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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North Wind

Jordan Pond January 34

In the midst of a meadow

A skylark singing

Free from everything

Jordan Pond January 35

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.

Jordan Pond January 36

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.

Jordan Pond January 6

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.

Jordan Pond January 18

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

Sunday Faerie Tale

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Slumber

On my bed, I have a grey wool blanket with a herringbone pattern, an orange ticking-striped down comforter, a white cotton blanket and an old Indian cotton blanket. All of these magic elements of my bed were piled and curled around my sleeping body early this morning, in the grey light of the beginnings of sunrise, when I peeked my head out from between pillows decorated with abstract Queen Anne’s Lace, and gazed out that window that I gaze out of each morning.

Yesterday at sunrise, my neighbor’s windows glowed golden in the blue morning light. A beautiful feature of this much snow is that, in those moments before dawn, the scant amounts of light, the photons just drifting through the air from the east, cast a deep cobalt tone to the landscape. Everything is blue and black, and electric light is golden-bronze, held in place for mere moments, each morning.

This morning, however, snow was on the horizon; Icould see it coming in ombre grey folds of clouds up above the horizon, behind the trees. Layers, as if folds of a giant blanket, grew darker grey the further out I looked with my early morning, sleep-weighted eyes. In the air, I could see not light, but snow.

Pulling on two pairs of tights, one wool and one polyester, a wool skirt, a tank top, a wool shirt, a shawl, a vest, jacket and a hat, I took myself ice skating out onto Upper Hadlock Pond. It was very early, not even 7, and there was no one else at the pond. In that early morning moment, when all was very grey-white, no shadows at all because there was no sun, all was silent and amazingly colorful in its simple shades of green, white, grey and black. Mere moments later, an ice fisherman appeared with his sled and buckets, said good morning and that he was surprised we were the only people there, and stomped off across the ice to his favorite fishing spots.

As I skated around, getting my skating legs back (it always takes me a few moments) and skating across a huge rough patch that is the only path to the beautifully clear and smooth skating area, I stopped-and-started my way across, noticing the lumpiness of the ice, getting my skates caught in patches of ice-snow, noticing how the waves had frozen in place, and that bubbles, forced up as those waves froze, had frozen, too, into these strange circles that look like white eyeballs or lilypads floating at the surface.

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This photo is from the other day, when the sun was shining…

Onward into the morning quiet went I, paying much attention to where I was going so that I didn’t fall like I did two days ago. In those early moments, all you could hear was the swishing of skates on ice, and occasionally the most magic of sounds, the shifting and cracking of the lake’s surface. As the ice cracks and bends, it makes a deep gurgling noise not unlike the sound wine makes when poured out the neck of the bottle.

The ice sighed today, heavy with the weight of water moving underneath it, over the dam at the other end of the pond. The ice sighed as I skated over it, and tiny cracks formed alongside my feet as I slid over and around it, making curlycues and stripes and curved lines with my steel blades. Sometimes the sighing and cracking spooked me: especially when a crack happened quickly and I watched it form in the blink of an eye next to my feet.

In the eerie stillness of this early morning, when the sky was grey and white, and the trees deep green and bronze, and the ice white, myself and the ice fisherman were black against a stark landscape. Parkman Mountain peeked over the tops of the trees, now completely coated in snow and dotted with the tallest of trees. It was at this moment that the scant snowflakes that started moments before transformed into huge pillow-like flakes that fell with the rapidity of a rainstorm onto myself and the fisherman, my silent companion on the ice. As I skated, snowflakes became caught in my eyelashes and stuck to my lips. The snow fell, fell, fell around me but there was no wind so it drifted, and sank, through the air from sky to pond’s surface. The snowflakes were huge and seemed to be held in the air, as if they were tiny feathers delicately drifting downward toward the center of the Earth.

I stopped skating for a few moments and just listened. One of my favorite things about snowstorms is their silence: you hear nothing. This morning was no exception: I stood on my skates, still, listening to nothing, ears echoing in that silence. I stared into a little finger sized cove on one end of the pond, watching the snow fall, listening to the silent air, noticing how the branches of the pine trees looked like the bronchi of our lungs, watching them catch the snowflakes in their boughs. Caught in the moment, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the place, and not able to look away, became very emotional and breathless.

As the snow continued to fall, and the landscape became more fairy-tale like, and I was imagining all kinds of things happening as they would in faerie stories, and contemplating my life and the many interesting things that have happened and what it all means when one catches yourself in beauty for a moment at 7:30am on a Sunday morning, I began to realize that I could no longer distinguish my skate marks from the cracks in the ice. For a few more minutes, I spun around in large circles, holding myself up on my right foot and then my left, holding my hands above my head in a circle, bending my knees and straightening them, and slowly made my way back across the lake to the crossing point. For one last moment, I stood staring at Parkman Mountain again, now shielded from view by falling silent snow, and crossed the bumpy, crunchy ice back to the mouth of the pond. I skated over the pocked patches of ice, drawing more curls in the snow with my skates, dancing as best I could without falling. For a moment, I sat on the ice, on top of my mittens, taking off my skates and looking out at the landscape that was steadily filling with snow. Once again, silent, no sound save the swish of snowflakes falling around my ears.

I realized that, next time, I need to leave my boots upside down, for, as I was skating, they, too, had filled up with snow.