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

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.

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

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

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.

Winter Storm Advisory

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View from my living room window

I thought I would take a walk today, but nature had other plans: the first blizzard of this season, pouring down snow, blowing fiercely through trees and around houses in this tiny town. The snow has been falling now for several hours, and the wind is fierce, loud, tearing. It sounds as if it will rip the roof, or at least the shingles, off the house and open up my little home to the elements. It is cold, and wet and harsh: a real Maine winter’s day.

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Tire tracks in snow

As I sit here, writing, listening to the icy wind, the sounds of pieces of ice being thrown down my street, through tree branches, decorating the wood of trees and the steps of houses with squishy-squashy piles of snowy mush, the darkness of a winter’s day hangs at the edges. Today is a day where it will never really get light, despite our steady march toward the light again, now that the solstice is passed.

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Trees

Last night was a cold, clear night in which the moon hung like a small, round beacon, tall in the sky. My friend came to my studio last night to tell me to come outside and look at the moon. We stood on the porch and gazed at our satellite – perfect and white-grey in the nighttime, framed by the glimmering glow of two planets. Later, after an amazing Italian-Greek-Maine style pasta dinner, after mouthfuls of anchovies and olives and raw garlic and American Parmesan cheese (the only type we could find in the Pine Tree Market last night), we went outside again, bundled up in jackets and hats against the cold, and held high-powered binoculars in steady hands to look at the man in the moon. He disappears when you look too closely at him: then all you can see are the waterless seas, the craters, the mountains, all of those features thousands of miles away, yet, so close.

We listened to the glug-glug-glug of a wine bottle pouring Bordeaux into old glasses, holding the neck of the bottle up to our ears, closely. I climbed upstairs and looked at all of his garlic held in suspension above the room, in the rafters of the roof. I looked at a red and black and white wool blanket over a bed that has never been used, stared at two red owls, swooping in suspended animation, hanging from the ceiling. I gazed upon piles of old National Geographic magazines, perfectly tied into bundles, stacked in a corner. On the floor are seeds of basil and dirt from the garlic heads: all fallen from ceiling to floor since they were put up in the fall. That room smells of dry pine, garlic, basil and sage. At night it is golden, full of light, and the windows are dark black, staring out into the sky, out at the moon.

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Do you see the shape of my neighbor’s house reflected in the water droplets?

What a place of magic this is, this mysterious home of mine. This place that is full of people yet feels so empty. This place whose stillness is magnified on days like today as snow falls and you see no one move, knowing that everyone, like you, is inside, being cozy, staring out the windows at the day as it passes, wondering what will happen, if the power will stay on, if there are enough candles, if the blankets are warm enough.

There is a beauty and  a strength to stillness: to the perception of self that comes when one is alone as the blizzard rages outside. To the awareness of one’s body sitting on a white couch, under a pink blanket, coffee brewing on the counter to your left. Wind howling, sky white-grey, oak tree branches black; even the birds seem to be hunkered down today as I haven’t seen them. Maybe it’s time to go outside and visit the birch trees down on the Sound, to see how they are faring on a day like today. Or maybe, sit and sew awhile, and see how the time passes.

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Rooftop, Trees, Fireside….