Darkness.

My daughter comes in the house tonight and says, “The world smells of rain.”

I put the enchiladas in the oven and walk out in a warm drizzle. The darkness already lies impenetrably. By a scant light from the neighbors’ house, I head into the woods behind our house and then walk by feel and memory, knowing where the blackberry canes meet the white pines. There’s months ahead of the darkness to come; I need to step into it again, know it fully not as foe.

As I head through the back side streets into the village, I think of this deep darkness like drinking. How I feared for so long even the scent of liquor. Now, sober for so many years, I’ve been to countless bars with my brother the brewery owner, hung out with him in good times and terrible, and what’s in his glass or his hand seems nothing to me. Then, this: just recently, a horrific thing happened to someone I know slightly, an occurrence he did not cause and tried, in fact, very hard to prevent. When I learned of what happened, I sensed the tsunami of suffering that would wash through this man’s life. The utter enigma and apparent injustice of the world.

At home, that evening, I leaned against our house’s clapboards, let the cold breeze tug my hair into my eyelashes. I was alone that night, and I remembered, again, what I sought for so many years in the darkness of drinking, my own private little story in such a multifaceted universe. Crucible, I thought. I am a crucible.

Returning to our house tonight savory with dinner, bright with the little lights my daughter hung up in the kitchen, I flung open my bedroom window and let the warm rain blow in. The million mysteries and more of this world.

…. And last, I’ve been graciously invited to the Rockingham Free Public Library, Rockingham, Vermont, this Tuesday, November 15, 6 p.m. Come if you’re in town.

Which Way?

Midday, I walk along Caspian Lake’s edge. By now, the summer people have long since gone elsewhere, back to their own tangled lives. In no mood to see anyone and chat, I take the woods path. I know my way well enough now — all these little wanders — that I know where to turn and hide when I hear voices through the woods. The day is clear, the water so transparent I can almost imagine swimming across its blue surface.

I’m so caught up in my mind’s little narrative that when I cross out of the trees and into a meadow I nearly step into a woman walking her dog. We nod and exchange little greetings about nice day and who knew November could be so pleasant? Her golden retriever rubs my knee. I crouch down and let her dog touch the palm of my hands with her nose. There’s nothing more between the stranger and me but this: the dog, the wet nose, the creature hungry to know me.

November is the beaver moon, sunlight falling through bare branches, and the question of winter: which way will this go?

Upon a withered branch
A crow has stopped this
Autumn evening

— Bashō

Election Day.

On this election day, I hang out the laundry in a bitter wind, sharply turned from the weekend’s balminess. Pinning up t-shirts and dresses, I think of Henry David Thoreau’s famous words:

“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.” 

I read in Walden in high school and took that copy with me when I moved to Vermont. I simply never returned it, and imagined Thoreau wouldn’t have been particularly opposed to my theft. On this windy day, the laundry won’t need long to dry, which is perhaps just as well as the dark moves in now by suppertime. Last night, in the passenger seat of my daughter’s car, the early night pressed around us — enchanting or foreboding? I could have leaned either way. As I pin up the last of the kitchen towels, I keep thinking of the line There will be no catharsis. These words came in a conversation about a recent death in our town. How much we all seem to long for a revelation, the loaves and fishes thing, the who’s in the know and has the real scoop about the true and genuine causes of this or that unhappiness. History, of course, prevails upon all of us, pushing down our small lives, our dear dramas.

Like Thoreau, I am a New Englander, and November leans in with her force.We all might be the wiser for being out in her wind today.

Time Out of Mind.

On the town forest trails, I spy two deer. Across the fallen leaves, now brown and dry, we eye each other. If I hadn’t seen a flicker of white tail, I would have kept running. But I have seen them, and so I determine to wait. I’m in shorts and a t-shirt; it’s so freakishly warm for November that people seem to be in a tizzy of utter delight tinged with dawning horror that this climate change thing, it’s really moving along. Nonetheless, these days are sweet.

The deer nearer me turns her? his? head just over one shoulder, checking in perhaps with the companion. Then they turn together and run. At the top of the hill, white tails bouncing, the creatures stop and look back at me, perhaps in nothing but curiosity. They vanish into the woods.

This is a November when I let the fire extinguish in the woodstove, hang the laundry outside, open the windows and make my cats happy. I chop apples into halves and quarters and eighths and throw the pieces into muffin batter, as if the world can measured and understood by rudimentary math, by counting two eggs and a quarter-cup of milk. In the afternoon, I abandon my thoughtful list of chores and lie in the weeds behind our house, reading Maggie O’Farrell, journeying imaginatively back in time to a Duchess’s life. It’s the same question that’s mesmerized me for years: how much of our lives do we determine and how much is dumb fate?

In the sunlight, I sleep and then wake breathing the complex scents of warm, humusy soil and spicy green leaves, and around all the dry crumbles of what this year’s frost has already bitten. In the cemetery behind my house, a man and a boy fly red kites, the long tails fluttering like ribbons.

November Is, What November Is.

By chance, I meet a woman who was a teacher in a nursery school my daughter attended. She’s partnered now and has a child of her own. We exchange a few words, back and forth about little things, facts and details, while waiting for coffee. As with all of us, she’s older now although fixed in my memory as that very young woman who adored my daughter and said she would gladly keep her. In this few minutes, I have no sense of which way her life has unfolded. It’s none of my business really but here I am, wondering, nosy as all get-out as my daughters claim. Her child isn’t with her, and I wonder about the child, too. Back in those days, I believed in simple formulas for happiness (2 parents plus 1 home equals happiness). As with so much else in my life, I’ve rethought all that.

…. Balmy November. In the evening, I walk in the dark, cutting down through the wild patch behind our house and around the school ballfield. The three-quarters moon rises, more luminescent than any earthly thing. The neighbors are fighting. A door slams, and then the late autumn silence wraps around. November moves on, doing what it will.

…. Last, I discovered Anderson Cooper’s podcast “All There Is” through The New Yorker. For Stephen Colbert fans, I particularly recommend the interview about how grief shaped this man’s life.

“Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be okay with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.”

— Stephen Colbert