Kid Project

Deciding she wants to improve her cursive handwriting, my daughter writes a careful sentence in her notebook and hands it to me. I’m sitting beside her on the couch, reading Volkswagen Blues. In my clumsy cursive, I pen an answer to her sentence and hand the notebook to her.

As we fill a page back and forth, a curious thing happens. My handwriting, never stellar anyway, unwinds into a nearly illegible scrawl while hers, tidy and careful, improves.

One little moment of her childhood, of my motherhood.

At five this morning, my teenager and I shovel out her car — so many inches of fine, perfect snow. When she leaves, I keep shoveling by the light of the living room window. Today, snow will fall all day, and maybe we’ll remember it as the day we baked blueberry pound cake and the trampoline frame disappeared in the snow.

Or not.

But for a few moments, sweating from shoveling, my hat pushed back, I stand listening to my breath and the far-off sound of a snowplow, in those millions of snowflakes, twirling their way to earth.

He wanted to know what kind of people had decided, in the early 1840s, to give up everything and travel across most of a continent simply because they had heard that the land was good and life was better on the shores of the Pacific. What sort of people had had the courage to do that?

“Ordinary people.”

— Jacques Poulin, Volkswagen Blues


Pre-storm photo, January 2019


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Sacred Spot

At library class yesterday, I’m in one of my places — like canoeing on Calais’s Number 10 Pond or Bandelier National Park in New Mexico — I’m (at least temporarily) where I’m supposed to be. Housed in the original Barre, Vermont, Spaulding High School, the building was constructed as schools once were — as places of community pride and beauty — with tin ceilings, ornate woodwork, and a view of the city below.

I love Vermont’s Department of Libraries because the staff is articulate and funny and clever — because they champion intellectual freedom in a time of increasing censorship and groupthink, because they’re adamant about the rights of children to have their own thoughts, and because they’re committed to librarians working together.

When they say We have your back, I trust that — and I’m not someone who easily trusts. No hard sell, no payment plan, no exchange of cash. Simply: this is the good mission we’re committed to, and we’re doing it.

Libraries were a solace in the Depression. They were warm and dry and useful and free; they provided a place for people to be together in a desolate time. You could feel prosperous at the library. There was so much there, such an abundance, when everything else felt scant and ravaged, and you could take any of it home for free. Or you could just sit at a reading table and take it all in.

— Susan Orlean, The Library Book


Barre, Vermont

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She who reminded us of the strength of loveliness

Mary Oliver, poet of the rugged soul, champion of kindness, lover of the world’s broken beauty. 1935-2019.

I wanted
The past to go away, I wanted
To leave it, like another country…

And nobody gets out of it, having to
Swim through the fires to stay in
This world.

— Mary Oliver


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Things Left on the Back Porch

A woman I worked with for one summer in Craftsbury, Vermont, lived the rest of the year in New York City. Before she left, I offered to mail her a few books. Don’t, she said, really alarmed. The mailman leaves packages on my doorknob in my apartment building, and people steal them.

Really? She assured me, yes, people did, in fact, steal.

People steal in lovely Vermont, too, but not like that. On my back porch, I leave my friend’s vest and a jar of peaches my daughter and I canned last summer. When my daughter returns from school, she discovers a gift of chocolate cookies and a cat calendar.

While boiling pasta for dinner, I leaf through the Eliot Porter photography book my friend left, too. In it, I discover a chapter written about nearby Glover, Vermont, not far from us.

The passage below reminds me of when I was 18 and moved to Vermont, and knew this state was exactly where I wanted to live — with a kind of certainty I’ve known about a handful of things — being a mother and a writer, tending a garden, the necessity of laughter…. and handing things from friend to friend.

Vermont is a great character mill, and it grinds exceedingly fine. It is too rough a country for pretenders, but it will make room for anyone, however odd, if he doesn’t on airs or show himself incompetent or think himself above the homespun and the calluses and the hard-mouthed virtues that Vermonters have come to the hard way, and don’t intend to lose.

— Wallace Stegner


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Vermont Democracy

Outside the town clerk’s office, a little after 8 last night, I’m talking with an another adult while the kids jump around in what feels like balminess at 14 above zero when I suddenly shout out, Look at the moon!

Ringed by a rainbow, the luminous half-moon hangs over the town clerk’s building — a former one-room schoolhouse.

Our friends head home one way, my daughter and I the other.

Woodbury, Vermont, with its population less than a 1,000 souls, has a 3-person selectboard. I’m there as the town librarian. Most of the school board is there. Members of the public. The worry is to how to retain the tiny elementary school the state seems intent to close.

The kids are not in the meeting. They’re hanging out at the clerk’s main desk, reading graphic novels, and raiding the clerk’s candy jar. They’re giggling about kid stuff that’s important to kids.

I want the kids know this version of democracy — a group of people wearing fleece and hand-knit sweaters, jammed into a tiny room, our knees bumping, some of us liking each other and some maybe not at all, but all of talking, thinking things through — what’s the wisest course of action? how do we tend the common good?

It’s the first snowfall —
When it melts again we’ll see
Dewdrops on the grass.

— Buson


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Some Novels I Might Have Sadly Missed

In a box of books my sister shipped to me years ago, I found a copy of Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck-Up. In those pre-internet days, I didn’t realize this little gritty novel had garnered its own classic cult following. When I recommended the book to someone else who was reading Crime and Punishment, he laughed and said that would have been a good title for Dostoyevsky’s book, too.

From the fifty-cent bin in a library book sale, I pick up Joshua Mohr’s Some Things That Meant The World To Me. My 19-year-old lifts the book from the kitchen tale and mentions the cover is from “Wheel of Fortune,” which makes me ask how she’s so intimate with that game show.

My daughter reminds me she works in a nursing home.

She asks about the ink splatters on the cover below the “Wheel of Fortune” lettering — the half of the cover that made sense to me. Rorschach test I tell her, and offer a brief explanation.

I’d probably fail that test, she says, not perturbed in the least.

She bundles up, heading out for a ski. 11 below zero.

We’re all writing about the same things, we’re all trying to evoke emotion. How are you going to find a new image, a new way to say it that your audience hasn’t experienced before? If a character comes in and just blurts out, “I’m sad,” it’s a pretty bad way for a story to start. But, if I describe a woman in Dolores Park at three-o-clock in the morning, drinking tequila out of the bottle while sitting there hunched up, and suddenly the sprinklers come on. She doesn’t even move. She just continues to drink tequila. The reader comes out of that scene understanding she’s sad by putting the pieces together.

Joshua Mohr

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Photo by Molly S.

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Got Wool?

When I was 19, my mother gave me a heavy wool, intricately cabled sweater she had spent years knitting and I was certain I would never wear. I was living with my then-boyfriend in the coldest place I ever lived —  and anyone who knows me knows that means something. The beautiful old farmhouse was at the end of dirt road in southern Vermont. In one half of the house lived a single mother and her young daughter (I cringe now to think of what abysmal neighbors we were to her), and my friends and I housesat the other half.

The house was heated by a wood furnace. It was December, and the wood supply we had been left was nearly depleted. I certainly knew nothing about heating with wood. I was greener than the wood we burned.

I wore that sweater for the entire month I stayed there. I slept in it. I wore the sweater so hard and for so many years that only pieces of it remained when I moved from my last house.

What taught me to love scratchy wool? Cold Vermont.

5 below zero this morning….. Could be much colder. ‘Tis the knitting season.

Use It Up. Wear It Out. Make It Do. Or Do Without.

— Calvin Coolidge



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