Today…

All week, people have been dropping in at work, with ideas and needs and so much school board talk. A stranger dropped in yesterday and mentioned she expected to become a grandmother that day, possibly the next. Candlemas, the ancient festival, forty days after Christmas and its official end. February 3 marks my own holy day, the day my oldest joined us in the world and I crossed over into motherhood.

In labor, I walked outside in Birkenstocks and stared at the melting snow that was running in sunny trickles. Just days after she was born, a fierce cold sunk in to stay. The neighbors brought a blueberry pie. As a toddler, I called this child a wildcat. Now, all grown up, she’s still a cat, with a cat’s complexities — half-feral and blissfully domestic, fierce-clawed and loving.

With worry edging her voice, the stranger told me she expected her family’s birth to be healthy. These usually go well, she noted. I agreed, and we walked out together. The wind carried dry snow over the parking lot. She disappeared in her car, but I stood for a moment longer, remembering my daughter was born shortly before midnight. My long labor ended with a surgeon who held my vernix-smeared baby in his gloved hands so I could see her. Her eyes were wide open, and she looked directly at me.

listen,
you a wonder.
you a city
of a woman.
you got a geography
of your own.

— Lucille Clifton

The Horizon’s Edge.

Photo by Diane Grenkow

Many years ago, one of my daughters’ playmates wandered through our sugarhouse with a huge pine branch over her shoulder. My then-husband and I were working in the kind of frantic way we often did in those days, sap-turning-to-syrup boiling fiercely in the pans. The playmate was a slight and quiet child. She moved through us and then disappeared outside again, enmeshed in whatever imaginative world.

On this below zero morning, heading towards my oldest daughter’s birthday, this photo taken by my friend comes into my email, which reminded me how much of my approach to parenting little kids was let them wander around the world. More than a few times, that seemed to have evolved into a kind of what the heck is happening now sense from the kids.

Just for the record, we swam a great deal at this beach, too, although never in the frozen months.

The horizon’s edge, the flying seacrow, the fragrance of saltmarsh and shoremud;
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes and will always go forth every day,
And these become of him or her that peruses them now.

— Walt Whitman

Light Turning.

Walking into town, I pass a house that has been abandoned for the five years I’ve lived here. Last winter, a vehicle skidded off the road and smashed through the front window. Since then, plywood has covered the front.

There’s a few houses like this in that neighborhood, the paint gray, the windows filthy, tiny yards gone over to weeds or dirt. In the pandemic’s craze, people moved back into a few of these, converting abandoned places into homes again. The driver of a fuel truck stood outside this house yesterday with a young couple, the three of them talking seriously, nodding heads. Sheets of foam insulation leaned against the house. On the side wall, someone had ripped off the dirty plastic and exposed a large square window, its top edge red and blue stained glass. Without stopping, I wondered what else was inside the house.

End of January — and suddenly the sunlight returned in full force. Today may be cloudy, tomorrow, too, maybe for days to come, but the earth is tilting. Slow as spring is, we’re leaning that way.

Don’t say my hut has nothing to offer:

come and I will share with you

the cool breeze that fills my window.

— Ryōkan (trans. John Stevens)

Making Things…

Mid-January, the earth is covered with ice and a crunchy snow a few inches deep. The meditative qualities of walking are swallowed up by fear of slipping or the grinding of hard snow beneath boots. People complain. Complaining is a normal winter’s activity, so are ice and snow, and yet — I’ll reiterate for what seems like the hundredth time again — we’ve slipped out of the cog of normalcy.

What I do:

I finish painting the bathroom (one Sunshine wall, the others Vanilla Ice Cream).

I’m diligent at my work.

My daughter and I go out for coffee, struggle through the CSS profile on financial forms, talk and talk and circle around.

I rise early every morning and rewrite my novel, snip, stitch, elaborate, with my imagination and my hands. In the night, I wake and lay more wood on the fire, pieces of my life arising in words: loons and dahlias and betrayal and desire.

On a Jane Alison bender (Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative), I inter-library-loan Alison’s memoir of how her parents switched partners with another couple, The Sisters Antipodes. Alison writes, “Making things helps make you.”

Sunlight on Sunday, a stiff breeze that jangles the wind chimes.

Pique.

Anyone who knows me knows that winter pulls out my mania for painting. In a fit of what I can only describe as sheer irritation, I bleach mold from the bathroom ceiling and then ask for primer advice at the hardware store.

The store is darn near empty, save for two clerks and a black cat who rolls on its back on the counter and flicks a pearl-tipped tail at me. A clerk walks back with me to the paint section. She and I have been on a first name basis for years. While my gallon of primer is on the shaker, she shares her bathroom ceiling painting experience, and I offer this small problem and ask her to solve it. We walk back slowly to the front counter. She’s been my height for years, but as we walk and talk, I realize she’s slipped down below my height, and my height is definitely (as my brother might claim) substandard.

A man in logger’s chaps pays for discounted Christmas tree lights and a Twix bar and grouses about the rain and the mud, and how can there be a January thaw when we’ve had no winter?

The clerk spreads my paint samples over the counter and asks if I’ve narrowed down any color choices. She lays one finger on the color named Sunshine. “This one,” she suggests.

I gather my primer, stir stick, the lightbulb for over the kitchen stove, and head out. Ahead of me lies an afternoon of careful work, of NPR and stories from around the world, so many places hemorrhaging in ways that far outstrip my tiny mold project. As I’ve always done, I join my head and hands in a creative project. My own imagination won’t heal the world, but surely it won’t harm.

Mapping, Metaphor, Motherhood.

I forget my map on my desk beside my eternal list (write thankyous, double check FAFSA submission, confirm E and J meeting….) and drive over the Canadian border shortly after sunrise. Luminous crimson stripes the clouds. Almost immediately, the land flattens from Vermont’s hard ridges to industrial ag fields, distantly studded with metal silos. Late December, and the terrain is more gray than white. I stop at a gas station and ask a woman who is emptying her car of fast food wrappers for directions. I don’t understand her accent, the slipperiness of French that eluded me all those high school French classes. She wants me to understand, repeating her directions, one hand waving a crumpled bag. I nod thank you, thank you, and turn back to my salt-crusted Subaru, miserable with my lack of agility with language. Aren’t I a writer?

At a crossroads, I have no idea which road to take, and the world opens up abruptly in dizzyingly wideness.

My intention is to drive to Montreal to meet my daughters. I hate driving the dullness of interstate and fear driving into cities, and I’ve made this infinitely worse by losing my map. For years with young children in carseats, I delivered maple syrup around Vermont, navigating by atlas and rivers, the sun and roadsigns, using my tools of snacks and a box of board books. I once pulled over and lifted a handful of pebbles from a roadside so my toddler could dump pebbles from one paper cup to another, satisfying her tired self.

Now: no map, no cell service, in a town whose name (ridiculously) I never learn, I pull a Streetcar Named Desire card ask strangers to point my way out. A teenager shrugs. An old man can’t hear me. Finally, an electrician in a truck gives me directions. We repeat his directions to each other three times, and then I roll out, my heart not full of faith, precisely, but enough warmth of optimism. May this new year bring out the generosity of strangers and of ourselves. Thank you all for your kindness and curiosity for reading.

You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of experience, and the more experience you have, the better it is… unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far.

— Alice Neel