True North

Open Door

Not so long ago, I wrote about community, about gathering together to shine a little light. Like families, some communities exist because of proximity, or a specific current urgency (an election, for example), or because of existing relationships, or because you fall in and they love you and keep you and why would you want to leave?

And then there are the families–and communities–that you build yourself, little by little, taking some risks, extending your hand and your heart-stained sleeve to other people you admire or want to know better, or who share your love of something essential, like words or art or music.

So this is how I find myself happily part of a new community, one that I am helping to build, along with my friend Shari, and our families and friends. We’ve called this community Literary North, and last Friday was its debut into society: a gathering with the purpose of sharing words and thoughts about community, resistance, persistence, creativity, and hope.

We put a lot of energy into this event. A few things didn’t go as planned (see also, freak snow storm that night, one presenter not showing up), but most of it went better than I could have imagined.

We filled the (beautiful) room with attendees. One talented musician played his own compositions while we gathered. Three brilliant, passionate, and generous authors shared their time, their words, and their thoughts with us all. There were slices of freshly toasted homemade bread, chocolate-maple-nut butter, blood orange marmalade, pastrami, hot herbal tea, and red dragon iced tea. There were hand-printed chapbooks and broadsides, handmade CDs, and hand-folded paper cranes. There were writers and readers, poets and storytellers, film makers and students, musicians and neighbors. And we were all there together, in the moment of creation, our own small community, warm against the bitter cold storm outside the door.

There were two happy little stars who had somehow constructed this beautiful constellation, star by star, around themselves. And who are, even now, tired but sparkling and dreaming about what happens next.

The Room

In the morning light

344 : 366

Mr. Stevens hears the chickadees singing

Wallace

In honor of the start of a holiday week, a holiday of thanksgiving and gratitude, I’m taking a mental detour from the dire news and the relentlessly grey sky. Let’s look at shiny things instead. Or, if not shiny, how about furry?

For example, this is Wallace (aka Mr. Stevens, aka Mr. Shawn, aka El Mystico and Janet, aka Zed, aka Clem, aka Trash Cat). I haven’t introduced you to each other yet because I’m a very bad host. (Which makes me think of the Wizard’s line in the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” when Dorothy accuses him of being a bad man and he answers, “Oh no, my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.” I don’t know if the line is in the book because I never read the book. Does that make me a bad woman? Or just a very bad wizard?) I’m so busy sweeping the floors and doing the dishes and putting the pie in the oven that I forget the niceties, like making introductions.

Here then, is Wallace. Just about six months old (as far as the folks at the shelter can reckon). He’s a perfectly ordinary “domestic short hair,” which means just your average ginger tabby. No registration papers, no royal bloodlines, just a darn nice cat.

He spent the first couple of weeks pretending to be shy of us, but now he pretty much owns the place. He’s even beginning to win favor with Gryfe, who was bullied mercilessly by beautiful, dog-hating Hudson.

In his spare time, he enjoys chattering at birds at the feeder, climbing windows, knocking items off of shelves, chasing Oyster, sleeping on his back with his paws splayed in all directions, and generally doing anything that makes us go, “awwwww…”

He’ll be here through the holidays.

Getting there

277 : 366

318 : 366

A fragile peace

Working off the Pringles

Wallace

Area Woman Has Cold Hands

This was now

Teen Demolishes Mother in Battle of Musical Earworms

In a entirely expected triumph, clever Teen (16) overcame predictable Mom (50) in a battle of the earworms early this morning. Mom came out strong in the first hours of the morning with the Carpenters’ “Close to You,” but she was easily bested by Teen’s “You’ll be Back,” from Broadway’s “Hamilton.” In a final effort to take control of the field, Mom countered with “That 60s Russian La La La” song, but it was too little too late. A rematch is scheduled for this afternoon at school pickup.

Couple Mourns Faithful, Old Friend

“We bought that washing machine the year before H was born,” the couple lamented. “We thought we’d always have it.” Perhaps precipitated by a recent basement clean out and reorganization that included moving a table that the machine leaned against, the 17-year-old Frigidaire Gallery front loader clanked loudly and then spun its last spun two weeks ago. Emergency personal were dispatched, and the machine was pronounced too expensive to fix a short while later. In related news, the couple is happy to announce the adoption of a new machine at this weekend’s Presidents’ Day Appliance Adoption Event.

Gravity Waves and Sings

Scientists working at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced yesterday that they have detected the ripples of gravitational waves pulsing through the fabric of space-time, as predicted 100 years ago by Albert Einstein. The waves, generated by the collision and coalescence of two black holes a billion years ago, reached LIGO last September, waving at the waiting scientists, and singing a chirp of hello. This kind of makes all other reportable news trivial.

Local Guernsey Buck Finally Has Name

Ephraim. It’s Ephraim. Don’t you just love it?

Shy Poet/Photographer Reluctant to Announce New Projects

Our diligent reporter has discovered that Shy Poet/Photographer has been busier than she appears if you use this blog’s output as evidence. Starting late last year, she began contributing a poem a month to the Visual Verse project, where writers respond with poems and short fiction to the website’s monthly image. Her most recent contribution is a terse little verse on the topic of long marriage. Not to be restricted to words, On January 1, 2016, she quietly started a new black-and-white, photo-a-day project called “the composed now.” Shy Poet/Photographer could not be reached for comment.

Area Woman Has Cold Hands (Cover Story)

After an unusually temperate Vermont winter, Mother Nature showed her ornery side this morning,  with temperatures “way the heck too far below zero.” Area Woman whined audibly, while watching the tiny birds at the feeder, seemingly so cold they could barely spare the energy to land on the feeder’s perch. Said Area Woman to Area Man, “Please take the dog for the day so I can go someplace warm.” Area Woman was subsequently spotted at the laundromat (see related story, “Couple Mourns Faithful, Old Friend”) and later at her favorite cafe, where she posed as a writer sipping jasmine tea and thinking deep thoughts while writing this post.

Holding a place

Surprise visitor

Today as the dog and I were walking on a early-February-dressed-as-late-March day, I thought to myself, Of course! It’s all geography! And then set my feet on the homeward path knowing I’d know what I was talking about when I got back home.

But I didn’t. All I remember is the feeling of ah ha! and those now meaningless words.

This is like solving a complex problem in your dream—or writing the perfect paragraph, or understanding a foreign-to-you language, or suddenly realizing the answer to everything—and then, upon waking, knowing nothing more than the distance between your feet and the floor.

So I did the dishes, then wrote an email, then let the dog out, then back in (we’d already done the walk, but he needed to check up on his best friend, the squirrel; the admiration is not mutual, alas…), and then painted the inside of the canelé molds with “white oil” in preparation for baking later today.

And I still didn’t know what I’d been thinking, but I had a prickly inkling. You know that feeling that there’s something beautiful just out of reach, and you can almost sense it in your peripheral vision, but you can’t see it; or you catch a scent of something so delicate that you’re not sure such a thing exists, so you keep sniffing and swinging your head in hopes of catching it again; or there’s that elusive owl in the dark who hoots every time you’re alone with the trees but refuses to converse when you bring a friend.

There are things everywhere like that, real and imagined, so close you think you might just be able to call it gently and coax it to your side, hesitant and unsure, but it keeps its shy distance from you.

The other day I was looking out the bathroom window through a snow squall and I saw what looked like an exploded milkweed pod up high in the sumac. All fluttery white and brown. How odd, I thought. How did that get there? Until my eyes looked beyond my first understanding and the ruffed grouse resolved itself the way a Magic Eye painting suddenly becomes three-dimensional; when you learn how look in just the right way.

I ran to the living room window and it was still there, a puffed ball of feathers and a tiny crested head, impossibly still on a tender branch.

I grabbed the camera, opened the back door, and slid between the snowflakes, trying to walk silently as I imagined a true tracker would to the edge of the deck, but instead making an awful racket on the crusty snow. Still he (she? the difference is subtle, apparently, observable in the coloration of the tips of the tail feathers) remained. The puff was gone, but there he sat, toes curled around the branch, while I clicked the shutter over and over so that I could prove to myself that this one elusive moment was real.

Cold, I went back inside. I looked out the window.

Gone.

But he was here (I have proof of some sort). And I am here. And at that moment, both together with the snow flying down, anchored miraculously on this whirling planet.

When the snow first started to fall, huge drowsy flakes, meandering past the window, I looked slightly away and saw the movement on the edges of my vision and had that sensation of being in a train car in the station and the train next to you pulls away and you feel for an instant that your train is the moving one.

Am I moving? Or is everything else moving? Or are we moving together? The grouse exited by way of the air. I’m hopelessly terrestrial. Geographically connected, making shapes in the wind.

January letter

Orchid

7 January 2015 2016

Dear Mom,

I really wanted to talk to you today—about nothing in particular—and this seems the best way. Or the only way. If I don’t want to make the dog nervous by talking out loud, that is.

(Mom, everything makes this poor dog nervous! He’s a bundle of shivers if you take the packing tape gun out the drawer. If he senses you’re even thinking about using a tool of any sort—this includes the tape measure—he books it for the stairs. Sometimes he’ll just be standing near me, teeth chattering, all wound up, even though nothing at all is happening and my hand is on his shoulder trying to reassure him. Right now he’s not nervous. Right now he’s flat asleep in a puddle of sunshine on the brown sofa, half on/half off his blanket, one jowl dropping open in a way that’s a bit disgusting and a bit interesting and I’m sure will result in a wet spot on the sofa. I don’t dare wake him.)

And I’m tired of talking in my head.

Anyway. I drove H to school this morning because M and I made a (advantageous to me) bargain: I’d do the school drop off and he’d do the goat chores (he got the 5º F and the ice-crusted walk between the house and barn, and I got the heated seats in the car and the company of our daughter; sounded fair to me). It was a quiet drive, still mostly dark and at least one of us still mostly asleep.

(About then I was thinking about my own middle and high school bus adventures—getting off at the wrong stop my very first day, waiting at the stop in the cold, hoping the mean girls wouldn’t skip the bus—and about those rare, glorious mornings when you didn’t have to be at work early and you’d offer me a ride to school. Did we talk about anything, or did I give you the teenaged cold shoulder? I remember my feeling of relief at catching a ride with you, but now I think I probably never told you how big a deal it was to me. I’m sure I didn’t.)

Usually, H has us plugged into some music from her iPod on the drive, but I took the aux cord out of the car in case we needed it for the drive to Michigan and haven’t put it back, so we had the lousy radio on instead (you know I love the radio, but this town has, maybe, four decent stations) and tuned to the oldies station and we caught the last couple of minutes of Holly Holy and boy did that make me smile. It felt like something magic I’d done myself, conjuring up that song just for you today. And then I realized, well, maybe you conjured it for me? Neat trick.

I read a book the other day that I would have passed to you if I could. It’s called Kitchens of the Great Midwest, and, though it was recommended by someone I trust as one of the best books of 2015, I really don’t think it was. Still, it had its moments and seemed like the sort of book you might enjoy and I was thinking if you read it, too, then we could talk about it and the parts that worked and the parts that didn’t. I think you would have liked the main character, Eva.

(Ooops. I think I just said that last part out loud because the dog woke up, gave me a sidelong, worried glance, and slunk off the sofa. Sofa? Or couch? I grew up saying “couch.” When did I adopt “sofa”? Chesterfield. I never really said that one, but that’s the one I love most. Oh! Did you know that H says “aunt” as “awnt,” like a true New Englander? I find myself changing my “ant” pronunciation when I’m around her.)

Recently, Dad and I were talking about real books (I mean, versus digital, e-books) and he said that the shelf in your bedroom where you and he lined up your to-be-read books was still there, with the same books you two put there all those years ago. One of those things that lingers, I guess. I asked for a photo of the books on that shelf, just to see what you had planned to read next, but it was all thrillers and mysteries, Mom, not a single Margaret Atwood. Sheesh. If I had sent you Kitchens, what would you have sent in return? Patricia Cornwell?

(You know I’m saying that with a smile, right?)

Did I ever tell you that I bought myself an orchid? This was two Octobers ago, when I felt the pressure of winter weighing on me and I spotted this plant at the co-op and I thought it looked cheery. I’d always heard that orchids were picky plants and I couldn’t imagine one thriving in a drafty, old, wood-heated farmhouse, but he (yes, he) has kind of astonished me. He won’t stop blooming. I keep meaning to ask you about this, seeing as how you were the one with the green thumb and had a special affinity for orchids. I keep meaning to ask you how something can keep blooming in spite of the dark and cold.

Love always,
me

p.s. I meant to say also that I read a poem today that I really loved, for both its content and its form, the fact that it’s engraved on a bench in that city we love, on the northeast corner of Dufferin and Bloor.

Walking here, I turned my face to you and said,
how on earth will we live, who will dance with us,
will there be music? And you said, sure,
the usual birds will sing, the usual hours will pass at night,
and I asked you, will there be fame?
And you said, sure, but only between us.
It will be spring, forsythia will follow us and
we will hear the lake breathe.
Waiting then, I felt the world coming toward me.

–Dionne Brand

If there’s one thing you can count on…


Mt. Erebus, photo by Anthony Powell

… come November, if I’m writing here, I’m going to mention that chilly word: Antarctica.

So here we are, and the story this time is Ernest Shackleton’s. Surely you’ve heard of him and his polar exploits: his farthest south (along with our old friends Scott and Wilson) as a member of Scott’s 1901 Discovery expedition; and then again, a farthest south in 1907, this time in command of his own expedition, reaching just 180 km short of the South Pole. During that same journey, his party discovered the Beardmore Glacier, became the first to travel on the South Polar Plateau, and the first to ascend Mt. Erebus. (Amazingly, thanks to Thomas Edison’s breakthrough wax cylinder technology and the UC Santa Barbara library’s Cylinder Audio Archive, we can hear a short account of that expedition in Shackleton’s own voice.)

As we’d say at the Passover table, dayenu! “It would have been enough!”

But Shackleton didn’t stop there. The South Pole already attained by Amundsen (handily) and Scott (disastrously) in 1912, Shackleton devised a new 1914 expedition, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, with the goal of being the first to cross the entire Antarctic continent.

He never got that far. On the way to the Antarctic continent, his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea on January 19, 1915, she and her crew slowly drifting northward with the ice. After a month of helpless drifting, Shackleton ordered the crew to abandon ship and they camped on the ice beside her, slowly emptying the wounded ship of as many supplies as they could, watching day by day as their home was slowly crushed by the force of the ice.

100 years ago today, Endurance sank.

And there they were, alone at the bottom of the world, with three lifeboats, 29 men, and little else.

And that’s when the adventure really began, because now they had to find their way home safely, with no ship, and no hope of rescue.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s a breathtaking, nearly unbelievable adventure. Read it yourself if you haven’t already, and then come back here.

We’ll build a warm fire and pour some wine or whisky and talk all night of ice and adventure and bravery and intelligence and luck, of the golden age of polar exploration, and the way a story can grip you like ice around a ship, holding fast, pulling you under, and still somehow showing you the way home.

Resting in this moment

Dahlia 2

October, it’s not your fault that you live next door to November (rude neighbors, always shouting cold wind until late into the night, leaving their dead leaves and bare, broken twigs on your lawn, slamming their doors, scaring the birds. Entirely uncivilized behavior). I would wholeheartedly adore you otherwise.

You’re full of obvious charms that everyone seems to love about fall (insert here the orange pumpkins, the soup, the snuggly sweaters, the excuse to stay in bed with a thick book). I’m not immune to your beauty.

It’s me, not you. It’s just my failure to be zen, to live in your Froot-Loops-colored, slanting sunlit moment. Instead, my eyes are focused on what comes next. You’re tugging at my hem telling me to look and I’m distractedly wondering where the snow shovel is and wondering when the snow tires should go on the car.

But Saturday. Oh, Saturday! You were a perfect October day, beginning with a chance to browse the farmers’ market, bursting with the last blooms of the pre-frost fields. Then on to the annual Sheep & Wool Festival in the water-colored Tunbridge hills.

Sheep, goats, alpacas, llamas. Sheepdogs, yarn, felting kits, roving. Friends, fried dough, french fries. All this and the chance to sit on a still-green hillside with the sun against our backs, watching the festivities below. Just enough shade to feel a slight chill. Just enough sun to feel gently baked.

Saturday was a perfect October day.

And then Sunday was even better… I’ll tell you why soon.

Tunbridge hills

Isn't weird enough

Icelandic

Dyed

Harness goat

Keeper

Perfect

In Halter

Duck

Bath

Rest

Driving