Twelfth Month.

A woman steps out of Positive Pie on Main Street with a stack of pizza boxes and nearly bumps into me. Late afternoon, and a rainy twilight has gradually thickened all day. I’m walking home from a reading at the town Memorial building by an author who’s published a historical novel about Hardwick. Decades ago, when this town shifted from broke-back subsistence farming to the granite boom, the town fiercely debated the railroad construction (why let in the outside world?) and the economics of electricity and streetlights. Now, not so many years later, the tracks are torn up, the roads paved, the granite empire crumbled.

This afternoon, the streetlights are on early, the colored lights glowing at this junction of routes 14 and 15.

The woman with the pizzas asks me to open to her car door. I step off the sidewalk curb, breathing in the scent of garlic and bacon. Before she gets in the driver’s seat, she stands for a moment overlooking the colored lights and river. “December,” she remarks — that’s all — and then gets in and drives away.

In the brick courtyard, the kitchen staff is getting high, wearing t-shirts in the strangely balmy air. December: this descent into the amorphous darkness with no clear edges. Long after the stranger has disappeared, I stand beneath the building’s overhang while rain falls and light ripples across the wet world.

Stitches and Snippets.

At night, I knit and read, diligently counting stitches two-by-two before beginning the yoke pattern. I read about witches in 18th century New England, about muddy roads and fieldstone chimneys, about hunger and families and the complicated passions of small communities. About fear and remorse.

Around my house, the wind howls, lifting pine needles and crows’ feathers. November is the season of reckoning and looking towards the new year, of town and school budgets, of placing what you have beside what you want, of financial cost-and-benefit analysis, of a personal reckoning, too.

I remain awake unreasonably late, determined to proceed carefully this time to avoid ripping apart these stitches, anticipating the pattern work, the joining of color to color. Outside, I imagine smoke rising from our chimney, dissipating into the starry sky. A mouse nibbles in the wall. I keep counting.

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” 

— Flannery O’Connor

Last the third Vermont Almanac —one of the loveliest (and most useful) print publications — is out. The Almanac folks are virtually kicking off the third edition at Burlington’s Phoenix Books Thursday night, 7 p.m. You should come!

Reading. Fear of Dogs. Starlight.

The July after I graduated from college, I stayed in a cabin a short walk through the woods on a back road. The one-room space had been built as a studio with a wall of windows that faced what had once been a view and now was shaded by leafy maples. In winter, the cabin was heated by a woodstove. An outhouse had been dug behind the cabin. My friend was visiting her mother in California. I stayed in the cabin and fed her dog. The dog didn’t listen to me at all. He ran off and chased the sheep down the road, whose owners claimed they could shoot the dog. I was twenty-two and knew nothing about farming, but I was afraid of the angry farmer and didn’t argue. The dog still didn’t listen to me.

Despite the dog and the farmer, I loved the cabin. The economy was terrible; there were few jobs, and I was trying to figure out my next step. I read a lot of Ann Beattie who was popular in the 1990s. I remembered that small paperback Chilly Scenes of Winter I owned for years, when I stepped outside yesterday evening. I had been reading Tess Gunty‘s The Rabbit Hutch, a novel a far stylistic throw from Beattie. In the dark, a truck towing an empty trailer rattled by.

Down the sidewalk, a dog growled. A man tugged the dog’s leash. No: the dog snarled. I knew the mutually unhappy pair, the man’s sole dominance apparently through that leash. I crossed the street and cut down along the brook through the log yard, walking quickly in the tepid night. On my living room rug, that Gunty library book waited, spread pages-down, spine up. Sure, the world changes, moment by moment. And yet, sometimes not so. Overhead, stars and no moon.

“What will happen can’t be stopped. Aim for Grace.”

— Ann Beattie

Solo.

Every summer for years now, my daughters and I have gone camping on Burton Island in Lake Champlain. We always bring the same friend of my youngest daughter. Sometimes another friend and sometimes my oldest hasn’t come. This year for all kinds of reasons, I went alone for a night.

I stopped first to visit a friend and meet his friendly sheep. Then I raced to the ferry. Rain and clouds had moved out. The island has no cars, so the atmosphere is particularly sweet. Little kids bike everywhere. A group of teenage boys had set up a small army of tents, bikes, and fishing poles.

I had brought what I needed for the night: a novel, my knitting, a winter hat, the recently printed out version of my manuscript, and a good pair of walking shoes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a single mother, it’s make friends with strangers. Much to my daughters’ annoyance, I often find someone to chat with at soccer games, the co-op, the post office. A kind of survival skill on many levels. But I wasn’t there to chat. I walked around the island on its slate-pebbled shores in the daylight, during the enchanting sunset, and in the dark. As the night fell dark, the tree frogs sang melodiously. I slept dreamlessly under the rising moon. In the morning, I drank coffee and read and read until I packed up my few things and headed back to the ferry.

The island, a state park, is mostly staffed by college kids, who are polite and enthusiastic. The young man on the ferry folded up the wildflower guide he was reading to roll a few bikes on the ferry.

On my way home, I realized next summer I could take my kayak and stay a few nights on Champlain’s islands. I can’t swim to save my life but surely that’s something I could learn.

A few lines from Dan Chaon’s Sleepwalk:

“No doubt, a day of reckoning for mankind is coming, yet even for those of us who accept the inevitability of mass human death, there’s still a cautious hope; we’re waiting to see how Armageddon plays out, keeping an eye open for ways it might turn to our advantage… I’m no evolutionary biologist, but I have faith in our species’ stick-to-it-iveness.”

— Dan Chaon

Norma Fox Mazer & Mark Twain.

As a kid, I wanted to grow up and live on a farm. We lived in a New Hampshire village and spent a few summers driving west and camping from Wyoming to southern New Mexico. National Forest camping was cheap in those days — a dollar or two per night — and we cooked over the Coleman stove and slept in tents. My parents were frugal. They didn’t rent motel rooms, hardly ever bought a cup of coffee, and generally operated on the rule of don’t spend (a learned lifeskill I remain grateful for). My father bent that rule in a Boulder, CO, bookstore when the reading material we’d packed in our green Jeep needed an infusion.

The summer I was ten or so I read Huck Finn and Norma Fox Mazer’s I, Trissy over and over. In retrospect, the books were a good pair for a kid.

Last night just after dark, I walked out to the herb patch for a handful of mint to brew tea. After a long day of high heat and the evening’s dew, the world smelled sweet, alive. I had mowed the lawn in the late afternoon, and I breathed in freshly cut grass.

What was it I had wanted when I dreamed of living on a farm? To be outside as much as possible, to put my hands in the dirt, and to see where the sky meet the horizon. Three things I achieved in one Friday, if little else.

That adolescent me, the girl who was, as I remember her, insecure, unsure, dreaming, yearning, longing, that girl who was hard on herself, who was cowardly and brave, who was confused and determined-that girl who was me-still exists. I call on her when I write. I am the me of today-the person who has become a woman, a mother, a writer. Yet I am the me of all those other days as well. I believe in the reality of that past.

— Norma Fox Mazer

Blackbird.

I’m late to a meeting at the library I’ll participate in when I stop in the parking lot. In the wetlands behind the library, a red-wing blackbird sings. I can’t see the bird. This isn’t a flock; a bird calls and chirrups, that old familiar, unmistakable sound of spring. I’ve driven, in years past, on the hunt, just to hear this bird.

A few years ago, by chance I met a friend outside the Woodbury, VT, post office. We stood talking about something we found mutually so enjoyable, while in a winter-bare maple tree, a flock of these beauties sang. Spring! we marveled.

This year, I remember how long and hard mud season is, most rightfully a season worthy of its own true name. Hence, love of little things like tiny birds.

The river is moving.   

The blackbird must be flying.   

~ Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”