Sign of Spring, Hardwick, VT, #7

My friend down the road emails a complaint regarding the break in my signs of spring project — because there isn’t any! she writes.

True, snow returned yesterday. Enormous, lacy flakes that would have been beautiful December — say — rather than April. It’s spring, all right, but spring is a very lengthy season in Vermont. For those two decades I sugared, through an awful lot of cold and sleet and the terrible early March when 70º temperatures ruined that year’s season and a chunk of our year’s income, the word persistence has gradually evolved in my way of thinking to patience.

Every year, although I’ve lived in New England for most of my life, I somehow have this mistaken notion spring will be brief and brilliant. But autumn is gradual, too, the light at that end of the year bit by bit dwindling before it disappears.

Hidden beneath that coverlet of snow, my garlic I’m sure is beginning to stretch and prod in its lightless place. This morning, the sky bends toward blue. Here’s this sign of spring: light.

The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

— Rumi

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Still Here, Hardwick, Vermont

I’m reading Ruth Stone in bed when my daughter comes up the stairs in her jacket and says I must go with her to look at the moon. It’s nearly eleven. We leave the younger sister sleeping with the cats, cross over the snow above my sleeping garlic, and leap the fence into the cemetery.

The moon shines like an enormous drop of cream, nearly round but not quite, waning. The two of us stand in the granite stones, over the sleeping dead, gazing up at the constellations sprawled over the dark sky, and the village below us, cupped in night-black mountains.

While my daughter sits on the ground with her camera, we talk about the landscape around us, and our family landscape. She’s so grownup now, so fully a young woman, that the terrain between us — always intimate, close — has opened like this starry sky.

On our way back, I’m tired, it’s true, and I carelessly place my Sorel boot sole on the jagged wire cresting the fence and not on the smooth bar. Carelessly, my eyes blinded with night, I ignore my own cautious worries about breaking a wrist and jeopardizing our slender livelihood. The wire snags my sole, and I fall to the cold ground at my daughter’s feet, my bare fingers in the snow. For a brief moment, the world turns upside-down, and I lie there in the beloved, beautiful moonlight, completely still.

And then life goes on. Isn’t that lesson enough? Life goes on.

Now snow falls again in ragged, loose flakes, and spring won’t hurry with my exhortations, but arrive when it will.

You have to take comfort where you can — in the nuthatches coming to the feeder, in the warmth of the wood stove, in the voices of your lovely grandchildren. You have to allow yourself to take joy.

— Ruth Stone

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One Life Instruction, via Mary Oliver

Last summer, we were eating dinner with friends who have young children, and two couples compared notes about their toddlers drinking dirty bath water. I laughed and assured them, yes, someday their kids would brush their own teeth. The real challenge, I claimed, was when the teenagers take off in the Toyota.

As I often am, I was wrong. What about when a child decides to disappear into a remote mountain wilderness? Or head down her own path of parenthood?

In my forties, now, I’ve reached the point where life is no longer that amorphous, endlessly murky terrain, but indeed life stretches out, far more winding than I ever would have imagined when I was twenty. Perhaps it’s the decade of my life, but now separations, cancers, loss and loss again, is no longer uncommon – which perhaps is why good news is so much sweeter. Every one of these babies born well, a new house, a book published, a journey completed in good humor.

Or this: my girls with their long legs sprawled on the couch, laughing about silly things, nothing more, just silliness. Long life is made of little tiny moments: soak up the sweeter ones.

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

– Mary Oliver

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Summertime Chaos

Every June, I have the same vision that summer signifies a smoother sailing, a leveling out of our family life. Every July, I realize how mistaken is that cliche. By July, the garden is both flourishing and struggling. The house, emptied out on sunny days, fills up again on during these all-day rains, and a shifting clutter of books, clothes, pens, gum wrappers – and just about everything else – invades every room. Somehow, the windows are all smeared disgracefully.

Chaos is part of our life, I remind myself, not a temporary phase of life-with-children, but an integral physical force in the universe. Most of all, it’s not personal to me. Nonetheless, the creative force in me rises up. Possibly someday I’ll have that inner peace where I accept the crumbles of mud on the kitchen floor. Until then, chaos and I will keep dancing our waltz. This afternoon, I think we’re evenly partnered.

That’s how I see us… against the backdrop of Nature, life, the universe, which shows so little fairness in the distribution of reward and punishment and hurts some so much more than others, but hurts us all in some way and makes us angry, sad and weary, and sometimes surprised and overjoyed by evidence of an intelligence beyond our own that’s guiding us along our way, requiring consciousness of us and rewarding perseverance with happiness and malingering with suffering, and sometimes rendering the jewel into mud, taking consciousness away from those no less deserving than ourselves….

– David Payne, Barefoot to Avalon

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garlic, West Woodbury, Vermont

 

Unwinding the Rope of Writing

Not long ago, I was at the county courthouse in Barre, Vermont, waiting for the final hearing of my divorce. That courthouse contains the ebb of human life, chock-full of misery and grief, and every time I’ve entered that immense building I’ve witnessed adult women and men crying. I stood alone in a large room whose windows looked into a courtyard where trees were in bloom, and the sunlight shone bright and full of promise. What I was thinking about was a terrible illness in a family member, and how mortality’s knife lies in all of us. Dormant or not, at any moment that knife might turn and slash fatally.

Standing there, I vowed not to let my particular cup of sorrow raise so high that I couldn’t see beyond the vessel of my own brew. Lose a husband, a family life, an occupation, beloved friends: but lose my soul to bitterness, too?

Thoreau’s desire to live as fully as possible, to suck out life’s marrow, to know it as fully as possible is yet my own, despite the bile I naively never expected. Deep in the unlit realms of faith, I know writing is a rope out of that courthouse’s sludge, that art – and making art, like living a human life – holds the potential to burn our hearts in its kiln and emerge with deeper compassion. The sun rose and set on that day in my life, as it’s risen and set for centuries. Even when I was in the windowless courtroom, working through legal litany, I knew the sun would shine in the courtyard when I emerged.

If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods

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Crawford Notch, New Hampshire

Slow Learner

At breakfast at the hotel, my ten-year-old is mesmerized by fruit loops. I’ve never tried those, she says, looking at the rainbow bits yearningly.

Go for it, I tell her.

Nearing the end of the milky bowl, she lays down her spoon and comments that Cheerios are better. Those colored rings have failed to hold up to their promised joy. It’s a loss she takes easily, mere observation. When her older sister was that age, I would have leapt forward to fill that moment: disappointed with a cereal? Try this. Or this. This time around, I let it lie. It’s the slightest sadness, and I just let it be. Second time around, I let her keep that sadness for herself.

That evening, she floats on her back in the hotel’s pool, then raises her dripping face and smiles radiantly, sparkling clean, thoroughly happy with buoyancy. I can’t help but stretch for her chlorine-scented hand, and then we flip over and float again, together.

Bring on winter, bring on

disease, & rot & fracture,
because the more broken

we become, the more music
we can spin out of our bones.

– Stephen Cramer, Bone Music

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Woodbury, Vermont/April/Photo by Molly S.