I don’t know why I continue buying my groceries at Price Chopper. Of course it makes me feel bad: those flat harsh neon lights, the long aisles of cheap overabundance, the bland preprogrammed music, the complete absence of beauty. Even the name itself—Price Chopper—hurts me with its crude brutality. But I go anyway. Every week I drive the seven miles to the commercial strip at highway-exit 20, and, with a long shopping list in hand, I make my way through those disturbingly familiar aisles.
Occasionally—every other week or so—my consumer conscience feels so soiled that I need to cleanse it by going to the co-op, the cooperative grocery store where the civilized people shop and where you can get organic strawberries in mid-December. But I always feel a bit cheated when my groceries are rung up and I realize that for the price of some fair-trade coffee and whole-wheat bread, I could have bought two days’ worth of groceries at Price Chopper.
The co-op is the place to meet neighbors and colleagues, and complain about how busy we all are and how we should get together sometime when we’re less swamped, which we all know will never happen. At Price Chopper, meanwhile, I’m in the company of the working people of America. I never know whom to side with, so I alternate between the co-op and Price Chopper and feel uncomfortable at both.
My greatest worry is that Beth, the organic farmer farther down the road from our house, will find me out. When I come home from Price Chopper I always drive through the East side of town to avoid passing her farm. I’m afraid she’ll be standing outside, wave me down for a chat, and then recognize the scent of plastic and preservatives wafting from my shopping bags. Once, when she found a plastic egg-container among the cartons that I brought to the farm for recycling, she called me back and made me take it away. “I don’t want to see any plastic at my farm,” she said sternly, and I think that’s when she started suspecting that I go to Price Chopper. I’ve been visiting her less and less.
When I stand by the dairy cooler at Price Chopper, paralyzed by that wall of milk containers, I always imagine Beth watching me. She has stomped a trail of mud and manure on the sterile floor and stands there in her dirty coveralls, straw sticking out of her uncombed gray hair, the large calloused hands planted on her hips, shaking her head and clucking in disapproval.
I’ve known Beth since we moved to this little Vermont town four years ago, when Gil got a job as a professor at the nearby college, where I now work too.
This is the first time we own our own house and have real jobs. After years of traveling and bumming along as students, it felt like an exciting new adventure to become professional grown-ups, earning real money. Gil’s job came with life insurance, childcare benefits, a retirement fund, and occasional departmental dinner parties at fine restaurants. Mine came with bi-weekly meetings and an office with a view of the trash-bin of the next-door church. At first my new life felt deeply satisfying: I had a little role of my own in society and I was providing for myself and my family. I had joined the ranks of the good, hard-working professionals of the world and now had purpose and legitimacy. Even now I get a little thrill out of saying “my job,” or “I’ve got to go to work.” But legitimacy comes with certain stipulations: you can’t come to work in clothes that look as if they’re from the Goodwill store, you can’t arrive in a car held together by duct-tape, and you’re supposed to have a house that is appropriate for inviting colleagues to dinner parties. And when you have the things you once didn’t even know you needed—the house, the cars, the washing machine, the walk-in closet—and you have the money for your children’s karate lessons, health insurance, and dental treatments, you become terrified you might lose it all.
The college where we work is one of those places that attracts students who expect to become leading national politicians or CEO’s at multi-billion-dollar corporations, students whose grandfathers founded the fraternities they belong to. And all this status and ambition is oddly placed in a wilderness of forests and mountains, in a region dotted with tiny farming towns that have been in decline since the collapse of the American wool industry in the late 19th century. The college’s wealth has been spreading out over the land like an oil spill. Retired alumni and people from the big cities have moved here because, for the price of an apartment in Manhattan or Boston, they can build a palace on a mountain top, own a 50-acre private forest, and run their business via satellite internet. Most of the descendants of the original farmers have sold their houses to newcomers and have moved to towns where the property value isn’t as inflated. Only a few stubborn “old-timers” are still hanging in, scoffing at the mansions they’re now surrounded by.
I feel affinity for this land because I imagine it must be as perplexed by all the people moving onto it and changing it according to their needs, as I am befuddled being here. I never had a clear plan for my life. I had vague visions of myself as a journalist traveling the world, a documentary photographer, or a heroic fighter for just causes. I never imagined living in a small town in Vermont with my husband and children. Suddenly I find I can no longer pretend I’m on my way to a glorious future; this is my life.
Beth’s farm was the attraction that persuaded us to buy the house. As impressionable, inexperienced buyers we paid more attention to the view down the road, the wrap-around porch, and the chickadees and cardinals at the birdfeeder than to the soundness of the foundation and the insulation of the windows. As we were on our way back from the open house and had to stop our car to let Beth cross the road with a struggling calf, we made up our minds. I imagined how my city friends would feel twinges of envious disbelief when I’d tell them that “I’ve just come back from the farm down the road to get eggs,” and I imagined my children fondly looking back at a childhood of petting piglets and milking cows.
Although I imagined Beth’s farm as a fixture in the landscape, she had, in fact, just moved in a few months before us. The renovated old farmhouse had first been rented to business students from the college’s MBA program. But the family who’d bought the property, along with their house on a hilltop and the surrounding forests, had liked the idea of sponsoring an organic farm and leased it to Beth at a discount in return for a supply of organic produce and handmade cheeses.
So now, while the town is being overrun by urban professionals who are lobbying for town-wide broadband access, Beth is trying to reverse time. She has reinstalled the 19th century copper plumbing, has disconnected the central heating system to replace it with a woodstove, and uses the color-coordinated bathrooms to store farm equipment and bins filled with sauerkraut. I often see her drive by my house on her vintage tractor, perched solemnly on the saddle, pulling a towering stack of hay bales that balance dangerously on a cart behind the tractor. She won’t see me waving from my office window, because she needs all her attention to fight the wobbly steering wheel.
Occasionally she has young helpers who drift to the farm for various reasons: idealistic young people who are training to start their own farms and live off the grid; college kids who are trying to figure out what to do with their lives; and difficult teenagers who have exhausted their parents’ tolerance. Beth rules them all with an iron hand and makes them toil, weeding the vegetable plots, kneading dough, and milking cows at the break of day. On summer nights, driving past the farm after having attended a board meeting at Miki’s daycare or having picked up Dina from a play-date, I sometimes see them all sitting around the bonfire, drinking homebrewed beer and eating sourdough bread with freshly churned butter. I feel a pang of envy when I see the sparks flying up into the evening sky and the dark silhouettes outlined against the flames.
I make an effort to befriend those barefoot kids with their dreadlocks and clothes that smell of sweat and cow shit—I want them to know I’m not all that different from them, just a bit older. But they come and go too fast for me to remember their names. When you’re eighteen, time moves along a different scale: six months is a brief eternity, while for me it’s how long it takes to finally replace the depleted batteries in the smoke detector. As soon as her young helpers are gone, Beth usually finds some fault in them that makes their departure sound like a relief:
“Louisa… yeah, she went off to college. She wasn’t much of a help anyway,” says Beth while pressing freshly minced pork into sausage skins.
“Matthew,” she says, rolling her eyes, “he was so overprotected!”
Few escape Beth’s judgments. Even the people who support the farm by buying Beth’s produce and cheeses don’t satisfy her.
“Look at them,” she says and points with her chin at the people who park their station wagons along the road to grab a bunch of collard greens from the farm stand, “Always rushing, to and from their jobs!” I admire the fierceness of Beth’s judgments and her commitment to doing what’s right. I don’t have the courage to judge anyone; I’m afraid they’ll judge me in return.
For a while I thought I was exempt from her judgment. For the first two years that we lived here I visited the farm almost every day. In the afternoons, after I had picked up Dina and Miki from daycare, I’d walk them to the farm—I’d never drive. Rain or shine, we’d go. I had to show Beth that I was serious about exposing my children to farm life. So in 20-degree weather I’d pack Dina and Miki into snowsuits, snow boots, hats, scarves, and mittens, and we’d head to the farm, walking until their faces were so frozen that they could no longer open their mouths to complain of the cold. I’d defrost them by Beth’s woodstove, and she’d offer us chocolates or cheese. When she wasn’t busy she’d invite us into the backroom, where a sagging couch stood beside a small woodstove and where Beth kept her books and her FM radio on which she listens to the weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcast. She’d serve us strong tea in cracked mismatched china and splash fresh cream in it. Then she’d update me on the happenings at the farm—the pregnant cow who still hadn’t given birth; the chickens’ satisfaction with their new coop; the plans for the new clay oven… Or I’d ask her about town politics—about the accusations that the police chief was too authoritarian or about the council’s passionate debates on whether or not to restore the bandstand on the town green. I didn’t know who was wrong or right (to me everyone’s opinion always seems perfectly plausible from their point of view) but I counted on Beth to be outraged by what someone had said or done.
“People these days just think they’ve got it all coming to them,” Beth said, shaking her head in disapproval at modernity.
I didn’t know enough about town politics to understand whom that remark was aimed at, but I didn’t want her to think of me as spoiled. I’ve never understood which past it is in Beth’s mind that the present doesn’t measure up to—Vermont in the 1920s? Early 19th century rural America? Her childhood in the 1950s?—but I want her to approve of me.
One day when we arrived at the farm Dina pointed at two halves of a frozen pork carcass hanging from the big oak tree in front of the farm, “Hey, that must be Linda!” she said. Linda was a sick little piglet that Beth had adopted from another farm. Already the previous summer, when Beth let Dina hold Linda’s milk bottle and the eager little piglet pulled impatiently at the nipple, it was clear that Linda would end up in the freezer.
Dina walked up to the oak tree and studied the carcass attentively.
“Is that her belly?” she asked and pointed at the empty cavity from which the organs had been removed. I was immensely proud of Dina’s stoicism, as she stood there beneath the frozen pork carcass, unblinkingly facing the facts of life, only five years old, but more at ease with mortality and impermanence than most adults. She didn’t need to dress up reality with sentimental stories and children’s books’ piggies: here was Linda hanging from a tree, ready to be turned into sausage, and Dina was studying pig anatomy. This was a child who lived up to Beth’s expectations!
But then I ruined the scene by taking a picture. I often take along my camera on my walks. I email pictures of my life to friends in other parts of the world to have them share in my wonder at being here. I hid my camera in my pocket when Beth came out. I know she thinks life must be lived, not photographed.
The farm is very popular with parents of young children: people who grew up in cities and still can’t get over the fact that, unlike themselves, their children know real cows and real pigs before they see them in picture books. The farm gets especially busy around holidays, when the townspeople have their relatives over from the big cities and send them to the farm to impress them with a peek at real country life.
One Easter weekend a shiny SUV with a New Jersey license plate turned into Beth’s driveway. Out of the car stepped a woman who looked as if she had never set foot on unpaved ground, and a little girl in a ridiculously clean dress. As they maneuvered between the puddles, trying to keep their shoes clean, I imagined Beth watching from the kitchen window in contempt.
When they reached the pen with the two little orphan piglets who were letting themselves be petted by Dina and Miki, the mother nervously placed her hand on the little girl’s shoulder.
“Aren’t they cute?” the mother said, watching the piglets suck on Dina and Miki’s fingers. Immediately Beth stood beside us, her arms sternly crossed over her chest.
“If you think these are cute, eat them!” she cut in. “I’m sick and tired of people who pet cute little farm animals and then buy factory meat at the supermarket.”
“Do you know what they do to these cute little animals?” she asked the little girl, kneeling down to pick up one of the squealing piglets and holding it near the girl’s face. “They lock them up in little cages. They cut off their tails, and before these poor animals ever see real sunlight, they turn them into bacon and pork chops.” The mother, unprepared for such rural directness, withdrew into a bland, impenetrable smile: she always buys certified organic!
But I know the remark wasn’t directed at her. It was for me. I’m the one who lets her kids pet little piglets and then shops at Price Chopper. Beth knows.
Beth must also know that when I made a stew out of a chunk of beef she gave me from her freezer, I defiled it by adding factory-farmed Price Chopper carrots and onions. I always feel her watching over my shoulder, snorting in contempt at all my wrong choices. So, as I imagine her standing behind me at the milk cooler in Price Chopper, I try to placate her by choosing the heavy glass bottles from the local creamery, which Price Chopper sells to advertise its support of local businesses. They are unwieldy, heavy bottles that strain our refrigerator shelf, and that, when empty, need to be hauled back to a supermarket to be returned for the deposit. Our porch is lined with empty bottles, in which the residue milk has turned green and sprouted colonies of fuzzy fungi. I shudder at the thought that those bottles may be reused for our next portion of milk.
When I get home from the store and Gil helps me carry in groceries, I always see a flicker of annoyance in his eyes when I unload two or three heavy glass bottles, which, when you clang them together carelessly, break and spill their contents all over the kitchen floor. He doesn’t ask me why I insist on buying the glass bottles—there are so many other things I do that don’t make sense to him, and in a marriage one must compromise—but I know he prefers those convenient 1-gallon containers of Price Chopper milk that never spoils. He doesn’t realize the milk from the local creamery is my secret compromise.
Beth has unprocessed, fresh milk from cows I personally know, ready at her farm, just a ten-minute walk from my house.
“These kids need real milk. Not that watered-down crap that they call ‘milk’ in the stores,” Beth would say when I still came by on my daily walk with the kids. “I want you to read something about the importance of natural foods and fresh milk for small children. I’ll give it to you next time.” I’d nod enthusiastically and hope she’d forget because my children don’t like the taste of raw milk, and Gil frowned every time he saw Beth’s creamy yellow milk in the fridge. He doesn’t believe in the timeless continuity of farming traditions and the superiority of natural foods. He says people used to die of unpasteurized milk. So I’d try to drink the half-gallon of farm milk all by myself every week. I love the taste of fresh milk, but Beth’s milk had a bad aftertaste because I knew it was actually intended for my children and I was lying to her.
At the end of the week I’d pour out the spoiled leftovers, the fatty yellow crust clogging up the sink, and I’d return the empty bottle to Beth. She’d say how happy she was that my children were getting some good nutrients, and I—afraid to disappoint her—would nod and encourage her to give me a new bottle. I stopped visiting her because I could no longer stand my own lies. I haven’t gotten my weekly portion of milk for almost two years now, but I know the milk is still waiting there for me, and I tell myself that soon, when I’m less busy, I’ll make better choices and start going to the farm again.
I love the idea of getting my produce from the neighborhood farm, and I love the idea of walking down the road to get my milk. The beauty here is heartbreaking: the morning fog drifting between the trees in the swamp; the red neon “open” sign of Bill’s lawnmower repair shop reflected on the wet pavement in front of his trailer; the smell of wood smoke coming from Mr. Chapman’s chimney; Beth’s cows grazing under the bare apple trees; I even love the potholed, cracked asphalt. As I walked down to Beth’s, I used to think to myself, Look at me! This is me walking down a Vermont country road, on my way to get my milk. And I knew this is what my life was supposed to be like.
I’d wave at Mr. Chapman, who’d peek from the window in his woodcutting workshop. I’d stop for some gossip with my neighbor Jennifer, who, the first time we chatted, startled me when, as an aside in our small talk about the hiking trails in our neighborhood, mentioned that she and Rob, her aloof, furniture-building husband, like to make love by the pond on their neighbors’ property. I’d pass, with some contempt, the mailboxes of the other neighbors, the ones with long driveways leading up to newly built houses on top of wooded hills, the ones with cathedral ceilings, exercise rooms, and marble countertops. And then I’d pause for a few minutes to discuss the weather with Bill, who’d be standing in the doorway of his trailer. When we had just moved into our house, clueless and lawnmower-less, we let the weeds grow so high that one day Bill showed up and said he was going to mow for us. Gil and I—clumsy city people—watched in embarrassment as Bill steered his tractor-mower through the thigh-high weeds. When Bill’s wife died a year later, I went over every other day to bring him food because I thought that’s what a neighbor is supposed to do. I felt very virtuous when I came to pick up the empty dishes and I even considered offering to tutor Josh, Bill’s grandson, who had been placed with his grandparents because his mother, Bill’s daughter, couldn’t take care of him. I felt sorry for the taciturn 11-year-old, who, I heard from Bill, had trouble keeping up at school. I thought that now that his grandmother was gone, I should offer some motherly care. But I didn’t know how to talk to a troubled 11-year-old and I worried Bill would think me a sentimental snoop if I meddled too much in his family affairs. So I let it go.
I haven’t made my walks in a long while. I’ve gotten busy, too busy to allow myself to be distracted by the beauty here. I’m busier than anyone should be—busy making a living, taking care of my family, going grocery shopping, making deadlines, always rushing, always running behind, always making lists of things I know I don’t have time for: fix the drafty windows, clean out the closets, organize my computer files, assess our retirement plan, organize play-dates for the children, find a mechanic to check out the squeak in my car, schedule dentist appointments, and, at the bottom of the list I add: get milk.
I could, of course, drive to the farm to get my milk, but the main appeal of Beth’s milk is the walk to get it. When, in the middle of a snowstorm, I’d put on my snow-pants and brave the weather for a bottle of creamy, yellow milk, I felt I was part of a timeless landscape that I shared with generations of farmers, and it didn’t matter if it was me or someone from a previous century walking down the icy road.
It’s not only that I’m too busy to visit. I’m afraid that Beth disapproves of my busyness. I’m afraid I can’t drink her milk if my principles are as muddled as my shopping choices. I’m afraid of the absolute loyalty Beth demands. I don’t know what role she expects me to play, but I don’t think I can live up to it.
Gil doesn’t worry about Beth’s opinion of him. He enjoys watching her plow a field with a traditional wooden plow pulled by her big Belgian horse and he likes to observe the progress on the big wooden barn that she’s erecting single-handedly, but he’s skeptical about her ideal of traditional farming – he thinks it’s superstitious to believe that the past was any better than the present.
“It’s impressive how hard she works!” he says with bemused interest, as if the pointlessness of her activities makes her efforts even more remarkable. He says it with the same tone he reserves for me when I’m up all night working on a futile experiment like chronicling every thought I had in the course of a day. I could interpret his tone as condescending, but I choose to think of it as a mystified sympathy for passions that are foreign to him. He sees most of life as pointless activity, but he’s intrigued by other people’s investment in it. He lives at a different scale. The world outside his books doesn’t really interest him. He doesn’t care if his vegetables come from Beth’s or from the Price Chopper. They all taste the same to him. Gil doesn’t get blinded with enthusiasm, which is what I like about him. When I am sentimental, swept away by fanciful ideas or superstitions, he snaps me back.
When the moon is full, I always expect an email from my mother asking me if I watched it. “Wasn’t it beautiful?” she’ll ask, “Did you go out for a night walk?” She monitors me to make sure I’m not wasting my time being busy, that I don’t forget to lose myself in beauty and poetry. Gil’s placidity disturbs her. She’s afraid I’ll become as impassive and practical as he.
And often when I receive her email, I have been too busy to look at the moon. Instead of losing myself in the beauty of the universe, I cook dinner, read stories to the kids, put them in bed, and then I sit down at my computer to get some more work done. Sometimes, anticipating my mother’s email interrogation, I go out quickly to take a quick peek at the moon, just so I’ll be able to tell her that, yes, I have seen the moon and, yes, it was beautiful: a big ivory globe rising above the trees whose stark purple shadows form patterns on the glittering snow. But the truth is that I feel sad because it was cold and I went back inside right away, knowing I should have stayed out longer. I should have put on my long down jacket, and I should have taken a flashlight and walked down to Townfarm Road to see the moonlight reflect off the White Mountains in the distance, across the Connecticut River. But instead, I turned around and slipped back into the warm house, back to my computer, telling myself I’d take that full-moon walk next month, when I’m less busy.
Maybe that’s why I care so much about what Beth thinks of me. I have strayed from the person I should have become, someone who lives more fully, someone who isn’t reasonable and doesn’t make compromises. To achieve Beth’s kind of stubbornness, you need to have strong passions. But I’m not convinced of anything.
Since I stopped making my walks, I’ve become an outsider again in my neighborhood. Last summer my neighbor Jennifer gave me some tomato plants. I hadn’t asked for them—I barely have time to spend with my children, let alone take on responsibility for a vegetable garden—but a week later Jennifer asked me how the tomatoes were doing, so I plowed a patch of earth and planted them. Then I almost let them die because I forgot to water. Jennifer, uninhibited about her own nosiness, told me she had entered our garden to check out the vegetable patch and had noticed that the tomato plants needed better care. She pressured me into halfhearted attempts at keeping the plants alive. I occasionally watered them, just enough to help the shriveled leaves survive until the next rain, and by the time I remembered to weed the plot, it had become so overgrown that I could no longer distinguish the tomato plants from the weeds. Four months later, my garden yielded exactly two tomatoes, which I cut up ceremoniously and ate with great gravity. I still feel guilty when I look out my window and see the bare sticks that those pitiful plants had been leaning against. Since then Jennifer hasn’t offered me any more treasures from her garden, no apples like the year before, no pumpkins, and no honey from Rob’s hives.
Bill and I are again strangers to each other. We haven’t talked since last spring. Josh has grown over the past two years. He’s in middle school now. He’s a heavy-set, brooding teenager who almost looks like the adult man he’ll soon be. The innocence has left his face. Sometimes I see him outside in the meadow, disciplining the new dog: Josh raising his fist and the dog cowering on the ground.