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

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.

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.

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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.

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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.