Because I could not stop to listen to your appeals to feminism, to ideals, to economics, I canned tomatoes.
I stood over the sink on a Saturday night, fingernails layered with tomato skins, sharpened paring knife in hand, recovering what I could from the 20-pound box I'd heedlessly requested from my CSA farmer. These weren't heirlooms, weren't certified organic, but they were raised by a woman I knew and she, in turn, was raising her own boys and I knew they didn't have even enough money to buy high jump spikes for her 12-year-old boy (and he won regionals when the tomatoes were still just green knobs), and she charged me only 60 cents a pound. Criminally little money; these tomatoes were delicious and picked perfectly ripe by her husband and boys; but what I lack in money I make up in gratitude.
And we -- my boys and I, my husband when he's here -- eat tomatoes. I could tell you the stories; I'm sure I will, if you'll let me, pour them out like blanching water, about how I first went local and then organic and then started worrying about BPA in the tomato cans, finally reading one to many exposing tales about migrant workers picking tomatoes and lettuce and how their children, exposed from pre-birth to pesticides and harshness of circumstance, led the nation in pervasive development disorders. The disorders, incidentally, suffered by my own three boys.
I can't change the liters of auto exhaust they breath, living here in crunchy Southeast Portland on a busy street, I can't change the parabens I washed through my hair for the years I didn't know better, I can't change the way I let things happen when my oldest was a little, let freezer dino nuggets happen, let his dad's Diet Coke happen, let the abhorrent Red #40-packed contents of the ice cream truck freezer at Plaid Pantry happen.
I can change the tomatoes. I can can. I look at those words and, though I am tired, though I spent the day on my feet on the fir floors covered by two or three layers of ancient linoleum first cleaning, then filling my broken-but-loved kitchen with the scent of simmering organic apple cider vinegar and local honey, filling my kitchen with more jars of (local! heirloom!) zucchini pickles and (local! organic!) cantaloupe-rind pickles and these tomatoes and the tomatoes from my garden, too -- though I am tired I think, "can can," and I want to high kick in my free pile layered skirt, I want to dance. It is joy, and it is also economics; time spent now will mean quiet empty evenings later, after dinners of pasta and tomato sauce, after bringing gifts of pickles for birthdays and book signings and Christmases, after baking bread.
I am contemplating, now, how and why my tomatoes grew so wildly, because there are at least 12 pounds left of a few days'-worth of harvest and I have been cooking them into pasta sauce and into the maple-syrup-sweetened baked beans my oldest loves and into soup my youngest loves and I can barely keep up. It was the sheep poop I bought last year from a guy out by Sauvie's Island, or maybe it was the chicken coop muck I spread there in May, or maybe it was the bagged organic potting soil from the guy across the street who's shutting down his medical marijuana growing operation and gave it all to me. It could just be the place they are, behind the medlar and fig trees the crazy neighborhood anarchist/survivalist planted, before he gave up on me and my husband and left me to battle burdock and stinging nettle and Jerusalem artichoke he said he'd harvest, but instead, filled my lot with invaders. An enemy army, guerilla-style, stronger and far more numerous than me.
I think of another mother-writer who will not join me, who will not take up arms of hoe and garden glove and compost bin to rumble against these hordes. Perhaps Mary Rechner also lives in Southeast Portland; she can't live far from me. In her "polemic" published in Propeller Quarterly I read a caustic takedown of me. "I refuse to accept the moral imperative of growing my own vegetables, butchering the animals I eat, and making my own jam," she writes, and though I have not yet butchered an animal, I have signed my 10-year-old up for a series of courses that will have him skinning and tanning a rabbit's hide, and I see myself in everything she writes: "I refuse the burden of a harvest. When I see women with their kids... weeding their vegetable gardens and tending their flocks of chickens, I fear they have bought the idea that these many labors are the markers of what it means to be a good mother-wife-woman," she writes, and asks, "if women are spending all of their time planting gardens, tending chickens, and canning (i.e. living our lives in the most laborious ways possible), how are we ever to catch up as writers, visual artists, composers, and directors?"
I wonder at the choice she has portrayed. It is so choosy, either-or, one may not have both canning and novels, one may not tend chickens and paint, one may not plant tomatoes and compose arias. You limit us, thus, Mary? You would limit us much like Virginia Woolf, in her great work that set the angle of the feminist-artist's dawn. Woolf set the choice out as between mothering children in "tens and twelves" and art; I wrote in my editor's essay in Stealing Time magazine that today, perhaps, Woolf would say to women to choose not to have children at all, or have them in "ones." In Woolf's voice, I hear Rechner say, women should not can these tomatoes, not pull these weeds, if they are to find their own room, their distance from this mothering/food-garnering life.
I do not know. Rechner seems to feel great judgment and perhaps some vestigial Catholic guilt, that her son now eats at McDonald's (after, she points out, a principled rejection in middle school), that she never even tested her children's youthful discernment of organic versus conventional bananas. I wonder if being angry at judgment or irresistibly pulled back to the guilt of being that less-than-better family also prevents her from maintaing the "psychic (and actual) time and space to write fiction" in the way picking blackberries and making jam might. She (after all) writes this polemic. I wonder if she feeds her children something, thinking of the study comparing preparation times of convenience foods and scratch (no difference). Surely her son does not take all his meals at McDonald's. I do not know if she has read my work; it seems likely, as she describes me rather closely in her sketch of what-not-to-do; but I feel that she is, in turn, judging me.
I accept this judgment; I wave my hand at the fruit flies gathering over the prune-plums, a few of which I have eaten and the rest of which will make a rich compost. I will not make star-anise plum jelly today. I will make pickles. "A jar of pickles, however beautiful it appears on the windowsill with the sun shining through it, however thoughtfully and sustainably it was made, however good the pickles taste, is still a jar of pickles."
I have not set my pickles on my windowsill today. But as I have sliced the zucchini, as I have simmered the white wine vinegar and garlic and dill and cloves, I have thought about a problem in an essay, turned it over and over in my mind until it is salty enough and sour enough; until my teeth sink into it with a snick, until it has melded the flavors of spice and herb and mythology and rhythm with the meat of it, the vegetable of it, the sustainably-grown local organic-practices CSA zucchini of it. I feel this psychic space as I stand in my kitchen, barefooted and homemade-aproned and done up in an urban homesteader's best, as I think of all the things I could also be doing other than writing. Can space be obtained through pedicures? Through long walks past New Seasons Market? Through reality TV?
We all reach our art through different means but for me distance is not required and, more, unwanted. As I dip my ladle in brine and fragrance, take in the breath-stopping breath of vinegar's heat, as I pour sloop after sloop of Mediterranean-scented pickles into my American-made glass jars, I think that I am not yet even close enough. I lean closer; I watch the garlic I grew float and bob with allspice berries and flecks of oregano; I feel the heat on my face; I cough at a surge of vinegar effluence. Aha! I think. This is not just a pickle after all.
I have the essay and the bit in the novel too, the one filled with neighbors who help more than they should and carry axes down a busy street barefoot, who write stoner sayings on my kitchen chalk wall, and with 10-year-old boys whose raccoon and porcupine hides swing from the basement rafters. I screw on the reusable Tattler lids, I lower the jars into the simmering water on the stove, and, my face flushed with heat and certainty, I write while the water bubbles and the gas hisses, low psss, then long psshhhh, beneath it.
I could not stop to make your choices. And so I choose both, the writing and the canning, and my response is this, for you, for you all, to judge.