The Woodpile


We don’t have a furnace, but we do have an amish-made wood cookstove that burns about five cords of wood every winter.  Over the last few years, thirteen-year-old Jack has increasingly enjoyed the triple-warming feature of our chosen heat source.  

As Jack’s body has grown, so has his part in the stacking, hauling, and burning.  Some years he even takes on the lion’s share of the stacking in hopes of earning some cash.  Even the small income, however, has not taught him to appreciate the woodpile.

Monday we each had a day off.  I decided to lend him a hand.  After lunch, we each donned work gloves and earbud and started ferrying logs to the woodshed.  

It was quiet work.  Each of us was listening to music, but, as Jack has grown taller, he has also become more introspective. Spontaneous utterances are rare.   He meets most of my queries these days with monosyllabic answers.

As the first cord formed in the shed, however, Jack volunteered the remark on the increase in speed when there were two stacking.  I concurred, adding that it was almost pleasant when you got moving.  Jack retreated to silence again.  I asked what music he was listening to, extracting an answer after repeating the questions several ways.

I entertain no illusions about my hipness as a mother (only my fitness as one), and I was glad just to know a little about Jack’s evolving music tastes.  In the next hour we would chat about his English grade, the computer he’s been working toward over the last year, and his favorite video game.  In the end, the wood stacking warmed each of us, but in completely different ways.  For Jack, it was still just a chore.  For me, it was one more thing in my life that reminding me to feel thankful.

The Mountain

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We don’t live at the top of the mountain; we live in the middle of it.  During thunderstorms, it’s like being perched in the middle of a waterfall as the rain and runoff course down the hill and around our house to the river 300 ft below us.   Lately, though, it’s kind of been like living on a mountain top.

The bridge at one end of our road that’s closest to the closest major town (Arlington, VT, pop 2397) is closed for repair for a long while.  Now we take the long way to get most places.  The long way takes us further into our town center – complete with town hall and school house turned summer art gallery before we can turn down the main road heading to civilization.  It’s been a bit of a pain, but it’s also been an unexpected pleasure.

Running north and south through a town with a population of 353 (including the part time residents), our dirt road was never congested.  When people wanted a change of scene from the main road that runs parallel with it, however, they made a small detour and took ours.  Now, with one end blocked, our road has become a mile long cul-de-sac, and our yard, 900 ft off of that cul-de-sac has become as quiet as the nearby monastery.  

The quiet is peace.  The distance makes us mindful.  A ten minute run to the country store has turned into twenty minutes, and every errand is now considered carefully.   As we did when we first decided to live off the grid, we are now learning to decide how to make more out of the limited resource of our time when we go out.  And we are being reminded, once again, to decide if we really need that extra purchase badly enough to go out at all.

Worth Repeating

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The willow trees near the main road are sending out shoots of yellow green, and it’s clear the mountains are about to explode in a myriad of greens.  For now, though, the daffodils and the tiny sunlit green dots on the trees cast a glow over our small town.  

The Dairy Bar is open now, and people are stopping in for ice cream after Little League or for a sunny batter-dipped dinner after work.  The air is thick with the smell of manure-plowed fields and fruit blossoms.  At the market, the pansies are being replaced by petunias as the days grow longer, and bales of straw are being stacked for gardeners emerging from their hibernation.  

I’m watching a story that’s being told again in small towns across the country.  I’ve seen it unfold over ten times now, and it’s a tale that never gets old.

Two Makes Chrysalis

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Lately, the company I work for has had the lucky misfortune of having too much business.  For the Tech Support staff, this has meant confining ourselves to our computers almost from dawn till dusk.  Our computers are all at our homes, but the long days, coupled with winter weather and roads have helped spin a thick cocoon around our earth-sheltered house.  I am not naturally extroverted, so retreating behind a protective shell of snow and work has been quite comfortable.  It was only when I responded to an invitation from another confined friend that I realized that my insular shell was missing something.  

I am ashamed to say, that in the months since knee surgery has confined my friend, I have only been to visit at the beginning to bring flowers picked by our youngest son.  When the phone rang last week, I answered with a mix of happiness and guilt.  By the time I hung up, guilt was mostly gone and I was looking forward to a date on Friday afternoon after work.

Friday morning was another grey winter work day, and I was really excited to go have talk and tea at the end of it.  A light snow had just begun to form a blanket over the roads and mountains when I headed down the road to my friend’s house.  For a brief moment, I had to quell my natural instinct to return to my cocoon.  A flare of guilt kept my car moving forward, however, and I would be glad it did.

My friend and I were once in a writing group together, and grew quite close at the time.  We may not see each other for months except passing on the road or at the country store, but there is rarely any uncomfortable silence when we get back together.  Friday was no exception.  

I let myself in through the mudroom door and, after hugs, we remarked on the changes in each other’s hair and physiques before retreating back to my friend’s cozy bedroom behind the kitchen for a huddle.  I took a quick look at my clock – 4ish it was – knowing I had to leave by 5 to get to the grocery store before dark and settled into a comfy chair.

The kettle on the wood stove hummed every now, serenading us as we talked of doctors and cats and neighbors’s recent departures and returns.  Through the window, I could see the now-heavier snow that only seemed to insulate us more as we talked of writing and iPads and husbands.  

I had not written a word all day – a late Thursday night and early start at work had put the kibosh on creative expression for 48 hours.  I knew the weekend schedule would not allow for much writing or drawing, but by the time I stood up from my chair and made a plan to visit again next week, I felt my soul had been fed.  And the feeding of it guaranteed that when the time permitted, the work I want to do will happen and happily.

It was mostly dark and well after 6pm when I stepped out into the wet snow.  There was a snowy trip to the grocery store ahead before I returned to my cave.  Dark, snowy drives usually fill me with trepidation.  This one, however, was a few minutes more of quiet, and I used it to relish the enlightenment I had found in the fellowship my friend and I had reformed.  

Now, back in my cocoon, it’s warm and safe, as always.  But I will not wait months again before I return to the chrysalis where ideas and friendship grow.  

Traffic Jam

Tuesday day before Thanksgiving, and the house is almost ready.  The kids’ room is at Defcon 2 (down from a catastrophic level four), most of the laundry’s done (that was going to get done before Sunday), beds are made and ready for guests, and I only have the shopping left to do.  I dropped the kids at school and turned south on Route 7A going out of Arlington.  I got to the turn off for the highway but, not seeing anyone in front of me, decided to stay on the slower road to Bennington.

A meandering two lane country road dotted with  a few farms and the occasional white-steepled church, Historic 7A (as it’s known in the tour guides) is even more scenic as the November morning brushed the trees and meadows with a muted pink and green frost.  Usually I’m too preoccupied with to-do’s to absorb the view, but this is my last bit of quiet before a long weekend of entertaining, and I am determined to enjoy the drive – as long as it doesn’t take too long.

But I’m coming around a curve, about to set the cruise control when the back end of a decelerating dump truck magically appears in front of me, interrupting my view and my plan.  He continues to slow down, and I roll my eyes.  What now?  We are now crawling forward, but my curiosity is short-lived.

A few seconds later we get to the cause of the slowdown. It is a single flagger directing traffic around another orange-vested road worker. On the side of the road, parked in someone’s yard is an orange VTrans pickup.  And then I see the flagger has a couple helpers.

As the flagger steps out into the road, a couple of Rhode-Island Reds appear, inspecting the scuffed dirt around the parked pickup.

The dump truck and I slowly down a bit more, but we don’t even stop. I watch the dump truck weave carefully around the flag man, and the flag man waves.  The dump truck driver probably doesn’t know the guy.  I don’t either, but a second later I pass and wave too.

I accelerate out of the last curve.  The car speeds up, but I’ve completely slowed down.

Downstairs, Downstairs


Last year we ditched our satellite dish in favor of a Roku.  We were tired of paying a huge monthly bill for a package full of channels we couldn’t watch with the kids, and most of our favorite shows were on Hulu or Netflix anyway.  One of my favorite aspects of Netfilx has been finding complete collections of old TV shows, and my latest guilty pleasure has been watching ‘Downton Abbey’ from end to end without waiting a week to see what happened.

I really love historic fiction, and I love the efforts the director and producers took with costumes and production when breathing life into their story of servants and their turn-of-the-last-century noble employers.  But, as the Big Guy reminded me, there was a predecessor to this series, and, as luck would have it, Netflix had it and I added it to my queue.

Upstairs, Downstairs first aired in the 1970s, and, while the costumes and sets were not nearly as painstakingly detailed and elaborate as its successors, but its simplicity sharpened the focus of this look at lives and livelihoods so completely determined by social class, and for some reason I couldn’t place right away I found myself hooked.  But, with the first few episodes playing out in the background as I was loading the last of the season harvest into the dehydrator, I began to suspect that one reason for the attraction was that our life is very much Downstairs, Downstairs with one significant difference.

The majority of the first show takes place downstairs, introducing us to the staff of an Edwardian house and to their newest member.  Each of the servants has their own degree of acceptance of the then current caste system, but what I found interesting was that whether or not a servant was portrayed as accepting of their status, without exception, they did except that their employers’ class was superior in every way.  That acceptance could be an expression of jealousy, resignation or ambition, but it was never questioned.

Now, I have come to accept that, absent a winning lottery ticket, our life will most likely be Downstairs, Downstairs for the duration.  Neither of us earns enough to find our way Upstairs.  But, even if we did hit the lottery, I’ve also come to realize that our material wants are pedestrian enough to ensure that  we will always be more comfortable having a wardrobe that consists of work jeans and good jeans for going out.  We will always be more comfortable in our unconventional house with its Early-American Garage Sale un-chic and its hodge-podge garden.  And we will always be more comfortable Downstairs.


As my son stands in the doorway of our cluttered mudroom, his clothes soaked to the skin from an afternoon of tubing down the Battenkill and jumping in ponds, it occurs to me that we have become hillbillies.

To be sure, we have created the right atmosphere. There’s the perennial appearance of our thirty-year-old mercedes on blocks; the woodshed built for strength but impermanence for the benefit of the tax assessors; the garden that sometimes looks like a weed sanctuary and an ever-evolving parade of animals streaming through a mudroom littered with shoes and skates and garden implements.

And, in spite of our diminishing efforts to stay connected to trends and the city, life and location have conspired to turn us and our kids into hicks .We have learned the difference between hay and straw. Our kids picky about when their peas are picked. They have developed an affinity for dirt and allergies to soap (so they claim). They have never slept a day on a set of matching sheets or worn a color-coordinated outfit to school.

Living on a mountain far from many friends has taught us to find enjoyment close to home and our kids to find fun in the forest. Bills and a sparse employment landscape have taught us all the value of financial security but also that people without it still have value. We have learned to make do and to be happy doing without. Watching neighbors share food,money, and labor has taught us all to do for others and when to lean .

As Thing 1 and I debate whether he should leave the wet clothes (made filthy by a day of cheap, low-tech fun) outside or in the mudroom, I come to the conclusion that being a hillbilly is a pretty good thing.



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