fortune

I am sitting cross-legged in the dark, reading by headlamp. The rest of the house is a still silence I’m trying hard not to break. Turning pages, sipping tea, watching the sky get light. I get dressed and slip out the door, pulling it closed carefully, making no sound but for one final click behind me. Outside the sky is blue-yellow, the air is sweet and crisp and the sun is not yet over the horizon. The overnight gift of fresh new powder covers everything, a perfect and teasing blue winter light. Lewie looks up at me as I put on my skis. Heading out into the fluff, my little four-legged pal takes a jolly lead, filling his nose with new sniffs. We cruise past farmhouses, eagerly gobbling up this delicious early morning gift. High open fields are hugged by acres of tapped sugar maples awaiting the spring sap run.

Later, there is chatting and planning and movement in the kitchen as oatmeal bubbles in the pot. The day stretches out ahead, full of possibility and new trails to explore. Smiles stretch our pink winter-kissed cheeks. Our zestful spirits can not be contained. Hearts pounding, words flowing back and forth, legs and arms moving us forward through life. It’s marvelous, this thing we are doing: frolicking about in the Northeast Kingdom on a weekend in February. Creating time and space to come together and romp around in this endless winter beauty. Our sweet good fortune twirls around the room, lays herself across the table between full bowls of hot food, dashes from woodsy trail to high meadow vista, and curls up next to the roaring wood stove. We are alive, together, whole, privileged. We dutifully and gratefully wring every bit of joy from the day and each other.

On another in-your-face day of good fortune I find myself in a warm room filled with magnificent people, hot food, and good cheer. Again, so mind-blowingly lucky. We are toasty and fed, healthy and free from oppression. Autonomous, self-directed, independent, educated. I’ve somehow been invited into this circle of cool, outdoorsy, intelligent, fun, edgy, wonderful women who gather from time to time to talk about written words and the ideas they ignite. We talk about books we have read and books we’d like to read next. Sharing ideas and laughs and wine while dogs roam from one set of petting hands to another. Outside it is bitterly cold and the crescent moon opens herself to a sky full of stars. A sky we gawk at as we say our goodbyes and head for home, each of us, to a place much like this one: warm, safe, where people who love us are waiting.

And now today, another stunning day dawns. A bluebird sky and sunlight streaming through windows. Another best day stretches out ahead. The light, the tops of trees, the birds. This place is painfully beautiful. I tromp through the woods with EB, answering her questions, asking some of my own, looking at winter shadows. She pauses now and again to photograph leaves, ice formations, the light, trying to capture the sometimes brilliant and sometimes very subtle beauty all around us. Lewie darts across the frozen crust of snow, in perpetual pursuit of invisible animal scent contrails. We are animate, breathing, conscious, and inexplicably given another day to live. It humbles me. I gush with dumb-struck gratitude. It can’t be overstated: we are impossibly fortunate.

dark, then light

The last sixty days of the calendar year inspire deep burrowing under blankets and a retreat from the world. The end of soccer season is both a colossal let down and a quiet relief. I have been emptying my heart and soul into the work of coaching and team building, squeezing out every last drop of thought, time, energy and myself for the girls and the task at hand. Then to end of season meetings and evaluations and banquet and tying up loose ends. When all this momentum and energy rolls to a halt, the pull to go within and find quiet spaces takes over. I follow these urges like an over-tired, weepy child being led by the parent’s hand. When the season ends I come home after the day’s work and have little left for much more than a warm mug, soft blankets, quiet. I give in to couch-lock, some nights making my way to my bed before 7pm, feeding my body with all the sleep it didn’t get between August and November. I eat cheese and bread and spicy soups. I get pale and soft. I am not beckoned by my art brain nor the outdoors. I am in. Deep. Inside the house, inside the blankets, inside myself.

It is a state of being that is fully foreign to my other 300 days of the year. And it’s kind of delicious.

Then, in January, something … happens.

I climb out of the chrysalis I’ve spun into a new year. Snow and freezing cold and lengthening days and the beginning of the next cycle. A whole new 365 days lie ahead, full of hope and opening and possibility. Goals to set, mountains to explore, trails to ski, birds to feed, journals to fill, eggs to collect, sunrises to notice. Tears to cry, people to hug, dogs to pet, cool clear water to drink, mountain powder to glide through, friends to love, words to write. It’s all stretched out ahead. Waiting. Beckoning. And as before when I allow myself to be led weeping, exhausted, emptied out into the cozy dark, I now let this first month of the year lead me up into the light, out of the house, into the woods, back into the world.

Oh, January, how I love you.

august

August is a low hanging hazy sun and crickets. Hot buttered corn on the cob, sliced cucumbers and afternoon warmed tomatoes. High mountain grasses are pushed around by the breeze.  It is climbing mountains and exploring rivers and diving deep into cold swimming holes. It is the beginning of the end of summer. And also the bittersweet transition into soccer season. It means the end of unstructured days of woods-running and sweaty adventures and hands in garden dirt, and the beginning of intensely structured two-a-days and planning practices. Preseason is a jumble of new and colliding energies, nerves, dew-dampened feet, sprinting legs, clamoring voices, the sound of leather cleats on soccer balls and labored breath. We are each of us putting ourselves out there, making ourselves vulnerable, taking risks, building trust. It’s about pushing through discomfort. We come in scared and steeled for the unknown. It’s a reminder that life is meant to be lived, really lived, and not played safe.

 

There is pain and disappointment. There is heartbreak. There is sober reckoning and regret for not having prepared better. There is bitter acceptance and then the potential for writing a new future starting now. And there is joy, relief, pride. A celebration. Our bodies, all different, can do amazing things. Our hearts, each unique, can connect. There is a chaos of energy and feelings and intent and hopes and insecurities and focus, awkwardly clunking and lurching around, bumping against a lack of chemistry. But we keep at it, every day. It is not easy. Sometimes the humid air is so oppressive and sticky our chests feel too heavy to hold our breath. Muscles are pushed hard, lungs heave, sweat droplets fall from chins.  It is tempting to let up, but we keep at it. And then a whisper of magic floats by. You might even miss it if you aren’t paying attention. It’s the first one, and it’s followed soon after by another. And pretty soon there’s something flowing that wasn’t there before, not all together, not like this. We are all building it individually and collectively, little by little, with a million decisions we make each day. Each time we decide to give a little more, to push a little harder, to look someone in the eye, to open, to try, to step up, to risk discomfort, we are adding to the greater whole. It is a moment that inspires awe. Watch for it. That moment when we are now becoming a thing that is more than the sum of our parts. We are exponentially greater than any one of us individually. We are becoming a tribe, a family, a team. It feels awe-inspiring and warm and wonderful and powerful. It is the beginning.

leaving

 

Leaving home is an arduous task. Not literally, but philosophically, emotionally, spiritually. It's not agoraphobia, it’s just that there is really no place I’d rather be than running through my familiar woods, working my garden dirt, pausing to stare at Breadloaf Mountain. I am a putter downer of deep roots, living in the same house for the last 23 years, becoming one with this place. But from time to time a shove out the door is in order. There is value in leaving.  

 

Leaving makes room for other things, opens up space, keeps us looking around. Elsewhere the birds and trees and people, roads and towns and skylines are all new. Suddenly I notice the wind sounds unfamiliar in these trees. The rain drips differently off these leaves. I carry the same body on the same scarred legs, yes, but now through a fresh landscape.

 

We are holed up on an island on Lake Ouareau in Quebec, a couple of hours north of Montreal in the Laurentian highlands. The early morning quiet of this place feels tenuous. I barely breathe for fear of disturbing it with a cough or footstep or coffee cup lifted gently from its hook. The rain slows everything. The start of the day is plodding, deliberate. The impetus to be out is quelled. Rain splats against the glass behind my head, and trees are bent by the westward wind. Little birds find refuge in the low-growing evergreens and flit from branch to branch piping their little songs and searching for whatever it is little birds search for on rainy mornings. Restless, I stand on the porch and feel the rainy air blow around me, cooling my itchy skin.

 

This place forces the typical day's pace to a crawl— as slow as we can bear to keep it. There is no connection with the wider world. No electricity, no phone, no internet, no interruptions. Life is simple, uncomplicated, task-oriented. Water is hauled in buckets from the lake and heated on a propane stove for washing.  Necessities include a sleeping bag, a book, and matches. What’s left of the day’s light is swallowed by hungry night settling in around us. We sit in candlelight. Our fingers work with melting wax and we talk about life and art and letter-writing. Family, childhood, memories, pains, and joys. Ideas and wishes and feelings.

 

Ringed by red pine and gentle mountains, the lake is dotted with cottages. On sunny July afternoons the water buzzes with motor boats and laughter. Kayakers hug the shorelines and explore swampy inlets and rocky islands. But on this cold rainy morning it is just me, standing barefoot in my raincoat with a coffee cup, watching a pair of loons. They hunt and dive and paddle on by, giving me a rare and precious front row seat to their striking black and white and red plumage.  

 

 

The 1920s stone fireplace holds a midday fire while the rain continues to hold us in, voluntary captives in this treasured place. Kate is practicing the curious and unfamiliar art of doing absolutely nothing, pillows propping her arm and injured wrist in a position of rest. Mia works needle and thread to patch a pair of linen pants worn thin by her mother. Damp dogs rest at opposite ends of the room. I sketch and read and scribble words on paper. This placid pace is both delicious and uncomfortable. I grow fidgety and wander from window to window. Dry kindling pops and crackles, shooting sparks uselessly into the metal screen, jarring the silence. The dogs lift their heads briefly, sigh loudly, then easily re-enter their canine dreams. We are held here, water on all sides. Fire and tea and wind and rain.

 

 

doubt

Far as I can tell there is not much useful, constructive, or productive that comes from self doubt. It just gets in the way of forward progress, popping up like a tree root to stumble over. I suppose you could argue that it can serve as a little voice cautioning you, slowing you down, saying are you sure? But mostly it feels more like a weed that grows twice as fast as everything around it. Doubt is a seed, and once it gets a chance to set roots it can grow like mad.

 

I am halfway up a mountain I did not mean to climb in the Calvin Coolidge Forest in Shrewsbury, VT. The first questionable decision I make is to ignore the fact that I have not yet seen a Catamount Trail marker even though I’ve been running about 20 minutes. Just keep going, this trail is really pretty, maybe it’ll link up soon. I continue climbing through hardwood and over boulders and into what is surely a favorite denning area for black bear and who knows what else. I take out my bell and let it hang from my waistband, making as much noise as I can. The view at the top is, indeed, stunning, and might even be worth derailing the rest of my day I don’t know this yet though.

 

As I run back down I consider trying one of the trails I passed on the way up to see if it connects with the Catamount Trail, but in the end I opt to head back to the trailhead where I was dropped off and try again from the start. Within a minute or two I see where I went wrong: it’s the allure of a clear, well-traveled trail marked with blue blazes that I had followed, as opposed to the less attractive choice of plowing through chest-high nettles to find the CT markers. Silly me. I have now traveled 4 miles up and down Shrewsbury Peak to arrive precisely at the spot where I began an hour ago, a decision which turns this 8 mile run into something more like 12.

 

The little seed of doubt is setting roots. I am questioning my earlier decision to frolic, care-free up a mountain instead of staying with the plan. Which leads to some wondering about setting off again now on my still healing stressed hamstring alone into the remote woods with no cell coverage, already behind schedule. I try calling Tom to get a reality check but no cell service. Okay, I think, if I could talk to him what would he say? He would ask me what have you got for water, what have you got for calories, and how’s your hamstring feeling?  Plenty of water. It’s predicted to be very hot and humid, but I tend to lean more toward pre- and post- run hydrating, so making the water last shouldn’t be a problem. My belly is full of oatmeal and I’m carrying about 600 or more calories in my Camelbak. The hamstring feels fine. My legs are, admittedly, a bit tired from the first 4 miles, but the rest of the run is supposed to be relatively gentle terrain, therefore … check, check, and check. Onward then.

 

Things start off fine. The trail is well marked and the map and description I am following all make sense now. I am lured deep into the woods and the adventure that lies ahead in spite of a few nagging pangs of doubt.

 

About 30 minutes in I notice that the going has become slower than I would like. Thick nettles, buck brush, and grasses blanket the trail making it basically impossible to see where to place my feet. And when my feet do land, they seem only to find running water, a rocky stream bed, or a jumbly mess of branches hiding beneath the growth. This becomes not so much a run as a careful one-foot-in-front-of-the-other while whacking away at the nettles kind of slog. The trail clears slightly for a ways, I’ll get 20 or 30 running steps in, and then I’m back to blindly feeling my way. It’s tempting to just plow through, but I know that attitude puts me at risk: one wrong step and I’m in trouble. Out in the woods, the difference between everything being okay and everything being really bad can be as simple as landing wrong. So I’m careful. And it’s taking forever.

 

I get to the Sargent Brook crossing and am dismayed to discover that in an hour I’ve only covered 1.7 miles. And the trail seems to be getting increasingly impassable. I’m frustrated and questioning myself and pouring sweat and the deerflies are finding me. So on I go. Forty minutes later I cross over the AT/LT and look at my map to see that this marks the “last bail out” opportunity until I get to mile 8.5. Doubt has firmly taken hold at this point. I am questioning every decision I make and then second and third guessing it. My inner cheerleader sounds like a flighty dumbass basically cheering me over the edge of a cliff. On my other shoulder is the voice that just shrugs and says I dunno, do the math. I look at my watch, I look at my odometer, I look at the map. Since my “restart” I’ve covered only 2.3 miles in just under 2 hours. I’ve got about 6 miles to go to get to my car at Brewer’s Corner. If the trail improves and I can actually run it, I'm golden assuming all goes well and I don’t lose the trail and the footing improves and I ration my water and my hamstring holds up, then no problem. Even if the trail doesn’t improve and I have to machete my way over the next 6+ miles, I will still get out before dark. Probably.

 

I continue on, clinging to the tiny thread of optimism that hasn’t yet been choked to death by the gargantua of growing self-doubt. There’s pride involved too. I do not bail out. I see it through, damnit, even if it sucks. About 50 yards in I stop in my tracks. Shit. What am I doing? I turn and look behind me, paralyzed by indecision. Okay, breathe, think it through. I picture best and worst case scenarios for each decision. I imagine myself plowing on, getting the job done and feeling like the mightiest bad-ass ever or at least like I’ve earned a cold beer.  Or, I plow on, something goes wrong, and I’m alone in the woods with no cell service. Or, I swallow my pride and bail out, hop on the AT/LT and get myself out to the nearest road and figure out my next move from there. Or I bail out and regret it and later decide I have let myself off the hook too easily a failure and a wimp. Shit shit shit. Doubt is clouding everything. I seem to have forgotten handling the 100+ miles of remote wilderness I ran last summer  — a thought which really should fill me with confidence or at least give me an encouraging metaphorical pat on the back. Nope. Not a wisp of courage to be found. Just me, standing on this trail alone, kind of freaking out a bit. The idea of continuing on scares me. The thought of bailing out makes my throat get tight and tears form in my eyes. Shit.  

 

I choose tears over fear, turn around, and jog back to the AT/LT and — with the decision now made enjoy a long cruising run downhill to civilization. It’s another hour of running down a few back roads before I get cell service and make my mercy call. My hamstring held up well, and I am alive. But that pride I swallowed sits like a dark piece of coal in my belly.

patience

I have been watching a hawk hunt from the dripping branch of a bare birch tree next to the pond. She and her mate have been hunting frogs for two days. We’ve witnessed a few strikes, some successful, some not. After a strike, the frogs take cover and all is silent for awhile.  Hawks await their next chance, knowing that soon the too-short amphibian memory will send them croaking along the surface in search of each other and spring sex. Through the binoculars I see the hawk tense with complete focus. She swoops down from her branch, skims the surface, and flies off with a talon full of frog. Patience rewarded.

 

I aspire to patience like hers as this non-spring continues to try my fortitude. Two weeks ago Tom and I were hiking through a freak April blizzard. Yesterday we sweated and struggled through a 7 mile run under the hot sun. Earlier that morning I went skiing. Five days ago I spent the day in shorts and bare feet. Today the wood stove churns as if it is January. We are lurching our way awkwardly through the painful transition from winter to spring in the mountains of Vermont. It is positively not a National Geographic style documentary of poetic push and pull between waning snows, clearing skies, slow ice melts, and finally brave crocuses and daffodils poking through brown wet leaves. It is way suckier than that. We got our first glimpse of spring in February when the sun came out and gave us temperatures in the 70s. Snow melted like mad and Tom and I were trail running on mostly bare ground. March gave us a month’s worth of spectacularly sunny days and more than 50 inches of snow in the mountains. It proved to be, once again, one of my favorite months of the year fabulous skiing, strengthening sun, lengthening days, and a delay to mud season.

 

April arrives like a horrid bitch and ruins everything. She is cruel, abusive, mind-bendingly confusing. She dangles in front of us a few tantalizingly warm and sunny days bookended by endless weeks of raw rain, sleet, mud, and sad gray skies. Spring is nowhere to be seen. To be clear, I am actually kind of loathe to say goodbye to winter. The outdoor fun has been plentiful. It’s the transitions  the getting from one to the next that wreak havoc on me. For weeks my body hasn’t been able to figure out what season we’re in. I want to eat bread and curl up under blankets and pack on some more winter weight. It feels like November, except without the sweet anticipation of powder-filled mountain days on my skis.

 

Today it rains, but also snows, and, in a new weather twist I can't recall seeing before, it slushes. The pond roils with amphibian sex frog arms and legs entangled in a crushing love embrace, making them easy prey. The hawks hunt.

wreckage

 

Tom and I plunge headlong into the woods on yet another punishing hike up an icy mountain. Hours and hours of sweating in the woods is the regulator in the up-down emotional beating that is our world right now. It’s the fifth day in a row of some self-imposed all day grind up some mountain or another. He starts off grumbling (humorously) under his breath about how some people when they’re on vacation sit around and put their feet up and relax and maybe read a book rather than getting dragged on one adventure after another by their "batshit crazy" wife. Hmmm. This does ring true. Then again, he does continue to say yes and then follow me out the door on these outings.  I can hear Tom humming along behind me:  Drank a cheeseburger, ate a six pack, took a Darvon to kill the pain… the song goes on to say something about being a rodeo cowboy and living through it all so you can talk about it later. Jerry Jeff Walker, I think. Tom’s suffering generally comes off as comic relief.

 

To be honest though, by the end of the week I am in ruins. Trashed. A pile of wreckage. February has been quite a stretch of joyful highs and dark lows: A 17 year old becomes the youngest snowboarder to win an Olympic gold. A student opens fire on his classmates. The U.S. Women’s hockey team brings home the gold medal for the first time in 20 years. Parents bury their children in Parkland, Florida. The Olympics inspire and unify us as a nation and global community. Politics and fear divide us with equal vigor. Soar and glide. Crash and bleed. Pick yourself up. Repeat.

 

I don’t spend a lot of time on social media. I take regular “fasts” from the news. It’s not quite a head in the sand approach to survival, but I’m not proud of how close it comes to that. I learned years ago that I am easily jolted off balance and kept awake staring at the ceiling if I don’t keep the worry of the world at arm’s length, in stasis. It’s one reason I spend so much time in the woods where things make sense. We humans are a confusing mix of strong and fragile. Equal parts unmoving moss covered stone foundations in the Vermont woods and ... also a teetering tower of Jenga. We do our best to stand tall in a superhero pose, bravely pinging away with raised forearm the incessant meteor showers of bad news. School shootings. Ping. AR-15s. Ping. The Taliban. Ping. The national budget. Ping. Economics, sex trafficking, opioid addiction, student debt, health care. Ping, ping, ping, ping, ping. The second amendment, parents burying their children, the NRA, climate change. Ping, ping, ping, ping. But then, and somehow simultaneously behind the armor, also a forlorn weeping trembling rocking-in-the-corner puddle of uselessness. Keeping kilter is confusing, hard work, and sometimes only barely manageable.

 

I work in a school. My desk is the first thing you see when you walk in the front door. If our little school becomes next on the list, I will almost without a doubt be the first body to fall. While this thought has given me reason to shop the internet for my own personal bullet-proof vest, imagining my bleeding body on the floor is, oddly, not the thought that keeps me up at night. I can’t stop thinking about the kids on both sides of this story. For one child, things are so far gone that he sees his very best option as walking into a school with a semi-automatic weapon and opening fire. And for the rest, we adults, the ones who are supposed to be in charge of things and keeping order and making sure everyone is okay... we are either bodies on the floor or survivors who failed all involved in one way or another.   


The ongoing passionate debate about gun control vs. second amendment rights is missing the point. There are a lot of things that need to be figured out. A lot of brokens that need to be fixed. A lot of hurdles and obstacles demanding courage and cooperation and patience and resilience and creative navigation. In the meantime, there’s another factor at play that needs a little more air time in the collective conversation: there has got to be more that each of us can do to connect with the kids in our lives. In our classrooms, in the halls, in the lunchroom, on the playground, on the bus. The big and little ways each day we say to a child I see you and you matter this is everything.

 

We already know it makes a difference. We already know that bringing attention to the social-emotional learning of a child is just as important as the academic content of what happens at school. Robert Brooks's research tells us that "strengthening a student’s self-worth is not an 'extra' curriculum; if anything, a student’s sense of belonging, security, and self-confidence in a classroom provides the scaffolding that supports the foundation for learning, motivation, self-discipline, responsibility, and the capacity to deal more effectively with mistakes." Kids need connections. We all do. Resilient adults commonly report that they had what it took to get through adversity when they were younger because they knew they had someone in their corner, someone looking out for them, someone believing in them. We need to make contact.  And, also maybe spend as much time sweating (and singing) in the woods as we can.

the farm

the farm

I am sitting on the south-facing porch at the farm. The sun is rising, streaking cantaloupe peach strawberry runners through the valley. Water flows out of the south end of the pond, just near enough that there is the constant purr of water, but far enough that I can crisply hear other sounds: a 1-2-3 call of the crow making its morning rounds; the squeak of the sweet little gray birds warning each other that crow is up and about now. I saw four of them in the ancient butternut tree yesterday and am reminded to look them up in the bird book when I get home. Now other birds begin to sing too. It’s chilly. I’m bundled in a down parka with a hood over my two hats, winter boots, wrapped up in the wool blanket Tom gave me for my birthday this year. There is snow on the ground. Not a lot, but enough to cover everything. In the field, the blunt stub ends of grass poke through the top crust, freckling the otherwise unbroken snow. The purple martin bird house is still in the same spot. Now a small gray bird lands just a few feet from me, chirping and clicking and studying me sideways.

 

I can smell the wood smoke wafting down from above and behind me. I made a fire in the wood stove last night and have been feeding it since. Another bird scolds and chirps to my left as the mango streaks in the sky get wider and taller and fade into blue. The snow takes on a pink tinge, a faded more subtle version of what’s in the sky. The old farm road runs right through my view, slicing the canvas masterpiece laid out in front of me. Split rail fence. Swung open gates no longer serve a purpose. Sheep fencing. Greg’s rock. A barred owl calls from behind my right shoulder. Three times, now a fourth, and a fifth. The other birds go suddenly mute.

 

It warmed up in the 40s yesterday, softening the snow. Last night’s chill has set it again, crusting it over, making for noisy walking in the woods. The trails are calling, and the fingers of my writing hand sting uncomfortably, but I am hesitant to break this silence by crunching across the snow. I wait a little longer, still and watching. Now a raven. This is my favorite part: the light first emerging from darkness. Witnessing the world’s wake-up. The whole day of promise stretched out ahead like a clean slate. I want to slow it down, stretch it out, make it last as long as I can. The birds in the nearby tree must have forgotten me as I shift my weight and rustling noises come from my jacket, they sound the alarm and lift into the air, now gone, and I am alone again.

 

Yesterday I arrived here early afternoon, wandering from room to room in the farmhouse, remembering. Kitchen cupboards left open, empty. Rooms mostly cleaned out except for a dresser here, a couple of wooden chairs there, a few side tables stacked and waiting for their next home. The farmhouse was built in 1788. My great grandfather acquired it when its previous owners went down on the Titanic. Our family's great luck out of another's worst misfortune. The living room looks smaller somehow. I haven’t been inside this house in 20 years. I can remember just how it was arranged. The breakfast table here by the window. The sofa placed at an angle with a dog bed on the floor behind it, just next to the entry into the kitchen. Grandy’s chair in that corner by the door that leads out to the screened porch where we gathered in summer to eat corn on the cob and heavily salted green beans with butter and birthday cakes in July and August. This here was Nene and Grandy’s bedroom. Standing flat-flooted, my fingertips can graze the ceiling. There is one tiny closet evidence of a time when everyone had less stuff. This bathroom. Hundreds of times reaching into this medicine cabinet over the sink and squeezing toothpaste onto my toothbrush, then rinsing my mouth with the gray plastic sparkly cup that was forever resting in this holder. This room here had two beds. A lifetime ago I remember climbing into bed one afternoon with a headache, the fan blowing strong in my face. I woke late. Everyone had turned in for the night, but Nene was still up. She had saved me a plate of food and kept me company while I picked at it in silence. I realize now that the long-since painted over wallpaper in that bedroom was garish  every inch covered with woodland creatures but I loved it as a kid. On the kitchen counter to the left of the stove sat four aluminum canisters with flour and sugar and such. The smallest one at the end always had ginger snaps.

 

Right in front of where I now sit is open ground, just lawn. But there used to be a pool here. A heated pool. An unbelievable thing as a kid. We would swim all day long, until our fingers and toes were raisined and our eyes were foggy. Nene would bring out cucumber and tomato sandwiches, forcing a break to eat and drink her iced tea with fresh mint. A rickety clothesline outside the kitchen window held our dripping suits.

 

There are two horse stalls in the tiny rectangular barn. Three, if you count the one that just always had stuff in it. The little tack room is gone now. What happened to that, I wonder? When did that get taken down? It smelled of leather. And there was always a box of sugar cubes. The horses would take a cube from my flattened palm, their lips soft and their breath warm. A sugar cube for each of them and one for me too.

 

My frozen fingers will hold out no longer, and I can resist the call of the woods not a minute more. Off to explore. I grew up walking these trails with Nene and her dogs. She taught me that wintergreen berries are a tasty treat and that moss and lichen always grow on the north side of a tree and that if you ever get lost in the woods just find a stream and follow it because around here eventually water will always lead you to a road or to people. We would throw sticks and trail debris into the woods, making one of her dogs bark. Moss covered rocks were my pillows. Nene never hurried me when I would stop walking to kneel down and put my head on them. 

 

My mother inherited the wildest plot of land when my grandparents died. Her dream was to move back here one day and build a house. In the meantime it roils with wildlife and oak trees and mountain laurel. Ancient farm roads lead to a wild meadow with apple trees and an overgrown century-old foundation from when Doctor Beebe lived here. Crumbling stone walls. Trickling streams and abandoned beaver ponds and towering pines and birch stands. Winter exploration is the best: animal tracks are everywhere and when you climb this humble section of these 440-million year old Taconics, farmland views to the east and Tom Ball mountain are only possible through the leaf-bare trees. It's a tasty collection of winding narrow trails, woods roads, open meadow, tight, steep, flat, up, down, and water. Big beautiful hawk. Craggy old trees. Mountain laurel everywhere. Not a soul on the trails for three hours.

 

I return to the farmhouse and load up my car with family treasures: wool blankets, floor lamps, wooden end tables, two tiny pitchers, a hay fork, a basket, a hooked chair pad. Before I leave this place I want just one more tree climb. I haul myself up into the old butternut tree and look north across the old horse and cow pasture. My brothers and cousins and I scrabbled our way into this tree dozens if not hundreds of times. It has taken a beating in some recent winter storms. Haggard, but still it stands. I climb down and am on my way. Just past Seekonk Cross Road I see a bald eagle soaring and circling over a pine stand in a big field. A pair of inky corvids scold and chase. I put my hazards on and pull over to watch. As I step out of the car and close the door, I realize I have spooked another bald eagle perched in the tree right next to me. It screeches and takes off. I watch the two eagles rise and circle for awhile until they they are out of sight. Goodbye, Alford.

january 17th

I wake up today to find a note from Tom taped to the bathroom mirror. While I slept, curled up in blankets in the dark he was pouring his heart out to me: “Please know that I love you. And more importantly, I appreciate all that you do for me in my life and how easy you make it. It would be undoable without you. Without you, who would I love?” He comes into the bathroom to find me weeping. Bed-rumpled, unshowered, morning mouth. Feeling things. All raw and split open. I thank him for the note and cry into his shoulder.  I don’t know if he specifically wrote it because he was remembering today, January 17th, or if it’s just portentous timing. Doesn’t really matter, I guess. Wrapping his arms around me he says quietly, I made my wife cry… which of course makes me laugh. We both know it’s good. I am wound tightly. Intense. Tough. I think about things long and hard and deeply, but I work hard to keep a tight grip on my feelings. Feelings have a mind of their own. They are unpredictable and messy little buggers, wreaking havoc on my preference to be in control. I don’t cry very often. I desperately need opportunities to do so and this is a good one. Happy sad tears.

 

I am standing at the window as the morning light begins to reveal Breadloaf Mountain while fear folds itself around me, cold fingers on the back of my neck. I am letting it. I am allowing a moment to really let myself feel how very hard I love the people in my life. Not just a thought, but a deep soul knowing. It’s big, this chest cracking white searing happy sad. And I know I am lucky to be feeling it because it’s evidence that I am a human on this beautiful planet breathing in and out and living life. And it means that I understand what it is to love — to really really let yourself love and be loved. Loving like that and then losing it has broken me a little bit. I am weirder now than I was before Zach died. It changed me. I carry with me some magical scars and odd-ball baggage.

 

I met Zach the summer I turned 22 — the same age my daughter is now. I had just graduated from college, flying free, and decidedly not looking to encumber myself with a serious relationship or complicate my life by falling in love. Alas, the universe has its own plans. Our lives collided and I was never the same. Diving in was not even a choice. I was 100% swept away. About 7 years later, on his 38th birthday, he was diagnosed with cancer. Hannah was 7 months old, sitting on his lap at the time. It marked the beginning of one hell of a battle. Exactly one year later, on his 39th birthday, the cancer won, Zach struggled for his last few breaths, and was gone. There is something ruinously and tragically beautiful about that exquisite perfect circle.

 

Today marks 21 years since his death. It feels like lifetimes have happened in the meantime. My sadness today comes from thinking about all he has missed. 21 of Hannah’s birthdays. Her first day of school. Losing her first tooth. The chicken pox. Halloween costumes. Crying over 5th grade Language Arts assignments. The awkward bangs-growing-out pre-pubescent years. The heady teen years. Practicing for her driver’s test, going to prom, graduating from high school, packing up the car on the morning she left for college. He has missed all this. 84 times the seasons have changed. The sun has risen and set 7665 times and he has missed all of them. More than 250 full moons. Fresh snowfalls. Spring peepers, barred owls, and coyote tracks. Millions of hikes in the woods. The breeze at the top of a mountain. Opening the mail. Thunderstorms. Fresh bread and good beer. Laughing, crying, waking up to another day.

 

For awhile I created a belief that he wasn’t missing any of it. He was experiencing it somehow in the mists nearby, getting to feel it all, his presence felt by us. I wanted this to be true. I needed it to be true so I could survive. It’s too devastatingly sad otherwise. Rock-climbing in Joshua Tree three months after he died, clinging to a sheer pitch, afraid, I suddenly saw his face in front of me, felt him nearby, giving me courage. He was right there with me on a freezing January night skiing in the woods when the ice covered branches tinkled against each other like an enormous wind chime. I could feel him smiling. On rare nights when I was able to sleep, he visited me in my dreams. It confused me. How are you here? You died, I saw it happen. And then I would ask him, What’s it like where you are?  A kayaker with a rollicking sense of humor, he answered: Wet.  These visitations happened for years, catching me by surprise, comforting me, confusing me. They continue even now, after so many years have passed. Even after Tom’s life collided with mine, and I surprised myself by falling in love again, opening myself to the potential for this kind of soul-wrecking anguish all over again.

 

The heartache of my own loss over the years morphed into more of a grieving for what Zach was missing out on. But these sorrows can't touch the impossible sadness of what Hannah has lost.  Never knowing her father for herself. Her memories are all manufactured by those of us who knew him. We try to help create some sort of knowing for her, a sketch, a charcoal rendering of a man. It falls hopelessly short. None of us can begin to fill the chasm of her unknowing. All I can give Hannah are the treasures I have saved. Notebooks filled with his handwriting. A quilt made out of his shirts. His favorite books. Photos, of course. Stories and memories I hope she can carry like gems in her pocket.

 

And traditions. The traditions we have created around January 17th have changed as Hannah has traveled through babyhood, childhood, and now enters adulthood.  We have sent messages in bottles over the falls in Middlebury and put notes in balloons to release in the big field next to Breadloaf. Lit candles. Kneaded bread. Shopped for notebooks to fill with our feelings.

 

Recently we have been meeting in Burlington for a chilly walk along the lake and a meal together. We write down some of our favorite quotes or sayings on little pieces of paper, roll them into tubes, tie them with string, and then stash them randomly about the city. We know that some will never be found. They will become covered with snow, later disintegrating into the March mud when spring begs. Others will fall between cracks and disappear forever or become bedding in a bird's nest. The ones that are found might be discarded or ignored. They might be laughed at. They may be revered, treasured, taped into a journal.  Or maybe they are rolled back up and re-stashed for the next guy. We’ll never know. I like to imagine these little notes on a cosmic course with some future potential recipient, currently moving through life unaware. They will look up or down or over just in time to notice the tiny treasure poking out of somewhere, they’ll pick it up and read it and in this way Zach’s life will again collide with another, with any luck changing it forever.

pride

It’s 6 below zero when Tom and I set out from Forest Road 55 in Granville to find the Clark Brook Trail. I’ve got 5 layers on top, two hats, two hoods. In my pack are extra socks, extra mittens, one more hat, two more top layers, two thermoses of hot tea, a liter of water, a small bag of trail mix, microspikes, and a headlamp. Tom’s pack is twice as big as mine. I think he’s got a campstove and a couple of sleeping bags in there, plus all the extra layers and snacks,  a firestarter, hand and toe warmers, extra batteries, and an emergency tarp. The plan is to snowshoe up the Clark Brook Trail to the Long Trail, then follow the LT south to the Middlebury Gap where we’ve left my car. It's a little more than 7 miles.* We figure once we get up to the LT it’ll be mostly flat and relatively easy going, even if we don’t have tracks to follow. But Clark Brook Trail is an unknown. We’ve never explored this area before.

 

I sign us in to the register and notice that the last sign in was on December 9th. Looks like we’ll be breaking trail. We’ve had over two feet of snow since then. This is going to be work. Even so, we’ve got between 5 and 6 hours of daylight. Should be plenty of time if all goes as planned.


 

A few minutes in we see a sign that indicates we are, indeed, on the Clark Brook Trail. Off to a good start. It also says “WATER CROSSING .5 MI” at which point I remember noticing at the trailhead a sign warning hikers that the bridge is out. Things are interesting already.

 

After the water crossing I take the lead. I’m cold and I need the extra work of breaking trail to warm up. My toes are starting to bark at me and I know it’s easier to stay warm than get warm, so I begin to set an aggressive pace. The air is cold and my face is cold, but my core is toasty and as soon as I take the lead my heart rate goes up. There is an enormous difference between setting your feet in already packed snow and breaking trail. It takes about ten minutes for the blood to return to my toes. Much better.

 

It’s really beautiful in these woods. There’s not much undergrowth. It’s primarily beech, maple, and birch with the occasional century-old white pine rising out of unbroken snow. The trail is pretty easy to follow thanks to intermittent blue blazes and a common sense fall line. We only lose it once, but Tom finds it again almost immediately.

 

As we climb the snow deepens and things get much more difficult. We cross into some new alpine zone and gradually the woods change. More evergreens, much closer together, pinching us in from both sides. We take turns breaking trail now, switching it up every ten minutes or so. It begins to feel like interval training: pushing hard, quads screaming, heart smashing, sweat forming, hold it here, keep pushing, go anaerobic, then drop behind and take a break. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

 

From the trailhead to the intersection where we pick up the Long Trail is only three miles. I check my watch. We are moving impossibly slow. This is taking much longer than we thought it would. Still, it’s early, we have plenty of time. I don’t give voice to this thought, but I'm thinking we just need to get ourselves to the Long Trail, heave ourselves up to the top of this dang ridge and then we can reassess. I don't like the idea of not finishing this whole hike. I hope if we push hard we can get ourselves back to the Middlebury Gap as planned. Even if it means hiking the last couple of miles in the dark. We have headlamps. We can do it.

 

The snow is now close to three feet deep and the elevation gain is suddenly intense. Our snowshoes are small and each step sinks a dozen or so inches. Holy hell this is hard. Every step is a Herculean effort and I am not suffering silently. Despite Tom’s offers to take a turn breaking trail for awhile, I am still in front. Grumbling and swearing, I chide myself loudly for my mule-like unwillingness to yield. This hike is kicking my ass. I can hear Tom right behind me, chuckling. I am convinced we are close to the top so I refuse to give it up. I am stubborn and competitive and I’ll be damned if I’m going to turn over the lead to Tom only to have him reach the intersection first.

 

This thought, naturally, cues the forces of the universe that lie in wait for prideful humans to forget their place in nature.

 

All at once, we are decidedly in serious moose country. Huge tracks everywhere. Moose have not only been through here, they hang out here. Pooping, peeing, chomping off the ends of pine boughs, lounging. The woods are incredibly dense. Tom and I agree that if we somehow come upon a moose we are absolutely without a doubt 100% fucked. No one is moving anywhere fast through this hip deep snow. Not that we could outrun a moose anyway. But we sure as shit couldn’t move out of its way if it decided to come at us. We start making a lot of noise, just in case Mr. Moose hasn’t heard us clomping up the hill from a mile away already.

 

It’s at about this point that Tom’s left calf goes twang.

 

Well, shit.

 

We’ve been hiking nearly three hours and have covered less than three miles. The writing has been on the wall for awhile. I have already silently conceded that we are unlikely to complete this hike as planned. A new replacement plan is needed: get to the Long Trail, drink some hot tea, take in the view, and then head back. In light of this new development, abandoning both the original plan and now the new plan takes no thought at all. This is an easy decision. But it also fills my mouth with bitter disappointment.

 

The first few minutes of the hike down are a little unsettling. Now that we’re no longer climbing I’ve gone almost instantly from toasty warm and breathing hard to damn cold. And Tom can’t exactly limp at a keep-yourself-warm pace. I find myself jogging down the trail, then turning around and jogging back to him. How you doing? He's moving slow but looks cheery enough. Okay, I’ll be right back. I jog down the trail awhile, turn around, jog back. Still okay? Warm enough? He assures me he's doing fine. Off I go. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

 

Back at the truck we struggle to make our fingers work. Snowshoe bindings won't budge. Can't unclip backpack straps. Zippers won't unzip. Fingers fumbling for keys. Can't unlock door. Must start engine. So cold, so cold, so cold. Trying to move faster makes things worse. Drop keys in snow. Can't do it with mittens on but fingers won't work to take mittens off. So cold, so cold, so cold. Whoa, I'm thinking, are we really going to freeze to death outside this truck right now?  It takes four hands and 20 numb fingers working together to unlock the truck, fit the keys in the ignition and get the truck started. We climb in and sit on our hands and wait for the feeling to come back. The outdoor temperature reads -1. It's 3:30.

I know we are lucky to be back safe. But if I'm being completely honest, I'm frustrated about having to cut the journey short. I get a little quiet and kind of stew in our foiled attempt for a minute. I need to remember, though, that it was at the precise moment I was digging in my heels and holding fast to the stupid prideful course, nature reminded me that she is in charge, not me. Hmmm. Okay. I feel like I've been on the receiving end of this message before. Perhaps now the lesson is learned.

I run this "lesson learned" idea by Tom. He doesn't even pause. Yeah, but, you didn't. Learn the lesson, he means. He knows me so well.

*Footnote: Turns out the map figuring was a little off. We discover later that if we had completed the entire hike as planned it would have been more like 11+ miles. Woops. That overnight emergency equipment Tom insists on carrying everywhere might have come in handy after all.