Musings in a March Snowstorm

Capybara

Cheesecake, the Capybara, warms the feet of her hen friend at Rocky Ridge Refuge. (A whole “hog” approach to foot warming).

Vermont near-spring is fickle.  It’s a season that drags its feet. One day it teases you with shirtsleeve weather. The next, it dumps two feet of snow. The past couple weeks have been classic. A recent blast of warm weather had so melted the snowpack, I was wondering if we might actually see our daffodils before May this year. But then came another deep freeze. Now a snowstorm. Those optimistic green flower tops soon will be reblanketed under more than a foot of snow. Today we, the entire state of Vermont actually, are home from school as snow falls on snow falls on snow: the biggest snowfall in a couple years in progress.

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Noon, March 14, early in the storm.

In this old house, we’re ready. The larder is full. The horses blanketed. The wood is piled in the box by the stove and the snow blower waits at ready. If the wind picks up and knocks out the power, the new generator will kick on. No more being without running water. My skis are in the back of my all wheel drive car, ready for an after school jaunt down the trails on my way home from work on Thursday. We may not be out of school this year until the end of June…but for today, Herb and I, and the slumbering corgies cocoon in the still and hush of snow, on snow, on snow…and wait for spring.

Capybara Photo credit: http://www.rockyridgerefuge.com/

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Front Porch Politics

Hours home from the Women’s March in D.C., I was still absorbing the experience. Half a million or more of us were packed for hours in a claustrophobic crush of humanity, and experienced nothing but good will.

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Women’s March, D.C.

Back on the bus for the last cramped nine hour leg of our trip home, Ziggy, our Rally Bus driver asked, “What’s wrong with you guys? You had no complaints! People always complain on these trips.”  His smile was large as we presented him with our “pass-the-hat” tip and a bag of homemade cookies in appreciation for his unflagging patience, wit, and humor our entire trip.

At home, I pored over news about the marches. No violence. Not in DC, not in Montpelier, in Vermont, where I now live. Not in my former hometown, Portland, Oregon, where many initially peaceful protests in recent months have  turned violent. Millions of diverse people around the world had shared their viewpoints with respect and kindness.

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Montpelier, VT        Photo credit: Laura Grace Brown

And then I came to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s post. Like so many people lately, particularly those with large public followings: Author Jane Yolen, Singer Carole King, Educator Kylene Beers, Mary Chapin Carpenter had experienced hateful postings on her facebook wall and had to call people out.

“Those of you who have checked in here in the last few days may notice that certain posts and related follow up threads have been removed. These posts contained obscenities, inflammatory rhetoric, intentional falsehoods, ugly statements, provocative images and phrases that any reasonable person would find objectionable.”

These are difficult times. A friend and I were recently commiserating the weight and sadness of having family members on opposite sides of a political divide that seems a Grand Canyon of the heart.

I have been shocked by the hatefulness of posting on social media. It’s been a building issue for some time, but surrounding the recent election, it seems so much worse. I understand that fearful people do not always present their best selves. But these nasty, claws-out personalized attacks toward/between strangers are bewildering, frightening, make one feel out of balance in the world we live in.

Mary Chapin Carpenter, whose witty and often lyrical wordsmithing , has been a constant backdrop for my life continued:

porch2012_9“I consider my social media platforms to be a 21st Century version of a front porch. In that spirit, those who traffic in ugly, hateful, derogatory and diminishing words are not welcome here.

In peace, love and music ~ mcc”

I embrace Mary’s front porch analogy. Porches are places we share as invited guests. They are intimate spaces where we can look each other in the eye. We tend to bring our better selves to face to face meetings, when our words are shared to the rhythm of rockers,

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D.C. Police 1/21/17

sweetened by sweating glasses of iced tea, and tempered by the combined wisdom of our company.

It was much like that in the recent marches. We were all guests sharing the “front porch” of the cities in which we marched. We were intergenerational, interdemonimational, multicultural, and diversely gendered. We shared our hopes, fears, and the rawest concerns of our hearts on proffered signs, often in such intimacy, we could hear each other’s  breathing. And there was nothing but peace.

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Airhorn Messages From the Universe

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“If the wind will not serve, take to the oars.”  – Latin Proverb

This is the precept for today, January 10, from 365 Days of Wonder. Mr. Browne’s Precepts: A Quote For Every Day of the Year About Courage, Friendship, Love and Kindness, by R. J. Pallacio.

Sometimes I am simply blown away at how the universe has a way, despite our best efforts be oblivious, to steer us in the direction we need to go. Gently at first, dropping hints like cherry blossom petals…but never afraid to lean on the horn like a truck driver when petals aren’t up to the task. This precept is hitting me like the horn.

Just before the holiday break, inbetween my work with students, in groups and classrooms, I snatched a few minutes to peek into our school book fair. I perused the picture books, then looked for compelling titles for my small group of reluctant middle grade readers. From a side table, a flash of blue caught my eye. The book cover bore the singular picture of Auggie, the main character from R.J. Palacio’s 2016 book Wonder. (Note to you dear reader: If you have not yet read Wonder,  find a copy and read it now. It will change your life.)

Once you have read Wonder, you will recall Auggie (the main character) has a teacher named Mr. Browne who has the habit of posting precepts in his classroom. This book, offers up one of “Mr. Browne’s” precepts for each day of the year.

As people everywhere are peering into this yet shiny new year, wondering what it will hold, many are setting goals and choosing words like navigational stars to steer by. I have done that in the past. I like the open-endedness of a word. It can be applied in so many ways. It is not as confining as a resolution. But I have always been more of a precept sort of gal. In my budding days identifying as a writer, I collected them in a green notebook I carried everywhere, tucking them in among poems, quotes, and other oddments I considered ‘writerly”.

But though I have always been drawn to writing, I have never been especially good at the discipline. My muse is fierce when she shows up, but unreliable. If I wait for her appearance, I just don’t write. What we don’t do, we don’t get better doing. As a teacher of writing especially, I need to walk the talk. This year, I decided, one of the ways I was going to hold myself accountable, was to make sure I write something for each Tuesday’s Slice of Life.

I waited this week for something to speak to me. (Hey, Muse, it’s me, Julie.) Much was going on. I volunteered at our local warming shelter (it has been bitterly cold in Vermont). I have been collaborating in reading and writing workshops with my colleagues. I have been calling my senators. I restrung my mandolin. But no flame of inspiration sparked from those experiences. Then my eyes landed on the fat blue book, the one that had been sitting on the corner of my desk since December. That’s it, I thought.  If inspiration doesn’t find me, I can use a precept to guide me. So I opened the book.

“If the wind will not serve, take to the oars.”

This message could not be more perfect. Thanks, universe. My ears are still ringing…but I hear ya.

Beginning 2017-Slice of Life

I began this new year reading, rocked in the arms of the giant peonies of my new favorite chair from Craigslist, while the peonies in my garden slumber under a blanket of snow. As 2017 opens to spin its own tale, I finished the last pages of The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. A tangle of dogs at my feet, I sat book closed, holding the story close to my heart. It’s a fairy tale perhaps. There are monsters and dragons, and witches and common folk, but it is not at first apparent who truly wears sheep’s clothing. That is only revealed, as the story unfolds, and the intentions of the characters come to light through their words and deeds. Amidst birth and death, joy and sorrow, amidst the messiness of finding one’s way, it’s also a story of families, those we are born to, those we create…and the inter-connections of each. But bookmost of all, like all fairy tales, this story is steeped in magic. It is a reminder that each of us needs to be mindful of the source of our own power, and the purpose toward which we focus it. An apt tale for these times. In 2017, may we acknowledge and honor our family- in all its extended forms and expressions. In our joy, may we also be mindful of sorrow. May we not make assumptions about those who are different, before knowing their hearts. May we keep ours eyes open for those in sheep’s clothing, and use our magic for the good of all. Happy New Year!

 

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If you would like to purchase this amazing book, I always recommend local bookstores. Here in Vermont, I love Northshire in Manchester, and Misty Valley in Chester-the two closest to my home and school.

But Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon will always be the one closest to my heart. Powell’s is the bookstore I grew up with. All the independent reading phases of my life I have cherished browsing the rooms and shelves of this incredible bookstore, for both new titles and great used book finds. These days, I make it a point to visit whenever I am back on the West Coast, but they do mail order too!

 

Failures in Communication in Vermont

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 10.22.40 AMLiving and working in the rolling mountains of Vermont is a bucolic pleasure. Especially this time of year when the foliage is approaching full autumnal splendor. But the hills and hollows wreak a special havoc on cell phone communication. I work as a Literacy Coach in six schools, in a district that covers a cool 460 square miles. As I am rarely at my home desk, email or my cell phone are the best way to reach me…well, sort of.  Yesterday, a reading specialist from a school not so far away as a crow flies, but a meandering journey over hill and dale by car, asked to connect via phone. In the room at the school where I was scheduled and have a “visiting” office, I have sometimes received messages on my phone, so I thought I was set. The time my colleague said she would call passed. Then a message popped up. I tried to return the call. It dropped. She called back as I was walking through the hall to find better reception. Awkward, as the staff meeting had just focused on cell phone use…for students, but still, we need to model the good behavior we expect. I had to ask the secretary for a district phone book, a lovely lady who was busier than usual as it was picture day and she was flying solo. I remade the call from the staffroom landline and it went to voicemail. I emailed to see if we might try a Google Hangout-but my colleague’s little school has a cranky internet connection. It was in a mood already today.

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Holy Smokes!  I am thinking smoke signals, carved stone tablets floated across rivers (Remember the comic BC?), the pony express….even good old snail mail might be more efficient.

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I do remember when I moved here from the West Coast, I felt like I had moved to Mayberry (as in the fictitious TV town set in a time when things were kinder, simpler, quieter, and slower). Experiences like this reaffirm that I have.  And it is ok with me.

“A Tick of the Year Clock”

This morning I began my day reading Jane Yolen’s poem Moving Through the Farmers’ Fair ©.  A lovely line from her first stanza spoke to me, so I borrowed it for my title. As I was reading, writing, and waiting for my coffee to brew, Mark Breen, our VPR weatherman, declared today would inch into heat more fitting for early August than September. The morning yet in foggy chill, my fresh cuppa finally in hand, I filled with dread.

I am done with heat. I am done with days where humidity and the added warmth of school-packed bodies make me drip in my professional clothes. Early September is always hot, yet every year it catches me by surprise.

Septembers baked in Oregon, where long-sleeved school clothes and Buster Browns, so new and tempting, comfortable on the leafy walk to Meriwether Lewis Elementary, became sweatboxes by afternoon, quickly discarded…abandoned until October.

Septembers sweltered in Texas, in the wrong-side-of-the-tracks school of my early teaching days. 100 plus degrees and nearly 100 percent humidity. No air-conditioning. The first school days started and ended thirty minutes early to beat the worst of the heat. A psychological token really. My west-coast conditioned body wilted well before noon, when I passed out ice-cubes to listless children, the clock ticking so slowly toward dismissal.

Even in New England, the home of quintessential fall: strings of crisp, colorful days, rarely marred by rain; late summer flexes its muscle, the aging prizefighter against up-comer fall.

What I have heard some Vermonter’s call “Judas trees” betray the calendar. “An early Fall!” these flamboyant trees exclaim, red outliers amidst their neighbor’s still summer green. I have learned not to listen. Humid afternoons do begin to relax into cooler nights and pleasanter sleep. But misty mornings birth false hope as temperatures inexorably chug once more into sweaty discomfort.Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 8.42.53 PM

Somehow I forget this each year: Summer’s tenacity. I forget how it holds on so fiercely, ticking out its final minutes, just before the alarm, and we wake into fall.

Change is hard. It is not easy to let go. Not for seasons. Not for us. Recent headlines in the news, photographs that rip hearts in two, confirm this. We cling to outdated social definitions, to laws and practices that no longer make sense, to what feels comfortable, even when the climate of our lives, our world has changed. We have such a hard time opening to new ideas, new ways of seeing, to new seasons in our lives. We find ways to ignore the what we choose not to see, but no matter how hard we hold on, time ticks on.

In late July I adopted a frightened small mule from a rescue. Given time, consistency and attention, Gus has been making great progress in trust. He will now stand and let me brush him, something he was too terrified to tolerate at first. The rescue I IMG_0579adopted him from asked me to share some pictures. I sent some, along with some bits of video. After they posted a clip on their site, a commenter said, “It takes a grandmothery type.” After my initial shock from the fact the comment was in reference to me (though likely meant in the kindest sense) I realized, no matter how I feel on the inside, my life has shifted seasons. I am now entering the fall season of my life.  Perhaps, If I embrace my inner grandmother, I can savor and be fully present in this part of my journey, before my winter comes.

This week the stunted apple tree Herb and I rescued from overgrowth has begun IMG_0605giving up apples. The corgis are slow to respond our calls as they snarfle the bank for prized windfalls. They finally trot in, a jaunty parade of four, green apples jawed like tennis balls, then head to their beds to enjoy their treat. I will soon climb the stairs to my own bed this warmish night, I will drape my favorite fall sweater over the chair. Ready. Ready for the tick of the clock year. Ready for change.

To Build a Barn

Build a barn you say?

First you need a field.

The deer know the best ones

where sweet grass grows

and the sun warms gentle slopes.

Where leafy trees offer afternoon shade

and moonlight coaxes fireflies

to weave their trails of light.

You need the dream of a barn

scrawled from your armchair

on the back of an old envelope

while the snow falls deep.

Your steps last August

measured out width and breadth

across the flat ground tucked into maples

the neighbor taps for syrup

come spring.

You need the tower of pines

straight and true,

strengthened by seasons of growth.

Lumber for posts and beams and planks and frame.

Felled by the logger.

Shaped by the sawyer.

Righted by the builder.

A tree’s trade.

Life in the woods,

for a new one in the field-just down the road.

As a barn to stand the test of time.

You need the hands of neighbors

who bring their tools, their time,

their knowledge of how things fit-and how things work.

Knowledge from a lifetime of learning, not from ivy covered halls.

Knowledge that needs no signatured-paper to mark its worth.

Many hands, many shoulders, and much sweat

build a barn.

There are those who stop in the road.

“Whatcha building?” they say. “Oh, a barn?”

They reach into their memories of barns,

of sweet-scented hay,

earthy manure,

and well-oiled leather.

They talk of July hayfields

the contented ache of young muscles,

the drip of sweat,

the prickle of the last bale tossed high

into a loft stacked to the rafters.

They remember laughter

and stories told

as the day gave up its heat,

and dust motes floated lazily in barn-filtered light.
Building a barn, you say?

When the last board is set,

the last nail hammered home,

you need the breath of a mare,

the swish of a tail,

the slow munch of hay.

You need a nicker in the morning when the doors are swung wide,

as the mare ambles into the dew-kissed field

where twin fawns yet sleep

near the barn.

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This Enormous Blue Morning A Borrowed Line Poem

At the Boothbay Literacy Retreat I was introduced to a new (to me) technique for writers called a borrowed line poem. You read the poem of another author to find a line that especially resonates for you. That line then becomes the foundation of a poem of your own. In the new context the line may take on an entirely new meaning from the poem of its origin. It’s a wonderful writing exercise.

From Mary Oliver’s poem, Notebook, I borrowed this line: “the enormous blue morning”.

It inspired this reflection on summer mornings of my early childhood. We lived in a house on a hill with concrete stairs tucked between tire paths up the steep drive.

The Enormous Blue Morning

By Julie Burchstead (with a nod to Mary Oliver).

The enormous blue morning opened wide

as the slap of my sandals

counted the cement steps

down the drive.

Slap! slap! Like staccato code

to my sleeping friends,

“Wake up! Come Out!”

Enormously blue,

a bit dewy around its grassy edges yet,

the sun’s warmth still a promise only

this day so new, so enormous.

I sit on the bottom step

feeling grit through my thin cotton shorts

hugging my goosebumped legs

waiting.

Waiting on the bottom step

for the clap of screen doors

as sleepy children come tumbling out

of morning houses.

“Hey! Shake off those cobweb dreams.

Come out, come out!”

This day,

this blue enormous day

It’s ours,

but it won’t keep.

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On Presence, Vermont Winters, and Mentor Writers

Winter this year seems to be arriving all at once. This Groundhog Day of snow on snow on snow gave me time to dig into my writer’s notebook and savor some snippets from Take Joy, Jane Yolen’s insightful and incisive book on the craft of writing.

Jane Yolen, a writer whose work I have loved ever since first reading Owl Moon, writes a poem each and every day as part of her routine as a writer. If you connect with her via email, she will send them to you. My first one arrived yesterday. It was amazing: artful, smart, creative, magical. A clarion call to inspire the writer’s muse, couched in a gathering of fairies. It contained delicious words like “freshet”, and this line, “Not a BANG, but a slow greening.” (c) Jane Yolen.  You could take this line literally, that is how spring arrives in Vermont. But I also interpreted it to refer to the creative process as well.

Her email noted she welcomed comments. So amongst a few other small comments I sent this:

Dear Jane,

This time of year I miss western Oregon where green is a year round garment, and as we speak the hellebores are waking.

She wrote back.

“But if it is green all year, how do you wake from the winter sleep into productivity?”

I have to say, at this point I was nearly falling out of my chair to think I had just had an email conversation with “THE Jane Yolen.” After I recovered from my starstruck delirium, I thought about her words. I thought about my One Little Word: Presence. I thought about a conversation I had just had with my husband Herb. He had just read aloud to me a thoughtful piece from Brain Pickings Weekly this issue being a collage of excerpts from Annie Lamott and poets Strand and Oliver (among others) on the subject of presence and awareness. We discussed on how “our” incessant focus on the future robs of us of living in the present.

Funny, how the same message can wash over you in waves-even to the point of knocking you off your feet. I realized, longing for the spring awakenings in Oregon, in a way prevented me from being fully present in the gift of Vermont winter. How often have I lived my life this way, blind to what is going on right in front of me because I am busy thinking about a future..that may never materialize in the way I hope or imagine.

Today in my inbox was another poem from Jane with a winter theme. Inspired, I gleaned from my notebook some snippets I have been collecting and here is my own poem: a celebration of winter in Vermont

Winter Dreams By Julie Burchstead

Winter panes spill light like butter, golden pools on the snow
Inviting travelers home again with their warming glow.

Winter chimneys puff out smoke, like twisted cotton threads.
Weaving gossamer tapestry in the sky over our heads.

Winter people seek good books, steaming mugs and cozy lairs,
They pull on fuzzy sweaters, curl into comfy chairs.

Winter days sleep late, are stingy with their light.
They retire early, give way too soon to night.

Winter dogs are lazy, they snore and grow fat.
They twitch and dream of chasing squirrels, a ball, perhaps a cat.

Winter dreams stretch long-into dark that’s rich and deep,
Wrapped up in PJs, downy quilts, flannel sheets, soothing sleep.

Winter villages settle in and wrap themselves up tight,
In soft white afghans knit from snowflakes, then they say Good Night.

If you are a writer, and have not read Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, (Yolen, 2006) I highly recommend heading to your local independent bookstore and adding it to your personal library as soon as you can.  You will be better for it.

Two of my favorite independent bookstores (I have personally wandered the aisles of both)

Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vermont

Powell’s City of Books, Portland, Oregon

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Thanks to TwoWritingTeachers Blog for the opportunity to participate in Tuesday Slice of Life

Unexpected Snowfall

For a snow lover like me, it has been the winter of discontent. I grew up in western Oregon, where snow is rare and fleeting. In Oregon, winter is a 9 month mud-season, a long yawn of wet and grey. I delighted in moving to the land of snow. I bought mittens and snowshoes. I learned about roof rakes and ergonomic snow shovels. For my first five winters here, Vermont has delivered: Currier and Ives  Christmasses and a steady succession of light fluffy snowfalls through March, and sometimes beyond. Transformative magic to keep the winter drearies away. But not this winter.

Oh it’s been cold enough. Cold enough to flash-freeze coffee left in my cup after my morning commute. Cold enough to freeze and refreeze the line to our dishwasher for days at a time. Cold enough-until moisture arrives. Then weeks of unrelenting deep-freeze break just in time to ensure the precipitation falls as rain, or worse, ice.

This winter it’s like we planned the party, sent out invitations, set the table, even received confirmation of attendance, but snow has been like an unreliable guest, arriving late, leaving early, coming ill-dressed, or been a complete no-show. Lingering roadside drifts are as tired and unappealing as picked-over hors d’oeuvres left on the tray after guests have gone home.

Each morning, I scan the ten day forecast on my screen for the freshly added date.  Will it have a snowflake?  But amongst the occasional icons of clouds, rarely a snowflake appears. When one does it only teases,  revealing on arrival to be rain dressed in snow’s clothing.

Vermont weather is fickle. The turn and rise of a road, the breadth of a mountain, the proximity to a river, each and every hollow creates its own unique climate. To snow, or not to snow? My morning commute winds through several of these micro-climates. One village, one hill and valley to the next varies in snowfall by extraordinary degrees. My hollow has been the the itch that can’t get scratched. The snow falls south, or north, a bit east or west. The little we’ve had has snuck in by night, been washed by rain by day, or coated with ice.

A couple of days ago, another Judas snowflake appeared on my desktop. It showed early promise, but by last night, there were conflicting reports, diminishing chances. “An All-Day Event” the newscaster predicted….to the south. Fickle. I went to bed resigned.

This morning, I awoke to a snowy world. Fat, steady, luxurious flakes. The trees and roads are blanketed as far as the eye can see. Almost February, our first true snowfall of the season. Scarcity teaches you to savor things in a way you don’t when they are common. So I breathe in this snowfall: the hush, the graceful lines it forms on the branches, the way it has covered the gritty remains of this unreliable winter with a pristine blanket.

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