Vermont Arts Council

Not a Moment Back: Thoughts on Stories

Vermont State House Chamber
Devotional by Alex Aldrich, Vermont Arts Council Executive Director
March 27, 2015.

Before she wrote one word, J.K. Rowling outlined in painstaking detail all seven Harry Potter books. The imagination it takes to understand what characters will be like, where they will go, and what they will do over a nearly 4000-page narrative is mind-boggling.

For those of us with lesser talents, and especially for those of us who have only five minutes, we turn to poetry.

Today I will share a little bit of my personal story and I hope, in doing so, suggest a new way to look at the work you do on behalf of the people of Vermont.

I will start with a short poem by the poet in the family—my mother. It is called “Small Forks In The Wrong Drawer” by Elizabeth Elliott.

A twinge, a somersault of love, to see
the small forks in the wrong drawer;
they mean: my daughter was just here;

Instantly the morning aches are gone,
I am back in yesterday when she left on the first train,
back in the day before, when she arrived,
I think how I watch her soul paint beauty on her face;

A bluebird feeds on the rail,
the first I’ve ever seen,
But oh, the small forks in the wrong drawer.

In poetry, six words can imbue a single, reflective moment with a lifetime’s-worth of love and memories of family. It’s a powerful story-telling medium.

The sister that inspired this poem is sitting quietly here in this chamber today—a chamber that has shaped and shared so much of Vermont’s history during the last 225 years or so.

Every single act or resolve, no matter how large or small, collectively comprise Vermont’s story, a narrative written year by year, chapter by chapter, at your direction and although its language adopts a legal formality that is a bit strange to colloquial ears, it is an important story nonetheless.

And think how it began: Chapter One: “First, NO SLAVES!” That is a powerful opening thesis—especially for 1791. Many other chapters have taken shape since then and among the most memorable for me was 15 years ago: Chapter 100-and-something whose header was “CIVIL UNIONS, Yes.”

I stood right over there by that window that afternoon, counting every vote as it was voiced and realizing that this was one of the true moments of glory in the continuing arc of Vermont’s story.

Something happens here every day, sometimes in ways we appreciate immediately, and sometimes in ways that take a little time. This narrative, for all its galvanizing successes and angry, finger-pointing failures, is brilliant and unique and at its best and worst, a reflection of Vermont’s soul.

In that context I want to read one more of my mother’s poems.

Written for my other sister’s wedding, it’s clearly not about the work of the Vermont legislature, but after nearly 225 years setting policy and procedure for the state and its citizens, you deserve something a little different and this is the best I have.

My sister’s name is Elizabeth, but we all call her Ib. And the poem is called, “For My Daughter, Suddenly Become A Bride”

What is this miracle of my firstborn,
a merest wicket then,
resting on my arm,
a fragrant nuzzle grown to cry and scamper,
who used the proffered hand to jump the whole flight;
Who is this bright instigator,
and my morning’s star?

Oh treasure!
Oh meddler!
who came with laughter in every size,
even in very narrow widths,
even with platform heels,
and always with open toes,
no strings attached and no return address,
gift-wrapped and ready for the dance.

Oh first love,
Struck like a flinder from my own young years,
How did she make a trapeze of time and fly away?
How did she trespass away from me
and into her own farm-fiddling,
how did she trespass into her own castle,
into her own four-lane kitchen of singing jets,
and rice-creamed blueberries, ivory and blue and gold?

How did you not leave and yet, now, be going?
What is this outrage, this trick called Time,
a fastidious driver to old age,
no union can change the wage this Boss pays,
or in any way protest, call “Halt!” or run away.
This Time that gives and takes, then turns
and gives again what it must take again
all in the too-quick reflex of one old wrist.

Dear Ib, be off, dance in the circle of Time and Love
in the surge and ripple of briar and burn,
in your story’s beginning
your story’s return,
And I, unchanged, rooted,
Buried to the quick in love,
Ask not a moment back,
but urge you on, but urge you on.

In this Year of the Arts, while you are still writing the narrative of this years’ chapter, and in appreciation for your collective, steadfast support for the arts for the last 50 years, let me encourage you to “dance in the circle of Time and Love in the surge and ripple of briar and burn,” and all I ask is for “not a moment back, but urge you on, but urge you on!”

–Alex Aldrich
Executive Director
Vermont Arts Council