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And Then to Take Them

Every evening I walk the young steer across the pasture to his pen, where I separate him from his mother so that in the morning I might take her milk. And every evening we play the same game: He ducks and dodges and feints, moves I know so well I can see them coming and match them long before they’ve arrived. He’s more than a year old, weighs a good 600-pounds, and could easily elude or otherwise overpower me, yet this lasts only a couple dozen seconds or so, until he has proved to himself that he’s at least made an effort. Then he trots complacently down the hoof-worn path directly into his pen. I latch the gate behind him and go pick blueberries.

I have been slowly reading the book Die Wise by Stephen Jenkinson. It’s a dense book, and I don’t want to say too much about it, because then maybe you’ll decide you don’t need to read it, which would mean you’d miss out on a whole lot. In short, Jenkinson makes the case that death deserves more than our culture currently allows it, that we short change the experience (and ourselves) by not fully attending to it, by refusing to face it head on: The grief, the pain, the lack of control, the simple reality of it, the inescapable truth that it is death itself that makes life so worth living. Reading it, I am reminded of my experience surrounding the death of one of my oldest and best friends (I wrote about it here). It profoundly affected my understanding of death, and of grief; it was the first time I truly understood how rich both can be, and that they do not diminish the quality of our lives, but actually enhance them. I guess that’s all I’ll say on the subject for now, except to add that there’s a short film on Jenkinson and his work called Griefwalker. It’s worth watching.

Wait, no, I do have more to say, which is that like many (most?) people, I question choices I have made, things I have done. I try to live without regret, or in a way that I think will protect me from future regret, even as I realize how absurd this is, because how can we possibly know what we might later wish we’d done differently? Yet I believe it true that it’s most often the things we don’t do that we later count among our failings, and perhaps for all of Jenkinson’s nearly 400-pages on the subject (which I’d still recommend you read), the real secret of dying wise is living wise, which is maybe nothing more than having the courage to see the chances as they arise. And then to take them.

Music: What better way to recover from death talk than a little Leonard Cohen

 

 

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How I Wish I Had

I milked early the morning, the moon still visible in the sky, the air heavy and fragrant with the remnants of nighttime rain. I love when it rains in the night, and just hard enough that I woke in the dark to raindrops on my face angling through the open window above my head. Huck the cat sleeping at my side, beyond range of the window and thus unperturbed. I sat up and pulled the window down, but not quite all the way, because I wanted to hear the rain as I drifted back to sleep. Huck rose, rotated himself a time or two, and settled down again, purring softly.

I like sleeping next to animals, and I like being woken in the night in such a gentle way, all the unbidden thoughts and memories that rise to the surface during these semi-conscious moments. Last night it was me riding my Big Wheel in the swath of shorn grass behind my father as he mowed at the cabin where we spent most of the first six or seven years of my life. Which is odd, because I do not recall there being a lawn, but the image and sensation of it are so strong. I’m certain that’s where it was.

My parents still own the land where that cabin still stands, though it’s been many years since it’s been fit for human habitation. It’s about 90 minutes north and west of here; I haven’t been there for nearly a decade. It’s a beautiful piece of land, 150-acres or so, not far from the Canadian border. I think maybe I’ll head up there again soon, wander the woods a bit.

By the time I finished milking I could still see the moon, but only faintly. The sky patches of grey and steely blue. I walked back to the house with the bucket of milk, moving slow, thinking about how much I have to do today, thinking I should move faster, put this task behind me and move onto the next. Thinking that I’m pretty sure I never got my boys a Big Wheel, and how I wish I had.

 

 

 

 

 

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Maybe a Pretty Good Rule

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Packed up

My family departed this morning for two weeks or more, bound for the wilderness of northern Minnesota, leaving me to tend to projects and beasts both large and small. I don’t mind the solitude as much as once I might have. This is not the same as saying I don’t get lonely, because I do, but I also appreciate the stripped-down nature of my time alone, the way it allows both mind and body to focus on the tasks and thoughts at hand. And of course the small pleasures one allows oneself in such circumstances, most of which (in my case, at least) revolve around food consumption: Drinking straight from the jar of milk, eating directly from the pan in which the meat was cooked, generally at the edge of the fire over which it was cooked, and possibly with no utensils beyond the thumb and pointer fingers, salads picked and consumed in the garden – a handful of lettuce washed down by a few green beans. Maybe a carrot, extra crunchy for the soil packed into its creases. There. A complete meal. It’s not a pretty sight, I’ll grant you that, but the sink remains free of dishes, the food tastes just fine, and I find my body feels best when unencumbered by overly much attention to detail.

Which is maybe a pretty good rule for a whole lot of other things, too.

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Other People’s Stuff

First, if you’re looking for a piece of VT to call your own, you should probably buy the one our friends Hart and Michael are selling. I’ve spent a fair bit of time there, and it’s really quite spectacular and unique. Here are a couple of pictures, but they can’t begin to do the place justice, so check out this link for more.

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Second, I know I’ve mentioned my friend Brett’s blog in the past, but I’m going to do it again just to be a pain in the ass. Brett’s a great writer and I really enjoy her short, almost-daily missives. I bet you will, too.

 

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Thinking All the While

Yesterday evening I drove the back roads slowly, past fields thick with fresh-spread manure, the smell of it heavy in the air and as familiar as wood smoke in winter. I topped a hill and at its crest where the tree canopy parted saw a cloud tower in the sky, tall and ominous-looking, as if the faintest breeze would send it toppling. Rain coming, I figured, or at least the threat of it. Let it come. Hay’s in. Firewood’s under tin. Streams and rivers still running high, but they can run higher. The banks have held worse. I’ve seen it myself.

Truth is, I could drive these backroads just about forever. I guess more than anything they remind me of what I love about Vermont, and not just the land, but the people who inhabit it and maybe just as much how they inhabit it. They live in old farmhouses, and new ranches, and mobile homes leveled on cinder blocks and funky cabins with rows of Tibetan peace flags hanging across the driveway. Chickens ranging in the yard. They plow driveways and clean houses and pour concrete and milk cows and go to school and get DWIs and lord knows what else.

As I drove, I remembered passing a dairy farm a few days back, not a prosperous-looking one (those are getting fewer and farther between by the year) and seeing in the middle of a nubbed-down pasture behind a sagging line of rusted wire a small hay wagon stacked with what looked to be about a cord of firewood. A nice, neat stack, spray-painted plywood sign leaning against it: “$220” No name, no phone number, nothing more than the price.

For the rest of the day I couldn’t stop thinking about that wagon, that wood, and the farmer who thought to stack it just so. How many hours already he must have into its procurement. And who would buy it? For it was not deliverable by hay wagon, least not over any distance, and as a rule it’s pretty hard to sell firewood you can’t deliver. So what, then? Someone would see the wagon, stop in to the barn at milking time, inquire about the wood, strike a deal, back their truck into the field, throw each piece into the bed or as many as would fit, because truth is it’s pretty much impossible to fit a full loose cord into a the bed of even a full-size pickup, which I know because I’ve tried. So now on top of it all they’re having to come back for the rest. Really? Someone would do all this for a cord of wood? My head wouldn’t stop swirling with the details, and what seemed to me the futility of it. Because I really wanted someone to buy that damn wood. But I didn’t see how it’d happen.

Yet I couldn’t relinquish the image of it. Still can’t, I guess, because here I am writing about it though I never planned to, not even at the top of this page. There was something beautiful about it, something of great substance (Firewood! Heat! Survival!) and yet also a little heartwarming, which I suppose was the hope it represented, enough to be worth however long it took to fell and cut and split and stack that wood, to pull it into the pasture with the old Farmall I could see resting out behind the barn, to find the plywood, the rattle can, to paint the sign. And yet all this was tempered by that sense of futility in a way that actually felt a little achy in my gut, like I didn’t quite know which to believe: Hope or futility? Futility or hope? Perhaps that wagon of wood is not unlike the “eggs for sale” sign mentioned in the comments a while back; something that comforts in its commonplace nature and yet is just incongruous enough that we imbue it with meaning even we can’t quite understand. Which is fine. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Later that night I finally settled on what I think is going to happen to that wagonload of wood. I think the farmer’s going to leave it there until the wood is well-seasoned, and maybe even covered by snow, the sign long since tipped flat by the wind. The pasture cold and windswept, the cows huddled around a bale feeder in the barnyard. Then I think at some point this winter the farmer’s going to cast his appraising eye on the stacks in the woodshed and, realizing they’re dwindling faster than anticipated, he’s going to drive the old Farmall out to pasture and pull that cord of wood home. Thinking all the while how glad he is it didn’t sell.

Music: A new one from Isbell. 

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We Are Always Arising

Fin takes a ride on the peas train

About a year-and-a-half ago I joined the school board of this small town (pop. 220-something) for reasons that pretty much boil down to the fact that I was asked. I might have declined, but I was new to town and wanting to make a favorable impression, and maybe even figured something good might come of it, if not for the community, then at least in relation to this idea I’ve long had that some day I’ll roust myself into being of service to a cause greater than myself.

Frankly, I’m not a great school board member; I’m too easily frustrated by the layers of bureaucracy, overwhelmed by the reams of paper and endless numbers. It all seems so incredibly and needlessly complex, though it’s not like I’ve got any better ideas of how to do it. Once upon a time I might have thought I did, but the older I get the less I seem to know, which is exactly the opposite of how I thought getting older was supposed to work. Sometimes I think of all the years I’ve spent looking forward to the wisdom I thought was due me, and here I am, still looking to collect.

Because our town is so small, we don’t have a school of our own; instead, the town pays tuition at the accredited institution of choice. This has allowed our older son to attend school part-time, through a self-designed study program at a high school about 30-minutes from here. It’s been good for him, I think. He built an electric guitar with an amazing builder in Burlington who also happens to be a published author and whose father is the former Vermont Poet Laureate, which really has nothing to do with anything, but kinda strikes my fancy. He studied climate justice with an activist friend of ours. He did a bunch of other stuff, too, centered mostly around music.

I never figured one of my children would want to attend school, and this was foolish of me. Not so much in the specifics – attend school, not attend school – but in my lack of awareness of how profoundly things can change, and how quickly. As someone said to me recently, we are always arising in fields of contingencies. I like this saying, in part because I know it to be true, and in part because it acknowledges what could be seen as a difficult truth (life is unpredictable/changeable/uncertain) in a very gracious and even graceful way. I mean, one could say something like life is unpredictable/changeable/uncertain and you just have deal with it, which would also be true, but to me isn’t quite the same as saying we are always arising in fields of contingencies.

I thought about this last night as I bucked firewood, the daylight draining from the sky. The last day of July. Then, suddenly, surprisingly, it was raining, and I could see the sun behind it, that beautiful, slanting, late day sun, the raindrops illuminated like a million little light bulbs in the sky. I was soon soaked through and on the verge of being cold, so I worked harder, but the rain quickened its pace, and I could not seem to outwork it, and now I was truly cold. So I shut down the saw and put it away, shucked my rain-and-sweat-wet clothes, and ran for the pond to rinse myself clean, the pile of still-uncut firewood left for another day.

Music: Daniel Johnston. Must be seen to be fully appreciated. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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And Do It Again

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First light

We had six full days of dry weather, the sun summer-high and fierce in the sky, though already I see how the days are shortening; when I awaken it is darker than it was just a two weeks ago, and soon enough it’ll be even darker than it is now. I don’t mind, really. There’s something about rising in the dark that makes the time feel stolen, as if my use of it will not count against the ticking clock of my day.

We finally got our first cut off the field, late this year by a month or more, as late as we’ve ever gotten first cut. Though not as late as some, for even now as I drive the backroads I pass unmowed fields, the grasses brown at the tops, long gone to seed. There’s going to be a shortage of dry hay this year, I think.

Then yesterday it rained again, steady and soaking and almost cold. I walked in the woods looking for chanterelles, for a time with Penny, then alone, finding none. All around me, the sounds of water – pattering against the protective canopy of the outstretched trees, running in small streams and rivulets down the land, splashing when I stepped into the small hollows where it had settled. And other sensations: The thighs of my work pants soon soaked through and thus heavy and tight against my skin, the drops that fall through the leaves to my face running down my cheeks. I lick them from the corners of my mouth and they taste just slightly of salt, the remnants of my labor in the hayfield, still present after two swims in the pond. Maybe next time I’ll use soap. I feel too the whorl of hair pasted against my forehead, breathe the fecund, deep-earth smell of the wetted forest.

Almost by accident I find my favorite ridge of rock, having arrived at from an unfamiliar angle, and I walk it length wise, balancing on its slippery spine until I reach its end. Then turn back and do it again.

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More Improbable By the Day

Yesterday in town I stopped at the feed store in town for chicken grain. I’d placed my order and was descending the front steps and there, coming toward me, was an old man. Not the same man I wrote about a year ago; this man was stouter, his clothes neater. Clean white tee shirt tucked into jeans. He moved in a stilted way, and slowly, as though in pain.

We exchanged the curt nods men tend to offer one another in greeting, and I continued outside to wait for my grain, standing between my car and his white Chevy pickup. The cab corners and wheel arches were consumed by rust, and the bed was empty but for the top link to a tractor’s three-point hitch. I stole a glance through the truck’s window; the bench seat was uncluttered. The truck had a manual transmission, and I imagined the man’s arthritic hand on the shift knob, guiding it through the gears.

I thought about how the year before when I saw the old man at the feed store, someone had just reminded me how I might yet have half my life to live, and how now, a year later, that possibility was lesser, and becoming more improbable by the day. Last year, I’d have had to live to 90; this year, 92. By next summer, it’ll be 94. At some point, the math stops working, though I guess it’s not really the math that stops working; it’s the body.

I considered waiting for the man to emerge from the store, if only to see what stories might be gleaned, but my grain had now arrived, and my day was full of tasks yet undone. So I got into my car and drove away.

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Born to Ride

So my first street motorcycle was a 1983 Honda Interceptor 750. I was 16 when I bought it, and hanging on Martha’s Vineyard, where I lived with three friends in a one-bedroom apartment and worked on a roofing crew. The apartment below ours was occupied by a stoner named Rocket, which in all likelihood was not his given name, but I never heard anyone call him anything else. Funny. I just remembered about Rocket; hadn’t thought of him in a quarter-century or more. He must be at least 70 by now. If he’s still around.

I bought the bike for $500 out of the backyard of a middle-aged man who’d wrecked it and quickly lost interest; I would later learn far more than I wanted to know about wrecking bikes and losing interest (I believe this is called “foreshadowing”). The Honda was dinged up, but ran great, and I rode it a whole lot, and I am beyond grateful that the only time I dropped it I was in a parking lot spinning the back tire to show off for a girl I liked but who no doubt (and rightly so) had me pegged for a fool. Because really I had no business on such a powerful motorcycle. I mean, I’d had a couple of dirt bikes – a sweet old Honda Elsinore 125 among them – before the Interceptor, and I’d ridden my friends’ street bikes from time-to-time, but I was pretty green.

I rode the 750 for a while – couple of years, anyway – then bought an early 90’s Honda Hurricane 600. Smaller than the 750, but way quicker, and much more nimble. This one had been dumped, too, and I bought it cheap, too, though I don’t remember how cheap. Maybe $1000, $1200. Rode it all over the place, as much as possible. I vividly remember descending the snowed-packed dirt hill from my house, legs as outriggers, trying to keep it upright until I hit the dry pavement. Shivering to beat the band. During this period of my late teens, I also had a YZ125 (dirt bike), a XR200 (dirt bike), and a CR250 (dirt bike). No doubt there was something else in there, too, but it’s escaped my memory.

Ok. So I rode the Hurricane for a while, then sold it and bought a really nice Kawasaki GPZ750 from an older gentleman who’d babied it. First bike I owned that was in such good condition. I liked that motorcycle a lot, though like so many of those early sport bikes, it was too much engine mounted to too little suspension. Still. Fun, fun bike, and even pretty comfy.

After the GPZ – which I sold to I don’t know who – I had a KZ1000, then a KZ750 and, somewhere in there, a really cool little Honda CB350 twin. Gutless but style for miles and you know what a sucker I am for style. Seems like maybe I had a KX250 dirt bike in there, too, but I could be misremembering. I definitely remember the little XL125 I mentioned a few days back, and the Suzuki DR350 I fell off and rang my bell so hard I couldn’t remember my boys’ names. Puked a bunch, too. Truth told, that kind of put me off motorcycles. I just sort of reached a point where I realized the risk was no longer worth the thrill, and I sold the DR and that was it. With the exception of a handful of minor, low-speed dirt bike get-offs, it remains the only time I’ve dumped a bike, and I intend to keep it that way.

I just realized how few of you probably care about any of this, but it’s sorta fun for me, so thanks for humoring me.

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Our Separate Ways

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Another of the old Dodge. I have no idea how this photo came to be, and that’s probably for the best. 

I camped last night at a music festival with my older boy, and waking early with hours to spare before he roused, I drove to a nearby mountain for a short hike. There I trundled upward, clad in barn boots and flannel, until the heat of my exertion saw me shrugging the shirt and now shirtless and silly-looking I walked onward until I came to a minor footpath diverging from the trail. With no conscious decision reached (and, in fact, none sought), there I turned, and soon after found myself in a forest of mature hardwood, sugar maple and ash. The light just coming on, feet clammy and hot in boots. I stood there, not thinking much of anything and not wanting to, until maybe 70 yards below me a black bear lumbered into the clearing of an old skid road. He (she?) sensed me there and turned his head my way and now we both stood, one looking at the other, until I realized some time had passed. A minute? Two? I cannot say, but we held in the morning softness and the pattering of raindrops shaking themselves loose from the foliage, falling cool against the skin of my back. Then he turned his head and ambled on, and I guess I’m not ashamed to say I felt tears welling. Not of sadness, or even joy, but of something that felt as if perhaps it lay deeper, though I can’t say what that would be. Maybe just the unsettling knowledge of how little we can predict, of how little control we have, of how even the most innocuous circumstances and choices – to wake early, to decide on a hike, to unthinkingly veer from the marked trail – can impact our lives in ways we could have never imagined.

Or maybe it’s just this: I went for a walk and saw a bear in the woods and we watched one another for a while. Then we went our separate ways.

Apropos of all the car talk, a great segment from Erica. (some folks seem to have a hard time seeing the links… so here are the analog instructions: click “from Erica”) 

Been a while since we’ve had any music. How ’bout this one from the Turnpike Troubadours?