Empty House

The afternoon’s end finds me on a remote road, looking at an abandoned house. No one’s lived here in a long time, save for intermittent squatters.

It’s the first day of school for my high school sophomore. Although I’m at this property for work, I keep thinking of my daughter.

Behind this house are two immense white pines. I stand there, listening to the breeze rising off Lake Eligo, imagining what it was like a hundred years ago to farm here. What will it be like a hundred years from now? The question looms impossibly.

I bend down and peer through a missing pane of glass in the door.

In Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, I read a line from Thoreau: “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

In so many ways, that sums up my experience. But that lostness I know now, is hardly a brief experience. The thing about the pandemic is that it’s exposed all the weaknesses in our society, and in ourselves, too. In my own world, I see acutely how pandemic has highlighted the near impossibility of single parenting, as I find myself these days unmoored, the thinness of my life exposed.

These days, in my work, I’m able to listen to people’s stories about how they’re experiencing the pandemic. These stories are often so much about loss — particularly about families separated — and worry about an uncertain future. Surely, I think, if there’s a time stories connect us, it’s now.

So on this first day of school, with the sweet scent of Vermont’s fall, with so much uncertain, I walk around this abandoned house, thinking of how time flows on. Near the step, I find a tiny plastic pig. Using the hem of my shirt, I rub dirt from the creature, then leave the toy on the broken step, hoping a child will chance upon it.

Visitor, An Ask

On a sleety day in rural Woodbury, the bright spot in my afternoon is the woman who walks to the library — a mile or so on slushy backroads because she and her partner have no vehicle. The truck died.

She checks out books, we talk about men and raising kids, the cost of living in Vermont. I’ve been working in rural libraries and schools long enough now that I quickly know who’s hard up versus who’s driving that old Subaru because an old Subaru might make them look a little less affluent. In the sogginess of March, my library visitor is sharp and funny, with an amusing eye for details. Sitting there, in the warm library, after a few hours of relative quiet to catch up on work, I winch, thinking of how carless-ness, unemployment, and rural Vermont can crowd up against a person.

When I leave, I drive her down the road to Hardwick, the two of us, talking, talking. It’s after 5, and while dusk isn’t far off, the day still holds light. She’s pragmatic about her chances for a ride back up the road. I never know. Then, just before she gets out, she asks for two dollars, for him, the boyfriend.

… understanding, and action proceeding from understanding and guided by it, is the one weapon against the world’s bombardment, the one medicine, the one instrument by which liberty, health, and joy may be shaped or shaped towards, in the individual, and in the race.

James Agee

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Broken Down Stuff

Vermont Public Radio is filled with cheery news. Worst Super Bowl. Lousiest State of the Union Address.

More locally, the Honda buried at the neighbors has fully emerged. Where the headlights should be are two gaping holes, the lights themselves on top of the car.

My 20-year-old sets her gas cap on top of her car and drives off in a rush. When she discovers this, I send her to the auto parts store, where she suspects the guys behind the counter are laughing at her. Why not? I ask. I laughed at you. Give me a little mirth, girl. She laughs, too, delighted the cap is nine dollars. What a deal I got, she says.

I resist pointing out that a better deal would have been not losing it. I’ve gotten a nine-dollar laugh out of this one.

It’s February. This is the time of year when things get worse in Vermont, but also better. I’ve lived here a long time, and generally I like living in Vermont. I actually like it very much, despite the things in Vermont that aren’t cool but are hardly endemic to Vermont—isolation and intergenerational poverty and the increasing bent in American life to see the world in narrowed vision.

This is the time of year when  cabin fever begins to creep in with a kind of communal silliness. We are all together in this. Even folks who foray out to Florida or California, winter is long, and then longer, and then even longer.

February marks the time of both weeping and giggling. The light floods back, more every day, crazy-making. Spring may be far off, but the scent is in the air.

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Evening Meet-up

With two 12-year-olds and a giant dog cage in my small Toyota, I drove along the dirt roads in Woodbury, in search of the woman who said she had chickens. Ignore the no trespassing sign at the foot of the driveway, she told me, a warning for burglars. That part of the Woodbury is mountainous in the small, Vermont way, with curved hillsides cupping homes, and lots of clear running streams and glacier-carved ponds.

It was nearly dusk, and she was outside, waiting for us. The girls eyed the chickens, who were not yet in their houses. Waiting, the woman showed the girls her fluffy chicks, and then we went inside. Her house had an amazing floor made from stones on the property. While the girls waited quietly, the woman and I talked about her relatives who had been in the area since before the Revolutionary War. She showed us a photograph on the wall of her distant relative in a Civil War uniform with his wife, who must have native blood.

The woman’s house was filled with dusky light. She was one of my people, a small woman, and, standing, we were eye-to-eye. I could feel the girls getting antsy for the chickens, but they were quiet, saying nothing. This woman had raised three sons alone in a mobile home on this property, and then built a house about the time the boys moved on and began their own families, cutting a deal with her ex-husband’s child support arrears for more land instead of the  money he owed.

The girls petted her lovely black lab. I stood listening to the unexpected bends of her life, to an autoimmune disease and the loss of a job, and then, she said, the chickens saved her life. Began her on a new track. In the descending gloaming, we walked behind the coops and visited her new bees. For a moment I guessed she would offer to take us further, up that steep hillside I admired where she and her son cleared a field.

But the girls edged toward the chickens. The hens muttered, stepping slowly into their houses for the night. We took four, driving out through the sound of the clattering peepers.

Morning glories
enough thatching
for this hut.

— Issa

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