leave old job....leave old home...enter new home...engage new life...maintain what matters

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ready or Not...

Indeed I'm ready. 
Ready to leave old job.  Last check came from Medtronic yesterday:  the big severance payout buying me 17 weeks off the merry-go-round. 
Ready to leave old house.  De-stagers came Friday, carried away all the rented furniture.   Naked floor and walls.  This sunroom echoes like a tunnel.  Can’t wait to close the sale on Monday, 1 Aug, 1pm.
Ready to enter new house.  Itching to break ground, scrape dirt under my nails, get the House the Land Built built.  Tom, our builder, called with great news:  downsizing chopped $35K off the price, enabling us to be debt free when all is said and done.    And zero debt means less time “earning bread”  and more time engaging new life.
Ready to engage new life.  I can’t wait to step out my cabin front door, rub Savannah the Wonder Dog’s belly, walk down the hill, across Calico Hill Road and do land work.  Chainsaw and stack deadfall for winter splitting.  Girdle boxelder saplings.  Build a shelter where I can settle down and finish my book.
Ready to maintain what matters.  My friend, Missy, asked another good question, “How are you going to keep in touch with me?”  Decided to schedule a monthly Mike in Minneapolis day.   Maybe take my friendships to a new level:  make homebrew, turn wood bowls, play pinochle, watch Lord of the Rings until 2:30 AM.
In whatever way you pray or lend energy or send good thoughts and wishes, I ask for such now as I leap off the cliff. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Wild Parsnip

We’ll know by tomorrow whether the back of Linda’s legs---or her face god forbid---blister and turn rash-purple.  24 to 48 hours after contact.  Not only painful but unprofessional:  what client wants to see their psychologist disfigured so?  They did last year:  sickly purple patches behind her knee.  Lasted for 3 months.  
You’d think she be safe, so high on the seat of her old beloved John Deere 2510.  And the MX6---our John Deere radial mower capable of chopping up an 8’ tall boxelder tree---whirs noisily and mightily far behind her.  Yet, when she finished the deed yesterday and returned to the tractor shed,  clumps of grassy debris coated the rear of the tractor, as if she’d backed into a hay mound and out again.   At least we hoped it was just grass.  But why would it be?  She’d just sweated the last 10 hours mowing 4 acres of the dreaded wild parsnip.

She’s hopeful this year.  In spite of a 110 degree heat index and a furnace-hot engine in front of her, she wore long pants.  Last year she figures the tallest parsnip bent beneath the tractor’s front axle then snapped upright as she drove by, slapping behind her knee.  Revenge of the wild parsnip! 
Wild only because no one plants it.  It's good old garden-variety parsnip, Pastinaca sativa, long escaped from cultivation, now readily seeding itself on its jolly northward expansion.  Rampant in and around the Land, it hasn’t managed to reach the Twin Cities.  Not yet.  But it will.  I spied the familiar yellow flowers in a Lakeville ditch along I-35 this year.   Whether cut with a mower or by machete, parsnip lives on.   We only hope to prevent it from making more children.  Birth control, not genocide.
Unlike Linda, I suffer no serious threat from wild parsnip’s phytophotodermatitis, meaning if you get the leaf or stem juice on your skin then add sunlight, hey presto! blisters and rash.   I cover everything, head to toe, except for my face.  See, I’m machete man.  My assignment:  seek and destroy the parsnip thousands slipping through our tractor perimeter.  Armed with a 24” blade in each leather-gloved hand, I whirl and whack at the invading forces like some hybrid cross between a ninja warrior and John Boy.  The worst wounds I’ll take are heat, exhaustion and perhaps some sore shoulders.  Except this year.
This year the gnats (or midges or no-see-ums or whatever dreaded name you give these smaller-than-a-pinhead fly devils) were the worst.  Whether months of rain or Satan himself are to blame the results are the same:  a nerve-wracking cloud swarming overhead, buzzing deep into my ears, crawling down my neck, sticking in my eyelashes , choking me as I breathed.  It was to be a contest between me and the swarming forces of evil.
To beat the heat I slogged into the dew-soaked grass at 5AM, when it was only 81 degrees.  The gnats must have spied out my plan in advance, waiting for me, pouncing the moment I crossed Calico Hill Road.  “Ha!  I can handle anything you little biters can dish out,” I said to myself as I felled a few practice parsnip on my way across the pasture. 
I returned to the cabin at 7:30.  Gnats 1--Mike 0.   Desperate, I did what I hadn’t done in years:  bathed my hat, shirt color and ears in max strength Muskol, pretty much 100% Deet.  Returning to the scene of the battle, I fought the good fight---hacking and felling parsnip by the hundreds---but not good enough.  In shame I retreated, screaming in gnat-induced madness, back to the cabin.  It was only 10AM.  Gnats 2--Mike 0.  
When Linda returned for lunch after a successful morning of parsnip mowing, my shame turned to anger, rekindling my battle spirit.  I washed the stinging repellent out my eyes and vowed to try one more time, life-sucking afternoon heat or no. 
From my days canoeing the Boundary Water Wilderness---where all manner of biters rule the sky day and night---I recalled a defense I’d seen.  I’d always laughed then, such a ridiculous look.  But a desperate man does desperate things.  As I searched the closet, Linda probably hoped I’d fail to find it:  my old blue Boundary Waters bandana.    “Aha!" I cried.  She’d have to deal with her embarrassment. 
Bandana in one hand, filthy cap in the other, I pondered their marriage.    With a resigned shrug, I draped the bandana over my head so that one pointy end touched the top of my nose. Completing the look I donned the cap, tucked the pointy end under the brim and swallowed my pride.  With a bandana draped over my neck, topped by a farmer hat, I felt like John Boy meets Lawrence of Arabia. 
But it worked!  Swarming, the gnats buzzed in frustration as they failed to penetrate my defenses.  Up and down the prairie I marched.  Whack! Whack!  Down came the parsnip.  Reinvigorated, I recalled my yoga training:  side-body long, shoulder blades back, tailbone scooped.  My feet rooted, I felt the power of the earth pulsing up through my legs, shining out through my arms and blade as they rose with joyful focus and fell with flower-head splitting precision.  Finally---having hacked my way across the entire half- mile northern border of our emerging prairie---I swung for, hit and felled the easternmost parsnip. 
Yet that was merely the northern border, only 100 yards wide perhaps.  I gazed south, where Linda mowed on through dense yellow swathes of parsnip alongside the cattail pond.  I heard a buzz.  Annoying.  Disturbing.  Not just the gnats.  Not just the distant tractor.  This buzz came from the inside.  A dizziness or perhaps a warning.  Stop!  Stop before you overheat.  I swung, swooned, shrugged.  By some sense given to couples, Linda raised her eyes off her work and looked my way as I signaled my intention with my machete. 
As I dragged my feet up the hill, I took a few perfunctory parsnip whacks, then stopped swinging altogether.  The sun beat on.  Heat 1--Mike 0.
But just you wait, parsnip!  Wait until next year when we’re living on the Land.  Full time.  I’ll start whacking on 4th of July morn and everyday thereafter until the deed is done.  Not that parsnip cares.  He’ll be back, flinging in his seeds.  We’re a prairie island amidst a sea of weedy parsnip fields.
And that’s OK.  Healing the Land, this 41 acre prairie, is a thousand year project.  And we’re just coaxing it along, tipping the balance toward its true self. 

Monday, July 11, 2011


3 short weeks to go.  In exactly 21 days, on Monday, 1 August, our home of 25 years will no longer be.  Oh, I suppose it’s theoretically possible for something to fall through---the plain of life is strafed with unseen badlands and glacial fissures---but the likely future owners just cleared their final “known” crack:
“What will you miss most?” my friend, Dave, asked.
Intrigued by what could be gained by decluttering their own home, Linda and I were giving Dave and Kate a 4140 Harriet “showing” .  Well, not the white bathroom towel, lights on, 100% staged look.  But we’d managed most of the old checklist:  papers quickly stuffed into the handy leather box, cat-towels off the rented furniture, noisy basement dehumidifier turned off.  
“Not the house,” I shrugged in answer to Dave.  “It’s not mine anymore.”  No doubt that all the grueling work we did paid off;  one day on market for goodness sake.  But we hadn’t foreseen our realtor’s  slickest trick:  detaching our hearts from our house.    Each morning we awake inside the same dream:  a Better Homes and Gardens virtual tour.  Breathtakingly beautiful.   Laughingly perfect.  Unrecognizable.  Twilight-zone trapped, I nervously reach above the stove.  Open the cupboard.  Poof!  The fog lifts.  My fingers curl around the familiar handle of my tea-stained Gunflint Trail mug.
“Not you!  Not my friends,” I thought privately.  Though I’m moving a hundred miles away,  I refuse to believe I’m losing my dearest friends in any way.  After all, this blog’s banner proclaims my final intention: ‘maintain what matters’.  How would I ever dare journey the cracked plain of life without holding hands with my good friend denial? 
As we walked out onto the deck,  my mind wandered into the dappled light under the river birch, slipped around the clematis-draped trellis  to rest in the layered shade of Chris and Alby’s pagoda dogwood upon their patio. 
 My next-door neighbors, though still friends, will cease being neighbors 1 August, 1PM.  What a loss!  Aren’t neighbors the secret source of manna? 

Just yesterday Linda and I were sitting on the deck, post-church hungry,  wishing for some soft Star Thrower Farm sheep cheese or something, when presto! here comes Chris out his back door, both hands hefting bread-shaped aluminum foil. 

“It’s too hot for you guys to turn on your oven,” he offers, graciously allowing us to set aside some of our guilt.  We’d each gobbled a warm slice of chocolate-chip, coconut banana bread before Chris stepped back into his air-conditioned comfort.   Raising mischievous eyebrows, we licked our chocolaty fingers and sliced another.  After 15 years of over-the-fence hello’s, I can’t tell you how I’ll miss Chris and Alby. 
And tonight is our good-bye dinner with Jack and Nancy.  I suppose their daughter Micaela is too busy with her own home to join us on their deck.  She was a scrawny four when we moved next door: dancing, whirling, in the backyard as she gleefully introduced her next guest on her own Carol Burnett Show. 
I’m not sure if Dave grew impatient waiting for my answer, or if I’d stepped out of time, above the fountain of Jack and Nancy’s elm and drifted with the popcorn clouds down to the Land. 
The people of the Land:  our neighbors up on Calico Hill road.  Since our first meeting seven years ago, Lonny and Sandy Dietz showered us with warm greetings and veggies from their organic Whitewater Gardens farm.   We are truly different (and I’d like to think better) people because of them.  And whatever would we have done without Kim Drath and her family across the road from the campsite?  For one thing there’d be no Savannah the Wonder Dog in our life!   Tumors spreading, our sweet old girl’s days are few now.  Via the brief words of text, Linda and I share our grief and compassion with Kim.
Yes, we do and will have wonderful neighbors at the Land, but not next-door neighbors.  It’s 1600 feet down our narrow gravel driveway, then another 900 feet south on Calico Hill Rd to the cat-slung porch of Lonny and Sandy Dietz.  Even further to Kim’s.  Unless I walk the buzzing prairie to the pasture gate, cut steeply down through juniper and oak, round the cattail pond, over the mowed dike and climb her wooded horse trail.  Then it might be a little closer.
Poor Dave.  I could only hope that all these heart-tugging memories flashed speedily before me like a Lt. Commander Data file search.  I finally answered him.
“I’ll miss my neighbors,” I said with a pained smile.
“I can imagine,” he said.  So can I.
Hey!  Look!  There out the sunroom windows.  It’s Millie minding her grandson as he plays with his John Deere truck in our lawn beneath our Edina Realty Sold sign.    Gotta go!

P.S.  Micaela came!!!!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


“So,” Lynn innocently asked me.  “What are you most afraid of?”
Our House the Land Built presentation finally over, we’d opened it up for a few questions.  What could go wrong?  Linda and I were among friends after all (a family picnic in Heather’s house since its still pouring buckets outside).  Problem is, friends ask questions never asked at our two previous, more public, presentations on our journey to build our new ‘values-engaging’ home.     And these friends had just seen me naked.   Normally so protective, I finally dared expose what really, really matters to me.  A glimpse of my tap-rooted values.  My soul-dreams.  So tender.  So precious.   It was one thing to stand before a sheet-draped wall in Heather’s living room clicking through PowerPoints of our bleeding-edge home plans (off-grid-solar-rainwater-harvest-masonry-heater-composting-toilet).  Quite another to reveal why any of this really matters to me---why I’d leave my high-paying job and Minneapolis home---other than billboard-taglines like ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’.
“Ho my!” I gulped as I considered my answer to Lynn.  How much more skin did I want to bare?   Then I recalled the Annie Dillard quote on Linda’s final slide:
Cliff-jumping time.  “I’m afraid people will think I’m totally weird,” I confessed.  “Especially my new community.  Elba.  Altura.  St. Charles.  Plainview.  All the hard-working farmers.  My neighbors on Calico Hill Road.   Our entire home was designed upon only two-values and the first of these is ‘welcoming’.   Our new home should be anything but a hermit’s hideaway.   How welcoming is a home occupied by weirdo’s?  I mean, look at our toilet.”
That darned composting toilet.  Nothing in this House the Land Built presentation (or the previous two) garnered more attention (and more horrified gasps).  Sure, everyone’s aware of its theoretical greenness.  But where’s my comforting porcelain ‘plunk’?  My familiar all-is-done ‘floosh’?    And when they saw pictures of our composting toilet, heard how it worked, their suspicions rose like outhouse odors.  
“A 5 gallon bucket?”
“You haul it where when its full?”
“And who actually hauls it?”
I mean couldn’t we have made our friend’s ‘business’ a little less transparent?    How much do they really want to know about their pooh?  Don’t  get me wrong. Our friends were very polite as we explained our personal experiences with commercial composting toilets (which at least look a little more tidy and toilet like): nose-wrinkling escapes, fan-induced breezes on the behind.
“You’ll need to post instructions for use,” suggested a wide-eyed Joe.
“Really?” Linda shrugged.  “There’s only one rule:  cover your stuff.”  A scoop (or two) of herb-scented sawdust from the urn.  Into the bucket, that is.  For the compost heap, a pitchfork (or two) of covering straw does the job. 
That job is masking offensive odor.  “I was skeptical,” said Linda.  “So we installed a sawdust toilet in our shed’s hayloft.”    Nothing.  No odor whatsoever, save the sawdust itself.  “Cottonwood is a little sour smelling.  We won’t use that again.” 
I faced a tense test  when Heather’s hubby Kevin arrived late.  “Look at that quote,” Heather pointed to the slide on the sheet-draped wall. 

And oh, when the surprise on Kevin’s face turned to an understanding smile,  I felt welcomed.    As if rubbed with Charmin, the room’s mood continued to soften when I explained how we weren’t just dumping the buckets in any old compost bin.  “It’s a Humanure Hacienda!”  Three five foot bins.  A roofed middle bin for straw flanked by open bins of layered compost.   You could have heard the sigh a block away when they discovered you never had to turn ‘your stuff’.     “Joseph Jenkin’s research is all there in his Humanure Handbook.”  I'm not sure this convinced them.
 “But I made Mike dump the first bucket,” Linda exclaimed.  “And I backed far, far away.”
Very well, our friends finally knew what the what was, but why?  Why endure the buckets of our own bestial biology? 
“The connection,” Linda explained.   “In addition to welcoming, our new home needs to enable the Connection.”    That’s Connection with a capital ‘C’.  Our connection to the Land.  Our connection to our greater community.  Our connection to the divine.   While it might not be welcoming, it’s hard to get more connecting than our composting toilet.  There it is!  Before your very eyes.  The divine circle:  life, death, resurrection.  Life consuming life creating life.  Light from night from light.  Impossible, yet undeniable from the seat of the sawdust toilet.   Completely invisible atop the porcelain.  Does anyone know where porcelain pooh goes?
Flash!  From the front porch, this just in from my wicker writing chair:  an eagle.  A bald eagle, white head and tail, slowly soaring in high circles.  I can’t recall ever seeing an eagle from my Minneapolis home.  And it’s the 4th of July!  God has to hit me over the head sometimes before I wake up and pay attention.  The Connection!  The divine Connection!
My better self knows that my friend Missy was right.  “I don’t believe toilets create welcomeness (or non-welcomeness).  It is an object…relationship and connection breed welcomeness.” 
 So please.  Come.  You are all welcome to the House the Land Built.   We won’t break ground until the end of July.  We won’t move in until December.  Still, there is the Land.  And there, in the hayloft of our barnwood-clad shed, the toilet the Land Built already awaits you.