for the average buyer, but trust we can find some somewhere.  We know it's asking a lot but God is able, and we're doing what's in front of us ... with what we've been given, to see how it all plays out.  It will take a village, and you all are a big part of ours. 

We'd hugely appreciate it too if you'd share the link below with anyone and everyone you can think of that might be interested in a piece, large or small.  The farther the word spreads, the better!

The link takes you to a landing page on Michael's art website, where the link to the actual shop will go live on Monday around 6pm EST.  The sale ends on July 8th, and purchases will be shipped within two weeks after, by July 23rd.

Beyond the sale, who knows?  We're not making any plans yet, there are too many variables at play to be sure about anything.  We'll see what's in front of us when this is wrapped up, and go from there. 

Onward ...

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Trying to Keep a Lid On It / Part 2

michael

Part One is pretty much required reading before you start this one. 

 

We arrived 20 minutes ahead of Kenny and Cynthia the next day. We had the plats by email. The power-line was part of the 15 acres. The ravine was part of the 31. The plot appeared to go to the peak. I ran to see if there was water in the ravine. None, but my guess was the stream went underground further back. I ran halfway to the peak. An old road bed cut the length of the land with trees about 9 inches in diameter springing out of it. Kenny and Cynthia were arriving. I ran back down the hill. The boys had been instructed 'No sword battles while we talk with the realtors' – which is how most of their time had been spent the last two days.

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Kenny and Cynthia were warm and friendly as we had expected and full of stories about the county, the people, the laws, and the way of life. We had enthralling conversation meandering the land for two hours. Age limitations kept us from going to the peak or down the ravine. Finally Kenny asked if we wanted to look at the 15 acre plot. We shook our heads, “No.” Both thinking 'not unless we can go the full perimeter.'
“Well, I have another plot I think you guys would like. It's about ten minutes away. D'ya wanna see it?”
“Sure! Let's go!” We got in Matilda and shut the doors.

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“I assume you said yes to be nice,” Bethany said, “and that we're coming back here to go to that peak.”
“Exactly!” I smiled.
“I like it three times as much as yesterday!” she glowed.
“Yesssss!” I said through my smile.
“But there's no stream!” Fynn piped from the back.
“I think there might be if we follow that ravine.”

Kenny's “ten minutes” was a 45 minute tour of the back roads to Rogersville. We didn't mind. It was a gorgeous drive. After one pit-stop at a waterfall Cynthia thought the kids might like, we arrived at a wide open field sloping down to a rushing stream. Kenny's little car turned off into the field and putted up a small rise. I followed suit thinking 'We had a pretty heavy thundershower last night.' Sure enough, Matilda's 6500 lbs sunk right in, slithering to a standstill halfway up the rise. After Kenny called a friend to come tow us out, he showed us the land. It had a very nice stream. There was not much else to say about it.

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Then he took us up the road and showed us an old country store from the early 1900's that he and Cynthia bought and restored. The back seed room had been made into an apartment with floor to ceiling poplar. The main store area looked original, straight out of the soots, with an operational pot bellied stove between two long wide sales counters and antiques lining the shelves. The floor was rugged, untouched, mottled with tar from years of sprinkling kerosene to keep down the dust. It was stunning.

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By the time we got towed out it was too late to return to Clinch mountain. That evening, Fynn took apart an old remote control airplane, attached the propellers and receiver to a raft made of plastic bottles and steered it on the river from the dock. It worked better than the plane ever had. As we sat by the river, Bethany waxed on the property “It'd be a perfect place to make a pullout with coffee for people traveling Rt. 66.”

I laughed. “Yeah! I can just see us entertaining the Hell's Angels!”

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We were back on Clinch Mountain the next day after lunch. We parked under the power-line and hiked up the mountain clutching our treasure map plats. Halfway up we found traces of two more cabins where the old road was. We were on the 15 acre plot, and it was lovely with great rocks jutting out of the hillside. We crested the ridge and took in a fantastic view. I reasoned that the back line of the property connected three peaks. The smallest in the 15 acres. We followed the ridge up into the 31 acres. At the middle peak we were greeted by some monster trees 24 inches in diameter. Everyone had a different idea of what could be built on this level area with a view in all directions. A studio. A meditation chamber. A forge. A tree-house. With every step we were falling more in love.

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Between this peak and the next was the ravine, a long, steep way down. I picked my way down as straight a line as possible, while the boys sword fought all over the hillside and Bethany chose a gentler path to meet me at the bottom. And there it was. WATER! There was a hundred yards of stream gurgling before vanishing underground. We stared, enraptured. “This could just be run off from the rain.” Douglas pragmatized.

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“It might not even be on the property.” Bethany allowed.

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“Well,” I reasoned, “if I came down from There, and That peak is There...” I walked 10 paces to where the stream emerged, “The property line should be about... What's that?” I was pointing at a hole in the ground ringed with stone, a few dead logs fallen across. We gathered around. It was a well of sorts, built down three feet into the ground out of mountain rocks covered in moss, the stream bubbling away at the bottom. It looked ancient. Mystic. What must have been a tin cover lay rusted nearly to nothing at the side. “I don't think it's run off.” I said quietly, feeling like we'd just found gold.

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The property went up to the next peak then cut parallel with the ravine to 66. It was the steepest bit of land and covered with the only underbrush we'd seen so far. We chose to follow the stream-bed till we found the old road, taking it back toward the 15 acre plot.

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I walked close to Bethany, no longer focused on the forest but on the feeling of certainty the enchanting stone well had produced. I looked sidelong at her. “This is it, isn't it?”

“Yeah!” she whispered, just as sure. Our lids welled with tears. Tears of certainty. Tears of admitting it. Tears of hope breaking the seal. We walked, fingers entwined, another 30 steps. “Let's tell the boys.” I said.

The boys were of course on board. We formed a circle of four on some stones and in formal tones asked God for this land we couldn't afford for our own. The boys once more warred with their swords on the road. We followed it back, crossing the power-line into the 15 acre plot to a junk heap at the foot of the smallest peak. It began to rain softly. Happy, we made our way down to 66 and Matilda.

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We shut the doors and sat awhile. Having settled on this land in our minds, the pressure to start creating had already doubled. Over 10 years ago in Brooklyn, swamped in debt, we cut up all our credit cards with scissors, resolving never to go into debt again, never to purchase anything we didn't have the money for. We've stuck with that and been much lighter for it. But now this immense desire was threatening to shred our resolve. “But even if we tried to take out a loan,” Bethany was saying, “Our lack of ANY credit history and having no steady income would make it impossible.” I turned on the wipers and put it in gear.

“There has GOT to be a way.” I said, pulling out.

We stopped in Sneedville for groceries. Bethany went in the store and I called Kenny. “We want it.” I said, “but we want to pay cash. I don't want to take out a loan. I have an avenue I want to pursue.” Thinking of something like Kickstarter.
“Well, Ah haven't asked, but I bet these guys would be willing to do Owner Financing if you could put 25% down,” he said helpfully, making my no-loan-walls bulge like soup in a paper-bag.
“Thanks,” I said “I'll consider that.”

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At the campsite that night it hit me. One of the biggest lessons we've learned at the end of our rope on this journey has been – DO WHAT IS IN FRONT OF YOU. Before having my heart pounced on by this land, I was on my way to Knoxville to make art to raise money. Nothing had changed. Nothing other than the incentive becoming a tangible piece of perfect land that might be snatched up at any moment. So I'm putting down this pencil and picking up a paintbrush. My theme will be taken from the 60,000 photos of our journey. It is time to paint wind! You may expect a billowing sale shortly. And if this land slips through our fingers... so be it. We will still be free, still taking the next step onward, but we'll likely need new latches on our lid, and a deck-swab to mop our tears.

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A final note before I paint – After getting back to Knoxville we looked up Kenny's online listing and found the plot we had explored was only HALF the 31 acres. That would be equal parts Icing and Cake.

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Trying to Keep a Lid On It / Part 1

michael

This is a two-part series, and both parts include an audio version of Michael reading it ... in case you'd rather just listen! 

 

Yeah. We've been hunting for land. Scouring websites, deciphering contour maps, printing out plats, and zooming in on satellite imagery. This began in earnest around the New Year. A month ago we left Keren + Bobby's driveway in Knoxville, where we'd roosted since December 9th, and parked at a small campground in the foothills of the Smokies, near Greenville, TN. This would be our base camp.

After two excursions to see plots we'd found online, we came to some conclusions. Firstly, property in our current budget was: A. landlocked and only accessible by helicopter or walking through Posted No Trespassing signs; B. so steep you expected a princess on top to throw golden apples to anyone who could climb that high; or C. ugly and flat as opossum roadkill, skinny as the blighted mange.

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We secondly concluded our favorite part and best avenue by far was talking to the denizens. The people we'd met were open, honest and friendly. Happy to elaborate on who owned what and how many tractors were traded to make the purchase. All without squinted suspicion (my mustache makes a good barometer of judgmental character.) Our third conclusion was we might as well relax and just look for neighborhoods and hollers that appealed to us. It was no good vexing our souls, drooling over property beyond our means. If God was going to lead us to some land like we'd asked, He was going to do it in His own sweet time. And anyway, He'd probably be interested in seeing what we liked.

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So we began exploring every mountain road in the Greenville area, with a much easier agenda of finding enjoyment unhampered by expectation. It was beautiful. The shapes of the Smokies sang to us. The mossy streams danced and burbled beside us down winding roads. Ancient, sagging barns waved their cockeyed doors and blooming pear trees traced the hills like lollipops.

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On days it rained we distracted ourselves by organizing and pruning the 60,000 photos taken over the last three years, talking about the changes our life has taken and will take, and getting the taxes done. (I think that's the first time we haven't filed late since we were married.)

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Being patient isn't easy. For over a year an immense pressure has been building to settle down and start creating something we won't have to walk away from. A physical place to plant the dream and see what grows.

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After three weeks and four days there were no more roads to explore within striking distance. It was time to move on. The plan was to explore at least one more area on our way back to Knoxville, where I would immerse myself in creating a body of artwork to sell to raise money for something more than the back nine of a junkyard by a power plant. Sounds crazy, by hey, it's how we paid for the camper. We battened down, hitched up, and piled in the truck. Matilda purred. This has been the heart of the trip to me. This point. All in the truck. Asking the question. “Well … where to now?” Bethany has the map in her lap and there's a sense we might just go ANYWHERE.

“What about these mountains?” She's pointing to some smaller ranges we had previously discarded, but now we had sense that beauty was not contingent on size.
“It'd be a shame not to at least drive through them” I mused. Her finger went to a dot.
“Wasn't there an abandoned school listed near Sneedville?”
“SNEEDville!” I bellowed, loving it's Seussian sound. “Let's Go!” and off we went with the boys and I chanting “Sneedville, Sneedville, Sneeeedville!” to the rolling of Bethany's eyes.

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We took the scenic route. The closer we got to Sneedville the prettier it became. Pioneer-looking log cabins were frequent. Rock-jagged green hills strewn with cattle. A proliferation of ancient barns staggered the hills, in every stage of collapse, as if this was where old barns came to die. We got on Route 66 and were delighted to discover we were heading over Clinch mountain. Near the start of our journey three years ago, our bedtime-story had been a Louis L'Amour book about the pioneering Sacketts who had settled Clinch Mountain. Now we would see it! Nearing the crest we saw a For Sale sign and slowed down.

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“That looks level enough to build on!” Bethany said, amazed.
“And it's South-facing!” I added, wishing Tennessee roads had more than one inch of berm so I could stop.
“Oh, here's a power line,” we both said as we approached a great swath cut up the mountain.
“Yeah, but look at the view!” I breathed, looking down to the valley.
“Here's another For Sale sign,” Bethany pointed. “It's a different realtor.” The land behind that sign was equally promising.
“We have to come back here without the camper” I said, not running off the road.
“Let's find a campsite” she said as we crossed from Hawkins into Hancock County. Cell service was spotty descending Clinch, but we were only 12 miles from Sneedville.

In those 12 miles of gorgeous winding road we noticed something: every car we passed, every person in their yard, on their porch, in their doorway – EVERYone waved. Now I grew up on a dirt road in PA where five out of 10 people waved, and two of them might wave to total strangers but I had never seen this. Big waves. Smiling waves. “Hi! How y'all doin! Ah still got mah hand in the air” kind of waves. I was driving along stunned happy.
“You missed it!” Bethany chortled as a pickup passed, “That guy just waved.”

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Once we hit Sneedville the waving stopped. We found a pullout at a crossroads and began Googling campgrounds. Nothing. There were no campgrounds in Hancock county. The closest one was 30 miles north in Pennington, Virginia. Bethany called and got a precise-sounding man who said he had room, but neither of us wanted to go that far away from Clinch Mountain. A sign in front of us read 'Kyle's Ford Trading Post – 10 miles.' “I bet they'd know a place to camp” I said.

We passed about six people in those 10 miles. One of them didn't wave but he was facing away from us putting what looked like an air conditioner in his trunk. The folks at the Trading Post didn't know of any camping. “Summertime you could go down on the Clinch River but that's been a soggy mess since the flood a few weeks back. Hang on, here comes Betty. She'd know, she's the Vet.” Betty came in and put a bag of something heavy on the back counter.
“No.” She shook her head when asked. “Not in Hancock County.” We drove on.

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It was about 4 pm. We were just deciding to catch Route 70 a mile ahead and take it to Pennington when we passed an abandoned school. “Whoaaah! Look at that!” we all gasped. It was vandalized, but pretty alluring. More so than the one we'd seen online.

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“We could stay in the school yard,” I suggested as we came to a T in the road. I pulled off into the gravel at the stop sign trying to judge if I had room to turn around. “Worst they could do is kick us out!” Bethany was half-convinced, still looking at Route 70 on her map. A pickup truck pulled up beside, its passenger window going down. I rolled down mine.

“You folks need help? Whatcha lookin for?” A face about my age was beaming hopefully.
“We're lookin' for a place to camp!” I shouted back. That was all he needed. He was out his door like a shot and around to my window.
“Camping you say? Hmmmmm … Ah can't think of a place – ”
“What about that abandoned school back there?” I interjected. “Is that owned by somebody?”
“That's owned by the County. Yeah! You could stay there! But wait a minute ...” My willingness to stay anywhere had got his mind rolling. “There's the boat launch! That's public access land. Right down over here, by the river. Ahm sure your camper'd fit there!”
“Sounds great!"
“C'mon. Ah'll show you the way!”

He hopped in his truck pleased as punch to be helping someone, and was a quarter mile up the road waiting for me by the time I got pulled around the corner. It was a perfect, well-graveled spot by the river. I got his name. Tommy Belcher. We shook hands and he popped back in his truck and zipped over the hill.

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The boys unhitched and stabilized the camper. The cats were let out to roam the fields of dried sunflowers. Bethany and I got out the chairs and watched the Clinch River calmly saunter through the velvet sunset at Kyle's Ford. “Soo...” I said, trying not to sound too excited. “I guess we'll go look at that land in the mornin'?” Bethany remained deadpan, staring at the river.
“Yuup” she drawled. We looked at each other, eyebrows raised a few moments, then burst out laughing.
“Thank God for Tommy!” I shouted. Bethany was wiping tears from her eyes.
“I did NOT want to go to Pennington,” she giggled.

 

Next morning we charted a course that would take 70 over Clinch mountain to Poor Valley Rd heading West along the South face for 10 miles to 66 where we'd again cross Clinch and find that property. We packed chicken salad, snacks, water, and hiking boots and off we went. As 70 crossed Clinch we saw a For Sale sign and stopped to take a look. The area was very pretty. Not as nice as our destination, but worth a gander. There was a gate with a grassy road going up the mountain, but the sign didn't say how many acres. Seeing no neighbors I could ask, I gave the number a call. Cynthia answered. It was 287 acres. I told her that was way too many. I was looking in the realm of 15- 20. She said her husband Kenny ran a different real-estate business that sold land, she mainly sold houses, but she'd let him know. He was out listing some property right now an– The phone cut out. I was relieved. I hadn't wanted to tangle with agents yet, and was kicking myself for going that far. We drove on.

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Poor Valley Road was a disappointment. The houses were too close together and no roads left the valley to climb the South face of Clinch. None that is, till we got to the end and saw a gated road with 109 acres for sale. We went and asked the lady who'd waved from a trailer we'd passed if it'd be all right to walk up that road. “People do it all the tahm,” she said. Then she told us her family history. Bethany and I left the kids reading books in the truck and climbed the wide, steep road till the view and the hike became so breathtaking there was no need to go to the top. The road alone was probably triple what we could afford. Back at the truck, I found Cynthia had left a message about the land her husband just listed, and it was off New Life road, 10 miles from us. We looked at the map. New Life road was less than a mile away across Rt 66.

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I had just put Matilda in gear, when my sister Keren called. She had been expecting us to land back in Knoxville on the morrow and wondered if we could delay our return by 2 or 3 days – she and Bobby had some things they wanted to finish up. “Sure!” we said looking at each other, thinking of our riverside paradise. Off we went to New Life.

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We found some signs for a 25 acre farm in the valley that held little to no appeal. Relieved, we started up the mountain on 66 to our destination. It was right there where we left it. A small road we hadn't noticed on our first pass through cut up the hill about 30 feet. It had a chain across that left just enough room to back Matilda off the road. We donned our gear and tumbled out. My phone rang. “Oh.” I said, “It's Cynthia. I'll answer it and tell her we saw that farm and aren't interested.”

“No,” Cynthia said when I told her, “it's not a farm. The property's all forested, and it's not on New Life Road. Here, talk to Kenny.” She handed him the phone. Kenny talked a blue streak describing where it was until finally I said, “Well, that's exactly where I'm standing! That's the property I'm looking at right now!” We talked a good 25 minutes.

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Turns out the driveway had been put in the day before by the owner who runs a construction business. The plot was 31 acres for $55,000. The neighboring plot for sale by a different realtor was 15 acres for $30,000. The remains of a cabin could be found 150' in. When Kenny was Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry for Tennessee he had the boat launch installed where our camper was parked. Yes, he knew Tommy Belcher. Junior and Senior. Tommy Sr. was 70 just like Kenny. No, they couldn't email the plats till they got back home in two to three hours. Yes, they'd be willing to meet up the next day to show it to us.

I got off the phone a little dazed. We couldn't afford this! Not even the 15 acre plot. Why was I setting up a meeting with a realtor?!

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As we tramped the gentle slopes of perfectly sized building stones and tall straight timbers, I tried to explain to Bethany what went through my mind talking to Kenny. “If Keren hadn't called in the one spot we had cell service in the valley and asked us to stay longer, and if Tommy hadn't stopped and showed us that perfect camping spot by the river, and if Kenny hadn't known Tommy or been so congenial, plus he knows forestry and building codes for the county, and if everyone in the county hadn't waved at us... we did say it's about the people, right?”

“I know.” Bethany whispered; a spark of hope dancing in her eye like a moth on fire.

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We found the flattened cabin. A Coke can in the rubble looked from about 1970. The trees seemed not to have been lumbered for as long. The slope got steeper approaching the peak but not so steep it couldn't be built on. We didn't walk to the peak. We didn't walk to the ravine that might have a stream. We didn't know the boundaries and we didn't want to get our hopes squashed. The boys were breaking down with hunger so we drove back to the river to have supper with songbirds and peepers. We agreed the land was twice as good as we expected.

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... the story continues in Part 2

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One Thousand Days

bethany

We spent the 1000th day of being on the road in Brooklyn. The boys and I at least, Michael was working his butt off at UCONN installing a Sol LeWitt piece that day. It felt momentous to me, this getting into the 4 digit category, and kind of stunning. One Thousand Days. So many, that much of it is getting blurry, in terms of where/when/with whom, and … what year was that?

 DAY 2

DAY 2

The boys and I have kept journals since day one, though I'm the only one tracking the overall numbers. It kind of annoys Michael a wee bit, I think because the trip has become so very one-day-at-a-time that marking the overall duration seems pointless, or just plain distracting? I somewhat get that, but couldn't help myself in at least writing Day #1086 in my journal this morning when I curled up to write about yesterday.

Hitting #1,000 back in October made me shiver. How much have the boys changed in that time? What's growing, hardening, softening, missing, or coming into focus? Is Douglas's spine forever bent from curling up in his bunk? How on earth have we survived financially? (just fine, thank you God). Have I really slept in that camper for 850+ of those nights? Is Matilda about to croak in a pricier way, rather than just creak? Shouldn't we have visited more people by now? Was I really so self conscious about sleeping “in public” at a truck stop? What on earth do we have back in that storage space in PA, and is it covered in mold by now?

 DAY 999

DAY 999

Just for kicks, a few stats, as of 12/18/2017 … day #1086

>  Number of “people visits” we've made … 78

>  Shortest visit … 2 hours

>  Longest visit … 3.5 months*

>  Number of visits where it hurt at least a bit to leave … 78

>  Number of states we've been in … 41

>  Number of regular campgrounds we've stayed at … 57

>  Number of days just boondocking** … 71

>  Miles driven towing the trailer … 16,505

>  Miles put on Matilda in total … 45,345

It's funny, this tracking the days bit makes me focused in a way I never have been. More attentive to the passage of time in days, and only days. What's accomplished, said, noticed, felt, enjoyed, annoying, disappointing … it's all measured one day at at time. No schedule whatsoever to make us pay attention to weeks or months or semesters or vacation days left or hours worked or anything of the sort. It's a more profound shift than I had any idea was coming, and it has consequences.

I notice the temperature, the humidity, the insect sounds, the birds, the temperaments of my boys, my moods, my body's reactions to things, the health of the cats, the fragility of my nails, the color of the light, the spirit in which something is said, body language cues, how much stuff we have added since we left home (partly by how Matilda feels when she tows), how quiet my boys can be, how patient my husband is, how much I enjoy the boys' bedtime rituals, how media affects us all, how our relationships shift when we don't have media, how little most things really matter, how much I long for community, how delicious humanity is, how much I depend on God, how slowly I walk now, how grounded I feel, how at peace I can be for long stretches of time.

 DAY 1,012

DAY 1,012

Some of these bits came into focus on that thousandth day in Brooklyn … a day spent visiting friends and old stomping grounds. I was in the city I'd lived in for 9 years, but moved away from almost 5 years before. I never imagined I'd feel so differently walking through Fort Greene … evidence of a shift in perspective, almost entirely within myself. It's rare to get such a clear glimpse … the 1000th-day-me, seeing the Brooklyn-girl-me way ahead, disappearing around the corner onto Myrtle Ave. Feeling her to my core, and realizing how much she'd changed.

I've written and erased many many sentences about how I'm different now, but none of it is ringing true. Too pat or facile, or, quite possibly, incorrect. I feel the difference, but I can't pin it down really.

 DAY 1,057

DAY 1,057

Maybe this will help a little?

1,000 days ago I would not have ...

  • Bought orange and turquoise cowboy boots, and worn them delightedly and almost daily.

  • Not cared at 4pm where we were going to be for the night.

  • Not been particularly concerned about things like having $20 in our bank account and none in the wallet.

  • Any idea that 1,000 days later I'd still not have driven Matilda while towing the trailer

  • Wakened with the sun for weeks on end.

  • Thought it was possible to fit another 6 Nerf guns, thousands more Lego pieces, dozens more books, a keyboard, a remote control plane, a large backpack full of survival gear, costumes, a scroll saw and dremel kit and several more drills and many other tools, piles of 'walking' sticks, boxes of art supplies, and 6 more inches of Douglas into the trailer.

  • Had any idea there was such delight to be found in Unplanned Living. That it was desirable, delightful, softening, and addictive.

  • Woken up parked in between semis at a truck stop, and felt right at home.

  • Thought it possible that I'd struggle to remember what's in our storage space.

  • Been able to walk through Brooklyn after a delicious breakfast at Smooch with Susan, with my heart beating in rhythm with my feet … feeling 6 feet tall, visible, peaceful, and as solid and light and whole as I've ever been.

 DAY 1,086

DAY 1,086


Onward ...

 

 

 

* Not counting the first 5 months in Knoxville, figuring out that we didn't need to figure out any way to survive financially on the road, we just needed to Go.

** That means being in a place with no hookups of any sort, be it a rest area or national forest or roadside pullout. I don't count parking in driveways as boondocking, though we spent many many months parked in driveways or back fields or cul-de-sacs.

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Walking with Mom

bethany

She sits at the kitchen table, clasping a pile of colored pencils in her left hand. She puts them down on the table, rolls them out into a neat line, looks at them for a moment, and picks them all up again. She may do it twice, or 60 times. She may stop and pick out a red one, drawing on whatever is in front of her, be it a card or book or coloring book or scrap of paper. Sometimes words, sometimes decorations, often lines or checkmarks adding emphasis to some portion of it. The longer she spends, the more layered it gets. Boxed, crossed out, repeated, and eventually large chunks are colored in solidly. Pick it up, put it down, be occupied … sometimes precise, sometimes idle … repeat.

 

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I've spent the last few days in a very deep funk. Depression perhaps, but a weird one that I've not experienced before. Nearly blank inside, unable to put any words or depth into what I'm feeling, just full and empty both. Stuffed-full-to-bursting heart, empty head.

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I'm trying to tease threads out of the jumble, so I can start unraveling some of the feelings I didn't have time to process over the summer. The summer we just spent parked in my parents' driveway while I helped out with my Mom's care, and the household in general. I'm not sure yet what it's done to me internally, but I'm going to explore a wee bit. I know I've learned a tremendous amount, and some of it is things I never wanted to learn, but apparently needed to.

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Caregiving is all-consuming, relentless, and requires infinite patience. It's cruel, beautiful, heartbreaking, rewarding, and ugly. It takes humor, honesty, and endless creativity. It takes hunting … endless looking and watching ... to find the clues that are hidden in demeanor and eyes and body language (and the very few words), to discern what's going on in Mom's head and heart. What's revealed for a moment, and hidden for the next week. What's felt, but not expressed. What's fought, feared, accepted, or enjoyed.



She's sitting in the car in the driveway, having just come back from a walk at the park. Caroline* took her out today, and I'm still in the camper working on cleaning up in the bedroom. I can tell from the sounds outside my window that it's not a hop-out-on-her-own day, and I keep one ear open while continuing my task. I don't want to interfere, and the more people involved the more confusing it gets. After several minutes it sounds like she hasn't budged yet though, so I go out and ask if I can help? I try some of the same things Caroline's likely already tried … repositioning feet, telling her where to put her hands, trying a variety of phrases for “please stand up”, before stooping a bit and looking her in the eyes … “Can you please stand up, Mom?” She looks up at me, defeatedly, “No, I can't”. A first. Tears lurking, we each take a side and gently help her out of the car.

 

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I love that I can still make her laugh … laugh more than I ever remember her laughing, just by choosing the right combination of slightly unusual words or using a touch of wry humor. I hate that she can't respond in kind. I love that she can laugh till she cries, if the joke is good enough. I love the look of wide-eyed-almost-scandalized delight she has in some things, though it's painful too. Where was that delight hiding for most of her life?

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Watching her be stripped, slowly, of all the skills and abilities that she's gained since she was born … it's gut wrenching. But also strangely gorgeous. Losing the things that have defined her; service, usefulness, caregiving, card-writing, hospitality, organizing … the ability to control her body, her words, her reactions … it has left very little visible, except her spirit. A spirit that's clearer, simpler, and lovelier than I've ever seen it. Unadorned with expectations, assumptions, guilt, or duty. It's just her. My Mom. In a body that's betraying her and a mind that continues to confound her.

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She seems to have accepted what's happening to her, so long as Dad is at her side (or coming home soon). She rests in him, and trusts him implicitly. There are glimpses though, many little ones, that show she is not (and does not feel) defined by her Alzheimers. She often knows and sees far more than she can express, if you watch her eyes and her reactions to conversations. She clearly ignores comments that sound demeaning or patronizing, and laughs immediately and appropriately when something is funny. She looks for things to laugh at too … it's her default way of looking for connection when she wants words but doesn't have them. A shared laugh means shared hearts.

 

We're in the living room long after supper, Mom and Dad and Michael and I, and it's nearing bedtime for Mom. I'd had the radio on for her sake earlier, and the classical music had switched over to Folk Night or some such thing. Odd little bits of song floated into the conversation, were mused over a bit as to their appeal and meaning, and then dropped again. Mom watched and listened from the couch, tracking every word out of Dad in his chair across the room, sharing amused looks with Michael and I, and taking obvious pleasure in it all. Dad eventually made a comment about it being time to head off to bed, and then launched into a medley/riff on the songs that had been talked about, personalizing it towards Mom and bedtime. Mom's amusement turned to delight, echoed heartily by the rest of us. Out of character, and an entirely perfect way to end the day.

 

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I spent the summer looking for the positives, to keep my heart from entirely breaking. Looking at how the dynamic between her and Dad has totally switched, and how I joy at seeing her at rest in a way she's never been. A more visible tenderness, a slowness, a sweetness of time spent together. It may be very very quiet in that living room when they're alone, but the love that's been put in for the last 53 years makes a mighty fine marinade in which to sit side-by-side. Also seeing, and marveling, at the acceptance that marks my Dad's approach to the entire journey. One day at a time. Planning but not fretting. Taking it from God, and keeping an eye on the big picture while still living moment to moment. Not lashing out at what he's lost and what's being taken away, but enjoying what can be enjoyed, and bearing what's been given him to bear. Knowing that it's costing him in terms of his own health, but not even considering that relevant.

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Those are the pretty threads. The gold in the pile of Other Stuff. Things like the grief I can't access right now that says I want to TALK to my Mom. Have her reach out with words, tell me what's in her heart, and how she feels. Tell me things I never asked when I could ask … didn't take the time or the care to ask, and now I can't. Ask her why she made the choices she did, and see if my guesses are right. Ask her what she regrets, misses, feels, wants. Aching regrets for things she never got to do, and never will now. Things she accepted, but never wanted. Seeing the beauty of her without guilt and duty and burdened about with much serving … and wishing it didn't have to be at the cost of everything else. Wishing she could have tasted it long ago. The refreshingness of being cared for, of being free of burdens and expectations sometimes. I see what she's reduced to, and I DO see the beauty of it, but it makes my heart ache abominably. I want more barefoot and bare-headed days for her, and I guess in a way she's getting them now. Hardly a care in the world, but oh … at what a cost!

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There were great weeks, and scary weeks. Days she could walk a mile and not be winded or tired, and days she forgot how to walk at all. Or couldn't remember how to tell her muscles to behave so she could stand up. Days she laughed like crazy, days she slept much of it away. Days she came out to the kitchen to help when she heard dishes rattling and chopped veggies like she used to (always snitching a few!), and the day she went catatonic at the dinner table. The May days she could almost play Boggle though she mostly copied my words, and then the June she felt intimidated by the concept of it. By August I finally acknowledged it wasn't going to happen again, and put it away.

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It's a winding down, a slow shaving, a hah-it's-back! but no-that-was-just-a-momentary-blip kind of slide into fewer and fewer things that she can do. Watching the skills fade into that part of her brain that she can't access, and knowing that it might reappear for a bit, but isn't likely to last for long. A reduction, an essence, a distillation … a stilling.

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I miss her cards (and I know I'm not the only one). Her desk just off the kitchen still has her monthly-card-holder notebook that she used for years on it, fat with all the cards-to-be-sent tucked into its pockets. The calendar that hangs behind it still has mountains of birthdays and anniversaries listed on it, and the roll of stamps is still plump. She hasn't touched it in years I don't think. She does still enjoy getting cards though, and hasn't quite lost her ability to read cursive, so if you're at all inclined to reach out, now would be the time. She has baskets of them in the living room, and pores over them often. Photos too. She still knows some faces, and can dredge up some surprising names too if you happen to catch the right moment to ask.

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I don't regret one moment of this summer, despite feeling it to be incredibly difficult. The hardness was balanced with a richness that I can't measure. To sit of an evening while listening to stories and family history from Dad, taking walks together, playing eye-games with Mom, tending to her needs, coloring together. Sitting side-by-side. Appreciating, soaking up perspectives and wisdom and a sense of how it feels to look at life from closer to the other end of the spectrum. A sharpening in my heart of what really matters, and what doesn't. An example of acceptance on such a profound level that I'm still grasping it. Peace that truly passes understanding.

How could I not find it all beautiful, while bursting into tears with an ache that comes from my very bones?

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I've finally finished running around gathering the detritus scattered around the house and the camper, and everything is stowed. Michael and the boys have hitched. It's time to go. Very clearly time to go, despite the wrenchingness of it all. It just is. Mom is sitting on the front porch in her chair, watching the hubbub and scurrying as it eddies into a slow swirl of goodbyes and hugs. I go up and crouch next to her chair, resting my head on her knee. I've done this hundreds of times before, but it's been 35 years since I last took the opportunity. It was Grambie's lap in my teens and twenties and thirties. I look up at her and tell her how much I'm going to miss her, and she repeats it back to me, twice. I rest my head again, pain mingled with peace making it hard to breathe. This is exactly how it should be. She is my Mom.

 

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* Her regular caregiver

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You're Invited

bethany

It's 5 o'clock*, and the door of the bath house slams behind Fynn as he emerges with wet hair and a towel slung over his shoulder. He was out working on his treehouse all afternoon, and had sap and dirt and sawdust in his hair to contend with. It's nearly time for dinner, and there are still chores to do. Eggs to gather, salad fixings to pick, and a bit of cello harmony to work out if he has a few minutes left before dinner is called.

It's the last Friday of the month, which means we're expecting a bigger crowd than usual. It's music night, and we never know how many locals will show up on foot or by car, or who will hike up the lane from the trail when they hear some picking and plucking and singing starting to waft over the mountain. I'm in the outdoor kitchen with Martha, Cedar, and a couple other folks (including a few mostly-willing teens), chopping veggies, making dressing, hard-boiling eggs, and frying up the leftover ham from yesterday. It's a salad-bar tonight, and I can pretty much count on a few regulars bringing some fresh herbs, homemade cheese, a can of beans, leftover chicken, or anything else they like to dump on a bed of greens. I'm craving lemons for my salad, but haven't had time to drive into town to get them, so it's bottled lemon juice tonight.

We've had a decent crowd this week, but it's still been quiet. Maggie's here for the week, with her young daughter, and they're staying up in the original cob cabin with Jane, who's been here since her husband died 6 months ago. She's been feeling ready to socialize again lately, and is happy to share the space now. It's only two rooms with a wee porch, but not far from the bath house and outdoor kitchen. It was our first cob structure, and has a few cracks around the window and some shrinkage along the eaves, but it's still cozy and cool in the summer.

It's June, and we're well into our latest building project, Michael's studio. He's been working out of the old barn for the last three years … when he has moment to paint or carve something other than a building detail … but we've finally knocked out the bath house/kitchen combo, the main part of our own stone/cob home (we moved out of the trailer last summer!), and three basically habitable treehouses. There are several more in various stages of construction, but the main push this summer is the studio.

There have been drawings scattered on shelves and tables and napkins for over a year now, and the pile of field stones got big enough to start laying the studio's foundation last month. The pile is large enough mostly because John stopped by on his Kubota It! tour of the U.S. a few weeks ago, and moved a bunch of the larger ones down the hill for us. It's to be a combo of stone, wood, and cob, and is set back a ways back from the main house, about a half mile up into the woods. We hope to get electric run up there soon, and plan to get a pump going from the stream to a slop sink as soon as that happens.

It's really more of a getaway than a full studio, but it will be a place to paint, sing at the top of his lungs, and do the alone-in-the-woods thing. The wood shop and slowly-evolving metal shop are going to stay in the barn. Todd introduced us to a lot of metal working tools when they came for a month last summer to check things out, and Bobby scavenged quite a bit of stuff from estate sales when he was still living in Knoxville, so the place is reasonably functional by now. We lost a fair number of tools in the first couple of years thanks to rust and forgetfulness and the occasional over-eager neophyte skil-saw user, but have slowly gotten them organized, and now that Nathan sleeps in the barn-loft and keeps track of things at days end, they're kept oiled and sharp and tuned up.

It's Douglas' turn to do the dinner call, and he's chosen yodeling as Ash is visiting and willing to help, so the two of them make enough noise to alert anyone within 200 yards that food's ready. It's 6:00 and the shadows aren't too long yet though it's beginning to cool down. Edmund and Sparrow take up their positions under the table, and Benny and Sam (the current dogs in residence) chase each other around the benches, tripping up a couple of the folks who are finding a perch, but Calvin gets them settled down in short order. It looks like about 20 are going to sit up to table, and Dave says a quick prayer before everyone digs in.

Newbies get a guest bowl and mug from the end of the serving counter, while the regulars bring their own, or pull the ones they keep here off of the shelves under the counter. Jars of forks and chopsticks sit in the middle of the 20' long table under the kitchen's big shelter/roof, as do jugs of water and a few bottles of wine. My favorite chopsticks are the ones with Kanji love notes on them that Sue makes, and brings us from Japan every fall. Some daring ones park themselves along the eating counter that takes up one long side of the space … Evan and Byron are already perched on it, and others are on a motley collection of stools that mostly came from one of Keren's game competitions earlier this summer, I don't remember the rules but most of the results are actually sitable. Douglas's entry was a folding ladder stool that's way too tall for the table, but gets used to access his tree-gym down the hill.

I'm beat, and really wanting to just find a corner and curl up with a book and my salad, but I get myself a bowl full and find a seat by Dan at the far end of the Kibitchen, as it's becoming known. It's the place where it pretty much all happens for a good eight months of the year. The cooking, the talking, the planning, the listening, the discussing, the singing, the fire-pit-chilling, the coffee swilling, the scheduling, the bible-chewing, the hey-guess-what-i-learned!-ing, the asking, the giving, the venting, the crying, the recovering, the supporting; the stuff that all takes more than one person. That takes a group, a diversity, a desire to connect, to see, to build, to learn … and to love. A community. One where you can dip a toe or a leg or your whole self, and see how much of it works for you.

Tonight, it's a whirlwind of eating and cleanup and dish-swilling in the wash and rinse buckets at the end of the counter, and then the fire pit lighting. As the last of the leftovers are put away, someone starts plucking a guitar and there's a bit of haphazard tuning. There's usually a mashup of hymns and folk and a bit of almost everything, most of it from memory though there are a few guitar chord books floating around. If someone comes who really knows their stuff (like Mike and George both did last winter), it helps keep things together. Fynn's learned to do some harmony to a few of the common songs, so Michael makes sure a couple of those get worked in somewhere.

Folks wander in and out of the firelight and the music, horseshoes clank, frisbees fly, and some disappear for walks in the woods. Hammocks, tents, and treehouses are retired to when space is needed or hearts are full. Keren and Bobby's B&B is due to open just down the road next spring, and that will give even fancier accommodations for those who want indoor plumbing and a little more TLC! There's plenty of room here though to be broken, to heal, to be alone, to be not-alone, and heart-food to nibble.

It's Friday night, it's home, and it's rich with all the things that matter.

You're invited.

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* 5 o'clock somewhere, on a Friday night about three years from now

want the long personal backstory that led to this? I just posted it (in three parts) over on my old blog InMyMiddle

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