Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why a CSA Is Like The Body Of Christ

photo by Kris McCue

For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.--1 Corinthians 12:12

How is a CSA like the Body of Christ? Glad you asked.

One of the first things I did when I moved to Massachusetts was be introduced to the joys of a CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, but to anyone under the age of 12, you'd think the word was a synonym for "farm." Farms offer a number of shares every year, and members of the community buy these shares, then show up once a week to gather their share of the produce.

My great aunt Sally, a Taoist gardener librarian who was single until age 64, married for 8 years and thereafter a widow and step mother/grandmother/great-grandmother to a family of 52, moved back home to Williamstown, MA the same year we relocated to New England; our first summer here was spent on 66 Hoxsey Street in downtown Billsville. The best thing among many many great things about that summer was connecting with Aunt Sally. And during our second tea-time visit, she said, "I just bought a share in this wonderful local organic farm called Caretaker Farm. Would you girls be so kind as to come with me to pick my vegetables?" And that started a tradition. We'd pick her up on Tuesday afternoons, drive her to the farm where she would sit in a rocking chair knitting while we picked two sacks of fresh local produce; one for her, and one (she insisted) for us. In those days, our diet consisted of raman noodles, hot air popcorn and the occasional fried mozzarella stick/buffalo wing combo at the sports bar when we could spring for it. Single-handedly, Aunt Sally was upping our nutrient quota a thousandfold. The great playwright, Jane Anderson (Defying Gravity) walked by our porch one June day as we were heading out to Caretaker. "Luckies," she said.

Caretaker Farm

So of course when we settled down a bit from our perma-tour, I joined my own CSA here in the Pioneer Valley, The Food Bank Farm, whose mission was to partner with the Food Bank and reduce hunger and feed the community. Year after year, I filled bags with kale, chard, collards (the seasonal staples) and looked forward to August and September when we'd mix it up with carrots, corn, peppers, eggplants. And always there'd be local eggs for sale. Local eggs! With their orange yolks to match the rising summer sun; once I discovered the difference between a local egg and the kind that came from the Big Y in a styrofoam egg carton, I never looked back.

Goats from Red Fire Farm, Granby MA

I met Oona Coy one wintery day when we were both on our way to pre-natal yoga. I had just reached my 16th week and was cleared for exercise by my midwife. Oona came striding towards me, the most pregnant woman I'd ever seen, with a giant scarf around her belly, as if to add extra protection to the creature in her womb. We joined a class full of big bellies and slowly, tenderly, moved our bodies into downward dog, triangle, and our favorite: Goddess pose. I asked Oona over a grilled tofu salad afterwards what she did.

"My husband's a writer and a professor, and we're both studying to be farmers," she said. A few years later, a poster appeared in town. It featured a gorgeous eggplant and an invitation to come to something called Tuesday Market. An email went out selling shares for their new CSA.

Tuesday Market handily answers the question, "Does Northampton really need another farmer's market?" After all, the Saturday market was a grand tradition. What's not to love about seeing all your friends spontaneously on a gorgeous summer day? When Elle was a baby, we'd regularly sally down to the farmer's market on Saturday mornings knowing we'd have instant society. But Tuesday Market surpasses even this; Ben and Oona have invited musicians to join the crowds, and every Tuesday afternoon into early evening, the square behind Thornes Market thrums with the sounds of Peter Blanchette's gorgeous archguitar, or maybe Kathleen Edwards (or sometimes us...) The booths of local farmerpreneurs are pleasing and inviting to look at and the wares they sell are delicious. Kids cavort, local businesses thrive, we eat healthy fresh, beautiful food. Community is built. And when people come together in this way--where every aspect of communal life vibrates with righteousness and sustainable productivity (if you will excuse such utilitarian phrases), there is the body of Christ. Each one of us doing our thing. Oh, and also they take foodstamps. "Good food should be for everybody," they say. And so they double the value of customer food stamps. "This means that when a customer swipes their EBT card for $10, they receive $20 in market tokens to spend on vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs, cheese, mushrooms, bread, jam, maple syrup, honey, garden plants, and more – all directly from the people who grow and produce these nourishing products."

So of course, we joined Ben and Oona's farm--Town Farm-- which is right in town, amazingly enough. And yet when you are there, bent over your rows of sugar snap peas, you can't see another house for miles around. Every Friday my family goes there, from June through late October, and even into November most years. We are given a good- sized canvas bag with the name Town Farm emblazoned in teal ink (natural and organic, of course)
and in the homemade three-walled shed decorated with huge poster-sized photographs of local children holding the farm's baby animals, there is a chalkboard with directions for how much of what vegetable you may take. We go to the farm to get our share, but also to see our friends at pick-up. Outside of the shed is a cobbled together geodesic dome which our children have now learned to climb to the top of, a giant tractor tire roped up to a tree limb for swinging, a homemade slide from a tree-fort. The grown ups catch up in the sun while the kids play. Across the road are fields of You Pick--and the You Pick is different each week, depending on what's ripe.

I have often told interviewers that being in a band is a lot like being a farmer. We write our songs, then watch them grow as the bandmates help to arrange them. We weed out the bad ones before (or sometimes during) the recording process. We send them to the record company who manufactures them into a disc, and then they go out to the world, and we do too, touring and promoting until the harvest is over. Then we go into our winter cave and hunker down, writing new songs, and the cycle starts all over again.

Farmers have a hard life, historically speaking. All that work, and a dry summer or a plague of locusts or a freak hailstorm destroys the entire crop. In these days of climate change, one of many freak weather events might doom a farm. But what's brilliant about CSAs is that the community takes the hit along with the farmer. Last September when Irene came through, several fields were flooded, taking the entire winter squash crop with them. Ben and Oona were down to a third of what they usually reap. If they had not had us supporting them, they'd be out of business, and we'd be out our local farm. But because it's community supported agriculture, the community sustained them. They sent out emails explaining the situation. Other farms shared their squash with us while Oona sent them truckloads of onions. The miracle with Irene seemed to be that while all the area farms suffered a loss, no one lost all. A modern day loaves and fishes. Everyday generosity.

photo by Kris McCue

This is what we do, as awake aware people. We get that our neighbor's loss is our loss. We get that our neighbor's great gift to us--these amazing family farms that keep alive tradition while teaching us how to grow food--real, good, healthy, unprocessed food--for the community can benefit all, body and soul.
photo by Ben James

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Between Friends

Lilacs about to burst, three weeks before they usually do.

My friend Andrea Raphael died on Good Friday. My writing mentor and teacher Anna Kirwan died on Easter Sunday. Two dear friends got diagnosed with cancer last week. My husband Tom turned 50. And our new CD The Full Catastrophe came out. It's a liminal time, the Mayan apocolypse notwithstanding, and once again all signs point to salvation resting in being awake to the here and now. I wrestle with this every moment of the day. A strange, firm undertow constantly drags me into my thoughts, my thoughts, my clammoring thoughts. My fears about the future, my curiosity about everyone in the world which sends me to Hell (AKA Google) over and over again. I wish I could say that these many wake up calls--the deaths, the diagnoses, the birthday parties, the one movie we managed to see (over a period of 2 days), the imminent work of promoting an album--had worked to wake me up fully. In a way they have; perhaps we can only be as awake as we can be in any given time. Today, I am sobered, but still sleepy.

The movie we saw was The Tree of Life, an amazing film my Terrence Malik about life, death, the big bang, heaven, and a beautiful, doomed, brave, typical, unique family in the 50's in Waco TX. All of this made me think that this week's Song of the Week should be "Between Friends."

I wrote this song during February Album Writing Month 2009, right before I took a self-imposed leave from my life coaching practice in order to spend more time with my family. I blogged about this period of my life from March 2009-May 2009. I was then trying to be as present as I could be to the miracles of my two children, then aged 2, and 6 months. The fact that I blogged every day no matter what speaks to a certain terror around the idea of taking a real rest. But I tried, and I do still feel really great about that period of time. I still find art projects around the house that we made together in that particular window. This song came from that experience.

Andrea's funeral was today. The Log Cabin was completely packed, SRO. I am terrible at ball-parking numbers, but it felt like a thousand of her friends and family gathered. The service lasted two hours, and we needed all two of those hours to hear from loved ones, and still I wanted more. She was such a dynamic, real, funny, passionate, optimistic, loving, brilliant person (read her obituary to learn more). I have known her since we were teenagers; our parents are friends. She was three years older than I, and when we ran into each other in the mid 90s when I was in the midst of my music career, she took my phone number and proceeded to invite me to her dinners, events, parties and friendship circles; taking care, I thought, of her old family friend. Like me, she lived life fully. Unlike me, she seemed to have time to breathe. I at times, forget how, or at least that is what I can tell myself.

It has been said that the perfect is the enemy of the good. I don't know about that, but I can say for sure that perfection is my own personal enemy. After seeing The Tree of Life, I was left with this searing fear that I was wasting my time doing anything other than following my two children wherever they go, soaking up their every comment, their every gorgeously long eyelash, their every chuckle and screech. I won't tell you why so as not to act as a spoiler, but suffice it to say, life is brief, and the events of the past couple of weeks have hammered home to me that we don't get to know just how brief. This is a familiar fear of mine: I am missing it! I am going to be like the Dad in The Cat's In the Cradle, that old Harry Chapin song. Woe is me! Attend, earthling, attend!

Andrea suffered greatly from Lyme Disease, and one of the other things that's been on my mind much is climate change. Lyme Disease, which has also robbed much from my beloved aunt (who's had the disease for at least 22 years), is a direct result of changing climates, changing eco-systems and the rise of creepy horrible illnesses that leave doctors so baffled that some of them prefer to tell their patients that their symptoms must be all in their heads rather than admit they are stumped.

We don't know how much time we have. We don't know how present we get to be for the time we have either. And we don't ever really know another person's struggles. I should know by now never to judge my insides against someone else's outsides. (And Harry Chapin died before his kid grew up.)

"Go and live your lives fully," said the minister at the end of the service today. "Andrea wants us to do no less." And we did so, pouring out into the mountain top overlooking the valley where so many of us live and breathe every day. But we lingered, grabbing the hula hoops Andrea's family had placed out there in her honor and trying to make them fly around our middle-aged middles. We held each other warmly, wept and shared kleenex packs, marveled at how the kids are growing.

"Rest," Andrea's mother told me when I found her to say good-bye. "Andrea would have wanted you to rest and not work so hard."

And somewhere in the middle of these two heavenly directives, I live every single day. One of the gifts Andrea left me, a gift she seems to whisper to me as I go about my everyday tasks-- chopping the carrots, ordering the kids' summer pajamas, calling a friend--is the knowledge that we're all at any given time doing the best we can. And at any given time, our best might look radically different. One day my best might be crossing every last item off my to do list, even the one that says, "publish novel as e-book" and "set up non-profit in Holyoke," and another day it might be taking the compost jar to the pile in the backyard. Or maybe my best might just be managing one smile for my husband. But what freedom it would be to trust that. What freedom it would be to believe our friends are trusting that about us--our deep insides as well as our carefully managed appearances. I am breathing. I am living fully. I am resting. I have given much, and I have received much more. Thank you.

I have a friend who says
The earth cannot afford us
We have to grow up and not expect her to support us
We could give her something back.

I have a friend who has
A view of the Hudson River
He works all week just to enjoy his little sliver of view
Sometimes he forgets to look

Everybody’s banking on a world that never ends
Can’t you see I’m always working hard to make amends...
What’s a little trouble between friends?

I have a friend who’s scared her man is going to leave her
She’s reading books in bed like she’s got some kind of fever
To cure their marriage woes
He reaches for her and she gives him the cold shoulder
In just a minute she will think to let him hold her
But the minute comes and goes.

Everybody’s banking on a world that never ends
Can’t you see I’m always working hard to make amends

What’s a little trouble between friends?

I have a friend who has a job that doesn‘t pay her
She hates the paycheck but she loves the way it saves her
To do it her own way
She has a field of time to play with her son and daughter
She chops her firewood and they help her carry water
They live all day.

Everybody’s banking on a world that never ends
Can’t you see I’m always working hard to make amends

What’s a little trouble between friends?

Nerissa Nields
March 14, 2009

Antidote to Pain

I am journaling for Lent with a friend of mine who is a minister and a mom. We are using as inspiration a book called 40 Days with Kathleen Norris. Norris, a poet and a Benedictine oblate, is deeply in love with words, and never fails to open something in me with the daily reading. On day 36, KN writes, “ To make the poem of our faith, we must learn not to settle for a false certitude but to embrace ambiguity and mystery. Our goal will be to recover our original freedom, our childlike (but never childish) self-consciousness (here the discipline of writing can help us)…We will need a powerful catalyst.”

The prompt today is “the antidote to pain.” Well, my per-usual antidote to pain is to nail everything to the ground. So much for mystery and ambiguity. I am not generally a fan. I am literal minded when it comes to my little kingdom, though I celebrate the mystery in my own songs and writings. Maybe that’s the way most artists are: in order to make a living as a creative, one really does need to grow up and learn the nuts and bolts of adulthood, such as balancing one’s checking account and trying to make a spending plan based on an income that in the best of times fluctuates. Because I am a creature whose head has perennially been in the clouds I have found it necessary to anchor my reality firmly in practices that keep me grounded. (If I had a nickel for every time a teacher sharply rapped on my blank windows and said, “Nerissa! Stop daydreaming,” I wouldn’t be writing about money at all). To this end, I meditate, journal, do one single daily sun salutation, run for 20 minutes, keep meticulous records of my earning and spending, practice my guitar, and keep in daily or at least weekly touch with my nearest and dearest. If I don’t do these things, I become unmoored. Perhaps these practices are my powerful catalysts.

Yesterday, at the last minute, someone dropped out of the writing retreat that would start that evening. It was nothing personal—in was a situation out of the participant's control, and it was clearly a loss for that person. But my reaction to his not being able to attend was over the top. First I fumed at his circumstances, then at God, and when the fuming burned itself out, I was left with a heavy grief in the shape of an old empty (but still weighty) burlap sack. And I could not drop it. There is a term in 12 step recovery called “self-seeking” and recovering addicts are cautioned to avoid self-seeking motives every single day. The trouble is, no one I know really can define self-seeking. It’s kind of like selfishness, and it’s kind of like ego-building, but opinions vary about what the founder of AA, Bill Wilson, really meant when he wrote the term.

Yesterday, I was carrying my heavy burlap sack home with me from the co-op after getting some last minute ingredients for my caramelized red pepper and onion gruyere quiche that I planned to serve that night. I made some calls to friends who would understand, but no one was there. So I prayed. “God, take this away. Have my sack. Or if you won’t take it, fill it with something better than my hurt pride and needless anxiety. Also, I get that I am doing that thing again: trying to know that I am OK based on how much other people love me. This is an old one. I want to get my self-worth from my own heart and from your sun shining on me. Not from applause and attention. But I feel like I am knocking on your door and you won’t let me in.”

At that moment, I was driving up the street that runs perpendicular to my daughter’s school. I had a moment of wishing she were in my arms the way she had been as a baby. And just then, the door burst open, and her Kindergarten class came tumbling out, and right in the middle, my daughter in her royal blue parka and hot pink gloves. The kids tore over to the playground, shouting and running and climbing. I pulled over and parked illegally, ran over to the gate. The teacher said, “Lila, your mother’s here,” but before Lila could even look up, I scooped her into my arms. “Mommy,” she said softly, snuggling her head into my chest. A moment later, she broke away, dancing off into the playground. She skipped about in circles singing, “Ring around the Rosey, Mommy Mommy Lovey!” and held up her two hands, making the sign for “I love you” like Mohammed Ali in When We Were Kings as he trained for the big fight. She came running back to hug me again.

I get what self-seeking is. It’s seeking the self outside of the self, and all the ways we do this. It’s thinking it’s in a pair of Frye boots (and the outfit that will suddenly make everyone finally understand who you really are.) It’s going out for dinner. It’s an A on a thesis. It’s the fifth drink. It’s finding Ms. Right. It’s your best friend telling you your stomach doesn’t stick out. It’s your sister telling you her son was just as impossible as yours when he was the same age. It’s the radio station playing your CD. It’s even standing up and singing the beloved hymn in church. It’s all manner of good and not so good and downright harmful ways of engagement, and I will—we all will—continue to seek them and do them for the rest of our lives. I don’t see a cure. But I do see the problem, and I do see a solution. The solution is, as usual, kindness, humor, time, and most of all, being awake. The solution is also bowing to the mystery. Reveling in the ambiguity. Doing our little disciplines, because indeed these are our offerings to God, these are the containers in which we put our kindness, humor, time and attention, but we need to hold them lightly, make our containers out of breakable clay instead of cast iron.

My only real job is to be Nerissa. To be her, to celebrate her gifts and to respect her limits. To listen to the quiet voice in her heart whose voice can only be heard when she is still and silent and seeking. I think this is the true antidote to pain.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

When the Sun Gets Sick

The ground has softened and so have our hearts
The cry went out, and we have responded—a domestic tsunami, you might say.

Somehow all the crocuses knew it was time to come up,
Even with the peach fuzz of snow on their beards.

I was told yesterday that after exerting yourself for ten minutes
You could no longer raise your hand to lift a glass of water to your lips.
You who couldn’t stay off the ice last December,
Shooting goals past the fifteen year old boys
I see you on the fields when you were fifteen
Hammering the ball neatly into the net
Dashing across the grass on long colt legs.
Dazzling us with your smile so bright
Many had to turn away. So much goodness in one girl.

We are promised a new happiness.
The Zen master says we need to let go of the raft
Once we've crossed the river.
Easier said than done.
I say it all the time, but I don't do it.
The crocus does it every year, but it doesn't say it.

Someone else told me yesterday that while we still wage wars
We have lost our stomach for them.
They dribble out after the first savage spring
We’ve lost our heart for finishing, for hammering them into the net.

Small hope, but hope nonetheless.
Even so, as for you, as for me—I’m betting on the crocus.

-Nerissa Nields
April 5, 2011

I wrote this poem a year ago when I heard that my friend Andrea was ill. Later, she discovered she had late stage Lyme Disease. She battled bravely for over a year and died on April 6, 2012. I will miss her forever.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Back at the Fruit Tree

Phillip Price of the Winterpills (and formally of the Maggies) once said to me that every time he got an idea for a song he wrote five different versions of it. That blew me away. I am way more parsimonious than he, or maybe just lazy. I try to cram every single idea I am having at the present moment into one song, "I Am the Walrus"-style. John Lennon famously wrote his songs as one would make a patchwork quilt: scraps of ideas and riffs and even takes in totally different keys (see "Strawberry Fields Forever). That was good enough for me. Although if I think I didn't nail the idea, then I might try try again. For example, in 1995 I fell in love with the Steely Dan song "Hey Nineteen" (which had been on the charts the week Lennon was killed, but I hated SD at the time and only resented them taking airplay away from John and the Beatles at the time). Later, in my mid twenties, I listened to that song, drinking red wine and letting both swirl around in my mouth. (Even now as I write this I am swooning: "The Cuervo Gold/The fine Columbian/Make tonight a wonderful thing." Though without the influence of the red wine, a bit...ick.) And I thought, "I'd like to write this song from the point of view of the 19 year old."

So I wrote "Fountain of Youth." It was OK, but it didn't grab me in the backs of the knees the way "Hey Nienteen" did. And so one sunny March morning, I sat down on the rug in the living room with a huge cup of coffee, several notebooks and my guitar. I scribbled furiously until I'd written down every single Idea I had about the song I wanted to write. And then I played a riff I'd made up during soundcheck at the gig the weekend before, and out came "Best Black Dress."

Fast forward fourteen years. I'd written "The Full Catastrophe" at Katryna's request, and then had the summer to ignore it. It was October and we had a show coming up at the Iron Horse. I wanted to debut a new song, and it should probably have been The Full Cat, but something was bugging me about the song. It was too sincere and straightforward. It did not speak to the enormity of the existential pain I was feeling at the moment. The pain felt like this: I was overwhelmed. I just looked up where "overwhelm" comes from, specifically what "whelm" means: to cover. That's exactly how I felt. Covered over. Parenthood is literally overwhelming. We cover over ourselves sometimes (many times) on purpose in order to get the job done. We cover over our basic needs (to sleep, eat in a calm manner, have sex with our partners) to attend to our little ones. And we cover over our more esoteric needs (to go for a bike ride in early spring; to write a song on the living room floor, to spend an afternoon wandering from coffeeshop to bookstore to our neighbor's kitchen table) because there just isn't that kind of time.

And we are overwhelmed--egos covered over, self-interest covered over, ambition covered over--with love for our darlings. That very first look into my babies' faces did me in. I was willing to do anything, go to any lengths to provide and protect for those squirmy, red, pooping cutie pies.

But 'overwhelmed' does not mean 'annihilated'. We're still there, as is the carpet, under that cover of legos, bad kids' books, contents of a drawer of clothes and stuffed animals. We're still conscious and waiting, a part of us full of compassion for our spouse or partner who is equally overwhelmed while the other part is keeping meticulous track of exactly how unequal the duties are being handled, and exactly how many hours "off" s/he has had in the last 4 years.

For me, so much of my journey was in learning to metabolize my own disappointment in myself, in my shockingly low capacity for creative play with my kids, for my quick temper, for my pathetically small reserves of patience. I was so not the mother I'd hoped I'd be, and yet, when I killed that angel in the house, I was left with someone who was really not so bad. And most importantly, I was left with someone who even with a mouth full of the ashes of disappointment was willing to get up every day and meet her beloved(s) back at the fruit tree.

And so I wrote two more songs about the Full Catastrophe idea. One was More Than Enough. The other was this one:

Back at the Fruit Tree

Still the camera on the moment I met you
All the world inside a garden built for two
All the fruit you could eat in a day
All the news turned into boats
That float on down the river

Ah, ahhhh…..

But someone has to cut the brambles back
Someone has to stave the weeds’ attack
Someone has to bring the harvest in
Someone has to gather seeds to hold us through the winter….

I don’t need the good life
I just need life
The full catastrophe
If you’ll see me that way
With my feet covered in clay
I’ll meet you back at the fruit tree.

The mind beats like the tides in a lake that thinks it’s the sea
But only storms create conditions for epiphany
October gardens rusty, ragged, overgrown
The child won’t be consoled and you
Don’t want to be alone.
You find a seat at the edge of the bed
Put a hand on a hot and sticky head
You say, “So, tell me all about your day
No matter what it is, I’ll stay. I won’t go away.

I don’t need the good life
I just need life
The full catastrophe
If you’ll see me that way
With my feet covered in clay
I’ll meet you back at the fruit tree.

Nerissa Nields
Oct. 22, 2009