Idling in Vermont

Idling in Patagonia

Some forty years after its publication Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is still considered a pivotal and authoritative piece of travel writing about this 400,000-square-mile South American region. Ferdinand Magellan called the tall aboriginals he encountered there Patagones after a mythic character, it is rumored, hence its name. Straddling two countries and claiming most of a vast mountain range, Patagonia is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atlantic to the east, and all but shakes Antarctica’s hand in its southernmost reaches; precisely where it begins in the north is arguable. My own ‘journey’ there began with a mammoth piece of content I’m writing for a client. But the very idea this delicious-sounding book existed prompted my off-the-clock quest for it.

That, together with a single glowing accomplishment: I managed to nudge my first-generation Kindle out of its long slumber, and after several hours’ worth of uploading no fewer than four system updates, finally pressed it into service once more. I like my old-style Kindle for its satisfying, clicky keyboard—the kind that talks back to you affirmingly—and for its Etch-A-Sketch-like screen that does not tire the eyes and overstimulate the brain at bedtime the way most devices these days do, so the experts say. I pat myself on the back any time I win a battle with technology: this one was measurable, rewarded by the instant, magical download of a new book.

In Patagonia is my favorite kind of writing, one thoughtful, descriptive essay after another, stitched together in a sensible way that takes the reader bumping right along for the ride across the arid steppe. Any gaps in Chatwin’s account he fills with ingenious turns of phrase and the quiet kind of humor that belongs to the English alone; stop paying attention for an instant and you’ll miss it. Chatwin is an exquisite storyteller and that is all, weaving illuminating bits of history throughout the 1970s landscape as he sketches it, staying true to his descriptive narrative style. It is a story we already know, of successful and failed European conquests, of aboriginal tribes whose temperaments vary from heroically savage to comically irreverent, of expats seeking freedom from persecution in the homeland. Europeans of questionable provenance insinuated themselves into this Patagonian landscape centuries ago as alleged princes and kings, so they claimed, bestowing fictional titles on the ‘Amerindian’ natives in exchange for land and wealth: you can convince any tribe of naked drunks to agree to a lopsided deal, went the thinking. Things never seem to work out precisely as one hopes they will; the natives have a way of skewering and roasting you on a spit when they come to and figure out what’s what.

I envy Chatwin’s excursion while my engine idles here in Vermont. Not that I have some unsated wanderlust: the idea of a Patagonia-style sojourn appeals, but I probably lack the constitution for it, to say nothing of the bank account. One thing is certain: my mood always hangs on the promise of what is coming, even if that is unclear. Lately ‘what is coming’ seems to be lollygagging along at an irksome pace, coming to a dead stop now and then to examine some inconsequential weed growing out of a sidewalk crack. (Even this spring’s arrival is maddeningly complicit in this plan, teasing us with minuscule bits of warm sunshine, but mainly handing us damp cold and grey days that linger like a tiresome dinner guest.) I need a trumpet fanfare, or at least some sign of progress where there is none, or so it seems.

Meanwhile, back in the tiny rental house at the end of a mountain road. Where the partial remains of two failed marriages collide with things that belong to someone else, the balance left to languish in storage. Where the kitchen counter doubles as a pantry. Where a single bathroom groans in protest every time a tap is opened. Where a timid dog retreats often to the security his cheerful yellow quilt-covered crate behind a sofa, a crate whose top doubles as an adjunct desk littered with receipts and file folders and Kleenex boxes and other objects—a broken antique sugar dish in a Ziploc bag (another casualty of too-tight quarters); a takeout menu from a local eatery; random USB cables; and a stack of newspapers eager to wrap and box precious possessions yet again. Nothing can be put in its place, for there is no place for the putting.

A thousand miles away from me a twenty-something also idles, waiting for his life to inch forward like Patagonia’s own Perito Moreno in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the curious glacier that advances about six feet every day, calving building-sized icebergs into the water around it. Be patient, I urge, reminding him he could be doing things now to nudge his life forward, however glacial its pace seems to this restless young being.

I could heed my own advice in the place where I am treading water now, yearning for permanence and community and walls I don’t mind painting.

My friend Rebecca’s goat Darcy finally had her twins a couple of days ago. Rebecca, whose life and writing and cheese and food and photography are filled with so much inspired beauty. Were I a true Vermonter, I’d want to live like my friend Rebecca and her family, I think. But I believe that is called coveting thy neighbor’s oxen, if memory serves, and it surely applies to their goats, too (never mind that Rebecca and her family live a solid two hours from here: in these parts they still count as neighbors, and anyway I used to live much closer). But I will never achieve the ‘true Vermonter’ milestone measured any way you want to; my life is my life. I still draw inspiration from Rebecca, and from Darcy-the-Goat, who took her sweet time about kidding her twins, “chewing her cud like a bored receptionist chewing her gum,” wrote Rebecca. I think Chatwin and Rebecca must be related. Or maybe Darcy and the Natives.

Things never seem to work out the way one hopes they will, but they finally work out the way they must.

Daily Commute

Morning Sun on Taconics

Like so many geographic place names in America, Taconic comes from a Native American word, meaning “in the trees.” I can think of no better moniker for the landscape that greets us each morning, but the daily commute frees one (if only briefly) from the confines of the woods which can at times overwhelm. In those moments the sky opens in the Battenkill Valley, flanked to the west by the Taconic Mountains and to the east by the western escarpment of the Greens, Vermont’s namesake mountains. However distant the Taconics or Green Mountains loom on the horizon along the stretch of Vermont’s Highway 7A between Arlington and Bennington, one can never fully escape that condition: living in the trees. The profound beauty of this landscape will catch in your throat when you first see it, but prolonged immersion in it stokes a hunger for the flat horizon, if only to observe more fully the movement of the earth against the night sky: the filtered view of it up through the trees is only a tease.

The people on our mountain are a mixed lot. Kempt homes, immaculate wood piles, tidy gardens, and even a manicured lawn here and there where the limited sunshine has permitted one to grow and flourish to begin with, live in communion with backcountry landholders who seem not to care, or to worry too much anyway, about graffitied dumpsters and work trucks that should not be here to begin with, mud in lieu of lawn, and cars left to rot in situ, giving one pause to reflect on the oily soup that must surely leech from them into the ground water by way of any number of streams that finally flow into the nearby Battenkill. (I have been told these are the people you want as friends for their willingness to save you from your own stupidity when you put your car into a wintry ditch, or to deal with the rabid raccoon wandering in the woods.) Some of these folk were here first: it is their landscape, now governed by town rules to which the authorities seem content to turn a blind eye. About this time of year neighborhood creeks roar indiscriminately at all hours helping to mute the sound of heavy trucks, but in a few weeks will settle, becoming quieter still with the foliage that now waits with gathering impatience to explode from long-dormant trees and other flora. There is no way to filter the rusted out carnage when you pass through it on the way to your own drive—it is an exercise in gratitude for what you have—but the arrival of spring in earnest will try hard to help.

Our rough gravel mountain road turns to asphalt pavement for a few tenths of a mile before it drops sharply by way of a hairpin turn and finally meets Route 7A. Thence a couple of miles south into town proper, with a parallel railroad to the east and scattered housing, businesses, and the town park to the west: the accidental tourist will be tempted to stop into a likeable and accessible modern sugaring operation with adjoining shop and Norman Rockwell exhibit before venturing on into town.

Although Arlington was once the state capital, nothing much remains to suggest any kind of pomp that may have distinguished it as such, save the land markers on its outskirts. Aside from a few notable historic structures, this miniscule village is like any other in these parts, with two raggedy convenience stores, a smattering of family businesses, a vet and a medical clinic, the requisite town hall, an ancient and a modern church, and more recently an offending small box retailer of the variety one local suggested cries out, We need help here. It is too bad: we are not living in the glory days of this New England village, though there is yet life in it. (A recent infrastructure project missed its mark: opportunities were overlooked, perhaps not enough money in the till.)

A long stretch of lovely rural highway unfolds on the south end of town; heading south you can abandon ship and take a left turn onto Highway 313 to the newer Route 7, which has the feel of Interstate. It lacks the interest and character of the original, older 7A that parallels it a couple of miles to the west, affording a more intimate view of rural life in Vermont, far and above the best commute to Bennington in my opinion. Route 7A winds its way along the valley floor for several miles, hilly and curvaceous here and there, with two stretches in particular where the trees all but close in overhead: it is these two ‘tunnels’ that stubbornly cleave to packed snow and ice after a winter storm a while longer, when the rest of the road is long clean and dry.

Once through this pair of chutes, though, the heavens open again and Vermont country life can be observed as in a fish bowl. In the early morning children of all ages wait for school buses on the sides of the road, many in their own driveways. One ancient and curious barn stands half burnt, its thrifty (or uninsured) owner continuing for years now to use what remains of it, in no apparent hurry to rebuild. Wheat-colored fields, flat and rolling, will soon give way to a verdant carpet of new growth. It is along this stretch and on the approach to the hamlet of Shaftsbury one can see examples of early clapboard farm houses, barns, and other outbuildings, some lovingly cared for through the generations, nudged right up against the road: this mattered less when it carried unmotorized traffic. But when you park on 7A and step out of your car for a moment as I have done on one occasion, the cars ripping past in close proximity will get your attention: this is a fast moving highway in the here and now, however quaint the landscape.

Also on this stretch of road lies the turnoff to one of the best farm stands I’ve had occasion to visit during my tenure as a Vermonter. And just across from the turnoff a pair of cottage businesses and a farmhouse hawking fresh eggs on a sandwich board: $3.50 a dozen during the two-plus years I’ve made this particular commute, a piece of burlap occasionally covering the sign. At the top of the hill beyond it, the cheerful yellow-and-blue cottages of the Serenity Motel cozy up to the Governor’s Rock Motel, its namesake boulder rising from the ground on the edge of the road. A few tenths of a mile further south and this curvilinear road will lengthen straight as a pin on its way into Shaftsbury, losing elevation as it surges past a sizeable cemetery, a forgotten apple orchard, and a handful of quaint structures (one schoolhouse in particular speaks to me), before the highway slows to a crawl through town. Blink and it’s gone, the town Robert Frost surely referred to as the ‘village’ in his 1922 poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. And just beyond town the same poet’s house, standing proud in its dressed stone facade but beleaguered by sparring heirs, it is rumored, still worth a gander if you’ve never been.

You’re almost in the quirky town of Bennington at this point, one of a few in Vermont with any population to it but a victim of the slow economy in recent years and other afflictions seen here and elsewhere, with palpable signs of renewal to be sure. To the east is another chance to pick up Route 7 should you desire, but my journey at this point circumvents the town in the other direction, to the west, by way of back roads—pothole ridden, poorly maintained, but scenic enough. Winding around the pastoral entrance to Bennington College, the daily commute continues across North Bennington Road, picking up the Silk Road and passing through a beloved covered bridge. Middle- and upper middle-income families live here, an elusive population in Vermont: this is a picturesque neighborhood still flanked by the remains of farms. Silk Road eventually bumps into Vail Road to the right, Fairview to the left, but all roads lead to my destination. I veer left, where there is more of interest, in particular the Bennington Monument, a massive monolith towering just outside the car now but visible on the horizon from nearby New York; marking the Revolutionary War battle that was thought to have turned the tide of the war, the monument announces Vermont more impressively by far than placards elsewhere at its borders. At the base are situated large homes, elegant and historic, save one Walloomsac Inn that languishes eerily in its shadow, a bizarre structure that is the subject of rumors and legends.

I venture instead in the opposite direction down a semi-rural road, sparsely populated with appealing homes, finally reaching my destination: a nondescript corrugated metal structure, an unlikely venue for the creativity and industry that blooms in a petri dish behind closed doors at the top of a carpeted stairwell. Not far from civilization, the campus here is always windy (it defies you to breathe in the winter, lovingly caresses you in high summer), home to a small airport and a sizeable wetlands that supports all manner of wildlife—massive snapping turtles, various species of waterfowl, and a healthy deer population all live here. It is a pleasant terminus for a longish commute that is occasionally harrowing, mainly uneventful, and once in a while awe-inspiring: the afternoon sun slipping behind the Taconics sets ablaze the fall foliage on the western slopes of the Greens in colors the likes of which I have seen in no other place I’ve lived.

Twenty miles door to door, about a half hour or so in the car: it is not a bad way to spend a few moments most days. Seems the mountains of my erstwhile home in Appalachia have followed me here: the Vermont landscape connects me unexpectedly to my Tennessee roots via the daily commute.

Emotional Habits: Putting Sadness in a Box

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In her book The Creative Habit renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp writes about her work process. She starts a new box for each new project; anything that serves as inspiration goes into the box, along with every other object that has some meaningful connection to the work. When the project ends she puts a lid on the box and off it goes to storage. Then she gets out a new box and starts another project.

I find that methodology so appealing in so many ways.

And while an emotion is not exactly a project in creativity, like a piece of choreography or a Broadway score, I’ve wondered whether you could take them—especially the difficult ones around an episode or event in your life—put them in a box, and after you’ve eviscerated them, processed them, and feel “finished,” put a lid on the emotional box and schlep it off to storage.

I knew there would be sadness in the wake of losing my family and my home nearly four years ago; what I did not anticipate were the waves of sadness that would continue to wash over me for years after my marriage ended, pangs of grief, maybe, that still catch me off guard when I least expect it. I don’t miss the unhappy marriage, but I mourn for the things that were important and yet were somehow deemed disposable.

Lately the sadness has centered around the house where my son grew up, where a handful of beloved family dogs lived and died, a house that was nearly lost to foreclosure, saved in the nick of time by an auction where a calculating buyer snapped it up for a fraction of its true worth. The white auctioneer’s tent on the front lawn was replaced only a day or two later by a big yellow Penkse truck stuffed with what could fit into the small rental awaiting me a thousand miles away in Vermont, a fraction of the sum total of my belongings. I had exactly two days to evacuate the house I loved and had every reason to believe I’d live in until I died.

If you wanted to orchestrate a fiscal and domestic disaster of epic proportions you could not score it better than the cacophonic sypmhony that unfolded on a particular corner in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2011. The location of our beautiful home already invited a fishbowl-like existence; it was not unusual for people to stop and photograph our prominent corner because of the centuries-old trees and beautiful Tudor Revival house itself—a house we were lucky to call home for about sixteen years, but whose care and upkeep grew to be too much in the face of a slow economy and a series of very bad decisions.

When everybody in a town and neighborhood already fond of gossip caught wind of the drama being played out on that corner, life in the fishbowl grew worse, at least it felt worse to me. As the house and grounds fell into neglect I became embarrassed and angry. I don’t miss those final days one bit.

But what catches in my throat when I least expect it are the detailed memories of the bones of the house during moments when I felt my life was in complete synch with it. And being a student of historic structures to begin with, I appreciated and knew every square inch of it, from the loose finial with the protruding nail at the bottom of the steps, to the 1920s stucco on the walls that would draw blood from your knuckles if you miscalculated their whereabouts with an overloaded laundry basket in your arms. Or the basement “stairs to nowhere,” as we called them, formerly a service entrance that had been capped over at some point during a courtyard renovation. Or the panel in the basement stairwell behind which a servant’s call bell was once stuck somewhat comically in “on” mode while we scrambled to undo the paneling and switch it off.

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I knew the damage on a living room floor vent that happened when our 140-pound Shiloh playfully slammed onto the sofa, sending it skidding across the slippery hardwood floor and into the wall. Just above that vent was window hardware left behind by the previous family, jury-rigged with a nutcracker in the top left corner; you could see it if you were looking for it, like finding Waldo in the familiar children’s books.

Next to that was one of two front doors (when you live in an ell-shaped house on the corner that is what happens), the main one that welcomed trick-or-treaters every year. And just on the other side of the door was a small built-in telephone cubby from the earliest days of the house, arched at the top, with a beautiful hardwood shelf for the phone. Underneath it was another stucco-ed hole for a very small phone book.

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I know exactly the sound of the heating and cooling system cycling off and on, my son’s voice on the answering machine recorded when he was in kindergarten, the way the sun streamed through his west-facing bedroom window revealing every single cobweb and speck of dust that needed cleaning. If you sat in just the right spot in his sunny yellow room you could see the slate-roofed dormers from the adjacent section of the ell outside his window, and the copper gutters and flashing, transporting you to some Old World locale. It was the backdrop for all our read-alouds, the perfect evocative setting for Harry Potter.

I cursed under my breath every time I closed the door to the tiny bathroom just off the kitchen and observed where my child had carefully, over years, encouraged the toile wallpaper to peel as it rounded a tricky corner. With some success I had used white glue to repair it. And it was that same bathroom where he left the water running one morning at age three after he finished brushing his teeth, then turned around and stumbled over his own feet, taking a spill onto an unforgiving terra cotta tile step in the foyer, ripping the skin on his cheek right away from the bone; a day that began innocently with an anticipated play date resolved with plastic surgery to repair his face later that afternoon.

And it was that same unforgiving surface that every single dog who lived in our family loved so much in the heat of summer, because the stones remained cool to the touch. I can still see them—any one of them—sprawled on the wide stones in front of the open front door, the sun streaming in through the glass of the storm door on ribs rising and falling to the cadence of contented breathing, but instantly at the ready to announce every passerby or errant squirrel.

I knew every single lovely original casement window in that house, I could tell you which ones opened easily, which had to be cajoled (a bath towel and the palm of the hand is what it took). Some still had their crank apparatus—there were two old metal cranks floating around, one was bent—but the upstairs windows were all missing theirs because it made them easier to open. The massive old window sills were deep enough to display homeless casseroles and candles and all manner of other things. Later we replaced the old windows with their more efficient modern cousins, which I admit were also lovely and missing the annoying gloppy layers of decades of paint that burdened their forebears. No longer could you feel the winter blasting through them, but they emphatically lacked character, and they ate up those incredible oversized sills.

winter window

I know about the fire that happened long ago in the master bedroom, strangely, in one of the two window seats in the small dormers on either side of the fireplace. It had long been painted over, but if you lifted the bench to reveal the storage under it you could see the charring on its underside.

I also know a nine-year-old child died from tuberculosis in an upstairs bedroom in that house. And that one of two sisters who subsequently grew up there died in a drug-related incident in Atlanta. And that the eldest child of the family who sold it to us also struggled with addiction. And that the three families who ever lived in the house—including ours—had adopted children. So much sadness, and still so much hope.

I remember just about every single detail of that house. I will never go inside it again in my life, ever. I’m okay with that, I think. I hope the new people are giving a beautiful home everything it deserves. They have no idea of the stories that unfolded there.

I just wish I could make the lid fit more tightly on the box.

poolside

Coconut Shrimp in Green Curry Sauce: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

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Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I trekked back over to central Vermont for another load of stuff in the neverending process of combining our two households. This has been a logistically painful move, a bit like pulling off a bandaid verrrrrry slowly. I remain eternally grateful to my erstwhile landlady for allowing me to do things this way. Soon it will be time to yank off the rest of it, and get the heck out of her beautiful loft in earnest.

We spent an afternoon doing some gritty work: HCB painted the loft’s bathroom, which we had started some time ago but never finished, and I cleaned the wood stove to a fare-thee-well and did some other organizing and tidying up. Wish like heck things would go as they did for Jane and Michael Banks with the help of one Mary Poppins; there is still so much work to do.

Then we packed some stuff and schlepped some stuff. As we were buttoning up we thought about dinner and decided on a fantastic place we love over in Woodstock called Angkor Wat: Asian fusion, with an authentically Cambodian thumbprint. I had the great pleasure of a long chat with chef-owner Chy Tuckerman in his kitchen back in December, related to work I was doing at the time for Upper Valley Life Magazine. His story is worth reading.

Anywho. We thought we’d take advantage of our proximity and treat ourselves to dinner after a day’s work. Spring rolls for appetizers, to start. Beautiful, crispy, flaky, not greasy. Perfect, in fact, as you might surmise from the photo above.

HCB does not miss a chance for duck, ergo:

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I had a hankerin’ for coconut encrusted shrimp, where there was a choice between red or green curry sauce. Curry is one of those things that is not at the top of my to-die-for list in the world of cuisine. I like it okay, but it does not make me sing and dance, nor have I ever found it particularly hot. Our waiter told us that green is the hottest of the three Chy uses (the other two being red and yellow). Without batting an eye I chose green; I am an adventuresome eater, and spicy is always okay by me.

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This was possibly a mistake, not unlike another one I made several weeks ago involving a mix-up between cayenne and cinammon. Suffice it to say that I had a visceral reaction to the first bite I took. That is actually a euphemism for what I was feeling. But there is no turning back from a decision like this. I resolved to continue, much to the amusement of the person sitting across the table from me.

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The burn was instantaneous, and continued and continued. And continued, until it reached a crescendo where I teetered on the edge of asking for milk. Or for medical attention. A tiny reprieve came in the bites of beautifully prepared shrimp; there was also a bit of mercy in the veggies, as the fleshy inside of each piece was untouched by the devil in the sauce. The waiter checked on me a couple of times. I really could not speak. I could not see well, either, through waves of tears.

The person across the table was also tearing up. From laughter. And he felt inclined to point out to me again and again that my cheeks were growing redder. (Thanks for that, Captain Obvious.) I could feel the heat radiating off my face, and my lips were burning the way they do when they’re suffering a bout of mid-winter chapping. I concluded that there must be some health benefit to this much pain associated with a meal. There’s gotta be. Right?

There were jokes upon jokes, gentle readers, to do with farting around open flames, among other things. And riddles involving the words “swollen” and “red.” So dang funny I forgot to laugh.

I finished about two-thirds of my dinner and boxed the rest. The burn lingered even as we left the restaurant; by the time we reached Ludlow I was almost able to speak again.

Today has been decidedly less spicy. It was too beautiful to stay indoors, and we had planned a fun project with a particular almost-thirteen-year-old:

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HCB is the consummate Boy Scout (really), and spent some time engineering spots to hang our pine cone birdfeeders where the squirrels could not reach them:

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One parting thought for this delicious weekend, a friendly message to our neighborhood squirrels: mess with our pretty bird feeders, and I have a leetle something for you, courtesy of my friend Chy:

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Balance: Sunday Journal


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Spring has never felt more welcome. And as sure as it has felt like spring for the past week we are evidently in for 50s, clouds and rain for the next. It’s okay by me: there is no snow in the forecast, and I have noted very definite signs of thickening in the tips of the tree branches. Tender green shoots are poking up through the ground everywhere, and soon everything will explode.

The theme around here continues to be balance. There has been some progress, a bit of failure. Last Monday I foolishly decided I’d repeat my Saturday run after work. It was a beautiful afternoon, perfect weather. Anterior tibialis and hammies cared not one jot and screamed and cried like big babies. Still, a four-mile walk was better than a no-mile walk. I continue to work like crazy at the gym most days after work, pushing myself further in yoga, and actually increased my weights in Pump You Up class last week (my moniker, not theirs).

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In spite of allowing myself to slip some in recent months, I am seeing and feeling palpable progress now. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I went for a run together yesterday, and it was absolutely delicious. We were also charged by a bull protecting his womens, true story. Good thing there was a fence separating us; adrenaline flowed nonetheless—that was a first for me (the bull, not the adrenaline). The communication was very clear: get the hell away from the cows, they are mine. I still love hollaring hello to all of them. It’s my turnaround spot, a high point of the route. As is a sign reading “Aflac was here,” posted in some woods on the edge of swamp where the Battenkill backs up; we have no clue, but somebody has a sense of humor.

Last night HCB made a beautiful dinner, planned ahead of time, to go along with North By Northwest, also planned. I managed to work a reference to the movie into some writing at work not long ago. That got me thinking about the movie, which is why it was on our radar. HCB observed during an opening scene how different it would look and feel if it were shot today, because nobody cares about grooming and couture anymore. I tend to agree; we’re pretty dang sloppy as a society.

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Meanwhile, a failure. I have not kept up with my friend Rebecca’s reading challenge. I am still on the March book and should be halfway through April’s by now. At least I am reading.

It is spring. We have had a lovely weekend doing projects around the house, inside and out. HCB has already cleaned up the tiny garden patch, which you can see in the middle of this photo, a tree limb defining its edge. Last year that tiny piece of earth yielded quite a lot of veg—more than you might imagine. Also note the stream at the bottom. It normally flows across the driveway, but HCB has been working hard in recent days to divert it: lots of digging and soil schlepping. (The man cooks, coaches pole vaulting, knows how to juggle, and moves the earth. What next?)

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And here is a rare, sanctioned, photo of HCB, who is incredibly camera shy.

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Yes, mowing leaves to mulch them and get the yard looking more like a yard again. Still so much to do before the work day arrives early tomorrow morning. And so much on my mind: ballet, writing, more writing, parenting, influential people, unstable people and personalities, people to avoid, people to love. Stories waiting to be told.

Next weekend we get to hang out with some friends over in Cambridge, NY. Looking forward to that. And the continuing search for balance.

First Day Jitters

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Yesterday dawned clear and sunny and very cold in central Vermont, my last time to wake up in the loft, HCB at my side. We had the big work of packing and moving ahead of us, still time for a final cup of coffee before we pushed up our sleeves. The winter storm that is settling into New England tonight would wait a day, thankfully.

I told HCB the story of waking up for the first time in the loft, also on a clear and sunny morning, but sweltering. Clarence-the-Canine had slept near the bottom of the bed and sat up and stretched the way dogs do sometimes, bolt upright, lifting his muzzle skyward with a quiet vocalization. When he finished he froze and stared out of the south-facing windows, surveying the expanse of meadow below, the tree line just beyond. I swear I could see bewilderment on his fuzzy face, or an epiphany, or something that said, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

I have not been in Kansas since summer of 2012. Terror came with me first, then garden variety fear, and then just work and worry. Moving has not gotten any easier, despite the fact that I’ve done it three times in as many years. Yesterday I continued culling through belongings and thinking about what will be essential in coming days, what I will need in coming weeks, what can wait. Then there will be a few difficult decisions about parting company with some things (again).

I had already packed some books and HCB was poised to schlep them down to the car. But they were non-essential, so I stopped him. Instead I gathered and boxed my cherished reference collection, still only a piece of the whole thing. I don’t rely on them every single day (although I should turn to them more than I do). But I feel better knowing they’re there, and that I can put my finger on what I want right away, should the need arise.

Tomorrow will come early and I will start my new job a few miles down the road from HCB’s place–our place. I am a tad nervous, of course, but this particular transition has been a long time coming and the jitters are a welcome piece of that. As a trusted friend in the ballet world once told me before a pivotal event at my small ballet school in Knoxville, a few nerves are good–they make you sharp. 

I am ready to be sharp.

Resolve

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I’ve worn out this plucky little word as both noun and verb for about a week. The nor’easter that moved into New England on Tuesday stalled out right over my neighborhood, evidently right on top of my house. The snow came stealthily at times and brazenly at others, mostly in silence. It was wet and messy and sometimes mixed with ice, which hammered menacingly on the loft’s skylights. In the end it proved more than the tree limbs and power lines could bear, leaving tens of thousands in the dark across the region, self included.

Shoveling snow early Thursday morning I heard unmistakable loud cracking and popping reverberate in the forest around me, then crashing: mangled limbs and trees coming down behind my loft, not far away. It dawned on me that being hemmed in without power and water was a possibility (never mind the fact that I’ve had no Internet for the past month). A week earlier a largish dead tree came down during comparatively fair weather and partially obscured the quarter-mile-long drive to the house, and a few weeks before that I came home one afternoon to a pair of trees sprawled across the V.A.S.T. trailhead at the bend in the drive onto the property, casualties of rain and high winds.

Not long ago I switched insurance companies in my eternal quest to live as frugally as possible; the nice insurance rep sitting in a faraway cubicle somewhere wanted to know the location of the nearest fire hydrant. I laughed out loud (really). I went on to describe rural Vermont’s isolation for her, adding that I’m pretty sure what Vermonters do during a house fire is stand around and warm their hands while they watch it burn (with all due respect to the volunteer fire departments dotting the landscape). She was not amused by this.

I am not especially amused, either. As I have said more than once in recent days: I did not come to Vermont to live alone in the wilderness. But my purpose here now is enigmatic, defies explanation, really. Coming to Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s place Thursday night gave me a little perspective and firmed my resolve about the things I want. It also gave me connectedness—no small thing. And it restored a wonderful sense of normalcy, reminding me it’s okay to relax just a little and enjoy the beauty of winter—which has not yet arrived, officially.

Friday night reassurance: green pea risotto and pan-roasted chicken with a cranberry orange glaze
Friday night reassurance: green pea risotto and pan-roasted chicken with a cranberry orange glaze

The days begin lengthening on December 22. That’s a week from tomorrow. In case you’re wondering.

Mise En Place

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Today I had a huge, long list of stuff I planned to do. Some was work related, some was house related (actually most was house related), and there was the usual catching up on correspondence. Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s mandate to me as he was leaving this morning: go out and pick up sticks. (Manly Vermonter translation: get ’em now, you are almost out of kindling, and don’t be whining to me about it when the lawn is buried under ten feet of snow.)

I did try to pick up sticks. I’ve been under the weather for the last week, though, and every time I swooped down to grab one my head felt like it was exploding off my neck.

So I did the sensible thing and went back inside and baked cookies.

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I had all the ingredients for molasses cookies and decided that since they have molasses in them they must be health food. (Ergo, cookies equal health food.) Lately my life has felt distinctly un-mise’d en place. During an afternoon phone chat I whined to HCB that I have felt unsettled for three years. Would I feel the comfort of being settled, ever again? He assured me I would.

Mary Ann’s Molasses Cookies came out of my mom’s third grade cookbook. I remember that rumpled book, its faded blue pages held together with faded ribbon, a contribution from every member of the class therein. (Betcha anything she still has it.) We made those cookies all the time when I was a kid. The summer before my sophomore year in college I sat down with pen in hand and copied recipes I wanted, from that book and others, so I’d have them in my very first apartment. My own collection is looking pretty aged now.

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My mom did not own a stand mixer when I was growing up. We mixed the batter with a wood spoon and it was stiff as all get-out. This afternoon while I watched the mixer whir around, effortlessly blending the flour and egg and gooey molasses, I wondered about Mary Ann. What kind of a kid was she? Was she nice to my mom? (Was my mom nice to her?) Is she still alive? What did she do with her life? Was it a settled life? Did she marry and have kids? Did she divorce?

One thing I know for sure. That cookbook was a product of WWII-era Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where my mom and her family lived at the time. Her parents, and her grandmother (my great grandmother Gracie) all lived under the same roof in G.I. housing and contributed to the war effort in one capacity or another. My great grandmother was a librarian, and my grandmother was a lab technician, each of them at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the bomb that would end the war was in development. I am fairly certain their lives did not feel mise’d en place, either–probably not many Americans could make that claim.

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Another thing I know for certain. Neither mom nor Mary Ann had Silpat. What a glorious invention. Had the outcome of that war been different, maybe none of us would have Silpat. (All hail Silpat!) Have a molasses cookie, on me.

Mary Ann’s Molasses Cookies

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 cup shortening (it’s Vermont: use butter, dammit)
  • 4 T molasses
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/2 t cloves
  • 1/2 t ginger
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1 t salt

Preheat oven to 375º. Mix and work with hands or mixer. Form into small balls. Roll in sugar. Bake 15 minutes.

Yield: depends. How big are your balls? (Ha.) And how much cookie dough did you eat while you were baking? (Please, no sanctimonious speeches about raw eggs–you know you do it, too.)

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Note: the cookie jar was made by a Memphis potter and sculptor named Ellen McGowan; my mom bought it at a crafts fair on the lawn of the Pink Palace Museum in the mid-1970s. (It says, Tomorrow I go on a diet!) My dad once told Gelsey Kirkland that we lived in the Pink Palace while he was schlepping her around town during one of her many guest appearances with Memphis Ballet. She believed him. True story.

 

Grey Day

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Today I decided I would document my walk backwards from my mailbox. The air smells every bit of fall but still felt summery to me. This dairy barn  across from the property where I am a squatter is long out of service, but its owner recently gave it a new roof to slow its demise. I know this about it because I spoke with a family member who works in the town hall and we talked about it and the property for a long while one afternoon. I find its shape and texture and small windows hugely appealing.

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I turned my back on the highway to head back down the driveway. I sat on the wood bridge leading onto the property and dangled my feet from it for a while. There is a sensory collision here of the freshness and roiling from moving water and cars zipping up and down the rural highway parallel to the stream.

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I love the orange carpet at the end of the long straightaway and the embracing trees overhead; they make a nice portal to a private place. I have followed many deer down this drive in my car’s headlights at night; they tend to disappear into the woods at the turn. I have also upset more than one gang of turkeys.

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Right at that place a smaller stream disappears under the road through a culvert. Torrential rains at times during the spring and summer sent it sloshing over the top, taking some driveway with it.

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An unused outbuilding stands resolute with its steeply pitched roof; it housed a small real estate office long ago, I am told, and later a college student. It has no running water, but a pretty wood floor.

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Somebody was still very busy today with the flowers.

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And just beyond, my tomato plants, which have not bloomed, nor will they likely before the first frost gets them. I am pleased that I started these from seed, and actually a little amazed I managed this at all. But as was the case with my first ever attempt at gardening this year, the outcome is wanting–I did not achieve Gracie’s tomatoes. I learned a thing or two. For example, do not put young tomato plants in a hot room with no air circulation; they will be dead within hours. And also, you can’t really dig in Vermont soil deeper than an inch or so before you hit rock. You need a stronger constitution for that than I possess.

I am hoping for sunshine tomorrow and tomatoes next year.

 

Finding Family

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This has been a Handsome Chef Boyfriend weekend through and through. I am writing from his place this weekend, hanging around an extra day on the chance I can meet a deadline in a foreign and yet ever familiar environment. It is messy and inconvenient for everybody concerned; tomorrow morning will come early, and I know I will feel at least a litte underfoot as we all launch for the first day of our work and school weeks.

Mainly, though, I feel privileged to be here.

Yesterday I felt privileged to be with HCB’s sweet mama and two of his out-of-town sibs for the afternoon and evening. HCB and I had a purposefully unhurried morning drive to Brattleboro, hoping to hit a few tag sales on our way. I am not ashamed in the least to say that breakfast was a bag of apple cider doughnuts from Clear Brook Farm, eaten straight from our laps in the car, washed down with hot McDonald’s coffee and jokes about lawsuits. We licked the sugar from our fingers and swept crumbs to the floor. Could breakfast be better?

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The cool and  slightly rainy day had prompted merchants to begin breaking down their tents by the time we arrived at the big farmers’ and flea market in Wilmington but we still scored some beautiful yellow mums to take to Brattleboro, along with two gorgeous pepper plants for ourselves, and probably the best tomatoes I’ve seen all summer. Gracie would approve.

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The trees are starting to show color now, especially at higher elevations. We stopped on Hogback Mountain and took in stunning views of the Greens stretching all the way into Connecticut and Massachusetts. I still have a long way to go before I will feel accustomed to Vermont winters but I can never tire of this, which in so many ways reminds me of the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, where I spent the last three decades of my life:

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Time stands still when we are with HCB’s family, a reality that is nice in so many ways. In the last two years I have had occasion to meet many of his extended family members during holidays, at one big wedding, and a summer reunion, where I have tried like crazy to remember names and get a handle on which baby belongs to whom, how many cousins and aunts and uncles there are, how they are all connected. These occasions are loud and happy and push me outside my comfort zone. But I welcome the chance to sit quietly and chat with HCB’s mama and his sibs with no distractions. Yesterday was like that–lots of conversation, a few household chores, a rainy day of watching scores of birds avail themselves of an abundance of seeds in the backyard feeders.

We finished the day in the company of a crowd of hardy Vermonters gathered at the Evening Star Grange in Dummerston for a chicken and biscuit dinner, courtesy of HCB’s mama. This multi-generational phenomenon–the chicken dinner–was new to me on my arrival in New England. You can find them in churches and community centers all over the place (and in this case, the grange, which you will see has its roots in agriculture as a social, community, and political meeting place, if you Google it). I have observed signs scrawled in marker and poked in the ground on street corners announcing these dinners, which are open to anyone inclined to go. A modest fee gets you a ticket at the door; once inside you hand it over and in turn receive more food and dessert than you can shake a stick at, as Gracie would say, second helpings offered generously while supplies last. We sat at long tables dressed in checkered tablecloths and enjoyed the kind of dinner I could easily imagine a group of people a century ago might have also.

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There is also a palpable, down-home sense of community. Lots of people know each other and shout friendly greetings. Last night a gentleman asked a woman in line ahead of us whether she had ever gotten her new bathtub installed. Nope, she smiled, it’s not time for my annual bath yet! That, friends, is deliciously Vermont. There are also plenty of folks who do not know each other, but who make each other’s acquaintance by the end of the evening if they’ve broken bread together at the same table.

The singular experience of immersion in a social network of this sort, or a huge extended family gathering, was never really part of my childhood. My brother and I had a few cousins, none of them close to our age, and we really only had limited exposure to them and to other members of our extended family. A week in summer and the occasional Christmas away from home–that pretty much describes our extended family life. It was not a bad experience–just a different one.

Now I find myself coming into a different kind of fold. I sat with a very close friend of HCB’s family at a wedding brunch a little over a year ago. We talked for a long time about varied topics, but the conversation ultimately found its way to family, to this family.

“They absorb you,” he told me, with a broad smile.

I’ve never been happier to be absorbed.