Taking a Tumble or Two…

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It was on a dark Sunday night: winter, February, in Maine. We skidded on black ice, shot to the left, then to the right, hitting a guardrail head on. We launched into the air, spinning and flipping, skidded along the guardrail, landing on the driver’s side, stopping, hanging half off and half on the road. I remember a moment of silence, and then the sight of the windshield shattering into a thousand pieces, and landing, quiet, and we stopped.

I remember asking my friend if he was ok and he asking our other friend if she was ok. Our driver, our fourth friend, stayed quiet for a minute and we worried, but then she too spoke to us. Somehow that first friend opened a car door, pushing himself upward. He unhooked our second friend from her seatbelt, she fell, and he helped her climb out. Our fourth friend climbed out, too, and then I stood up from my crumpled position, fell once, and clambered out onto the road. We all looked back at the truck, on its side, hanging, and all said something to the effect of: “Look at the truck!”

Standing there in the cold we were accompanied by two strangers who had stopped to help us. They called 911 as we stood, dumbstruck. A policeman and an ambulance arrived, and both skidded to a stop in the ice. We were asked if we were all okay, and we said,”yes.” “How are you all okay?” asked the EMTs, random strangers, our kind policeman, the firemen. One of them said to my friend who had been driving, “Here you’ve been having a go of it.” She nodded.

My friend and I who had been sitting in the backseat were not wearing our seatbelts, and were surrounded by the tools of a long-standing landscaping and stone business: wrenches, saws, a chainsaw sharpener. None of them had flown and hit us, and even the careening of the truck had not shaken us too badly. Somehow we made it out onto highway 198 with not even a scratch, despite the glass that we kept shaking out of our clothes.

I have had a bit of a go of it in terms of driving in winter this year: this was my second accident in two weeks, both due to icy roads. I now consider my first wreck a fender bender, and not serious at all, despite my hitting two trees at low speed. This crash, this tumble, was a big one.

For the last two or three days, we have been talking about it a lot together. It seems as if we were given a new lease on life, or at least an illustration of how it can all be taken away so fast. The accident took, probably, less than ten seconds to happen.

As an ex-science teacher and avid lifelong lover of anything science-related, I can explain a couple of things that happened in terms of survival and physics. I believe that the spinning action of the truck kept enough centrifugal force (the spinning force that keeps our planets in orbit, and our bodies in place on that crazy carnival ride with no floor or ceiling) to glue myself and my backseat companion almost still, and also held the tools that could have hurt us against the walls of the truck. This “sticky” force was probably what kept us from hurtling all over the inside of the truck and becoming seriously injured. The moment of silence is explained by our fight-or-flight survival response that causes us, in times of serious threat, to feel as if time slows down or stops. This is because our brain is seeking any and all possible escape route and our awareness is heightened to recognize a way to survive. There is a wonderful Radiolab episode on falling that explains this much better than I can here. I believe we were all silent at that time because we were attempting to process what was happening, not knowing the outcome, and preparing ourselves for all those potential results.

This huge, intimidating, frightening, and death-defying tumble was the scariest experience of my life, and I think my friends would agree with that. It is hard to imagine a large truck like the Tundra being launched into the air, spinning and flipping, by something as simple as a patch of ice, but that is what happened.

When events like this happen to us, traumatic ones, they often cause us to re-evaluate our lives at the moment and what we are doing with life at any given time. For myself, this accident made me think about things that I have put off, problems I am ignoring, goals that I am not 100% engaged with. I have, unfortunately or fortunately, had quite a few traumatic events over the past couple of years. I have had my house broken into, wrecked my car, and then a horrific accident with three of my closest friends here. We are neighbors and friends in a very small town: we have been, for a time, each other’s close social group due to living in this very tiny and quiet place. This drive was our last drive back to the Northeasy, our neighborhood, because three of the four are moving out in the next few days. When we left the party, it felt warm and as if everything was melting in the short thaw of a few days previous. Never did we think that it was cold enough to freeze all the water on the road, but, it was.

I have spent three days wondering what this accident means to me, what the other accident also meant, and then remembering my home invasion. I find that all three events make me very tired when I think of them too much, and that they make me feel confused as far as what they “mean” in terms of my life. I know that the events themselves mean nothing in and of themselves, but the effect on my life has been profound. When my house was broken into, almost two years ago, I decided to sell most of my possessions, my houseful of furniture and accoutrements, and move to Maine. The last two are too recent to really understand what the effects will be, but all I can say, as I have discovered during times of duress before, that the only thing that crossed my mind was how much I care for the people in my life, and that love is the strongest human emotion. Everyone that helped us was so kind, and so delicate with us on that roadside. There was nothing but smiles and care and quiet jokes. I remember thinking, in Philadelphia after the break-in, how thankful I was for my friends and coworkers at that time, who simply came over and helped and brought pizza and tried to be understanding and giving my roommate and I time to mull it all over. She chose to sell everything and go to South America, where she is still is, somewhere, living an amazing and colorful and educated life. I chose to move to my childhood summer home, went through some hardships, and now, also live an amazing and colorful and educated life. Clearly, the benefits of the break-in greatly outweighed the costs.

I am choosing to try to look at trauma as an opportunity to live the attempts at a realized life that I have been cultivating since moving here. Trauma is physically and mentally painful to us all, and can take quite a while to process, digest, and release. But holding on to it like a crutch is the wrong way to deal with it, and I know I have been guilty of that in the past. The reality, to me, is that I am quite a sensitive person who is highly emotive. I can choose to let things affect me personally quite deeply, but am beginning to discover that if you make it out in one piece, with just a few bruises for the experience, trauma is like a window into the universe, and it can help you hone your thoughts, sharpen the blade of your approach to living in a highly beneficial way.

I wonder, oh readers, whether any of you have had experiences like this one and how those experiences changed you? Did a “new lease on life” inspire you to greatness? How did you manage the upheaval of it all?

If we choose to see them this way, do all of our tumbles manifest great and good changes in our lives, or do we just recognize them as moments passing in time?

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Time Capsules

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I have been many things in my short life. I have been a camp counselor for young students at the Museum of Natural History in Houston, as well as a genetics lab research assistant (I mostly did what I was told and spent a lot of time inside a giant freezer cataloguing little vials). I have been a bead- and oddities-seller in Austin, as well as a middle school science teacher. I have been a gallery girl in central Mexico, as well as a governess who conducted class on the brick patio of a beautiful hotel. I have been a gardener in New York City, as well as the personal assistant and later business manager of an art dealer. I have been a cross-country-traveling event planner. I have been a middle school teacher in Philadelphia. I have been a gallery girl in Maine, and now a jeweler, seamstress, drawing model, dog- and house-sitter, tutor, teacher, and writer.

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The ice is melting: winter is slowly coming to an end. Water is seeping and sometimes rushing out into the landscape. Little Long Pond, scene of so many early morning ice skates, is now covered with sheets of ice and water all around the edges. Gone is the deep cold, replaced by mud and water, by slush and a landscape that seems to spit up onto your clothes, your car, your everything. There were no deafening cracks or booms as the ice cracked and melted, as I had hoped, just a slow process of light returning, the path of sunlight expanding onto our landscape as if the beam of light was being pulled back, further away, its path widening as each day passed. The sunlight breathed life back into the wilderness, as if finally, after many months, the land began to exhale and inhale again, no longer holding its breath, steeling itself against winter.

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I received quite a gift today.

In my bedroom for as long as I can remember, I have hung a picture embroidered by my great Grandmother. It depicts two owls, one smiling sweetly at the other, in the tops of grapefruit trees. The colours are green and yellow and brown, and it is something that makes my bedroom feel complete: without it, something is missing. When I moved to Maine last June, the glass in the picture broke due to the overwhelming amount of stuff I had packed into my VW station wagon. My mom took it to the frame shop a few weeks ago to replace the glass, and hidden inside the frame was a note written to me by my Grandpa, for my 1st birthday:

“Canvas done by Mrs McDowell (Grandmother’s mother) between 1940 1942 during the air raids on Liverpool. For P.M. Blythe With Love 1st Birthday” (Also inscribed is 1981 and his name, to the right)

Neither I nor my mother knew this note was hidden inside the frame, and had the glass never broken, we would have never known. Discovering time capsules, like this one, is a bittersweet gift that comes around not often. My Grandpa died in 1994, when I was in 7th grade, the year my parents lost all their money and our family life significantly changed. I remember being a latch-key kid for the first time that year; our front door had a terrible stained glass design of a duck flying through cattails on it. The entryway was linoleum, beige in colour, and the rest of the house was carpeted in drab brown. I remember, when Grandpa died, when we all couldn’t go to England because we couldn’t afford it, and I think were probably limping along quite a bit in those days, being so sad because he was one of my favorite people in the world, if not the favorite. I hadn’t seen him, at that time, in four or five years, and had missed the ending of his life. Those days were hard days for many reasons, and I remember sitting on the linoleum floor by the front door, after school, alone in the house as my brother was outside playing, crying desperately with the knowledge that I would never see him again.

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Once, when my grandparents visited, we went to Galveston as a family and walked around The Strand. I think that my Grandpa really liked the States; he always found humour in our culture here no matter where we took him. After he died, my mom and brother and I went to Galveston one day, and I was walking around my favorite store there: a junk and antique shop full of curiousities. I looked up and saw an old man with bright white hair, a button down shirt and glasses, with a camera around his neck. It was him! I turned to tell my mom, couldn’t find her, turned back around, and of course, he was gone.

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Later, I had a dream that we were all together at the church yard where he is buried, where also my grandparents were married. It is a tiny church, built of old mossy stone, with a yard of graves around three sides. In my dream, our whole family was together: grandma, aunt, cousins, parents, children. We were walking through a churchyard and Grandpa appeared to us, only he was very young: as he was in photos of him during the war. He was smiling and happy, with his strong jaw and bright eyes. We spent time together: the time you can only spend in dreams, when you are not exactly sure how much time has passed, whether it is mere moments, or days, or months. We were all so happy just to be together: my Grandma especially (he died months before their 50th wedding anniversary). Then, suddenly, an array of white stones, set out in the pattern of an English cross, the St George’s cross with its even arms, began to hop up and down, tapping onto the flagstones but keeping their arrangement. He turned to us all and told us he loved us, but that he had to go. We all said goodbye. I haven’t seen him since, haven’t heard from him either.

That is, until yesterday. Love survives: I shall never doubt that again.

breakfast with grandpaBreakfast with Grandpa in 1987 in Formby, Liverpool, England…I would sneak downstairs to have breakfast with him before anyone else was awake.

Waiting

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder – A Winter Scene, 1562

What do I think of when I am lying there?: on my stomach, propped up on my elbows, leafing through art books on Toulouse Lautrec and Pieter Bruegel and Peter Beard; gazing upon the paintings in the collection of the Mauritshuis Museum.

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Dulle Griet by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pressed into the floor, feeling the coarse plastic fibers of commercial carpet dig into my elbows, through the fabric of my light shirt, I catch myself looking around. Behind me is a pool table, under which stand two polar bears, staring out at me. Above me are deeply pocked marks of pool cues’ chalk, all over the ceiling. To my left are giraffes and hyenas, and up above the window, the skeleton of a sea turtle, many years gone from this world. To my right is my dearest friend here, lost in his own thoughts.

Before me is an off-white enameled Jotul wood stove, with a front window already stained with soot. Through the soot shadow, one can depict the licking of bright orange flames made amber as they filter through the dirty shade. The flames grow and gather, spewing up and across the ceiling of the stove, recirculating.

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I am thinking about birds’ wings and the lips of Nepenthes plants. I am thinking about patches of snow on the surface of Little Long Pond, and of playing Pac Man on the table consoles at Pizza Hut in the ’80s. I am thinking about the tea that I am drinking, about artificial, non-dairy creamer: the stuff you can light on fire if you sprinkle it onto a candle’s flame. I am thinking about scent, about wood shavings, about ice melting, about the songs of the birds that just recently reappeared.

I am thinking about change.

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We all know that birds’ bones are hollow so that their bodies and wings are lighter than ours: this is one of the reasons that they can fly and we are glued to the Earth. Each morning I watch five crows flit around from tree to tree along my street. They break into peoples’ garbage seeking treasure. They yammer at the the doves and the blue jays yammer back at them. They swoop and dive, and turn their heads to look at each other, and to me, as I stare at them. They pretend to be scared of me, when I know better. They were here before me.

Yesterday I went skating, maybe for the last time, and played an age-old game on ice skates. Pretending that the patches of snow were obstacles, were pools of lava, my friend and I skated round and round them, ever tightening our circles in between and through them, forming curly-cues and slashes and ellipses and circles in skate marks between the snow patches. The snow patches, large and small, close together and far apart, became deadly territory that would turn you into a ghost if you touched them, and provided fodder for chasing each other, not too quickly, between them in a game of ghost tag. Ghost tag, so much like Pac Man, making me think of the way the crust crunched at Pizza Hut when I was a child: how greasy it was, and how all the windows were made of diamond shaped stained glass in clear and red. How we sat at booths together but snuck off to play video games at those strangely stalwart video game tables.

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These are the thoughts that cross my mind in mid-winter, in February, as the ice and snow melt outside, again. I learned my lesson last week, when a short February thaw had me convinced I’d be in sundresses in no time, only to be blasted by a fierce winter storm once more.

After the snow came roaring through, again, a few days ago, my friend and I drove down to Jordan Pond to assess the likelihood of skating. As we clambered over a snowbank, carrying skates down the path to the water, we crossed another, larger snowbank and were hit, full force, full frontal with 55 mph gusts of blowing snow. Wind so fierce that it blew ice crystals into your eyes. Wind so strong you couldn’t even look into it. Wind so loud it howled around and through your ears. Wind so tough that we both laughed and walked back to the truck; recognizing when to go home is a skill one learns during winter in Maine.

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Winter is drawing to a close: you can feel it in the air. There is a lightness to the sky, as if the sun is coming back. The birds are calling. The days are full of sunshine, when for so long, they have been so dark. There is a sadness in this: a loss. The darker times when all that is before you is you and your work, you and the tiny world that surrounds you, when the sun sets before 4 and all you can think to do is create; well that time is shifting and going away. The light is returning, flooding us with the recognition that soon, buds will burst open on tree limbs, grass will grow, crocus will appear in front of our eyes. Soon, the light will return and the sunsets will change, the water colour will, too, and people will return to this place that has been so quiet and lovely for so long. Flowers will grow, shoulders will be bared, times will change. People will change.

People already are changing: a nervousness is invading every cell of every person, causing each of us angst and anxiety, expressed in unique ways. Peoples’ eyes flit back and forth, as if they are watching for something. Some people draw back, into themselves, away from those that they have held dear during the darker months. Some people are planning, some people are counting down the days, some people are thankful for the retreat of the ice and snow.

Some people are waiting; listening for the ice to crack.

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Photodiary — Snowshoeing on Jordan Pond

“Well, I know now. I know a little more how much a simple thing like a snowfall can mean to a person.”

Sylvia Plath

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Last week we had a huge snowstorm here. Nemo, we were warned, was the storm of the century, but it turned out just to be about two feet of snow and lots of wind. The wind woke me up that night because it shook the house. I dislike sleeping on the second floor of buildings: I am more comfortable on the first floor, and this apartment is very high off the ground. At some points it felt as if the whole building was twisting around its center point, and I remembered how, in the old days here, they used to bolt the houses into the ground using ropes and later, cables, that were driven into the bedrock to stop the houses from blowing away during the gales. The coast of Maine: so wild, so windy, with its daily changing weather and unpredictable light, dark, air, stars, water. Last week, during the storm, the seas were up to 30 foot swells and the boats stayed in the harbor, lashed down to the docks with nylon ropes. The sea roiled and boiled and changed color to a darker winter green as it swooped all around our island. A storm surge of 2 feet covered the rocks and froze the grasses at water’s edge.

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After the storm had passed, and I had dug myself out of the driveway, I went snowshoeing for the first time, down at Jordan Pond, my favorite skating spot that was now covered in snow.

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This place is a winter wonderland, and now that I am no longer scared of winter, and know what it is, and how long it lasts and how different it makes you feel, so reflective, I love to go outside and explore how it changes from day to day. Each day is distinct: as if the environment switches, late at night, when we are asleep, like the screens in that story The Veldt. Each morning when I wake up I see differences in the snow, in the ice, in the light; I hear different bird calls and the shadows on the rocks have changed. The idea of Earth as Dynamic is nowhere more true than here: where you can watch the landscape change almost before your eyes.

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Here I am, just past the point of no return for winter, when the first hints of spring are peeping in the tips of oak trees in the forests….when the birds are singing more than they have for three months. In other places, plants are bursting forth, but for us, we have a while yet to wait.

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While snowshoeing, I paid attention to the snow, and noticed how much it looked like sandstone in the desert. The wind had licked layers of ice crystals and made beautiful dunes that reminded me of being at the beach in England, or in the desert of California.

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After snowshoeing on top of the frozen lake, on top of the powdery snow, I took a moment to snowshoe into the woods at pond’s edge and look at the trees. So much like the setting of a fairy story, this wintertime; I am constantly on the lookout for wolves, or harpies, or secret, magic people dressed in capes, or….something. Mostly, though, I see no one at all.

snowshoeing16snowshoeing15snowshoeing17“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

John Muir

North Wind

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In the midst of a meadow

A skylark singing

Free from everything

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There are hotspots on the ice, on the lakes and ponds of our island, that look like black neurons embedded in the hard, icy surface. The pattern they make echoes perfectly the endings of our neural cells, or the pattern of growth in reindeer moss, or the paths of rivers as they progressively etch the surface of our planet.

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Why are there such similarities in shapes and forms that are found in nature? Why is that the millions of bubbles suspended in the ice of a frozen pond mimic the lattice of old bridges, or that the edge of a huge crack in that same ice, one of the cracks that stretches thirty feet in one direction and 4 inches down, has the same structure and form as a chunk of granite a few feet away at the water’s edge? Why does ice, frozen under the lake’s surface, look like a field of daisies, or the surface of a sea urchin, or the tentacles of a jellyfish?

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Are we, as humans, so desperate to find meaning in our lives, however short they may be, that we find meanings and patterns in natural phenomena? Or are those patterns simply patterns: repeating shapes and structures that are big and small, in hot and cold, in water and air, all through our Earth system? When I look at photographs of nebulas and galaxies, I see shapes that resemble eyes and horseheads. When I sit on a frozen pond and stare down through the ice, I see shapes that resemble stars and clouds in space. Perhaps there is no great meaning in these similarities: perhaps they are simply a repetitive alignment of the atoms that make up all that is our planet Earth.

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It is very, very cold here at the present moment. Last week, on the coldest day of the year, I went ice skating with a friend on Little Long Pond, at sunset. As the sun’s light descended into peach and orange, all around us, the shadows stretched long and the fir trees reflected, black, on the pond’s surface. I skated to the far end of the pond, across a patch that, in summer, is a swampy bog of reeds and grasses. I skated over ice with brambles and grasses growing up out of it: it looks like hair growing out of skin. As I headed back to my boots as they sat on shore, I noticed the sunset, pink, reflected on the ice’s surface.

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Three times lately, I have been skating at Jordan Pond — an epic and majestic place with two mountains at the end of the lake, and trees on all sides. In summer, this place is crawling with people; now, not a soul. On my first and second visits, the wind blew, shrieking with all her force, out of the north with a viciousness and a bite that is unexplainable except when you are experiencing it. (Estimated wind chill was -33F!!!). I struck out on the ice, fighting the wind and battling forward along the middle of the pond. The pond narrows at the boat launch, where my boots and the truck sat, and funnels the wind into a tunnel of cold, strong air. The wind was blowing at 30 knots at least, and it almost blew me over as I stood up on my skates.

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Fighting forward, swinging my arms and legs side to side like a high speed Olympic skater in slow motion, I was dressed in mechanic’s coveralls over a down jacket, performance fleece, wool leggings, corduroys, a hat and a  hood on my head and a scarf wrapped around my face. I scooted, slowly over the ice, occasionally pausing during greater wind gusts, turning my face away from the inevitability of frostbite and giving my legs a break. Slowly, across an intense, bumpy ice flow that spanned the width of the lake, I inched my way toward the smooth center of Jordan Pond, and stared down beneath my feet at frozen bubbles and black water. So clear that you could detect stones and branches beneath you, it felt scary and unnatural, as if you were flying or scuba diving, or both.

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Skating over this alien landscape felt dangerous and otherworldly: as if I was caught here in this moment in time, and that I would never be able to be here again because it could just disappear with the snap of my fingers, or this week’s thawing temperatures. Flying and gliding over the ice is like riding a bicycle or racing a sailboat or sawing a piece of silver or vacuuming a large carpet: all you think about in those moments of movement is the act itself, of paying attention to the ice beneath your feet so that you don’t catch your skate blade in a crack and fall. In those moments, you hear the wind howling in your ears, the rapid flapping of the leather of your mittens, the clattering of a piece of velcro as it is wrenched loose from the hood that protects your head from losing all of your heat, gliding over green water and black, staring at pond stones and deer bones and birch trees now suspended, frozen, at the lake’s bottom.

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 This past summer I took some friends who had never been to Mount Desert Island around this lake on a walk, and listened to the water lap the rocks at pond’s edge. Now the water is silent and like glass; it still looks like open water at a distance, but is 6-10 inches thick, solid, frozen. Patches of snow-ice dotted the pond the further I skated down, as if they were giant white lilypads stretched across the lake’s surface. Skating over those lilypads is deliciously bumpy, and you feel the shock absorbing properties of your knees and ankles as skates and your body bounce across.

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The wind was at my back as I skated over to a sacred spot discovered the day before: a place where the ice had frozen into tiny, perfect floral shapes, where it looked like algae or sea urchins or jellyfish, or all three at the same time. The wind, with so much force, pushed me so hard that I sped up very fast and took a few moments just to glide between the icy lilypads, leaning on one skate or the other to direct my path around and between them. Needing no push from my muscles, I was simply guided forward by gusts of intense north wind. I finally managed to slow down by doubling back and facing the wind again: able to slow down and stop, I took a moment and looked at the two mountains that are the distinguishing feature of this pond.

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Returning for a third visit this morning, at sunrise, I spied birds’ wings made of ice trapped under the pond’s surface, and vertebrae, and skeletons. I saw the shape of two birds fighting each other, complete with feathers flying. I saw jellyfish, and shapes that looked like antique carousels, and baskets, and cages. I saw spirals trapped and motioning me down into the black depths. I took a few moments and lay down on the ice and stared at a 10 inch crack in the surface. I looked at it from one side and saw how the early morning sunlight was shining through its cracks, making it appear polka dotted, or etched by some invisible hand. I looked at it from the other side, and peered closely and noticed how much it echoed the shape of the mountain that stood in front of me, on the west side of the pond. I noticed the strings of bubbles and noted how similar their patterns are to the way cave glow-worms hang, or the shape of the nails and pins we use to build houses. As my friend and I lay there, bundled up against the cold, on our bellies, gazing into the ice, a huge boom echoed below us as a new, large crack formed somewhere behind us. The boom, the cracking, was so forceful it shook us: you could feel the vibration all through your body. At that moment, we stood up and skated around each other again for a few moments, savouring the serendipity and the silence and silkiness of perfect ice, and then went off to begin the day.

Jordan Pond January 4

Winter Begins

Marie Sioux – Flowers and Blood

“We take from life one little share,
And say that this shall be
A space, redeemed from toil and care,
From tears and sadness free.”

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I came here in June, sick and tired. I came here late at night, with a headache splitting my head in two: it felt as if an axe blade was lodged in the left side of my skull. My car was packed with belongings and I drove, forward, through the black night, past houses and the ocean streamed at my right side. That night I cried, cried, cried, and continued through days and nights as my head hurt and my heart ached at realizing I had made it away from a place of so much pain. After re-decorating that basement space that was mine, for a time, I stayed in bed for weeks, while shingles wracked my body, erupting on my face and eyelids and scalp, causing pain and burning and itching. As it healed and the nerves reconnected, I had a hard time sleeping because it felt like electricity was running through my skin. There were days when I would venture out to swim or to bike ride, and feel as if I almost had to crawl back inside the house, into bed, because I was so tired.

“And, haply, Death unstrings his bow,
And Sorrow stands apart,
And, for a little while, we know
The sunshine of the heart.”

Time passed, and I began to feel better. In time, I ventured out more often, and was able to plant plants in the ground again, and be in the sunshine, take walks, swim across the lakes. Late in the summer, after a confusing but exciting trip to the Yucatan, during which I learned how to make pie crust in the tropics, became a certified scuba diver, watched a hurricane pass by, and learned that a special someone was not who I thought he was, I worked in a large, open barn with wooden sculptures everywhere. I started the day by weeding the granite paths in a flower garden, and passed the day helping children paint boards and wooden fish, and painted my own things, too. There was a moment on the third or fourth day when my head came back — my mind came back to my body and I felt reconnected again. It had been months since I had felt that way.

“Existence seems a summer eve,
Warm, soft, and full of peace,
Our free, unfettered feelings give
The soul its full release.”

Time passed, and the fall began. I continued to work in the garden, weeding cosmos flowers and beets and kale and onions. I watched pumpkin vines grow in compost piles, and planted evergreens on a steep hillside and pondered how quickly lavender will grow in a place with such a short summer. I took drives in a 1970s Porsche into the hills of this island, and looked at fancy houses and ocean views. I housesat in a little house in Seal Harbor, where I had to walk one mile to the beach to use my cell phone and reconnect with those people in my life who felt, at that time, so far away. One afternoon, one of those days of golden light and warmth, I was standing on a roof deck of a beautiful wooden summer house on the top of a hill and looked out at the trees that grew all over the mountaintops, at the water of Somes Sound, and decided to stay.

“A moment, then, it takes the power
To call up thoughts that throw
Around that charmed and hallowed hour,
This life’s divinest glow.”

Staying is hard for me. I am more apt to run: I am the world’s most skilled runner. Adaptable to any situation, a great and hard worker, friendly, I can fit in anywhere. I can come and go, and do, quite often, if I am unhappy. I find ways to escape: I am an artist that way. I am the Queen of leaving. Committing to anything is, well, plainly terrifying to me, and the decision to stay here, while I knew it was the right thing to do (I had originally planned to be in Mexico and had sold everything I owned toward that purpose), was scary. I felt I had to hide a little bit, hole up and re-evaluate, re-group. I rented a beautiful apartment, and then left on a huge trip across the country to see everyone that I loved. I documented that trip here, detailing all the themes that appeared in my mind and my life along the way.

“But Time, though viewlessly it flies,
And slowly, will not stay;
Alike, through clear and clouded skies,
It cleaves its silent way.”

I came back, and fall passed quickly. The light changed, and faded away. It became dark, and cold. I spent much time walking and looking, looking and listening, writing and sitting. I made a lot of jewelry and tried to stay quiet. Christmas came and went, as did the New Year. Emotions ran the rainbow of possibilities: I felt happy, then sad, then elated, then scared, then passionate. Then suddenly, the miasma of the holidays, the painful memories and the excitement at that season, passed, and it was winter.

“Alike the bitter cup of grief,
Alike the draught of bliss,
Its progress leaves but moment brief
For baffled lips to kiss”

Winter is a new experience for me. I have no frame of reference for this season. Yes, we all have experienced “winter” wherever we live as a cooling of temperatures and changes in light, but Maine winter is different. Maine winter is quiet. Maine winter is empty: you know the people are here, but you don’t see them. You see evidence of them in the glow of windows, and the sounds of snow plow trucks trundling past your house. Maine winter is three feet of snow that sits for weeks. Maine winter is going ice skating on a lake that a month ago was liquid water; now you can skate across the surface almost silently, watching ice fishermen wait for their orange flags to bob down letting them know they have caught a fish. Maine winter is watching people in canvas tents in the woods, nestled around woodstoves, escaping their daily lives for a day or so. Maine winter is cold, and the cold is biting. It freezes your toes and feet, and your hands. The wind whips around your face and stings your eyes and lips and nose. Maine winter steals heat from your body as you walk, sucking it out of the top of your head if you, stupidly, go without a hat. Maine winter is long, and it just began in earnest.

“The sparkling draught is dried away,
The hour of rest is gone,
And urgent voices, round us, say,
“’Ho, lingerer, hasten on!””

For the last week or so, I have been taking an informal survey on “What Winter Means”. I have asked everyone that I know who has lived here for a while the same few questions: Why is it so different? Why do people go kooky after New Years? and Is it true that everyone will go nuts in February?

“And has the soul, then, only gained,
From this brief time of ease,
A moment’s rest, when overstrained,
One hurried glimpse of peace?”

I can tell you that winter is a lonely time, if one is alone. It is cold, and you want to cozy up next to someone to get warm. Winter’s coldness is felt inside your body, down to your bones and further inside. Winter is scary because, in January, you realize that it will be like this until March or April, but most likely, April. Winter draws out before you with the promise of ice and snow and bright sunny days and deep cloudy ones. Winter causes you to question yourself, and realize that you do not know exactly what will happen to you in a place of this much cold, this few people, this slow of a pace.

“No; while the sun shone kindly o’er us,
And flowers bloomed round our feet,—
While many a bud of joy before us
Unclosed its petals sweet,—”

On Monday, I rode in a small steel boat to the outer islands to interview to become a substitute teacher in a two-room schoolhouse for 9 students. The ride out was cold, but it had the hopefulness of morning, and the water was deep blue and turquoise green and the smell of diesel is comforting, in its own way. People kept busy reading their mail, playing games; I spent the time knitting and chatting when I could. First we stopped at Great Cranberry, and I looked at the pileons all covered with bronze seaweed and barnacles. We pulled away and across the straight to Islesford, where I embarked and walked up a narrow road, perfectly snowplowed. Snow two feet deep was on either side of me, and most of the houses, summer places, were empty. The field that, last summer, I used to play volleyball with two friends from Philly lay vacant, vast, white and empty. Everything was silent with the empty echo of winter: the sound of silence and of hunkering down. This is survival time. I spent the day in the school, visiting with children and adults and a dog named Ruby, and then took the same steel boat back to Northeast Harbor. The sun set over the mountains as we rode in, all orange and red and salmon pink over deep blue mountains. It was cold, colder than cold on that boat, and everyone seemed to be adjusting to it well but me. I walked up the gangplank to the harbor area and felt colder than I have ever felt. Walking into town, I began to panic thinking I would never get warm, or I would get sick again, or both. I slipped on ice and sank into snow, feeling colder by the minute. In that cold, your head hurts with the cold air, your eyes water, your hands and feet ache despite boots and gloves.

“An unseen work within was plying;
Like honey-seeking bee,
From flower to flower, unwearied, flying,
Laboured one faculty,—”

I went to a friend’s house then and bemoaned the cold and he laughed and said he was at least happy that I understood that he wasn’t kidding when he said the cold was serious. I sat, practically hugged, the woodstove, took off my shoes and socks and he handed me steaming hot coffee and eventually, my warmth came back and I stopped panicking about the winter, about the cold.

“Thoughtful for Winter’s future sorrow,
Its gloom and scarcity;
Prescient to-day, of want to-morrow,
Toiled quiet Memory.”

And just like that, the deep cold left us that very next day. The next day, the sun shone on our town and the snow began to melt and temperatures that were in single digits and teens all of a sudden were almost to 40. The snow melted into water and dripped off the eaves of buildings into the street, making slick patches of clear  ice, impossible to see but easy to slip on, and catch yourself before a fall.

“’Tis she that from each transient pleasure
Extracts a lasting good;
’Tis she that finds, in summer, treasure
To serve for winter’s food.”

Despite our warmer week, the winter’s chill has taken hold and taken effect on people. People are changing. I wish to record these feelings here so that I remember them in a month, when winter is really in full swing, and in its depth of experience. People are spending less and less time out, more and more time in their homes. I, too, feel the desire to curl up inside and surround myself with blankets and fabrics and sewing projects, and other creations of comfort. I seek to design and build things that reflect those aspects of life that I miss: warmth, light, plants, flowers. I dreamt the other day of a place where the plants are still growing, where leaves are unfurling and flowers are in bloom. I remembered the pink oleander in front of my old house in Austin that still grew and even bloomed, sometimes, in the winter of central Texas.

“And when Youth’s summer day is vanished,
And Age brings Winter’s stress,
Her stores, with hoarded sweets replenished,
Life’s evening hours will bless.”

So what will Winter bring? I have no idea what is coming toward me, except a distinct sense that my perception and interaction with my environment will become even smaller than it is now. It is hard to imagine that a year ago I was living in a large American city, and now my world has shrunken so. In the cold, even though the light is returning to us, I envision a time of watching, and waiting. My new motto is “don’t think, don’t feel, any more than you can help, don’t conclude or decide — don’t do anything but wait.” Henry James must have spent a winter in Maine as an outsider, and spent much of his time just watching how people’s restlessness magnified, how all people turned inward to the coziness of houses and hearths.

dans guest room

***The poem cited here is Winter Stores by Charlotte Bronte,

a woman who knew the isolation of winter better than most.”