Light Turning.

Walking into town, I pass a house that has been abandoned for the five years I’ve lived here. Last winter, a vehicle skidded off the road and smashed through the front window. Since then, plywood has covered the front.

There’s a few houses like this in that neighborhood, the paint gray, the windows filthy, tiny yards gone over to weeds or dirt. In the pandemic’s craze, people moved back into a few of these, converting abandoned places into homes again. The driver of a fuel truck stood outside this house yesterday with a young couple, the three of them talking seriously, nodding heads. Sheets of foam insulation leaned against the house. On the side wall, someone had ripped off the dirty plastic and exposed a large square window, its top edge red and blue stained glass. Without stopping, I wondered what else was inside the house.

End of January — and suddenly the sunlight returned in full force. Today may be cloudy, tomorrow, too, maybe for days to come, but the earth is tilting. Slow as spring is, we’re leaning that way.

Don’t say my hut has nothing to offer:

come and I will share with you

the cool breeze that fills my window.

— Ryōkan (trans. John Stevens)

Bobcat. Saw-Whet Owl.

I arrive a few minutes early to meet my friend for coffee and look for a window table to open my notebook. A writer I know just a little is eating a ham and cheese sandwich and asks me to sit down. He’s old enough to be my father if he began fatherhood at a young age, which I know he didn’t. He immediately tells me two things: he’s waiting for his back road to be sanded and he saw a bobcat in a tree behind his house that morning. He describes the cat’s reddish fur, and I ask detailed questions about the wild creature’s size and location and poise. My friend arrives and they keep talking about San Francisco, and then he tells us about studying with Joan Baez at The Institute for the Study of Nonviolence.

The bakery is at a busy intersection in Montpelier. Through the window, I see people in colored winter coats. Until the pandemic, I often brought my laptop to work at this bakery and the one across the street that closed a year or two ago. Two blocks up is the public library where I wrote long sections of my last book. None of these places I’ve returned to work. Like everyone else, my life has changed, my habits recreated.

The bakery is closing. The day moves along. My friend and I walk through Bear Pond Books. She buys me a novel, hugs me goodbye, and heads on her way. I walk the long way back to my car. That night, I dream about the saw-whet owl my daughter and I glimpsed in the woods behind our house. A toddler, she pointed at the hemlock branch where the tiny bird was nestled in the greenery, its eyes wide-open. We stood there for the longest time, wordless, our breath frosty clouds in the winter air.

“… nothing is a promise, but that beauty exists, and must be hunted for and found.”

— Joan Baez

And a Little of This Loveliness…

A few streets down from me, a pregnant woman leans on a shovel in a driveway covered with a few inches of dense, soggy snow. It’s late afternoon, and a light snow swirls down as I walk. A pickup truck stops on the road, and I hear the driver offer to plow. There’s a little back and forth, and then she steps back. He sets down his plow and goes to work.

Every snowfall has its own kind of knowledge. As I walk through the streets and then across the former railroad bed and into the woods, I marvel at how much I know about snow, too. How a scattering of snowflakes can remind me of being 10 years old again, and a fourth grade teacher caught snowflakes on her tongue. Delicious, delicious, she said. Or how the three-foot Valentine’s Day storm snowed us in when my daughters had fevers and I wondered if I would ever return to the world of adults.

In the woods, the snow swallows up all sound for a handful of hours.

In these winter months, I’m reading about Claude Monet and his gardens. Here’s a line from the master: “… people must first of all learn to look at nature, and only then may they see and understand what we are trying to do.

The Shape of Things.

In the early 1600s when Samuel de Champlain was bunking around the fire with people who lived on the shores of an enormous and beautiful lake, Champlain remarked in his journal how surprised he was that these strangers discussed their dreams every morning as if their dreams were as real as the waking world. I’ve been thinking about Champlain’s observance and how easily we can narrow our vision, completely discounting or ignoring pieces of our past and present.

A blog reader who sometimes mails me terrific books sent me Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative. As I’m finishing up a draft of my novel, the book has made me look harder at the novel’s structure. As a writer, I can’t help but look at my own tangled story — and those around me — and the way plot lines and patterns, how chance and opportunity, blend and shape our lives.

For Ray Carver fans (and who isn’t a fan, really? if not, you might want to be!), there’s a terrific essay on one of my favorite stories, “Where I’m Calling From.”

So often fictions that experiment formally do so at the expense of feeling. They toy on surfaces or are purely cerebral affairs, don’t explore human complexities. But the mostly unconventional narratives I’ve been discussing have dealt powerfully with core human matters.

— Jane Alison

Pique.

Anyone who knows me knows that winter pulls out my mania for painting. In a fit of what I can only describe as sheer irritation, I bleach mold from the bathroom ceiling and then ask for primer advice at the hardware store.

The store is darn near empty, save for two clerks and a black cat who rolls on its back on the counter and flicks a pearl-tipped tail at me. A clerk walks back with me to the paint section. She and I have been on a first name basis for years. While my gallon of primer is on the shaker, she shares her bathroom ceiling painting experience, and I offer this small problem and ask her to solve it. We walk back slowly to the front counter. She’s been my height for years, but as we walk and talk, I realize she’s slipped down below my height, and my height is definitely (as my brother might claim) substandard.

A man in logger’s chaps pays for discounted Christmas tree lights and a Twix bar and grouses about the rain and the mud, and how can there be a January thaw when we’ve had no winter?

The clerk spreads my paint samples over the counter and asks if I’ve narrowed down any color choices. She lays one finger on the color named Sunshine. “This one,” she suggests.

I gather my primer, stir stick, the lightbulb for over the kitchen stove, and head out. Ahead of me lies an afternoon of careful work, of NPR and stories from around the world, so many places hemorrhaging in ways that far outstrip my tiny mold project. As I’ve always done, I join my head and hands in a creative project. My own imagination won’t heal the world, but surely it won’t harm.

Mapping, Metaphor, Motherhood.

I forget my map on my desk beside my eternal list (write thankyous, double check FAFSA submission, confirm E and J meeting….) and drive over the Canadian border shortly after sunrise. Luminous crimson stripes the clouds. Almost immediately, the land flattens from Vermont’s hard ridges to industrial ag fields, distantly studded with metal silos. Late December, and the terrain is more gray than white. I stop at a gas station and ask a woman who is emptying her car of fast food wrappers for directions. I don’t understand her accent, the slipperiness of French that eluded me all those high school French classes. She wants me to understand, repeating her directions, one hand waving a crumpled bag. I nod thank you, thank you, and turn back to my salt-crusted Subaru, miserable with my lack of agility with language. Aren’t I a writer?

At a crossroads, I have no idea which road to take, and the world opens up abruptly in dizzyingly wideness.

My intention is to drive to Montreal to meet my daughters. I hate driving the dullness of interstate and fear driving into cities, and I’ve made this infinitely worse by losing my map. For years with young children in carseats, I delivered maple syrup around Vermont, navigating by atlas and rivers, the sun and roadsigns, using my tools of snacks and a box of board books. I once pulled over and lifted a handful of pebbles from a roadside so my toddler could dump pebbles from one paper cup to another, satisfying her tired self.

Now: no map, no cell service, in a town whose name (ridiculously) I never learn, I pull a Streetcar Named Desire card ask strangers to point my way out. A teenager shrugs. An old man can’t hear me. Finally, an electrician in a truck gives me directions. We repeat his directions to each other three times, and then I roll out, my heart not full of faith, precisely, but enough warmth of optimism. May this new year bring out the generosity of strangers and of ourselves. Thank you all for your kindness and curiosity for reading.

You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of experience, and the more experience you have, the better it is… unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far.

— Alice Neel