Non-Academic Grit

In my twenties, I made a decision which changed the course of my adult life: I left the academic world and threw in my (considerably small) fortune in agriculture. My former husband and I sugared for nearly twenty years, on a small family-scale, and, while he was a carpenter and I worked various jobs (census taker, book seller), the bulk of income I brought in was through the Stowe Farmers Market. I made more money at that farmers market than I ever have anywhere else.

Yesterday, my teenager daughter skipped high school and stayed home to help load some of the heaviest things from the sugarhouse into a buyer’s truck. Are you kidding me? she asked. I’m not going school and missing out. The buyer was a New Hampshire family with their 26-year-old son and sleepy dog, and they arrived in a wet snow with such good cheer and humor in our unheated sugarhouse that they convinced another gentleman who arrived to write me a check for a sap tank.

The man and his son and my daughter with her honed tractor skills (“I’ve been driving this tractor since I was 10,” she explained) loaded up the heavy stuff while his wife and I talked about novels and farmers markets and, oddly, sex.

Afterwards, eating apples with my teenager, I raved about how terrific sugarmakers are, with their can-do because must-do attitude. She answered me, “You sugarmakers are all nuts, mom.”

I didn’t bother to point out that she’s one of us, too, with her graceful physical strength, her gritty determination to accomplish what needs to be done, and – even more so – her sizing up of priorities: why sit in a classroom doing hated trigonometry when you might put your hands and back to work and accomplish something useful?

Before she left, the woman told me they had taken a ten-year hiatus from sugaring and then commenced again. You will, too, she assured me.

My daughter eyed me. No, she said.

One of the things I loved best about sugaring was leaving the house’s confines at the end of the winter and moving, essentially, down to the sugarhouse and outside. Yesterday, my feet freezing on the cold cement floor, smelling the pervasive scent of fresh snow and remembering the blackbirds who nested in the white pines and sang every April, seeing the chalk drawings my daughters made on the rough-board sugarhouse walls and the huge rope swing hung outside the door, I assured my daughter, I’d do it differently, the second time… even better…. How could we not make sweet syrup?

She looked at me and shook her head.

And yet, I can trust she’ll lend her hands, again.

Here’s a few lines from the Van Gogh letters I’ve been reading.

You will no doubt tell me, the moment may well arrive when one regrets becoming a painter. And what could I then reply on my own behalf? They who have such regrets are those who neglect solid study in the beginning and race hurry-scurry to be top of the heap. Well, the men of the day are men of just one day, but whoever has enough faith and love to take pleasure in precisely what others find dull, namely the study of anatomy, perspective & proportion, will stay the course and mature slowly but surely.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

Photo by Molly S.



Rough Draft

The ten-year-olds are at their fort building again; odd pieces of plywood have been scavenged, a long 2×6″, silver spray paint glistens a joyous arc in this early morning dew. The project is all rough draft. No terminal point of placing Ma’s china shephardess over the mantle will ever occur. Lacking the need for a finished project, the kids’ creation is all joy and curiosity. Could these old pallets be used? A split hose?

At select moments, the daughter opens her door and invites me in for a tour. What do you think? she asks. What more can I do?

And then: Pull up that bench I made. Sit down and enjoy.

So many of us fail: we divorce our wives and husbands, we leave the roofs of our lovers, go once again into the lonely march, mustering our courage with work, friends, half pleasures which are not whole because they are not shared. Yet still I believe in love’s possibility, in its presence on the earth….

Andre Dubus, Broken Vessels

Photo by Molly S.

Martenitsa, or Bulgarian Spring

Years ago, I worked with a Bulgarian family who, every March, made little yarn dolls of red and white wool. Red for the heat of summer, white for winter. We were all friends at that workplace, and everyone wore those little gifts of martenitsa dolls until they frayed. Then, our Bulgarian friends insisted, spring was here.

Spring may come quicker in Bulgaria than it does in Vermont.

With snow falling today, the little girl left her forest fort alone, reading library books by the wood stove and eating popcorn.

Another way, perhaps, to think of martenitsa is as a great leveler: even winter’s savage teeth will yield to the persistence of spring.

But not yet… not quite yet… Vermont’s version of martenitsa is maple sugaring. Fire, sap, sugar: all eventually overtaken by budding.

The value of doing something does not lie in the ease or difficulty, the probability or improbability of its achievement, but in the vision, the plan, the determination and the perseverance, the effort and the struggle which go into the project. Life is enriched by aspiration and effort, rather than by acquisition and accumulation.

– Helen & Scott Nearing, The Good Life

Woodbury, Vermont/Photo by Molly S.