A profound cold stills our world for a few days, narrows our lives. All night on Friday, the wind screams and howls. By Saturday afternoon, the wind drops. I ski out to the river. The air is broken glass, so sharp breathing hurts.
To celebrate my oldest daughter’s birthday, we eat at a little restaurant/bar in Plainfield where I haven’t been in fifteen years. We’re at a back table so cold that the other three keep on their jackets and I note the usefulness of my handknit sweater. This observation impresses no one except myself. My daughter orders a drink with a lemon peel. The food is scrumptious, rich with garlic.
In their zipped-up jackets, side by side, my daughters talk and laugh with their ongoing story that includes frozen pipes, getting lost, a red prom dress, what happens when a car is started at 27 below zero, and the IRS. Outside, a round moon is ringed with yellow luminescence, so brilliant the sky around the moon is blue, surrounded by night’s black. Our boots crunch over ice as we list the moon’s might: tides and weather, childbirth and madness, the beauty of moonbeams.
In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming. It toughens you and clears your head.
Snow notwithstanding, the temperature is solidly spring for January. My neighbors and I stand at the end of our dead-end road, talking about the escalating price of food and raising kids, the random things that three tired parents share. It’s not cabin fever, not a chafing against the cold, not the dreariness of winter gone on too long. It takes me a little while to figure out what it is, and then I realize it’s nothing more than simple camaraderie.
So here’s the thing about knitting — I resisted knitting for so long because I considered knitting old-lady-ish, an occupation for those who had nothing better to do. Oh, how those sentiments smote me now. Sure, men knit, but knitting is generally the terrain of women. At work the other day, a stranger asked me about a fair isle sweater I had knit. Without thinking, I pulled off my sweater, flipped it inside out, and laid it on my desk. The two of us talked tension, seaming, yarn. Cables. The pleasures of putting your hands to wool.
“No two people knit alike, look alike, think alike; why should their projects be alike? Your sweater should be like your own favorite original recipes — like nobody else’s on earth. And a good thing too.”
Walking into town, I pass a house that has been abandoned for the five years I’ve lived here. Last winter, a vehicle skidded off the road and smashed through the front window. Since then, plywood has covered the front.
There’s a few houses like this in that neighborhood, the paint gray, the windows filthy, tiny yards gone over to weeds or dirt. In the pandemic’s craze, people moved back into a few of these, converting abandoned places into homes again. The driver of a fuel truck stood outside this house yesterday with a young couple, the three of them talking seriously, nodding heads. Sheets of foam insulation leaned against the house. On the side wall, someone had ripped off the dirty plastic and exposed a large square window, its top edge red and blue stained glass. Without stopping, I wondered what else was inside the house.
End of January — and suddenly the sunlight returned in full force. Today may be cloudy, tomorrow, too, maybe for days to come, but the earth is tilting. Slow as spring is, we’re leaning that way.
A few streets down from me, a pregnant woman leans on a shovel in a driveway covered with a few inches of dense, soggy snow. It’s late afternoon, and a light snow swirls down as I walk. A pickup truck stops on the road, and I hear the driver offer to plow. There’s a little back and forth, and then she steps back. He sets down his plow and goes to work.
Every snowfall has its own kind of knowledge. As I walk through the streets and then across the former railroad bed and into the woods, I marvel at how much I know about snow, too. How a scattering of snowflakes can remind me of being 10 years old again, and a fourth grade teacher caught snowflakes on her tongue. Delicious,delicious, she said. Or how the three-foot Valentine’s Day storm snowed us in when my daughters had fevers and I wondered if I would ever return to the world of adults.
In the woods, the snow swallows up all sound for a handful of hours.
In these winter months, I’m reading about Claude Monet and his gardens. Here’s a line from the master: “… people must first of all learn to look at nature, and only then may they see and understand what we are trying to do.
On a Wednesday washed out of color, this mid-January has the taste of February, wet, the wind wicking up wildly then dropping down again to the sodden snow. January is the season of work, of leaning in hard to a task at hand, for pleasure, for wage, for cleanliness, for the way work sweeps us out, makes something new. In its own way, winter’s short, pinwheeling along to spring, to the radiance of summer.
Here’s a perfect poem for today.
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
In the early 1600s when Samuel de Champlain was bunking around the fire with people who lived on the shores of an enormous and beautiful lake, Champlain remarked in his journal how surprised he was that these strangers discussed their dreams every morning as if their dreams were as real as the waking world. I’ve been thinking about Champlain’s observance and how easily we can narrow our vision, completely discounting or ignoring pieces of our past and present.
A blog reader who sometimes mails me terrific books sent me Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative. As I’m finishing up a draft of my novel, the book has made me look harder at the novel’s structure. As a writer, I can’t help but look at my own tangled story — and those around me — and the way plot lines and patterns, how chance and opportunity, blend and shape our lives.
For Ray Carver fans (and who isn’t a fan, really? if not, you might want to be!), there’s a terrific essay on one of my favorite stories, “Where I’m Calling From.”
So often fictions that experiment formally do so at the expense of feeling. They toy on surfaces or are purely cerebral affairs, don’t explore human complexities. But the mostly unconventional narratives I’ve been discussing have dealt powerfully with core human matters.