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My Weekly Post

The Joys of Below Zero

A week or so ago, I woke up to remember that I had forgotten to buy milk on my way home the night before. Tea without milk is no way to start the day. I reluctantly emerged from my down comforter, opened the front door, and let the dogs out. WHOA! I took a look at the thermometer on the porch – which always reads a bit high because it’s protected: 18 below zero. I let them right back in, got dressed, loaded up both woodstoves, and started the car to get it warm before setting off for the store. Outside, in temperatures like that, my usual surroundings turn otherworldly. A rim of hoarfrost coats everything, even the ice on the trees. The exhaust from my car rose like clouds from a factory. Nothing moves in this cold stillness. Over the years I’ve learned that in temperatures like this, if I take a mug of hot tea and throw it into the air outside the door, it will rise up like a cloud. If I blow bubbles out into the cold, the bubbles turn to ice and will shatter on landing like thin crystal. Those are the fun parts. I’ve also learned to carry essentials in the car with me: extra gloves, hat, socks, wool scarf, snow boots, a shovel, can of sand, container of kitty litter, granola bars and a small bottle of brandy (my father’s advice to me thirty years ago when I first started going out on assignment in northern New England – the bottle he gave me then remains in the emergency kit).

When the car was warm, I herded the dogs into the backseat and we set out. With all the snow we have had, the road was snow-covered. It was still dark. The snow under my tires made eerie sounds like ghostly voices crying in pain. As I turned out onto the road, my headlights lit up the surface of the snow which appeared to be sprinkled with glitter. Or tiny diamonds. Once out onto the main road, I joined the other cars making their way through the frigid darkness. Everyone’s exhaust was making vapor trails, and in the parking lot to the store, everyone had left their car running so there was a kind of cloud that hung over the market, a mist of commerce.

Inside the store, there was a hush. No one wanted to say what we say to each other all the time: “Coldenufforya?” That would be too absurd. So we traded expressions, raised eyebrows or little shakes of our heads. It was enough. From the cooler (which seemed warmer), I took the desired milk from the display, somewhat more grateful than usual, as if I’d gone on safari to reach this one object. And now it was mine. The cashier and I grinned at each other knowingly and I was back out into the atmosphere of below zero. My friends in Iceland had written – it was 40 degrees F. there. In Iceland the thermometer hardly ever drops below zero – something about the Gulf Stream. My friend in Alaska, however, does us one better with forty below. Her husband died two winters ago, leaving her to run their greenhouses and keep their wood heated log home warm and shoveled out in the winter. She had written that week of her struggles to find dry wood. A young friend was bringing a truckload of big pine rounds for her to split. Which she did. She sent photos of some of the knots she encountered. I felt like a queen with my protected woodpile, right outside my door, all nicely split and ready to be transferred into the two big woodboxes inside. When both are full, I can keep the stoves purring for a week or more.

When I got home, I backed the car into the driveway, the tires squeaking like new leather. I got out, an extra effort to open the door. Even oil seems to freeze up at this temperature. My nostrils stuck together as if with glue and I could feel the air in my lungs, a strange sensation -- I could actually envision the parameters of my lungs. I opened the back door of the car and let the dogs out. They always follow me back into the house. It’s not that far to the door but as I got to the door and reached to open it, I realized they were not in step with me, as they usually are. I turned around to see Mayday, who will turn 15 in two weeks, literally stuck to the concrete floor of my porch. She looked at me pitiably and I rushed to rescue her from her frozen pose. I carried her inside. The little one, who is just two, was standing on the snowbank, holding up her paws as if to say, “How can you expect me to walk on this horrid dry ice?” The expression in her eyes made me feel as if I’d just read a full length tragedy. She also was hustled inside, where the stoves were radiating that welcome heat and the kettle on the stovetop boiled with vigor. At times like this, I like to make the equation. I went to the thermometer on the living room wall. It read 70 degrees. If it was 25 below outside, that means that the difference between the outside and the inside (just one thin door between the two places) was 95 degrees. That’s how powerful my woodstoves are.

Yet, when the temperature drops below zero, friends write in concern – are you OK? Yes, very much so, thanks. How can you stand it? Well, I always hate to sound like a Pollyanna when I answer that question. But I kind of like it. In fact, there’s something exhilarating about navigating through this weather. It’s usually still, often comes at the time of the full moon, and everywhere I look there is exquisite beauty. I occasionally venture forth with my camera – not for long but long enough to snap some photos of the cold, which is hard to convey in images. But once back inside, I’m beautifully warm and slightly triumphant.

Maybe I’ve just lived up here too long. A friend has gone to New Orleans to visit her son and she writes of how cold it is down there – probably forty degrees. Above zero. But she’s in an uninsulated house with inadequate heating. That’s how they build them down there. I remember living in Philadelphia and being colder than I’ve ever been, a horrid damp coldness that felt much colder than the twenty degrees reported. Up here, it’s all about dressing right and having a good, insulated house, and, in my opinion, a woodstove. Other than that, the essentials include wool socks and wool sweaters (the old maxim: wool saves, cotton kills); a big supply of good, dry wood; flannel sheets and a good lofty down comforter for sleeping at night. A couple of warm dogs are a bonus. (I am not one of them but I know people here who sleep with the window open, even on below zero nights. I once knew a woman who slept with the window open an inch or so, wearing a hat to keep her ears warm. She liked it like that.) Once you’ve got all these things, you need little else to stay warm and happy. Oh and I also recommend having a good supply of milk so that you don’t have to go out before dawn on the coldest morning of the year.
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The GPS of Life

Happy new year to my friends out there. As I write this, it is 2 a.m. on the first of January, 2011. Up here on the hill, it is a fairly mild night, dark as pitch. I am not up at this hour because I’ve been out reveling. If I were not connected to the rest of the world by internet and television, I would not be aware that this night is different from any other. But it is that strangest of holidays wherein we demarcate the passage of time. Just knowing that other cultures have different calendars should be enough for us to know that ours is by all means arbitrary, ours being based on the Roman calendar laid out more than two thousand years ago, not particularly relevant to today. The Chinese, the people of Middle Eastern cultures, the Celts, all have a different time when they celebrate the passage of another year. Most of these calendars are based on something in the natural world: lunar cycles or solar cycles or, closely related, the cycles of the seasons – the farmer’s year. This is the one that makes the most sense to me. But these are all ancient calendars. If we were to create a calendar now, it would have to be based on the post-industrial age, the age of computers and the internet, which would mean the calendar would be seamless, a 24/7 roll-up of minutes, hours, days and weeks – everything would be a continuous flow of productivity and distribution, manufacture and shipping being the hands of the clock that moves in its perpetual cycle. No moment in that calendar would be different, one from the other. I am certainly glad that we haven’t moved to a calendar that reflects the reality of our daily lives, so divorced from the soil and from the skies, particularly the night skies. I’m also grateful that my life here remains tied to the earth.

Earlier I went out to the store, a place called Coll’s that was once a farmstand but that has morphed into a small grocery store. The building’s in the same location, with the henhouse and the sugarhouse nearby and fields all around. They have a few narrow aisles of groceries but a much bigger section for vegetables and fruits, which is why I like to go there. Their produce is better than what I can find at the supermarket and they have a very nice selection of organic goods and natural foods. And they have a container of Mejoul dates, big fruits, still moist in the center – you can pick out a few or many, as you like. I was looking for something extra special for New Year’s dinner. I chose an especially nice-looking pork chop, sweet potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. And four of those plump dates. At the counter, they sell especially large dog biscuits, on the order of the enormous cookies sold singly these days. So I added in a couple of these for Harriet and Mayday.

Whether I am with someone or not, and whether I agree with our calendar or not, I like the way we pause to observe this passage of time. It’s interesting to me, how excited some people get at the prospect of a new year coming. It seems that the worse the year has been, the more interested people are in celebrating the crossover into the new year, in this case, the new decade. The worse the year, the more intense the celebration. I’ve been part of gatherings where some people throw something into the fire to get rid of its bad energy. I’ve been a part of gatherings where people will shout things like, “Good riddance, 2004!” to see the end of a year that brought grief or agitation. Recently divorced people seem to especially love the new year. As human beings, we are forever tantalized by new beginnings, the hope of redemption. And so we give ourselves that hope each year, that possibility that things can and will be better, that we can be better. It’s really the only way to go.

At home, I unpacked the small bag of groceries as the last light of the day played across the mountain’s western flank. At this time of year, the late afternoon light is rich as gold, like stage lights illuminating every tree, every stone in the wall, every wave in the field. In the living room, I started to take down the decorations, the small tree, the lights, the plump little snowmen that circled the base of the tree. I gathered up the gifts I had been blessed with: hand-knit mittens and an Icelandic cookbook full of new and different recipes from my friends in Iceland, an amazing handmade birdhouse from my neighbors, a jar of homemade jam, a pair of warm socks, three new books to read – all an abundance of generosity, new things with which to start the new year. I worked on this for a while, putting everything back in its place and restoring order to the room. I filled the woodbox in the kitchen and stoked the stove. It wasn’t that cold, which was a blessing because it has been extremely cold during the month of December, but it was good to feel the room brimming with warmth. I put the potato in to bake, steamed the Brussels sprouts, and put the pork chop under the broiler. Things smelled pretty good.

Just as I was taking the potato out of the oven, my cousin from New Jersey called so I told her I would call her back after I ate. Which I did and we talked for a long time, getting caught up, wondering where the time has gone and remembering a time when our parents would dress up in gowns and tuxedoes and go out to celebrate the New Year. Times change, we concluded. When I got off the phone, it was somewhere around 9:30 or 10. I took the dogs out for a walk then, walking into the relative mildness of the end of 2010. The great snow that had fallen just a week ago was sinking into the earth and some bare spots were showing. In the distance, I could hear popping sounds. It took a moment for me to realize someone, somewhere, was setting off fireworks. I stood and listened to the distant festivities. Otherwise, there was just a deep silence around the hills, bright stars and complete darkness. Back inside, I gave the dogs their biscuits and sat with them in the stillness, savoring the sweet treat of those dates. I was trying to figure out what it is about the changing of the calendar that provokes people to dance and pop champagne corks, watch brilliant, dazzling fireworks, shower the landscape with confetti and in general, carry on in a way that they don’t on other nights. I can’t make sense of it. So, for now, I’m going to bed and in the morning, I’ll open up my new calendar, balance my books for 2010, and try to set up the GPS system that my good sister sent me from her home on the West Coast, so I can better navigate these back roads. And find my way through 2011.
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