Ships Passing in the Night

Way back in the last century, when I first moved to Vermont as a young woman, my then-boyfriend and I drove in the middle of one night to Boston. We passed through tiny Massachusetts town after town, shuttered up and dark for the night. As our old Toyota hurried through, I wondered who lived there. At two in the morning, hardly anyone but a parent with a crying baby is awake.

Walking downtown last night, while my daughters wash our dinner dishes, I marvel how the pandemic seems to have placed us in a very long 2 a.m. In the dark, I pass a single masked person. Treading carefully on the ice, we each half-raise a hand, a human version of ships passing in the night.

This morning, my neighbors’ lights are off. Last year, with their youngest, their house lights glowed at all hours. Now, at 6 a.m., the house remains shrouded in the darkness of sleep. And so it goes, I remind myself, night always yields to dawn.

Winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.

— Yoko Ono

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Holy/Unholy

A warm Christmas Day rain washes away every bit of snow in our patch of northern Vermont, save for a few ice-hardened and blackened plowed-up ridges. As the dawn drips in with its gray, the landscape appears unfamiliar to me in December — an experience that, again, sums up 2020.

Friends of ours had Christmas dinner on the in-laws’ porch, with the in-laws inside and themselves on the covered porch, eating Christmas dinner 2020-style. Strange and weird, but what wouldn’t I have given that for hilarity.

Talking with my brother on Christmas morning, he mentions he may grout a floor that afternoon. My youngest, afterward, tells me how fun that sounded and then wonders if she would see her uncle before she’s all grown up, headed out into the world on her own, not so far away.

And so it goes in this landscape of unfamiliarity: suspended in a warp of uncertainty. In the midst of all this, there’s me with my lists, my agendas, my determination to craft plans for happiness.

In this gray and blue and brown landscape — not the traditional Vermont snowy Christmas — there’s nothing to do but let all that fly away in the rising and balmy breeze. The heart of the Christmas story, after all, is the unexpected gift in the barn’s manger, the promise of joy where we least expect its appearance.

Photo by Gabriela S.

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Strange Bed

The forecast for this Vermont Christmas is 100% rain, which pretty much sums up the year 2020.

From work, I take home a donated cat bed, lined with a downy fuzz and nearly new. When I set it on our living room floor, our cats approach with caution, sniffing, and then begin growling, doubtlessly sensing some former occupant.

A dog? Or simply some stranger?

All evening, our pampered house cats pace around the bed, suspicious. But, in the morning, I see our tabby Acer curled up in the bed’s center, sleeping, paws over shut eyes, tail tucked beneath his chin.

And so it: 2020 and on into 2021. Wherever each of you are, dear readers, I hope you take some comfort in this strange bed of where we are, as our planet slowly turns back toward the light, again.

Cutting with the ax,
I was surprised at the scent.
The winter trees.

— Buson

Hardwick, Vermont

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Instead of Lunch…

On the solstice Monday, I’m standing along a dirt road, bent down, petting a dog.

The recent cold snap has broken, and the midday is nearly balmy. Some winters in Vermont are like this: cold and thaw ricochet back and forth. Each thaw reminds us that we’ll endure the bitter cold. Beneath my boots, mud may not be far away. But I know — and not just by the low declination of light — that plenty of winter remains.

The conversation I’m having bends around again to the observation I’ve gnawed over and over: how human irrationality winds all through these bucolic Vermont villages. Likely, it’s the human condition.

Irrationality or not, for these moments, I’m standing in shallow snow, on a hillside with a view of the valley below and the not-so-far blue mountains in the distance. The little dog’s ears are velvety to my bare fingers. And, for these few midday moments, I soak in these landscape of brown dirt road, pristine snow, pale blue sky, conversation. Spring is an infinity away, but spring always arrives. I’ve been here before.

Photo by Gabriela S.

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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

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The Saving Grace of Winter is Beauty

These December days are so cold the air is smoky with a mist that can’t melt. Daylight is scant.

Walking up Main Street in Greensboro, my boot heels kicking clumps of road salt, I detour to the public beach, scene of so many summer hours of pleasure.

In the otherwise empty parking lot, two pickup trucks are parked side by side, drivers’ windows rolled down, a cloud of cigarette smoke motionless between them.

December narrows us down and opens us up; we relish the pleasure of our warm, well-lit houses, the bowl of steaming noodles, our cats and our library books. And yet the cold appears to ripple endlessly, infinitely beyond the frozen lake and mountains. The winter night sky dwarfs us. We’re but tiny stars ourselves, on this icy landscape.

Day by day we’re spinning towards the solstice.

Winter solitude–
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.

— Bashō

Caspian Lake, Greensboro
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Starlight

At 5:30, my daughter picks me up from work in complete darkness. I turn off the lights and gather the bag of giant pillows someone donated to the town’s free closet. I intend to wash these nearly brand-new things and use them as winter reading places before the wood stove.

All day, I seem to have moved through this strange miasma of timelessness — in a realm where time or month (everything save the year, 2020) is merged into the Time of the Pandemic. A woman stops in and, after town business, remarks about the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, how on planet earth we’re spinning through much larger cosmological forces that we might imagine.

In dark, my daughter drives faster than I would have, speeding along that back road through the forest, and then the road crests a hill and fields open up on either side. Farmhouses are outlined with colored Christmas lights, and overhead, all that sky.

My daughter points to where the even darker line of mountains marks the horizon. There, Jupiter and Saturn are immediately obvious, making their slow and steady celestial way across the heavens.

Our conversation winds back and forth between us, mundane snippets of this or that. I imagine our headlights swooshing through the dark, as the two of us rush home in all that darkness, to the youngest sister at home, cooking sausage and potatoes, the kitchen warm and redolent with baking squash and maple syrup.

Afterwards, we go out for a walk in the deepening cold, under the brilliantly beautiful starlight, until eventually the cold drives us back under our warm roof again.

Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

— T. E. Hulme

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Sunday Rescue

I’m reading on the couch Sunday afternoon when my daughter calls from her cell phone.

She’s walking on a nearby trail system and met a woman who lost her dog. The woman gave my daughter her cell phone number, in hopes that my daughter might find her dog.

My daughter says excitedly, I found the dog!

Good going, I say.

The dog, however, keeps rolling around on its back and begging for rubs. The dog won’t walk. What do I do?

Good lord, I think. I close my book.

The afternoon is rapidly heading towards dark. I take the leftover soup from the refrigerator and set it on the woodstove to begin heating. My younger daughter, excited to be doing something, knocks off her homework and offers to drive, nothing that her sister needs assistance.

As we head through the village in the twilight, I say, Hey, look at you. At fifteen, you’re already on your first dog rescue mission.

She asks, You’ve done this before?

Nope….

It’s dark by the time we find the elderly woman, wearing a mask, in her car in the dark by the side of the road, talking on her cell phone with my daughter.

I tell the woman my daughter is in the field, on the other side of the ruins of an old house, marked by maple trees. My youngest goes ahead, and I walk with the woman, lifting strands of electric fence that have been turned off for the season. In a break in the parting clouds, the sunset appears briefly as a dark bruise in the sky, before the night swallows it up. It’s balmy yet, for December; but it is early winter, and I know our house will be warm when we return.

My oldest — who cares not at all for dogs — has remained with the dog. At home, she washes away the scent of dog under her cat’s serious scrutiny.

Her sister says, You kept the dog’s person from getting lost, too…

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A Year Ago

…. A year ago, the date was looming near where I had that wretched dental procedure. On the 21st, as the oral surgeon brought a scalpel near my face, he said nicely, You might want to close your eyes for this.

This December, after weeks of virtual schooling — whatever that may be — I knock off work Friday afternoon, so the 15-year-old can drive. My oldest asked us to bring coffee. She steps out behind the doctors’ office where she works, dressed in scrubs, with a stethoscope around her neck.

Then she heads back in, jazzed for the afternoon challenge of of families and fears, from earaches to coronavirus.

In the village, my youngest parks behind the famous Stowe church, and we walk along the bike path. The path winds along the river, not at all iced over yet. We pass a few dog walkers. Behind a restaurant, the scent of dinner cooking follows us as we walk in the thin December sunlight. The savory smell reminds me of when I lived in Brattleboro, so many years ago, above a Korean restaurant.

The smell is delicious, and it follows us for a long way across a field. Stowe reminds us of those summers and falls when we sold maple syrup and ice cream at the farmers market. As we walk, my youngest tells me what she remembers of the market. These are good memories, and we share snippets of the vendors we knew in those years.

Back at the Subaru, it’s nearly four, and the sun is sinking towards the mountains’ horizon. We’ve been gone from Hardwick just a few hours and filled these hours with coffee, a scattering of snow beneath our boots, the sky overhead, the smell of dinner, and the narrow December sunlight between our words.

Carefully, she backs out of the parking space and heads for Route 100. She reminds me my brother told her to enjoy the small victories.

She pauses at the stop sign and looks at me. This is a big victory, she says.

December, 2020.

Leisure”

By William Henry Davies

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows...

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Driving Lessons

The dress my daughter wore in the photo below was a thrift-store find. A soft flannel, the dress was her favorite those years she was two and three. She wore the dress until it was above her knees. I can still remember how her bare knees fit perfectly into the palm of my hands, her skin suntanned long into the fall, often lightly scratched or bruised from playing.

At fifteen, now, she feels light-years beyond those days.

Here’s a piece I wrote about this summer when she and I switched places in the car, beginning, “This fall, my 15-year-old daughter Gabriela was at the wheel of my Subaru when I panicked….”

Photo by Diane Grenkow

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