The Earth Herself

In the garden, on this chilly, almost autumn-esque day, I pulled lettuce from a fattening line, admiring the myriad green. So much of writing is spinning the stuff of language into this three-dimensional world we inhabit. Our world is so amazingly complex, jammed ceaselessly with variations of color and light, that language at times seems a poor descriptor.

I always remind myself, begin at the beginning, with the very first word. Setting aside my basket of lovely leaves, my fingers crumbled dirt into my palm. Dirt? Or the earth itself, but a few grains of this celestial, spinning orb? Or Thomas Wolfe’s “loamy soil”? Or is this broken sod? Tenacious clay?

I held the handful near my face: black earth, lavish enough to devour.

The voice of forest water in the night, a woman’s laughter in the dark, the clean, hard rattle of raked gravel, the cricketing stitch of midday in hot meadows, the delicate web of children’s voices in bright air–these things will never change.

– Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

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Woodbury, Vermont

Sunlight and Sweetness

When my daughter was two, I picked up a copy of Jeffrey Lent’s novel In the Fall in Montpelier’s Bear Pond Books and began reading. My child was on my back, and I stood so long she nudged me with her feet, a way she had of prodding me along when the scenery dulled for her. I bought the book and walked down Main Street, the pages open in my hands.

Reading that novel was like nothing else I encountered. I was scraping and painting the kitchen windows that summer, and I abandoned that work, sitting on the porch steps, reading, reading, while my child ate watermelon, strewing gnawed rinds over the grass. Halfway through the novel, the language became incantatory in my mind, rising and singing. When I finished the book, I studied the paperback cover, pondering the beauty and mysteries of this book, the sheer grace of its enormous hard work. The novel’s ending remains one of my most beloved.

Why I write all this is not just to rave about this novelist (if you haven’t read him, how lucky you are – you can read his books for the first time), but for this:

With vivid and richly textured prose, Brett Ann Stanciu offers unsparing portraits of northern New England life well beyond sight of the ski lodges and postcard views. The work the land demands, the blood ties of family to the land and to each other, the profound solitude that such hard-bitten lives thrusts upon the people, are here in true measure. A moving and evocative tale that will stay with you, Hidden View also provides one of the most compelling and honest rural woman’s viewpoint to come along in years. A novel of singular accomplishment.

–– Jeffrey Lent

Very often a writer’s life is plagued with burrowing doubt and uncertainty, laboring in a society that values tax bracket far above art. And then, sometimes, you feel you might just have hit the mark. Infinite gratitude.

 

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March woodpile, Woodbury, Vermont

Gift of Abundance

When I belonged to the Stowe Farmers Market years ago, as a maple vendor, I knew many farmers. For innumerable reasons, I admire the tenacity and dedication of small scale Vermont farmers, but at the end of this November day, I admire my neighbors for their practical generosity.

For an ill friend, a single father, I stopped by one farm and the back of my Toyota was loaded with carrots, onions, beets, potatoes, squash. I was told that the door’s open; come back. I dropped these boxes at his house, where two young women mopped the kitchen floor. The freezer, empty yesterday, was filled with beef from a nearby farm.

I would never want to sentimentalize my hardscrabble state, but in the face of dire unhappiness, time and again I’ve seen farmers give unstintingly – perhaps in the knowledge that larders fill and dwindle, and fill and dwindle again, as the time of need comes knocking on everyone’s door.

John Cheever famously said, Writing is not at all a competitive sport. How often I think of that line – in school board meetings, for instance, when I think, Educating children is not a competitive sport. Nor is life. In this season of diminishing light, anyone whose hands work the earth knows we’ll each meet our own comeuppance one day, and if golden beets and garlic sweeten our days until then, how lucky we are.

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The Four-Year-Old as Imminent Novelist

When I was fifteen (back in the last century), my dad bought me a copy of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, a brand-new hardcover copy – a very big deal. I read the book hungrily, a book both technical and visionary, and carried it with me through all those moves of my twenties. Here’s a sampling:

The novelist Nicholas Delbanco has remarked that by the age of four one has experienced nearly everything one needs as a writer of fiction: love, pain, loss, boredom, rage, guilt, fear of death. The writer’s business is to make up convincing human beings and create for them basic situations and actions by means of which they come to know themselves and reveal themselves to the reader. For that one needs no schooling. But it’s by training – by studying great books and by writing – that one learns to present one’s fictions, giving them their due.

Which pretty much means: get down to work. I love fiction so much I find it almost incomprehensible that anyone would want to do anything else – like, say, teach kindergarten or litigate. My own teenage daughter’s natural inclinations bend towards art and photography, although she would never define or see herself as an artist. I remembered Gardner’s lines above when I saw this photo: her own way of taking things apart – a drinking glass, the kitchen table, sunlight – wondering how does this work? how does this look? what can I do?

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Photo by Molly S.