The Constellations in Motion

In an acceptance form letter for an essay, an editor suggests reading that slim college handbook, Strunk and White. For a mini-refresher lesson, I click on the link, since it’s been many years since I opened my copy. (Do I still even possess a copy? I’m a little worried I may have jettisoned that in my move…)

Between useful directions like Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas, I read Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.

Last night, my daughter and I stood outside in the cold, talking with a neighbor, looking up at the small white lights my daughters strung over our barn. The neighbor tells me about the man who last painted the barn before I bought this property, how painstakingly he prepped the clapboards and sealed each nailhole.

I lean against the cornerboard, thinking of all that hard work. Clouds have blown in, and the moon is obscured. Rain and more rain predicted for today.

Inside our house again, my daughter carries the cats up to her bed.

Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.

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Bit of Breeze

I stood on my back deck last night, leaning against the house and watching my friend get out of her Subaru with a bowl of meatballs. My daughters had strung white Christmas lights all over the barn’s front side that afternoon. The white clapboard had that classic New England winter festiveness, complete with a red-bow wreath someone gave my daughter.

I stood there thinking how in my twenties I would have believed I would live here forever. Forever was part of my twenties’ worldview. In my forties – like just about everyone else I know – the erosion of loss (marriage, business, house) has altered the landscape of my worldview. I stood there thinking that, at some point (God willing, many years hence), someone will live here, and maybe paint that barn cotton-candy pink. For that moment, though, in early December, I leaned against the solid house in the cool afternoon, thinking how fine it was to have guests for dinner and my daughters inside, baking cookies.

I don’t knit, but when I watch someone who does, I think that they must have found some of the same inner peace that I discovered during my expeditions (for example, the South Pole)…. A great many of us have a desire to return to something basic, authentic, and to find peace, to experience a small, quiet alternative to the din….The results that you achieve – firewood to warm you, a sweater you have poured yourself into – are not things that can be printed out. The fruit of your labor is a tangible product. A result that you and others can enjoy over a period of time.

– Erling Kagge, Silence in the Age of Noise

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Amazing Things

Years ago, when I was a board member at the Stowe Farmers’ Market, I stopped in at bookstore before a board meeting to buy a child’s small sticker book. Board meetings often ran three hours long; I had my four-year-old with me, and for a dollar or two, I was looking for an usual activity for her, something to sweeten some of that time.

While my daughter picked out her book, I browsed through the new fiction, and bought a book I’ve long since lost, passed along to other readers.

Why? The novel is one long melody, one continuous song of the beauty and harshness of human life.

What did my little girl choose? A birthday party sticker book, with cake and candles, balloons, wrapped presents on a table beneath an oak tree – also a song.

He says my daughter, and all the love he has is wrapped up in the tone of his voice when he says those two words, he says my daughter you must always look with both of your eyes and listen with both of your ears. He says this is a very big world and there are many many things you could miss if you are not careful. He says there are remarkable things all the time, right in front of us, but our eyes have like the clouds over the sun and our lives are paler and poorer if we do not see them for what they are.

– Jon McGregor, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

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December morning

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Beyond the Friend Realm

I send an electronic request to my teenager, asking to see an Instagram account. Mom, she says. That’s all. Just: mom.

I see her Instagram of flowers, mountains, dirt roads, definitely of meals, of us. I say that’s fine, and it has to be fine, I know.

I call this college freshman at her dorm room and ask about her day and what she’s doing right that minute. While talking to me, she’s applying makeup. She says she’s headed out. Out, wherever that may be. I imagine her, bending near the mirror, painting her eyelashes.

I’m at the dining room table. A cat rubs beneath my bare foot.

As she approaches 19, I remember reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved in graduate school. Everyone in my small department read it then, passing around a few copies, asking, Have you read it yet? Near the very end, a single line amazed me, a secret unfolding. You your own best thing, Sethe. Have I taught my daughters this? The feminine strengths they need to know?

I don’t ask for her secrets again – this tall, quick-witted, cleaver-tongued gorgeous young woman. But dear Lord, I’m listening.

Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

– Toni Morrison, Beloved

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Hardwick, VT, post office

 

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Dinner

The December my youngest daughter was two, snow fell every day – some days just the merest trace of flakes; other days, it snowed and snowed and snowed. By New Year’s Eve, so much  snow had accumulated on the porch and slid off the roof that I had to stand on a chair to see over that barrier through the scrim of visible window. I joked with my older daughter that we lived-in a snow dugout.

One midwinter day that year, I wiggled my toddler into her snowsuit and boots seven times, and then I thought I would never go outside again until spring – a nearly unbearable thought.

The girls come and go with their 12-and-18-year-old lives now. Driving home from work last night along the ancient Winooski, the river that’s flowed through the Green Mountains all through their glacial formation, I thought how one of the trickiest things for me about parenting has been how things constantly change. Baby sleeps through the night; now baby wakes every 30 minutes. Baby crawls, then runs.

And yet…. last night, my daughter who’s rooming at college, walked in while I was chopping cabbage and sat down at the table, hungry for talk and supper.

…one of the worst things about being a parent, for me, is the self-discovery, the being face to face with one’s secret insanity and brokenness and rage.

– Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year

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Bright Spot

There’s nothing like a carful of laughing girls to whisk away despair. While the girls skied, I walked down to Big Hosmer Lake and sunk my hand in its cold water, thinking of my older daughter at 12 and how much she loved the rope swing on this lake. With an hour left, I sat in the touring center and sunk into my work.

Bringing in the cold and snow, the rosy-cheeked girls found me, chattering, hungry for the crackers in the car. All the way down the narrow valley from Craftsbury to Hardwick, I watched the remnants of daylight dwindle into pale rose, so glad we were headed to our warm house and leftover posole and the cats who would be mewling for their dinner.

12-year-old girls, laughing about falling on skis, listening to Christmas carols, exuberantly happy. I drove, listening, the girls’ merriment like a cloak around us, keeping night terrors away.

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Last Week of November

My female friends, thinking of middle school, cringe – like me, too – as though we’re all reliving those years.

Just months into middle school with my second daughter, it seems to me the heart-wrenching agony is driven by a burgeoning and raging sense of injustice. Sometimes I wonder if the adult world ever escapes middle school, or merely wears down and accepts bad behavior.

November, November, I remind myself. Afternoons of lake swimming will return.

The girls and I cook dinner and wash the dishes and – because it’s dark – take an evening walk in the dark. White sparkling lights are strung on the footbridge suspended over the river, and even the closed stores on Main Street are lit. Around us, the lights hang low on the mountains stretching up into the black sky. A crescent moon cups its white-gold place in the sky. Walking, I think of Martin Luther King’s long arc of the moral universe, bending back towards injustice, imperceptibly and, yet, making its gradual way.

December, season of falling snow and good cheer, isn’t far.

If ever God’s heart was drowning
in fifty gallons of despair, I would mention
the anatomy of birds as a flashlight
to shine through His heavy grief.
Avian Pallium, I would say….
… the kindness
of this gentle bone, how it protects Cerebral Cortex
like hands wrapped around
a small snowball.

– From “The Anatomy of Birds” by Steven Coughlin

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