Thursday, November 28, 2013


Today is Thanksgiving here in the US.I stayed in bed late, reading Stephen King's 11-23-60 - my first Stephen King - a book so gripping I could hardly get out of bed. But I have to take a pavlova to our hosts today - to add some kiwi flavour to the feast - so soon I was up and working away with the hand mixer.

So, the pav's in the oven - and as usual I have that slightly anxious feeling - will it rise? will it crack? will it be just right, crusty on the outside and marshmallow on the inside? Unlike a cake, you can't test a pav until it's served - so you just have to smile as you hand out the plates and keep your fingers crossed.
This was referred to as "that New Zealand pie" during dinner

All is quiet in our house. Em is making bracelets on the couch. Lizzy is making order out of chaos in their bedroom. Bruce is asleep. Even the chipmunks are staying inside their burrows today, to keep warm in the chilly air, I guess - it's -7 degrees C outside right now.

Only the birds are out - a flock of morning doves on the lawn, the chickadees, finches and warblers on the feeders, the juncos on the deck.

Everywhere else  in the state, it seems, is blanketed in snow - but not here, at Long Point. The lake was frozen over one day last week when temperatures plunged down to -14. And two evenings ago we had five hours of soft falling snow and expected to wake up to a winter wonderland. But the temperatures rose in the night and the rain washed the snow away.

Drive just 10 minutes in any direction, though, and the snow is thick and deep. Snow, it seems to me, makes magic of even the most ordinary landscape. Yesterday Bruce and I  drove out past Hinesburg in search of wood stacks (for Wood stack Blog II) and I was suddenly filled with joy. "We're so lucky!" I said, as I looked out over snow covered fields scattered with red barns and farmhouses, forests, and frozen streams, as I looked up towards the mountains. Bruce nodded.

I have so much to be thankful for. I'm thankful for all that waits for me at home - family, friends, church, my home, my work, the farm. For the rich community that will welcome us home. But right now I'm thankful for all that we've met, all that we've experienced in the beautiful Green Mountain State.

Girls' day out!
I'm grateful for the real friends I've made here. I think of Kathy and her family, with their longing to return to New Zealand. Most of all I'm thankful for Susanmarie and Ellen and Sofia - for inviting us into their lives, for day trips to the snow, for conversations that range from writing in the sciences to Dr Who, for shopping together, driving together, eating together, for sitting together in a spa pool in the snow at twilight.

For teaching me to take life at a slightly slower pace.

I'm grateful for the communities we've become a part of: Susanmarie and Sue and Kristen at UVM, who have welcomed me into their workspace; for Trinity Episcopalian Church in Shelburne; and for Ferrisburgh Central School, which has been such a home for our girls.

I'm thankful for old friends who have shared - and in immeasurable ways contributed to - these wonderful months with us. I'm thankful for Barry and Joyce, Deborah and Perry in Michigan,

 I'm thankful for my oldest friend, Julian, in Canada,

And for our family who have visited from New Zealand and England.


I'm grateful to have lived here, at Long Point. To have gazed on this landscape as it changed from green to gold and red, from browns to white. To have watched the lake in all its seasons - beautiful sunset water, morning mist, frozen pond. To have sat, day by day, at the kitchen table, writing - and then pausing to watch the animals in the garden, the birds. I'm thankful for the opossums and even the skunk...

I'm thankful for tractor pulls and pumpkin chucks and zombie runs, and a chapel dedicated to dogs, and ice-cream socials, and hay rides at Halloween, farmer's markets, Dakin farms, maple creemies, flannel pjs, and watching a chipmunk eat out of Emily's hands.

I feel as if we've been here far longer than just over three months. Partly I think that's because when you live somewhere for a while, you establish new routines, and those routines take on a normality that makes them feel far more long standing than they really are. But mostly I think it's because when you're away from home, you live more fully: you pay attention and absorb more information, you see more, listen more carefully.I'm thankful to have lived so richly over this time.

I'm thankful - more deeply thankful than I can say - to have lived in Vermont.

Addendum: Thanksgiving with Bill and Dee and their family (our landlords at Dee's Lake House) was awesome.

It was -9 degrees in Middlebury on a perfect blue and snowy day
Dee was cooking up a storm!

The house was full of lovely friendly folk

The 50lb turkey had to be seen to be believed:

It had to be soaked for two days and cooked for 7 hours - and it broke the oven shelf when they put it in the oven!  "I like a challenge" said Bill.

Dee made 10 different pies for dessert!

Thank you so much, Bill and Dee!!

And, just for the record, the New Zealand pie was a hit!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Charles River

In a Maori mihi, which establishes an individual's key connections, it is customary to name one's mountain and river. I've never known what my mountain would be, but I'm spoilt for choice when it comes to rivers. From childhood memories of the Derwent and the Trent, to the ribbon-like Tutaekuri river in the Hawke's Bay, to the majestic, historic Thames, to the mighty Manawatu, rivers have settled deep in my bones.

I'm back in Boston now, gathering data at Northeastern University and MIT, and staying in the John Jeffries House, a shabby-yet-gracious guest house, built in the 1820s to provide a home for people coming to Boston from out of town for medical treatment .

It stands on the banks of the Charles River,and each morning I take a walk, marvelling at the soft colour of the skyline, the serenity of the river, the signs of the city waking.

Some days I've walked through misty morning rain, my only companions the squirrels and the Canada geese. Other times I've walked along with the joggers and the dog walkers as the sun has woken a perfect pink sky.

I find myself murmuring Wordsworth:

  Earth has not anything to show more fair:
    Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
    A sight so touching in its majesty: 

This City now doth, like a garment, wear
    The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
    Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
    Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
    All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.  

Never did sun more beautifully steep
    In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
    Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
    The river glideth at his own sweet will:

When I'm not quoting Wordsworth to the geese or pulling off my gloves with my teeth so I can take another photo on these soft morning walks, I'm thinking about my work. I haven't said much about my work in this blog, except as a kind of murmuring anxiety about whether I can get it done. I won't get it all done - at least not by the end of the year. But there's no real regret about that. Yes, it would have helped to have wrapped it all up while I wasn't teaching. But because I've taken the time to think and listen, and talk to the people who've hosted me and others, the book will be better for the delay.  I know the shape and purpose and tone of the book now, and I know with certainty  that I can and will finish it, because it's the book I want to write rather than the book I think I should write. 
What I probably don't tell people is how much I love this research. A decade ago I taught a life writing course, where I saw clearly for the first time that there were no ordinary lives and that everyone's stories were worth listening to. A decade before that, I became entranced by the voices in Studs Terkel's and Mary Loudon's books, voices of (extra)ordinary people talking about their lives. So what I'm doing for this research - and have been doing for over 4 years now - is recording scientists and mathematicians talking about writing, capturing their voices and their stories as writers.

It feels like a remarkable privilege to sit in someone's office and listen to their thoughts, and I'm almost always surprised by their generosity, by their willingness to explore territory they may not have thought about before - often by their vulnerability and humility. And the variability of the stories! I know, I know it's a cliche that everyone's life is unique - of course - but to listen to someone talk about that unique life is really something very special.

This week I have listened to a research chemist who is a competitive body builder and a reader of romance fiction, talking with gentle courage about her commitment to growth and learning. I sat in the book-lined office of a remarkably versatile writer of physics and history while he described decisions he had made as he wrote his book on quantum physics - the opening pages of which made me laugh out loud. I asked preposterous questions of a young mathematician ("do you think in numbers and figures or words when you're thinking about math..?") and was honoured by the care with which he explored possible answers and enjoyed his laughter as he came to unexpected conclusions.

I listened to a mathematician who also moonlights as a jazz musician talk about the differences between writing up and writing down, and an eminent physicist describe the fun of collaborating with a friend while hiking. He talked about how the science weaves in and out of their conversation, but how they always come back to the physics "because that's what we like talking about most." Another young mathematician and athlete explained to me the difficulty of turning equations into words - how sentences are linear where equations work in multiple dimensions.

At the end of my last interview today, another senior scientist, who works across several disciplines, and whose output is phenomenal, said to me "You are doing a very hard thing. You are asking us to be self-reflexive about things we don't normally think about. So thank you - I'm glad to have talked to you today."

Over dinner this evening, a colleague was saying that when, as a writing teacher, she first walked into a mathematics classroom, she breathed a deep and restful sigh, sensing that she had at last come home. I feel the exact opposite: I walk into an office where chalkboards, or sometimes whole walls, are covered in mysterious squiggles and think "What does it mean? Where are the words?? What does this person see and understand when they look at that wall?" And I'll never know the answers to those questions.

But what I do understand now is that these seemingly unfathomable symbols are filled with meaning that is both deep and precise. That equations and figures, as much as words, can be beautiful.and graceful. The Charles River is not my river.  But I can walk beside it for a season, paying attention to, and delighting in, its unfamiliar sounds and scent and light.

ps the Northeastern University science writer, Angela Herring, wrote a piece about my research on her science blog

Friday, November 15, 2013

Preparing for winter: The wood stack

As preparations for winter have gathered pace, Bruce has developed a warm affection for local wood stacks. They are everywhere - on decks, in specially designed parts of houses, on the outside of garages, in orchards, and fields. Some wood stacks are vast and seem almost to swamp the house they serve: others are tiny constructions in the crevices of buildings and trees. Some are stacked with terrifying precision; others are jumbled anyway you please. Vermont wood stacks may be packed in blocks, or constructed in circles, or thrown in a heap. 

So, for the last few weeks, Bruce has been recording his passion for the Vermont wood stack. He has performed sudden u-turns, screeched to unexpected halts, and even taken special trips (by car and ferry) in pursuit of particular or rumoured wood stacks. 

And so, in this photo essay, we celebrate ....drum roll please...The Wood Stacks of Vermont.

Long Point

Shelburne forest

Our neighbour's precision stacking particularly appeals to Bruce

Creative use of space....

Bruce's favourite circular constructions: at Charlotte

Shelburne Farms does everything on a grand scale: one of several huge wood stacks.

Where else could this be than Saratoga?

Ripton. this had to be seen to be believed. every part of the deck and garage were stacked with wood, head high. Clearly they were anticipating a difficult winter.

Creative house design: Northeast Kingdom

just across the lake - New York State

According to Bruce, this wood stack is LIT UP at night

A true work of art