shimmers and sways:
a keening giantess bedecked
with helpless jewels,
or trembling, beaded
after a long night of love.
Yes, this is going to be a new life, for sure. Along with all the other bike commuters, I rode to work this morning, made a pot of coffee, and now I'm sitting here near the window of our studio, beautiful light streaming in the window (I'll be able to grow flowering plants), traffic going by on the main street outside, while J. and two other men are running new circuits. One of them is a softspoken young man from the French Caribbean, and the other is a stocky, quiet but friendly French Canadian middle-aged man who often has an unlit, half-smoked cigarette dangling from his lips, and seems to be in charge of all such work for our building. We've communicated our needs in French, such as we could, (neither of them speaks any English) and they're working away; soon we'll have our frigo and micro-onde, and can think ahead to a lavabo (that's fridge, microwave, and sink.)
We can begin to see how we want to share and shape the space, though it will take us a while. The first thing we're setting up and unpacking? Books.
The closing on our Vermont house was at 9:15 am yesterday. Afterwards we went out for a quick lunch at the local diner, where the owner/cook and waitresses have been taking very good care of us the last few weeks, and then packed up the remaining stuff and headed for Canada. After crossing the border at Clarenceville, we stopped and took this picture; that's Lake Champlain in the distance and behind the trees was a very good view of Jay Peak, across the water in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. We left in rain, but after Burlington the sky cleared, and by the time we reached Quebec it was a glorious day. The tall poplars, and sun-drenched fields of corn and buckwheat felt like they were welcoming us.
The closing was the first time I'd met the woman who is part of the couple buying the house. She gave me a penetrating look as we walked in, smiled, and I realized, she's just as curious about me as I am about her. It turns out she's in her late thirties, intelligent and sensitive, and we liked each other right away. After all the business was concluded and we were standing up, she looked at me and said, "I was thinking about you this morning," and I nodded and said, "Yes, it was hard to leave the house yesterday." She said, "Your house has... a lot of good ju-ju." I smiled and nodded. "That's why we kept coming back. It's way bigger than what we planned to buy, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. Everytime we went there I kept telling myself, 'It's their stuff that's doing it, try to imagine it bare,' but it didn't matter. We both felt that way, it ws different from all the other places we looked at." Wow, I thought to myself, this is a gift I didn't expect. I told her that the garden was the hardest for me to leave, and that I was really happy she was interested in it and hoped she could bring it back since I hadn't been able to do much the last three years. She said she couldn't wait to get in there and start working on it. And then her partner floored me by saying he had just read my book, which was recommended to him by one of his former professors at Dartmouth.
They're getting married in a month, and planning to start a family. We told them it was exciting to think of children in that house, and that we hoped they'd be very happy, both with the house and the neighbors. As a parting gesture, Jonathan suggested they get together with the other people on the street and pressure the town into installing some speed bumps so all the kids would be safer -- that we would have taken the initiative if we'd been there another few weeks.
And in truth, I'd been unable to keep from crying as I walked through the bare house the day before, when we'd finished mopping all the floors a final time, and then again when we went over to say goodbye to our elderly, frail neighbor. I had gone to her house first, and was kneeling on the floor by her chair; we had our arms around each other and we were both pretty weepy. J. came in quietly a few minutes later and we looked up, startled, and then all started to laugh when our neighbor said, "Now, J., you should know that when you look through a door and see two women crying, you'd better knock first!
I don't think it matters how happy or ready you are to make a change, or even how prepared you think you are: if you've cared deeply about something or someone the emotions will be there and it's better to feel them. We had worked so hard to get the house ready, doing way more than we probably had to, but it became both a question of pride and, I think, an unspoken way of acknowledging and honoring this difficult, cranky, utterly familiar place that has been our home for so long. We left it far more sparkling than when we moved in, but it's also true that in its 103 years of existence, the house has had very few owners, including the family we bought it from who had raised two generations there, so it felt like polishing it back to its bones. Today, back in the city, unpacking boxes and finding places for pictures and favorite objects in our apartment, I'm still feeling an odd mixture of poignant emotions and trying to allow them to arise and flow unimpeded across my internal landscape, like the wind on the flat Quebec fields.
At least that's what I hope. And we'll never accumulate so much stuff or live in such a big place again, that's for sure.
My arms and legs are covered with bruises and scratches, my head aches, my back aches, all I want to do is sleep --- but we're getting there. Rooms are becoming empty and clean, and we can actually begin to imagine being finished. The walk-through is on Thursday morning, the closing on Friday, and then we head for Montreal and a new existence.
I just went out to put corn husks in the compost bin, and picked the first blueberries off our bush - one we dug up at my father-in-law's request from his property when he moved into the retirement home. Any sentimentality I felt last week has largely dissipated with all the work and travel back and forth; now we just want to be done.
Tonight there's a going-away party for us, organized by a friend who suddenly had to leave town --his first grandson was born a week early -- so we find ourselves putting on a dinner party for 25 or 30 guests, at the friend's home. It will be fun, but boy, I never anticipated that curve ball. I've made a bunch of food but people are also bringing things, and trust that it will all work out.
Most of you have done this a lot more often than I have, so you know what it feels like, and why the title of this post is what it is!
Yesterday we drove up to Montreal accompanied by two trucks full of our stuff. What could have been a nightmare at the border took less than ten minutes; we presented our "list" - the detailed itemized listing of all the items you plan to import that's required when one becomes a permanent resident and "lands" in Canada. Of course, ours had been prepared and submitted by us three years ago. The female customs official read it, asked for the papers about our car importation, which had happened earlier, and as soon as she was clear about who we were and what we were doing, her initially serious and slightly cross manner melted into warmth. She perused the list while the drivers of the trucks (we'd already bonded with these moving guys, they were great and really saved us, we'd be totally dead instead of just half-dead right now if it weren't for them) sat behind us and waited, expecting the officials to go out and ask for the trucks to be opened up. Instead, the douane smiled, hefted her big official stamp, stamped each of the 17 pages with authority, and said, "Ok, you're all set!" I turned to J., held his arm, and said, "En fin, sweetheart!" At that the customs official and her assistant, a young man, both grinned and said "Bienvenue!" and asked us how long it had taken to get to this point. When we told them five years since the first visa, then three more since getting permanent residency, they shook their heads, broke into big smiles, and said again, "Bienvenue et bon chance!"
Here's what happened after we arrived at our new studio. The photos were taken every hour. It took about six hours to transfer all the stuff from the trucks to loading dock to freight elevator to room, and by the end (the room was too dark to photograph) everyone was exhausted but still cheerful. Today we began the arduous task of starting to make order out of a pile of boxes and furniture and tools and equipment, and soon we have to go back to Vermont to clean the house -- but in the daylight, today, we made some progress toward figuring out what we want to do with the space. that is, with the space that used to be there -- and will be revealed again in time!
There was the day of the dead, and then a day of loneliness and mourning for other things, followed by a return to a more familiar state of body and mind. On the second day, hoping to escape the memory-heavy house, I walked down to the post office, along the same short route I've taken for all these decades but very rarely during the past three or four years.
Back in the late eighties, our little village was beset by many problems stemming from poverty, absentee landlords with rundown buildings, neglect by the local government, and a lack of basic amenities. I was a walker. As I still do in the city, I usually took an early-morning or mid-afternoon walk around the village, and that's when I saw and heard things. After a series of really bad incidents, including intimidation of the elderly and very young, and the suicide of a troubled village youth who'd been involved in some of those events -- and the mere wringing of hands by town government and police when accosted by very upset citizens -- my husband and I took the lead in forming a village association for the purpose of building up our sense of community and shared responsibility for the village's future, and for one another.
Because the timing was right, the effort succeeded in capturing the imagination and energy of a lot of local people. We had regular meetings followed by potluck suppers, we all got to know each other, and various projects took root, from the publication of a quarterly newspaper to community gardens to an annual summer picnic and parade. A multi-year project by a smaller committee analyzed our resources and needs, and wrote applications for state grants for improvement of the village's infrastructure. Those of us who served on that committee became close friends and worked very hard; we were the first grassroots organization (as opposed to town government) to win major grants from the State of Vermont; with that money we built a park and playground, improved sidewalks and lighting, and began tackling the much deeper problem of affordable housing, property upkeep, and changing zoning laws and the mix of property ownership to be more benevolent, interested, and local. We also learned to be an effective squeaky wheel, skilled at packing selectmen's meetings and getting publicity that showed local citizens helping themselves against an ineffective, inattentive town government that deserved to be shaken up. It was fun, personally and socially rewarding, and, lo and behold, it actually worked.
And then, gradually, over five or six years, the association disbanded and the potlucks stopped...because they weren't needed any longer. People weren't afraid of their neighbors, and they didn't perceive an ongoing problem in the village. Everyone was putting more effort into keeping up their properties, the worst landlords had sold their buildings and moved on, not wanting the bad publicity - a couple of those multi-family units got converted to low-income co-ops. People used the playgrounds and the library, sat on the benches, and went out for walks at night, as if those things had always been part of normal life.
On my walk to the post office the other day, I looked around and saw the changes - how much the trees had grown, how much better the rental units looked. Young families - like the buyers of our house - are moving in and making friends here; the village has lost the stigma it once had. I greeted a woman sitting beside the street waiting for the Advance Transit bus, and said hi to some kids on their bikes. They were friendly but looked at me like I was a stranger -- which, of course, I was. Back then, we knew absolutely everybody. Now, I realized, I was like a ghost myself, walking the utterly familiar streets unseen and unrecognized. The revelation was that that was exactly as it should be. The sense of egolessness felt a little odd, but also natural. I now had another place, and this one was merely inhabited by others who had succeeded me. It was the way the world works; I was like one who was dead, and my works, such as they were, had become anonymous and simply a part of life as it now was. Instead of being upset by the realization of being forgotten, of being a part of the past -- which hit me with much greater force than such an idea ever had -- there was something about it that felt extremely liberating.
Close to the post office I saw a neighbor coming up the street toward me - he's a tall and taciturn guy who always wears a cowboy hat and walks in long, slow strides. We used to always have the same schedule, and met like this nearly every morning for years. I never knew his name and I don't think he knew mine -- he wasn't a joiner -- but we always greeted each other without speaking, exchanging a nod or a wave. Yesterday he looked up, from under the brim of his hat, and saw me coming down the hill. He was pretty far away, but I still saw the surprise and recognition, and it made me grin. His house lay in-between us, and before he turned in, he raised one hand in greeting just as I raised mine.
Hello, goodbye; no questions asked of ghosts.
I'm so glad I didn't sell it.
Back in excited, forward-looking mode today. The movers are here, taking box after box out of the house. It's a family-run, local moving company and they've been absolutely great, coming to check on our progress each day and offering a lot of helpful advice. I feel completely confident that they'll get everything there safely tomorrow - the one question is whether we're going to be over-weight for the truck. But we'll find that out pretty soon.
It started today with my father-in-law's groaning ascent of the stairs as I made the morning coffee. I even turned around to watch him climb up, smiling, making exaggerated sounds with each raising of a knee. My mother-in-law sat in the living room, content to be waited on for once; my mother was already in the kitchen, thirty years cleaving away like the soft block of mozzarella under my knife; maybe we were making the wedding cake, that other night in a long-ago late July.
Funny, how the poignancy of leaving hasn't really hit me, except in these shadowy presences that somehow decided to make themselves known today. I pour the coffee, gaze out the window at last things: the reddening apples, the tall white shafts of hosta blossoms, the budding hydrangeas that won't fully blossom until we're gone, the tight green blackberries, the white-throated sparrow anxiously guarding her nest... and everywhere I go in the yard, the catbird precedes me, flicking his tail in the low shrubs.
In the afternoon I had to do an errand, and found myself on the street we always took to see my father-in-law. On a sudden impulse, I turned in, and drove slowly up to the entrance, around the back, and looked up at the balcony of his old apartment. Someone had planted the windowboxes with dark purpley-red petunias, which were thriving under their vigorous care; there were no pots and clutter, no chairs set out in the afternoon sun, just the flowers, and my quick tears, unable to water anything but my cheeks.
At the yarn shop at the bottom of the hill, women like me parking their cars, shooting me a quick glance, a knowing smile: you knit too. Yes, but I'm leaving, don't you see? I may never come here again, and then the shop-owner's blind golden retriever is pressing against my leg like the ghost of my old dog, from the first years here, before I'd even met J.
Back at home, I park the car, go inside, and sit down on the sofa-bed, the only piece of furniture remaining in the living room. "It will be all right, honey," my mother says, and I close my eyes and sink back into the blue velveteen cushions, wondering if I'm just exhausted or if these people are really coming by to say their farewells to the house and tell me it's OK. After a bit I get up, look out the window, and see a woman from the neighborhood stop at our free pile. She's young herself, with a little girl running beside the carriage that holds twin boys, and there's another in her belly. They're all blonde, these four, and they walk by every day, with their shy smiles and slow manner; this is her life, tending these children that keep coming amid a poverty she tries to hide. There's nothing out there for kids today, I realize, and so I go off into the garage and quickly skim through the boxes of books for a few children's titles: the worn Mother Goose my mother read to me when I was the age of that little girl; a large-print version of Pinnochio. They've left our yard, but it's easy to catch up to them, and I call out "hello" so as not to startle this mother who seems to walk so meditatively, or perhaps it's just a kind of stupor, I can't tell. She turns around and says hello, and I tell her I'm the one who's moving, would she like a few children's books? And she says sure with a shy laugh, thank you very much, we've been taking your stuff, and stows the books in the stroller along with a whole pile of others - she's been at the village library. "Enjoy them, they were mine when I was her age," I say, and turn around and head back to the safety of my own lawn, my own porch, for a few more days.
I first heard about the Freecycle Network at an exhibit of alternative/guerilla environmental actions at the Canadian Center for Architecture, and it sounded great to me. Through grassroots communications, individuals and groups try to keep unwanted, reusable items out of landfills by letting each other know about the good stuff that's available. Couldn't be simpler: the movement now includes 4,775 local groups and about 7 million members worldwide.
Our own freecycling lately has been even more local: just a sign and an ever-changing pile of stuff on our lawn as we clean out the house. What's astonishing is that literally everything has gone, from metal shelving to old shelves and chairs, wooden cross-country skis to slightly-moth-eaten rugs. All the old videos and unwanted DVDs have disappeared; a perfectly good leather purse; a camera bag; oil paintings and posters; all the dishes and glasses I've put out.
(The only thing I've found distressing is the size of the vehicles that have stopped to pick things up. Non-Americans woudl be shocked, I think, at the uniform enormity of what people drive. Almost every vehicle was a big van, a large SUV, or a pick-up truck. Our driveway has been used continually by a neighbor, in our absense, because his truck is just too big to park in his own drive.)
I happened to look out the door when a woman was putting a large watercolor painting into her van. It's a picture that J.'s mother always had, of a South American woman at a market; we've held onto it as a sort of family relic, but it seemed like a good time to let it go into other hands. The woman smiled and said, "You really want to get rid of this?"
"Yes, absolutely," I told her, "I'm glad if you like it."
"We've got a catering business," she said. "It will be perfect - I love it."
Yesterday afternoon J. put out our old Thule clamshell roof rack - we used to transport our skis in it - that hadn't sold at last spring's yard sale. It's got a crack and is pretty worn; it seemed like a long shot but we really didn't want to take it to the dump. At the endof the afternoon another van stopped and a guy and his daughter got out. The man, wearing a headband, turned the box over and examined it carefully; J. went out to talk to him, and pretty soon I saw them loading it into the van. J. came back inside, looking like the cat that's eaten the canary and all the goldfish. "That's great," he said. "You know what he said about it?"
" 'All this thing needs is a little bit of duck tape!' "
As he settled back in his narrow bed, the heavy book propped up against his knees, Père Lafitte heard a dog barking once, twice, pausing for ten seconds, barking again twice then repeating the whole pattern. The priest smiled contentedly. Every night the dog performed this ritual. Every night Marcel Lafitte read the same book. Every morning he would say mass. Things were as they should be.
"I like Lafitte. He's completely free from bullshit." Susan was talking to herself, caressed by a warm breeze. "Rare in anybody but in a priest, that's a bloody miracle. I should have got to know him sooner."
The way home was through the village and then twenty minutes down a pot-holed road with a boarded-up tile factory and a couple of abandoned farms as the only scenic attractions. When they decided to move to France, minimal traffic was the first item on George and Susan's list. All the picturesque places shown to them by over-excited estate agents could only be accessed in summer if you were willing to spend hours sitting nose to tail in traffic queues longer than those in London. So they went off on their own, driving randomly around the country, drinking a lot of wine and following hunches until, eventually, they found La Rive and an unremarkable house with potential to become their home.
Susan shivered, one of those sudden, mysterious shivers not caused by the weather but by some inner climate change. George. She did not believe in love at first sight and it was not love when she first laid eyes on him. Only a certainty that all the affairs and occupations which had crowded her life until then were merely rehearsals and that here, at last, was the role she was meant to play. No question, no hesitation. Whoosh! Her past was swept off the map and the future was clear: George. She had no illusions. He was so transparent you knew immediately that he was trouble. No matter. He was the only unambiguous decision she had ever made. And decisive she became. Susan seduced him slowly, trusting her instincts, ignoring all obstacles, especially those designed by George to make her fail. " I'm not your man, " he'd say repeatedly. But year by year, denial after denial, he grew to depend on her. Susan was making an adequate living as a free-lance proof-reader and typist and he had come to her recommended by a friend. George was well-enough established among the cognoscenti but he was no literary superstar and too disorganised to go after superstardom, though he craved it. Susan, he discovered, was an excellent organiser and it was foolish to keep on resisting when she was so eager to take on the task of ensuring his immortality, as if her own life depended on it.
* * *
By the time George got home from the party Susan was asleep. "You could have told me you were leaving," he said, getting into bed, "I looked all over for you."
"No you fucking didn't. You were busy entertaining Mrs. Morrison."
"Look,' George said, turning away and closing his eyes, " If you want to go back on the booze, that's your choice, Susan. But I'm not going down that road of paranoia with you."