The Twisty Road North

Late afternoon on a Friday, I take a winter road trip north, nearly to Canada, along Route 14 so rutted with frost heaves my little Toyota bounces. The pavement and passing cars are bleached with road salt — rust, pernicious rust, I keep thinking, apprising the mortality of my vehicle.

My daughter and I return in the dark from her concert. It’s 8:30 pm, but might as well be midnight. No one’s on the road but a tractor with blinking lights before a barn. This is farming country. The few gas stations and general stores in the small towns we pass through have all snapped off their lights, shut up, gone home.

Even in the dark, this highway is familiar, although we rarely drive this way anymore. In the dark car, eating crackers, we swap stories. My daughter tells me about the  high school she just visited and its long locker room. I point out the state’s largest landfill. Whoo-hoo, my daughter says. A claim to fame. We pass a farm where she once believed Santa’s reindeer lived. I was so sure of that! She tells me about a tiny turtle on Lake Memphramagog I’d forgotten. She repeats the story with precise details; in a flash, I remember that brilliant April morning, the black and white checked dress she wore and loved.

Listening to her, at age 13, I hear her imagining a different life. What would it be like to live here? I think of her as so young, but I’m wholly wrong. Her stories keep flowing. Along this road we hardly ever travel, she has a whole history already, a detailed map of her past.

What an age 13 is: so full of wonder, of mystery: which direction will I steer my life?

To move, stay put, say the Buddhists. To see, stop looking. Don’t imagine paradise in the sky. Make paradise in the kitchen.

— Kate Inglis, A Field Guide to Grief: Notes for the Everlost


A sampling of our everyday snowbanks this March

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Birthday Blessings

This afternoon, I stepped out of my library with a child to look at the sky. He was glad he had returned a stack of library books, a kind of clearing of his child conscience. In my clogs, I leaned against the building, a squall fattening in this valley, tucked up against Woodbury Mountain. What a winter this has been. Snowbanks dominate Hardwick like a pop-up mountain range.

Later, a friend and I leafed through a Vermont guide to wildflowers. Remember spring beauties? Remember trilliums?

Early March is my father’s birthday and, two days later, my mother’s. In their  80s now — old but not very old, not even close to very old — my parents who lived through WWII, the Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation, and the eternity of the Reagan-Bush regime, through having careers and raising children, teaching and writing books and caring for the infirm and the dying, through decades of friends, through all the everydayness of living — and now through the particularly heartless regime of Trump — here’s Hayden Carruth’s birthday poem for love of a woman and love of living.

“Birthday Cake”

by Hayden Carruth

For breakfast I have eaten the last of your birthday cake that you
had left uneaten for five days
and would have left five more before throwing it away.
It is early March now. The winter of illness
is ending. Across the valley
patches of remaining snow make patterns among the hill farms,
among fields and knolls and woodlots,
like forms in a painting, as sure and significant as forms
in a painting. The cake was stale.
But I like stale cake, I even prefer it, which you don’t
understand, as I don’t understand how you can open
a new box of cereal when the old one is still unfinished.
So many differences. You a woman, I a man,
you still young at forty-two and I growing old at seventy.
Yet how much we love one another.
It seems a miracle. Not mystical, nothing occult,
just the ordinary improbability that occurs
over and over, the stupendousness
of life. Out on the highway on the pavement wet
with snow-melt, cars go whistling past.
And our poetry, yours short-lined and sounding
beautifully vulgar and bluesy
in your woman’s bitterness, and mine almost
anything, unpredictable, though people say
too ready a harkening back
to the useless expressiveness and ardor of another
era. But how lovely it was, that time
in my restless memory.
This is the season of mud and thrash, broken limbs and crushed briers
from the winter storms, wetness and rust,
the season of differences, articulable differences that signify
deeper and inarticulable and almost paleolithic
perplexities in our lives, and still
we love one another. We love this house
and this hillside by the highway in upstate New York.
I am too old to write love songs now. I no longer
assert that I love you, but that you love me,
confident in my amazement. The spring
will come soon. We will have more birthdays
with cakes and wine. This valley
will be full of flowers and birds.


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Making Sense?

At dusk, after washing the dishes, my daughter agrees to go on a walk with me — she is clearly good-humoring me. It’s cold, and I sense she doesn’t care all that much about the gorgeous blue horizon.

Plus, she’s 13. Having once been 13 myself — albeit in the last century — I know 13-year-olds cannot wear hats.

Walking, she asks me why is this necessary? I offer my usual lines — that it’s pleasant to walk in the evening, that a little cold and adversity build character (my dad’s line). I remind her of my amazing wealth of character.

So, she says, you have character because you froze your ass off?

Put that way, I admit that perhaps not all the pieces of my thinking always hinge together perfectly. Or perhaps they do….

Real poetry, is to lead a beautiful life. To live poetry is better than to write it.



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February Yields To March

The snow lies so deeply around our house I might be wrong about that slender path, first through the transplanted hydrangeas from Susan and then along the milkweed behind the garden. Down the hill, through the wild tangle of pine and boxelder, I see a single porch light every night. Come spring, I imagine, I’ll walk in my boots through the melting snow, stand at the edge of the forest, and see whose light that is.

The light stays longer in the sky, but it’s a cold light,
it brings no relief from winter….

(The earth) says begin again, you begin again.

— Louise Gluck, from “March”


The cats — models of serenity.

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Political Art? Or Just A Lot of Stuff Kicking Around?

A tower of filing cabinets? My 13-year-old is simultaneously entranced and dumbfounded. I don’t get it.

Maybe, I suggest, we shouldn’t think about getting it but just take it in. She gives me that look perhaps unique to only young teenage girls — a combination of you’re not making any sense in my world coupled with I’ll try to humor you. 

In the single degree temperatures, with a frigid wind blowing over Lake Champlain, I offer a quick rundown about bureaucracy, thinking Kafka, Kafka, remembering driving by the tall Bank of New Hampshire building as a kid, wondering how many people worked all day, buried deep in that building. Even at night, the building glowed: cleaning crew shift.

Despite the cold, she’s happy — I can see it — this kid on the cusp of shedding her childhood — her face reflecting that combination of WTF and how cool is that?


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10,000 Years of Pollen: Storyline

An expert in New England’s ancient forests shares the story of taking a core sample from a pond not far from my library — easily within a few hours’ walk — and extracting 10,000-years-worth of planetary history. 10,000 years of pollen!

I’m standing in the dark in the back, while a few latecomers step in, carrying the cold on their coats, kicking snow from their boots. I’m also coincidentally near the hot tea, which I urge my guests to take.

10,000 years. His chart graphs the fluctuation of trees in this plot of Vermont — the persistence of beech, rise of rock maple. Exquisitely, I think of a larch not far from the library, how cool and welcoming that forest is in the summer, how brilliantly yellow its autumn needles. The extremely large view and the absolute specific.

Afterwards, finally home with my girls who are in an especially good humor, I think of the UVM museum my youngest and I just visited, chockfull of very ancient human artifacts, a variation of pollen — and in particular the arrowheads found along Lake Champlain. Whose hands made these?

Still socked in by winter… no pollen in the wild wind in the conceivable future…


Specific child, specific 5 degree day, Burlington, February, 2019.

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The Lion, and The Lion Again

These days, I’m always writing about the weather and here’s why — with a vengeance, winter hurls at us.

In a select board meeting last night, someone paused and said, The wind. Soon afterward, the lights snapped out. In the utter dark, I stood talking, bodiless, about agenda. The town clerk appeared with two battery lanterns, her face flickering with shadows.

The 13-year-olds pulled me into the town vault where the clerk had shown them a book of vital records, each certificate in a plastic sleeve. The girls had gone wild about the death certificates, reading aloud cause of death: thrombosis, carcinoma, asphyxiation from car exhaust in a closed garage.

I read about a woman who had shot herself in the chest, in the 1950s, down the road from where I once lived. In my mind, I repeated her name and age.

The town clerk showed me handwritten ledgers from when the schoolhouse was built in 1914. Nails, $6.50.

At home, the power was out, too, and I finished knitting a baby sweater by candlelight. Before we went to bed, we looked out the second floor bedroom windows at the dark valley, a snowplow carrying its own light along Route 15. I reminded the girls of reading about wartime, in so many other times and places, when families shut off their lights, in fear of bombing. Three degrees. The wind shrieked around our house.

I lay on my daughter’s bed, listening to her day of babysitting and kid stuff. She knitted by her little lantern while I watched the shadows of her moving hands on the ceiling. A cat curled between us and slept.


Artwork from the recent Taproot issue — appropriately titled Revive — where an essay of mine appears.

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