Empty House

The afternoon’s end finds me on a remote road, looking at an abandoned house. No one’s lived here in a long time, save for intermittent squatters.

It’s the first day of school for my high school sophomore. Although I’m at this property for work, I keep thinking of my daughter.

Behind this house are two immense white pines. I stand there, listening to the breeze rising off Lake Eligo, imagining what it was like a hundred years ago to farm here. What will it be like a hundred years from now? The question looms impossibly.

I bend down and peer through a missing pane of glass in the door.

In Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, I read a line from Thoreau: “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

In so many ways, that sums up my experience. But that lostness I know now, is hardly a brief experience. The thing about the pandemic is that it’s exposed all the weaknesses in our society, and in ourselves, too. In my own world, I see acutely how pandemic has highlighted the near impossibility of single parenting, as I find myself these days unmoored, the thinness of my life exposed.

These days, in my work, I’m able to listen to people’s stories about how they’re experiencing the pandemic. These stories are often so much about loss — particularly about families separated — and worry about an uncertain future. Surely, I think, if there’s a time stories connect us, it’s now.

So on this first day of school, with the sweet scent of Vermont’s fall, with so much uncertain, I walk around this abandoned house, thinking of how time flows on. Near the step, I find a tiny plastic pig. Using the hem of my shirt, I rub dirt from the creature, then leave the toy on the broken step, hoping a child will chance upon it.

Homework

In the evening, with the windows open to the crickets’ songs, my daughters sit on the couch, doing homework together, while I read about the 1918 pandemic and knit.

Half-listening, I hear my daughters figure out the answer to a chemistry question, googling definitions. Decades beyond my own high school science classes, I’m no good here. Inevitably, these discussions always remind me of my adolescent years — well before google — when my father was the in-house reference for anything from trigonometry to weird geography questions.

Not so, in this house. I advise the girls to call my brother.

But as I listen, I realize they’re piecing through an interesting problem about change on the molecular level, and my youngest notes that change is the one constant.

It’s a particularly poignant observation for a 15-year-old, and I lay down my knitting and take a walk in the darkness around our house.

This week — heck, these months — seem filled with stories of people around me whose lives are in upheaval. These are all people I know and care about, in varying degrees. I keep thinking how, on a political level, so much misery is caused by exploiting the weakness of others. So, too, in our own personal levels, where so much of our energy often jockeys for a position of strength, betraying a marriage, a confidence, a professional relationship.

Meanwhile, change is the one constant. Surely, if nothing else, that could be a theme for 2020.

And yet, perhaps, it’s not.

In the darkness, I stand near the woodpile, breathing in the scent of sap and fresh wood, of damp soil turned up. Our cat sits on the windowsill, peering out at me. Overhead, the Milky Way spreads across the sky. My daughters’ voices drift through the screen, figuring out their answers, laughing a little — for the moment — happy.

Little Gifts

Much of my library work these days is talking and listening. Hey, how’s it going? What’s happening? When I listen a little longer, I hear stories of ordinary lives in upheaval — families separated, folks trying to figure out some kind of future.

I hand out books — mostly fiction and mysteries. And I often step outside the library where we keep talking and talking. From the school’s vegetable garden beds, I pick cucumbers and send patrons home with pickle fixings.

That’s about all I have to offer; that little will have to suffice.

In my own garden, the zinnias have gone brushy and wild, brilliant pink. Radishes have flowered and gone to seed. Late afternoons, I wander, barefoot on the cold soil, taking in the colors, breathing the spicy scent of arugula.

Before long, frost will be nipping at my garden, but for now, the pollinators are hungry, the crickets are singing, and these ragged-petaled flowers are nothing short of miraculous.

Photo by Molly S.

Ordinary Day

Like so many parents, the impending opening (or not) of school looms over us. My 15-year-old is desperate to go. Every afternoon, picking her up from soccer practice, my friend and I stand in the parking lot, talking. As we share trivial and not-at-all trivial snippets in these few moments, I eye the sprawling brick high school, thinking, Really? How is any of this possible? Lumping teens together, here or in any other building? Does this make sense at all?

What my kid wants is clear — to hang with her friends, to rise up in a real challenge, to learn, to begin finding her forward to her own adult life. Basic stuff.

I’ve hit places of indecision in my life before, like when I uncoupled myself from a marriage. But now? My friend and I stand in collective indecision. Finished, our girls walk towards us in their cleats, sweatshirts slung over their shoulders, masks dangling from their hands. They’re looking at each other and at us, laughing, maybe making a joke about the two of us, or maybe simply happy in this sunny August afternoon, tired from practice and hungry for dinner.

My friend and I look at each other and remark on our girls’ happiness — thankfully. We lean against our cars, talking.

For this moment, there’s no school, no tomorrow, no next week, not even these past lonely months.

And because my mind works this way, I think of how a river turns when it meets an obstacle, never bullying forward, but shifting with the lay of the land. The lay of our land has changed.

The girls look at each other, giggling, and I’m suddenly sure they’ve been laughing at my friend and me. I’m utterly happy about that.

“Life is always rushing away from us.”

— Stephen Kiernan, Universe of Two