On the first day of 2021 I joined friends for ice skating.
It was the best kind of impromptu celebration, begun with a generous invitation from one friend and coworker to another to bring her young daughter and enjoy the ice on the water adjoining her property. Then I was asked to come, and another mother and young daughter. The invitation was casual. Not everyone had skates. Masking and social distancing were taken for granted. No one expected to be inside or any kind of a party. No RSVP.
In the end, three adult couples, two children, an ecstatic dog and I found ourselves under a cold, sunny sky on a lake-sized pond. A snowstorm approached; the air bit with cold anticipation in the shadows on the shore, but the sun on the ice welcomed us.
I never heard ice speak before I came to Maine, but it does. It booms and thrums, singing in deep tones that one feels in the bones of one’s feet and legs as much as hears. It’s a primal, otherworldly sound, like whales singing, and it formed a wondrous background for the whole afternoon. Stepping onto the ice was like walking onto the body of an ancient primordial being, an old god of nature. The high, pure tones of the children and barking dog made a cheerful contrast to the resonant lake, frozen into still grandeur.
I have not skated since I was nine years old and have no skates, but I love my friends and their children, and I love this little corner of Maine. I’m also rather fond of the dog!
A thin, bitter layer of snow covered the ice at the shoreline, but where the sun reached it was bare, the ice tea-colored, clear and thick, filled with trapped air bubbles like frozen champagne, cracks running through various layers below our feet.
Our hostess provided the kids with aluminum lawn chairs with frayed webbing, retrieved from a shed by the lake. After their skates were on, they could hold the back of the lawn chairs and slide them along for balance and stability as they gained confidence.
Once the children were deployed with their chair supports, the adults with skates laced them on and slid away. Those without skates walked gingerly out onto the glassy ice to monitor the children.
The dog, a goofy youngster who, between you and me, is kind of a chicken and won’t do more than wade on the edges of the lake during the warm season while his family swims and boats, went suddenly from being the one no one could keep up with on land to having to defend his superior speed and agility on the ice. He raced off happily with a small group striking out for the far side of the lake, his paws slipping and sliding sideways, several inches of pink tongue dangling, ears flopping, tail in the air.
I sat on the dock, my bottom getting numb with cold, watching the kids and adults with them in the foreground and the skaters and dog, reduced to small blots of moving color in the far distance, beyond them.
The kids, in their colorful coats and winter gear, were up and then down, up and then down. They talked. They laughed. They used the chairs and then abandoned them, half collapsed on the singing ice. Adults called out encouragement and words of advice. Determination in every line of their bulky, padded bodies, they slid and staggered, leaned and swayed, made headway and collapsed. They lay with their ears pressed to the ice to hear it speak. They lay with their faces in the sun.
The more skilled skaters returned and joined in the play. Racing from one to another, the dog tried to keep up but was foiled by the more confident skaters’ ability to stop suddenly — without falling! Putting on the brakes, he careened across the ice, all four legs splayed, an expression of consternation on his face. How are they stopping like that?
He occasionally came to me (we’re old friends), panting and grinning, filled with joy and vitality, his chestnut coat soft and warm under my hands, but I was too stationary to be much fun and he was soon away again.
As skates were traded back and forth, another small group set out for the other side of the lake, one of my friends highly visible in the clear air because of her cherry red coat. Again, the dog took the lead, a low reddish blur, running gracefully as long as he didn’t want to stop. They skimmed, moving impossibly fast, while, nearer to me, the children began to stay on their feet more easily and it was clear at least some of the falling was now voluntary. It was like being in a painting by Breugel come to life.
As I watched, joy and gratitude filled me. What a year it’s been, an impossibly difficult, stressful, frustrating year, saturated with fear and loss, chaos and uncertainty, hatred and conflict.
Yet here, on the first day of the new year, were gathered together joy, blessings and beauties that endure: the peace and patience of winter, the tough bonds of family and friendship, the miracle of children, the innocence of play, the delight of the animals we love, the simplicity of sharing. I found tears in my eyes, and I wondered if it’s ever possible to fully express the preciousness of the gift of life in our place with our people.
I forget, sometimes, how unutterably beautiful life can be.
The kids began to get tired, and every parent knows that’s when the potential for tears and injuries starts growing. The ice had stolen all warmth from my feet. We gathered up the forlorn, crumpled aluminum chairs, folded them, and put them away. Snacks and drinks appeared from bags scattered on the dock. A hat came off a small head to reveal hair wet with perspiration. The children sprawled wearily, legs splayed, cheeks flushed, eyes starry.
Someone mentioned hot cocoa.
I was cold, but not ready to return to everyday life. I decided to walk the two miles home. The sun dimmed, the sky turning pearly as the storm approached. I turned down offers of a ride and said good-bye, treading a narrow road climbing up through the trees from the lake. My feet and hands ached with cold, but my face was warm under my mask and wool Buff, and my body and head were warm in my coat and hood. I stretched out my stride, welcoming the uphill walk. The dog followed me for a few yards, but turned back, drawn by the confusion of loading up cars and tired kids.
I gained the public gravel road and strode along, moving up a steep hill, feeling my feet and then hands gradually warm, conscious of and grateful for my ability to breathe deeply, feeling my heart thud in my chest, warmed with happiness and pleasure, and thinking about how to share it all in a post.
I crested the hill, feeling loose and strong, moving into my usual long-legged pace, watching the sky get milkier and milkier and the sun disappear as the edge of the front loomed.
It was good to be home and regain the solitude of my attic aerie. It was good to have a hot meal. It’s good to remember it all now, and put it into words on the screen. It’s good to share, to remind one another and be reminded that life is precious and beautiful and there’s always much to be grateful for. Today the snow is falling and several inches lie on the ice we played on yesterday, but I won’t forget.
I went for a walk today in the cold sun. The dirt road led me up and up; my feet slipped on treacherous patches of ice lurking invisibly under a thin layer of earth and sand. Water ran in the ditch alongside the road under winter skin, thin and glassy in the sun and opaque and layered in the shade.
The bones of the trees show clearly during this thin and aging time of year. We’ve had heavy wind in the last few days, and new, jagged wounds show where trunks and boughs snapped and splintered.
Winter Solstice is a strange time of year. Spending time among the bony, sleeping trees under the pale light of the low sun is such a contrast to the frenetic human activity accompanying the holiday season. The fields and forests sleep, letting the long dark hours and cold do what they will.
Nature has always been my best teacher, leading the way to faith, trust and renewal — the endless natural cycles of life and death. Even from my small, ant-like perspective, I find comfort in the ebb and flow of life.
I’m in need of comfort. Our woods are beginning to fall silent. Our bird feeders are full, but we see very few songbirds now, and when they do appear, they’re in small groups or single, rather than in flocks. Many insects are vanishing, which means the avian insectivore populations are diminishing fast. It seems to me we’re losing so many kinds of life — so many lives — as well as other things like trust, respect, dignity and integrity.
But I know loss is just another word for gain. The dark is another kind of light. Good-bye is another kind of hello. All we know now is loss; our inability to imagine what might come into the empty spaces of our loss does not mean nothing will.
It’s easy to forget about light in the darkness.
Yet I welcome the longest night of the year with my whole heart. Something in me loves the deep, cold darkness, unlit by flame or star. The darkness is like a womb, and in that womb lies a glowing seed containing rebirth, transformation, and the new cycle.
As I celebrate Yule, I sit in the darkest place I can find and open myself to it. I call up the shadows in my heart and mind and embrace them without fear or resentment. My eyes are blind, but inside me something old and primal listens and watches, waiting for guidance or wisdom, waiting for the light to return.
This time of year I do the ancient women’s work of sorting one thing from another. How do we discern the difference between natural cycles of darkness and light and the frozen, unending darkness our choices and behavior can lead us into? What habits of thought and action keep us groping, blind and despairing, without a star to light our way?
What offering can we make to the dark? What can we let go of? What is ready for recycling and transformation? What do we need to do in order to greet the dawn of the new cycle less burdened?
When I have rocked in the cradle of darkness long enough with these questions, I light a candle and tell the small flame of all my gratitudes, great and small. Each one is like a prayer of thanks, a guiding star in the dark night.
The candle flame is a spark of life cupped tenderly in the hands of the dark. What might grow out of it? What new paths might we tread; what terrain might we explore? What new intentions have rooted in our hearts? What can we call into birth and being within ourselves? What undiscovered guides and friends wait in the year ahead? How can we keep the flame of our courage, love, and strength alive?
What is waiting to be born in the next cycle?
A winter blessing on you, my friends. May your Yule be dark and the following dawn be bright.
For each of us There is a desert to travel A star to discover And a being within ourselves to bring to life. –From an Iranian Christmas Card
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.
I map out a week, a day, a list of directions with mileage and time apportioned to each part of the journey. I ascend the stairs to my expectant workspace, turn on a lamp, plug in a single string of red Christmas lights, light a candle and lift the laptop lid. Outside my windows, tiny snowflakes fill the air. The old-timers here say, “Little snow, big snow,” meaning small flakes indicate significant accumulation. I don’t know if this is always true, but I notice the size of the flakes. As I check the weather forecast, my e-mail and the headlines, my gaze is drawn repeatedly to the window. The hypnotic falling snow is the same color as the sky. Disordered ranks of brown cattail stalks stand ankle-deep in the sleeping pond. An infinity of branch, needle and twig is adorned with an even greater infinity of frozen white crystals, falling soundlessly and blurring the colors of stone and wood.
No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place — Zen saying.
It is then that my wheels start to spin. I have set aside this morning to write. I stare at the laptop screen, fingers on the keyboard. Nothing happens. Seeking inspiration, demanding creativity, I make notes, review notes already made, catch up on reading from favorite blogs and my current stack of books. I search for some solid traction so I can move through the day according to my tidy, efficient plan, but I find myself returning to the window, spellbound, empty of creativity or inspiration but full of wonder at the subtle beauty of the winter snow.
Photo by David Monje on Unsplash
It’s the contrast that catches my attention. My aerie is filled with books, beloved objects, the tools of my life. The warm sticky scent of a red candle fills my space. The red desk lamp I bought at Goodwill more than 10 years ago lights my worktop. My comfortable chair and footstool beckon me to sit and read. The room is warmed by the chimney rising up through it from the woodstove below. I hear my partner talking to our old cat in his office below me; not the words, but the loving sound of his voice that is reserved just for her. He is at his work and I am at mine, cocooned in our private spaces in our slouching farmhouse with lights and heat and the rinsed breakfast dishes stacked on the counter waiting for hot water and soap. We have things to do today, errands to run, people to talk to. We have plans and intentions.
Photo by Galina N on Unsplash
But outside, just beyond the single pane of glass in the old attic windows, is a monochrome world, delicate and cold, still and peaceful. The snow falls without effort. Each flake finds a resting place on the bodies of the trees or the water or the earth. The wood and stone have no place to go and nothing to do. They dwell in the vast power of simply being. The snow settles lightly.
I think about living minimally, weeding out my clothes, the week ahead, money, the perfect Christmas gift I can never find for a loved one, and whether or not we’ll make it into town to do the errands today. I think about drafting a query letter to send out with my first manuscript, which I just finished editing for the fifth or sixth time. I think about reviewing the water rescue information I’ll need next weekend when I travel with a couple of colleagues from work to get deep-water lifeguard certified. It will be a busy week. My careful plan blocks out this morning for coming up with this week’s blog post. I will write … I will begin now … My idea is … Ready, set, go!
My wheels spin, and I look out the window at my little black car, which is wearing a white blanket, and recognize the sinking feeling of no traction. No amount of urgency or frustration makes snow, slush and mud into solid ground. No amount of bullying makes my creativity compliant. I get up. I sit down. I glance at my journal, reread a paragraph in a book, look at some poetry. I feel restless and resentful of my own recalcitrance.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Outside, the snow falls, serene and inexorable as the fading light here in the last handful of days before winter solstice. I open the window and lean close against the hushed, frigid world outside it. My little candle, my lists, my inconsequential blog and my plan for this morning make no impression outside the window screen. It’s time for sleep and dreaming, time for rest. The forest knows, the earth and water know. They lie peacefully under the low sun and the long nights.
My wheels spin, making a noisy mess, throwing clods of half-formed ideas, provocative questions, lingering music of beautiful words, comments and conversations and observations, going nowhere. No traction. The morning is passing. I have not accomplished what I wanted to. I’ve neither rested with the winter snow nor produced a post. I’m torn between self-disgust, resignation and amusement. I think about heavy, cold chains; red, numb hands; wet jeans and sodden gloves; the steady clicking of hazard lights; the feeling of being late and time running out; the texture of wood ash, cat litter, sand and salt thrown onto snow and ice; and the futile laboring of spinning wheels.
The morning is gone. In half an hour we’ll try to go into town. My partner is out with the snow shovel. I shut the window, sit down and open the laptop. I type “Spinning My Wheels” and begin to write this post.
In the mornings now, I strap on my snowshoes and go down to the river. This is the first time I’ve ever snowshoed, and when I began a few weeks ago I anticipated moving silently and gracefully (as opposed to floundering like a pregnant hippopotamus) through the landscape, seeing the animals that make the tracks rather than just the tracks themselves.
It was a lovely vision.
The reality is that cycles of snow, sun, rain and subzero weather do not create a fluffy blanket on the ground, but a crusty, layered mix of wind-hardened drifts; thick, lumpy ice; and bitter frozen ground. Walking on it, I feel exactly like Sasquatch, lurching and loud. CRUNCH, crunch, crunch, and then CRUNCH and wallow, wallow, wallow and giggle, swear, giggle. If one fails to lift the tip of a snowshoe up far enough, it catches under the top crust and down one goes on hands and knees, thrashing in several inches of cold, grainy powder to regain a standing position and some kind of solidity underfoot. The only wildlife I see is a squirrel or a pileated woodpecker observing me from a high perch, alternately laughing scornfully and scolding.
My partner and I walk gingerly out to the mailbox or car on the glassy ice in the driveway, taking tiny, tentative steps and testing each before going on. Somewhere, under all that ice, lies a sleeping world of earth, grass, clover and the inhabitants of the soil. I wonder, do they know this very minute more snow is falling on the layer of ice above them? Do they hear our footsteps slipping and sliding, or the click of the crampons we use on our boots or on the bottom of the snowshoes? Do the delicate weights of the juncos eating sunflower seeds off the ground or the footprints of the squirrels as they race from tree to tree, foraging and playing, reach the world beneath the winter skin of ice?
When I arrived at the pool to swim yesterday, an exuberant group of adolescent boys was in the water, shooting balls through a hoop. In a nearby lap lane, I settled down into my usual steady Zen freestyle, letting my mind drift from this week’s blog post to the day’s writing and all points in between. The sun shone in a row of windows alongside the pool, so I swam through alternating bars of shade and light.
Above the skin of water, the boys shouted, yelled, laughed and talked, jumping and splashing, filling the air with the echoing noise characteristic of indoor pools, along with the slap and slosh of agitated water and the sound of balls bouncing off the rim of the hoop or the tiled floor around the pool.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash
Under the water, I entered a different world, a silent world of rippled turquoise light and blue water. As I swam through intermittent sunlight, my shadow reached its arm toward my fleshy arm as I stroked, the two sets of fingers trying to touch. The agitated water rocked me so I had to turn my head farther when I breathed in order to avoid a mouthful of chlorinated pool, but the noise from the world above sounded far-off and muted, nothing but a background for my own thoughts. I didn’t notice when the boys exited the pool and I was alone with the ripples of light and the steady stretch, pull, breathe and kick of my body.
Under the snow lying over the meadows and fields on this land is a world of field mice, shrews and other small creatures. They run through tunnels of last season’s decaying growth, foraging, sleeping, mating, fighting and living their lives. What do they think as I pass over them, a giant in snowshoes on sharp teeth? Do they crouch and cower in terror, or do they feel secure under the thick skin of snow? They surely must mark my passage, but their presence escapes me entirely. Does my weight cave in their tunnels and storerooms? When I fall through the crust am I laying waste to whole communities hidden beneath the snow? Do my footprints provide hunters from worlds above easier access to prey living in the layers below?
In the old tales, heros and fools, youngest sons and tricksters descend. They fall into dreams and oceans, enter wells and caves, go through trapdoors in the floor, climb down beanstalks and step down stairs. They crawl down chimneys or disappear in the red maw of a wolf or the cavernous insides of a whale. They brave cellars and tunnels and dungeons. They find worlds of magic, of mystery, of intuition and wisdom and hidden treasure.
In a lifetime, we travel from the darkness of the womb into the light and back into darkness again. Our experience is layer upon layer of minutes, hours and years. Beneath our skin, hidden in the folds of our exquisite and mysterious brains, are all the things we’ve seen and heard and felt, all the events that have shaped us. Beneath the membrane of our cells is our genetic code, the building blocks from which we are made.
Beneath, and beneath, and beneath.
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The worlds beneath support the worlds above. If the soil does not contain the right mix of microbes, minerals and nutrients, trees will not grow. If the rodents leave our fields for quieter places where Sasquatch is not roaming over their heads, the fox cannot survive here. Without both healthy trees and rodents, the owls hidden in plain sight in the tops of the winter trees will starve.
Yesterday I wrote a scene in which I wanted hedgehogs. I paused my writing and turned to the Internet to research. For two hours, I read about hedgehogs, looked at images, listened to audio recordings of their sounds. Now the section is written, the hedgehogs only a small part of the whole, and the vast majority of facts and observations I collected will never appear in the book. They lie beneath the words. No matter. That research, my delight in these small creatures and their private lives, will enliven and enrich the story, even if invisible to the reader.
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What lies beneath my skin and yours? What’s concealed beneath the skin of ice, of water, of rock, of soil, of forest and meadow and swamp? What can we learn from those who know how to travel from one layer, one world, to another? How far might we descend, or, for that matter, ascend?