summer & fall
summer & fall
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.
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.
“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 Unpublished.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’ve never liked short stories.
They leave me longing.
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.
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.”
Tyler 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.”
The short story Robin selected read like music too.
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.
in a field.
“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.
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.
Now that 2011 is behind us, I’d like to skip the retrospective and forget that there ever was a fire or a murder or a flood; But the stores are still closed on Main Street, and Michael Martin’s sister just posted on my blog, and MacArthur is not the road it once was.
I search on the internet and the find that the only thing new about Richard is my own writing on this blog. What’s happening? It’s been almost half a year. Wouldn’t it be convenient to imagine Richard never existed?
But then I think about the Martins. How are they moving forward? How important is the trial to them? When is the trial?
(I was just called for jury duty; but not for a criminal case–Thank God.)
Yesterday, I came upon a poem about being in prison. My son was home sick and asked if I’d read to him while he ate his soup. I picked up the book that I found at the Marlboro Book Swap last year, and blew off the dust. I had intended to read excerpts from A Call to Character on a regular basis, but the practice died long ago.
“Let’s find something about kindness,”I say.
My son smirks with embarrassment. Just a moment earlier he snapped at me in that sardonic “tween-age” fashion. In my best NVC, I let him know it stung. With his big heart, it pains him to know that he’s hurt me, even if he can’t help himself.
“Darn, there’s no section on Kindness, only Compassion” I say. “But you’ve got plenty of that.”
“Read anything,” he says, delighted to have me seated beside him all day.
I flip through the stories and plays and fables, and a poem catches my eye in the Self-discipline category. I begin reading… to myself.
“Read aloud,” my son begs.
“This one is about being in jail; I don’t think you’ll like it.”
“Read it,” he says; and so I proceed:
Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison...To wait for letters inside, to sing sad songs, or to lie awake all night staring at the ceiling is sweet but dangerous. Look at your face from shave to shave, forget your age, watch out for lice and for spring nights, and always remember to eat every last piece of bread-- also, don't forget to laugh heartily. And who knows, the woman you love may stop loving you. Don't say it's no big thing: it's like the snapping of a green branch to the man inside. To think of roses and gardens inside is bad, to think of seas and mountains is good. Read and write without rest, and I also advise weaving and making mirrors. I mean, it's not that you can't pass ten or fifteen years inside and more-- you can, as long as the jewel on the left side of your chest doesn't lose its luster!
Kelly Salasin, January 2012
ps. My apologies to those of you who clicked the link to MacArthur Rd above. I couldn’t help myself. That song won’t leave my mind today, especially as it rains on top of our long-awaited snow.
I can’t drive Route 9 without a swell of love for the labor that has restored our world in the past few weeks since Irene hijacked our streams. At each turn of the highway, I see orange cones where the guard rail once stood, and I know that a section of road was washed away there too.
To say that a “section was washed away” doesn’t do justice to the calamity of Irene. Entire segments of Route 9 simply vanished, roots and all, leaving cavernous holes in their place. The span of each missing stretch of road can be measured by the new pavement–ten to 100 foot stretches–sobering, if nothing else.
I’ve only been back on Route 9 as a driver for a week, but it’s been repaired enough for passage for at least two. That first week it opened was rough going, with dirt patches along the way, and road crews littered about.
On the few occasions where I was a passenger in someone else’s vehicle (due to a post-flood carpool), my stomach churned with each new turn of devastation–a bridge missing, a hillside vacant, a stream bed ten times its original size.
I worried aloud for the safety of drivers–those who didn’t know to slow down, and those who might be hurt because of that. I worried about rain, and new wash outs, and dampened spirits.
I kept to the backroads. They were familiar. And dependable. Some had been destroyed, but their repair seemed simpler, more straightforward; and I knew how to drive their earthy contours; and felt safer because of their realness.
And still, I was drawn back to the nightmare of Route 9, to its curves and climbs and horrors, just as I was tonight. At 6:00 pm, the road crews were gone, and the setting sun made purple mountain majesty of the sky, transforming everything, even the mangled roads, into… beauty.
As I approached my turn at Route 9 and MacArthur, I saw that most of the rubble which has defined it has been cleared away; and I almost miss it.
My sister comes Friday and I want her to see what pain has been inflicted upon us. And yet, I’m equally afraid for her safety as she drives up my half-eaten dirt road at night. It’s narrower than ever and there’s no room for cars to pass in both directions at once. And what if it rains?
Tonight, I climb MacArthur without another driver in sight, and notice new gravel poured into the stream side of the road. I wonder where it came from, and how long it will take before they finish the job that overwhelms me just thinking about it.
There’s a large yellow truck at the top of the hill, and I slow down to take a look at the work that began yesterday at Neringa. Three weeks ago, a hundred wedding guests were stranded there when the bridge across the Whetstone collapsed.
Rumor has it that the dam at the pond was the cause of the flooding down MacArthur and onto Route 9 and down into Bratttleboro, but I’m here to tell you, that dam is still intact. It’s how the guests crossed the pond and secured passage home to Canada or California or Massachusetts and Lithuania. It’s how the caretaker and his family get access to the car that’s parked in our driveway across the road. (Their truck is still stranded on the other side.)
There’s no sign of a bridge yet, but Bennett and the operator of that huge yellow excavator are talking, like men do, figuring out what’s what.
The trees that fell across the bridge were removed yesterday morning, and the monstrous culverts that ended up downstream were retrieved in the afternoon; so perhaps replacing them is next.
I’ve never thought too much about road making and bridge fashioning until now. I never thought too much about watersheds and erosion and stream redirection either. But for the past three weeks, I’ve been intrigued by every bit of it. Every bit.
When it doesn’t make me cry or cringe, driving on these roads makes my heart swell with every labor of love.
Kelly Salasin, Marlboro, Vermont
If only I could write a tribute to roads like Langston Hughes bestowed upon rivers, but there’s no poetry in me this week, and none like his.
That anything could wash away thoughts of murder inside the Co-op is unfathomable, until now. Until Irene.
On the morning after she hit our unsuspecting mountaintop town, I ran down my driveway toward Neringa Pond. There I found clusters of neighbors in sober conversation, and passed them without a word, continuing toward the mangled dock that crossed the pond where I discovered that the dam was surprisingly holding steady.
I continued down the road alone until I came to the bridge that crossed over to Camp Neringa and saw that in its place was a gaping span of… nothing.
“We’re stranded,” called a young woman from the other side over the rushing water, “There are a hundred of us.”
“I know,” I called back, “I’m so sorry this happened while you were here.”
These wedding guests had flown in from Toronto, and others from California, while one had come from as far as Lithuania. We shouted some more across the roar of the Whetstone–about food and generators and water (all of which they had)–before turning our backs on one another on opposite sides of what had once been connected.
I held back tears as I continued down MacArthur Road where I came across more neighbors helping one another over the gaping pits where sections of our road once stood.
At the bottom of the hill, the underbelly of MacArthur was completely exposed–revealing gravel and dirt and a culvert many times my size.
With hesitation, I leaped over it to make my way toward the Route 9.
I’ve written about the highway that crosses Southern Vermont before, about the lives its mountainous curves stole from our community—a dear friend in her twilight years, the 21-year-old nephew of the kindergarten teacher, and an 8 year-old peer of my son’s from a neighboring town.
Typically teaming with travelers, Route 9 was barren this morning, and eerily so; so clear of traffic that I could lie down in the middle of the highway and have a photo snapped of me there.
Instead I continued up it, past the hill where young Kayla died, and without any specific destination in mind.
I’d never walked along Route 9 before, at least not with such an unsettling sense of safety, and I couldn’t stop. For awhile, it was only me and the butterflies up a road where vehicles fly by at 50 or 60 miles an hour. At the crest of another hill, I passed a man coming the other way with a wax bag in his hand.
“Sweeties isn’t actually open, is it!” I asked, and he nodded his head, and kept walking.
A half-mile later, I stood inside the darkened store, relieved to see Michaela, a graduate of Marlboro College, attempting to make coffee and sandwiches for the community; and Ashleigh, a Brattleboro Highschool student, arriving to work by some heroic effort of her mother; and Rose, a town official, bending over a large map, helping travelers find routes home should any open.
I hadn’t thought to bring any cash with me when I set out this morning, but I was able to create a tab so that I could take home some groceries and a wax-bagged treat of my own while stranded guests from the other wedding across town left with six-packs, and brownie mix (which perplexes me still.)
I passed other explorers on my way back down Route 9, and when I arrived back at the intersection of MacArthur, it was crowded. A mini-van had been abandoned there during the night, atop a pile of rocks and trees, and someone said that it had been a traveler caught up in debris when the Whetstone Brook took the road and turned Route 9 into a grander expression of itself, rushing east toward Brattleboro.
By now, the sun had risen on the day, and although I was overdressed for the coming heat and unprepared for such a trek as I had already taken, I found myself passing MacArthur by, and continuing east on Route 9, to see what others had described as indescribable.
There at the edge of town, about a mile further down the highway, I approached Steve’s Auto Body Shop where half of Route 9 had neatly collapsed, right at the yellow line, into the rushing stream that didn’t used to be there below.
Beside this section of missing highway stood a small sign which politely read, “Sidewalk Closed.”
No sign was needed for what lie just passed Steve’s. It was a destination so awe-inspiring that it had attracted elders and mothers with baby carriages for what was sure the most apocalyptic view of this flood’s devastation.
Route 9 had simply vanished, and the river took its place below. Some said a hundred, others two, and I can’t recall how many feet stood between me and the other side of what was once the highway, but it made me laugh when I recollected the span each time drivers rolled down their windows near MacArthur to ask, “Is it passable up ahead?”
Often these travelers would persist, as if I hadn’t noticed that they had good clearance and four-wheel drive; and then I would have to be firm:
“There IS no road up ahead. It no longer exists.”
And if they still looked dubious, I would explain that even if they could, by some miraculous Evil-Knieval feat, daredevil their way across what many called the Grand Canyon, they would find similar canyons all along Route 9 heading east into Brattleboro–each with ten to twenty-foot pits below.
Then these desperate souls, hoping to get home to work or to pets or to children even, would turn their heads toward MacArthur, asking if there was any chance that way…
“Not even the National Guard, on a rescue mission, with tires bigger than your car, could get through last night.” I’d say.
Similarly, the roads heading West into Wilmington were closed, and those in the north, and in every direction; so that these drivers turned around, one by one, resigned to being stuck like the rest of us. Some slept at the church or at the Inn or inside their cars, I suspect.
By the time I hiked back up to my house, the boys were awake and ready to do some of their own exploring. Their father took them out while I went upstairs to lie down, drifting into the sweetest, exhausted reverie I have ever known until the sound of a helicopter circling my home, not once, but three times, brought me to standing as I heard it land across the pond to sounds of cheers.
I jumped up then and dashed out my door to make my way over the mangled dock, and up the path to Neringa’s field where I came across 100 wedding guests huddled together as the chopper lifted back into the sky.
I caught the last words of an announcement made by a bearded wedding guest from Toronto: “If we have any medical emergencies, they’ll airlift them out, but for now MacArthur Road and the bridge to Neringa are not high on the priority list.”
I stayed on to talk to some of the guests, and drew maps of possible routes out of Marlboro should the backroads be cleared, and someone could come to fetch them. (They would have to leave their cars behind, most of which were rentals.)
And then I returned home once again, and slipped out of my clothes, and into bed, and slept–for the rest of the day–stirring now and again to the sound of more aircraft—the Red Cross, the governor, the National Guard—only to let my head drop heavily back on the pillow in what felt like a drugged stupor.
The air was crisp, the sky beautiful, and my home–and even my steep driveway–uncannily untouched by the devastation that was all around me.
From under my covers, the world was more tranquil than ever. There were no cars passing on MacArthur and no whine of 18 wheelers from Route 9. The house was silent too–absent of the hum of appliances or the ringing of phones.
I couldn’t bear to think about how long we’d be without power or how much it would take to repair these roads or how hard others may have been hit, and so I slept as long as I could.
The sublime quiet brought me back to the days after 9/11–when our skies were as empty as our roads were now.
In my 47 years, I’ve known roads—mud strewn ones and flooded ones—empty ones and crowded ones–worn ones and brand new ones–but I’d never known anything like today.
My soul has grown deep with our roads, deeper than I ever knew.
Kelly Salasin, August 2011
Video: Neringa Before & After Neringa, including footage of MacArthur Rd & Rte 9: