Dusky December

Vermont December is not the season of picking garden zinnias or gathering wildflowers.

December is the season of intentionality: wear a hat and mittens everywhere, dry your boots before the wood stove when you return, drive carefully on the slippery roads.

As the holidays edge in, I keep on with my daily routines of tending the fire, going to work, checking in with my daughters about who’s cooking dinner. On the more submerged level, our lives go on, too. My youngest dreams of her future. I read about the bad year 536. In these early winter days, I return to my original love affair with reading — novels. Fiction reminds me, over and over, in an infinite number of ways, why we love this world.

The pandemic has taken plenty from us — much more from so many people than my little family. But it’s also given us this tiny quiet space, too, like the breath at the beginning of each day, just before dawn. In this space, I see my path could bend many ways. Don’t, I caution myself, write a mad letter to the former in-laws. Instead, leave Christmas gifts of homemade soap on the neighbors’ front steps.

“The best way out is always through.” 

― Robert Frost

Rave On

For days, I’ve inhabited the post-root canal world where a sledgehammer banged my jaw. This morning, my young daughter made me coffee and noted, You’re laughing. You must be coming back to life.

This first of May, a steady rain is muddying the woods, jamming the streams near to full, washing clean every bit of green in the garden. Bring it on, I think: frog eggs, emerging salamanders, the ephemerals untangling from the matted forest floor. New England winter is spare, stripped down to straight lines, but spring is all wild, unfurling mightily and messily.

Yesterday, in my broken tooth stupor, I drove to Montpelier to hear poetry. Dede Cummings, of Green Writers Press, read Birches extraordinarily well in that quiet, sun-filled room. Like numerous people, that poem has risen many times in my life, from the first I read it, in 8th grade, to most recently a few summers ago, when my friend Tim Smith had my daughter read it aloud before dinner one gorgeous Colorado evening.

This afternoon, my body unknotting from pain, the neighbors’ boy turning ten this very day, the children enmeshed in their imaginative worlds, our kitchen filled with the fragrance of baking cinnamon, I think, what sheer luck to live in a world where Birches is possible. What sheer luck, this down-pouring day.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

– Robert Frost, “Birches”

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May 1/Woodbury, Vermont

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

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Hardwick, Vermont

 

River Ice

Late, yesterday, bringing in firewood, I walked up into the woods just before snow descended with all its might and majesty. Dark was coming in, and I hiked to where I could see the blue ridge of Elmore Mountain in the distance across the valley. Standing perfectly still, I heard nothing, not a single sound, until merely the wisp of my own breath pried open that silence.

The river today is filled with flowing chunks of ice, green like water residing deep in a quarry’s bottom. We woke this morning to icy grapple against the bedroom windows, the wind skulking around the house, like a wild animal, eager to enter. All the wildness of winter returns, the icy realm returned in all its mighty fury – and unspeakable, very earthly beauty.

DUST OF SNOW, by Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

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Fall Hiking

In this yellow autumn, the girls and I hiked down through Sterling Gorge, a short hike above water tumbling through the narrow cut of rocks. At the trail’s bottom, the stream evened out, and sunlight dappled through leaves. The hike down had been chilly and somewhat dark, shadowed by hemlocks, but the spit of gravelly sand along the stream was light-filled. I had woken that morning feeling as though I had fallen down a flight of stairs, the bones in my back and hips mere pieces strung together with the jangling cord of my vertebrae.

I lay on a fallen birch log and watched sunlight flash in shapes over the running stream, thinking how we’re all just bits and pieces of bodies, water, sparkling sunlight, gritty sand, my own bones and flesh and flowing blood, ever moving, shapeshifting, evolving, turning from this to that.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

— Robert Frost

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Woodbury, Vermont

One Rainy Day

One of the interesting things about having kids is you get to listen to music you would otherwise ignore. Would I have realized there’s a whole world of music out there, further down the dial, if I didn’t have daughters?  Not likely…..

Some of this music is just darn hot, some not so.  But if you’re driving around with the radio on to the general pop station, one thing you quickly realize is just how blasé a lot of this stuff is.  The dynamic range doesn’t exactly knock your flip-flops off.

Without trying to be what the younger members of my household would call “a complete dork,” I’d like to single out a currently very popular song that exhorts girls not to try particularly hard to prettify themselves for the male gender.  Obviously, I agree in spades on that one (hair brushing has never been my forte); however, I can’t help but object to the flip side of this advice, which encourages a kind of passivity for girls.

One thing Maureen Corrigan’s Gatsy book illuminated for me was just how darn hard Fitzgerald worked at his craft.  Perhaps because I’m a rural Vermont mother, I’m not a Tiger Mother who’s determined to get her children to succeed at mathematics and writing, Latin, violin, the breaststroke, classical piano, ballet, tap, drama…… with the unshakeable goal of attending Harvard Law School and presumably buying an island or two in the Mediterranean, or something along those lines.  That aspiration is commerce driven.

While Fitzgerald undoubtedly wanted to keep feeding a bank account that persistently slipped through his hands, and he certainly wanted to sell books and garnish accolades, his sense of craft must have been an entirely different passion.  To write that hard and that beautifully can surely only spring from a passion for writing in itself.  Poor Fitzgerald, whose life didn’t end very well; a life, admittedly, that traversed the whole dynamic spectrum.

About a hundred years ago, my undergraduate thesis advisor, when I complained that I couldn’t possibly work on the darn thesis anymore, ever again, told me to go back and work some more.  Someday, he told me, you will write a book, and you’ll believe you can’t  keep writing it, and yet you will.  That piece of advice has stuck with me like a piercing all these years.  That admonition contradicts our often far-too-Hallmark-card culture, where tepidness and blandness predominate, spiced up with a little bit of sex, a little bit of anger, but not too much.  Pursuing creativity will inevitably land the pursuer in the realm of too much or too little, out of the median and out of the norm.  Yet, what’s the trade off?  Is the middle a vacuum?  Or, to arrive at the middle and remain there with happiness, is it necessary to schlep up some mountains, and stumble through some soggy valleys?

On that wet note, it’s been a cold rain here for two days.  In “Home Burial,” Robert Frost remarked on human creation:  Three foggy mornings and one rainy day/will rot the best birch fence a man can build.

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