Keep Carrying On

In the evening, I walk up the mountain road to check on the pumpkin. It’s warm – maybe 45 degrees – and the sun is still just high enough to feel warm on my face. The road is muddy and rutted, soft beneath my boots. The mountain stream runs fast with snowmelt. I pass the town hall, then the church, then Bob’s hayfield, where at least a dozen deer graze at nubs of overwintered grass. I don’t bother stopping to watch them; they’re out there every day now. I saw them yesterday; I’ll see them again tomorrow.

It takes me nearly an hour to climb the hill. Three cars pass. Well: One car and two trucks. It’s no one I know, but I wave anyway. On the shoulder of the road, I spot a five dollar bill, and stoop to pick it up, then pause: the virus. But upon closer inspection, I can see that the bill has been there for a very long time, only just revealed by the receding snowbank. So I pocket it and carry on, already forming a story of how it came to land there, and feeling unaccountably lucky. I mean, it’s only five bucks. But still.

At the crest of the hill, I find the pumpkin. It’s moved a bit as the snow has melted out from underneath it, and something has been eating at it. It’s no longer orange. More of a deep beige. Not much to look at, really.

Back down the hill, sun low and barely visible through the trees, dark coming on fast. Much colder. I stick my ungloved hands in my pockets for warmth, wishing I hadn’t come quite so far, wishing I’d been smarter about when to turn back. But I wasn’t, and now there’s really nothing to do but keep carrying on.



In the Midst of it All

At the very height of the mountain road, atop a fast diminishing snowbank, someone has deposited a single pumpkin. It is small but very orange, and it delights me no end – the simple fact of it, sure, but even more so the imagining of how it came to rest here. Was it lobbed from the open window of a passing car? And if so, what kind of car (surely a Subaru, though I’m not exactly going out on a limb, here)? Or was it placed with careful consideration? Is its location at the top of the mountain intentional, a totem of sorts, or merely a matter of coincidence? So many questions, and none with answers beyond what I might imagine, which of course only makes them even more compelling.

(Crazily, this is not the first time I’ve found pumpkins situated along the side of a back road near to here; I’ve even written about it here previously. And so now I cannot help but wonder if perhaps there is a pumpkin bandit on the loose in northern Vermont, a notion that only increases my delight even further.)

Later on the same day, on another back road, I pass a man pushing a wheelchair loaded with firewood. A chainsaw perched atop the wood. I’ve seen the man walking the road before; he’s older than me, he must be pushing 60, and he always waves, and he’s often transporting firewood, though usually it’s just a single log, balanced on a shoulder. This is the first time I’ve seen the wheelchair trick. It’s a good one.

The virus spreads. The stock market plunges. The cows nose at the newly bare ground beneath the big spruce. The cats mewl at the door. The pumpkin has been there over a week now. It’s not been particularly cold, but cold enough that I suspect the man has burned his wheelchair load of wood and has since gone back for more. Some things are changing, some things are not, but in the midst of it all, the fire must still be fed.



For Another Day

I need a new chain for the big saw, so I drive three miles up and over the mountain to the chainsaw repair and parts business our neighbor Mike recently bought from our other neighbor Scott. When Scott owned it, I could be there in under two minutes; now, it’s about five, or maybe a little more this time of year, when the mountain road – steep, twisty, heavily snowed – demands a very particular medley of restraint and aggression, particularly in our little two-wheel drive car, which is what I’m driving in part because the truck is in Minnesota with my wife, and in part because one of the small pleasures in my small life is clearing the snow-slick apex of the mountain road in a vehicle that’s ill suited to the task. I keep thinking I’ll grow out of it, but it keeps not happening.

At the shop I buy two chains for $15 each and a half-gallon of Mike’s excellent B grade maple syrup for $20. John and Mike and I stand and chat for a while, then Katie and Christian show up, and we all stand and chat for a while longer. Sugaring. Chainsaws. Concrete contractors. Outside, the sun is emerging. The temperature, already above freezing, is rising further. It’s going to be a very nice day, and I need to go, but really all I want to do is stay a while longer, to keep telling stories, keep listening to stories. I feel suddenly hungry for stories, starving for them, even the little ones. Maybe especially the little ones. The world seems so full of big stories. Too big for me to understand.

I really do need to go. I set my jug of syrup and my two new chains on the passenger seat of the car and head back down the mountain road. The car slips and slides through the corners. I’m thinking about getting home, stoking the fire, maybe pancakes. Town meeting. I like town meeting.

But that’s a story for another day.


Blowing in the Storm


Skiing with my friend Andy, back when it was sunny and cold 

For three days, it is spring. Forty-five degrees, the sun high and bright, the backroads thawing and softening. I drive home through the first mud of the new year, the familiar thrill of finding the perfect line amongst the ruts. Or at least the line that doesn’t get me stuck. Rivulets of water run across the road, glistening in the sun. Following an old flatbed truck loaded with hardwood logs. The driver doesn’t seem worried about the mud, he just plows through, the truck swaying side-to-side, making ruts of its own.

I’m with my son. We’ve got the windows down and we’re singing along to Slaid Cleaves doing Black T-Shirt, not much caring if anyone hears us which is easy because we know no one can. Driving and singing, driving and singing. We’re always driving and singing. We pass the same farmhouse I wrote of a couple weeks back, the one with the laundry hung to dry. There’s more laundry; this time, it’s all sheets. There’s a blue one and a couple green ones and one that’s faded red. They look worn, though I can’t really tell; it could just be the house itself, which doesn’t look like the sort of place that’s getting many deliveries of new bedding, if you know what I mean.

They say to write what you know, and I guess that’s why I keep writing the same damn things over and over again: Driving with my boy. Skiing. Cold and cows. Laundry on a line strung across the porch of an old farmhouse. I guess maybe any of us might find our lives to sometimes feel so narrow, though of course we’re fools to believe it, and I guess maybe it’s worth being reminded of that once in awhile, too.

The skies have closed back up. It’s spitting rain now. There’s weather coming. Wind and snow. I’ll fill the tractor with diesel for plowing, top off the cows’ water in case we lose power. Tomorrow I’ll probably pass that farmhouse again. Already, I can imagine laundry blowing in the storm.




A Little Different

My friend Brett has loaned me The Line Becomes a River, by Francisco Cantu. It’s about his experiences as a border patrol agent, and also about the border itself, and of course about those who cross, for reasons both nefarious and heart-rending, though often it seems as if both are of the same cloth. I am reading it slowly, in part because of the writing itself, which feels like something to linger over, rather than devour, but also (and less flatteringly) in part because I seem to have arrived at the age when too much reading in the evening is a surefire recipe for premature slumber. Oh how readily we succumb to all the cliches.

I ski in the final light of the day, moving purposefully because I haven’t brought a headlamp and dark is coming fast. The temperature is dropping fast, too, it’s nearly to zero, and the snow is squeaky and slow, the top layer packed dense by the previous day’s gusting wind. I love that the snow is never quite the same; every day it feels a little different beneath my skis. And every day it sounds a little different, sometimes scratchy and coarse and sometimes like a long, drawn out hush and sometimes as if it’s coming from a great distance, almost like when you hold a seashell to your ear and you imagine you can hear the ocean.

I step out of my skis, and walk to the cows’ paddock, where I break the skim of ice that’s formed on their water, hoping they think to drink before it freezes over again.

Just some ole fashioned, high quality rock n’ roll from Whiskey Myers. Enjoy. 


Again and Again and Again

20200130_063342Sunrise in the woods

Snow turns to rain turns to sleet and back to snow again. I drive over the mountain to ski with my son, the road unplowed, the truck in four-wheel-drive, the heat on high, windshield wipers slapping time. The both of us quiet. Coming down the other side, near the bottom, we pass an old farmhouse with rows of laundry hung to dry under the roof of a covered porch. It’s a beautiful sight, all that color against the flaking paint of the house and the monochrome of the sky.

In town we stop for gas. The snow is lighter now, the sky less oppressive. The pump whirs and whirs. It’s barely mid-morning, but I’ve been up for hours and I’m tired. The pump clicks off and I top it off to the next highest dollar, and if I’d gone over by mistake (I don’t, I barely ever do), I’d’ve taken it to the next highest quarter dollar. It’s just one of those things I do.

At the mountain I chase my boy. He skis fast, right on the edge of what feels controllable to me. The speed invigorates me, forces me to pay attention. The snow is still falling, but it’s lazy now. My chin is so cold. From the chairlift, we watch the ski academy kids run gates, leaning one way and then the other, like those big inflatable dolls you can’t tip over no matter how hard you push them, the ones that just return to center again and again and again.


The Good Thing

On my way home from an evening hike with a friend, I drive into a brief snow squall. Suddenly, the gravel road is entirely covered by snow, not a single track or blemish to be seen, everything smooth and white and quiet. It’s fun, driving over the sheet of white, snow hammering against the windshield, my darkened world reduced even further by the closed-in feeling of the squall, and I feel like I want to drive like this for a very long time, leaving my tracks to fill in behind me. As if I’d gone an entirely different direction. As if I’d never come this way at all. 

Too soon I arrive at the far side of the storm, and just as suddenly as it came upon me, it is gone. I speed up until a deer crosses the road in front of me, and looking from where it came (you always look from where it came), I see another standing at the shoulder. Body tensed, ears alert. I know it’s thinking of running, and I know I won’t be able to stop in time. “Stay,” I say. And the good thing is that it does.


It’s Always Worth It

Same view, different day

The skies clear, the temperatures drop, and the cows’ water freezes over hard. I break it with the head of an old axe I’ve left leaning against a fence post. It’s a small but satisfying piece of work.

My friend Andy and I ski early in the day. Early enough that maybe it’s late in the night. It’s eight below zero but stone still, not even the faintest whisper of breeze. And the stars! Like someone loaded them into a shotgun and fired at the sky, over and over and over again. For the first hour we travel by headlamp, straight into those little cones of light, just the sounds of our breathing and the squeaking of our bindings. Eventually the dark begins to break. The stars fade fast and then are gone. Or not gone, not exactly. Just not visible.

It’s been a month since a good friend of our sons’ – a friend of our entire family, this whole community – took his life. He was 17, and I remember driving him home from a visit at our house the previous summer, just before he got his license, and how he told me about all the things he wanted to do. And I said, wow, that’s a lot of stuff, and he replied you know, I really think this is the time in my life to try things. I didn’t say much after that, just sat there driving and thinking that maybe this 16-year-old kid knew a whole lot more about living than I did.

So yeah. Not sure what else to say but be good to one another, ok? It might not always be easy, but it’s always worth it.


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.



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.