I’m sitting in the back of the school library on the wall heater when a friend I haven’t seen for years walks in. A large school board meeting has started, and we whisper to each other until I suggest we leave and talk. Early evening, the school is empty, and turn on the lights in a room where my daughters both had classes. I pull out two chairs from the student tables.
Almost immediately, we start in on what should be a simple math problem — March 2023 to March 2020 — which yields an unbelievable three. Before the pandemic we worked together and spent hours talking about literacy and kids, about schools and families, but we also talked about canning tomatoes, about parenting, and being women. We ask how this or that turned out for each other — some decisions, some simply a bend in circumstance.
By the time we leave, the school has completely emptied out for the night. The weather has turned mild, and we walk slowly under the dim lamplight to our cars. A mist rises over the soccer field. I get in my car and drive down the hill and across the river and up the hill to my house. The village lights sparkle in the mist. The moon edges around a break in the clouds. In the darkness I stand there, thinking about the numbers we put together, marking places in our lives, then adding and subtracting our lives—people and jobs and books and houses. The numbers all mesh together, consumed in our shared stories.
I am not a dog owner, but my oldest has a dog now she adores, so walking and hiking with her I’ve discovered the world of the dog walkers. Midday in full sunlight, I wander along the lake. Great puddles pool on the ice. White-throated sparrows sing late winter songs. I head through the woods from lake to library through a few inches of soft snow. I’m wearing shoes more than boots, and crumbles of icy slush soak through my socks. At the library I sit on the steps and empty my socks of ice bits and shreds of cedar greens sprinkled in the woods from the last windstorm.
A little white dog runs up to visit, curious. As I bang out my shoes to the dog’s fascination, the dog’s owner and I chat about the birds and the sunlight, and then she leaves her dog with me and heads into the library. The little creature and I ruminate about the neighbors’ cat sitting in the window. Beyond the paved driveway, mud oozes in the sunlight. Sure sign of spring.
Last, The Writing Life column in Hippocampus ran my essay this month. The essay includes:
Without wealth — as most of us are — a creative life is a dicey proposition…
Anyone who knows me knows that winter pulls out my mania for painting. In a fit of what I can only describe as sheer irritation, I bleach mold from the bathroom ceiling and then ask for primer advice at the hardware store.
The store is darn near empty, save for two clerks and a black cat who rolls on its back on the counter and flicks a pearl-tipped tail at me. A clerk walks back with me to the paint section. She and I have been on a first name basis for years. While my gallon of primer is on the shaker, she shares her bathroom ceiling painting experience, and I offer this small problem and ask her to solve it. We walk back slowly to the front counter. She’s been my height for years, but as we walk and talk, I realize she’s slipped down below my height, and my height is definitely (as my brother might claim) substandard.
A man in logger’s chaps pays for discounted Christmas tree lights and a Twix bar and grouses about the rain and the mud, and how can there be a January thaw when we’ve had no winter?
The clerk spreads my paint samples over the counter and asks if I’ve narrowed down any color choices. She lays one finger on the color named Sunshine. “This one,” she suggests.
I gather my primer, stir stick, the lightbulb for over the kitchen stove, and head out. Ahead of me lies an afternoon of careful work, of NPR and stories from around the world, so many places hemorrhaging in ways that far outstrip my tiny mold project. As I’ve always done, I join my head and hands in a creative project. My own imagination won’t heal the world, but surely it won’t harm.
The cats eye the dog with disdain. The dog considers the cats a potential meal or simple annoyance; we don’t know. The dog sneaks into the kitchen and steals the bowl of chocolate covered stars which horrifies my daughters. In that tussle, the braver cat slinks behind the wood stove and regains his favored position.
My oldest has no heat in her apartment, worries about her houseplants, has heat and then again has no heat. She texts me before five in the morning, and then my brother and I lie awake and text each other through the bedroom wall. I write, looks rough in Buffalo. I make endless pots of coffee. My brother, the brewery owner, drinks beer. We play Concentration, Chinese Checkers, Wordle.
The bathroom needs painting, and we discuss paint options, how Steam might pair with Orange Juice like our father’s study. The remains could be used in our tiny dining room.
After he’s home, he sends me three photos. In one, my youngest as a tiny girl stands in a borrowed homemade dress with mud smeared to her elbows and daubed on her face. My oldest leans down from an apple tree, sunlight in the leaves over her head. My brother pedals a tricycle. I remember the summer day I took that photo of my youngest. We had stopped by a site where her father was building a house. So much mud, so much pleasure for this child. Years later, I saw that homeowner ice skating with his young daughter. How much I wanted to know if he still lived in that house. How well had it held up for him? Instead, we exchanged chit-chat about the ice, and I never learned his story.
In the dog’s absence, the cats retake their rug and wood stove territory, protagonists in their own cat-language drama.
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.
Thanksgiving weekend, we pulled out the memory game. Not so long ago, my youngest and I played the game almost daily. The game was from my own childhood, and somewhere along the way came to us.
The cardboard squares are now old and well-used from hundreds of games. We turn them around and around in our hands, talking and playing, remembering and mis-remembering.
On this December 1 day of sunlight, I cut kale from the garden. The soil beneath my boots is soft, the ice melting into mud. At last night’s virtual Almanac launch, the editors spoke about the importance of print, of books you can hold in your hands, press your face into the opened pages and breathe in the scent of paper and ink.
The memory pieces all have names we’ve made up: pointy tree and leafy tree, yellow girl, blue girl, ugly quilt, the ball, the sun. Strangely, there is no moon. I brew tea. We eat leftover pumpkin pie. Here again is the question: what’s real? Answer: bird in the hand.