Above Freezing

Thaw. First thing, when I step outside the kitchen, I smell melting snow, the slightly sweet and fecund scent of the earth in just a few patches—the flower pot I’ve left outside on the deck all winter.

Some days, we have long days, beginning before dawn and packed full of so much. Some afternoons linger, but those are few now, sparse, far beyond those countless hours of nursing, when time was swallowed in baby care.

After dinner, the 13-year-old walks down our road with me, not far at all. Waiting for her while she puts her chickens away for the night, I lean against the barn door, gazing through the twilight. I’ve never lived in a house with the sky so open overhead. On a ridge, we look down into the shallow, mist-covered valley, where the town, at dusk, is beautiful, flickering bits of lights.

We’re so many months yet from working outside on the deck, me and the chittering birds, the sunlight on my keyboard and hands. But it’ll come: this reprieve is a reminder of spring, a certain promise of evening swims again.

Never forget:
we walk on hell,
gazing at flowers.

—Kobayashi Issa

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Trout Fishing Reminescences

I’m listening to a recent This American Life podcast, when a section of Brautigan’s The Abortion is read aloud, I lay down the scissors I’m holding. I’m sixteen again, hidden in the public library stacks, unable to believe what I’m reading. What is this? Who is Brautigan?

An instant fan of Brautigan and simultaneously unable to exactly figure out why, when I listen to his words read aloud, I suddenly see his writing is all reverence, all poetry, all a hymn to living — in the most utterly mundane way — an acknowledgement of love and love gone awry, of abortion and bliss — funny and sorrowful and joyous.

Sometimes life is merely a matter of coffee and whatever intimacy a cup of coffee affords.

Richard Brautigan

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Cat’s Heart

My daughter’s cat lies on the gray-painted floor at the top of the stairs, just outside her room, looking in. She’s away with friends in Maine. Over email, her sister and I see pictures of her swimming in a lake and the ocean — all that great blue and green wilderness around her 13-year-old self.

Her cat, of course, knows nothing of this, but simply lies at the threshold to her door, waiting for her return.

This morning, the rain’s returned, a great downpour. In the garden, yesterday, I pulled out handfuls of dead lily leaves, the broken and blackened remainders of lupine stems. Middle of August, and school and soccer start soon. The evenings come earlier, and the Black-eyed Susans burst brightly along the weedy roadsides.

Things do not change; we change.

— Thoreau

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Postcard from Vermont, July

An elderly woman and I stand in the library’s open door, sheltered by the overhang, watching rain move in, great billows of fine drops rushing across the field.

Summer people visit the library on these steamy afternoons, in a their winding-down, relaxed, vacationing way. We’re different here, one man tells me. I like how we are in Vermont. 

Boys with their faces painted a greasy blue-and-black circle around the library and school, hiding in the woods and behind the greenhouse, in an elaborate game. Two best-friend girls stroll in, return books, ask for fish crackers, and request more books. When I leave that afternoon, the girls are still there, lying on the slide’s top platform, staring at the cloud-heavy sky, talking.

All afternoon, bits and pieces of people’s lives knock into mine: a woman applying for a job online, a saleswoman over the phone, a couple who needs a letter written.

Later, when I’m alone again, gathering strewn puppets and closing windows, I realize my phone has a message. Someone dialed my number without realizing it, and I stand in the doorway again, in the sweet post-rain scent, listening to that odd audio window of others’ conversation. A gangly-legged heron flies overhead, then disappears over the trees. I erase that unintended recording and lock up for the day.

When I was nineteen,
I told a thirty-
year-old man what a
fool I had been when
I was seventeen.
‘We were always,’ he
said glancing down, ‘a
fool two years ago.

— Donald Hall

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Rough-Hewn Grace

Lately, I’ve been scavenging donations to my library’s yearly book sale, digging through stuff I’d never read (but others may deeply love) for some real gems. In one not-so-hot memoir I skimmed, I found a reference to a Flannery O’Connor line from one of her letters. The line — such a good one — also depicts this Vermont March.

All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.

I skied over the pine-needle-strewn ice, took off my skis and crossed an oozy mud road. Then the snow gave out. Here’s a photo of an empty house along the road, once a farm beside Big Hosmer Pond, now padlocked up, with a For Sale sign in the front yard, waiting for new inhabitation.

In its online listing, a black-and-white photo from the 1950s shows a woman in a dress standing beside what might have been a fancy new car. Who? Where have you gone? Did you love living in this house? And did the loons sing then, too?

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Craftsbury, Vermont

Soil Writing Exercise

In a writing workshop I attended years ago, a professor grilled another student about a field she had recently driven by. What emotion did the field evoke in you? Older than me and not a close friend, the student was a woman I admired. A single mother, she was simultaneously brassy, insecure, funny.

The professor kept asking questions: Any moon or starlight? Rock piles? Did a river or trees border any edge?

The woman paused and finally said one word: sad. The emptiness of the harrowed up field evoked a sense of waste. The conversation might have ended there, but the professor pushed a little further, probing, and the woman said she thought the sorrowful emptiness was just one long snapshot of the field’s story.

That evening, we were not in our usual seminar room, clumped awkwardly instead in a half circle of chairs with writing desks attached. The overhead fluorescent lights made the windowless room uglier than it needed to be.

Every now and then, I find myself wondering what happened to this woman, and which way her story bent.

In the end you should probably know your characters as well as you know yourself. Not only what they had for breakfast this morning, but what they wanted to have for breakfast.

– Colum McCann

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