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Category: weather’s wrath

brace yourself, baby…

waking up to a wind chill of -6, gliding into my fleece-lined yoga pants (yes, they make them!), my chilly thoughts turn to someone i’ve come to love dearly who is, for the first time in her california-girl life, waking up to this subzero shock to the ol’ ticker. she moved to these parts just as the october winds were picking up, and she thought that was cold! best i can think is: at least it’s not an earthquake. but i figured i owe her a welcome-to-deep-freeze, the chicago version of winter.

dear california girl,

um, welcome to february. bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing as a polar vortex. well, glide open your sliding porch door (if you can dislodge the ice and the snow jamming its tracks), stick out any limb you’re willing to sacrifice, and voila, that’s what the vortex feels like, that’s how cold it can make your blood run.

so, given that this is your first round of the deep freeze we call chicago, the goosebump capital of the midwest, i figured i might pass along the few things that i’ve learned over the years here on the tundra.

first, forget sleek silhouettes. we’re going for bulk here. we like to dress like we’re walking, talking bed pillows. the more layers and fluff we can stuff round our parts, the happier we hum (see “dress union suit” above). extra credit if you can see someone’s eyes. we are big believers in total occlusion of all open face parts. just cover ’em up with whatever might stretch over your head. big socks work in a pinch. but around here, we stock up on headgear with nothing but peep holes. think golf club covers, maybe minus the super-size tassel. COVID masks have nothing on us. we’ve been in the face-blocking business since, well, far back as i can remember. (note: that reminds me, sometimes the cold numbs your brain. just go with it. your gears will warm up again come the fourth of july.)

on the subject of sleeping, we look to the bears and their habits of hibernations. we find it’s important to stock up on lots and lots of berries before gliding into the caves. but instead of berries, plucked off the tangles of bushes, we cruise the grocery-store aisles, foraging wildly for sugars in their un-natural forms. cookies, crackers, whole tubs of häagen-dazs; these all do the trick. we recommend hauling a cardboard box to your bedside; fill to the brim. this way, once you slide under the layers (more on that in a minute) you’ll not have much of a reach should your very cold tummy start to growl like a grizzly.

now, about the bedclothes (see note no. 1: “we’re going for bulk here”). we find it helpful to mound the blankets as if it’s a snow fort, only it’s mohair or wool or your old girl scout sleeping bag. we recommend staying under the covers as long as you can. there’s really no need to expose yourself to the harsh assaults of a cold trip to the bathroom when winds are howling like sirens just out the windows that shake. (note we did not use the Q word — “quake” — because that is a word that belongs to shakier parts of the continent, specifically the state that was yours. again, we pride ourselves on our relative stability here in the land of no nonsense.)

things to do in the arctic: here, we narrow the lens. fact is, there’s a lot you won’t want to do. you will not want to step out the door. so that lobs off a long chunk of the list. you might try turning pages, as long as you’re wearing mittens with lids, a novel invention that allows you to flip back the mitten tops and wiggle your pinkies whenever you must. i’ve heard tell that jigsaw puzzles are fine for a long winter’s nap, but it’s noticeably nettlesome to doze when a runaway piece is lodged under your bum, or stuck down by your toes under the bedsheets. perhaps that’s why some choose to set up their puzzles on a card table shoved next to the bed. daydreaming, i find, tends not to tax. all it involves is pointing your eyes on some wayward spot on the wall, out the window, or up on the ceiling, and then engage in a thought and see where it travels.

should all this well-padded exertion begin to make you hungry for things not stashed in your cave, you might try the polar vortex diet. this involves high-carb fare, mostly smothered in cheese. why do you think the swiss of the alps invented fondue? and look north to wisconsin, where it’s taken as fact that you make it through winter with barrels of cheddar. if you glance over toward iowa (that’s the square of a state just to the west) you’ll discover that they deep-fry whole sticks of butter. again, this makes chicago’s deep-dish pizza (protests late night’s jon stewart, “it’s not pizza, it’s a casserole!”) look svelte and quite chic.

my short list is drawing to a close. fact is, the vortex won’t last forever. and i’ve shared all the basics: wardrobe, fuel, and diversion. mostly, just tough it out. it’s where we here in the middle lands get all our muscle. we’re a somewhat lesser species than those of the arctic circle, and we’d collapse in the tremor of earthquake, but when it comes to facing into the wind howling off the great vast lake, we’re sturdy as they come.

and no richter scale needed.

love, the bundled one

let me know what i’ve missed of the must-know and must-haves in the vortex survival guide. your input, always essential.

just decided to drop a little mac-and-cheese recipe, though the trouble to make it might make you wanna wait till the vortex is lifted. this, from the pages of Stillness of Winter, the beribboned little book i birthed this fall…

Cure-All Mac and Cheese (aka Vortex Survival Fare)

When the bee stings, or the homesick blues need quelling, this oozy spoonful of deliciousness belongs in a mama’s tin of kitchen cure-alls. It’s the ubiquitous remedy at our house for any ailment in the book. (And one or two make-believe ones, besides.) And it’s just what the doctor orders for frosty-cheeked rascals fresh in from the cold.

Provenance: Gourmet magazine, May 1995 

Yield: Serves 8 children

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 1⁄2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1⁄2 teaspoon paprika
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound pasta, tubes or wagon wheels or whatever shape suits your fancy (a tube—penne or rigatoni, among the many—fills with the cheesy sauce and makes a fine, pillowy bite)
10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded coarse (about 2 3/4 cups)
1 cup fresh bread crumbs, coarse
1⁄4 cup (or more) Parmesan shavings 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish (the broader the crust, the better). 

In a 6-quart pot, bring 5 quarts salted water to a boil for cooking pasta. 

In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over moderately low heat, and stir in flour and paprika. Cook roux, whisking, 3 minutes; then whisk in milk and salt. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking, and simmer, whisking occasionally, 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat. 

Stir pasta into pot of boiling water and boil, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain pasta in a colander, and in a large bowl stir together pasta, sauce, and 2 cups cheddar cheese. Transfer mixture to prepared dish. Macaroni and cheese may be prepared up to this point 1 day ahead and chilled, covered tightly (an indispensable trick when confronting a serious to-do list for a day of, say, birthday or holiday jollity). 

In a small bowl, toss remaining 3⁄4 cup cheddar with bread crumbs and sprinkle over pasta mixture, topping it all with a downpour of Parmesan shavings (a heavy hand with the cheese is never a bad thing, certainly not at my house where my boys insist I do so, preferring their cheese to supersede bread crumbs). 

Bake macaroni and cheese in middle of oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. At last: dig in.

picking up the pieces

picking up pieces

it’s april in the flatlands. and that means twister season. and so it was that yesterday blew across the plains. blew mightily.

for long hours of the day, the sky was charcoal gray, was roiling. every once in a while, the clouds opened wide, let loose a gusher. early in the morning, when i stepped back into the house, after driving my sweet mate to the train amid thundering downpour, i heard what sounded like a shower running.

now, i live with some mighty forgetful folk, but i’ve not lately known them to forget to turn off the shower. so i poked around. more like dashed. followed the sound of splish-splash-splosh till i got to the top of the basement stairs. there i leapt, two stairs at a time, a mighty lope, if i dare say so.

the in-home waterfall — the one i’d not ordered — it was gurgily demonstrating its hydro powers. water fell, all right. poured from the ceiling down the wall, and rolled threateningly toward the electrical outlets where i’d yet to pull the plugs.

i marveled. or maybe it was more like gawked. (you’ve had, perhaps, those elongated seconds where your brain cells and synapses are trying to connect, are trying to understand just why it is the bead-board wall is making like a shower head.) before too many seconds ticked away, i grabbed a stash of towels, a bucket, a mop. heck, i might have grabbed a fly swatter had there been one in sight. (i’m not sure why; i was grabbing anything on a stick, anything long enough to reach and plug the hole. as if i could keep the avalanche from coming.)

in time, the gushing slowed. became laconic drip. but all day i kept vigil, kept my ear tuned for the susurrations of a leaking basement.

by then, the skies darkened, and the weatherman interrupted the broadcast to flash rainbow-colored radar maps onto the TV screen. awful tornadoes tore western and northern illinois to bits. a 50-mile swath, one half-a-mile wide, set new records for hell on earth. gashed the state, and everything in its path, from rockford clear north and east into wisconsin.

out my own windows, the winds picked up. the glass panes rattled. and then the howls and whistles started in, the sound of hurling air in swift pursuit of havoc.

i must have been asleep by the time the worst of it whirled through. i heard nothing but the cat’s meow at 3 a.m. i let him out but i couldn’t see through the dark of night. couldn’t see the fence blown over. couldn’t see the bird house poles that had been plucked up and torpedoed, steep-roofed projectiles, flying arrows through the night.

but once the morning came, once i stepped outside, it was clear, was evident. the yard was not what it had been. something fierce had shattered things.

and, come morning, there was only the picking up of pieces to be done.

it’s uncanny sometimes, the way the outer world aligns with what’s inside. deep down inside. it’s uncanny how, on this becalmed morning after, i roam the soggy grass, i search for shards of wood, and splintered bird house parts. i pick up the pieces of my storm-splattered yard, and deep inside i try to re-assemble shards of my heart that, too, have been shattered in these recent hours.

some days, in the aftermath of storm, it’s the rounds we make, the assessing damage, the gathering of brokenness, that serves to make us whole. whether the brokenness is from the weather’s wrath, or that of someplace deeper.

did you stay safe last night? what are your healing rituals the morning after something’s torn you to pieces?

nose pressed to the window pane

nose pressed to the window

dispatch from 02139 (in which “epic” — yes, epic, say the headline writers — hurri-blizzard blows in off the atlantic, and the winds begin to whistle their warning cry…)

it is a posture that pulls us back to long-ago days, days when you woke up to the cackle of a radio telling you school was closed, when you heard your mama down in the kitchen, not rustling the brown bags of school lunches in the making but rather cranking up the griddle for stay-home vittles.

it’s the posture of nose pressed to the window pane. it’s the posture of waiting. heart pumping. peering into the far-away-but-coming-closer.

it’s the posture of knowing adventure’s tucked behind the not-so-distant cloud. it’s awaiting mama nature. mama nature who, in the end and after all, rules over all her globe and sky, and every once in a while, reminds us of our humble place on earth.

so it is that i sit here, with windows east and south, keeping watch. the sky’s gone sooty gray. all shadow’s slipped away. the bird-seed tube that dangles just beyond the sill is rocking back and forth, making me a wee bit seasick if i stare too long.

this is the perfect perch for storm patrol, peering out beyond the rooftops, through the limbs of trees. i see smoke tendrils twirling up from chimney pots. i’ll soon gasp as tree trunks practice yoga bends.

winds at 85 miles per hour, the weatherman predicts. snows falling at the rate of four inches per hour. tumbling till they pile to three-feet-and-counting.

but, deary me, whooshing air at 85 m.p.h. up against flakes that weigh in at nothingness, it’s the equation for drifts the likes of which i’ve never seen. sounds like being a speck of milk inside a whirring blender. when someone clicks “puree.”

no wonder the sky-readers turned to their thesaurus to pull out a label for this blizzard. at last — after much office to and fro, i imagine — they decided to dub it “epic,” so epic it is, and epic we shall see.

it seems fitting, so fitting, that in this year of living sumptuously we — our little triangle of cambridge explorers — should endure spells of sumptuous weather. why, in just six months, there’s been one hurricane, one earthquake, and now this epic blizzard. good thing i packed my yellow rubber knee-high galoshes. i’ll be out trekking before this day is done.

for it’s one thing to inhale a storm from behind the glass, and wholly another what-the-heck to plant yourself amid the whirls and whoops.

why, you didn’t think life at veritas university would slow for any old avalanche of snow, did you? mais non! classes are marching on, clear through the morning. and at high noon, we’re being called to what promises to be a spine-tingling talk with a mexican journalist who risks her life — and aims to protect her compatriot periodistas — telling the truth about the drug wars that have torn apart her homeland.

for marcela turati, who dodges death threats and machine gun bullets on a daily basis, i can dodge a few flying snowflakes. even if they whirl at never-before-observed velocities.

other than that one arctic exposition, we’re hunkered down for the duration. we’ve all the essentials: popcorn, apples, soup. extra blankets, just in case. a fat cat who loves to curl beside our undulations. we’ve neighbors down below and just across the way, should we need to draw in the wagons — or trade one last drop of milk for one slab of vienna pastry (the doctor down below happens to be a fiendish baker, and the buttery vapors that slink up through the floorboards are enough to have me drooling at his door).

fact is, if you’re going to call yourself a bostonian for the year, you’d better weather a tried-and-true nor’easter’. i’d hate to amble home a pretender, head bowed in shame for having shirked a little tussle with the snow clouds that whirl in off the atlantic.

so far, with 14 minutes till the bewitching hour, there’s not a flake in sight. i’ll sit here for a few more hours, tomes piled to my left, eyes trained on the graying skies, waiting, waiting.

alert to what the heavens offer up today. and tuned in to how the human spirit pitches and dives along with all the whirling, swirling, dumping.

it’s front row to one celestial theatre. and right now, the players must be in the wings, clearing throats, slipping on their costumes. any moment, the curtain’s due to rise…

do you love snow days? odd weather days? what is it about the chance to draw in, simmer kettles of soup, slither into our snuggliest sweaters? three stories off the ground, i feel as if i’m in a tree fort, with the best seat in the house. if it gets outlandishly exciting here, i’ll be back to record the weather dramas. for now, be safe, be warm, and thanks for pulling up a chair.

in the spirit of my beloved helen vendler poetry class, perhaps i ought to dig for a poem to mark this snowy occasion……any submissions out there?

yellow snowy nightduring the night, under the street lamp out my office window….that little bump down there, that’s a car on its way to being buried…

snowy deckand come morning, here’s what befell the back deck. those chairs are hard-edged, with sharp corners. until the snow, they had no undulations. now they do….

in the dark

no one had a clue it was coming.

then, stumbling through a monday morning’s making of coffee, i heard some chatter on the radio about high winds that had halted two trains, a coupla counties away. i glanced out the window, saw nothing but sunshine, felt the start of another hot day.

hmm, i thought, what station is this, did someone jiggle my dial? there’s no storm for miles around. is this some other state they’re talking about?

then, from the little box that sits by the knives, came word that this so-named “ferocious storm” would be hitting yet another town, a town i knew to be, oh, 30 or 50 miles from the first ones they mentioned, in a mere 10 minutes. i did the map in my head, thought, no way, short of a ramrodding locomotive–or a hellbent tornado–could any winds sweep across that many miles in so few minutes.

and then, just as i was cocking my eyebrows, beginning to gather the message, they mentioned that a mere five minutes after that incredible span, the storm would be rushing the lakefront. and they named the leafy town where i live.

why, we had a boy out on a lagoon at the very instant these words came over the wires. another boy, the little one, had woken up early and helped me dash to click on the TV in time to see a picture, on the national weather channel, mind you, from our very own not-so-far-away airport, where the winds were all whirly and quite smoky gray. egad.

not a minute later our sunshine was swallowed by black clouds. clouds that somehow cast an eery green-yellow, like the rim of a bruise after a day or two, when the deep purple bull’s-eye of the place you got bumped goes the color of neptune, or the mold on your overdue cheese.

before i could yell, “get to the basement,” the winds started howling, the trees bent, nearly snapped. lights flickered once, then twice, then kerpluey, lights out.

for the next 56 hours.

which, when your nice warm refrigerator is turning your larder to ruins, when you cannot open the windows for the stifling heat outside, when you take to the car to crank up the A-C for a short drive to nowhere, is a very long time.

once i’d surrendered the food, either tucked it away in the ice box of my elderly next-door neighbor who happens to have a back-up generator, or the freezer of a dear across-town friend who was lucky enough not to live on our blown-out grid, and chalked up the rest to nature’s merciless toll, i settled into the mystery of this pioneer moment.

made like a girl on a black-out adventure.

i discovered, of course, the beautiful buried beneath all the darkness.

it didn’t take long.

a few hours after the sun finally dropped beyond the horizon, a few hours after my eyes had seen anything bright, i happened to glance up over the tree line. i saw the brightest, most heavenly orb i’d studied in a long, long time.
it was the moon, of course, and i marveled.

realized once again, as i traced its beams across the ruffled leaves of the trees, across the sharp-angled shingles of the roof, and down to the brick path where i stood, just how majestic that moon must have been in a long-ago world where every night brought blanket of darkness.

i whispered benediction, and made a promise i hope isn’t futile. “dear moon, don’t let me take you for granted.”

not long after, i saw that the fireflies were blinking more boldly than in a long, long time.

it’s not often, i realized, that power goes out in the summer. so instead of studying ice crystals by moonlight, i got the gift of the firefly flicker.

quite a pile, the bright lights of darkness.

then, later still, i stepped outside to see if i could catch a breeze. i was chomping a midnight apple, and let my eyes roam all around, drinking in the layers of shadow. i must have looked up right away, because right away i was struck by all the extra stars studding the sky that very dark night.

and on it went.

when i happened to be tiptoeing around, somewhere near 3 o’clock in the morning, i noticed for the first time ever, i think, that fireflies pull all-nighters. they keep up the flicker, it seems, till the dawn shooshes them off to their beds.

and so it went.

all week, it was candlelight and conversation. the first night, in full little-house-on-the-prairie mode, it was lanterns and dinner, and whatever we could salvage from the warming-up fridge.

the next, when the little one and his papa high-tailed it to our freezer friend’s fully-operating telly (the better to take in the all-star game), the college-bound boy and i sat in the dark at the kitchen table and sipped prosecco, our words lit only by one flickering candle and the magic of a whole evening alone, with no blinks or beeps to disturb us.

i drank deeply, i tell you, of that rare gift, knowing full well that all too soon the boy would be off a thousand miles away, and i’d be longing for such a night, alone in the dark with my deep-thinking child, there at the shadowy table. i knew right then the terrible winds had brought me a forever treasure.

in the end i wound up with my fridge purged of bottles and condiments that had long exceeded their statutes of limitation. who needed the maraschino cherries from three summers ago, the ones i’d never quite managed to toss, but now had to?

and once all those overdue jars and bottles were gone, and the milk and the cheeses dumped, sadly, into the garbage, i scrubbed that fridge–and the basement freezer–top to bottom, inside and out.

i am back in business now. lights, once again, go on whenever you flick the magical switch (and i am still marveling, two days later).

the fridge is stocked with whatever we need to get by. the freezer awaiting my generous contributions.

i’ve hauled out the vacuum, and sucked up a week’s worth of grit clomped in on the bottoms of baseball cleats. i caught up on the loads of laundry piled high in the soon-musty basket.

and now my sweet little boy, the one quite bothered by all of the darkness, he’s come down with some germ that is making him all hot and achy.

this very long week has come to an end.

and i’ll not soon forget the beauty i found in the darkness.

were you in the dark this week? where did you find the beauty? and if this week wasn’t one that brought you darkness, where have you found it on the dark days you’ve known?
p.s. i always hate it on days when my writing has to come in bits and spurts. it’s hard to spin lines when nursing a sick little child. so please see through the bumps, and pardon the lack of a flow……

garden emergency! garden emergency!

it appears that after you’ve dwelled under the same roof as moi for, oh, a few weeks, or, heck, your whole lifetime, you get used to the regular punch of the panic alarm.

might be the smoke billowing up from the stove. might be a critter whimpering by the backdoor, come lookin’ for a spoonful of sugar, or a wrap in a blanket. might be me reading the news, tears rolling down my cheeks. or might be a phone call, one that sets me to frettin’ and gasping.

whatever it is, you learn to take it in holy stride. “oh, that’s mama,” they mutter, “ridin’ one of her heart-yankin’ roller coasters.”

so it was the other afternoon, or honestly, it was inching into the dinner hour.

that’s when i up and shot from my typing room, where i’d been tethered all day, tap-tapping away on the keys. never mind that tummies were growling, the kiddies pining away for a plain simple supper. a cold boiled potato, in fact, might have been all they wished for.

oh, well. chalk one up for the department of children and family services’ checklist: mama abandons her kids, chooses the trowel over the cook pot.

why, with nary a second thought (save for the swift pang of guilt as i jabbed toward the pantry, called out, “how ’bout a pretzel?”), i slipped into my pink rubber garden clogs and shot into the beds.

over my shoulder, i let out a whoop, my way of explaining: “garden emergency! garden emergency!”

the emergency, in case you are starting to wonder, was this: the nice weatherman was forecasting, in no wishy-washy words, one of those hell’s-on-its-way scenarios, in which temperatures would shoot to a shrieking 100-and-something by daybreak, and my latest adoptees from the big-box nursery would be dead in their pots if i did not get them safely into ol’ mother earth, who tends far better than i do to her sweet growing things.

sure enough, when i got to the site of impending doom, where three wee delphiniums sat gasping for water, itching to kick off their hard-plastic pots and let out their roots, i hollered back for assistance. “yo, can i have a pair of hands, please?”

on demand, as i started to dig my delphinium trenches, the tall muscular man-child trod out to quell the commotion.

with nary the skip of a beat, he cranked up the full-throttle mockery, one of his signature charades in which he slips into voice, into character, and makes out like a visiting thespian, or simply an unsuspecting body-snatcher who slithers into the form of my firstborn. this time, he made like he was the surgical assistant, and i was the mad doctor, hooked on plant-booster potions.

all i’d done was ask–all right, it was rather high-pitched and panicky–if he could please pass me the osmocote, those wee little pellets i shake into every plant trench i dig. mere fat yellow bits–think oversized dandruff–they somehow manage to supercharge the roots of the tender green darlings, give them the boost they need to get growing.

as that boy-man stood serving my rat-a-tat pleases and thank-yous, passing me vials of root-booster, taking hold of the trowel when i tossed it his way, he whooped it up big time, mimicking my heightened state of emergency. with the flip of some invisible switch, he’d slipped into a riff in which i was some sort of garden-y addict (all dolled-up in pink shoes and pruners), and osmocote was my hallucinogen of choice.

wasn’t long till we both nearly buckled (or at least i did; he’s pretty good at not breaking face), our knees shaking from laughter, me seeing certain and clear my pure, utter foolishness.

it’s a beautiful thing, the gift of a child who sees through to every last one of your foibles, and loves you anyway. makes you see your quirks and eccentricities as part of the formula that makes you the wall-banger you happen to be.

God love the all-purpose balm that is laughter. God love those with the gift of shoveling it deeply into each and every day.

once the hysteria cleared, though, and my babies were settled in their beds, the rich loamy covers pulled up over their roots, i couldn’t help but notice that i do, in fact, think of my garden as a blanket of bliss that covers my slice of the globe.

i have, in fact, come to tend to each sweet growing thing as if her life depends, to some feeble degree, on my care and attention. and when, for instance, a once-dying fern is up and moved and springs back to life, i can’t help but breathe deep the satisfaction of life finding a way to keep at it anyway.

i don’t mean, really, to abandon my hungry children. it’s just that i’ve come to think of all the trying-to-live things in my life as part of my big moppy crew. and every last one, i hold quite close to my heart.

somehow i doubt i’m the only one with quirks here at the table (and believe me, the ones up above are merely the start of it). do you have one or maybe even two? are there folks in your world who’ve taught you that those silly things you do, you insist on, are really a part of the whole equation, and, like the soft spots in an apple (where the bees bumped into the wee baby fruit) just add to the overall sweetness?

storm’s comin’

i don’t even need to turn on the news to hear the squawkin’ ’bout the weather. don’t really need to turn to the back page of the newspaper, the one with all the arrows and the polka-dotted map and the adjectives to scare the dickens out of any sorry soul who’s lost her woolen mittens.

all’s i have to do is look to where the sky is turning marbled gray, the color of the pigeons who, right now, are gobbling up all the seed that they can wrestle in their beaks.

or, before the pigeons came, shooshed away the cardinals and the jays and all the sparrows, there was the buzz in the grocery line. you can tell a lot about the day looking at what is rolling down the check-out belt.

today there was not a lot of fuss over, say, artichokes or lamb chops. oh, no, this was a milk-by-the-gallon, and orange-juice-too sort of day.

this is a day to batten down the hatches, simmer soup, crank the oven, stock up on sidewalk salt. you can feel it in the cracklin’ that’s making hairs, and fur, and feathers, too, stand on end. you should see the squirrels vacuum-cleaning crumbs and crusty donut bits, as if there’s no tomorrow.

you see, here where arctic winds hurl their bowling balls of snow and ice down the alley called the great lake of michigan, here before the towers–hancock, sears and all the rest–do their muscled best to block the mighty gusts, we stand ready to shiver and shiver hard, as day turns to dusk turns to stormy whirling night.

worst drop in temps in a quarter century–fiercest, fastest downslide, they are saying–is due to hit any hour now, with winds whipping up to 50 miles an hour (“punishing winds,” my weather page tells me). it’s enough, they warn, to turn rush hour into a hefty bowl of blanc-en-blanc potage.

and i, a girl who loves some drama in my winter doldrums, say bring it on.

there’s nothin’ that gets me stirring quite like the hurl of howling winds. snow pelting on the window panes. the whiff of snow day in the air.

i woulda made one fine pioneer, i tell you. i hunker down, i brace for storm, like i am annie oakley’s long-lost sister.

i caught wind of what was brewing early on today. i made my way straight to the store. stocked up, i did, on milk and popcorn kernels, the two staples of extended hibernation.

before i unzipped my coat, flung my mittens to the pile, i was chopping, sauteing, starting me a toothsome corn-and chicken zoup.

i’ll not let my children starve, not let them shiver either. i’ve got blankets at the ready, and muffins in the oven. oh, lord, this day is a day for making like a mama bear bolting for the cave. we will bathe in what is warm and fortifying. we’ll not let the storm, well, take us by storm.

while stirring onions, beans and broth, i mused a bit about this winter blessing. the forecasting of winds and cold that gives us quite a warning.

what of life, though, i thought, that we don’t know, ever, when a storm is just around our bend.

in plain old life–not the life of weather maps and wind chills–we pick up the phone, and poof, there’s a winter storm on the line. we are driving here or there and, kebang, we just skidded off the road.

life gives no warning, unlike arctic rustlings.

and so, in life, we are left to be always stocked deep down inside with whatever it takes to weather whatever life throws our way. be it a broken neck on growing child. or an email baring threats. one day we think we’re basking in the balm of spring, and, kaboom, the next we are chilled and shaking in our wintry boots.

it is resilience, then, that we must line our inner shelves with. and unswerving faith, stored in gallon jugs, that we need on hand to make sure we can ride out any storm.

i’d say we do best with a host of friends, the ones who appear, as if by blessed magic, at our front door, the hospital bedside, or even as they rush our broken, bloodied child to the ambulance.

we need to live, this makes me think, stocked and ready, for what ever roiling winds come our way.

what a blessing, then, that when it’s merely ice and snow, we’ve got all the warning in the world.

oh, there’s the buzzer now. my muffins–chock full of apples and cranberry and a good dose of mother love–are golden brown, and ready to emerge, just before the winter storm starts swirling out the window.

do you like winter storms, or any brewing, bubbling weather as much as i do? and what would you say is essential to keep in the larder of your life, so you can weather winds that blow far harder, far more fiercely sometimes than any arctic puffer?

when chill, er, arctic winds blow…

with all its might that mercury is push-push-pushing, trying with every ounce of january muscle to get up to where the one meets the zero, calls itself a brisk ten above.

even the rhododendron leaves, just outside my window, are curled tight into a rod, curled as if their life depends upon it, which in fact it does.

the feathered traffic at the feeder is slow to none, and, mostly, sparrow shiver in the pines. i think they’d like to call for carry-in, or better yet delivery. but the lines, i fear, are iced.

the morning when the world is frozen is a morning when you’d prefer, perhaps, to catch the nearest plane to tahiti. but, dang, that would entail walking to the curb–at least–to catch the taxicab.

so instead, why not do what i love best, and make yourself a list. a list is a beautiful thing. a romantic thing. you sketch your hopes and dreams. tick them off in little snippets. barely even have to finish your thought. you know what you mean. it’s you, for cryin’ out loud, making that there list.

so, then, with no ado–it’s too cold for adoing–here is the way i’d like to spend a ch-ch-chilly day at the end of a long, long, long, long week:

*crank the brand-new tunes my manchild made for me, the soundtrack, perhaps, from “once,” the movie a dear old friend told me months ago would inspire me. he was right. and now i can’t stop mumbling with all the words, my own odd version of pretending i too can sing along. which i can’t. just ask my boys. even the cat took to under the bed.

*fill the troughs, pour hot water into bowls for all the critters. there is nothing so satisfying–for this faux farmer girl–as making sure that all God’s creatures are duly fed and watered. i’d distribute little blankets if i could, but instead i put out extra christmas trees so they could harbor in the branches. more real estate, the better for those birds, way i figure it.

*grab the mcdonald’s coupon books, and drive to where it’s dark and even colder. pass out books to every hungry hand that reaches your direction. give the folks on lower wacker drive a place, and means, for getting in and out from this coldest cold. God bless my mama who gave me those books for just this purpose. God bless the soul who inspired her, whose story we found out only when he died, how he spent his winters doling out hundreds of dollars in vouchers for a hamburger and fries, and a hot, hot coffee that bought a seat where heat was all but guaranteed.

*once back home, grind the beans and get your own hot coffee going. stoke the steel-cut oats, while you’re at it, too. i’ve got the grandest formula these days: scottish steel-cut oats, 1/4 cup; water, 1 cup; sprinkle of salt (don’t ask me why, all i know is it works); flaxseed, 2 tsps.; sprinkling organic raisins, cranberries, apricot, chopped; 1 walnut, 1 almond, chopped; dry milk, 1/3 cup; cinnamon, a good stiff shake or three. now, get the water and the salt a bubblin’, stir and dump the oats, then all the rest. let it simmer half an hour. dump it in your favorite bowl (mine is red with fat white stripe), grab a porridge spoon (mine is wooden, and it sailed in from old vermont). take a seat at the kitchen table, staring out at birds, who might be staring back at you. invite them in, for heaven’s sake. they might love the porridge.

*whisper benediction for the oats, the birds, and all the souls far colder than you have ever been. pray to God that warmth blows in, deep and boldly to their souls. don’t let them die, God, frozen to the city’s underbelly.

*and, besides all that, the best idea for how i’d like to spend an arctic day is invite a house full of folks i love. cook all day the day before, and fill the vases with blooms galore. stack the logs to make a fire. putter here and there, making it a house that shines, and shouts: warmth dwells here. come in, come in. leave your cares outside, where chill winds won’t stop blowing.

peace i wish you at the end of this long week. and warm toes besides.

do you like lists as much as i do? what would you do on a chilly arctic day when the poor old mercury makes it up to 10, then dwindles back to less than zero?

red alert

i didn’t notice the first day. and not really the second day. but, by the third day, the third bitter cold day in a row, the third day when the unfurling of scarlet as it darted from pine bough to naked magnolia was decidedly absent, i started to worry.

now, worrying, in case you don’t know, is something i do exceedingly well. comes naturally. like breathing, only in staccato. only in spending the morning with an eye out the window, watching, combing the sky and the branches. on fullest alert.

as i watched without reason to hope, as i thought of the bitterest cold, i remembered the words of my mama telling me how so many birds from her flock had been lost, in the deep snap of cold.

“couldn’t survive,” she declared in that way that she does, unspooling for all of her nestlings all the mysteries of nature, of life and of death. she seems to know things that come from a long life of breathing in sync with the birds and the woods and the clouds.

and so, as the image of a little red bird, fallen somewhere, on the unforgiving crust of the snow, made the hairs on my neck rise, i thought of climbing in boots, commencing a search. imagined the crunch through the snow, pulling back branches, poking through all of the grasses, now frozen and matted and frankly quite knotted, that i’d left in the yard for the winter, for the birds who might savor their seed, or their harbor, on a day not too cold to put wind to their wings.

then i thought of the hawk. the great cooper’s hawk, the one with the tail so big and so thick i once mistook it for an owl–and that was merely the tail. add the head and the wings and the muscle-bound chest under all of those feathers and you’ve got a bird you should fear.

and fear it they do, all my fine feathered friends. one mere swoop of the hawk through the sky, clears all of the branches of birds. they scatter, i swear, when that hawk is a mile away. they know, before i see a thing, that death in the clutches of indiscriminate beak, or in talons the size of a three-penny nail, is a death to avoid.

and then, always, there is the cat. the cat that i feed twice a day. the cat who curls up on my lap, and purrs like a chevy with ’58 fins. that cat, i pretend, knows better than to touch a red bird. if that cat crosses that line, comes home with a dried bit of feathery red there where he does all his licking, that cat will be dispatched to the dungeon. and i like to think–though i’m sure i’m kidding myself–that he’s too tender-hearted to torment me so cruelly, to partake of papa the cardinal.

while all these horrible endings swirled in my head, i ached for the red bird–papa, i call him–who, whenever he darts through my day, brings me a deep knowing that i’ve been touched by a something divine.

i can be pouring a tall dose of coffee, there by my little side window, and, poof, there’s papa, his bright scarlet frock nestled right there in the bushes just inches away.

or, as i haul out the trash, or dash to an errand that should have been started nearly an hour before, there’s papa. cheer-cheering from top of the oak. or playing peek-a-boo in the pines.

wherever he comes, whenever he flashes his colors, my soul breathes a sigh that makes me feel wholly at home. he brings the divine down to the earthliest minute.

now, i know that a bird is not mine. these birds all around me belong to the heavens. and the trees they inhabit, just happen to be near to me and my four-walled nest.

but, over time, a particular possessiveness creeps in the equation. they are mine, i am theirs. together we do a fine dance. a dance i’m not willing to end.

and so, in the hours when i’d noticed his absence, when i raked all the limbs, when i scoured the ground, i felt the depth of that dance in my heart, realized the intricate wiring between me and my red-banner bird.

it is, perhaps, the shock of the color itself, heart-stopping, really, against the bleak gray of the winter undressed, or the white of the winter, fully attired.

it is that sign from above that amid the humdrum, the everyday, there comes, without warning, without siren, the scarlet cloak that whispers, “your day was just touched.”

it is hope when i need it, a charge when i’ll take it. it is, some lonely hours, as if the Holiest One is tapping there at my window, the answer to an unwhispered prayer.

and so it was, when, after three days that felt like three weeks, that flash once again caught me unawares. i was minding my business–i’d forgotten if only for a bit of a while that i needed to worry–when, suddenly, there at the feeder perched papa.

i moved close to the window, as close as i could without startling my too-long-gone friend. close enough to see his little heart pounding, there under the reddest of breasts. my heart pounded as well.

for a minute there, the other day, me and a bird from somewhere on high, we beat the same song with the whole of our hearts. papa was home, was safe, wasn’t buried, stiff in the snow.

his absence now over, i’ve not yet let go of the sense that i–and he–was saved from a terrible sorrow.

sometimes it takes a bit of a scare to remember how blessed we are.

sometimes we don’t feel the depth of a plug in our heart, until it is pulled. until there’s a hole and it’s gaping.

only then, sadly, do we realize that without that something we love, that something we count on, our breathing is not wholly ours. it depends on grace all around us. it depends on the touch under the sheets in the night, on the peck on the cheek in the doorway, or the flash of a wing in the branches.

the red bird out my window taught me that lesson this week. gentle bird, messenger bird. bird in heavenly red. bird that beckons attention.

have you seen a sign lately? a celestial sign? some sign from above that reminds you the earthliest truth? have you come to know, only too late, how deeply you miss some grace note you’d taken for granted? any one else feel a particular kinship to the reddest bird in these parts (save for the tanager who seems too scarce for everyday musings)?

you thought who was in charge?

last night, in the dark, we couldn’t see. after the winds died, after the rain slowed to a lull, we swung beams of the flashlights, raked flickering bulbs through the limbs of the trees, searching for ones who’d not made it.
the sky the color of bruises, when the bump on your shin turns that god-awful purply-green, i ventured out to the street that had turned to a river. saw whole halves of trees sprawled in their dying, smack against asphalt, what had been the lanes but now was the slow-stirring current.
i couldn’t stay long, though, because the rain, like a faucet, turned on again. and the lightning wasn’t far either.
and besides, inside was as dark as the outside. maybe darker. looked, by now, like little house on the prairie. most likely, a long night ahead, making like ma pioneer and her kinfolk.
candles were burning. i’d stolen an armful from the fridge, before it lost all its cool. i would make do: near-frozen sausage, cold squares of pasta, brussel sprouts i managed to steam.
it doesn’t take long to stand in amazement at the power of the electrical grid. you bump along into realizing, one after the other, just how much of your life cannot be, when the lights dim, then flicker, then die.
all the hum of the house stopped. there wasn’t a sound but the pounding of rain, and the little one’s gasp.
we’d all been in the basement. watching the news on tv. watching the red splotches right over our town on the map that showed where the storm was, that spelled out the wrath of the late summer’s fury.
we went to the basement when the trees went horizontal. when all that was green turned to silvery-gray. because nothing was up anymore. everything turned on its side. even the rain came in sideways.
it had taken three hours for the one new to high school to get home from the school just five miles away. with a late summer tornado in the offing, they’d locked down the campus. stuffed some 1,000 kids into the cafeteria. then, when they got the all-clear, when they let them onto the buses, it took a good hour to course home through the downed power lines and the trees that were blocking the streets.
he came in with a soaking-wet smile. it had been a five-star adventure.
we thought the worst of it was over. but that’s when the lights dimmed and died. a gasp, then a shudder, then darkness.
we three in the basement, the deeply black basement, we shuffled and groped for each other. we climbed up the stairs, dug out the candles, the matches, the flashlights.
we got a call from the village. do not leave your houses, they warned. there were trees down all over town. roads blocked. power lines dangling. live ones, they made sure to mention.
i figured we were in for a few days of darkness. gulped hard, realized once the last drop of light was wrung from the fading night sky, this game would get old. i’d not want to play pioneer. i’d long for the microwave popcorn.
the little one, the one who takes flashlights to bed, he thought this was pure heaven. put himself in charge of dessert, scoured the pantry looking for sweet things you could eat that didn’t need light or heat. believe me, he was stocked within minutes.
but just as we sat down to our candle-lit dinner, the dinner prepared by the gas of the stove, the lights, brighter than i’d remembered, it seemed, snapped right back on. the whole house, the whole street, dotted with lights that any other night i’d take wholly for granted.
the tv, once again on, told us the winds had whipped up to 80 miles an hour. some 1200 trees were down in the city. light poles too. cars and houses were crushed.
then the call from the school came. high school, which had been in session for all of one day and a half, was cancelled. the back-to-school buzz was put on hiatus. and, believe it or not, that was not news met with a grateful reception. it was rather deflating to a boy who’d just gathered the steam to start climbing that steep high-school hill.
and so, not much later, i rolled into a bed with an alarm clock blinking beside me. and all through the night i tossed and i turned to the far-off wail of the sirens.
when light came, i tiptoed out where before i’d not been able to see. i looked into trees, heard the sigh from all that survived.
i tried to tend to the wounded. dragged broken limbs off of bushes, hauled logs from the garden.
on a morning of eerie strange calm, in the dawn of an unsettled day, it’s not hard to get goosebumps.
it’s not hard, not at all, to remember that not for a minute do we know what each hour will bring. on a dime, winds change. the sky turns to odd ugly colors. all that was, might not be.
don’t bother to think that you are in charge of what’s scribbled there on the calendar, or even what hangs in the trees.
someone else blows the wind.

the wrath of a late summer’s fury leaves the world weak at the knees. most of all, is everyone safe? when you surveyed the scene in the morning did you hear a few cracks in your heart? is it not humbling to learn once again that we are but markers on the game board that is our small planet? all across the country, the sweep of weather’s great wrath is tweaked and twisted. my ugly day might be your beautiful morning. not a bad back-to-school lesson: count on little, but do count your mercies. some mornings, they’re big as the trees that still scrape the sky.

requiem for the spring that will not be


i cannot let this heartbreak pass without taking time to sing a song of sorrow.

the petaled promise of spring, everywhere, it seems, is bent, is broken, downed by something silent that came under cloak of night, but also in the klieg light glare of high morning, when the sun, at full slant, could not make its way through molecules of cold.

i have walked for miles, i have taken toll. i know now the litany of the dead, the blooms that will not be. star magnolia, petals browned like egg whites under too much butter, too much flame. only this is brown from freezing. daffodils, whole hosts, bowed in cold defeat, heads down, limp in dirt that might as well be burial mounds. bergenia, a woodland beauty sometimes known as pigsqueak, has lost its squeal. exhibit a, up above; the barnyard must be weeping.

i know i am.

barely a week ago, when winds were filling lungs, getting ready to let loose, when the air was balmy 70, we heard the rather mild-mannered news, the short-burst alarm: temperatures might dip. take precaution.

precaution, we presumed, was tossing blankets helter skelter overnight. and lifting in the morning. the danger past, the sun back up, all caution scattered with the noonday wind.

but then, the cold, it stayed. the daffodils, days later, still haven’t raised their heads from deepest dying bow. the magnolia never had a chance. one day, its velvet fingers, gloved in alabaster. but then, the next, all froze, and kept on freezing. there will be no bloom this year. there will only be brown buds falling to the ground, botanic bullets shot through with frozen death.

promise lost before it even had a chance.

which sounds, to the children’s cancer nurse in me, too much like life sometimes. this narrative we know, not only from the garden.

all around, i walk through springtime frozen on the stem; i ask myself just what it means. what lesson is this teaching?

i called a man who knows many things about the garden. he said it’s death on case-by-case basis. depends, he said, on micro-climate. vigor of the plant before the cold winds came. says he’s never seen anything like it, not this much cold, this long, preceded by solar-heated days that coaxed the blooms, coaxed spring, right from the earth, from winter.

way he sees it, he says, it’s just a blip for planet earth. a mere blink of the eye for the globe that’s spun for zillions of millions of revolutions.

buck up, he pretty much says. these growing things grow here because, through the millennia, they’ve done the darwin thing. they’ve got little tricks up their long green sleeves. but there will be no blooms. toast, he boomed, time after time, no matter what i mentioned, full of hope, some growing thing, perhaps, merely suspended in freeze-frame animation.

toast, he cried. toast, toast. i could hear him shake his head; pity the poor lady with skull so thick she’s dense.

at best, the wise man offered, the growing things dig deep inside their little souls, extract a blast of carbohydrate, give it everything they’ve got to unfurl their leaves, take a chance at air and light and a good stiff drink of rain.

it’ll be an iffy proposition from here on out, this season. too little rain, too many pests–oh no, here comes his favorite word–“toast!” he crowed again.

scooching out to the edge of this most precarious limb, i asked the hard-baked gardener if he saw any metaphysics in all this burned botanic bread. “this is nature,” he said, shooing me away to take another call.

well, half the reason i come to class is i’m convinced there is much to learn in the not-so-tidy rows of my struggling garden.

as i tiptoed through the swath where my daffodils once tossed their pretty heads, scissors at the ready, at last surrendered to the notion that there would be no resurrection, i mused long and hard on all this would-not-be.

walking miles, shuffling past the dead and fallen, i rumbled thoughts through head. why death? why so much frozen death?

the singular thing that struck me was how this scourge rolled in without a sound, without a whimper even. this was not destruction with a drum roll, no whipping winds and thunder claps, nor streaks of light that tore the sky in jagged halves.

this was, like so much of life’s unwanted news, completely unannounced.

one minute you’re talking to your papa on the phone; the next you’ve got an operator on the line, interrupting some other silly call, telling you to clear the line, someone must get through, someone needs to tell you it’s very, very bad, you need to get there fast.

one minute you think your firstborn son is out riding his bike on a golden autumn day filled with light and promise; the next, the doctor is leaning against the hard cold wall, telling you it’s a fractured vertebrae in his neck and the spinal cord itself looks to be in trouble.

you think of all the friends you’ve loved, whose news came in fractured syllables: a dark spot on a lung, a blob they couldn’t see through, ’bout the size of a cotton ball, on an unsuspecting breast.

they never knew it was coming. you never knew it was coming. it was suddenly just here. it was the sub-freezing dawn in the middle of your spring.

you too, drooped your head into the dirt. you too forgot to breathe. case-by-case basis, the plant man said. some will make it. others won’t.

you, not willing to go with door no. 2, you dig down deep inside your carbohydrate stores. you give it everything you’ve got.

some will make it.

you swallow deep your sorrow, and plow on into spring. you pray to God warm winds are on their way.

just there, beyond the window, in the hoary morning’s frost, you set your gaze on daffodils, a humbled host, stilled, not breathing at half mast.

you, though, you take a breath. you brace against the chill. you carry on, intrepid, into spring. no one says it doesn’t sting. no one…

anyone care to offer up a line, or stanza, in this song of frozen springtime sorrow? or some sign of resurrection in the field?