Bear With Me
I want to take a moment and welcome new subscribers, many who've joined this “Chasing Light” caravan after reading my travel essay in The Daily Beast. Glad to have y’all aboard! The journey of seeking and finding light is, of course, not limited to the road, so even though I’ve stopped my wandering ways for the time being, my restless heart keeps moving toward new insights like a seedling plant toward sun.
Also, a shout-out to Elizabeth Brockway, the artist who created this stunning visual from a photograph of my boys, Connor and Beasley (taken at the beginning of my journey, at Blue Bear Mountain Campground). Everyone is swooning for this beautifully rendered digital painting by a fellow dog-lover.
And…I’d love to hear from anyone who tried the Kale Salad recipe from my blog post some weeks back. Did you like it? Hate it? (One friend told me she thought the only good thing about kale is the sound it makes going into the disposer.) Any adaptations you’d like to share? A sister-friend made it once but had no pumpkin seeds. Gasp. Instead, she put chopped smoked almonds in there, and nothing bad happened! In fact, it was pretty danged good. (I tasted it.)
Now, on to some autumn pondering.
The leaves are late in turning this year. Up here in the High Country of North Carolina, we are just now getting to peak.
The hardwoods across the road from me have gone all gold and burnished bronze, topaz and apricot. Here and there are a few splashes of scarlet. Behind me the small mountain my bungalow nestles into rises up sharply to a narrow ridge top. Many of the leaves up there are gone. We had a big wind blow through last Sunday, with gusts up on Grandfather Mountain clocked at 100 mph. The dogs and I hunkered down, above us the metal roof complaining and outside the trees creaking. Around midnight the power went out, so I lit some candles and continued to read for a while longer. (I’m about halfway through Dave Eggers’ memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.) Even without heat, we snuggled on the bed and stayed fairly warm.
The lights coming on woke me suddenly at 4:09 a.m. I got up to make coffee and let the dogs out and fed them breakfast a couple hours early, which they thought was the coolest thing ever, dancing and wriggling and snorting with excitement. By daylight the wind was beginning to die down.
I like autumn plenty, but I don’t like the coming of winter. Up here in the mountains, it’s often gray and damp for months on end, and I find myself pining for color and sunlight. By January and February, when we get our worst below-zero wind chills, I am starting to circle the drain pretty badly.
I don’t mind the snow if there are some bright, sunny days sprinkled in. Growing up on a farm in northeastern Ohio in the legendary Snow Belt, six-foot-high drifts were not unusual. We didn’t care. We suited up like gladiators, layering long underwear, long-sleeved t-shirts, then sweaters, jeans or wool pants, topping off with cozy stocking caps, hand knit scarves, covering extra pairs of heavy socks with plastic bags to keep our feet dry inside our boots, and finally mittens or gloves and a winter coat. Off we would go, into the bright afternoon or blue-hued moonlit night, pushing our way through the sparkling mounds of snow, the dogs bounding ahead of us like deer, appearing and disappearing in and out of snowbanks. When we’d worked up a good sweat, we turned around and headed home.
My father would build a roaring fire in the fireplace, and my mother would make a big pot of hot chocolate, and we’d thaw our numbed, cherry-red fingers under warm water, then peel off all the layers and flop in front of the fireplace, where a nap might overtake one or two of us.
Before our move to Ohio, we lived in Sweden for a year. During that winter, I walked both to and from school in the dark. The sun didn’t come up until after nine in the morning and disappeared in the afternoon around three-thirty. Still, there were plenty of brilliant days, and there were ice-skating and skiing and bus rides with friends downtown to the free public baths where we lolled around in the steam rooms or saunas.
A couple of years ago an article caught my eye, a story about how Scandinavians embrace winter head-on, and turn it into a celebration of coziness and togetherness, a time for books and knitting and enjoying good food and spending time with friends. There is a Danish word – hygge– that describes the cocooning and coziness so valued. The article reminded me of my time long ago in Sweden, and also my time in 2014 visiting my Norwegian “sister” at their lovely cabin in the mountains (it was June and there was still snow on the ground in many places) with its heated floors and snug family room. (Norwegian for “cozy” – koselig).
Rereading the article, I said to myself, “I want some of that. I want hygge. I want koselig.” So I have brought my potted plants – blood-red Coleus and pink-blooming Geranium and bright orange Nasturtiums, variegated pale green and magenta Caladium, and trailing vines of deep maroon Wandering Jew – indoors and stacked them in my front sitting room in my only sunny window on a shelved rack. I’m now calling this “The Solarium.” (Cue snickering. This is funny, because my whole house is only 920 square feet.)
In here, I also have a faux wood-burning stove that is all black plastic and pretend-logs and mirrors and an electric fan blowing heat, and it makes me ridiculously happy, even though it’s not a real fire.
I bought a pair of shearling-lined chukkas, because my feet are always cold. I indulged in a can of vanilla flavored coconut-milk whipped topping, and just this gray, chilly morning topped off my coffee with a healthy dollop, dusting it with cinnamon.
I have a pile of books to get through and some pumpkin-pie scented candles. I have a down comforter I bought in Oslo. I will feed the birds all winter, looking for the flash of red from the cardinal, the flutter of gray from the nuthatches and the sharply drawn black cap of the chickadees. I may see an occasional handsome woodpecker. A bright blue jay might grace my front porch from time to time. The cat will come inside, spend most nights curled up next to my pillow.
I will sleep in one of the several cashmere sweaters I found at Goodwill, $3.75 apiece and already broken in, thank you very much. I'll cook with friends, soups and stews. I will sip some good Kentucky bourbon and sample some nice bold red wines.
I will run my old claw-footed tub full of steaming water and baptize it with essential oils of lavender and bergamot. And I’ll try to keep the whining to a minimum.
I don’t want to miss fairytale patterns of frost on windowsill. The glint of moon in bare tree branches. If I try to hurry through winter, focused only on its end, I may forget to go outside and look up into a plump gray sky that feathers me with snowflakes, may go right past the sharp clean smell of an icy night and the river of stars flowing above me as the Milky Way swirls by. In truth, I’ve already hurried through too much of my life. Time to downshift. Savor. Taste. Inhale. Be still. Be thankful. Be here, now.
A couple of bears in my kids’ neighborhoods are ramping up their nighttime forays, smashing the metal fencing as they show themselves in and out of the yard and strewing trash everywhere. Preparing for hibernation, they are storing up energy to get them through the long winter.
We are all making ready.
Just above my little house, Ursa Major - the Great Bear - glitters and winks in its journey across the night sky, moving, as we all must do, to nature’s established rhythms.