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Last night, I heard the poet Sydney Lea read at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, and he mentioned being in his seventies is a great time of life. In my forties, myself, I’m in that age justly called rugged – or is it ragged? The age of Dante’s dark woods, I tell myself: a territory to pass through. What’s the best age, anyway? The question begs, perhaps, how rooted we delve into the days we live. Maybe the best answer is Lea’s own, in this love poem.

“My Wife’s Back”

All naked but for a strap, it traps my gaze
As we paddle: the dear familiar nubs
Of spine-bone punctuating that sun-warmed swath…

…Phoebe, osprey, heron, hawk:

Marvels under Black Mountain, but I am fixed
On your back, indifferent to other wonders:
Bright minnows that flared in the shallows,

The gleam off that poor mink’s coat,
Even the fleas in its fur, the various birds
–The lust of creatures just to survive.

But I watch your back. Never have I wished more not to die.

– Sydney Lea

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Woodbury, Vermont

 

Dear David Budbill

I laughed out loud and cried at David’s tribute, held by a ring of poets and actors on the stage where his work has been performed so many times. In the front row of the balcony, my friend and I talked about our children, and how our lives had shaken down. Later, driving home in the dark, up familiar route 12 I’ve driven so many times – with children, with friends, with family – now alone, not passing another car all those miles, save for an old Volvo station wagon that followed me out of Montpelier before turning off at a house with two lit windows.

Following the narrow sweep of my headlights, I thought of the final speaker’s words: from human suffering rises song. Thinking of David’s own kindnesses to me, and the great wealth of this man’s work and life, I followed those headlights like a unwinding stream of moonlight all the way home.

My children lay in their beds, sleeping. For the longest while, I stood on the balcony in the dark, listening to the frog’s steady chorus, rain falling lightly on my face, and then I, too, went inside and slept.

…These are not the rare and delicate lemon yellow day lilies
or the other kinds people have around their places. This one
is coarse and ordinary, almost harsh in its weathered beauty…

…A plant gone wild and therefore become
rugged, indestructible, indomitable, in short: tough, resilient,
like anyone or thing has to be in order to survive.

From “The Ubiquitous Day Lily of July” by David Budbill

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Onamonapia

This afternoon, my 11-year-old daughter walked around the house saying 0namonapia,  over and over, desperately trying to drive her sister nuts, by repeating this beautiful word, richly rolling off her tongue.

Years ago I used to nurse this child at the farmers market where my then-husband and I sold maple syrup. One afternoon, I nursed my baby on the grass behind our tent, leaning up against a pole. A couple sat down somewhat near me, in the shade beneath a poplar tree. Eating, they casually spoke in a slavic language I didn’t recognize. I generally knew they were talking about the day, but I couldn’t really piece together much more than that.

My baby fell sleep, and I pulled a blanket over her soft little limbs, then leaned my head back against the pole and closed my eyes. While the couple kept eating and talking, I listened to their words, this beautiful language I couldn’t precisely understand, but I knew the language tied them together.

Surely, 0namonapia relays much more than cluck or moo. This is a word whose meaning can stretch to entire languages: an audible beauty that makes us human.

 

The Bells

Hear the sledges with the bells—
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!

– Edgar Allen Poe

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sweater weather in June Vermont

 

Gravy, Today

Early this morning before dawn, I woke and heard rain falling. Not much, but enough to satisfy the seedlings I’d planted yesterday. My garden has been dry, almost dusty. For those moments, I lay still, listening, letting the world around me do its work.

Gratitude’s a funny thing. Like empathy, I think it’s taken me decades to know its miraculous depths. Also early this morning, I received an email with a review of my novel in The Emerald City Book Review. I’ve never met the reviewer, yet she read my book in the way I had hoped the novel would be read, even quoting lines from where I consider the book’s heart, something I have never told a soul.

Like most writers, I toil at the bottom of a narrow, stone-lined well. But today: gratitude for someone who took the time to read and write so well about my book, gratitude to this earthly life that I could chisel out this book, and gratitude for this morning’s moments of rest, lying and listening to the sweet spring rain, falling on my garden.

Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving…

Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.

Raymond Carver, “Gravy”

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Unwinding the Rope of Writing

Not long ago, I was at the county courthouse in Barre, Vermont, waiting for the final hearing of my divorce. That courthouse contains the ebb of human life, chock-full of misery and grief, and every time I’ve entered that immense building I’ve witnessed adult women and men crying. I stood alone in a large room whose windows looked into a courtyard where trees were in bloom, and the sunlight shone bright and full of promise. What I was thinking about was a terrible illness in a family member, and how mortality’s knife lies in all of us. Dormant or not, at any moment that knife might turn and slash fatally.

Standing there, I vowed not to let my particular cup of sorrow raise so high that I couldn’t see beyond the vessel of my own brew. Lose a husband, a family life, an occupation, beloved friends: but lose my soul to bitterness, too?

Thoreau’s desire to live as fully as possible, to suck out life’s marrow, to know it as fully as possible is yet my own, despite the bile I naively never expected. Deep in the unlit realms of faith, I know writing is a rope out of that courthouse’s sludge, that art – and making art, like living a human life – holds the potential to burn our hearts in its kiln and emerge with deeper compassion. The sun rose and set on that day in my life, as it’s risen and set for centuries. Even when I was in the windowless courtroom, working through legal litany, I knew the sun would shine in the courtyard when I emerged.

If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods

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Crawford Notch, New Hampshire

Break That Cliche: Writing Lesson from the Kids

My ten-year-old came downstairs the other morning dressed in shorts although it was only 39 degrees. No. I immediately said. But it might warm up, she insisted.

In this afternoon’s rain, the kids have headed down the road to the neighbors’ trampoline because it’s fun in the rain, apparently, even in a cold May rain.

These Vermont kids, like the unfurling leaves in my apple trees, are vigorously unstoppable with their own flowing sap. At ten and eleven, the world is as new to them as this magnificently unfolding spring. Lacking rigid expectations, why not leap in the rain? – Although I did notice the girls had the foresight to pull on extra pairs of socks.

 

The artist, and particularly the poet, is always an anarchist in the best sense of the word. He must heed only the call that arises within him from three strong voices: the voice of death, with all its foreboding, the voice of love, and the voice of art.

– Federico Garcia Lorca

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Vermont dusk