For whom the cold bell cracks into fallen shards

5 01 2014

A few days ago, our friend Dan posted an admonishment on Facebook to his local collection of acquaintances: “Hey CNY, stop complaining about the weather. This is part of what makes us who we are. It’s January. It’s cold. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect.” He got a lot of “likes” from central New Yorkers and friends farther afield who admire the idea from safe, warm distances, and he almost got a “like” from me. I thought about it. I’m still thinking about it, but I’m not still thinking about “liking” it anymore.

It’s not that I don’t like the sentiment–I do. I like the idea of embracing a place, of being really from somewhere, doing the things that characterize it, living fully where you’re planted; those are all ideals that resonate with how I believe life ought to be. But January in central New York is not, for me, an embraceable time-and-place. It is beautiful. The first year I was here, I wrote a hundred poems about the weather. Every winter, I’m awed again by the snowflakes, huge and lacy and as detailed as paper-cut-outs, snowflakes I believed only existed under microscopes until I moved here. But the beauty isn’t everything, and after ten years, it’s no longer enough to get me through.

It’s different for people like Dan, who grew up here. They were children here, teenagers learning to drive, young people in love; now he’s a husband and father who takes his young sons (5 and not-yet-3) sledding in 3-degree weather. This slick-road, piles-to-shovel, stairs-that-try-to-kill-you at ever entrance to your house shit works for folks like Dan–he has huge boots and drives a Subaru (old, battered by time and the weather, but stubbornly made for this climate and just as happy as a husky to leap barking out into it); he and his friends believe in ice-climbing as a valid form of recreation. Falling off of frozen rocks with numb hands and blocky ice-stiff feet sounds fun to them. It evokes warm memories of crazy times and physical conquest. It gives them identity and history and strength.

Winter in central New York, for me, is the opposite of a source of strength. It terrifies me, and the longer I’m here, the more times I have to face it, with resources stretched ever-thinner, the farther from strong I feel. (I know that saying, that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I’ve taken statistics: there’s a number past which near-misses, as your car slides out-of-control into an icy intersection, become a countdown. You might survive three unscathed, nobody survives three hundred without injury or at least an expensive crash we can’t afford, and the longer we live here, the higher the number creeps toward the inevitable.) To me, the pretty snow that filters past the streetlights is a source of doom that piles up in the streets, making them not completely impassable, but worse: sort of, possibly passable. Plowed but still slushy, still icy, still slick, in a city full of deep valleys, stretched-high hills that you can’t see the bottom of as you come over the top, where snow is a fact of life and nothing is ever closed or cancelled. People spin out and slide down them all the time, and seem to take for granted that almost smashing into trees, almost smashing into other cars, almost going over the ditch into the creek, almost sliding out into the busy intersection are just normal hazards of driving, like watching out for drunks or checking your wiper blades in case it rains. The difference is you can watch out for drunks. You can check your wiper blades. But you can’t see black ice (that’s the whole point) or know when your tires will have accumulated enough wedged-in slush of ice and salt that they won’t have traction anymore. And once you slide, you can do a little bit of nudging to your drift, but not enough to not smash into trees, cars, ditches; the “almost” is just a crazy luck that people take for granted, and it’s a luck I’ve never had.

I’ve spun out across a lane of oncoming traffic and into a ditch there was no getting out of; it was luck that I didn’t slide into a car and kill myself and everyone inside, luck that the ditch was full of more grass than rocks and ice. And that luck still cost $900 in repairs and had me without a car for almost a month. This was in Virginia, though, when I was 20-something and life was very different. I had the $900. I had friends who could drive me to work every day for almost a month–in fact, one of my friends drove me to my apartment, helped me pack up my clothes and my cats, and then installed me in a spare room for the month so that we could share groceries and social outings and I wouldn’t need my own car at all. We don’t have that kind of support network here–not that our friends aren’t loving, but nobody’s got the resources to spare to double the number of people living in their house and the number of hours they spend driving around (in the snow, risking death yet again every time). I can work for 2 months these days and still not make $900–and I don’t mean 900 to spare, I mean at all.

Matt’s better adjusted to this madness than I am; he enjoys leaving the driveway half-shoveled, getting up the incline by swinging wide, gunning the accelerator, and slipping in a mad zig-zag up into the ruts where the wheels were when the snow came down. Every time we do this, I imagine sliding right over the 8-inch wall (completely invisible in the deep snow anyway) on the right side of the driveway, flipping over on the short drop to our neighbor’s house, and totaling the leased car roof-first against the brick wall. It’s old brick, too, and there are cracks already in it; probably we’d have to buy not only a car but a new house with the money we don’t have (and at that point the imagining gets fuzzy. I don’t know (yet) what happens when people with ridiculous debt and little-to-no earning potential go bankrupt).

My third year here, one of my dissertation advisors, an athletic, embrace-the-climate type of very experienced northern-road driver, slid on black ice, flipped her car, and sustained all kinds of injuries, the most serious of which was substantial, although fortunately mostly, gradually, recoverable brain damage. She was out of work for weeks, and for months she yelled at people unexpectedly, couldn’t remember in meetings what she’d said in the meeting before; her advisees took to taking detailed notes and expecting to be told we were all wrong and to start our work over every time we saw her. The fact that she was a full professor, not an adjunct like I am or a high school teacher like Matt, allowed this not to cost her her job; neither of us would be so protected.

That first couple of years, I felt at least a little strengthened by the madness when I walked to school/work in the dense snows and sub-zero temperatures–when death and debt were much less likely consequences of a slip–and I only fell a few times, luckily earning only bruises. Ice in my eyelashes made me feel tough. Breathing through the frozen crust of snot and exhalation on my scarf was exotic and oddly empowering. But once, when I was younger, I wrenched my arm so badly falling on the ice in my own front yard that I couldn’t move my arm for a week, and that’s what I think of now, when my feet slide erratically on the slick death-traps of close-shoveled sidewalks. Unable to move an arm at 39, instead of eleven, I wouldn’t be able to carry, diaper, care for the baby, and Matt has to work and we’ve no family nearby, so it’s not like somebody else could come stay over for a week to do it for me. If I caught myself differently and broke a wrist, I wouldn’t be able to type, and the meager money I make is from teaching online, a job made entirely of typing. If I lost my job, we’d lose our state-rate benefits, and we can’t just go without, like normal poor people, because Caleb’s custody agreement says Matt has to provide C’s insurance if it’s offered through his job, which it is, at a rate of 2/3 his entire paycheck. What remained wouldn’t cover the mortgage and child support, let alone such luxuries as food and heating (and welfare eligibility is calculated on your salary, not on how much of it is left over).

Beauty looks nice through the dingy, heat-leaking windows we can’t afford to clean or replace (as the snow presses its thick weight against the crumbling roof we’re scrounging to find the money to patch), but it’s no buffer against joblessness, expensive insurance claims, debilitating injury (a wrist is all it would take), or brain damage. January is perfect, in a God-loves-the-little-sparrows sort of way, but the sparrows only need the seeds in the reeds and the shelter beneath them; for economically precarious humans whose lives and livelihoods depend on the safety of roads and highways, it’s more a perfect recipe for disaster, and every time we leave the house and make it home whole, I feel the chances of the same thing happening next time getting a little more brittle, like a hardening in the arteries over a lifetime of greasy cheeseburgers. Smart people give up on greasy cheeseburgers; similarly in principle, I feel, it’s smartest between December and April to give up leaving the house altogether. Nobody wants to be a shut-in, but nobody who likes cheeseburgers really wants to live without either; and sometimes, to survive, you have to take the safer, sadder course.

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