God, Ghosts, Aliens

My daughters start a fire in the rock pit in our yard at the end of a sunny day, a day of hiking and laughter, of putting away a gorgeous onion harvest, of weeding and transplanting daisies from a friend, of painting the lower barn door blue (please, mom, why not just white?)

There’s no one else, no visitors, no company stopping by, just the three of us cooking outside sprawling on the grass as the dusk gradually filters down and pulls out the brilliance of pink zinnias, a tangle of nasturtiums, gold in a maple in the cemetery. We’ve nowhere else to go but into the house and sleep.

My older daughter shares a conversation she had with her coworkers that night, about the probably of God, of ghosts, of UFOs, and the girls dive into what they’ve read about Roswell.

Under my bare feet, the grass holds the day’s warm sunlight yet. Listening, I remember the barren patches in this grass when we moved in. The grass is lush now, like a well-tended cat’s fur.

My younger daughter, with a new kind of adolescent edginess, announces her own nihilism. I offer, But here’s the rub there: what about life? What about youand then I wise up and shut up. A few tendrils of mist settle into the valley below us. In the night, rain will move in, but for now, it’s just us and the sunlight, and all that evening ahead.


More School

Today, my youngest daughter starts high school. Time flies, sure, but it seems so long ago she first started school, a tiny girl. She was homeschooled until third grade, on our 100 acres, where I worked at home in our maple sugaring business, and at certain times in the year worked incredibly hard. It was a kind of life that, in retrospect I suppose, made some kind of sense to the adults.

When she was seven, she wanted to go to school. So, I sent her. Since then, she’s pretty much always loved school. Last night, I noticed she had packed so many bags, she appeared to be making a semi-move to the high school, approximately an 11-minute walk from our door.

Like anyone else, I’ve made a zillion — no, a zillion and a half — mistakes as a parent, some just downright terrible. But one thing I did realize at a certain point with my older daughter was that this is her life, and if I wanted her to live her own life with authority and imbued with her own female empowerment, I had to realize her life is different than mine. My own adult ideas, 90% or so of them, might as well go by the wayside.  Although I’m not in any way about to vacate the parenting scene, isn’t work out your own philosophy inevitably where the raising children scenario leads?


Derby, Vermont

The Only Question

Picture this: the three of us — two daughters and myself — clustered together in my older daughter’s car, driving to Craftsbury to ski. My older daughter is talking, talking, talking, when her 13-year-old sister dryly mentions from the backseat the kind of tepid comment she sometimes offers — a sentiment along the lines of what the heck is life all about, anyway? A kind of classic, existential angst that seems perfectly normal — to me, at least — for a rapidly-heading-toward-adolescent.

Bingo, I think. There’s the question. The only question, really.

Her sister, cut perhaps from a very different philosophical cloth, directs our attention to the afternoon which is turning sunny, and notes the skiing is going to be amazing, yet. That terrific kind of April skiing that’s like dessert.

Later, I go looking for my old copies of Alan Watts and find this:

Really, the fundamental, ultimate mystery — the only thing you need to know to understand the deepest metaphysical secrets — is this: that for every outside there is an inside and for every inside there is an outside, and although they are different, they go together.

— Alan Watts


Midwinter Mail

On a day when winter seems determined to seal over our house in a re-emergence of the Ice Age, the mailbox yields something interesting besides the usual jumble of instant recycling.

My daughters collected the mail and left it on the kitchen counter. When I walk in from work, the girls tell me about their days. One daughter fries bacon, the other presses pecan halves in a geometric pattern in a pan of brownie batter.

I toss out the junk assortment of credit card inquiries, a bank’s repeated request to sell me life insurance. The state has kept us on their health insurance, and announces this in three different envelopes. Glossy Taproot magazine sends two copies of their recent issues with an essay of mine, utterly satisfying me. At the stack’s bottom is a fat envelope with court papers in my attempt to collect child support. Earlier that morning, I’d decided to walk away from that battle, but perhaps not. I toss the envelope on my desk.

The jumble of mail, I can’t help but note, reflects a tiny facet of our life, and I’m wondering what jammed up the neighboring mailboxes. The girls are full of energy about a walk they took that afternoon on the local trails. Well after five o’clock, daylight hasn’t given up yet, and that seems a kind of promise, despite the snow surrounding us in a mimicry of Shackleton’s ice. A better ritual than mail is dinner. One daughter lights the candles. The cat mews an inquiry for bacon scraps.

Living with two teenagers through a prolonged winter, with heaps of snow and nearly endless cold has likely brought me to this same and extremely familiar place: what the heck, exactly, am I doing? This has been a philosophical winter, but, good lord, I’m ready for some barefoot weather. But enough. We’re warm and well, and did I mention a collection of essays about schizophrenia came in the mail, too…..?

All I see in hindsight is the chaos of history repeated, over and over, reenacted, reinterpreted, the world, its fucked-up heart palpitating underneath us, failing, messing up again and again as it winds its way around a sun. And in the middle of it all, tribes, families, people, all beautiful things falling apart, debris, dust, erasure.

— Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive


Kids’ trampoline, hibernating on the lawn….

Day of Hearts

In When Breath Becomes Air, recently posthumously published, Paul Kalanithi acknowledges the irony of his devastating cancer in his thirties; Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon unbelievably gifted in a multitude of ways, had striven to understand mortality before his diagnosis, to parse what dying meant.

Is it true that our lives circle back? As Joseph Campbell wrote, the greatest challenges we face are those we would never willingly encounter.

Kalanithi must have been an extraordinary man in many ways, but particularly in the exquisitely graceful way he never diminished or belittled individual suffering while also acknowledging that suffering is an integral and unavoidable aspect of living a human life. The book is suffused with a pursuit to understand our world and yet marvel at its infinite mysteries.

In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air


Mid-February, Vermont, 2016