Vermont Libraries

Yesterday, on my way to a state library conference, I exited I-89 and took a short-cut, trading an urban confluence along the Connecticut River for a winding dirt road.

Library conference? Ho-hum, you’d think. Instead, Vermont’s department of libraries is staffed with witty and super-smart people, full of insight and generosity. The second-in-command I ate lunch with offered to attend my trustee meeting.

Vermont has its large libraries, but the room yesterday was filled with many “library directors” like myself – primarily female – heading up tiny often one-room libraries, doing everything from chatting with kids about graphic novels and puppies to submitting data and vacuuming the carpet.

Zeal is a word I rarely use, but, quirky as librarians often are, they embody the best of democratic principals, ruggedly determined to preserve not only individual liberty and privacy but also the freedom to think, read, write, create.

Couple this with a reading last night of two writers at my library, packed full with appreciative townspeople. Antidote is the word I held in mind last night.

Two inches of fresh snow this morning. Temperatures in the seventies predicted next week…..

I wondered what on earth this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South….

Now, how could I find out about this Mencken? There was a huge library near the riverfront, but I knew that Negroes were not allowed to patronize its shelves any more than they were the parks and playgrounds of the city. I had gone into the library several times to get books for the white men on the job. Which of them would now help me to get books? And how could I read them without causing concern to the white men with whom I worked? I had so far been successful in hiding my thoughts and feelings from them, but I knew that I would create hostility if I went about the business of reading in a clumsy way.

Richard Wright, from Black Boy, 1944

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When Traveling Through a Storm….

Here’s one good reason to read:

Captain Bligh, in his ill-fated, famous Mutiny on the Bounty story, sailed from dreary, oatmeal-eating England to Tahiti, lush land of coconuts and little clothing. He naturally headed across the Atlantic to curve around Cape Horn, situated way down at the bottom of South America. But the ship, plagued by fierce winter storms, was unable to navigate that Cape. Instead, after weeks of battling fierce weather and sailing backwards rather than making headway, Captain Bligh ordered a change in course around the Cape of Good Horn (at the southern-most tip of Africa), adding over 10,000 more miles to the Bounty‘s journey.

In the midst of the sleet, snow, and wind that eventually turned him back:

Bligh could note that blue petrels and pintados, “two beautiful kinds of bird,” followed their wake. – Caroline AlexanderThe Bounty

When to turn? When to change direction in a life?

Remember this: in the harshest, most ungodly conditions, note unexpected beauty, following your travels.

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Hope Cemetery/Barre, Vermont

The Sweet Spring Season

Signs of spring:

The school busses won’t travel on the backroads due to impassably muddy stretches. The superintendent sends an email: Drop off your kids to meet a bus at the corner barn…

An enormous flock of singing blackbirds in a single maple tree beside the post office.

Steam from the sugarhouse sweetening cold fog; April’s come early, this year.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain…
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night…

– T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

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Hardwick, Vermont/Photo by Molly S.

Private v. Public

This morning, after driving through a surprisingly thick snowstorm, I found myself in a tiny room in the radio studio of WDEV in Waterbury. Hester Fuller, the host, had kindly read my book and interviewed me for a bit, then Gary Miller (author of the fine collection Museum of the Americas) came in, too, with Joe Citro on the phone line.

We were literally knee-to-knee in a tiny room, talking about the intimacy of writing. Writing is that curious mixture of intense privacy – literally, the stuff of our own experiences – spun into shared stories. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden wound into my life when I was fifteen, lodging deeply in my blood cells, its influence surfacing in my own writing. Over and over, I have hammered myself against Steinbeck’s anvil that insists on seizing human choice despite the chaotic happenstance of human life. How will I understand my life? The lives of those I dearly love?

Driving home in the dark tonight, I realized my character, Fern, understood her life like this: finding an abandoned sweater in a library’s free box, she washed and then unravelled the yarn, discarding what was ruined beyond repair, saving what she could. Then she knitted, by trial and error, a sweater patterned with trees and mountains and Lady Moon, creating a work of beauty – and practicality.

Only after a writer lets literature shape her can she perhaps shape literature. In working-class France, when an apprentice got hurt, or when he got tired, the experienced workers said, “It is the trade entering his body.” The art must enter the body, too.

– Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

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Burlington, Vermont, March 2016

Galaxy Bookshop Reading & Rain

Freezing rain. Enough said. I drove home early from Burlington at that gnarly 33 degree temp, listening blankly to NPR while thinking unrelenting gray. The children were delayed on the bus, held up behind an accident, and I kept thinking, Who’s with my children? Our dirt back road was sheened over with ice.

Nonetheless, I read in our bright and cheerful bookstore tonight, with my crowd – some new folks, some people I’ve known for years upon years now – so graciously pulling on their raincoats, leaving their wood stoves, and braving our elements. A fitting setting for reading this novel, so suffused with volatile weather and darkness, seasonal change. Writers, a teacher, a carpenter, mothers, librarians, farmers, the children’s bus driver, my fellow booksellers: thank you. And, my little daughter noted, chocolate cake to boot.

Deep in the night, I slid into my boots and coat and hat and out the kitchen door, hurrying down the frozen, rutted up path, then veered off that and ran into the field. Under my boots grew the winter rye, still green and pliable despite the winter hammering in.

Lines from Hidden View

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Elmore, Vermont/Photo by Molly S.

Companionship, Mothering

When I went through my time of parenting two-year-olds, I thought that was difficult. Exhilarating, exhausting, maddening at times: but yes, difficult. Oh, how young I was.

To parent a teenager is in some ways like walking through a ring of fire. Going forward, I will doubtless be scorched, and my emergence is not guaranteed. Last night, my daughter asked me with genuine anguish, But why do people suffer? When I was sixteen, I asked this question, and I’ve continued to ask this question, in a multiplicity of ways, through decades. I can spew off varieties of answers, but ultimately, to my daughter, with her honest face, I come up short.

Late in the night, with my children sleeping, a solitary light burning, the windows open to the crickets with their sound of tiny shaking bells, I read a passage from a chaplain who had been at the scene of a horrific plane crash. When I finished the book, in those quiet, dark hours, I thought of my child. Just as she fought in her birth to be free of my body, I see this girl thrusting her way from the tatters of her childhood, striding so urgently toward what she believes is the golden realm of womanhood. Here I am again, ready to catch my daughter, wanting only to be here.

“… I don’t know why that young child was killed. This is a true mystery. And so I enter into it with you. I cry with you if you allow me into that space. I’ll walk with you. And this is something that a lot of chaplains I know that were involved in Iraq and Afghanistan–talking with their soldiers–they’ll say, Look, I’m gonna journey with you on this. I’m not here to explain it. I’m gonna journey with you. There’s a sense of humility there that I think connects with people, because I think in their heart of hearts we know, Oh, I don’t have an answer. So let’s walk into that mystery together.”

–– Laurence Gonzales, Flight 232

Gabriela/Photo by Molly S.
Gabriela/Photo by Molly S.