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Storing Sunlight in my Bones

Cold drops like a hammer, and with it snow, not much but enough, and in the early hour I drive to the crest of the mountain, where an old logging road provides ingress to a vast swath of public forest. It’s eight below zero, the sun just clawing its way above the horizon; the hillsides ahead of me shimmer in light, though I remain in the shadows until I break out of the woods onto a shallow body of water known to the locals as Dead Moose Pond because they once found a decaying moose in its waters. The ice is thin, but my long skis distribute my weight, and I circle the edge of the pond twice, sun on my face, lungs full and satisfied, the snow of that magical consistency that allows me to imagine I might never tire, that I could circle this pond for hours and hours. I’m storing sunlight in my bones, I think, because that’s what it feels like, though I have no idea if such a thing is possible or even makes sense.

Despite the magical snow, I ski for only a scant hour, then return to the car, the old logging road still caught in morning shadow. My fingers and toes ache with cold, and I run the heat high as I descend the mountain, driving fast until I catch a flatbed truck carrying big bales of hay stacked high, flecks of dried grasses dancing in its wake.

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Slowly Looking Up

We lurch in and out of winter. There is cold and snow, then rain and warm, then more cold but no snow, all the while the days slowly diminishing around their edges, and I play the game I always play around this time of year, which is to count back from December 21, and then add that number plus one to the other side of the solstice to determine when we’ll have more daylight than we do now. And yet, strangely, it feels as if the days and weeks and even months are galloping past, even in the dark. Maybe especially in the dark.

For five straight days we had skiable snow, and so I skied, each morning the same loop, the only one that’s really possible with such scant cover. Down the driveway, along the road, over the bridge, past the church, around the field. Then again around the field. Then if I have time maybe even again. Then around the church on my way home because I have this idea that skiing around the church might in some way compensate for the praying I don’t do.

December 28. That’s when we’ll again have as much daylight as we do today. And the day after that, just a little more. And it feels to me like things are slowly looking up.

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The Way They Always Do

In the evenings, after chores and dinner, I walk the gravel roads. I like to walk without a headlamp, right down the center, let my eyes adjust and my feet find the way. There’s little traffic to worry about; two nights ago, I walked for over an hour, and did not see a single car. My usual route takes me to the very end of a dead end road, high on the hill above our land, where if it were daylight I could see across a shallow valley over to the town of Greensboro and the steely blue of Caspian Lake. Greensboro’s a nice town. It’s wealthier than this one, but not too wealthy. You could be poor there and not feel unwelcome.

There’s been little snow, and what there has been has come in fits and spurts. I’d prefer more, despite the extra work it brings. But there’s not much to be done about the weather except to lament and carry on, so like everyone else that’s what I do, and my old skis, the ones I use when the cover is thin and rocks lurk, still lean against the shed wall where I left them after my election day outing one whole month ago. Though despite the grey weather, despite the dim days and election angst and virus fatigue, it feels more recent than that. I remember when I was younger how time seemed to speed up and slow down; always fast when I most wanted it to be slow, and always slow when I most wanted it to be fast. It’s not like that anymore.

This morning I woke to moonlight shining through the window above our bed. It’s got cold again, and last night’s fit of snow has stuck. There’s maybe an inch on the ground. Looking through the kitchen window, up onto the knoll with the light coming on, I can just see the cows standing next to one another the way they always do. I know what they want. They’re wanting their hay. I’ll take it to them shortly.

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Long Way From Here

Opening day of rifle season. At 3:30, I hear our younger son rise and start a fire in the cookstove. I drift off, but 20 minutes later am roused again by the sound of something frying, spatula scraping pan. At 5:15, I rise, too. Lay a couple sticks of wood on the coals the boy left behind, make coffee. Sit a while. Do chores. The kid’s long gone, leaning against a tree somewhere. Or maybe still hiking to the tree he has in mind. He’s got his driver’s license, got his truck, got just enough work to keep the tank half full most of the time. Well. That happened fast.

I clean up fencing and store it for winter. Split some firewood. Drink a second cup of coffee, then a third. The other boy is off paddling some river in Maine. The wife is off scouting trees for basket material. The cats watch me split, one perched on the hood of the car, the other on a rock. I imagine they’re imaging the fires to come, how they’ll splay themselves across the floor in front of the stove in the most inconvenient spot possible, the one I never quite have the heart to chase them from.

Later, I ride my bike. It’s snowing a bit, but just a bit, and the cold air feels good, drills right into my face like a low voltage electric current. Up Flagg Pond Road, past a bony German Shepherd who tries to run alongside me, but his hind legs aren’t working right, and he stumbles. Then onto Gonyaw Road, where I spy a woman sitting on the ground near the roadside, and I think maybe I should ask if she needs help or something, but she smiles and waves. She’s just sitting, just watching the world go by, or whatever portion of the world goes by on Gonyaw Road, which can’t be too awful much. But enough, I guess.

The houses all have smoke coming out their chimneys. The sky is low, clouds layered one atop the other. Pressing down. Winter feels close now. I think of that old dog. I wonder if he’ll make it to spring, which suddenly seems like a very long way from here.

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Won’t Mind At All

The snow goes as quickly as it came, melting fast under an atypical warm spell, mid-60’s and sunny five days running. In the dark one balmy, star-studded evening I hike with my friend Tim up the rooted, rocky trail that scales Mount Hunger, to a sub-peak known as White Rock, where we stand and watch the sky and the twinkling lights of the villages below.

I try my best not to be transfixed by the unfolding chaos – the rampaging virus, the chaotic election – but wow. It is truly something to behold, and even in the swirling midst of it I have the sense of living through an era that will define eras to come. Though I guess that’s always true. I guess it’s just more obvious now.

On the radio I hear an interview with an author who wrote a book about living with an implantable cardiac defibrillator, and she reads a passage from when the defibrillator malfunctions, shocking her to the ground and she can smell burning and she realizes the burning smell is her. The insides of her. And she lives (I mean, obviously, here she is, talking about the book she wrote), and I think it’s remarkable what we can endure. 2000 volts gone haywire in our chest. The smell of our own burning innards. What a thing.

This morning the clouds moved it. Still warm, but you can feel the change that’s coming. There’s snow in the forecast, as there should be. I won’t mind when it arrives. I won’t mind at all.

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A Long Time Ago

There is snow on election day, five inches or more. Soft snow. Cold snow. Good snow. I ski at first light, straight down the gravel road, along the shoulder, where the plow has cast what it cleared from the center. That familiar cadence, the push-and-glide, the quick breath. Down past Dan’s, and onto Skunk Hollow. In nearly an hour, I see two cars. It’s still snowing when I return. The light is hazy. I feel buoyed.

Later, at the end of the day, I ride my bicycle a half mile to the town hall to count votes. I’ve never done this before and am surprised by how gratifying it feels to unfold the ballots, then divide them into neat stacks of 25 (four stacks, plus one stack of 14, comprising the 114 total cast in this little town; an unprecedented turnout), then record the individual votes, a tick mark for each in the appropriate column. It is so pleasingly analog; pencil and paper, the mask-muffled murmur of voices from the other two teams of counters, our breath made visible in the condensation beading on the old single pane windows that line the east wall.

It takes barely an hour, and then I’m back into the dark, riding home in the cold, right past the ski tracks I left in the morning, which already feels like such a long time ago.

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I Think It’s True

Restless and unsure of anything, not anything at all, I ride my bicycle in the dark to the top of the mountain. There, I stash my bike behind a clump of small spruce and hike deep into the woods; the night is warm and spooky, the air thick and tangible, the trees dripping from an earlier shower. But the moon shows intermittently, and by the time I’ve returned to my bike, the sky is clearing rapidly, the temperature dropping quick. I ride back down the mountain road fast as possible, trying and failing to outrun the cold, my headlamp punching a small hole of light that I’m constantly riding into but never emerging from, and rounding the sweeping corner I whoop loudly, suddenly so grateful for the speed and the cold and the simple fact that no matter what happens – with the election, with the economy, with the pandemic, with anything, really – there remains the possibility of riding a bicycle downhill in the dark, forehead so cold it hurts, fingers so cold they hurt, cheeks so cold they hurt, and maybe it’s a cliche, but isn’t it true that sometimes it takes a little discomfort to remind us just how lucky we are to be alive?

Well, yes. I think it’s true.

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Good to be Prepared

I drive home from Minnesota, where I’ve been visiting an old friend, helping him on the house he’s building deep in the forest, two miles up an unmaintained track. We work on the roof, and every so often I pause to take in the view of Lake Superior. The shore is miles away, but the lake is vast in an oceanic way, the horizon line where water meets sky feels like the end of something too big to fathom. We move fast and accomplish much, and I leave satisfied, ready for the long ride home, straight across the middle of America, where grain grows right to the edges of interstate and big trucks accompany me through the night.

Back home the leaves are mostly down. The streams run low and quiet. The cows graze the last grass. Everything seems to hang in the balance, suspended between seasons, the gentle one that’s soon to pass, and the harder one that’s soon to come. I try not to think about it much. Today I’ll go outside, run some fence, help my son change over his summer tires for winters. There’s no snow in the forecast. But it’s good to be prepared.

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As It Turns Out

An unexpected evening rain bends but does not quite break the heat, and when I awake in the morning, right at the cusp of first light, I follow the cats outside to stand for a minute in the heavy air. The day is coming on so fast I swear I can see it happening in real time, almost as if the light were accumulating like snow. The cows are gathered under their favorite apple tree; they’ve worn the ground bare around its base, and I wonder why they’ve chosen this tree from all the others that would have suited the purpose equally well. A place for shade. A rough trunk to scratch against. Maybe, just maybe, where they know to be found for scratches in the spots the tree can’t reach.

Busy. So busy. The days compressed and blurred together. The summer feeling suddenly short and all the possibilities it contains feeling suddenly much less possible. I’m reminded somehow of the bluejay I passed on a bike ride more than a month ago; it had been hit by a car, and was flopping frantically at the road’s shoulder, and I turned back, steeling myself to do what I thought right, but when I held the bird in my hands, it quieted, and I could see that nothing was broken. So I opened my palms and it flew. Perhaps it had merely been stunned, or perhaps it was one last desperate lurch before final collapse. Either way, it wasn’t done yet, there was life yet for it to live, and I rode on, grateful that I had not acted too quickly and knowing I’d long remember the way it settled into my palms.

Which, as it turns out, I have.