Reading. Fear of Dogs. Starlight.

The July after I graduated from college, I stayed in a cabin a short walk through the woods on a back road. The one-room space had been built as a studio with a wall of windows that faced what had once been a view and now was shaded by leafy maples. In winter, the cabin was heated by a woodstove. An outhouse had been dug behind the cabin. My friend was visiting her mother in California. I stayed in the cabin and fed her dog. The dog didn’t listen to me at all. He ran off and chased the sheep down the road, whose owners claimed they could shoot the dog. I was twenty-two and knew nothing about farming, but I was afraid of the angry farmer and didn’t argue. The dog still didn’t listen to me.

Despite the dog and the farmer, I loved the cabin. The economy was terrible; there were few jobs, and I was trying to figure out my next step. I read a lot of Ann Beattie who was popular in the 1990s. I remembered that small paperback Chilly Scenes of Winter I owned for years, when I stepped outside yesterday evening. I had been reading Tess Gunty‘s The Rabbit Hutch, a novel a far stylistic throw from Beattie. In the dark, a truck towing an empty trailer rattled by.

Down the sidewalk, a dog growled. A man tugged the dog’s leash. No: the dog snarled. I knew the mutually unhappy pair, the man’s sole dominance apparently through that leash. I crossed the street and cut down along the brook through the log yard, walking quickly in the tepid night. On my living room rug, that Gunty library book waited, spread pages-down, spine up. Sure, the world changes, moment by moment. And yet, sometimes not so. Overhead, stars and no moon.

“What will happen can’t be stopped. Aim for Grace.”

— Ann Beattie

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.

Darkness.

My daughter comes in the house tonight and says, “The world smells of rain.”

I put the enchiladas in the oven and walk out in a warm drizzle. The darkness already lies impenetrably. By a scant light from the neighbors’ house, I head into the woods behind our house and then walk by feel and memory, knowing where the blackberry canes meet the white pines. There’s months ahead of the darkness to come; I need to step into it again, know it fully not as foe.

As I head through the back side streets into the village, I think of this deep darkness like drinking. How I feared for so long even the scent of liquor. Now, sober for so many years, I’ve been to countless bars with my brother the brewery owner, hung out with him in good times and terrible, and what’s in his glass or his hand seems nothing to me. Then, this: just recently, a horrific thing happened to someone I know slightly, an occurrence he did not cause and tried, in fact, very hard to prevent. When I learned of what happened, I sensed the tsunami of suffering that would wash through this man’s life. The utter enigma and apparent injustice of the world.

At home, that evening, I leaned against our house’s clapboards, let the cold breeze tug my hair into my eyelashes. I was alone that night, and I remembered, again, what I sought for so many years in the darkness of drinking, my own private little story in such a multifaceted universe. Crucible, I thought. I am a crucible.

Returning to our house tonight savory with dinner, bright with the little lights my daughter hung up in the kitchen, I flung open my bedroom window and let the warm rain blow in. The million mysteries and more of this world.

…. And last, I’ve been graciously invited to the Rockingham Free Public Library, Rockingham, Vermont, this Tuesday, November 15, 6 p.m. Come if you’re in town.

November Is, What November Is.

By chance, I meet a woman who was a teacher in a nursery school my daughter attended. She’s partnered now and has a child of her own. We exchange a few words, back and forth about little things, facts and details, while waiting for coffee. As with all of us, she’s older now although fixed in my memory as that very young woman who adored my daughter and said she would gladly keep her. In this few minutes, I have no sense of which way her life has unfolded. It’s none of my business really but here I am, wondering, nosy as all get-out as my daughters claim. Her child isn’t with her, and I wonder about the child, too. Back in those days, I believed in simple formulas for happiness (2 parents plus 1 home equals happiness). As with so much else in my life, I’ve rethought all that.

…. Balmy November. In the evening, I walk in the dark, cutting down through the wild patch behind our house and around the school ballfield. The three-quarters moon rises, more luminescent than any earthly thing. The neighbors are fighting. A door slams, and then the late autumn silence wraps around. November moves on, doing what it will.

…. Last, I discovered Anderson Cooper’s podcast “All There Is” through The New Yorker. For Stephen Colbert fans, I particularly recommend the interview about how grief shaped this man’s life.

“Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be okay with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.”

— Stephen Colbert