Pastimes

I wake before dawn thinking of shuffleboard and listen to the rain pattering.

It’s Wednesday, and my high school daughter is home today. With high school in session two days a week, she’s patched together a strange schedule. Yesterday, she walked to school around ten (skipping the idiocy of study hall in the gym), had algebra and driver’s ed, and spent the afternoon playing soccer.

I lie in the dark, grateful beyond grateful for soccer.

When her father and I divorced, I kept thinking, my god, we need to do better for this girl. So it goes with school this year. Really? I keep thinking. Is this the best I can do?

I remind myself, again, that I’m part of the problem. At 15, she’s stepped into a kind of college schedule, coming and going, utterly responsible for her own work, burrowed on the couch with her school-issued Chrome book, determined.

The truth is, the best has long since slipped out of vision. Hence, perhaps, the appeal of a shipboard game, hours of leisurely chat, surrounded by the glittering sea.

I’m not about to get that shuffleboard option. I rise and feed the hungry cats, brew coffee and open my laptop.

Rain falls steadily — a welcome sound. The chaos of the world is clamoring loudly. Meanwhile, my daughter leans into her work. I brew more coffee. Day by day — the only way to parent.

Evening Out — Of Sorts

A friend and I stand in the high school parking lot, watching our daughters finish soccer practice on the field. At least, I say as the girls walk towards us, laughing and talking, they’ve had one practice.

That’s where we are — maybe our world will fold up again tomorrow, but at least the girls had an afternoon together, running on the field on this sunny August day.

At dinner, I quickly realize the soccer team is angry about a school board position, and my daughter glares at me. I have a seat on the board; I listen to her complaint, and think, Let her be mad at the board.

I almost don’t head down the hill to Atkins Field, for the first reading I’ve attended in months, in a beautiful post-and-beam gazebo. A strong breeze blows up, threatening rain. There’s just over a dozen of us, bundled in jackets and blankets folks have pulled from their cars, sitting in lawn chairs. I’m regretting coming, when the author begins speaking. I’ve heard this author before — Stephen Kiernan — and loved his stories. Before coming, I knew nothing about his book, but as he begins speaking, I realize the book is about Los Alamos — a place I know. I put away my knitting, huddle into my chair, and listen.

The dusk comes down. Across the way, I see a single turkey vulture flying across dark clouds, its rising wing glossy with sunset as it struggles to fly into the wind.

At the very end, Kiernan reads the opening page of his book. Kiernan reads particularly well. Listening, for just a moment, I sense all these things coming together — the craziness of attending a reading spread out with masks, unable to whisper and giggle, the ever-present pandemic, but also the setting of Kiernan’s book — WWII — and how ordinary people have endured through terrible times, and we will, too. The chilly wind reminds us of autumn’s imminence, but for these moments, the beauty and power of Kiernan’s writing pulls us together.

And when I arrive home, my daughter is waiting for me on the porch, happy again to see me.

“I met Charlie Fish in the Chicago in the fall of 1943. First, I dismissed him, then I liked him, then I ruined him, then I saved him.”

— Stephen Kiernan, Universe of Two

More Summer

Every month might as well be a whole entire season in Vermont. August is the month of the best things — wood stacking and pickle canning, tart made from the first fruit from our tree, whipped cream, purring cats, and all this sunlight. Sure, we need rain, but in Vermont I can’t help but relish these days after days of sunlight. Early mornings, I work outside on the deck, the air chilly, drinking coffee, watching the rising sun pinken the horizon.

For a brief bit of time, I’m ignoring the math of counting down to autumn.

Saturday afternoon, my older daughter suggests eating tart before dinner. Why not? Really, why not?

So we do.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
— Seamus Heaney, from “Blackberry-Picking”

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Neighbors

I’m listening to a friend I like very much describe her neighbors’ extensive political signs — sizable banners and flags decorate this rural Vermont property. I’m tallying up my book purchase bills for my library when I suddenly pause, listening harder as my friend says she doesn’t think she can walk across the dirt road and be friendly anymore.

A variation of the conversation surface again at dinner, when my oldest says her Instagram posts have been criticized as not political enough, not making a vocal stand against injustice. We’re eating tomatoes and sweet onions my youngest picked from the garden.

Our conversation winds around to the late and great John Lewis, and I remind my daughter of the challenge Lewis posed:

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.

My daughter, worn out from a long week at work, struggles — what am I supposed to do? Like anyone, she desires to walk the path of justice and goodness. Then she tells her sister and me the heartbreaking story she witnessed that day at work of a Black woman, white men, and fear. What could I have done? she asks me.

I don’t have the answer for her. Listening, I suddenly think, Fuck Instagram and our human — or perhaps American — compulsion to sum up the story of justice and injustice in a few brief sentences. My daughter leaves for a run, utterly dissatisfied and miserable.

I sympathize with my friend who didn’t want to cross that road to her neighbors’ porch again. I’m as guilty as anyone else of barricading my heart to those I don’t understand. But the world, surely, changes through compassion. There’s nothing glitzy or flashy about compassion — it’s messy and painful. But isn’t that the challenge?

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Photo by Gabriela S.

Laughter

Pandemic notwithstanding, the car I’m selling needs to be inspected. Since who the heck wants to talk through masks, I call the mechanic where I’ve left this car for a week or so. What’s a week, anyway?

The soft-spoken mechanic, who’s been undercharging me for years, quietly explains what needs to be done. Then he asks me, What do you think of that? Is that okay?

I’m leaning over the back deck railings, staring into the tangle of wild raspberry canes. I answer, What I think is it’s 2020, and I don’t like any of this.

He busts out laughing. I hate to say it, Brett, but we’re so fucked. This has only been going on since March.

I know. What’s going to happen in November?

I’m laughing so hard at this point; there’s so nothing funny about any of this — pretty much nothing funny about 2020 at all — but we keep laughing and laughing.

Then I say, It’s just a car. Fix it. I’ll sell it. That’s small potatoes.

And — it’s still Vermont July — with a creamy half-moon and endless cucumbers.

The cool breeze.
With all his strength
The cricket.

— Issa

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Photo by Molly S.

Sweet Summer

July is the apex of Vermont summer. In these long days, the maple trees stretch over the road as I drive to work — our world bursts with lush growth. In the garden, I pick the first sun gold tomatoes, then drift to sweet red currents.

I pack as much as I can into these days, beginning with the rosy-fingered dawn — take on a little more work, send one more email, swim before making dinner. But a coolness begins to lace through the evenings and earliest mornings; winter is never far in the offing in Vermont.

After dinner, while my youngest mows the lawn, I read under the apple tree, then fold up my glasses and close my book. Across our dead-end street, our neighbors are playing a make-believe game before their three little boys’ bedtime, running on the grass as the sunlight comes through the maple leaves. From where I sit, I can’t see the little boys, but I hear them laughing and laughing.

The robins dart into my garden.

None of this changes the world around us — the constant subtext beneath anyone’s How’s it going? — but July and its endless cucumbers and the sweetness of fresh-cut grass and a world of little children are our world, too.

A young groundhog appears from under the neighbors’ woodpile and stands on its hind legs, appraising me, sunk in its groundhog schemes.

believer in silence and elegance
believer in ferns
believer in patience
believer in the rain

W.S. Merwin

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Photo by Gabriela S.