I’m home after eight. My daughter is on our front porch, eating ice cream and talking with the cats about all the interesting cat things we talk about at the end of the day. They never mouth back. One is utterly loving. The other tends to stalk around with the tip of his tail at a distinctive angle, a little indignant at the foolishness of his humans.
I’m deep in the thick of parenting and adolescence. The thing that’s so hard about adolescence is that it’s just so right. The world is profusely unfair. We live in a jumbled-up time. Yes, the kids have been handed a planet immensely beautiful and terribly ailing. It’s all true. Frankly, there’s no reason to argue about any of of that.
And yet, somehow lives must be made. At one point, in that rough 2020 year, I bought a box of ice cream cones and a carton of ice cream so we could make ice cream cones at home. I had no idea when an ice cream shop might open again.
In May, in Vermont, the world is beautiful. Now in the mid-80s, dry, dry, this isn’t our usual wet and damp spring. I pause in the parking lot on my way into work and talk with a young deputy. We swap garden tips. He tells me about his apple trees. He muses aloud about the weather — what will July bring? A freak snowstorm? A frost in August? Or maybe more of the same, beautiful day after beautiful day unfolding. We wave away the black flies. There’s not much point to go further.
Flying at Night
Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations. Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies like a snowflake falling on water. Below us, some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death, snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn back into the little system of his care. All night, the cities, like shimmering novas, tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.
The May I was pregnant with my second child, rain fell every day. I remember this keenly because my husband wasn’t working that month. I was about to have a baby, and I wanted very much to be finished with pregnancy. I had been so ill for eight months, and I just wanted to move on.
As it turned out, a gorgeous healthy baby girl was born on May 31. The summer was long and hot, just perfect weather in Vermont.
This year, I didn’t realize until today that we had passed over into the month of May. I’m writing this, as I’ve been in the same kind of dissatisfied funk that I was seventeen years ago. It seems silly to admit this — at the time, perhaps, I was in a funk only because of my own dissatisfied soul. I had — and have — plenty. I was talking to new acquaintance yesterday about the general dissatisfaction and irritability that blossoms up everywhere these days. It’s complicated — it’s always complicated — and by no means do I want to diminish that. I don’t want to diminish where I was in those days, either. Now, I can look back at those days and marvel, at least a little, that I did manage to survive intact, more or less.
That summer, though, I knew it would be the last summer I would ever have an infant. Almost right away, I was lucky enough to know that. I remember thinking, let the laundry go unwashed if need be.
This afternoon, walking around my house in a gently falling cold rain, I remembered those days. My daughter has one year of childhood left. Already I’ve begun to recriminate myself for what I should have done, how, given another shot, I’d be such a better mother. In the rain I came back to that same thinking I reminded myself of years ago, Be here now. Remember: drink joy, too.
The afternoon takes me around two lakes in a kind of work I relish. One visit involves a visit with a contractor at a house he’s building. We muse how water seeks its own wise course. As I drive away, I keep thinking about the immense boulders a king-sized excavator unearthed from that mucky soil. The boulders are some of the most righteous beings I’ve met in weeks.
On my way home, I stop at the high school and take a brisk walk through the woods before an evening meeting. I see someone I know, and we talk about projects at the high school, what money is coming in, and what’s still needed. These days, I often find myself in terse conversations with acquaintances, as though we’re all gnawing a cigarette between our teeth, our backs against a proverbial wall, eyeing the horizon.
In a light rain and pitch dark, my daughters and I arrive at Montpelier’s Hubbard Park for the annual Enchanted Forest. Masked, spread out, bundled up, I have the strange sensation that the three of us are alone, and yet not alone.
The forest path winds along lit jack o’lanterns and burning torches, and among live musicians and giant puppets. Near the crest of the hill glowing paper lanterns decorate a giant oak tree.
The climax of the walk is a creation story re-enactment of a very old woman. Her black dog unravels her weaving as she tends to the changing seasons. As the rain falls more steadily, I realize the story is the tale of my life, as a writer and a mother — the story of the tension between order and disorder and the human longing for order to reign. Yet total order, total perfection, is impossible in this earthly realm.
We walk back through the mud puddles. Before heading home, my oldest pulls into a convenience store. Under a well-lit overhang, I stand outside, watching a man pump gas into an enormous SUV. He’s with a woman wearing a coat that falls to her ankles, a pretty garment with leaves and vines. I’m too far to hear what they’re saying, but I see his hand reach out and slip the top button closed on her coat and smooth the collar over her clavicle.
Through the plate glass window, my daughters stand at the store’s counter, buying hot chocolate. They’re wearing masks, so I can’t see their mouths, but from the way they look at each other, I know they’re laughing.
November looms tomorrow. Our New England darkness. Tighten your coat collar.
My daughter and I are standing on a street corner in Montpelier, Vermont, talking about some little thing — maybe the mighty silver maple on the library’s lawn and how those leaves are always the last to turn gold. How I remember this every year at the same annual mark, and then forget this for the rest of the year.
While we’re talking, I keep thinking of this lovely library, and how I took my daughters there as little girls. Later, I often worked all day in the upstairs reading rooms with views of the trees. Not so, anymore, in our pandemic world.
Across the street, a couple kicks fallen leaves at each other. I stop talking, thinking, Oh, no, what fresh hell is this? when the couple begins laughing. They’re each holding white paper cup, and he has a paper bag that might be full of sweet delicious things from a nearby bakery.
That moment — that tiny joyful moment — opens up our day. Sweet normalcy. Oh, yes. Bring that on.
One of my most favorite autumn poems:
on a withered branch sits a crow autumn nightfall —Basho
In a dream, my daughter drives along an interstate and rounds a curve. A semi spreads across the road, its back-end across our lane. In a fraction of a moment, I predict we’ll hit the truck. Before I can speak, my daughter steers to the right, and I have a sickening foreboding that she’ll hit the truck and I, on the right, will emerge unscathed. I’m not afraid really; it’s grief that nails me.
She steers us around the truck, over the grass, back onto the road, and keeps driving. My heart hammers.
In the dark, I lay awake. There’s a lesson here, I counsel myself.
On this rainy October morning, here’s a few lines about parenting from Anne Lamott and an excerpt of my book in The Fix.
…one of the worst things about being a parent, for me, is the self-discovery, the being face to face with one’s secret insanity and brokenness and rage.”
― Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year