Young Woman Traveling

Rising in the middle of the night is synonymous for me with journeying: catch a plane to visit a family member in need or set off on a long road trip, like our exquisitely beautiful drive out of Prince Edward Island last summer as the dawn gradually rose, and my 12-year-old and I listened to Canadian radio while the two others slept curled on each other in the backseat.

Once upon a time that miles-long bridge would have terrified me: last summer it hardly seemed long enough, suspended over all that ocean.

Now my older daughter, starting her womanhood journey, rises in the dark and returns long after dark, fascinated by her classes and job, brimming with an enthusiasm she lacked all through adolescence. When she leaves, I open my laptop for my day’s work, but I wonder, Where will her life lead?

Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning.

— Gloria Steinem



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Way Past the Ides of March

I read The Long Winter to my six-year-old when I was pregnant with my second daughter, lying down at 4 in the afternoon, too tired for anything else but reading. She was entranced — although not enamored. Twist hay into fuel? Grim.

Like so many kids, I loved those books, with the childhood stories of vanity cakes and rag dolls, the excitement of Christmas ponies and a family who lived in a dugout. I’m reading Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires — the adult story around the Wilder family revealed as loss, loss, loss…. How glad I am for our warm house, the morning sunlight in our kitchen with the cats sleeping at my feet. We’re on the far side of winter today.

15 degrees today, with brilliant sunlight: I flung open the doors and windows, whooshing out the winter air in our house, throwing blankets over the porch railings and leaning over the snowbanks, listening to robins.

Here’s illustrator Garth Williams:

(Laura Ingalls Wilder) was never overcome by drabness or squalor. She never glamorized anything; yet she saw the loveliness in everything.

Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser



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Monday Morning, Still Dark

My older daughter cut her literary teeth reading Mercy Watson chapter books to her younger sister — silly stories about a pig who loved stacks of hot buttered toast. We were homeschooling then, and that winter, the girls spread on the rug before the wood stove. Read, the little one begged. One more chapter! 

Monday mornings in March didn’t mean all that much when we were homeschooling. Sap held every bit of meaning for us in those days. Now the older daughter hurries off before dawn to clinicals, full of excitement.

Fed, the cats sprawl on the sleeping younger sister. Fittingly, the striped feline who loves this child best also miraculously appears at the scent of toasting bread, hungry for melting butter.

Another year is gone;
and I still wear
straw hat and straw sandal.

— Bashō


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And They Brought Pies…

I never went to work with my parents, although (in very different ways) I heard so many stories I know my parents’ occupations, wittingly or not, fed into my young writer self.

My mother worked the night shift as an RN, floating all over the hospital, from pediatrics to the ER, often returning as my siblings and I were drinking orange juice and heading to school. She always had stories — of washing diesel from a child’s hair or an ER doctor who snapped, took a fire ax to a door, and had to be restrained. She told stories of an administration who treated nurses terribly, of family members in the cancer ward who thanked her on Christmas morning.

My older daughter was in the sugarhouse when she was three weeks old, her rosy cheeks slicked with a sugary patina from the clouds of maple steam. Like many Vermonters, the girls’ father and I have done all kinds of things for work, and generally never hesitated to take the kids along.

This morning, I’m one working piece of Woodbury Pie Breakfast, one of the best of New England traditions, and late last night, my younger daughter helped set up.

In the dark, I walked back and forth from the school to the library, in the snow beginning to fall again, magically wafting down in the outside lights.   Townspeople I knew and didn’t know carried in still-warm pies in their hands, offering their homemade gifts.

I ate another apple pie and ice cream; that’s practically all I ate all the way across the country, I knew it was nutritious and it was delicious, of course.

— Jack Kerouac, On the Road


Woodbury Elementary School

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White Stuff


Driving back from Burlington, the interstate is snow-and-slush-covered, and the green Montpelier exit sign is nearly concealed. The conditions are nearly white-out, and I know where I am mostly by the long bridge over the Winooski River. I know the train station at Montpelier Junction is below, and that my family has walked on the railroad trestle over a summer-slow river.

In Montpelier, passersby walk with their faces turned down from the wind and blowing snow.

Then it’s all backroads home for me, driving on unplowed roads over ice-rutted dirt. Where fields loom up, the edges of the road disappear, and I’m driving more by memory than anything else. It’s March, and my snow tires have been hard-used for three or four years now, and I’m fed up with hearing about people’s trips to places with palm trees or, heck, even open water. March is the eternal Vermont month.

In Woodbury, the village that doesn’t even have a store now, I pull into the library to work a little longer before I head back to my daughters. As I walk by the elementary school, I see the children have built an enormous snowman, so tall I imagine adults must have helped with this.

After all that driving, bent over the steering wheel, just me and VPR and that eternal list running through my head — and who will take care of my daughters if I spin off the road and disappear? — the snow falls silently. The flakes twirl slowly, sheltered here from the wind, graceful as the season’s first snowfall. It’s so lovely I can imagine making a day of it, if I would just keep walking.

Nirvana is not something that we should search for, because we are nirvana, just as the wave is already water. The wave does not have to search for water, because water is the very substance of the wave. Living deeply makes it possible to touch nirvana, our ultimate reality….

— Thich Nhat Hanh


Woodbury, Vermont

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The other day, I woke up on the wrong planet. That’s the opening line of the picture book I read to the kids in my one-room library yesterday.

I was standing outside talking to one of my trustees when the kids walked over after lunch, kindergarteners through sixth graders. What a crew, he said, the kids cheerful, some of them in unzipped winter coats, others in t-shirts.

The kids spread out on my well-worn carpet. What if you did? I asked. Imagine if one day, you opened your eyes…..

The littlest kids’ faces glowed, and I wondered at the mysterious thoughts meandering through their minds, as they considered imaginary realms. Afterwards, the oldest kids lingered, checking out books, with their own system of swapping library books, sharing their imaginary worlds.

Afterwards, alone in the library for a few moments, I began pulling together a program in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. What if, I kept thinking… And isn’t this one of the drives of literature? To sway our story through imagination and action?

We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

— Martin Luther King, Jr.


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See Our Territory

Small town living isn’t always so saccharine sweet — I’m no great fan of Norman Rockwell.

At soccer games, you’ll meet the parents of the child who slighted your own. Argue at school board meetings, and you’ll discover one of the four chambers of democracy’s beating heart is listening. Walking down the sidewalk on Christmas Eve, you might see your former spouse eating dinner in a restaurant, laughing. I’ve never lived in the anonymity of a large city, but in these small towns, you can’t help but suck up every bit of sorrow, of bent desire, of the generosity of strangers, the pleasure of walking with friends under open skies.

My daughter and her friend report seeing a man flying a drone in the cemetery adjacent to our house. From behind tombstones, they spy on him.

Through a chance encounter from the couple who sold me my house, I learn of this arial footage of our village, Hardwick. My daughter pauses from her homework to watch with me. In this muted winter palette, the town sprawls ragged and enchanting, with an ice-choked river, yellow school buses, and the dead laid down between the trailer park and the white houses on the hill: here’s an illustration of poetry I aspire to in my own writing craft.


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