Travels

Saturday, my daughter and I drive through Montpelier, Vermont’s capitol city. I’m in the passenger seat, as I always seem to be these days, while she negotiates intersects. Who has right-of-way? When can you turn right on red?

Eventually, she parks, and we walk around town.

At a take-out window, I order her a milkshake. Since she can’t walk down the street and drink a milkshake with a mask, we sit on the state house lawn, while she drinks the milkshake. I lie back beneath the immense maple tree and remember nursing her here, sixteen summers ago.

Eventually, she looks at me, and says, There’s so many people.

It’s true; people are walking back and forth to the farmers’ market. College students are playing frisbee. Families are everywhere. But it’s also Vermont and not particularly populous.

At just a few weeks shy of sixteen, my daughter straddles that terrain between girl and woman, beautiful and strong and curious.

Looking at her, I marvel that over a year of her life has been spent in such isolation, our world shuttered up.

On our walk back to our car, we stop beneath the crab apple blossoms and breathe in. Spring.

Yes
William Stafford
 
It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.
It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out––no guarantees
in this life.
But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

Our Perpetual Holiday

To practice night driving, my daughter and I set off after dinner, delivering a book and knitting needles to a friend. We’re laughing on the way there, and my daughter remarks, Why is it so dark?

I answer that I’m going to let that question lie.

At our friends’ house, we can see through the windows where the family is around the wood stove, talking, the walls painted yellow. I have a sudden flash of envy at the intactness of mother, father, two children, and then that passes quickly, too. At our house, warm and well-lit, with interior walls painted limoncello, we’re as intact as any family, too.

With my friend’s book in my lap, my daughter drives up the back roads, over ice and sand, through all that darkness. We reach the crest of hillside. There, as she drives and talks, I see across the valley to where a barn is lit in a long string of lights on the opposite hillside. Sporadic houses glow in the cold night, and not much more.

She drives down, then along the S curves along the river where I remember a terrible accident years ago. We stop and fill the gas tank. Beneath the bright gas station lights, it’s just us. I walk around the car, washing windows. In the driver’s seat, she watches me, and then I step back and bow. She shakes her head at me, amused.

Middle of February. Cold. A little chit in our collage.

Neighbors

I’m listening to a friend I like very much describe her neighbors’ extensive political signs — sizable banners and flags decorate this rural Vermont property. I’m tallying up my book purchase bills for my library when I suddenly pause, listening harder as my friend says she doesn’t think she can walk across the dirt road and be friendly anymore.

A variation of the conversation surface again at dinner, when my oldest says her Instagram posts have been criticized as not political enough, not making a vocal stand against injustice. We’re eating tomatoes and sweet onions my youngest picked from the garden.

Our conversation winds around to the late and great John Lewis, and I remind my daughter of the challenge Lewis posed:

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.

My daughter, worn out from a long week at work, struggles — what am I supposed to do? Like anyone, she desires to walk the path of justice and goodness. Then she tells her sister and me the heartbreaking story she witnessed that day at work of a Black woman, white men, and fear. What could I have done? she asks me.

I don’t have the answer for her. Listening, I suddenly think, Fuck Instagram and our human — or perhaps American — compulsion to sum up the story of justice and injustice in a few brief sentences. My daughter leaves for a run, utterly dissatisfied and miserable.

I sympathize with my friend who didn’t want to cross that road to her neighbors’ porch again. I’m as guilty as anyone else of barricading my heart to those I don’t understand. But the world, surely, changes through compassion. There’s nothing glitzy or flashy about compassion — it’s messy and painful. But isn’t that the challenge?

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Photo by Gabriela S.

Teenagers Recite Poems

Reluctantly, my daughter drags herself to a required high school poetry recitation.

While I chat with parents I haven’t seen in ages, I see her laughing with a boy she’s known since third grade.

Adolescents and poetry — how fun! One boy gives a comedic performance of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” beginning by asking the prompter, Where am I stopping now?

Another boy’s fingers tremble as he reads a particularly beautiful poem. A shy girl comes alive.

Afterwards, talking in the dark on the short drive home from the theater, my daughter tells me about each student, how they chose their two poems, and what their voice was like. My daughter’s second poem was Frost’s Two roads diverged in a narrow road, so familiar, such a beloved poem. Nervous for her first poem, Emily Dickinson, she gained her voice with the second, her eyes on the upper balcony, her voice clear, melodious, utterly her.

Tonight the bear
comes to the orchard and, balancing
on her hind legs, dances under the apple trees,
hanging onto their boughs,
dragging their branches down to earth.
From ‘The Bear” by Susan Mitchell
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Under the Dentist’s Knife

As I’m finishing a book about, essentially, pain, maybe it’s fitting that I undergo my own particular pain experience.

In the oral surgeon’s chair, as he came at my face with a small, extremely sharp blade, he paused for a moment and said I was welcome to watch, but I likely wanted to close my eyes. I definitely closed my eyes. I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to open my eyes. Almost immediately, my mouth was suffused with salty, rich blood: the taste of the sea and the earth.

While allowing my mouth and those stitches time to repair, I read Chanel Miller’s  gorgeous book — this young woman known as Emily Doe, who was assaulted on the Stanford campus. Her book is filled with food — chocolate and pork dumplings — and begonias, with love of rain falling on skin and a young woman’s excitement about living in a city, but also filled with bodily pain and the complexity of living in a female body in America.

Of all the books I read this year, this author is likely my most favorite, this young woman who took this unasked-for experience, endured, and turned it into strength for so many other women.

Her victim impact statement that initiated the book can be read here.

I survived because I remained soft, because I listened, because I wrote. Because I huddled close to my truth, protected it like a tiny flame in a terrible storm… Stay tender with your power.

—Chanel Miller, Know My Name

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In my email inbox this morning, a lovely poem by Raphael Kosek, beginning:

My daughter is driving
across the continent, eating cheddar
in Wisconsin, waking to a cougar’s yellow
rasp, sleeping tentless
in a corn field….

Last night, with the power out, my younger daughter and I walked around town, the Main Street stores either marked closed with a cardboard lettered sign — gone home — or filled with folks simply hanging out, talking.

Later, we’re stuck in traffic, where the highway has washed down into the Lamoille River. We’re driving home from the one lighted town around here, my daughter eating fried rice with chopsticks, talking. We’ve nowhere in particular to go. I’ve let that constant press of time slip away. As we come into the town where we live, the darkness ubiquitous but for a gleaming slip of crescent moon, we’re still talking, just the two of us. She’s no longer the darling five-year-old I once tickled daily — daily tickle? she’d ask. How the world changes, and how it doesn’t. Short as time is, time is also long, too. We stand in the cold November night, beneath the starlight, listening.

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