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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.¬†

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.