winter

Close-Up: The Face of the Fire

It’s twilight and raining when I leave in the van. I leave Smoke, my eight-year-old, standing alone in the field. (Kellie and Stump are inside.) Smoke’s got his winter coat on with the hood up. He’s holding a long stick and poking at the burn pile that’s been going all day. A sheet of gray smoke changes direction with the wind.

I’m leaving in search of hot dogs. Smoke’s been asking all day if he can roast them on the fire. All day I’ve told him “Sure—I’ll get those later.” Now I’m racing the darkness and I’m losing. The remaining daylight is dimmed by this thick blanket of gray-turning-blue-turning-black. The corner store has one sad package of hot dogs tucked between a basket of wilted lettuce and some string cheese. I don’t trust those hot dogs. I drive another three miles to the grocery store.

By the time I return it’s so dark that I can barely make out my son’s figure. Though it’s distant, I can discern the glow of the dying fire. I wade through thick puddles to make it there. I’m impressed that my son is still tending, unfazed by the dark and the weather. His concentration is steady. This is the same son who normally would spend the whole weekend indoors if I let him; the same son who, when I tell him that we’re going to the park complains: “But we just went outside yesterday!” This is the son who wants only to alternate between Legos, video games, books, and occasionally setting up a pillow fort with his brother. But this fire has now held his attention for hours.

We’ve lived in this place for two months now, and though we have land, we have mostly remained inside. We moved in the dead of winter; we moved through rain to get to school, and drove home in the dark. We’ve spent weekends huddled by the woodstove. We’ve read books and watched movies and baked cookies in our warm kitchen. But now, as spring slowly returns, we learn what it means to live on the land.

Earlier this week Kellie pruned the apple trees and left piles of branches. After school one day I insisted that my sons help me drag the branches across the yard and add them to the burn pile. Smoke protested: “But I don’t even know where the burn pile is.” I laughed at him. “I’ll show you,” I said. I recognized myself in him, getting totally stymied by some minor uncertain detail. Ten minutes later, Smoke was dragging branches when the rain returned. “We can go in now,” I offered, but Smoke declined. “I kind of like working in the rain,” he confided.

All I see now are glowing embers and thick smoke. The branches my son carried are turning to ash. My son spears a hot dog with a stick. He insists they are best when you set them directly against the glowing coals so they sizzle. He’s not interested in my suggestions. He likes ash on his hot dog, he says. He eats it in the dark, directly off the stick. When I ask if he’s scared of coyotes he says, “The fire makes me feel safe.”

Two hours later, after I’ve put his brother to bed, I cross the hall to check on Smoke. He’s been listening to Kellie read. She’s still reading. Smoke is lying on his side, turned away from her, so she can’t see that his eyes are closed and his mouth is wide open. I look at the clock. It’s 8:25. It’s been years—I mean literally, years—since Smoke fell asleep before nine. But he is worn out tonight from the weather and the fire. He’s asleep before bedtime not because he is sick, but because he is healthy.

This Year’s Darkness

It always happens on Thanksgiving week: the rain, the cold, and the darkness all descend at once. One week, it is autumn: I think about winter as a future entity, a thing that will happen to me someday. The next week winter has descended, like a gavel to a bench.

As I drive home from work, the twilight bends towards night, and the gray of the fog, the drizzle, the sheen of the road, the glass-smooth water on the inlet, blend into one dark blanket. I navigate my way home by following the taillights in front of me. It is dark now, I tell myself. I feel like I’m breathing deep, sending oxygen to my toes, preparing for the plunge into winter, for the ten long weeks of darkness before February brings a promising light, a long burning glow beneath the cloud cover.

This year the darkness is darker. I don’t need to tell you why.

(Yesterday on the drive home his voice came on my radio. He was shouting to a crowd in Ohio, boasting about how big he had won. “I can’t stand it,” I said, leaning my head towards the backseat. I didn’t want Smoke, my eight-year-old, to be taken in by his bravado. “Who?” Stump, my three-year-old, asked me. “I don’t even like to say his name,” I said. “Me neither,” Smoke solemnly agreed. “Voldemort,” I said. Stump accepted that answer. It was dark, of course, when this happened.)

I have a new favorite book: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by the great William Steig. It’s for children, but it’s also for me. In it, Sylvester, a donkey, finds a magic red pebble and accidentally changes himself into a rock. He is immobile and, because he can’t touch the rock, he can’t un-wish his wish. It seems to be an impossible predicament. How will he ever return to himself?

Sylvester’s parents are stricken. They cannot find him nor can they find any clues about his disappearance. Many pages of the book serve only to mark the passage of time, in which all parties struggle to come to terms with their new situation. Sylvester descends into a long, deep sleep. Seasons pass. And here is my favorite page:

wolf-2

One day a wolf sat on the rock that was Sylvester and howled and howled because he was hungry.

This page is my favorite because nothing further happens with this wolf. He is not instrumental to the plot. This is his only page. He shows up, he howls in hunger, he leaves. He animates the story’s grief. The pads of his paws, through a layer of snow, touch the rock that is Sylvester. He will survive this season, but the season will require him to suffer.

How Best to Love a Body

bannanaI stepped into winter in jeans that fit perfectly. They did not require a belt, but they had just the right amount of give. These jeans were, in fact, the best fitting pair of pants I’ve ever owned.

Now, on the other side of winter, these jeans are uncomfortably tight. In fact, all of my pants that once had give are now uncomfortably tight. And so it’s time to address the situation and choose a strategy. But I get stuck, tangled in the fine line that separates self-care and self-deprivation. Sometimes it seems less like a line and more like a web.

The way I see it now, I have three options:

Option 1: Buy new pants. I ask myself if this would be the most self-loving choice. After all, I’m pushing forty. I can’t hang onto my current pant size forever. Twice already in my life I’ve had to pack away clothes I know will never again fit me. I expect this will happen again and again and again if I am lucky enough to live to be old. So the answer might have been, yes, self-love = new pants, if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been neglecting nutrition. Over the winter I’ve fallen deeper and deeper into the rut of pasta and bread. When I gaze into my refrigerator, I pack a lunch of what I have, and often this simply looks like two tamales, a hard-boiled egg, and some crackers. Nothing green, or orange, or red. With this in mind, I’m not ready to give up on my pants just yet.

Option 2: Give up things. Two years ago I gave up gluten and dairy and then spent a long summer living in the mountains. In the photos I look lean and tan, and I remember how my ailments stopped ailing me. I consider cutting wheat and dairy out of my diet today, and I think also about what it would mean to eat no sugar. As in none. Not just no pastries, no candy, but also no Thai food, no ketchup, no honey in tea. I don’t think of myself as someone with a sweet tooth, and yet I get the feeling that this would be a revolution for my body. My appetite would be ruled by hunger, not cravings.

And so I’ve been weighing this option, and watching myself eat. I’ve been noticing how I do things like eat extra helpings at dinner to make up for the fact that I’m not sitting down. Or I notice how after lunch I still feel frantically hungry, but that if I keep eating I slip into a  food coma. These observations have led me to my third option.

Option 3: Eat mindfully. In preparation for maybe giving up sugar, I’ve been eating less sugar. In preparation for maybe giving up dairy and gluten, I’ve been eating less dairy and gluten.

The other day, on the back of a cereal box, I finally paid attention to that healthy plate graphic which I think has replaced the old graphic of the food pyramid. I rarely pay mind to the government’s suggestions for my health–I like to think that I’m too savvy for that, or at least too much of a hippy–and so this was the first time I really looked at it. Half of the plate was staked out for fruits and vegetables, a quarter of it for grains, quarter for proteins.

Half of the plate was for fruits and vegetables. Michelle Obama is totally right. What the hell have I been doing?

myplate-1023x1015

I read somewhere recently that you crave what you eat, meaning that your body adjusts to your eating habits and adapts its demands accordingly. And so I’ve been making every meal with that Michelle Obama plate in mind, trying to work towards 50%, trying to train my cravings. Though I’ve never been fond of bananas, I’ve been trying to talk myself into them. They seem like a kind thing to put into my body at ten a.m.—better than Cliff bar or a donut.

Oh, a banana, I tell myself as if it’s the kind of thing I’ve always liked. And then I think about how maybe it will help me feel full without feeling heavy, how it will move through my system leaving behind only energy and potassium. Oh, a banana, I tell myself with every bite, and I’m starting to believe myself that I like it.

Spring is right here.

flowerdeathLast week it rained and rained and rained. In the pauses between the rains, the robins sang. That was the first sign that spring had come.

This week the weather alternated between cold and warm, sunny and gray. Each morning before seven I looked out my window to see a brightening streak of blue cutting through the dark sky.

I remember now what it means to leave for a walk at five in the evening and not have to brace myself for darkness or outfit myself with reflective gear and flashing lights. I remember what it means to watch the sky change as I walk instead of tightening my hood in defense of pelting rain.

I remember now that nourishment isn’t just about eating stuff that tastes good, but also eating foods that offer nutrients, things that are green, orange, and red—things that crunch.

I remember now that what it means to move through my day with a small fire inside of me, to experience the day as a landscape to explore rather than a checklist to complete.

This morning the sky cleared and I brought my sons on a hike to the water’s edge. Along the trail, Smoke entertained me with theories about how trees had fallen (thieves with chainsaws), and Stump stopped at every puddle and called it the beach. For nearly an hour, no one whined. The forest cleared, and we arrived at the beach in time to witness a surprise: dozens of sailboats gliding across the bay.

boatsI was surprised to realize that, for the moment, I was doing the exact thing I wanted to be doing, meaning I didn’t wish I was in Hawaii instead, or writing instead, or watching TV, or sitting in a hot tub. I just wanted to be there, on the beach, watching the sailboats while Smoke collected rocks and Stump hit water with a stick.

Beach2Of course in the moment of noticing that I was content where I was, I realized how often the opposite is true, how easy it is to long for elsewhere.

I think of my family members in New England and imagine the snow piled up past their windowsills. I imagine them trapped inside winter, tiny little shoots of green sleeping under snow banks.

I don’t envy my New England friends, but I want to be there on the day that winter begins to melt, that first day you step outside and can actually hear the water dripping, can sense that the snow has begun its return back to the source.

Come Monday morning, in my dark cave of an office, I’ll be feeling like those sleeping greens, craving elsewhere, wishing for light.

Embracing Darkness

It’s November now, and I’m afraid of the oncoming winter and the speed at which it descends.

I’m afraid of the way darkness begins to swallow my day at both ends. Every week we lose about eighteen minutes of daylight, nine in the morning, nine in the evening, until those minutes add up to hours, and evening isn’t evening anymore–it’s night.

I’m afraid of the way rain descends like a blanket over the remaining daylight hours. When it arrives, it seems it will never leave. I wake to the sound of rain in darkness. Hours later, after tea and breakfast, I peer through the window, trying to assess the shape and force of the rain.

I am afraid of the feeling I get, a tension that sits between stomach and ribs, when I run from my house to my car, my head bent to keep from getting wet, and then bent all day in my windowless office, down, down, always looking down. I leave work in darkness, arrive to darkness, and all that awaits me is a cold house, a tired wife, and a set of tasks to be done before bedtime. That tension beneath my ribs grows and takes over my body until I am nothing but sinew and fatigue.

I am afraid of the television, afraid that it will take over my house like a monster.

I am afraid of the piles of clutter in my house, because now there is no sunny, open yard to escape to.

I am afraid of my nearly 2-year-old son, afraid that his climbing, inquisitive, joyous spirit cannot be contained indoors.

I’m afraid of the noise, the epic screeching noise of cooped-up kids in my very small home.

I’m afraid of the Christmas season, of all the projects I take on and never complete, of obligations I’ll perceive but never fulfill.

Photo by C.S. Berney

I remind myself that winter is a season. Seasons pass. More importantly, each one has its purpose, a goal it wants to involve you in, a prescription for your personal growth.

Spring: Renew.

Summer: Play.

Fall: Gather.

Winter: Look inward.

Earlier this week, I drove alongside the bay at high tide and thought about how the Pacific Northwest, now more than ever, feels like home. It was a balmy morning. I had awoken to the hammer of rain, but by the time I left the house, there were cloud breaks. The world was wet and the sky was dynamic—storm clouds and patches of blue. The kids and I walked the four blocks to Smoke’s school and it was a world of giant puddles and dead worms and, even better: a giant red toadstool that seems to double in size every day.

toadie

I thought about how darkness can be kind, like a womb, how it can push me deeper into myself, reengage me in the creative work of knowing my own soul.

Winter, I am sorry, but you are harder to love than summer with its endless twilight and warm lakes. You are harder to love than green spring and crisp fall. You are just plain hard to love, but I will try.