Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Home


Well, it's the end of another year, and it's been a wild ride. 2008 had a lot of high points for me, but it also included the serious illnesses of close friends, some unexpected job instability, and the shelving of a manuscript I'd had high hopes for. This is the title essay of that manuscript; it seems fitting, somehow, to meditate on home at the end of this year.

Although I've lived in New York State for the last five years, this essay was written in Tucson, Arizona. I'll dedicate it, in my sentimental, end-of-year mood, to my Arizona friends and my New York friends. And if there are any unknown, silent, blog-reading friends out there, hey, this is for you, too.

--Donna

No Place Like It

I remember the first time I noticed light. In the backyard of my childhood home a sapling grew up from a rocky, changeable creek that separated our small-town street from an endangered family farm. The sapling, possibly birch, possibly maple, curved in a gentle arc, and its uppermost branches sheltered a birdhouse my grandfather had built. The birdhouse was mounted on a pole and, to our amazement, birds had actually built a nest inside. Either those birds were reclusive, or they shied away from curious children; I heard but rarely saw them. What I could see: bits and pieces of their nest – dry grass and twigs cascaded from the door-like opening in the house.

I spent a lot of time in that backyard. My brother and sisters and I would swing on the two rusty swings or play tag or jump repeatedly off the splintery red picnic table. Sometimes we’d climb onto the lowest branch of a wild cherry tree and just sit, dangling our legs, as though we’d accomplished something important. When I was fourteen I’d bring my boyfriend back there. We’d lean against the garage door, hidden by tall hedges that surrounded the yard, and make out for hours. I could feel the hard bump in his jeans and would press against it, rocking back and forth the way I’d rocked as a child on a fence beam. I didn’t fully understand why it felt so good, but I liked the sensation and presumed he did, too.

That sapling didn’t survive my adolescence – a victim of storm, or some other vagary of the seasons – and the birdhouse seemed to disappear one day, or maybe I just stopped paying attention. But the first time I noticed light – the first time I really saw light – was on that slender, sloping tree. It was autumn, and only a few leaves clung to the delicate branches that swept the white side of the birdhouse. I suspect it was a late afternoon light, a slant light, for the branches and the little house were side-lit and stunning. The light on the branch seemed to drip, as though it had been painted on with a gold wash, and the birdhouse’s wood surface was drenched in Hockney white.

Part of why I remember that light is because it was the first time I wanted to write about what I saw, as though the writing and the seeing were twinned impulses. And there was another realization: I knew, in that moment, that I did not have, and might never find, the words to describe not only what I saw, but what I felt when I looked at the light.


This morning the sky is overcast with pale, gooey clouds that seem to stretch like messy clay across the sky. They are not attractive clouds, but they serve a purpose, keeping the Arizona heat at bay. Even though it’s November, the days regularly creep toward the 90-degree mark. Earlier it rained for a while, though when I mention this to a friend who lives nearby she is surprised. I am forced to admit that “rained” might be stretching it; precipitation fell for, at most, 60 seconds. But it was long enough to scent the air with creosote and dirt, a smell that used to make me feel like coughing, as though the dirt had lined my throat. Now, after four years in the desert, I’ve come to love the smell, understand that it indicates rain, or at least the hope of rain. My barren yard looks pocked; the fat raindrops left multiple, distinct indentations in its raked surface.

During our phone conversation, my friend and I discuss the weather. The morning is balmy, mild and unusually humid. We both grew up in the northeast, and days like today, though rare, feel familiar and make us nostalgic. I mention that a hurricane is threatening the Florida Keys; my friend confesses that she’s always wanted to spend hurricane season on those islands, just to experience the weather’s wrath. I have toyed with this fantasy as well, but remember too clearly the winds that battered my family’s house in New Jersey years ago. I’d feared, during those storms, that the windows would blow in. We could see the glass buckle, hear the wind whistle around the seams of the windows, a sound that terrified me. I would hide in the bathroom, which had only a small window, or hunker down against a wall, hoping that shattering glass wouldn’t slice through my clammy skin. My friend, who grew up in Jersey too, remembers the tall pine trees outside her family’s farmhouse. Although they lived further inland, when the winds came she would sleep on the very edge of her tiny twin bed, thinking that would give her some added distance away from the window. She spent every storm fearing that those enormous trees would finally bend so far they’d snap; they were big enough to crush through walls. She remembers a story her father told her about the first year her parents lived in the house. A hurricane had been forecast and the winds picked up all afternoon. Her mother was out, her father was working in the fields. When the wind blew the phone lines down he figured it was time to go inside. Although the windows were closed, he swears rain blasted through their edges with such force that the drops hit the wallpaper on the other side of the room.

I believe this story, having witnessed those coastal storms firsthand. The summer I was seventeen I drove with my mother and sisters to the Asbury Park boardwalk. We spent the day lazily strolling the seaside and eating French fries served in paper cones and sprinkled with vinegar and salt; waffles sandwiched around squares of ice cream; wax-paper-wrapped saltwater taffy. The ocean was wild, loud with giant slate-gray waves, but we’d all seen waves like that before.

The road home ran along the coast, but normally the only sensory indications of the beach would have been the salty smell of the air and the skeins of sand that drifted across the pavement. The water itself couldn’t be seen because of a high stone wall, a breakwater, which separated several hundred yards of beach from the two-lane road.

There weren’t many travelers that day; the rest of the world must have known a storm was fast approaching. As we drove north, a few drops of rain splattered the windshield. Rather, I assumed it was rain, and turned on the wipers. I’d only had my driver’s license for a couple of months, but I’d lived near the ocean my whole life. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to realize. It wasn’t rain that fell upon the car. The storm-riled sea had traversed the entire beach – a big, wide, and I’d thought permanent beach – the way I imagined a tidal wave would. The waves had swelled so high that they were rising up, speeding over the expanse of sand, and crashing on the road side of the breakwater. The rain splattering the windshield wasn’t rain… it was the sea.

I don’t remember how long it took to speed down that road. But I was frightened; I clutched the steering wheel and pressed my foot to the gas, driving as fast as I could, feeling a little like a surfer trying to out-race a worrisome wave. Even as I drove, however, knowing that I was responsible for the others, their bodies in my car, their precious bodies, even as I sped toward home I felt the adrenaline, knew I was experiencing something I’d likely never see again. I tried to memorize the black gleam of the road; the way the car seemed to rock sideways on its tires as each wave hit, like a fighter knocked back on his heels; the futility of the windshield wipers; the sheen of sweat that broke out on all of us… I was recording it, I was hyper-vigilant yet just a little detached, hovering, watching, taking notes. I did not then nor do I now understand the true power of the sea or, for that matter, the true power of the human heart. But I knew I’d been given a gift, and I knew I’d spend my life trying to understand the capacity of the heart to speak, to open wide, wide, open wide to the inviting and sublime beauty and terror of the world.


As I write this, the state where I live is burning. The second large wildfire of the year rages to the north. Just a few weeks ago a separate fire decimated a good part of one of Tucson’s landmarks, Mt. Lemmon. For two weeks it ate up the sides of canyons, threatened cabins, threw a massive plume of smoke into the northeastern sky every day, until finally the whole city smelled of ash and cinder. Today an even bigger fire – raging for weeks, already having burnt over 400,000 acres – tears through the White Mountains. This fire is a work of art, a monster fire – like those monster waves – and the firefighters are at its mercy. The news briefings are compelling. A spokesman for the fire team confesses they are dazzled, stunned by the intensity and creativity of this fire. “We have zero percent containment,” he says, which means the fire is 100% in control. When Mt. Lemmon burned the news reports had been increasingly optimistic: 5% containment, then 25%, then 60, 80, etc. until the fire was gone. But this one is eating through ponderosa pine so overgrown that the fire easily licks up the small saplings and reaches the higher crowns, sending flames hundreds of feet into the air – two hundred feet, four hundred. Eventually someone reports that the flames are a thousand feet high. When video airs on the nightly news the fire is gorgeous, you can tell that the cameramen are in love with it. There are long, sweeping lines of flame across the side of the mountains; we view shots of flames entwined around tall trees, flames so red and voluptuous you want to reach out and touch the t.v. screen, clouds massive, dark and undulating. “Nature’s in control,” the spokesman says. We’ve seen him on the news night after night; it’s apparent that he’s tired. “She’s dealing the hand,” he says, attempting to sound objective rather than worried or weary. The fire line is fifty miles long. One by one the small towns along its path are evacuated, residents instructed to tie a white towel or sheet on their front doors so officials will know they’ve left. “Take your medications, your pets, your photographs,” they’re instructed. “We don’t know when you’ll be back.”

Imagine all those streets of empty houses, white sheets tied to the front doors. I think of what I’d grab, what I’d leave behind. The two cats, of course, though they’d hate being disrupted from their orderly lives. I’d have to pack up photographs and papers: poems, essays, letters. I’d allow myself one luxury item: a framed pencil drawing of a tree and its network of roots. The tree, I realize, looks like it survived a fire. But how could I leave my books behind, how would I feel when I tied that towel on my door? My whole life, I’d think, my whole life about to go up in smoke.

I’m sitting here wondering about those evacuated residents, thousands of them, where they’ll go, what they’re thinking. That home is so complicated is not a new thought. But sometimes the other side surprises me, the simplicity of it. Maybe it can be reduced to a location, a structure… a house on a street, a house with a white sheet attached to the door, a house where ashes fall like snowflakes onto the roof, the picnic table, the trees we planted ourselves.

I say it aloud – home. The nice, long O, the comforting M which gets held, drawn out a bit, like saying yum. There’s a little moan in the middle, right after the whispered H. And the sweet, silent E, like a small secret, a door closing quietly after a parent has checked on a sleeping child. It’s a beautiful word, an easy word, a word that two-year olds can say and almost anyone can spell. It has excellent rhymes: poem, tome, roam, loam, comb, dome, foam, gnome. And it’s the one word in the English language that can reduce me to tears, bring me to my knees, leave me feeling shaken, broken, lost. I have no home or, rather, I know no place that truly feels like home.

My mother buys a new address book every couple of years just to keep up with my two brothers and me; in twenty years I’ve had twenty different addresses. (My brothers, who should be listed under “S” in my own address book, must now be listed under “X,” having long since grown past the S section.) I occasionally receive mail from two or three addresses back, friends who have lost track of where I am.

I say “I’m going home” when I visit friends back east. And then, when I leave them to return to the southwest, I say “I’m going home.” Neither statement is true. Neither place is home. The woman who loves me, who lives in another state, calls me home. I don’t mean that she beckons me, although she does, she incites an ache in me that tempts me to leave this place, to give up my job, my house, my friends, and head two-thousand miles back east. But I mean it literally, she calls me home, like it is my name: Home. She invites me to share her life; she’d become the thing I would save, the signs of her, the traces. “Where are Leigh’s letters,” I’d ask; I’d place them on my car seat, I’d wipe the tears off my face as I prepared to leave. “At least I have these,” I’d think: my cats, my lover’s words, my drawing of a single tree left standing.


But it’s not that simple. I can’t reduce my life to what I can pack in my car, can’t pare it down to one word, even “home.” Although we attach so much meaning to the word, although we create complex, gorgeous metaphors, like many of my generation, I’ve lost touch with what the word means. Maybe I never knew. As a kid, when I saw the light on that tree branch, I don’t think I knew. When I thought the ocean might sweep that big white car off the road, when I thought I might never make it home, I’m not sure I knew. And now, I really have no idea how those evacuated residents feel as they watch flames claim their schools, their businesses, their houses. I wish I could at least say I understood what this woman means, this person who offers me everything she has – I wish I knew what to say, what to feel, when she calls me home. But I don’t. All I know is this: I have been graced with so many things in this life. I’ve been loved like nobody’s business, I have seen the earth declare itself in water and in flame, and though it bears no relationship to any religion I’ve ever studied, I have seen the light.

I could not ask for more.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Loupe

This originally appeared in the literary journal Shenandoah. It was later listed as a "Notable Essay" in Best American Essays 2006. If you look in the back, you'll see my name in tiny little type.

I haven't figured out the technical aspects of this blog yet, so my paragraphing might seem off in places. Sorry about that.
--Donna



The Loupe

One of my favorite possessions is smaller than a chicken’s egg, and similar to a common egg in that it’s inexpensive but invaluable – to me, anyway. It’s a jeweler’s loupe, a simple thing, used professionally by horologists (watchmakers) and by jewelers in evaluating diamonds. Mine says TRIPLET on its outer body, designating that there are three lenses joined together to create one compound lens. Also inscribed is 10X, which indicates the loupe magnifies ten times. The last number is 18 mm, the size of the lens. Mine’s called a folding loupe, because its outer shell, of metal, folds out, creating a convenient hand-piece. By holding the grip to my cheek and the lens to my eye, I can take a close-up look at feathers, wood grain, skin – anything I want to magnify. When I’m done, the outer piece folds back over the lens, protecting it from dirt and damage. The contraption is further protected by a small, oval-shaped leather case. Some people like to hang the loupe from a cord so that it can be worn like a pendant, allowing quick access. I don’t use mine every day, so the brown case with its satisfying metal snap is just right for safekeeping. It’s compact – smaller than a golf ball -- and light enough to carry in a jacket pocket.

My favorite subjects for observation under the loupe are creatures – birds, lizards, insects. Since, in order for serious study, these must be cadavers, I have to take what I can find; I won’t intentionally kill even a mosquito solely to look at it. It’s not unusual, however, to find dead ants, spiders, and bees in the yard, as well as cicada casings and dragonfly wings. Shells and rocks are excellent subjects, as are bones. I have a few animal skulls, some of which look “bone-white” to the unassisted eye but, under the loupe, are pocked with dirt (and, one might surmise, dead skin). One small bird skull still has a few tiny feathers attached, as well as the remnants of an eyeball, which appears to have decomposed from the inside out. Some of the skulls harbor clusters of sharp, filthy teeth. I haven’t yet examined a human tooth; my own hair, however, is endlessly fascinating. Magnified, the dark hairs look as tough as broom bristles, while the blonder hairs look like filaments, as though an electric current illuminates them from within.

Regular window screens are well worth examining with a loupe. They appear formal and architectural, like a wall of windows drawn by an unsteady hand. All of the lines are slightly wobbly, but the symmetry of the grid forms a perfect backdrop for the debris inevitably caught in the screen. The debris – mostly dust and dirt – looks like delicate scrollwork. Bits of detritus and grime become a free-form overlay, juxtaposing swirls and curves against the more exact screen pattern. If I had a better eye, or perhaps a stronger loupe, I could probably discern sand from soil, ash from skin, cinders from sawdust. But I don’t, so it all just looks like an abstract pen-and-ink drawing. And, to my relief, when I put the loupe down the screen looks clean.

I’ve done a kind of meta-looking by observing my reading glasses through the loupe. Even after cleaning, they tend to be covered with small hairs, dust, and sweat or oils from the skin – in a word, disgusting. I’ve also tried to look at my own eyeball, by holding the loupe to my eye and peering into a mirror. The results are beautiful – deep greens and browns, a shimmering of gold – but initially confusing, for there are hundreds of small bubbles visible amidst the colors. I’m not sure if the bubbles are imperfections in the mirror glass, if they’re part of the loupe lens or if – my secret hope – the bubbles are in my eye. (Later, while studying a piece of green glass, I see similar bubbles. My heart sinks a little, suspecting there are, in fact, no bubbles in my eyes. But I vow to look at my friends’ eyeballs – as soon as they’ll let me).

Through the loupe, my white computer screen is made up of bright red, green, and blue dots. A plain brown envelope looks like an aerial view of a furrowed wheat field. Things are not what they seem.

Ink on paper is exquisite. Simple lines take on dimension and definition or, depending on the paper, lose a bit of definition. A glossier paper tends to allow for crisp lines, while a softer, matte paper, viewed under the loupe, shows ink spatter, bleeding edges, and the slight indentations caused by the writer’s hand pressure. Letters and words viewed close-up – one’s nose touches the paper at times – is ineffably lovely. One begins to understand graphology; it seems that character is truly revealed in these characters.

I like to examine my own hand; magnification changes the ordinary into the extraordinary. Fingertips look like raw salmon steaks, and knuckles look like elephant skin. Freckles I can barely see take on form and definition; gradations of color and distinct shapes are obvious. Even after scrubbing my hands with the devotion of a surgeon I can see all sorts of specks beneath my fingernails, as well as the fine ridges in each nail. Dry skin around the edges of the nail can look horrifying under the loupe. One vows to get a manicure, or at least start massaging some cream into the hands.

Legs can be fun to examine, in particular, the hairs, which tend to be coarser than most other hair. The dark roots can be seen beneath the surface of the skin – each hair looks like a sliver of splinter. A few millimeters of calf skin take on the appearance of a tray of seedlings; my knee looks as though it has been planted with microscopic rhubarb. A nearly faded scar looks like a battle wound; in fact, any kind of scratch or cut appears alarming when viewed at close range. Initiates to the loupe might be well-advised to brace for surprisingly garish images – even a mild scrape or a paper cut appears to have violent origins. The body, at close attention, becomes tender and dramatically vulnerable.

Flowers, which can be erotic under almost any circumstances, become nearly painfully sexual when scrutinized. A random collection of wildflowers taken from the yard yielded microscopic droplets of dew and pollen, a beautiful sheen on the petals, and a look into the depths of the flower that is so intimate one almost can’t help licking the specimen. Each must be held or stationed literally an inch or two from the eye – there’s something about detecting the barest hint of softness in the palm, coupled with the ability to peer inside the small flower that makes one feel like a giant, or a god.

I am brought back to earth when I examine a crushed ant which moved, just slightly, as I studied it. It probably doesn’t have quite the same shock value, but it reminded me a little of a human body moving during an autopsy. I jumped. Later, I whap a yellow-jacket that speeds through the open front door then slams against a window screen. It doesn’t seem overly aggressive – just aggressive enough. I hit it again, and kill it. Dead, or dying, it continues to move, quietly inflating and deflating for several minutes. Although I felt nothing but determination as I killed it, my heart breaks when I see it through the loupe. As I quietly and insufficiently repent, against the window – from the outside – another bee tap, tap, taps, a witness to my murderous act. He wants in, and he wants revenge. I am ashamed, but also curious. My dead bee’s head appears tarred and hairy. The wings are intact but the hindquarters are bent and broken. Look what I’ve done.

A friend, who grew up to be a painter, wrote the word “Look” in crayon on the walls of her parents’ farmhouse when she was a child. She sat on the bottom stair of the hallway and carefully outlined the word, then proceeded to the next stair and wrote it again – all the way up the staircase, until the hall displayed an ascending, repetitive series of the command or entreaty – Look Look Look Look Look.

There is value in the art of observing which goes beyond the aesthetic, although aesthetic pleasure, I think, is essential to daily life. It seems no coincidence that watchmakers use the loupe to manipulate the works of timepieces. I like to imagine they are looking into time itself, using the eye glass to maneuver the gears into precise alignment. When I look inside a flower so small I can balance it on my fingertip, or inside the skull of an animal, or when I study the complex surface of a white rock, I can’t help but think that things are not what they seem – they are so much more. We are limited, fallible creatures, and we have wreaked havoc on this earth – but look how it shines. If we can’t find redemption in that, if we’re incapable of genuine awe, genuine consideration and restraint, then we are nothing.

My neighbor, on the rural road where I live, is burning wood. I want to look at an ember close up, see that fire as I feel its heat near my skin. I want to take the loupe into the yard and peer into a luscious, just-bloomed iris. I want to take the loupe to my lover’s body, examine every inch, including the small tattoo on her hip. I want to see it all.

In June of this year, a rare astronomical event: Venus passed before the sun. Observatories set up telescopes so that those interested could scan the heavens. Like the loupe, it’s just another way of looking – a way of bringing the visible closer – but it’s also a way of measuring distance, comprehending, seeing the big picture. Sometimes I think we spend our lives like that, negotiating intimacy and distance, pulling things – or people – close, pushing them away. I missed the transit of Venus – the heavens rarely accommodate my schedule – but regardless of whether anyone saw it or not, a small dark body floated across the larger brilliance of the sun. The world sometimes feels like layers and layers of images, like those transparencies in medical textbooks – one sheet for the circulatory system, one for the bones, yet another for the muscles – we understand in increments, we try to make sense of the connections.

I have a dark spot that floats across my left eye – it’s the closest thing to my eye, the absolute nearest – yet I can hardly see it at all.

Before I put my loupe away, I follow a brief ritual; I polish the lens and clean the body. I wipe fingerprints from the metal, fold the two halves one inside the other, set the loupe in its leather case and snap the buckle. I can’t help but notice that it’s a hard devise, all metal and glass; there’s no give, no suppleness to it at all. Even the leather case is sturdy. This will sound sexual rather than intellectual, but maybe it takes a certain hardness to probe what is soft. Maybe that’s just arbitrary – I don’t know. But it’s not difficult to see why the act of looking, of gazing, has metaphorically been compared to rape. No permission is granted; none, in fact, is asked. All of this looking I do – along with its corollary, writing – is an odd privilege. I do it, in part, because I can. And because I can, in a sense, trespass – look where I please, write what I please – my attendant thankfulness can feel paltry.

A teacher once said, to a room full of nonfiction writers, that other people sacrifice their lives for us – our friends, families, lovers, acquaintances, students – they live, they work and love, they mind their own business – and we steal their stories. I’d expand that list to include animals, flora, the whole natural world… For this essay alone, I’ve used a half-dozen plucked flowers, the treasured story of a good friend, the very bones of creatures. Am I a thief, have I committed a criminal aesthetic act, stolen what is not mine? Or do I simply want to share what I see? Look look look look look – and once you do, you might be in it as deeply as I am. The reader is the willing accomplice to the writer.

Close up, nothing’s what it seems.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cold


This essay first appeared in the excellent literary journal Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing. Check it out at http://isotope.usu.edu/ and if you like it, subscribe.

I live in Oswego, New York -- on the shores of Lake Ontario -- and write about our long winters quite frequently. This is one of my first essays to explore some of the aspects of the long, beautiful season. More will follow.

--Donna Steiner




Cold

As with any methodical task, there is a spiritual component to shoveling snow that only those repeatedly forced into doing it come to know. I say “forced” intentionally, although it is legitimate to wonder how one comes to a spiritual understanding through force. Rather than force, let me refer to “necessity.” I must, by necessity, shovel snow if I wish to survive the winter. As with many chores, shoveling brings, if not exactly pleasure, at least some measurable degree of satisfaction.

I live in what is good-naturedly called a snow belt. “Belt” often seems precise; we are belted, with regularity and almost inexplicable fervor, by weather systems that take their sweet time to reach us – these are nor’easters, coming up the coast languorously. At least that’s the way the Weather Channel depicts them, swirling and moseying along the mid-Atlantic until they take a breather over Central New York and dump a day or two’s worth of snow on us. More insidious, and much more common, is “lake effect” snow. My small town of Oswego, New York is situated smack on the south-eastern shore of Lake Ontario, and the cold air that crosses the relatively warmer lake can produce lingering, seductive winter scenes. Then it’s like a picture postcard – it can be so cozy from the inside, looking out: gorgeous, big flakes limning the pine and cherry trees and smoothing out the angles of the landscape until all we can see is a sinuous, blue-white world – a world of snow. This is a cumulative, expansive beauty, and it seems to stretch out forever. The “forever” part is what begins to feel oppressive – not the quick sharp sting of the belt, but the perpetual dread of the next strike.

Yesterday was a lake effect day – snowing when we woke up in the morning, snowing at lunchtime, and still snowing into the early afternoon. By 2:30 the storm had begun to let up, and I decided to go outside and shovel the walkway. The flu had knocked me for a loop all week and I wanted to take it easy; I figured I’d pace myself, shovel slowly – I intended to enjoy my task.
I’ve seen a neighbor kid go out to shovel wearing nothing but a pair of boots and jeans. He shovels maniacally, filling the shovel with heaps of snow and flinging it as far as he can. He’s the half-naked Paul Bunyan of snow shoveling, and if he doesn’t change his ways he’ll end up killing himself one of these days. Every season the television news features stories about idiots like this – men, often, who shovel fast and hard then drop dead of heart attacks. This kid has youth on his side but still, he’s asking for trouble. My lover and housemate, Leigh, takes the opposite approach; she puts on layer after layer, transforms from a slender but strong woman into a formidable, if somewhat puffy, entity. She wears two layers of pants, three shirts, two scarves, a face mask, a hat, boots over thick socks (sometimes two pair), heavy mittens, and a giant down coat. Even with all of the layers, she sometimes gets cold while snow-blowing the driveway. Simultaneously she works up a sweat – the driveway is long, steep in parts, and a repository for heavy snow. Those under-layers get soaked with sweat, and when she comes in it seems like she’s been sitting fully dressed in a sauna.

My approach is somewhere in the middle of the extremes. I don’t like to feel constricted by my clothes, so I usually wear jeans, a tee-shirt, a sweat shirt, and a light, insulated coat. My gloves aren’t really warm enough and my headband/ear-warmer – I can’t tolerate a hat – isn’t warm enough either. I wrap a scarf loosely around my neck. My boots are the only truly weather-appropriate things I wear. Keeping my feet warm, coupled with the effort of shoveling, allows me to maintain a fairly comfortable temperature.

My method of shoveling differs from Leigh’s and the boy next door’s as well. He’s flat-out crazy and expends much more energy than is called for; she is more considered, and can heft what appears to be a ton of snow with each shovel pass. I have two tactics, depending on the weight of the snow. Heavier snow demands vision; one must know the goal and set a course. I am not strong, so I scrape away at heavy snow little by little then lift it, slowly, to a more appropriate spot. Heavy snow is displaced more than removed. Heavy snow requires organizational skills and a steady disposition.

Lighter snow calls for equal amounts of flinging and pushing. One can shovel quickly when the snow is light, even if it accumulates up to a foot or so. I scoop it up, I throw it. Scoop and throw, scoop, sigh, throw – this is how the stairs get cleaned. There’s nothing fancy about my method; it’s part aerobics and part housekeeping. I can whistle while I work, as though I’m sweeping the kitchen. Depending on how much there is to shovel, by the time I come to the flat section, I’m often ready to push. First, however, I take a break at the landing. I’m tired, sweating, and it’s time to take a look at the world.

The world is… white. The ground is white, the sky is white, the air is full of white shavings, as though the sky were being scraped. The house and garage look like white-capped mushrooms. The lamppost is topped in white, the mailbox at the roadside is encased in white. Everything else is hidden by white. There is little definition; the world is sugar-coated, a good four feet of sugar which, even by gluttonous standards, is too much sweetness. One of those feet still needs to be shoveled, and so I continue. But the pushing phase is less strenuous and therefore more boring; it lacks rhythm but invites thought. My thought is simple: there’s too much fucking snow.

So much for the spiritual component of shoveling.


At four o’clock in the afternoon, the snow turns blue. A respite of light often breaks clear of the clouds, a golden light, and fleeting. It breaks free and shines through the trees, crosses the voluptuous snow banks, turns them blue, then vanishes. When the snow is blue the treetops are lit, too, and they glimmer red under a thin coating of ice.

Today I’m watching the last moments of shimmering treetops while Leigh sleeps, shaking off a headache that came while she removed a foot of heavy, new snow from the driveway. She sleeps it off the way some might sleep off a hangover, and while she sleeps I watch the clouds reliably part, allow us a brief allotment of sun in an otherwise overcast, bitterly cold and windy day. The temperature is in the teens, and the landscape is reduced to its essential colors. Browns (the abundant trees), white tinged with a blue wash (the snow), golds and reds (the horizon and the treetops), and – I’m not sure it’s a separate color so much as a statement on the season – a fair share of grays. I watch the colors, the clouds, the occasional swirls of snow. And I watch the trees, which sway and bend in the strong wind. What fails to bend will break, and every once in a while I’ll hear a loud pop and a branch will fall silently to the padded ground below. The trees seem to dance, appear to have thrown their arms above their torsos and move in time to a kind of arboreal call. Each has its own orbit, and it looks as though they never clash, never intersect, although of course that can’t be true. If I could elevate to the treetops I’d hear them clatter the way palm leaves do in the desert; the insulating silence of snow muffles all but the loudest, sharpest of noises.

Tomorrow I will brave the roads, drive an hour to the city hospital, roll up my sleeve and let a technician inject some radioactive isotope into a vein. The iodine will accumulate in my thyroid, which will then be scanned. I have been falling – literally falling – tripping over my own feet, falling hard down the stairs. And my muscles ache, as though a low-voltage current runs through my arms and legs, exhausting my limbs. I am gaining weight. Blood tests show thyroid imbalance. Everyone says it’s “nothing” – it’s easily treatable – but I’m a little alarmed. And so tomorrow I will be punctured for the fourth time. I will be temporarily radioactive. I asked the nurse if I’ll glow afterwards. "No,” she laughed. “At least, not any more than you already do.”

The hospital visit doesn’t happen. It’s cold, icy, the roads are bad, the snow is coming down hard. I will have to wait two more weeks for the tests, which means two more weeks without the medication that relieves the ache in my muscles.

As it turns out, during those two weeks in January we experience record-breaking cold. Temperatures fall overnight into the minus 20’s, in some places minus 30 or worse, and I hear on the news that the region hasn’t been this cold since 1956. The extreme cold reminds me of the extreme heat of Arizona – once it reaches a certain degree, hot is hot and cold is cold. When I lived in the desert, 113 wasn’t that much hotter than 108; similarly, minus 15 isn’t that much colder than minus 3. But it gives everyone something to talk about: Did your pipes freeze? I skidded around the corner near that big white house on West 5th; My windshield wiper fluid wouldn’t work; I hate it when people don’t clean the snow off their cars… and so on. I enjoy talking about the weather, love how strangers in the grocery store will just start in about it. Crazy cold, isn’t it? they say. I nod, smile, say yeah, I’ve spent the last six years in Arizona. “Arizona” seems to be a cue – they light up, they try to impress me, they become the best winter storytellers ever. And then we pay for our groceries and head out into the air that almost hurts with cold. The snow is mirage-like, the flakes shifting and tiny. Only the slap of glaze on our cheeks tells us there is any precipitation at all.

When it’s cold all the time, very cold for days on end, indoors and out, I can’t tell if I ache from the weather or from the symptoms of my condition. All I can tell is that my body hurts and nothing relieves the ache. I lie on the couch or on the bed under layers of blankets, layers so high I can’t see out from under them. Slowly I begin to warm. It’s hard not to miss the desert at times like that; hard to resist falling into a reverie about sunshine that lasts for months, about lounging in shorts and tank tops, about always-open windows and the desire for nakedness. It’s hard not to miss the abundance of skin one sees in southern Arizona; so much flesh, so many arms and legs and bellies and feet, so much apparent good health. It was easier to stay fit there; here, in central New York, we begin to soften, fatten up like young or not-so-young calves. By degrees, I am falling ever inward, burrowing ever deeper. Under the bulk of extra pounds, under the weight of too many layers of clothing, under the stacks of blankets, under feet of snow, under the perpetual gray clouds. It’s beginning to feel like being buried.


But there are things to love about this northerly world. Like: looking out the window at thousands of trees, thin branches made fat by several inches of snow. The nuanced, colored world made black and white temporarily, less visually complex but no less beautiful. The snow becomes an optical effect, the white being the “shadow” of the darker branches, as though the world were being viewed as a photographic negative. Although it is mostly just lines and curves, the landscape is not easy to describe, but it gives me deep satisfaction to look at it without speaking. I like the simplicity, the grace and lack of clutter. I could draw it if I wanted to. I understand what I see in a way that I never quite understood the desert. I felt exposed there. Here, I can hide.

Even my cat is cold. She suddenly likes to cuddle next to me or sometimes slink under the covers. While I write she visits and sits on the corner of my desk, where currents from the small space heater warm her. I know that once the temperature rises she will leave me again, go about her business until she is hungry and needs me. I am her source of heat and food and little more. But I can live with the illusion of affection and am happy to believe that she has come to me for comfort. The habits and trappings of love are sometimes quite enough.
Sometimes in the night I hear the roof beams creak and wonder how much snow it would take to cave in on top of us.

The temperature has risen to –7, the warmest it has been all week. I’m a little stir crazy, and decide to take advantage of the heat wave. I head for the lake.

Lake Ontario looks, to the uninitiated eye, much like the sea. During non-winter months, waves lap at the rocky shore. The first time I saw the lake, a friend said that come winter, the water would appear to freeze in motion, and it has. All the way to the horizon, the lake’s surface is white ice, ridged and dramatic. At the jetties the water is frozen in waves, as though in a split second they’d been stricken solid, halted in air, mid-crash. The nearby river, too, freezes in places; its surface looks like giant, angular tiles of piled ice, as though it originally froze as a slab but continued to move and ended up buckling and breaking into large shards. I would like to look at all this ice close up, try to determine exactly how it froze, but so far it has been too cold for this type of extended observation. What is important to me now is its current appearance – the lake and the river, frozen, are something I have never seen. They hold the beauty of the unknown and, I’ll admit, are irresistible in large part because it has never occurred to me to even imagine them in their frozen form. I’d like to walk out on the ice, but the combination of extreme cold and common sense win out. I drive home. On my way, the sun breaks through the clouds and illuminates the snow – it begins to shine like diamonds. Each drift of snow has the elegant convexity of a blister, and the snow on the branches is ineffably rich, as though sheer white cream has frosted the trees. I sometimes feel like Leigh’s dog does, a big black Lab who likes to run in the snow and just sink her muzzle into a voluptuous bank, snapping at it, gulping it down, expecting, it seems, something more than a mouthful of icy water. I think of my mother in the presence of infants; when she lowers her face to their clean, swaddled bellies she says “I wanna eat you up.” Moments like this, that’s how I feel about the land.

So much beauty comes with a price, of course. The major highways leading into the nearest city were treacherous yesterday, the salt being ineffective once the temperature falls close to zero. Hundreds of accidents and disabled vehicles; there weren’t enough tow trucks to take care of the problem, and the police and the DPW urged motorists to stay off the roads until salt trucks and plows could do their jobs. In the last week or so, a few people have died from the cold; often it’s the elderly who don’t or can’t turn up their heat and hypothermia sets in. Sometimes it’s a hiker or camper who overestimates their survival skills, sometimes a skier goes off-trail and gets lost, freezes to death. People fall through thin ice, have heart attacks while shoveling, tumble from slick roofs and break bones on icy sidewalks. Kids riding sleds lose fingers to the sharp runners or get concussions when they’re hit by an out-of-control toboggan. The local emergency rooms report a high incidence of hand injuries: people trying to clear their snow blowers using their fingers. Cars dent other cars, tree limbs fall from the weight of snow and ice, houses are damaged by the melting snow that leaks into their roofs and walls, bushes and shrubs are crushed by falling slabs of ice, frostbite claims the tender edges of the ear, the tips of noses, toes… Already I’ve slipped a few times, pulled muscles, bruised ribs. My car slid around a corner the other day and, had there been any traffic, I’d have run head-on into the unlucky driver. My tire rims have rusted from the salt, having lost their hubcaps a while back. The windshield wiper fluid distributors have been frozen for weeks; I have to unclog them with an unbent paper clip before I head out. Leigh’s car was hit and dented in the drug store parking lot. Her friend Bob’s car and his wife’s car both wouldn’t start the other day. Brad’s wife Teresa, who teaches in the elementary school, is beginning to worry that she’ll be teaching a little longer into this summer; the local schools have used up all their snow days already. I’ve run out of medication and haven’t gotten to the store to pick up a refill. I wonder how many other people have this problem of needing meds and the weather being too cold or the roads too slick to get to the pharmacy. I’m not in any danger, but there are a lot of elderly people in this town who might be.

The cold makes me want to hibernate, to be quiet, to hide, to meditate and contemplate and ponder and hunker down. Conversely, I begin to feel increasingly antsy. “Cabin fever” usually doesn’t set in, for me, until February. But this year, maybe because I’m no longer used to the rhythms of the seasons in the northeast, it comes early. I want the snow to stop. I want the roads to be clear and the temperatures milder. I want to be able to leave the house without considering, at great length, what to wear, what route to drive, how long my excursion will take. I want extended sunshine. I want to take a walk. I want to feel something other than somber.

There’s a generosity to all this ice and cold and snow that feels, oddly, like exactly the opposite, like a lack of generosity. Abundance can be stifling. This is a lesson of nature.

The icicles hanging from the eaves are bigger than I am. A friend told me once about some girls she’d attended grade school with; she called them “the crazy Hobart twins.” One day the crazy Hobart twins were walking downtown and a massive icicle came loose from the roof of the cathedral and killed one of the twins. I’ve always wondered what became of the other one, but nobody seems to know. People just melt into the landscape sometimes.

Just as it seems like we might escape January and tackle the customary onslaught (but merciful brevity) of February, a four-day lake effect snow storm hits. Our town becomes the pivot from which the band of snow “oscillates,” which mostly means it sways, imperceptibly, slightly to the north, slightly to the south. During the worst of it, we receive six inches an hour. Leigh plows the driveway twice a day for four days, barely able to keep up. By the end of the stretch, seven feet of new snow covers the ground. A state of emergency is declared in the county. The highways, according to t.v. news, are “impassable.” When we hear this, we look at each other in bewilderment. We’ve lived here, cumulatively, for almost 50 years. Neither of us recall the word “impassable” being used before.

On the fifth day, we need to get out of the house. We have no idea if the state of emergency has been lifted, but we trudge to the car and head to the grocery store. The roads are icy; snow blows across our path. The wind is sharp and whips the top layers of snow into whorled, snake-like patterns; the air looks smoky, but it’s just whirling snow. Every road is lined with high, sculptural banks. The mail hasn’t been delivered in two days; most roadside mailboxes are either buried or busted from the plows. Everyone’s out shoveling or snow blowing their driveways and sidewalks. It’s Saturday and a lot of people haven’t been able to keep up with weekday snow removal. Almost everyone we pass stops in their work and watches us drive by, as though holding out hope that we might stop and help. We don’t stop.

Nobody has been able to shop for a few days; the store shelves are fully stocked. We buy everything we need and some things we don’t, feeling ravenous even though we’ve had plenty to eat. Partly it feels good just to be around other people; partly we don’t want to go back out on the roads quite yet. We can see through the big plate glass store windows that the snow has picked up again. I’ve begun to wonder if it might never end. As if on cue, Leigh says “Go grab us a newspaper.” The headline: OSWEGO BURIED; SNOW ‘NEVER STOPS.’ We read all about what we already know, but seeing the blitz verified in print makes it more exciting. “The storm has spent the last 2 days punishing a swath of the county…” “As snow bands go, this one was particularly lazy, shifting little during the 36 hours it did its heaviest damage.” Well, yeah, lazy in that respect – it didn’t like to move. But it was absolutely not lazy in doing its damage. I’d call it a conscientious, hard-working storm. I’d call it a workaholic. I’d say we were soundly and roundly belted.

It is hard to be exposed to the cold for so long without becoming cold deep in the heart.
Just as I write that last line the snow stops and I can see a small clearing in the clouds. The sky isn’t quite blue, but it’s less white. My heartbeat quickens; I hope, so fervently that it’s almost absurd, that the sun will come out for a little while.

Tomorrow, again, I will travel to the hospital for tests. My plan is to go regardless of the weather; I’ve already cancelled once and I want to get back on the medication. Pain is a motivator. It is also a depressor; much like the cold, it’s the duration that disturbs. I feel I’ll be putting my neck on the line, figuratively and literally, exposing my throat in a way that feels vulnerable and scary. One of the possible findings: cancer. Another: nodules that can grow to block one’s windpipe, disturb one’s speech. As a kid I thought if I said certain things aloud, they’d come true. I haven’t progressed much beyond that, and so have focussed on the most likely, most treatable options. I expect to be fine. That is what I say aloud.
The real lesson of the cold, of all the extremes of our seasons, may be resilience. Through an accumulation of days and months and years, one learns to endure. One learns what one can bear, and often it is more than anticipated. We learn to survive the day-to-day disappointments, the slights and misunderstandings, we weather storms and droughts of both real and metaphorical intensity. Actually, we do more than survive; we develop a great capacity for joy and delight; we learn to play and to love and to nurture and share and we develop our gifts for generosity and intimacy and pleasure. This seems to happen in imperceptible increments; a scientist would be hard-pressed, I think, to isolate the moment we first felt jubilance or the precise series of gestures, thoughts and feelings that led to the last time we fell, wholly, deeply and irrevocably, in love.

I can’t know, but I suspect I will survive winters as cold or colder than this one or, if circumstances change, summers as hot as those I spent in the desert. My acclimatization is slow; I need time to consider and reflect on everything – the slant of snow; the way my arm feels when the phlebotomist inserts the needle; my lover’s startled delight in the morning when she looks at me as though she’s never seen me before. And maybe that’s the bottom line – we have, none of us, truly seen any of this before.

When I drive to the hospital tomorrow and steer my car into unavoidable slides; when I sign in, fill out forms; when I unwrap my scarf and feel the cold air on my neck; and especially when I lean my head back and give my throat up to the x-ray, the ultrasound, the experienced touch of the doctor, I will try to remember that. Some icicles fall, when they begin to melt, in an arc, as though continuing a curve of their own making. I want to fall like that. So that when I land, I am somewhere surprising, a little off from where I’d expected.

The cold is bracing. We don’t know it yet, but February will dazzle us with sunshine.