Musings

On New Life, Time, & How We Live Our Lives

There are two Canada geese nesting on the pond, but only one mate. My son and I go out in the kayak in the middle of May. The frogs are mating. Guttural and loud, the sound echoes from the shore of the pond. We watch them in the shallow water laying on each other. There must be hundreds of them who have traveled to the water to mate. The male holds the female in a hug called amplexus and she releases eggs that the male fertilizes. Some frogs laze alone at the water’s surface as though relaxing before looking for another mate. The males appear smaller than the females.

Mo in the canoe

            We paddle along the shore. Mo sits in the little indent behind my seat, a perfect perch for an eight-year-old. He notes the animals he sees: fish, turtle, Canada goose, duck, sandpiper, blue heron. Five baby turtles sunning on a log in the pond, slip under the water as we approach. They dive into the murk to hide. We are hot enough to wear t-shirts and worry about burning.

            As we approach the first nest, the two mallards—a male and female pair—swim off. They’re often visiting the goose but depart abruptly when they see we’re coming. She lays out flat with her long black neck along the ground, still and lifeless, waiting for us to move on. We paddle past to the deer head; its hide looks like clean white rubber from its time under the water. It’s face, barely recognizable—blackish mouth, eaten back and teeth protruding. My husband saw it there a few weeks ago on his maiden voyage in the new kayak. It appeared as a kind of horror-movie omen at first. But now, Mo and I like to visit it. We also visit the racoon carcass near the old cabin. We are waiting for it to decompose so that we can take the skull home, like treasure.

            In the time before, he went to school every day and I worked. At night, we ate dinner together, I read him and his brother stories, they went to sleep. On the weekends, I mostly graded papers or wrote or worked on other employment, but, we often walked to the pond or went to a movie, for sushi, to visit friends. Time now has changed. Days pass like afternoons. Yesterday, my husband sat on the porch reading all day. He wasn’t in a good mood. I went for a run and he and the boys came to pick me up at our friends’ goat farm. We chatted outside with our friends while the boys went with their two girls down to the pond. I fed the newest baby goat in their herd of nearly 300 with a bottle and discussed the library plant sale with Holly—no browsing this year, call ahead to order and then pick-up.

Will came back alone from the pond and Holly gave him a cup of fresh, warm goat milk, which he gulped down. I’m very thirsty, he hinted for more. I cherish these brief visits with friends even as I fear what may come as we begin to socialize again.

Back home, we eat dinner, we bring in the chicks, we tuck in the boys, we get into bed. The day passes, and little is accomplished in the way we had once imagined tasks should be completed, days filled with plans and lists. But we no longer rush. We sleep for as long as we can, we rise at seven or eight. We sip coffee in bed for an hour while scrolling on our devices or out in the garden listening to the birds.

The children play imaginary games with animals. Sometimes dragons. The games emulate what they know about the animals—territory, family units, conflict and friendship. Sometimes there is screaming and ranting and whining and so on. The regular sort of expected behavior during a time of difficulty or abnormality. But mostly we don’t mind because time stretches out and releases itself from limits.

Time moves back towards the cyclical kind of time that John Berger writes belongs to another era, one long ago. He writes of two kinds of experiences of time passing. “Our experience of its passing involves not a single but two dynamic processes which are opposed to each other: as accumulation and dissipation.” He says that time seems to move at two different rates. The experiences of deeper meaning, he insists, accumulate and therefore stop the dissipation of time. I interpret this as meaning we remember them more. The springtime hours are much more accumulative because plants grow rapidly, offering a physical sense of passing time, a way of holding it in our mind’s eye.

It is really only our bodies and the things we make that hold up time. Everything else lives in cycles that include and absorb death. It is the physical changing of our bodies alone that creates this concept as far as I can tell. Perhaps too, the desire to thwart death with posterity.

*

All week, I have felt quiet. I’ve reached a shore of silence. Please, sometimes I think, don’t speak to me. Then there are times I look over at my husband in bed, wrapped in his elephant blanket, and wonder who he is. Speak to me, I say, poking him. He grunts and rolls away.

On and on the days go, flowing out towards summer, a time when I usually pack up and head to Minnesota with the kids. Where I sit on the deck and drink coffee with my mom or lounge beside the lake with my siblings and their kids or spouses. Everything about this slower, sunny season in Minnesota or Vermont, feels like a luxury, and affirms my life choices, which are normally a source of anxiety for me.

I wonder what this different life would be like. One in which we are farmers or makers or stay-at-home teachers of children; one in which we value our relationships with our family and the landscapes that surround us so deeply that we refuse to work excessively in offices spaces or the like, and it’s somehow possible to live this other way. I wonder if Berger’s concept of time applies here. But, though I have read and re-read his passages on time in his book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, I can’t quite distill them. I only sense an affinity to his words, a knowing that I have held like water through my hands. A flickering that once passed can’t be made into words. There is a different way of knowing death, a way to make it a part of life. To draw up close to it and hold it gently near to you and it is in this way of knowing we return to another way of life lived close to the land, close to each other, in quietude. Our constant longing for more, fed by living. All our loss absorbed in the soil of the body, renewed.

My American Icon

John Prine

Last night as I was laying in bed scrolling I got the terrible news that John Prine had passed away from Covid19. He had been in intensive care for at least a week and his wife Fiona had posted that he was in critical condition on March 29th. He died on April 7th on the eve of the year’s second supermoon–the Pink Supermoon–which was the closet of all to the earth.

I can’t help believing that he walked those moonbeams out into the galaxy or some such thing. His words were that of myth and legend, the gentle and often hilarious or heartbreaking truth of our human existence. He seemed to understand both the loneliness of our lives and the intimacy that comes almost exclusively from ordinary life. He wrote often of porches, screen doors, lost love, kitchens, and country life and the story was mostly about how little we need in order to be happy but how hard it is to see this truth.

His songs make me love more, want less, and believe in the human spirit as a force of goodness known through truth.

Prine has always been a legend in my family. Three generations of my mother’s family loved him. My grandparents, my mom and aunt, and then us cousins. I’m one of the only family members who didn’t see him play live. My cousins got to meet him once while wearing homemade t-shirts that read in puff paint: “You may see me tonight with an illegal smile” and “Hello In There.”

One of the last memories I have of our grandma is her dancing with my sister Hannah around the cabin at Burnt Shanty Lake to Prine’s song “Big Old Goofy World”. Later, in the dark of the deck, she wiped her eyes and told my aunt and mom how much my grandfather (who had died nearly twenty years prior) would have loved to be there.

According to my mom, her father loved everything about his life as a high school civics teacher and was filled with an immense gratitude for the small pleasures. These simple pleasures are what Prine most celebrates. But he was also an iconic writer of protest songs like “Jesus the Missing Years,” ” Sam Stone,” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”

John Prine

It’s hard to say what Prine meant to America. He wasn’t exactly a household name but he was known and deeply loved and a revered song-writer. He saw through the greed of his industry and remained loyal to his own heart, voice, and vision. He offered a kind of homespun wisdom that spoke to us. At least for me, he reminded me of what was beautiful and sad and interesting and hilarious about this life. And for that I am grateful.

When I think of what our country is going through right now–the absolute sham of our presidential leadership, the insanity of how this pandemic is being handled on the national level, the greed and cruelty of the president, the division among us–it is Prine who stands as an icon of everything we could be but aren’t. It is he who would sing about the people that keep on keeping on despite the insanity–the people everywhere that are making the supplies we need, working in hospitals, grocery stores, gas stations, warehouses, and delivering our goods. The people we call heros because they are giving their lives for us. So we can stay home and stay safe. And of course, they are not being properly compensated or protected.

More than anything, I wish he could write a song about dying in the middle of a pandemic and send it to us. I know it would be good, his best, heartbreaking & true.

-e

lyrics I like:

I’d like to build me a castle of memories just to have somewhere to go.

*

Make me an angel that flies from Montgom’ry
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

*

Blow up your TV throw away your paper
Go to the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try an find Jesus on your own  

*

Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day.
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”

Shelter in Place

sap boiling

My husband and I take turns sleeping in everyday. He is careful not to stay up too late on nights before his wakeup day. He’s like that.

Our littlest climbs into bed beside me around 6am. He takes most of the pillow.

By 6:45, our oldest wakes and wants a bath or a podcast. Today I roll under the covers like a bear and sleep on while my husband tends the children.

Sometimes mid-day I wonder if I’ve already drunk my coffee. I want more of everything.

Outside I feel more alive.

in the woods

My children find certain things exciting: a paper airplane they fly into a bonfire, a documentary about the wolf pack in Yellowstone, ice cream with maple syrup they boiled in a pot on the bonfire.

We are bracing for the death of at the least 100,000 of us. Probably more.

So far, most people are in the denial stage of grief.

No one panics anymore because it’s too exhausting. We’ve acclimated.

During online AA meetings people complain about work or grocery shopping.

Showing our homes to each other feels like a shameful exposure.

I watch a video of the author Glennon Doyle saying, “This is grief.” I find her intimacy difficult. I find intimacy difficult right now or maybe always. Maybe I just find her difficult.

But it is true. This is grief.

I’ve eaten chocolate covered coconut bars every day, sometimes two a day. They were a gift from a friend. But I just ate the last one. Now I’ll eat the chocolate chips. I think my husband has a bag of oreos hidden somewhere.

The president is mentally ill. I shouldn’t write this. It’s offensive to those of us with mental illness. Daily we get a report from him on how well he is doing. What a great job. It’s embarrassing. I don’t watch.

Here is a secret: I rarely cry because I’m on an extremely high dose of antidepressant medication. I don’t really like my therapist. I have felt stuck in my life.

Today I’m listless.

Only five students show up to the online Zoom checkin for class. Seven in the second class. I don’t blame them. I did say it was optional. But I miss their faces. I miss their thoughts and jokes and complaining. I miss their stories.

We make bonfires here. Today we’re burning brush. The smoke billows. Last week we boiled sap for the first time. I love the smell of campfire. I love fire.

Burn it down, is a phrase we once used: patriarchy, capitalism, rape culture, racism, homophobia … fear, I suppose we were talking about the way fear gets manipulated or used against others in greed. Or the way greed destroys everything that is good here, including people. The way some think they can take what they want but their wanting consumes us all.

We may know this. But we can never agree on how to change it. So, now we have a dictator and a pandemic.

I’m not saying it’s someone’s fault. But it is.

Every day the children spread their toys across our home. In every corner of the house a pile of toys, pillows, peed pants freshly stepped from, dirty socks, pajamas, towels, cracker wrappers, empty cups… it’s unreal the spread.

Mostly I hide in my room or go for runs. Avoiding work.

There are two sweaters splayed on the floor beside the closet, one on top of the other–arms outstretched but also piled. They seem to be making love. The rusty brown cardigan kisses the nape of the deep rose cowl neck, my current favorite.

Last night I couldn’t sleep, worrying that the children would die, thinking of their small bodies alone in hospital beds. How I wouldn’t be allowed in to see them. Every other death pales in comparison.

Yesterday, at my desk, I saw my little boy gallop by the window. The older one followed, giving chase: a wolf hunting an elk. I don’t see the wolf take down the elk, wrestle it into the grass, pretend to devour… but I picture it and know this is the best part of the game.

I’ve always wondered what it was like to live through a pandemic. It’s not as scary as I imagined. As movies and TV imagined. Not yet.

I stare out the bedroom window at the field, the dead tree standing, the forest of pines, and gray sky. Soon spring will arrive and green will rise up like a god.

How is anyone getting anything done? Only what’s necessary.

How many will starve, lose housing, die by the hand of abusers, overdose, work themselves to death? How many? What do these numbers mean? I keep a running tally in the back of my journal.

In the middle of the day I fall asleep. It is the kind of half conscious sleep that feels delicious.

Greif exhausts us. I will not feel ashamed for sleeping.

sleeping child

I wait for night. The long dark beauty of sleep. The Netflix, Hulu wash.

I listen to birdsong. Follow the mourning dove through the field. Chase a flock of starlings that swarm the trees. We find the stream. My son falls into it. We tromp home to take a bath.

War games are their favorite.

An old cabin in the woods beside the stream leans earthbound. Inside, a floor covered in droppings, walls torn and insulation shredded. A photograph of an old man holding a little girl lays on the floor. I pick it up but do not take it.

My husband disassembles a shed in the woods near the cabin. The work makes him sweat, his muscles sore, his heartsong red like a fierce hawk, a warrier.

We are all warriors now.

I run up the hills in the woods. Up the mountain. I run out to Black Pond and Half Moon State Park. For days I run and then, suddenly, I quit. I don’t want to anymore.

It rains. Then the sun. It’s cold then not. We can’t remember what day it is. We can’t remember what we had hoped for or planned or what we had worried about before now.

I wish I had a thing of beauty to offer you. I’d lie it down at your feet and weep.

The geese collect in the sky, long bodied and fluid on their return migration. The water rises in the creek. The frogs awaken. We are close to the earth now. We are waiting. She’s calling us back. Calling us forth–resurrect yourselves, transform or I will shed you, she whispers. Her love like that of a womb where we wait quietly in the darkness, unknowing.

Bless you all.

Interview with Fiction Points: The blog of the alcohol and drug history society

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

Holiness and death. Everyone has something sacred and something to which they devote themselves, whether it be spiritual or just an iPhone, or self-improvement which I think is just a part of capitalism. But mainly I write about death, indirectly. That we die and our lives are small and insignificant and trivial but we feel them to be immensely important and singular, and so they are and we are. I can’t get over this conundrum and so I write about it because in writing all the weird feelings and thoughts can become significant or they gain voices and lives of their own and I take comfort in this. I take comfort in beauty… continue reading

Happy February…

xo

-e

Good-bye January, my not so dear friend: My go to strategies for surviving Winter…

I want to believe in winter’s magic, I really do, but it isn’t always magical for me. Yes, the frosted branches of morning trees present a certain mysticism that can get quickly squashed by the idea that pops with a robotic ding into my head: I should take a picture of that. The sliver of moon in the trees I saw this morning, made me think, I am the only one seeing this. The cold sniff of smoke as I move from the car to the house, the ache of just a glimpse of winter stars, the warmth of the fire. Yes, there is magic in those moments, those brief glimpses into eternity.

Why can’t I move through this season like anyone else? Why this grief that catches like broken ice in the gully of a river or what, the gullet of some creature… even better. What weird and melodramatic metaphor can I offer up from the self-effacing dungeon of despair. OK, it’s not that bad! Or is it?

My kids are out the window playing in the snow as the last of the light dusts out. I can hear the soft thrum of my husband’s radio upstairs where he works trimming hemp plants he harvested in October. Black beans and onions and garlic in a pot on the kitchen stove, something made, something done. I used to write poetry from January to May every winter. Here, spring doesn’t come until May. But it’s been years since that time.

I tell my husband I want to move. I tell him that the children are corrupted by X, Y, Z. I say I can’t take it anymore. It’s a broken record, the depression. He says, you will still feel these things even if you move, get a new job, fix X, Y, or Z. I grow angrier when he tells me these true things. I feel trapped. I know he is right. I just have to ride this out. But how?

It happens like this: first the feeling of malaise and discontent, then the story…. but what if, I don’t start in on the story, you know the one? The story of all the things that aren’t the way you’d like them to be? What if I refrained?

Running, I see a fat red tailed hawk swoop–why does it look so plump? Winter feathers? I hear the mechanical sounds of the neighbor’s farm, the scent of manure and grain–animals. I pass the stonebarn where last year’s lambs munch hay, their wool a dull white.

Up and down, back and forth, I move through this season with a mix of trepidation and unhinged determination. Here’s what I can offer you based on my experience (forty years!) coping with long winters…

My go-to strategies for surviving winter because, let’s face it, we still have several months to go!

Get outside. Everyday. Take a walk, take a jog, ski, snowshoe, window shop. We need 20 minutes of sunlight a day in order to get enough vit D and feel like our normal selves. Fresh air leads to fresh ideas and increases my mood 100%.

Glacier National Park

Drink tea. Find your favorite warming tea blends and stock up. Make a ritual of tea and relaxation. Rituals help us relax because our bodies create associations with activities that lead us to anticipate what comes next. Our bodies can learn that tea drinking leads to relaxation.

Heat up. Take a hot bath, sweat in the sauna, or sign up for hot yoga. Do you feel like your whole body is clenching? Heat loosens us up, releases tension, and helps us reconnect with our bodies. I stock up on bath salts and suds and get in there at the end of every day with my tea. I also use the sauna at my gym after workouts (it’s great motivation!). When in Minnesota, I try to get to my sister’s hot yoga shack as much as possible–who knew a shack could be such a luxury!

Tea, Loverna Journey

Plan cozy celebrations with your besties. Potlucks are the mainstay of Vermont winters. They used to include copious amounts of red wine, but now we seem to drink a lot of seltzer and apple cider. Celebrating with my best friends at low key, relaxed gatherings where there’s no pressure to create a fancy meal or host, helps me to feel connected and feeling connected to those we love is essential to our well-being.

Get Away! A long weekend in a different city, a couple of days in a cabin, skiing in the mountains, or, if you can, get to a hot beach for winter break. I love heading to NYC or Montreal to check out museums, see new art, walk around and find fun places to eat. If I could, I’d be headed south for at least a week of sunshine. Wherever you go, take it easy and keep your expectations low. Plan to wander with maybe only a dinner reservation in place (yikes! I can’t tell you how many friends find themselves hangry in Montreal with their loves and end up ruining their getaways!). You’ll be even happier to get back home to the comfort of your routines after a break!

This Month, I wrote a short essay for Cynthia Newberry Martin’s How We Spend Our Days blog. Give it a read here: A Day In January And follow her newsletter for more amazing writers writing about how they spend their days.

Join me Tuesday, February 11th at 6:30PM at the Brandon Library for a reading & conversation of Made Holy and The Essay Exhibits. I’ll be discussing creativity and spirituality as a form of healing from substance abuse disorder.

I’m reading this amazing book: This Is My Body by Cameron Dezen Hammon “In this memoir of faith and faltering, musician Cameron Dezen Hammon, a Jew-ish New Yorker, finds herself searching for love, meaning―a sign. She’s led to Coney Island, where during a lightning storm, she is baptized in the murky waters of the Atlantic by a group of ragtag converts. After years of trying to make a name for herself as an artist, she follows her boyfriend and new God to Houston, Texas, the heart of American evangelical subculture. Her job at a suburban megachurch there has her performing on stage before crowds, awash in lights and smoke, yet grappling with outdated gender expectations―look pretty but not too pretty, young but not too young―and ultimately her identity as both a believer and feminist.”

xo

emily

Dear December,

It’s funny how the end of the year suddenly seems daunting because it’s supposed to mark something big. Last night was the final full moon of the decade. This year marked the end of a decade for me as well. So perhaps it is a big ending for me.

Look! I made the cover of Arts & Leisure in our local paper the Addison Independent!

The end of my thirties, which began with marriage in the Spring of 2010 and saw my graduation from an MFA in creative writing program, the birth of my two sons, the writing of my first book, first teaching job, first marathon, and probably a lot of other first I can’t think of.

Last night we gathered in the community room at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury where I read from Made Holy, lead the group in a walking meditation around the Essay Exhibits artwork and writing currently on display at the library, and spoke with artists Sarah Ashe and Fran Bull.

Both are immensely talented artists and creative people. It was with a tender admiration that I asked them about their work, why they said yes to The Essay Exhibits and how art can change the world. Can it? I think their work can and does. I think creation, bringing into existence what is previously only a ghost in one’s mind–image, light, color, song, idea–is the radical center of our holiness.

These are holy days, high holidays, and the end of the darkness.

I feel most taken up by the light, most called to a place of humble acceptance, a place of love.

I also dig the story of Jesus’ birth in the manger, the message of salvation that he brings to the world, and the lighting of the Hanukkah candles, the menorah, to symbolize the miracle in the temple and the faith of a people in their God. I have always love Christmas trees–lights!

But the force of materialism is at its most powerful this time of year. While I love our little shops in Middlebury, adore The Vermont Book Shop, and strolling across the bridge with an oat milk latte in hand, consumerism isn’t where it’s at for me.

But consumerism reminds me that it is through our spiritual selves that we are fed, made whole, filled with light, set free, or whatever your way of saying it is.

There is a tender inward turning that occurs in the north where light and darkness do not maintain equilibrium. We are called to slow down and snuggle into bed early. Our bodies grow drowsy and for a while we resist the cold by staying inside, lighting fires and candles or Christmas tree lights to keep us.

In the new year as the light begins to grow again, I become more engaged in outside activities again. But it’s this small moment of darkness in which we most need to pause.

Last night at the reading, a small group of people (20 or so) gathered and I sat in a chair and read two essays with intense commitment and deep emotion, which is the only way I know how to read and which takes a lot of energy for me. My husband wept, as he usually does, and I kept looking at him, my true north–focus and anchor.

I was surprised each time I looked up to see people still looking at me, still engaged in my words, and not their cell phones. We were connected in this moment of offering. Here, I give you this gift; here, I receive it. There is nothing more powerful to us than this connection, unfettered by money.

***

I have started and abandoned this December letter half a dozen times in these past weeks, not certain of what to say.

Stop buying shit. Settle down. Stay cozy. Snuggle up. Pay attention.

My dear ones

These are merely reminders to myself. But perhaps you need them too. Just remember why we make celebrations, why we gather, why we give offerings to each other–small trinkets of our affections. They are meant to signify our love and nothing more because what can really mean more than that?

Go out into this cold night of long darkness and seek the stars. I often stand for half a minute looking up into the clear sky on my walk from car to home. It’s just a tiny glimpse of the stars, but I think how I want to get bundled up and come out here and lay down on the earth and let the stars come alive. Let this be the gift I give myself. Let me remember how short it is, how quickly it goes, how beautiful the world.

May your new year be filled with joy!

Emily