Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve Day

            It’s Christmas Eve day, and here at my house on the mountain the snow is falling thickly. Humpy Mountain is hidden behind a leaden gray sky that has fallen to the earth with heaviness. Everything – evergreen limbs, roof, apple tree branches, the snow, the sky – sinks towards the earth.
            But my spirits are soaring. The snow, the cold air, the blasts of cold wind, the wintry sky – everything weather-wise makes me happy this winter.
            After a ten-year hiatus, due partly to lack of snow and partly to being in graduate school, I can at last go cross-country skiing. Last week my friend Mike and I skied at Lake of the Woods Summit Trail. The skiing was superb –  the snow deep and powdery; the trail gently uphill in a light snow-fall, past big trees and occasional open spaces; the returning memory of the joy of this unique, graceful movement. Even breaking trail, though a powerful exertion, was a joy, but we were grateful enough to the four people who passed us and would now be breaking trail. When we got to the ski shelter, they had already started a fire in the stove.

            The six of us stood around the stove, steam rising from our shoulders as we chatted, ate our sandwiches, and held up our wet coats and hats to the heat to steam dry. I hung my gloves on the back of the stove to dry, but when I retrieved them I found a hole melted right through the thumb and first finger on one. (Fortunately, I had an extra pair with me.) A woodrat scooted around the rafters, darting angry looks at us until Mike threw him a piece of apple. He snatched it and disappeared.

            The return to the car was glorious – long smooth hills, not too steep for this first ski of the season but downhill enough to give us long gliding rides. I was exultant. I remembered how to ski; I could still do it; I had found again that beautiful graceful movement: push, glide, push, glide. I still loved the snow, the cold nipping my nose, the exertion, the demand for skill.

            A few days later I celebrated Winter Solstice with some good friends. We talked, laughed, played games, ate good food, and drank to the return of the sun. I kept trying to get us to toast the dark of the year, but I was the only one who seemed excited about it, who wanted to celebrate the darkest day of the year precisely because it is the time of the dark. Above all, I wanted to celebrate the return of winter to our winter-starved part of the country. So I give it my private toast: to Winter Solstice precisely because the days are short and the evenings long by the fire, because the snow falls gently and silently, because we are fortunate enough to have a winter this year.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Snow Tales

    I’m ecstatically happy to see the snow. Never mind that the electricity was out for thirty hours and the telephone didn't work and I had no internet connection or cell phone service. Never mind that I couldn’t drive out because there was a tree across the bridge. I don’t mind being snowed in.
    I did have to turn in end-of-term grades, though, so as soon as a neighbor cleared the tree off the bridge, I slip-slid down the hill, grateful for studded snow tires on my RAV4, and drove to a cafe where I could plug in my computer and send in my grades.    
    Those efforts to meet that responsibility reminded me of another snow eleven years ago, when I was still living in the old house. I had been booked as an Oregon Council for the Humanities Chautauqua lecturer for 3:00 Sunday at the Applegate Library, so I felt a responsibility to be there in spite of the three feet of snow. When I talked with Joan Peterson, program coordinator, by phone Sunday morning, we agreed to try to do the lecture if at all possible. I suggested I could ski to the main road, three-quarters of a mile down two steep hills, if she could meet me there. She expressed apprehension, but I said I would feel like a hero.
    “A hero is one thing,” she said. “A martyr is another.”
    I said I would make a trial run to see if I could ski the hills and would call her back.
    With the soft, deep snow counteracting the steepness, I was able to ski down the first hill. At its bottom three small fir trees stretched across the road, their dangling limbs frozen into place like a lace curtain. I crawled through the stiff branches, then skied down the second hill and up the slope to the snow-packed paved road, where Norm Young was just driving by in his four-wheel-drive Toyota Tacoma with chains on all four tires. He said the snowplow had stopped at the county line and that the uphill road past the county line was “challenging with a capital C.” He doubted that Joan could get up it in her Subaru. 
    I skied to the mailbox, picked up the latest New Yorker and my mail (the mail carrier had been there on Friday!), and retraced my steps. The uphill skiing was slick but possible. I hoped I wouldn’t be doing it in the dark.
    Home again, changing my wet clothes, I was sorry to see the New Yorker had fallen from my pocket. I called Joan to tell her I could ski down but wasn’t sure she could drive up. She said she thought she could make it with chains. She and Christopher were still trying to disinter her car from snow, but she would meet me at 1:30.
    I had just time to eat lunch and pack what I needed for my lecture: my metal music stand for a lectern, my laptop computer, sixteen books (yes, all necessary), and a change of clothes and shoes so I wouldn’t have to lecture in ski clothes. I slipped my arms into the pack. It was startlingly heavy. I clipped my boots into my skis and took off, but, unbalanced by the pack, I fell at once. Pinned on my back by the pack’s weight, uselessly waving my limbs in the air like an overturned stink bug, I somehow managed to release my boots from the bindings. Using the skis as platforms, I twisted to a sideways kneeling position. The soft snow gave no purchase, but, swaying under the weight of the pack, I managed to stand. I made a successful second start, but when I headed down the first hill, I fell again. Finally I was skiing again, carefully and slowly. As I crouched to ski through the tunnel of snowy limbs, I thought, “This is the hardest $200 I’ve ever earned.”
    Skiing to the top of the second hill, I saw, to my surprise, Tuffy Decker, trudging, waist-deep in snow, up the hill with a cable over his shoulder, on the other end of which was a yellow Jeep, cock-eyed to the road against the snow bank, with two teenagers inside and another man standing in the road. I recognized this as a rescue mission for my only neighbor, who was anxious about being able to get in and out. Tuffy greeted me cheerfully and handed me my sodden New Yorker as I passed.
    By the time I reached the road, I was fifteen minutes late. Joan wasn’t there, but Louise Nicholson was just skiing past. I dropped my pack under a tree and joined her to ski down the road a bit, thinking Joan might be stuck in the snow somewhere. We skied a mile without seeing anyone, then turned back, meeting, on the way, the Jeep and crew of Tuffy’s now unsuccessful rescue mission.
    Retrieving my pack from under the tree, I shoved the books into two heavy plastic bags and into the two mailboxes on the road. I left the music stand under the tree, put the computer in the pack, bid good-bye to Louise, and started up the hills towards home, slipping badly, sidehopping up the steepest parts, thinking, “Someone forgot when we made these plans that I am 60 years old.”
    On the way up, I met Mike Hendrikson, coming down, plowing his long legs through the snow. Joan had called. She had been turned back by the depth of the snow on the unplowed road and was at the Alsenses’ (warm by the fire, drinking coffee, nibbling cookies, chatting with Bob and Mary). She had wanted him to ask me, if he saw me, if I could ski down the road to meet her there.
    I considered the possibility for about five seconds.
    Finally home again, I changed my wet clothes and called Joan. She was glad I hadn’t tried to meet her. She would call Gayle to put a note on the door of the library that the lecture had been canceled. We had done our heroic best.
    I was bone tired. I had skied that route four times, twice down, twice up. I felt more like a martyr than a hero. Weary beyond belief, I stoked the fire, made a cup of tea, and curled into bed to read a slightly damp New Yorker.

Friday, December 11, 2015

I'm So Glad to Hear the Sound of Rain Again

     Rain pebbles the roof with pied beauty. It prickles the ear with porcupine fingers, then pounds liquidly. A million elves play ping-pong on the roof, then drop their paddles and dance a tattered tune, their tap-shoes rapping a rhythmic tattoo.
     Sheets of rain wrap the mountain in a shrouded dawn. The horizon line between mountain and sky is blurred like an amateur photographer’s clumsy effort to capture the beauty of line. Beauty of color, too, is smeared and bleared; the artist is no more adept with paints than the photographer with the camera. Monotone grey drones over the mountain and over the sky. A drone instrument in a morning raga, it is relieved by a line of melody from the frontal instruments. Their slight variations of green create a morbid tune from their few notes. The key of the day is C Minor, and unlike Mozart’s Fantasy in C Minor, it doesn’t splash with exotic emotional exigency but droops with dreary dullness. The cadences are sluggish, the tones grey, the melody difficult to decipher.
     Indoors, it’s a different story. I, the troll in the house, hear the trip-trap over my head, louder and louder. It’s the Big Billy Goat Gruff (and I cower), then a whole herd of Billy Goats Gruff. Then the trip-trap, trip-trap grows lighter and lighter as the billy goats move into the distance, and, timid troll that I am, I wait till it can barely be heard in the distance before I peer out from under the bridge.
     Look! The photographer has learned her art. The saw-toothed edge of firs on top of the mountain is clearly distinguishable, every point darkly defined against a whitened sky. The white-out is over. The artist, too, has had a breakthrough. Greens emerge in richness, still somewhat dulled by an overdose of grey, but the artist is learning. Yellows, blues, purples, and browns have joined her palette of greens. 
     As for the musician, he is packing up his instruments. Sound no longer dominates. Only a lonely harpist sits at the back of the empty chairs of the orchestra, picking lightly at the strings, effortlessly, musingly, letting the notes drop where they will. Thoughts merge and mingle with the rustle of musicians closing cases and exiting the stage, leaving it to the photographer, the artist, the harpist, and the poet.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Thanksgiving at Lee’s

    I was at my brother’s home in Virginia for Thanksgiving. We were eighteen around the table: My brother, Lee; his wife, Linda; their three daughters with their (1) husband, (2) boy friend, (3) best friend. My two sisters and their husbands. (Another sister was absent, too ill to participate.) A Coogle-by-marriage cousin, her mother, and her two daughters. Linda’s mother. Me.
    Here’s what we had for fun:
   A hovercraft – an air cushion vehicle that Lee built a few years ago, devilishly difficult to steer because when you turn the rudder, it responds with a slow drift or a 180º circle – but that’s the fun. It flew over the grass – danger! low-flying vehicle! – at 30 miles an hour.
    Swings. The most challenging was a swing Lee built with bars instead of ropes, that you stand on instead of sitting on, and that goes in a circle up and over, if you’re good enough to make it do that. The most relaxing was a small rubber seat on a 75-foot cable that provides the longest glide imaginable, from up one hill over the bottomland to the tops of the trees. I want one.
    Zip line. Lee’s is 200 feet long. You climb an enormously tall ladder onto a platform in a tree, where Lee tightens you into the harness.
Then you put your gloved hands over the cable, drop off the platform, and whiz through the trees then high over the meadow to the disembarking platform, 
where, fortunately, someone is yelling, “Brake! Brake!” because if you brake too soon, you’ll end up pulling yourself hand over hand along the cable to get to the platform, and if you brake too late, you’ll crash into the wall of the platform. It’s a glorious ride.
    Games. Speed Pictionary, played with teams and lots of dashing back and forth and lots of laughter. Somehow “hovercraft” needed only a horizontal line and another above it for my team to guess, but when it came to Elmo, how was televisionless I supposed to know what Elmo looked like? Bocce on the lawn on a lovely autumn afternoon. Balderdash, a competitive definitions game. I didn’t win, but I did get the biggest laugh for my definition of a law that, I said, forbade walking with an unaccompanied woman.
    A 1000-piece puzzle. At any stray moment, any particular person would wander into the living room and work 20 or 30 minutes with whoever was there doing the same thing, so there was a constant interplay of different people. After two days of struggling with a diabolically difficult puzzle, we threw it in the garbage. It seemed cruel to give it to anyone we knew. With everyone’s help we brought the second 1000-piece puzzle to a full finish the day before I left.
    Beautiful walks in the Virginia hills: one on a trail up to Monticello with just about the whole party, another around a lake with only my brother and me.
    Wine on a hillside winery, the weather beautiful and the Virginia hills spread before us, dotted here and there with large white plantation-style homes.
    Movie and dinner in Charlottesville. "Spotlight." Burgers. Both good.
    Gifts. Lee gave each of his siblings an iPhone speaker he made from walnut from our father’s shop. I gave each of my siblings and nieces a hat I had knitted the week before

and everyone else rum balls I had made. One sister gave me a scarf she had woven. Another, who is a yoga teacher, gave me a book to improve my health and private yoga instruction every morning.
    Thanksgiving dinner. Everything was as Thanksgiving dinner should be with the added bonus that Linda is the most organized person in the world, so it looked as though the whole turkey-dressing-potatoes-cranberry-sauce-pies meal miraculously appeared on the table. The kitchen stayed miraculously pristine, and I’m not sure who cleaned up, but it seemed as miraculously easy as the rest of it.
    It was a wonderful time at the Coogle Fun Farm. I love my family.