Thursday, August 26, 2010

Six Wooden Objects — Sawyer Stone

Looking around my room, I count six wooden objects I made — and all before high school. The skills and know-how I used to make them seem distant to me now and I’m hungry to (re)learn how to do more with my hands. Maybe those skill and knowledge sets are simply dormant and could be woken and coaxed out of their groggy state. Five of the wooden objects in my room I made in elementary school shop class and the sixth — a three-cubby shelf — I made in the small disorganized shop in my family’s basement to go in the treehouse my dad and I took almost seven years to build. When my parents recently moved out of my childhood home, about twenty years after I originally drew rough sketches for the treehouse on a brown paper napkin, I recovered the shelf and it now sits simply and proudly beside my bed.

It’s been a long time since I sketched out that vision for my childhood treehouse, or any other vision, but recently I had an idea to make a small wooden extension for the very limited countertop next to our stove. It would fold down, against the side of the counter when not in use, and would fold up and lock in place to rest that bowl or plate for which there never seems to be a spot. It seems simple enough, and certainly less of an undertaking that an entire treehouse, but there’s a certain amount of learning-as-I go that will need to happen. Walking home from work recently, I came across an abandoned bed frame, the headboard for which seemed like a good piece of wood for my counter extension. I hoisted it up on my shoulder and carried it the rest of the way home. Now I just need a saw and some hardware.

One of the gear shifters on my bicycle hasn’t been working properly for months, but I’ve been ignoring it until recently, when twice I’ve flipped my bike upside down in the grass behind my house, pliers and hex wrench out, hands soon greasy, determined to figure out how the bike works, and make it work more smoothly. I know I could take it to a bike shop, ask a friend more experienced with bike maintenance, or look it up in a book or online, but there’s a certain learning and satisfaction that comes from tinkering and figuring it out for myself.

The bathroom sink in the apartment I moved into two and half months ago has been slow to drain since we moved in. Early on, I’d reluctantly poured some “natural” drain de-clogger down it, in a passive attempt to resolve the problem, with no luck. Why hadn’t I just gotten on my hands and knees in the first place? It wasn’t until last week I decided to take matters, and the drainpipe, into my own hands. After pulling the various items out of the cupboard beneath the sink, exposing the pipe, I kneeled amongst the dislocated toilet paper and all-purpose cleaner. Reaching in, I removed a willing section of drainpipe and out came a long blob of hair and gunk – yuck! But that is what I was looking for and was glad I found because now our sink actually drains instead of backing up like it had a plug in it. So satisfying. So simple.

Looking back on my elementary and middle school experiences, two aspects that have long stood out for me, and that are some of my most identifiable valued learning experiences, are shop class and work program. At the time, I may not have extolled the virtues of shop class, or work program — taking out trash, washing dishes, or vacuuming the hallways — but looking back on it, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss all of that, and I worry that shop class and work program may have been eliminated from that and many other schools, depriving current and future students of the enriching experiences that hands-on work offers. They wouldn’t even know what they’re missing.

Despite having had shop class and other manual leaning experiences, for which I am grateful, when it comes to making or fixing certain things, I have often felt disempowered or not manually competent, to borrow a term from Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, which I recently started reading. In general, I feel manual skills were undervalued in my upbringing, and in society at large as well. While I don’t support the dichotomy often presented between knowledge work and manual work, I was being better prepared for the former, not the latter. And while I highly value (the intertwined) intellectual and manual work, it is the latter for which I often feel less competent than I’d like to be, and I am eager to learn more hands-on skills such as woodworking, pottery, bookbinding, and farming. And what better place to do that than in community — in a community of people with all sorts of skills and knowledge and experience, eager to share and grow with one another.

All Hail The Beet Queens

Three of the Beet Queens in Abby's kitchen.
What are those women doing leaning over boiling cauldrons, ladling steaming spicy-sweet vinegar into rows of glass jars and why are their hands stained red? Pickling beets, of course!

For years now, when we've visioned our life after we move into cohousing, near to the top of the list of what we've wanted to do is canning food together. But we don't have to wait to move to cohousing to can, we can start right now! Abby put out the word that she had a lot of beets and invited us to come can. Little did we know she had planted 150 feet of beets — bushels of enormous tasty beets!

We got our systems down quickly: boiling, peeling, slicing, loading jars, processing in the canner and then cooling until the lids ping. We were telling stories and laughing, kids and dogs were running in for food and then off again to play and swim in the pond. We brainstormed about a summer kitchen for canning at the Common House and had a taste of what it will be like, before we know it!

When we were done, we were off to weed Chuck's garden, eat his lovely snacks, swim, and go home tired and happy from being together all day. The first of many work parties.

The end result was 14 pints and 34 quarts of pickled beets ready to open on winter nights when we remember the generosity of a full summer day in Maine!

I Can't Wait to Move to Maine — Allison Piper

My family has had connections to Maine for many generations. My great, great, great grandparents purchased a large plot of land in Franklin, Maine along the shore of Taunton Bay, about an hour north of Belfast. I would come to Franklin every summer as a child and it holds a very dear place in my heart. Whether it was the lobster "races" across the farm house floor, watching the harbor seals watch us off the bow of my great uncle's boat, or the arts and crafts I would engage in on cool, foggy, rainy August days, visiting up Franklin was a highlight of my youth.

I grew up in the rural suburbs of New York. While a very beautiful place, it felt terribly stifling to the teenage me — just not the right fit. When searching for colleges, I visited NYU, but even though I had been sneaking down on the Greyhound to visit for a few years, New York was just too much. Too dirty, too busy, too scary. The second round of searches took me to Boston. I've been there now for eighteen years.

My mother and step dad moved to Franklin while I was in college. She has been sending me newspaper clippings on Maine's forays into social libertarianism and on how badly Maine needs dentists since I started applying to dental schools six years ago. If you'd asked the me back then whether I'd ever move to Maine, I would probably have looked alarmed at even the question. But over the last two years, as we had to decide whether we really wanted to raise our future kids in the city, as we had to deal with the litter and the crowding and the thump-thump bass beats of car radios outside our window, and the absolutely astronomical cost of real estate, my firm resolve to remain a Bostonian the rest of my days started wilting. When Lindsey's family decided to make the greater Belfast area their home, it was all over.

Now I'm finishing the last days of my five week dental student internship at the Penobscot Indian Health Services outside of Old Town and I am happy to say that I'm in love — with dentistry and with Maine. There were a few key moments that captured my heart. One was stepping out of my car one morning at the parking lot outside of work early on during my internship. The rich, blessed scent of pine trees greeted me and caused such a joy in my heart I can't even describe. Then, every day during lunch, I would walk a couple of blocks down to a beautiful reservation park overlooking the Penobscot River. What a simultaneously calming and rejuvenating way to spend my hour between the morning and afternoon sessions! I am slightly pained now at the idea of this coming September when I return for my last year of dental school where I will be spending my lunch hour in the bustling, mostly treeless "Combat Zone" of Boston.

Then, last but not least, there were my visits to Belfast. The drive from Bangor alone, down Routes 9 and 7 across the rolling, farm-dotted hills and mountains (including Piper Mountain west of Newburgh) made me happy enough to go. But my mid-coast destinations sealed the deal, whether it was the ocean view from Belfast City Park, the panorama laid out before me after hiking up Mt. Battie in the Camden Hills with the promise of many more adventures to come before me, or the equity meeting where we set our April ground breaking drive and all of the cooperation and good communication that never ceases to impress me at our meetings. Oh, and of course there was the wonderful, spontaneous cookout at Sanna and Alan's, foretelling Common House meals to come and visits to see my beautiful three month old nephew, Yukon, right next door in Morrill.

So as I'm packing my bags to head back to Jamaica Plain, I'm doing my best to remember that I can enjoy each and every day between now and then in that great city. We have many wonderful friends there that we'll sorely miss and I'll never again be surrounded by the kind of daily, enriching academic melting pot that is Tufts Dental School. But I can still hold in my heart the little joys and promises that I now truly know await me in Belfast. I will be there before I know it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Adventures in Ecuador — James Pierson


I went to high school at Vermont Academy, where they ran a study abroad program to Ecuador during the summer. After studying Spanish for seven years (surrounded by people who speak English as their primary language) I decided this trip would be great to help me to really apply what I had learned. After graduating from V. A. in the summer of 2002, I headed out.

We flew into Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and spent a day roaming around checking out the city. It’s a fairly modern place that I didn’t find it too interesting. I did have an interesting conversation with two guys, though, and I’m pretty sure one of them made fun of me in Portuguese. The next morning we were off to Cuenca, which would be our home base for the next month.

In Cuenca we all split up to stay with our own host families. When you start living in someone’s house and you can’t really speak their language very well you start learning pretty quickly, though I must say the first week or so was quite confusing. Yes, I said I took seven years of Spanish, but no one said I was very good at conversing! Speaking was not the only way of communicating, though. People were very patient with me and helped me to understand things.

I was amazed at how close the people were in this culture. Every time my host family took me somewhere, even if it was people they just met, there were hugs and kisses galore. Awesome! I couldn’t figure out what happened with our culture. How could these people sit and talk to each other with their faces only inches from each other? If I talked to someone like that in the states, they would think I was coming on to them (or just weird) and probably not want to have anything to do with me. These people really have a strong cultural love for each other.

Other than running around with my host family meeting people, I also went to school to improve my Spanish. Its funny how much more I actually wanted to pay attention now that I realized how much more I had to learn. We also had this awesome pottery teacher who always had some kind of wonderful tea brewing for us in this extravagant glass tea pot. I loved working with her! She was always so fun and laughing about everything.

After the first week in Cuenca we went to Cajas. This huge national park is almost impossible to describe. You are hiking along mountainous terrain, all the while looking down into a huge open landscape. The vegetation was yucca, agave, and similar succulents, one with razor sharp teeth all along the leaves, as well as razor sharp grasses that you had to very carefully part to walk through. We had packhorses and guides taking us through this beautiful place. At about 9,000 – 10,000 feet it was quite a workout. Lots of little steps make it easier though. I tried chewing on coca leaves, which I was told those who did hard labor often chewed to help cure hunger pangs. It was interesting to say the least.

Then we were back to Cuenca for a few days, back in school, and then back out to the Amazon to stay with the Shuar. The Shuar are an amazing tribe in the Amazon. I was constantly planning how I could stay there forever. If I just disappeared with this beautiful girl into the rainforest, what could they do? They would never find me! OK, so obviously I came back—but not before being completely falling in love with the tribe and the rainforest. We visited a family in their home. This is quite an experience.

You enter the rectangular home from the front, and inside sits the host. The man of the house sits on a stool and greets people as they come in. The spot where he sits marks a boundary line through the house. You don’t go past him, period. The woman of the house comes out from behind a wall just a few feet behind the man, carrying a large (and I do mean large) pot of Chicha. What is Chicha you ask? A fine traditional beverage made by the woman of the house. She masticates Yucca, spits it into a container and lets it ferment. It kind of tastes like hard apple cider, with a little… well we’ll just call it added texture. All guests in the home must partake in drinking. And not just a sip, either! The woman walks around offering the bowl, inviting all the sitting guests to enjoy as much as they wish. Then she goes back to the pot, refills the bowl and passes it to the next person until the pot is empty. Or (as in our case) until she goes into the back room and refills the pot two more times. Yum. Did I mention that when you are handed the bowl, if you are a man, you do not make eye contact? Our instructor said, “you can stare at her breasts for all I care—just don’t make eye contact. ” When a man and woman make eye contact, it’s worse than flirting; it’s like asking them to go deep into the rainforest and… well you get the idea. So after lots of drinking, the man pulled out what looked like a two stringed violin and started playing. It was awesome to sit and drink and listen to his music.

Back in Cuenca we decided to have a fine meal of cui—a delicacy to the Ecuadorian people. Cui is roasted guinea pig—a wonderful food if you don’t mind eating what your friend’s daughter might be keeping as a pet! Following that up with a traditional large shot of corn alcohol makes it a little better, but not much.

After spending a little more time at school in Cuenca, we spent four days traveling around the Galapagos Islands. Quite possibly the coolest turtles-lizards-and-birds experience I have had. Walking around on the islands you constantly have to be careful not to trip over boobies—blue-footed boobies, that is. They are amazing birds that fly high above the water and then plunge like high dive artists into the water to get fish. Ironically, it’s this diving that also kills them. Eventually they go blind from hitting the water so hard with their eyes open, and no longer can get food. Frigate birds—with large red neck bladders that they inflate to attract females—were everywhere. Albatross were diving off cliffs to take off and clumsily crashing back to the ground, as their wingspans are so large that they can’t really land gracefully. The Galapagos turtles were so huge that I’m pretty sure that if I curled up into a ball I could fit into their shell. Walking the beach with sea lions was intimidating and awesome at the same time. None of the animals on the islands care at all that there is a human presence, as they have been protected for so long that they have no reason to fear. You can walk right up to a sea lion and talk to it, though I wouldn’t recommend doing that to a large male; one briefly charged me, but apparently decided I wasn’t worth his while as he quickly stopped. Guess I just got a little to close.

That trip changed my view of the world and life itself. I realized a love that can exist between people as a whole, and how truly amazing our earth is. It was then that I realized how important it was to maintain healthy relationships with people and with our earth.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Sweetest Open House Ever — Elizabeth Garber

You might think that it was the golden light of August, the singing hum of cicadas in the background, the rumbling of hand-crank ice cream makers grinding ice around blueberry ice cream, or the bowls of coconut milk ginger or peach sorbet, or the circle of musicians under the shade trees in the front yard that made this the sweetest open house ever, but I don't think it was all of that fine sweetness. It was what happened for all of us when Chuck visited on his way home from the hospital, five days after open heart surgery.

The children had made him a bright, colorful get-well banner. He sat in a chair under the ancient locust tree, standing up to hug each of us, and the musicians circled around and played for him. Tears of tenderness and love welled up for all of us, over and over. We suddenly realized how deeply we are growing to care for each other, how a web of caring and love is connecting us all. How we couldn't stop gazing at Chuck with love and fondness and awe, that one who had stepped so close to the edge of life and death had returned to us, and it meant so much. We looked around at everyone and realized how much we cared about each other at such a deep level, and that this is at the heart of all we are doing.

Thank you all for the gifts you brought to the day — the ice cream you made, the mowing and weed-whacking, the generosity of all the conversations you offered the abundance of guests, the tours on the land and the prototype house, the playing with children, and the giant bubbles that filled the afternoon with luminous joy.

It was a blessed day.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"Between Sky and Sea" Opens at Beaver Street August 13

A selection of intimate artworks by renowned painter Angelo Ippolito marks the second exhibition in BC&E's Beaver Street gallery, located in the alley opposite the Co-op in downtown Belfast. On view will be a selection of oils, watercolors, and collages, many created in response to seaside locales, such as the Adriatic and Aegean. All convey the artist's signature concern for capturing the vibrant air where the sky meets sea or land. The opening reception is Friday August 13th from 5-8 pm; the gallery will also be open Friday evenings throughout the summer, as well as by appointment. Apart from sharing the visions of diverse artists, exhibitions in this windowed corner office offer interested visitors a chance to meet cohousers and learn more about their vision of creative sustainability.

"Between Sky and Sea: Intimate works by Angelo Ippolito" celebrates the creativity of BC&E's extended family by showcasing work by the father of member Jon Ippolito.
Best known for his prominent role in the New York School of abstract expressionism, Angelo Ippolito (1922-2001) produced a body of paintings and works on paper renowned for their lyrical color, light, and compositional rigor. Having immigrated from Italy at age nine, Ippolito helped usher in the downtown New York arts scene by co-founding the influential Tanager gallery in 1952, whose members included celebrated Maine painters Alex Katz and Lois Dodd. His paintings gained acclaim for their "brilliant color" (Fairfield Porter) and "joyous lyricism" (Dore Ashton). Long featured in the collections of New York's MoMA, Whitney, and Metropolitan museums, Ippolito's work has recently been seen in Maine via acquisitions by Colby College (2010) and the University of Maine (2008), whose president Robert Kennedy described Ippolito as "an accomplished artist of the first order."

The exhibition is curated by Jon Ippolito with help from Jeffrey Mabee and Elizabeth Garber, all BC&E members. You can find more information on the artist at
AngeloIppolito.com; for more on the show, please email info@mainecohousing.org or call 207-338-9200.