Days like this — or even hours or moments like this (see dandelions above) — remind me that the human world is poor shakes compared to the universe around us. All these things that nag and nip and plague me — from inspecting a car to wondering if my daughters are happy — fall into some kind of place on a sunny May afternoon in Vermont. These things are important; not for a moment am I trying to belittle our human days.
But this is, too. As I crouched in the field to take a photo, a woman bicycling by called out to me. “What gold! It’s cheeseburgers for bees!”
She got off her bike, and we stood talking to each other across the field. I suggested she look at the marsh marigold behind the grange. She mentioned the spring beauties in the woods.
Overhead, the clouds morphed and shifted. Come January, the field might be passable only by snowshoes. But for now, she and I called back and forth, the wind lifting and tugging our words.
“No creature is fully itself till it is, like the dandelion, opened in the bloom of pure relationship to the sun, the entire living cosmos.”
Sunday morning, a light rain falls. The rain is a gardener’s dream, a light but steady enough drizzle, interspersed with sunlight. Our world grows. I stayed up late the night before, reading The Year of the Horses, and maybe it’s nothing but exhaustion — and who isn’t exhausted these days, anyway, but the kids — but I keep wandering around, in and out of the house. To the garden to move this or that. Then back inside to wash a window or sweep away some winter cobwebs.
Washed by rain, the colors in my garden are vibrant. I have this strange feeling that I’m inhabiting the Middle Ages, the realm of chivalry and honor, a time when art is justly valued.
All day long, I work at this, back and forth, making some kind of order in my raggedly life. Before too long, I know, the weeds and the black flies will swarm me. I might be overwhelmed with the messiness of gardening. But for now… just this potential. Just this moment. A single tulip, blooming.
A woman I’ve never met starts speaking to me on a street corner in Brattleboro. I’d been staring across the street staring at windows on the second floor above the Shin La Restaurant where I lived when I was 20. On my 21st birthday, I walked down the street, drunk, to visit two friends. They lived in a house just a few blocks away. I was sleeping with one friend, in love with the other. The man I loved has long since died. His housemate has disappeared back into his moneyed world of investment banking and whatever that might mean. He was a decent guy, and I hope his life has gone well.
The woman says she sees a break in the traffic, and we should cross together. I tell her I’m a confirmed jaywalker. She tells me that she is, too, but not alone. “I like to cross with someone.” She’s about my height, which is in the Land of the Little People at around five feet.
On the other side, she heads one way and I go the other. It’s brilliant May, and hallejulah for this. Birds sing in the many trees. Lilacs and fruit trees bloom. For a moment, my body feels light — as if I leaped across a stream. Thirty years have passed since I lived in those rooms. Here I am again, in all this sunlight, remembering with what I joy I read Céline for the first time in that apartment. I was a philosophy, not a literature student; I was reading Heidegger and Kant and furiously writing. The apartment’s previous student was a lit student drop-out, and he had left shelves of books in the closet. Death on the Installment Plan? Good lord — no one has ever written a better book title. I read the book in a few long gasps.
“In the whole of your absurd past you discover so much that’s absurd, so much deceit and credulity, that it might be a good idea to stop being young this minute, to wait for youth to break away from you and pass you by, to watch it going away, receding in the distance, to see all its vanity, run your hand through the empty space it has left behind, take a last look at it, and then start moving, make sure your youth has really gone, and then calmly, all by yourself, cross to the other side of Time to see what people and things really look like.”
I’m home after eight. My daughter is on our front porch, eating ice cream and talking with the cats about all the interesting cat things we talk about at the end of the day. They never mouth back. One is utterly loving. The other tends to stalk around with the tip of his tail at a distinctive angle, a little indignant at the foolishness of his humans.
I’m deep in the thick of parenting and adolescence. The thing that’s so hard about adolescence is that it’s just so right. The world is profusely unfair. We live in a jumbled-up time. Yes, the kids have been handed a planet immensely beautiful and terribly ailing. It’s all true. Frankly, there’s no reason to argue about any of of that.
And yet, somehow lives must be made. At one point, in that rough 2020 year, I bought a box of ice cream cones and a carton of ice cream so we could make ice cream cones at home. I had no idea when an ice cream shop might open again.
In May, in Vermont, the world is beautiful. Now in the mid-80s, dry, dry, this isn’t our usual wet and damp spring. I pause in the parking lot on my way into work and talk with a young deputy. We swap garden tips. He tells me about his apple trees. He muses aloud about the weather — what will July bring? A freak snowstorm? A frost in August? Or maybe more of the same, beautiful day after beautiful day unfolding. We wave away the black flies. There’s not much point to go further.
Flying at Night
Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations. Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies like a snowflake falling on water. Below us, some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death, snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn back into the little system of his care. All night, the cities, like shimmering novas, tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.
My daughter and I drive around in the evenings. It’s a teen/parent compromise I suppose — a walk in the town forest where I gush over blooming trout lilies and spring beauties and trilliums as if ephemerals have never done this amazing show before. My daughter is cool and tough, utterly on that rugged cusp of childhood and womanhood. It makes my heart ache. It makes my heart swell.
We drive around in what might appear to anyone else as aimless nothingness, checking out geese and listening to the peepers. In our driveway again, I slip off my sandals and lean back in the carseat. Goddamn, I could sleep in her car, that the slip of moon would rise over us, and then we’d just begin again in the morning. Maybe we’d drive to Nebraska. Maybe to her high school. Maybe we’d just keep sitting here, talking, or not.
Meanwhile — spring goes on. Leaves unfurl.
My wrists and eyes and heart are baggy with wrinkles. That is how old I am. Meanwhile, I keep thinking of a line about doubt by Søren Kierkegaard. As a young woman, I thought this doubt thing was for the weak and the foolish. I believed in striking out, holding firm, sucking up the consequences of my actions. Now, it’s a koan that keeps rattling around in my late night, my early morning, my stray driving thoughts: “Doubt is conquered by faith….” I think, take heart from from that. Then, when I look up the line, I realize I’d forgotten the second half: “… just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world.”
A friend and I drive to a nursery on a back road in Plainfield, VT, through fields that seem impossibly green. The trees have barely begun to bud. I buy a snowdrift crabapple tree there. The tree is so tall that my friend and I spend some time carefully nudging it into the back of my Subaru.
I’ve met the staff on my annual pilgrimage there. They all speak quietly, as if our words might disturb the rows of potted currents and grapes. I ask again for planting advice. As I listen, I suddenly realize I’ve gone at this tree planting and cultivating thing all wrong. Beneath my trees, I should create a forest garden of duff and broken up straw and that humus-y compost that plants must love like chocolate. Daffodils bloom in the gardens beneath their trees.
I expect the staff has told me this before, but for whatever I reason I didn’t listen, or their advice drifted the way of so many words.
All the way home and all afternoon, I keep thinking about these woodland gardens and about a Raymond Carver story, “A Small Good Thing.” Two years plus into the pandemic, in this jumbled world, a small good thing….
That night, my teenager comes home and suggests we get a creemee. Friday night, and there’s no one out. We stand under the moon, licking ice cream cones, the peeper screeching in the swamp behind the pizza joint. A small good thing.