Neighbors

I’m listening to a friend I like very much describe her neighbors’ extensive political signs — sizable banners and flags decorate this rural Vermont property. I’m tallying up my book purchase bills for my library when I suddenly pause, listening harder as my friend says she doesn’t think she can walk across the dirt road and be friendly anymore.

A variation of the conversation surface again at dinner, when my oldest says her Instagram posts have been criticized as not political enough, not making a vocal stand against injustice. We’re eating tomatoes and sweet onions my youngest picked from the garden.

Our conversation winds around to the late and great John Lewis, and I remind my daughter of the challenge Lewis posed:

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.

My daughter, worn out from a long week at work, struggles — what am I supposed to do? Like anyone, she desires to walk the path of justice and goodness. Then she tells her sister and me the heartbreaking story she witnessed that day at work of a Black woman, white men, and fear. What could I have done? she asks me.

I don’t have the answer for her. Listening, I suddenly think, Fuck Instagram and our human — or perhaps American — compulsion to sum up the story of justice and injustice in a few brief sentences. My daughter leaves for a run, utterly dissatisfied and miserable.

I sympathize with my friend who didn’t want to cross that road to her neighbors’ porch again. I’m as guilty as anyone else of barricading my heart to those I don’t understand. But the world, surely, changes through compassion. There’s nothing glitzy or flashy about compassion — it’s messy and painful. But isn’t that the challenge?

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Photo by Gabriela S.

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August Day

Awake before dawn, I lie thinking of my friend’s 49th birthday today, remembering that October afternoon we swam in Lake Caspian with our five- and six-year-olds — swimming outdoors in Vermont in October! The leaves around the lake flamed gold and orange. That night, I realized I was pregnant with my second child.

Lying there, I remembered the March morning you didn’t appear for coffee, and I suddenly realized your stepfather had passed. That foggy day we drove for hours, searching for a house for my daughters and me when my marriage had shattered, and the fall we canned sticky quart after quart of peaches and tomatoes? The steady drop-off of eggs this pandemic that has fed my family for so many meals?

Someday — the world willing — we’ll look back at 2020 and, even then, cringe. And yet, your birthday for me has always marked the high holiness of Vermont summer — fatly rich with sunflowers and vegetables gardens escaping their fences. The dew is cold on my bare feet, but the day promises that heat you love so well.

Considering the ways in which so many of us waste our time, what would be wrong with a world in which everybody were writing poems?… By writing poetry, even those poems that fail and fail miserably, we honor and affirm life. We say ‘We loved the earth but could not stay.’

— Ted Kooser

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Van Gogh

Late Saturday afternoon in the heat, the girls load up the canoe while I’m lying on the porch reading. I’m so tired I’m near to sleeping, but the girls have packed up dinner. On there way there, my 15-year-old, driving, says, Uh-oh, as the canoe slides ever so slowly to the left on the roof of my car.

Again, so near to sleeping in the heat, I say, You could ease the car over to the side of the road. She does. Her sister does some magic (or enough magic) with the straps, and then we’re on our way again.

Fortunately, we’re not going far.

On #10 Pond in Calais, we paddle out, listening to the loons. In the center, we pause and eat dinner. Eventually, the youngest says, Those loons are surrounding us — mama, daddy, teens. For the longest time, we simply sit there, listening. Then the oldest dips in a paddle and breaks the pond’s glassy surface.

It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.

— Van Gogh

For lovers of Van Gogh — and who isn’t? — here’s a fascinating NYT piece about his presumed final painting. I recommend the free book.

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Photo by Molly S./Calais, VT

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Crickets

My daughter’s friend spends the afternoon on our back porch. When I come home from work, the girls are still chatting and doing crafts. The sunlight dapples through the box elders. Around us, tomatoes ripen.

We are ensconced in porch life, our half-covered deck redolent with drying garlic, the nasturtiums dangling their delicate, impossibly beautiful blossoms from hanging baskets. In the mornings, we read Henry IV, Part One aloud with my parents in Santa Fe, my sister and nephews in Virginia, circling back to Falstaff’s words — “A plague of sighing and grief! It blows a man up like a bladder.” Beside me, my 15-year-old rubs a finger over the scraps on her knees from blackberry brambles.

August is the sunshine month in Vermont, the season of wild berries, of warm lakes, of flowers in excess, of lying on the grass as the stars come out, of a great long pause before autumn sets in and winter grinds her teeth.

Our deck, our house, and garden might as well be the whole world, with the turkey vultures silently circling overhead, the wood thrush singing sweetly in the ravine. Before dinner, I toss a withering bouquet of giant zinnias in the compost and cut a fresh handful for our dinner table. August is our rainbow month. I know my daughter’s desire for school, for soccer, for this future none of us seem able to imagine — but long may August last, please.

The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last for ever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into autumn – the crickets spread the rumour of sadness and change.

— E.B. White

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Rain for Dinner

In a steady rain, my daughter sets the table for dinner. For months, we’ve eaten on our deck. I suggest, as I’m sautéing onions, that she set the dining room table.

Giggling, she lays plates on the glass table outside, sets out forks, and then digs in the drawer for napkins.

Really? I say, napkins? They’ll get wet.

I don’t mind eating outside by myself, she answers, still giggling.

This has been a long day, a long however many weeks that have widened into months of coronavirus, that will likely be a long year or years. We’d planned to be in Maine these days, soaking up sunlight and the sand, but quarantining upon return isn’t feasible. She knows this; she doesn’t argue.

Still laughing, she takes a jar of pickles and sets it on the table. From inside, I see raindrops bounce off its unopened top. When she comes back, I say, Don’t forget cups. I’m eating outside with you, too.

All who have achieved excellence in art possess one thing in common; that is, a mind to be one with nature, throughout the seasons.

Matsuo Bashō

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My daughter’s companion

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Wilderness

On a humid Sunday, we walk into Peacham Bog. When I suggest this, my youngest clarifies, A bog? That’s your idea of fun?

It’s Class I wetlands, I answer — as if this is even the remotest tease of fun.

What does lure her is the car keys. Driving there, I mention, Hey, you should always check the gas gauge before you leave home.

What’s the point? she answers. I always drive with you.

We’re driving over a particularly lousy piece of pavement then, and she carefully avoids a pothole — diligent learner.

I answer, But you won’t always drive with me. Isn’t this the whole point here? Because before long you’ll be driving on your own?

She takes that in — thinking over what’s obvious but of course isn’t — that she won’t be a child forever, that even as we’re talking she’s hurtling toward adulthood — a glacial pace for her, a rocket pace for me.

All that hike into the bog and back — exquisitely beautiful, bordering ethereal with its wildness — she carries those keys in her backpack. I can imagine she’s thinking, and I won’t be driving to any flipping Class I wetlands, but she humors me.

But I did not want to go,
not yet, nor knew what to do
if I should stay, for how

in that great darkness could I explain
anything, anything at all.

— Hayden Carruth, The Cows at Night

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Photo by Molly S.

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August 1

This morning, the mist lies in the valley. Through the open windows, a coolness steals in with the dawn. For this summer, my daughter informs me, the greatest heat has passed.

July gave us thirty-one gorgeous, sun-drenched beautiful days. Now, on the first of August, I’m wearing jeans near my open window, as my daughters’ cat keeps a hungry eye on a darting goldfinch.

My teenager aches for September and school; I think, slow this down. School may not open its doors this September, maybe not in October, maybe not at all this year. In our little Vermont oasis, that seems theoretical at times. On this first of August, I think again of Hayden Carruth’s poetry.

The world is a
complex fatigue.

Indeed. For this day, green bean picking, handfuls of zinnias, the cosmos as tall as my shoulders, the nasturtiums nestled in the tomatoes. For this day, flowers.

Hayden Carruth

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Laughter

Pandemic notwithstanding, the car I’m selling needs to be inspected. Since who the heck wants to talk through masks, I call the mechanic where I’ve left this car for a week or so. What’s a week, anyway?

The soft-spoken mechanic, who’s been undercharging me for years, quietly explains what needs to be done. Then he asks me, What do you think of that? Is that okay?

I’m leaning over the back deck railings, staring into the tangle of wild raspberry canes. I answer, What I think is it’s 2020, and I don’t like any of this.

He busts out laughing. I hate to say it, Brett, but we’re so fucked. This has only been going on since March.

I know. What’s going to happen in November?

I’m laughing so hard at this point; there’s so nothing funny about any of this — pretty much nothing funny about 2020 at all — but we keep laughing and laughing.

Then I say, It’s just a car. Fix it. I’ll sell it. That’s small potatoes.

And — it’s still Vermont July — with a creamy half-moon and endless cucumbers.

The cool breeze.
With all his strength
The cricket.

— Issa

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Photo by Molly S.

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Snapshot

The peppers fatten on the vine. We’re at the sprawling, luxurious place of summer where the greenery is prolific and the pollinators busy. In a few weeks, the slow cool-down begins, but not yet.

On a photography quest, my daughter jumps onto a rickety dock and snaps photos while I wander around to the other side. A heron flies at the far end of the wetland.

We’re headed nowhere in particular this day — just a Sunday, the two of us, and we’re out and away from the ever-present humming chores of work and garden and house and that list I’ve taped on the fridge — sell old car, paint house, buy freezer. I’ve bought the freezer.

These days, the world feels almost unbearably fragile. What’s happening? In the face of this, we crave the wild — the dark pond, the eagle slicing across the sky, the meadowsweet and Black-eyed Susans.

When my daughter leaps back to shore, we turn and look at the bobbing dock. A snake has wound up through the slatted boards. She shivers all over — our mutual dislike of the slithering — and then we head out of the woods and wetlands, back to the domesticity of home and garden.

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Where We Are

On a gorgeous Friday afternoon, my 15-year-old and I are outside the Vermont Department of Libraries, to pick up a sneeze guard and hand sanitizer for my library. The building’s locked (of course), but we’re allowed into the vestibule of this beautiful building that once was the town’s high school.

The Department’s employee who helps us is like all the state library’s employees — utterly helpful — and a bag of children’s books has been included, too, to add to my library collection or give away. I imagine on the employee job application is a box — Are you a decent person?

There’s been some snafus in the pickup, and I’ve been texting the woman who arranged for these free drop-offs around the state. By then, my daughter and I are at our next errand. She’s in the driver’s seat, and we’re in the parking lot of a wood stove store.

The woman apologies for the confusion, and I text back not to worry. She writes that elevator problems were not in the plan. Then, laughing, I text that 2020 and Covid were doubtlessly not in her plans, either.

Haha, she writes back, nor were distributing sneeze guards and hand sanitizer in my career plans, either.

While I’m laughing and texting, my daughter has cracked open one of the half-gallon bottles of sanitizer and says, Hey, this is the good stuff!

The July day is stunning beautiful — not too hot, but the perfect day for swimming. There’s plenty of good things I’m happy about this day: I’m employed. I’m (nearly) finished with another draft of my book and about to hand that in. My 15-year-old is ecstatic to have the car keys in her hand.

Here’s what’s also happening.

I’m in this parking lot because I’m looking to solve a chimney problem in my house and heat again with wood. In the early mornings, reading the news, like so many other people, I worry about the country descending into chaos. My 21-year-old reads the same news and asks me what it means. What’s happening?

Like everyone else, I don’t know. I’ve never lived through times like these. But I do know human history is filled with times of uncertainty and movement and hardship. I’m doing everything I can to get us through the winter, as best as possible.

Part of getting through the winter is loving these summer days now, knitting deeper the ties around me — and that includes these bits of texting with a woman I haven’t yet met. The levity doesn’t diminish what’s happening, but collectively lightens the load. My daughter, rubbing that great sanitizer into her palms, asks if I’m going to laugh and text all afternoon. I might.

You’re rocking the distribution of plexiglass, I write.

She answers me, Thank you!

Then I put on my mask and head into the store.

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