Changing Worlds

The cold, my old familiar friend, sweeps back.

Carrying out a bucket of hot ashes from the woodstove in the early morning, I stand for a moment in the gusting wind. Is snow falling or merely blowing?

Inside, the cats pace, hungry, then hunker before the stove, waiting for warmth.

Midwinter, our days unfold in an unusual patience, a kind of dreamy standstill, fluctuating between work and home for my older daughter and myself, and the new version of school for my youngest.

In Vermont, the Agency of Ed aims to fully reopen schools by the end of April. My high schooler asks me, while we make spicy egg rolls, what that means. Among all the things she doesn’t like about this mixed-up world, she’s come to relish the kind of collegesque schedule she’s managed at the high school, coming and going at her own will.

At fifteen, she’s composed and level-headed, determined to get done what’s necessary.

I tell her what I believe — that the world will not revert to the way it was, that our future is already unfolding around us, in ways we don’t yet understand.

I can’t tell her what I’m thinking — seize the reins you’re already holding and steer your own fate — because I know she doesn’t want my advice. Maybe she doesn’t even need my advice.

Instead, I scrape out the last of the cabbage from the pan and say, “Do what you need to do. This is your life.”

Outside, this morning, the wind chimes bang in the wind.

In the bleak Winter
When the World is one color
Is the Sound of Wind

— Bashō

Hardwick, Vermont, January

High School in the Time of Covid

My daughter’s high school varsity soccer team, the Lady Cats, advanced into the playoffs — local joy against rising Covid rates and the election hurtling along.

I didn’t play sports as a student, the lone wolf who ran long solitary runs — pretty much what I’m doing now, except these are short solitary runs. But to be a kid on a local team who wasn’t expected to do well at all — that’s a big deal.

Friday, I’m home briefly in the middle of the day. My daughter and her friend have finished school for the day. In the living room, they’ve set up this year’s version of high school, each with their notebooks and a school-issued Chromebook, surrounded by piles of my library books, their cleats drying beside the wood stove. The room is sunny and warm, and the girls are intently working at whatever assignment — chemistry or algebra.

I fill my thermos with espresso and ask my daughter’s friend if she’d like a cup. I’m joking, but she happily accepts. I’d love an espresso.

So, in a little china cup painted with blueberries that my daughter once used for milk, I serve this girl an espresso, who thanks me.

Before I head out the door again, I look back at these two. I’m happy to be employed, heading to interesting work, on this sunny autumn day, in my Shire of Vermont. But goodness, I’m grateful for girls and warmth. The whole world matters — disease and political collapse — but this afternoon matters, too.

I open the kitchen door, call I love you, step out into the chilly afternoon, and close the door carefully behind me.

Homework

How could I have forgotten that the light in October is exquisite?

Unlike hazy summer, Vermont autumn is clear. The woods are emptying of leaves. The wind sweeps through the towns and over the hills.

From my garden, I cut a cabbage, boil the leaves slightly, and roll up meat and rice, filling the pan with sauerkraut — a Romanian recipe from my grandmother, who died before I began cooking.

Bit by bit, our hours migrate from the garden and back porch in the house. We no longer eat dinners in the sunlight. When I return from work, I see crumbs on the kitchen table, remnants of my teen and her friends.

I imagine these girls figuring out their online chemistry class and plotting their future. When I ask what’s happening in those hours, I hear, We’re fine.

In the evening, the teen spreads out her graph paper and notebook. I knit on the floor with the cat beside the wood stove while her sister reads the day’s news aloud.

The teen shoves her graph paper to me and asks if her approach to problem-solving is correct.

I look at the paper and suggest, Call your uncle. That’s out of my skill set.

The cat flips over and purrs.

The teen bites the end of her pencil and goes back to work.

“The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.”

Joy Harjo

Mid-September?

Three years ago, I sold our house on a back road and moved into the village, for a few reasons, for mostly so my daughter could walk to school. By then, I was a single parent, hustling a livelihood, and I needed my youngest to be able to get herself around. Rural Vermont, for those not in our world, depends on the car or pickup to get yourself around.

In the pandemic world, where I often find myself ticking off what I’m grateful for, as an antidote to the long list of what I’m decidedly not grateful for, that 15-minute walk ranks pretty high up my list.

These days, I’m wondering how this pandemic will shape my daughter’s generation.

A year ago, she was a freshman in high school, with a regular slate of classes and fall soccer games. As a sophomore, she’s more like a college student, grabbing in-person classes instead of online classes, insisting I’m not to interfere; she’s worked out her own schedule.

Study hall on Monday afternoon? I’ve given her permission to walk home with her friends.

So, while she’s hoping her year will be filled with chemistry, anatomy and physiology, trigonometry, Spanish, and French, I see a different kind of education this year. When her father and I divorced, her childhood had a hard line — a Before and an After. Now, across her whole generation, I see a Before and an After.

I’m incredibly curious to see how that unfolds.

The Uses of Sorrow | Mary Oliver

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

Hardwick, Vermont

Ordinary Day

Like so many parents, the impending opening (or not) of school looms over us. My 15-year-old is desperate to go. Every afternoon, picking her up from soccer practice, my friend and I stand in the parking lot, talking. As we share trivial and not-at-all trivial snippets in these few moments, I eye the sprawling brick high school, thinking, Really? How is any of this possible? Lumping teens together, here or in any other building? Does this make sense at all?

What my kid wants is clear — to hang with her friends, to rise up in a real challenge, to learn, to begin finding her forward to her own adult life. Basic stuff.

I’ve hit places of indecision in my life before, like when I uncoupled myself from a marriage. But now? My friend and I stand in collective indecision. Finished, our girls walk towards us in their cleats, sweatshirts slung over their shoulders, masks dangling from their hands. They’re looking at each other and at us, laughing, maybe making a joke about the two of us, or maybe simply happy in this sunny August afternoon, tired from practice and hungry for dinner.

My friend and I look at each other and remark on our girls’ happiness — thankfully. We lean against our cars, talking.

For this moment, there’s no school, no tomorrow, no next week, not even these past lonely months.

And because my mind works this way, I think of how a river turns when it meets an obstacle, never bullying forward, but shifting with the lay of the land. The lay of our land has changed.

The girls look at each other, giggling, and I’m suddenly sure they’ve been laughing at my friend and me. I’m utterly happy about that.

“Life is always rushing away from us.”

— Stephen Kiernan, Universe of Two

Small Joys

Friday afternoon, I knock off work early and stack wood with my youngest.

She’s a far better wood stacker than I am, precise in her ends, creating long tight rows on our porch. About the only thing I have going for me is endurance; I’m determined to stack it all, on this fine sunny day — that endurance, and my utter pleasure to be working outdoors, breathing the sweet smell of sap.

She rakes the piles of bark and the slivers we’ll use for kindling, as we talk about little things, nothing much. Later, she swims with a few friends, the three happy. Seeing her happiness fills me with joy.

On the cusp of school reopening, uncertainty is palpable. Will school open for a week? A month? What kind of crazy plan is this? Like most parents, I’m wondering what’s the way forward? What’s the way to feed her desire for learning and friends — in a pandemic? Who knows?

When I set the rake back in the barn, I find our hatchet. Its head is dull and loosened, in need of repair. Years ago, ax repair would have been my husband’s purview. I hold its hardwood handle. Okay, I think. Find a different solution.

The neighbor’s cat sprawls on our woodpile, gray belly up to the sun, purring.

The cool breeze.
With all his strength
The cricket.

— Issa

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Photo by Gabriela S.