Turtle Visitor

A wildlife biologist smitten with wood turtles makes an evening presentation at my library, turtle in tow.

The room fills with people I know, and some I don’t know — a little girl from Montpelier with her grandfather whose family has owned a lakeside camp in Woodbury for 100 years. The trustees bring homemade desserts; there’s cold cider; we borrow chairs from the elementary school’s second floor gymnasium. In the humidity, I wipe sweat from my forehead with the school’s paper towels.

An older couple brings their dog, who otherwise would have cowered alone at home, if thunderstorms moved in.

These evenings are a microcosm of small town Vermont: one woman quietly counsels another about obtaining a medical referral. The kids pile a paper plate with brownies. Another woman raids my book sale, asks for a box, and says she’ll drop a check by later.

In the end, I lock up, saying goodnight to the silent 100-year-old schoolhouse. So many people have gone through these doors; so much living has happened here.

In my library, next door, I glance around at a bit of chaos — a pile of old buttons in a pie plate the children have strung into necklaces, picture books on the floor.

Enough for one day. I turn off the light, lock the door, and walk out into the cooling-down rain-sweet night.

And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass: His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along.

— John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939

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Ides of August, Buying Gas

Stopping to buy gas late in the evening, I walk into D&L and immediately stop: the familiar clerk is mopping the floor. It’s so muggy, even long past dark, that he holds the back of his wrist to his sweating forehead.

Go ahead, he tells me. Walk on it. And he crosses the wet tile floor himself.

We talk a little about this hot, sultry summer, now winding down. Already, I’m waking in the dark, turning on the light over the kitchen sink to feed the mewling cats.

In this liquor and gas station on the edge of town, the clerks are sharp-eyed, scanning the crowd, but this evening, it’s just him and I. He leans on his mop handle, nearly finished with his day’s shift, nearly closing time.

I mention that six months from now, in lightless January, I’m going to be complaining to him about the subzero cold.

He laughs out loud. Oh, boy, I can’t wait.

Outside, the gas station lights are an illuminated bubble in the surrounding darkness. Most people sleep at night in this little town. I’m sure there’s mothers and fathers awake with crying babies, the heartsick or troubled who wander their dim rooms, drug users or simply those who are sleepless. The crickets whirr their song, this still night, with not even any passing-through traffic. August: season of t-shirts and sandals, and, this morning, rain sweetly falling.

The Chinese junk
not stopping
moving on through the mist

— Buson

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See Our Territory

Small town living isn’t always so saccharine sweet — I’m no great fan of Norman Rockwell.

At soccer games, you’ll meet the parents of the child who slighted your own. Argue at school board meetings, and you’ll discover one of the four chambers of democracy’s beating heart is listening. Walking down the sidewalk on Christmas Eve, you might see your former spouse eating dinner in a restaurant, laughing. I’ve never lived in the anonymity of a large city, but in these small towns, you can’t help but suck up every bit of sorrow, of bent desire, of the generosity of strangers, the pleasure of walking with friends under open skies.

My daughter and her friend report seeing a man flying a drone in the cemetery adjacent to our house. From behind tombstones, they spy on him.

Through a chance encounter from the couple who sold me my house, I learn of this arial footage of our village, Hardwick. My daughter pauses from her homework to watch with me. In this muted winter palette, the town sprawls ragged and enchanting, with an ice-choked river, yellow school buses, and the dead laid down between the trailer park and the white houses on the hill: here’s an illustration of poetry I aspire to in my own writing craft.

 

Cabin Fever, #1

Somehow, we’ve reached the middle of February: this is the period of deep winter, and its many juxtapositions. The sun shines blissfully all morning on the sleeping cats sprawled around my feet on the kitchen floor. The neighbors’ septic backs up; we meet in our nearby driveways, shoveling snow yet again, and he laughs, Not my best day.

The older daughter takes a highlighter to her textbook, determined to pass an EMT course, while the younger plans an elaborate visit to Burlington. Through my perpetual email, I wonder if she’s imagining Burlington as the spring paradise of blooming fruit trees rather than the gray pavement I see once a week.

My taxes are unfinished in messy pile beside stacks of overdue books from three libraries. I mean to invite over parents of my daughter’s new friend. I miss drinking coffee with my friend in Montpelier. In the basement of either the town hall or the town clerk might be boxes of legos for my young library patrons: a kid gold mine I need to spelunk. Somewhere out there is my next husband. When will he arrive?

This is February.

March will bring my library’s pie breakfast, when hundreds of people in town bake pies and carry them in both hands to the elementary school’s second floor cafeteria. Two live bands, endless conversation and gossip, coffee and more coffee, sweet and savory pies, and hundreds of Vermonters in snow boots. Pie breakfast is March’s small town brilliance.

The moon has nothing to be sad about….

— Sylvia Path, from “Edge”

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Winter’s Grass-Is-Greener

Driving down the Woodbury gulf in the twilight, staring at the road — snow-crusted, ice packed, with two curving black lines of asphalt worn through winter — I remember all those years of driving mountainous Route 9 in southern Vermont and wonder, What if I’d stayed in Brattleboro? What if my kids went to school there? I made soup with my publisher and used the Brooks Library with their enormous windows? What if I lived on Elliot Street again?

That’s January thinking.

My gaze lifts from the treacherous road to the gray and white mountains folding around that narrow valley, with the waterfalls and the rocky cliffs high overhead.

Trouble follows you anywhere. I know that. The last time I was in Brattleboro, itinerancy surprised me, the darker threads of our society thickening. I was glad I hadn’t stayed, that I had swapped a larger town for a smaller one. In the end maybe, it’s all Vermont roads, with those mysteriously beautiful mountains always greater than us, rising silently.

The winter wind flings pebbles
at the temple bell

— Buson

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Store Window Art, Hardwick, Vermont

Hardwick Postcard #2: Community Notices

Outside Hardwick’s food co-op are two boards thumb-tacked with wind-tattered signs, the cultural postings of this small town – free community postings of library and school events, classes offered, a deadbeat father’s rambling missive to his family. I stand in the cold reading the jumble of those scrawled words, thinking how much more his children would have appreciated a loaf of bread.

It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

– Wendell Berry

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