May Astray

Depot-Road-web

It feels like March outside, but on the first sunny day in weeks, May seems to be rallying.

I’ve been trying to warm to the water pens in anticipation of a trip to Iceland this summer which will require traveling light, but so far I’m not enamored.  I’m determined, though.  I’m doing a mini-painting a day in my moleskin journal to get revved up for summer shows and trips and hoping the weather will give us something inspirational soon.

A Beaten Path


There are two ways to get to the top of Mount Equinox in Manchester Vermont. You can pay your money to take the Skyline drive to the summit, or you can find your way to the no-traffic light town of Sandgate and go up the back.

You can’t drive the whole way (Sandgate’s dirt road eventually turns into a wide leaf-covered path). Once on foot, you’ll eventually get to the gate of a monastery run by the Carthusian monks (who also, incidentally, govern access  to the skyline Drive). There’s a sign warning away trespassers, so we’ve never actually made it to the top of the Equinox without paying our money down, but along with that once-beaten path on the backside of the mountain, we’ve discovered something equally interesting.

When we first hiked that road, we wondered about its origins. There were easier ways to get to the monks and  the top of the Equinox, but it was clear the road had once been in use frequently enough to leave its mark on the mountain.  Shortly after the ‘real’ dirt road ended, we found our answer.

Thing1 was our distractor-in-chief at the time, occasionally luring us away from the path, and about a mile and a half past the end of the town road, he discovered an abandoned barn we HAD to see.

The barn roof was disintegrating, and we saw no other evidence (save for a few headstones that we almost tripped over) that a farm or homestead had ever existed. The carving on the headstones was so worn down we  couldn’t read the names on them.  As I was wondering what catastrophe that had driven surviving family members away from the farm, I realized this almost abandoned road had been made by and for hooves and feet, not rubber and steel.

At first I had thought these languishing headstones in this isolated part of the mountain were a sad statement about precarious nature of rural life (then and now).  However, as we walked to and from the monastery gate with its no trespassing sign, passing the old homestead again, the late afternoon sun dipped low enough to bathe the woods in gold. I remember the branches were naked on that hike, but the forest, guarding its little cemetery, was warm and absolutely peaceful in the sun.

Modern rural life can be very hard, and I don’t cling to any romantic notions that life on the back of a mountain in Vermont was any easier a 100 years ago, but this quiet resting place was a testament to more than just hardship. It reminded me that people still come to these hard-to-live-in places because a life away from the madding crowd brings with it freedom and (in spite of the long winters and minimal economic opportunities) peace.

Pea Picker


i’d like to tell you I have a veggie garden because I’m really into organic everything, but the truth is there’s nothing quite as satisfying as watching my kids fight over fresh greens.  In my defense, I have stopped telling them the peas were candy.

You can buy prints and cards of this painting here

Safe Spaces

IMG 3125

 

Last week after work the Big Guy came home from work and soberly announced that the son of a neighbor had taken his own life.  It took me a moment to start breathing again, and, out loud, I wondered what the rest of the town was wondering that day. “What was he thinking?” 

Privately, I had a pretty good idea of what he’d been thinking.  Only earlier that day had I been wrestling with those urges as I hugged my mother goodbye and had the irrational thought that I would never be happy again once she was gone. A vision of achieving perfect permanent peace flashed through my mind as I smiled at her and my father as they left. It was so strong and so clear that if I had not been having these urges and images since I was 10, I might not have chased it away.

My guess was that this kid, who, for as long as I had known of him, had exhibited self-destructive behavior, had been living with those urges for a long time.

My morning vision and the afternoon news brought me back to a high school assembly on suicide. After a movie and lecture, the hosts separated us into groups. I remember them asking us if any of us had ever contemplated taking our own lives. I was the only one in my group raised my hand. 

One of the adults took me aside and asked me how often I thought about it. I answered, “I don’t know, every day. Doesn’t everybody?”  The counselor  shook his head no and gave me a pamphlet for nearby church. 

Back then I don’t think I had even heard the word bipolar disorder. Manic Depression was just the title of the Jimi Hendrix song.  I did know that just getting out of the house – even out of bed – was often an enormous task when depression hit. When mania was pushing me to outer limits, I was the life of the party.  People thought (and still do) I was a drama queen.  I was told to snap out of “it” but wondered why I couldn’t.  I did know I couldn’t tell anyone about the places and pictures in my head.  I could barely explain them to myself, and trying to describe them to other kids – or any of our teachers – would have added just one more oddity to my already odd personality.    

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that I might not just have the blues.

I was lucky.  When my own bipolar disorder was diagnosed, my family was overwhelmingly supportive, and our home, at least, was a safe place to talk about mental illness.  The rest of the world is not so safe, and not everyone is so lucky.

I don’t know if this boy had a safe place to talk about the suicidal tendencies he had been exhibiting for as long as I had known of him. I do know that we still live in a world that makes opening up about mental illness – or even its symptomatic emotions – is like baring your throat to the wolves.  There is still stigma where there needs to be safe spaces.

Our very small town of 300+ people has talked of it regularly since it happened.  I hope we all continue talking about it. Mostly I hope we start talking about giving other kids like him a safe place to talk about their visions before they become reality.

The Given Trees

Apple tree

I had the dubious honor of having Margaret* on my list for the evening after only two weeks working at the nursing home. When I think back to my trepidation that night, I’m ashamed.  Margaret would give me several gifts, one of which I think each year as we put up the last apples of the season.

 

Completely bed ridden and saddled with a strict diet, Margaret had little control over her life outside of her morning and bedtime routines.  She was notorious for yelling at anyone who failed to deliver her care to her very detailed specifications.  I hadn’t met her, but I was terrified of her.  

 

“What are you doing?” she demanded as I first entered her room that night.  

 

“I have your dinner, Mrs. Williams,” I said, determined to be polite, even if she yelled at me.

 

“I don’t want any,” she said. I didn’t argue and took the tray out of the room.  The institution’s policy was not to force people to eat if they didn’t want to.  What Margaret could not refuse was minimum basic care that prevented bedsores.

 

 Hoping to avoid conflict, I eschewed suggestions from the nurse manager and asked Margaret how she wanted me to proceed.  Apparently unused to being asked what she wanted, her demeanor softened. The snapping ceased, and she quietly explained which gown she wanted and how she wanted her pillows arranged.  Before I knew it, we were done.  

I continued with my list and was nearly finished when the call-light outside Margaret’s room went on. Another nursing assistant rolled her eyes at me when she saw it.

 

“Now you’ve done it,” she said.  “She’s going to bug you all night.”  

 

When I went to see what she needed, Margaret asked if I was done with my list.  I answered not yet. She asked for fresh water which I got before returning to my list.

 

Second shift at the nursing home was quiet. We did rounds before the graveyard shift started.  Most nights between rounds we finished our charts at the nursing station or studied. But this was not most nights.

I had just started my charting when Margaret’s call-light went on again. Again, I went to see what she needed. She requested more water. Then she asked my name. She asked how long I’d been working and where I was from, telling me about herself as we talked.  I soon learned she had not only grown-up in our newly-adopted Vermont town but in the red farmhouse that we had just bought. Our property had belonged to her family since the colonial period.

We talked about people we both knew.  She told me about our house. She corrected me on a few points of history, mentioning that it had been built in 1761 and not 1790 as we had thought. She told me of an attic beam with the build date carved into it. Suddenly, it was 10:30 PM and time to begin last rounds.  

 

I got home late that night.  

 

Before I went to bed, however, I opened the door to the attic at the back of the bathroom and, armed with a flashlight, found Margaret’s beam.  I went to the east end of the attic and, just as she’d promised, found ‘1761’ carved into a rough-hewn beam. Margaret was not as senile or cantankerous and I had been led and only too willing to believe.  She was a living connection to the history of our town, our house, and to another way of doing things – a way that we very much trying to emulate.

 

The next night and the rest of the week Margaret asked to be on my list, and  I began looking forward to my shift. 

 

I learned she had moved to another town when she married, losing contact with old friends. I knew one of those friends and asked her if I could let him know that she was here. She said yes and we arranged a meeting.  The two octogenarians had attended the town’s remaining one-room schoolhouse together, and had much to share.  The meeting didn’t prompt a miracle turnaround of her physical health (I didn’t expect it to) but, following that visit she seemed a little happier.

 

Her health soon began failing rapidly and her memory with it.  Some nights she barely recognized me at all.  Even when she didn’t remember my name, though, we enjoyed lively conversations, mostly about her family’s farm.  

 

One night I said mentioned how much I loved the trees on the property.  For the first time since I’d been taking care of her she’s snapped at me.

 

“Those damn hippies let my father’s fields grow over,” she growled.  She told me of how hard her grandfather had worked to keep them clear for their livestock. She told me how father had changed the very shape of our road by planting grapevines  as roadblocks.  Then she told me of an apple orchard her grandfather started nearly 70 years ago. The wooded hills were hiding dozens of apple trees.

 

Margaret died a few weeks later. I didn’t know or care if it was professional to do so, but I cried.

 

About that time, the Big Guy and I decided to build a new house on our property, dividing and selling part of the land to help pay for the construction of the new house.  The land near the old house wouldn’t perk for a conventional septic, so we began hiking through our forest, looking for a better build site.

Cluttered with Rosie Bush, it was easy to get lost even on 10 acres.  We did notice that some of the craggy plants looked like trees. When April dotted the trees with apple-scented blossoms, I realized Margaret had been entirely lucid that night.

Apple hands copy

 

We had no intention of trying to restore a neglected 70-year-old orchard, but we did need a building site.  I asked our excavator guy if he could keep an eye out for the apple trees while clearing.  He doubted there would be any and warned me that any he found would not be productive given their age.  I’m not superstitious, but I was sure our discovery was a gift from Margaret, and I asked him to humor me.

 

When the clearing was done there were three apple trees in our yard.  And the excavator guy was right.  For the first year or two none of them produced anything bigger than a walnut.

 

After a few paltry harvests and wanting to expand my vegetable garden, I contemplated cutting the trees down.  Sentimentality ruled.  The apple blossoms were beautiful in spring, and the shade from the trees didn’t hit the garden until very late in the afternoon, so they were spared.

 

The next year, the Big Guy asked a tree-expert friend for help.  When I asked if the trees were too old to produce, he answered honestly that he didn’t know.  The trees were so old even he couldn’t identify the variety. He charged us $20 for a pruning.  Then we waited.

 

The spring blossoms came and went as they had the first four years. Then the walnut-sized fruit began to form. This year, however, they grew almost as big as tennis balls.  We had apples.

 

Everyone on our road seems to grow red apples whose rosy color clearly indicates when they’re ready to pick.   Our trees consistently give yellow-green fruit.  We decided to rely on cues from the local farms, watching for their billboards inviting passersby to the harvest.

 

When it was time to pick, our apples weren’t pretty. We discarded any that had been attacked by worms.  However, knowing even  scarred apples could be made into pie or applesauce, we filled several 5 gallon paint buckets. We were so excited we didn’t think to taste any.  When we finally did, our harvest was very starchy and not sweet.  We assumed we had picked too early.  

 

The next year we picked later, but the harvest still failed to give us sweet apples. Another year an early frost killed the blossoms.  We began to wonder if the pruning and picking was a lost cause.  

 

Once, again, I wondered if we should cut one down. Something about chopping down a given tree, however, seemed like breaking a commandment. I decided to extend my garden another direction and Margaret’s trees remained another year.

 

Last winter we pruned again, knowing we would get one or two heavily-sugared $20 pies.

 

Before we knew it apple picking season had come and gone.   Margaret’s trees had gone untouched. The first frost hit, and still only a few apples lay on the ground. We had not picked a single one. The nights mostly stayed warm until Halloween week, and then temperatures dipped into the 20s.  The apples began to fall.

 

The Big Guy has a healthy sense of adventure and had the first bite of the year.

 

“Wow,” he exclaimed. He took another bite and handed it to me.  “That is the sweetest apple I’ve ever tasted.”

 

I tried it and agreed. We began picking and then shaking trunk of the tree to loosen riper fruit. We quickly filled our 5 gallon bucket with candy-sweet treasure. I made a pie and a crisp and another pie.  We got the kids to work shaking and picking and gathering.

 

Now as we peel and core and put up the last of the harvest, I think about Margaret’s gifts.  They’re not just in the apple trees or even the history that only she could tell us.  They’re in learning to look deeper.  

 

Her exacting standards were not just about controlling her shrinking universe – they were about forcing the people in it to see her as a whole person, regardless of her age or physical condition.  I’m ashamed to admit that I when first met her, I was thinking of her list of demands and not her need for human connection and to feel valued.   

 

This winter our tree guy will come and tend our trees, and they may or may not give a good harvest again.  But if they don’t, they will still have a place in our lives because, like Margaret, what they have to give is still valuable, even if we don’t recognize it right away.

 

*Margaret’s name has been changed.