Winter

She speaks for us all, confessing to the check-out clerk with an excited laugh that if it’s going to ice, she’d better get ready. Milk, bread, chocolate bars, corn meal—her choices are different only in detail from the rest of us standing in line, in a store so jam-packed that even the stock boys work up front wearing jackets over their aprons and sacking supplies that will keep us secure when the weather moves in. Cars and trucks crowd the parking lot, some left running with the plumes of their exhaust whipping sideways in the freezing wind.

Men wait holding meat, bananas, coffee, restless in insulated tan coveralls with the legs unzipped over their heavy clay-soiled boots, their hair packed down against their heads where knit hats had been. Uneasy in a role usually filled by their wives, they joke, catch up with old acquaintances who also stand in line, promising to call soon, men not accustomed to being off work at one p.m., hurrying home to family before the sleet starts.

The cold comes first, thirty-five degrees when I started to town in the morning, twenty two when I return home, fifteen by three. Wind rocks the great oaks side to side, piling stiff dead leaves in new arrangements at the corner of the woodpile, at the steps. Twelve degrees at dusk, the clouded sky pale pink and white, the countryside settling into frozen night.

More wood on the fire at midnight and two a.m. I shiver by the fire. The house creaks.

Five-thirty a.m. by my bedside clock, the tick-tick of sleet against the windows wakes me. I indulge in another hour of fitful sleep, comforted by heavy quilts and cats at my feet. Plans of all I could do race through my dreams, the albums not finished, correspondence neglected, the watercolors so long set aside. Roads coated in ice mean a day without visitors, a day at home tending the fire, tending myself.

Dressed in sweaters not worn for five years, in long socks and with no regard to appearance, I sip hot tea at the window. Only a small shift in the light signals dawn, lifting the dark blue cast of the air to a lighter shade.  Barely visible deer move slowly through the woods, pawing at the ice-coated duff.  Tiny crystalline flakes of snow filter into the sleet, thickening the white of the downfall, obscuring trees at the fence line.

Four degrees.

I build a fire in the wood-burning cook stove. A kettle of water with cinnamon oil steams while I craft my list of things to do, tasks that seem too petty or cumbersome for normal days when open roads and obligations burden the hours. I simmer apricots with honey and ginger and fry half-moon pies, edges evenly crimped with tender fork lines. I sketch scenes, the road to my house, the long-familiar contoured hills, and let watercolor swirl on the heavy paper, a skyscape of gray and blue, fields tan, oaks silhouetted black.

Freshly washed clothes hang by the blistering stove whose greedy heat soon pulls out all moisture. With satisfying frugality, a pot of vegetable soup thick with garlic and a pan of beans decorate the stove top, cornbread in the small sooty oven. Every few hours I rush out for more wood, lingering coatless in the sharp scent of cold and wood smoke, large flakes of snow tumbling down into my hair, resting on my eyelashes.

The winters have not been accommodating in recent years, failing first with abbreviated snows, then disappointing even in temperature. In the onslaught of global warming, the Ozark hills have increasingly remained accessible in deepest January, when a few decades earlier our steep, curving roadways had been reliably impassible for at least two arctic weeks of the year. We grew up expecting that at times chosen by Nature, no one would venture out. The guy with the local wrecker service would make enough money to last until June.

In this mid-South clime, we don’t get winter enough to justify the county’s expense for snow plows. It suits us better to schedule school years with extra days for snow. It pleases us to find ourselves unexpectedly confined to the house discovering long lost treasures at the back of the closet, reading magazines, standing at the window as midday lightens the sky to a shade barely more luminous than the snow lying thick on the ground.

Lately, with the warming climate, there has been little winter at all. Days have run together, no time to reflect, restore, sleep in the afternoon. We long for the cold, the ice, roads we could not drive, jobs we could not attend.

Welcome then this celebration of ancient instincts to stay in the cave, content with the provisions we have hoarded, the firewood we have stacked near the door, wrapped in the warmth we have made. Embrace this triumph of man over the elements, a proof of our adequacy in a time when little else seems so clear.

This piece is excerpted from my collection of essays, I Met a Goat on the Road–and other stories of life on this hill. Published 2013

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Lingering Winter

soupAroma thick with thyme and marjoram steams from the simmering split pea soup. I’ve enjoyed the whole process—chopping onion, celery, and carrot, measuring the spices and selecting the bay leaves, stirring until the soupy mass starts to bubble and boil. More condensation to collect on the window panes where sleet bounces and taps it rhythm against the other side.

There’ll be no venturing out today. The roads are slick with ice. Time to relax and accept what the Mother has in store, a lingering blast of winter with all its gifts of cold and white. Wind whistling at the chimney where smoke of my wood fire plumes sideways. Time to muse on past winter days when fire blazed hot and pan lids jiggled, when my gaze settled on the distance and roamed over the years of my life.

Memories of winter’s challenges rise up to nourish me on these days, recollections of times when hardships were met and I was satisfied with my refuge, my larder, my conquest of the elements. In more distant times, I might have twisted strands of wool or linen and watched the wheel spin it to thread, or pounded clothes in a hot kettle for cleaning, or ground corn between stones to make coarse bread. I might have wrapped my children in animal skins and tied my own feet in fur before braving the cold for more wood, or brought the livestock into the other end of a rough cabin to keep them from freezing in the long nights.

How did I, of all my previous iterations, manage to occur here, now, where everything I need comes more or less effortlessly—the twist of a knob, click of a button, the turn of a key? A house with insulated walls and thick glass that keep in the warmth and allow me to watch frozen rain fall from gray-white clouds. What future embodiments of myself will wonder back on this time and what will they know? What I don’t know. What I can imagine for better. Or worse.

I don’t have to figure it out. Anyway, I can’t. Better to turn to the pan and stir the soup, add another log to the fire, stand at the window longer and marvel at the shades of gray and rust among the trees of the woods, the white of the sky and ground. Soon the scene will explode in infinite shades of green and heat will soak the edges. I’ll be pleased then to remember this cold.

Winter Night

adding wood to boiler 0001By two a.m. the fire in the woodstove had died down enough that the cold took over. Under heavy blankets and comforter, I could feel the temperature dropping in the house. The electric radiator in the bedroom is no match for six degrees, even with window curtains pulled tight.

A quick trip to the bathroom brought me shivering back to the bed. With the covers pulled up to my nose, I imagined myself not in this last century of modern comforts but rather in the earlier vast millennia of human existence. The cave, skin-covered hut or even the wooden long house would have been far colder, warmed only by open hearth fires and our breath. Heavy furs of mammoth or bear lay under and over us as we curled our knees to our chest and ducked our cold ears into the hidden warmth.

Fire tenders dragged long dead limbs further into the blaze and tugged their fur cloaks around their shoulders, watching as sparks flew into the air and ensuring the fire stayed in its place. Cabbages, apples, onions, and turnips rested in straw lined pits, safe from the cold, and around the perimeter of the shelter, chunks of meat sat semi-frozen, waiting to be brought to the flat rocks at the fire’s edge to drip fat and send up tantalizing aroma. Even then, as food cooked, as men dragged in more wood from the pile near the shelter’s door, we kept our furs tucked over us, waiting for spring.

In the long hours of midwinter night, sleep comes and goes. Fantastical dreams shift us from our known world, so that we fly into the future or past. I relived the death of a loved one and the loss resonated through me, and then magic knowledge enabled me to speed backwards in time with him until I found a new path, a year when a different choice meant longer life, and even before that, an even better restart. Our lives moved forward from there and when we came to the fatal day, he lived.

What was the magic? In the dream, I told myself I would remember. But I don’t. I remember that it was simple, that if I had let myself know what I really know, it would have been obvious. But it’s not.

Other visions of long sleep arise and fade, memories recast in distorted frames, possible futures emblazoned on unfamiliar horizons. The mysteries of embodiment tease around the edges, other forms, foreign memories. Deep in the warm thicket of my bed, I am free to fly away and see it all.

My feet find warm spots at the dog’s side, where the cat lies curled. A screech owl screams its cry at the wood’s edge. At the three a.m. passing of the train, its distant warning echoes up from the valley and sets the coyotes singing. At four-thirty, I’m awake again, fresh from another restive dream, and wondering if I should brave the cold to start new fire.

I wait, snuggled in all my wealth of warmth, finding one comfortable position, then another, until the night starts to lighten and the dogs go outside. Now the quick wood catches  in its cove of dried twigs and crumpled newspaper, and the cast iron around it warms. I make tea, open the curtains to stare out at the pale blue and pink world of dawn. Winter sets its own rhythm, and I am content to follow.