Vermont Town Meeting Day

… today, except it’s not.

So much for those days jammed into town halls and school gymnasiums, debating school consolidations or upping appropriations to local food shelves. So much for buying a bowl of chili for lunch and supporting the local PTO. Stand up and vote by voice has been replaced this year by the ubiquitous paper ballot all over the state.

All night, the wind blows — March’s mighty lion. I wake thinking of the old farmhouse and broken down barn I visited the day before. Someone I knew years ago has bought the property and intends to build a new house. The farmhouse lies along a mountain ridge, with a view into a valley. Far up the valley, wind towers sparkled in the sunlight.

There’s no one around at this house, just the sun and myself, snowbanks sculpted by the wind far higher than my head. I might as well be on the edge of the world. I walk back up that long driveway, the snow drifted nearly to my knees. At the crest, I turn again and look back, curious to see next summer how this property will return to life.

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Spring Dreaming

At bedtime, my daughter calls me into her room and asks me to listen. The prayer flags strung over our back porch are flapping fiercely in the wind. I tell her that’s the point. The wind chimes from my sister are jingling, too. The wind strengthens.

This morning, stepping out, the air is warm in a way I haven’t felt in a very long time. The back of winter might not have been broken yet, but it’s getting there, breath by breath. This is a hard point of Vermont’s winter, when the snow and cold have lingered past their welcome, and our green summer world appears as an illusion. Last year, so many people I knew flew to Florida or Mexico. This year, hardly anyone I know has flown for pleasure.

Our back porch remains that wreckage of clumped ice and broken railing. Yesterday afternoon, my daughter stood in her t-shirt and boots, a hatchet in one hand she used to chop that ice. She suggested digging a swimming pool behind the porch next summer. I mused about a flower garden.

We mutually agreed to plant grapes along the barn, our tiny version of a vineyard.

Flying at Night

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us, 
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death, 
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas, 
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

Ted Kooser
Published in “Flying at Night”

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Falling Ice

In the night, ice slides off our back roof and breaks our porch railing. I discover this in the morning while I’m carrying out the stove ashes, cautiously looking for one of the neighborhood skunks.

The broken railing doesn’t even register as an annoyance. While I’m making coffee, I think this over. Just a few years ago, I would have brooded on the broken wood, resentful of the expense of money and time to repair this piece of our house. Now, I think merely, That can be repaired.

There’s a lesson here, I think, on this mundane Thursday morning. Of all the broken things in my life — inevitably, in all our lives — a snapped piece of wood hardly matters. For years, I saw the accumulation of disrepair, from a loose coat peg to a leaking roof, as sure evidence that my family life was unfolding. A year into the pandemic, a broken railing is evidence of warming nights. Repair, and move on.

From Leland Kinsey’s poem “Winter Stay in a Peat Bog”
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Day Pilgrimage

While my daughters and I have skated for years on lakes, Lake Morey is groomed specifically for skaters. Last early Sunday, we packed up skates and snacks and drove south. At the far end of the lake, I realized this was exactly what I had been craving — all that sky overhead, the lake ringed by mountains, the promise of summer and swimming with rope swings tucked into tree branches for the winter. Beneath my silver blades, the ice was swept by humans but created by nature, stippled unevenly, split with cracks, utterly uneven.

We’re now in the final week of February. Maples are tapped for sugaring. The forecast predicts warming weather. The ice, I remind myself, won’t last.

Lake Morey, Vermont

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Sunday Sweets

Skiing through the town forest yesterday, I ducked beneath sap lines. The sugarbush there is tapped and ready for the sap to run. I’m ready, too.

For years, our family sugared, and February began weeks that turned around the season and sap flow. We had no weekend. We had no days off. So now, on Sundays, I (mostly) fold up my laptop and lean into family.

One (small) silver lining of the pandemic is the pleasure of a single donut: peach, flower, poppy seed.

Ten degrees and sunny. Perfect for ice skating.

Here

I’m here —

the snow falling.

― Issa

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Imagining Summer

Reading about Texas, I wince for these folks. We’re colder here, in Vermont, but we’re ready for the cold — at least the fortunate of us are. My daughter, at 15, wears thin canvas shoes to school. I watch her in the morning lace these up, knowing she’ll walk home through snow and sometimes sleet in these shoes, but the walk isn’t long. More importantly, the choice and consequences are hers. And who wants to clomp around a high school in winter boots?

We’re living now in the interminable zone of midwinter, where the promise of spring scorns us like a mirage. At the same time, inherently we’re living through a countdown to mid-March. I remember that cold afternoon I stood with my daughter in our kitchen, listening to the governor on the radio as he explained the shelter in place order. She was 14 then, and kept asking me what that meant. I had no idea then, but I could sense walls ascending around our house, as if rising from the earth.

One year later. It’s not my anniversary, it’s an anniversary for all of us. For what that’s worth.

Here’s a poem written for the love of summer….

The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.

— Ted Kooser, “So This is Nebraska”

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Chance Encounter

Rain? Snow? Sleet? A mixture of all falls this morning.

Rounding a bend on a snow-covered dirt road in East Hardwick yesterday morning, I suddenly brake when hundreds of little black birds cover the road. There’s no one behind me, no one ahead of me, and I get out. A few birds flutter upward and perch on the electric wires, strewn already with these little creatures.

I’m at at farm, near a manure pit. Through the barn’s open sides, I see cows twisting their heads.

The birds don’t move. I don’t move. Then, eventually, because I’m a human and the birds are wild, I get back in my car and nudge forward slowly. Grudgingly — or maybe patiently — the birds part to the fields and the wires, and I move on.

Still February here.

On snowy afternoons there is a special blessedness in saying, oh it is too snowy to chop wood this afternoon. And the gray snow sifts down, and one takes off one’s boots and sits by the fire and is glad of the way wool socks smell; and a pie is baking in the oven, and the gray snow is sifting down.

— Elliott Merrick, Green Mountain Farm

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Our Perpetual Holiday

To practice night driving, my daughter and I set off after dinner, delivering a book and knitting needles to a friend. We’re laughing on the way there, and my daughter remarks, Why is it so dark?

I answer that I’m going to let that question lie.

At our friends’ house, we can see through the windows where the family is around the wood stove, talking, the walls painted yellow. I have a sudden flash of envy at the intactness of mother, father, two children, and then that passes quickly, too. At our house, warm and well-lit, with interior walls painted limoncello, we’re as intact as any family, too.

With my friend’s book in my lap, my daughter drives up the back roads, over ice and sand, through all that darkness. We reach the crest of hillside. There, as she drives and talks, I see across the valley to where a barn is lit in a long string of lights on the opposite hillside. Sporadic houses glow in the cold night, and not much more.

She drives down, then along the S curves along the river where I remember a terrible accident years ago. We stop and fill the gas tank. Beneath the bright gas station lights, it’s just us. I walk around the car, washing windows. In the driver’s seat, she watches me, and then I step back and bow. She shakes her head at me, amused.

Middle of February. Cold. A little chit in our collage.

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Strangers

A stranger comes into my office and tells me about the guesthouse he might want to build in ten years or so. Then he stops and asks rhetorically, Who am I kidding? I don’t know what will happen this summer.

I say (through my mask), Really, what might happen next week?

There’s a moment before we both laugh. What else could we do?

Driving home, through this gorgeous Vermont scenery — white snow sprinkled on blue mountains, enormous red barns, pretty clapboard villages with church spires the highest manmade mark — I think how lucky I was to travel a lot as a kid and in my twenties. So much camping, so much washing of hair beneath spigots. And yet, everything is just weird. Maybe this will change by the summer; maybe not.

At dinner, my daughter tells me about an elderly couple who stopped their car while she was walking and asked for directions to the high school. She said they told her they were on their way to get vaccines, and they waved happily to her as they drove off.

Listening, for some reason I remember an old word from novels I read as a child: Godspeed.

Thinking of that couple, I thought, Godspeed. Thinking of all of us, I thought, Godspeed.

And here’s inspiring news of an ancient shell.

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Tuesday

When I step out to start my daughter’s car before she heads to work this morning, a very light snow is falling, flakes drifting in the light from the kitchen window.

Last year, I would have been headed to Burlington through the snow, driving through whatever the weather might have tossed at me. This year, I’m headed a far shorter distance up a back road.

In my twenties, I lived in Washington state for a few years, on the western side, in the Cascade mountains. The mountains were beautiful, the people kind, but I missed the heart of winter, the drama of Vermont’s swinging seasons. On mornings like this, I sometimes wonder what the heck I was thinking. In February, so many Vermonters draw in — even pre-pandemic — hibernating at our hearths against the winter.

For a moment longer I stand shivering. In the village below, only a few lights glow. A milk truck drives along Route 14.

Then I head back in to make more coffee. My daughter yawns and packs her bag for work. She asks me, Remember the smell of rain?

Yes, I say. I do.

Photo by Gabriela
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