Kettle on, I began my chores while the water heated. I don’t mind winter’s darkness being punctual, but arriving too early is plain inconsiderate.
Before long, my cracked fingers smelled of orange peel and smoke from the wood-fire I built, with kindling so fine and fair it swelled my hands to cut it. My tea, too, was smoked – black tea once carried with great difficulty across Mongolia, Siberia.
Still in my work clothing, I stood looking out through glass and viscous gloom, as the cat relieved himself. He inspected his production before covering it with snow, and bounded back to the door, rabbit-like.
I retreated to the lamp-lit heart of the arthritic house to get out of my boots, praise the luxury of soap and hot water, and begin cooking.
Reluctance to leave the soft envelope of bed this winter morning, reluctance. It’s where the heat is, after all. But the whirring and humming and clunking of the mind (reliable engine) harasses the body out of rebellion and into obedience.
And for good reason: there is wood to be chopped, snow to be shoveled, water to be boiled. There are dishes to wash, floors to mop, plans to be drawn. There are walls to be built and torn down, ragged roads to salt and plow. There are the needs of children, the old, the sick and disabled, the animals we keep. There are the ceaseless demands of an entire world, all the things of man, waiting, waiting.
But then there is this winter morning, and the spell of first light, and everything white and silver-gray speckled with russet and evergreen, and the yellow glow of lamps in the windows of houses, and the owl in the tree who thinks I don’t notice him.
And with the slow symmetry of this snow falling, so neatly, so gently, how can I do anything but stand and stare?
How can I do anything except surrender everything, put down my sack of worldly accomplishments, and turn my face up to the sky, grateful to have known such a morning.
Last night, we stayed up late planning our move to Ecuador. This morning, San Diego.
By the time we sat down to lunch, we had made our final decision about Florida.
Over afternoon tea, we practically signed an agreement regarding the Virgin Islands.
Naturally we ended up on the couch watching a documentary about Brazil, a fire crackling in the wood stove.
Me, throwing myself against you like a slobbering Saint Bernard as the snow hushed up this fitful town.
You, making another remark destined to become a classic, while the icicles outside
closed in on their objective of connecting our roof with the ground,
the clock ticking its wheels over the little bump of midnight.
The ice is melting, the eaves drip. We’re tipping back toward the sun. A mouse appears suddenly, bursting like an outlaw from the seam joining the edge of the woodshed with pastures of white. He vanishes back through his hidden door, a brown streak, almost an anomaly after so many weeks of soundless, lifeless cold. I picture him returning to a sleeping bag, a lighted lamp, a stack of books and dreams of April.
An almost indistinguishable pattering of yet another mouse nibbling at a cookie left exposed on the blue-and-white tiles of the kitchen counter. Hoof-prints at the back of the house this morning, on a furrowed path that runs through a valley in miniature between waist-high banks of snow. March is underway. Everything eases up slightly. Things have been draped down over themselves, now they have their hands on their knees and are beginning to rise.
Groundhog prepares her tea, relaxes in her chair, thinks of the old fox who lived there before she moved in. Wonders how he’s doing these days. She always liked him. She had imagined, many times, the two of them slow-dancing, burning a candle at three in the morning, her head against his fiery chest.
Back above ground we long to see beneath the snow, we long for the latch on the northern door that will soon open. Back above ground, there go the geese again. The geese who – like us – have been around all winter.
The cardinal, for one, content to go about his business. The fox, for another, at ease in his auburn jacket. The groundhog, still putting off the errands she needs to run. The soft gaze of the doe regarding you, not for long, yet seeming for a brief moment to consider you as a being of great importance.
The frozen arteries of streams drawing lines to the lake that is the heart of this place. A cascade of water stopped dead in its tracks by earth science. Snow turning almost blue just after the sun slips behind west hill, like that framed photograph of Sweden in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, its top edge dusted once a month to the barren sound of an occasional cough, the next name called exactly as the last name was, a clean copy of how all future names will be called, unless the ratio of consonants to vowels tips the scale too far in a given direction.
Standing beneath spruce boughs watching snow flakes fall, unhurried, particles of ash or feather. Standing in close to the heart of the tree while wind sways the limbs, as if you have been welcomed aboard an evergreen ship charting an imaginary course up to Canada, or Nova Scotia.
Another storm warning issued, another mug of hot liquid slurped, welcomed into a body cocooned inside many layers of fabric, some woven by hand, some by machine, another silent halleluiah spoken either way. An obsession with time and temperature, forecast and calendar, with saying we know the new year will be a great one – this last among so many other unfounded claims, clothed in a largely American propensity to keep one’s chin up.
I’d better leave these northeast winters before my sullen brooding turns to a measure of joy, as I grow content that the edges of the road are caulked with mud, frozen slush, listening to the clatter of another semi’s jake-brake as it breaks open the shell of another midnight highway whose sound could easily be mistaken for the ocean in the morning, another eighteen-wheeler coming down the salt-bleached pavement into our little town, probably hauling something that I will purchase tomorrow from one of the local stores: a bag of cat food, a new pair of socks, an avocado.
I’d better leave these winters before I begin to love them, my back breaking beautifully as I shovel the driveway and wrestle with the trash barrel, the woods across the narrow gorge glowing in a cold compress of sunlight, straining to push through snow-clouds as if it wishes to open the way for an angel or two who have checked their schedules and found the need to descend into this world, do a job, maybe get a cup of coffee.
While admiring eastern pines
this morning, I paused
to marvel at my heart
for knowing how to beat.
I watched the red bird prince
along branches of holly,
eager to claim the berries
of color and liveliness
equal to his own.
He had a tiny snow-cap
atop his head, and behaved
like such a gentleman
that I sensed less betrayal
in the world,
and in myself
a trifle of harmony.
Like a moment spent singing,
the sighting exalted me,
bringing me tidings
of gladness and goodness,
as if he were
a little winged St. Nicholas.