Adequate Materials

When I was in labor with my first daughter, at some point I glanced at a clock and realized I was in trouble. That was the only rational moment I remember from that entire labor; everything else is nearly wordless in my memory.

In those final hours, in the pauses between straining to push her into this world, I imagined the peace of a summer forest, the leaves sun-dappled. She was born in wintery February, but I drew on that memory, gathering much needed strength, as I imagined digging my fingers into the black soil, fingering pebbles of quartz and shards of slate.

So, too, now, as we’re entering the dark month of December, I look at my youngest daughter — my teenager — who is learning to endure the closure of school, the upsidedownness of her world. How invaluable, suddenly, appears a game of Yahtzee, a batch of cookies, a cat before the fire, hot coffee and conversation.

It was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials.
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Phone Talk

I’m on the phone at work, answering some standard questions, nothing serious, just information passing from me to a woman. She offers that she’s working at home — she’s employed by the Barre, Vermont, school system. Barre closed up their schools awhile ago, when Covid spread through the town.

I offer a few words of thanks, and then her words keep unraveling. She works with kids at risk, and she knows kids who live in cars. Immediately, I glance through the window at the gray November day, on the verge of snow. Maybe, she says, the families have vouchers for a motel rooms.

I lay down my pen. For those moments, I keep listening.

The woman has moved here from Elsewhere, and she keeps talking about those hidden, or not-so-hidden pockets of deep poverty in Vermont. I think of my own daughter, home alone, in our warm house, with her two sleek house cats. Eventually, I say the only thing I can think to offer: thank you, just thank you.

She asks for my name again, and I spell out my strange name carefully, first and last names. When we hang up, I step outside in a rain that’s just beginning to fall. There’s no birds out today. The road is empty.

Inside, I dial my daughter who asks, suspiciously, why I’m calling.

I’m calling, I say, to say hello. What’s up? How are your cats?

Photo by Gabriela S.

Goodness

This morning, hearing news of the Trumps’ positive test results, I think of where I was just a few hours ago, on a hillside in Greensboro.

The Nature Conservancy owns pieces of land all around where we live, some unmarked, others with a trailhead and sign, beckoning in the curious foot traveler.

At Barr Hill yesterday, I didn’t have time to walk that short loop, but paused to admire the view, the little crickets leaping over my shoes. A couple, seeing me, put on their masks, got into their car, and drove away. So for a little while, it was just me and the postcard-stunning autumn — yellow and red mountains, the shining patch of lake, the sky.

The land was donated years ago by a local family. In Greensboro, there’s deep channels of money, its origins often hidden — “old money” — and in Greensboro, too, there’s runnels of poverty, far away from the lake’s summer wonderland, but just as real and alive.

Whatever happens with the Trumps, the virus will go on, until it’s finished, one way or another. But all through this time, these long months and what will inevitably stretch ahead, my daughters and I have gone into the wilderness around us. At the library where I work, often these days I walk along the wetlands, even just for a handful of minutes, breathing in.

Try to do some good in this life, I think. Keep land open. Write a book. Teach a kid to read. Use what’s at hand…

“If you want to live, it’s good to be friendly.” 

― Art Spiegelman, Maus