Extraordinary stories from everyday life on the edge of the world
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Stories

Thaw

In between the time-stood-still magic of winter and the bacchanal of summer, there is thaw. 

Blue skies and warming temperatures to the contrary, thaw is Upper Michigan's least lovely look. The snow loses its champagney quality and starts to sag. The landscape is still covered in three-foot drifts and the towering piles of snowplows, but sand, gravel and the stain of exhaust are creeping up the edges, tarnishing the "wonderland" look. Under the canopy of low-hanging tree limbs, where the snow was thinner, there are bare patches of dark, sopping ground, littered with the rotted leaves of last autumn.

On the upside, the sun is out, but with it comes the realization that the last time you went skiing may have been the last time for the season. you may have taken your last ski without knowing it. 

I don't do well with untimely goodbyes, not to skiing or seasons or any kind of happiness, even when I know I'm exchanging it for another. No matter how many times good new things show up to replace the good old things, I always feel that this time will be the time when they don't. Could be a scarcity mentality inherited from my sharecropper ancestors.

What would they have thought if they could have seen me sitting in the banker's office today, jockeying numbers back and forth, over the table, about this dream we have to build a few tiny dream houses in the woods? They would have slapped me silly. That kind of dream is for people who were born into it. Who do I think I am?

The older I get, the more often my dreams are interrupted that way. And when I try to talk myself out of it, my mind turns to all the people who have way less prospect of accomplishing their dreams than we do. People who can't even get a meeting in a banker's office, because they weren't brought knowing that establishing credit history was a thing, because their skin color or last name means the powers that be are always mysteriously away from their desk.

I think about them and I think about who I come from and I think, what right do I have to insist? If it's not handed to me...if it doesn't come easy...what right do I have to fight for it, as though it were something I deserved? 

But I'll tell you a secret. One that I'm ashamed of:  

I do feel like I deserve it. 

Rather, some thing in my gut is telling me I do. My little lizard brain is, even now, working overtime to convince it otherwise. The brain makes me cry, and pick fights with Bryan, and stamp down the icy road listening to Green Day, anything to keep anguish levels high and shut out the patient, persistent voice from my gut that says this future already belongs to me, and I just have to do the work of getting to it. 

Thaw waterfall

It makes me crazy how Bryan is always right. He advised against trying to climb the hill to Gardner's Creek Trail, and now here I am, stuck in waist-high wet snow that is quickly seeping down my Baffins. It's colder than it looks outside--that's another shitty thing about thaw. The roads look clear and dry enough to trick you into suiting up for a bike ride or run. Then you get out there and the wet wind freezes you colder than any sub-zero day in January.

Twisting to get myself free, I throw out something in my neck. Wet snow doesn't respond well to insistence. Winter is sneaky like this--it lulls your imagination with its sugary sparkle and ephemeral quietness, making monumental objectives seem so small, so simple, how could anyone accuse you of greed? You dream of endless summer afternoons climbing up and down from the lake, of smoky autumn mornings warming tea on a beehive stove, of racing other crazy idiots from the sauna into the nearest snowbank. Drunk with magical possibility, you ask for money, sign mountains of papers, tell your friends, find ways to make ends meet. It's only when the thaw comes in with its rude awakenings and ragged winds that you realize the bottomless gulf that separates those ends from each other. 

A white-tailed deer, poised below the wild apple tree, is staring at me. I'd like to tell you its liquid brown eyes, looking into my tear-stained own, are compassionate. But I know the deer too well by now to project any compassion onto this one. Deer are as dumb and gluttonous as they are graceful. Too often I've slowed down my Jeep at their approach, then sped up again on the belief that we have an understanding, only to careen sideways when their greed gets the better of their indecisiveness.  

Is that what we've done, with our delirious purchase of these twenty priceless acres? So would say my flinty ancestors and the brain they gave me. We signed our lives away to the bank in exchange for a dream--now we're caught between having it taken away from us, and wasting away our lives trying to hold onto it. 

I look to my gut for its rebuttal, and it doesn't have one. It has no logic, no facts, to counteract this scowling argument. It's like it doesn't even hear my brain. It doesn't acknowledge it at all. 

If you want to know the truth, it responds with the most irrelevant thing I can imagine: the premise for a novel that it tells me I should write, based off one of the first stories I collected on this blog. As much as I want to ignore it, the premise seems kind of interesting, and as I walk back to the house, it sort of develops into a whole plot without my permission. 

Nine times out of ten, the deer seem to win in those highway encounters. The speeding cars slam to a halt, or spin into a ditch, but the deer follow the line they've sighted for themselves, and somehow disappear unscathed. 

It drives me crazy, but it shouldn't. The same thing could be said about me. 

I'm here, marching down this road in a late February thaw, because of following my own sighted line. My gut told me that I would be safer and happier living on the road alone. I didn't believe it, but I did what it said. Later, it told me I should definitely go to Wyoming and meet this man who wrote such clever emails. Another time, it said I ought to give this mercurial writing life one more shot before abandoning it for a normal job. Last year, it promised that I could love the Keweenaw winter as much as the southern California summer.  

My brain is much better at crafting persuasive arguments. The thing, though, is that it's almost never right. It seems safe to assert, then, that my brain's assertion about not deserving is also wrong. It's not a question of deserving, at all. You can manipulate the life you were born into, but you can't do anything about the thing you're born to do.

You can, of course, refuse to do it. I did that for a long time, but I'm out of the habit.

The thaw has made an amorphous reflecting pool in the middle of the lake's moonscape surface. The undersides of the ice are fluoride blue, the kind of color you'd assume doesn't exist in nature. You only see it when ice is forced out of the deep by the thaw. The toothy icicles drip down the sides of our gingerbread house, soaking the muddy patches of ground where, in another month or two, we'll see the tiny green heads of what will be poppies, bee's balm and wild iris. In the distance, a woodpecker drills for a replenished feast of insects birthed in the newly warm air.