Vermont Currency

My neighbor offers to pay me to stack her wood. I reply she can’t pay me, but I would stack it anyway.

The woman and I stand in her yard, looking eye to eye. I am inches below five feet. In her seventies, the woman seems both tough and fragile. She asks what she’s going to have to do for me – cook, is that it?

Without thinking, I say something that surprises me: Maybe you should just be happy with this? Why not do me a favor and allow me to do this?

She thinks this over – there’s an actual pause – before she agrees.

It’s an interesting and largely unspoken contract. She’s an attorney; I’m a writer. We’re each divorced. Both small and scrappy, accepting help is a reluctant relief.

The next morning, while I’m cooking noodles to pack for my daughter’s lunch, my neighbor appears at our double glass kitchen doors. I’m in trouble, she says.

I ask her in, cautioning her not step on a kitten.

She’s closing on her house at noon, and behind in packing. When my daughter heads to school, leaping the cemetery fence, I walk over to the neighbor’s and take a look. Then I walk back to my house and shout for my teenager to wake up. Your help is needed! In a bit, my long-legged girl walks over drinking a can of this orange juice she keeps buying, takes a good around, says, Hmm, and then, Where’s the packing tape?

A skilled packer, when we run out of cardboard boxes, she goes out to the woodpile, empties plastic milk crates, and loads those with the iron skillets. We pass a fat black marker back and forth between us, to label the boxes.

Written on my summer fan
torn in half
in autumn.

– Bashō

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Gold and Gray

In Vermont, November is knitting season, time to pull out your stash and see what might make a decent hat. This purple paired up with that long-ago blue from a child’s vest?

November is also the season of pulling the house finally tight against the winter, an odds and ends Sunday of mulching garlic and wrapping a glassed-in upstairs porch against the cold.

My 18-year-old and I left the younger girls crafting tissue paper flowers today and drove north up gray Route 16, flanked by patches of those golden tamarack torches. On a tip from Ben Hewitt, we were in search of doors, passing Crystal Lake, white-capped and as cold-looking as the Maine Atlantic.

Following directions, I stopped at the place with the dozer and knocked on a metal door. A man opened the door and said, Well, that’s a first, no one ever knocks.

I told my daughter, Bear that in mind. Don’t knock here again.

He was extremely genial and somehow in our conversation we went all over the place, from Vermont to the post office to Michigan, to a mother-in-law. Following him in a cavernous shop, against the back wall, he showed us gorgeous wooden doors, far better than I had imagined, with double panes, solid against the cold, and yet the kind of door that would let in streams of sunlight.

He asked how many doors we wanted, and while I said two, what I really wanted was to wander through that shop and see what-all was there. The doors, I had the sense, were just the beginning.

Outside, my daughter asked to go to Willoughby, just a few miles more. On this November day, time was suspended – somewhere in the not-yet-dark spectrum. The last time we had been here was a fine day of hiking and swimming with the cousins.

My mother recently remarked that it’s hard to believe my oldest is all grown up now – or nearly so. Sixteen years ago, I was driving around in an old blue Volvo, delivering syrup, while she chattered in the backseat and pretended to read the atlas. On one of my longest delivery trips, hopelessly lost in a tangle of dirt roads in Waitsfield, I pulled over, grabbed a handful of pebbles from the roadside, and she dropped them one by one into a plastic water bottle, emptied the small stones in her lap, and did it again, all the way home. Not so, now.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope.

– E. B. White

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Lake Willoughby, Vermont

A Few Sunday Things

Back in our sugaring days, in March and April when I walked with the girls down the driveway to the meet the schoolbus, we guessed the temperature, and I was often within a degree or two. In those days, so keenly attuned to the weather, I was dialed in.

Today, October 22, I weeded barefoot in the garden, a detail worth noting.

Two other things: Seven Days ran my interview with the gracious Jacqueline Woodson, and – most worthy of all – a gift to my younger daughter of two lively kittens.

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Balmy Days (Yet)

This autumn gives us day after day of warmth, and while the days’ length dwindles, the light oddly expands as the branches shake down their leaves, opening up the landscape around our house and on the distant mountains, too.

The cold will come. That isn’t an if; it’s a when. At its front, our house has a two-story glassed-in porch, and, pretty as these windowed rooms are, I can imagine January wind and grainy snow drifting through these old panes.

It’s October, time of house arts-and-crafts. The girls wash the windows, and my older daughter weather-strips with caulk, smoothing the beads. I bury crocus and snowdrop bulbs in the front flowerbed, smoothing the soil over these knots of roots. We leave the doors wide open, and sunlight fills our rooms. The neighbor’s little white dog comes to visit.

The crow
walks along there
as if it were tilling the field.

– Issa

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October, Vermont

This has been a terrible week in Vermont news, involving brutal violence against young women, their mothers, and their children. I don’t usually write about violence and domesticity, for a very raw reason: I am one of those women who called the state police into her home, not once, not twice, but seven times in a period of days. But my life – and my daughters’ lives – did not end in bloodshed. Last night, I said goodnight to my daughters as they spoke to each other while lying in their beds, with their doors open across the hall. We live in a house where a Christmas cactus blooms profusely.

While I struggle with the usual junk – a too sparse income, a book I’m trying to sell – I consider myself unbelievably lucky. At certain junctures, our lives could literally diverge either one way or another, and sometimes those places may span out lengthily, over days or weeks, or sometimes nothing more than seconds: the driver that swerved and did not hit the child, the plane missed by moments that later fell from the sky.

Those intangibles, in so many ways, drive our lives: I remind myself, over and over, that it matters whether I see the world with bitterness or with gratitude. As my brother once impressed on me, there are things that cannot be undone. Violence is one of those things. In my life, the sage kindness of strangers pushed my life away from an abyss. That’s a debt I owe to the world, and I debt I intend to repay in largesse, one way or another, to a world that is sometimes beneficent and sometimes unimaginably brutal.

Most people are afraid of the dark. Literally when it comes to children, while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed.

– Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things To Me

Wide Wingspan

As a kid, I believed bald eagles were in the same otherworldly category as unicorns: other than in a picture, I never imagined seeing these enormous birds.

Today, I walked towards my girls in the car, all of us in a little rush to get somewhere, when a bald eagle soared overhead. I called for the girls. They got out of the car, and we stood looking up and talking, watching the eagle glide over the rooftop and through the pines, before we continued on with what we were doing.

The eagles are always amazing, always stunningly intent on their prey. In times of enormous stress, I’ve imagined myself a coyote, feral-natured, a singular predator.

The world does change. We are neither one thing or another. Bald eagles may not be ubiquitous in my lifetime, but these beauties are edging into the landscape of my daughters’ childhood. I stood there, the golden autumn around us, taking note.

We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.
Joy Harjo, “Eagle Poem”
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