Unraveling and Knitting

This cold, dank and inimitably dark season is also the yarn season. Unlike living, any knitting project can be unraveled and reknit. Late last night, knitting while reading my bell hooks library book propped open with my bare toes, I realized the needles and yarn I had mated didn’t fit. Still reading, I  unwound the hat and rolled up the yarn. This evening, I chose a smaller needle size, and this hat I’m knitting for a friend’s Christmas present is aptly on its way.

Not so, our lives.

I’m sometimes asked, But is your fiction real? Of course it’s real, but it’s also fiction. Isn’t the craft of writing rewriting ad infinitum? Take out a character, emphasize a plot point, weave through an image of a great blue heron? Our lives are bulkier and baggier things.

I was reminded of this, stopping along a roadside today, admiring how the trees knit into the sky. One of my childhood’s keenest memories is standing at the edge of a giant cornfield in Illinois, where our family was camping on one of our numerous cross country treks. I was likely ten, the age of my younger daughter now, and I stood with my father, excited as I have ever been about anything in my life. Good lord, all that corn and the sky! The world was limitless.

The true artist is never so lost in his imaginary world that he forgets the real world, where teenagers have a chemical propensity toward anguish, people between their thirties and forties have a tendency to get divorced, and people in their seventies have a tendency toward loneliness, poverty, self-pity, and sometimes anger. The true artist choses never to be a bad physician. He gets his sense of worth and honor from the conviction that art is powerful – even bad art.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

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Spinning Planet

Almost immediately after a children’s play at the Craftsbury Library tonight, my daughters ran outside. Was it the weirdly warm December weather? The joy of seeing a long-time friend? I sat on the back porch slouched in a rocking chair, watching the sun sink behind the Lowell ridge, listening to ten-year-old hysterical laughter.

My teenager appeared, and we were all crazed, wandering around the church, the gazebo, the war memorial. As the dusk steadily pressed down, the children raced across the Common. At the far end, I saw the white-painted fence, and nothing of the children but a smear of a red coat.

Spring fever? In December? In a world rapidly turning upside down? With my teenager, our conversation often seems one long meandering line of history, of the bloody business spanning centuries. But the world turned upside down is inescapable in this mud-season December, with my laundry hung out to dry on the clothesline.

The girls lay on the grass, and I teased them, Make snow angels. Christmas is coming! I pressed the toes of my boots against one of the girls’ feet. This same girl bequeathed me these boots a few years ago, when she had outgrown them. Having walked through some serious living in these boots, the sole under my right foot has split, a crack where water from the thawing earth bled up through my sock, soaking my skin.

In the twilight, she was laughing. How’s that for a composition? This glossy-eyed girl, giggling in the shifting bits of remaining light, ruddy-cheeked with gorgeous health, hair unraveling in a braid, her back and shoulders pressed into Vermont sod while overhead the constellations merge into view, and our planet spins steadily, on and on….

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul…

— Invictus

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Woodbury, Vermont

Among Humans…

The High Mowing Organic Seeds catalog arrived in our mailbox today, glossy and gorgeous enough to lay on the table and immediately  fantasize about that field of peppers. Seeds and agriculture, longing for soil and growth: some of the oldest of humanity’s longings.

I slid a pan of enchiladas in the oven. My older daughter, drawing at the table, lifted her head and told me about the conversation in her French class today. The windows over her shoulders are filled with darkness before dinner, at this time of year. Our conversation unspooled, winding along a thread of history, tangled centuries.

Sometimes I think of my own youth as terribly misspent, all those years in philosophy class, all that writing and reading: all that pondering on faith and love and destiny. What did it all come to? But today, listening to my daughter, my hands on that catalog, I thought of my youth as sown with an infinite complexity of minute seeds. I reminded my daughter of Martin Luther King’s line that The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Small mortals that we are, dwarfed beneath the cosmic arc, our vision of the universe is often myopic and clouded, imperfect at best.

My daughter brushed her hair, wrapped a silky scarf around her neck, zipped up her high heels, and left to babysit the neighbors’ babies. That seed catalog in my hand, I kissed her before she left.

Travellers from the great spaces
when you see a girl
twisting in sumptuous hands
the black vastness of her hair
and when moreover
you see
near a dark baker’s
a horse lying near death
by these signs you will know
that you have come among men.

— Jean Follain (1903-1971)

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Sunday

My children and I were never church-going people, although the enormous quantity of churches in Vermont mark our bearings. We’ve spent hours on ecumenical lawns, from the nursing and changing diapers days, to a safe place for toddlers to stretch their legs on the long syrup delivery routes I used to drive. Years ago, I was lost in Addison County, with a starving four-year-old in the backseat. I handed her the Gazetteer and told her to read the map. Hidden behind the upside Gazetteer, she informed me: Mommy, we’re lost. Go backwards.

We weren’t lost today, in our own little town, at the old church with its doors folded up like hands over a face. These old relics are beautiful and enduring, quietly going about their business, present for need, reflecting those admirable yankee qualities.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

— Emily Dickinson

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South Woodbury, Vermont

Laughter…. Levity….

Now that we’ve reached the time of year in Vermont when it’s dark pretty much all the time, in a variation of that Platonic cave, the game season has fully opened in our house. We began this years ago, in an attempt to stave off the mad-as-hatters element of northern winters. After a few rounds of Battleship, the kids relented and played an art history trivial pursuit card game. (Up front, I’d like to acknowledge I stacked the deck against myself, and I lost).

About halfway through, my older daughter read a card with the word bar cue. I asked her to repeat the word, and then I asked if the word had an O in the middle and maybe a Q.

Baroque? I asked.

She admitted it might be baroque, and then asked who he was.

I write this only because she laughed so hard, so truly cheerful about whether this might be bar cue or baroque, or maybe even barbecue. Whatever, she laughed, genuinely nonplussed. This is not her way of knowing the world. But what is her innate gift is a profound sense of balance and color and proportion. She spends hours drawing, her creativity flowing from a well whose depths are pure and lovely, hardly yet tested. How humorously this daughter reminds me that my own hard vision of who this baroque fellow may or may have been could use some not so serious jostling at times…

To say that it is impossible to communicate is false; one always can. To refuse to communicate is a failing; we are biologically and socially predisposed to communication…

— Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved

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SHIMMERING LIGHTS

Gabriela is a ten-year-old guest blogger.

One afternoon me and my mom went to get lights at the store. So we just got some normal ones. Well, that’s what my mom thought. So we got some snowflake ones, too. So we go home do some stuff. The next day my mom goes to work and and leaves me and my sister a list of chores to do. One of the things we have to do is put up the lights. So we plug them in to make sure they work, and I say, “why doesn’t that one work? wait that one just flickered.” My sister said, “I don’t know, let’s put them up to see them a little better.” So we wind them around the beams and plug them in and look at them. Some of them are blinking I say. My sister says, “yeah that really bugs me. Let’s look at the package” so we look at the package and it says shimmering. My sister says, “Mom probably didn’t read the package.” I say, “I have to agree.” So when my mom came home from work, she said “I kind of like it.” I agreed with her. So we kept the lights because everyone liked them.

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Photo by Gabriela Jean

Fear of the Dark

I wrote my novel Hidden View in bits and pieces, in notebooks, on a computer, in endless rewrites on the back of printed pages. I began this book during my daughter’s nap time, those golden hours when I could sit down and breathe creativity in the solitude writing demands. I wrote for no one but the novel itself: to write as well and truly as I could.

This book has joined the world. It’s out there, for the taking and reading. When I think about what made this book, I took what I had at hand: a ball of yarn, imaginary rabbits, Vermont’s exquisite and desolate winter, a house both a solace and a menace. But equally driving the book are three forces. One of these is mothering. Like the ceaseless gritty wind in a canyon, my children have formed and hewn me, in a multitude of ways I never could have imagined. My children are my anchor, the physical weight that has pinned me to this soil and forced me to know the world in an expanse I never could have imagined.

When my older daughter was a baby, my husband left the state for work, and the baby and I remained. On a 100 acres, our house is surrounded by woods. At that time, I was afraid of the dark. When the baby slept at night, I had to walk down to the unlit sugarhouse in the dark, by only the thin light of a flashlight and the stars overhead. Those months were late fall then, around this time of year, and the nights were cold. The rural dark in Vermont is so profound I have held my hand inches before my face and yet been blind to my own flesh. I forced myself to go out in the dark, because I knew every journey would lessen my fear. And I knew I could not mother this baby, in this house, in this agricultural life, if I feared the dark.

Of the dark, at least, I am no longer afraid.

The true self seeks release, not constraint. It doesn’t want to be corseted in a sonnet or made to learn a system of musical notations. It wants liberation, which is why very often it fastens on the novel, for the novel seems spacious, undefined, free.

–– Rachel Cusk

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Milkweed Seed/Morrisville, Vermont/Photo by Molly S.