Monday, February 28, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: Sherman Alexi’s War Dances

Drinking: Whetstone Cider Works' deliciousness (see below)

Thinking: How, after three days spent in Brooklyn walking streets, dipping into caf├ęs for stunningly crafted lattes, and surrounding myself with the intoxicating company of old friends, I don’t at all mind returning to this house amidst trees or the three feet of snow on the ground or the un-shoveled path or the cold woodstove or the smell of dead mouse because now it’s 9 o’clock and Avah’s alseep and Ty’s teaching and the stove’s ablaze and it’s pitch black outside the windows and so quiet all I can hear is my mind’s lilted song and all I can taste is fermented apples and all I can think is You’re brilliant, Sherman, and also: Home. Sweet. Home.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Today's Menu

Drinking: Typhoo Tea
Thinking: How much I love Heather Gray’s photographs and the story “A Man Is Not a Star” by Josie Sigler.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


The 300 acres of family-owned land I live on in Southern Vermont is littered with defunct cars. They line driveways and perch outside barn doors and nestle between trees, all of them home to mice and spiders and trash in various states of decay. There’s the purple ‘47 Dodge that was given to my parents as a wedding present when they were twenty-one, the skeleton of an electric car my grandfather built in 1973, and the carcass of the Honda my cousin crashed into a tree five years ago after joining the Marines. There’s an array of old VW Bugs, diesel pickup trucks, and motorcycles. There’s my grandmother’s old blue and white GMC touring van, which she had my grandfather custom rig with a pullout bed, a fridge, and a pop-top. A few years before she died she said to me, “Jesus. I hope I never become the kind of woman who sleeps in hotels. That would just make me feel so damn old.”

I laughed, as I always did at what she had to say. Some people are just like that: fresh.

I used to sit in the cars. They were a young girl’s treasure troves: old maps, a pair of rotting Converse All-Star sneakers, a hand-carved wooden bowl sweet with resin. They were texts, too, about the places people go—Mexico, Alaska, British Columbia—and what they bring with them, and what they leave behind.

There’s a Chinook (a trailer perched on the back of a 1982 Nissan pickup truck) that my boyfriend and I drove to British Columbia in September of 2001 while breaking each other’s hearts. We found out about 911 in a gas station in Manitoba, and after that every car we passed waved. There’s the ‘81 Jetta I drove to Seattle at eighteen in search of some other kind of love. The one in which I first heard Dylan sing, “Lay Lady Lay.” The ones I parked by lakeshores back in high school listening to Emmylou Harris and feeling desperately alone. It’s a kind of lunacy, this junkyard. A refusal to let the ghost go. And yet it’s kind of real, too. It’s a kind of fuck you to the denial of having all your shit swept away, to keeping your woods pristine while junk yards fill up three towns over.

And it’s a kind of yes, too. Yes to these places we’ve been. These people we’ve been. To old lovers. To what’s happened. To letting it be written, right here, in steel. And it’s letting go, too; it’s watching our past rot and mingle with leaves and grass and mouse shit and mold. It’s letting our lives be written and be written over, until they’re just part of the landscape around us, home to new things. Entwine, enrich, pollute, surrender. Mice give birth in the seats, grass pokes through the floor, we grow old. Which says everything, really, if you’re willing to root around, get spider webs in your face, and, once in a while, sleep there.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Love Letters

When I was young I was a letter writer. I was also a traveler. At sixteen I drove to New Mexico and back with a friend in a thirty-year-old diesel Volkswagen pickup truck, sleeping in cornfields and arroyos and ditches and parking lots. At eighteen I did the same. There was a two-year period in there when I drove across the country (and back) three times, and on not one of those trips did I stay in a motel. I was in it for the experience; the highways, the landscapes, the dive bars and seedy back roads where we parked the truck or pitched a tent; I was in it for the characters, the wind on my forearms, the relationships with certain cassette tapes that blossomed, and the exhilarating sense of freedom it brought. But I was also in it for the letters. Not many moments passed on those trips during which I was not, somewhere in my mind, composing the letter that would describe that experience to someone back home. It was not very Zen of me. I was turning the action of my life into narrative and the girl I was into a character I wanted to be. (Little did I know that my letter-writing-habit separated me from that character--the reckless, unhindered, free-love child—but no matter.)

Now that I’m in my early thirties I rarely, if ever, write letters. I no longer have lovers in far away places. My life is far less exotic than it once was. I’ve married the man I wrote many of those letters to, trying to impress on him just what had walked out his door. Like everyone else, I claim I have no time for letters. And letters rarely appear in my mailbox, as they used to. All of which I have accepted as par for the course of thirties-with-children, or thirties-with-careers, or thirties-with-both. But this Valentines day has me thinking.

About love letters. About how each of those carefully crafted letters was a love letter, to the person I addressed, of course, but also to myself and the world around me. It makes me reflect on how that letter writing (verb, not noun, process, not product) made me feel attentive, thrilled, and alive. How it made meaning out of my daily experiences, which were at times terrifying, lonely and, well, flat. Which is what, I realize, today on the fourteenth of February, sitting in front of my computer, this whole blogosphere is all about. It is hundreds of thousands of people writing love letters. To everyone and no one at once. Letters that turn our mundane lives into narrative and our amoeba-like selves into the characters we want to be. Letters that make our eyes a little brighter and our ears a little sharper as we go through our days, that make us see beauty where we want to see beauty, that make the fact that we slept in a swamp and woke up the next morning covered in ticks okay. Because it will make a story. Because we are the heroes and heroines of that story. Because we belong to a world that is our own. And it hardly matters if no one ever reads what we write. We've already composed it, felt it, been buoyed by its bouquet of love.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." -Carl Sandburg

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Field Notes

In 1961 my grandmother bought a Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder at a tag sale and began asking neighbors and friends if they knew anyone around her part of Southern Vermont who still sang traditional songs. While at the Vermont Folklife Center last week I came across a leather three-ringed binder of hers from that time. In careful cursive she wrote down the names, addresses, and if they had one, telephone numbers of the people recommended to her. Leone…Ruby…Lester. Beside many of the names she wrote, “no longer there” or “out” or, occasionally “dead.” Others she did manage to contact, charm, and cajole into letting her record them singing. Thanks to the generosity of the Folklife Center, I now have those field recordings in my laptop.

And I’ve been listening. I grew up hearing my grandmother’s renditions of many of these songs, so the material is not at all unfamiliar to me. But the stark dryness of the singing is. I rocked my childhood years to blues, country, rock and roll and other American musical hybridizations rich with African influenced rhythms. My taste has always led me toward music that swings, pulses, twangs and undulates. Things which this music, the stuff my grandmother recorded, does not do. It is about as stark, musically, as any music I’ve known. I have heard many similar ballads from Appalachia, and these recordings are like those transferred to black and white, or as if the singers had eaten hay for breakfast rather than biscuits and gravy. Which makes me reflect on this place where I live, and the people who lived here before me.

The family who built my grandparents’ farmhouse in 1830 had thirteen children. The walls of their house had no insulation. The nearest neighbor was a mile away. The wife gave birth, no doubt, thirteen times in the downstairs parlor. These hillsides, I know, grow small rocks better than they grow potatoes. The winters are unbearably long. With electricity. And with only kerosene? It makes me think of those thirteen children sitting around the fire on winter nights freezing their butts off and listening to these ballads about lost lovers and sword fights and train accidents and fires, the wind howling through the cracks around their single-pane windows. It is a haunting image. It makes me love the music even more.

And reminds me of the photographs of Walker Evans, whose images have always stilled me with their reminder of the bones beneath our skin, of the look in our eyes we all might have, had our lives come to that. It’s a fascination and enjoyment that is a long cry from, say, my enjoyment of an Otis Redding number. I do not shake, shimmy, or pull my husband or daughter up off the couch while listening to these songs. I do not feel inclined to sing along. Rather, I close my eyes and imagine what our lives would (may) look like without electricity, running water, cars, or grocery stores full of colorful fruit. I wonder what our singing would become, and which stories we would hold on to, and why. And it makes me wonder how the timbre of our voices would change. What edges we would find there, what hard spots, what clear unaffected sounds.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On the Mountains High

One of the reasons I felt compelled to return to this blog (erg, eek, hiccup) is that I’ve been working on a deeply satisfying project of late that I find myself wanting to write about, extensively, at all hours of the night. I could have pitched it as a story to various publishers, but this material, I realized, is too personal to surrender to the whims of distant editors. Which means YOU, dear nebulous reader, are the one to which I offer this babble of words, story, and thought. Thank you so kindly for reading.

In 2006, I sat in the room in which my grandmother, the Vermont folk-musician and folklorist Margaret MacArthur, lay dying and listened to her sing, “The Ballad of Marjory Gray.” My grandmother had lost her ability to remember most things on her death-bed, but she knew every word of all twelve verses of that 19th century Vermont ballad about a pioneer woman who gets lost in the native woods, and her voice, which had thinned to nearly nothing in her last days, suddenly swelled into the deep and warm vibrato that it had become in her late life. Of course we sat there crying, her husband, four children and five grandchildren, but there was wonder as well: we sat witness to the astounding way in which the music of this place had etched itself into her soul; to the way in which the landscape, her two-hundred year-old farmhouse in Marlboro (in which we sat, facing the hills where Marjory had died), and the stories contained in that landscape had become entwined into a fabric that was lasting, resounding, and full of grace. My grandmother was leaving us, but those songs were not. We could hold onto them, and carry them with us, and through them, her.

A “song-catcher,” Margaret moved to Vermont in the 1940s and immediately began seeking out and recording the traditional folk music buried deep in the Vermont hillsides. Over the next fifty years she collected hundreds of songs and recorded nine albums worth of them. She worked in elementary schools throughout the state writing contemporary “folksongs” with children, won a New England Living Arts Treasure award in 1985, a Vermont Arts Council Cerf Award in 2002, and performed these songs nationally, including at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

In the summer of 2010, four years after my grandmother’s death, my husband Tyler and I (Red Heart the Ticker) received a Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant to re-record some of those very same Vermont folksongs. This past September we set up our instruments and microphones in my grandparents’ house (in that very same north-facing room in which my grandmother died) and began to record our album, “A New Almanac of New England Folksongs.”

It has been astounding. We found that these ancient melodies and stories, many of which had crossed the Atlantic ocean sometime in the 18th and 19th centuries and lived, often quietly, in the deep nooks and crannies of the Vermont hillsides, etched themselves into our brains and would not leave. We came home at night and sang them to our daughter; we sang them to our neighbors and friends; we sang them in the car. And the stories transformed the way we saw the Vermont landscape on which we live.

“Stratton Mountain Tragedy,” a 19th century poem my grandmother set to music about a mother and child who become adrift in a snowstorm, changed the way I saw the seemingly benign mountains outside my kitchen window. “The Lakes of Champlain,” an Irish ballad re-set, sometime in the 19th century, to the locale of our own Green Mountain lake, tells of the “deep and dark water” that resides in our picturesque waters. "Marjory Gray" made me hold the child at my breast a little tighter as we looked out on the trees outside our kitchen window.

But the songs, I found, had another, equally astonishing quality: the power to bring back the dead. Not only my grandmother, whose voice I could hear singing in my own, but the heroes, heroines, poets and five-plus generations of Vermonters who have lived on these hillsides before us, singing them around their fires. The songs brought to life the ghosts of this landscape, and all that we still have in common with them, reflecting the essential nature of what it means to be human: to love, to lose, to fear, to grieve, and to tell (and sing) stories in order to make sense of our lives and the places in which we live.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Whetstone Cider Works

My brother, Jason, lives up the road from me. His new business/hobby/love, Whetstone Cider Works (named after the Whetstone Brook, whose banks we live upon, itself named after the flat stones famous for sharpening knives that line its banks), makes crisp, dry, aromatic apple wine from traditional American and English cider apples with beautiful names such as Golden Russet and Kingston Black. (Is that a sentence?) This year's batches are now sitting in barrels fermenting, to be bottled soon, and sold this summer in the state of Vermont. It is utterly delicious. Come drink some.

Today's Menu

Reading: Annie Proulx's memoir "Bird Cloud"
Drinking: Black tea
Thinking: That Annie Proulx divorced herself so thoroughly from the personal in her fiction that her attempt to write a memoir is a strange (and kind of terrifying) skeleton-like beast: bones without heart. Interesting to read for that reason alone.

This NYT review is a nice romp as well.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Vermont Folklife Center

I spent Friday at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, VT looking through my grandmother's (Margaret MacArthur's) papers and field recordings. With the help of a Vermont Arts Council grant, Red Heart the Ticker is recording an album of some of the traditional songs Margaret collected and recorded here in Vermont. Many thanks to the very generous folks at the Folklife Center!

The Place Where You Live

Orion Magazine is one of my favorite journals: literature with an ecological bent, eco-criticism, beautiful photographs, and all of it encased in intelligence and heart. Every issue they have a section called "The Place Where You Live" where people send in short pieces about, well, yes, the place where they live.

My essay on Marlboro, VT was selected for the January/February issue. You can find it here:

Abandoned Landscapes

My essay, "Abandoned Landscapes: The Art of Landscape in Contemporary Fiction and a Renegade Plea for its Return" is in the current issue of the fabulous literary journal Hunger Mountain. And while you're there, why not poke around? I highly recommend the stories "Ota Benga in the Land of the Dead" and "A Man is Not a Star."

Happy reading.


It's been ages since I've been here. But for some reason (winter, mountains of snow, loneliness?) I've decided to come back. Last night ice covered the trees and rooftops around our small house. This morning: no power. Avah and I ate apple pancakes by candlelight and nursed our way through the darkness. (Ty away.)

Now, by 9AM, the power is back on, Avah is asleep, and I listen to Mountain Man, the only CD of 2010 that has completely etched itself into my soul. You should listen too.