The Long Chill

No matter how high I set the thermostat, a chilly breeze runs across my feet.

snowy woods scene with a tire swing, also covered in snow.
Image by Ekaterina. Used under license from Adobe Stock.

It's cold inside. No matter how high I set the thermostat, a chilly breeze runs across my feet. I am grateful for the heat pump, the electric fireplace, and the radiators cranking and moaning like they are about to burst into flames. But this old house has no insulation, and all three together are not enough. The more heaters I plug in, the more frequently the breakers trip. It legitimately feels like an ice skating rink lay hidden below my wooden flooring. It's time for extra socks. It's time for some fresh-baked cinnamon rolls.

I take a sip of cold coffee from a mug sitting on the desk. It has been there a few days. We have no more holiday guests, so the coffee was probably mine at some point. Probably. Ice shifts on the roof as the rising sunlight warms it, briefly disturbing the quiet. Snow crystals on the windows change colors as the rising light refracts from a new angle.

These slow winter days can be brutal. Spring is for exhaling, for appreciating, for applause. Summer is for excursions and adventures and delightfully endless days. Fall is for wonder and watching the stars, catching the first glimpse of the mighty Orion and the trailing Dog Star. But winter. Winter is the thinking season. Everyone nestled in their burrows, curled by fires or under mounds of blankets, warding off the long nights. The ceaseless snow and ice. Even the waters slow down. Our bodies hunkered in partial hibernation, our minds agitate unimpeded.

First, come the survival questions. What do I do if the power goes out? Can I provide warmth or feed my family? Next are the practical questions. Are there enough coffee and cinnamon rolls, or will I have to watch my family starve while I enjoy mine? Later, in the deep stages of the long-dwell, in trickle the mid-life, underemployment questions. Why am I home? Why am I not filing forms and conferencing and noshing stale bagels at an office? How am I fulfilling any purpose? Swirling the cup of cold coffee uncovers a few nuggets of drowned pizzelle. Interesting. We ran out of pizzelles a week ago.

My mind zooms out as though the dining room is the opening scene of a movie—an Oscar-quality one with an intense soundtrack and a gritty heroine. All around me in the room, I see clutter. It rests on almost every surface, sitting as a judgment, on my acumen, my mettle, my pluck. The latent objects are a verdict testifying to my inability to drive innovation, execute on the business plan, hit quarterly marketing metrics, or even make a fresh pot of coffee. The more clutter I observe, the less functional I feel.

Forget pulling my family through the survival scenario of having lost heat. I did not even manage to put away a laundry basket full of board games left in our dining room six weeks ago. One day, I set it there. It is now a set piece of furniture, waiting for someone to stack more things on it. There is a birdhouse on the table next to me. A bowl with one purple gumball, long since stale, sits nearby. There is an arrow on the china cupboard. An arrow? The cupboard itself is a hidden puzzle of cast-off towels, coffee liquors, and champagne flutes we rarely use. There is a glass bell jar in a corner on the floor. I have fuzzy but fond memories from my youth of planter ecosystems. Terrariums.

I would love to have a terrarium. So much so that, at one point, I brought home a large glass jar. With high aspirations, I set it on the floor. That was ten years ago. I never got myself together to put the sticks, ferns, and dirt inside it. Sometimes, it gets moved to clean the dog hair that accumulates behind it, which everyone can see because it is an empty glass jar. Instead of feeling pride at nurturing a whimsical machine of humid moss and vigor, I feel bad when I see it, that empty jar that hollers out in accusation of yet another incomplete project. Wait. Is the glass bell jar talking to me?

Cue our gritty heroine, white-knuckling a few drunken aggressors so she can save unsuspecting innocents. Like her, can I turn the corner and beat these mental demons? Do I turn to self-help books? Personal fitness? Motivational videos? No. There is no sense in getting enthusiastic about battling an unfinished terrarium now. It's the dregs of January. The only thing I could put in it would be slush and rock salt. What would grow in there? More salt? Corners are suitable for this sort of thing: a delayed hobby of bugs and dirt. But maybe I can put the arrow away. Or paint the birdhouse. I could, but maybe. Tomorrow.

A tattooed businessman with plant terrarium sitting at the desk indoors in office.
Image by Halfpoint. Used under license from Adobe Stock.

It seems like fall was just the other day. I was driving down Mossfield past the cemetery, with its hedge of American Elms hanging to its last bunches of golden yellow fire. The air was crisp, and my family and I anticipated the sweets of Halloween and scents of pumpkin, and we were busy squirreling away early presents for Christmas. The costumes came and went, and with the turn of the clock, there was the nonstop chatter of everyone talking over the Thanksgiving parade and the dog show. There was a brief run of school days and then the annual joy of the Peanut gang dancing on stage, meditating on the meaning of Christmas before calling Charlie Brown a blockhead. After the kids went to bed, my wife and I would relish our loathing of Alan Rickman as he handed Emma Thompson that infamous Jonie Mitchell CD box set.

The highlight of these gauzy memories, though, is sitting at the kitchen table while my wife makes the holiday pizzelles. Yes, those pizzelles. She smells of pine and wax from candles she just unpacked. She is happy, filled with delight at the embrace of holidays and a little bit of the Old-Fashioned I fixed her. I pour myself a glass of red wine while she spoons the dough into little balls, dropping them onto the hot metal decorative iron. The dog looks at us, four inches of drool hanging from her jowls, ravaged by the smell of hot melting butter and sugar.

That night we would watch The Bishop's Wife, with David Niven fighting the angelic Cary Grant for Loretta Young's affections. With another quick spin of the clock, my wife and I are having prosecco on the couch on a late Christmas Eve, looking bleary-eyed at our illuminated tree with piles of gifts and cats underneath. Another holiday season races up to its pinnacle, and the long build-up is suddenly over. What is left is the steep crash back to everyday life with the coldest, darkest months yet to come and nary a cause to celebrate to hang our hopes on. Ah, I think I finally understand why people get so crazy at St Patrick's Day.

A cat relaxing under a Christmas tree, surrounded by presents.
Photo by Chris Field. All rights reserved.

I rub my feet together for warmth. I am not alone. Neither are you. We all swim through the dark, icy waters of winter. We just do it separately, inside, trying to endure. We wrestle with the strange thoughts that emerge from the chilly slog. Our outdoor respites are frozen over. Not even a tip of a spring daffodil is thinking about emerging. It is OK if we stop putting things away for awhile. It is even OK if we begin having conversations with those things. "I've kept you out of the landfill. What more do you want from me!" Or, so I've heard. I would never reduce myself to speaking to an empty glass bell jar.