Mapping, Metaphor, Motherhood.

I forget my map on my desk beside my eternal list (write thankyous, double check FAFSA submission, confirm E and J meeting….) and drive over the Canadian border shortly after sunrise. Luminous crimson stripes the clouds. Almost immediately, the land flattens from Vermont’s hard ridges to industrial ag fields, distantly studded with metal silos. Late December, and the terrain is more gray than white. I stop at a gas station and ask a woman who is emptying her car of fast food wrappers for directions. I don’t understand her accent, the slipperiness of French that eluded me all those high school French classes. She wants me to understand, repeating her directions, one hand waving a crumpled bag. I nod thank you, thank you, and turn back to my salt-crusted Subaru, miserable with my lack of agility with language. Aren’t I a writer?

At a crossroads, I have no idea which road to take, and the world opens up abruptly in dizzyingly wideness.

My intention is to drive to Montreal to meet my daughters. I hate driving the dullness of interstate and fear driving into cities, and I’ve made this infinitely worse by losing my map. For years with young children in carseats, I delivered maple syrup around Vermont, navigating by atlas and rivers, the sun and roadsigns, using my tools of snacks and a box of board books. I once pulled over and lifted a handful of pebbles from a roadside so my toddler could dump pebbles from one paper cup to another, satisfying her tired self.

Now: no map, no cell service, in a town whose name (ridiculously) I never learn, I pull a Streetcar Named Desire card ask strangers to point my way out. A teenager shrugs. An old man can’t hear me. Finally, an electrician in a truck gives me directions. We repeat his directions to each other three times, and then I roll out, my heart not full of faith, precisely, but enough warmth of optimism. May this new year bring out the generosity of strangers and of ourselves. Thank you all for your kindness and curiosity for reading.

You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of experience, and the more experience you have, the better it is… unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far.

— Alice Neel

Stitches and Snippets.

At night, I knit and read, diligently counting stitches two-by-two before beginning the yoke pattern. I read about witches in 18th century New England, about muddy roads and fieldstone chimneys, about hunger and families and the complicated passions of small communities. About fear and remorse.

Around my house, the wind howls, lifting pine needles and crows’ feathers. November is the season of reckoning and looking towards the new year, of town and school budgets, of placing what you have beside what you want, of financial cost-and-benefit analysis, of a personal reckoning, too.

I remain awake unreasonably late, determined to proceed carefully this time to avoid ripping apart these stitches, anticipating the pattern work, the joining of color to color. Outside, I imagine smoke rising from our chimney, dissipating into the starry sky. A mouse nibbles in the wall. I keep counting.

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” 

— Flannery O’Connor

Last the third Vermont Almanac —one of the loveliest (and most useful) print publications — is out. The Almanac folks are virtually kicking off the third edition at Burlington’s Phoenix Books Thursday night, 7 p.m. You should come!

November.

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

Days of Little Light.

Night has fallen down all the way by the time I leave work. Just below freezing, the wind cuts up with a taste of wet — the feel of sugaring season but the light is all wrong. It’s a month before the solstice, and now I’ve given into the darkness utterly. The truth is, much as I rail against the scantness of light at this annual time, I relish it, too. This time of year entices us to go deep, soul-search, spread out the cards and see what’s there.

Dark to dark, our days go. My daughter phones on her way to work, two stray cats yowling in her car. She’s bathed these hungry creatures and found a home for them, a tiny bit of kindness in the midst of a complicated world. Ever in her blur, she hands off these cats to a new home, blessing them in her own way, and moves on into her day.

“What does it mean to grow rich?… Is it to retain a capacity for awe and astonishment in our lives, to continue to hunger after what is genuine and worthy? Is it to live at moral peace with the universe?” 

— Barry Lopez

First Snowfall, Again.

In a race with the season’s first impending snowstorm, I drive home from southern Vermont in those numberless hours of the night. I-91 northward to St. Johnsbury is bereft on traffic on an ordinary day. In the pocket of night, it’s me, a few rocketing cars from New York and Connecticut, interspersed long-haul truckers hurrying elsewhere.

I drink espresso and listen to This American Life, and when my attention wanes, Sam Birger and Fresh Air keep me company with Michael Imperioli. In the vessel of my Subaru, swathed with the blindness of night, my radio is oddly intimate.

Somewhere in that stretch, I do what I’ve cautioned my daughters never to do: I stop at a closed rest area and walk up and down the sidewalk vigorously. The night, with its promise of snow rushing in, bites coldly. Two trucks idle. The rest area is lit by lights tinged an orange-yellow, suffused with mist, as if we’re in a nether world, maybe the Underworld, maybe a halfway point between two realms. There’s such a strange, almost heady relief in being this unknown place, the allure of endless miles unfolding before me. My mind is filled with the night’s experiences — an enchanting home, the stories of strangers, a woman who poured out her heart about a funeral she attended that afternoon — the embrace of what’s resilient in our Vermont towns and what’s broken, cracked, fissured. I follow my advice to strangers and take my time, breathing in that damp and diesel-choked air, the freshness of wetlands at the far end of the lot, where the ground has not yet frozen. I wear my wool hat and a thin cotton dress. The night goes on and on.

In the morning, snow falls steadily. My daughter and I drink coffee and eat Helga’s delicious blueberry torte and lemon mascarpone. A shift already, from gray November to winter’s enchanting light.

Some Miles.

So many miles passed this weekend. Two trips to Vermont’s big city of Burlington for the Green Mountain Book Festival — Saturday as a participant, Sunday as audience. One trip alone, one trip with a friend. This past summer, I put some genuine effort into what I named my own personal healing project from the isolation and sadness of the pandemic — a project I admittedly dabbled in, without real expectation of success.

Here’s what I did: I gardened, spent as much time outside as possible, swam whenever I could, slept under the stars, and basically tried hard not to care very much (or maybe be distracted) by things that don’t mean very much.

What a pleasure to be back among the literary world, where people walked in and out of rooms in the lovely Fletcher Free Library, listening to poets and writers, the young and the very old, talk about writing. In an innate kind of way, these are my people.

Outside, rain fell in a dismal September day. I’m not a cardholder at this library and have only intermittently walked through its doors. Sitting in the main reading room in my raspberry-jam-hue sweater, I could have kept listening to the stories, language pared down and muscular, judicious with adjectives, evocative of Vermont and the people living here.

Media spin notwithstanding, the pandemic hasn’t vanished. Our world has been upended. And yet we move on.

A few lines from Jay Parini who graciously read beside me this weekend:

“It is not an easy thing to alter the trajectory of your life. People have expectations on your behalf. You come to believe them yourself.” 

And, last, I’ve kindly been invited to the North Danville Library this coming Tuesday, 7 p.m.