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Month: May 2017

Senior Week and Graduation

Senior Week and Graduation

THE ENDING AND THE BEGINNING

Today is Memorial Day, May 29, 2017. I sit in rainy Westport, NY having just completed a puzzle. And senior week. And graduation weekend. And college.

The events that transpired over the past week are a blur, but the feeling that lingers is one of deep gratitude mixed with well-warrented exhaustion. Senior week proceeded like a whirlwind – a temporary unorganized lifestyle coupled with the need to organize my life for the move-out. Though I will skim over some of the details, my favorite moments included Tuesday’s epic trip to Kingdom Trails in East Burke, VT for the best mountain biking on the East Coast and Wednesday’s outdoor concert featuring some of Middlebury’s best student bands. The mountain biking was so good that we are hoping to go back in June, so I hope to do a better job documenting the trip then.

On Friday, family and friends gathered at the Storey Farm in Westport for a small celebration and a large feast. I was particularly thrilled to see those who came from further distances: Miranda (who is now a rising Junior at Bowdoin!) and my grandparents who came up from Florida. We dined on grilled chicken, a multitude of vegetable dishes, an incredible carrot cake, and plenty of Alchemist 16-ounce cans. It was also the first time that Maddie’s parents and my parents were all in the same room together, and everyone enjoyed bonding with old friends and new ones. As I have written in other blog posts, I feel incredibly lucky to have a space within an hour’s drive from campus that is so special to me, and having the graduation party there epitomized this experience.

Saturday was a special day in a different way. I woke early to prepare myself for the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony. I am still trying to figure out if I am more honored by the nomination itself or the fact that I got to share the stage with so many insanely smart and talented people. Hearing each of the nominee’s future plans was the best part of the ceremony.

My dad and I went for a run and we took things easy in the afternoon, watching some FA Cup soccer and packing up a few final items. We then attended the English Department reception, and I was thrilled to learn that I had received one of the departmental awards. I never doubted choosing English as my major, and now the pride I have felt for my classes and independent work tastes even sweeter.

The last installment of my penultimate day was the party for the senior soccer players, held at the Woodchuck Cider House. Between the eleven of us, our families, and our friends, we had an outstanding “one last night.” And fittingly, the skies over Lake Champlain granted us the most dramatic sunset of the year.

It is tradition at Middlebury for the seniors to stay up all night before graduation. The townhouse quad where I lived turned into a late-night block party, and I went inside only to fix up a midnight coffee for a few friends. But eventually, my “early-to-bed, early-to-rise” habits caught up with me, and I had to retire at 2:30 in the morning. Two hours later, Maddie woke me for a sunrise run, and we jogged up to the highest point on campus to look out over the Green Mountains one last time. As is also tradition, the bakeries in town open early to serve free breakfast to the seniors, so we jogged down to Otter Creek Bakery for an egg sandwich and a few of the tastiest croissants of my life. Sleep deprivation had nothing to do with it.

A few hours later, I was dressed in my cap and gown, ready to graduate. We could not have received better weather, and though the three-hour commencement ceremony dragged at times, everything in it felt right. And nothing was better than the final gift we received as Middlebury Students. Grace Potter, recipient of an honorary degree from the college this year and fellow Vermonter, broke out her guitar and sang her heart out in the final minutes of the ceremony. The song made some cry, some smile, and all of us pause in a moment of gratitude and unity.

The entire week, but especially the graduation weekend and commencement ceremony, was a gift. A chance to be in a place I call home without the pressure of classes or finals hanging over me. An opportunity to explore new Vermont adventures and repeat old favorites one last time. A time to be with those who are closest to me, and to show them how lucky I have been to attend Middlebury. I will remember it all.

Before I close this post, and this chapter of my life, I will remind myself of two thoughts. First, I am not really leaving Middlebury, but rather I am beginning the next phase of my learning and growing. I look forward to new challenges knowing that I am equipped with all that my college experience has taught me. Second, there is a Mary Oliver poem that Professor Brayton gave to me and my peers on the final day of my favorite class at Middlebury. I carry it with my to this day. The message was appropriate then and still fits now.

THE SUMMER DAY

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

– Mary Oliver

Spring at the Storey Farm, A Night at North Point

Spring at the Storey Farm, A Night at North Point

Being done has been nice. On Friday, with finals in full swing on campus, the temptation of warm Spring weather luring me outdoors, and the need to move some of my personal items from the dorm to Westport for the summer, I headed to the New York side of Lake Champlain for a solo adventure.

First, I delivered a car-full of items that needed to be stashed temporarily in my grandparents’ barn. I was happy to help out with the necessary springtime upkeep in exchange, clearing a few small downed trees, moving patio furniture, tidying up the barn. I was also thrilled to join Mommom and Babo for dinner – I even got to grill for the first time this year! The Storey Farm is looking beautiful, with apple blossoms and lilac trees in full bloom. Mommom said this has been the best year for lilacs that she can remember, and I feel lucky to get to enjoy moments of Spring in Westport, when so many of my family members and Dudleyite friends only see it in the Summer.

Connecting with my grandparents in a setting different than the large family gatherings of summer or of holidays in Williamstown is something I appreciate more and more every time I get to do so. They have a different perspective on my college experience and plans for the near future than my family or friends, but it is one that I cherish hearing.

After dinner, I set out for North Point on Camp Dudley’s campus – a destination for cabin suppers, overnights, and council rings. It is the most exposed promontory, jutting out into Lake Champlain and enclosing the cove that is home to Dudley’s boating and swimming areas. I have fond memories of fishing at North Point  and watching the moon rise over Vermont’s Green Mountains. This time, I was alone and content to enjoy the quietude, embracing the serene calm that Dudley experiences ten months out of the year.

I strung up my hammock, built a fire, and settled down to read Walking To Listen, a powerful coming-of-age personal narrative written by Andrew Forsthoefel. Andrew graduated from Middlebury in 2011 and in the year following walked across the U.S. – traversing from eastern Pennsylvania to California over the course of nearly a year. Though I am only partway through the book, I can recommend it, because I believe that his true anecdotes and thoughtful reflections speak to the empathy that is so lacking, and so necessary, in modern American culture and society.

I fell asleep with the fire still flickering and the stars above me shining bright.

Sleeping outside, I am always more in tune with the cycles and rhythms of the natural world. So I was not surprised when I began to stir at 4:30 in the morning, just as the earliest glow of the sunrise began to grow across the lake. I stirred the fire and quickly brought it back to full strength. I sipped coffee and at my overnight-oats. All the while, I watched the sunrise fill the sky.

Camp Dudley, May 2017
Camp Dudley, May 2017

I get conflicted when taking photographs in beautiful moments. I had not watched a sunrise like this in years, and my camera felt ancillary – a distraction from being present and enjoying the moment. But I can also draw a distinction between photography as a stand-in for memories and photography as an expression of art. I choose living memory, that which is encrypted into our brains, over static memory, that which is stored in hard drives, every time I can. But I also choose to be artistic, to improve my abilities, and to seek out things that make me proud.

Camp Dudley, May 2017

I cannot capture the essence of a sunrise, the vastness of a starry sky, or the warmth of a campfire in words alone, nor can my pictures to them justice. If given only one means of expression, I will always choose words. But part of why I enjoy this blogging process is because it allows for a unique combination of modes of communication.

Camp Dudley, May 2017

The day with my grandparents and the night at Camp Dudley served many purposes, but most of all, it was a reminder of how lucky I have been to go to school so close to my second home. The benefits have ranged from simply having a place to store my personal items to having access to a loving community of people who all take utmost pride in Camp Dudley and its mission. I am so appreciative for all of it, and I can say with full confidence that it has been one of the defining aspects of my college experience.

Morel, Morale, Moral

Morel, Morale, Moral

I knew nothing of foraging until I read Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book in which an entire section told the story of Pollen’s quest to learn to forage and prepare a meal from his findings. A particular chapter stuck with me, that being a springtime expedition he made into an area recently burned by forest fires to find morel mushrooms poking through the sooty soil. While I was sure that the mushrooms were tasty delicacies, I dismissed the idea of ever foraging on my own due to the painstaking attention to detail required to collect morels. Plus, Vermont does not experience forrest fires.

So, when I discovered a single morel enjoying the shade and mulch outside my bedroom window (pictured above), I was surprised for two reasons. First, I never thought I could “forage” for anything, let alone something so close to home. Second, I had written a poem about morels for my creative thesis, an uplifting piece that weaves threads of science and love through the images of hard-to-see mushrooms and burned forests. The fact that a morel appeared outside my window the day after I finished college seemed more than a stroke of random luck. No, it felt like I was receiving a message.

As I look forward to the future, I am ecstatic about the adventures I have planned for the next two months, and I am eager to move into my NYC apartment with Maddie and make the space our own. I do, however, fear some of the changes that will occur with moving to a city and beginning a job that will have me working “regular” hours. It will be a far cry from the freedom I felt this semester, in time, space, and creative expression.

Perhaps, the presence of the morel outside my window was telling me to listen to the message of my poem – to find love and beauty in unexpected places, to keep up my morale even when facing the unknown.

If this is the moral of my transition from Middlebury to New York, I think it is a good one.

And lastly, where there is one morel, there are often many more. The next morning, I found six more in close proximity, including the large one pictured below that is nearly the size of my hand. I am sure that once I settle into New York and begin to find the sparks that keep up my morale, there will be no stopping me.

A collection of morels

MORELS

mô’rel : an edible fungus that has a brown oval or pointed fruiting body
with an irregular honeycombed surface bearing the spores;
demonstrates an unusual propensity to grow abundantly in forests
which have been recently burned by wildfire

The air was so thick
that it tasted of char
when the wind sifted through the burn forest,
and as I remember,
it did so often.

She’d spoken of nitrates and microorganisms,
and the hollow tones of her voice
nestled between remnants
of organic matter.

Below the burn spring had arrived,
and above on the mountainside
the pine shrubs had not yet released
their winter brace —

and in the space between
she followed her own bearings,
knelt and felt the blackened earth
in the cool shadows of dead half-trunks,
saw color in the landscape
that wasn’t there —

and plucked up a morel.

Though I had followed blindly
I now felt the whimsical spontaneity of it all,
and the darkness of the burn lifted
as spring rose up the mountain.

And she placed the morel
in my palm
and traced my wrist,
a promise answered,
a prayer renewed,
a sooty touch now rooted
in the infinite hyphae
beneath our feet.

The End of College is Now Officially Inevitable

The End of College is Now Officially Inevitable

SUMMER TEMPS, A VISIT FROM PEPPER, & A ROUTE 100 DAY

The day of my final assignment at Middlebury College was Tuesday, May 16th. The chill of my 7 AM bike ride across campus to the Atwater dining hall did little to shake the glowing warmth. Inside, I knew that only a few hours remained between myself and the completion of my critical thesis defense, which would mark my final task as a college student. Outside, the clear blue skies signaled a swift rise in temperature – what I project to be the final departure from early spring chills.

That afternoon, as expected, I walked down the English Department hallway one last time. I had defended my thesis, and I was done.

First on the list of celebrations was the consumption of a special Hill Farmstead beer called Birth of Tragedy that I had acquired in March and was saving for this very moment. I was not bothered by the fact that I was drinking a heavy stout in summer-like temperatures, nor was I concerned with the foreboding name of the beer (it’s all down hill from here, right?!). I paired it with a Busch Heavy, the beer that kicked off my college experience, and enjoyed.

Celebration beers paired with my critical and creative theses.

I have not yet mentioned that I went home for Mothers’ Day and returned to school with my dog Pepper in tow. Her presence helps to ease the stress of finals week for Maddie and other friends, and we love taking her on our adventures. The following morning, I launched an epic Route 100 Day – one of the bucket list items that I wanted to complete before graduation, and an adventure that I highly recommend. Maddie, our friend Lisa, Pepper, and I kicked things off with mountain biking at Blueberry Lake in Warren. Discovering new trails combined with the first day on the mountain bike of the spring made for an epic morning, and when Pepper got tired, I had no issue slowing down to enjoy the sunshine, practice my photography, and hang out in the river while she cooled off.

Pepper after a few miles on the Blueberry Lake trails.

We enjoyed lunch at Mad Taco in Waitsfield after the ride – a mandatory stop along Route 100 that must include hot sauce sampling (all made in-house), outdoor seating, and perhaps a beer from Lawson’s.  After our meal, Maddie and Lisa returned to Middlebury while Pepper and I continued North.

Between Waitsfield and Stowe, which was my ultimate destination, Route 100 winds over hills, through valleys, and past the town of Waterbury – the original home of the Alchemist Brewery and its famed Heady Topper. Though the old brewery is not open to the public, Waterbury is still revered as a beer destination because of the breweries, restaurants, and stores that have popped up around the town. Though I did not stop everywhere, I would recommend Prohibition Pig for a bite to eat, The Reservoir for outdoor seating, and the Craft Beer Cellar for an outstanding selection.

Beyond Waterbury, I arrived at the Ben and Jerry’s headquarters and visitor center for a drippy ice cream cone, swung through the Cold Hollow Cider Mill to check out their apple products (although it was much busier when I had stopped last Fall), and stopped by the Cabot Cheese Annex Store for unlimited cheese samples. It was a wide-ranging and less-than-healthy culinary experience along Route 100, but it was prototypically Vermont, and I loved it.

The final stop was Stowe, a town that boasts a multitude of attractions and shops. Though many are overpriced, the two places I visited are both of excellent quality and not too pricey, either. First up was PK Coffee – the modern design, simple coffee menu, and screened-in porch made it an ideal place to recharge. Second, last but not least, was the Alchemist Brewery & Visitor Center. Gone are the days when scoring a single four-pack of Heady Topper means standing in line, tracking down delivery trucks, or just getting really, really lucky. The new brewery is visitor (and dog!) friendly, offers free samples, and has quantity limits that far exceed anything I could carry or afford. Plus, they offer a variety of beers besides just Heady; when I visited, they had Broken Spoke APA, Focal Banger IPA, The Crusher IIPA, and Beelzebub Imperial Stout. Coming home with a case or more was certainly not a bad way to stock up for my graduation party next weekend over in Westport, nor do mixed Alchemist four-packs make bad gifts.

The Alchemist Brewery, May 2017

I watched my car thermometer reach and then exceed 90 degrees as I turned south for Middlebury. The most direct route offers fewer exciting stops than Route 100 but plenty of appealing views. I especially like the stretch between Richmond and Hinesburg, with its winding dirt road and expanses that make you slow down and appreciate the quiet thrills of Spring in full bloom. My adventures like this one are not over, for I have a week-and-a-half until graduation and then a few weeks of Adirondack living in June, but they are waning. I approached this blog project to increase my own sense of mindfulness, but as I traversed Vermont’s roads, I realized that sometimes, the pursuit of mindfulness is sometimes just a big descriptor for the desire to have fun.

Richmond, May 2017
A Coffee Table, A Personal Manifesto

A Coffee Table, A Personal Manifesto

MY FINAL CLASS AT MIDDLEBURY

I am done with classes at Middlebury College. It came as a sudden halt to the whirlwind of action that has enveloped me over the past week. For the final class, my wood sculpture course, I was tasked to prepare an object that physically supports my weight and metaphorically supports a personal manifesto.

I am including images of the coffee table that I build, as well as the text of the manifesto that I delivered. The project involved acquiring the pine slabs in Hardwick, VT, storing them in Westport, NY, hand planing, sanding, and staining, learning to weld, and putting it all together. It is an object that I am proud of, and I am sure that it will remain with me for many years. But I will let the table and the manifest speak for themselves.

“Space, as told through pine, steel, fire, and coffee”

Growing up a child in Western Massachusetts and a product of summers in the Adirondacks, Middlebury seemed an obvious choice. Leaving home to go off to college is a leap for anyone to make, but rooting myself in a place so similar to my hometown did little to take me out of my comfort zone. As I settled into life in Vermont, I found it easy to seek out spaces of my own—an early morning run on the TAM, a quiet window seat in Axinn, a weekend overnight in the Adirondacks when I needed to escape. When life was challenging, I could always step into the warmth and comfort of my favorite spaces and take a deep breath.

Now I face a different leap—one that is more daunting and perhaps a bigger risk than anything I have previously chosen. This summer, I will begin a job in New York City and move into an apartment that is three times smaller than the dorm I live in now. It will be the first time in my life that I will be unable to look out my window and see mountains.

In New York, I fear the cold anonymity of being an outsider and the searing heat of living in perpetually overcrowded spaces. I fear slipping into a routine dictated by straight lines and a life where I spend the breaks at my job scrolling endlessly through my phone.

This coffee table is an effort to bring Vermont to New York City; the pine tabletop was given to me by a family friend who lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, and the steel is representative of the manmade construction that is New York. The table is my reminder to myself that the intersection between these two places can be a thing of beauty and ingenuity. Though I will not be able to sit in my back yard and build a fire, I can carry with me the creative spark and fuel for adventure that the natural world has given me all my life. I can also utilize my practice of mindfulness and intentionality as I make my space in New York my own. Though it may be small, I can always invite over a friend to sit around this table. We will put down our phones, share a cup of coffee, and make the space grow with every story we share.

Cruising Over the Hump

Cruising Over the Hump

When the end is in sight, sometimes the best way to get there is with an epic effort. That’s how I felt on Sunday, for two different reasons.

First, Maddie and I teamed up to defend our title as Mixed Relay Champions of the Middlebury Maple Run. We had stiffer competition this year in the Middlebury Cross Country coach and her husband, and though the rain held off, stiff winds blew all over the course. My opening leg left a little to be desired, especially because I gave Maddie about a minute of time to make up over our competition during her leg, but I was proud of my effort and the way I ran the final mile. Fortunately, I had a talented and fast teammate who blew away her leg of the relay and ensured that we kept our title. We finished in 1 hour 30 minutes and pocketed $100 for our hard work!

I had little time to relish over the victory, though, because of a more pressing deadline. My critical thesis, the 40+ page comprehensive analysis of the fiction of Alistair MacLeod that I had been dreaming about since the Fall of junior year, was due just over twenty-four hours after the Maple Run ended. So, I set out to suspend my fatigue, compartmentalize the soreness in my legs, and complete my thesis.

At noon the next day, after forfeiting a few hours of sleep and consuming a few extra cups of coffee, I submitted a bound copy of my thesis to the English department. I felt as if there were very few works left in me, but that mattered little, because the final product was polished and coherent. The words that I had been trying to nail down since September finally fell into place in a way that was clear, presentable, and made me proud. Hopefully, I stumbled upon some profound statements about MacLeod’s work along the way.

My thesis, titled “The Heart’s Compass: Disorientation and Reorientation in the Stories of Alistair MacLeod” can be found on my Portfolio page and on the website I built that pays homage to MacLeod.

It is both rewarding and strange to complete a project that has enveloped so much of my time and thoughts over the past twelve months. I am glad that I kept a few journals going along the way, because the process is what I will remember years from now when I forget the details of my critical stance or finer points of my arguments. It was a long process, but I am glad I gave myself the time to thoroughly understand the material, to learn to love it not just for the brilliance of the storytelling but also for the layers of deeper meaning that unveiled themselves only after months of analysis. I am not quite finished, as I still have to defend my thesis, but I am glad that I have finished the biggest hurdle.

The Weathervane (A Poetry Creative Thesis)

The Weathervane (A Poetry Creative Thesis)

This week, I finalized the first of my two theses. I am proud to say that “The Weathervane: Poems by Tom Dils” is now a complete collection. Not only is it a fulfilling feeling to finish a large project such as this and move one step closer to graduation, but it also rewarding to hold in my hands a year’s worth of ideas, trials and errors, and lasting themes and images that will stay with me well beyond Middlebury.

I am also excited to share my work. The entire collection can be found on my Portfolio page. It was fun to write, design, and perfect, and perhaps there will be life beyond this collection for some of poems that turned out best.

I am in the home stretch. The hard work is not over, but the to-do list gets shorter every day. Whether it is finishing a thesis, packing up items to make the final move-out easier, or enjoying a planned adventure or spontaneous moment with a friend, I am proud of what I am doing right now.

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