My friend has breast cancer. The line elicits a wince, and a furrowed brow, and often a sorrowing head tilt. Sometimes it’s easiest to then say, “It’s a treatable kind though, and there’s no evidence it’s spread…” and for those who didn’t know what to say or do beyond the head tilt, this allows them to exhale and nod in relief and we can move on with other things. For anyone who’s been through cancer treatment though, the qualifiers don’t mean much.

Her cancer is locally invasive, and though there is no evidence of spread, she will spend the next year getting chemo and surgery, maybe radiation. One never entirely knows if the horses slipped out of the barn unnoticed before the doors were shut.

The night before her first chemo appointment, I dreamt I had a port placed just like she had, for delivery of the drugs directly into an artery. As the nurse snaked the catheter into my vessel, it made perfect dream sense. I could take maybe half the chemo for her and ease the side effects.

IMG_6550The next day, I walked to the hospital’s front desk and cheerfully asked where to “find my friend, who’s having chemo today,” in the same tone I’d used to visit her when she’d had her babies. Turning down the side hall from the bright lobby with its water feature and gift shop, I followed the bland carpeting down to the cancer center. Experienced patients were lined up in bays around the central station, quietly reading or listening to music while their treatments were administered. In my friend’s secluded room, the steady flux of close friends came and went over the full day’s treatment, and we were nervous, loud, making boob jokes, and death jokes, and assuring each other that we would get through all this like no one else ever had.

Bag after bag of drugs dripped in through the port she has and that I had only dreamed I had. We ordered hospital lunches: concave grilled cheese, a droopy veggie burger, a mostly frozen piece of lemon meringue pie. I thought of before her diagnosis, when the results were pending, and, in my optimism, I had still seen the path ahead where she did not have cancer, and we would talk about this as a scare. But she’d skidded onto this path instead, and the trail I’d seen dropped away from this ridge down into a place where she didn’t have cancer, harder to see with every step forward.

There is only so much of this trail that I can walk with her. Events that put our bodies in extremis isolate us utterly in some respects. I watched my grandmother die and though she was in my arms, she was a million miles away. When I was laboring with my two sons, it was not pain I felt, but terrifying aloneness. I was crouched at the bottom of the deep well of my body, and though I wanted someone to pull me out, or, failing that, to pull someone down with me, I could do neither. Sitting on my friend’s hospital windowsill, feeling my own body sound and strong, I watched poison pour into her heart, doing the job it does, and all its collateral damage too.

Though the prognosis is basically good, after these arduous months of treatment are over, nothing is sure. When my father had his heart attack almost ten years ago, I shifted into a new world where part of me expects, every day, to get a call that he’s dead. His life was no longer guaranteed after that day, as if anyone’s is. I do not trust his body though. I do not trust his heart to beat all the way through each day. When my friend is done her chemo, and surgery and all that, and I have every faith that we will be celebrating her clean bill of health a year from now, I will still step gingerly around the memory of these months. Her body will bear the visible scars, but these months are going to score us all deeply.

Late in the afternoon, I left the hospital, as another of her closest friends took over for the last shift and the drive home. We, the helpers, all come and go freely, untethered to infusion poles and pumps. We do not have to lie there, passively, control given over to the nurses and doctors, and so we cannot be in there with her, not fully. I was acutely conscious of the strength in my limbs, my unmarked flesh, my freedom as I passed through the outer doors back into the wide world. Back into the lobby, then outside entirely, free and healthy, my vision narrowed to a tunnel right in front of me and I felt my legs tremble. And I wished I could cry.

The tyranny of physics

I love the snow. Even with more than five feet on the ground and a Nor’Easter gathering force tonight over the Atlantic, I have no complaints about the weather. I do daydream of summer sometimes, but that has more to do with the utter freedom of three months off teaching than with the temperature. In the rank, humid days of summer, I sometimes go to the cool basement, get out my cross-country skis, and pantomime the motions. Traveling around these snow-laden days, there are the comical scenes: a geyser of snow launches straight up from someplace where a person, obscured entirely by snowbanks, must be with a snowblower; a Volkswagen, its contours matched to a pile of snow anyway, is slowly buried until the only sign of it is a sideview mirror protruding like the flipper of a beached whale; icicles fuse into a broad tongue a full two stories long on an old house; a sled track runs down from the peak of a barn’s roof, over a ten foot snow pile and onto the porch of the house next door.

From my office window.

From my office window.

Still, in conversations with many of my fellow New Englanders, besieged by snow, I find many of us are jangle-nerved, breathlessly anxious, and often sleepless at 2 or 3 am, sometimes listening for some sign of roof collapse, or the trickle of water backing up behind ice dams, but mostly for no cause. I have been getting outside most days, and am proud of the crop of freckles across my nose and cheeks, but even when I am tired out with exertions, I too find myself tensed up and wound tight many days. Trying to sort it out, it seems like much is due to the grayness of the days. When we are almost perpetually either pre-, mid-, or post-storm, the sky clears only rarely, and briefly. While out skiing through an unbroken snow field the other day, I had to focus so strenuously on where I was placing my feet that my scope of vision narrowed to my immediate surroundings. The white field stretching in all horizontal directions, and the white-gray sky meeting it seemed to invert for a moment and I had a sensation of falling upward. Reeling, I stopped and stared at a row of black trees for a moment before pressing on.58D9160D-192B-4599-944C-F4065D04EC2E

The deprivation of light is part of the trouble, I am certain, because on blue sky days, even when the temperature is near zero and the winds gusting, I feel boosted up. Still, there is another layer that seems to be anxious-making. Something beyond cabin fever or weariness. I think it’s the vigilance required to navigate the terrain in these conditions. Though I haven’t had to drive during any of the worst weather (teachers of chemistry and biology being decidedly non-essential personnel), even after the storms abate, the narrowed roads are harrowing, hemmed in by snowbanks seven or eight feet high, curtailed lines of sight leading us to inch most of the way into intersections before deciding to floor it and hope for the best. Traction, taken for granted at other times of the year, is nearly nonexistent now; our cars drift around turns, and we make dry-mouthed, balletic slides toward hapless pedestrians or heedless plows, willing the brakes to engage. Even walking, we shuffle step, bodies pitched forward, making tiny twists with each footstep to check the friction. The short walk between campus buildings takes all my focus and energy. It’s not that physics governs us any less in the warmer seasons, it’s just that it recedes from the foremost of our thoughts.

IMG_6470All this glissading around is precisely what I love about this season too–when I finally get into something of a rhythm in my amateurish skiing, the smooth forward glide, foot to foot, is an exhilaration not to be matched in the summer time. Having found the right wax for the conditions, I can slip down a slope and across the frozen river on a continuous ribbon, knowing that somewhere, four feet below my skis, an eroded stream bank is studded with vicious rocks. Everything is smoothed over. Even falls are pleasant in the woods–slow-motion, with a soft whoomp into the enveloping snow. Back on the pavement, the vigilance will return again, and in the car, even more so. I confess to being quite sick of scraping ice off the windshield of my car. Aside from that, though my brethren here may call damnation down on my head, I love this. The woods have filled up with snow, and continue to fill until it seems they may overbrim. They are the cure.

In season

It’s snowing at last here in New Hampshire. We’ve had a few occasional bouts of flurries up to now, but this is a thick-flaked, low-visibility, snow upon snow storm at last. It’s been cold enough for weeks now to freeze the ground hard as stone so that when we walk in the woods, the ungiving shock of each step reverberates through our ankles. We go out nonetheless, but it’s better when there’s snow.

IMG_6355For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been drawn into an addictive vortex of online fora where people discuss, trade, or sell backpacking gear. I recognize my kindred here; everyone substituting thoughts of sleeping in tents in the mountains for actually doing it. It becomes an expensive time. Everyone is assuaging their cabin fever with new tents, new-to-you packs, or canister stoves, or boots or rain pants. I’ve also been in my basement spreading pine tar on the bottom of some hand-me-down wooden cross country skis, and then heating it in 5 inch sections with a hair dryer I have for no other purpose than this. Malcolm got snowshoes for Christmas that we haven’t even opened yet. We’ve been hiking plenty, and then spending time wistfully patting our skis and lacing and relacing the boots.

I have, like many New Englanders, a tendency to veer from season to season. In May, my ears crusted with crumbly scabs from black fly bites, I fantasize about snow-filled woods. In August, I try to convince myself that the night is cool enough to warrant a thick, cable-knit sweater I haven’t worn in four months, and then, wearing it, I swelter, and sulk, and take it off again. This time of year, wearing that sweater almost constantly, including to bed sometimes, I think of the trails above treeline in the White Mountains, buried under drifts and scoured by winds. It’s not that they aren’t climbable in winter; they are, some days, but I lack the gear for such an assault, so I’m here at home. The long days, and the long gloaming in summer, seem like something I invented. This time of year, the dark wraps its fingers most of the way around the day’s throat, though its strength is ebbing, and the clear pink sunset light on the gray trees comes perceptibly later every day.

IMG_6354This week, I pitched our tent in my bedroom. The boys slept in it the last two nights. It takes up most of the floor so that I can’t pull out my desk chair or get to the sewing machine. Leaning toward the computer and reading through the gear posts, or typing an email sideways with one foot through the tent door, my mind crowded with these thoughts, I felt it fitting that at last, the physical thing was taking up all this space.

Double vanity

Every winter for the past few years, my aging car’s tire pressure sensor light has switched on as the temperature drops. Sometimes it stays on for days, sometimes just until I get to highway speed. When I check the tires, the pressure is always normal or very nearly so. Thus, for the cold months, I ignore the glowing exclamation point on my dashboard. I know it’s nothing serious.

This month will mark twenty years that I’ve been with my husband. We’ve been married for only twelve of them, as before that we were in college and high school. Teenagers, arguably children when we started out. I teach for work now, and at the end of each semester, there is a minor feeling of bereavement. The doldrums set in for a few days as I cast about for a sense of purpose without my daily performances in front of a class. I am not good at relaxing, and so I become irritable during this time. In the days leading up to Christmas, Christophe and I went off for a few days without the children. While it is true that absence makes the heart grow fonder, constant presence breeds a seething, murderous irritation. By the third day, and with an additional week or so of holiday family time bearing down on me, my shoulders were up by my ears and I was critiquing the way he breathes, eats chips, folds the newspaper, and allows his beard to be so wiry. In short, I was insane.

When a sensor light comes on in the dashboard, or some small rattle begins to sound from somewhere underneath the car (or is it in the wheel somewhere?), the brain sounds alarm cries. The lights are designed to elicit this, and when you have an anxious sort of mind like mine, every odd sound or light might presage the very wheels flying off the vehicle, or flames bursting from under the hood. At the least, some substantial expense must be coming. The tire pressure sensor gives the lie to those fears. It is a faulty indicator, giving false information about the danger ahead.

Sometimes in the evening, we like to watch dumb real estate shows like House Hunters. “Double vanities!” the people demand. I am flabbergasted at this idea. That a person would wish to be in the bathroom at the same time as her partner, performing their ministrations, picking at their faces or tweezing hairs from the remoter provinces, is beyond my comprehension. There are so few mysteries left to us, after many years elapse, why would we wish to destroy the ones that are left?

Too much togetherness breeds trouble. As we packed to leave the bed and breakfast at the end of our trip, Christophe checked all the drawers in a dresser he’d not even used. This is a habit of his, and is of the sort that one finds endearing in the early years–a quirk that shows we know them. Those very same quirks are the ones that cause us to fantasize about closing the dresser drawer repeatedly on our beloved’s head in later years.

828f4e30-b62a-4808-8a91-6a922686dd01When spring comes, the tire pressure light will go off again for a six month hiatus. It’s hard to imagine, driving past the ice rimmed river, that there is ever a time when the heat drives us to leap into those waters. It’s impossible to remember heat when one is cold, or the ordinary intensity of summer green on trees when nothing remains in winter but birch trunks against the olive drab pines. It’s hard to summon the memory of the good when it’s bad, and hard to do the opposite. But being married means I have a second memory. He knows I always come out of this funk. When I was griping at him the other day for the particular way he was sitting in a chair, he jabbed at his phone a moment and held it up to play the first notes of Bonnie Raitt singing “I can’t make you love me…” Fortunately, he takes me much less seriously than I take myself.

It’s hard to remember long hours of daylight, or green, or being warm. At night, at this time of year, it takes almost an hour for the sheets to warm up fully when we go to bed. I don’t generally make the bed, but sometimes it gets to me and a few hours into the morning, I decide to do it so I can sit at my desk and not feel that my world is disordered. Though I shivered in them the night before, I am always amazed to find, reaching under to straighten the blankets and pull the sheets to, how long they hold their warmth.

My five year old came to me crying two weeks ago, telling me everyone in his class has an elf on the shelf. “Simon,” I told him, “that’s just a thing people buy and then move around the house.” That’s as far as my understanding of this phenomenon really goes. There is also the war of the Facebook photos of elves on shelves doing ever cleverer or more lecherous things, and I’m not sure what that is about. But, to keep alive the wonder and magic of Christmas, we called upon a lesser known figure: that of Buddy Bison.

Buddy Bison is a small stuffed toy we got at the National Parks Service gift shop in Faneuil Hall. I told Simon that we could try believing very hard in Buddy Bison, and if he deigned to oblige us, he might come alive. Since that evening, my husband and I have been moving Buddy around the house when the kids aren’t looking. That’s the sum of what Buddy does for us. We don’t take his picture, he doesn’t do anything interesting, he just stares out at us with his placid, bovine eyes from inside a rain boot, or under a chair, or on top of a ceramic horse.

IMG_6231I didn’t know there was some weird panopticon, “someone’s always watching” element to the Elf until a day or two ago, but that does not apply to Buddy. Buddy doesn’t care whether the kids are good or bad, and we don’t actually talk about Santa in this house. Simon asked why poor kids don’t get just as much as rich kids from Santa. What could I possibly say to that? “Santa prefers the middle class,” or “Santa does not wish to visit trailers and derelict apartments.” So instead I say, “Yeah, that’s not very fair, is it? What do you think about that?” And he pretends he doesn’t hear me.

The kids get a couple presents at Christmas, and they’re generally from thrift stores. This year, I went to a used sporting goods store and the owner showed me the kids’ cross country skis. I chose the cheapest ones, a thirty dollar pair with rust on the bindings and scuffs all over. When I took them to the counter, the owner sniffed and said, “Well those aren’t much.”

Buddy’s not much either, I suppose, except that when the kids see him someplace new, they’re giddy with surprise and delight. When they get their used, not-much presents, they will be thrilled. The key is to deny them any gifts all the rest of the year, or any toys, or really much besides food and clothes, and those we get hand-me-down. The other key is not to care what other people think. Sniffy shop owners, other parents, whomever. Just keep on going. High self esteem and low expectations. That’s the real magic of Christmas.

Darkling, I listen


The Cratchitt family coordinates their bows.

Tonight is the opening performance of A Christmas Carol at my college. My two sons have roles; one plays Tiny Tim, and the other, Ignorance. I have a role too: to drive them to and from, and to sit at every rehearsal and watch and listen, and to help them get dressed and made up and tell them to be quiet a lot. It’s a strange position, to see all the behind-the-scenes coming together of a show and to be only a passive observer. As it’s taken shape, they’ve moved from piecemeal scenes with characters missing each night to full dress rehearsal. Though it’s been tiring, I’ve found myself more fully in the spirit of Christmas than I’ve been in many years. Last night, sitting in the dark theater, I listened to the madrigals singing their carols, and the lyrics, profoundly and unambiguously religious, prodded into my brain and began to stir around a heap of ashy coals. Underneath, what breathed into life was the glowing red memory of sitting in the dim balcony at Sacred Heart Church when I was a child, among the hundreds of other Catholics rustling and pressing against each other, and singing. In that arch ceilinged space, and all the saints arrayed around, and the ladder-ribbed Christ suspended above us on the cross, I had known very early that I was faithless, and yet I loved that place, and the poetry of it. When I was old enough, I became an altar server, knotting my rope belt around my robe and lighting the candles, inclining my head toward the priest’s to pour water over his hands as he murmured, to me alone, it seemed, “Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me of my sins.”

I no longer go to church, but I sometimes miss the sacramental hush, and the ritual, the rising and kneeling, and the echoing chant. But I found myself listening to those same hymns of Christmas in this different place, under a plaque of the comedy and tragedy masks and listening to the Dickensian syntax of the band of players. And though the songs are religious, the play is not really so. The admonishment to “keep Christmas in one’s heart” is given to mean kindness to one’s fellow man, and charity, and a care for the common welfare. Scrooge’s nephew says Christmas is “…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” The heavy punishment for failure to see that is to be fettered as the ghost of Marley.

That’s all I look for Christmas to be. I’ve been avoiding the round-the-clock radio of more secular Christmas songs–Jingle Bells, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, and that–and tried to hold in my head the sound of pure human voices raised in darkness.  I hear so many stressed out laments over Christmas, and over the dichotomy of choosing either the veneration of a Savior, or the golden calf of retail. This theater is my third way. Sitting in the seats among the waiting actors, watching Act I rehearse, the bewreathed Ghost of Christmas Present is tapping time behind me, Tiny Tim spinning his crutch beside me, and the student actors with their glowing cell phone screens are scattered here and there in the dark. I listen, and cannot wait to see it all at once, with a full audience. For despite having heard these lines over and over, it’s never quite the same as when the play goes off for real. The audience, after all, is transformed by the players, and the players by the audience, and we are, all of us, fellow passengers.


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