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.
In the beaver dam realm, we spy the quicksilver flash of wet fur, bright eyes. The ice there is thin, barely beginning its winter’s work. We cross the snow-shallow field, then head into the woods and cut down again where the swamp lies in the fold between two hillsides, ghostly in its black-water, dead tree beauty. Then up, up, up we trudge, the dogs eager. We find bootprints in the snow, a few drops of blood from a wounded prey, and then we’re back again to the dirt road. All day, the light seems like twilight, and then we pass through twilight and into the night, and still we’re awake, talking, circling back to the same old subjects. In the morning’s dark, I scrape ashes from the stove and carry out the hot bucket. My brother stands on the porch, watching his dog nose at my herb garden. The damp rushes at my face.
“Like Maine,” I say.
“Yeah,” my brother answers. “But it’s Vermont.”
Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you might be.
You will never be alone, you hear so deep a sound when autumn comes. Yellow pulls across the hills and thrums, or in the silence after lightning before it says its names — and then the clouds’ wide-mouthed apologies. You were aimed from birth: you will never be alone. Rain will come, a gutter filled, an Amazon, long aisles — you never heard so deep a sound, moss on rock, and years. You turn your head — that’s what the silence meant: you’re not alone. The whole wide world pours down.
With our household size decreased, so is our garbage. On a sunny Friday afternoon, I swing by the transfer station with two bins of recycling and a bag of trash. The roving raccoon who appears regularly outside my kitchen door, pre-dawn, apparently found a way into my barn and enjoyed the trash far more than I did.
At the transfer station, I interrupt a woman who’s eating her lunch salad. I apologize, and then I stand at the open window as we kick around a weather conversation for bit — flowers blooming in my garden and all. She tells me she’s headed to Florida next week — not for the winter, but to drive down her convertible and store it at her father’s house. Where he lives, he’s eight hours from New Orleans, eight hours from Nashville, eight hours from just about anywhere worth going. The trash business slows in the winter (something I’d never considered), and she’s looking forward to doing some traveling this winter.
I’m no fan (who is?) of consumption and trash, but the transfer station has a particular allure to me: so many stories here. When I moved from our last house, I negotiated with the transfer station owner about swapping used tires for metal, and what could he offer for two old pickups in the woods? We each held up our end of the bargain we struck.
A flock of juncos settled around my house this afternoon. While I folded up the laundry I had hung on the back porch, I imagined my acquaintance driving south, roof cranked down and the breeze in her hair, speeding towards her dreams.
On some nights, I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.
The summer people are still summering it up around the lake. In a few more weeks, these noontime walks will be me and the goldenrod. The kids will be back in school, the adults back in the adult world.
Walking, I can’t help but take stock of the summer. In a quiet way, this has been a summer of learning for me. Perhaps more than anything else, I’ve started to let go of how hard I hold onto time. I stop and talk to the gardener who often seems to be mowing under a wooden split rail fence. I see him just as he’s turned off the motor, and we talk for a while about phlox and coreopsis, milkweed and butterflies. He’s been gardening around this lake for over forty years, and he’s in no particular rush for anything.
The day has warmed since the cool of the early morning when I left my house. I’ve had plenty of coffee and there’s a long stretch of day ahead. With the toe of his boot, he brushes grass clippings from the mower. He asks how far I intend to walk.
Not far, I answer.
He says he’ll offer me a piece of advice: go further than my plan. Walk around the next curve in the path.
In his mirrored sunglasses I see myself, a small woman in a blue dress. I agree, All right.
There’s this odd word gnomon in James Joyce’s story “The Sisters” which is used in the mathematical manner: it’s a way of knowing a physical void by what is visible. That returns to that notion of understanding ourselves as creatures of change: not full and certainly not complete.
A writer once pointed out to me the gnomon is a way of writing dialogue, too. Truest dialogue always reflects the sub-story of what we’re not saying. We live in worlds of stories we create: the spoken story we share, and then all those winding sub-stories beneath.
Isn’t that partly what makes us so infuriating to each other at times, and, conversely, also so intoxicatingly fascinating? Behold, then, the strawberries, the nasturtiums, sun rising through a scrim of fog, the Milky Way arching through the black of a moonless night – this exquisite world we inhabit – and us, with our endless stories…. essence of our humanity.
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
December is the best month to be a bookseller, because it’s the month when people give stories to one another. All day, folks stamp in from the cold and ask for a book for their ancient aunt who enjoys knitting and local history, or a baby not yet born who has a whole world yet to love. My favorite today was the young uncle who bought Roald Dahl for overseas nephews, but went home to reread James and the Giant Peach before mailing the novel.
Today, with the ground finally covered in our familiar snow, the light returned in the solstice kind of way we New Englanders know and love. This evening, a half moon glows on our piece of the earth, the clouds scudding back and forth over its pristine illumination.
Like this light, stories came in all day at the bookstore, not simply flowing out in wrapping paper and bags. We heard stories of the babies on their way, of the old who were babies themselves in this town; one, two, three stories that made me want to weep, the story of a woman buying an auto repair business in the Northeast Kingdom, and many more simply funny and joyous. Taken together, this was a bouquet of stories, all across the human realm. Fitting in a place for literature.
You can speak as though your life is a thread, a narrative unspooling in time, and a story is a thread, but each of us is an island from which countless threads extend out into the world.