I arrive a few minutes early to meet my friend for coffee and look for a window table to open my notebook. A writer I know just a little is eating a ham and cheese sandwich and asks me to sit down. He’s old enough to be my father if he began fatherhood at a young age, which I know he didn’t. He immediately tells me two things: he’s waiting for his back road to be sanded and he saw a bobcat in a tree behind his house that morning. He describes the cat’s reddish fur, and I ask detailed questions about the wild creature’s size and location and poise. My friend arrives and they keep talking about San Francisco, and then he tells us about studying with Joan Baez at The Institute for the Study of Nonviolence.
The bakery is at a busy intersection in Montpelier. Through the window, I see people in colored winter coats. Until the pandemic, I often brought my laptop to work at this bakery and the one across the street that closed a year or two ago. Two blocks up is the public library where I wrote long sections of my last book. None of these places I’ve returned to work. Like everyone else, my life has changed, my habits recreated.
The bakery is closing. The day moves along. My friend and I walk through Bear Pond Books. She buys me a novel, hugs me goodbye, and heads on her way. I walk the long way back to my car. That night, I dream about the saw-whet owl my daughter and I glimpsed in the woods behind our house. A toddler, she pointed at the hemlock branch where the tiny bird was nestled in the greenery, its eyes wide-open. We stood there for the longest time, wordless, our breath frosty clouds in the winter air.
“… nothing is a promise,but that beauty exists,and must be hunted for and found.”
A few streets down from me, a pregnant woman leans on a shovel in a driveway covered with a few inches of dense, soggy snow. It’s late afternoon, and a light snow swirls down as I walk. A pickup truck stops on the road, and I hear the driver offer to plow. There’s a little back and forth, and then she steps back. He sets down his plow and goes to work.
Every snowfall has its own kind of knowledge. As I walk through the streets and then across the former railroad bed and into the woods, I marvel at how much I know about snow, too. How a scattering of snowflakes can remind me of being 10 years old again, and a fourth grade teacher caught snowflakes on her tongue. Delicious,delicious, she said. Or how the three-foot Valentine’s Day storm snowed us in when my daughters had fevers and I wondered if I would ever return to the world of adults.
In the woods, the snow swallows up all sound for a handful of hours.
In these winter months, I’m reading about Claude Monet and his gardens. Here’s a line from the master: “… people must first of all learn to look at nature, and only then may they see and understand what we are trying to do.
On a Wednesday washed out of color, this mid-January has the taste of February, wet, the wind wicking up wildly then dropping down again to the sodden snow. January is the season of work, of leaning in hard to a task at hand, for pleasure, for wage, for cleanliness, for the way work sweeps us out, makes something new. In its own way, winter’s short, pinwheeling along to spring, to the radiance of summer.
Here’s a perfect poem for today.
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
Mid-January, the earth is covered with ice and a crunchy snow a few inches deep. The meditative qualities of walking are swallowed up by fear of slipping or the grinding of hard snow beneath boots. People complain. Complaining is a normal winter’s activity, so are ice and snow, and yet — I’ll reiterate for what seems like the hundredth time again — we’ve slipped out of the cog of normalcy.
What I do:
I finish painting the bathroom (one Sunshine wall, the others Vanilla Ice Cream).
I’m diligent at my work.
My daughter and I go out for coffee, struggle through the CSS profile on financial forms, talk and talk and circle around.
I rise early every morning and rewrite my novel, snip, stitch, elaborate, with my imagination and my hands. In the night, I wake and lay more wood on the fire, pieces of my life arising in words: loons and dahlias and betrayal and desire.
In the early 1600s when Samuel de Champlain was bunking around the fire with people who lived on the shores of an enormous and beautiful lake, Champlain remarked in his journal how surprised he was that these strangers discussed their dreams every morning as if their dreams were as real as the waking world. I’ve been thinking about Champlain’s observance and how easily we can narrow our vision, completely discounting or ignoring pieces of our past and present.
A blog reader who sometimes mails me terrific books sent me Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative. As I’m finishing up a draft of my novel, the book has made me look harder at the novel’s structure. As a writer, I can’t help but look at my own tangled story — and those around me — and the way plot lines and patterns, how chance and opportunity, blend and shape our lives.
For Ray Carver fans (and who isn’t a fan, really? if not, you might want to be!), there’s a terrific essay on one of my favorite stories, “Where I’m Calling From.”
So often fictions that experiment formally do so at the expense of feeling. They toy on surfaces or are purely cerebral affairs, don’t explore human complexities. But the mostly unconventional narratives I’ve been discussing have dealt powerfully with core human matters.
This is: winter, not-winter, definitely-winter. Scattered, my thoughts fragmented, I wander down to the lake where the ice has set in now. The world is utterly still there save for a scattering of snowfall. The birds are silenced, and even the breeze has vanished. The profoundness of deep midwinter dwarfs the human world. I lean into it, letting the cold eat up my fury. On my way back, a squirrel runs across the road, calling back to me…
Sylvia Plath writes:
Winter is for women —
The woman still at her knitting,
At the cradle of Spanish walnut,
Her body a bulb in the cold and too dull to think…