paying attention

Not Perfect, Just Right

hello there friend

I’m walking quickly, listening to an audiobook that’s the fourth in an embarrassingly cheesy young adult series, when my eye catches and stops briefly on a grill perched at the end of someone’s driveway. There’s a sign slapped on it with messy handwriting that reads: “not perfect.” I keep walking, but my mind is completely fixed on “not perfect,” like a heel caught faltering in grass at an outdoor wedding.

Not perfect. Not perfect.

It sings in me; it buzzes somewhere in me that’s been craving this message of comfortable acceptance. How unusual, but how wonderful, if it really does say “not perfect.” I turn around, walk back, and try to fix on the letters. I need to know if that’s what it actually says, but it turns out there’s something else next to the “not” and the bottom word is particularly illegible. I squint for a while, wait for the cars driving past to clear, and cross the street.

Once there, I see the sign actually reads: “not lighting properly.” I imagine that its owner with the sloppy script hopes that there’s a person out there who will be able to easily figure out the problem and, once fixed, get to enjoy the fruits (hot dogs?) of their roadside find. It’s not perfect, but maybe it’s just right for someone.

About a month ago, I was listening to a podcast that suggested imagining that you were moving and could start your life over in any way that you’d like. Imagine your ideal life, whatever that might look like, they said.

I snorted, most likely in my head (but maybe not), and began thinking of my fantasy apartment on the Seine in Paris and my dream cottage in the English countryside. I’d dress like a casual Kate Middleton and, heck, look like her, too. I’d wake up in the mornings and, alongside my husband, have a cup of tea and read. We’d take the time to think about our food, rather than texting each other in the evening, “Tacos, again?” and forgetting altogether about vegetables. My inner monologue slowed.

Maybe there was no need for the snarky tone to my thoughts. Parisian Kate Middleton aside, those last things were, in fact, very doable. The idea of making this perfect life attainable was one that I began to mull over seriously.

My weekday mornings used to look like this: Lie in bed until my husband was done shaving, get up, get dressed, go downstairs. I’d make my toast, distributing my peanut butter evenly across the top, and plunk down on our couch in front of the TV to watch the news. Then I’d brush my teeth, get into the car, and be on my way. It wasn’t something I had even thought about. I just did it.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. We tend to imagine that we will be a different person once we’ve reached a certain point in our lives. When I don’t work so many hours, I’ll exercise.When I have kids, I’ll make the time to slow down and be in the moment. When my kids are older, I’ll do things for me and pursue that passion that’s always been hovering in the back of my mind. Often, those milestones roll past, and those ideal selves don’t ever magically appear. We have to actually do something to make them real.

I decided to do just that something, starting with my mornings. I still generally have my piece of toast evenly spread with peanut butter. Some days I have tea, but mostly I don’t remember in time and instead have my usual water. Some days I read a book, but often I’ll flip through a magazine or even a catalogue, letting my brain slowly settle into the day. Some days my husband and I chat; others we’re quiet. It’s not much, but, honestly, these new, more purposeful mornings feel like freedom – the freedom to actively remember that I have a choice in how I live my days, and that I can make that choice now.

It’s getting darker these days, so we don’t have the beautiful light of our weekend mornings. The birds usually haven’t yet begun their songs and chatter, but there is still a sense of peace that fills me up, like a slow breath taken while watching leaves skate atop the rough sidewalk on a windy, late fall day.

My everyday mornings are by no means perfect, but, for me, they’re just right.

A week ago, I’m bundled up, out for a walk, and entangled in my thoughts, when I abruptly pause. I realize I’ve passed the driveway where the grill that wasn’t lighting properly once stood. The cold air is bitter and, despite my gloves, my fingers are already protesting. But I linger a moment. I soak in a little bit of happiness seeing that the grill is gone, that, I let myself believe, someone has chosen to make the small change to make it just right.


Words and image by Erin Smith.

Letting Go of the Garden

hello there friend

On one of the first cool days this fall, I walked over to my garden, pushed open the broken gate, and stepped inside. The picket fence surrounded me; the weeds so tall I could no longer see the raised beds. In every direction, I saw hard physical labor in the wood framed plots I have made (and remade) over the years — the mulch and soil that I moved by shovel and wheelbarrow, all the mowing along the edges and pathways with a heavy trimmer I can barely lift off the ground, and years’ worth of weeds pulled and seedlings planted, my knees wet and muddy from kneeling on the earth.

All I could focus on were the hornworms, shield bugs, rust, rot, beetles, moles, slugs, and wilts that I fought against season after season. Yes, there were dinners pulled out of this space, the miracle of a fresh raspberry and a refuge of quiet, but I felt closed in and exhausted. Instead of putting things to bed for the winter, I was ready to take the garden apart for good.

Growing up, my best friend’s mother had the most amazing flower beds and vegetable gardens. They were lush and ever-changing with their colors, patterns, and bounty of fresh food. If we were ever looking for her, she was always up to her elbows in these spaces. She worked on moving perennials, turning the compost, pulling weeds, and trellising fruit—always working on that garden.

As soon as I had a yard of my own, I knew I wanted something just as beautiful. I convinced my new husband to join me in gardening together — small rows of corn, cucumbers, and tomatoes at the back of our yard and perennials around the front of the house. I subscribed to Organic Gardening magazine and bought Eliot Coleman’s books as I tried to wrestle our suburban lawn into something beautiful and productive.

When we moved to a house with two acres and no garden, I couldn’t believe how much potential there was for not only a garden but also an orchard, animals, a clothesline — all the ingredients needed to live back to the land. I had young babies and no job, and embraced the identity of a homesteader with gusto. I started heirloom seeds in the basement, extended the season with cold frames, canned applesauce and tomato soup, made my own yogurt, learned to spin fiber and relearned how to knit, and of course diapered my last baby in cloth. I added chickens for eggs. Then ducks. Then guinea hens. Then rabbits. Two beehives. Then pigs. And, finally, chickens for their meat.

Some of these ventures worked, but many of them didn’t, and most of it was my responsibility. My husband was fine bragging to others about the homemade granola but wanted nothing to do with making it. He enjoyed the open space of the property but had no interest in working it with his hands. I was the sole force behind the vision and the execution because I needed something else to be besides “mother” and “wife.”

I also assumed that over time, the family would bow to my will and join in. But it never happened. Instead of accepting that all the manual labor was up to my small frame, I became full of anger and resentment. I moved animals, carried water, dug soil, pulled weeds, hauled mulch, spread straw, turned compost, caught escaping animals and buried the dead ones. That garden fence started feeling taller, the pickets sharper.

Wendell Berry reminded me that tiring my body with this work was good. The homesteading forums were full of stories of families who worked together. But I was planting fruit trees alone by flashlight after the kids were finally in bed, swearing under by breath at the physical frustration and loneliness.

I began to want a different way to spend my free time, but I didn’t know how to stop. I wanted to be a source for the local food movement, raising my fist against the evils of the corporate system. Neighbors knew me as the egg lady. We were featured in the city paper as “21st century homesteaders.” When someone asked what I did, I felt that caring for our small farm represented more of who I was than homemaker. I hung laundry on the clothesline, made bread, and educated others on how easy chickens were to care for — if I quit doing these things who would I be?

Some wise people in my life reminded me that I could support others who raised animals the same way I did. I didn’t have to do it all myself just because we own the land. It was freeing. That year, I phased out most of the animals.

Still, the garden remained. I tried to minimize the work by planting mostly perennials like asparagus, rhubarb, and berries. The rest of the raised beds and edges I filled with flowers. But between soil that was too depleted, the pests, and the weeds, I felt defeated.

This final season, I hadn’t returned to the garden after our trip to Ecuador in August. While we were gone, most of the raspberry canes had died and my suspicions about asparagus beetles had come to fruition. Seeing this eyesore with its leaning posts from the house made me cringe. I felt hot with the shame that comes from internal and completely unrealistic expectations: ‘How could you have paid for that fencing to just tear it down? Are you really a quitter? How can you turn your back on fresh vegetables from your own yard? Don’t you know how lucky you are?’

When I started homesteading, I wanted someone to ask how they could help me, what did I need them to do? Twenty years later, I still wanted someone to ask me those questions, but I know now that I have to answer them myself.

In those twenty years, I have learned that I am dynamic, that my passions can change and I continue to learn and grow. I am not a quitter, but I have new interests. I used to homestead. I used to make bread. I used to find our dinner in our yard. But now I can do things I could never do before — now I can run a 5K, travel across the world with my family, teach my children how to drive, and most weeks shop at the local farmers’ market. I am still me.

On Sunday, I found the crowbar and hammer in the bottom of the red metal tool box in the garage. I pulled on a pair of blue and white work gloves and called the dogs out to keep me company. Slowly and steadily, over three days, I removed eighteen panels of fencing measuring six feet long and four feet high. I even managed to pull some of the four-by posts out of the mucky soil. I took apart the rotting lumber of the raised beds, my shirt and pants full of sticky seeds. The dogs had a terrific time catching a few mice and voles, their coats a matted mess of burrs.

I posted the fencing on Craigslist and a few days later, a father and son carted it away. I boxed up my gardening manuals to donate to the library. My few remaining chickens are scattering the compost pile and soon I’ll use the tractor to mow it all down to a blank slate. I’m already feeling lighter and relieved, curious to see where I am headed next.


Words and image by Megan Fraser.

Tucked Away

hello there friend

Growing up I spent a lot of time with my cousins. We would create elaborate imaginary worlds and on-going dress-up dramas that would endure for several months. We played a lot of cards and board games. We watched Pink Panther movies over and over again. We put on embarrassing dance performances for large family gatherings by using our pastel-colored boom boxes to record music from the radio.

And we played a lot of Sardines. Sardines is similar to hide-and-seek, but instead of hiding from the seeker, everyone looks for one person, then crams into the hiding space together. When we eventually crawled into that space we would hold our breath, fight the giggles, and remain hidden until the final person discovered the sweaty mess of kids crammed under our grandmother’s back porch steps or in a musty closet with towering piles of our grandfather’s old tax returns. The last person to discover the “sardines” was the next one to hide, and the game would continue until my grandmother would call us into the kitchen for an afternoon snack.

I am sure we must have played Sardines in other places, but my strongest memory of playing it is at my grandparents’ home. Theirs was a large house, which at one point held nine children. But as they grew up and moved into their own homes, it gradually became filled with boxes, mounds of papers, unfinished projects, egg cartons, books, plastic bags, yarn, sweepstakes letters, empty margarine tubs, damaged or unlabeled cans of food, among other things. My grandparents had grown up during the Depression and they were both incredibly bright, resourceful, and witty. But they also had a strong need to hold onto anything that could potentially be reused, refurbished, and remembered. They were hardcore recyclers and hoarders long before those terms became commonplace.

I inherited my grandparents’ tendency to hold onto things, but as a military family who frequently has overseas assignments, we are limited in the weight and size of our household goods. Moving every three to five years forces us to reevaluate all of our belongings. It is an incredibly draining process for me and with this most recent move from Maryland to Japan, I started to think about the different ways I “box” things up in my life. While weaving in between wobbly piles of books and my excessive collection of tablecloths, I realized that it goes so much deeper than objects. I don’t just cling to physical items — I also clutch bits and pieces of stories and raw emotions. And just like any seasoned Sardines player, I hold my breath and cram them into the tight spaces hidden from view until they are ready to be rediscovered and reexamined. Sometimes these memories reemerge in expected ways, but most of the time they catch me off guard and take my breath away.

Since moving to Japan, my eleven-year-old daughter, Camille, has discovered the joys of origami and has spent countless hours transforming single sheets of paper into three dimensional creations that are both fragile and surprisingly durable. One of the very first things Camille learned to make were boxes, lovely little boxes that are able to hold their shape with only a few deft folds of the paper.

Soon, after she mastered those boxes, we visited the Hiroshima Peace Park. At the entrance to the Memorial Hall honoring the victims, we stopped to admire a set of miniscule origami cranes. Camille and I were amazed by how tiny, perfect, and beautiful they are. A Japanese docent noticed our fascination with them and guided us over to her desk where she proceeded to hand Camille a little origami box, similar to the boxes she had been making but on a much smaller scale. Nestled inside that box, were two of the smallest cranes we had ever seen.

The docent told us that she had made them that morning and that she wanted my daughter to have them. My eyes filled with tears as we thanked her for her generosity. Camille and I moved on to the memorial space, and the tears continued to flow. I was struck by the power of the paper box that my daughter was so carefully cradling in her hand. Surrounded by the haunting presence of war, loss, and sorrow, there was also this gift of peace, hope, beauty, and human connection all tucked into an itty-bitty box, made by a Japanese woman and gifted to an American girl.

We returned home, and my daughter found a special spot for the origami boxes in her room. Sometimes it’s the smallest boxes that contain the most important pieces of ourselves and others. Sometimes we cram as much as we can into whatever size box we have – a back closet filled with cousins or a moving box packed with seashells and favorite photos. And sometimes what’s most precious to us is hidden in unexpected spaces, small containers, just waiting for the perfect moment to be discovered, a moment of clarity and resonance. These are what I treasure and carry with me around the world.


Words and image by Lucia Saperstein.