LAYERS OF CLAY
I grew up in a very old house. Some of the hands that constructed it were attached to men who had personal recollections of the American Civil War. My dear mom and aunt created a sort of challenge for my sisters and me to see if we could make it until November without turning the furnace on. I don’t mean challenge as in this was a fun game. As residents of Pittsburgh, the real challenge–hearty stock as we were–was to not contract pneumonia in the name of saving on our heating bill.
There were mornings we could see our breath while lying in bed. The house had been constructed in an old mine town, and a worn, wooden door off the garage led to a room half-filled with dirt. I don’t mean bags of topsoil or a pile of loose earth in the center of the area. I mean it literally was an ascending slope of dirt that occupied half the room.
Downstairs water pipes ran along the ceiling and would freeze, so I would have to lay on my back atop said dirt mound with a running blow dryer pointed at pipes that seemed to never thaw. In my memory it was always 6 a.m. when this happened and I was in a desperate Tolstoy novel, but I may be misremembering because Anna Karenina never even had a hair dryer.
Eventually a bunch of remodeling during my teenage years brought the indoor October temps up at least into the mid-50s. We used to reach for the circular thermostat dial on the wall like Aladdin trying to snag an apple from the Arabian marketplace. That was the real challenge, I suppose—to see if we could turn up the heat without getting caught. Of course, once grandkids came along the furnace got cranked at will like mom and aunt were trying to melt Frosty the Snowman out of his magic hat.
These days, I have a fancy digital thermostat on the wall in my small apartment. It’s so fancy I’ve never been able to figure out how it works. Last year, in a moment of frozen determination not only did I manage to not set it to a consistent temp but the whole thing switched over to Celsius. Now despite anything I do it refuses to go back to Fahrenheit. I have no clue how hot or cold my house is other than by feel, the way my ancestors did it.
My good friend Leanne from Canada tried to help me by saying that 28 degrees Celsius is 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Likewise, she says, 16 converts to 61. I think. Something inversely symmetrical like that. It all gets jumbled in my right-dominant brain because math is the worst. Usually I go back to what my high school chemistry teacher Mr. Reynolds told me when he realized maybe some students should be left behind, at least in the natural sciences. After giving everyone the correct way to convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit he turned to me and said, “Clay, for you just double it and add twenty.” Or was it thirty? Close enough.
Lately, as the first frost of the season crystallized over fallen leaves and the first snowfall blanketed our local area, I was thinking about how people winterize their property to prepare for the harsh winter months.
Winterization is critical around here if you want things to survival the annual cycle. Pools are drained halfway and covered. Hoses are detached and taken inside. Exterior faucets are insulated. Outdoor furniture and bird bath basins are stored. Screen doors are replaced with storm doors. Inefficient windows are sealed in plastic. We drive to stores on snow tires to buy bags of rock salt for icy steps and sidewalks.
Walking my dog around the neighborhood twice a day, I notice how some people excel at winterization while others opt for a strategy apparently consisting of hoping winter skips the northeast this time. These folks aren’t difficult to spot. Their sidewalks are never clear. Their pools leak. The hinges on their grills rust and snap. I imagine they pay more money for less heat as well.
I’m somewhere in between most prepared ever and not even trying a little bit. I certainly don’t deck the halls, walls, or anything really which is something else people do this time of year. Pumpkins are smashed and twinkle lights are lit, a sparkly bit of beauty set against the lip-cracking, face-burning cold.
As I was strolling around the block the other night I began thinking about the harsh seasons of life we sometimes head into—challenges of pain and stress and fear. Throughout our lives, we can easily be unprepared for the cold, dark times. You often can’t see these rough stretches coming, but if you’re not prepared your mind can begin to crack. Unguarded, our hearts are susceptible too and can take more of a beating than they give.
Part of getting older and wiser is to anticipate those tough periods without getting bogged down in dread of expected disaster. Over the years we learn to better prepare, to winterize our hearts for the impending harshness of wintry seasons in life. The best of us get good enough to prep with aplomb. At once they hunker down with open hearts, secure and shining light to guide the rest of us along our way.
But some people stay winterized forever, never thawing out or exposing their thoughts and feelings to any potential harshness ever again. They are perpetually waiting out a storm that may or may not ever come. They are locked in a bomb shelter during days of peace. They are porcupines asleep in a den.
I want to live in the space between realistic expectation and hopeful anticipation. I want to add beauty to dreary seasons. I think the trick is to keep moving, staying focused on helping others no matter how discouraging the forecast. Serving others warms the heart better than any precaution ever will (<--tweet that). Easier said than done, sure, but show me a person who can’t read a thermostat and I’ll show you a person who doesn’t know how cold he’s supposed to be.