Why Love Cats

My daughters’ cat and I are listening to Chris Hedges lecture about the collapse of the American Empire — extremely serious and unfunny — when the cat falls off the hutch and splashes into my pan of lemon-yellow paint.

The cat probably yowled; I certainly shouted. The creature scrambled through the dining room to living room, through my study, into the kitchen, where my daughter grabbed the paint-soaked cat. While she cleaned paint from the cat in the basement, I washed wet paint from our floors on my hands and knees.

We’ve lived in this house not much more than a year. While I love the maple floors, I generally don’t spend much time mopping.

While Hedges kept talking, I realized some of the narrow boards were birdseye maple. Through the closed basement door, I heard my daughter murmuring, comforting her beloved cat.

Whoever laid the floors in this house passed from this life decades ago. I thought of these slender, hard boards in a carpenter’s hand, his sight appraising the grain.

The decision by the ruling elites in ancient Rome—dominated by a bloated military and a corrupt oligarchy, much like the United States—to strangle the vain and idiotic Emperor Commodus in his bath in the year 192 did not halt the growing chaos and precipitous decline of the Roman Empire…. Trump and our decaying empire have ominous historical precedents.

— Chris Hedges, America: The Farewell Tour


The Larch Season, November, Vermont


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My Long-Ago Mentor

The children’s librarian in the town where I grew up — Goffstown, New Hampshire — not only offered me first dibs on brand-new books (I began reading Judy Blume’s Deenie while walking home), she also came to my wedding. Every summer, I fill the glass purple vase she gave me for a wedding present.

So, when we were talking about the Giving Back issue at Kids VT — the magazine where I’m on staff — I wanted to write about Betsy Elliott. We aspired to write particularly about a few of the many people who give so generously, so meaningfully, without any expectation of return — maybe a kind of antidote to our troubled world. Here’s my short essay.



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Vocab Lesson

I’m reading The New York Times on the couch when I look over at my middle school daughter on the couch who’s reading. She’s in her athletic pants, her hair carefully up in a bun like her friends, her face still tawny from a summer mostly outside. When she’s finished with her chapter, she tosses the library book on the couch, and I ask if she knows what the word anti-Semitic means.

She doesn’t.

The word is so terrible, I’m not sure what to say. In our house, we sometimes joke about language. This week, the girls have been tossing voluminous around playfully, like a half-deflated, helium-filled balloon.

I glance into the dining room I’ve spent all weekend painting a color described as lemon custard, my motivation simply love of color and warmth.

And then I look back at my daughter who’s waiting, patiently, on the couch.

It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly… Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


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Happy Arkhipov Day

Two mothers relax on the floor of my library with their babies when my dad sends me an email reminding me that October 27 is Arkhipov Day. Not yet a year old, the babies haven’t begun to walk. Their smiles rise so radiantly joyous you instinctively smile back. Sleet drills against the library windows.

On October 27, 1962, Vasili Arkhipov refused to agree with his fellow Soviet submarine officers and fire a nuclear-tipped torpedo at the USS Randolph, preventing the nuclear holocaust that would have World War III.

The mothers check out children’s books, bundle up their babies again, and head out into the sleet that’s turned to wet snowflakes: everyday Vermont.

World War III was averted not by decisions in the White House or in the Kremlin, but in the sweltering control room of a Soviet submarine. Vasili Arkhipov saved the world. We should celebrate his obedience to humankind, not to the Nation-State, on October 27, Arkhipov Day, a proposed international holiday by students of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

— George Stanciu. For more about Vasili Arkhipov and my dad, read here.


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As the garden withers for the winter, I collect seeds — tithonia, marigold, coneflower — pulling the dry seeds with their tufted ends with my fingers, secreting them in my coat pockets.

My daughter takes a handsaw to the mammoth sunflower stalks fencing the garden, their heavy heads picked nearly clean of seeds from marauding birds. From a scant palmful of seeds, what pleasure these beauties have given us this summer. Now, the birds and the scavenging squirrels feast, too.

A friend stops by with a bare peony root, cushioned in paper, transported in a Negra Modela box. I’m out that evening. When I return, my daughter carefully unwraps the root — not merely a stick but a complicated branching — and then lifts another smaller root. Good luck, she says. They may not grow.

Or, they might.

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?

— Galway Kinnell



Juncos flock the double glass doors in our kitchen, tantalizing our cat.

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The Promise

Beautiful news!

Via email, I’m offered a division of a giant “butter yellow” peony. Oh, in this gray-upon-gray end of October, such a radiant promise of tender blossoms.

A piece of the Bartzella will be coming our way. Roots and dried stalks = creamy petals.

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers…

From Mary Oliver’s “Peonies”


Okay, not a peony….


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The Life You Save

I don’t want another chicken, but the flock belonging to my daughter’s friend was killed overnight. Eviscerated, to be more technical. A lone barred rock survived.

At cold twilight, I’m in Greensboro Bend with three 13-year-olds chasing the bird.

Chickens are flock animals, I remind myself — the very first thing I learned about chickens.

My daughter’s chickens are this hen’s new flock. In the dark, she holds the cardboard box containing a chicken in her lap. We drop off her other friend, and then it’s just the two of us and the chicken, following Route 15 twisting along the Lamoille River, going home. My daughter’s quiet, with her arms folded around the cardboard box.

When she was much younger, her father was involved in a political protest against an industrial project, beginning with a phone call when someone asked him to be arrested, traversing through the court system, a trial, another arrest, costing our family so much money and so much misery. I was infuriated at the hopeless, poorly conceived mess he had brought into our family, and how my daughters had borne so much of that failed struggle.

And yet, the better part of me knows we’re flock animals, too. My daughter must know this, too.

In the coop, one barred rock flaps at the new arrival and squawks angrily. My daughters and I stand back and watch. What will the flock do?

The only way to cope with something deadly serious is to try to treat it a little lightly.

— Madeleine L’Engle


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