Andes Mint #24: The World Offers Itself to You

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,” says poet Mary Oliver, “the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting. . .” I was 18 when my parents drove me over from the Adirondacks and delivered me and my belongings to college. I remember watching them drive off in their yellow station wagon. It seemed to me that, although I hadn’t known it until just that moment, my life had broken open. As if anything was possible.

What do I remember of those years? Moments, one after another, held inside as if all time is one time, and we are all still together, there on that beautiful hill.

I remember asking my friend Tom, late one night at a party, “How can you fling yourself off that tower?” For years I, the non-skier, had admired ski jumpers, how they arced their bodies into the unseen air.

“It’s no big deal,” he said. We were sitting side by side in two large green chairs. “The air is soft. It’s like a pillow. It cushions you. You just go into your tuck and do it.”

What he didn’t tell me was that the “cushion” was there and then not there, and it could move you all over the place, depending on air pockets and wind gusts. I know that now, but what I have always gone back to is that first, long ago comment: You just go into your tuck and do it.

I remember stretching to Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver before heading out on late afternoon runs. I remember Charlie R’s sweet smile as I ran past him one day near Hillcrest. I remember smiling back. Out of all those days and years of running, why that one fall day, why Charlie alone, walking through falling maple leaves turned to flame? But there it is, a memory like a photograph.

And I remember sitting in a Social Anthropology class, listening to others discuss the assigned readings, through which I had dutifully plowed (50 pages read = one Andes mint bought at the Crest Room, prior to the night’s studying). I remember Mima N. shooting her hand up and asking a brilliant question. I remember thinking, “How did she even think up that question?” It was clear to me that my critical thinking skills were far behind. But anything was possible, wasn’t it? Maybe someday I, too, could think up, if not a great answer, at least a great question.

I remember that on Sundays, the New York Times was delivered to the door of the girls who roomed across the hall from me sophomore year. I remember thinking, I’ve never even read the New York Times. I remember thinking, Someday, when I’m a real grownup, I’m going to have the New York Times delivered to my door.

I remember visiting my friend Absalom on the third floor of our dorm and noting that it was possible to turn one’s dorm room into a shrine to John Prine, cigarettes, and thrift store army jackets. I remember redecorating Peter C’s room with a small collection of moth-eaten fox stoles and four plastic beer mugs.

I remember driving late one night, miles and miles in the darkness, Steve K. behind the wheel, Greg M. riding shotgun, me in the backseat wishing Steve would give me another square of his Cadbury Fruit ‘n Nut. The car was quiet, and Steve beat his hand against the steering wheel to a song inside him. Where were we going? Did we know?

I remember emerging from the underbelly of Sunderland Language Center one winter night when the stars above were like diamonds scattered on black velvet. My mind rang with the cadence of Chinese voices on the Chinese tapes I had spent hours listening to. Suddenly, all around me like an invisible chorus, came the sound of cheering. It rose out of the snow and the woods and the dorms and the town, and I stood there in the cold, filled with wonder. We had just won the U.S.-USSR Olympic hockey game, but I didn’t know that. It seemed only that anything was possible. That even the mountains, if they wanted to, could sing.

I remember standing in line at Security, waiting for my i.d. card on that very first day, behind a girl with honey-colored hair and hiking boots laced with red laces. Now that is cool, I thought. If only I had the imagination to lace my hiking boots with red laces.

“Can you tell me where Stewart Dorm is?” I said to this girl. I did not tell her how much I admired her red laces. That would come years later.

“I’m heading there myself,” she said. “My name’s Ellen.”

I didn’t know then that from that day on, three decades now and counting, each of us would be the voice and the laughter that the other longs to hear. That we would see each other through hardships we couldn’t have then imagined. That if not all things are, in the end, possible, they are at least bearable, if you have a best friend.

I remember graduation day, crutching across the stage with a broken leg,  crying and crying and crying, because I did not want to graduate. I wanted to stay in that shining place forever.

Now here I am, all these years later, and I’m thinking about Neil Young, who wrote, “All my changes were there.” Not all of them. But that was the place where I lived all those moments. That place was the pivot for me, the place where I first turned around and glimpsed the wide horizons of the world. In some ways, I’m still there.

Like Tom said, the cushion might be there and it might not, and gusts of wind might move you all over the place. But you go into your tuck anyway, and you aim yourself into the future.

Andes Mint #22: Off the grid dabblement

You’re the keeper of a tiny house on a hill in the woods in Vermont. The house is one room, 11′ x 19′, with a tiny sleeping loft and a tiny porch.

At first there was just land. Over the years –quite a few them at this point– you added electricity, tunneled up in a pipe from a pole down the dirt road. And a well, dug way down into the Vermont rock. There’s no plumbing, but there’s a pump. There’s also an outhouse. The outhouse has no door, but when you’re in it you’re looking out at the pine woods and a creek and a bluff rising above it, so . . . no complaints.

Then the tiny house came into being, first in the form of a kit that included lumber and a tin roof and insulation, nails even, which you bought off eBay. Some friends and you framed it up over four days in late fall and another carpenter friend finished the interior over the long Vermont winter, snowshoeing in and out because the dirt road isn’t plowed in winter.

When you’re at the tiny house you divide your time between writing –you can sit on the porch and all you see are white pines and deer and squirrels and wild turkeys and once in a while even a bear– and hiking and making things out of rocks and dirt and wood.

The tiny house could easily be off the grid except for the fact that you’re completely dependent on electricity in order to write. Solar panels are a possibility but they’re way too expensive.

Nevertheless, you play around with off the grid sorts of experiments. One is a graywater filtration system. Graywater is water that’s been used for things like showers and washing dishes. (Blackwater is what comes out of toilets, but you don’t need to worry about that because of the aforementioned outhouse.)

You built your graywater irrigation system this summer, over the course of three days. If it looks just like a raised rock garden, that’s because it pretty much is.

Day One: Eye up the patch of dirt at the side of the cabin. Haul a whole bunch of flat rocks from the creekbed at the bottom of the hill up the hill to the cabin. That sentence makes it sound so easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. Those rocks are amazingly heavy, and prying them out of the creekbed is hard, and that hill is long, and your wheelbarrow is kind of rickety. Major labor, friends, major labor.

Day Two: Arrange all those rocks you hauled on Day One into a pretty, slightly irregular shape. Accept your friend’s offer of some extra topsoil and stand with him in the bed of the pickup tossing shovelfuls into the rock bed. Go to the hardware store and buy two lengths of corrugated pipe. Lay them into the garden bed and grade the dirt underneath so that they angle slightly downward. Test-drive the pipes by pouring several buckets of water through them to make sure that the water disperses evenly and doesn’t all cascade out the other end. Adjust grading as necessary.

Day Three: Go back to the hardware store and buy a bunch of peat moss. Cover the pipes with the peat moss and then take a shovel and do a haphazard job of mixing the topsoil with the peat moss. Dig the perennials your mother helped you divide from her garden out of the woods where you temporarily planted them three days ago. Arrange them in an attractive manner in the raised rock bed. Make sure you don’t try to plant them directly onto one of the pipes.

Et voila! Now you have a raised rock garden/graywater filtration system. Someday, maybe, you’ll have some sort of rudimentary plumbing inside the tiny house, and then you can let the graywater run out of a pipe and into the pipes now hidden in your garden. For now, you’ll empty your 5-gallon buckets of graywater into the garden, which would be a pretty sweet addition to the tiny house even if it didn’t serve a graywater filtration purpose.

In my father's house there are many mansions

There’s a one-room shop in New York City that features dozens of cubbies, like dioramas, of perfect miniature rooms, complete to the last detail. Doll house furnishings unlike any you’ve ever seen before – a rolled-up newspaper, headlines and print readable, measuring half an inch. A wooden tray, the size of your pinky nail, containing a folded napkin, half a dozen chocolate chip cookies and a pitcher of milk.

It’s easy to spend an hour wandering around that quiet little store admiring its precisely wrought wares. Tiny houses charm you and always have. Airstreams. Houseboats. Vintage, single-wide trailers like the kind your grandmother lived in when you were growing up. One-room studio apartments with miniature appliances, a miniature fireplace, like one you once lived in.

You’ve always wanted a miniature house for yourself. Once you once spent a couple of hours at a marina on the Mississippi, pretending to be in the market for a houseboat so you could check out the ones that were for sale. So perfect, all of them, with their built-in drawers and appliances and cupboards and beds and tables and chairs.

When you were little, you and your sisters used to make elaborate houses out of big cardboard boxes, hay bales, an abandoned chicken coop, a blanket thrown over a card table. Every square inch counted in those houses, and no space went to waste.

Why, then, given this love of miniaturization, do you keep having one particular dream?

In this dream, you’re in a house, a house that you live in. You like the house but you don’t love it, maybe because there’s somehow not quite enough room in it.

Then, in the dream, you suddenly discover that there’s a whole part of the house that you never knew about. The new part is usually circular, built in a ring around the outside of the house you’ve been living in. It’s made of wood, and very dusty, and the furniture in it –it comes fully furnished– is covered with white sheets. It’s been closed up for a long time.

You walk around opening door after door, peering into room after room. Balconies and hallways. Windows. High ceilings. So much room!

Whenever you have this dream, you wake up restless, half happy and half frustrated. Where is all that room? Where is the whole hidden enormous house that’s somewhere, somehow, part of the house you already live in?

When you were a kid you wanted a house like the one Batman lived in, with secret compartments and bookcases that revolved at a touch of a button to reveal a whole new wing of the mansion, including the Bat Cave where the Bat Car waited.

Last week you were at your shack in the Green Mountains with a big list of things to do, tasks involving a shovel, a spade, a pitchfork, a hatchet, an axe, a scythe and a wheelbarrow.

At under 200 square feet, the shack is tiny. It began life as a pile of labeled wood with instructions that you bought off eBay, kind of like a giant Lincoln Log kit. Over four days, one sunny November years ago, you and your friends framed it up on a smoothed and leveled patch of gravel.

The shack sits in a small clearing surrounded by towering pines, next to a sunny slope set amongst ravines and bluffs and woods and creeks. That’s it up there at the top of this page. It’s more faded now. If you don’t do something to the wood soon it will keep fading more and more until it’s a silvery color.

Inside it smells like pine and earth, like concentration of woods.

You built the shack thinking that it was the beginning of a future real house. The first step in a long dream of life in Vermont.

Last week you constructed an indoor sink out of a jug and a bucket and a  cart, and the whole arrangement was so pleasing that you ended up washing your hands and brushing your teeth much more than usual, just to use the new sink.

In the tiny pitched-roof sleeping loft, an air mattress spread with a quilt is a bed. At night you can turn out the light and lie by the window sipping whiskey and looking out at the stars through the pine branches.

There’s a heater at the shack, and a couch, and many books. There’s a miniature refrigerator and a toaster and a well with a pump. There’s an outhouse. There’s a tent for guests, not that you’ve had any. There’s peanut butter and Jim Beam. There’s soap and a toothbrush and towels. There’s a table with a pen and paper.

There’s a hammock hung between two pines. It’s possible to spend half an hour watching an inchworm make its way across the entire, enormous-to-an-inchworm width of it.







Is the inchworm brave? Dumb? Is it acting purely on instinct and, if so, is it braver or dumber than a human being who tries to plot out its life from start to finish? Does it know where it’s going? Does it  know it’s going anywhere? Is it going somewhere, or is movement itself the biological destiny of an inchworm? Does an inchworm stop inching to sleep, or rest, or take a short nap?

These are some of the questions you wondered about as you sat in the hammock last week, watching the inchworm. Early on in the watching you decided that no matter what, you wouldn’t interfere with the inchworm. Neither by helping nor hindering would you influence the outcome of this journey, whatever that journey was.

The entire time you watched the inchworm, it never stopped moving, or trying to move, even when it reached a particularly deep fold in the fabric of the hammock. When that happened, it stretched itself out as far as possible and then flung as much of its body as it could over the abyss.

When you returned to the city you showed your youthful companion a tiny video you took of the inchworm, inching, and before three seconds went by she said, “Honestly? I’ve always really admired inchworms,” and you had to agree.

At some point you lay back in the hammock and looked straight up, into the crowns of the white pines and the blue sky beyond. You heard nothing but birds and crickets and bees and the faint drone of an invisible airplane.

Suddenly you realized that the shack isn’t a shack. It isn’t the beginning of a much bigger future house. It’s not the start of a dream; it’s a miniature house, complete in itself.

Why did this never occur to you before?

All you had to do, in order to turn the shack into the miniature house you’ve always wanted, was see it in a new way. Your whole life you’ve dreamed of a miniature house, and all this time you already had one.

It comes to you then, looking up at those trees, that there’s so much space in your miniature house. And on the hammock. So much space in the trees, arching toward the sky, and so much space in the sky.

So many rooms in everything, and everyone.

Swimming in the dark

And so begins the great lengthening of the light: two minutes today, more tomorrow, and on and on until June 21.

You’re sitting right now in darkness lit by a glowing tree. You’re remembering light, and people, past and present, dear to you.

Fireflies, little magicians of bioluminescence. You spent so many days, this long year, writing and rewriting a tiny novel about, in equal measure, a firefly, a cricket and a vole. But when you think about the tiny novel, it’s the firefly you think of first, lighting the night.

You grew up in a house in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains so removed from anything resembling a town that at night, the only light visible was a sky full of stars. It took you an absurdly long time, after you were grown up and had lived in cities for many years, to realize that the Adirondacks sky is no more full of stars than anywhere else. When the darkness around it is left undisturbed, a sky full of stars is the way sky is.

When you were nine years old you slept over at a friend’s house. She lived in the village, “the village” being the town of 300 that lay five miles south of your house. You remember hardly sleeping because of the streetlight on the corner that glowed all night long. It was so bright.

It’s surprising how much brightness a person can get used to.

In a clearing on a hill in Vermont is a tiny, one-room  cabin. You and your friends built it from a kit you bought off eBay.

The night sky there is full of stars, and the pine woods that surround the cabin are full of fireflies. Someone close to you lived there for half a year, and every night he and his dog went to sit on the bench he built there, down the slope from the cabin, to watch the fireflies come out.

You remember a night at the State Fair four years ago, when your youthful companion and her friend Charlie stood gazing longingly at a kiosk that sold helium balloons on sticks, rubber bouncy balls, and other plastic kitsch. Feeling generous, you bought them each a light-up sword.

Later, as you walked out of the Midway and across a dark meadow to get to your car, your youthful companion and her friend took off across the slope. They wove their way among the trees, their laughter floating through the air, light-up swords flashing in the dark.

You remember buying a package of glow-in-the-dark stars and moons and planets from Spencer Gifts when you were a teenager and your baby brother was turning seven. You stood on a chair in his room reaching up –you can still feel the ache in your arms– pressing each one onto the ceiling of his room.

Those stars and moons and planets are still there in that old room, glowing in the dark when your brother’s young son, visiting his grandparents, goes to sleep.

Here’s a memory of darkness from when you lived on the ocean. There was a white van, and you and someone you loved sitting in it with the engine turned off and the windows open. Summer. A sand road that led to the dunes, and the ocean beyond.

Dark sky above, sand glimmering faintly below, and the murmur of the waves. No one else around. You both took your clothes off and ran in, invisible in the dark water.

But no, not invisible after all. You began to glow, the two of you, arms and legs shimmering beneath the surface of the water. It was an astonishing sight, something you’d never seen before.

There was a reason for it, something to do with oceanic phosphorescence. He explained it to you. But you don’t remember the explanation. All you remember is the sight of him, arm over arm, propelling himself out beyond the break, a swimmer trailing fire.

Here’s a memory of light that didn’t happen to you, but you see it so vividly that it’s as if it did. An airline lost-luggage deliveryman making his way around the curves and hills of the Adirondacks, trying to find that house so far away from anything familiar.

“Dear God,” he said when he finally gave up and called, lost, from his truck. “Where do you people live?”

Your mother laughed.

“Stay on the phone and I’ll guide you in,” she said, and she stood on the porch waving a flashlight back and forth, slowly, a miniature version of the way giant spotlights crisscross the city when a new club opens.

When you were five years old, she woke you in the middle of the night. She took your hand and guided you downstairs and out onto the porch.

“Look up,” she said, and you looked up.

The dark night sky shimmered and pulsed with light. Red and yellow and green and blue, soundless and unearthly.

“That’s the northern lights,” she said. “The aurora borealis.”

You hung onto her hand, your mother whom you loved, and watched the heavens silently singing above.

Years later but long ago now there was another night when you were lost in the darkness in Vermont, driving into the country, searching for the place where someone else you love lived. It was late. Back and forth you drove, past dark houses, dark farms, dark roads, trying to remember the directions he had given you.

Finally you realized you were already there, had been there several times, in fact, in your wanderings. You turned off the headlights, drove down the driveway in darkness, turned off the engine and climbed the steps, everything dark but the faint red glow of the stereo.

Once under the quilts you listened to the sounds around you. Creak of bedframe as you turned over. Tiny rustling animals. Wind in the top of the pines. Crickets. The breathing of someone asleep next to you. If, when you picture it, darkness has a sound, then these are the sounds it has.

If darkness has a smell, it’s the smell of furrowed fields and pine woods, salt water and sand.

If darkness is defined only by light, then light is stars and fireflies, skin glowing in the ocean, the faint red flicker of a stereo after a long journey, the presence of those you loved and love.

Stand before a bookcase, close your eyes, pick a book, open it up, jab your finger down on the page, and use that sentence as your opening

“…together, country-western on the radio.”

Johnny Cash. Tammy Wynette. Dolly Parton. Loretta Lynn. Lynn Anderson. Hank Williams. Glen Campbell. Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash. Has Johnny Cash been mentioned? Johnny Cash.

These are the country-western singers you grew up with, the ones who were on the radio in the station wagon as you and your family drove. Which you had to do all the time –drive– since you lived five miles north of the nearest town.

These are the singers whose records you played on the record player. The first record you bought with your own money, when you were a little kid, was Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.

You and your family once saw Johnny at an outdoor stadium in Toronto. It poured down rain, and your seats were out in the open. No shelter. “If you stay, I’ll play,” he said, and he went through guitar after guitar as each one got soaked on stage.

Dolly you loved, and you love even more now. She felt like a friend. Loretta you were a little scared of, but you admired her. Glen made you dream about wide-open spaces and horses and cowboy boots. Lynn had a song called “Fancy” that you listened to over and over and over and over and over and over, before you even understood what the song was about. Hank, Hank. . . something about him made you want to cry. Tammy made you think. But not too hard. She felt like the lesser of the country sisters.

Johnny, though, he was everything. You mourned the day he died, and you love his daughter partly because she’s a good songwriter, and partly because she loved her dad so much.

Country-western on the radio. Baseball on the radio. The WIBX morning show on the radio.

There was a lot of radio in your life, back then, and none of it was the NPR that you listen to nonstop now.

She commits to writing a blog entry on the first suggestion that comes her way

. . . and the first suggestion that comes her way is “what love is.”

In keeping with the spirit of the thing, she closes her eyes, blindly points the cursor in her photo file, and clicks, in the belief that whatever photo presents itself will have an intrinsic connection to the theme.

Take a look at that photo. That there is a wooded hill in southeastern Vermont.  A wooded Vermont hill captured in pixels almost six years ago, as it happens, a photo she hasn’t looked at since.

Note the rudimentary driveway with the rutted tracks, the small evergreens dotting the hillside, the tall oaks and maples and white pines to the right and also farther up the hill. The car in the lower left belongs, she thinks, to her friend Meredith, who took the photo.

Six years ago, she (she being me, not Meredith), signed a series of legal documents faxed to her home in Minneapolis. The legal documents meant that this land was now hers. Despite the fact that she knew this particular part of Vermont well, she hadn’t ever seen this particular hill in real life.

She studied the series of photos that her friend sent to her, and she imagined herself walking through these woods. She wondered what the view was like from the very top of the hill. She wondered if there was a flat patch of dirt where you could pitch a tent, maybe build a one-room hut.

There’s an outhouse in the woods, her friend informed her. An outhouse was a one-room hut of sorts, wasn’t it? Indeed it was. What do you know, there was already a house of sorts on the land.

She went to walk the land only after it was hers, driving down the dirt roads that are 70% of all Vermont roads, searching for the unmarked entrance to the rudimentary driveway. What had she gotten herself into? She lived in Minneapolis, for God’s sake.

You always wanted to live in Vermont, she reminded herself. But it makes no sense, she scolded herself, You live in Minneapolis. She had no rebuttal to that one; it was true, this didn’t make any sense.

But she went ahead anyway.

Once there, she couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. Those giant trees. That one white pine, my God, she had never seen a white pine so tall, so huge. From the very top of the land she looked east, to New Hampshire, and there it was: Mt. Monadnock.

A year later, she and her friends put together a tiny one-room cabin from a kit bought off eBay. Another friend cut down some of the little evergreens that were overtaking the slope. Someone else drilled a well, and someone else spread gravel on the driveway.

One friend lived in the tiny one-room cabin for six months and used the earth itself to build things. Wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load filled with large flat Vermont slate dug up out of the creek beds: a walled perennial bed. Saplings felled with an axe, stripped with a draw knife, notched with a hatchet: a tool shed and a bench and a picnic table and a ladder. A firepit lined with rocks.

A hammock now hangs from straps encircling two white pines. A clothesline stretches between two trees. A pipeless old sink is propped between two other trees, a water bag with a spout suspended on a hook above it. The old outhouse in the woods has proved extremely useful.

She sits on a couch in Minneapolis, typing away on this entry. Below her is the sound of the water pump; a tall boy is taking a shower. Above her comes the sound of a ukelele; a girl is strumming it. And in another room, another house, in another part of the city, another girl is babysitting.

Once, the boy and the girls did not exist. They were dreams in the mind of a young woman. All her life she wanted them, imagining the things they might do together. The books she would read to them. The places they would go. She imagined sitting them on the kitchen counter so they could help bake cookies. She determined that she would take them traveling as soon as they were born, that they would grow up to be adventurers.

In dark moments, she imagined all the awful things that could happen to them, these invisible non-existent children. She imagined the horror of watching them hurt, suffer.

It doesn’t make sense to have children, she told herself. Those things could happen. The world is full of hurt.

But she went ahead anyway.

From something that was not real and that didn’t exist comes something real. Something you can touch. The top of a tall hill, from which you can see a far horizon. A boy, girls, human beings conjured up out of flesh and blood and dreams.

And so it goes.

Things don’t make sense, but you do them anyway. What exists at first only in your heart turns, over years, into something real.

Love is risk. Love is faith. Love is action.