This February we experienced the deepest snows and coldest temps since moving into our little yellow bungalow. I was beginning to think we lived in a southern climate until the negative windchills rattled our windows and deep drifts muffled my garden dreams. But as is the course of all extreme weather events, the pendulum has swung back to a lovely week of balmy breezes and the recent polar vortex fades into memory but for a few scraps of white clinging to the edges of driveways. 

Once again we count ourselves fortunate as we watch the aftermath of grid failure in warmer lands completely unprepared for such arctic extremes. No doubt lives have been totally disrupted and altered by conditions that they couldn’t control. In a heartbeat all that you’ve counted on can disappear along with power, food and water, violently shoving your life in a very different direction. I was reminded of the polar vortex in January 2014, when our house in the suburbs suddenly lost electricity after a heavy snow along with one other house right before the temperatures dropped forty degrees overnight to -11 Fahrenheit. By the next day, 100,000 households were out all over the city with restricted travel, but we were the only ones in our neighborhood.

Luckily, my family could stay with our generous neighbors across the street while waiting three days for the electric company to get around to restoring power for only two houses (which consisted of flipping a switch at an electrical box by the street). In the meantime our house temperature dropped to below freezing and every liquid froze (even the shampoo) as my husband kept a fire going in the fireplace during the day. We made the wise decision to drain the water pipes which saved our plumbing. Our neighbors in the same boat were not so fortunate, sustaining $20,000 in water damage. 

Afterward, many suggested we get a generator or a wood stove to prevent a repeat of a supposedly rare occurrence (which seems to be occurring more often now). The street-side power station that malfunctioned was later replaced. But I couldn’t seem to get warm again even after the house eventually thawed out and the frozen bottles returned to liquid. Our illusion of safety was gone, and we were tired of maintaining a home that was too big for us as we’d outgrown the suburban lifestyle. Over the years we’d dismissed the nudges of change as merely annoying little snowballs that finally grew in size until reaching avalanche proportions on the heels of an arctic clipper. I feared an iceberg was next.

And so four months later we put our house on the market and sold it in a day. We gave away most of our furnishings and settled into a two-bedroom apartment with the assurance that the complex had backup generators. Snow removal was included in the rent, and we could walk to stores for food and supplies. But the appliances were all electric and there was no fireplace. In extreme cold the fire sprinklers in our ceilings would have burst and we couldn’t turn off our water and drain the pipes if we wanted to. In three years, we would move on as part of the five-year odyssey to find community and sustainability in an increasingly isolated world where you barely know your neighbor.

I will never forget the family who lived right next door to us in the suburbs who knew of our plight but never even offered to run an extension cord over to power our portable heater for an hour or so. To add insult to injury, our house sat dark and frozen while their house was luridly aglow from the extravagant Christmas decorations that were still up and running. As I watch the same selfish and negligent acts unfold on the news while Texans struggle to survive, I wonder if we will ever find a way to get along and work together in community with such a sense of distrust and entitlement rampant in our culture while the lack of foresight and preparedness continues to undermine our very existence as a species.

These days we still don’t have a fireplace or generator but our wishlist for power backup includes solar and a wood-burning stove. For now our gas stovetop will have to do. 

Time On My Hands

I see by the date of my last post in July that many moons have passed since I posted. Indeed, the act of writing itself has become foreign to me while my hands were used to weed, water and plant seeds. The cultivated earth mistress that demanded most of my attention this year has finally been put to bed, all 5,000 square feet of her. I look at my hands beat up by countless days of cuts from the soil knife or spines off the squash vines, and can actually see clean fingernails as familiar calluses fade into the paleness of my skin.

For the first time in months, I have time on my hands and I find myself a bit lost. The house cries out for attention–closets full of items tossed in randomly for lack of space or safety from sharp kitten teeth, floors that need a good scrubbing to rid them of ground-in garden soil, receipts piled in a drawer with budgets long neglected, paintings and craft projects waiting to be finished before spring. (I could go on, but it’s too early in the day to start drinking.)

I look around in amazement and wonder what happened to that obsessive-compulsive overachieving minimalist who used to inhabit this body sitting here on another dreary mideast morning, the sun that I used to curse for heatstroke by midmorning in the summer, now nowhere to be seen. Wild birds huddle at the feeders outside my insulated windows and the nearly full-grown cat I rescued is squeezed into her favorite cardboard box that’s now three sizes too small for her.

Like a growing child who puts on last year’s winter clothes, I find that my old ways and concerns no longer fit me in this new life of organic gardening, rural living and community consciousness. I’ve learned so much beyond what not to plant next year, or how to manage when the power goes out. I’ve tested my physical limits and personal boundaries this year, and found out when to say no. I’ve become more of a realist and less of a dreamer, although my imagination is still sparked by the light glinting off of dewy spiderwebs and ice-encased red berries.

I’m back to long walks on the wild trails down by the river with my spouse, a patient man who has put up with my obsessions and depressions for over 30 years. Finally, we have the luxury of staying home on snow days without the guilt or grueling commute on dangerous roads. And because of the little community we live in, we can avoid the isolation that rural life often demands in the winter. Gathering together on cold, dark nights before solstice for food, music and laughter, or organizing a trip to the college town close by, are perfect anecdotes to the winter blues.

Meanwhile, there’s still some kale sleeping under its winter blanket, pale parsnips waiting to be harvested from frozen ground, and plenty of sweet potatoes to last us through the holidays. It’s been a good year and time to celebrate.

Maybe I’ll even paint my fingernails.

My Reason for the Season

Thanksgiving is becoming an afterthought in our quest to rush through the holidays. The fact that it’s slinking in the backdoor of November this year doesn’t help. My husband and I caught the tail end of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on primetime TV last night and wondered, Since when did they start running this stop-motion harbinger of Christmas toy commercials before the Thanksgiving bird is even stuffed?

Sure, there is lip service done to the practice of gratitude over a gluttonous meal on a particular November Thursday, but I can’t seem to block out the noisy fights over stores opening early to beat the Black Friday rush, or the mistreatment committed on poultry farms, or the ever-popular fears about blowing our restrictive diets.

In a few hours I will pull down the lid to my laptop of turmoil and shut off the world’s woes for a journey of reflection. Winter’s sharp tongue causes me to pull inward, to sit by the home fires and whisper encouraging words to myself as encompassing darkness approaches.

My tasks are laid out like soft flannel for the long night. I have a new body to get to know, a pile of worries and baggage to knit up into something useful, and a half-century of traditions and habits that need to be sorted and tossed into the flames. There is a waiting host of wondrous dreams that have existed only in my imagination. Their frail constitutions need warming in the glow of possibility.

My wish is simple. May you be able, in this spinning holiday dervish of a dance, to find a quiet corner, to stand stock still until the ripples fade from your over-scheduled lives. And clearly see who you are.

Winter’s Love

The light is pale and thin this season. Whenever I catch a ray, I settle in like a cat with a nap. There is precious little of the sun, and I want to take full advantage.

Every winter has a personality, I believe. Last year’s was hostile and biting, keeping us prisoners with icy indifference, coldly holding us hostage to its frigid whims.

This year’s cousin is an antidote, a poor relation to the last one’s power. It is soggy and mild, and oh so drab. The clothes it wears are always monochromatic. It can creep up on us without a threat, and cover us with the dull ache of sameness before we know it.

I find myself almost missing the former’s ferocious dedication. Like a demanding lover, it made me feel alive.

The State of My Union

Uh oh. Is that yellow snow I see?

This one’s personal, not political. I got to thinking earlier this week about the benefits of reviewing “the messes I get myself into,” otherwise known as my path. I believe it is prudent to be accountable every so often, to see whether life as I know it still works. For me and everyone else.

The Castle. Also called the Hair Palace. We’re down to a cat and a dog as our four-legged companions. (For the well-meaning — no, we do not want any more roommates right now, thank you.) With all my spare time and lovely empty space, you’d think the place would be spotless. Fail. I blame it on excessive shedding: mine, pets, and squirrels. Unfortunately, daily schedules don’t work for me. Only complete vacuum anarchy imposed by my spouse.

Mother Nature. Where others see only unemployment and stagnation, I’m digging the chance to stay home and watch the cold beauty of winter from my (relatively) warm kitchen. As long as I overlook all the yellow snow in the backyard. From the dog. (Why am I still hearing Zappa in my head?)

Art. Okay, those who know me, please don’t tell my mother. Yet. My mom and I have had a lifelong struggle over the making of art, to create or not to create. To keep or not to keep. She was an oil painter, I was a jack-of-all-trades, and guess what, my daughter lives and breathes art, starting from the moment she could hold a crayon. These days, I can only “do” art when it pleases me. And as long as I don’t become the pack mule of art supplies that I used to be, I’m happy to give it room on my plate. It may or may not appear on this blog in the future.

Hobbies. Dare I say it? A simpler life is opening the door to old pastimes. The new twist is that I can commit and be held accountable to online communities who encourage delicious projects in knitting, photography, writing and journaling. Maybe even cooking, but I could be pushing my luck there. Again, as long as I don’t rush out and buy the latest crafty gadget or gizmo, I can still be a minimalist and a hobbyist, mostly with what I already own. More on these in upcoming posts.

Facebook. It seems there’s been a lot of deleting and deactivating going on in the blogosphere. I’m keeping my account because a) it is private and b) less than 100 friends. And I know all of them, from one part of my life or another. I don’t chat. I don’t play games. (Sound like a lot of fun, don’t I?) I keep my wall posts down to one or less a day. And I’ve shut off most email notifications to control my clicking addiction.

Facebook (Again). For me, this social scene is worth every annoying privacy breach blocked, if only for the connections I’ve made with old friends who have been missing in action over the years. In some cases, we’ve reunited right before a major event in our lives, when we need each other the most. There will be follow-ups through phone calls, greeting cards and visits, but I can’t ignore the online synchronicities.

Astrology. I know, everybody’s been asking. If this is some astronomer’s idea of a joke, then I think they better revisit the whole Pluto debacle, too. My answer is that the shift in the constellations has been known since the first century and the old zodiac won’t work with 13 signs. I’m just amazed at how many folks who don’t believe in this stuff get all riled up when they aren’t Scorpios or other signs anymore. Maybe if Ophiuchus was the “football-bearer” instead of messing about with snakes, he would be better received.

That’s probably enough from my state of mind. If you’ve hung on this long, I thank you and promise fermented libations when you next see me. For those lost along the way, I can only hope they gleaned something useful and took it back to their own lives and communities.

Just remember: we’re all in this together.

Where You Can Go For The Winter

I’m thinking my cat has the right idea so far this season. At present, he is interred inside his “cat” cave under the bedroom dresser, with some special nip and a mini-fridge full of cow juice. Bring on the blizzards, Old Man Winter.

This cat’s wintertime residence of choice is an antique chest of drawers with attached mirror, made of either curly maple or pine (debated heatedly by my parents) which has a small space under the lowest drawer perfect for hibernation. Not too shabby.

The call came early this year for our feline. He settled in well before Thanksgiving, despite the unseasonably warm temps. Come to think of it, seems like all the animals (yes, that means YOU squirrels) were desperate to find warm accommodations even while Mother Nature was lulling people into complacency with a near perfect Indian summer.

Little did we humans know.

It finally broke thirty the other day as I was writing this, and residents practically danced in the streets (if not for the ice slicks that will be with us until the spring thaw). Since the first of December, a great deal of the country has been plunged into the deep freezer, and according to jittery forecasters there is more cold misery and mess on the way.

Wha? And it was so hot this summer, too. Can’t figure this crazy weather out. But evidently my cat can.

He’s found himself a cheap, efficient micro-studio featuring wall-to-wall lined with fur (since I never vacuum under there) and a good view of the pool/water dish. It even offers a spacious cathedral ceiling every time I pull out the drawer for clean socks (which he doesn’t really appreciate).

My cat has to put up with the neighbors, though. They are noisy, smelly and like to eat in their bed. They have an annoying habit of poking things into his apartment to see if he’s home. And they never seem to leave —  you’d think they were John and Yoko, for crying out loud, except it’s a bed-in for warmth. The peace part is questionable.

The unfortunate fact about our lovely tri-level house is that in the winter, there’s a good 10-degree difference between the upstairs and the downstairs, our lower levels closely resembling arctic tundra.

My husband and I make mad dashes down to the kitchen for sustenance, and we try not to linger. In the higher realm we have everything else necessary for life: shower, toilet and wifi.

Which makes us wonder why we own and care for the rest of our real estate, when a good six months of the year we play John and Yoko (uh-oh, I just blew our covers). Every winter, we become more convinced that we need very little in order to not only survive, but be content, if not downright happy.

Frankly, hibernation looks appealing right now. If I could do a Yogi Bear with a box of jelly donuts and a down comforter for the coming months, would I really miss that much? What do I have to look forward to besides frostbite, a slippery commute and possibly the flu.

Like I said, the cat’s onto something.

10 Signs It Will Be a Hard Winter


1.  The wooly worms are wearing parkas.

2.  The cat has settled in for the season — on your bed.

3.  You have the urge to bulk up on fat. And brandy.

4.  You find nuts in your shoes.

5.  The concept of body hair grows on you.

6.  You take up knitting and crochet to keep warm.

7.  Critters are on the waiting list to live in your crawl space.

8.  Stores have already run out of milk and toilet paper.

9.  Checking for drafts becomes an indoor sport.

10. Uggs start to look fashionable.

Bonus sign:  The geese have flown south this year. For real.