Postcards From the Past

Looking for baby pictures for her senior high school yearbook page, my teenager came across a postcard from long ago I’d stashed in a box. My father had mailed me the card when I was sophomore in college (about a 100 years ago), and it had been thumbtacked over my desk for years – once scribbled upon by the girl who’s now a teenager, when she was a toddler. On the back, my father had written that famous Hemingway quote, about the little new each of us has to give: fatherly advice, about the costliness of knowledge.

In my less confident mothering moments, I wonder if I’ve learned anything.

Last night, reading Mary Oliver, I found a line that reoccurs in her poetry, over and over, like a familiar stitch: take responsibility for your life. One of the very simplest things, and yet one of the hardest. The flip side is I force myself not to responsibility for all of my daughters’ lives, too. Put your hand through a window at 17? Odd and hard as it may seem, I believed it would be theft for me to take my daughter’s responsibility for that action.

I think of my toddler in her pink waffle-weave long underwear, going at this postcard with a gleam in her eye and my felt-tipped pen in her hand. At some point, I realized I had to let her grow up; at some point I realized I had to do the harder thing, and step back.

But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness… And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe – that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.

– Mary Oliver, Upstream



The Edge of the World

November light in Vermont is eerily dim, the daylight rapidly leaking away, and even what full sunlight we have is thin and scant. My older daughter complains, I don’t like this, to which I reply that no one does. Sometimes I wonder if an unspoken mainstay of my parenting might more concisely be: deal with it.

Yesterday, the girls and I took a short, unfamiliar hike in the White Mountains, switchbacking up an abandoned road. Below us, pine trees and mountains rose out of a sea of mist, and we never saw the valley floor. The girls were enchanted by this Lord of the Rings world. As we climbed higher, the view spread further, as if we peered down into an endless ocean with sacred islands rising majestically from its billows.

At the top, we found a blasted site where someone had once intended to build a house, and – likely through lack of money – abandoned that project and wandered off elsewhere. Fox prints tracked through the house now. The younger daughter remarked that the school bus wouldn’t come. She’d have to ski to school, she noted with real delight.

Stay honest whatever happens
says the bamboo bent under snow
over my window

– Buson


Mt. Washington Valley, NH


The Value of One Word

My 11-year-old opened a box with a brand-new puzzle today and said happily, “This smells puzzle-y.”

What a world this is, where a kid can make up a word that’s indicative of so much – winter evenings around a table, cheerfully chatting – and spin together that treasured past with the tangible promise of future pleasure literally in her hands.

Our physical world is dictated by laws of equal and opposite action; the earth gives generously, but the earth taketh, too, and doesn’t skimp on the taking. Which is perhaps why that word puzzle-y shines so brilliantly. Like Noah’s olive branch, my daughter’s word treasures the past and beckons in the goodness of the future.

And it came to pass… the waters were dried up from off the earth: and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and, behold, the face of the ground was dry…. (The Lord said) bring forth with thee every living thing that is with thee, of all flesh, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth; that they may breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth… While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.

Genesis 8:13-22, King James Version


Stowe, Vermont

Flowering Knotweed

Biking in Stowe this afternoon, my daughter and I passed enormously large thickets of Japanese knotweed, blooming with tiny, delicate flowers – an invasive I studiously avoid. No knotweed rooting on my terrain!

I was reminded of a line from Sophocles my father mentioned this summer: Nothing great enters the life of mortals without a curse. Biking fast to keep up with my 11-year-old, darting around tykes on training wheels and a contingency of strollers, I thought of that phrase’s inverse. I’ve always been particularly annoyed by the adage to squeeze lemons into lemonade, as if an impromptu tea party solves anything, but might a curse also have a slender thread of goodness?

Poor Japanese knotweed: so maligned and despised in my Vermont world. In a profusion of flowers, I bent near and inhaled its sweet fragrance, the petals trembling with pollinators.

Poverty’s child –
he starts to grind the rice,
and gazes at the moon.

– Matsu Bashō


Stowe, Vermont


Girl with Confidence

My 11-year-old daughter woke up this morning, searched for a particular pair of shorts, and ran down our dirt road. She ran for the first time beyond the road’s well-travelled end and down the narrower section, where woods and wild blackberries flank either side.

In the afternoon, she took her sister and me on a tour of Morrisville’s rail trail where she’s sprinted this summer with a friend. With delight, she showed us a bridge over a narrow road, the brewery where we later ate dinner, a tiny house with a glass front, a cluster of ramshackle trailers.

The ride, fragrant with August’s lush goldenrod, scottish thistle, honeysuckle, was a three-dimensional map of her childhood world: a unique, dear  gift.

Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.

Scout, in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird


Morrisville, Vermont