You don’t survive in Maine very long if you don’t make peace with winter. I love warm days and sunny skies as well as the next gal, but I have to say I have come to love the heart of January in my home state. After summer it may be my favorite time of year.
This is the real deal: week after week of temperatures near zero, snow up to your waist, rivers filled with jagged schooners of ice. This is an honest, Fuck You winter, the kind of weather that, as Garrison Keillor once said, “is natures way of reminding you that the world is not all about you.”
Part of what I like about January in Maine is the result of my own weird work schedule– Colby College, my employer, has a “short term” in January, and usually I am off for the whole month, the result of my less-than-full-time contract with the school. And so I take January to write, to build fires in the wood stoves, and to read. Right now I’m in our summer place, finishing up three weeks of writing and revising two new books that will come out next year– one, the updated version of SHE’S NOT THERE (the 10th anniversary edition) and the other, a new memoir about parenthood, STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU.
The summer place in winter has a naughty moon-base feeling to it. The bird feeders and the summer furniture are stacked up around the living room; the front porch is deep in snow. Through the window I can see the sun reflecting off of the frozen lake. After I finish writing this, I’m going to build a fire in the wood stove and finish up some reading I need to do for the coming semester.
Since almost no one knows I’m here, the phone doesn’t ring. It is the quietest place on earth. It’s just me and the dogs, the warm glow of the fires, and all the words I can find to set to paper.
Still, winter in Maine is not entirely silent. Here are twelve sounds I hear:
One is the woomph of a frozen pond. The water moves beneath the ice and the whole lake goes werrrp, a deep, warping groan, like something from outer space.
The dogs stand at the edge of the ice, snow on their black ears, and growl at it.
Two is the plow guy, doing the driveway in the middle of the night. The heavy blade scrapes against the asphalt, the tires spinning around as our man revs his engine high enough to push the snow. I think about our plow guy—whose name is Jared–when the snow is deep, how he spends hour after hour in that truck, driving around from house to house when everyone’s asleep. I feel bad when there are two storms right in a row, and Jared has to get right back out on the road and do the job all over again. There are some winters when I think he never sleeps at all.
Three is the sound of a frozen stream, the clear merry sound of cold water rushing against ice, like some strange music, full of motion and hope. A strange contrast to the ice-bound world.
Four is the shush of skis against new snow as the cross country skiers glide through woods, across fields, down hills. Their heaving breath comes out in clouds.
Five is a car stuck in a snowbank, the tires spinning around and around. Car doors open, and close. There’s cursing.
Six is the sound of Storm Center on television, early in the morning, from a room downstairs. There’s a sudden cheer, followed by the patter of young feet on the stairs. The kids run into the bedroom and announce, “No School!” Then the parents sit up in bed and groan as they imagine every last thing they had planned for that day instantly disappearing.
Seven is a maul chunking against the top of the log as the wood splits into two nice even pieces. I usually split wood in the basement, so sometimes the tip of the maul ticks against the cement floor in the follow through. Then I split the two pieces I just made into four, and sometimes the four into eight. The smaller the piece of wood is, the higher the pitch as it falls to the floor. Clunk.
Eight is the birds, the few of them that remain. I hear them in the morning as I go down the dark driveway to get the newspaper: black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, ruby crowned kinglets, Bohemian waxwings. They sound cold.
Nine is a car left car outside. Return to the car to find a crust of ice on the windshield. So out comes the scraper. Sometimes—on a good day– the crud slides right off. Other times you have to get serious, prying off that ice like you’re scraping burnt chocolate off a frying pan with a spatula. How big does the hole you chop have to be in order for you to drive the car? Sometimes I see drivers peeking through tiny portholes, like they’re driving a tank.
Ten is a snowmobile, heading across Great Pond. Sometimes there’s a whole group of them, making a sound like a swarm of angry bees. Other times it’s just one guy. Late in the day I see them all parked outside the Sunset Grill in Belgrade, a basketball game on the TV, glasses of Irish coffee lined up on the bar.
Eleven is an icicle falling off the rain gutter and shattering on the driveway in a thousand pieces. Once, one fell on my head, and I looked upwards, angrily, and cursed the sky.
Twelve: In the middle of the night the power goes out and I’m suddenly woken by the shocking sound of nothing at all. I’m warm beneath the covers, though, and the family is safe beneath our roof, the two grownups, the two boys, even the wicked oscars swimming in the fish tank. While we were sleeping, the dogs have jumped up in the bed again. All warm and soft, the creatures bark at some imaginary cat, in their dog dreams.
I lie there for a while in my dark house, in a sleepy kind of wonder, and listen.