Why Vermont?

The service we attended Sunday was for a beloved student in my daughter’s high school. A devastating, tragic death. Monday at dinner, her sister and I ask about the day. This is a rural high school, maybe 300 students in grades 7 through 12. The principal asked the whole school to crowd into the auditorium.

What did he think was going to happen? she asked me. We all cried. We all sobbed.

In particular, she told us about the teachers — the men, too, she emphasized. They cried.

There’s certainly less-than-desirable elements about living in rural Vermont: the winters can be nearly unendurably long. It’s an insanely expensive state to live in, particularly in a single income home.  But when the utter awfulness of tragedy rears — as it has before, and as it will undoubtedly do so again — these little communities circle the metaphorical wagons. These hard, hard experiences remind me why I live here, and why I can’t ever imagine leaving.

The earth says have a place, be what that place
requires; hear the sound the birds imply…

— Wiliam Stafford

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Wild Honey, Tough Salt

Sunday afternoon found my family unexpectedly at a memorial service at the high school, standing in the cold and snow around a bonfire. That evening, my daughter sits  on the couch beside me, reading Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice.” Why, she asks, is she required to memorize poems and recite them aloud?

Because poetry is who we are, both the beauty, the sheer ugliness at times, and the unexplained complexity of life. Here’s a poem by Kim Stafford:

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Squall Survival

Driving home in the crepuscular light, as I approach Woodbury Lake the sky shimmers violet, dusk refracted through snow squalls. I’m mesmerized by the voices on Vermont Public Radio — I cede two minutes to the gentlewoman from Wherever State — and I don’t turn off the radio as I head into the squalls.

Almost immediately I can’t see the edges of the road. I’m not even sure where to turn off, so I keep driving. Somewhere ahead, in that squall or on the other side of it, my daughters are waiting. As I drive, I keep hoping they’re not driving, that they’re safely home, baking muffins and playing music.

It’s not just me driving slowly — we’re all creeping along. The UPS truck has marooned in a driveway, flashers blinking. That last steep, curving downhill, through the Woodbury gulf, seems to take forever. At the end, there’s just snow, snow, snow. At home, my daughters have the lights on, the Christmas tree sparkling through the window. I gather my backpack and head up the path.

Whirling snow and darkness: that winter mystery.

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

“The Thing Is” by Ellen Bass

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Armistice Day

This is the gray time in New England, when even the daylight is dull. Gone are the spring days of blue squill, the early morning birdsong.

After dinner, we walk in the dark.

My daughter and I read for hours. Later, she disappears for a run, while I proceed with my persistent thread of work. In all this, Marlboro College, where I was an undergraduate, appears (truly, this time) on the precipice of closing. All weekend, I follow the alumni FB thread — grief, anger, plotting — while I keep thinking of Marlboro and how much this tiny college gave me. I’m not alone in that, I see, listening to alumni after alumni.

November. Our house is warm. I open the curtains and let in the daylight. At 4 p.m., the noisy cat comes and yowls over my book, demanding his dinner. My daughter puts on her ski boots and walks around the house, listening to snow in the forecast. November: life churns on.

The rain had been falling with a pounding meanness, without ceasing for two days, and then the water rose all at once in the middle of the night, a brutal rush so fast Asher thought at first a dam might have broken somewhere upstream. The ground had simply become so saturated it could not hold any more water.

(The opening lines of Southernmost, by Silas House)

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IcyHot

These days are nearly feverish — too hot or bordering cold.

Driving home from soccer, my daughter sets her feet on the dashboard and rubs IcyHot on her shin. The car fills with the medicinal scent of mint. She and her sister laugh and laugh, the older daughter sharing stories of work: You can’t make this up, it’s so crazy….

Nearly a year ago, the younger daughter was plagued with nosebleeds. One evening, frightened, I called the ER and spoke to a nurse, who thought nosebleeds were no particular big deal. Chastened, I took his word. The nosebleeds stopped.

Autumn is the season of trees, green turning to gold. Walking home in the dark last night, I cut up through the trailer park where the Milky Way sprawled over the sky, then turned into the woods where I could hardly see my way. The scent of wet soil rose up through the leaves, and I pushed on.

Many things of the past
Are brought to my mind,
As I stand in the garden
Staring at a cherry tree.

— Basho

Here’s the piece I wrote for State 14 about the Youth Climate Strike.

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

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A sampling of our everyday snowbanks this March