My phone rings with a number I don’t recognize. On the other end, the caller and I begin to piece together a message I may or may not have left, tracing an odd connection between two people with the same common name.
It’s late afternoon. I’m home from work, bacon sizzling in the oven, my daughter washing her hands at the sink. The cats are pawing their bowls, finishing their early dinner, wondering what might be next.
For a moment, I’m suspended in this interesting conversation with a pleasant voice, remarking on the strange coincidences in our small town world.
It seems to be nothing more. Afterwards, when I’ve hung up and headed out to my garden to cover against possible frost, I keep thinking about that call. In an odd way, the pandemic suspended the once normal world. There’s plenty of just lousy stuff that’s happening and still happening in our world (and likely always will). Then, this: random bits of politeness. Sunshine in May. Blossoms.
Driving down the heart of Vermont today, I hear an ecologist on public radio explaining how trapping beavers altered our landscape. Something that seems so simple and petty — a craze for beaver hats — changed the flow of water, the flora and fauna, and human transportation, too. As a kid, we made tiny birch bark canoes in grade school. Birch bark canoes were once a kind of Volkswagen for people who lived in Vermont. Serious water flowed over this landscape then.
I drive along the Connecticut River. Eventually, I just pull over and admire where I am. So much green. Such an infinity of shades, and all that water, flowing steadily to the sea.
Our world smells of lilac these sweet days.
I’m parked near an abandoned brick mill, in a town that has seen more vibrant days. The temperature may hit 90 this weekend — in May! in Vermont! — and no one in a rational frame of mind can claim this is right.
But yet….. here I am by the side of this great river, the mountains rising on the other side, the leaves leafing out in summer beauty. I’m in a shifting place in my own tiny life, my youngest nearly grown. Which way this will go, I have no idea, but I’m here, breathing in the humid lilac air, for this moment at least in no rush at all.
Days like this — or even hours or moments like this (see dandelions above) — remind me that the human world is poor shakes compared to the universe around us. All these things that nag and nip and plague me — from inspecting a car to wondering if my daughters are happy — fall into some kind of place on a sunny May afternoon in Vermont. These things are important; not for a moment am I trying to belittle our human days.
But this is, too. As I crouched in the field to take a photo, a woman bicycling by called out to me. “What gold! It’s cheeseburgers for bees!”
She got off her bike, and we stood talking to each other across the field. I suggested she look at the marsh marigold behind the grange. She mentioned the spring beauties in the woods.
Overhead, the clouds morphed and shifted. Come January, the field might be passable only by snowshoes. But for now, she and I called back and forth, the wind lifting and tugging our words.
“No creature is fully itself till it is, like the dandelion, opened in the bloom of pure relationship to the sun, the entire living cosmos.”
I’m home after eight. My daughter is on our front porch, eating ice cream and talking with the cats about all the interesting cat things we talk about at the end of the day. They never mouth back. One is utterly loving. The other tends to stalk around with the tip of his tail at a distinctive angle, a little indignant at the foolishness of his humans.
I’m deep in the thick of parenting and adolescence. The thing that’s so hard about adolescence is that it’s just so right. The world is profusely unfair. We live in a jumbled-up time. Yes, the kids have been handed a planet immensely beautiful and terribly ailing. It’s all true. Frankly, there’s no reason to argue about any of of that.
And yet, somehow lives must be made. At one point, in that rough 2020 year, I bought a box of ice cream cones and a carton of ice cream so we could make ice cream cones at home. I had no idea when an ice cream shop might open again.
In May, in Vermont, the world is beautiful. Now in the mid-80s, dry, dry, this isn’t our usual wet and damp spring. I pause in the parking lot on my way into work and talk with a young deputy. We swap garden tips. He tells me about his apple trees. He muses aloud about the weather — what will July bring? A freak snowstorm? A frost in August? Or maybe more of the same, beautiful day after beautiful day unfolding. We wave away the black flies. There’s not much point to go further.
Flying at Night
Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations. Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies like a snowflake falling on water. Below us, some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death, snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn back into the little system of his care. All night, the cities, like shimmering novas, tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.
My daughter and I drive around in the evenings. It’s a teen/parent compromise I suppose — a walk in the town forest where I gush over blooming trout lilies and spring beauties and trilliums as if ephemerals have never done this amazing show before. My daughter is cool and tough, utterly on that rugged cusp of childhood and womanhood. It makes my heart ache. It makes my heart swell.
We drive around in what might appear to anyone else as aimless nothingness, checking out geese and listening to the peepers. In our driveway again, I slip off my sandals and lean back in the carseat. Goddamn, I could sleep in her car, that the slip of moon would rise over us, and then we’d just begin again in the morning. Maybe we’d drive to Nebraska. Maybe to her high school. Maybe we’d just keep sitting here, talking, or not.
Meanwhile — spring goes on. Leaves unfurl.
My wrists and eyes and heart are baggy with wrinkles. That is how old I am. Meanwhile, I keep thinking of a line about doubt by Søren Kierkegaard. As a young woman, I thought this doubt thing was for the weak and the foolish. I believed in striking out, holding firm, sucking up the consequences of my actions. Now, it’s a koan that keeps rattling around in my late night, my early morning, my stray driving thoughts: “Doubt is conquered by faith….” I think, take heart from from that. Then, when I look up the line, I realize I’d forgotten the second half: “… just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world.”
A friend and I drive to a nursery on a back road in Plainfield, VT, through fields that seem impossibly green. The trees have barely begun to bud. I buy a snowdrift crabapple tree there. The tree is so tall that my friend and I spend some time carefully nudging it into the back of my Subaru.
I’ve met the staff on my annual pilgrimage there. They all speak quietly, as if our words might disturb the rows of potted currents and grapes. I ask again for planting advice. As I listen, I suddenly realize I’ve gone at this tree planting and cultivating thing all wrong. Beneath my trees, I should create a forest garden of duff and broken up straw and that humus-y compost that plants must love like chocolate. Daffodils bloom in the gardens beneath their trees.
I expect the staff has told me this before, but for whatever I reason I didn’t listen, or their advice drifted the way of so many words.
All the way home and all afternoon, I keep thinking about these woodland gardens and about a Raymond Carver story, “A Small Good Thing.” Two years plus into the pandemic, in this jumbled world, a small good thing….
That night, my teenager comes home and suggests we get a creemee. Friday night, and there’s no one out. We stand under the moon, licking ice cream cones, the peeper screeching in the swamp behind the pizza joint. A small good thing.