Talk About Cold!

Two South Dakota cities just made the “Top-50 Coldest Cities” list according to Niche Company News, and numerous schools in the area have been calling off school or shortening their hours. I grew up in northern South Dakota so this cold weather is nothing new to me at all, and I’m a bit surprised that it’s making the news. I’m a little envious because I don’t remember school ever being called off because of low temperatures when I was a youngster. I walked a couple of blocks every morning and afternoon to and from school regardless of the weather, unless there was a raging blizzard in which case school was dismissed. I have great memories of one storm that lasted about five days (no school!) and also knocked out our electricity. I remember my dad making toast in the coal-fired furnace in the basement. The snow had drifted so high that after the storm we could walk right up onto the roof of the garage. My brother, sisters, and I dug down into the drift to make an awesome snow fort.

Dsc_00472007-03-03I must admit that I actually enjoy all of the seasons, even winter. I take the dog for a walk almost every day of the year including wintertime, and he whimpers impatiently at the door when I start putting on my insulated coveralls, boots, hooded insulated jacket, parka, mittens, and scarf. The only skin exposed to the cold may be a little bit around my eyes.

After one of these walks a few nights ago, I was approaching the driveway and I started to get an idea for a poem. I was afraid that if I went inside to write it down I may get distracted and lose the poem — that has happened to me before! I went inside briefly to get a small notebook and pencil (pens won’t work when it’s this cold), and went back outside. I was wearing gloves inside my mittens, so I took off the mitten on my right hand, held a flashlight with my knees and started to write, but the pencil point broke partway. I turned the pencil and was able to keep writing for a little while, but the flashlight had a bad switch and kept turning off. It would work for a little while when I shook it, but then turn off again. The tip of the pencil broke off completely when I was about half done so I took off my glove and began breaking away the wood at the point to get to the graphite. Finally I was able to get the words down on paper. That was one of the hardest-fought battles for a poem that I’ve ever had! Did I mention that the windchill was -22 that night?

Before going back inside, I decided to walk down the road a bit so I could get a better look at the night sky. The moon was waning and just a couple of days past its full phase. The strong north wind blew the snow across the road, creating a hazy snow cloud that started DSC_0466at the horizon and went up into the sky about ten degrees or so. I noticed a couple of small clouds to the right and left of the moon, and while I was studying them I realized that they weren’t clouds, they were a similar phenomenon to sun dogs. I could see a hint of the colors of the light spectrum reflected in the ice crystals. I had never seen them around the moon before. When I got back home I asked my husband if he’d ever seen “moon dogs” (not the correct name, but the best I could do at the time!) I was delighted to get a small reward for my trials and tribulations, even if they were self-inflicted!

On the way to work a couple of days later I snapped some pictures of the sunrise just before the sun popped up over the horizon. I watched two sun dogs develop, and the colors grow more intense as the sun neared the skyline. In the space between the sun dogs, the glow of the sun below the horizon was reflected in the ice crystals above and grew brighter until it looked like a flame burning on the edge of the frigid landscape.

When I got home that night I researched sun dogs, and learned that they are a type of ice crystal halo. The illustration of halos on this page reminded me of a poem by Hafiz that I recently read, called “Something About Circles.” Here is an excerpt:

The moon is most happy
When it is full

And the sun always looks
Like a perfectly minted gold coin
That was just polished
And placed in flight …


Winter is Knocking

After a couple of weeks of beautiful, mild, autumn weather, a cold breath of air has moved in from the north and is sending the cottonwood and poplar leaves skittering across the deck and clattering against the window. Dsc_04122008-11-07Winter is knocking at our door, and many of us may dread the snow, cold, and bleak gray days that are coming.

I am reading Ted Kooser’s memoir, Local Wonders, during my morning reading and journaling time. The book is organized around the seasons of the year and I’m in the last section set in the wintertime. This morning I read about Kooser receiving a cancer diagnosis earlier in the year. He was unable to write for months afterward. He “began to heal” as he put it, near the beginning of winter when he started going for walks. Much to his surprise and delight he was able to write a poem after one of the walks. He continued writing a poem after each daily walk, scribbled them on a postcard, and sent them to a friend. He eventually put them together in a collection titled Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison.

I loved learning that Kooser regained his poetic voice and began to recover his health in the winter, a season that we often associate with death and endings. The trees look barren and dead, most of the birds have left for more temperate climates, and the lush plants that thrived in the summer gardens are twisted and shriveled. The ferocity of the winter weather also reminds me of how small I am compared to the power of nature. I feel much the same way when I gaze at the night sky and the mysterious, infinite spaces between the stars. I find it oddly comforting that I am not in control.

Winter is a time for slowing down, enjoying the silence and the crisp contrast between light and dark. There is very little color in the landscape, but that serves to help us appreciate the more subtle hues created by the winter light: the blue at the bottom of a footstep in the snow, the rainbows that the sunlight creates inside the crumbs of frost scattered on the tree branches. The abundant life that surrounds us in summer seems to have disappeared, but actually it has just gone to a deeper place, a safe place to rest and build up its stores of energy to burst to life again in the springtime.

Living things need both the light and the dark, summer and winter, moisture and drought, cold and warmth. The dead plants in the garden will be tilled under and nourish the garden next year. They will be reborn in a new way. Nothing is wasted. The same is true for us. If we feel tapped out, exhausted, lifeless, we can take that old dead material and mulch it to create something entirely different.


The Poem I Almost Wrote


I met a friend for lunch a few days ago, and she asked me whether I’d done any writing this week. Part of our commitment to each other as friends is to encourage, remind, and sometimes even pester one another to take the time to do what is important to us. For me, that would be writing. It’s so easy to put off, to find myriad other things that need to be done. I made a promise to my friend some years back that I would set aside some time at least once a week to work on my writing, and she gently reminds me each time we meet.

I scooped up a spoonful of soup and said, “well, I almost wrote a poem yesterday.” She smiled and I went on … “I went to my writing desk and turned on the computer and monitor, but that was as far as I got.” I had jotted down some notes after walking the dog a few days earlier, and I wanted to see if I could shape them into a poem.  “I’m not sure what distracted me, but I think it was skiing. There were a couple of inches of powder on top of the crusty snow, the temperature was actually above zero, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t have too many more chances this winter.”


I sometimes come up with ideas for writing when I ski, so I think that it can be construed as writing time. After bundling up and strapping on skis I grabbed my camera and started out to the west  edge of the yard where I saw a three-square-foot area where snow had been scraped away. The only tracks that I could see nearby were made by deer, so I reasoned that it must have been either a scrape made by a buck to stake out a place for mating, or an attempt to get at some food. I decided on the latter since it’s a little late for the breeding season. Next I wanted to check out the field on the other side of the draw where I often see deer foraging in the late afternoon when I come home from work. I found lots of deer trails and followed one of them to a nearby shelterbelt where I saw two deer standing and watching me. I called back the dog to keep him from chasing them, and watched their white tails bob back and forth as they trotted through the trees. I reached the top of a rise and snapped pictures of distant wind turbines against a clear blue sky. When I turned to start back home, I saw two more deer standing near the edge of the field. They watched me for a bit to try to figure out what I was, but they vanished when I started moving again. The sun was setting when I reached the edge of our yard and saw some dead grass with a hollowed out area in front. I took a closer look and realized that it was a cozy deer bed within feet of the dog kennel,DSC_0457 hidden by brush, grass, and the stump of a dead tree. After I got back inside, I snuggled up in my “deer blanket” (a fuzzy blanket with a deer design on it) and wrote in my journal about my skiing experiences and discoveries.  I passed my writing desk on my way to bed that night, heard the computer running, and remembered my good intentions to work on a poem.

I have lost many “poems I almost wrote”  because of distractions, deliberately choosing to do something else, or simply because life couldn’t wait for me to devote the necessary time to them. I think that maybe poets are often filled with regret for the poems we lose, but I console myself with the thought that some poems will never be written, they can only be lived. I am so grateful for all of the poems in my life. Now please excuse me – I have a poem to write.