Sunday, February 24, 2013

little toe in the land of firewood, blizzards, and petunias

It was Tuesday that firewood tumbled from the dwindling stack in the garage, one piece spearheading Little Toe, and Little Toe broke, of that I am pretty sure. It was late afternoon on the day of the blizzard, though the truly blizzardly part of the blizzard didn’t kick in until that night.

The amount of snow that fell Tuesday and Wednesday didn’t seem that great, but the wind surely was, and elsewhere in the U.P. three feet of snow piled up and drifts grew twice that size. A stretch of one of the main highways was closed from Tuesday night until Thursday morning, which was the day I went to Marquette to check my candle display at the gallery.

It was Monday that the petunias bloomed. I had brought the pot in from the porch in the fall, putting it on a small table by a south window near the wood stove. And it was Tuesday morning that the guy who built this cabin stopped by on his way to Houghton. I learned more about the cabin’s early life, how it came to be, including that it was the trusses that decided the cabin’s size, a footprint of 20-by-25 feet, and that it’s thanks to his wive that the bathroom is not tucked under the stairs but rather sprawls out in a space that could have been a second bedroom.

Trusses, October 2010.
It was either Monday or Tuesday that I walked the snowshoe trail out to and along the river. For most of the way, rabbit tracks ran alongside the trail. They ended near a small spruce. The snow around the spruce was adorned with tufts of brown and white fur and was slightly trampled and discolored with splotches of rust and piss yellow. There were other tracks, too, the tracks of a hawk or an eagle as it lightly touched down, at least twice, the landings a foot or so away from the little spruce and about three or four feet from each other: two parallel, silver dollar coin slots, just inches apart, enclosed in a set of feathery parentheses. Another step up the trail, another tuft of fur.

It seemed that all day Thursday, the day between blizzards, the day I went to Marquette, that the sky was falling, getting lower and lower, all day long, as if laden with a grief too grey and too heavy to bear.

It was Friday that was eerily still, and it was Friday that we were enveloped by a great heavy non-stop snow. Without wind, I don’t suppose one could call it a blizzard, but maybe there’s something called blizzard interruptus—a great wind, a great stillness, a great snow.

By Saturday afternoon the storms were over and I was ready to break new trails. I strapped on the snowshoes, tested Little Toe, all seemed well, but halfway around the loop we turned back. Little Toe wasn’t quite ready, after all, and back home there were candles to be made, beeswax and cinnamon wolves, destined for Canada.

Potted petunias taking the air.
It was this morning, then, out on the porch before dawn, that I smelled the snow, the pure dampness of it, dampness brought out by temperatures lolling in the 20s. No wind, no falling snow, just icicles along the porch roof, a landscape of feathery grey and white, Elliott by the carport, peeking around its makeshift wall at the end of the shoveled path, the first morning in quite a while that he has stayed out for more than a minute or two, has ventured off the porch or come out from beneath it. In the dwindling wood stacks, mice and voles.

Read last week’s post, or listen to it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

on strands of thought, left alone

Sundays have become a day for my thoughts to coalesce. As I write, things that have happened and things that have occurred to me over the past week come together. It is all rather ordinary and routine. It is all just another day when candles are made or candles are sold. It is all just another day when I take a walk or sit by the fire. It is all just another day of building those fires, of tending to needs, of seeking enjoyment. Then, on Sundays, I write. I pull together strands of ordinariness in hopes of making something of it all.

But this Sunday the strands do not want to come together, and neither do I want to pull them into something they might not wish to be. They are each as if full of static electricity, standing ramrod straight, quivering with energy but refusing to move, refusing to bend, refusing to entwine and give way to one another. And this is the thing about loss, whatever degree of loss it is, whether it’s death or divorce or a job, whether it’s faith or religion or home, whether it’s devastating or just your car keys, whatever you have lost makes you wonder: how can life go on? How can it go on, now, without this? How can it go on as if nothing has happened? It will, it does, we know that. But for now, for you, maybe not quite yet, not really, no, not now, not yet, until, then, it does.

I’ve lost a dog. A companion of nearly 18 years and my only witness to those years, the only one who was there for the calamities as well as for the everyday, dull routine. And so, my life is different. But all I can tell you is that it was a perfectly ordinary week. And you know what? I am not ready for that. I am not ready for life without Buster to be perfectly ordinary.

I could be writing today about The Great Chimney Raising at Pea Pickle Farm that happened two years ago at this time, on a couple of extraordinary 60-degree February days, and making something of it all because it was, after all, the first major project at the cabin, a step toward making the cabin habitable, and even though after the chimney raising it wouldn’t be anywhere near warm enough on a chilly night without sixteen blankets and one old dog, the chimney raising was, without a doubt, a success.

The Great Chimney Raising of 2011

The wood stove was installed and the chimney was raised two weeks after my cat, Goldie, died in front of the wood stove in the house in Sand River. I brought Goldie out here to bury him next to Queenie, my dog who had died three months earlier, and I pretty much just buried Goldie in the snow because the ground was, of course, frozen. It was a macabre grave and I worried about it, worried about what might happen to it over the next few months and if the cardboard box would hold up until spring, until the ground thawed, but I did not know what else to do, because Goldie had to be buried near Queenie, though not too close, because they really didn’t get along so well, and it was that day that the cabin’s stove was delivered. I remember a bitterly cold west wind that kept trying to push me over as I stumbled through the knee-deep snow on the trail from the cabin to the river, the graves being at the top of the river bank at the end of that trail, and it was just a horrible trudge back to the cabin. Whatever I was carrying or dragging—a shovel? a sled? both?—flapped and flopped in the wind, and I kept sinking into the snow, and I’m pretty sure I was crying, and then the truck with the stove pulled up, and I had to stop crying and be happy that my stove was here. And I was.

And the thing is, Buster was with me that day. Of course he was. Not wading through the snow in a pelting wind to bury his lifelong cat buddy, but in the van, waiting, watching, as I did that. And Buster was there the moment Queenie died. And Buster was there the moment Goldie died. And Buster was there for the chimney raising, that 60-degree February day two years ago. Again, he mostly stayed in the van, took a nap after running around like crazy, getting muddy, exploring, probably getting in the way, and that evening we drove the two hours back to Sand River and returned the next day because it was a day-and-a-half-long project, and after the first day it turned out that I needed to buy more stove pipe anyway and that meant going to the Menards in Marquette. Buster and I covered so many miles together in that van and in the truck that preceded it, and then this week I visited the drive-up teller at the bank and she asked if my dog were with me. I began sobbing.

Buster, February 16, 2011.

I remember arriving here that second morning of the chimney raising and being captivated by the mist rising from the snow, the mist that was mixing with the dawn, a gauzy veil of softness, and this morning two years later it is 10 degrees below zero and the stove does its best to keep Elliott and me warm, but it is a difficult task, and the dawn is harsh and brittle.

On that 60-degree day two years ago I sat on the cabin’s porch, basking in the sun, talking with my friend who was here to help his friend who was actually doing the installation. I told him of this overwhelming feeling that even if this crazy plan to live in this cabin didn’t work out, just blew up in my face in any of the so many different ways that it could, that it would still be worth it. I knew that, because it was worth it right then, and it was worth it right then because it was just so beautiful right there, right then. And since then, there have been small explosions, and I have wondered about it all.

This morning, the cabins shadow.

So all this is supposed to come together today, but it won’t. I spent most of the week working on the east wall of the living room, brushing clean the old barn logs with this steel brush attachment that goes on your drill, and then cleaning up all the dust that made, and then brushing a sealer onto the logs, and then caulking along the underside of the logs and in the cracks in the logs as cold air comes through all these places in little drafts and breezes, and there, it seems to me, is another loose strand. I hope you do not mind that I leave it where it is.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

walking solo

The river has become a great thoroughfare for deer and coyote, and for the past week or so I have wanted to join them, have wanted to just lope along the river, on the river, but close to shore, not down the river’s spine, where many of the tracks go, and not criss-crossing shore to shore, as other tracks do, even though I think I would like to walk across the river, to the other side, but I am afraid to. This afternoon, I strap on my snowshoes.

The day started with a letter to Buster.
Dear Buster,
You made me laugh. You found the joy in my heart and lifted it right out, gave it wings, gave it light. Your love for so many things—chick peas, coyote poop, running, rearranging pillows, barking at inanimate objects, flinging toys across the room, digging in the sand, to name just a few—delighted me, every day.

I am afraid today nothing will delight me. Without you, I must learn to smile and laugh on my own, and that may take a while. And without me, you are lost. When you were six or maybe eight weeks old you were lost, or maybe just abandoned, or maybe just put out the door by someone who hoped that someone like me would come along and take you away. You had a great deal of confidence, even then, but when you were scared or tired or cold or hungry, I was the one you found. And these past several months, as you became more and more lost in your own home and in your own skin, it was in my arms you were found.
As I walked along the river, on its edge, I was twice startled by partridges. The first thrummed and took off so close to my right ear that I flinched and almost fell over. I didn’t see either bird, but only a chickadee on the far bank, flitting from branch to branch, like a Disney movie flickering in someone else’s home. The river is covered by snow except for a few grey, slushy areas, and it’s there that the tracks converge, where thirsty travelers pause for a drink.

I do not know if I did the right thing. You always trusted me from A to Z, and I always did right by you. For years you felt pain from the arthritis in your neck, some days so bad you just couldn’t eat and walked around the house all akimbo, but we figured it out, and then for years the pain was minimal or even non-existent, and it never stopped you from running and jumping as the vet had told us it would, when you were six years old, so long ago.

Your anal sacs were such a problem—always having to get them “expressed”—but then we discovered your love for chick peas and chick peas seemed to help. All the foods you loved were good for you—the carrots kept your teeth clean, the yam with honey and apple cider vinegar helped your joints (or so we thought), the chick peas and the oatmeal were good fiber, and, toward the end, the rice held it all together.
Why does it surprise me that there is crap on the river? Piles of deer pellets and piles of coyote poop—oh, would Buster love this! And splotches of urine. I think of that first summer when I bathed in the river and feel a bit yucky. But then I remember a news report I heard this week about people dining on dirt in Japan and think maybe a deer poop toilette in Michigan isn’t so bad.
So I think I did right by you. But yesterday, when I ended it, was that right? You were sleeping in the sun and then this man came and I picked you up and held you and you woke up and he shaved a little spot on your leg and since I was holding you it must be okay, right?, but then your leg hurt, something pricked it so bad, and then—what? Are you lost again? Are you found? I held you, and the man left. I held you still, I do not know how long, but then, you know what? Everything I told you wasn’t true. Everything I told you about you always being in my arms wasn’t true because what happened then is I put you in a box, as gently as I could, and you were wrapped in your blanket and I put your favorite toy, Mr. Carrot, in the box with you, even though you haven’t played with him in years, but I figured you’d want him with you. But even though I did all that, it does not matter, because I put you in that box and you are no longer in my arms and I can feel the weight. I can feel the weight of you not being there.


The river bank is fairly steep and climbing it in snowshoes, well, let’s just say that going up is no more elegant than going down. I haul myself up in part by grabbing on to a series of small, sturdy trees. And even though the hardness of loss seems impenetrable, I think of the kind words that people have shared with me, the understanding, and the hardness softens a bit. I pass by the mound of snow under which Buster is buried, for the time being, until the ground thaws in spring, and I pause, and I thank him.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

rest in peace

You and me, bud, together.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

the meat of winter

There is a poem about Michigan that a few years back I cut out of the New Yorker and tacked to a cork board in the room I called my office in the house in Sand River. When I moved, the poem came down, and I do not know where that scrap of paper is and have not given it a thought, not even earlier this week, when I put up a makeshift cork board to fill the gap between the freestanding door that makes up one wall of my closet and the wall perpendicular to it. That wall slants away, top to bottom, following the roof line of the cabin. The triangular gap seemed right for a cork board. Once done, I tacked up my favorite cartoons—ones by George Booth, from the New Yorker, showing a man in a bath tub and a kitchen full of cats. A bare light bulb hangs from the ceiling. A woman in a lumpy house dress irons. The man says things like “Today I start the new me!” Even then, I did not think of the poem about Michigan. But yesterday, as ideas marinated and February became the meat of winter, and as I checked email and Twitter, there it was:

I clicked the link and read the poem about Michigan, read it through, savoring and remembering, especially this:
The Upper Peninsula is a spare state
in case Michigan goes flat.
But February. For one, it’s a month of silly holidays. Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, Presidents’ Day. Not to mention the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, all that. Groundhog Day 2013 dawned with a temperature of 15 below zero, and if there were any groundhogs awake in the U.P., popping out of their burrows, well, I doubt it, but if there were and they did, they froze, shadows and all. On the second day of February, six more weeks of winter are never in doubt, and double that is more like it. Not to mention the fact that February is, by some accounts, 13 months long.

By the time the temperature rose to 10 degrees, I was ready for a walk, and Buster joined me. I wrapped him in his little olive green coat, buckled on my snowshoes, and off we went. We have about a foot of snow cover, but I’d been out the day before and my tracks remained, making a firm trail for us to walk on. We walked single file, Buster behind me, and were almost to the river when I looked back and saw he had stopped, so I stopped, and when he remained in place I turned back. There was a little jostling for position when we met on the narrow trail, then Buster jumped off into the deep snow and bounded away. Usually when this happens he seems to get disoriented, stops and waits for me to come get him, either because the snow is too deep or he does not know where he is, or both, but yesterday he just kept going, bounding through the snow, and I realized he was having fun. I took off after him. Running in snow shoes is much like you may think: gallumping through snow with tennis rackets strapped to your feet. It’s a blast. When Buster seemed not to know which way to go, I waved my arms and ran alongside and together we made tracks and raced home.

Buster and I make tracks.

By the time February rolls around, winter has shown us how it is going to be, has settled in, and we either accept it or flee. Acceptance means enjoying the snow, braving the cold, reveling in the pleasures of staying indoors, of being “snowed in.” The pace of life changes. We do less, plan more. We plan for spring. We notice that the days are getting longer, the sunlight a bit stronger. The very light that winter took away in November and December, the light that January held back on, is now being returned, generously. The sun may not have risen this morning until after eight, but in a month it will be rising at half past seven, and dusk has already begun to lag, coming in a little bit later each day, about 45 minutes later than when the new year started. That’s the meat of February—stuck in a snowbank in the light of a longer day.

There are three George Booth cartoons. In each the man in the bath tub is talking. The other two captions are “I’m working on Plan B.” and “My voices told me to just relax today.” I think February, with its prophetic woodchucks and love for chocolate, its parties and parades and presidential birthdays, its oddly fluctuating number of days, and, in Michigan anyway, its 13 months of meatiness, is a voice telling us to make our plans, start anew if we wish, but relax, because you know what? We are not in control. February is.

Three George Booth cartoons.

Enjoy “A Primer” by Bob Hicok.