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It Just Takes Time

Winter feels as if it is moving fast. Maybe it’s that it has not been a hard one; we’ve had a few mornings below zero, but only a few, and though the snow has come frequently, it’s arrived in measured doses. Three inches here, four inches there. A trace, a dusting, a flurry, a squall. Or maybe it’s just because I’m getting older, and falling for that old cliche about time and age. It’s foolish, I know. Time doesn’t do anything. It has no agenda, no particular pace. It delivers nothing. It just passes.

A young man arrives at my writing class. 20-something, I figure. I haven’t seen him before. He is tall, and covered in tattoos. Lots of skulls. He says he’s been writing his whole life, hundreds upon hundreds of notebooks worth, all hidden away. He’s never shared anything with anyone. I say “ok, fine, you don’t have to share here, either, but if you want to, you can,” and when it comes his turn to read or to pass, he reads. His voice is shaky, and when he done, he lets out a long exhale and shakes his head. “Whoa,” he says, and takes a pull off his energy drink. Monster Galactica Rocket Extreme, or something like that. Later, he tells us that his father beat him every day. “I got what I wanted, just not the way I wanted it,” is how he puts it. He says it like it’s just another fact, which I guess it is.

The days tick by. Our oldest cow, Apple, goes down for the second time in a week. This time, we cannot get her to stand, even with aid of the tractor. We know what needs to be done, and so we do it. We’ve had her for nearly 16 years, and I think that in 16 more years, I will be 64. This does not seem possible, but there it is. In an email, an older gentleman reminds me how much life remains in the years before me. There must be something that gives him reason to think I don’t understand, and maybe he’s right. I admit to sometimes feeling old already. But then, sometimes I feel young, too.

I tell my students “let go of inspiration,” by which I mean “don’t wait around for inspiration.” Which is not the same as not enjoying it when it comes. Oh, yes, definitely, enjoy it when it happens. It’s a gift. But the rest of time? Do the work. Sweat it out. Put in the effort. Because if you do, eventually you’ll get what you want. Maybe not the way you expected or even wanted, but you’ll get it. It just takes time.

 

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A Very Long Time

I’ve been absent this space so long that I’ve received emails of concern (thank you very much, you know who you are), and yet I’ve had a hard time returning; there’ve been a lot of false starts over the past weeks, but the words just sort of get caught in my throat, and I walk away. It’s not writer’s block – whatever that means – as I’m writing plenty for other outlets and projects. Perhaps it’s merely that I’ve been too busy to stop and take notice the way I’m always admonishing my writing students to stop and take notice, and if this space has been anything over the years, it’s been a recounting of thing’s I’ve noticed. 90% of good writing is paying attention¬†is what I say, although I have no proof of this whatsoever. It could be 75%; it could be 95. It may even vary from day-to-day. (This is why you probably don’t want me for a writing teacher)

But yesterday I promised myself I’d pay attention, and so it was that when I emerged from the wood on my skis in the early morning light I could feel the cold stinging my cheeks and see the stars dimming slowly in the sky, and sense already the tentative pull toward spring: light coming a little earlier, the promise of a sunny day, the mid-point of January now past. It’s been a good winter, a come-and-go-and-come again sort of winter, not a hard winter, but not a mealy one, either… there’s been enough of it for a fellow to sink his teeth into.

I skied through the old churchyard, a half moon hanging over the steeple. Just like I’ve done a hundred times or more before, and probably written about here, too. My breath frozen on the zipper of my jacket. Over the bridge, and up the hill, just to the side of the gravel road. Simon came jogging past and we exchanged greetings, and I could hear his departing footsteps in the frigid air for what seemed like a very long time.

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Sober and Curious

Last night I skied under a bright half moon, high up along a spine of small mountains up the road, where the snow is just thick enough on the ground. There was a slight breeze; the trees – mostly hardwood, old sugar maples and yellow birch – creaked and popped, and cast long, crooked shadows on the ground that I often mistook for fallen branches. The air was cold and the snow was fast and I felt the way I sometimes do when I ski at night deep in the woods, in the cold, alone: Like I’d stepped just slightly outside myself. Like I could just go and go and go. But eventually I turned back, so as not to worry those waiting at home (turns out I needn’t have been concerned), and traced my tracks back to the truck, where I sat in the dark for a moment, letting the big engine warm itself, feeling beads of sweat roll down my back, watching the thermometer slip from 11 to 10, and the clock roll from 8:31 to 8:32. Grateful to be alive. 48 years now, right at that age where some would say I’m old, and others would say I’m young, and the funny thing is, they’d both be telling the truth.

I’ve been teaching (well: More like facilitating) a writing workshop through an amazing program called Writer’s For Recovery, which offers free, 10-week programs for anyone in the recovery community, no matter what they’re in recovery from. I love it. The people, especially, and the stories they tell, and the unselfconscious way they have of talking about their lives and their feelings and failings. If any of you are in the northern VT area and would like to join us, just leave a comment and I’ll get back to you. Anyone can participate; all that’s required is that you show up sober and curious.

 

 

 

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Upcoming Workshops and Whatnot

For all you crafty types, Penny has a whole passel of upcoming workshops throughout Vermont in which you can learn how to transform sustainably harvested birch bark into beautiful star and bird ornaments for your decorating or gifting pleasure. Email her at 68pennyg@gmail.com for more info.

And for those of you who, like me, break out in a cold sweat at the very thought of all those intricate folds, you can purchase your very own star or bird directly from the aforementioned Penny for the low, low price of $20 each plus $5 shipping no matter how many you buy! You can use the generosity enabler (Paypal) link in the sidebar to order, or just send an email to make arrangements. She also has a bunch of other pretty amazing (and wicked useful!) crafts for sale here (scroll down past workshop descriptions and schedule). Thank you!


 

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Waiting

Before the wind and rain took the last of the foliage

The leaves are off the trees, or most of them, anyway. What stands out now are the gold-hued Tamarack and the ever-shifting drama of the changeable sky. On a recent morning I drive the back roads, passing in short order a father and grown son ushering a small herd of Jersey cows into a bitten-down pasture; the two men are talking to one another, but my windows are up and I cannot hear their words, only their mouths moving, their hands gesticulating in the cool air. A mile or so later, I pass a mobile home with a large maple in the front yard; an engine – and a big one, at that – is hanging from a low, stout branch of the tree, like some outlandish piece of fruit. I feel an almost irresistible urge to stop my car. I want to give the engine a little push, watch it sway back-and-forth. How fun would that be? Not long after the engine, I happen upon the carcass of a large animal, surely bovine, dressed and skinned, hanging like the engine, but this time from a tractor bucket. The animal’s fat is yellow like the Tamaracks. That yellow is indicative of a dairy breed, something with high butterfat, maybe a Jersey, or a Guernsey.

Sometimes I think about how deep this place is embedded in me, how comfortable I am here, lulled by its sights and smells and sounds. Forty-seven years of them. Almost 48. Not quite old, but not quite young, either. And how much of me – or what I think of as me – is an incalculable sum of all these little parts.

Though mostly I don’t think of this. Mostly I just watch it unfurl along the roadsides. Mostly I just walk the forest. Split the wood. Stoke the fire. Waiting for the snow that is soon to come.

 

 

 

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Birds

Yesterday I accompanied my son on the first day of youth duck hunting, a weekend reserved for hunters under 16, so long as they’re accompanied by a licensed adult hunter. He wakes me at 2:30, and it’s just the two of us in the house, so we turn on all the lights and heedlessly bang about as we gather ourselves. The cats prowl the room, sleepy eyed and confused, though possibly no more so than usual. The boy insists on the early start to secure our spot, and also to allow plentiful time for arranging his decoys and erecting a blind. I’ve deemed the rude awakening unnecessary, but I’ve also decided not to argue, to instead try to appreciate his excitement. I’ve also decided to take a nap later in the day.

It’s a few minutes past 4:00 when we slide the canoe into the water. It’s loaded to the gunwales and rides low. We paddle by headlamp. It’s cool but not cold. In the beams of our headlamps, we see a fish under the water, silvery and quick. We arrive at the appointed spot, a small island of reeds at the far end of the shallow pond. I watch my son set his decoys. He knows just how he wants them.

Six hours later, we paddle back to the truck, three lifeless wood ducks gathered in the bottom of the boat. Their features are almost indescribably delicate, and when I turn them over in my hands, their capacity for flight seems almost logical. Of course something this small, this intricate, this precise, can fly. Of course.

This morning, the house empty (the same son off hunting again, this time accompanied by his mother), I drink the last of the coffee, and, wanting another cup, make the short drive to procure more. On the way home, coming up the mountain road, lost in thought, like a thousand times before, I round a corner to find a heron standing in the middle of the road. It’s an improbable sight: A heron? On the mountain road? Really?

I hit the brakes, and the heron too must be distracted, because seconds tick by before he (she?) alerts to my presence. The sky has been low and thick all morning, but is just now breaking into pieces to let the sun shine through in wide swaths. It comes through the windshield, warm on my face. I watch the bird until he sees me, and then, in seconds, he is gone.

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Cutting Wood

The trees are turning in earnest, and the shoulders of the gravel roads I frequent are thick with fallen leaves. In my spare hours, I cut firewood, amassing a pile for the winter that lies on the other side of the one that’s soon to come. I’ve always wanted to be a year ahead. This might be the year I actually make it.

A week or so ago, I took my younger son with me into the woods, and we found the perfect tree, a gently leaning ash, nice size and not in good health, practically begging to be cut. I showed him how take measure of the situation, to identify his path of escape, to make his notch, where to place the back cut. Then I stepped away and watched as he took the big tree down, his first felling job. It landed precisely where it needed to land, with an enormous whump I could feel through the soles of my boots. The boy looked pleased, and was right to be. I remembered cutting wood with my father, or rather him cutting wood, and me loading the rounds into the open hatch of the little Honda Civic he drove at the time. I was young, then, younger than my boy is now, too young to run a saw, I suspect, though I think my father wouldn’t have wanted to teach me, anyhow: I’m pretty sure he ran his on a wing and a prayer. It was a red Jonsereds, back before they took the “s” off the name, when they were made in Sweden. My dad still has that saw, though it hasn’t been started in probably two decades or more.

My son bucked the ash, while I pretended not to watch too closely. He did fine. We loaded the rounds into the bucket of the tractor, the air suffused with the smell of fresh cut wood and chainsaw exhaust. Once the bucket was full, we rode slowly down the hill, back toward home, the late afternoon sun slanting through the trees to land in bright patches on the forest floor.

 

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Summer’s End

The sense of summer slipping away is palpable, almost physical, and I feel the impending loss of the season, as if there was something as solid and distinct and tangible as summer to lose, as if its edges did not emerge and dissolve by degree. Calendar be damned.

Still, even as I write this, I hear the sound of my younger son doing as I asked, which was to fill two 5-gallon buckets with apple drops for the pigs. He’s down in the orchard but the sound of the apples against the bucket bottom carries well, and for a moment I wonder if there is any other sound just like it. Deciding that maybe there is, but if so, I do not know it. Deciding that if ever there were a harbinger of summer’s end – whenever, however it might come – the sound of apple drops against a bucket bottom would be it. Slow-changing colors of the green hills be damned.

Yesterday, driving a dirt road far from here, but as like the ones close to here that I might have been only minutes from home, I met an oncoming tractor towing a hay wagon, a young man at its helm, the empty wagon weaving gently side-to-side. I pulled far over and he waved, looking tired. It was near the end of day.

Our older son is gone for four months. There’ll likely be snow on the ground by the time he returns. A sizable dent in the woodpile. The house feels quiet, neat, and bigger than it needs to be. I hugged him goodbye, wishing I’d thought of something small to give him, something to mark the occasion. But I hadn’t. Maybe I’ll think of something for his return.

 

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He Always Has Before

home

Coming home from the woods

In the morning, after chores but before breakfast, I walk up into the woods. The rain has been a steady companion over the past few days, and my boots are soon soaked through, along with my jeans nearly as high as the pockets, the exact height of the undergrowth, so thick in spots that I cannot see the ground.

I find a patch of chanterelles, then another, and another, and still another, orange as, well, oranges against the forest floor, an entire shirt full and so many more left for another day. I wander for a while, then head for home, where the last cord of firewood awaits, needing splitting. I cook the mushrooms in butter and new garlic and eat them from the pan, sitting on the front stoop, letting the early sun warm me. The cats stop by, roll on the ground a bit, rub my ankles. I finish my breakfast. It is 7:30 and the clouds are closing again. Down in the little stretch of orchard pasture I can hear Pip lowing for her calf. He must have slipped under the fence. He’ll find his way back again. He always has before.

 

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Hoping

In the field across the mountain road the farmer is making hay; this morning I walked up on the knoll behind the barn and looked across to that field, past the church steeple, over the road and the low-running stream, and I could see the long, serpentine windrows of raked hay, could hear the distant clatter of machinery, could imagine the smell of drying grasses so perfectly it hardly mattered that I couldn’t smell them at all.

God but it’s been a summer. Weather so perfect I don’t even know what to say. Though already I notice the diminishing daylight; it’s dark when I awake, and it’s dark again before I’m ready for bed, and this morning I felt chilled while doing chores for the first time in I don’t know how long. I split and stacked firewood after chores; my family is away, and I’ve promised myself I’ll have the firewood finished by their return, though I also promised myself I’d have it finished by the first of June, and we can see how well that worked out.

I guess I don’t write here much anymore, though in my head I’m always writing. The world is so full of stories, but I’ve felt a little greedy with them lately. Recently I heard someone define a writer as a person who is willing to let the dream of writing die, which I took to mean that to actually write, to wrest the words out of our heads and onto paper, means accepting the truth of the process, which of course is never as wondrous as the dream. Which I guess makes it like pretty much everything else.

I thought I’d be able to say this better. See what I mean?

The breeze is picking up. It might rain tonight. We could use it. I’ll sleep with the window open above my head, hoping to be woken in the night by rain on my face.