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Looking the Wrong Way

The snow that fell on the backside of the rain was a disappointment; two inches at best, a scant blanket that barely covered the ice-encrusted ground. Yet the texture was silky and pleasing underfoot, so I strapped on my skis and headed for the long, sloped field across the mountain road. It was late in the afternoon, and I skied as the light changed, noticing that the transition felt like someone draping fine layers of gauze over the lens of the sun, one layer after another, the layers coming more rapidly as the day wore out.

From the height of the field I looked back across the road, over the church steeple, to our barn tucked into the fold of a hill. How many times I’ve stood in the barnyard, looking to the field, to the precise spot I now stood, and it was strangely unsettling to stand there now, seeing everything in reverse, looking the wrong way through a window I always thought offered only one view.

The light was leaving fast now, no space between the strips of gauze, the snow covered field luminescent in the gathering dark. I pointed my skis straight down the slope and pushed off. The cold air bit at my face; the snow hissed beneath my skis. If I hurried, I might still do chores without a headlamp.

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That’s How it Feels From Here

Coming in from morning chores at 25 below zero. Last day of the cold snap. 

Yesterday a warm and lashing rain, the snow disappearing fast, rivulets of water running down every slope, the tarpaper on the unsided exterior walls of our home ripping in the wind, the torn flaps thumping against the house. Hearing this in the night I had a sudden reminiscence from childhood, of how the branches of the trees by the cabin would rub against the roof in the wind, and how much I liked that sound. Yet I can’t be certain this happened; it was so long ago. So perhaps the memory is false, but I like it anyway.

By this morning, we’d lost 80% of the snow or more, though the temperature had dropped in the night, and the rain had turned over to ice, and then the ice, slowly, by degree, to snow. It is snowing now. I did chores with my shoulders hunched against the weather, 10 degrees and windy, the driven precipitation – whatever it was, snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain – sharp against my face.

Now we are firmly into the New Year. I am not one for resolutions – they’ve always felt too unyielding to me, and in my experience, that which does not yield eventually breaks. But I like the idea of intention, and if were to name my intentions for the New Year, I suppose I’d put openness at the top of my list. I’d like to remain open to possibility, to change, to being wrong, even, and therefore, to being humbled, because I think it’s a gift to be humbled, and I’d like to not lose sight of that.

I am doing some new things this year: For the first time, I am teaching a writing and speaking class at a nearby college, something that only a year or so ago, I would not have thought possible. Likewise, I have been accepted into the MFA program in creative non-fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, though whether or not I will actually attend depends on a handful of contingencies, including finances, logistics, and (I’m not too proud to admit) basic courage. It is a funny thing to consider returning to academia, having dropped out of high school, and with only a modicum of experience in college-level learning. Sometimes I do not doubt my capacities; at other times, I do, a waxing and waning I have come to understand as being inherent to the human condition. Or to my human condition, at least.

And I am doing some things the same. Still writing for Yankee magazine, and grateful for an amazing editor there, and the latitude he gives me to follow my whim. Finishing up an illustrated book with a good friend, and cooking up more book ideas. Heather and I have a project in the works that we’ll be announcing soon. And I continue my work with Rural Vermont, an organization I love dearly, partly for the work we do, but equally (if not more so) for the people that comprise the “we.” I like people, always have, and the older I get the more I like them, the more I seem able to accept their quirks and outright flaws, even as I become more accepting of my own, more able to chuckle at them, and to present them to the world without embarrassment or shame. Well, most of them, anyhow. There’s a correlation, of course, between acceptance of self and acceptance of others. But you probably knew that.

I hope to continue writing here – no, I’m sure I will – though my schedule is busier than it once was, and perhaps about to become busier still. But in so many ways, this remains my favorite outlet, free of the pressure of money and editorial expectation, and always greeted by a gracious, compassionate, and generous readership. Or that’s how it feels from here, and I am ever-grateful for it.

 

 

 

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First Morning of the Year

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Morning ski with my friend Dirk on the last day of 2017

Milking this morning at 18 below, I noticed the squeak of snow under Pip’s hooves as she shifted her weight; how the stream of milk made splashes that froze immediately against the sides of the bucket, coating it in white; the spiral of wood smoke rising from our chimney. My own breath pluming in the air, the expelled heat of blood and lung. Strangely, my bare fingers were warm, while my booted toes were not. But the bucket was almost full now, and I knew what awaited me in the house: The fire, so fierce I’d watched the stovetop glow orange in the early morning dark, the cats, connoisseurs of comfort, slumbering in patches of sun just slanting through easterly windows, a pair of this morning’s eggs tucked in my coat pocket. I’ll fry them in butter and eat them as the sun passes over the copse of spruce beyond the garden.

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Until I’m Too Tired to Carry On

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Pip and the church

On Christmas morning I awoke early, and as is my custom sat silent by the fire for a time. One cat rubbing my ankles, the other still sleeping on the couch, the darkness slowly easing toward light.

When the day had come in full, I could see that it was snowing, not hard, but not soft, either. Steady. Certain. I did chores, ate two eggs fried, drank coffee, and tiled the mudroom floor in my usual fashion, which means eschewing spacers in favor of a squinted-eye approximation of the gaps between individual tiles. Chasing the cats off the fresh-set tiles until exasperation won over and I pushed them outside into the snow, falling harder now.

I finished the tiling, filled the cookstove firebox, and skied, straight uphill to the height of our land, then traversing the sugarwoods, feeling in love with the solemn beauty of the forest in winter, the rangy limbs of the maples dark against the lidded sky, wind-driven snow adhered to the rough bark of their trunks. The air was cold, but I was not, and so continued through the woods until I could sense that the light had reversed its journey, now easing toward dark. I bee-lined for the mountain road, and skied its unplowed shoulder toward home, face into the wind, past the old church, then the town hall, and over the bridge where the Jamaicans didn’t die.

Chores again, cleared our drive and those of my small plow route, then drove a dozen miles to Melvin’s to help with the feeding out and bedding down of his small herd. Enjoying driving through the new snow, the storm winding down but not yet finished, the heater on high, the truck in four wheel drive, steady and sure on the slick roads. At Melvin’s I fed the cows, peeling armfuls of hay off a first cut round bale for the heifers, then from a bale of second cut for his 14 milkers. Christmas music on the radio. The air thick with the sweet smell of fermented hay and cow itself. Melvin going about the pre-milking routine he’s gone about for the majority of his nearly 70 years. Almost 70 years old and putting 14 cows in the tank; I guess that’s what retirement looks like when retirement’s not an option. Or not much of one, anyway. The snow still falling outside, both of us absorbed in the rhythm of our work and not talking much, the cows shifting in their stanchions, watching me pass with something between wariness and anticipation.

Back home, the fire’s gone out. I light it again, the house so quiet I can hear the flames from upstairs in bed, where I lie reading until I’m too tired to carry on.

 

 

 

 

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I Have No Idea

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Bringing in the Solstice tree

There are so many stories I want to be telling, like about the two Jamaican men Penny and I found standing in the middle of the mountain road as we headed out for a ski. There was no car to be seen, no indication of how they’d arrived there, it was as if they’d been delivered by some invisible force, or perhaps a fast-moving tornado, dropped into the snowy landscape (and how could I not notice the darkness of their skin against the whiteness of the surroundings, and how beautiful this contrast was, and I hesitate to even mention this for fear it reveals something unflattering about my relationship to race, and yet: It was so), and just as I started to ask if they needed anything, I happened a glance over the guardrail of the bridge we all stood upon, and there, a good 15-feet below us, lay their car. It was in the stream, and crumpled like a sheet of the newspaper I use to start the morning fire. I looked at the car, and then at the men, who seemed shaken but otherwise unblemished, and then at the car again. Their survival seemed unfathomable to me, as near to a miracle as I have witnessed. They were cold, very, very cold, and while the driver waited for the police, the other man – Jed was his name – followed us back to our house to sit by the fire and drink tea and tell us about his life in rural Jamaica and we laughed a lot about this and that, and while I was sorry for the misfortune of the accident that had brought him to our doorstep, I was delighted by his company and though I knew him for only 90 minutes or so, I missed him when he left.

Or even just this morning, milking in the early stillness, the sky breaking open blue to the west in advance of a predicted Christmas storm, and after that, a trough of deep cold, twenty below or colder, the days not reaching zero. My family is away for the next 10 days or so – gone to hunt deer in North Carolina, where the season runs into the New Year and does are legal game – and I am home, happy for the quiet time, unafraid of the aloneness, though also glad to have plenty to keep me busy. I will feed the fire and ski and break the ice on the animals’ water and bring the truck battery inside to sit by the stove at night. Though where I’ll go if the truck actually starts, I have no idea.

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Maybe Not Closely Enough

I am feeding the cows on the knoll behind the barn in order to distribute seed and manure across the deficient pasture. Because this is where I leave their hay, this is where they congregate, and this is where I walk every morning to collect Pip for milking. I enjoy climbing the hill; it’s just high and steep enough to demand something of me, and I like the pressurized feel of blood pushing through my veins, the sound in my ears the steady thumpitythump of my laboring heart.

At the hill’s apex I look down onto the village: The town hall, an old church, a single residence. A line of mother maples aside the road. Beyond that, sloping hayfield and more forest.

This morning it was snowing as it had for half the night, and snow had accumulated atop the cows’ backs. I straddled their spines with fore and middle fingers, then ran my fingers from neck to base of tail and back again, leaving cow-colored stripes in the snow. I did this for no other reason than it felt good to do so, and maybe because it forestalled the journey back down the hill, where mundane tasks awaited me: The remainder of chores, finish installing the snowplow on the truck, a trip to Willey’s Hardware for finish nails. Work.

Pip started down the hill first, and I followed, the view of town slowly diminishing as we dropped, until I had no reason to train my eyes to anything but the hoof-worn path before me. My heart getting quieter, but I listened to it anyway. Maybe too closely. Maybe not closely enough. The air cold and full in my chest.

 

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I am Lucky to Have Come This Way

P1010940On a gravel road I frequent, someone has left pumpkins, placed them carefully along the shoulder at intervals just distant enough from one another that by the time I happen upon the next, I’ve nearly forgotten about the last. The pleasure I derive from the them is amplified by the knowledge that someone thought to do this, because I can think of no other reason for placing pumpkins by the side of the road if not to tickle the fancy of passersby, and therefore it seems to me an act of kindness and generosity of the purest sort, with no chance for recognition or reciprocity.

Shortly after the last pumpkin I pass a lake, now frozen over, the ice covered by a dusting of new-fallen snow. A yellow dog is running across the frozen water, tail and head high, no human in sight. Just the dog, the snow-covered ice, the orange orb of that final pumpkin disappearing into the rear view mirror, and I know that I am lucky to have come this way.

It is almost the end of another year, and I would like to thank you for reading here. Thank you.

 

 

 

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I Couldn’t be Sure


P1010869The tractor’s starter stopped starting, so yesterday I pulled it and drove over the mountain to an alternator and starter repair shop in a small town not far from here. The shop comprises a single room in a larger building; it’s situated almost directly under an overpass in the low rent district of what is generally a pretty low rent town.

I have been going to this shop for all of my adult years and probably a few prior; it’s been my fortune (good or bad, I can’t say) to have pulled many a starter and a handful of alternators in my time. I’m no mechanic, not by a long shot, but here, at least, is something I can do to make myself feel useful in a wrenches-and-grease kind of way, and so it’s almost pleasing to me when I hear the distinctive click or grind of a starter on it’s way out. It’s like an offering from the gods of competency.

It was snowing when I set out, as it had been almost all day, steady but slow, and at the top of the mountain I saw how the boughs of the conifers hung under the new weight and I thought about how something as inconsequential as a snowflake can amount to so much more. I catch them on my tongue all the time and don’t even think about it, the weight too small to even consider. And still the boughs drooped.

The shop was warm. The old man who runs it was smoking a cigarette and so the air was thick with smoke, and although I don’t smoke and don’t really enjoy being around cigarette smoke, there are times when brings forward something from my past, like my father smoking his Lucky Strikes in the kitchen of the cabin I grew up in, or Martha driving her John Deere during haying, the smoke from her Camels mixing with the smell of diesel exhaust and fresh cut grass. And so sometimes I don’t really mind, and this was one of those times.

“You the guy who called?” asked the man. There was another man working in the rear of the room, which was comprised almost entirely of counters covered by starters and alternators in varying states if disassembly. There were narrow footpaths woven between the counters.

“No,” I replied. He raised an eyebrow and I somehow got the sense that he didn’t believe me, which was a ridiculous thing to think, but there it was, in that raised eyebrow. Skepticism, at least, though on what basis I have no idea. Perhaps I just looked dishonest.

I described what was going on with the starter, and he assured me he could fix it, though I hadn’t needed any assurance. I wrote my name and number on a small tag that he affixed to the starter, squinting through the smoke of his cigarette, which he’d transferred to his mouth to free his hands for tagging.

“What happened to your nose?” he asked. My nose is all scabbed up because when the boys and me were camping last week I was busting up limb wood to fit in the little sheet metal stove for the wall tent, and I was whacking at the wood pretty hard with an axe cross grain, and one of the pieces shot up and thumped me good. Bled like crazy the way head wounds do.

So I told him what happened, and he chuckled, but in a commiserating way, and said “bet that pissed you off some,” and I acknowledged that it had. Then he told me to come back in two days and I left to drive back up and over the mountain, where it was still snowing and where I thought that maybe the boughs hung even a little lower.

Though truth be told, I couldn’t be sure.

Music: A rollickin’ new one from the Turnpike Troubadours. And a real pretty offering from Amanda Shires. Enjoy. 

 

 

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Twenty Years Later

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Early this morning I drove the boys to hunt with friends. It was dark, and snowing steadily, and the gravel road that would take us most of the way was unplowed and barely traveled since the storm had begun. I love driving in snow, it’s an art more than a science, requiring intermingled knowledge of car and terrain and the snow itself. And I’ve learned to love driving with my sons, the car a vessel for movement, sure, but also for a certain type of introspection and openness. A container just large and secure enough to hold certain words and thoughts that might otherwise go unshared for fear they’ll escape into the wider world.

I returned home in time for morning chores, the snow still falling but softer now, the sky a long sweep of grey and blue, with just a hint of pink to the east. I fed and watered the pigs, the cows, the chickens, then haltered Pip for milking. My bare hands were cold, but the good kind of cold, the kind that reminds one that comfort only exists in contrast to discomfort, and thus that discomfort is comfort, and vice versa.

Besides, I’d thrown a fat stick of beech on the fire right before chores. I’d put on another coffee after milking. I’d stand by the stove and warm my hands, palms down first, then turn them over to heat the knucklebones, study the lines, the calluses, the small, healing cuts, the one raised scar on the inside of my right thumb. I remember when I got that scar. Twenty years later, it’s still sensitive to the touch.