Black Ice

I’m forcing myself out of a frozen shell to engage with the rest of the world. There are times when I need a build up of ideas and energy in my head that is too easily dispelled by any form of communication. Emails and voicemails and texts are piling up. I know the end is nigh for this period of silence, that will likely be followed by a burst of productivity. Sometimes I wonder if nature controls my moods.

canstockphoto19231888.jpgThis week has been the most wintry week of winter. Black ice on Monday, heavy snowfall midweek, and now brittle, skin-freezing temps and wind chills again. A friend slipped and broke her leg. A man shot a school bus driver after a fender-bender on a snow and ice-coated highway. The rabbit that found a winter home near one of our window wells is puffed out to twice it size and gets stared at by giant, hairless bipeds at least twice a day. People make snide comments on Star Tribune weather articles about climate change.

I shoveled the half foot of snow off the drive yesterday and wondered how many more years I’d be able to do it. The aches of the day are knee, hip and back. I’ve always been a work horse and hate the noise and maintenance of snowblowers. I like the dead silence of winter, the barrage of constant physical sensation that forces me out of my brain and into the moment – the numbing of my face, breathing through frozen nose hairs, the bite at my thighs and fingers that mean I’ll be red and burning when I get inside and start to warm.

canstockphoto3182017I’ve never been a daredevil and never really understood those who are. Why climb a mountain? Why jump out of a plane? Why deep sea dive? I’m disinterested in the spectacular physical challenges humans seek out. I’m interested in survival and the daily precipice we all live on – the never knowing when death will seek us out. When I’m out on a winter’s day, I think of how our lives are built on safety nets and backup plans and fail-safes, but in spite all of that, someone will have a heart attack shoveling, someone will fall in their shower, someone will eat a yet-to-be recalled food.

Our daily lives are full of risk. We could do everything right and still have life go south. Knowing that is adrenaline enough for me. And it requires no special gear, no great heights, no training courses. Just a desolate, muffled winter day.

A Mind of One’s Own, Minimal Square Footage Required


I’ve been riding along the last couple of weeks as if someone else were at the wheel. I stare out the window as the landscape speeds by, lost in thought, lost in ideas, but not really lost at all. It’s the kind of drifting that loosens the nerves, unclenches the fists, allows the mind to be frivolous or deep, shifting from moment to moment.

Books are in stacks about the study. I’ve meandered from one to the next, from Virginia Woolf’s loosely compiled speeches in A Room of One’s Own to Tim O’Brien’s exhausting Tomcat in Love (it’s hard work wanting to like a book and being quite unable to). Frigid temperatures kept me pacing relentlessly, doing housework, muttering to myself and occasionally putting on 45 layers to venture outdoors, until I fog-freeze my glasses and stumble back inside.

This is what it always is – the malaise of being at the halfway point of a six month Minnesota winter. Seed catalogs have started arriving. My blog reader piles up as relentlessly as the gardening chore list. I cannot keep up. It would require that I shove my fuzzy, drifting thoughts back into a box and bring a level of focus and commitment to the moment.

My mind drifts to friends, on and offline. I think of Ruth, fighting to manage and beat back her cancer and of Sandy, pondering the idea of home. I think of Kiri fending off anxiety each time she looks for a home to buy and of Bill, unraveling after years of employment. And there’s Amy and Jen, dealing with the challenge of jobs that shift and change from day-to-day. I think of my grandmother, whose faithful canine companion went to sleep on Monday and never woke up. I think of my husband, who just moved offices for the zillionth time, new cube, new building, same relentless job. And of my daughter who is home with the flu. Again.

They’re all in my constant peripheral vision. But at this moment, life stands still. I pretend I’m isolated and that John Donne was wrong. I’m an island – staying quiet, introspective, self-reliant. I’m composting, letting thoughts and ideas sink in until something meaningful emerges and I have the energy and optimism to share again. With about 15 minutes of decent sunshine, humidifiers sputtering and tons of mental manure to shovel through, it takes longer for something worthwhile to grow.

canstockphoto22778900Overhearing my husband, on the phone with a cousin talking about family history, prompts me to Google my relatives. I read news clippings about the murder of my maternal grandfather, a man I met once in 1974. He gave me molasses cookies from Alaska and a 1950s children’s book about an agreement between the Alaskan Eskimos and the Laplanders called Reindeer Trail. It takes me a few more family name searches to remember I’ve done it all before, this grasping for roots, for connection. They’re all stories to me, not memories.

It’s an aimless sort of thrashing about, trying to shake off stagnation, to raise a hint of a ghost of a whisper of motivation. Phhhtt. Writing becomes an aimless exercise in creating things that I edit until I hate them. I begin to mock writing advice in my head, ending each conversation with an erudite just shut it!

I forccanstockphoto12183645ed the study window open, slivers of ice falling from around the frame. The sun gives the illusion of warmth, but the air is sharp. I can hear cardinals singing, sighting a flit of brilliant red before the glass fogs over. I stand a moment longer, breathing icy air, before closing the window and sealing myself in again.

A little music for the rambling mind:

The Long, Long Winter of Our Discontent

canstockphoto1508295Mornings seem grim these days. The sun may be shining brightly, but many of us are buckling down in our ice-encrusted houses waiting out this unending winter.

I woke up worn out by a dream that played over and over again. I witness a car accident. The car is on its side, in flames. I’m standing in a crowd and see a man trying to climb out through the car window. People all around me pull out their cellphones to dial 911. I rush forward, trying to pull the man up and out of the burning car. I drag him to safety while talking myself through a fireman’s carry.

People are still talking on their cell phones. They may have been taking pictures. I’m tired, coughing from all the smoke and I notice there is a second person in the car. I start begging people to help me. I do not think I can save this person on my own. No one helps. I awaken, frustrated, desperate and depressed.

For the umpteenth morning in a row, it’s below zero with a windchill factor in the negative double digits. We are supposed to get more snow today, which really means nothing. The frozen tundra of our urban landscape, melt-off frozen into sheets of ice on the roads, means the ice will be more slippery, if that’s even possible. We’ll go through the motions – ice skating lessons, workouts at the Y, grocery shopping. I’ll notice, with a dull glumness that we’ve tracked more salt in across the rugs that I’ve cleaned for the millionth time.

The washer is broken. We apparently purchased a washer running on alien technology, since no one had the $20 parts we needed to make the fix. They are coming from the UK and no longer cost $20. Piles of snow outside, piles of laundry inside. I try to rally, picking away at small projects, trying to at least keep the rest of the household caught up. I’m a third day in the same jeans.

I have seed catalogs, but even they fail to brighten my spirits. I know that long before the planting, there will be weeks of tree trimming, soil amendment, fence re-staining. They’ll be different chores than the winter tasks and will seem better for being outdoors, but it’s hard to imagine now.  As much as I try to enjoy the winter landscape with ice skating and cross country skiing, I know I am a visitor in the hostile lands of the White Witch, who would rather freeze me where I stand than allow me to luxuriate in the beauty.

I’ve often said that I like living in the upper midwest. I like definitive seasons. We used to make jokes about snow birds who fled to Florida and Arizona. I understand them now, even in middle age. The joints move more gently, the skin doesn’t dry out and crack, the spirits don’t flag starting in early February from the long brittle days and the nights when the furnace can barely keep up with the plummeting temperatures.

The brain is going wobbly, leaping from one morose thought to another. My husband turns 50 this year and it hits me that even if he’s lucky enough to live long, he’ll die in the next 50. That I am three years younger has padded me mentally against having the same thought for myself. My thoughts continue along this path and I snort at my nearly comedic desolation.

canstockphoto0278524With a sigh, I pull myself up out of the reading chair, lift the window shade and see the drifting of large snowflakes to the ground. The furnace grunts and kicks on, seeming as fed up with winter as the rest of us. Thank goodness that winter is much like the pain of childbirth – forgotten once life begins. Spring will wipe the slate clean, our relief more like gratitude than a simple change of season.

Spring Respite for The Green Study

A canstockphoto5109847miracle finally happened in Minnesota. Spring arrived. I can’t focus. I spent time in the dirt yesterday. I scoped out my tulips, crocuses (crocii?) and daffodils, uncovered, after a long winter’s rest. It’s a week of endings and beginnings for me and as much as I think I should write or at least should want to write, I don’t. I want dirt under my nails, mud on my boots, stray leaves and grass in my hair. I want to stand up, straightening sore knees and legs after laboring over a plot of soil. I want to smell when the rain is coming and admire, once again, the hardiness and resilience of nature.

canstockphoto2064868A Northern Flicker captured my attention for the good part of an hour on Saturday. They’re the only woodpecker that walks along the ground to find food, hopping back and forth between ground and surrounding trees. Rabbits graze in the yard, delighted by the salad bar now revealed. Gnawed bushes and shrubs show evidence that they did what they needed to do to survive the deep snows.

canstockphoto6826957Black-capped chickadees are flitting in and out of the dried grape vines and robins are hopping about, gathering up their body weight in grass for nests in progress. Mallards are squawking loudly when neighborhood cats are in the proximity. The ducks have picked a nesting site near the drainage creek that has formed at the bottom of the yard.

It’s been too long. It’s taken us a few days to catch on that winter is gone. Pale and mole-like, people come outside, shading their eyes against the brilliant sunlight. We see neighbors that we haven’t seen in months. Everyone is a little pudgier. The melted snow has left vestiges of salt and sand everywhere. Children wobble haphazardly on bikes – a momentary lapse in memory. An old man roars by on a motorcycle, a declaration of resilience. He made it through another winter.

People have thrown themselves into a flurry of activity – yard work, roof fixing, car washing. They’ve spent months using their labor capital for shoveling and making vehicles run, walking recalcitrant dogs, who lifted paws in protestation of the bitter cold. The pent up energy needs to run its course before hammocks and lemonade and a need for shade.

I am taking the week off to take it all in. I can hardly make myself sit still or be in front of the computer. My winter-addled mind drags me out into the sunshine, unable to stay inside one minute longer. Spinach and green bean seeds to sow, patches of garden to till, soil samples to send…this is the world I dreamed of in January, while flipping morosely through my seed catalog. It’s finally here and I’m going outside to reacquaint myself with the light. Keep well, my friends.


Starting from Where You’re At

canstockphoto3075263As people in the Northeast are trying to dig themselves out from under piles of snow, I’m doing some metaphorical digging out of my own.

After going through the worst winter ever in terms of colds and flu, I must rally myself into a consistent workout program, bring better focus to my writing, wrap up some loose ends with the job and return to the solid sense of purpose I had for a brief few moments in the fall.

The challenge is to not romanticize where I once was. I get tripped up by the accomplishments and skills I had in the past. It’s demoralizing and serves only as an obstacle to growth in this moment. I need to be mature enough to recognize that I have different limitations and need to adjust my expectations.

I’m not bouncing back as quickly from injuries or maladies, which is a tough pill to swallow. An easy five mile run can turn into a miserable 3 miles of referring pain from knees to back to shoulders. A cold becomes weeks of sinus infections and dry coughs. Instead of needing a day to recover from weight training, I need 2 or 3. A headache can ruin a day.

I had to delay testing for my first taekwondo black belt this month. I was driving myself based on standards I only attain after months of solid training, not sporadic weeks. My instructor said that I could be ready, but I knew that even if I passed the test, it wouldn’t be my best. I want to feel like I really earned it.

Writing became sluggish and resistant this week as well. I was tempted to not do any at all and just read books in my cozy chair. I have weeks when writing seems easy in terms of topic or flow. My inner editor has taken to calling me a ‘numbnut’ every time I choke out a paragraph.

I suppose this week has been about sinking into those feelings and recognizing that, to rally my motivation, I need an honest assessment. I need to approach everything with new eyes, instead of looking backwards. Adaptability is one of those keys to happiness and success that is underrated. I’ve been going along, mad at myself for not living up to past standards and digging myself a deeper hole out of which to climb.

And so, my friends, I will drag my cranky body to the gym this morning for a mild workout, write uneven, navel-gazing posts for awhile and quite possibly, be awful at everything I do. There’s no way out of this hole except tunneling through the mediocrity, dealing with aches and pains, and accepting that where I’m at, is the point from where I start. It’s not a motivational speech someone would pay for, but it will do for now.