Travels into the Past

My daughter and I stop briefly in the New Hampshire town where I grew up, as part of a much longer day trip. Although Goffstown is three hours from where we live, my younger daughter had never been there. My parents have long ago moved back to New Mexico, my siblings spread out in their own adult lives.

The little village, where I haven’t been in years, is surprisingly unchanged. There’s some sprawl here and there, but not as much as I expected. A town ballfield has been converted to a cemetery, planted with saplings and marked, so far, with a single tombstone. Below that, the small pond where I learned to ice skate is still encroached by weeds and brambles, making for tricky skating but immensely interesting viewing for a child lying on the ice.

The snow has mostly melted here, and the earth is an amber-brown. Not a single shoot of spring green is visible yet. Walking around, I see the places that I loved: the gone-to-wild swathe behind our neighborhood houses — places a child could endlessly explore for years — the Ucancoonuc Mountains, the woods with huge glacial erratics surrounding the town. The library where I read out the children’s section and held my first job as a library page has been expanded. We walk through the library. Tom Wolfe famously wrote that you can’t ever go home. I can’t quibble with that wisdom, but walking through this library I loved so dearly, I step back into my childhood for a few minutes. Crammed with books, the library was both alive for me with the social chatter of the town but also ineffably fed my hungry imagination.

On this Wednesday morning, the library staff says hello and good morning to my daughter and me, and I feel, again, that same hum of life, endlessly unspooling, utterly fascinating. The shelves now stretch far up to the high ceilings, and this makes me so happy, to know the library is loved and funded.

Likewise, walking past my former house, I see a treehouse in the backyard and a tire swing from one of those enormous maples. Every summer, my father — and then his three children — painted the clapboards. Whoever lives there now does the same, I see.

I had expected to be sad, maybe nostalgic, about this town I never visit any longer. But walking around with my teenager, I see immediately that I’ve taken that town with me, that the child and teenager I was then carried that love of woods and wild, of imagination and dreaming, the same quirky family story and laughter with me.

At my parents’ former house, I see children play in that mixture of tended domesticity and the small patch of woods behind that old house. It doesn’t make me feel old; instead, I feel resilient. Driving, we listen to Coronavirus news, to the stock market careening, to the political uncertainty of this world. My daughter and I talk and talk and talk. Listening, I don’t second-guess myself, I don’t wonder what I’ve failed as a mother. I know, instead, I’ve given her a fertile, imaginative childhood, and I know it’s hers, to decide her own course, too.

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Little & Big Worlds

On an incredibly warm afternoon, a little girl discovers a pencil-thin garter snake curled up in the gravel alongside the library. Snow lies ubiquitous on the playground, but the earth there has emerged from its winter hibernation: a green iris shoot, dark mud. I love snakes, the girl says dreamily.

VPR carries news of the stock market’s plunge, of quarantine, of illness. All these factors, in one way or another, may eventually — later? sooner? — reach this little girl. For now, she stands in the snow in her boots and a t-shirt, staring at the creature. Under her arm is tucked a grownup natural history guide, a book she’s checked out of the library.

Later, after a nearly six-hour-long school board meeting filled with simply stuff, we lean back in chairs. It’s nearly midnight. There’s still snacks on the table. I’ve long finished my tea. Head home? I put my forehead on the school library’s table, its wood hard beneath my bone. Eventually, I gather my papers. Outside, the air is balmy. I breathe.

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March: Rejuvenation

We wake to a morning of deep cold and sun-sparkling fresh snow.

Illness has moved through my daughter; her eyes are merry again as she laughs with her sister. March 1: we’re ready to greet the remainder of the winter, the coming weeks of snow and cold that inevitably will end in mud.

These small and temporary illnesses have their place, too, pulling us inside and quieter. In a fever, I dream of a book I’m reading, how memory lies deep within our bodies. As if in a strange journey, the fever draws me into the mysteries of flesh and blood, of synapsis and neuron, and I’m a little child again, holding a paper doll. The slick paper is tangible beneath my fingertips.

The dream ends, and I’m here again, mother to two daughters who are laughing as they do math homework together.

The linear view of time may be an illusion, but it’s one I’m happy to join again, finished with illness and fever, ready for March, green, spring.

When the winter chrysanthemums go,
There’s nothing to write about
But radishes.

— Basho

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Photo by Molly S./Hardwick, Vermont

Inner Glimpse

Researching an article I’m writing, I read about family patterns through generations. These wintry days, I see evidence in my own family. My parents never considered booking tickets to Florida, as I never considered with my daughters. Hence, we are not a family posting social media images this break from faraway beaches or warmer climates. Money and economics are a piece of this, obviously, but I suspect there’s a wider orientation to the world here, too — which makes me inevitably wonder what it is I’m passing along to my daughters, consciously or not.

In multiple ways, that Socratic phrase — Know thyself — has resurfaced in unexpected places all through my life. Recently, I spoke with a woman about her birth doula. When I hung up the phone and finished a few notes, I stared out my window at a light snow drifting down through the adjacent town cemetery, sparkling in a bit of sunshine that had pushed through overhead clouds. Know thyself was essentially the doula’s advice, an impossible, nearly koan-esque puzzle. How interesting, I thought….

One day he told me that he’d spent his adulthood trying to let go of his past, and he remarked how ironic it was that he had to get closer to it in order to let it go.

Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

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Granite cutting shed, Hardwick, Vermont

 

Howling

Coyotes howled along the brook by the log yard last night as I walked home in the dark, hurrying in the cold that gnawed my face.

Ten below zero this morning. In the deep cold, smoke curls up from our neighbors’ chimney. My long love affair with Vermont strangely deepens in these days as friends fly out for school break to other places: warm Caribbean waters or hot Florida sands.

Inexorably, the days lengthen on either end, the palest of blue in the mornings, shades of violet and rose in the evenings. At dinner, we think of those tulip and crocus bulbs buried deep in the earth, secreted beneath snow, patient, patient, even as the earth spins its slow way toward March.

I thought that there was only ever a thing and its opposite, and nothing in between. In writing this book I have come to believe in this far less than I did when I started. Unraveling and unlearning this split logic is crucial to justice, I think, and it is crucial to love — loving a person, community, or most of all perhaps, a place, which may turn out to be the same thing.

— Emma Copely Eisenberg, The Third Rainbow Girl

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Photo by Molly S.

Mind, Cold, Beauty

17 degrees below zero this morning.

When I head out to start my daughter’s car before she heads to work, a perfect half moon is poised over our house, moonbeams glistening on our black metal roof.

Cold. But the Vermont way is to say, I’ve seen colder. I have. I will (presumably) again. Just as the body accumulates tolerance, the mind unwittingly relaxes into perspective.

But that’s the mind. As the dawn opens up, the sky bruises violet. Stars gleam. The day moves on.

It’s interesting.
Lied upon one another
The umbrellas in the snow.

— Shiki

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