Writing from MacArthur Road

Writing from MacArthur Road

A decade ago, in my early forties, I decided to let myself be. A writer.
I’d already been writing for some time.
Since the age of 18.
To myself.

Alas, I was not one of those girls who always knew that she wanted to be a writer.
(I write memoir.)

Oddly or coincidentally or serendipitously, I am sandwiched between two women who were the kind to always know.
Jodi to my north.
Robin to my south.

Had I known this about them then, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to join them.
But one was disguised as a beloved elementary teacher;
and the other, an award-winning performer.

The three of us live, on the same road, in a row.

Until last winter, when Jodi left the Green Mountains for the coast of Maine.

Robin remains.

“Most everyone does,” she says, about the members of her family.
(There are at least 7 MacArthur households on MacArthur road.)

I come from a big family too. But I left. Which is maybe why I write memoir.
(Safe distance and all.)

Fiction. Memoir. Fiction.
MFA. Not a real writer. MFA.
Published. Unpublished. Published.

This year both Jodi and Robin have books coming out, one after the other.
Jodi in May. Robin in August.
Short story collections.

I pre-ordered Jodi’s book right away.

I’ve never liked short stories.
They leave me longing.
Edgy.

But Friday night, after dark, we made the trek down our hill,
through the valley, and up another mountain, to the village of Putney,
to its newly renovated Next Stage Theater.

There, Robin read from her upcoming short story collection, Half Wild, and afterward performed with her husband, Tyler Gibbons–as the duo Red Heart the Ticker–which followed an interview and Q&A.

We brought my son along. Not the one upon whom a character may or may not be loosely based in one of Jodi’s stories… (sometimes I think we’re all writing memoir. Or fiction.) but the younger one who still lives with us on MacArthur Road.

During the interview, Robin spoke of her family’s history in Vermont, with mention of her father as a baby; and Aidan, 15, turned and whispered:

“I can’t imagine Dan as a baby. Can you? Ask Dad if he can.”

Though they’re not old enough to be our parents, Dan and Gail MacArthur are like the grandparents of MacArthur Road, and actually have the pleasure of all 4 of their grandchildren here, including Robin and Tyler’s two.

Gail drove the school bus and served on the select board and helped shape a number of community initiatives in town; and Dan has the same years of dedication, including the Board of Directors for the elementary school, and raising many of the houses in the area, like ours and Jodi’s–one after the other, about a decade ago.

Gail and Dan also have the sugar shack a 1/4 mile up the road from our place, where my boys make maple syrup each March, and further still–another 1/4 mile up–the farm stand–where we pick our berries each summer and eat scones on Sunday, baked by Robin and Tyler.

“Why didn’t I know that?” whispers Aidan, when the Poet Laureate of Vermont introduces Tyler as “a graduate of Harvard,” who has scored numerous feature films, feature-length documentaries, shorts, art films, and radio and media sites.”

Aidan turns toward me again, this time with a smile, when Robin tells Chard deNiord that she and Ty met at Brattleboro Union High School (where Aidan is a freshman now.)

“We were in an art class together,” Robin says. “He looked at a piece of my work. Said it could be better.”

Red Heart the Ticker, Next StageTyler tells Chard that he wrote Peaches and Plums–the March 2013 edition of Songs in a Lunar Phase (a monthly subscription-based CSA–the A for Arts instead of Agriculture)–after Robin rebuked his earlier attempt to write an upbeat song about March.

I sulked away, he said, but then Peaches and Plums came which is pretty down on Vermont.

“Filled with yearning for spring,” Robin corrects.

Though they haven’t performed together in two years, they played a handful of songs on the stage this evening.

Tyler joked that his goal was to bring as many instruments as songs.

Ty and Robin ended the night with one of my favorites. A soulful tune that she wrote:
One Last Tear.

As Robin sang, “Will you bring your blue dress and your pale blue…”

Aidan turned to me quizzically, but I refused his stare, for fear of laughter; because like him, I thought heard “pale blue ass” instead of “eyes.”

Robin MacArthur, Half Wild, Next StageThe short story Robin selected read like music too.
The words
Flooded toward me.
And then in me.
Like a quickening.
Then they picked up speed and rocked me with the rhythm of labor.
Climaxing in a body of water.
Releasing,
in a field.
Abandoning me.
Empty
and Full.

“The stories take place at the edge of Vermont towns,” Robin says. She admits that Tyler makes plot suggestions. She adds:

“I’m not wild about plot.”

“She’s half-wild,” Aidan whispers.

We both smile when Robin announces the release date for her book–August 2, 2016–Aidan’s 16th birthday.

It was just after his 15th that we visited Jodi and her husband Bob for the first time in their new place in Maine. Aidan never did get to have Jodi as a teacher, but the timing worked out that our oldest had her for four years straight. Under Jodi’s wings, Lloyd became a reader, a writer, a mathematician and a scientist.

The following summer, alongside the MacArthurs, Jodi helped lay the sub-floors that would serve as the foundation of Lloyd’s second-story bedroom. In later years, he stacked her wood and mowed her lawn–a scene which inspired the first story in her collection.


Jodi returns to Vermont from the coast of Maine this spring to read from: They Could Live With Themselves.

The event takes place at the Hooker Dunham theater in Brattleboro just after the book is released.

It’s just like Jodi to have both an auspicious pre-order date and publication date: Brigid’s Day and May Day.

Thirteen years ago, we bought a parcel of land together on MacArthur Road in much the same way. With intention and magic.

I feel poised between these two women.

Perfectly. Imperfectly.

Each writing about Vermont.
While I write about the sea,
and its hold on me.

Hoping that their paired success will serve as a threshold to my own.
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Mile Marker 63

Mile Marker 63

394810_10151361246443746_1761074244_nI want to capture what it is to descend from an elevation of seventeen hundred feet–thickly forested, steep and snow bound.

It’s midnight, Mile Marker 63 when I feel it: The world is flat.

I sense it on the inside first–a shift in my internal wake, a settling–like sediment to the bottom of a glass; and even if I’ve been dozing in the backseat with the children, I know we’ve arrived–not quite to our destination–but to sea level.

With an exhale, I surrender my preoccupation with the descending digits down the Parkway, and begin to notice where I am. Now. Tuckerton. Beesley’s Point. Great Egg Harbor. How it is that I never recognized these characters when I lived here… settings for works of fiction, tickling the tongue and imagination.

By Mile Marker 30, the smell of the marsh finds its way through the cold air and past the tight seal of the car windows.

Just as we pass the exit for Sea Isle, my own tides steady to balancing point–like the bubble inside a level. Does the body know? Do the cells swell with memory? December 8, 1963. Mercy Hospital. My birth place.

Suddenly a hundred and sixty-nine monotonous miles of the Garden State warp speed. A surge inside rises to meet the sea. “Hello, old friend. It’s me. Kelly Brown from out of town.”  (That’s how the neighbors greeted me each summer when I returned.)

As we move into the single digits, the tide recedes. I struggle to remain afloat as we speed through Court House and into an onslaught of memory…  the light at Stone Harbor Boulevard, the Repici’s roadside motel, the chapel where James and Lynn were married, the road to my dear friend’s house.

Pulling back like a wave from the shore, then swept up into a sea of grief, I’m buoyed amidst life’s debris, by a child on each side, and my husband at the helm of this homecoming ship.

The boys have their own internal compass for the journey. At exit 6 as we turn off the Parkway and head east onto the strip of land that carries us to the island, they begin to stir like the tiny clams that rise in the wet sand.

I can’t drive this stretch of road, past the sewage plant, without the smell of cigarettes, stale perfume and fresh lipstick–as my mother takes a brush to our sleep-tangled hair and rubs spit against our cheeks with her thumb–preparing us for our grandparents–her in-laws.

Once over the draw bridge, past and present collide, lifting me, before tossing me like a conch to the shore. Shells fly from under the tires as we bounce over the salt-weary roads of what was once home. The grocery store where I pawned pennies for bubble gum has finally had a face lift–six years too late for my mother who shopped there even when the rest of us coined it: the Beirut Acme.

We cruise into the island town of Wildwood Crest, deep in winter’s hibernation. Pull up to an abandoned curb, and the man I love slips out from behind the wheel and opens the gate to his own childhood.

On our right, is the bay; and on the left, the sea. Straight ahead, just two blocks, is the house where my own mother would be waiting at her late night perch over a bottomless cup of coffee. Like some sailor’s wife, her voice floods with an undercurrent of longing as she greets my return, “Hi, Kel,” she’d say.

Only now, she speaks in whispers that the ocean breeze brings to me.

“You can move away, but you can’t get the sand out of your shoes,” a dockside barkeep used to tease whenever I talked of leaving.   I laughed at Jim’s warnings, like the one about my hips and pizza. He’s gone now too, but was once very pleased to hear that they didn’t deliver in the mountains.

He appears to me now, like an apparition, leaning too far across the bar to pour my drink, a jester-like grin lifting his thick Caselle frames, from a sun-creased face. The grains of his words rub between my toes… as the salt and the sea tug at me.

(2010)

Making a “Living” in Vermont

Making a “Living” in Vermont

(note: all photos copyright)

 

 

Watch out or Vermont will change your life.  I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but I have some theories…

First of all, it is fantastically beautiful… each day, around some new or familiar corner, is a gift of sight or smell or sound. There is so much raw experience of nature here and it’s offered freely without human ingenuity.

Moose at dusk, Kelly Salasin

I did not search to find a young deer nibbling in the field yesterday, she simply appeared and allowed me to gaze upon her. I did not coax the leaves around my home to burst into colors dazzling my senses. Nor did I ask the apples to give off their sweet smell on this crisp morning. And I did not beckon the mists to hang in the valley shrouding the hillsides.

 

copyright Joanne Esau

 

All of this just IS– in a place where civilization and nature harmonize.

A friend of mine said that one of the strongest reasons she had for living in Vermont was the “tree to people ratio.” And it’s true, there’s always one (or a hundred trees) around when I need them… whether it be for shade or climbing, building or embracing. The woods here take me from season to season– from the lushness of summer to the naked clarity of winter.

copyright: Joanne Esau

 

I have a deep appreciation for the water in Vermont as well… the sound of it mostly, and the stillness it brings. I have the gift of a brook in my back yard, just off my bedroom door, and I fall asleep to its soft lullaby at night and wake in the morning to the sun rising over it… in pinks and purples and golds.

Then there are the people who live here in this place called Vermont. They are as unique and as diverse as the seasons themselves. Most lacking the knack (or need) at pretending to be friendly, but all expressing the ability to relate to one another in ways that matter most. It is their example and courage that help me uncover my own path in this world as we each embrace life here.

As a place and a people, Vermont holds a transformative energy. I feel it as a melting , a slowing down. I’ve begun to notice that there is this whole other world out there where life is moving much too fast; suddenly I’m no longer part of it.

Forest Glen by Marjorie Tudor

May Sarton writes that Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature… is an instrument of grace.’

Life in Vermont is such an instrument. The rhythm of existence here offers more of a choice in how time passes, and that is no truer than in the winter months.

copyright: Marjorie Tudor

Time stands still in a snowfall. Lives are suspended. The world reborn. There’s at least half a year for that kind of renewal here, and this is food for the soul (even if it makes me a bit crazy .)

Then there are those other fickle seasons that don’t stay around as long. I don’t think I ever gave much thought to mud until I moved to Vermont. Now I revere is as the first sign of spring (no matter what it does to my floors.)

Aidans Shoes, credit: Kelly Salasin

And when those buds start to appear on the trees, it’s like Christmas all over again. I decide that I won’t relocate or get divorced and that maybe I will have another child. The months of shoveling and the layers of outerwear suddenly make sense when what has been white and brown for so very, very long is appearing again in color.

Colors are enchanting in Vermont. They lure loads of visitors to our state each fall. I don’t know of anybody, of any age, tourist or Vermonter, who can walk by a tree on fire and not stop to marvel at creation.

photo: Marjorie Tudor

There are days when I unconsciously drive home from work, pull up to my house, walk to the door, and then freeze– as the hillside engages me in worship. All the mundane falls away and my troubles disconnect. The brilliance of nature beckons, and none can resist her call.

Perhaps this explains why Vermont is home to so many artists and artisans, poets and musicians, healers and teachers; who in their practice give back so much of the beauty they find here.

To these children, Vermont offers her deep Winters to tend their work; her vibrant Springs to recharge; her lush Summers to evoke; and her rich Autumns to nourish.

In the short time that I’ve lived in Vermont, I’ve come to know her as a LIVING, breathing being.

photo: Will DeBock

Vermont is Life– so much more than buildings and careers and thoughts.  She is beautiful and powerful. She is cold and she is icy. She calls me forth to look upon her, and to see myself in her reflection. She shows me struggle, hope, beauty and death.

She causes me to draw within and renew my ties to that which I am made.

(Wilmington, VT, 1999)