I began planting mammoth sunflowers years ago because I wanted flowers in my garden to tower over my children. There’s an old photo I have of my toddler walking barefoot among enormous stalks. I planted a veritable swath of sunflowers this spring. Late summer is the pay-off season, when the first of these blossoms open. The first head is so enormous it can’t really do its follow-the-sun heliotrope deal — but its flower siblings shift all day.

One fall, a number of years back, I had just two of these beauties, so much taller than myself. After the snow fell and the birds cleaned every scrap of seed, I cut off the dried blossom and propped it on a ceiling beam. The sunflower remained there all winter.

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower…

Galway Kinnell


Every summer for years now, my daughters and I have gone camping on Burton Island in Lake Champlain. We always bring the same friend of my youngest daughter. Sometimes another friend and sometimes my oldest hasn’t come. This year for all kinds of reasons, I went alone for a night.

I stopped first to visit a friend and meet his friendly sheep. Then I raced to the ferry. Rain and clouds had moved out. The island has no cars, so the atmosphere is particularly sweet. Little kids bike everywhere. A group of teenage boys had set up a small army of tents, bikes, and fishing poles.

I had brought what I needed for the night: a novel, my knitting, a winter hat, the recently printed out version of my manuscript, and a good pair of walking shoes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a single mother, it’s make friends with strangers. Much to my daughters’ annoyance, I often find someone to chat with at soccer games, the co-op, the post office. A kind of survival skill on many levels. But I wasn’t there to chat. I walked around the island on its slate-pebbled shores in the daylight, during the enchanting sunset, and in the dark. As the night fell dark, the tree frogs sang melodiously. I slept dreamlessly under the rising moon. In the morning, I drank coffee and read and read until I packed up my few things and headed back to the ferry.

The island, a state park, is mostly staffed by college kids, who are polite and enthusiastic. The young man on the ferry folded up the wildflower guide he was reading to roll a few bikes on the ferry.

On my way home, I realized next summer I could take my kayak and stay a few nights on Champlain’s islands. I can’t swim to save my life but surely that’s something I could learn.

A few lines from Dan Chaon’s Sleepwalk:

“No doubt, a day of reckoning for mankind is coming, yet even for those of us who accept the inevitability of mass human death, there’s still a cautious hope; we’re waiting to see how Armageddon plays out, keeping an eye open for ways it might turn to our advantage… I’m no evolutionary biologist, but I have faith in our species’ stick-to-it-iveness.”

— Dan Chaon

August: Complex Fatigue

On this August evening, a sparrow flies out of the wild raspberries along my walk and startles me just the slightest. Stunned a little from its flight through the leaves and small prickles, the sparrow fumbles from foot to foot on the path and then rises up on its wings and disappears. The swifts are out, too.

A downpour has fallen and the humidity has thickened right up again. I walk through the village, and folks are hanging out on porches. A three-quarters moon hangs over the empty high school soccer field, stunning. I’d write that it’s otherworldly in its beauty — but in this slow, sticky night it’s hard to imagine a sweeter world, even this one chockfull with chaos.

In the heat, tempers are either short or silly. Tomorrow is Vermont’s primary, so much fervor, and I wonder what all that might come to. In the evening, I talk to my cat, a tête-à-tête about why he cowers at the slightest noise, as if the house might be under attack by coyotes. You’re a housecat, I remind him, one of the most pampered creatures on the planet. He looks at me, poor ignorant thing that I am, and wisely keeps his ears pressed down and low like a spooked owl.

August. Time to share again one of the loveliest poems.

The world is a 

complex fatigue. The moth tries

once more, wavering desperately

up the screen, beating, insane,

behind the geranium. It is an

immense geranium,

the biggest I’ve ever seen,

with a stem like a small tree

branching, so that the two thick arms

rise against the blackness of

this summer sky, and hold up

ten blossom clusters, bright bursts

of color.

Hayden Carruth, “August First”

Rambling Along…

Hot, in the best kind of truly humid summer heat, the heat that brings me back to those endless childhood summers when a summer was endless and not merely a few heartbeats. In a strange kind of way, the heat rejuvenates me. I wake early, work hard, then finish my chores as the day funnels down to swimming.

At a nearby garage, I pick up my car. There’s no one there in the empty building, the side doors rolled all the way up to ceiling. I stand there, listening to traffic and watching shadows from the trees flicker over the cement floor.

Two women come in and tell me they’re limping along a Toyota Rav with a flat tire. One woman wears wool socks and winter boots, and I think, Of course you’re from Maine. They’re both much younger than me, nearly bouncing with excitement, and I ask what brings them here. They’re checking the world out. Their excitement is the brightest thing I’ve seen all day. The woman with the wool socks says with a smile, Could do with some rain.

I answer, It’ll rain. She looks at me as if my assurance is farfetched. I add, Eventually, and then wander behind the garage looking for the man to write a check. The garage is on the riverbank. I look at the shallow water. Get a move on, I think. There’s plenty to do. But I live in Vermont. There aren’t that many days in a year I can wear a sundress and not wish for a sweater.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

This year, I planted the garden how I was drawn to this patch of earth in spring — not how I thought I should plant it. For years now, I’ve been the most diligent of gardeners — all those tidy rows of beets and broccoli. This year, I ate some radishes and let the rest go to seed and flower. Marigolds run rampart. I duck beneath the sunflowers. Somewhere in the calendula the peppers are hidden.

There’s a definite metaphor here, a clear lesson, but to heck with that. August and flowers. They’ll last little enough as it is.

July 31. Swim.

The dog is a new thing in our lives. My oldest daughter lives nearby with a sweet and curious dog. Yesterday, we brought the dog into our house to meet our two house cats. One cat remained on the kitchen table in his beloved cardboard box (I know, I know who allows things like this? a cat in a box on the kitchen table not for an hour or a day but for months?), paw crooked over the edge of the box, looking at the dog in the cool disdainful way of felines. Our other cat trembled in the doorway, holding his ground. Curious, cautious, verging on endearing and ridiculous. The dog seemed just happy to be there.

We decided to swim and took a giant floatie shaped like a pineapple that I had bought last year for camping. Jammed in the trunk, the floatie hung over the backseat which bothered the dog, who moved into the passenger seat. My daughters sat in the back under the floatie. I drove and talked to the dog. The wind blew in through the windows, muting my daughters’ voices. So many miles I drove with kids in the back, looking over my hands on the steering wheel. For few miles, I was back in the world of young motherhood.

Despite the heat, the lake wasn’t crowded in the least. A woman walked down the sandy path holding a beer can. She and the group at the far end exclaimed that they hadn’t seen each other in thirty years. My oldest whispered, Thirty years? I answered, What’s thirty years, really, forgetting entirely for a moment my daughter is far younger than thirty.

The drive to the lake was a short one. After swimming, we went up the road to the general store and ate pizza on the deck. We chatted with people we saw all the time, and some we hadn’t seen in years. The dog — good creature — waited patiently.