|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
Margaret is now a consultant and avid gardener, keeping fans up to date on her website A Way to Garden, which Anne Raver of the New York Times called "the best garden blog" she'd seen. Margaret is also the author of A Way to Garden, named Best Garden Book of the Year by the Garden Writers' Association of America.
Read an Excerpt
And I Shall Have Some Peace ThereTrading in the Fast Lane for My Own Dirt Road
By Roach, Margaret
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2011 Roach, Margaret
All right reserved.
Margaret Untethered (A Preview)
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T. S. ELIOT, “LITTLE GIDDING,” FOUR QUARTETS
SHE OF NOBODY ELSE’S BIDDING: That is who I am now—someone who has not done what anyone else said since July 2008, though not because I am either disobedient or a slacker. Hardly. Thirty-two years of corporate servitude are in my past, and there will be no more promotions or pay stubs, thrilling facts I celebrate with a long-overdue vigil for my self, a one-woman sit-in in the woods.
Friends and colleagues warned that I would become depressed, isolated, perhaps worse when I walked away from my lucrative, esteem-laden career as Executive Vice President, Editorial Director at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia on the last day of 2007, leaving the peak earning years in my wake and relocating to my longtime weekend home and garden in a New York State hamlet where dairy cows not so long ago outnumbered people. Many stories of retreat are tales instigated by a trauma, or depression. I was never depressed in my old life; I was just strangely and terribly lonely, isolated despite being surrounded by six hundred colleagues daily, more than a quarter of whom worked for me, and living in a city of millions.
I was a big success, people told me, but the secret I never spoke in reply or anytime was my belief that I had long ago given up on me—the one whom others, in equations of family, love, and work, relied upon—choosing the easy route over a path toward things they don’t necessarily pay you or pat you on the back for. I remember when it happened: In my insecure early twenties, already a college dropout and wanting the absolution of proving I was no dummy, I took a job that placed a bet on my intellect over creativity. It was the surer horse but (as with many favorites) a comparative dullard to that sexy long shot of allowing one’s potential sufficient time to percolate. Could I write fiction, or be a photographer? We would never know; right then and there, I turned my back on possibility. Promotions at the newspaper I signed on to at first came easily, and suddenly I had fallen into the burning ring of fire (yes, bound by wild desire); money talked. True, the tether to the old life was mostly a financial one, its other shiny-but-searing edge the attachment to ego-fueling professional esteem. And it burns, burns, burns.
If I was so successful, I wanted to say back to my best friend and my accountant and the guy who cuts my hair and everyone else lovingly offering praise all those years, then why had I pushpinned a cryptic note to myself on the kitchen wall, a plaintive shorthand list called Tolerances, as in, how much can you tolerate of what for how long? Why were all my years-old diaries aching with phrases like the hit-by-car feelings of my workday and Where is my creativity? and that clincher, Who or what am I waiting for?
So from a role in The Devil Wears Mara (as in Max Mara; though I never asked one personal errand of an assistant in all my executive years, nor threw a coat or handbag at anybody), I finally walked away and shape-shifted to bumpkin-in-training in the mere flash of time it takes to drive 120 miles. Single, childless, and technically even pet free, I started up the road to start again in my garden in the woods.
Right away, though, I began hearing the voice that would keep asking for an answer I did not have: Who am I if I am not mroach@marthastewart dot com any longer? As if that were not enough, the confrontational facet of Margaret manifested as that raspy voice broadened its inquisition: If I am neither working nor in a personal partnership, in service to some master or another, who am I?
I am nothing more than a work in progress, thank you—the truest answer I have ever given to that question. I am just me, which is (apologies to my old friend Martha) a good thing, even without the stripes and status that my onetime titles and W-2s and all the other “accomplishments” seemed to imply. This latest incarnation, which is at once a simpler and a harder one, began just as the formative childhood version had—in stretchy, shapeless clothing, with most waking hours spent either on the floor puzzling things out or parked safely in the one same seat, trying to learn to focus the gaze, a bit of a bobblehead all over again.
Big fat lie:
As soon as I got out of my out-of-control city life, I got everything under control.
With my exit from the city and from corporate culture—from what had become my own place of disaffection despite astonishing views of the Empire State Building and the rest of the manmade majesty from up on high, twenty-four floors in the sky, where I sat—I had planned to go to heaven in a wheelbarrow of plants and creativity. Reality check: Forces bigger than myself have determined a different course these cataclysmic days. To hell in a handbasket, as Grandma liked to say, we were apparently meant to head instead. Tra-la.
Hard time on a cold floor during a rough recession might not sound seductive, but fair warning; the smell of homegrown home cooking and worse yet, of freedom, may prove to be contagious if small indignities that will surely surface can be overlooked, and then outlasted. The trick is learning to stay still.
Indeed, I awoke in my clothes the first wintry weeks more than just occasionally, and puttered other days away in my pajamas. (In those early months, the two categories of clothing looked different enough to be told apart.) I spent a considerable amount of time doing what I self-respectingly must assert was ruminating: repeatedly weighing a strengthening desire to pierce my navel at the tattoo place just five miles up the road, by the only traffic light within fifteen; mentally calculating the (prerecession) run-rate of my inadequate savings while I categorized and then alphabetized an enormous CD collection on the living room floor; discarding twenty-nine of the thirty-seven pairs of jeans I’d accumulated somehow, even though I never wore jeans in my recent past life; matching up freezer containers with their lids and nesting them in size order the way a child learns from, and delights in, a set of colorful plastic stacking toys.
Craving solitude and invoking my right to self-determination, I had pulled my own rug out from under myself, and now I was sitting on it, wondering about the new math of 2008; about my new look; about Who am I if I am not mroach@marthastewart dot com any longer? The story went that I was now doing the things I’d never had the time to do, the things I’d shut down my lifeline to income production and dropped out to make time for. Can these really be the things I never had time to do? Are CDs and recycled yogurt and cottage cheese cups the guideposts on the true path? Every journey must have its guides, its messengers—but these? This is what you send me?
WHAT DIGITAL RABBIT HOLE HAD LED ME to Andre Jordan, an eccentric British cartoonist, I do not know. But when I got there in late 2007, across a web of ISPs and DNSs and URLs, I found Andre had doodled five bold white tree trunks against a black background in one of many oddball illustrations on his blog that’s aptly named A Beautiful Revolution. Beneath the trees, a hand-lettered inscription: I’ve decided to go live in the woods (it’s for the best).
From this total stranger (now a dear friend and weekly contributor to my garden blog, but that’s leaping ahead) I adopted a logo for the extricate’s journey I had already begun planning, the end to a decades-long career in New York City mainstream publishing, and continued making my way north.
Actual rabbit holes and Andre’s trees included, images of nature have always figured heavily in how, if not where, I have lived. Despite fifty-plus years’ residence in the various boroughs of New York City, it is nature that has provided my symbols and my signals. Field guides and back-to-the-land classics such as a 1940 edition of M. G. Kains’s Five Acres and Independence or Living the Good Life (Helen and Scott Nearing, 1954) have filled my bookshelves, fueling my fantasy life of longing to just get the hell out of here. Even the most obscure bits of bird behavior or meteorological patterns hold a magnetism for me, as do little-known phenomena like diapause—a stunning survival mechanism in insects that can be invoked in the face of danger—and other such tactics for not getting swallowed up.
When I left the safety zone, I wagered big that nature would continue to show me the way, if only I stayed quiet enough to be able to hear the bird sing (and the snake—or the seeds inside a dried gourd, still alive and wanting out of an increasingly brittle shell before it’s too late—rattle). If only I would let the garden, and the bigger ecosystem it is tucked into, teach me.
For peace comes dropping slow, William Butler Yeats wrote after the line of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” that is this book’s title. Finding peace, and even making it, yes, and also metamorphosis can be time-consuming undertakings. I have already learned this from my backyard friends the green frogs, who wait as long as twenty-two months—holding on, half-baked, even through a hard winter, before letting go of their heavy, unneeded, but familiar tails. The guides are all around me—human, plant, animal, even what for lack of another explanation I must call spirits—offering to help flesh out My Story of Me, which I hope proves a myth that I can live with the rest of my days. Some are familiar voices—the same lifetime-long messengers whose tip-offs I pretended not to hear when they spoke the first (second, third… ) time, back in the old country. Can’t you see I’m in a meeting? I’d say in a shrill voice heard only inside my head. Not now, not now. These days, utterances of messengers old and new are all playing involuntarily on some weird tape-delay, playing loud through every speaker in my universe; spewing out at me over the wi-fi radio, in my dreams, everywhere.
Attention, attention! the Zen master teaches. I’ve got a lot of listening to do.
SOME OF MY EARLIEST NEW-WORLD RUMINATIONS took the form of blogging—posting old and new personal garden writing on an impromptu site I created to homeschool myself in the do-it-yourself web, though mostly I “studied” after a glass of wine or two, and definitely without any business plan on file. I had run marthastewart.com in its early years, but now my kingdom was infinitely smaller, with me in every role—including the name on the URL. Thank you, Jesus. Chief Everything Officer: CEO at last.
But in the midst of all this important “work,” the phone calls and e-mail inquiries started. Can I come see what you’re doing?
You want to see my closets without so many jeans, my stacking toys? I am thinking, suddenly fully awake. Attention!
But come they all did, to Copake Falls, New York, and then came the newspaper stories, the radio interviews, a national television appearance.
“This woman was living my dream—and the dream of so many other 50-somethings like us, who long to rekindle the creative fire that is snuffed out in the corporate world,” Anne Raver wrote in the New York Times on June 19, 2008, two months after I launched my homemade hobby project, the blog called A Way to Garden.
By late summer, Adrian Higgins, a longtime Washington Post columnist, had made the pilgrimage, too. He drove nearly eight hours to see me, a stranger. Over and again that afternoon, and afterward in e-mails, his synopsis: “I am so envious that you had the nerve.” Adrian’s story appeared on September 11, 2008, seven years after the day that he correctly inferred was the true catalyst for all of what is happening now to me, and also probably popped the lid off a reservoir of yearning I heard in all those whose dream, I’m told, I am living.
From twenty- and thirty-something bloggers, to the head of the large group of NPR affiliates, who ran a three-part interview, the consensus those first months: Margaret Roach is onto something. She is on the path. I’ve gotta get me some of that. More than a thousand blog commenters, and hundreds of cold-call e-mailers, echoed the same thing: Way to go, Margaret. A Beatles refrain keeps echoing in my head: Say the word, and you’ll be free / Say the word and be like me.
Like I said: Watch out; this might be contagious.
But I was surely an accidental touchstone, a trigger for their confessions about what predatory danger they, too, so want to elude; what depth of precious, lifesaving peace and quiet they want to achieve. So what is this dream of which they—perhaps you?—speak so longingly?
Have I in fact hit the jackpot?
(Do you believe in magic?)
As I sat down to write the proposal that would become this book—on the morning of July 13, 2008, six months into my post-Martha, post-paycheck life—an e-mail showed up in my in-box. It was the kind with a generic-enough sender so that you’re not sure if it’s spam or for real. I opened it.
Hey, I’d been purchasing lottery tickets down at the Xtra-Mart, so why not open an e-mail? The body of that message:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
The e-mail was in fact spam, but it certainly was intended for me. The spammer in this case was an idiot savant, and I am grateful.
Be grateful to everyone, the ancient sage Atisha taught, and that means everyone: those on your favorites list, and those on your shit list, too. Not just beings who approach you laden with gifts, but ones who bring you their burdens and pass you their hot potatoes. Be grateful even if they try to scare you away with venomous behavior.
Two weeks after the Mark Twain fortune-cookie-ish e-mail, as Month 8 of my adventure began, I was really gaining on it. I was getting properly dressed in street clothes most days, and only occasionally waking up that way. Progress, unless you count the number of mornings I awoke parallel to the headboard, my head to the west and feet to the east instead of the south-north direction I’d started in. (Note to self: Tell shrink, but don’t dwell on such minor details.)
I was especially proud that I’d honored one of the trickier commitments I’d made to myself when I left the city: to work at preventing complete social isolation. It was a legitimate fear—more to those who care about me than in my own mind, however—after more than thirty years of working long hours in the lively community inherent in any corporate environment, and particularly because I am in many ways a solitary type. Work had been my village and family. Despite my recent rural reclusion, though, I had made two new friends, and was going to see one of them for dinner.
It was a Friday night, exactly seven fifteen. Hair done, makeup and even some jewelry on—baubles I hadn’t worn since my exodus. A bottle of smartly chosen red was stashed in my bag for my oenophile hosts, a successful Hollywood screenwriter and his ex-Yalie wife, whom I’d met (magic?) because she was one of my blog’s first commenters; they are likewise recent refugees from urban living. Perfect.
Perfect? I should have known better (with a girl like you… ). It was the first day in the first month in my entire adult life that I had no paycheck to cash. The day had already included a total solar eclipse and a series of biblical electrical storms, the kind my first country months had been unnervingly loaded with, the kind I’d weathered beneath the 1877 Swedish dining table or huddled inside the enclosed staircase, shaking.
I don’t think that there is anything that is really magical unless it has a terrifying quality, said the painter Andrew Wyeth. The storm’s passing had seemed to clear the air, to change the charge of things, and I was feeling exhilarated, enthusiastic, open. I was going out. New friends had been delivered, cause for celebration.
I shut the inner door and swung the screen out then quickly back behind me, too, as I stepped my left foot onto the black rubber doormat.
The longest journey begins with a single step, and this was definitely the one, landing me right in the path of a five-foot-long timber rattlesnake, the well-named Crotalus horridus. No; I did not burst into an impromptu David Byrne lyric just then, but if this tale should become a musical: We caught a rattlesnake, now we’ve got something for dinner. / We got it. We got it.
Technically, all my shelves of field guides remind me, as a Homo sapiens I am this animal’s predator. It felt distinctly the other way around.
Note to readers: An Eat, Pray, Love–style pilgrimage to India is not a requirement for those seeking (rude) awakening. And apparently the package I’d selected for my enlightenment tour was the all-inclusive, deluxe one—close encounter with large, venomous reptile included.
I suffer from a lifelong case of ophidiophobia: a fear and loathing of those (including snakes) who slither through their lives, and periodically shed their skins. With regularity in adulthood, I have been visited by snake dreams at night. During every period of personal upheaval, I have been visited by snakes during waking hours, too: snakes in my living room; curled on the kitchen windowsill between the screen and inner window I was opening; on the bathroom floor waiting for me beside the toilet when I got up in the darkness from a long-ago boyfriend’s bed, a bed I didn’t really want to be in, anyhow.
Try as I might, I hadn’t quite taken in the advice of the great New York State naturalist John Burroughs, advice based on his own observations in the woods just across the Hudson River from here at the start of the twentieth century:
The lesson which life repeats and constantly reinforces is “look under foot.” You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think.
Me? I scream. And then in midshriek, I rush away. I try not to look—though with a venomous snake you must look, and keep on looking, if there is to be any hope of catching and relocating it a short distance away from the house. I know the drill: I must somehow watch the snake and also grab the phone and call for help in the form of the nearest person who has both the license and gear to accomplish this sensitive measure. On that July evening, I had lost sight of the snake by the time that help arrived.
For a serious gardener, fear of snakes is a liability. For a serious gardener in one of the remaining northeastern habitats of a threatened or endangered American pit viper, it has required a constant test of that fear (or courage). In more than twenty years of weekends spent rooting around on my piece of land, though, I had never encountered Crotalus horridus. Not here; on the road, yes, and in the woods, but not here. The timber rattler is well known to all the other settlers scattered sparsely along this dirt byway cut into the midslope of a steep, fourteen-hundred-foot hillside, but did not show himself to me until that night. Perhaps he knew I had not been prepared, and kindly waited to come calling at the kitchen door until I seemed to be all good and settled in.
Welcome to your new life, Margaret. Was that what he was saying when he rose up and shook his stack of rattles? Or perhaps, Don’t tread on me, the meaning assigned to the rattlesnake’s image on pre-Revolutionary flags, a cry against oppression, a signal of readiness to strike against those who would deny his freedom.
Or, I am here, Margaret, and watching, even when you don’t see me. I’m waiting for you to take it all off. Come on, silly girl; it’s not so damn hard. Shed.
Late summer arrived, and though I would not be going “back to school” full-time that fall, I had a meeting in the city the week of Labor Day.
I went in the night before to have supper with my closest friend and garden mentor, Marco, at his home in the Bronx, where I still kept a rental place. Arriving a bit ahead of our scheduled dinner hour, I dropped my bag and washed up before going five houses down the block. On the stretch of grass between my parking space and the front door, a distance of perhaps twenty-five feet that I had tread on thousands of times in more than a decade—going to the office; returning from the office; going to the office; returning from the office—I noticed something by my left foot, the foot that I’d presented just weeks before to that timber rattler.
This is the Bronx, mind you, but I have almost stepped on a discarded snakeskin. I do not know what generous creature left it, but I have no doubt that it was put there for me. I keep it now in a ziplock bag on my bulletin board, in case I should ever think I have been imagining things.
“HOW’M I DOING?” AS NEW YORK CITY MAYOR ED KOCH used to say. “You know how I always ask everybody how am I doing?” he is quoted in the 1981 book named for his most famous interrogative. “Well, today I asked myself, and the answer was, ‘Terrific.’ ”
Terrific (from the Latin word for frighten, incidentally), yes, but let’s be honest: I live with a cat, and an independent, disinterested one at that, a stray male who adopted me the morning of September 11, 2001, when I pulled into my weekend country driveway at twelve twenty PM from Manhattan, a cat who mostly inhabited a small building behind my house by mutual consent. Sort of our version of separate bedrooms.
I am childless. And parentless. I have no reliable income, and I have not managed to really scale back anywhere near far enough. I applied for unemployment insurance in that first July and got turned down because of a technicality that backfired; I had incorporated my new life, in anticipation of doing ongoing consulting and other work (the work that has all just dried up).
The world’s “credit tsunami,” a “hundred-year event,” unfolded in increasingly sickening chapters as an insistent backdrop to my own much smaller monetary wonderings. And I repeat: On the first day of the first month in my adult life that went unsalaried, just hours after a total solar eclipse, I stepped out my door onto a giant rattlesnake.
Then why was everybody (including the reptile) still giving me the high five?
Apparently these kind strangers were, as I had been, feeling trapped. (Sound familiar yet?) So strong was their projection that they attributed my new life with characteristics it doesn’t even have: They perceived my glass those first months as not just half full, but positively brimming over. Craving optimism about the second “half” of life, they imagine it can all work out—if only they, too, can break free and find refuge, or at least la diritta via.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi retrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.
(In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.)
—DANTE, THE DIVINE COMEDY
In fact all that happened those first months here in the woods, besides some serious bouts of cleaning, is that everything I fear was being systematically delivered to my doorstep, as if to say: And this: Deal with this, too, please, Margaret. Now.
Would an appropriate man be delivered next?
The next special delivery that first summer was my ex-husband, whom I had not seen in more than fifteen years and who, basically, has loathed me most of that time because of my one-sided decision twentyish years ago to leave our marriage. I plead temporary insanity, or at least total exhaustion; we had married in the wake of my mother’s moving into full-time care for her early-onset Alzheimer’s, a disease that visited her before she was fifty and brought me home to oversee her for several unspeakably ugly years in the house I was raised in. Then, maybe a year into our marriage—and weeks before I left it—I nursed my best friend to his own dementia and death from AIDS. There was nothing left for me to share—nothing to have or to hold on the bare nubbin I had become.
The day my ex simply appeared unannounced in the driveway here, apparently on an impulsive detour en route to his oldest friend’s home nearby, I had been out mowing. I did not love the moment of recognition then—an awkward sentence or two of explaining I was now here full-time and his explaining, in turn, what brought him to the neighborhood—and then as quick as he came, he was gone. But I cherish the image now, the mental snapshot of our reunion: I was heading back down the road to the barn on my beloved orange tractor, wearing my ersatz pajamas and a hoodie as old as the Gap itself and safety goggles and giant noise-reduction earmuffs, when I saw the unfamiliar red 1949 pickup parked across the end of my driveway. He did not recognize me, or at least not at first. Who would have?
Apparently, provocative events like global economic crises bring out all manner of ghosts along with the varmints, and not just from Wall Street or out from under rocks.
Be grateful to everyone.
There have, thankfully, been more agreeable visits by gentlemen callers.
On April 19, 2008, three weeks into my aimless garden blogging, I wrote this entry after holding a camera in my left hand to photograph a frog who was in my right one:
My, my how times have changed. Four months ago I was wearing designer clothes and living in fluorescent light. Today I was mucking out water gardens in the sun, and refitting plumbing gaskets while my boyfriends looked on disinterestedly. All nine of them (all just like this hunk I’m about to grab). Handsome, huh? Heaven, huh?
It had taken me exactly a year to position myself within reach of the princely bullfrog, and this new life stage; a year of negotiating the contractual timing and terms of my Martha departure, and of planning my escape. Those old journals—the ones I had the time and drive to look at in the first months upstate—reveal I’d actually been planning my departure actively for more than seven years, since the year 2000.
On the way “home,” I had seen every manner of therapist and adviser (physical and psychiatric, financial, legal, astrological), started buying the weekly lottery tickets, and cleaned every corner of my life out to lighten the load I had to carry to the New World. I had hired the professional matchmaker, writing a giant check despite my disappeared income, wanting to head regret off at the pass by ensuring I didn’t let happily ever after elude me if money could, in fact, buy you love. Bases covered. Check.
On the eve of the New York Times story, I even gave one of my closest friends, an ex-boyfriend whom I treasured and somehow hoped would mend his ways, the heave-ho. I was going to cross this threshold unencumbered, without Martha, without Max Mara, without him. Without all those jeans. With all my plastic lids, at least, fitted on right.
Eradication, extirpation—and even evisceration. Out, out damn spot! There were a few additions, a couple of high-ticket items I brought into my new life, like better bird-watching binoculars and a serious wi-fi radio to keep me company. But perhaps most notably among my tax receipts for this first year of self-employed stillness was one for twenty dollars spent at Staples, a New Year’s binge. The booty: a bulletin board, pushpins, and index cards.
The intention: to post (without applying judgment or editing) any and all ideas—to just allow and witness them. The board, cards, and pins were my “twenty dollars to a new life kit,” and I more than got my money’s worth. My own lid was coming off now, and each card was a fumarole, venting built-up steam. The crazy collage included cards with lines from songs I’d grabbed from the wi-fi stream, diced from tunes the DJ seemed to be spinning just for me:
I feel so close to everything we’ve lost. (Sincerely, L. Cohen.)
Gonna rise up, find my direction magnetically. Gonna rise up, throw out my ace in the hole. (Good advice, Eddie Vedder.)
Bold as love. (Thank you, Jimi.)
We ain’t going to hell. We’re going to the rebel side of heaven. (How’d you know, Langhorne Slim?)
Cards with questions to myself, including that trickiest, loudest one: Who are you in a digital age, if you are not mroach@marthastewart dot com anymore?
Cards with titles of projects I imagined at some moment or other that I might undertake: Story of woman who communicates with lovers solely in iTunes playlists, having given up on “talking things over.”
On another set of cards, I also (bravely?) had written a fear list:
Electrical storms and power outages.
(And not necessarily in that order.)
Right off I started making more progress facing my fear list than anything on the other cards, all the while hoping the last entry needn’t be encountered anytime soon (and particularly not as a result of a bite by Item Number 1). Dare we put a collective foot across the threshold and see what actually unfolded? First we will need to go backward to look forward, though—a lesson I am increasingly learning—to where my hunger and my restlessness began.
Excerpted from And I Shall Have Some Peace There by Roach, Margaret Copyright © 2011 by Roach, Margaret. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
Knowing and working with Margaret Roach for almost twenty years did not prepare me for this superb and personal book. I was surprised and pleased beyond measure with the beautiful prose, the myriad literary and botanical references, and Margaret's own unrelenting, introspective analysis of why she has done what so few of us would ever have the guts to do.