January 20, 2017

Since the holidays, my 11-year-old daughter and I have played The Enchanted Forest just about every night. Each round of the game is different, involving only a few things: a  journey and remembering what’s beneath each tree. A red cap. A glass slipper. A gold star. Who wins or doesn’t hardly matters in this game; it’s just fun.

On the not-so-fun spectrum, when my marriage broke up, I knew this was not a matter of winning or losing, but there was an enormous gray area I wanted to emerge from in a way I’ll describe as “least soulfully damaged.” Perhaps one of the few things I’ve learned is that there are no winners in this life at all, either in our intimate realms or the political world. That knife of mortality cuts across all of us, from Trump Towers to Rio’s dump dwellers. But it does seem to me that there are better ways than others to emerge from the firestorm of life we all come to, at certain points in our lives.

In our world, the threads of discontent are so manifest, and the threat of widespread societal violence and misery so palpably real. We may be entering the lightless trek of our forested journey, and yet, I myself know, through my own hard-earned experience, that our reserves of faith and empathy are far, far mightier than we might ever envision. I’d like to believe that’s a spring we may draw from, without cease.

Here’s a few lines from one of my favorite poems.

This is the season of mud and thrash, broken limbs and crushed briers
from the winter storms, wetness and rust,
the season of differences, articulable differences that signify
deeper and inarticulable and almost paleolithic
perplexities in our lives, and still
we love one another. We love this house
and this hillside by the highway in upstate New York.
I am too old to write love songs now. I no longer
assert that I love you, but that you love me,
confident in my amazement. The spring
will come soon. We will have more birthdays
with cakes and wine. This valley
will be full of flowers and birds.

Hayden Carruth, “Birthday Cake”

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Who Shows Up

What’s for dinner and politics fill a chunk of our household conversation these days. My Facebook-loving teenager keeps me abreast of the social media world, while I’m in the world of Democracy Now.

As we hurtle towards this contentious presidency, I keep remembering Gandhi’s insistence that politics begins in the house, among the most intimate of relationships. I see that in the wider circle of my own world as well. At school meetings, who doesn’t show up is as important as who does, and tips the balance of those conversations in uneven ways.

As we head into these uncertain times – times that are bound to get even more dicey – I want my daughters to understand both their actions and non-actions make a difference and that passivity does not equal patience. More than anything else, I pose this as a challenge for myself. And to remind myself that even in the bleakest of times – personal or politics, or where the two mix – that we live in a world of laughter, too.

Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.

– Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

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This Day

Sensible advice from my dad arrived via email this morning.

Two days after I was born, Dr. King was assassinated, when my mother was still in the hospital. I imagine my father returning home in his blue Volkswagen beetle to his two-year-old and his babysitting mother-in-law, switching on the evening news and drinking bourbon in the brilliant Albuquerque light.

48 years later, a mother myself, I intend to walk with my two daughters next weekend in the Women’s March on Montpelier.

Why? my daughters ask. I begin by answering, Because we must.

My dad’s advice was to read Dr. King’s two greatest essays, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence.”

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, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

– Martin Luther King, “A Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence”

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Photo by Molly S./Woodbury, Vermont

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Keeping the Roof Intact

The other night, my daughters began shouting in the other room. In what I can best describe as my attitude of what fresh hell now? I asked what was up.

A raccoon was climbing up our cedar-shingled house in the dark. Which might fairly well explaining living with kids. Expect what you could never expect. Say you’re deep into an Elena Ferrante novel and you realize a mole has scurried out from behind a kitchen cabinet and is now in the sink, checking out an unwashed dinner skillet. Where is that on a day’s plan?

We trapped the mole and released it down the road (at the neighbors’ driveway), and the girls determined the raccoon tracks led into the sugarhouse and didn’t come out (fine).

The younger daughter and her friend ran into the house yesterday and grabbed ice skates. The roadside ditches were frozen perfectly for ice skating.

This afternoon is filled with sunlight and lemon meringue pie baking. How’s that for poetry?

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.

– Epictetus

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Author-ity

With my sixth-grader’s basketball season’s schedule, I’ve been spending some working hours hidden on the elementary school’s back staircase, working at a child’s desk so old it has an inkwell hole. I love this old schoolhouse; dating to the first World War, the schoolhouse is not only solidly built, but beautifully as well, with interior windows, pressed tin ceilings, and detailed woodwork. Schools are built like prisons now, with none of this school’s elegance. Carefully kept up, the schoolhouse isn’t shabby at all, but is comfortably well-used and loved.

The other day, a teacher stopped to talk and then showed me two books her students had written and illustrated which made me laugh out loud. The kids’ books were just so darn good. What the teacher had done was allow the children unfettered freedom. I’ve found unbinding myself from the expectations of peers and the social framework around myself very difficult at times. Think how hard that is: to dig deeply into the unknown terrain of creativity – and then know how joyous that is, too.

The teacher told me about one little girl who said, I am the author of my book.

How powerful that knowledge is. Whether that child becomes a novelist or a welder, I think of that statement like a candle that girl may hold before her, a single flame, burning brightly.

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

– Marcus Aurelius

 

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Put on Sunglasses

Thaw. The wind screamed all night, breaking the deep cold’s back, strewing broken branches around our house, and even shattering a storm window. In return, we have a reprieve from the deep cold, and the earth – still buried beneath snow – exudes the fragrance of spring’s promise, albeit months yet in the coming.

That there’s promise in scent is remarkable in these monochrome winter days, when much of the talk seems about politics and what the future might bring. None of us know.

My teenager insisted on driving to school this morning on an icy road. I gave her two pieces of advice and let her go. How could I keep her now, at nearly 18-years-old? It’s been overcast for months in Vermont, and perhaps all over the country, and yet she and her friends insist on wearing sunglasses, these young women, so full of giddy promise.

Old man’s love affair;
in trying to forget it,
a winter rainfall.

– Buson

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Sap line

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Talented Kid

Ever since the holidays, I’ve noticed the same boy riding a unicycle to the Main Street Middle School as I drive through Montpelier on my way to work in the mornings. The cycle is fat-wheeled, sensibly built for Vermont’s rugged terrain. I can see concentration tight on the boy’s face, as he cycles down the steep hill, wearing a helmet and a winter coat, pack on his back.

The boy is maybe eleven or twelve.

Although I don’t know this boy at all, I find myself looking for him on the sidewalk, admiring his tenacity as – at five degrees fahrenheit the other morning! – he pedals down that uneven, icy incline. I imagine him arriving at school, triumphantly cherry-cheeked, hoisting his one-wheeled steed over his shoulder. As I go into my own day, I wonder what kind of man he will become, this hearty, focused, child unicyclist.

The bicycle is the noblest invention of mankind. 

– William Saroyan

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