Laughter. Moonbeams.

Ice Fishing, Caspian Lake

A profound cold stills our world for a few days, narrows our lives. All night on Friday, the wind screams and howls. By Saturday afternoon, the wind drops. I ski out to the river. The air is broken glass, so sharp breathing hurts.

To celebrate my oldest daughter’s birthday, we eat at a little restaurant/bar in Plainfield where I haven’t been in fifteen years. We’re at a back table so cold that the other three keep on their jackets and I note the usefulness of my handknit sweater. This observation impresses no one except myself. My daughter orders a drink with a lemon peel. The food is scrumptious, rich with garlic.

In their zipped-up jackets, side by side, my daughters talk and laugh with their ongoing story that includes frozen pipes, getting lost, a red prom dress, what happens when a car is started at 27 below zero, and the IRS. Outside, a round moon is ringed with yellow luminescence, so brilliant the sky around the moon is blue, surrounded by night’s black. Our boots crunch over ice as we list the moon’s might: tides and weather, childbirth and madness, the beauty of moonbeams.

In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming. It toughens you and clears your head. 

— Tobias Wolff

Bobcat. Saw-Whet Owl.

I arrive a few minutes early to meet my friend for coffee and look for a window table to open my notebook. A writer I know just a little is eating a ham and cheese sandwich and asks me to sit down. He’s old enough to be my father if he began fatherhood at a young age, which I know he didn’t. He immediately tells me two things: he’s waiting for his back road to be sanded and he saw a bobcat in a tree behind his house that morning. He describes the cat’s reddish fur, and I ask detailed questions about the wild creature’s size and location and poise. My friend arrives and they keep talking about San Francisco, and then he tells us about studying with Joan Baez at The Institute for the Study of Nonviolence.

The bakery is at a busy intersection in Montpelier. Through the window, I see people in colored winter coats. Until the pandemic, I often brought my laptop to work at this bakery and the one across the street that closed a year or two ago. Two blocks up is the public library where I wrote long sections of my last book. None of these places I’ve returned to work. Like everyone else, my life has changed, my habits recreated.

The bakery is closing. The day moves along. My friend and I walk through Bear Pond Books. She buys me a novel, hugs me goodbye, and heads on her way. I walk the long way back to my car. That night, I dream about the saw-whet owl my daughter and I glimpsed in the woods behind our house. A toddler, she pointed at the hemlock branch where the tiny bird was nestled in the greenery, its eyes wide-open. We stood there for the longest time, wordless, our breath frosty clouds in the winter air.

“… nothing is a promise, but that beauty exists, and must be hunted for and found.”

— Joan Baez

The Whole World.

In the beaver dam realm, we spy the quicksilver flash of wet fur, bright eyes. The ice there is thin, barely beginning its winter’s work. We cross the snow-shallow field, then head into the woods and cut down again where the swamp lies in the fold between two hillsides, ghostly in its black-water, dead tree beauty. Then up, up, up we trudge, the dogs eager. We find bootprints in the snow, a few drops of blood from a wounded prey, and then we’re back again to the dirt road. All day, the light seems like twilight, and then we pass through twilight and into the night, and still we’re awake, talking, circling back to the same old subjects. In the morning’s dark, I scrape ashes from the stove and carry out the hot bucket. My brother stands on the porch, watching his dog nose at my herb garden. The damp rushes at my face.

“Like Maine,” I say.

“Yeah,” my brother answers. “But it’s Vermont.”

Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you might be.

“Assurance”

You will never be alone, you hear so deep a sound when autumn comes. Yellow pulls across the hills and thrums, or in the silence after lightning before it says its names — and then the clouds’ wide-mouthed apologies. You were aimed from birth: you will never be alone. Rain will come, a gutter filled, an Amazon, long aisles — you never heard so deep a sound, moss on rock, and years. You turn your head — that’s what the silence meant: you’re not alone. The whole wide world pours down.

— William Stafford

Days of Little Light.

Night has fallen down all the way by the time I leave work. Just below freezing, the wind cuts up with a taste of wet — the feel of sugaring season but the light is all wrong. It’s a month before the solstice, and now I’ve given into the darkness utterly. The truth is, much as I rail against the scantness of light at this annual time, I relish it, too. This time of year entices us to go deep, soul-search, spread out the cards and see what’s there.

Dark to dark, our days go. My daughter phones on her way to work, two stray cats yowling in her car. She’s bathed these hungry creatures and found a home for them, a tiny bit of kindness in the midst of a complicated world. Ever in her blur, she hands off these cats to a new home, blessing them in her own way, and moves on into her day.

“What does it mean to grow rich?… Is it to retain a capacity for awe and astonishment in our lives, to continue to hunger after what is genuine and worthy? Is it to live at moral peace with the universe?” 

— Barry Lopez

Which Way?

Midday, I walk along Caspian Lake’s edge. By now, the summer people have long since gone elsewhere, back to their own tangled lives. In no mood to see anyone and chat, I take the woods path. I know my way well enough now — all these little wanders — that I know where to turn and hide when I hear voices through the woods. The day is clear, the water so transparent I can almost imagine swimming across its blue surface.

I’m so caught up in my mind’s little narrative that when I cross out of the trees and into a meadow I nearly step into a woman walking her dog. We nod and exchange little greetings about nice day and who knew November could be so pleasant? Her golden retriever rubs my knee. I crouch down and let her dog touch the palm of my hands with her nose. There’s nothing more between the stranger and me but this: the dog, the wet nose, the creature hungry to know me.

November is the beaver moon, sunlight falling through bare branches, and the question of winter: which way will this go?

Upon a withered branch
A crow has stopped this
Autumn evening

— Bashō