Winter’s Gift

Winter fights to hang on well into almost April. In the country it isn’t necessarily robins pecking at a cache of frozen apples or a sudden blast of sunshine that marks spring’s approach. It’s the sound of ice crunching underfoot.

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The transition of seasons is marked by a layering effect of rain falling upon snow followed by snow upon ice. I step carefully as I walk into the woods behind our house, picking my way over precarious spreads of dirty white, my boot soles leaving impressions in the sparkling surface.

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This year winter is definitely not going out like a lamb. Temperatures are projected to plummet as low as two degrees tonight; one last heave-ho of bone-chilling, muscular force. Tomorrow morning my footsteps will be frozen fossils alongside days-old deer tracks, a record of one brief and beautiful moment I spent on this earth. Other seasons have their gifts, but winter is the only one that can literally suspend time.

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A SoCal Kind of Christmas

In San Diego International Airport, rays of sunshine blast headlong into the baggage claim area, warming our luggage on the turnstile. As we descend the elevator into main lobby, we New Yorkers can’t help but feel like vampires—the light, the light!  

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Near the glass exit doors, the mirrored baubles on the giant, artificial spruce cast shimmery snowflake patterns onto the tiles in delightful contrast to the 78 degree temperature. There is a dynamism born of contrasts in San Diego at Christmastime—the palm trees and the flat blue skies, the piped in Christmas carols that sing of sleigh rides and snowmen. Even the Salvation Army Santa is clad in Bermuda shorts and Ray Ban sunglasses, shrilling that chime of his. There is no scent of roasted chestnuts in the air, only a distinctive mixture of jet fuel and ocean air.

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Some might feel that it’s the most un-Christmasy place on Earth, but they are the ones who limit their imaginations to the images of Currier & Ives. For me, this is just the way it has always been, and, anyway, I like a little jalapeno with my roast turkey and cranberry sauce, thank you.

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As we pack our bags into the trunk of Mom’s car and merge onto the on ramp that will take us to our glorious week of merrymaking and relaxation, we catch our first silvery glimpse of the Pacific—this, even as our friends back east are hunkering in for the bracing holiday forecast. And, no, none of us in the car is complaining.

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Seasonal Haiku

PineBoughAn indication of the hunger moon: Ivy on a fat, blue spruce.

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Thankful for the Small Things

I just love this poem by Eleanor Lerman, whose simple, declarative sentences and plainspoken tone search for the sacred in the banal. The seemingly unremarkable moments in life—a walk to the pond, pie for dessert, an unexpected encounter—are what offer us entree to the divine. Today, I am grateful for the small signs that reveal a universe of wonder. Below is a video of the unexpected encounter we had this Thanksgiving morning. Was is a message, or just another day?

Starfish
by Eleanor Lerman

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

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Unraveling After Hours

The other night, I rolled over in my sleep and pushed one of the cats out of the bed. The thud woke me up, though it didn’t seem to bother the cat. A chilly wind was dancing around the courtyard of our apartment building, and shouldering its way into a crack in our bedroom window. It was around 2:30 am—that restless, magical time when our thoughts tend to unravel like so many balls of yarn.

I’ve been thinking about how old our cats have gotten: They’ll turn 18 and 17, respectively, on Thanksgiving. When the temperatures begin to plummet—causing everyone to launch into a kind of end-of-the-year panic—it’s easy to ignore the inevitable. But now we’ve heard from our upstate neighbors that the first snow has fallen at Smallpeace, planting us firmly in the winter season. I am struck by how sneakily change happens. My male cat has begun howling at night, a sure sign of dementia. Only the sound of our voices makes him stop. My female has to paw at her bowl to find the water level. She has trouble seeing it in the dark.

I begin to brood about my graying hair, which I’ve only recently begun to have colored at a hip Brooklyn hair salon. Now, fully restored to my “natural” nut brown, it will be only four weeks before my roots, bright as a moonbeam, begin to peep through. I’ve started to make my appointments in advance, so as not to “leave it too long,” as my beautician grandmother used to say—and wish, as a dear friend begins her first round of chemo treatments on Monday, that I could share my good fortune. And that is as far as I get before the cat starts to howl and I rush to cradle him in my arms, and we both drift peacefully back to sleep.

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An Uplifting Encounter

The sky over the wetlands is a hard, cold gray. The last pitted apples on the tree outside our door are hanging stubborn for now. It’s mouse season, and last night I woke up to the sound of insulation being gnawed in the kneeling space beside our bed. In a few more months the full Snow Moon will shine above our heads when my husband and I go out for our late evening walk.

We’ve lit a fire in the woodstove this afternoon more out of ceremony than necessity, and when the flames begin to wilt neither one of us moves to feed them. I have poems to write and reading assignments to conquer, but an unfamiliar sound—like the release of tractor-trailer breaks—disrupts my concentration.

“What’s that?” we both wonder aloud in and unison, as two gargantuan shadows fall across the lawn. We rush to the front porch and are treated to a surreal scene: Two hot-air balloons have floated out of the mist, and are rising like circus tents before our eyes. Their ascension is punctuated by Darth Vader-like exhales, and our little hamlet suddenly feels alive with excitement. We wave and shout to the people in the baskets. Their giddiness and sense of wonderment is contagious. And so we go: me in the driver’s seat and Ber riding shotgun, snapping away on his iPhone.

“Are you going to the lake?” We holler into air. The wayfarers can hear us clear as a bell, and gesture for us to follow them north. But the country roads can’t take us where they are going. We simply pull over and watch and wait as they disappear over a stand of pines, full of exhilaration and a little less earthbound for the encounter.

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Autumn: A Season of Letting Go

The cats wake me up at 6:00 am, demanding to be fed. The soft, warm weather of Saturday has yielded to a seasonably crisp current. The only way I know this is because our apartment window has been left cracked open about six inches. Directly below us, the enclosed courtyard serves to create a kind of wind tunnel, causing air and voices and cooking fumes to waft up into our living space. In the city, the transition from one season to the next can go unnoticed because of so many urban distractions. Cairo and Feejee wind around my ankles, hoping to get their bellies filled, mewling more loudly than usual. They sense it’s time to pack on provisional fat layers.

I can tell by the bright slip of light over the Citicorp Building that the day will be bright and clear by lunchtime. I will not be able to enjoy it on this busy Monday morning at work, writing ad copy in my cubicle. So for now, I comfort myself by thinking about the forthcoming weekend, when we will reclaim our little cottage from the renters who have lived there all week.

It’s been a real lesson in letting go, this opening our home to strangers—and a surprisingly fulfilling adventure in some ways. From the get-go, we acknowledged that having a weekend home was a luxury for people like us, and we have always counted ourselves lucky. This summer, we could no longer justify letting the place sit empty for long stretches of time. Such is the continuing struggle to find balance in our lives.

By this weekend, my birthday weekend, the maples upstate will be nearly done shedding their leaves, and I will be curious to see how much color still blankets the Taconics, particularly after an eerily premature spring. I’d like to know that the renters enjoyed the place as much as we do. It’s always satisfying to know that like-minded travelers have found their way to our door.

Meanwhile, I look forward to being back in our house, to buying pumpkins and baking apples and shuffling my feet in the leaves at the edge of our wetlands, and to enjoying the little bit of liberation we derived from practicing non-attachment.

Happy Columbus Day!

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