Signs of Life: Sunday Photo Essay

The dark finish on the steps and handrails was elegant and dressy once upon a time, you can tell. But over weeks and months, then years and decades, it collected scuffmarks and even a few deep gouges, call it a patina if you wish, from the traffic in the house: you can see it clearly now. Sixteen steps march up, up, up, while the open great room on the first floor disappears at about the halfway point—it’s the one place in the house where you can get close enough to one of the giant beams that stretch across the broad ceiling to reach out and caress it, before the ceiling vanishes out of sight as you continue on your way. That is on your left; the varicose surface of the massive stuccoed wall on your right (it is the real thing, applied by a true craftsman in the 1920s) will draw blood from your knuckles when you venture too close with a heavy laundry basket. You’ll be out of breath by then, coming from the far reaches of the basement one full floor below, where you went around the corner, down a hallway, and around another corner, just to run a load of wash.

At the top of these sixteen steps, had you taken the time to notice in the first place, you’d have found the flooring nails on the one step to the right (and another to the left, leading to the master suite) that were pounded through the rounded piece of wood trim forming the lip of the step, but were never bent up or clipped out of harm’s way by the carpenter wielding that hammer all those years ago. When your child reaches middle school the delicate underside of his high instep will somehow find one of those nails, leaving a deep laceration that insists on a trip to the doctor and a tetanus shot right away; for a little while you’ll silently curse a nameless carpenter who is probably long dead.

At the bottom of the steps stands a solid newel post topped by a perfect, round finial that wobbles, although it will never come off in the sixteen or so years you live in the house with your husband and child, like the one in It’s a Wonderful Life. And on top of the finial is a perfectly round wood plug that once covered the nail holding the finial in place, flush with the finial itself; the nail has emerged about an eighth inch out of the plug, and you mean to countersink that dang thing and cover the tiny hole with putty. You mean to, but never do it, because a piece of you knows that finial has been grabbed onto by hands large and small through the decades, happy hands off to an adventure that won’t wait, or busy hands, purposeful hands, angry hands, and even grieving hands. And now these hands, yours, feel the play in that post every time you climb or descend those sixteen beautiful steps. If you countersink the nail, the finial won’t wobble anymore, and somehow all those stories might be forgotten.

The last time I grasped the wobbly finial was near the end of August in 2012, the night my grownup boy and I slept on makeshift beds in the empty great room, the same empty room where, on the eve of moving in, he and I ran joyously back and forth from the massive fireplace to the bottom of the steps when he was two, again and again, until we were both out of breath and finally collapsed in giggles. This long chapter in a special house drew to a close without much fanfare, and certainly without giggles. Still, there was hope on the horizon not yet realized by either of us.

There is something organic about occupying a structure, working in it, or living out your life in it. One has only to glance at an abandoned house to see this truth: the vibrancy reaches beyond the rudimentary things, the electricity and water that make the place habitable. Blood coursing through the veins, air inhaled and exhaled from the lungs by people and their animals, these things bring life to a building or home. David and I are glad to step across the threshold of our new-old Vermont home, every day: it represents so much more for us than mere bricks and mortar, but like any home, is transient—we were not the first to inhabit it nor shall we be the last.

Where is the wobbly finial post in this home? I’m not yet precisely sure, but have only just started looking.

A note about these photos: my ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister gave me a wonderful hand-me-down for Christmas, her Nikon D300s—she calls it my ‘big girl’ camera. These images represent my first efforts with a decidedly more sophisticated instrument (that has a decidedly sharper learning curve to go with) than my old Nikon D70, which I’ll keep on using as the situation demands. We witnessed some spectacular goings-on in these parts over the last few days owing to an earlier than usual January thaw after our last deep freeze, then a mini-mud season that lasted for a single day (Vermonters joyously broke out shorts and T-shirts in mid January), but then dangerously high water in local rivers and streams and serious local flooding, followed by another deep freeze which has more or less stopped everything in its tracks. The Walloomsac River defines one boundary of our property and is majestic and imposing just now; I tried to capture a little of its somewhat terrifying intentions in my quest for a wobbly finial.

the view across the Walloomsac, as seen through my writing room perch
the gate that will not latch, has wobbly finial potential
ancient window glass has a satisfying wobbly texture, distorting the outside world
Roiling Walloomsac I
Roiling Wallomsac 2
Roiling Walloomsac 3
yes, we have a barn, whatever the chef may call it—we live in Vermont
whose small hands these were we do not know; we see them in other places, too
one must celebrate the basement philosopher, even if his spelling was wobbly
our house is alive

Vermontish Doppelgängers and Other Christmas Week Reflections

Christmas Sunset

This one thing still happens to me every week, if not every day: I see somebody and I think I know who it is for an instant, and then remember there is no way I could possibly know them. I am new here still, and mainly disconnected, still. Back ‘home’ in Knoxville I could scarcely go anywhere without bumping into (or at least glimpsing) people I knew. Even in a city with some size to it—about a half million or so in the metro area, a city where you plan your crosstown trips carefully against the traffic—I was fairly sheltered in my midtown enclave, sheltered in a life where my closest friends and I lived within walking distance of each other, and attended the same church, and sent our kids to the same schools. So really it is not too surprising I’d bump into people I knew every single day. You might even have called it a provincial life, saved by the intellect and creativity of the people around me, maybe even a little out of step with others in the neighborhood.

Still this phenomenon persists. I stand in line at the grocery store and see somebody in the next line, and think, Oh look! That’s so-and-so! But wait, it can’t be. I’m a thousand miles from so-and-so and her family, and have not talked to any of them in years (wonder what the kids are doing? they must be out of college by now). This morning I saw a face in the church choir that looked for all the world like the anthropology professor’s, my former anthropology professor’s, who sang in the cathedral choir in Knoxville. But of course it wasn’t. Or the well-heeled woman I talked to for a long time over coffee after church a couple of weeks ago: she could have been someone I knew and had known for decades, but was not. The mind sure does funny things to you.

During my first years in Vermont this phenomenon made me wistful for what I left behind, and underscored the pain and loneliness of what’s best described in hindsight as exile, self-imposed or not. But these days the doppelgänger effect leaves me with a different, more hopeful idea: what if people are simply people? The people in the grocery queue here are people stocking up for the week, or for the impending storm, like the ones back home (yes, Tennessee has occasional snow and ice in winter). The choristers are choristers, like the ones at the cathedral. If you got them all together in the same space, aside from their distinctly different dialects and some other notable differences in cultural sensibilities, they’d probably all feel pretty much at home with each other.

When I was back home in Tennessee in September I was glad to bump into a pair of people with whom I was close, about as close as somebody can be to you without being your actual family, but with whom I’ve not kept up over the last five years. It was a good catchup but far too brief, followed up a week or so later in a phone call an hour long but not long enough. And another family in the same circle, not in town in September as fate would have it, but now relocated to another part of the country anyway, starting their own new chapter outlined in this year’s Christmas missive. I miss them all, and others.

No matter how much you and your friends once giggled about your kids all meeting up at somebody’s wedding rehearsal dinner fifteen or twenty years down the road, nothing really turns out how you imagine it will.

And from that truth emerges this somehow encouraging thought: were I still there in Tennessee right now, my life would look so different from how I imagined it would look, even had I continued down the path I was on: I would still be starting a new chapter. My little enclave, my community, would’ve changed no matter what. Sure, I’d see some of the same faces week to week, but the imagined future—the ones my friends and I once envisioned for ourselves and our kids—would still be fiction, a mere fantasy—and nothing more. Now there is talk of retirement plans, for we are approaching those years, not quite there yet. And retirement will not look how we imagined it might, not precisely.

Really, how lucky am I to have lived down south in Tennessee—on both ends of the state at different times in my life—and out west in Colorado for a few years, and now in New England. How lucky am I to have made a living doing one or both of the two things I love doing. I could use some shorter winters, and longer days. (And how irksome that this wonderful sunshine beaming through my office window as I write these words will be gone in a flash, leaving the damaging effects of its radiation on my left cheek through the window glass, but none of its vitamin D-inducing benefits.) But that is not what this chapter has in store for us, for Chef David and me, and now Scout, not just yet. We are precisely where we need to be at this moment in time.

I leave you with images from Christmas week in our corner of the world.

First Sunday in Advent: Finding Peace and Home

Peace and Home

Last Thursday afternoon I stood on the front porch of our new home having a delightful chat with a pair of young Mormon missionaries. Earlier I’d seen them combing the other side of the block for anybody whose ear they could bend to share their earnest message. One after another door remained closed; some folks were not yet home from work, probably. But I bet others simply refused to answer. I went about my business while I waited for them to knock, resolving to talk to them when they did. No way in heck would I let them deliver their spiel, but I’d known some Mormons back in Tennessee; they were good people and held tight to their convictions without getting all up in anybody’s business. I even attended the baptism of one of their children, invited by her parents, and felt honored as an outsider to be included.

So when the two young missionaries arrived on my porch I gave them a big ‘ole Southern howdy, which I think caught them off guard a bit, as much because up in these parts folks can be pretty dang reserved. I introduced myself, said I was at least a little familiar with their church, explained I had Mormon friends. Their faces lit up.

Before we go any further, I said, let’s get this out of the way: I am not a Mormon. I will never be a Mormon. I have my own faith tradition and I’m a comfortable and happy practitioner of it, thank you very much.

We can respect that, one of them said, both of them nodding their heads vigorously.

They went on to ask me what brought me all the way from Tennessee to Vermont, and what did I think about Vermont, and how are Tennessee winters compared with Vermont winters. I think it’s fair to say I’m a somewhat reluctant Vermonter, I said, especially in winter when I’m known to be cranky. I also said people here often don’t know what to do with an effusive Southerner. They laughed and we talked a little while about where I work and what I do (although I tried to edit myself, after my twenty-something recently observed that I talk too much). They were clean scrubbed boys wearing familiar white dress shirts and neckties; one of them had product in his hair that made it stick straight up, but it was neatly combed.

I know all about the two years of missionary work y’all have to do. (Yes, heads nodding.) It must be hard to make cold calls on people—I bet y’all get doors slammed in your faces.

Sometimes, they admitted, but mainly people are nice.

After we said bye and I stepped back inside I realized how starved I am for community—starved enough to cherish my encounter with a pair of Mormon missionaries with whom I have so little kinship. My hunger will be assuaged, I think, living in this house in our new urban neighborhood, among people, and I am glad of it. But as I mentioned recently to a colleague, it’s different when you’ve already raised your family, and you relocate far from the people you’ve known your entire life, and the community you’ve known for almost as long. Back then your young child was the ‘glue’ that bound you to others of your ilk.

Now, here you are so far away from that, and with no glue: this situation is exponentially more difficult, until you find some kind of mooring—if you are lucky enough to find it—with others who share your values and identity.

This morning I attended the first Sunday in Advent Holy Eucharist at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, a beautiful church that is walking distance from home. I haven’t had the luxury to do this for all but the first of the five years I’ve lived in Vermont, for one reason and another. But this new house and neighborhood make a number of things possible, including belonging—to a church, to the gym, and to other groups of people with whom I share interests, potentially.

In recent years I’ve also longed for the peaceful reflection and quiet preparation that come with the season of Advent, mainly run over roughshod by secular Christmas, and today I found that, too. Our naked Christmas tree stands in front of a living room window waiting for us; we’ll get to it when its limbs relax a little and we can stop unpacking and hanging curtains long enough to breathe. And I’ll listen to Bing Crosby this time around in a different frame of mind.

Importantly, I think I found home this morning: when I walked into the nave of that exquisite downtown church I felt it instantly. After the service another communicant there told me she had the same unmistakable feeling wash over her the first time she walked in. The power of place, and of home, can’t be underestimated. It brings me to tears, as it did this morning.

On Tuesday I’ll drop some teacups and saucers at the church for the annual Christmas tea. Once upon a time they were destined for our tag sale that never was, but will now be in the spring. Scores of ballet students sipped tea from those beautiful cups at a half dozen or so Nutcracker tea parties I threw back in the days of Knoxville Ballet School. So much joy was poured into those teacups; it feels good to hand them to St. Peter’s, the best place for them now, I think.

Fr. Lanier this morning reminded us that the first Sunday in Advent is also the first day on the liturgical calendar. He went on to point out that darkness and cold typically characterize this day, especially in the northern hemisphere. But his message was a hopeful one, reminding us to find light and purpose in the darkness and cold as we prepare for the joyous occasion of Christmas and renewal in the new year.

It dawned on me that at this moment in our history we are a nation of beleaguered and divided people who need a hopeful message, I think, from a good person we trust: my Advent wish is for each of us to find that person, and to find peace, in whatever our faith traditions, and in so doing to find home.

Shape Shifting Words and Other Moving Truths

Same Shape as Always

Have you ever fixated on a simple word until it’s no longer recognizable? The word desk, for example, is a four-letter word that means “a table, frame, or case with a sloping or horizontal surface especially for WRITING and reading and often with drawers, compartments, and pigeonholes,” so says Merriam Webster. Roll around the word desk for a while, considering its three consonants, and the single vowel that makes it pronounceable, and it will elude you, gentle reader, like some sci-fi shape shifter only masquerading as a desk. Soon you will question your own sanity and wonder whether you invented that word, or misunderstood it all these years, and it was never really a desk at all, but some other thing. Like a sked. Or maybe a keds (ah, somebody already took that one). But you catch my drift.

My beautiful writing desk has no drawers, compartments, or pigeonholes—my antique bill-paying desk fits that description to a tee, and now sits in a preordained spot in our gleaming new kitchen. Instead my writing desk is sleek and modern, with a clear glass top and nickel-colored legs that arc up from the ground gracefully to meet it. For six years it was my director’s desk in the office at Knoxville Ballet School. Then it was loaded onto a moving van and set before a big picture window in my Vermont cottage across the road from Lake Morey: that was a magical and terrifying year, and a lifestyle I could not sustain. But for the next move to a loft apartment in the central part of the state the writing desk was pronounced Too Bulky: David-the-Chef and I took it apart and carefully placed it in the garage below the loft. Thence to an Arlington, Vermont storage unit when we finally combined our two households in 2015.

But in our new home a beautiful room awaits that desk, with pale yellow walls and big windows overlooking the back yard and the river beyond it, one corner of the room awash with sunlight on days we’re lucky. That corner looks like it was made for my big, glass desk. You can always hem and haw about the placement of a chair and ottoman here, or a bookcase there, but some furniture informs you unequivocally where it belongs, and the writing desk has spoken.

In fact I should be writing this post from that sunny perch, actually a tad overcast today. But the shape-shifting desk is missing its hardware. And in the intervening years since it was last moved, we can’t for the life of us remember where we put it. Other hardware—curtain hardware, for example—we found, exactly where it was supposed to be, inside a bag, inside a box. Right there. But in more than a week of hauling, schlepping, and unpacking, there is no desk hardware. It is specialized hardware for a special desk, not something you can run down to the Home Depot and pick up along with the trash bags and light bulbs you need. Last night I lamented to DTC that maybe the glass desk will end up in the tag sale with all the other things we’re tag sale-ing next spring, because it has no hardware. The writing desk is useless without its hardware, so I am still writing with my laptop balanced upon my knees.

One day last week leaving work I had a similar moment to the word contemplating moment, where I did not recognize a gauge on my car’s dash board: it was the visual equivalent of the shape-shifting word. I kept staring at the gauge and thinking, wait—have you always been right there? In that spot? I thought about this for several miles, several solid minutes, even turning down the radio at one point, unable to reconcile this stupid thing in my mind. I waited and waited for something to change, for some toggle switch stuck in the wrong position inside my noodle to finally flip, and then everything would seem as it should. The switch never flipped, and I finally relented to my own silliness, and retrained my brain to recognize the gauge in this new place where it’s been all along. I believe I grew some new neural pathways in that exercise. The only explanation for this I can muster is the monumental upsetting of everything that happens when you move: nothing is where it should be, nothing is as it seems, and life’s routines are shaken in general. Alas, there are miles of new neural pathways to grow yet.

Yesterday Scout tripped the alarm when we were away from the house getting more boxes of things at the rental. I disarmed the system from my phone before central monitoring was alerted, thus averting the arrival of the cavalry and an invocation of false alarm fees. Days before that the installer assured me Scout did not weigh enough for the motion detector to care, not to worry. He was wrong. Motion detected at 1:56 pm, said the app on my phone. Alarm tripped! I was in transit for trip number two of the day back over to the rental, so back I went to check on things. I could imagine Scout tripping the alarm when he hopped onto the sofa. Or perhaps hopping off the sofa to growl at the postman, a thing he did on Friday. Another item for the week: call the alarm company—little-ish Labs can convince the motion detector they are big dawgs.

Meanwhile, Scout seems unimpressed by the move, and in fact alternates between moments of indulgent relaxation on the sofa or the human bed, and sheer exuberance exploring the breadth and scope of his new back yard. More lessons to learn from a dog.

Chef and Boxes on Thanksgiving Day

On Thanksgiving Day we pushed up our sleeves and worked like crazy from the dawn’s first light until we collapsed into bed late. A vacation day during a big move is simply too valuable to do things like watch parades and football games and cook huge meals or entertain friends and family. Those things will wait. Instead we had a simple dinner prepared by the chef, of seared salmon, rice, and caramelized Brussels sprouts, and I opened a lovely bottle of wine from a case our CPA gave us as a housewarming gift, bless her. We ate hungrily, mostly quietly, sneaking Scout a succulent piece or two of fish after he finished the crisped salmon skin the chef threw into his dinner bowl. Then we watched the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, a favorite of mine the chef has never seen, and marveled at how much the world has changed since that David Lynch creation, which seemed so stylized and revolutionary at the time. Now it seems ordinary, maybe because I already know who killed Laura Palmer, or maybe in my mind’s eye I made it into something it was not, like the gauge on my car’s dash board.

Last night I reminded my David-the-Chef not to look too closely at the configuration of clothing in the upstairs closet, or the placement of pots and pans in the kitchen: it’s all a work in progress, I quipped, and will no doubt change and change again—shift shapes—in the coming weeks.

Keep that in mind next time you go into the bathroom, he said. Uh-oh, I thought.

Instead, this is what I found:

Everybody needs ‘em a little ballet in the bawthroom. Such a loving and thoughtful chef. Has anybody seen my desk hardware?

Find a Penny

Closeup of Lucky Penny
Found Penny

You are a hoverer, I said to the twenty-something this morning, aware of his presence just behind and to the left of me while I was kneading biscuit dough.

A what?

A hoverer: whatever I’m doing, there you are, hovering like a helicopter. The other morning you were standing there at the bathroom door talking to me while I was putting on makeup, just like you did when you were little. Hovering.

<Twenty-something steps away a little.>

No, come back, I urged. I don’t mind it. I miss it, mainly.

Last weekend the hoverer found a penny on the floor of the attic in our 1936 home. I am not superstitious, but I pick up pennies. I think it’s more about paying homage to the smallest piece of our currency, the one nobody cares about, and that we talk about doing away with from time to time for its irksome proclivity to add bulk to the change purse. Ben Franklin’s ‘penny saved’ wisdom will mean nothing to future generations. Picking up this particular penny seemed important. Not much escapes the scrutiny of the twenty-something, even forgotten pennies in old attics. We are alike in that way: always surveying the horizon, detail oriented.

Window at Gable End of Attic
Photo courtesy of the Hoverer

Detail of Attic Window, Gable End of House

Earlier this morning he wondered why it’s so hard for me to post to my blog. Heh. Well, buying a new house is time-consuming, grasshopper. And continuing to work 40 hours weekly whilst doing it. And since the twenty-something’s arrival a few weeks ago I find myself stepping back into some old shoes, if only for a while, planning and preparing meals for a finicky eater, sneaking in a few veggies cloak-and-dagger style. Just like when he was a toddler. He’s perfectly capable of fending for himself and has done that of necessity on this visit when HCB and I are unavailable. But he does not always choose wisely (Taco Bell comes to mind).

There are those impediments to writing, and the fatigue and exhaustion that come from inhaling buckets of dust, bending and stooping to vacuum up cobwebs and ancient bug graveyards, and lifting and schlepping overburdened boxes to and fro, again and again. Early this morning HCB and I agreed: next time we pay somebody to do this.

And now here is the hoverer, standing behind me asking me what I am doing. Trying to blog, I tell him, just like I did when he was in sixth grade. Trying to.

In three days’ time our status has changed from squatters to bona fide homeowners, something we each doubted we’d achieve again, ever. On Thursday we signed all the papers in a nondescript bank conference room, we unmarried two. I observed to the attorney sitting between us how unsexy the whole business of closing seemed to me. I mean, this man and I have just bound ourselves together for the next thirty years on paper. The attorney laughed and said he wasn’t about to touch that one. I felt like we at least needed to spit in our palms and shake hands, or something. But HCB’s eyes twinkling across the table from me spoke volumes, and he did steal a kiss from me as we were leaving the bank lobby.

Bedroom Window

Detail of Window Lock

The twenty-something and I spent the balance of closing day scrubbing our new house to a fare-thee-well. The house has stood empty for a long time, but it’s still dusty after a period of big renovations. Inside it smells like new paint and carpeting, mostly, maybe a bit of carpentry, too. There will be more dust to clear, but the important work is done. On Friday when high winds knocked out the power in our rental, I grabbed Scout-the-Lab and my things in the darkness of early morning and drove to the new house to shower. Living on the grid, so to speak, has its advantages.

Yesterday HCB and the twenty-something did all the heavy lifting, bless them. We did not really see each other much during the course of the day. My job was unearthing and cleaning things in the cottage, making pathways for big furniture to move through tiny rooms, getting said furniture ready to move, keeping Scout as settled and happy as possible in the pandemonium going on around him, and importantly, fixing homemade chicken noodle soup. I made a single trip over to the house to drop some fragile belongings, to hang a shower curtain, and to roll out a rug on top of a new pad. My bum foot still swelled to the size of a watermelon after all that, and today is not much improved.

But my fellas and the ten-foot truck we rented for the day made three circuitous trips from our mountain cottage to the storage unit, thence to the new house and back again, to retrieve and move things according to HCB’s carefully calculated plan. My massive antique hutch has inspired a lifetime supply of hutch jokes and puns. (Twenty-something this morning changed the handle on one of his social apps to ‘Hutchmasta.’)

Our dining table was finally gotten from the furniture restorer’s shop, where it has waited patiently in the darkness for more than two years after big repairs and refinishing; I almost dragged that table to the curb when it broke just after I moved to Vermont—close call. Hanging our heads over plates balanced on our knees to eat supper will soon be a thing of the past. Soon. We are not yet sleeping at the new place, too much still to do, and a new-used washing machine that on Thursday decided to belch out a puddle of water because of a frozen and burst internal organ, kind of a ruptured Kenmore appendix, you might say. We think we can fix it. And we need a fuel delivery for the boiler.

Restored Fireplace

On the way home from the house yesterday I stopped by the storage unit where I found two filthy and exhausted people dealing with the last load of big stuff. It was cold and there was not much light. And there were casualties: mice had moved into the unit some time ago and left some of our belongings unusable, destined for the dump. They also left themselves behind, in various stages of decomposition. I asked what I could do to help. Bring us four strong men, quipped HCB; hot showers and chicken noodle soup a little while later were the perfect salve, with a heavy dose of the twenty-something’s latest Netflix series on the telly.

The Walloomsac River from our Back Yard

Roiling Walloomsac River

Our new place has an unbelievable yard for its urban setting, abutting the Walloomsac River. And in spite of that you can walk less than a block for one of the best bagels I’ve had in a long time, and a strong cuppa Joe to go with. The regulars in that clean-scrubbed shop are friendly, and so are the staff. The woman who made me two breakfasts to go Friday morning welcomed me to the neighborhood with a generous smile and said she knew precisely which house was ours. It was still windy as hell outside, the same wind that had earlier taken down the power on our mountain. Here, she said: let me get the door for you. We’ll be seeing much more of you I said, stepping out into the bitter wind.

Late Day Sunlight in Vermont Mudroom
Magical Late Day Sunlight in a Proper Vermont Mudroom

I can think of no better time than opening this new chapter to formally introduce Handsome Chef Boyfriend. His name is David, henceforth David-the-Chef. Think of it like spitting into your palm and then shaking our hands. Or perhaps finding a lucky penny.

Hole in That Theory: B & W Challenge Day 7

Birch Bark with Woodpecker Holes 1
Holy Birch Bark, Robin

Birds around here fall silent in winter, but this summer and fall the woods around this little cottage have resonated with so much birdsong at times that we’ve raised a fist skyward: trying to sleep, here—can you please keep it down? A parliament of owls lives in our trees. That’s what you call a group of owls—a parliament. The sound of an owl in suburban Knoxville, Tennessee, was rare and enchanting. But in this Vermont forest they awaken a light sleeper in the night, making it difficult sometimes to fall asleep again before the early morning alarm sounds.

On the drive down our steep mountain road one morning last week I disturbed a bunch of crows who were sauntering around in the road like they owned it. You call that a murder of crows. Murder is what I’d like to do to a few owls who are interfering with REM cycles in this house.

I picked up that piece of birch bark out in the yard a few weeks ago because it was so spectacular: somebody was hard at work, for a while. I love how methodical and tidy the holes are, in neat rows evenly spaced. We have woodpeckers here, too—teeny ones and big ones. The maple that smooshed our cars a couple years back held a nest of woodpecker babies deep inside its trunk, who cried and cried when the tree came down. We could hear them, but could not see them. The mama was nearby and distraught. The next day we found a dead baby on the ground by the downed tree, probably abandoned by a critter looking for an easy meal who perhaps though better of it for some reason. Or maybe bald baby woodpeckers are an acquired taste. Nature sure can be cruel.

Meanwhile my own baby—my twenty-something manchild—arrived on my doorstep somewhat unexpectedly last Tuesday. He’s hanging out with us for a while, helping us pack, perhaps helping us move, too. We’ll see. House closing day is only a week and a half away, and then the big work begins. It’s an exciting and terrifying time for us. For my part, I’m thinking about 1936, the year the house we’re buying was built. Those were tough times, but the worst of the Great Depression was over and the American economy was beginning to recover: the ‘waste not, want not’ values of my grandparents—and of so many others of their generation—resonate with me even now.

Who built our house? Who bought it? Was it a family? Did they have a dog? Had they suffered through hard times? How did they make ends meet? I know only that somebody thought to conceal a cutting board under the kitchen counter—it slides out and shows beautiful signs of many years of use. And close to that is a drawer made just for bread, with a sliding metal lid that’s perforated in an artful starburst pattern. Once upon a time I think we cared a tad more about aesthetics in ordinary objects, like bread boxes. And street lamps, and toasters, and bridges. I think all of that matters. And I love that the people who re-made our house with modern comforts and conveniences saw fit to keep some of the things that matter.

The bird or birds who made the holes in the found birch bark were probably more concerned with finding their next meal than with art. But there is most definitely art in their industry. The twenty-something helped me puzzle through a problem with my Nikon, and made a few pictures of his own. I like this one he shot, in full color: to me it shows a perfect, tiny landscape and tells the story of so much that happened to this tree, which surely provided shelter to more than a single family in its history. Soon we’ll start making our own thumbprint on the new-old house, putting our own holes in the walls, if you will. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Birch Bark with Woodpecker Holes 2

 

Yankee Flour, Southern Biscuits: Sunday Photo Essay

Breakfast sandwich on a Southern biscuit made with yankee flour
Southern Biscuit, Yankee Breakfast

Changing your address can change your life, chirped a too-cheerful woman in a slick TV advert for planned community living.

We are long accustomed to cranking out some pretty impressive cuisine in our outdated, strapped-for-space, apartment-sized kitchen. We’ve made do using a teeny kitchen table that belongs to our landlord as adjunct counter space, perfected a risky bowl-balancing technique at the T-shaped junction of our rusty divided sink where it meets the lip of the unfortunate formica countertop, ditto the V-shaped metal dish drainer, and in a pinch have even pressed into service the flat top of our stainless steel garbage can to hold some large cooking vessel or other when there was absolutely nowhere else to put it. (Scout’s food storage bin doubles as a decent cookbook holder, I have discovered.)

Vintage glass mixing bowl with flour and fork, just cutting in the shortening
Favorite Vintage Glass Mixing Bowl

But if I had to fault this kitchen for a single thing above all others, it would be its darkness. At times this vexes me enough to send me into a tailspin for a solid evening, when I can’t find my damn readers, and that on top of badly compromised eyes in the first place.

Fork in stiff biscuit dough
Fishs Eddy Fork in Dough

I’ve taken on the black-and-white photo challenge for the past few days, the one everybody’s doing. I decided to edit these in black and white, too, but the absence of light in our little kitchen speaks volumes through my Sunday morning biscuits in the make. That, and my inexperience with a camera. I expect more of our soon-to-be kitchen, a wide-open space with light fixtures everywhere, loads of natural light, and a pleasant collision of interesting 1936 cabinetry and storage with 2017 finishes and appliances. Yes, that change of address will indeed change our lives.

Dough ball kneaded four times, as Granny would say
Need to Knead

White Lily flour is the gold standard for Southern biscuits, and for over a century was milled at a factory near a familiar intersection just northeast of downtown Knoxville (the company closed its Knoxville plant in 2008 and moved operations to the Midwest). It was what everyone bought and baked with, a pantry standard along with Hellmann’s mayo and for many years, JFG coffee, if you lived in Knoxville. For a while Williams-Sonoma peddled White Lily at a stupid price in its brick-and-mortar stores and catalog; they seem to have come to their senses. Anyway, up in these parts King Arthur flour is the thing, and is what I put in my biscuits this morning.

One cut biscuit, one hole in rolled dough
A Drinking Glass Makes the Best Biscuit Cutter

My mama begged my great-grandmother Grace—Granny Grace—to tell us some of her beloved recipes many years ago, long before she died. I am sure Granny had recipes tucked away somewhere, but by then most of what she routinely created in the kitchen was stored in her noodle, and so she simply quoted from memory. Granny’s vagueries were maddening sometimes (‘put in about that much milk,’ said gesturing with tar-stained fingers between puffs on her ciggie, or ‘bake it ’til it’s done’). To her way of thinking it was obvious.

The White Lily biscuit recipe
Self-Respecting Southerners Know

This morning I did a side-by-side of her biscuit recipe and the one on the White Lily bag, and dang if they’re not pretty much identical. I clipped the White Lily version from my last bag of flour, the one I schlepped all the way to Vermont from Tennessee with me. It’s on the door of the fridge, right next to my mom’s potato soup recipe—soup she routinely made and brought to me the year I was going through my divorce, when I would eat nothing else. I’ve begged her to send it to me for years, and not long ago she finally called and quoted it to me over the phone. It reads pretty much like a Granny-Grace style concoction—a little of this and a little of that, until it looks right, and cook it ’til it’s done. She comes by it honestly, anyway. And when I protested, she merely quipped unapologetically, you live with a chef: figure it out.

Beautifully baked biscuits on sheet pan
King Arthur Makes a Respectable Biscuit

The biscuit sandwich I made this morning assuaged my days-long desire for a made-from-scratch biscuit. It was not exactly what Granny Grace would eat: in lieu of her crispy bacon, for example, mine had a leaner applewood smoked turkey slice. There was no fried egg, but instead a small egg whites omelet folded, and folded again; I did not cook it in bacon grease as she might have done, but instead used coconut oil. I schmeared the biscuit with a little bit of apricot preserves, no butter, and layered on crisp, fresh spinach, the year’s last from our favorite farm stand. I still have a few tomatoes in the windowsill that probably come close to Granny Grace’s high standards for tomatoes, and so I added a thick slice. (She would wait until lunch for hers, sliced and laid out on a plate or saucer and doused with salt, taken with strong black coffee and another smoke.)

Plated biscuit sandwich in profile, in color

I’ll keep on making Southern biscuits wherever I live: some things should never change. And I know Gracie would agree.

October in Vermont: Season of ‘Lasts’

Staring into the sun on an exquisite October afternoon
It’s unfair to name October a season, which more properly belongs to fall. But it does mark a big transition in these parts, a time beyond which the air feels more authentically like winter to a person with Southern roots. Not once in the five Vermont winters I’ve seen have we missed a respectable snowfall—a ‘plowable’ snow—before Thanksgiving; if the trend continues we’ll have our first one soon. It won’t hang around for long, not like the snow from a nor’easter does, the kind that takes down the power grid and leaves you wishing your elbows did not have bursitis when you pick up the snow shovel, the one you forgot to leave by the back door, the reason you now have snow melting inside your boots. Rookie mistake. Nature has a sense of humor: thirty years ago last week a surprise early snow knocked out the power for five solid days, the news said. HCB remembers it.

That kind of snowfall comes later mostly, in February and March, and buries the landscape until spring thaw. January in Vermont can be oddly pleasant thanks to a phenomenon known as January thaw. But the big storms here often persist right into April, until winter has no choice except yield to the sun’s new angle in the sky. The miracle of life after all that never fails to amaze me, the idea that underneath those sinister layers the planet is birthing something new and wonderful. I always felt the same about spring in the South, but here the sensation is exaggerated.

In spring the Battenkill will roar through our little hamlet in an angry torrent. It will lick the low-hanging branches on its banks, leaving icicles that dip down into the water, exotic crystalline formations that will finally relent on a sunny afternoon. It does not feel like spring here, not a proper spring anyway, until June. Vermont winters are long, quipped the man connecting the phone cables in my cottage basement back in 2012, shaking his head while he worked. I get it now.

Ice and angry torrents on the Battenkill
Meanwhile the air feels more like late summer; Nate will pound us with rain for the next couple of days. The kids are playing soccer with padded shinbones, still dressed in summery shorts and tank tops, not for long. It’s Columbus Day weekend, a time when droves of tourists pour into the state (not in numbers like they once did, insists HCB) for the foliage and to buy the same syrup they can probably get back home at the neighborhood Kroger for less. Give them their syrup: they pump dollars into the local economy, and anyway it’s more fun to buy some where you can watch it being made while you lick sticky sugar from your fingers, the sugar that coated your apple cider doughnut a moment ago. It’s what fall is about, or October at least. Best to enjoy that doughnut this weekend, because there’s not much foliage to see, still a lot of green on the trees and it is raining indiscriminately—if Nate had come any later he’d have left us a naked landscape, but these trees are not quite ready to let go.

Still, October is about lasts. It is time to polish the silver for the last time—not for the last time ever, one hopes, but for the last time in this little cottage in the woods. And HCB will chide me for it, because we have bigger fish to fry. Polishing silver is my default strategy whenever I hear the words ‘pack and move.’ It is procrastination through and through.

Moving from Tennessee to New England inspired the most silver polishing: that is one heck of an undertaking, disemboweling a home where you’ve lived for sixteen years, prying apart what is yours from what is his, stuffing as much as you can onto a crowded moving truck, and saying goodbye to the stuff that refused to stuff. No use crying over spilt milk, but I cried plenty.

My first lakeside home in Vermont’s Upper Valley was exquisite but beyond my reach in spite of the best-laid plans, as fate proved. I squeezed out enough cash for a year, maybe to my detriment, but in hindsight it was probably important for me to live there. Vermont winters never suffer fools gladly, and my first one was forgiving in that cottage, exploding pellet stove and zombie basement notwithstanding. Life there was a sojourn, a pause I needed from the misery I left in Tennessee. It had its terrifying moments.

Lake Morey through my cottage window, winter of 2013
Thence further inland towards the central part of the state, where I said farewell to my beloved Clarence-the-Canine and finally grasped a new reality: that year and a half or so forced me to square my shoulders and face the music, as it would anybody with a dwindling bank account. Getting a handle on living expenses came at the expense of living among people. I understood people who had gone before me found healing in that beautiful setting I was lucky to call home—180 pristine mountainous acres—but I did not. It was instead an exercise in adapting to isolation, living in fear and living lean, leaning on the lessons I learned growing up during rough years in my mama’s house in Memphis: you can survive if you’re smart. I had that at least going for me, but occasionally I also wondered whether my time there resembled anything like a monastic life. Maybe I needed simply to shut up and listen. I left my beloved Clarence-the-Canine buried on that land, a reminder that life is transient and nothing belongs to any of us forever. Maybe there was healing after all and I failed to recognize it.

Clarence at the loft in Sharon
Combining two households almost three years ago made sense. It’s true two can live cheaper than one to be sure, but there’s also the sheer joy of being together with the person you love instead of a two-hour drive from him, to say nothing of the great satisfaction of writing a new chapter, a big one, and importantly, a hopeful one. Moving here has not been without its vexations: the outdated infrastructure in this tiny little house in the woods can’t support two full-time, full-size human adults, plus one part-time teenager (a while back there were two of them) without protesting. It is a place bursting at the seams—with the landlord’s stuff, HCB’s, and now mine; overflow went into storage. Since I moved in almost three years ago we’ve dealt with bears unafraid of people, with dangerous, law-breaking neighbors, with a fallen maple that badly damaged one new car and left the old car parked next to it with a good-sized flesh wound, and with one tragic visit to the emergency room after a dog bite last October. We are still somewhat isolated on this mountain top, in spite of living in a neighborhood. On an icy morning it takes a while to carefully navigate a dirt road before reaching the highway down below. But we are together.

Soon it will be the last time to navigate that treacherous road, and weather gods willing, maybe we won’t at all. Instead we will take on the new challenges of living in a distinctly urban setting, in and among a community of people, in a house that is waiting for us at this moment. The walls in our 1936 ‘New Englander’ hold the stories of generations of families who have gone before us, to which we’ll add our own. Vermont winter will still come to us there, and we’ll be ready for it. Next October I might polish the silver, or maybe I’ll let it wait ‘til Thanksgiving. But next Halloween I shall certainly pass out candy to neighborhood children. And I shall walk to Main Street with Scout-the-Lab and HCB. I’ll say hey to people I know when I pass them, people I’m about to meet, a couple of whom I know already.

Next October will be a season of firsts, at last.

New Sycamore Stories

Scout’s Big Epiphany

Scout-the-Lab knows where all the chipmunks are
I Know Where All the Chipmunks Are

Whatever life experiences shaped Scout-the-Lab before he came to us last December, there is this one truth about him, and about all dogs says the vet: they forget nothing. Scout’s skittishness is authentic, part and parcel of who he is. I may have envisioned a goofy, tail-wagging demeanor in my early quest for this dog, and that is my own folly. People at home and at work are sometimes crestfallen when he rebukes overtures of affection, when he shies away from an outreached hand, or jumps out of his skin at the slightest provocation, or even cowers when an unexpected human comes barreling around a corner. Taking these reactions personally is a human problem, not a doggish one, just as my own expectations of what Scout would be when he came to us were based on my own preconceived notions of a Lab, and not on Scout as Scout. And anyway, the first time our vet cupped Scout’s chin in her hands and peered into his evocative eyes, she said, Oh Scout: you are a Chessie.

The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is not known for its effusive personality. It does not really matter.

I’ve always loved the name Scout, my favorite literary character in my favorite piece of Southern writing, the little girl with whom I identified growing up. (Never mind that Scout-the-Lab is a boy dog.) But if I had to draw a parallel between my Scout and a single character in that exquisite story, I’d be more inclined to link him to Boo Radley, the tragic, misunderstood character, “with his shy ways.” He is who he is.

Scout digs for chipmunks

Scout digs more furiously for chipmunks

Scout has his head in the ground hoping to reach the chipmunks

A few weeks ago when we launched on our Dogged Adventures with Scout comfortably tucked into the back seat of the Subi, I worried he’d be unable to reconcile what was going on in that little noggin of his. After his tenure with two separate families in Texas (humans who loved him, to be sure), he went into foster care for a couple of weeks. Thence onto a transport van with others of his ilk, rolling all the way from Austin to Brattleboro, Vermont, arriving on what was the coldest calendar day in New England at that point, turns out. Thousands of miles across the country, and into the arms of two perfect strangers, who seemed nice enough on the face of it. But surely, without ascribing too many human emotions to a trembling dog in a foreign land, I believe ‘bewildered’ must have described his condition, at least in part.

Scout was long familiar with climbing into the car and going when it was finally time for our vacation—going to work with me most days every week, going to dog camp one afternoon a week, going up to my financial planner’s office once in a while on a big elevator (head tilts for days), going to the store, and even going inside some stores. But this time the going would keep on, well, going. I worried Scout might imagine he was being rehomed. Again.

What happened instead was a week’s worth of adventures with the sweetest rewards: being invited inside the home of some friends down in Knoxville and socializing with their dog for a bit, exploring all kinds of worldly venues with me, my Handsome Chef Boyfriend, and my twenty-something, enjoying some extended outings in nature on a couple of occasions, eating exceptionally well, and—joy of joys—sleeping in a big bed with humans, a thing he can’t do at home because of the Dreaded Spiral Stairs. By the end of our trip Scout had grown accustomed to looking for the bed first thing when we checked into another hotel: Ah, there you are, bed. <check> Now, let me just <muscles twitching, preparing to jump>, THERE we go. Yep, this one’ll do fine. <circle around, plunk, exhale>

Earlier in the week when we checked into our Asheville Airbnb it took him a bit longer to get his bearings, because we had an entire apartment to ourselves. He split time between our bed and the twenty-something’s futon in the adjoining room, but always slept with us, alternately curled or sprawled between us near the foot of the bed. One beautiful morning as we began to stir, HCB reached his long arm down to scratch Scout’s noggin, and in a single, perfectly coordinated movement Scout lengthened his sinewy body until his head rested on the pillows right between ours. We lay there and giggled and continued to dole out affection: it is fair to say the dog was content to indulge in the moment, as were his humans.

Still, there must have been this unrelenting question: where are we going?

The final, sunny afternoon of travel when we began the steep ascent up the twisty Vermont mountain road to our home in the woods, Scout sat up in the back seat and surveyed the familiar landscape. As the car rolled to a stop in our drive, I hoped everything—the events of the past week, and now this moment—would crystalize for him: I am home. There had been no aha! moment on that cold Brattleboro day back in December. Only the passing of the leash from one hand to another. Here, I hoped, we had arrived at the place where everything would finally make sense to Scout: this is my home and my family—we do things together.

I had to wait until the next morning for my answer, early on Monday when it was time for post-vacation work reentry. Curled up comfortably on the sofa in his favorite spot, Scout only barely lifted his head to acknowledge me when I told him it was time to go. Nah, he yawned sleepily, you go on: think I’ll lay here and watch some telly, maybe get a little shut-eye today. Have a good one, see you on the flip side.

Scout is indeed home.

Scout is perfectly at home on the sofa

Dogged Adventures: Asheville Is Noisy

Not Noisy from Here
The metal carabiner-like clip that fastens to the harness part of Scout-the-Lab’s seatbelt is maddening, like that childhood game Barrel Full of Monkeys: just when you think you’re about to get it clipped—or unclipped as the case may be—an irksome little hook (think crochet needle) gets hung up and refuses to slip through the metal clasp on the harness. At least, when you’re trying to do it one-handedly. Scout sits there patiently waiting for his lady-human to correct the situation while she tugs and pulls his harness this way and that, cursing under her breath, or sometimes plainly for the world to hear, depending on her mood. There! she finally spits out when the damned thing does as it should. The inventor of that childhood game must be complicit with the designer of the Kurgo dog harness, I am sure of it. Good thing Scout’s long familiar with the ritual, as we repeated it countless times over the course of nine days of Way Down South adventuring.

Asheville Adventurer
This was Scout’s big epiphany during our Dogged Adventures: he is a Dog of the World, schooled in long-distance travel, in navigating loud city sidewalks crowded with people and other dogs, and importantly, in waiting when he is told—waiting to jump down from the car, or to jump up into the car, waiting before bolting out of the hotel room’s open door, waiting for the automatic doors to open, waiting for the traffic signal to change, and sometimes, merely waiting. Waiting is also what happens when you go to a dog-friendly eatery with outdoor seating; the best ones bring you a fresh bowl of water and give you a pat on the head. But mainly, you lie down and wait; sometimes you snap at a yellow jacket until your human warns you to stop because this pastime can only end badly for you. But in spite of being asked not to snap at yellow jackets and being made to wait, you are glad to do it, because the rewards are sweet. Smoked barbecue, for example, is completely worth waiting for. Ditto bites of succulent grilled chicken, or crumbles of a grass-fed beef burger smothered in Vermont cheddar. Call it manna from heaven, if you like—good things come to those who wait, and Scout completely gets this.

Farm Burger Waiting Dog

Farm Burger Still Life

You Can Eat Like This in Your Twenties

Vermont Cheddar in Asheville

Sweet Potato Fries Are Health Food

Collision of Lines
No self-respecting chef embarks on a vacation without doing his culinary homework. HCB wanted barbecue from the get-go, and he wanted the best. One of his homies down in Asheville made recommendations, and because Scout-the-Lab was with us, we opted for number two on the list (see dog-friendly eatery above). This worked out fine, and nobody was disappointed: leftovers supplied a homemade pizza topping for one gluten-free twenty-something, a couple of sammies, and general late-night noshing with the fridge door wide open at our little vacation rental. We ate it with the abandon of people off their diets and on vacation, all of it, and mopped up what was left with remnants of homemade corn bread.

Butt Rubbin’ Goin On

12 Bones Smokehouse

A Pie Tin Is Your Plate

Perfection
Asheville has always held appeal as a quirky but still somehow metropolitan mountain city, separated from its neighbors by, well, mountains. You kind of have to work to get there: eastbound I-40 out of Knoxville gets steep and curvaceous all of a sudden, and just when you think you can’t take any more careening up a steep, fast-moving highway wedged between a cement barrier on one side, and a long caravan of tractor trailer rigs on the other, you’re there. What struck us about Asheville on this trip is her ancient infrastructure long outgrown by the burgeoning city around it, crying out to be replaced (as the twenty-something correctly observed: because there are no turn lanes, traffic backs up for days). The seamier, industrial parts of town have elevated graffiti to high art, and damned if it does not work beautifully. We spotted an entire group of people photographing it on tripods, part of a class assignment we guessed. Downtown is fun, and treacherous, and did not slow down one jot no matter what time we were out and about. But for his part, Scout-the-Lab seemed to know exactly what to do after our excursion with him in downtown Knoxville. Dogs are amazing and resilient.

Graffiti 1

Graffiti 2

Graffiti 3

French Broad Chocolate Has New Digs

Chocolate Makes the World Go ‘Round

Asheville City Dawgs I Know
We also took a small hike from our rental (on the outskirts of downtown, and on the edge of the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s campus, as it happens) to the UNCA observatory, high atop a ridge overlooking the city. The area around it—the paved road leading up, the street lights, and a tall concrete stairway reaching from the road below to the building above—have been let go, it’s fair to say. Nor have the gardens around it seen much love in recent years, although the most determined flowering plants have elbowed their way to life in spite of the overgrowth around them: you can tell it was once really something. Meanwhile the observatory itself is still brought into service several times a year, and opens up for public viewings. We happened to be there for one which was unfortunately full, but anyway cancelled thanks to the overcast remnants of Irma. The boy said he could tell the top of the building slides open, and when we got back to our place I looked it up, and sure enough. Meanwhile, we got outside, exercised a little, and took in the incredible vistas from the top; my whiny kid said he had no interest in going, and then all of a sudden he was right there with us. Wish I had used that strategy in my younger parenting years instead of pleading, reasoning, and brow beating. Hindsight.

The Little Free Library at Our Airbnb

The Neighborhood Has Excellent Taste in Literature
There’s no place like home. And there’s no place like the South; I miss it like crazy, content for now to busy myself with hopeful goings-on here in Vermont, about which more later.

Postscript: I meant to include this photo of my ghostlike dog-and-chef in the Knoxville post but somehow missed it. Serendipitous—I have no clue how I did it, something to do with shutter speed and the absence of light probably. It was late, we were going down stairs in a downtown parking garage. Mistakes can be beautiful, after all.

City Ghosts