Friday, September 19, 2014

Death in the Keweenaw....

Summer and fall is a season of funerals around here. It is a strange thing that there is so many, that every week during the warm and relatively dry weather that people are gathered together every week for a funeral or two. It used to bother me when I heard that people waited so long to bury the dead here. Sometimes they do not wait to have the funeral and they have it immediately but often times they wait for the burial.

Now I realize that they have no choice.

In winter here, the ground is frozen more than eight feet down and even if it were not, the ground is itself buried under six feet of solid snow pack. The snow becomes hard and dense like rock as it settles in more and more compactly over the winter so that late in the season, it can hold a two hundred pound person. There is simply no way to bury the dead under those conditions and the spring is no easier.

In the spring time, the creeks are full to bursting and the rolling countryside is full of more and more creeks that will carry off all the melt and then disappear into empty scars full of bright green plants when the summer comes. The ground must thaw and it heaves and moves as it does and you can literally hear the water melting in the ground as it moves down and down into the water table. Everything is soft mud and the soil is loose and unstable and trucking grinds to a halt. The road bed is so unstable that there are mandatory restrictions on most roads and nothing larger than a delivery van is allowed on them in order to prevent the road collapsing. If you were to go out into the farm yard and dig a hole, not only would it immediately fill with melted snow, but the ground itself would slide down to refill the hole. I know this because I have watched my children experiment like this. It is ultimately destructive and not only useless to try to dig a grave until the last of the ground is melted and the water has moved downwards.

Then comes the long, long days and the relatively warm summers and the ground dries out and firms up. This is the weather that graves can be dug, and they are dug, and funerals abound. Summer into fall, before the deep snow and the frozen ground, is when families bury their dead here. Today we came back from one funeral and tomorrow we will be getting ready for another one scheduled the next Saturday. Today's funeral was for the husband of a new friend from church. He lived a full and active life and worked in the state park on an outlying island as well as working on the ferry that traveled back and forth with cargo to and from the island. Once, he was almost washed overboard from the tug during a rough ride. When the same boat passed by the graveyard up on the hill from the shore, the Captain called to have the Captain's salute boomed out by the ship. It was a beautiful place to be buried, surrounded by trees and water in the wilderness that he loved so much. He suffered so much and for so long and the place that they chose for his body to rest is so peaceful and it stands in stark contrast.

Tomorrow, my oldest daughter and I will be making meatballs and baking cookies and bread to freeze for the funeral of an aunt of Ben's that will be in one week. She also suffered a long time before she died. She will be buried in the country cemetery not far from this homestead where she was born and raised. We expect a bustling houseful of family and long time friends to be in and out of the house here and there will be many, many people to feed. We will talk and visit and laugh over all the wonderful parts of our lives that we share together. There will be many people we have not seen since we buried Ben's father two years ago. It is sad that we only see each other for funerals but in the end this is a good. Our lives and our love have so much meaning that we mark it with these important visits and conversations over coffee. It would be far more sad if we did not even gather for the funerals.

This firebrand of an aunt, who could move mountains and reached out to her nieces and nephews to make them children of her own when she had none will be just one of the funerals to take place here this season. We will laugh and cry and eat and drink together and be grateful for this opportunity. Then, we will bury her close the shore where she be close the the water that defined her life. No one wants to be buried far from the lake and the trees, no one wants their loved ones to be away from the sound of the wind and waves. Eight months of long, long winter will bury the dead again. When summer comes, we will go and see them and groom their graves. It is a cycle of visiting and burying, and bringing more friends and family to sleep there the next time we come. It is just one of the ways that the Keweenaw shapes the people who live here.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Practice makes perfect...

I am really working hard on my photography. I am taking online classes and reading books and submitting photos for constructive criticism. I'm taking hundreds and hundreds of shots that are set up the same but with different settings so I can see the effects. I am hoping that if practice does not make perfect, then at least it should make it better! My kids are thrilled to pose, at least most of the time, and with this many children there's always someone to shoot.I wonder if I have time for it all but in the end it is work, right? I am doing for you, right? Better pictures make for better blogs so, it is work, right?

At any rate, this week I am working on shots taken from down and below the subject. So I am crawling all over the floor and the ground outside to get shots and the kids and Ben think I am crazy. I am having the hardest time with this! I can't figure out how to frame the subject and it is just so hard for me. I don't want to take snapshots, I want real work, and I am still at the stage where setting up a real photo is a lot of hard work. But this evening I had a real opportunity and when opportunity calls, you answer!

The sunset was so vividly red tonight. It shone on the living room wall and looked for all the world like it was being filtered. I was finishing my work in the kitchen and I really should have just ditched it and took the shots but I missed it all by a few minutes. I was so disappointed I was going to put the camera up in my room and not think about this week's theme until Saturday. But then when Cristina shut the baby on the stairs on the other side of the gate, and she fell down a couple of steps, I had to send her to timeout. She was so petulant! It was a great chance to have a subject in a small space (easier to frame) and I got down on a sofa pillow on the floor and took loads of shots of Cristina right there in timeout tonight.

Cristina holding her plastic doll pony in her lap is the best of the bunch but I have not played around with it in editing yet. It might be good in black and white but then again, maybe not. It took a lot of shots to get there. While not all the other shots were "good" technically speaking, I just loved seeing her mood! There is so much there to be said, It was so funny and I felt badly that she was so angry with me because she was so darn cute!

She sat over me as I crawled up to her with my camera and almost got in her lap. She was none too pleased at first but after she was out of time out and had gotten ready for bed, I showed her the pictures. She was thrilled. She reinvented a new reason for what she was doing and why and had a whole backstory about her "modeling" job. I just loved listening to her tell me how she was acting angry but it was really fun. I am glad that she remembers it that way. The best photo was the last so maybe by then she was really acting. but this photo that I show you last was the first and she was livid with me still. There is nothing so attractive and appealing like a petulant child, like so many of Mary Cassat's paintings.

At any rate, it is all good for you because as my photos get better, you will have better things to look at in every post!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The leaves are changing...

Fall is firmly here. Coming from Colorado, I am not used to the whole four defined seasons thing. Denver is wildly chaotic in the spring and fall. Last week, there was snow on Thursday night into Friday morning back home in the Mile High City. Not only was it bright and sunny later the same day, but it was almost 80 degrees on Saturday. No place has weather like Denver. It will be like that all fall and even in the dead of winter, warm and sunny and decidedly spring-like days will sneak in with one day in the twenties and the next in the mid-sixties.

Here on the Keweenaw Peninsula it is very different. Fall is fall. It becomes pretty chilly, in the forties and later in the twenties, and the ferns die back and the grass goes dormant and there will be scattered snow showers but no real build up. There are weeks of gorgeous fall color and not all the leaves are knocked off in one fell swoop. We can ease into the winter with temperatures that slid into bitter, bitter sub-zero highs. In December, right on time, the snow stops playing around and will just build up. By Christmas of last year, we had almost six feet of snow on the ground.

We had been resisting lighting the big outdoor furnace that our son, Eli, named "Infernicus". It is pretty much the best name. Ev-er. We had been just wearing sweaters and lighting the wood burning cook stove in the kitchen to take the chill out and relying on cooking and being active to warm the house. Being a log structure hiding under Tyvex and siding, it is remarkably well insulated. It was in the low sixties most of the day. But in the end, we knew that heating season is coming and that we would be lighting the furnace occasionally Today marks the very first day that we lit it this season. So now we are warm and snug and won't wake up to a house that is only 58 degrees in the morning. We were all dreading the change in seasons but the fall is so, so beautiful here that once we have settled in with the idea, we will just enjoy the cool weather. Cool being in the 30s.

We have about nine or ten cords of wood and there will be another ten to cut into blocks with the chain saw. I don't help with this. Actually, I do. I make sure that there is hot coffee and lots of hot food. Come to think of it, that is pretty darn helpful. But in the end, it is Ben and the oldest boy still at home out there cutting blocks and then splitting them with the gas powered splitter doing all the real work. It is them who keep us warm all winter long, and winter here is a long, long time.

I used to wonder about the effect that the change of seasons had on people. November comes and all the signs come down and all the outdoor furniture, including public picnic tables, goes into hiding. People start mowing down considerable amounts of space around their homes and the road commission aggressively attacks all the plants growing by the sides of the road.  People starting getting ready for snow a dozen feet high by planning where they are going to put all that snow that they clear. I thought that they should enjoy what time was left but now, now I get it. Once the leaves change and the nights are below freezing there is this sudden panic about winter.
Winter is coming and we need to be ready for it.

But I still want to make sure that we enjoy what is left of the fall. I want to take some snacks down to the beach and build a bonfire and watch the waves comes in. That will be a trick. The winter and the high winds have left very little beach. The water is so high it is almost up to the treelined edge of the woods that meets the beach. We'll see where we can sit and how we can manage it.

In the meantime, we are picking apples like mad. I am juicing with the Finnish steam juicer and will use the weekends to make jelly. My jelly took a blue ribbon at the fair this year, jelly made from the apples here at the farm. I plan making plenty more. We also want to put up more apple butter and apple sauce and apple cider and that takes lots of apples. While the kids are working on their spelling or reciting their poetry, I have the books open on the island and I am madly cutting apples. Apples and apples and apples and more apples! Not to mention all the school work.

I have eight kids homeschooling this year, from Kindergarten through high school and every age and stage between. I think we are finally getting a handle on the schedule and getting the kids familiar with the texts enough that they are somewhat independent. I thought I was losing my mind. No, that is not accurate. I am pretty sure that I am. But, I have learned the coolest tip from haunting all those Pintrest boards of school teachers. The. Dull. Pencil. Bin. Hallelujah! You know how there is always all that craziness of looking for pencils and sharpening pencils and listening to the darn sharpener all dang day? My life is forever changed. I have a caddy pocket for sharp ones and a little bin for dull. At the end of the day, all pencils need to be rounded up and put away. Only one time per day is the sharpener used and now it is a coveted task. I can even be somewhere else while some happy maniacal child madly sharpens away. Oh happy day!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Pushing in...

 Years ago when when my husband was a small child living in a different house here in the woods (his grandmother was still in this house), his father took a round table off the porch of the house in order to refinish it. I was a round solid oak pedestal table that had been painted with grey porch paint and was used as a porch table. He peeled back the layers and revealed this beautiful table. It sat in his kitchen for the rest of his life. My husband and his sister always remember having sat at that table to eat their meals or do their homework. His sister loved that table so much that when she grew up and married and had a family of her own she bought an antique that looks remarkably the same.

When my father-in-law died, three years ago Monday, my sister-in-law took the table, which we all thought was the best idea. She had always loved that table. But, it was nearly exactly like the table she already owned and there were so many other things of their father's that she wanted to make room for in her home. So, space being limited, she asked Ben if he wanted it. We have eleven children and now live in his grandparent's farmhouse on the homestead with only 1640 square feet. Space being limited, we knew that there would some things we would have to move out of the house in order to make room for this table. But, we already had given up half of what we owned to move here just last summer. So, we did the only rational thing that people in our position do.
We just pushed in.

This was his father's table, it is almost exactly three years since he died, and we now live in the farmhouse. What else could we do? We moved  a substantial amount of first floor furniture to accommodate it and things are bit more cosy that they were before but it seems to be working out alright. We might decide to tweak it a bit after the weekend and we have had a chance to see how it all works out in the practice of daily living. So far, I like. Instead of antique oak desks, our children will have an antique oak table to work at, one their father ate his meals at for all the years that he lived at home. They will work puzzles there, draw pictures, write letters, and play board games. In so many ways moving here is about coming full circle in our lives and going to back to the beginning, a rustic beginning but not so nearly rustic as it was for the previous generations.

It is perfect timing that is arrives today, just three days before the anniversary of his death. When that day comes, our children will take their books and sharpened pencils and sit down to do their school work at their father's table, the same table at which their father sat down to do his homework when it was his own father's table. It was very generous of Julie to pass it on to us, and it was very honest of her to realize just what she needed to push into her own home and what she could be at peace with giving up.

We sent her an email of the table right after it was reassembled and in its place. There are a few details to see to and there are odds and ends still lying about but it is here and it is has a place in the house. The table came from the little collection of houses here in the woods and it has come home.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Reflecting on the 11th...

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Today is September 11th. It is tough to know how to act or what to say because there is this haunting sense that we need to be so firmly entrenched in the tragedy of this day. I don't think so. That is not to say that I think that we should forget about what happened, what lead up to it, or about all the people who died. I don't think that is a matter of one extreme versus another. I think that there is a happy medium to be had. We do not have to choose to be completely formed and disfigured by pain. We can choose to live. The hardest part is that we worry about looking as if we are forgetful.

I choose not to revel in pain. It is far easier for me than for some other, this is true. Now I live in the woods in the middle of nowhere and almost in Canada but then I lived back home in Denver so, so far away from all the chaos of all three crashes. But like all Americans, I was inundated with images and not immune from the horror. I watched hours of news feed that I could not seem to turn away from no matter how little else they could keep saying. I was pregnant at the time and with all the talk of the widows of 9/11 it was a shadow over my pregnancy and delivery. Everyone told me how lucky I was that my husband was still alive to be there with me when I delivered a healthy nine pound boy twelve days before my due date. This strikes me now as strange. In a country of millions and millions of people, almost every pregnant wife had this luxury. There was no reason to think that he would not be there. While thousands and thousands of people died that day, millions and millions lived but they chose to live halfheartedly.

Today was really just like yesterday, well, actually is wasn't. Something finally clicked in Veronica's head and she was right in there with the movable alphabet at Spelling time, which was awesome. Oh, and tonight's dinner was better since it was not a fast day. That is it at the head of the post. We had orzo with bacon, kale, liver, and Parmesan and it was amazing. But in most regards, it really was so much like yesterday and it will likely be a lot like tomorrow. Although being Friday, I won't be having cream in my coffee, but the point still stands. We keep living. We keep moving forward.

One of the things that made the decision easier is that my oldest son's birthday is Saturday. Immediately following the attacks, we felt like a birthday party would be too much so we settled on a a quite family dinner with four cheese lasagna and brownies with homemade ice cream. The next year, I decided that we were not going to force our child to live under the cloud of the year and we celebrated his birthday properly and publicly, even when we were criticized. I told people that he was alive, that we were alive, and really this is a good thing. We should not wallow only in death but in life. His birthday brought us out from under the oppressive darkness of that day and gave it light. That is a blessing.

In the wake of the attacks when there was all that craziness over the anthrax being mailed to people, I was pregnant and emotional. My mother-in-law was a facility manager for the Federal Center outside of Denver. When packages or letters arrived that were messy, or badly wrapped, or were labeled with crayon or childish writing, the staff of the mail room were supposed to give them to her to open in small, enclosed space. She was terrified. She would call me on the phone and I would listen to her open packages and we would cry together so that she would not have to be utterly alone. When my third son was born just a month later, it was such a relief to have joy in that dark time. I was so grateful for his life. It gave us an opportunity to be happy again. In the days following his baptism, I would smell the chrism on his skin and drink in the extraordinary joy of that day. His birth is and was a blessing.

I am so happy to live that I not only remember what happened but I also remember that did not die that day. I do not want to live as though I were dead to the beauty and life of the world around me. How we abandon the memory of those who died if we crawl down in the grave with them! They wanted to live and would not wish death on themselves or anyone else. We can and should live for them.

Lastly, Rod Dreher had a beautiful piece about this very thing today and I think you should all go over and read it HERE.

Really lastly, good friends from back home welcomes a darling baby boy into the world today. It may be a tough day to be born, but a beautiful one, too. His birth brings life into a dark memory. I can't help but think of how every year will be a wonderful reminder of how beautiful life truly is.
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