Back about a hundred years ago when I started to read, my elementary school had these large books with colored pages. I read only on the right-hand pages, then flipped the book upside down, and read on the other side. The net effect was a perpetual mystery: I was reading forward, but there was always this tantalizing upside down text on the left-hand side. Could I dart my eyes there and jump ahead in the storyline?
The storyline had castles and princesses. I think of these books every spring, because Vermont spring colors are so darn brilliant — just like those colored pictures.
I’ve never seen those books again, although I searched for them for my own daughters.
May. Let’s never sugarcoat anything, never cheapen our world into an Instagram I’ve got more thanyou post. Snowflakes fell yesterday, even midday, swirling flakes. My daffodil petals were gnawed around the edges this morning. But it’s May. Spring alone: reason to live.
The news here is that the peepers have returned. In the evening, I walk past the two ballfields where the little kids and then the big kids are playing baseball, and up the hill where pavement turns to dirt. Right at the edge of town, there’s a neighborhood where people are living rough. Along the roadside, I spy empty milk cartons and a clear plastic bag jammed with Christmas bows. There’s a swathe of hemlock and cedar, and then the fields and maples begin.
A few days before, I was writing in the local coffee shop when a woman I once knew fairly well stopped in. She sat down with her latte, and we talked for a little bit about the nursery school we once started and where our kids are now.
Then she turned the conversation and acknowledged that something lay between us. I closed my laptop and slid it in my backpack. We spoke about a fire, a burned construction site, a rekindling of the fire, and losses to both our families. It’s early morning yet. We’re in a corner by the window. The baristas are laughing at the counter, and no one can overhead our words. Quickly, we pair up our memories, and it’s shocking how our memories sync of that time. Until we diverge. We pause at the mention of the third family. I have about a 100 questions I want to ask. My shock appears mirrored in her eyes. She’s forgotten all about her coffee.
How do you ever understand the past? We’ve both divorced, moved houses and towns, raised children, created new working lives. And yet there it is, running like a subterranean stream, the past.
Her acquaintance walks in, and she stands up. I slip my notebook in my backpack, say goodbye, have a nice day to the barista, and walk down the sidewalk to the post office.
My older daughter relays that she stopped for brand-new greasy donuts at 3 a.m. with her sister and a carful of teenagers headed to the airport. She parked beside a car with a man, she says, who must have lived through better moments.
We’re waiting for coffee on a Sunday morning jammed with people getting the Sunday vibe going. I make a vague comment about the soulful journey. Despite the eyerolling of my companion, I’m serious. Maybe the man was simply heading from home to work, or vice versa, but 3 a.m. in rural Vermont often means staring at a lonely emptiness where the way down leads to a few single dismal plot points, and the way up — imagination has plenty of material there. I don’t mean this in any jest, having hit a multitude of my own 3 a.m. moments; there’s a sizable respect between me and 3 a.m. Laughter and donuts, of course, are my preferred side of those moments.
April is the Vermont season of patience, of cold and thaw, and cold and more cold, of rain and the remembrance of November, the splendiferous muscle of crocuses. April is the long haul of spring, of faith in the green that tantalizes. Vonnegut writes, “The primary benefit of practicing any art, whether well or badly, is that it enables one’s soul to grow.”
Two years ago, my youngest and I quarantined for whatever the period was then, five days perhaps. I painted the inside window trim on the front and upstairs glassed-in front porches the loveliest pale blue. My daughter recovered quickly, almost instantaneously; I tested negative, over and over, kept painting and listening to the Derek Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd, hours and hours and hours.
Soon after, I was vaccinated at the high school on a cold April day. It was snowing lightly, as it was today. I knew some of the volunteers who had come out of retirement to aid the state in vaccinating. Afterwards, I sat in the gym as we had been asked to wait. I sat near a man who I had worked with before the pandemic, before I changed jobs, too. We talked about work and kids and how our lives had changed, and we kept talking even after each of us had been told we could leave. I had plenty to do — oh, how there’s always plenty to do — but I lingered. Each one of us had our story that day that seemed filled with such quiet, such orderliness, so much hope.
My daughter was learning to drive that spring. She drove to spring soccer practice, and we sat in the car before one practice, listening to the Chauvin trial verdict. The geese had returned to the open river. While she played, I stood outside the closed town library. The bulletin board was empty of notices of events, as if time had dwindled to nothingness.
Spring: a mighty season. The earth will do what it will.
Rain of remembering; late snow turning to rain. Then in the cold house, alone in bed, the soft stutter on the roof, random phrases; your voice, only your voice. How can it be that voice that touched me everywhere? And what you said, if only I could hear it again in its intensity. Essence distilled in the moment of waking, the delicate mold and odors of the breaking apart of winter, in the soft snow that comes between the past and the chill distillation, the whisper of air split between the perfume of melting crystals; the clasp and letting go.
A snow-globe snow flakes down all afternoon. In a meeting, I sit near the window and look over the river. Plenty of listening. Plenty of talking. Ice clings in chunks to the shoreline, but the current runs swiftly. This March day is just at that brink where snow piles on last year’s dead grass, melts on the pavement.
As sometimes happens in this group, the conversation winds around to the world’s wider themes — the pandemic and literacy, disparity of wealth — very big picture things — how the world is broken in places and how these pieces may or may not fit together. There’s plenty of coffee, and sandwiches, too, that someone has brought from somewhere, and I keep drinking the coffee and studying those currents, how the water crashes up over rocks and flows on again, heading that long way to Lake Champlain and north through rivers heading towards the North Atlantic. Someone beside me remarks that he’s not convinced our world can be put back together.
In the very big picture, however, things are always going together, breaking apart, heading together again. I keep watching that dark river and the foamy curls of waves. The coffee is lukewarm and lousy at best. Nonetheless, I keep drinking it and drinking it. We keep talking and listening.
“That’s religion in America, under constant revision.”
Turkey buzzards have returned. On this first day of spring, these birds fly broad-winged over the river, slow, slow, fixated. Late afternoon, I have a few minutes before I’m expected home again for daughter time, daughter chat. I keep walking and discover robins are singing in a tree behind the train station. A slight thing? No way. I stand there, listening, looking up at the treetops where the branches are still barren, months yet away from leaves. I can’t see them, but it’s robins, definitely.