To the Pond: Come if you will

Sun’s down by the time I leave today. But the light will fade for a while. I walk across the wet lawn in sandals. I am passing the stout apple tree when Mo calls to me that he’s coming. He races across the lawn and down the path — running is his favorite thing — to catch up with me. We walk side by side and he chatters about bears and coyotes. Will they attack us? I tell him they won’t; they’re afraid of us. But why? Because we kill them, I say.  

We reach the old orchard with its leafless, cluttered bows and tiny apples holding on, and when we turn Mo sees something bound into the woods. It had a white tail he says, but he can’t decide how long and whether or not it was a deer. I say, it was a deer, but he seems to want to entertain other possibilities. I’ve never seen something leap and jump so far, so high, he tells me. I, having looked too long at the apples, missed it.

We go along, the grass tall and wet, the road narrow. The dark of the evening filters through the bright leaves of fall—shiny green about to burst into yellow. We climb the road until it evens out and Mo continues his chatter. I wonder if he is nervous. He clasps my hand lightly. His slight fingers feel like a bird in my hand, the wing of a bird perhaps. It’s a gentle holding between us, not like the clench of his babyhood. The tight, holding on for life.

Lately, I have looked at photos of him as a baby and no longer remember what I felt. I know from reading my journals, the intensity of that first love overwhelmed me and even today I wish it could have lasted forever, just him. We love our children differently—the force moving between, shifting based on the particulars of need and struggle, tenderness and independence.

When I was pregnant with him, my friend Susan once said, and so it begins… the love affair of mother and son. I thought it an odd thing to say. She would be someone I knew only briefly in this life. Someone who passed too soon after decades of cancer. And though I never knew her that well, it always felt like a part of us had come from the same place, was made of the same substance. We were instantly close, intimate. Don’t smoke, you’ll regret it, she told me when I still smoked and we had barely met. It wasn’t a scolding statement, just something wistful, as though perhaps had she never smoked, she wouldn’t have gotten the cancer, though breast cancer isn’t caused by smoking. She had one son and one daughter, and she told me that her son felt like her soul mate in this life. I understood, by then, what she meant.

He lets go of my hand and we scurry along, looking for creatures in the woods, the light still holding ever so. It crushed me to become a mother, in every way—the overwhelming love, the exhaustion, the endless caretaking, the fear. It goes on and covers everything, and though my husband is fully a co-parent with me, he doesn’t seem to carry the same burden of worry and longing and hope. Yet every year my sons grow older and more independent and I both mourn and celebrate this.

We reach the pond and walk out onto the short dock. We sit together, crossing our legs, and he begins to hoot and holler, then cry-bark like he imagines a coyote would, though we rarely hear them from our snug beds with our fans whirring and our windows shut. He likes to imagine these creatures close, but not too close. The sky is still blue, and we wait for the first star, entangled in our chorus of animal ruckus, our closeness. All around us the world turns to shadow, misty and blanketed. The first star arrives but, we decide, it must be Venus.

Again, we speak of the bears and the coyotes and I tell him he doesn’t need to worry. Then he is ready to go. All the way through the thickening darkness, he chatters and talks and calls to shadows as though he might corral them. In the field we look out at the lit windows of the little house. We walk towards them; towards Josh and Willem, the two earthy forces of stability in our swirling galaxy of emotion and feeling and transcendence—of sorrow and exuberance, conviction and devotion.

When Susan was dying, I called her in hospice. I wanted to visit but Willem was still little, and my life felt chaotic and difficult. I asked her how she was doing. Oh, you know, she said, I’m dying. It’s abstract and surreal. Come on down. I never did and when she died, I was sad, but I didn’t regret the missed hospice visit. The last time we saw each other, she was at home in bed. I brought Willem, he was six months and crawled onto her lap when I placed him at the foot of the bed. I don’t mind at all if he climbs on me, she said to reassure me. She was easy with children and seemed to understand them intuitively. She never spoke to them in a childlike voice.

We likely spoke of writing. She’d written a novel and we often exchanged our shorter work. My last critique of her was harsh, she said. I was sorry, I’d been in a bad mood. Something about the story irked me. I thought it was memoir disguised as fiction. But why had I cared? What did I know about fiction or writing or truth? Convictions can be a terrible thing.

I still miss Susan. Still think of her as though I might tell her something, find her again, ask her a question, share a bit of writing or a cup of tea. Once I saw her daughter at the college where I work. She told me that the family planned to move out west where her brother lived.

Moses runs ahead, bounding up the porch steps and into the house to find his brother and father. I trail, exhausted, too heavy, full with growing life—somehow an entire being can come to be within my own body. Her soul I called from the netherworld years ago, chanting softly every spring, every fall, come if you will, I am ready.

To the Pond: The Secret Canoe

the secret canoe & blue kayak

Today I water the ducks and pick up apples before I depart. It’s late afternoon, the kids are at soccer with Josh. It’s hot for the second to last day of summer. The sky, a stunning blue, feels like a portal of joy. The leaves look dry, some curling, more changed already since yesterday. I carry my phone and take photos of exploded milkweed, tiny green apples hanging from leafless trees, the expanse of the field. I find a stick as I walk and tap it lightly on the ground. Up the little hill, passing the overgrown yard of the old cabin where George’s daughter once lived, I walk at a quick pace, my mind wandering.

I go to the woods alone, writes Mary Oliver, without a single friend. And I understand this need. To be alone in this slant of light between lush August and barren November is a kind of magic. The veil between worlds seems to lift this time of year — autumn, day of the Harvest Moon. Later, this moon will rise through the trees and I will go out into the wet grass to spy it. All night I will wake intermittently to see the streaky light out my window. I will roll from side to side and reposition the pillow I rest a leg on and feel the light of the world swaddling me.

in the field

Today I reach the pond with a sense of beginning. I take out the blue kayak I bought Josh for our tenth anniversary, but mostly use myself, and paddle around the pond. A slight breeze skims the surface, a bird hovers over the shallow waters near the mouth of the small stream that leaves the pond to eventually join Lake Champlain. I cut across the middle and marvel at the depths, the dark silence beneath me, and then I follow the shoreline to where the secret canoe is hidden.

I found the secret canoe a week ago. It’s well hidden if you’re not looking for it, but once you’ve noticed it, it’s not. Someone has also pounded two nails into a tree and hung the canoe paddles. Along the east edge of the pond, the property only extends inland enough to create a border along the water. But other properties stretch out behind this, into a wooded terrain that has felt vast to me in my wanderings.

I go out today along the well groomed trail, wide enough for a car to pass, much like the pond road. With my phone I track my location against an arial photograph of the property lines. It’s hard to follow exactly. The trees grow tall and thick creating a canopy that blocks out the light and keeps the underbrush sparse. I love the cedar and pine, the old oaks whose branches long ago twisted to reach the sun. I feel the deep comfort of breathing forest air, smelling the scent of this place, touching the bark of its trees.

Last fall, I got lost running on trails like these; stuck in a field, I couldn’t find my way out as the light fell and the owls began to bark. I was hardly clothed. It was a similar warm fall day, but the coming night brought a chill. I’d been running all summer. My body strong and muscled. Finally, I figured out how to backtrack. Only the smallest part of me grew fearful that I would not find my way out, that I could somehow be lost in these acres of wood between two parallel roads not quite miles apart. I wondered what it felt like to be truly lost. liberating. Even if I fell and couldn’t move, I’d likely survive the autumn evening. Josh would somehow find me. Right?

I made it out last year, just as Josh and the boys were headed in on the neighbor’s ATV. I laughed at the idea that they could have found me, so intertwined and unnavigable were those woods to me. So many paths and roads and fields that didn’t lead out. But that is what I want from the woods. The delicious aloneness of these trails where the changing light of the seasons and the coming and going of foliage offers an ever-changing perspective. It is here I find a sense of my own smallness; a smallness that reveals my connectedness to all things. It is here the aura of the living world surrounds me in its richness.

Back in the blue kayak I cross the pond to our little dock. I walk back home along the familiar path, filled with wonder and hope and gratitude.

growing towards the light

To the Pond:[1]

the beginning of the field

At seven months pregnant I feel the need to turn inward towards privacy and protection, towards the quiet of aloneness. I long to burrow into my own warm nest of safety and let the world slide away.

It’s late September and the leaves are just beginning to turn. I had this idea that I would take thirty walks in thirty days to our pond. Walking grounds the soul. The spectacle of the pond enlightens me. I feel its movement, the wild creatures comings and goings, and its constant presence. Walking the same path daily, which is something we did at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, reveals the way the world changes ever so slowly around us and with this grows an intimacy and love for the place we call home.

The pond is about .8 miles from our house. We walk out across the lawn and down the mowed path of the field. The field grass and goldenrod grow over my head along the first part of the path. To the east, the cellar hole from the old farm house, long gone now, is overgrown and home to summer snakes. Cedars grow there and a row of spring flowers stubbornly push through each year where there might have once been a walkway. A white rose vines the fence as well. I’ve stood near the cellar hole in the spring to get a sense of the lives that once lived there. I know where the old barn rose and look up the hill behind our house to the grave yard of husked souls from the 1800s.

This area is also covered with rocks that make it difficult to mow; burdock and prickly vines. In the spring, when the snow has matted down the brush and we can walk there, my husband and I survey the area and articulate big landscaping plans. But usually after spending July away, we no longer attempt to keep it mowed.

The field is long, perhaps two acres – I am not good at measuring land. We’ve let the field grow up all summer but keep a path mowed along its perimeter. We now need to find a tractor to mow in order to keep it a field, but as it is home to so many creatures we worry about when we should take on this task.

At the end of the field we reach the dirt road. Across it, an old apple orchard still produces hard, sour fruits. We turn left or west and head down the road. This evening, a Sunday, the four of us are quiet and tired out from Will’s birthday party and other weekend activities. The cat follows with us. We meander in a long line that occasionally pairs off. Will still likes to hold my hand in the woods, though not around his first grade friends. The boys begin their count of red efts, which they do whenever the conditions are right for the efts to slyly appear. Josh takes the lead; he has always liked to walk the fastest. His hiking pace when I met him required me to jog.

The road is rough and difficult to drive, though drive-able. The forest looms close, made up of maple, beach, oak, shag bark hickory, some birch and poplar, white pine, and cedar. In foliage, the forest looks dark and mysterious – a difficult pass. But once the leaves fall it opens up and there are roads and paths throughout the 180 acres of mostly forested land.

The boys count in total 19 red efts. We pass the path that leads to the other side of the pond where we skate in the winter and the path that goes up the mountain hill deep into a woods I have yet to fully explore. We catch a glimpse of the pond through the cedars. Two Canada geese float in still water. But we don’t stop here, we venture further and then up a little hill and down to the spot surrounded with pine where we come to meet the pond.

There’s a tiny platform – a first section of a dock – that my father built for us when he visited in June. I love this platform because it reminds me of home and my parents’ dock, composed of I’d guess around six of these sections. I can still smell the fresh wood, a scent so close to my childhood and my father who was and is always building something, whether it be his home or furniture or a new sauna when the old one burned.

We say little on these walks. Shrouded in the woods we each occupy our own bodies, our own silent space. The boys will bicker now and then, Will whines, someone will find a stick and whack at the brush, and then there is the counting of the efts. But otherwise we are quiet. I am tired at this stage of the pregnancy.

At the dock, Mo takes out the kayak alone. He fits comfortably into its little bowl seat and paddles off, heading toward the two geese that quickly, but loudly fly away. On the dock I sit cross-legged, while Will hits the metal poles with a stick, making a clinking sound. The sky is blue, the day has been a perfect warm, sunny fall day. Only a few leaves have turned, a few yellow beach leaves scatter the ground.

My husband’s step-grandfather George, died a few days ago in Georgia where he’d lived for two years in a nursing home near his daughter. Before that he had lived with a caretaker friend in Vermont for a few years. But, he had lived on this land for over forty years with his wife, my husband’s Nanny June, who died in 2006. When he arrived in the late-seventies he had already retired from the state police and received a pension. He was in his late-forties. He and June purchased several hundred acres of land and built the log cabin we now live in. He spent the second half of his life farming and engaged in the rural community around him, selling off bits of the land over the years.

swings on the old apple tree

Part of what I think about when I’m walking to the pond or in these woods, has to do with how long we will stay and whether and how we will attempt to purchase at least the house and some of the land. A part of me grieves the loss of this land, which is not mine, even before it’s gone. Human nature projects grief in this way. But it reminds me too of the tender feelings I have about my children growing older, the fear of them leaving. The fear of endings.

I have always felt connected to landscapes of home, have always loved old houses and the histories of the people who lived in them. I want to imagine them walking and moving across floors, through fields, up hills, down roads. It’s a quaint and antiquated desire, I know, but it’s also the part of me that feels wholly immersed in place. A devoted caretaker of the earth, a wanderer of forests, a lover of all water.

On our way back, Mo fusses about the cat getting lost. At one point he starts to cry when we leave him behind. I walk back and wait while he gathers her from the woods. His tender hearted worry over his animals feels mostly like a burden, but I see the beauty in him, his care and love, his devotion to creatures. We walk together discussing the new chicken coop he wants to build and the ducks he plans to get next spring until we reach the yard and he races off to greet our neighbor, tend his flock, and race marbles down the old screen door.

Mo’s chickens