Mr. President, I heard your living room is eighty feet long. In Vermont, we have a good laugh about that. We’ll say, “Who all is sitting in there?” I imagine no one ever really sits in there. Those gorgeous sofas so extravagantly arrayed and so empty of bodies. No one talking about the day, no one snuggled up together to read a book or look at photos, and no fire in the hearth.
We believe in low ceilings and cozy rooms, because it’s easier to heat. We believe in sitting near the wood-stove, because the warmth is real. Looking through the glass at the rolling flames, we remember the effort expended to make that heat. We remember a summer’s work of felling trees, and an autumn’s work of putting the wood up in the shed. We remember bucking logs up in the cooler days of summer; we remember splitting and stacking and seasoning. We bring the wood to the house in wheel-barrows, leaving tracks in the thin cover of snow. At night we bring in armfuls and fill the stove before we sleep. In the morning there’ll be a bed of coals; we’ll scuffle the poker under them, bank them up, and put more logs on to warm the house.
It’s like this. We like small rooms and so we are close to each other. At the Ripton General store down the hill Dick Collitt sits in a rocking chair by his wood-stove reading books he checks out from the library. There’s an aluminum tub of potatoes on a stool behind him. A magazine rack, cheddar cheese in the glass case, local maple syrup on the shelf, penny candy and a gum-ball machine. The beer cooler provides the heat that the little wood stove can’t. Eric Erickson, the town fire-chief, sits in the other chair most mornings, holding his pipe. They talk about the weather, hunting, and the condition of the roads. When I come in to get my mail, they both nod good morning. I pick up a pint of half-and-half and leave a $1.80 on the counter. Dick doesn’t even have to get up.
Our neighbors matter to us. We can’t get along without each other. In the summer we divide our perennials. You’ll find clumps on the side of the road a the end of driveway. Free irises. Zukes and cukes please take. Along the roadsides we collect wind-fall apples from wild trees and no one minds. Once a week we bring Gary and Donna, our nearest neighbors, a dozen eggs from our chickens. A few weeks later we’ll find a new bag of chicken feed on the porch, along with a tin of molasses cookies. Gary drives his tractor up the hill and tills our small garden patch for us. Another day he comes up with the tractor-bucket loaded with wood-shavings and saw dust—bedding for our chickens. When my dog would run away at the sound of the chainsaw, she’d head down to Dick’s store. A little while later I’d get a phone call: “Tal, I have your dog down here.”
We have chicken-pie suppers at the churches and we have town-meeting. We talk about culverts and how much money to allocate for the support of Elderly Services and WomenSafe. Anyone can talk, and some talk too much. Some knit and never say a word. We follow the rules of order, and everyone has a say. We argue sometimes, over the school budget or the town recycling procedures or whether we need to start a truck-fund for the volunteer fire department. Our town State Representative shows up and he answers our questions directly. We know he cares—his daughters go to the town school, too. We never tear each other down. We don’t vilify or humiliate or denigrate. We need each other, and we have to be for each other. It’s how we survive, it’s how we get along.
Rumi, the 12th century Sufi mystic and poet, reminds us in one of his ecstatic lyrics that our words will be empty if we produce them with no love or wisdom or blood-expenditure. Our words may shine, they may bear our flashing imprint, but they are mere layers of showy gold. What do they say? What do they buy, give, or make? Such currency has no value because it does nothing but accrue. It is nothing more than glittering iterations of emptiness.
This talk is like stamping new coins. They pile up,while the real work is being done outsideby someone digging in the ground.
I think of those empty sofas in those preposterous rooms of gilt and marble. And then I hear the crows over the trees. They are calling out, they are doing their work. The small maple trees at the edge of the woods are waiting for spring. The tips of the limbs are reddening. And then I hear my neighbor’s saw through the woods. Yesterday I noticed the tracks he left, heading up the hill through the snow. Now he’s at work, building his wood-pile for next winter.
We hold onto this nearness of our neighbors, and each other. We treasure the closeness of our living. It’s in the splinters of wood, in the pulsing glow of coals and in the ashes in the pan. It’s in the nest of straw and grass where mice are cozying up in the woodpile. I know this cold will thaw. The earth will soften. We’ll hear the slice of a spade in soil, the tearing of grass and earth. This is the real work we do. This is how we humbly speak and listen in the small clearings of time. We’ll be planting and digging and collecting kindling. We’ll be cutting tiger lilies and dahlias and filling baskets with pole beans and basil all summer long.