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WINTER ON ARTHRITIC KNEES


There is no greater pleasure in these dark days than to see the icicles on the porch eave melting in steady streams, like pouring water on a wicked witch. Behind the icicles is a blue sky, and snow hugging every shrub and tree branch. The world is one vast Wedgewood teapot of pale colors, each one more serene and distant than the other. I shiver to think what all this aging ice means, but the melting daggers tell me not everything is made of steel or aimed at my heart. The weeping goes on at every eve as winter slowly dissolves into a harmless trickle of water waking up an underworld of worms and insects far below ground. How happy that makes me feel.

Even though the news keeps trying to console us about Ukraine, it's hard to feel any reassurance at the aerial photos of a forty-mile long convoy of killing machines slowly surrounding the perimeters of Kyiv, and to know that Kharkiv and other cities are being dismantled one apartment block at a time. But resistance is grace, a kind of sacred trust in the power of fighting against tyranny. I never felt any love for this odd country, once part of the rib cage of the old Soviet Union, then liberated into a shivering outpost of a vanished empire, and finally finding its feet on the frozen ground as a nation. But the more I see its brave, intelligent women talking to reporters, using a more than serviceable English to communicate their nation's spirit and character, the more I melt away my doubts as if I were hanging from a porch eave in full sun. The men are hoisting up rifles for the first time in their lives, and pointing them at the menacing shimmers of approaching Russian tanks. When they hit one, or someone clambers out of a tank hole and puts up his hands in surrender, the soul rejoices.

So, it's cold out, enough to keep me indoors for the while. But the sun is so candid and powerful today that I can't help but believe that Spring is coming, that its delicate feet are touching down at some point along the coast and inching along into the hills at something like two miles per hour, the speed of a season as it walks with the wind behind it. The green blur at the twig-ends of maples is very nearly visible from the road as we go into town to shop. The maple sap is running, and the spiles are all dug into the bark to collect the thick sugary blood of these noble towers. As early as December the sugar folk were out hanging their buckets up, stringing those translucent tubes from one trunk to another. It's March, and the schizophrenic character of this hinge time is fully manifest in the sooty snowdrifts and the blazing sunlight dazzling the windows.

Maybe one of these days I won't light a fire in the stove, but sit with my book and enjoy the ash-free air of early evening. Maybe, I said. But who knows when the polar rages from Canada will die down. We should expect such an affront to our languishing spirits tonight, if the forecaster is to be believed. He says to beware temps as low as ten or even lower, and for the debris of old snow to lie there encased in its own thick skin for another week or more. But I look outside from my study and sit here with my hands warming in the caressing heat of the March sun, and I can't complain.

It's good to be at the edge of a season, with the anticipation of warmth and happiness just aching to be born. The roads are still part of some vast mortuary of winter, with the gloomy hillocks of stale ice piled up from the snow plows, and the birds fewer than rainbows at this frayed edge of things. There's a certain glimmer of hope in the faces I see at the supermarket, as people unload a pile of fruit and vegetables onto the conveyor belt and stand around while the cashier checks them out. There might be the hint of a cookout in one man''s choices, some burger patties, a package of buns, a six pack of ale, potato chips, pickles. But he may have to sit by his window a few more days and let the stove do all the cooking. His grill is ready, though. I dare say before too much longer he will put on his apron and wield a flipper, coax the coals into a flame. I can almost hear him say to his wife, "This may be my best burgers yet." He's hungry. So am I. Not for meat, but for the companionship of a dreamer falling into reveries about how he will sit down on his Adirondack chair and pull on his can of ale, and gaze down at his shoes, sigh a lot, stretch, and allow the sun to tickle his forearms and caress his forehead. He might even whisper some little song to himself and smile inwardly at his lucky self. Ah, the beauty of a friendly sky, no longer sulking under the heel of winter's relentless rages.

I wish Walt Whitman were coming to dinner tonight. I'd love to know his thoughts about the end of winter. He loved all things natural, but even he might have second thoughts about the perverse unpredictability of winter in the era of climate change. He might even pull on his beard and say we were footing the bill for a century or more of greed and exploitation without thinking of the consequences on the green world. I would offer my own piece of information that some 14% of all living animals may be facing extinction in the coming years. He might nod sagely and regard my soft existence, with the electric lights blazing overhead, and the furnace sending up gusts of heated air into our living room. He might even say he didn't have indoor plumbing and wonders how we came to be so used to having running water at our fingertips. He might even pass up the platter of cheese and crackers I offer him, for fear that he too might become addicted to their luxurious abundance, at what hidden cost I remained ignorant of. He was the child of candlelight, and a wood stove, and a jakes in the snow-encrusted back yard. He always wore homespun shirts and itchy woolen pants, and shoes made by some Italian immigrant out of precious, hard to get leather. He knew to break his slice of bread in half and save the rest of the loaf for tomorrow. He walked to the harbor, paid his visits without phoning ahead, wrote out his letters with a quill pen and trudged out into the bitter wind to mail them at a post office open only for a few hours each day. He didn't understand how I had come to accept all this luxury without sneaking a peek at the rest of the invoice.

So maybe it was better if he stayed where he is, in his tomb in Camden, where only the dust lingered over his remains. He preferred not to know the future, and all the dread and mayhem that our excesses were creating. He wanted the wilderness to stretch out forever, into an endlessly fertile and inventive frontier that would keep America tough, and supply heroes with challenges to test their manhood. He had heard of Huck Finn and would have gladly embraced the boy's intention to go out west and escape the "sivilization" catching up with him.

My neighbor just stepped down from his front steps and went in search of a newspaper and a cup of coffee. I waved to him as he left. He was a good man, fair-minded, thoughtful, but he never felt the future darken his optimism. Perhaps he preferred to believe that no one could know the outcome of our indulgence. He could sleep at night; he wasn't awakened by the nightmares that startled me about a planet dying, animals struggling to find food, kids finding their parents squabbling over nothing.

I'm not guilty about my joy at seeing the icicles growing shorter in the pure white sunlight of this day. I am happy to see it, the dropping of tears into the thawing soil. I see the mice have found my bowl of apples on the dining room table, and have feasted on one of them, leaving a crater where their sharp teeth gnawed away at it. They are as dumb as me, I fear. They think there will always be apples to bite into, and to find cheese crumbs under the chair where I sit. They live in Eden and roll around in their nests in the crawl space as if life were eternal, and their own innocence would never know deprivation. Well, maybe that's a consolation. Some creatures will keep smiling through it all. And I shall join them with my own cautious relief as I stroll past the window and gaze lovingly at the dissolving threat of the ice.


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