Saturday, October 31, 2009

Good, True Stock of Separatists

This is my mother, Carla Emery.

The picture captures her very well, from the broad and very practiced smile to the misspelled tag that accompanied the download, "calra-home."

I'm on a winding path right now, but it seems that no matter where I think I'm headed, I keep on running into my mother. Amy Chini was in my house one evening, shortly before Stella was born, just as I was beginning to realize that my confusing, painful separation from the theatre world -- which appeared to be a side effect of having babies -- was also creating space for me to write. I wasn't any clearer then than I am now how best to apply that knowledge: whether I can break into academia like the rest of my new hometown of Boston, or put out a chapbook and live proudly as an unknown poet, or continue to write selfishly for my own clarity of thinking and peace of mind. Destination Unknown. But when Amy Chini was in my house that night, we started talking about writers and writing, and suddenly realized that we had spent an entire cup of tea on the subject of my mother.

I'm the youngest daughter of Carla Emery, who wrote The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book -- a book that is big enough to wear that long of a title -- and who trumpeted frugal living and the homestead lifestyle with singular commitment for more than thirty years. She died on the road, touring the country with her husband and a van full of books and pamphlets, sleeping where her people would keep her, and preaching the gospel of sustainable living: Get out of debt. Live free. Teach your children. Work for yourself. Think for yourself. And don't be the one left unprepared when the natural resources run out.

Like any self-respecting young adult, I didn't take my mom too seriously. The message was too strident, too scary, too much in opposition to the world we live in. And she hardly ever cited anything. Her truly formidable knowledge was specked with figments, scientifically unfounded visions of conspiracy and of impending doom.

But lately I've found myself drawn to her memory, not least because October marked the fourth anniversary of her death. I occasionally read her website, which is still up in its entirety, remembering with a shudder the intensity in her eyes and hands as she warned her audiences of dire consequences, disasters to come, and sighing as I look at that familiar tag line which I once found so embarrassing: "Ask Carla. Carla knows."

I hail from good, true stock of separatists. In my own wobbly orbit of Planet Carla, I have visited the barter fairs and the militias. I've met the Biblical contingent and the free love contingent, eaten with the skinny dippers and the puritans, participated in the late night drum circles and the early morning prayer circles. And, full disclosure, they sort of run together.

Today -- writing to you from a warm house in the city complete with slippers and cat and cup of coffee -- I am not the one who will go off the power grid. I am not the one who will grow my own food. But I am able to go off the communication grid. And the passion that I have to do this, and to talk about it, is something that I owe, at least in part, to my mother.

I have one copy of "the Book." It's the very shiny, modern 9th edition that feels like it doesn't have enough illustrations. I gave the other ones away, not realizing that I probably could have sold them. I watched my husband make bread last weekend, for the first time ever, and although I didn't actually open my mother's book, my thoughts darted affectionately to a line drawing illustration of her that appears in the chapter once titled "Grains." She is elbow deep in bread dough, with one child helping, another child enthusiastically offering up his teddy bear, and the baby (would that be Sara?) playing with a chunk of bread dough at her feet.

Here's bread and gratitude to my mom, on Halloween instead of Mother's Day, but deeply felt.

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