Stone House.

All night, wind howls around our house. I give up the charade of sleeping and pull out my library book. I’m in the final pages of Meredith Hall‘s memoir about growing up in New Hampshire, Without a Map, and I’m in no rush to end her story, close the cover, and return the book.

At my feet, my little cat lies awake, thinking cat thoughts, in a cat circadian rhythm of his own. The Ides of March howl in fiercely. All day, the wet snowstorm has swirled around us. My wet boots lie beneath the wood stove. Our house banked in by white and the ash bucket melting dirtily into the path where I’ve left to cool, its embers to burn out and die.

Somewhere in those hours before dawn, I shake flat the wood stove’s embers with the ash shovel and lay one, two, more pieces of wood on the flickering coals. In the dark house, the little cat follows me downstairs, curious about breakfast but not insistent.

I think of what I’ve read that day, about a stone house built nearby in the 1800s from a single boulder. A curious endeavor. Take this stone, cut it into pieces, and make a home. In the darkness, the wind rakes over our house, hurls over my snow-submerged garden plot, and whirls over the town cemetery.

“The past lies beneath the surface, intransigent truth. Remembered or not, what we say and do remains, always.” 

— Meredith Hall

“Things Take the Time They Take…”

Walking this afternoon, I’m reminded of Sylvia Plath’s line, The winter landscape hangs in balance now… What a long balance it might be. Nonetheless…

A pileated woodpecker swoops down from a branch above my head and disappeared into the woods. I take this as an auspicious sign. Ides of March. More snow moving in. Nonetheless….

Things take the time they take. Don’t
How many roads did Saint Augustine follow
before he became Saint Augustine?

— Mary Oliver

Small Reckonings.

I’m sitting in the back of the school library on the wall heater when a friend I haven’t seen for years walks in. A large school board meeting has started, and we whisper to each other until I suggest we leave and talk. Early evening, the school is empty, and turn on the lights in a room where my daughters both had classes. I pull out two chairs from the student tables.

Almost immediately, we start in on what should be a simple math problem — March 2023 to March 2020 — which yields an unbelievable three. Before the pandemic we worked together and spent hours talking about literacy and kids, about schools and families, but we also talked about canning tomatoes, about parenting, and being women. We ask how this or that turned out for each other — some decisions, some simply a bend in circumstance.

By the time we leave, the school has completely emptied out for the night. The weather has turned mild, and we walk slowly under the dim lamplight to our cars. A mist rises over the soccer field. I get in my car and drive down the hill and across the river and up the hill to my house. The village lights sparkle in the mist. The moon edges around a break in the clouds. In the darkness I stand there, thinking about the numbers we put together, marking places in our lives, then adding and subtracting our lives—people and jobs and books and houses. The numbers all mesh together, consumed in our shared stories.

At 86.

I grew up in a family nearly devoid of grown men. No grandfathers, no uncles save one uncle by marriage I met once in California and never saw again. Like any kid, how I grew up seemed just the way of the world.

Every summer, we saw my grandmother and wacky and wonderful aunts and female cousins. In those weeks, the ordinary rules were suspended. We kids lived in our realm, quite happily, while the adults did their endless talking and laughing. In all this, my father headed our rambling crew, whether we were swimming in Maine’s icy Atlantic or visiting a Shaker village. My father taught his three kids to love E. B. White and Shakespeare, to fly a kite and cross country ski. The original YouTuber before YouTube was a thing, my father is a lifelong library aficionado. He taught himself — and so taught us — to paint a house and repair a leaking washing machine, to write a clear sentence, play Hearts, understand mathematics is exquisite, and lean into the happiness of lying on your back under the summer constellations. The list is eternal: use a sharp pencil to solve algebra; chop garlic fine; Plato is sublime; be polite to cashiers; work hard; pay your bills; hike.

If you couldn’t figure out an answer, keep thinking. My god, that’s useful.

I inherited his nose and his utterly irreverent sense of humor. He never indulged his children in the illusion that the world is easy or kind. The summer I was ten, we drove from New Hampshire to Wyoming to Colorado to New Mexico, living out of our green Comanche Jeep and careening back into New England two days before school started. By that time, my sister and I had read his copy of Huck Finn at least twice over and thoroughly kicked around Huck’s aversion to civilization. 86 today, my father is still modeling Thoreau’s behavior of sucking the life’s marrow, grit and all, while savoring espresso.

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

— Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”

Go Without Sight…

On this day of sunlight and chores, I end the afternoon walking through the back areas of town, behind the town garage and around this year’s dwindling sand pit. I turn around in the neighborhood with the scary unleashed dog, backing up slowly and doing, perhaps, exactly what should not be done.

Out of sheer carelessness, I never got the wood stove heated up to temp this morning, early at my desk, so intent, that I carelessly let the stove smolder low. In the day’s heat, I’ve let the stove dwindle further. That chore awaits me. My carelessness annoys my daughter, who’s afraid of burning the house down (what sane Vermonter isn’t at least slightly afraid of that?) and in love with the stove’s fierce heat. Two things at once. Which sums up March. Winter and spring. Breezy clean and ponderous with the thawing earth’s muck.

I pass hardly a soul on my walk and wonder if I should have made friends, or at least a kind of peace, with that snarling dog. As I walk, the air cools. The puddles are luminous with what remains of the day. I remember that beloved line from Wendell Berry — To know the dark, go dark — the line that’s driven so much of life. When I get home, I look it up.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Cars, Coffee, Conversation.

My daughter drives the interstate towards Burlington in the valley that folds along the Winooski River. I’ve driven this stretch of interstate countless times, in all kinds of weather, alone or with children in the backseat eating snacks and talking about something like various shades of blue.

We pass the town where, a few years back, I fiercely negotiated down the price of a Matrix. While my older daughter test drove the car, the owner and I stood on the sidewalk in front of his suburban split-level. He sold restaurant equipment and wasn’t in the least interested in sharing stories about that job. He couldn’t get the Matrix’s hood open, which made me ask how often he checked the oil. My question irritated him. That — and the cash I brought — tipped the price in our favor.

As it turned out, that Matrix never burned a drop of oil. My daughter drove the car for years. Well beyond 200k miles, we sold the car to a man who called himself Saffron Bob. Saffron Bob appeared in a snowstorm, also with cash.

My daughters found his story about growing saffron along Lake Champlain utterly believable. I did not, but I was wrong about that, too.

We stop for coffee. My daughter steps forward and pays. We keep driving and talking, another strand of our story.