Homework

How could I have forgotten that the light in October is exquisite?

Unlike hazy summer, Vermont autumn is clear. The woods are emptying of leaves. The wind sweeps through the towns and over the hills.

From my garden, I cut a cabbage, boil the leaves slightly, and roll up meat and rice, filling the pan with sauerkraut — a Romanian recipe from my grandmother, who died before I began cooking.

Bit by bit, our hours migrate from the garden and back porch in the house. We no longer eat dinners in the sunlight. When I return from work, I see crumbs on the kitchen table, remnants of my teen and her friends.

I imagine these girls figuring out their online chemistry class and plotting their future. When I ask what’s happening in those hours, I hear, We’re fine.

In the evening, the teen spreads out her graph paper and notebook. I knit on the floor with the cat beside the wood stove while her sister reads the day’s news aloud.

The teen shoves her graph paper to me and asks if her approach to problem-solving is correct.

I look at the paper and suggest, Call your uncle. That’s out of my skill set.

The cat flips over and purrs.

The teen bites the end of her pencil and goes back to work.

“The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.”

Joy Harjo

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Fire and Dark

I parked at the wrong entrance to the Enchanted Forest walk in Montpelier’s Hubbard Park, so we walked backwards down the path in the dark for a while before reaching the beginning and backtracking.

Rain has been scarce in Vermont all summer, but the path was lit with hundreds of white paper bag luminaries. Fires crackled in cauldrons. Women danced with fire. Paper lanterns glowed in trees. The effect was not frightening, but magical — my teens murmured that we had stepped into Lord of the Rings. I imagined we had entered Shakespeare’s world.

As we approached the final hill, a torch burned on the stone tower’s top. We spread out on the lawn — socially distanced, all of us bundled in coats and masks — and watched a simple light show with hand-cut slides featuring a snail traveling through the woods and fields and ocean.

We were in Montpelier — Vermont’s leftist capital — and I wondered if the climax would bend towards an urge to vote. Instead, the simple and not-so-simple ending was that the slow-moving snail carried a galaxy on its back. Carry hope with you. Don’t lose your path in the great, wide world.

Along that path lit only by fire — in jack-o-lanterns, torches, lanterns — we walked through the dark woods.

All the drive home, the girls laughed and talked. We are snails.

Survival often depends on a specific focus: A relationship, a belief, or a hope balanced on the edge of possibility.


― Elisabeth Tova Bailey. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

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Cheery Sign

On my way to a bone-chilling soccer game, I stopped by the side of the road to snap this photo. Harvest helpers? Essential workers? I hardly cared — a nice sign on a backroad in the midst of so much nasty rhetoric. Maybe simply a thank you to the universe.

While I huddled in my coat at the game — who can cheer with a mask? who can cheer when the crowd is spread out and the wind is blowing? — I thought back to this sign and the strange topsy-turviness of the world.

Whoever the helpers are — whoever the signmaker is — thank you for a bright spot on an October afternoon.

“Human beings have an inalienable right to invent themselves.” 
― Germaine Greer

Greensboro, Vermont
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Hot Java

When my girls were little, I occasionally sang a few lines from an old song — just around the corner there’s a rainbow in the sky, so let’s all have another cup of coffee.

For the record, neither daughter is a fan of this song, or of my singing, at all.

These days, there’s no around the corner, or, if there is, we’re just not looking there. Election? Halloween? That once eternal late-fall slide towards the holidays and whatever those might bring….

In a strange kind of way, this hovers on relief — no worries this year about whether we’ll have any family at our holiday table — the divorced mother’s woe — as the answer is clear: we won’t.

In the void, we move from cup of coffee to a spontaneous late afternoon walk with a friend. And the fall foliage is still mighty fine.

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The Obvious

In a terrible mood on Friday afternoon, I’m driving too fast through town when I round a corner and see a rainbow spread over Hardwick.

The arc shines so brilliantly and near I imagine I can reach out and touch its particularly vibrant green. I pull into the Village Market, and a woman I know gets out of her car, wearing a mask, too. For a moment we stand there, marveling, then walk towards the market door.

Another woman — vaguely familiar to me, in the way of small town Vermont — is loading her car with groceries. My companion and I urge her to go see the rainbow; it’s just a few steps around the building.

She shakes her head, saying she can’t see it.

But we insist and walk those few steps with her. The rainbow by then has morphed into a double arc. Then, as we watch, the rainbow fades.

Over her mask, the woman looks at us and says, “Well, that’s a nice thing after all today. Something good.”

October 5. So much more winter to come. Watch for rainbows.

It was the Rainbow gave thee birth,

And left thee all her lovely hues;

“The Kingfisher” by William Henry Davies

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Goodness

This morning, hearing news of the Trumps’ positive test results, I think of where I was just a few hours ago, on a hillside in Greensboro.

The Nature Conservancy owns pieces of land all around where we live, some unmarked, others with a trailhead and sign, beckoning in the curious foot traveler.

At Barr Hill yesterday, I didn’t have time to walk that short loop, but paused to admire the view, the little crickets leaping over my shoes. A couple, seeing me, put on their masks, got into their car, and drove away. So for a little while, it was just me and the postcard-stunning autumn — yellow and red mountains, the shining patch of lake, the sky.

The land was donated years ago by a local family. In Greensboro, there’s deep channels of money, its origins often hidden — “old money” — and in Greensboro, too, there’s runnels of poverty, far away from the lake’s summer wonderland, but just as real and alive.

Whatever happens with the Trumps, the virus will go on, until it’s finished, one way or another. But all through this time, these long months and what will inevitably stretch ahead, my daughters and I have gone into the wilderness around us. At the library where I work, often these days I walk along the wetlands, even just for a handful of minutes, breathing in.

Try to do some good in this life, I think. Keep land open. Write a book. Teach a kid to read. Use what’s at hand…

“If you want to live, it’s good to be friendly.” 

― Art Spiegelman, Maus

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Pastimes

I wake before dawn thinking of shuffleboard and listen to the rain pattering.

It’s Wednesday, and my high school daughter is home today. With high school in session two days a week, she’s patched together a strange schedule. Yesterday, she walked to school around ten (skipping the idiocy of study hall in the gym), had algebra and driver’s ed, and spent the afternoon playing soccer.

I lie in the dark, grateful beyond grateful for soccer.

When her father and I divorced, I kept thinking, my god, we need to do better for this girl. So it goes with school this year. Really? I keep thinking. Is this the best I can do?

I remind myself, again, that I’m part of the problem. At 15, she’s stepped into a kind of college schedule, coming and going, utterly responsible for her own work, burrowed on the couch with her school-issued Chrome book, determined.

The truth is, the best has long since slipped out of vision. Hence, perhaps, the appeal of a shipboard game, hours of leisurely chat, surrounded by the glittering sea.

I’m not about to get that shuffleboard option. I rise and feed the hungry cats, brew coffee and open my laptop.

Rain falls steadily — a welcome sound. The chaos of the world is clamoring loudly. Meanwhile, my daughter leans into her work. I brew more coffee. Day by day — the only way to parent.

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Crushed Leaves

A colleague tells me her brother contracted Covid in January. A professional chef, he opened an oven and wondered what was wrong with the meatloaf — it had no smell. He survived after an intense illness.

So this week, I know I’m alive as Vermont autumn is all scent. The after school kids ask me to step into their fort. I lean over the wall built of leaf and vine and breathe in, and I’m eight-years-old again, with my siblings and the neighbor kids, building houses of fallen leaves.

Wood smoke and skunk and the soil I’ve turned over in the garden.

As the daylight shrinks noticeably and we turn more and more indoors, inevitably I look for sources of strength — geese flying low over our back porch, their wings rushing, the rising cream-colored moon, our neighbors’ laughing boys — and my youngest daughter on the cusp of young adulthood, sharing bits of her world in snippets, puzzling over this great big world.

Oh, good gigantic smile o’ the brown old earth,

      This autumn morning!

— Robert Browning

Calais, Vermont
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Friday Poem

I picked up two chairs in a free pile along a backroad yesterday.

No! my daughters said.

In the evening, playing Yahtzee, our cat Acer begins to gnaw on the chair’s loose strands, which makes the girls laugh hysterically.

Something for everyone in the free pile. That’s where we are in the pandemic world.

I pull out the gray hairs,

And under my pillow,

There is a cricket.

— Basho
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Butterflies and Crickets

On a balmy afternoon, I’m on Nature Conservancy Property in Greensboro, Vermont — Barr Hill — the first place my daughters hiked. Nearby lies the glassy blue gem of Lake Caspian.

On my short drive there, I’d been listening to the governor’s twice weekly press conference. By now, like so many people in the state, I’m familiar with Scott’s voice, his cabinet members, and the press. Scott allows the press to ask question after question; these sessions have an interesting kind of intimacy, a we’re going to get through this kind of attitude.

On my way along Barr Hill, I pass rusting old farm equipment in fields where cows are grazing. Here, the past is both near and hidden.

In a field, I paused and admired the view of the mountains and the line of lake. The sky these days is slightly overcast with smoke from the west coast wildfires. Around me, butterflies flew over the blooming goldenrod, and crickets leaped in the dusty path around my feet.

I had such a sense of living in an historic time — the Covid pandemic — and yet I just soaked up that all that sunlight, those tiny flickering wings.

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