The Beginning of Genius.

An acquaintance comes into work today to update the town’s website. We talk back and forth, little details here and there, the mechanics of putting the website together and how the pieces of democracy work: minutes and transparency. The public can and does come to Selectboard meetings with requests to move roads and complaints about cowshit spilled over roads. Our conversation tips into philosophical territory. Nearing the end of a challenging week, I’m drinking my 46th cup of coffee that morning and espouse that we’re in end-stage capitalism. Sometimes we behave very badly. Sometimes, not so.

I am not at all a Facebook fan, not a FB reader, but all week I’ve been dipping into the stories people have posted about Ray McNeill. So many stories, some from people I once knew very well. I lived in Brattleboro when I turned 21, completely alone in an apartment over The Shin La, a Korean restaurant still in operation. One night, I closed Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan and went out in the rain. Even then, I was a loner. I didn’t go to public places alone. But that night, the rain fell so hard I ran into Three Dollar Deweys. My friend Debi was there. In those days, she lived with my ex-boyfriend. She came up to me and rubbed my long hair with bar towel. We played darts for hours. The bar lights shone out into the falling rain.

“The beginning of genius is being scared shitless.” 

— Louis-Ferdinand Céline


I must appear half-drowned when I walk into the library, because the librarian asks me just how bad is the weather?

I reach into my jacket and extract a few books, then slip under my sweater the one he hands me. Three-thirty in the afternoon, and a dark rain presses against the windows. The weather reminds me of Ethan Frome, of Walden, of the wildness of Dostoyevsky, the human longing for a hot hearth and candlelight over a bowl of soup.

At home, my cats — self-satisfied as cats are — are pleased they survived the visiting dogs. They’ve regained their places before the wood stove, still slightly disdainful that we’ve allowed in the canines. There’s no one out, the roads nearly deserted, the sky concealed beneath the clouds. A wet wind blows.

At home, I wash the dishes and empty the compost in the bin beneath the apple tree. A cardinal flies into the tree’s thickety branches, a welcome sight.

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that receives it.” 

— Edith Wharton

Snapshot. Vermont Thursday.

In Newport, at the Vermont/Canadian border, a woman in a bubble-gum pink blazer strikes up a conversation with me in a parking lot about the snow falling into Lake Memphremagog. Mid-morning, dense clouds, fat snowflakes disappearing into the gray lake. I’ve never been around the Canadian edges of this lake.

In Newport, I stopped first to visit my new acquaintance Lila Bennett to check out the work she and her colleagues are doing at the Journey to Recovery Community Center. The center is suffused with natural light, alive with plants and colors, and it’s immediately obvious that they’re engaged in that old-fashioned phrase, “the good fight,” work that saves and salvages lives. Lila shows me the stack of my books, too, that the center is giving away for free, to anyone who wants to read it. I thank her profusely.

I’m in Newport, too, to find my way into a state building, up through a reverse rabbit warren into a large and light-filled room where the state’s staff tells Selectboard members and volunteers from Vermont’s tiny Northeast Kingdom towns about the chunks of federal money in the state’s coffers and asks how to get that money to the needy and broken places in our rural communities.

The room is packed. I sit in the back beside a state senator who offers me advice while I knit a sweater cuff. My blue and orange balls of fingerling yarn roll beneath a stranger’s chair.

The snow falls all morning. A woman I knew 25 years ago comes up and reintroduces herself and launches into her enthusiasm for the rail trail. I chat with the Department of Libraries staff member who reads my blog.

Finished, I hurry down to the lake’s boardwalk before I leave, to breathe in some of that cold wet air. Years ago, my little girl lost a flipflop in this lake. I was talking to someone from the farmers market where I worked, and I turned around when my daughter cried out. She had stuck her foot through the railings and lost her shoe. My friend tried to save her shoe with a stick, but the pink- and purple-flowered flipflop bobbed away, headed northward.

I can’t see my future clearly…

The road becomes itself

single stone after single stone

made of limitless possibility,

endless awe.

— Jacqueline Suskin

Saturday. Stories.

In the classic scenario of Saturday plans waylaid, I end up driving here and there this morning, for errands that may or may not make any difference at all. That seems to be where we are these days — maybe, maybe not.

July has warmed, and I work on the back deck, in the shade of our table umbrella, drinking cold coffee.

An acquaintance I haven’t seen in a while stops by. We stand in the shade of my house, talking. He found my book in a yard shade and bought it. Then he tells me his own story of drinking and how he rose up against it. I’d known a few strands of this story, little bits, here and there, that he’d freely given me before. But his telling and my listening slips me back into that sacred space of stories. The telling. The listening. Nothing maybe about that at all.

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

— Graham Greene

Travels through Time. Along the River.

Write a novel and, at some point, you’ll start henscratching or typing notes about when the protagonist moves from reaction to action. Why not think of your life as a novel you’re writing?

I drove down the long center of my Green Mountain State yesterday to return to Brattleboro, where I lived for years as a college student (so long ago). I bought my first car for $500 in Brattleboro.

For the drive, I had one rule: stay off the interstate. I began through the chain of towns I know, Montpelier and down through Northfield and Brookfield, along the Dog River. I headed up through a pass where the snow returned in clots along the road, and where trailers were surrounded by old cars and pickups, the kind of stuff that someday might be used. The forest flattened and gave way to fields where barns were built nearly in the fields. I drove through upscale Woodstock and the burned-out industrial buildings of Springfield.

Southern Vermont was like a magical dream — sunlight streamed over blooming daffodils, forsythia spread bright yellow, emerald green paired with black earth.

I met an old college friend who works at Everyone’s Books on Elliot Street. Thirty years ago, I lived right near that bookstore, and I spent a lot of time there. We exchanged thumbnail stories about our lives and kids and work and exhusbands and books of course. My book was in the front window of the bookstore, and she told me it “had been selling like hotcakes” — utterly gratifying.

In a park, I pulled out my laptop and wrote up a few notes. As I headed back to my Subaru, my friend Sean Prentiss walked towards me. He lives just a handful of minutes from me and was meeting his lovely family for a few days in Brattleboro.

I went to Brattleboro to meet friends from my past, and I met a friend from my present. Put that in as an interesting plot point.

On the way home, I listened to This American Life about babies switched at birth. I’m an TAL devotee, and this episode is especially fascinating.

Magic Trick

Like a great joke, a few more inches of snow arrived on April Fool’s Day. By afternoon, however, the day evolved to a breezy sunniness, brisk but radiant. I walked with writer Natalie Kinsey-Warnock to her car in the Woodbury School’s dirt parking lot. It’s Woodbury — the village built in a swamp — and, for that moment, there’s nowhere I’d rather be. In the treetops, blackbirds sang crazily. Why not? It’s Vermont spring.

Natalie shared stories with the school kids today, and at one point, I couldn’t figure out what she was headed — how did a 1865 steamboat catastrophe in the Mississippi River figure into rural Vermont?

Then, abruptly, like whisking an indigo rabbit from a top hat, the story shimmered. It’s as though Natalie unfurled one of her grandmother’s handstitched quilts, and the connections between the history’s enormity and this woman, and these children and their own place in history, lie visible as much as can anything can be seen in history’s rough beauty, the concealed pieces teasingly beckoning.

I’m the librarian, the hostess of this event, the timekeeper to move this along, make sure the kids have time to grab their coats and catch the school bus, but for these moments I’m merely me, surrounded by these rapt children, loving this particular story.

Oh, the long days of circling to sow and reap,
but, O, those few days on the river each year.

— Leland Kinsey, from “Northern Traverse”