Bobcat. Saw-Whet Owl.

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.”

— Joan Baez

Mapping, Metaphor, Motherhood.

I forget my map on my desk beside my eternal list (write thankyous, double check FAFSA submission, confirm E and J meeting….) and drive over the Canadian border shortly after sunrise. Luminous crimson stripes the clouds. Almost immediately, the land flattens from Vermont’s hard ridges to industrial ag fields, distantly studded with metal silos. Late December, and the terrain is more gray than white. I stop at a gas station and ask a woman who is emptying her car of fast food wrappers for directions. I don’t understand her accent, the slipperiness of French that eluded me all those high school French classes. She wants me to understand, repeating her directions, one hand waving a crumpled bag. I nod thank you, thank you, and turn back to my salt-crusted Subaru, miserable with my lack of agility with language. Aren’t I a writer?

At a crossroads, I have no idea which road to take, and the world opens up abruptly in dizzyingly wideness.

My intention is to drive to Montreal to meet my daughters. I hate driving the dullness of interstate and fear driving into cities, and I’ve made this infinitely worse by losing my map. For years with young children in carseats, I delivered maple syrup around Vermont, navigating by atlas and rivers, the sun and roadsigns, using my tools of snacks and a box of board books. I once pulled over and lifted a handful of pebbles from a roadside so my toddler could dump pebbles from one paper cup to another, satisfying her tired self.

Now: no map, no cell service, in a town whose name (ridiculously) I never learn, I pull a Streetcar Named Desire card ask strangers to point my way out. A teenager shrugs. An old man can’t hear me. Finally, an electrician in a truck gives me directions. We repeat his directions to each other three times, and then I roll out, my heart not full of faith, precisely, but enough warmth of optimism. May this new year bring out the generosity of strangers and of ourselves. Thank you all for your kindness and curiosity for reading.

You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of experience, and the more experience you have, the better it is… unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far.

— Alice Neel

Glass. Packages. Blood.

My daughters spent years playing with glass containers. Sure, we also had the usual endless assortment of empty yogurt containers, the odd plastic collection, the paper cups such as the beloved Easter bunny cups (known lovingly as cups-with-bunnies), but we made and sold maple syrup for years.

At one point, wedding favors in leaf or heart bottles was a chunk of our livelihood. I made endless trips to different maple distributors, loading up the back of my station wagon and often around my daughters in carseats with cardboard boxes of glass. That 8oz maple leaf with a gold foil top? Top seller.

I packed and shipped maple syrup in the PO’s flat rate boxes. Those boxes made shipping syrup a viable family endeavor, and I knew all the post offices in my small sphere of travel. Headed to story hour at the library? I swung by the Greensboro post office. Picking up more glass? East Montpelier post office. Need bike parts? Morrisville.

I had a “well, duh,” moment this week at the post office when I weighed a package to my parents. The clerk kindly handed me a flat rate box, tape, and a mailing label. I asked for use of a pen, too, then stripped off my winter coat and hat, and went to repackaging work in the PO corner. I sliced my fingertip on the blade of the knife dispenser and bled on the label and then on my check. All those years, so many bottles filled with sand and pebbles, with colored water and concoctions of leaves and flower blossoms, and I don’t remember a single glass cut on my daughters’ little hands.

I ripped up the check I’d bloodied and wrote another, left-handed and nearly illegible.

Cutting into with the ax,

I was surprised at the scent of.

The winter trees.

— Issa

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