Whoever coined the ridiculous phrase, You can do whatever you want to do, was dead wrong: I can never be a rocket scientist (not that I wanted to). I do want to twirl pasta skillfully against a spoon and I can’t do that, either. Still makes for pretty pictures and good eatin’ no matter how it hangs from the fork. And were there a soundtrack for this weekend it would include the sizzle of fresh veg hitting a hot sauté pan; wind knocking around the chimes outside the glass doors; occasional canine snorings, and REM tail thumpings; snow and ice rumbling off a steeply pitched roof, crashing to the deck and ground below (goodbye, good riddance); a little bit of West Coast jazz; hearts beating and shoes thumping down a cleared running trail; the muted roiling of the Battenkill River; and the heat cycling on and off, still. Yesterday there came an unpleasant rip in the universe from a thousand miles away, as is wont to happen on occasion. Today is a new day full of promise.
In 1999 the Portuguese virtuosa Maria Joao Pires famously sat at the piano with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, conductor Riccardo Chailly at the podium, awaiting the first bar of the piano concerto she expected to play for this lunchtime concert. Imagine her surprise when the orchestra began playing a different piece of music—the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor—instead of what she had come prepared to play. That moment is captured on video, the sick feeling in her gut written all over her face, which she places in the palm of her hand as the reality of this horrible epiphany slowly unfolds before a crowd of expectant concertgoers. There are only a couple of minutes of music before the piano begins. As the concerto continues, Chailly surmises what has happened, there is an exchange between the two of them, she insists she had something else in her calendar, she is not sure she can do this without preparation. There are a few reassuring words from Chailly, as he continues to move his baton without missing a beat, a smile on his face: the proverbial band plays on.
I can only guess this must be akin to how Warden felt this week in his new digs: surprise! We are the wrong people in the wrong house, these new rules and routines are wrong, wrong, wrong: this bowl is unfamiliar, this collar, this leash—a leash!—nothing is right.
Meanwhile, we’ve smiled and continued to move the baton to the time signature of life in this family. And how has Warden responded to this? Like a boss, that’s how.
The last week has been one of discovery for Warden and for us (living with a dog is in my muscle memory but unpracticed; it is awakening now with lighting speed). Warden regarded us with suspicion in the beginning, most especially one adolescent human who is a part-timer here. This is not just about displacement, I think, but is a character trait of the breed: shepherds are discriminating. Now at the start of our second week together I think I can fairly say he has imprinted on me, regards the tall chef with equal parts affection and suspicion (although hand-fed pieces of succulent baked chicken and beautifully seared salmon must be considered in this assessment). We’ll see how things go with the adolescent later today.
Mother Nature has not been especially helpful in this trial-by-fire week: first time since I’ve lived in Vermont we’ve had snowfall in October, only here in the valley-ish area where we live it was more of an icy, bone-chilling mess with high winds thrown in for good measure. Did we shrink from this hellish weather? Heck no. Warden discovered the neighborhood park with me this week on a day that left us soaked through and muddy, ditto the back seat of the Subi; second time around it was not so awful outside.
And yesterday we had a bigger adventure at this place, which is a bit further afield from home, but happens to be very close to work, where I expect Warden will go with me most days eventually. (Baby steps.) So there was a lot of trust building and plenty of fun to be had yesterday, with one tired dog and a couple of worn-out humans at the end of it all. Warden is champing at the bit to play off-leash; for now he will remain tethered, and stay that way ’til we know beyond the shadow of a doubt the trust is firmly established.
There was adventure to be had at home this week, too. Fun fact about this tiny house: there are skylights.
Who knew? Also, it is possible to lock yourself in the bathroom without opposable thumbs; the best time to do this is right after ralphing up kibble eaten with too much gusto, and whilst HCB is phoning to announce he is stuck in an October snow storm behind several disabled vehicles on the mountain between the bakery and home. (I explained I had to go because the dog was locked in the bathroom and there was a pile of vomit on the floor, sorry you’re stuck on the mountain—good luck with that.) And also the basement is questionable; best to bark at it occasionally for good measure, which you can do conveniently whilst slurping and dribbling.
I think it is fair to say we had a good first week together. It ended peacefully, and last night, as Warden snuggled on the sofa between the two humans, this happened:
As for Ms. Pires, she played that concerto bumper to bumper without missing a note, the consummate professional. I’ve had the great privilege of hearing the Concertgebouw Orchestra live in concert—I’m such a huge fan I frankly would not care about unrehearsed Mozart or muffed notes. I’m also a huge fan of Warden-the-Shepherd. Here’s a short clip of that Pires concert, with some narrative by Maestro Chailly; he is talking about the Mozart, and about Pires, but may as well be talking about us. Take a peek at 2:48—it is the perfect musical metaphor for Warden’s quiet start to life in his new family.
We pulled the Subaru into our Vermont driveway late yesterday afternoon with another 2,200 miles on it, a couple of road-weary travelers we, still a little sugar-frosted from the beach and lightly crisped around the edges. I made it all the way to the Pennsylvania state line on Saturday before I fought back tears thinking about my boy, wishing I had more time with him. This is progress: usually the emotions well up in me much sooner. I think of this young man as unfinished business, not yet fully formed when our family came unglued in 2011; he still has a long way to go, and the road is fraught with peril, as a friend would say. The reality is I can’t guide him how I could if we were closer, and that weighs heavily on me all the time. But he looked and sounded good during our week together, and that is a joyous thing to see.
He’ll hate that picture if he sees it: mainly I got the palm of his hand when I reached for my camera. It’s too dang bad. I am entitled to a few mama privileges, which happen to include indulgent squeezes, sloppy cheek kisses, and unsolicited photos. I like that one.
I enjoyed toying with black and white filters and special effects last night. That was our final beach day, Friday. I completely overlooked packing a kite, thought of everything else—how could I have forgotten that essential piece of beachy fun? So I occupied myself with an unknown beach goer and his own kite-flying skills, impressive, but the wind I think would make launch pretty easy even for a novice. We felt a little of tropical storm Julia’s punch during our week in Wilmington, but the beach is always windy—it’s exceedingly gratifying, flying a kite at the beach—it makes you feel accomplished, and with so little effort.
This marina on the Intracoastal Waterway kept us company during our late lunch. We had fun imagining how stupid rich one must be to own and maintain boats of the size we saw here.
Our last day in Wilmington ended with a planned outing to Fermental, a wine and craft beer joint where The Catch food truck was scheduled to purvey its acclaimed food; HCB and I had researched this well in advance and anticipated the evening with something approaching fanaticism. I foolishly believed the young man in tow would relish it too, but in no time flat he declared the live music in the garden behind the place too “touchy feely” and took off for our car across the street the instant he finished his spicy fish tacos.
We oldsters liked the touchy feely music just fine and stayed for a song before we abandoned ship. But the food truck had disappointed us—the kitchen staff ran out of a couple of entrées early, were slow getting out orders, and the truck’s power failed repeatedly during service. All avoidable, according to the chef sitting at my elbow, who critiques food the same way I do ballet. Too bad—this food had the highest potential for greatness of any culinary outing during our brief time in Wilmington. But it was still a beautiful evening, food and touchy feely music notwithstanding, if a bit wistful with the end of our vacation week in sight.
There’s the boy, wearing a striped shirt and standing next to the chef awaiting our order. And here is the boy with his mama, at our beach rental a moment before we said goodbye ’til who-knows-when:
Way Down South Trip postscript: On our first day of travel navigation lured us into Washington’s E-ZPass Express Only lanes in her most sultry syntha-voice, where we traveled for many miles. We understood our mistake too late, but HCB’s quick thinking saved the day: if you own up to your mistake and settle your debt right away on the Interweb, the highway gods will spare you some stiff penalties. Nice try, Ms. TomTom, but we’re wise to your ways now. The moral to this story? Navigation sometimes leads you astray when you most need instructions in black and white.
Annie Lennox urged me to pick up my feet and pick up the pace through sweaty ear buds, her lyrics suffused with emotions: love, loss, loneliness, joy, she knows each of them intimately, she sings. A perfect Vermont Saturday morning was the only other motivation I needed to run: success is measured in hot cheeks, eyes burning with salt, a soaked-through shirt, and happy delirium. It’s possible there is no better feeling.
But the day did indeed get better, as if that were possible: an afternoon in Massachusetts under a cerulean sky, lunch of prosciutto and mozzarella on ciabatta (barbecue and collard greens for Handsome Chef Boyfriend), a suspended moment on Pontoosuc Lake’s shore where water sparkled an early summer greeting and windmills waved hello from a distant hilltop, frozen concoctions at a roadside dive the afternoon’s finale on the way home, where we collapsed content on the sofa with a nail-biter on the telly. Plucking chunks of ripe cantaloupe from a plastic tub, licking juice from our fingers and playing footsie with our toes: life does not get better than this. It was a day beyond reproach end to end, the kind of day that explodes with so much guilty pleasure it almost feels wrong.
When I lived in Denver for a few years in my very early twenties a passel of ballet friends and I routinely found weekend fun at gay nightclubs: they had the best dance music hands down (the perfect antidote for classical ballet), the best deejays, and truly superb entertainment. There were bouncers who sized you up at the door, and if you did not set off the hostility meter you were welcomed.
I remember one club in particular for its phenomenal drag queens, where for a small cover charge you could catch an amazing show staged by people who had spent hundreds on costuming and hair and makeup, lip syncing the songs on the charts at the time: the music of British invasion techno bands, and healthy doses of Chaka Khan, Madonna, and Tina Turner—the likenesses were spot on.
I had a good friend who deejayed at that club, a young violinist in the Denver Symphony who enjoyed this work purely as an avocation—he was passionate about getting the technical aspects just right, measuring beats per minute, knowing how to line up dance tracks in a way that made perfect sense. I went to that club as much to see him as I did the shows because he let me climb the ladder up into the sound booth and sit there with him while he showed me the tools of the trade. I was duly impressed, and also had a spectacular view of the stage below.
I never once imagined I was in any kind of danger in that club, or any of the others, and the fact is my young friends and I, and the other club patrons and performers, were probably pretty safe. At least from the kind of violence Orlando saw last weekend and which seems so much a part of the landscape now it’s exhausting to feel the pain when the news stories break.
But fear and loathing and intolerance were certainly there in Denver in the early 1980s. A short time after I moved from Colorado back to my home state of Tennessee I learned my violinist friend had been lured from the club by a man feigning interest in him, but who then beat him to a pulp and left him for dead. He spent some time fighting for his life in the ICU before eventually making a full recovery, lucky to be alive.
I have no cure for intolerance, fear, hate, oppression, or marginalization, but I know this: they leave their calling card at every single scene of carnage. And they absolutely detest love, can’t bear the sight of it.
I ache for the 49 people in Orlando, and so many more, who never again will see a sparkling lake or indulge in an ice cream on a sunny day. We owe it to them, and the people who went before them, and those who will go after them, to love, over a prosciutto sandwich, or a tub of cantaloupe, or however love insinuates itself in your life.
The adult luna moth lives for only one week. She has no mouth—her sole purpose is to reproduce. For this reason she has come to symbolize love. A beautiful specimen visited us early last week, a reminder: Be good. Don’t judge. Bury your fears. Say something nice to someone who needs to hear it, starting now, because your time here is short. Just, love.
People here in Vermont are much closer to the land than they are in other states where I’ve lived. The state as a whole is sparsely populated, sparsely developed, and most of us live within spitting distance of at least one working farm. The road where I ride my bicycle is dotted with them, and an occasional gentleman’s farm, abundant second homes for city-dwelling folk in adjacent states, and a smattering of full-time residents.
About now the second home owners are beginning to trickle back across our state lines and shake the winter out of their riverside cottages. Meanwhile, working life continues unchecked on the farms in the area, whose farmstands will soon overflow with the season’s abundant offerings; we take full advantage—there is nothing like fresh produce just pulled from the ground.
I love riding past this farm in particular; on Friday I saw firsthand exactly how the rolled hay bales are wrapped in their distinctive white plastic, making them look for all the world like giant marshmallows. The farmer who was bent to this task as I pedalled past expertly speared each bale with his forklift-like machine, wrapping it with a mechanical arm the way a spider does an insect caught up in its web, and then depositing it in a neat pile, all in a matter of seconds.
It was right around suppertime for most people when I passed his place, not yet quitting time for him, with several unwrapped bales to go. The second time I passed I saw that he had finished them all. I wondered what had been set on the table in the cheerful yellow farmhouse just across the road, where hens are always scratching and pecking in the yard, a playset on one side, and toys strewn everywhere: the children in that household are immersed in the life of the American farm.
In my erstwhile home state of Tennessee there are also a lot of farms, but they are removed from city dwellers by geography and by generations. I have deep agricultural roots of my own in Tennessee, traced through my mother’s family, going back past her mother, and her mother’s mother, and two generations beyond them, reaching to her great-great-grandmother’s family, who were apple farmers in an area of Appalachia known as Tuckaleechee Cove: it is picturesque and largely unspoiled, although in recent years has become attractive to developers keen to capitalize on tourism—it is very near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the country.
But it did not take long for a finger of my Irish-born family to migrate towards difficult city life. Their Knoxville neighborhood was and is still known as Mechanicsville, a charming collection of tidy working class Victorian-era homes. The neighborhood got its name because it was home to skilled mechanics employed by the Knoxville Iron Company, area mills, and the railroad, says its historical marker. My forebears were among them, one Dennis Donovan in particular helping to lay some of the first railroad tracks to stretch through downtown Knoxville.
My great-grandmother told me stories about her life in Mechanicsville as a child, but the one that left the deepest imprint on me was the day her younger sister Bess burned her foot badly playing in the alley behind the house, stepping barefoot in the corrosive runoff that is a byproduct of lye soap making. My grandmother’s telling of the story was always so evocative I could almost smell that alleyway, and visualize the episode, the distraught child and her tears, and more likely than not the reprimand that followed, as if any were needed after that. I made her tell it to me again and again.
Not long after the lye soap incident Bess died of dysentery, soon after the deaths of her premature triplet siblings, who lived their short lives on the open door of the kitchen stove: there were no NICUs, nor life-sustaining machinery or modern medicine to save the day. So in the space of less than three weeks my great-grandmother’s parents lost three newborns and a five-year-old child; my great-grandmother Gracie, a couple of years older than Bess, was the sole surviving child in that awful chapter of my family’s life.
Ultimately Mechanicsville itself was doomed, divided by the imposing Interstate 40 when it blazed through Knoxville in the mid-twentieth century. It suffered decline like other neighborhoods of its ilk, but has shown signs of rebounding in the last twenty years as it has ridden the coattails of renewal in other older parts of the city. I wonder whether my grandmother’s family missed the uncluttered landscape of the mountains during their life in Mechanicsville; it is impossible to know.
Knoxville’s old Mechanicsville is a thousand miles and multiple generations removed from the here and now on Vermont’s Battenkill. Agriculture has its own smells, very different from Victorian-era urban smells, and they are wide open on this stretch of river.
Vermont is attractive, I am told, for people raising families (less so for their college-bound kids, who often leave and do not always choose to return). I understand that appeal, far removed as rural Vermont is from the seamier influences of city life, with its fresher air, agrarian sensibilities and values, and a more intimate sense of community. There are disadvantages: city life has an energy and an abundance of cultural opportunities that elude us here—and in spite of that, the same big-city problems people ostensibly hope to avoid—violent crime, opioid addiction, and even environmental issues—are problems here, too. (Vermont is known for its burgeoning heroin addiction and related problems; and drinking water in wells tainted by none other than industrial waste—very, very close to home—has made national news recently.)
There is no paradise.
But there is springtime in Vermont along the Battenkill, and for the time being anyway, it is intoxicating in its own glorious way. I don’t know whether generations of my family members in Knoxville, Tennessee forged machine parts that might have made their way north to Vermont; it’s pure speculation, of course, but would be a nice connection were it true.
The land connects us all, though, whatever our provenance.
Your body is a temple.
I’m an adherent but lately have not behaved in a way to reflect this heartfelt conviction owing to circumstances and such. I started running about fifteen years ago for several reasons, chiefly to energize myself in the early morning hours ahead of a long day dealing with a difficult child. By 2011 I was running 35 miles weekly with my Clarence-the-Canine, ’til this annoying problem reached epic proportions and forced me into retirement in October of 2013. I’ve coughed and sputtered a few times in the intervening months, but with each renewed attempt to run, the foot has objected, loudly.
There is nothing in the world like running, and if you’ve never been a runner, you’ll need to take my word for it.
In recent weeks I’ve felt some changes in the injured area of my left foot that might possibly indicate healing. (Shhh. Don’t tell the universe.) I spend eight hours a day sitting on my arse in front of a computer, and it could be this was precisely the pathway to health I needed, without fully admitting so: I would not have gone down that road willingly otherwise.
Mild weather has urged me and everybody else in these parts outdoors to indulge. Two weeks ago I bought a pair of running shoes that people who share this particular foot problem I have, swear by. Something about “give” in the area of the heel that does not aggravate it—I am still unsure exactly why it’s so special, but if the price tag is any indicator it sure as heck better be. Anyway, at this point in time I would pay a king’s ransom for the privilege of running again; I am okay with short, slow runs, happy to allow others more fleet of foot pass me by like I’m standing still.
Today was the day.
The early spring Battenkill River is flowing full and beautiful right now, a far cry from about this time last year, when there was still so much ice everywhere after the winter from hell. Mud season has pretty much come and gone, and River Road—where I’ve run in the past, and also ride my bike—is just about perfect right now.
The early spring this year is simply stunning. Little streams that feed the river are flowing at full tilt; sound byte at the bottom. Today could not have been more glorious. I arrived back at the car pink-cheeked and positively giddy, and significantly, pain free. The only thing missing now is a leashed shepherd in my right hand.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep—Robert Frost
Mt. Equinox looms over the Vermont Valley at 3,816 feet, the highest point of the Taconic Range, a finger of the Appalachians, and the oldest mountains in the country: Mother Myrick Mountain lies to its north, and Red Mountain to the South, the place we call home. Everywhere are streams carrying snow melt from the higher elevations, dumping it into the nearby Battenkill River, thence to the Hudson River after twisting across Vermont’s state line a short distance from here, into New York. Like it does elsewhere in the state, the topography in Vermont’s southwestern corner delivers breathtaking vistas—not only from its higher reaches, but also down below, where meandering valleys sit at the bottom of vast, chiseled bowls.
There is not so much as a patch of snow in these parts, save in the highest elevations. This winter’s snowfall has been rare and fleeting, standing in blatant contrast to last winter’s fury. The mountains look for all the world like somebody’s just shaved their nobs, leaving them to shiver ’til spring finds its way here, soon. There is a beauty to the landscape in spite of its nakedness, and maybe because of it; for the time being nature is betraying her fabulous secrets, as if the curtain that concealed them were being held back so we could take an indulgent peek.
It is an ephemeral chance to observe what spring and summer foliage will obscure in a few short weeks, and with no shortage of wonderment: a pair of pileated woodpeckers have hewn three large holes in a mainly-dead tree standing right at the edge of the road that leads off our mountain, the telltale pile of detritus below it evidence of the best kind of neighborhood construction project. A colossal pine forest nearby reveals its timeworn past in the magnificent trophies that long ago succumbed to the elements, giving the discoverer pause to surmise a course of events. Hand-sized sections of pine bark evoke intricate tortoise shell patterns; the underbellies of felled trees betray evidence of entire ecosystems writ small that once inhabited them (and maybe helped hasten their demise). Ancient moss is iridescent against the wheat-grey hues in the woods, a resplendent cape lain on the shoulders of a massive tree trunk. Even the frigid streams have secrets to reveal: hardy brookies cavort in unimaginably cold water; an ice formation shows sharp teeth as if poised to snap its jaws shut against the bones of its prey; and just upstream a face leers eerily at passersby from below.
I invite you to see and hear Vermont woods in winter; sound byte at the bottom.