The stream, the trees, the words

picture of two pens on a notebook

My favorite pens, which were an anniversary gift from Bell Telephone to my grandfather in 1978.

Last month I received a scholarship to attend Writer Camp, a yearly retreat for writers put on by the folks at literary journal Barrelhouse. It. Was. Awesome.

The five days away from the stresses of work, ongoing renovations on my house, dealing with my dog’s degenerative condition, and the general stress of being me in my brain was restorative. For five days, I had nothing to do but write, and talk about writing with other amazing writers, and eat delicious food prepared by our hosts. I am so grateful for that time and the company.

I wrote 39 new pages of fiction, reworked the outline for my novel-in-progress, sent out a few query letters for my short story manuscript, and had two very productive meetings with my editor, Amanda Miska of Split Lip Press. I also met some wonderful people, and had so much fun chatting over food and our nightly bonfires with a glass or two of wine.

Writer Camp is held at the Godspeed Hostel in Port Matilda, PA, which is a lovely area with a nice view of the surrounding mountains and a pleasant stream that you can swim in. The water is crisp and cold and so refreshing. There are hammocks everywhere, and a tree swing, and it’s not hard to find a comfortable place to write.

The stream at Godspeed.

I fell into a general routine of eating breakfast, writing for an hour or two, taking a stroll along the stream, working on my novel outline or sending out submissions, eating lunch, meeting with my editor, and then writing for another hour or two before our afternoon excursion and dinner. That right there is what I want my life to look like.

Of course I don’t have that sort of luxury at this point in time—I have to work to pay my bills, after all, but that doesn’t mean I can’t put some elements of Writer Camp into my daily routine and writing practice. I live in a city and don’t have a stream nearby, but I have a big front porch and a big backyard that I’m slowly turning into my own little oasis. I can easily write on my porch in the warmer months, and on weekends I can take my notebook out to one of Pittsburgh’s many beautiful parks for more nature time.

Perhaps even more importantly than the real progress I made on a few of my writing projects is the reminder that writing time and time in nature are both an essential part of my self-care routine. Without both of those things, I start to go a little batty. I feel on edge, restless, unfulfilled. But when I make time for them I feel at ease, happy, content.

On the days that I write before I head into work, I feel productive and accomplished, and it doesn’t matter what happens at work. Writing is like a force field against all the little negative things that add up throughout the day. And Writer Camp was a way to recharge those force field batteries, make them strong again.

But just because I’m back in the “real” world doesn’t mean the work is done. The work of writing is never done, not really. So off I go, to do the work.

I am a snowflake

Right now I’m watching a snow storm blow and swirl and gust outside my window, a day later than expected, but still here, still covering the frozen ground in white, filling the air, turning everything monochromatic.

And it is beautiful.

Rose of Sharon seed pods covered in snow in my back yard.

Rose of Sharon seed pods in my back yard.

Conservatives like to call people like me (young, liberal, well-educated) “snowflakes,” because we are “overly sensitive,” “can’t take criticism,” are “ sore losers,” and and and.

Once I went to a party dressed as One Hundred Years of Winter, and the title suits me. I prefer the cold months to the heat of summer. I hike in blizzards, reveling in the way snow enforces quietude. Have you ever noticed the sound of a snowflake hitting your jacket? The gentle, almost imperceptible tick? The way those ticks accumulate faster than you expect, until your shoulders are transformed into snow-capped mountains?

Have you ever, as an adult, tasted the not-quite-metallic tang of freshly fallen snow? Have you paused to let it melt in your mouth, momentarily chilling your lips and tongue? Have you stopped to acknowledge the beauty of white on naked branches, so distinct from the beauty of summer’s verdant greenery?

But snow is not just beautiful.

Snow is cold and biting. Snow stings. Snow cripples cities, layering on roads faster than plows can scrape it away, burying cars. Snow isolates people in rural areas, cuts them off from emergency services and the grocery store. Snow smothers people unlucky–or unwise–enough to get caught in its drifts. Snow weighs down the roofs of houses until they collapse on themselves.

On its own, a single snowflake may do nothing more than fall, invisible, inconsequential. Snowflakes rarely fall alone. Most people–perhaps even you–fear their force, and for good reason.

A single snowflake can’t kill you, but a blizzard can.

So if you want to call me a snowflake, call me a snowflake. That word holds no sting for me. I staked out my winter territory long before this debate. I’ll be here when you’ve forgotten it.

Eating as political act

I spend much of my Sundays in the kitchen, preparing food for the coming week.

This is not a simple domestic ritual to me, though I enjoy it immensely. No, fermenting my own yogurt, baking my own granola, and cooking all my beans instead of getting them from cans is a radical political act.

Here’s why: By making my own foods from scratch—even just some of them and not all—I am rejecting our industrial food production system and all the dollars they pump into political candidates.

picture of a corn field

Most of our food is made from corn and soy. Photo by Tyler Allen. Used under Creative Commons license. Click through for source.

During the 2012 election cycle, agribusiness donated $90 million to political campaigns and advocacy groups, mostly Republican or conservative. In 2014, the food and beverage industry donated more than $16 million, again, mostly to Republican or conservative groups. I am registered Democrat, though the reasons for this have more to do with local politics and my state’s closed primary system than national politics, but that’s another post.

This is not a blue versus red issue to me, though. It’s a life versus death one. The way we produce food is not only killing the planet, it’s killing us, and (some) Republican lawmakers have shown again and again that profit trumps our very lives. So I refuse to take part.

Or, at least, take as little part as I feasibly can.

If that means I have to spend more on what I buy to get it from a co-op instead of a traditional grocery store and spend four or five hours in the kitchen every Sunday pre-cooking rice, chopping vegetables, making granola and cooking beans, then so be it.

My eating and cooking habits are not above reproach. I still enjoy eating at restaurants, many of which likely get their ingredients from agribusiness and giant corporations. I also eat at fast food places like Subway and Panera. Sometimes I rely on products that I know come from developing countries where the workers are paid barely enough to feed their families.

I am not perfect, but perfection is not the goal. Being mindful and engaged with what I eat is the goal. I read ingredients labels. I try to find out which giant food corporation owns the organic brands of frozen vegetables and canned tomatoes I buy (General Mills owns Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen, for example). I buy all my dry goods (rice, flour, oats, beans, etc.) in bulk.

I will not judge you if you react differently to our industrialized food system or choose different ways of eating and preparing food. What works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you, and that’s okay. We should always have options, and a choice.

The problem is that for many, there is no choice. Plenty of people live in “food deserts” (my own neighborhood in a major metropolitan area is one) where the closest store that sells food isn’t a grocery store but a convenience store, where you’re unlikely to find anything but processed, packaged foods. Plenty of people don’t even know how to cook or even select good produce. By default, they have no choice.

My access to farmer’s markets, CSAs, and a co-op, not to mention my access to information on how to best utilize these resources, is a privilege. I recognize that. And that’s why it’s important for me to talk about the food choices I make and why I make them.

When I decline to eat your hamburger helper casserole, it is a statement, yes. But it’s not a statement about you or your skill as a cook. It’s a statement about our food ecosystem and how utterly broken it is. It’s a statement about refusing to fill my body with “food” made in a factory instead of in a kitchen or on a farm.