For me, February 1st is the first day of spring. I know it’s early. I like it that way. I like the anticipation, the half-intuited first stirring of life under the soil, under last year’s debris, the slow, cold wakening of seeds, stiff in their dormant shells but quickening, murmuring, “Is now the time …?”
The birds are the first harbingers for me. Here, in this place, a small city in central Maine, it’s the crows, the jays, the cardinals, and the little tufted titmice. The crows and jays complain in harsh voices of salt-encrusted pavement, tired snow over lumpy ice, the steely cold. Cardinal pairs flit in my bare, bedraggled forsythia, and visit the feeders, a startling splash of color in the grey and bone landscape.
The titmice sing. Joyful, bursting little songs of nests and eggs, of green growth and warming light. The first spears of bulbs, the budding lilac, the luscious magnolia petals are in their song, though those things are only memories and hopes in the February garden.
(As I edit this, the first goldfinch outside the window.)
(On the morning of the day I publish this, at dawn, the chickadee’s two-note spring call.)
Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash
I have been feeling quiet. I’m burning down the last two Yule candles, gradually bringing out those of white and ivory, scented with lavender and herbs. Midwinter festivities are packed away, red table linen and warm-colored throws washed and folded for another season. I’ve been spring cleaning, making glass shine, mopping the scarred old floor, washing cupboards and doors. I walk to and from work bundled up in wool and fleece, the cleats on the bottoms of my boots clicking on the bare pavement and keeping me anchored in the ice and snow. The cold makes my eyes water, my nose run, and my ears hurt. At night, after closing the pools at 6:00, I drop a fluorescent sash around my backpack and chest and hold a small flashlight in the hand closest to the traffic, a white LED light shining ahead, a red flashing light showing from behind.
At times sleep has been thin and wrinkled this winter. In other periods of ebbing sleep I’ve felt frantic and exhausted, but this time I don’t mind. The long cold nights are restful whether I sleep or not, lying comfortable and warm in my chilly room, cocooned in linen sheets and a down comforter. I think of stars overhead, the moon on her path, ebbing and flowing, the tides lapping against the stony coast not so very far away. The hot water pipes in the radiators pop and click reassuringly.
I remember ice skating as a child, gliding smoothly over frost and snow, soaring over magically transformed water, cold biting like the crystalline sound of the sharp-edged skate blades, but warm in body from the rhythmic thrust of my legs. I haven’t skated in more than 50 years, but I remember it now, the freedom, the rhythm, the pleasure, the sense of inconsequence, as though nothing mattered, all was easy and graceful and flowing.
As the old year and winter inch over thresholds into something new, I am companioned by memories. This time last year is a constant whisper in my mind, because this time last year my mother was dying. I am not preoccupied with any time before that. After a lifetime of striving to understand and repair family history and relationships, I have surrendered to what was and what is now over. My battered empathy lies tranquil, not ravaged and torn but manageable, docile, turning over the pieces of last year with gentle intention.
In the clarity of cold winter, in my internal peace, I am alive, aware, receptive in new ways. I learned much in the last year, but intellectually. There was not time for more. The intensity of the situation, the constant crises, the long distance management, the anguish, the helplessness, the impossible tasks, the planning, demanded everything I had. I did not have time to process, to think long and deeply. I did not have the strength for it.
But now, now the past year echoes within my bones and flesh and memory. The ghosts of my feelings and experiences are miraculously without anguish, without horror, whispering a half-remembered story from childhood in which everything works out in the end.
Mom herself does not haunt me. She wouldn’t come back to me in any case, but even before that thought has formed I realize she wouldn’t come back to any person. If she is in a place we can call somewhere, she’s with her animals. No one who knew her well or loved her could doubt it. She wouldn’t come back to anyone, not just me. I knew it before, but now I feel it, and the feeling is gliding, no friction, just freedom and clean, cold air. I can picture her face, laughing, joyful, with manes and tails, paws and shining coats, flopping tongues and pricked ears all around her. And I’m happy for her happiness.
A year ago I was home again after my first trip back to Colorado. I wrote on the ice, on the surface of things. I think without that I might not have stayed the course. It was my lifeline. I was surviving.
A year ago I noticed but did not feel the presence of the birds. The first weeks of Spring came and went; I was focused on the next trip to Colorado, on arranging an estate auction, on supporting my brother in finding renters for Mom’s home, on maintaining communication with Mom’s community, her caregivers, and family. I had no attention for anything but calls and texts as her condition and behavior worsened.
I was not here in April when the magnolia tree began to bloom. I did not kneel in the cold mud of the garden, rejoicing in the chilly sun as the bulbs first thrust up through the softening soil. We were dismantling Mom’s life in Colorado, reading the intimate stories of her history, her loneliness, her fear, and her private struggles. Revealing and releasing stories she never meant anyone to know, casting her life’s possessions and debris into the world, one way or another.
My brother was heroic. The community was stalwart. One step at a time, one item at a time, one mile and minute at a time, we got through it. Somehow.
Home again in May, and back to my life, but only in the motions. Some intuition kept my focus narrow, looking only at the next task, the next step. I gave myself time in the garden, time in the sun. I moved my body. I ate, and worked, and showered, and wrote, releasing my razor-sharp feelings and experience gingerly in words, like so many chips of ice. Now and then I found a moment of peace, a small oasis in between calls and texts, in between Mom’s querulous voice and caregiver check-ins, in between broken nights. But I did not try to plumb the depths of myself. I knew it was not time and I hadn’t the strength to stay safe.
She was released, but the work of wrapping up a life went on and on, the majority falling on my brother’s shoulders. He soldiered on. We signed and notarized papers, transferred ownership, sold the house, thought about taxes. I dealt with family jewelry and wrote an obituary, and chose a picture for the local paper.
Autumn came. On Halloween, I thought a year ago today she fell and broke her hip and it all began to end …
Winter came, and passed.
Spring is on the threshold. It feels like my first spring in this new house of ours. And now the ice begins to melt. Now I am not skating on the surface of things because the surface softens and melts, warms into depth and movement, into living water, cleansing and healing. The broken edges, the shards, blunted in the sun before melting away.
Water has ever been my strength and my safety. I take off my skates and float in my depths, my memories weightless, my ghosts drifting quietly, the echoes of the past fading away into peace as I allow them to brush against me, perhaps not for the last time – who knows? I will not be afraid if they visit me again. They are familiar now, and will melt again, as winter melts into spring.
“Ice holds memories … great islands of ice … hold many stories, but they’re just the fragments. Most of the stories are gone.”
—James Roberts at Into the Deep Woods
What signals spring to you?
What intense experiences have you had to unpack slowly, over a long period of time?
How do you manage your intense feelings?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
After a heavy storm on Thursday and an eventful Easter weekend, Monday dawned grey and raw. Our Internet was still down, but I luxuriated in a shower and our usual breakfast, courtesy of electricity, and lost no time in doing the daily bleach wipe down. My sick friend was still sick, but everyone else felt well.
We were under wind and flood warnings from the National Weather Service.
Rain started midday with some wind, but nothing out of the ordinary. The snow, already sodden, lay heavy and sullen and ugly under the intensifying downpour. Our Internet was suddenly restored at some point when we weren’t paying attention. We’d done all we could do to prepare for another power outage, but I washed every dish as we used it and didn’t delay doing anything requiring power.
The wind gradually rose and the snow on the ground ebbed. The street and our driveway ran with water. Several leaning branches and trees subsided as they were further saturated and the already wet ground lost its grip on root balls. It looked like February, the landscape grey and brown, muddy and soaking in cold rain. The wind gusted and strengthened throughout the day.
During the evening, we had a phone call from my sick friend saying her test for COVID-19 was negative. Good news!
When I went to bed, the power was still on, rain pounding down, wind gusting intermittently.
The next morning, I reached for my bedside reading light. It came on.
The wind had backed down to a breeze and the storm was over, after unleashing about four inches of rain. The snow was gone.
During breakfast, we regrouped. The next several days were predicted to be clear and sunny. We had power and Internet. We needed to assess for spoiled food, and my partner needed to make a town trip. We both had various people to e-mail and call, letting everyone know we were back up and running and healthy. Now that I was in quarantine, I intended to be more vigilant than ever about cleaning and began wearing a mask in the house unless shut away in my private space.
We felt ready to go out and take a closer look at our downed trees and check on the river.
After breakfast, we squelched around our acres, taking pictures and assessing the damage. The river bordering our property was flooded, but it’s well below our house and barn, so we weren’t worried about that. The pond was overflowing and water ran everywhere in streams and rivulets, draining down to the river. The water in the toilet turned the color of tea, stained by tannins leaching into the well.
I spent three hours transferring all my handwritten work of the last days into my word processor and putting together posts for this blog.
After the chaos and barrage of events during the last few days, I was finally able to pause and assimilate coronavirus news, the fact of my own quarantine, and the loss of work. Now I shape a new routine, for a time, at least. The news is full of predictions about how things will change in the weeks, months and years ahead, economically, socially and culturally, but I don’t explore them, because nobody really knows how all this will unfold. I feel better when I stay in the now and let the future take care of itself.
As always, I turn my attention to the most important things: connection with loved ones, being in service or making contributions to others, and taking care of myself, which includes managing my physical health and anxiety.
As an introvert, having to stay home for a 14-day quarantine is a positive pleasure. I am lucky in this, I know. For once, I’m not at a social disadvantage! On the other hand, I very much miss my community and spend time every day staying in touch with friends and family. We’ve now heard the original four positive COVID-19 people from our building at work have become eight. It’s hard to know what to do with that. Every day we watch and wait, checking on one another, passing on news, sharing our concern and anxiety.
Then came the news that one of the pool staff is ill. His wife works in Rehab also, and they’ve both been tested. This particular pool staff member hasn’t been working for more than two weeks, but he’s one of ours, and we anxiously await the results of testing and further news about him and his wife.
In spite of early Spring’s tantrums of snow, rain and wind, the season is changing in our northern latitudes. We’re all taking great comfort in being outside, aware of how fortunate we are not to be locked down in a city. We are hiking, walking, bicycling, working in our gardens and yards and woodlots. It’s chilly and muddy, and the wind more of a slap than a caress, but the wood frogs are chuckling in our pond, woodpeckers are at work among the trees, squirrels are busy frisking around, and chickadees, finches, sparrows, doves, juncos, flickers and others flutter among the bird feeders. The phoebes dart back and forth along the south side of the house in the mornings, catching bugs sunning themselves. Our daffodils are just beginning to open, and yellow coltsfoot, the first spring wildflower, blooms along ditches and dirt roads.
I’m wearing my most disreputable clothes, an old pair of men’s Carhartt canvas jeans with the knee blown out, a holey tee-shirt that both my boys wore before they outgrew it, and a navy blue hooded sweatshirt I used to wear camping, liberally dotted with holes from campfire sparks, the sleeves streaked with pink (who knew navy blue turns pink with the application of bleach?) from wiping down with bleach every day. It’s tick season as well as mud season, and as I rake, prune and walk I intermittently spray my shoes and legs with tick spray.
I’m not wearing a watch or rings because I’m washing my hands so thoroughly and often. I cut and file my nails short every weekend. Earrings are a pain in the patoozie because I’m using a mask, so they’re sitting in a china dish on the bathroom counter.
No glamour here, but then, I was never a fan of glamour to begin with. Right now my comfort is in the cold, heavy mud; the tough, sharp-thorned rose canes; the chilly breeze and periods of thin sunshine; the texture of wood, old leaves, leather work gloves, and our dilapidated porch furniture; and the smell of bug spray. A barred owl flew over our heads as we walked this week. It perched in a tree and regarded us with great dignity and condescension. I was honored.
We lost five pounds of beef that waiting in the refrigerator to be turned into beef stew before the power went out. My partner cut it up and threw it on the sloping meadow on the north side of the house where we throw the dead mice we trap in the kitchen. Local ravens check that slope at least once a day, and in a few minutes they came to retrieve and cache the meat. Two, probably a nesting pair, spent half an hour in their muscular aerial ballet, circling, swooping down to the ground and snatching the chunks. I watched them outside my attic window with wonder and delight.
These are the things sustaining my courage and hope.
Life is simple. Words spill onto the empty screen of my word processor. We wake, eat, play outside, walk, read, sleep, and do it all again. I mark off my quarantine days on the calendar. As I write this, it’s day 7. Tomorrow is my brother’s birthday, and I will call him, because we both have time to talk right now.
Thursday morning, I went to town with my mask, met one of our egg suppliers and bought several dozen eggs, visited the grocery store and thanked the young man sanitizing grocery carts and controlling the number of people allowed inside. One of my sons is doing the same work in Denver, and as I went back to the car with loaded plastic grocery bags dangling from my hands, I thought of him.
On the way home it began to rain.
An hour later, snow was falling in thick, wet clumps, filling the air and coating every surface it touched.
Six hours later, as night fell, we had several inches of snow and the air swirled with flakes, smaller and harder now as the warmth of the day faded. The power began to flicker as we watched TV. We turned off our computers and unplugged them.
At bedtime, I cracked a window open and crawled under the covers to read. The power stuttered over and over, making our carbon monoxide detector beep and my office electronics in the adjoining room click and clack.
I turned out the light and thought of the smothering weight of the snow on the roof above me, how quickly it was accumulating and how typical that an April storm just before Easter would be the worst of the season. Plows passed by, their lights shining through my unshielded windows, illuminating my room in flashes and moving stripes of light.
Sometime around 10:00 p.m. the power went out for good. The house was abruptly silenced, but the night outside was filled with sound and movement. The storm was like an immense creature padding around the house, breathing in erratic gulps, thumping, pawing, scrabbling. The trees groaned and soughed in their wooden throats, the merciless blanketing snow pressing down on their bodies and limbs.
At 12:40 a.m. a long, slumping crash filled the night. I lay, tense and fearful, listening. Was that part of our roof? Had the deck torn away from the house? I turned on my small LED reading light, thrust myself into robe and slippers and went downstairs.
Dark. The lights we usually leave on in the kitchen and living room were out, of course, along with the bathroom nightlight. Outside the large window over our dining table, nothing but soft, formless white, except for a great black shadow between the barn and the trunk of a 200-year-old maple alongside the driveway.
A black shadow, taller than a man and longer than a car. A black shadow in a white night. I strained to see clearly, but it was impossible to make out any details. I let my eyes move up the tree trunk. Was the top of the tree still there, or had it fallen away?
I went back up the stairs, feeling sick and pretty sure we’d lost the tree. Had it hit the barn? If so, there was nothing I could do about it.
I lay in bed, listening to the storm and the beleaguered forest. It was like a battle between the violent, inexorable snow and the patient, giant trees. Creaks, cracks, booms, explosions, and the muffled sound of crashes and heavy bodies falling filled the night. I knew some of what I was hearing was transformers blowing and electrical noise, but I couldn’t tell how much. I wept for the trees as the storm rent and tore at them, bearing them down with its cold, white weight.
I checked my small battery-operated clock at 3:30 a.m. Dawn was not far away. I felt calmer, and now I heard only the hush of heavy snowfall. The weight on the roof above my head felt less ominous. I blew my nose, flipped over my pillow and turned onto my side, finding sleep at last.
At 6:30 a.m., my partner and I looked out the front window at the shattered maple, which had fallen onto an old apple and snapped it like a toothpick, as well as tearing all the limbs off one side of a younger, healthier maple near it. The fallen tree did not hit the barn, or our cars, or the house.
Fourteen inches of heavy snow had fallen, and it was still snowing, though lazily. We went from window to window, seeing trees split, snapped and torn in every direction. Several had fallen across our pond. Our favorite swamp maple, every year the earliest to turn and the most intensely colored, had split down through the trunk, each heavy branch peeling away like a banana peel until it rested on the ground. Shrubs, branches and wires hung flat and low, bowed with the terrible weight of the clinging snow. Many trees were broken but still clasped in the arms of their neighbors.
My partner called the power company on his cell and got a recorded message saying the estimated time of power returning was 11:15 p.m. the day before! Not encouraging.
We spent most of the day in the living room, near the wood stove, each with a blanket and a book. Clouds surged across the sky, bringing periods of heavy snow interspersed with lighter showers. Plows and sand trucks went by, but we saw no tree service or power trucks. We boiled water on the wood stove for tea, scrambled eggs, heated soup, fed the fire. I felt thick-headed and wretched — too much crying, too much devastation, too little sleep. We had no power; no Internet; no more than a trickle of water, inadequate to flush the toilet. Our cell phones were not fully charged.
I felt utterly cut off and isolated, and too tired to make any sensible plans to help myself.
Before it was fully dark, I went to bed, lit a candle, and reread Rosamunde Pilcher, the most comforting author I know. After blowing out the candle, I lay absorbing the quiet. The storm was over. The injured, dead and dying trees were silent, now beginning the long work of rotting or healing. I knew we had months of work in front of us, too, with chainsaw, hatchet, splitter and wheelbarrow. We will not need to buy firewood this summer.
I turned onto my side and fell into a dark well of sleep.
The Storm Moon’s cradle is empty; her wild daughter delivered into the grim, pale days to whirl in crystal smoke under polished bone sky.
Heedless of secrets and scars, she weaves through ice-bound shadows, the Storm Moon’s wild daughter, in and out of blanched forests of memories, sorrows and fears beneath the drumming woodpecker. She puts her mouth to the crack between window and leaning wall and takes in air breathed too many times, wan and desiccated with furnace and stove and a thousand ashy ghosts, exhaling platinum spiderwebs of frost . . . silvery sharp feathers
and flowers of frost.
She is the icy scent of eucalyptus and peppermint, knifing through the sinus-clogging cold that is reluctant to loosen its thick clutches. She is the rich taste of chicken stew made in the ponderous red Dutch oven, its chipped white interior stained with a hundred hearty meals.
Photo by Das Sasha on Unsplash
She is the stinging slap, the bitter bone ache, the ice needle under our fingernails that thrusts us out of apathetic futility. Love is not pointless. The grim, pale days pass away. The hoary sun warms again. We have tended our souls’ graveyards long enough. Our lives await an end to our grieving.
Her skirts layer the numb ground in a frozen froth of salt and snow creased with ash and sand while she cavorts and teases, naked iron and pearl, in the arms of the wind, their mingled hair crusted with silver.
Her step echoes in the sleeping roots; trees shudder at her passing caress; far below the ice, frogs stir in their cold, muddy blankets, the green sound of spring mute and patient in their chilled throats.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
The Storm Moon feels herself age and leaves motherhood behind, looking down as ewes labor to give birth to early lambs; as her wild daughter whirls with tempest and tumult, careless and thoughtless with youth; as we struggle with chapped hands, clumsy layers of clothing, ice-muffled pipes and feeding the insatiable maws of furnace and stove.
And this, too, shall pass. The Storm Moon shall fade into crone darkness, cradle left behind as a planter for violets. The wild maiden shall learn the secrets of womanhood, her draggled skirts unraveling and sinking beneath a green mist. The blanched forests shall warm into leafy suppleness, intoxicated with clear-running sap. Glaze of ice and frost shall soften and fall away, drop by drop, and frogs wake and release their insistent song of mate and spawn. Water shall once more run effortlessly through pipes, breath effortlessly through body, and the furnace hibernate, the fire go out.
In our souls’ graveyards, grey stones lean and weather, draped with moss and lichen. There is no clash of voices, no agony, no anguish. There is a bench in the sun, a bird on a branch and a puddle of bluets where the Storm Moon’s wild daughter trod when she passed by.