First Things.

My daughter asks me if I’ve ever almost died — or at least thought I was dying.

She’s lacing her shoes, about to head out for a run. The day has been remarkably warm and beautiful, reaching above fifty degrees.

Three times, I answer: almost drowned when I was a teenager on a canoe trip, your father averted us from a pile up in Seattle, and the anesthesia went awry at your birth.

Later, I walk up to the high school and wait for her. I sit at a picnic table behind the school. It’s the first of all kinds of things again — the first time sitting at a picnic table outside since winter, the first time this spring I’ve seen grass that appears really green. An acquaintance stops to talk, and we swap stories about the school and board, new hires. Her grown son appears, and I can’t help but remember when he was just a little kid, and now he’s all grown up.

When they’re gone, I walk around this building that has meant so many very different things to so many people. Such a long and complicated story, a microcosm of this great big world. At this moment, she and I are both a piece of this story.

My daughter returns. On our drive home, I ask why she wondered about my near-death experiences. She shrugs. Just thought I should know, she answers.

I have the odd feeling she’s gathering intel about me.

Q&A.

My teen and I are in an office filling out paperwork and the last question asks her how apprehensive she is about dental work.

She stares at me. “Why on earth,” she asks me in her reasonable way, “would I reveal anything like that?”

I note it’s a standard question. Her answer: that’s a ridiculous question.

It’s another cold afternoon — a mostly sunny day in Northern Vermont — in a winter where cold has now dragged on well beyond its welcome. We’ve driven a little distance and taken a detour along a river whose middle has thawed. Only its shores are frozen.

A couple of decades now into parenting, I’ve observed children are formed by their parents’ lives — and not, too. She’s driving, and I seem to have taken up residence permanently in her passenger seat — a place I inhabit uneasily and definitely gracelessly. We drive and talk. Youth, I think, repeating the word soundlessly, like a mantra; I’m drawn to its utter ebullience and brashness, like the sunlight we all desperately need.

We remark on the price of gas. Our sheer luck at the happenstance of living in the Shire of Vermont right now. Of the war in cities and villages and homes on the other side of the globe.

At our house, the icicles on our covered porch are exceptionally skinny and long this year. In the early morning, the ice begins falling in spires that break on the wooden porch. So many questions, and my answers are so poor. Keep asking.

Dusky December

Vermont December is not the season of picking garden zinnias or gathering wildflowers.

December is the season of intentionality: wear a hat and mittens everywhere, dry your boots before the wood stove when you return, drive carefully on the slippery roads.

As the holidays edge in, I keep on with my daily routines of tending the fire, going to work, checking in with my daughters about who’s cooking dinner. On the more submerged level, our lives go on, too. My youngest dreams of her future. I read about the bad year 536. In these early winter days, I return to my original love affair with reading — novels. Fiction reminds me, over and over, in an infinite number of ways, why we love this world.

The pandemic has taken plenty from us — much more from so many people than my little family. But it’s also given us this tiny quiet space, too, like the breath at the beginning of each day, just before dawn. In this space, I see my path could bend many ways. Don’t, I caution myself, write a mad letter to the former in-laws. Instead, leave Christmas gifts of homemade soap on the neighbors’ front steps.

“The best way out is always through.” 

― Robert Frost

Homework

How could I have forgotten that the light in October is exquisite?

Unlike hazy summer, Vermont autumn is clear. The woods are emptying of leaves. The wind sweeps through the towns and over the hills.

From my garden, I cut a cabbage, boil the leaves slightly, and roll up meat and rice, filling the pan with sauerkraut — a Romanian recipe from my grandmother, who died before I began cooking.

Bit by bit, our hours migrate from the garden and back porch in the house. We no longer eat dinners in the sunlight. When I return from work, I see crumbs on the kitchen table, remnants of my teen and her friends.

I imagine these girls figuring out their online chemistry class and plotting their future. When I ask what’s happening in those hours, I hear, We’re fine.

In the evening, the teen spreads out her graph paper and notebook. I knit on the floor with the cat beside the wood stove while her sister reads the day’s news aloud.

The teen shoves her graph paper to me and asks if her approach to problem-solving is correct.

I look at the paper and suggest, Call your uncle. That’s out of my skill set.

The cat flips over and purrs.

The teen bites the end of her pencil and goes back to work.

“The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.”

Joy Harjo

Somewhere in Vermont’s February…

Summers, the dawn is raucous with songbirds. In February, I stand outside in the dark, the cold swirling around my hands and head, hungry, hungry, it seems for my warmth. The icy snow makes the lightest tap against the kitchen window. We’re socked in by sleet and ice and snow in Vermont, the winter wrapping around us. When my daughters were little, how I chafed against those endless winter days. Now, I’m glad to be awake and working while the household sleeps. The cats have wandered downstairs for their breakfast, and curled up for their post-breakfast rest. Our house is warm; the daughters are well; the bills are paid; I have work.

Let the snow pile up. Among those many motherhood lessons is a solid carpe diem — and to log in a few more hours of work before the day drifts along….

Winter solitude—
In a world of one color
The sound of wind.

— Basho

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Bright Spot

Walking by my daughter’s room, I answer a math question, which delights me immensely. I can do math. More accurately, I did a lot of math in high school, some in college. This particular problem isn’t even all that challenging. But high school math class is somehow buried deep, deep, in my mind, and possibly no longer even accessible.

And yet, like so much else, I feel obligated as a parent to just know this stuff. I grew up in a household where, no matter what the homework, my physicist father could answer my questions — although he always made my siblings and I sharpen a pencil and show your work, legibly. 

I know I can do plenty of things as a mother, or at least competently enough — including keeping a solid roof over our heads — but still, there’s that glimmer of pleasure as I walk by with my arms full of laundry: can cook dinner and do geometry, too — at least for one evening.

The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches.
E.E. Cummings
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