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Nothing Much Had Changed At All

The cold and snow came early this year, grinding numerous projects to an inglorious halt, and leveling assumptions about what would get done before winter truly sets in. On Thanksgiving morning it was five degrees below zero, and not much – if any – warmer by day’s end. My younger son and I skied after dark, under the glow of a fat, bright moon, looping through the forest, then across the cleft of the mountain road to the apex of our neighbor’s sloping field and back down again, headlamps turned off to heighten the sensation of speed. Before we’d pushed off I’d made some inane comment about the vastness and beauty of the night sky; he’d merely grunted, and I’d felt old and foolish all over again.

We slid off the hill, then past the old church, over the bridge, and up the driveway, my lungs stinging from the cold. The next morning I turned 47, but it was still cold, still snowy, and it seemed to me as if nothing much had changed at all.

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Only As Much

Last night I skied after dark, down past the pond, where less than three weeks ago (I remember the date: November 3) I’d taken my last swim of the season. The water painfully cold then, though surely colder now under its annual rind of ice and snow. I liked the way the beam of light from my headlamp illuminated the individual flakes as they fell. They hovered in the air, a slow descent, each so inconsequential, and yet there I was, gliding atop a foot-deep layer, an unfathomable count.  I remembered reading once that someone had calculated the total number of grains of sand in the world. I couldn’t recall what the number was (trillions? At least), deciding anyway (and on no particular basis) that surely flakes of snow out-number grains of sand.

I turned left past the pond and entered the woods. Not sweating yet, but I could feel it rising, just beneath the skin, that welcome flush before the pores open. The trees close around me, the short reach of my headlamp showing me only as much as I needed to see.

 

 

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Unbound

On opening day of rifle season, my son’s alarm rings at 4:00. I hear him rise, descend the stairs, crumple newspaper for the fire. A moment later, the crackle of flames. I lie a few more minutes, then follow him downstairs. He is cooking eggs and sausage on the wood stove. The cat is dozing in his preferred spot on the couch. The stove throws heat, and I stand near it, watching my son cook his breakfast. Not talking, just standing. The smell of butter and egg and sausage and still a little wood smoke from when the fire was young and the stovepipe cold and the chimney draught not fully established. I make coffee. We’re at the table, him eating, me just sitting. Sipping coffee. Still quiet. My son finishes his food, and we murmur about the day, and what it might bring, about the snow that fell in the night. He’s so different than me. It startles me sometimes.

At a little after 5:00 he heads out the door, wanting to be in his stand well before first light. After a bit, I tie on my shoes and head out into the dark, running through the snow down to the town road, which has been plowed but remains slushy. Soon my feet are wet and cold, but the rest of my body feels warm and alive, that delicious thrum of blood, the dark just now beginning to give way. I pass Danny in his truck, already heading to work in the woods on a Saturday morning, and then the road is empty and I run its center, the least-slushy part of it.

By now, my son is up in his stand, and I picture him there, sitting in a maple tree in the cold and quiet woods, thinking thoughts I’ll never know. And I am thinking about how even the people we love the most can sometimes seem so mysterious to us, and yet how we can somehow love them all the more across that mystery, across silence and time and distance, and how this must be the truest love of all, the one unbound by these constraints.

It’s nearly light now and I’m close to home, so I run a little faster.

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As if Any of us Can Know

Yesterday I drove two-and-a-half hours in a southeasterly direction, through Vermont and into New Hampshire, where the leaves have only just begun to turn, to purchase a load of floor tile from a man who lived on the banks of a river. His name was Tom, and his accent I took for Boston Irish, though I could be wrong. He was perhaps ten years my senior, and he moved in an uncomfortable way. He told me he was moving from the house he’d been building for many years. He was fixing up a school bus and he’d be living in that. I didn’t ask why, and he didn’t offer, but of all the reasons I could imagine a man in his mid-50’s moving from a nice (if unfinished) house on the banks of a river and into a school bus, none seemed absent hardship. He had two friends with him, and they helped us load boxes of tile into the bed of my truck, 60 boxes in total, each box at least 30 pounds and probably more, until the truck had settled deeply into its suspension. I drove away, pleased with my purchase, astonished to find darkness already falling, hoping to be home before too late an hour.

Closer to home, hungry and low on gas, I stopped at a convenience store to refuel truck and body, and on the way to the bathroom, passed a woman sitting at a small table. She was eating from a box of candy, and next to the box of candy was an inhaler and one of those cellophane-wrapped Danishes. She offered a wan smile as I walked by, and the sadness in her face was unmistakable. I said hello, did my business, got back in my overloaded truck, hurriedly ate a sandwich I regretted even before I’d finished it, and continued my drive, thinking about all the hardship and heartbreak in this world, the stuff we all carry, albeit in varying degrees, and some more visibly than others. Thinking about Tom and his school bus, and how as we were loading, I’d found a scrap of paper taped to one of the boxes with a diagram for how he’d planned to lay out the tile. And now it was heading north in the dark of a warm October night, in the back of a rusty, low-hanging Ford, in possession of a man with plans of his own, as if any of us can know what the future might bring.

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Still Pretty Good

Running fence for the cows around the last of the season’s grass, I find a single stubborn raspberry, a leftover from the long, hot days of August, when the canes bent under the weight of ripe fruit. It’s small and red and misshapen, a stunted heart. I pick it, let it fall into my open palm, tip my hand this way and that, watch it tumble over the creases and calluses. It’s raining; my boots and pant legs are soaked through. I’m cold. The cows are at the gate, watching, waiting. They’ve been eyeing this grass for days. They know how sweet it will be.

I tumble the berry again, note the missing lobes, the discoloration at its stem, wondering how it survived so far past its prime. Are the imperfections the result of its survival, or the cause? I want to believe the former, but can’t say why. For a moment, I consider not eating the berry, as if that might somehow convey respect, or the even just the small appreciation I feel for having found it. For the weight of it in my hand. For the pause in my day.

But no. Down the hatch. It’s not the best berry I’ve eaten, not by a long shot. It’s still pretty good, though.

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The Limits of Language

Last night, near dark, clambering out of the pond, newly charged from heavy rains, I thought about how when I was teaching, I bought each of my students one of those little pocket-size, spiral-bound memo books, and how for every class, I asked them to bring me at least 10 observations from the day before. I placed few stipulations on this assignment, only that they carry the books with them wherever they went, that they consider all the senses, and that they write down whatever catches their attention. I told them that writing, like life, is mostly about paying attention (or as I like to call it – in consideration of my scruffy, young charges – paying f’in attention), and then engaging with that attention. Not letting it just drift by on the flotsam of life.

It was the shock of the water, colder than in recent days, the slow turn toward autumn begun in earnest the week before, and the realizing that I had no good words for what my sudden immersion felt like, or at least no words that filled the hole in my vocabulary where I thought maybe such a word should reside. And therefore, the notebook useless (not that I had one with me, anyway), the limits of language (or of my language, anyway) rearing its head yet again, and wondering how to talk about experience that just won’t fit itself into the alphabet, no matter how carefully I arrange the letters.

But still, words or no: Pay f’ing attention. Engage. I’m pretty sure it’s the best free advice you’ll ever receive.

 

 

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Just a Story

P1040216Our older son wanted a motorcycle, and though we wished it were otherwise, we also knew that wishing would not make it so. He is almost 17, and our sphere of control is narrowing by the day. But I did make one demand: His first motorcycle must be a dirt bike, rather than one made for the street. I grew up riding dirt bikes, and know how they cultivate skills that simply can’t be learned on the road, at least not readily, and probably not without a good deal of pain. You can dump a dirt bike time and again without suffering serious injury, in the process learning the minutia of balance and traction, the razor’s line between the point of no return and the possibility of recovery. You can learn what it feels like to sling the rear wheel around a corner, and you will discover that just because you lose traction with the front wheel doesn’t mean you’re going down; it only means you’re probably going down.

Anyway, through a convoluted set of circumstances that involved a smoking deal on a little Suzuki DR250, Fin’s work schedule, and the fact that our dear friend and neighbor Tom was using our big truck to tow his trailer while his rig in the shop getting a new motor (modern diesels: my advice: steer clear), I drove alone to Middlebury, VT, two-and-a-half hours distant, in Tom’s little Tacoma. 220,000 miles on the clock, chattering clutch, hesitation under acceleration, baling twine wrapped around the sideview mirror. “I didn’t realize you were taking it that far” Tom said when I picked it up. “It’s totally fine with me, but you might want to think twice.” But it was too late for that, so I didn’t.

The owner of the bike worked at a farm machinery repair shop. A big one, with big machinery to match. Middlebury is in Addison County, and Addison County is home to some of Vermont’s largest dairy farms, which are getting bigger and bigger by the year, as smaller farms continue going under, unable to stay afloat in a era of impoverished milk prices (when I was born, in 1971, VT had more than 6,000 dairy farms. We’re now down to about 750, with approximately the same number of total cows. You can see the trajectory). And so the shop was filled with massive assemblages of metal and rubber and oil, and walking into it, I was reminded suddenly of riding with my Grandfather in his combine, harvesting corn on his Iowa farm. This would have been late 70’s, early 80’s. My Grandfather didn’t talk much, and I guess neither did I, so we just sat there, me mesmerized by endless rows of falling corn, him lost in thoughts I’d never know, the radio a constant stream of crop and weather reports.

Anyhow. The motorcycle was owned by a young man named Cale, and I liked him immediately, because when I couldn’t get bike to start by rolling it down a small hill and dumping the clutch (he’d explained before I’d come that it was electric start-only, and the battery was toast), he suggested that he tow me behind his truck. Well, yes. Exactly my kind of fellow. So we hitched a strap to the bumper of his big, heavily-stickered Ford, and then to the handlebars of the bike, and he took off across the parking lot, and once I deemed we’d achieved sufficient velocity, I dumped the clutch, the bike roared to life, and I tried really hard not to slam into Cale’s tailgate. Barely succeeding.

The bike ran great, so I handed Cale his money, loaded it into Tom’s truck, and bucked and chattered my way home, up and over the Appalachian gap, down the valley beyond, through the streets of Vermont’s small capitol city, and finally to home, where I unloaded it alone (Fin still at work), and drove it fast down our little dirt road just as the last light of day faded from the sky.

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How It’ll Be

We’ve had enough rain the past few mornings to ease the worse of the dryness, which I’d begun to experience in a bodily way, as if the soil’s thirst were my own. But despite the rain, it remains dry, the stream is low, the pond is low, the pasture grass slow to recover. It has been hot, too, which I’ve found to be only as unpleasant as I believe it to be. Yesterday I ran in the thick of the heat and humidity, like pushing through a wall, my shirt drenched before I’d gone a mile, pleased with myself for the effort of it, though later I couldn’t seem to drink enough water to sate myself, and was glad I’d not pushed too hard.

Later, I drove one of my usual routes on my way to one of my usual destinations, passing one of my now-usual sights: two women, one middle-aged, one older (mother and daughter?) sitting in one of those self-contained swinging love seats in the lawn of a mobile home at the highway’s edge, enjoying the company of a large goat. I’ve passed this scene three times this summer, once with three women rather than two, but always the big goat, an astonishing presence, a real double-taker, all floppy ear and spindly leg, tall as a small pony. A person could ride a goat like that, I figure, a notion that elevates my delight even further.

Still later, on the cusp of dark – so early now – I dive into the blessed wet chill of the pond, rinse away the dirt of the day, let it mingle with the clean spring water bubbling from some crevice deep below. I don’t want summer to end. But it will, and soon, and I guess that’s just how it’ll be.

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Straight From the Jar

P1040057Walking through the orchard to feed the pigs, I stop under an apple-heavy tree to gather drops. Even as I fill the bucket, I hear the thump of more apples hitting the ground, like a clock ticking down the minutes until winter. The pigs are happy for the apples, they eat they voraciously, one bite and an apple is gone. I will bring them more this afternoon.

Later, I halter Pip at the height of the knoll overlooking the house, the barn, the old church steeple. The air is thick with humidity. I wish it would break to rain. We need the rain. Pip’s calf lingers nearby, watching as I take my share. I watch him back, then turn my gaze to the steeple. Milk fills the pail.

Still later, a shower. It is only passing, but the sky remains dark, the air still heavy. Maybe there will be more. The milk is cooling in the fridge. Later, I’ll drink it straight from the jar.

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Things in General

Sunday morning. The cats wake me earlier than usual, and for a moment I’m unsure if it’s night or day, but slowly my eyes adjust and I can see faint evidence of daylight’s impending arrival. The days are notably shorter now, and if I count the number of weeks until probable frost, it does not add up to very many. It has been a good summer so far, a proper one, hot and dry and full. I allow myself a few extra minutes in bed, the cats pacing, daylight advancing, listening for the mountain stream, the distant water-on-stone murmur I love so much. But it’s gone, low and quiet again in the absence of recent rain.
Later, after chores and breakfast and the assembling of the tools necessary to the day’s primary task, I run my usual out-and-back route. I run for 30 minutes and am passed by one tractor and one truck, and see one black bear. My iPod settles on Iggy Pop’s The Passenger, and I am reminded of a story I wrote a dozen or more years ago for Runner’s World about an ultrarunner named Dean Karnazes and his attempt to win a 135-mile race across Death Valley. To report the piece, I assisted on Dean’s race crew, and I remember pacing him through the night almost 100 miles in, me on a bicycle, Dean running doggedly, and that song on repeat blaring through the open windows of his support vehicle. Every so often, he’d stop to puke or piss or shit, then shake himself off and start running again. He won the race, though it didn’t stop me from wondering why people sometimes do the things they do.
My family is gone for a while, and I’m glad for the solitude, so rare in my life. Though of course at times it tips into loneliness. But even that’s ok. Besides, I have the animals – the cats and the cows and the clucking hens – and I have more tasks before me than I’m likely ever to finish, or at least that’s what it feels like. I have friends just down the road; last night we sat outside by a fire until late, solving the world’s problems until fatigue compelled us to part (besides, there were no more problems to solve, we’d fixed them all!), and I drove the mile home up the gravel road, windows down to the soft night air, feeling pretty good about things in general.

A few things to share:

This amazing interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer

Here’s the piece I wrote about Dean Karnazes

A beautiful essay by Donald Hall about solitude and loneliness

Oh, and Iggy Pop’s excellent song The Passenger