Solitude and Writing

When I first became a mother in rural Vermont, I discovered the odd solitude-that-was-not-solitude that arises from nearly always being with a young child. Now my daughters are older, and I’m fortunate to have writing work, so deep solitude again makes a consistent mark in my days. Hence, reading at events like Bookstock are a particular pleasure, with time to chat about books and lives. I have no idea what, say, hedge fund managers shoot the breeze about, but my experience with Vermont writers is generally unmitigated humor, rich inner lives with often rocky terrain, and a rush of talking, talking, like we’re all odd aunties let out of the attic for an afternoon.

Later, past dark, home again, my daughters and their cousins decided to set off a Chinese lantern the girls had been saving. In the neighbors’ field, beneath the beaming constellations, my teenager and I held the tissue-thin lantern between us as it filled with heat and smoke from a small fire. When we released it, the red lantern and its flame rushed up into the night, carried away by a breeze and its own heat.

In the darkness, my 11-year-old slid her hand into mine, afraid of the night and yet entranced, looking up at the heavens.

Hazy moonlight —
someone is standing
among the pear trees.

– Yosa Buson

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Woodstock, Vermont

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The Kingdom’s Rocky Peaks

Hiking the peaks in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, it’s easy to see how glaciers and rock and time have shaped the northern landscape where my family lives, once-upon-a-time channeling immense grooves into the earth and strewing the territory with boulders. Clear, deep lakes – tantalizing for swimming – lie in these cuts.

Maybe it takes the sweeping vista of a mountaintop view over immense valleys, coupled with the immediacy of childhood, to place time in that perspective of distance juxtaposed against the immediacy of the here-and-now: our world was shaped and formed by ancient movements, and yet we go about our day-to-day lives as though the past was merely story, an anecdote over lunch’s cheese and mesclun sandwiches.

Yesterday, my 11-year-old, dutifully and non-too-cheerfully starting out on yet another hike, came around a wooded bend to the base of an immense boulder where she gasped with pleasure. Scrambling up the rock, she found herself stranded at a steep pitch on crumbling lichen. Afraid, she edged to the trail again, summited, then later feared again, seeing stormy clouds rolling in from a distant horizon, foreboding lightning and thunder.

I can’t help but think that’s an encapsulation of time: the radiant pleasure of a child swimming in a lake and discovering one tiny shell on the sandy bottom and the real presence of an electrical storm moving in. All that in one day: and then the journey back home again.

Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.

– Cormac McCarthy

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Lake Willoughby, Vermont

 

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Nick Names

Driving home with the kids today, we started naming each other, the cousins riffing on the nicknames I have for my daughters. Affectionately, the kids named each member of our family, all after foods.

What’s in a name? More than a word, these names are ways to possess each other, lovingly lay claim. Like a lasso, this language loops over a beloved: Mine. Willingly accepted, the nickname claims: yours.

The stars we are given. The constellations we make. That is to say, stars exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the imaginary lines we draw between them, the readings we give the sky, the stories we tell.

– Rebecca Solnit

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The Ties That Clinch

A few years ago, when my sister’s kids and my kids started spending more time together every summer – beyond a few days’ visit – we hit a point one summer when all three of younger kids were either mad or crying. We split them up into different cars, and then went hiking. By the end of the day, they were laughing again. And while no one favors kids crying, it was clear the cousins had hit a new level in their relationship. They  had spent enough time together to honestly disagree; simultaneously, they had spent enough time together to cherish each others’ company, and wholeheartedly make-up.

Like all families, we share the same stories exclusive to us. Remember when Yasu dumped ketchup on his head and laughed hysterically? Remember the summer Gigi and Kaz spent hours sorting tic-tacs? Remember the Summer of Gum, when Trident was the New Cool Thing? Remember when Aunt Brett…. well, I won’t incriminate myself.

Stories are too often trivialized as lightness, mere anecdote or amusement. But aren’t the stories of ourselves and our beloveds an integral way of knowing ourselves and our place in the world? Not to mention…. often entirely fun.

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Number 10 Pond, Calais, Vermont

 

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On the Road

Every now and then, I find myself (generally with my kids) in some space of time, either waiting for this particular thing or that, often under duress, and generally beside some road.

Is this just American life? That so much of it takes place beside the paved (or in Vermont the dirt) road? These spaces of time usually catch me by surprise. Today, with no knitting, the library books left at home, unwilling to enter any store and shop, I lay on the medium’s grass, beneath scraggly southern pines I had never noticed before, although I’ve driven by this part of Vermont – Tafts Corner – for years.

I had the oddest memory being four-years-old. Traveling with my family, my sister and I had run on a lawn one evening beneath a sprinkler. A desert child then, the grass was a fragrant anomaly, a curiosity beneath small bare feet.

Driving back home this afternoon, I kept looking at the spiny ridges of Mt. Mansfield, longing to be off this asphalt road, footloose, following the song of the hermit thrush.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

– Mark Twain

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Williston, Vermont

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Purple Sky

With a friend, my 11-old-year daughter recently began running – with an interest beyond beloved companionship and the ice cream at the trail’s end. Lacing up her shoes, I see a keenness in her, a love of knowing her body is capable of carrying her a distance.

In last evening’s sultriness, the girls witnessed heat lightening. The sky was purple, my daughter told me excitedly, and the air must have been alive with electricity. I could imagine these two pony-tailed girls running on Morrisville’s rail trail, their eyes wide, determining their route to safety.

These girls have never lived where the sky isn’t omnipresent; inherently, they know to watch the weather. They’ve never lived where the sky is obscured by smog, wires, buildings. Doubtless, they were frightened, but also in awe of nature’s magnificence, power, and certainly her beauty. And that’s one lucky thing.

Purple, my daughter reiterated. Amazing.

Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies… and to the “good life”, whatever it is and wherever it happens to be.

– Hunter S. Thompson

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And A Little More Tension All Around for Everyone?

A recent unpleasantness with my eye meant a seat in the opthamologist’s chair, where I was reassured to hear at least I had good eye pressure going for me. I mean, that’s something. In the garden later, plucking a drooping and dying pepper plant, I realized pressure, of course, is part of what makes us alive; tension imbues us with the life force.

We’re at that point in the midsummer now, where the initial ecstasy of sleeping with the windows wide open and splashing through the shallow edge of a lake has lost its rarity. Our life – while good – is filled again with a kind of tension that might just be contemporary American life, or might just be who we are in this household.

The truth is, tension is creativity’s life force. All afternoon, working alone, I sunk into writing my book, spiraling deep, imagining myself upside down, descending into an abandoned stone-lined well. Nothing flaccid, nothing flabby, but all muscle, clenched and cunning. Alive.

Like most others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles – a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going.

– Hunter S. Thompson

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