Friday, December 08, 2006


In Which We Keep Our Feet on the Path...

When I got back to the old pasture that night in the blizzard, I had serious second thoughts. Well, okay, third or fourth thoughts. The flat, open expanse was a veritable spillway for the cutting winds that were roaring through now. It was so cold I couldn't breathe; I had to turn and duck my head and cup my hands over my mouth to get even the smallest gulp of air. Even more disturbing, though, was that my feet, sheathed in sensibly warm boot socks and the very same kind of boots they wore up at the Mount Washington Observatory, were nevertheless fucking freezing. I couldn't stop to catch my breath. I had to keep moving, and so I did, slogging back to the forest, cursing myself with every numbing step.

Back in the woods, conditions were better, but only just. I had the flashlight on now, but it barely cast its light a few feet beyond me, so I was stumbling over lots of deadfall and brambles. I kept casting about, looking and listening for signs of cars, which would signify that I was parallel to the road that went around the lake on this side of town, but it was obvious that every other sensible person had already elected to hole up somewhere and wait out the storm (indeed, my brother ended up spending the night at work rather than risk the drive). Except for me, of course.

Oh, and Sasha.

Who a moment later came running at me out of the swirling snow and practically jumped in my arms. Evidently she hadn't turned and gone back up the hill, but had followed me across the town lot and through the forest. I had never been so glad to see anyone--human or canine--before.

Sasha, for her part, seemed completely unperturbed by the deteriorated weather. To her it was just a big frolic, and so she gamboled about me, jumping and woofing and urging me onward. Figuring her nose and sense of direction were much better navigational tools than my own, I followed gratefully, thinking Dear God, please let me have such a wonderful dog someday. That is, if I don't end up an ice sculpture out here in the woods. Amen.

Unfortunately, a few minutes later, I found myself in a kind of clearing. The trees had petered away to nothing and the wind was like the sweeping hand of a giant monster, pushing and pushing. Even Sasha hunched down in the snow as each colossal gust passed.

"What the hell?" I cried. Was I back in the pasture? Had Sasha led me in a big fat, circle, yet another metaphor for my life at the moment?

When the wind abated slightly, Sasha returned to bounding forward. I hung back, but when I did, she barked at me, ran to me, then ran back in the direction she was heading, like some latter-day Lassie leading me to the latest well Timmy had fallen down. She obviously had no doubts about where she was headed. So I continued, pushing my legs through the knee-high drifts, peering ahead in the feebly flashlit darkness, looking for any kind of landmark that would tell me where I was.

And then, almost miraculously, I saw a set of lights. They were tiny--almost pinpricks--but they clearly belonged to a car--a plow, in fact--and they moved slowly along an invisible line way off to my left.

Where the hell are they? I wondered to myself, trying to get reoriented. And then a moment later, my perspective slipped into place and I immediately stopped walking.

The question wasn't where the plow was. It was where I was. There was only one place, one large, flat expanse in town where I could see a plow on a road from such a long way off without my vision being impaired by a hill or stand of trees.

That place was the lake.

And Sasha had led me right out onto it.

Dear God, about that wonderful dog? Can you make him smarter and with a better sense of direction? Thanks.

I honestly didn't know what to do. Only a few days earlier, just before the storm, the weather up here had been unseasonably warm. Warm enough that the lake had not yet frozen over. And even if it had, I would never have had the nerve to walk out on the ice. Even my dad, who's pretty fearless, used to tell us how he'd always wait until January before daring to venture out on the lake to cut ice for the icehouse or do some ice-fishing. Between the weight of the snow and my own plodding footfalls, it was all too easy to imagine a growing web of cracks broadcasting out from beneath my feet at that very moment.

Sasha started barking and came running back, only now I saw that she was sliding just a little bit every time she came to a stop. I realized I was holding my breath and let it out in a fevered whoosh. I knew I'd wanted to make a change in my life, but breaking through the ice and drowning was a bit more of a drastic life-change than I really wanted. On the other hand, I couldn't just stay there. No one was going to come to me. In fact, I realized as my stomach turned to liquid, no one even knew where I was. The house had been empty when I went out and I'd left no note. So, carefully, gingerly putting each frozen foot down, willing myself to be lighter than I actually was, I slowly, agonizingly followed Sasha across the frozen lake, trying as we went to angle our path towards the place where I'd seen the lights of the plow. It would be dangerous to walk on the road, of course, but one hell of a lot better than where I was.

That was one of the longest half-hours of my life. I kept waiting to fall through and disappear, to be found in the spring thaw, blue and rigid, my GRE scores clutched in my petrified hand. Out on the lake, the wind was merciless, bringing me to my knees more than once and all but rendering me snowblind. It was loud, too, but not so loud that I couldn't hear a couple of deep, shuddering, thunderous sounds, which I took to be the newly frozen ice shifting beneath me.

Along the way, I thought of my mom's grandfather, Great-Papa Harry, who had worked for the railroads in the switching yards. To save trolleyfare in the winter, Harry would walk to work across the frozen surface of the Charles River. One cold January morning, he was late; no one knew where he was. It was assumed he was sick in bed, but about an hour after he was expected to punch in, he lurched through the door in clothes that were board-stiff and dripping with icicles. Halfway across the river on his morning walk to work, the ice gave way and he had nearly drowned. He was able to break through the ice a little further along the river, but every time he tried to heave himself up onto the surface, it would crumble beneath him. And so, like a human ice-breaker, arms windmilling furiously, he plowed his way to the opposite bank. He always claimed his exertions in trying to get across were what kept him warm enough to stave off freezing to death. When he got to the opposite bank he almost couldn't walk, but somehow he eventually made it to his little office, where coworkers helped him strip off his frozen clothes and sat him by the stove.

As he sat, thawing, Harry felt a terrible buzzing, burning sensation from his ear. He reached up absently to scratch his earlobe and it snapped off in his hand. Once Harry warmed up, he got to a doctor who treated him for severe frostbite on his hands, feet, ears and nose. He ended up losing a part of his other earlobe as well, but most people forget that part of the story. What they remember is the "snap" when Harry broke off his own earlobe.

Such were the reveries with which I comforted myself as I walked across the ice of our lake.

Finally, after what seemed like days, Sasha and I reach the opposite bank. I immediately clambered up to the road and walked practically down the middle of it. Naturally, not another plow, truck or car came along during the next half-hour it took me to reach the access road to our hill. But by then, I was so grateful to be almost home, I didn't mind.

Sasha stayed with me the entire time, right up until we heard a faint voice calling in the distance. Just a hundred yards ahead, I could see the barest glimmer of light from the cabin that Sasha shared with her owner Jen and the woman's little girl. As we loomed out of the darkness, Jen, who was standing in the doorway calling to her dog, seemed more than a little startled to see me. "What are you doing out here?" she demanded both of me and her dog. "Get in here!"

I couldn't feel my feet at this point, so I gladly staggered in and got up close to the small hearth she had set into one wall of the cabin. As Sasha jumped and hopped and made a fuss of Jen and her daughter, I quickly, if ham-fistedly pulled off my footwear, half-expecting to shake blackened bits of necrotic toes out of my socks. Thankfully, my feet were only the slightest bit frostbitten and I kept all of them. Heck, even my earlobes survived. Jen made me a cup of tea that wasn't especially hot, but to my unfeeling hands, the mug was so warm I could barely stand to hold it.

In between sips of tea, I told Jen where I'd been and what had happened and she fixed me with the universal mother's look of stark disgust. "What in hell were you thinking?" was all she could manage to say.

I wanted to explain to her what my week had been like, how unsettled I'd become by the changes that were happening all around me, how I wanted to be in charge of the change for once and have the changes I made result in something good, something positive, something forward-thinking. But it was hard to reconcile that desire with my actions. Like all ideas that seemed good at the time, I was at a loss to justify the predicament I'd got myself into. So instead, I just drank my tea and nodded penitently as Jen scolded me. At length, when I had recovered all feeling in my body, I thanked her for helping me and got up to head home. She offered to give me a ride the rest of the way up the hill, but it was only a quarter of a mile. Just the same, she insisted on calling ahead of me to let my parents know I was on the way (an act they turned out to appreciate very much, especially my mom, who was for some reason concerned about my location, given that she had returned home to a darkened house and her son's winter togs missing and no note to indicate where the fuck he might be).

It was still blizzarding out, and biting cold, but I was more than up to the remainder of the walk. In fact, if I can be allowed a small confession, I rather enjoyed it. It stands out as one of the top three Great Walks of my life. As the wind and snow blew down the corridor of the road ahead of me, it seemed as though I was in a great, white, mystical tunnel. And at the end, clear as a Christmas star, I could see the powerful white Halogen porch light my dad had installed near the steps of the house.

Of course, I made it back safely. And by the end of the week, I had my application to graduate school completed and filled out. Since the GRE folks took almost a month to get an official copy of my scores to the school, it was a good thing I had a personal copy of my scores handy. It kept my application from being delayed. As a result, two months into the new year, I got a call from the head of the graduate program at the school, calling personally to announce that I'd been accepted into his program and telling me how forward he was looking to meeting me when I moved to Chicago to start school that fall.

In a season of Fucking Big Changes, that last-minute decision to apply to grad school had initiated some of the biggest changes of all. Because of grad school, I was forced to move out and make my way in a strange new city. I earned my master's degree and got my first job in magazines (graduates of the program I was in were in fairly high demand at that time, something I hadn't even realized when I applied). At that first job, I reconnected with a lovely young woman I'd met by chance at my summer internship. She and I fell in love, got married, had kids. And I ended up here, in this place, working for a magazine I could barely have dreamed of working for back then, during that long, severe season of Fucking Big Changes, when I was desperate and unemployed.

I think if people like change, they like it because it gets them out of uncomfortable or difficult situations, gives them a new lease on life. And if they don't like change, it's because they fear the unknown, the potential of losing some or all of the things they've come to enjoy about the life they lead.

Clearly, I straddle the fence, having a kind of love/hate relationship with change. But whether it's a change I make, or a change that I can't control, all of those changes are just part of the same path, aren't they?

And in the end, it's not about control, is it? It's about keeping your feet on the path and moving forward, keeping your eyes peeled for the light that will lead you home.

Seventeen years ago, the blizzard howled ever louder around me. Snow fell in gusts and clumps from the air and from the tree branches where it had collected.

A wind blew out of the north, knocking my cap off and turning my hair white, but I didn't mind. I tilted my head back, lifted my face into the storm.

Slowly, gratefully, I made my way into the future.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Excellent!! Marvelous. Wonderful. An affirmation when I needed it most. Being a new "free-lance" (I know, I know, curse the word) writer is so difficult, and I have doubted my choice time and time again. Then, I read something like this, and... clarity. Thank you MM.
great job, MM.
Excellent story, MM. I especially liked your notes about change towards the end of the piece. I was rather frightened of all the changes involved in leaving my last job, but once I considered the benefits of moving, I realized it was a good choice for me. And, of course, myself and all your readers are very glad you survived your walk home. :)
Humans are short sighted don't you living in a full time blizzard. I think its meant to keep you focused on each step. A very Zen story, in a way. Glad to see you back.
Now, I need a warm and life-affirming story about wanting change when it isn't really necessary, and contenting yourself to stay where you are.


Seriously, I really enjoyed this series. Good stuff. The surface level story about surviving through the snow was a nice metaphor for the underlying story of change, too.
Dang, you're a good writer! Have you ever thought of.. oh wait. Nevermind. I grew up in FL and have never seen snow like you describe, but I could feel every wintery blast as I read. And too, I know the sorrow of losing a special dog. Anyway, keep up the posting, Big Changes not withstanding! Marilyn
Ok, this season, let's have you stick to big changes at work, and at home. No wandering off into blizzards, or anything else that might have even the remotest possibility of causing you physical harm. Ok?

I always look back at where I've been, what I've done, the roads I've travelled, and I see that small changes along the way would have landed me someplace else. As I generally like where I am at the moment, most moments, I know that I wouldn't change a thing, even those times I thought were hideous when I was going through them.

So, trite as it may sound, it's all good. I truly believe that we all end up in better spaces, continually, even when things seem hopeless in the present. Being a Christian, I believe this means after death, too.

It's a great comfort.
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