Our Side

Coco and I are staying with my folks in southern Vermont for a spell. I have no idea how this happened, and I sense that it's a rare bird, but I really love being here with Mom and Dad. Could be the setting: up on a hill, on a dirt road in Vermont in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere, if what we're talking about is how long it takes to get to the grocery store or how many people are close by.

Nowhere, as it turns out, is a pretty great place to be.

In the mornings I walk Daisy down the dirt road, and, if we are lucky, we run into our friend, Karen, who is much more of a disciplined, focused, runner/walker. She wears headphones for her morning outing, but when we meet she stops and takes them off, and then we revel in our good fortune to be in such a beautiful place. We joke about all the poor bastards fighting their way through traffic, headed to a building somewhere. There, in our obnoxious Vermonty superiority, we have a good laugh. And, too, we express genuine delight in knowing each other, in starting our day with a coming-together. And then we head our separate ways to do a bunch of Karen and Melissa things.

The truth we both know, buried deep beneath that veneer of superiority, is that we are immensely fortunate to be out walking down a dirt road in the morning, surrounded by trees, flowers, water, hills and a whole lot of quiet. We're no fools; we wish that everyone could have a piece of this, that all of humanity could start their day this way. Just not here, of course.

Yesterday morning I gave my mom a little lesson in how to manipulate the volume on her computer, without having to click on three different things. I showed her the keys that would get the job done for her, easily. After she left to have lunch with some friends, ten-year-old Coco had a good chuckle about that. "I can't believe Nana didn't know how to change the volume," she snorted through mouthfuls from her bowl of cereal. 

"It's the only reason any of us have kids anymore," I told her, "so you people can teach us how to use our technology."

From there I launched into The Speech, which, of course, started with the three-channel sob-story. "When I was a kid there were three channels on the TV" (holding up three fingers for emphasis, naturally). Next I described the phone on the wall, the dials on the radio...you get the picture. At some point, though, I realized what I was actually saying: it wasn't that long ago that when we used all of the devices we had: the phone, TV, radio, record player, it was a physical act. You got up and went to the TV to change the channel; you took the record out of the sleeve, dusted it off, set it on the turntable and gently placed the needle on the spinning black disc. There was a moment of suspense before the first sounds emanated from the speakers and a whole world lived inside that suspense. It was a full-body experience. If the phone rang, you walked to the wall where it was hanging. There were knobs, real buttons and dials. The arm on the record player felt different than the receiver on the phone. Life was a gloriously tactile experience; life was in-motion. We went to it; it wasn't sitting in our pocket at all times.

It made me a little sad, to think about all that lost locomotion. I wondered about the erosion, about the cost. 

On Tuesday, the first morning of summer vacation, I walked into Coco's room to find her in bed reading a book. The evening before, Dad was teaching her about aerodynamics, using the styrofoam airplane she had been launching off the back deck; earlier that afternoon I had found them in the garden together, planting seeds. Yesterday, after Helen Cooper Hood Eyre designed, from fabric scraps, her very first dress, she asked Pa to make her a table for her sewing machine: she has been drawing clothing designs for years; this is the summer she's going to bring them to life. Pa was on it, with his tape measure and tools. Coco will probably have a table by the end of the day today. 

It's good, this parents, kid, grandparents thing.

Later this morning I'm heading up to Middlebury for the memorial service for my beloved hospice patient. It was almost a year ago that we met; she died on Monday. I didn't get to say good-bye, so I went to the nursing home where she lived and sat in her room for a while. I looked around at her photographs -- of anniversary celebrations, weddings, her children and grandchildren. I stared for a long time at the drawing someone did of her and her husband, sitting on the porch of their summer cottage. I put my hands on the handles of her wheelchair and thought of the many walks we took together, indoors during the long winter days, and outside when it was warm. How I used to describe everything to her, sing to her; how we so often just sat together, doing nothing. It was everything. 

It really was everything, all that nothing. I'm going to miss it.

Being here, surrounded by hills, trees, dirt and so much green you almost have to squint; birds and rushing water the only sounds filling the airspace, family making stuff, kind of makes a funeral morning a little more bearable. It's easier to feel closer to some kind of truth about life here, in the middle of nowhere. It's easier to access that truth, and to know that, in spite of all the pain and uncertainty; in spite of warp-speed technological advances with their mysteriously-placed volume controls, there is something very, very good and beautiful not far beneath the surface of this hard life, and that it is a truth, as the song goes, that's on our side.