Winter Koan.

I stop in at the former Hardwick Gazette building, now turned into the Civic Standard, an organization trying to figure out itself. An acquaintance and I stand at the windows in the building’s rear, staring down at the Lamoille, where ice feathers only along the edges. The water is low enough that the rocks are mighty in the rushing current.

I drink coffee and sit crosslegged on the couch, and we talk for hours. I finally vaguely inquire if we haven’t had enough of our own words, and then we go on and on again. The building itself seems marooned in the 1970s, and even in 1972 the building likely felt stranded in 1957. An old printing press hulks beside us. One of us has an Hungarian immigrant family, and our conversation inevitably weaves in the first half of the 20th century.

December in Vermont is as good a time as any to ponder the Zen koan chop wood, carry water in the pieces of my life. Sunlight on the living room floor. Kim chi and brown rice. Reading Ruth Ozeki’s The Face on the rug.

Sunday afternoon, light snow sifts down, the sweetest gift, its fresh cold sweeping away our stale human layers of mind and emotion. I carry in an armful of wood to feed our little stove for the night. The snowflakes melt in my eyebrows. Finally, I think, finally, a scattering of snow. Then I quit thinking, close my eyes, and listen to the falling snow.

“The past is weird. I mean, does it really exist ? It feels like it exists, but where is it ? And if it did exists, but doesn’t now, then where did it go ?” 

— Ruth Ozeki

The Ineffable.

About this authenticity question?

I was at a political forum last night where two lead candidates for Peter Welch’s US Rep seat each took their turn answering questions from moderators and the audience. The forum was held at Jenna’s House, an empty church transformed into a community space and recovery center. Naturally, the questions centered on addiction and recovery. The space is beautifully redone, warm and welcoming. I pulled into the parking lot and spoke with a founding family member. He was standing in a warm rain beneath an umbrella, welcoming in guests. He said, I hope you enjoy yourself tonight.

Here’s the thing about the recovery world: all pretense has long ago been stripped away. The recovery world so often is portrayed as the unfortunate, the damaged, the weak, the outsiders. But these people in one way or another have lived through terrible things. Loss is no stranger to anyone here, and that changes the social landscape. I’ve met a generosity and openness and — honestly — kindness here that often seems absent from the take-care-of-your-own-family-first middle class realm.

The church’s inside was well-lit. I sat with a woman I’ve met here and there, and we talked about knitting and cancer and working. All the windows and doors were open. Rain fell. In a little while, a man would speak about the death of his sister when she was 26. I keep returning to this sweet place because I like these people — they’re funny and wry and warm — but I’m also amazed by them. In their own terrible grief, they chose to open their hearts.

Afterwards, I drove back to Hardwick along the river valley — so green in midsummer — listening to the radio and in no particular rush. The rain had passed by the time I was home, and the world sparkled for a bit before the night set down in earnest. Five years into living at this house, the hydrangeas I planted that first summer have finally blossomed magnificently, profoundly here for the duration.

My teenager was eating blueberries and talking on the phone with her sister. In a year, I’ll expect she’ll be shortly headed into her young woman life. But for this evening, I cleaned up the cat’s lettuce vomit and boiled water for tea. I had about ten things that all seemed important. Instead, I walked barefoot through the wet grass to the mint that escaped my herb garden and plucked a few leaves for tea. Washed with rain, the air smelled ineffably sweet.

“But along with the feeling of ineffability, the conviction that some profound objective truth has been disclosed to you is a hallmark of the mystical experience, regardless of whether it has been occasioned by a drug, meditation, fasting, flagellation, or sensory deprivation. William James gave a name to this conviction: the noetic quality. People feel they have been let in on a deep secret of the universe, and they cannot be shaken from that conviction.” 

— Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind

Acquaintance. Full Moon.

In an evening walk, I meet a woman I haven’t seen in years. We stop and talk for a few moments. She’s hardly been anywhere for the past two years, and we talk about how that feels. In the balmy evening, little bits of tree pollen float through the sunlight.

Never tall, she’s about my height now, and I’m really short, and I’ve gotten shorter in the past two years. But here we are, talking about lupines, happy to be alive. We exchange a hug — something that seemed forbidden, utterly scary, not that long ago.

Later, as I close up the house for the night, I walk across the dark lawn to my garden. The round moon, like a perfect drop of cream, rises. Frogs chirp.

Here’s one thing: the pandemic has made me think of each day as each day. A whole day — filled sometimes with hard things, or dull things, sweetness, or all kinds of things. But what does a day mean? A night? Nothing more, perhaps, than this: full and frogs and a moment to revel in this.

May, Sometime

In our corner of the world, in generally law-abiding Vermont, the state is gradually cracking open, but slowly, slowly. Gradually, I’m realizing that so many things I once took for granted — walking into a public library, for instance, something I’ve done my entire life — seem so far away these days

In contrast, spring flourishes — the woods are sprinkled with the loveliest little gems of wildflowers — trout lilies and spring beauties and Dutchman’s breeches. All afternoon, I work on the porch, taking breaks by watering seedlings in the garden. Spring! Spring! In the midst of so much uncertainty — what will Vermont’s downtowns look like this summer? this fall? — spring busily moves along, as utterly enchanting as always.

As my daughter’s 15th birthday approaches, we scramble for some kind of plans. How to mark this passage from one year to the next in a time of utter and absolute uncertainty? Our days contract into that Zen question — how to be utterly present and in the now, but without the kind of madness that denies the future? Robins and sparrows sing sweetly of the moment — while these little winged creatures build their nests, lay their eggs, plan their futures in their own bird ways.

It’s the question I keep returning to, over and over — make do with what we have but keep a wary eye on the future.

Hope all is steady enough in your worlds….



Tiny Treasure

A little boy, maybe six, came into the library yesterday with his hand cupped around some precious thing. I had propped the door open to let in the warm September sunlight and a few stray flies. His short hair sweat-soaked, he wore a t-shirt so large it nearly covered his knees.

He laid a crumpled bird shell near my laptop and asked me to keep it safe. I found it, he said by explanation.

The boy was supposed to be somewhere else, and we heard an adult outside calling his name. On his way out, his hand hovered over an apple on my desk, a yellow-skinned fruit with a few dark blemishes I had picked from a wild tree that afternoon, walking to the post office.

I told him it wasn’t sweet, as I lifted the apple and handed it to him.

September’s such a quiet month, with the cricket songs slowly spinning quieter. Wordlessly, he considered, and then he took the apple and disappeared into the sunlight again.

I wondered if the boy would return for his treasure. He did.

Soon the child’s clear eye is clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions, and abstractions…. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise. After that day, we become seekers.

– Peter Matthiessen


Nichols Ledge, Woodbury, Vermont

Fleeting Beauty

I’m still burning wood into June, in this long damp spring. Usually, my daughter’s birthday at the end of May marks the beginning of the swimming season, and many birthday parties have ended with an adult or two walking the little girls across the road in Elmore to the lake.

This year, while the children disappeared in the greenery, laughing, four adults stood around a fire, talking about everything from SBACs to dementia, while the damp wore into us. With an exhale, we could see the clouds of our breath.

Earlier that day, I had taken some children to a theater opening, and watched a magician blow bubble creations: a spinning carousel, a caterpillar, rainbow-hued bubbles-within-a-bubble. He told a story of keeping a bubble in a sealed glass container, checking it every morning as it changed hue, absorbing the air molecule by molecule, until one day it popped and disappeared.

Edging nearer the fire yesterday, I thought of this magician, waking up each morning, curious about the evolving state of his bubble, improbably spun from the simplicity of liquid and air, radiantly beautiful. The boy beside me had murmured, That is the coolest thing.

Zen pretty much comes down to three things — everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.

– Jane Hirshfield