Walking into town, I pass a house that has been abandoned for the five years I’ve lived here. Last winter, a vehicle skidded off the road and smashed through the front window. Since then, plywood has covered the front.
There’s a few houses like this in that neighborhood, the paint gray, the windows filthy, tiny yards gone over to weeds or dirt. In the pandemic’s craze, people moved back into a few of these, converting abandoned places into homes again. The driver of a fuel truck stood outside this house yesterday with a young couple, the three of them talking seriously, nodding heads. Sheets of foam insulation leaned against the house. On the side wall, someone had ripped off the dirty plastic and exposed a large square window, its top edge red and blue stained glass. Without stopping, I wondered what else was inside the house.
End of January — and suddenly the sunlight returned in full force. Today may be cloudy, tomorrow, too, maybe for days to come, but the earth is tilting. Slow as spring is, we’re leaning that way.
Like darn near everyone else on the planet, the pandemic pushed me hard to evaluate how the pieces of human world fit together. In my life, the pandemic tumbled in on the heels of a brutal divorce when nearly every friendship I had cracked. It was a loss I had not anticipated. The pandemic made so many of us look at the world through a different and perhaps less clouded lens. What holds us together?
All this is a way back to the Galaxy Bookshop….. Saturday was a day jam-packed in the bookstore. All the writers Sean Prentiss and I had reached out to responded quickly and easily, happy to come. Gifts of donuts and local cheese, of sweets and olives, arrived. People flocked in, cheerful, and bought stacks of books.
The day reminded me of the events I organized when I was librarian: poets and novelists, speakers about bear habitat, moose in Vermont, the return of big cats, and a series about climate change I had just begun when the pandemic shut down that world. Those events were the times when the library was most vibrant, most alive. Community, togetherness, are age-old things, deep hungers, a joy to participate in.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
The light is slowly returning; I repeat this to myself in defiance of the gray and brown. How bright a fresh sparkle of snow would feel.
Is it mud season? Sugaring season? Has winter barely begun? One thing that does seem evident is that cabin fever has set in extraordinarily early this year. At work, a stranger phones in and asks for info. I offer the facts, just the facts, and then the stranger remarks, What I’d really like is a small piece of good news to start the new year. I can’t resist; I laugh. I note his bar is pretty darn low. I tell him about seeing a flock of evening grosbeaks Christmas morning in the box elders behind our porch.
That’s something, he agrees. He asks me a few more questions, then remarks that he doesn’t even need to care about these questions, anyway. He could let this go. He says thank you, goodbye, and hangs up. In a strange circumstantial way, I realize I was his good news.
“Caring for each other is a form of radical survival that we don’t always take into account.”
After the death of Ray McNeill, I scavenged a phone number for a woman who roomed in my freshman college dorm and phoned her. We hadn’t seen each other in years. She called me, years ago, after a mutual friend died unexpectedly from heart failure. Our conversation has no real point, no precise question I want answered. We agree we didn’t like each other, years ago, but can’t remember why. What was the contention and why did it matter so much?
Four degrees this morning. I’ve experienced forty below zero, but, good lord, four degrees is not compatible with prolonged human exposure. I carry the stove ashes out and stand for a moment, a few snowflakes drifting down from the darkness, illuminated in my kitchen window’s electric light. Below me in the valley, the scattered lights of the village glow: power still on here. All night, wind threw handfuls of icy snow at our windows. I lay awake listening and reading, my cat curled on my bed, wary of my visiting brother’s dog.
My youngest and I, as the initial rain set in, discovered a rainbow over the village. A fortuitous sign? All depends on how you read that, which way luck will run.
Midday or so, I jam on my boots and head out for a walk down to the lake, leaving behind my desk with piles of hard questions. I’ve forgotten my mittens, so I walk with my hands in my pockets while the wind tears over the lake. The summer people are all long gone, houses boarded up against the elements and thieves. Ahead of me on the road, a stranger walks with a little dog who leaps in snowbanks.
The sunlight is clear, sparkling on the snow, the lake white-capped and simultaneously blue and gray and the green that copper turns after rain.
Last winter, the town began plowing the sidewalk that cuts through the old school’s green. A woman had snowshoed a labyrinth in the snowy lawn for years. The sidewalk divides that space. She protested. The plowing continued. I see she’s marked that labyrinth behind the church. Ahead of me, the little brown dog stops in the road that no one else but us is traveling, its head cocked to one side, staring at me. A gust of wind blinds me with snow for a moment, and then drops just as quickly.
As I walk up to the little dog, I bend down and say hello. The man explains that the dog has rules about people walking behind them — not allowed — and then the three of us walk together, the dog now happily flipping itself into snowbanks. “It’s a bit of an inconvenience,” the stranger tells me, “especially when I have work to do.” At the main paved road, traffic is sparse. A lone Subaru passes with salt-streaked windows.
We part ways. I walk along the short stretch of pavement and turn at the old maple tree that I begged the Selectboard not to cut last year, arguing that the breaking branches were falling only on the grass. “Give it one more year,” I asked, secretly hoping the tree-cutting plans would drift into forgotten things.
At the door, I stamp snow off my boots: a walk with a handful of immutable things.
Socked in by snow, I wander through the neighborhood where kids are usually outside. Two boys ride along the unplowed street, the back wheel of one bike just a metal rim, no rubber tire. The wheel leaves a trench behind the boy. The boys are talking seriously, their words muffled by snowfall. Down the hill, a little boy, maybe five or so, stands in his too-big snowsuit, mouth open to catch falling snowflakes. The moment feels intimate, as if I were staring through a window. I pick up my pace a little and keep on.
“One winter morning Peter woke up and looked out the window. Snow had fallen during the night. It covered everything as far as he could see.”