White Rags or Gulls?

Across the road, I chat with my neighbor in mid-afternoon about the general weirdness of this time.

She says it’s like the country has no president now, and in a weird way that seems true, as though in Vermont we’re in our own sovereign world, under our earnest governor and his team. Of course, we’re not, as she knows and we all know. Among the endless lessons the pandemic has taught us is how our planet is connected. The governor pleads, Stay home for the holidays. Think of not just your wants, but the needs of others around you.

Pre-holiday, we’re again waiting: what way will our collective behavior push us? Will the virus surge again, or will the bulk of us concede and stay home?

My neighbor and I linger, talking. Her little boy pretends to be his younger brother, giggling under our conversation. He shouts with happiness when I call him by his brother’s name, ecstatic that I’ve fallen for his role change.

The pandemic has opened our eyes, too, to see what was always there. The Hardwick dam recently lowered the Black River to a trickle. On Saturday afternoon, we walked through the muddy bed.

Gulls flew overhead, pure white in a November landscape of gray and black, steadily flying into the wind.

“Throughout history, women have too often been seen as subjects of art, rather than artists… As a woman painter, one needs to work out a strategy.”

— Celia Paul, Self-Portrait

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Friday Run

Just before dusk, I’m running along the rail trail, where train tracks once lay, when a woman steps out of the brushy woods, puts her hand over her chest, and gasps.

I’ve frightened her. She’s dressed in hunter’s orange and holds a rifle pressed against her body.

I stop. There’s no one else around, and I have the sudden terrible feeling that I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m wearing the ripped blue sweatshirt and knitted cap I always wear.

It’s hunting season, and I should be wearing orange. She looks angrily at me. I nod, edge away, and then keep on with my run. On this run, I’m mostly worried about a skinny dog at the one house I pass — a creature who doubtlessly is harmless. I run through the thick woods between the highway and the Lamoille River, snaking through its bends. It hasn’t escaped me how the wilderness presses right up against the village where I live, in acres upon acres of woods where I hardly ever see anyone.

On my way back, I again meet this woman with a florescent pink mask over her lower face. I’ve seen no one else, save the dog, and I slow to a walk again and apologize for not wearing brighter colors.

Jesus, she says and keeps walking.

Not long after, back in the village, the twilight drifts down like a gray snowstorm. My daughter’s school is closing again, perhaps opening in December, but maybe not. All around us, the pandemic continues to upend lives, through loss of in-person schooling, jobs and childcare, and the widening gulfs of isolation.

Walking back through town, I admire the holiday lights turning on as the darkness filters down — lights of all colors and blown-up snowmen and reindeer. The day has been unseasonably warm for November. Take this in, I think. And next time, bring a mask and wear orange, too.

“Writing often reveals us to ourselves, lets us name what’s important to us and what has been silent or silenced inside us.”

― Gregory Orr

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Pandemic Pause

When I was a young newlywed, I read Green Mountain Farm by Elliot Merrick — a nonfiction account of a Quaker family. At the very end, Merrick ends with a short section saying that World War II changed their lives, as it changed so many lives.

Last evening, after supper and dishes, I was outside, moving stacks of library books from one car to another, waiting for my daughters. Although it wasn’t late, the stars were already spread across the sky. I was waiting for my daughters to come out and join me for a walk.

Finished, I leaned against my car, waiting, remembering how I had walked around this house before I bought it. I had wanted to see how bright the stars were, and if the property had a good view of the moonrise.

My daughters came out. Lit by the porch light, I saw they were both wearing black jackets and scarves. Watching them, I realized my oldest daughter was all grown up. And my youngest? Rapidly heading there.

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… one can either choose to live, or not. We have to tell ourselves a story that makes living possible.

— Katherine E. Standefer, Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life

And so we go on, telling our stories. My daughter returns from her one high school class on Monday morning, and tells me so many teachers were out.

I head to work, leaving her in front of the wood stove with her chrome book, the cats sprawled on either side of her.

At the library, a teen comes in and tells me he thinks the school will close soon. The teen lives on a back road and can’t drive yet. He’s a voracious reader. In the spring, he told me, he read everything in the house, then everything again and again, and finally resorted to Netflix. I tell him to take as many books as he wants. He fills a bag. When he leaves, I wonder when I’ll see him again. Maybe Wednesday. Maybe not.

And so we go on. I name our little wood stove Jenny.

Okay, my daughter says. She is part of our family.

Stay well.

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Scars, Somewhere in November, 2020

Every morning, a hard frost sugarcoats our world.

Before the snow falls in earnest, my daughter drives, logging in hours and experience with her driver’s permit. We head out one way and take a different road back home.

Inadvertently, wandering, we end up on a road in Elmore that I haven’t traveled in years. While she and her sister talk, I remember the last time I had traveled that road was with my mother and the girls, who were so much younger then. The forest drops away on either side of the backroad. Farm fields, shaved down to corn stubble, surround us.

The girls’ father was away then, visiting his father who was recovering from a heart attack. When he returned, I believed we had a new beginning, a jumpstart to what we were doing as a family. Now, with my youngest in the driver’s seat of our Subaru, I have a sudden realization that there’s never any beginning, never any fresh start, the world always unfolding and transforming — from harrowed up fields to spring shoots to the fatness of August’s harvest.

This girl — all of her, stoic and disciplined and sometimes radiantly joyful — is becoming a young adult in these strange pandemic days. I imagine she’ll carry these months (maybe years?) forever with her, sewn into her soul like a scar.

The road winds around the rural hospital where both my daughters were born by caesarian, leaving my own body with indelible scars. I wouldn’t trade those scars for the world.

Photo of Teapot by Diane Grenkow
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When I return home from work in the evening, one cat is stretched on the rug before the wood stove, the other lies on the coffee table, front paws draped over the table’s edge. It’s a scene of utter cat joy.

My daughters are laughing on the couch about something foreign to me — some kind of iPhone. I pull over a chair and sit down with a bowl of potatoes and vegetables and meat.

While they share a story about their negotiations over dinner dishes and compost and wood chores, I soak in the warmth of our living room.

All around us rages the virus, a rising irritability, utter uncertainty over the future. For years, I’ve relied on my ability to figure out a plan. Listening to my girls, I decide this is the heart of my plan: be like the cats. Drink in where we are now. Let that nourish us. And, for God’s sake, laugh at the jokes the kids tell.

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” 

— James Baldwin

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Sunset, Skunk, State Police

Before I leave work yesterday afternoon, I stack piles of papers labeled with stickies in my scrawled handwriting — a roadmap for myself for the next day’s work.

Outside, the sunset is crazy beautiful.

I drive home, listening to VPR. The governor has sent the state police to lodging establishments, in an attempt to crack down on quarantine requirements. My brother, in New Hampshire, appears to be sealed off from us, in a sea of Covid.

At home, my 15-year-old dreads the thought of another lock-down, like last spring. But it’s not April 2020 in Hardwick, Vermont. In November, unlike in April, Covid is among us, in the schools, among people we know.

In the evening, my friend and I walk around town in the dark. The long bar in Positive Pie is empty, save for the barkeep at the far end, his head bent over his phone. At the high school, we walk down a wooden flight of stairs to the soccer field that a group of volunteers recently built. In the field’s center, we gaze up at all those stars, the Milky Way arched over the firmament.

Back at my house, we stand in the driveway, talking, talking, in the unusually warm November evening. A skunk ambles around the neighbors’ house — a normality I can embrace — although, after a few moments, I back up and head into my house for the night, where my daughters are planning to make tiramisu for Thanksgiving.

I wish I could invite all of you…..

“When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate.” 

― John Steinbeck

Photo by Gabriela
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The Right Thing

On a walk my daughters and I often take in the evening, we pass a house where a little black cat trots out to meet us. The cat’s tail is bony, its nose white as if dipped into a saucer of cream.

We always turn down that particular street, saying, Let’s go see the cat, and stop and pet this friendly creature.

In the dark last night, a car followed us, then stopped, as the cat sat in the street. When the cat didn’t move, my daughters and I turned and walked back, to encourage the cat to head along now. The driver pulled up and rolled down the window.

I didn’t recognize this curly-haired woman. She asked me if the cat was mine. When I said no, she wondered aloud why she had kept sitting in the car. I didn’t know what to do, she told me. The cat didn’t move.

I laughed and told her, You did the right thing.

She raised her hands from the steering wheel and began laughing. I did the right thing! she exclaimed.

Walking home in the dark, I kept thinking of what looks to be a long winter ahead. But for a radiant moment, Saturday showed us our VP-elect proudly acknowledging the history and labor of so many nameless others. It’s a historic moment my daughters relish.

“So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune.”

— Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Sticky Notes

A week of chaos, a jumble of days.

By yesterday afternoon, my desk was littered with multiple sizes and colors of sticky notes, scrawled in my lousy handwriting. Before I headed home, I stood staring at this mosaic and considered chucking the lot in the recycling bin.

Instead, I decided to let that wait until next week.

Despite all this, we’re headed to the state championships for a soccer game — socially distanced, with masks, in the brilliant sunlight. At the beginning of soccer season, in September, my daughter’s high school team wasn’t even sure they would be able to play a game, but it was enough to practice together. Then they lost the first five games. Now, apparently beating bad odds, they’ve progressed to the state championships.

In this midst of utter adult chaos, what a pleasure to see radiant teen joy. Here’s hoping that joy is a harbinger of better days, all around, for all of us.

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The Long Haul

After work, it’s too dark to go running, and I’m home in a foul mood while my daughters cook dinner. While cleaning out a closet that afternoon, they discovered a box of photographs and claimed the photos were evidence there was little adult supervision in their early childhood.

I insist there was plenty, but I had always seen wildness as more of a virtue than a vice.

The three of us are wise enough to let that lie, and dinner conversation winds into the details of the day. After, the girls wash the dishes and I carry in firewood. Then my oldest and I walk through town. There’s no one out these days. It’s dark; the cold is beginning to staple down around us.

Coming home, we stand on the knoll outside our house, watching the creamy, waning moon rise. As we stand there talking about hard deep things — how we carry the past around with us — I remember myself as a brand-new mother, believing that the wildness of imagination shapes our lives. I no longer believe that; I know that, but I also know what a long hard haul this life can be.

I call into the house for my youngest to come out and see the moon. She walks barefoot through the snow. We stand there, the moonlight on our faces, soaking up that ethereal light, before we head back in.

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