April

The wind chimes on our back porch tingle and clang all day and all night long. Spring pushes in not just with purple and pearl and gold crocuses, but with birdsong. 5 a.m., when I step out with a bucket of hot stove ashes, the robins are at it already, mating and nesting, busy with robin family-life.

I lie awake thinking of that window of time when my daughter contracted Covid, imagining when she might have let her mask slip, rubbed an eye with her fingers, the slightest of gestures she’ll never recall. Then I imagine the hours when she was contagious, before this gorgeous healthy teen said, My back hurts. I’m tired, and I closed my laptop, looked at her carefully, and began to worry suddenly, in earnest.

With my own two negative tests, the virus has (at the moment) passed over my body.

Snow falls, all day, on April first. We sleep with the windows cracked open, and I smell the particular damp scent of snow in the night. I lie there, thinking of the practical, mundane things of my world (as a single parent, could I get with it and write a will?) and the visible and invisible mysteries of this world. How I’ve tarnished and sullied the prayer of my everyday life, distracted by things that mean very little, while all along our days are unfolding, one after another, in their finite number.

The cats insist on breakfast. I stand at the back door, drinking coffee, watching snowflakes drift in a gray dawn, listening to NPR and a courtroom in Minnesota.

It’s another month. Despite the snow, spring edges in.

You’d better get busy, though, buddy. The goddamn sands run out on you every time you turn around. I know what I’m talking about. You’re lucky if you get time to sneeze in this goddamn phenomenal world.

— J. D. Salinger

Technological “Advances” in Rural Vermont

Living in Vermont and relying on a cell phone means knowing the best reception landscape around you – precisely which few feet along your dirt road have enough bars to dial out.

Yesterday, with our home reception reliably lousy these days, I parked behind the Greensboro Garage’s yellow barn, opened my notebook, unstrapped my sandals, and went to work. The crickets were singing, and the sun was a peachy end-of-August temperature. I spread my notebook on the dash, with the doors open, in a little breeze that moved along that valley. As a writer, I’ve worked in all kinds of places, from cemeteries to a hospital closet, and this was prime territory, but I’m not sure this represents all that much of a technological advance.

I once used a landline at my own desk; now the phone fits in my hand, which is good thing because I sometimes need to hold it up, believing that will improve reception or send off an email I’m anxious to move along.

Admiring this substantial barn reminded me of Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. Remember Seymour Glass calling his fiancée in World War II?

The connection was so bad, and I couldn’t talk at all during most of the call. How terrible it is when you say I love you and the person at the other end shouts back “What?”

– Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction

Yesterday evening, parked at the top of Kate Brook Road, near a meadow storybook-beautiful with wildflowers and ringed by mountains, neighbors stopped and asked if I had a flat tire. When I held out my phone, they said, Use our landline anytime. The door’s unlocked. If I stopped by, chances are, I’d leave some of my tomatoes, and sample some of theirs.

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Hardwick, Vermont

 

 

Reading, Now and Then

Back when I was in high school, I copied Salinger’s Seymour Glass and wrote quotations on index cards and thumb-tacked the cards all around my desk. Some days, it feels like veritable centuries have passed since my high school days, and I’ve long since abandoned that practice. But every now and then, reading, I come across some of those lines I favored, and I’m often struck by how much I still admire whatever I was reading then.

What’s changed is me. What’s changed is that I no longer primarily understand with my head, but all the way down to the roots of my abscessed tooth, or twined around the scars of my caesarians, or in the pronounced veins on the backs of my hands.

Isn’t that one of the beauties of literature? Some places I’ve returned to from my childhood are far smaller and paler versions in my adult life than my memory held. But books? So many are infinitely better, this time around…..

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

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Lake Elmore, Vermont

 

Windstorm

These autumn days hold the dim shortness I remember from this time of year as a child in New England, but the air this afternoon lay almost balmy, redolent with wet earth, like spring. Driving to meet my children at school, a sudden wind blew up violently, throwing dry leaves in the air, bits of twig, the abrupt rain nearly sideways against the windshield. The clouds spun darkly.

Looking up through the glass at crows tossing in the unsteady air currents, suddenly I realized the heart of the book I’m writing is about light and shadow. I pulled over at an ugly patch of Hardwick  – a mini-storage – and ran to the center of the parking lot. The rain bit at my eyes, and the wind spun in a gyre with shreds of trees and plastic debris. I closed my eyes and thought of those Salinger stories I had been reading last night; I imagined each of those stories in their own entity – with Teddy and Esme and the Laughing Man – circling around.

Just as abruptly, the wind ceased. I stood for just a moment more, thinking of those stories, as full as any story could possibly be, with layers of shadow and light, story beneath story.

Between Third and Lexington, she reached into her coat pocket for her purse and found the sandwich half. She took it out and started to bring her arm down, to drop the sandwich into the street, but instead she put it back into her pocket. A few years before, it had taken her three days to dispose of the Easter chick she had found dead on the sawdust in the bottom of her wastebasket.

–– Salinger, “Just Before the War with the Eskimos”

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Woodbury Elementary School, Vermont, late October

Creative Chairs

I picked up six free chairs the other day. Amazing, what the back of a Toyota Matrix can hold, when the kids aren’t in. Chairs have been a burr in this household for a number of years, and we’ve cycled through a number of incarnations of castoffs, supplemented with a  great deal of glue. A shocking number have ended up permanently relegated to the basement. But these chairs, I believe, will be here to stay for some time. They’re hard-used, fully broken with the kind of grime around the edge that fits in here, from hands like ours, dirty and calloused and into all kinds of things.

I took the smallest chair, the one the giver (also a writer) preferred, and set it at my desk. The chair’s well-made, well-used, and infinitely appreciated by me. Not to mention, I didn’t have to outlay any cash.

Sweeping under the kitchen table tonight, I remembered being a teenager and wandering through the adult section of the public library. I found all kinds of gems in those stacks, but a particular one was Salinger’s Nine Stories, stories I’ve read over, and over, through so many phases of my life. These chairs reminded me of De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period, a koan of a story (aren’t these all?) ending with a mystical experience involving a mannikin. At the story’s end, in exasperation perhaps, the main character takes a chair up to his room. The house’s owners are Japanese, and the bedroom lacks a chair. I’m reminded of this story at times, when I can’t seem to get it together to just bring a chair up to a room, to just do an apparently simple thing.

I remind myself: do the simple thing. The harder things are hard enough. Early this morning, while the creamy moon was sailing over the house and the children were still sleeping, I was at my desk with my pages and pages of sentences. I thought, This is hard, but do something harder, write what I’d least expect, and I leaned over the page.

… the letters seemed to write themselves. It may have had something to do with the fact that, before sitting down to write, I’d brought a chair up from downstairs.

–– J. D. Salinger
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