Folks, please file this under “Only One Of My Most Anticipated Books To Read Of All Time”. I’m talking about Margaret Roach’s And I Shall Have Some Peace There: Trading In The Fast Lane for My Own Dirt Road , her latest book about her departure from a Very Important Position to one of peace and solitude in the country. If you’ve ever dreamed of walking away from something that no longer makes you happy towards something that follows your dream, well, you need to read this book.
But first, let’s watch this clip about Margaret and her book, shall we?
Margaret Roach has been an editor at the New York Times, a fashion and garden editor at Newsday and the editorial director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. After years of working for others she left her lucrative career to move upstate into the country. Today she writes A Way To Garden, a fantastic and entertaining resource for all things gardening. And she’s also been something very important to me – a friend, a mentor, someone who means more to me than I think I could tell you. But I’m gonna try.
I’ve felt as if I’ve known Margaret for quite some time. Granted, it was through her editor’s letter that would arrive in my mailbox via Martha Stewart Living Magazine, and there was even that brief appearance on “The Apprentice” (remember that, Margaret? I sure do). But there was a chance moment in 2008 when we were both scheduled to be on the same episode of The Martha Show in NYC when I realized I’d finally have my chance to say hello. As luck would have it I never had the opportunity; producers usher you to and fro, the hurried experience of taping a live show becomes a whirling blur with no time for socializing. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.
It must have been a week later when I sent an email, only to learn she was just as disappointed as I was that we never got to meet. Nevermind, we’ll fix this I thought, and our friendship bloomed via emails, skype chats and phone calls.
In the past few years I must attribute much of the success I’ve had online and in real life to Margaret. She’s been a bright guiding light, offering me insight, advice, validation and guidance as we both navigate the world of blogging. When I have a question I go to her; when I have a hair-brained idea I ask her. When things just aren’t too clear it’s Margaret that runs my conundrums through her filter and each time I hang up/hit send/disconnect I look at myself and say “Am I not the luckiest boy in the world?” Because honestly I am. I wish everyone had their own Margaret Roach.
During our conversations she’d allude to deadlines, editors, burning candles at both ends while trying to write and maintain a garden at the same time, and there I was, dying to know what this book was about. In time she shared with me the subject, and to think I’d get to read her journey from city to country had me cheering yet staring at a calendar. It seemed like f-o-r-e-e-v-e-r (and I can only think of what it was like for her) until one day last year an advance copy arrived in the mail.
It was finally here.
I was so excited that my hands were shaking as I held it. I think I even made some obnoxious tweet about it and then proceeded to shut out the world for a few hours.
I read And I Shall Have Some Peace There in one sitting, too enthralled to put it down, too involved with the cast of characters that surround her to just stop reading. I wanted to know what makes a person leave so much behind in favor of a new life, a life that should be promising but still holds so many unknowns. I think it’s a situation that intrigues us all. Little did she know I was contemplating the exact same thing. More on that in a bit.
I had the opportunity to ask Margaret a few questions about her latest book.
Matt: The book begins with some background about your life as an editor as well as the house in the country that you fell in love with. You say it was love at first site with this old house that “was not charming; it is hard to be charming when all your character has been wrapped in layers of falseness, layers of what is not you but rather brands burned into your surface and even deeper at someone else’s convenience or desire.” Might the house be you? (not that you’re not charming, darling, because you are, just sayin’).
Margaret: When I started peeling away the added-on layers of the house’s exterior in order to insulate finally in preparation for moving here, I realized consciously for the first time (after more than 20 years of visiting it on weekends) how much the house and I had in common. We were in disguise; our true selves were hidden. I connected then, and more each day as we finally lived “together,” with just how similar we are, this house and I: diminutive but durable, quirky, and too-long-muffled.
Q: What was Martha’s reaction to your departure? Clearly she has been such an influence to us all.
I think at first we were both uncomfortable with my decision, and there was an awkward time, which happens when any long relationship changes context. But once we got through the first phase –and remember, we took it slow: I consulted for more than six months after my technical departure, so that gave us time to get acclimated – it went fine.
The validation that it was the right thing for both of us came when Martha read the book galley last year, and said what later became the blurb on the back cover. She said that even after nearly 20 years of knowing each other, what was in the book (which she calls “superb”) surprised her – she met parts of me she’d never seen. Exactly! And she said I was gutsy to have moved up here to try my dream. Being called gutsy by someone as gutsy as Martha was about the nicest thing ever.
Q: Was there a single moment when some little light bulb went off where you said “I gotta get outta here!”?
After more than 20 years of imagining a rural life, external forces intervened to finally create a catalyst for my decision. My closest colleague, to whom I had reported for eons, was leaving…and the new leader’s agenda would mean making a big commitment. As a senior manager, you don’t sign up and then walk away partway into a new plan—just too unprofessional, too bridge-burning a behavior. So I know that I’d be signing on for another few years if I stayed—and thought, nope, better to excuse myself now.
Q: Gardening has been your thing for quite some time. You say “I garden because I cannot help myself”. How do you mean this?
I came to gardening as occupational therapy, really, in my 20s, when my mother, barely 50, got Alzheimer’s. When I first dug in (sorry) it was with a vengeance….I had to stick close to home to help with care, so I started cutting down the hedge outside my childhood home, and overgrown shrubs, and planting things I didn’t even know the names of, and just got swept under by the pull of these botanical creatures.
I think it was very healing, and quickly became much more than some mere hobby or distraction; it became a refuge, a spiritual practice, a meditation. It brought me into concert with nature in a very intimate way, so leaving my relationship with the garden is unimaginable. It’s who I am: gardener.
What I have learned as a gardener has shaped my entire belief system (think: Eastern woo-woo); my diet (I have been a vegetarian for more than 30 years, choosing to eat low on the food chain for my health and the environment’s); and my awareness that we are all part of a bigger story. I love the lessons in humility and loss the garden teaches, as much as its beauty and bounty.
Q: Let’s talk about your “If Only” lists. These lists were created to make you feel better during your alone time at Margaret Roach, Inc. They include:
“• Buy a Portable Generator
• Camp Lanterns with rechargeable batteries
• Battery Powered Radio
• Sandbags over axle of pickup truck to improve stability in case it’s needed in winter
• Place weatherproof containers of traction grit and serious salt and appropriate scoops at all entrances to all buildings
This list goes on. My legs and back hurt reading it. In a nutshell, how are these backbreaking (to me, at least) duties any more pleasurable than those required of you during your executive days? I mean, reading this makes a climate controlled office at Starrett Lehigh and shopping sprees seem so much more enjoyable. Tell me what I’m missing here.
I just burst out laughing, reading that list of my winter preparedness drill. You are correct on one level: Winter, in particular, is no party here on my very steep piece of land, which as I type this answer resembles a cross between a tundra and a melting glacier.
There have been many days these three years when I thought if Ree Drummond hadn’t taken the title already, I’d rename myself The Pioneer Woman. But I really love my relationship to nature, and living here makes me face my powerlessness and all at once also kick my fierce capability into gear.
You just don’t get to see what I see—the godlight, as I call the breathtaking warm light here; a family of gray fox climbing old apple trees to have a picnic in fall; huge flocks of irruptive winter finches from Canada making a rare, surprise detour to feast on my hollies and crabapples—without paying for the ticket for a front-row seat. No free ride, baby. Get out your ice chopper and that salt bucket…there’s another show starting shortly.
Q: I don’t want to give away anything in the book about harvesting, canning and cooking, but what’s it like cooking for one?
I used to live on Amy’s Organic frozen dinners; a friend says I was one frozen entrée away from a nervous breakdown in my craziest corporate years.
Today, in a typical week of 21 meals, I cook 19 or 20 of them for myself. I go to a favorite restaurant a couple of times a month, and eat tamales handmade by the grandma of a local farmer once or twice a week. There is no commercial prepared food—not even the organic canned beans I used in my “old” life. Now I do my beans (which I eat at least once daily) from scratch; I even make my own baked beans (a favorite food).
I sit and work all day just 11 feet from the stove; something’s always on. Though I am one smallish person, I cook in big batches, then portion things out to freeze, so there are always five or six choices on hand. Add brown rice or quinoa (I cook a large portion once a week) or a potato and you’re set. This month’s options: Anna Thomas’s sweet potato-sage-greens soup; my garden red sauce; lentil soup with balsamic and bay leaf; flageolet with herbs, carrots and onions; vegetarian chili; pesto. There are eggs from a local farm and various goat cheeses and yogurt in the fridge along with garden carrots and beets, and potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, onions and garlic, also all homegrown, in the cellar. The choice widens during garden season, of course.
Two trips each month to the food coop, which is 22 minutes away, and I am set. I am the queen of pantry and freezer, and beneficiary of my well-loved soil to whom I am ever so kind, and grateful.
Q: How much do you keep in contact with your past life?
Do you believe in past lives, Matt (tee hee)? (I asked for that — matt)
I am pretty solitary soul much of the time, but there is a strange dose of technology juxtaposed on my “new” life, sharply contrasting the canvas of bucolic silence. Pings on Skype all days bring familiar, but now-distant, voices into the room. The comments on my website include many people with whom I’ve been having garden conversations for decades. And my closest old friends come to visit IRL-style because it’s a pretty great place to disappear to (especially if you don’t have to do the snow shoveling, mowing, etc. and can simply be the “guest”).
Q: I’m hoping one day I can visit and that you’ll introduce me to the frogs. Has living in nature and interacting with your creatures made you feel more or less human? Did that question make sense?
I am ever more aware each day of how very, very far nature’s creatures with technically smaller brains than ours get on instinct and genetics. They survive, thrive and even evolve without lots of props, technology, money, crapola. Did you ever watch a solitary spider weave a web, or a bird build a nest (and then another nest if someone bigger topples the original one)?
So I feel more like one of the earth’s creatures each day, seeing my place in the food chain very clearly. I am also inspired by many of the animals who are supposedly in a “lower order” than I for their tenacity and seeming genius. Can you imagine weighing .4 to .6 ounces like and American goldfinch, and living here, outdoors, in winter? That miracle inspires me.
Q: Can we play word association? Fill in the blanks with what comes to mind.
Tractors: Size matters. Joy stick [my tractor’s front-end loader is operated with one; get your mind out of the gutter, Matt]. Mulching. Composting. Mowing. Mowing. Mowing. Mowing. Mowing…
Weeds: I didn’t inhale. Perennial. Biennial. Annual. Rhizomatous. Infinite. Powerlessness.
Winter: Ice follies. Ice dams. Icicles. Tundra. Yaktrax. Ibex. Salt. Sand. Birdseed. Surrender!
Max Mara: Bygones. (See “Ibex,” above.)
Blogging: WordPress. Connection. Empowerment. Lifeline. Community. Dev guys. Geeky. Happy.
Q: The book covers your life in the country. You describe your first country haircut, 2 years or so into your new life, as something that caused you to stop, cry, and reflect on who you had become — this “new” Margaret. Why do you think it took so long for you to have this emotional moment?
In three years there have only been two: the haircut one, and another just recently, when I think I realized the book was actually coming out. Not bad, really.
The haircut was not a bad haircut; as I say in the book, it just wasn’t my haircut, and my haircutter of decades, and you know how women are about their hair and hairdressers. It felt scary, out of control.
I have lost all propriety about fashion and makeup in my life here—I cannot believe my outfits, really—and I am OK with that, after decades otherwise, but my hair…well that was just too much for me then. We all have our “thing” that is the straw; crazy (and irrational) things can be the one that tips us over. I could dress in farm boots and three layers of long-johns and a baggy coat from 15 years ago, and have on no makeup, but please don’t let my hair look like Kute Kutz did it. Which it didn’t. But a friend with a few more rural years than I had said repeatedly to me in advance, “You’ll know you’ve really moved to the country when you get your first rural haircut,” and so I think that caught up with me: I really did this. I am here for good.
Q: My last question! You say “Randomness, along with instinct, and, if you are lucky, scrappiness, are what you have left when you take the detour I did.” It’s a beautiful sentiment and one I can identify with. Not many people know this other than my closest friends (Lord knows I’ve never shared this until right this second, inspired by your honesty and self-reflection) but exactly one year ago this month I was a victim of the economy, getting the boot from my 10-year job as an art director while I was secretly making plans to leave to pursue my own thing. I’ve always had a paycheck, I’ve always had insurance, I’ve always had a job, even when I was freelancing as a photographer. Now maybe you know why I’ve been waiting for this book from you for so long, in a sense you’ve taught me that it’s scary but ok to make that leap. In my case someone pushed me. And when I say “push” it was the best thing that ever happened. Literally. I imagine this book may inspire others to make that move to a life that answers to their true calling. Any words of advice to those people?
Remember than we are ephemeral, and have a shelf life like that salsa in the back of the fridge with the green stuff growing on top of it. Remember that when you let yourself keep putting off dreams because “I just don’t have the time.”
Practical matters such as those you cite—insurance coverage and financial responsibilities—may not allow a complete (and especially sudden) break with a job, and relationships and commitments may not allow it, either, a least not all at once. But you could go from white to pale gray, at least…even if not black. You could find a little time to cultivate the start of the dream.
I read somewhere recently that we have “found” multiple hours a day for the internet in our “no time for that” lives…so why not shift some of that “found” time to the dreamy stuff?
Also remember that any big change takes not just courage but also preparation; I did not walk out after decades on a whim or a huff. I planned; I was patient. (And then six months after I left, the recession announced itself. So much for planning.) So I always think of this:
A friend named Jeff Thomas who with his wife started their own business, Water Right Inc [dot] com, says to always think of this: “Understand worse-case scenario. Take chances. Reap the rewards. Share the joy. Help your friends do the same.”
Matt: Thank you Margaret, you are so wonderful. And I love your hair.
Special thanks to Margaret Roach for taking the time for this interview and for being my friend. I adore her.