On the solstice Monday, I’m standing along a dirt road, bent down, petting a dog.
The recent cold snap has broken, and the midday is nearly balmy. Some winters in Vermont are like this: cold and thaw ricochet back and forth. Each thaw reminds us that we’ll endure the bitter cold. Beneath my boots, mud may not be far away. But I know — and not just by the low declination of light — that plenty of winter remains.
The conversation I’m having bends around again to the observation I’ve gnawed over and over: how human irrationality winds all through these bucolic Vermont villages. Likely, it’s the human condition.
Irrationality or not, for these moments, I’m standing in shallow snow, on a hillside with a view of the valley below and the not-so-far blue mountains in the distance. The little dog’s ears are velvety to my bare fingers. And, for these few midday moments, I soak in these landscape of brown dirt road, pristine snow, pale blue sky, conversation. Spring is an infinity away, but spring always arrives. I’ve been here before.
I’m in a meeting negotiating options to spend a gift to my library when I leave the table to check my laptop for a program’s fees in my email.
I see my daughter, off from work that afternoon, has sent me a photo. That’s all: a photo. She’s somewhere in Vermont, where I’m not particularly sure, driving around in her little blue Toyota she’s named Sammy.
The trustees have spread around the center table in our one-room library. An elderly woman reads in one corner, while her husband works at his laptop in an opposite corner. Two children play on the floor.
When the couple leaves, I walk them out, and the children and I pick cucumbers and zucchini from the garden around the sandbox. The plants are wildly producing. The husband and wife are both 90. They’re headed back to Massachusetts for the winter. We look each other in the eyes and say, Have a good winter. See you next summer.
This is a way of saying that our deepest spiritual, religious, and psychological problems are extremely simple. Just go out and look at the sky. Get to know where you are. Heaven is there for all to see.
August 1st dawns quietly — the songbirds winding down, the dew slipping in silently overnight — save for the cats who mew in hunger.
Yet another summer day, a small kind of miracle that will disappear, a day promising to be packed with work and obligations, with laundry hung on the line, and a very long list on a scrap of paper beside me.
But it’s August. Just a few blocks from where I sometimes work in Burlington is a fine bakery named after an even finer poem by Hayden Carruth.
Rough-cut diamonds rain on Jupiter: we learn this at a planetarium presentation in St. Johnsbury.
Afterwards, my daughter and our friends walk out of the Fairbanks Museum — one of my favorite places with its collection of local and exotic: freshly picked flowers in season and an ancient clay vessel for wine, Egyptian mummies and Civil War paraphanelia.
And, a fantastic collection of Richard W. Brown’s photographs temporarily on-display, the real reason we had driven to St. Johnsbury that day.
When my younger daughter was three, we had the head rebuilt of a Volvo station wagon we had bought from someone who likely botched the original job and passed the vehicle to us. A mechanic far out on a back road in St. Johnsbury did the work. My three-year-old and I on a beautiful summer day drove along twisting back roads I had never traveled, and ended up at an enormous windowless garage with a single green door at one end. I knocked; no one answered.
Holding my daughter’s tiny hand in mine, I entered and walked through what seemed to be an Alice-in-Wonderland mechanic’s world of room after room of greasy engine parts. I found the mechanic, a man in his sixties, his face and hands permanently hued with that same black used engine oil, in the labyrinth. The inside to my Volvo’s heart he had wrapped in a cloth. He opened the cloth and showed me the shining silver.
I lifted my tiny daughter, in her yellow and red-flowered sundress, a hand-me-down from her sister. He showed my child the work he had done. He and I spoke for a bit, while I wrote a check. As I turned to leave, he noticed my daughter was staring at a tiny plastic horse on a cluttered desk and told me to take the toy for her. He said the horse had been there for a long time and must have been waiting for her.
In a borrowed car, I followed the dirt roads down to the river, then turned left, toward home. My little daughter sat in the backseat, that horse clenched in one fist, staring through the window at the landscape passing by. In the back was that rebuilt piece of our car, wrapped in clean cloths.
That Volvo has long since passed out of my and daughters’ lives, in the endless way of consuming minerals and money cars claim. My daughter wore that dress for years, until it was far above her round knees. The horse is likely still in our possession, in a treasure box of childhood mementos. And the mechanic? We never saw him again. But I still hold the kindness of a stranger who paused on that July day to wonder what interested a small, unspeaking child.
Scrambled eggs and whiskey
in the false-dawn light. Chicago,
a sweet town, bleak, God knows,
but sweet. Sometimes….
My daughter texts me at work: My car is stuck in the mud.
Snap, I think. I continue what I’m doing, thinking my girl can likely solve whatever she’s gotten into now. It’s the last day of February, 2018, a day so warm I’ve propped open the library door. The lilies are pushing up around the school, and I step outside with a patron to watch a woolly bear inching its way across the walk.
My daughter, laughing, calls me and tells me she could no longer drive her little Toyota on a muddy road. I just stopped! In her nice Danskos, she stayed in her car, surrounded by glistening mud. The town road crew, working nearby, asked if she was going to move, and she explained her predicament. The road commissioner had her slip over to the passenger seat. He floored her car, drove it free, and suggested she might want to stay off that stretch of road.
….I, who so often used to wish to float free
of earth, now with all my being want to stay,
to climb with you on other evenings to this stone,
maybe finding a bear, or a coyote, like
the one who, at dusk, a week ago, passed
in his scissorish gait ten feet from where we sat—
this earth we attach ourselves to so fiercely….
A drawback to easy-access tech is a proliferation of images, everywhere.
And then, this. From the library, I picked up Richard W. Brown’s The Last of the Hill Farms: Echoes of Vermont’s Past, a stunning book published by Godine, with the most amazing black and white photographs of rural farming Vermont.
Check out page 95, with the moon sailing over a barn’s cupola, righteously high with a cow weathervane, intimating great height over farm fields. Broken-paned, paint peeling,
There it is: that elegant, perpetual juxtaposition of human endeavor and the lasting beauty of our landscape.
A neglected landscape silently gathered the patina of the passing years. Weather stained the unpainted barns and farmhouses the color of tarnished silver and gently bowed their rooflines with the weight of one hundred winters’ snow. Seemingly forgotten by the rush of progress, they aged with a poignant grace: spare, worn, yet, to my eye, hauntingly beautiful.