Hardwick Postcard #1: Start Here

The front steps from our yard to the street reflect a time when people walked more. These days, the walkers in town are mainly kids and adults who, for one reason or another, don’t drive.

When I closed on the house, my older daughter was a high school senior who hardly seemed to attend school, so she came, too, on a hot and sunny June day. We’d known the sellers for years, and, as the closing was slightly delayed, we had some time to laugh. The electric company was switching out the poles in front of the attorney’s office, and the power was going to be shut off. We had a back-up plan to move across town, as modern closings need electricity, and  we tossed around the idea of using the library’s wifi on their front stone steps.

Afterwards, my daughter and I walked around the empty and freshly-painted house. Roses bloomed under the front windows that somehow, in all my examination, I had failed to see.

We hadn’t moved one thing in, still walking around barefoot in the sunny rooms, when a car pulled into the driveway. The woman, who was about my age, had grown up in the house. She was with her husband and their teenage daughter, and they had driven a very far distance for a relative’s graduation from the local high school. When she was a teenager, she told me, her future husband came and sat on the front steps with her, courting. From those steps, there’s a view down into the valley of the village and a trapezoid of the reservoir between the curves of mountains.

We walked through the house. She took pictures and told me stories. They live now in the middle of this huge country, and they wouldn’t return to Hardwick for many years. In the driveway, we shook hands, and then they drove away.

Sometimes the stars align. What a piece of luck to begin living in this house with the stories of a family who had lived here for over thirty years and loved this house and this place. In the few minutes I spent with this couple, I knew they had their own share of misfortune – and love and goodwill.

For a writer – and maybe for everyone, really – stories are manna. That afternoon, my daughter and I were no rush to move in. We opened all the windows and let in the June breeze, suffused with the scent of roses.

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

– T. S. Eliot


A Whale’s Heartbeat

In these subzero nights, I’ve abandoned my room of windows on the top floor and started sleeping in my daughter’s lower bunk bed, in her room cozily located over the wood stove. Upstairs, my older daughter’s room is just across the hall from mine, and we generally talk before sleeping. My younger daughter is pleased with her turn at companionship. Plus, she doesn’t complain when I read late at night with the lights on.

Last night, before falling asleep, she told me a whale’s heart beats about 10 times per minute, while the tiny shrew’s heart can pulse away at a 1,000 jumps per minute.

I reached up and snapped off the light. In darkness, we imagined how voluminous might be a whale’s heart, hot blood churning through its chambers. She told me about a trip she’d taken a few years before with her father, to Provincetown, where she and her sister walked through the ribs of whale skeleton. In the warm dark room, we lay imagining what it would be like to live in the belly of a whale, and late in the night when I woke to feed the fire, I was still dreaming of that dark, living interior.

A good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing–more’s the pity.

– Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale


Sunny Sunday on Skis

Goodbye, running shoes, and hello, ski boots! It’s the sparkle season.

Winter days like this one – twenty degrees, dazzling light, new-fallen snow in exquisitely formed flakes – embody the season’s perfection. No need to worry about battling weeds in the garden. With the woods’ closed-in canopy dispersed, mountain ridges luminescent with frosty snow shimmer all around our horizon.

At the moment, we’re not hemmed in by the endless varieties of ice or gray, falling sleet. Our cheeks glow with exercise and merriment. The girls are home, and pie warms in the oven. These clear days open up our horizon. Chickadees dart from the apple tree.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow…

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

– Wallace Stevens

Backyard Skiing in Woodbury, Vermont

Magical Math with Mittens

My sixth-grader ended her school day yesterday with rosy cheeks, sweaty hair, and an enormous smile. With their teacher, the class had hiked into the snowy woods and built what she described as an enormous snowman.

There’s more, though. She described this cold creation as a Fibonacci Snowman. You know what the Fibonacci numbers are, right, mom?

Indeed, I do, but I had missed that these mysterious numbers fit into giant snowmen. One hat, two stick arms, three rocks for eyes and a nose, five buttons, and eight pieces of birch bark for a mouth. What I also missed was the love of much larger numbers, the centimeters of girth and height that went into the hundreds.

With such gusto, this girl relayed the small class’s adventure, involving mathematical calculation and joint herculean strength to lift heavy snowballs.

With these short days, I sometimes cast my vision elsewhere, envying light-filled territories. Then my tousled-hair daughter reminds me implicitly why we’re Vermonters, and why winter is wildly lovely. As we narrow through this time of sparse light, our table is lit each night with a single red candle, in this sacred time of impenetrable night, waiting for the earth to turn around and make her slow, eternally patient way back to the season of mammoth sunflowers.

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

Dylan Thomas, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”

Our kitchen window view over the December garden.


On the Rails

When my daughter was eight, her teacher asked what magic power she would choose, if she could. I’d fly, of course, she said, as if, of course, what else? She wanted not particularly to travel, but to sail weightlessly, like a bird, acquiring a wide vision of her place on earth.

Not long after that, the children and I went on an extended Amtrak journey, thousands of miles, through territory we had never visited: steep and beautifully wooded West Virginia, up through the nighttime sprawl of Midwestern cities, all across the plains to the luminescent southwest.

The morning we left for a three-day leg of the journey, I braided my hair at a mirror in my sister’s dining room, wondering when I would unravel those braids, with so much yet ahead of us.

While I’d take that trip again in a heartbeat, train travel is long, encumbered to the earth with rails and wheels, grinding to halt after halt, and waiting for folks to clamber on and off, weighed down with bundles, the elderly, small children. The travel comes slow and hard-earned, in what my daughters discovered is a very large country.

Here’s a few lines about rail and America’s Great Migration in  Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.

… the railroads, running between Florida and New York, and the Southern Pacific, connecting Texas and California, had become the historic means of escape, the Overground Railroad for slavery’s grandchildren. It hurtled its passengers along the same route and under the same night sky as the Underground Railroad, the secret network of safe houses leading north that had spirited slaves to freedom the previous century.

West Woodbury, Vermont

We Are the Past

Remember the Turkish Delight in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe? The sweet that bribed Edmund to betray his siblings? My daughters were fascinated by this candy. Could it really be that good?

For years, I’ve been looking for this confection; yesterday, my daughter returned from a field trip with a small box. I found it, she said triumphantly.

Betrayal is far from my child’s intent – it’s not the Turkish Delight, of course, to be blamed for Edmund’s ill deed, but Edmund himself, and the story of his own particular unhappiness that carried him to that point.

I know people who insist the past is irrelevant, that what matters is only the here and now, the very present before our eyes, as if our unique stories could conveniently be swept into a dustbin and abandoned. As a writer, I think the most natural questions are of inquiry: what’s your story? How else can we understand ourselves and each other, without knowledge?

For good or too often for terrible ill, history is always with us. Standing Rock is clearly about the bitter present and an iniquitous past.

In Lewis’s novel, the Turkish Delight is not merely a square of candy in a child’s hand, but a child with a tangled past dragging behind him and a choice posed to him. Betray or refuse? I can’t help but think that’s a tantalizing element of this story: each reader can’t help but ask themselves, which way would I chose? Which way will I write my own story?

Does that story matter? Yes.

My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.

C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe