Wild

December: cold, a scattering of snow, the ice settling into the ground.

In Hardwick, on impulse, I stop into a store and buy a string of white lights with wooden reindeer for my daughters. It’s Sunday morning, and hardly anyone is out.

Walking home with those lights tucked into my backpack with a brown paper bag of rice and a square of cheese, a bottle of sesame oil, I cut through the cemetery. Before long, the cemetery will be snowed in for months.

I’m walking up the path from the piney woods, near last summer’s potato patch, when a bald eagle glides down from a white pine. I stand quietly — yes, white tail feathers, head, its curved beak earthward. Without flapping a wing, the eagle catches an upwind and drifts over my blueberry bushes and garden, then disappears around our white clapboard house.

I grew up in New Hampshire and never saw a loon as a child. We never saw wild turkeys, didn’t dream of bald eagles swooping over a trampoline in a backyard, never heard coyotes except when we were camping in the Rocky Mountains.

When I step into our kitchen where my daughters are baking cookies, they greet my news of the eagle with cool, and keep on with what they’re doing.

While the pandemic reigns, the wilderness hasn’t gone away. Hungry eagle, what did you find for dinner?

On our kitchen wall…

Adequate Materials

When I was in labor with my first daughter, at some point I glanced at a clock and realized I was in trouble. That was the only rational moment I remember from that entire labor; everything else is nearly wordless in my memory.

In those final hours, in the pauses between straining to push her into this world, I imagined the peace of a summer forest, the leaves sun-dappled. She was born in wintery February, but I drew on that memory, gathering much needed strength, as I imagined digging my fingers into the black soil, fingering pebbles of quartz and shards of slate.

So, too, now, as we’re entering the dark month of December, I look at my youngest daughter — my teenager — who is learning to endure the closure of school, the upsidedownness of her world. How invaluable, suddenly, appears a game of Yahtzee, a batch of cookies, a cat before the fire, hot coffee and conversation.

It was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials.
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Friday Run

Just before dusk, I’m running along the rail trail, where train tracks once lay, when a woman steps out of the brushy woods, puts her hand over her chest, and gasps.

I’ve frightened her. She’s dressed in hunter’s orange and holds a rifle pressed against her body.

I stop. There’s no one else around, and I have the sudden terrible feeling that I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m wearing the ripped blue sweatshirt and knitted cap I always wear.

It’s hunting season, and I should be wearing orange. She looks angrily at me. I nod, edge away, and then keep on with my run. On this run, I’m mostly worried about a skinny dog at the one house I pass — a creature who doubtlessly is harmless. I run through the thick woods between the highway and the Lamoille River, snaking through its bends. It hasn’t escaped me how the wilderness presses right up against the village where I live, in acres upon acres of woods where I hardly ever see anyone.

On my way back, I again meet this woman with a florescent pink mask over her lower face. I’ve seen no one else, save the dog, and I slow to a walk again and apologize for not wearing brighter colors.

Jesus, she says and keeps walking.

Not long after, back in the village, the twilight drifts down like a gray snowstorm. My daughter’s school is closing again, perhaps opening in December, but maybe not. All around us, the pandemic continues to upend lives, through loss of in-person schooling, jobs and childcare, and the widening gulfs of isolation.

Walking back through town, I admire the holiday lights turning on as the darkness filters down — lights of all colors and blown-up snowmen and reindeer. The day has been unseasonably warm for November. Take this in, I think. And next time, bring a mask and wear orange, too.

“Writing often reveals us to ourselves, lets us name what’s important to us and what has been silent or silenced inside us.”


― Gregory Orr

Tuesday

… one can either choose to live, or not. We have to tell ourselves a story that makes living possible.

— Katherine E. Standefer, Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life

And so we go on, telling our stories. My daughter returns from her one high school class on Monday morning, and tells me so many teachers were out.

I head to work, leaving her in front of the wood stove with her chrome book, the cats sprawled on either side of her.

At the library, a teen comes in and tells me he thinks the school will close soon. The teen lives on a back road and can’t drive yet. He’s a voracious reader. In the spring, he told me, he read everything in the house, then everything again and again, and finally resorted to Netflix. I tell him to take as many books as he wants. He fills a bag. When he leaves, I wonder when I’ll see him again. Maybe Wednesday. Maybe not.

And so we go on. I name our little wood stove Jenny.

Okay, my daughter says. She is part of our family.

Stay well.

Scars, Somewhere in November, 2020

Every morning, a hard frost sugarcoats our world.

Before the snow falls in earnest, my daughter drives, logging in hours and experience with her driver’s permit. We head out one way and take a different road back home.

Inadvertently, wandering, we end up on a road in Elmore that I haven’t traveled in years. While she and her sister talk, I remember the last time I had traveled that road was with my mother and the girls, who were so much younger then. The forest drops away on either side of the backroad. Farm fields, shaved down to corn stubble, surround us.

The girls’ father was away then, visiting his father who was recovering from a heart attack. When he returned, I believed we had a new beginning, a jumpstart to what we were doing as a family. Now, with my youngest in the driver’s seat of our Subaru, I have a sudden realization that there’s never any beginning, never any fresh start, the world always unfolding and transforming — from harrowed up fields to spring shoots to the fatness of August’s harvest.

This girl — all of her, stoic and disciplined and sometimes radiantly joyful — is becoming a young adult in these strange pandemic days. I imagine she’ll carry these months (maybe years?) forever with her, sewn into her soul like a scar.

The road winds around the rural hospital where both my daughters were born by caesarian, leaving my own body with indelible scars. I wouldn’t trade those scars for the world.

Photo of Teapot by Diane Grenkow

Warmth

When I return home from work in the evening, one cat is stretched on the rug before the wood stove, the other lies on the coffee table, front paws draped over the table’s edge. It’s a scene of utter cat joy.

My daughters are laughing on the couch about something foreign to me — some kind of iPhone. I pull over a chair and sit down with a bowl of potatoes and vegetables and meat.

While they share a story about their negotiations over dinner dishes and compost and wood chores, I soak in the warmth of our living room.

All around us rages the virus, a rising irritability, utter uncertainty over the future. For years, I’ve relied on my ability to figure out a plan. Listening to my girls, I decide this is the heart of my plan: be like the cats. Drink in where we are now. Let that nourish us. And, for God’s sake, laugh at the jokes the kids tell.

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” 

— James Baldwin