When my teenager was an infant, I peddled maple syrup, homemade root beer, and ice cream at what was then the very tiny Hardwick farmers market, so sparse that some Friday afternoons it was just me and another vendor.

In those long hot afternoons, the vendors got to know each other. My friend Charlie Emers, of Patchwork Farm, had an enormous orange, rust-eaten Suburban, that would eventually head to the junkyard with years’  worth of debris inside. Son of an artist and an artist himself, Charlie grew the best peppers I have ever eaten. In late summer, he began pickling my favorite variety – Habanero Hots – in small jars he called Poker Peppers after his favorite game.

Yesterday, in a Williston store I’d never entered, I found a jar of bright red peppers that reminded me of those Poker Peppers: jalapeños, but deliciously fragrant with the spicy summer season. I might eat the whole jar myself.

‘Eating is an agricultural act,’ as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it.

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma


Photo by Molly S.

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Magical Math with Mittens

My sixth-grader ended her school day yesterday with rosy cheeks, sweaty hair, and an enormous smile. With their teacher, the class had hiked into the snowy woods and built what she described as an enormous snowman.

There’s more, though. She described this cold creation as a Fibonacci Snowman. You know what the Fibonacci numbers are, right, mom?

Indeed, I do, but I had missed that these mysterious numbers fit into giant snowmen. One hat, two stick arms, three rocks for eyes and a nose, five buttons, and eight pieces of birch bark for a mouth. What I also missed was the love of much larger numbers, the centimeters of girth and height that went into the hundreds.

With such gusto, this girl relayed the small class’s adventure, involving mathematical calculation and joint herculean strength to lift heavy snowballs.

With these short days, I sometimes cast my vision elsewhere, envying light-filled territories. Then my tousled-hair daughter reminds me implicitly why we’re Vermonters, and why winter is wildly lovely. As we narrow through this time of sparse light, our table is lit each night with a single red candle, in this sacred time of impenetrable night, waiting for the earth to turn around and make her slow, eternally patient way back to the season of mammoth sunflowers.

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

Dylan Thomas, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”


Our kitchen window view over the December garden.


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On the Rails

When my daughter was eight, her teacher asked what magic power she would choose, if she could. I’d fly, of course, she said, as if, of course, what else? She wanted not particularly to travel, but to sail weightlessly, like a bird, acquiring a wide vision of her place on earth.

Not long after that, the children and I went on an extended Amtrak journey, thousands of miles, through territory we had never visited: steep and beautifully wooded West Virginia, up through the nighttime sprawl of Midwestern cities, all across the plains to the luminescent southwest.

The morning we left for a three-day leg of the journey, I braided my hair at a mirror in my sister’s dining room, wondering when I would unravel those braids, with so much yet ahead of us.

While I’d take that trip again in a heartbeat, train travel is long, encumbered to the earth with rails and wheels, grinding to halt after halt, and waiting for folks to clamber on and off, weighed down with bundles, the elderly, small children. The travel comes slow and hard-earned, in what my daughters discovered is a very large country.

Here’s a few lines about rail and America’s Great Migration in  Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.

… the railroads, running between Florida and New York, and the Southern Pacific, connecting Texas and California, had become the historic means of escape, the Overground Railroad for slavery’s grandchildren. It hurtled its passengers along the same route and under the same night sky as the Underground Railroad, the secret network of safe houses leading north that had spirited slaves to freedom the previous century.


West Woodbury, Vermont

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In the backseat yesterday, my daughter’s friend suddenly looked around and asked where I was driving.

I told her I changed my mind; we weren’t headed to Waterbury, Vermont, but were on our way to I-80 and the midwest. In less than a heartbeat, she said, I don’t mind. I’m glad to go anywhere.

Instead, we went to Waterbury, once famed as home of the Vermont State Asylum for the Insane. Bundled in their warmest clothes, the kids and I were there for a procession of illuminated paper lanterns, dancing, live music: primal at its heartbeat.

The girls and I followed at the parade’s end, behind a man who held up a white clipper ship decorated with tiny white lights. Over our heads, a light snow fell from the impermeable darkness. At the end, the girls sprawled in a slushy field and watched the dancers with spinning handfuls of fire.

All the way home, through the night and then brilliantly-lit Stowe, following the familiar road around Elmore Mountain and up the maze of slushy dirt roads home, I thought of that stranger’s arms held over his head, that radiant ship a sailing beacon.

Before going to bed
After a fall of snow
I look out on the field
Shining there in the moonlight
So calm, untouched and white
Snow silence fills my head….

May Sarton, “December Moon”


Waterbury, Vermont

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We Are the Past

Remember the Turkish Delight in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe? The sweet that bribed Edmund to betray his siblings? My daughters were fascinated by this candy. Could it really be that good?

For years, I’ve been looking for this confection; yesterday, my daughter returned from a field trip with a small box. I found it, she said triumphantly.

Betrayal is far from my child’s intent – it’s not the Turkish Delight, of course, to be blamed for Edmund’s ill deed, but Edmund himself, and the story of his own particular unhappiness that carried him to that point.

I know people who insist the past is irrelevant, that what matters is only the here and now, the very present before our eyes, as if our unique stories could conveniently be swept into a dustbin and abandoned. As a writer, I think the most natural questions are of inquiry: what’s your story? How else can we understand ourselves and each other, without knowledge?

For good or too often for terrible ill, history is always with us. Standing Rock is clearly about the bitter present and an iniquitous past.

In Lewis’s novel, the Turkish Delight is not merely a square of candy in a child’s hand, but a child with a tangled past dragging behind him and a choice posed to him. Betray or refuse? I can’t help but think that’s a tantalizing element of this story: each reader can’t help but ask themselves, which way would I chose? Which way will I write my own story?

Does that story matter? Yes.

My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.

C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe


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Radiance and Rawness: Hallelujah and the Blues

Catching up with a friend yesterday, she mentioned she’s trying to figure out the parenting thing.

Let me know, I say, when you do. Pass your wisdom along.

I’m not expecting a parenting epiphany anytime soon. In my experience, epiphanies are few, and I was gifted one recently. My teenager and I were listening to a Leonard Cohen song while brushing our teeth one night when I realized the novel I’m writing reflects that song. In the same lightening flash, I saw my whole life was that song, the lyrics and Cohen’s voice imbued with the nearly unbearable beauty of living and the simultaneous godawful blues – that all of human existence, all the way back to the preliterate days of stick and stone warfare, of hunting and gathering, was about the holy and the broken hallelujah.

Hard at work in revision, my novel staggers upward, soaring, full-throated and lusty. The bitter blues I have in spades. What I need is bacon sizzling in a cast-iron skillet, fat crisping golden, succulent and salty, hot fat melting on my tongue. I make a mental note. Write in: more bacon.

…I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah….


Montpelier, Vermont

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A Few Words

Ice has hammered down around us. The sky is gray. All the kids along our road stayed home from school today, sliding in their winter boots over the slick roads. Inside, the wood stove burns hot. The children’s mittens dry on the hot tiles beneath the stove.

The ice has physically shrunk our world. No longer the season of long days and endless bike rides, the kids swing in the hammock hung in our kitchen and wonder when they’ll grow too heavy for that particular set-up.

My daughters’ father is far, far away these days, building shelters at Standing Rock in North Dakota. Scant word comes over the internet. Fuller stories arrive from a friend who has returned. My teenager is hungry for what shadowy news she can find. Late, late, into the nights we talk.

What can I say to her? History is a brutal, bloody business: merciless.

And yet – whether in one’s one tiny family or in the great sprawl of humanity, hope always, indomitably, rises out of struggle. Those few simple and enormous words, ancient as humankind itself: and now abideth hope, faith, charity.

Meanwhile, the ice falls.

…all states can be parceled into four types: pluralist, in which the state is seen by its people as having moral legitimacy; populist, in which government is viewed as an expression of the people’s will; “great beast,” in which the rulers’ power depends on using force to keep the populace cowed; and “great fraud,” in which the elite uses smoke and mirrors to convince the people of its inherent authority.

– Charles C, Mann, 1491


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