Twenty-One Months

{In celebration of National Poetry Month, I’ll be posting a poem each weekday through the rest of April, and I invite you to join me!  Leave a link to your poem of the day in the comments section below.}

spring stream

Twenty-one months–

that’s all it took

to bring us to this moment.

And just as it delivered us here,

impermanence will take us away

to tomorrow.

The Beautiful Moments

This morning wisps of mist stretch up out of the valley, blue sky shines bright through layers of clouds–cirrocumulus, altocumulus, altostratus, and low stratus clouds hang here and there–and the sun lights on the patterns of white.  The air is cool and crickets chirp, an orchestra in the field.  Inside, Edge plays the ukelele while Waylon bounces and plays a toy drum to no particular beat.

It’s been a week of groggy wakings, hoping Waylon will sleep longer to make up for a bedtime that he fought against and turned from 7 to 8 to 9:00 pm.  He’s been teething.  Teething weeks are tired weeks.  But last night we all slept soundly, and at 6:00 am I wake refreshed, ready to keep my eyes open.

Now Waylon and Edge are on a walk in the woods, the chores are done, and I am here with my chai and blueberry french toast.  It’s so luxurious.  These small moments–a welcome and restful morning, a perfect breakfast, birdsong and crickets–they bring the kind of beauty I feel rather than see.  My body is lighter, the space around me is clear, and there is a feeling that everything is inviting me to expand.  “Beauty is real.  I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it,” writes Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  These moments of beauty, beauty felt and seen, do happen, though in opposite ones–the exhausted, hemmed in moments–I forget it, too.

I have not yet learned how to keep myself here, in these open and beautiful moments.  Is it inevitable to slip back into the blind ones?  Those times when my words are sharp and my chest is tied shut?  Is it inevitable only to make the beauty more vibrant, the open heart more free?  What I have learned is this: how to sink into the beauty, how to breathe deeply, how to open my eyes and remember what is real.

Hawkweed, Katie Spring

Late Summer Harvest

I’ve washed the salt out of my hair

and rubbed the soil back into my skin.

Late summer harvests fill my kitchen—

tomato sauce simmers on the stove,

carrots wait to be made into soup,

zucchinis pile up,

and melons balance on the table while

peppers, onions, eggplant, beets, basil, parsley and more all

teeter and spread over tables and floor.

The only thing lacking is time

or is it?

Time is relative, Einstein said.

He also said, “the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen all at once.”

Late summer doesn’t listen to that logic.  The only option then is to stretch time out, blow it up like a balloon, and let it grow at the speed of the garden.

Back to Alaska

“We’re taking a train to New Jersey, flying to Alaska from there, and then driving back to Vermont,” I told my friends.

Jordan paused for a moment and then asked, “Why?”

We all laughed at the blunt questioning in her voice.

“Well, Edge’s car and most of his stuff is still up there so we’re going to get it and visit everyone, too,” I answered.

But there’s more to it than that.  After a winter of renting a house and staying in one town, I am ready for a journey.  A week ago, as I was running in the spring afternoon, I thought about movement across the land, about travel and staying in one place.  My feet ran forward as fields melted and streams grew, and I remembered my nomadic ancestors–those perceptive, migrating people that we all come from.  What trace of them is left in me?  Is it their instincts that I feel telling me to walk, run, and to notice the world that keeps me alive?

It is a continual conflict within me: to stay in one place and know it deeply, or to travel and know the world as a great mosaic, all pieces making one place.  I like to believe that I can dig into a place even while traveling.  I like to feel that I can meet it full on, despite the brevity of time.

Terry Tempest Williams, in a talk she gave at the University of Fairbanks, said, “The most radical thing you can do is stay home.”  In this world of petroleum power, I believe this.  What do I love about staying?  Seeing the seasons through.  Working the land.  Growing my food.   The power of canning, freezing, pickling.

And this brings me back to the beginning of it all.

We have learned to celebrate agriculture and storage.

We have learned to reward ourselves with vacations.

There is a tension between these two things.

I am sitting in the Seattle Airport, waiting for a flight to Fairbanks.  In less than one day I am shooting across the country, and I will take just over two weeks to drive back.  So much oil.  And still I go.  It is a radical thing to stay home these days.  There is a lure to go far away, and since the advent of personal cars and cheap flights, we’ve all got the hook in our mouths.  There must have been a lure, too, for the nomads, to cultivate and rest through the seasons.  To stay in one place.

So I search for the convergence of these things, and I feel the churning within me as a river does when two tributaries come together.  I am going back to Alaska, back to the wild that forces you out of the car, the wild that asks your intention.  Is it to pass through, to get to the end?  Is it to discover?

I will dig into each place, meet it full on, despite the brevity of time.  My intention is to discover.

Saturday Morning, Sugaring Season

Chocolate Cake and

Chai at dawn

Your lips, the whiskers of

Your mustache in my mouth and

The whiskers of your beard

On my skin.

 

It’s early spring and

Already you taste of sweat and dirt

All those long days

In the sugarbush.

Lately you’ve been coming home

With gallons and

I taste the sweet maple on your tongue.

I brush flecks of bark from your face and

Feel your gritty hands along my belly,

Giving the memory of smoothness to your skin and

Texture to mine.

 

In the morning, even the dog

Is tired–

12, 13, 14 mile days following you in the forest–

And we must rouse her three times before

She joins us in the kitchen and

We feed her

As we feed ourselves

In the morning light.

Dew Drops in Dawn

I’ve made it through February, though it began with deep freezing temperatures and is leaving with a burst of freezing rain and fierce wind; yesterday I could hardly stop my skis from flying, and my four-year-old students fought just to stay standing.  We went inside after one surprisingly fast run.

As March is beginning I’m thinking of melting snow and robins’ songs, though these things are bound to be a few weeks away still.  The other day at the Sunrise Cafe–a small, bright yellow building where I’ve been finding refuge from the resort in lavender scones and lattes–I overheard a customer yearn for spring.  She said to the owner, “I’m ready to smell the earth!”

I thought, “Oh!  Me too!” and looked out the window to the snow-covered ground, the white flakes sifting down again, the cold peaks of Madonna and Sterling, and the ridge line across the notch running up to Mt. Mansfield, all of it smelling of ice and evergreen.  Even if the mud is not here yet, the days are stretching out and steadily giving the evening hours back to the sun.

This extra light makes me think of summer, especially, and ironically, of the nighttime.  Even though I saw the world longer each day in the Alaskan summer, the sound of crickets and the lighting of fireflies are part of my internal landscape.  My thirst for warm darkness, moonlight, and dew drops in dawn will be quenched again in Vermont.

After spending over half a year away, I wonder how much has changed.  It seems so long since I’ve been home, even now after four months.  I need more than one season to feel steady and settled into a place.  When I was in New Zealand, I read a poem in a Wellington bookstore that spoke to this.  It goes like this:

The Route

If you want more than to brush your face
against nature, eyes clinging briefly to swatches
of sky, their blues deepening as you watch,
hit-and-missing leaves, damp paintings
patched seamless together—if you want more
than the quick epiphany of a hill line
breaking free of houses, you have to
walk the same route each day.

 
To know a second before the way a view
opens like a fan and close perspective crumbles,
to acquire a memory of verges and stones
where a snake may pour over your foot,
or a spray of butterflies playing chest-high,
engulf you at a sudden turn;

 
to feel circling through you, sequence:
how the small yellow, freckled as the common
orchid, cedes to blue-and-zebra, and both precede
the black, primadonna rare, big as a bat—
to know this cycle better than you know
your neighbour, you have to walk
the route each day.

 
To feel each missed occasion as a lover’s absence
short-changing the body: pumps, pulleys,
mainspring linked to the fragile, falling chemistry
of your spirits; to read the sharp calligraphy
of birds carved on the air, to ambush
nature into telling, you need to stay
in one place for more than a year.

This poem resounded so clear within me that I bought the book: Porcelain, by Diana Bridge.  At the time I read it, I had been moving from one town to another almost every three days and beginning to question how much I could actually see at this pace.  Reading “The Route” now, I feel that same understanding and desire to root myself to one place for a long time so as to know the tiny movements that make up a whole mysterious world.

When was the last time I stayed in one place for an entire year?  And what constitutes a place?  A town?  A region?  A state?  A country?  Even as a child we left the state to visit family in Massachusetts and New York, or to go on vacations in Mane, Washington, British Colombia, Virginia, Florida, England, Ireland.  Within me is a seed for travel that I have nourished and watered all of my life.  Now I feel another thing growing that asks for different care: quiet movement and wide eyes, deep breaths, stillness and the awareness of each small piece of life around me.

Still I ask: does the landscape ever really stop and start again, dividing itself into different places, or does it go on and evolve, merging into itself as my own arm merges into my hand into my fingers, all dependent on one another and moving in conjunction with the whole.  What does it mean to stay in one place when you see the world as the body, curving, breathing, and seamlessly moving from one part to another?  Then again, what does it mean when the fingers can feel in a way the knee cannot, and the ankle rolls and supports independently from the extension of the elbow?

Perhaps it comes down to this: I can only know what I can see, feel, taste, smell and hear.  A place goes as far as I am willing to walk.  As deep as I am willing to dive.

In the Middle

I just passed the halfway mark of my six-month contract. One part of me is thinking, “I only have three months left?” and the other part says with relief, “I still have three months left!” The garden filled in so fast, from tiny transplants to strong vegetables ready to harvest, that I still feel like I just started. Really, though, the third and last session of student gardeners starts next Monday, and then August will be here, school will start again, and September will come and happen and end my time as a School Garden Supervisor for Calypso. But, I still have three months left, and here I am already getting ahead of myself.

The pace of gardening in Alaska is faster than in Vermont. Even though it may take a little longer for the ground to thaw in the spring, and the winter sets in sooner in October, once the temperature creeps up, the garden is off to a sprint. The farmers at Calypso often do late night planting, starting at 11:00 or midnight, and sometimes going until 2:00 a.m. because the weather is perfect and the light stretches out. At the school gardens it’s different, as we do most of the planting with the students who work from 3:00-6:00 p.m. My garden, at Hunter Elementary School, is hot. Surrounded by pavement and pebble-filled playgrounds and with no trees for shade, the heat radiates all around the garden and encourages the plants to grow fast, as if there was an individual sun over each vegetable. Some veggies want to bolt because of this, and part of everyday is just walking around the garden observing, snapping off flowers from the tatsoi and the beets, and deciding whether or not the broccoli can hold on for another day.

The students only work Monday-Thursday, so the rest of the week is my time to be at the garden alone. I am thankful to have a volunteer come on Sundays, so I do have one full day off, and lately the rains have set in on the weekends, giving me a break from watering, but I still like to spend time on Saturdays when the streets are a bit quieter, doing some work. Last weekend, a man walked up to the fence to compliment the garden and asked, “What are you doing here on a Saturday?”

“Oh, I’m just checking on everything—doing some weeding,” I replied. The garden doesn’t take a break on weekends like the students do; it grows through the constant sun, unfailing and steady. Even in the shock of transplant, which causes the outer squash leaves to yellow and wilt, the center continues to expand out and up, offering new green into the world.  I respond to the light, too, gaining energy by just being outside.  Unlike being at home in Vermont, I don’t know it’s late by looking at the sky, and instead I’ve learned to pay more attention to my body and stay in tune with how I’m feeling so I don’t overrun myself too much.  There have been weeks when I wake up early each day to run, then bike the ten miles to the garden and work before the students arrive, then spend three hours with them before biking home.  I always think it will be sustainable, but my energy wears out after four days of this schedule, and I remember there is a reason the plants go to seed so quickly here: even though the light gives energy, it can also stress and it signals the need to flower, reproduce, and cycle back into the soil, just as I crash and need to catch up on sleep once all my energy reserves have been spent.  When I think of home, what I miss most are the cool evenings fading into nights spent around campfires that light up the darkness.

This first half of my job has gone by quickly, and I know the second half will as well, and then I will make my way back to Vermont, if only for a short while.  I’m still on the no-plan plan, but as the time gets closer, I feel the pull for green mountains and family.  Until then, I will continue to follow the energy as it moves, and be here, thankful for the sunlight and all it grows.

Traveling to stay in one place

January 6, 2010

Twenty three days ago I stepped off of a plane in Boston, trying to hold in a smile as I walked toward the baggage claim until I saw my mom waiting at the end of the hallway and gave in.  She wrapped me in her arms and swayed me side to side, letting out little yelps of joy, and then my dad came over with his digital camera set on video to document my return.  We laughed as I waved, dazed from twenty-eight hours of travel, and my dad hugged me and said, “Welcome home, Kathryn!”

I look at that video now and think, wow I look tan.  I miss the long hours of sunlight in the Southern Hemisphere.  I had prepared myself for the cold–I was excited for the snow–but the sudden onset of nighttime at 4:30 p.m. took me by surprise.  How could I have forgotten this?  It had taken me so long to accept the lengthening days in New Zealand when my body was still adjusting to my return to springtime in October, to summer in November.  When I left the beaches of Fiji, the burnt orange and reds of sunset took hold at 9:00 p.m. and the warm ocean water lapped lazily onto the sand, mirroring the slow swing of vacationers in hammocks and the light beat of island songs strummed by kava-drinking locals.  I admit, I was ready to leave the islands, get off “Fiji time” and back to a place where things make sense and you pay for your hotel room before you sleep in it, and the front desk gives you a lock for your room when you ask instead of four hours later, and when lunch is scheduled for 12 noon it’s actually served then.  I don’t mean to sound up-tight; it was wonderful to forget the way time works in the rest of the world (at least in the places I’ve been to) and lay around for a few days.  I guess what it comes down to is that I didn’t need a vacation from my travels, and I missed Tasmania already, wishing I could have still been there.  I am far away from Tassie now, though.

Vermont has welcomed me home, has cradled me in the gentle rolls of mountains, and after traveling so much I do want to know this place better.  I also want to know so many more places.  It is true that traveling has wetted my imagination and increased my desire to travel again, but I want to take my time now.  I want to dive into a place and soak up every moment and see so much more than two days worth of a town.  I want to forget The Lonely Planet and learn from the locals instead, to give myself up to chance and follow the opportunities that follow.

I will do these things.

How does one travel and still tread lightly on the earth?  The answer is this: travel not for escape but for enlightenment; stay in one place long enough to love it, but if you don’t love it that’s okay; give back to the people who live there, share in their community in any way you can; stay in hostels, at campgrounds, anywhere that breaks your seclusion from community and allows you to share resources with others; and pay attention to how you get around–walk or bike as much as possible, you will see so much more.

I learned these things while traveling, and now I bring them home with me.  For the next three months I will walk in the woods, walk to the library, walk around town.  I will pay attention to the land and my family and discover again the harmony between us.  Mostly, I will be in one place again, listening to the silence and noise, to find where I fit in the rhythm.

When these three months are over, I will head out on my next journey, this time to Fairbanks, Alaska, to begin my job as a School Garden Supervisor.  There I’ll be, in a new place, falling in love all over again.

Breaking Open

“The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.  Your heart is that large.  Trust it.  Keep breathing.”  ~Joanna Macy

Just as my body has finally adjusted to the lengthening days and summer fruits, it is time for me to board a plane and fly back across the world.  The question that always arrives at endings swirls through my mind: where did the time go?  For the days themselves passed perfectly, not too slow or fast, and yet here I am wondering how 2 1/2 months can be over so quickly.    A week or two ago I thought, “okay, I am ready to be home,” and I filled with excitement at the vision of falling snow and a white Christmas.  But despite the readiness I had then, I feel a steadiness in where I am now.  Even though Christmas music plays in all the stores and resorts, the idea of a winter wonderland seems millions of miles away from the 80 degree temperature and warm aquamarine waters of Fiji.

I am preparing for reverse culture-shock.  Never before have I returned home uncertain of my next move.  Where will I work?  Where will I live?  But these questions are small compared to the ones I started this trip with: how do I move through loss?  How do I let go?

These answers don’t come quickly or easily, for the only way to find them is to live through each moment whether it bring sadness, distance, heaviness, aloneness, numbness, or anger.  Ignoring the waves of emotion that come with letting go only drowns one further in pain.  Bobbing along in the storm, however, has led me to discover caves I never knew, to enter them and find solace in their hollowed spaces, and to exit them to light my eyes upon the shifting colors of sunrises.

Thinking back to the middle of October, I see myself on the train to Christchurch.  I was listening to a playlist, dozing off and on as the wheels churned south along New Zealand’s east coast.  I woke up in the middle of a song to hear Ingrid Michaelson sing the lyrics “I am blind.  I cannot find the heart I gave to you,” and tears welled up in my eyes.  I turned my face to the window and wrote a note to Matt that I never sent:

Sometimes I can’t help but think I was supposed to do this trip with you.  And it catches me off guard.  I will be fine, smiling, happy, and then your memory enters me and I feel your arms, I see your eyes look at me with so much love.  And then it’s gone again and I wonder, How? When?

I find myself crying on a train.  Where are you?  When it starts to get hard, I tell myself: I left him.  But that’s not completely true.  We left each other.

I put my pen down then and let myself be lost until we arrived at the station.

This trip has been as much about finding myself again as it has been about letting go.  It is so easy to give up, gain jealousy, and blame another for everything that led to the break.  It is much harder to step back and see one’s own mistakes, and harder still to claim them, but that is what I had to do.  Now here I am.  I am broken open and I fly in the space I fell into.  Of course there are moments when the wind drops and my wings falter, but no longer am I pulled constantly down by a weight inside of me.  With the help of Erin and time, I see myself as love again, feel my body shake with laughter instead of tears, and grow anew in the space that expands inside of me.

How much effect does a place have on one’s growth?  Can I return to Vermont and remain detached from all I have shed on my journey?  The answers will come with the moment…