by Amy Boyd
I’ve been startled awake by noises, but I was equally yanked out of sleep one February morning by the deeply muffled silence of several feet of snow. As morning came and my mind slowly worked its way up to the surface of approaching dawn, the incompleteness of the world as I knew it pulled me suddenly to my senses. Even in the typically quiet world that surrounded my New Hampshire cabin, there were noises that were missing that morning, quiet rustles that just weren’t there anymore.
From the sleeping loft, I peeked through the heavy curtain to the woods to see whiteness all over everything, and a gauze veil of flakes falling thick and steady from the white sky. An ice storm had covered every branch and vine with a thick crystal coating that would have rattled together if the wind picked up.
I rolled over to look at the clock by my bed, but the familiar digital glow was gone. No electricity. That meant that the electric baseboards that kept the cabin at a barely tolerable temperature weren’t doing the job. My partner, Jane, lay beside me, hidden as deep under the mound of down comforter as she could be without losing contact with breathable air. Neither one of us wanted to take the plunge to leave behind the warmth of the bed to put on parka and boots, mittens and hat and bring in firewood to crank up the woodstove.
But being a reporter, Jane had to get to work–the paper must go out, even in a blizzard. We both managed to drag our reluctant bodies out of the loft and she fixed her breakfast while I lit the fire. Many days of practice meant that the fire was burning nicely in no time, but it still took a while to heat up even our small cabin, so I pulled the rocking chair as close to the stove as I could get. Chelsea, Jane’s cat, climbed up into my lap and fell asleep on the down parka I couldn’t yet bring myself to take off, and Jane gave me a kiss as she piled on the layers and launched herself into the whiteness.
Left alone with the sleeping cat, I went through the list in my head of what I needed to do. It was the last day of winter vacation at the school where I worked, so there was no real pressure for me to go anywhere. No need to dig out my car, no need to find a way to melt the ice inside the lock so that I can get into my car. But there were things that needed doing.
Where to start? A video about DNA that I needed to preview for a class I’ll be teaching? Some recommendation letters I needed to type up for students? Without electricity, neither of those tasks could be taken care of. The dirty dishes in the sink stayed where they were, too, because the pump that brought water up from well to water heater was electric.
In the midst of a year spent scurrying from one task to another, as I tried to earn a living teaching and complete a graduate degree at the same time, I suddenly was forced to slow down. No music on the (electric) CD player. Even the refrigerator’s incessant low humming was gone. Only the soft purring of Chelsea and the crackling of the fire broke through the silence.
I found myself breathing slowly when I breathed, moving slowly when I moved. I filled a pot with water from gallon jugs stored under the sink, and placed the pot on top of the wood stove. Chelsea and I went over to the sliding glass doors that look out over the lake.
“Paradise!” the previous tenant had told us when Jane and I called to inquire about renting the house. We never could believe our good fortune in having stumbled upon this place. Houses on lakes are not unusual in this part of New Hampshire–there are lakes everywhere–but year-round rentals are less common. This one became ours because of an error; it was listed as a summer rental accidentally, and we called because it sounded like a year-round place. We were the first callers, and we fell in love immediately with its cathedral ceilings, its rustic, homey feel, the forest around it, the beach for our canoe, the deck for stargazing and sunsoaking.
The lake was an ecologist’s playground. In warmer months, I’d take the canoe out to the wetlands that filled half of the lake and watch beavers courting, great blue herons wading, trout jumping. I’d practice paddling as quietly and slowly as possible to see how close I could get to a green frog before it would leap into the water. I’d slip off my sneakers and step gently into the wet cushions of the bog, wander around to find pitcher plants and sundew plants, both quietly consuming insects for nourishment. I’d follow bees in their foraging journeys from one cranberry flower to another. And from the glass doors that opened to our deck I watched as herons flew by, ospreys dove for fish, otters sat on a log feeding, flocks of mergansers cruised the open waters.
As I looked out the sliding doors that day, the lake was still and lonely, white upon white upon white with no horizon visible. I turned back to the stove and poured hot water over my tea bag, then held the mug in both hands to warm them, held my face close to the rising steam to try to soak up every bit of heat it could give me. I added a few more logs to fill the stove to capacity, and then settle in to a slow, easy morning.
The quiet pace of the day was a precious gift, not something I could have expected or asked for. I was able to keep breathing, keep listening to the silence around me until the chaos in my head began to sift through, settle down, allow me to regain some internal clarity. I spent the day doing things I rarely took time to do: writing long overdue letters to friends, reading books that had been waiting on the shelves, remembering what was important in my life.
At one point in the afternoon, I picked up my mountain dulcimer to play some of the old mountain tunes I’ve always loved. As a child I lived a few blocks away from a big park where the Kentucky Music Festival was held every summer. My mother and I would spend days eavesdropping on dulcimer workshops under the old oak trees in the park, and return in the evening under the stars to hear our favorite folk performers, some carefully preserving the old musical traditions, others transforming those traditions into something new and exciting.
My dulcimer was a high school graduation gift, made out of smooth black walnut by the hands of a Kentucky craftsman. My parents told me they didn’t want to give me something traditional and utilitarian like luggage. Instead, they gave me this beautiful musical instrument, something I had longed for and which will always be a tie to my homeland.
So as the snow kept coming down, I lifted the dulcimer out of its case and began to play. The music usually comes out as a gentle, quiet sound, but after hours of profound silence that day the music was startling and took some getting used to. I began timidly with some lullabies and slow, sad ballads until I could work up the courage to fill the house with jigs and reels. Chelsea gave me an annoyed look, stretched, and wandered into the bedroom away from the racket.
Outside the storm continued, and I walked back over to the sliding doors. My eyes scanned the vast whiteness, almost completely free of distinguishable landmarks. As I looked down at the small beach below our house, life amazingly appeared. Our resident otter suddenly materialized from the swirling flakes, her sleek dark body standing out against the white. She ran across the beach, and just as suddenly was gone.
I stood there, not moving, for a long time, every cell in my body buzzing with excitement. I didn’t want the moment to end–and inside me, truly, it never has. The dark shape of the otter’s body against the drifts of snow is with me still, as real as the day it happened.
There are moments such as this that never end, moments that remain so true and full that we can step back into them at any time. These are moments that wake us from our somnambulent days and open our eyes to the light of life around us.
Gather these moments as the treasure of your life. Hold them inside you, turn them over like pebbles in your pocket, bury your toes in them like beach sand.
Are you awake? Open your eyes. The otter will come for you, too.
photo credit: Amanda Panda, Unsplash