How You Know Yourself

Watching the Olympic swimmers, my daughters wondered what went through the swimmers’ heads while they spent endless hours practicing their watery strokes. Intense concentration, or sometimes a grocery list?

I imagine that must be way they know the world, I answered. My older daughter at 17 uses photography as her own personal lens of knowledge. From a very young age, I knew the world through fiction, with an insatiable desire to read. An essay of mine about writing just appeared in Green Mountains Review, chock-full with the sun and the moon, wood stove ashes on the floor, a toddler and her tricycle. It’s my own particular story, my own grain of sand reflecting this bit of the universe.

And so I think of Michael Phelps and his teammates, male and female, their arms mightily stroking through the water, breathing in their knowledge of the world, sublimely sacred at times, no doubt profound to the bone at others.

When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion.

J.D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction




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Murky Matters of the Heart

I’m in the firewood chore time, a task I’m embracing with gusto. Wood stacks satisfyingly, drying for toasty winter evenings sprawled before the hearth, with tea and books and board games. The chore is pretty much zero-loss; if the piles fall down, I’ll restack, a redoing with little loss but of time – perhaps even a gain in the muscle category.

Not so, in other aspects of human life. Last night,  I lay awake late, sucking lemons and reading Jung Yun’s Shelter, a novel about specific family actions with that extremely gray subtext of what I can only call ‘matters of the human heart’ – the moral (or immoral) meanings of our actions, the elements of our lives that mean the very most to us. The novel reminds me of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a family saga about human choice: the uniquely human element that often seems so baffling. What the heck must I do now?

Hence, the pleasure of stacking wood on a balmy August day, with the bittersweet scent of freshly-drawn sap, the dryness of dust on split logs, and the tidy wisdom of ordering a piece of my land for the colder days to come.

Of all the people in the world, he (Kyung) never expected Reverend Sung to be a source of comfort, the first real sense of comfort he’s felt in so long. He’s thrown by it, stunned silent by the possibility that he isn’t so underserving of kindness as he believes himself to be. Kyung sits down and takes the reverend’s hand, squeezing it to convey the volume of things he can’t, and the reverend, in another act of kindness, simply stands there and lets him, saying nothing in return.

Jung Yun, Shelter


Woodbury, Vermont




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Technological “Advances” in Rural Vermont

Living in Vermont and relying on a cell phone means knowing the best reception landscape around you – precisely which few feet along your dirt road have enough bars to dial out.

Yesterday, with our home reception reliably lousy these days, I parked behind the Greensboro Garage’s yellow barn, opened my notebook, unstrapped my sandals, and went to work. The crickets were singing, and the sun was a peachy end-of-August temperature. I spread my notebook on the dash, with the doors open, in a little breeze that moved along that valley. As a writer, I’ve worked in all kinds of places, from cemeteries to a hospital closet, and this was prime territory, but I’m not sure this represents all that much of a technological advance.

I once used a landline at my own desk; now the phone fits in my hand, which is good thing because I sometimes need to hold it up, believing that will improve reception or send off an email I’m anxious to move along.

Admiring this substantial barn reminded me of Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. Remember Seymour Glass calling his fiancée in World War II?

The connection was so bad, and I couldn’t talk at all during most of the call. How terrible it is when you say I love you and the person at the other end shouts back “What?”

– Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction

Yesterday evening, parked at the top of Kate Brook Road, near a meadow storybook-beautiful with wildflowers and ringed by mountains, neighbors stopped and asked if I had a flat tire. When I held out my phone, they said, Use our landline anytime. The door’s unlocked. If I stopped by, chances are, I’d leave some of my tomatoes, and sample some of theirs.


Hardwick, Vermont



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Yearling Bear

Driving alone up Vermont Route 12 this morning, in a forested area that winds between two ridges and along dead-tree-choked swamps, I spied a young bear on the pavement ahead of me. There was no one but me and the bear, and I coasted to the side and got out of little car. Overhead flew a single crow.

The bear, too young to see me at all, was small enough to be round in its four limbs and soft paws, walking in a circle, and I looked for the creature’s mother, as it seemed to be searching as well. Then, the youngster ducked beneath the guard rail and was gone, simple as that. I was back in my car and on my way. I passed no other traffic.

150 years ago, bear and deer were nearly extinct in what was a nearly deforested Vermont. The wildlife has surged back in strength, both in the dearness of its young, and sometimes in what would be the fierceness of its parents. I hadn’t seen a bear in a few years, and I was glad to see this one. I’m hoping its mother was just beyond my sight.

In late winter
I sometimes glimpse bits of steam
coming up from
some fault in the old snow
and bend close and see it is lung-colored
and put down my nose
and know
the chilly, enduring odor of bear….

From “The Bear” by Galway Kinnell


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Adversity, the Inner Life, and Childrearing

Nowhere in the miasma of contemporary parenting lit have I ever read my dad’s adage from when I was a child: Adversity builds character. Enough, my siblings and I used to moan; we have enough character. In the same vein, in his poetry collection Galvanized, Leland Kinsey writes about growing up on a farm in northern Vermont. While his own boy had a gentler and easier childhood, his son lacked knowing his labor was essential to the family.

Entirely unintentionally, I gave my older daughter that same sense of urgency. Pressed up against the relentlessness of agriculture, this child was in the sugarhouse from infancy, when her rosy baby cheeks shined up with a sugary patina from sap condensation.

Does anyone, ever, have enough character? Not persona, not a two-dimensional image, but a depth and richness of character? When I first became a mother, I knew I wanted my children to have what I called a rich inner life. Doubtlessly, literature and Mozart nourish that inner life, but working any variation of a farm does, too. I’m reminded of this as my daughter heads off to her first college course today, a photography class. At 17, she’s of the age now where she’s beginning to tell her own story, and while I often feel I have little enough to offer this girl as she enters her own womanhood, I’m quite sure at least a rich inner life is a deep well she’ll be able to drawn upon.

The whitewashed walls were smeared with blood
the day the bull rampaged inside the barn
after escaping from its pen.
My father gave my brother and me
each a stout stick to block exits
and hoped we didn’t have to use them….

From Leland Kinsey’s “Surviving Bulls”


Faux wood, Artwork, Stowe, Vermont


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Farmers Market Females

On a bike ride today, my daughters and I stopped by the Stowe Farmers Market, where I was known for years as the Root Beer Float Woman. I also peddled one heck of a lot of maple syrup there. I vended there for 14 years, beginning when I was pregnant for the first time and ending when that daughter was 13. That girl pretty much grew up summers in the market, and I spent awful lot of Sundays serving up homemade ice cream with a baby either on my back or nearby, underfoot.

Today, we were merely visitors, buying sausage and cookies. I stopped to talk with a woman whose own children are long past the toddler years. I knew she and her husband had bought a farm, worked themselves as hard as humanly possible, and ended up downsizing, downsizing, downsizing, overburdened by debt, and eventually selling the greater chunk of the farm. I remembered the day they signed on that farm. I served on the board then, and we drank champagne in celebration.

Lying on the grass, later today, with my teenage daughter, staring up at Stowe’s pristine church steeple, I told my daughter that story – and more, many more. As I did, I realized just how hard so many of these farm women I knew worked. Over and over, I came up with names of women who were savvy and creative, and believed in the saving virtue of hard work with their hands.

Like everyone, all of these women have met hard times, but I would consider none of these females failures, each meeting her fate with some kind of rugged grace. It’s been a handful of years since I sold a drop of sweet stuff – maple or ice cream – at the farmers market, yet it’s also a place I still think of as home.

Only 8 percent of the country’s farms produce 72 percent of the national harvest. This is where the subsidies go. Agribusiness is concentrating so quickly that in the near future our global retail food system may be controlled by five or six firms  – in America perhaps it will be WalMart…. So why fight it? Why not? And that’s what the farm women of Vermont and America are involved in….  In the face of agribusiness intent on controlling the global food supply, you could call these women working activists.

– Peter Miller, Vermont Farm Women, 2002


Stowe, Vermont


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Moon Rise

Camping these past few days on a island in Lake Champlain, the kids and I were biking back from the south end in the dusk when a crimson full moon appeared over the horizon, startlingly beautiful.

A 100 years ago, this mile-long island was farmed by tenant labor, sending out vegetables, dairy, wool. Now, those once-upon-a-time farm fields run rampart with goldenrod and stinging nettles. Sumac trees branch over paths for enchanting tunnels. The mighty lake, like so much of our world now, is polluted, but even so, the beauty of water and sky, singing cricket and chorusing frog, blue heron and turtle, is mesmerizing.

The next night, the children and I canoed into the dusk, and then walked out on a rocky jetty as dark filtered in. We perched there, watching the moon rise over the horizon. I’ve been reading Howard Axelrod’s The Point of Vanishing, a book about his two years in Vermont solitude, and I kept thinking of his line near the end: you are human. Not solitary, not a discrete entity, but part of the moving, changing landscape, in all its infinite beauty.

I wanted to see through all surfaces and to see through myself, but I wasn’t a transparent thing. I was bone, sinew, skin. If I lost depth perception when it came to life, if I removed every line so there was no difference between near and far, I’d never survive – maybe as a ghost or as a cipher but not as a human being.


Burton Island, Vermont

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