And so it it continues . . .
After an unheard of warm Saturday of 40-degree temperatures, I was feeling a little better about my circumstances. I went to my financial institution this morning with my list of fraudulent charges on my debit card. The debit card was immediately deactivated, and my money will be refunded by Monday. (By the way, this morning, someone tried to purchase $350 of Staples supplies. Thank God that I'm flat broke.)
So, I was feeling pretty good about my life. Things were looking up.
Then, tonight, after I was done cleaning my house, I went to the thermostat and cranked up the heat a little because there was a chill in the air. I turned it up to 67 degrees. The furnace did not kick on. 70 degrees. No furnace. 75 degrees. No furnace. 85 degrees. No furnace. 90 degrees. Nothing again.
It is now almost midnight, and I have no heat in the middle of an Upper Peninsula winter night.
So, I have space heaters going, and my brother (who is a plumber and furnace guy) is driving up tomorrow morning to see if he can fix things.
I feel as though I'm living under a curse.
Pray for Saint Marty tonight. If he doesn't freeze to death, he may commit ritual seppuku.
For your reading pleasure, a little winter essay . . .
The Whiteness of Water
by: Martin Achatz
“ . . . is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless all-color of atheism from which we shrink?”
I sit down to write these lines the morning following the first snowstorm of winter. One week after All Souls Day, a comma of arctic air swooped across Lake Superior, gathered shrapnel of wave crash and foam, baptized my little portion of the Upper Peninsula with dunes of white.
It happens every year, and yet I still stand on my front porch, stunned by those first blind crests and tidals, a Winslow Homer seascape of ice and snow.
In the 1880s, anthropologist Franz Boas, traveling through the tundra of northern Canada, noted an ocean of terms used by indigenous people to describe the whiteness. Researchers have debated his claim ever since, but recent studies of Inuit, Yupik, and Icelandic dialects have identified some 163 terms for snow and ice, made up of root words and suffixes.
Linguist Willem LeReuse says, “These people need to know whether ice is fit to walk on or whether you will sink through.” This language is “a matter of life and death.”
A frozen lake is not frozen. Beneath the white lid of winter, it continues to breathe and groan, strain and stretch.
I sat in a friend’s shanty on Lake Independence one January night. Cold stars Swiss-cheesed the heavens, and a fuse of wind sizzled across the whiteness, driving pellets of snow against the shanty walls. Slush skimmed the fishing hole, shrugged over the lip of ice. Below, my hook dangled in the black Jell-O of lake as I listened.
The snow and ice and water were singing. Otherworldly music—blue whales dueting in the Atlantic, meteors whistling through atmospheres, penguins or aliens or angels giving thanks under green fingers of aurora. It was a conversation of states, solid talking to liquid talking to solid, in a language older than Inuit or Yupik. A glacial language of endings and beginnings.
Abridged list of English snow terms from the Farmer’s Almanac: barchan, corn snow, cornice, dendrite, finger drift, firn, graupel, ground blizzard, hominy snow, penitents, pillow drift, rimed snow, snirt, snowburst, sun cups, whiteout.
Drive to Lake Superior just before sunrise in February. Make sure the sky is empty of everything but stars and moon. Park near Little Presque, just as a rib of light crowns the horizon. Get out of your car. Stand. Listen.
You will hear a distant rushing sound, like a herd of sleeping mammoths, breathing thunder in unison. In. Out. In. Out. Follow that sound.
It won’t be easygoing. You’ll encounter boulders of ice, five-foot drifts of snow sheathed in thick rime, polar faults that trap feet and legs. If you aren’t careful, you may end up slogging through thigh-deep planes of not-quite-snow and not-quite-ice. Keep moving toward the sound.
Light will crawl into the heavens as you walk, and you’ll be tempted to pause, watch. Don’t. You’ll miss the main attraction because of the opening act. Forward. Go forward.
Judge for yourself when you’re close enough to the Big Waters. You should be able to see the lake fully, without distraction of trees or piled snows. Be careful not to go too far out. Waves and currents are still moving beneath the ice. You may sink through. This is life and death.
Once you have found this spot, stand there. Breathe with the water. In. Out. In. Out. Don’t take out your phone to mediate the moment. No video. No pictures. Just watch.
Mix light with water, and the result is Monet—purples, greens, pinks smeared together like sidewalk chalk after rain. Mix light with water and snow and ice, and the result is clearer, harder. A Byzantine landscape of glass shards. Whites, greens, blues, reds pieced together into the geometric face of something divine. Jonah swallowed by the Leviathan. Christ strolling across the Sea of Galilee. Thoreau chopping wood by Walden Pond.
Whiteness gives way to meaning.
In April, I stand by my kitchen window, watch the world melt. A fang of ice hangs from the eave of the roof. As the sun strikes it, it begins to sweat, drops steady as a clock’s second hand. Soon there will be slush, then mud, then green.
The dumb blankness of December and January flows with this promise of becoming. It is the language of water.
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