This Woman, My Daughter

From seemingly out of nowhere, my youngest daughter asks me if Jesus really brought dead people back to life. I pause — there’s been no recent death in our family — before I say that might be possible.

What are miracles, anyway?

My daughters are two of the billions of people who have walked the planet. This morning, I woke thinking of my older daughter, 19 now, and the conversation she and I and my friend had last night, over dinner and knitting and the cats who played with the feathery toys my friend brought. My daughter is grown up now. Always headstrong, she’s plowed into passion and passion’s heartbreak.

The cliché for mothers is to mourn the loss of the tender, little years; this young woman and I share a whole remembered world together — just she and I — like the afternoon in her stroller when she was two and I pushed her through a thousand tedious errands in Montpelier, while she held three buttons in the shape of balloons — pink, yellow, blue — in her tiny fist. I had promised to sew those on her favorite dress. Her younger sister wore that same dress, with those same three balloon buttons.

Or the afternoon in a thunderstorm when she was four, wearing her favorite friend’s t-shirt with a frog on the front, she leaned over the porch and pulled out the neck of the t-shirt so a river of water from the roof poured down her face and body. Laughing: full of radiant joy.

Billions and billions. Over and over. There’s nothing simple about any of this. Not childhood, not growing up, not making a woman or a man’s life. And yet, here we are.

…. it ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.

— Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love


The Undertow

Deep in the night, I woke thinking of a Raymond Carver story I had been reading, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” My children had found this title infinitely amusing, riffing on it as a joke between the two of them.

All night long, while the girls and I had been sleeping, cumulus clouds floated over our house, the full moon shining through like a light at the bottom of an ocean turned upside down. I opened the door and stood on the balcony, imaging myself a clipper ship surrounded by this sea of luminescence. In the distant east, just over Woodbury Mountain’s black ridge, shone a single star. In the moonlight, I saw through the sparse woods the edge of the town’s tiny cemetery, where the slatted fence peels white paint.

The Carver story, simply, is about marriage, and it’s not a funny story at all. It’s about conundrums and paradox, about the mysterious, hidden parts of our lives. And yet, standing beneath that marvelous night sky, I watched the moonlight rush cloud shadows over the earth. I was glad to be awake.

…We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
Though I don’t like such things ’twixt those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
But two that do can’t live together with them….

From “Home Burial” by Robert Frost


Hardwick, Vermont


Love Better

What makes a life? A friend of mine told me she once took stock of her life, tallying.

How to measure a life? By a house, bank accounts, grandchildren at the Thanksgiving dinner table? Or perhaps none of this. When I look at my sprawl of past and present, the one thing I think is: love better. The best and most fulfilling things I have done have been freely given. Perhaps this is why to love as a parent (while unbelievably difficult at times) is so fulfilling; any morsels of childish love passed back are pure gravy, savory sweetness.

I’ve never known love as greeting card, prettied up with pastel hearts. Love is as indomitable a force as a woman’s contractions in labor, bearing down to bring a new being into this world, or slender coltsfoot blossoms cracking apart winter’s ice. Love better: surely that would mean widening your heart in unexpected ways.

Today, in this April brown and beige world, I saw a cardinal fly into a thicket, a rare bright bird this far north. I went looking for the hidden little feathered creature. I knew it harbored in those tangled branches, its tiny heart hammering away fiercely in this cold.

And now, I have my own household of teenage girls to attend to, with their own laughing and open hearts……

Locking Yourself Out,
Then Trying to Get Back In

You simply go out and shut the door
without thinking. And when you look back
at what you’ve done
it’s too late. If this sounds
like the story of a life, okay….

I stood there for a minute in the rain.
Considering myself to be the luckiest of men.
Even though a wave of grief passed through me.
Even though I felt violently ashamed
of the injury I’d done back then.
I bashed that beautiful window.
And stepped back in.

– Raymond Carver


April in Vermont


This afternoon, between the end of school and the beginning of work, I went running, my little girl ahead on her bike.  Down the dirt road we went, and then she circled back to me as we approached a small camp where a man stood in the road.  My child was afraid of the dog there, and she rode closely beside me.

I stopped running and said I was sorry to hear about his wife.

He told me they had celebrated their nineteenth wedding anniversary on the first, and then last week, they ate dinner together and fell asleep.  He told me he woke in the morning and washed dishes, and when he checked on her, still in her recliner, she had passed.

The couple hasn’t lived in that camp for years.  They moved down to the bottom of our road, in an old farmhouse wrapped with plastic to the keep the wind out, painted pink in one section, green in another.  The acres have substantial mounds of cowshit, junked vehicles in piles, all manner of debris with all kinds of people coming and going.  He considered his occupation “junking,” and had told me in 2008 his occupation had gone all to hell.  In the spring, their pasture is verdant long before anywhere else.

The camp, on its footprint of property, has had a revolving door for years with a series of single men and one winter a woman with two young children.  With no water or plumbing, the cabin is surrounded by piles of exactly what we’re never sure.  Large things like soiled mattresses and campers, a shower stall, salvage windows, and piles and piles of human food garbage.  Built in a dank hollow, the camp has always exuded to me the desperateness of hard-up and hardscrabble people, on the fringe, looking to stay away from the law.  Who in this extended family owns what property, or if it’s even owned or rented, has always been unclear to me.

This neighbor and I have never been on poor terms.  He recalled, today, talking to me years ago, when the road often held only myself and my daughter in her stroller.  When she was three or so, she asked me how he could eat corn-on-the-cob, as he had only one front tooth.

Today, he watched his grandson mow a patch of tangled weeds, telling his story, his eyes tearing.  Tomorrow, he’ll plant a rosebush and bury her ashes.

I said what little I could, that she hadn’t suffered at least.

He shook his head just once and said, I don’t  know.  It was in the night, you know, and no one thought that was going to happen, you see.

The little girl and I continued down the road.  When I returned, I lifted my hand and waved, running, and he hollered to me, These weeds can some grow!

O my neighbor, may your rosebush bloom beautifully.

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

– Raymond Carver