Hardwick Postcard #1: Start Here

The front steps from our yard to the street reflect a time when people walked more. These days, the walkers in town are mainly kids and adults who, for one reason or another, don’t drive.

When I closed on the house, my older daughter was a high school senior who hardly seemed to attend school, so she came, too, on a hot and sunny June day. We’d known the sellers for years, and, as the closing was slightly delayed, we had some time to laugh. The electric company was switching out the poles in front of the attorney’s office, and the power was going to be shut off. We had a back-up plan to move across town, as modern closings need electricity, and  we tossed around the idea of using the library’s wifi on their front stone steps.

Afterwards, my daughter and I walked around the empty and freshly-painted house. Roses bloomed under the front windows that somehow, in all my examination, I had failed to see.

We hadn’t moved one thing in, still walking around barefoot in the sunny rooms, when a car pulled into the driveway. The woman, who was about my age, had grown up in the house. She was with her husband and their teenage daughter, and they had driven a very far distance for a relative’s graduation from the local high school. When she was a teenager, she told me, her future husband came and sat on the front steps with her, courting. From those steps, there’s a view down into the valley of the village and a trapezoid of the reservoir between the curves of mountains.

We walked through the house. She took pictures and told me stories. They live now in the middle of this huge country, and they wouldn’t return to Hardwick for many years. In the driveway, we shook hands, and then they drove away.

Sometimes the stars align. What a piece of luck to begin living in this house with the stories of a family who had lived here for over thirty years and loved this house and this place. In the few minutes I spent with this couple, I knew they had their own share of misfortune – and love and goodwill.

For a writer – and maybe for everyone, really – stories are manna. That afternoon, my daughter and I were no rush to move in. We opened all the windows and let in the June breeze, suffused with the scent of roses.

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

– T. S. Eliot

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Vermont Postcard

A few years ago, an enormous storm dumped gravel on local farmers’ fields and generally wrecked significant agricultural damage. Farmers around here are small, small-scale, no one ever gets adequate insurance compensation, and the storm hurt.

I bought this sketch below at a community fundraiser for local farmers at the Woodbury Town Hall, where the people from the surrounding towns came together for a dinner and live music, and many folks donated all kinds of beautiful handmade things that switched from hand to hand with some cash.

Some money, no doubt, was raised. The night was a goodwill, community gesture after a bad event. This is the better, more generous, gracious element of Vermont. We are not always so kind.

Walking around this small town where I live – Hardwick – whether to the post office, or crawling under broken boards with my visiting nephews to get into the  empty granite sheds for an “historic” tour, I keep returning to the notion that more deeply understanding all the variations of this small town, I would gain some tenor of illumination.

Just to mix things up in the little-light month of December, I’ll aim to share a few snips of life within walking distance.

Whether the recollection is of fascist Italy in the 1920s, of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, of the Soviet Union during the Great Terror of 1937-38, or of the purges in communist eastern Europe in the 1940s and ’50s, people who were living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbors treated them. A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting – banal gestures in a normal situation – took on great significance. When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew.

–Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century

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Mysterious Memory

There’s six years between my daughters – a significant gap. When the littler one was two, she had a habit of raising her arms and saying, Uppy, to her sister. Naturally tall and strong, my older daughter was happy to tote her sister on her hip or back.

Both in adolescence now, those years narrow.

Late yesterday afternoon, while I’m laying phyllo with olive oil, spinach, and feta, my daughter returns from skiing, red-cheeked, happy. Since the morning, she’s braided her hair. She wears a red ski cap of her sister’s, a gift from friends whose son lives in Norway. Across her forehead is VITAL. I loved this cap on her sister, and I love it on this girl, too. VITAL. And again: vital.

Chattering, peeling a clementine, she tells me one of her coaches asked if she has a sister. My girls love this question. With so many years between them, their similar faces serve as reminders of each other – and the hat, now, too, I think.

It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats.

– Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales

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The Constellations in Motion

In an acceptance form letter for an essay, an editor suggests reading that slim college handbook, Strunk and White. For a mini-refresher lesson, I click on the link, since it’s been many years since I opened my copy. (Do I still even possess a copy? I’m a little worried I may have jettisoned that in my move…)

Between useful directions like Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas, I read Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.

Last night, my daughter and I stood outside in the cold, talking with a neighbor, looking up at the small white lights my daughters strung over our barn. The neighbor tells me about the man who last painted the barn before I bought this property, how painstakingly he prepped the clapboards and sealed each nailhole.

I lean against the cornerboard, thinking of all that hard work. Clouds have blown in, and the moon is obscured. Rain and more rain predicted for today.

Inside our house again, my daughter carries the cats up to her bed.

Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.

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Bit of Breeze

I stood on my back deck last night, leaning against the house and watching my friend get out of her Subaru with a bowl of meatballs. My daughters had strung white Christmas lights all over the barn’s front side that afternoon. The white clapboard had that classic New England winter festiveness, complete with a red-bow wreath someone gave my daughter.

I stood there thinking how in my twenties I would have believed I would live here forever. Forever was part of my twenties’ worldview. In my forties – like just about everyone else I know – the erosion of loss (marriage, business, house) has altered the landscape of my worldview. I stood there thinking that, at some point (God willing, many years hence), someone will live here, and maybe paint that barn cotton-candy pink. For that moment, though, in early December, I leaned against the solid house in the cool afternoon, thinking how fine it was to have guests for dinner and my daughters inside, baking cookies.

I don’t knit, but when I watch someone who does, I think that they must have found some of the same inner peace that I discovered during my expeditions (for example, the South Pole)…. A great many of us have a desire to return to something basic, authentic, and to find peace, to experience a small, quiet alternative to the din….The results that you achieve – firewood to warm you, a sweater you have poured yourself into – are not things that can be printed out. The fruit of your labor is a tangible product. A result that you and others can enjoy over a period of time.

– Erling Kagge, Silence in the Age of Noise

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Amazing Things

Years ago, when I was a board member at the Stowe Farmers’ Market, I stopped in at bookstore before a board meeting to buy a child’s small sticker book. Board meetings often ran three hours long; I had my four-year-old with me, and for a dollar or two, I was looking for an usual activity for her, something to sweeten some of that time.

While my daughter picked out her book, I browsed through the new fiction, and bought a book I’ve long since lost, passed along to other readers.

Why? The novel is one long melody, one continuous song of the beauty and harshness of human life.

What did my little girl choose? A birthday party sticker book, with cake and candles, balloons, wrapped presents on a table beneath an oak tree – also a song.

He says my daughter, and all the love he has is wrapped up in the tone of his voice when he says those two words, he says my daughter you must always look with both of your eyes and listen with both of your ears. He says this is a very big world and there are many many things you could miss if you are not careful. He says there are remarkable things all the time, right in front of us, but our eyes have like the clouds over the sun and our lives are paler and poorer if we do not see them for what they are.

– Jon McGregor, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

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December morning

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Beyond the Friend Realm

I send an electronic request to my teenager, asking to see an Instagram account. Mom, she says. That’s all. Just: mom.

I see her Instagram of flowers, mountains, dirt roads, definitely of meals, of us. I say that’s fine, and it has to be fine, I know.

I call this college freshman at her dorm room and ask about her day and what she’s doing right that minute. While talking to me, she’s applying makeup. She says she’s headed out. Out, wherever that may be. I imagine her, bending near the mirror, painting her eyelashes.

I’m at the dining room table. A cat rubs beneath my bare foot.

As she approaches 19, I remember reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved in graduate school. Everyone in my small department read it then, passing around a few copies, asking, Have you read it yet? Near the very end, a single line amazed me, a secret unfolding. You your own best thing, Sethe. Have I taught my daughters this? The feminine strengths they need to know?

I don’t ask for her secrets again – this tall, quick-witted, cleaver-tongued gorgeous young woman. But dear Lord, I’m listening.

Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

– Toni Morrison, Beloved

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Hardwick, VT, post office

 

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