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

Sunday.

My father emails me a Chris Hedges’ article, “Death of an Oracle,” about the recent death of poet Gerald Stern. I toss a few slivers of bark on my stove’s embers and listen while my cat stares out the window at two cardinals in the twiggy mock orange. The birds are brilliant crimson in the merciless November gray.

I’ve just submitted a 100-word story of Thankfulness to the zillion and more that the New York Times will receive this week. Mine is precisely 100 words, drenched with gratitude and, honestly, rage. My little cat flicks his tail at me, as if asking if I, too, see that pretty bird my cat would like to hunt. Indeed, I do. The birds are wise enough to understand the merits of glass and peck away at the grass, unperturbed. Sunday morning, and my list lies on the table. A long week looms ahead. As I listen, however, a kind of peace settles around me, and not simply because of the warming fire. I’m reminded that I never sought a life of blandness.

My cat yawns and naps. The cardinals disappear. I brew another pot of espresso. My brother’s coming for Thanksgiving, bringing steak and endless conversations about the utterly mundane, like Wordle, the downright silly, and gritty existential pondering about the afterlife. November is looking up.

If the Buddhist’s job is to be detached, I think that the artist’s job is to be both detached and attached.

— Gerald Stern

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

Election Day.

On this election day, I hang out the laundry in a bitter wind, sharply turned from the weekend’s balminess. Pinning up t-shirts and dresses, I think of Henry David Thoreau’s famous words:

“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.” 

I read in Walden in high school and took that copy with me when I moved to Vermont. I simply never returned it, and imagined Thoreau wouldn’t have been particularly opposed to my theft. On this windy day, the laundry won’t need long to dry, which is perhaps just as well as the dark moves in now by suppertime. Last night, in the passenger seat of my daughter’s car, the early night pressed around us — enchanting or foreboding? I could have leaned either way. As I pin up the last of the kitchen towels, I keep thinking of the line There will be no catharsis. These words came in a conversation about a recent death in our town. How much we all seem to long for a revelation, the loaves and fishes thing, the who’s in the know and has the real scoop about the true and genuine causes of this or that unhappiness. History, of course, prevails upon all of us, pushing down our small lives, our dear dramas.

Like Thoreau, I am a New Englander, and November leans in with her force.We all might be the wiser for being out in her wind today.

Mid-October.

In the night, a wild wind throws rain through my bedroom window. It’s before midnight. At twilight, the maples shimmered with a rosy-golden light, but our world has shifted. The wind’s tempestuous, shaking the storm against my house, driving away that autumn dreaminess.

The cats and I are awake. I lie on the couch, reading Ducks. Our little world has seen a proliferation of cats recently — a gray one the neighbors’ boys named Follower, a glossy black, a white-and-brown tabby, a tortoiseshell. The light on the back porch kicks on when the cats, one by one, appear, sodden, and then race off again. A raccoon sniffs my sandals I’ve left out beneath the overhang. My two cats stare through the window, mesmerized.

All night long, all day long, leaves fall. The butternut tree I planted a five years ago is skinny trunk and branch. Magnificently golden, the neighbors’ maples shed their leaves into a giant carpet. Their little boys rake and burrow. As their top branches reveal their starkness, the height of these trees soars above our houses.

October, and midday the light is tinged with sootiness as the sun bends away from my place on the earth. Whether it’s the pandemic or where I am in life, the old patterns I knew for years have splintered, fractured. To my list I write long before dawn, I add: cover the garden with leaves.

The water wheel spins
holding up the milky way,
and then spills it out.

– Kawasaki Tenkō