Outside my window, snow is falling in tiny, icy flakes. Everything is white, the ground, the sky, the trees, the road. The plows won’t start until later. Every now and then a big truck passes, its headlights on low beam. In Maine, when it snows, if you don’t have anywhere to go, you don’t go anywhere and if you do have to go somewhere, you have a big truck to get you anywhere, in any weather.
On days like this, I don’t drive anywhere. Days like this make me all the more thankful that I work from home. Judging from my closest neighbors’ chimney, they’re home too, either sitting by the fire or by a window, watching the snow. As for me, I’m sitting in my chair, in my loft, by my window. Occasionally, I shuffle over to the railing to check the fire in the woodstove downstairs. The stove is small, but tenacious and the dry wood burns well. It’s warm in here and cold out there. On days like this there’s nowhere I’d rather be than here.
But this day is different. I have company. My brother Paul is here visiting from Philadelphia and he’s not used to the quiet customs of a Maine winter. To pass the day, Paul is practicing. He is a musician, a classical guitarist. Next week, he has an audition for a master’s program across the country in San Francisco and he’s training his fingers into perfect form.
To my ear, inured to the quiet of a cabin in the woods in winter, his music is perfect. It’s heavenly, live and alive. Note by note, flake by flake, my snow day passes into bliss. I wish I had more days like this.
But no matter how sweet the music sounds to me, Paul’s practiced ear is unsatisfied. From time to time, he groans and growls and finally, his frustration boiling, he shouts, “Son of a bitch!” I hear him gently place his beloved guitar in its hard plastic case and then violently slam it shut.
He needs a break. He needs to break out of here. So I get up from my desk and go over to the railing and ask if he wants to go for a walk.
Every day, no matter the weather, rain, snow or shine, I go for a walk. My two dogs need a good walk everyday, and after years of giving in to their demands, I’ve come to realize that I do too. While I’m walking, everything seems right. The world shrinks down to a more manageable size: the distance I can walk in a few hours, the distance I can walk in a day.
This need to take a walk everyday has come to govern, above almost everything else, the geography of where I live. Every few months I move around the country as a professional housesitter. In the past six years I’ve lived in nine states on both coasts. I’ll live almost anywhere, as long as I can take the dogs on a long loose walk every day. This winter I’m in a cabin attached to a big empty house on the coast of Maine. My job is to keep the ancient pipes running under the big old house, called Greenfire, from freezing. It’s a great job in a beautiful place. The walking’s not half bad either.
If I turn left out of my driveway the road leads to the tiny lobster town of Tenants Harbor. Right leads to the sea. This road circles around the outside of the Saint George peninsula, leaving the wooded interior undeveloped. The woods begin right behind my cabin and I spend more time in these woods than on the road.
As well as I got to know the woods in the fall – I moved to Maine in early October – I am now having to relearn them in the snow. Since December, my landmarks have been covered by two feet of white. There are a few trails, mostly overgrown old logging roads, but they’re a good half-mile bushwhack away from my place. Navigating in deep woods in deep snow requires a level head, a good sense of direction and trust in the knowledge that I live on a peninsula, which is encircled by a road and that stumbling in almost any direction – except North – will eventually bring me to the sea.
My brother and I layer up and head out into the swirling snowstorm and into the woods. We wind through the trees, choosing the route of least resistance, like deer. These woods are thick with vines and brambles and it’s easy to pick and lose a fight. With every step I sink in over my knees and I wish, again, that I had snowshoes. In my mountain boots and waterproof gaiters, I’m dry enough. My older dog, Bowie, follows right at my heels, taking advantage of the broken trail. My puppy, Dio, he of endless energy, springs through the snow ahead, leaving tracks like a giant rabbit. Paul follows a few paces behind Bowie, already cold and wet in his city sneakers.
Soon we come to a partially frozen stream and leap across into my neighbors’ long, narrow backyard. Bob and Jan graze two donkeys in this field and I make both dogs wait behind me until I’m sure the adorable dog-stomping beasts are safely in the barn. One of those asses just about trampled Bowie the first time we crossed through this field and I’d rather not risk another close encounter, especially in deep snow. No danger today. I can’t see the donkeys, but the snow in the field is smooth and unbroken except for a single, straight snowmobile track, leading up the hill.
Paul and I wade out into the open field, where the snow has drifted thigh-deep, and turn uphill into the snowmobile track. It has snowed since the machine passed, but walking in the packed track is a bit easier; we only sink in calf-deep. The snow is still falling in tiny, icy flakes. Out in the open field the light flakes swirl around us in a shimmering cloud of crystal mist.
By the time we gain the top of the hill, we’re both warm, despite the cold so we stop for a moment to catch our breath and look back the way we came. Everything is white and everything that is not swirling is still. Our footprints follow the snowmobile swath downwards, to the low point of the field, where they run sideways into the woods. At the far end of the long, narrow clearing, perhaps a quarter mile away is Bob and Jan’s house, chimney smoking. I imagine them sitting by the stove, maybe listening to music, or perhaps standing by the window, watching the snow, maybe even watching me out walking in the storm.
Paul breaks the snowy silence to ask, “When you go back and read your writing, does it ever sound as perfect as it sounds in your head?” Almost never, I say. Then he stomps out into the field, spins in a circle and lets himself fall straight backwards into the deep soft snow. I laugh at him and he says, “Come try it, just fall back. It’s so comfortable! The snow catches you in the perfect position.” And so I do and he is right.
As soon as I land, both dogs come to me for help with their feet. They stand quietly while I dig between their toes, pulling out sharp ice chunks the size of marbles. I think of that opening scene in Jack London’s short story “The White Silence”, when the musher puts his sled dogs’ feet in his own mouth and bites out the ice chunks. I tell Paul this story. He thinks it’s gross and I agree but I point out that putting a dog’s feet in your mouth is probably not the most unpleasant part of being a turn-of-the-century dog musher in Alaska.
The snow is falling harder now, piling on Paul’s hat but melting from his warm upturned face, as he watches the white swirling sky. For once, I don’t have my camera with me and I’m kicking myself for leaving it behind. Without the indelible memory of the lens, I take extra care to remember this scene in my mind’s eye: the snowmobile track cutting up the hill, across the snow to where my my brother sits, his face upturned, drawing the eye up towards the swirling sky, a perfect composition of face and field and snow.
Paul stretches in his perfect snow seat. “Why can’t everything be this easy?” he says. “I should just be able to fall into the music and let it catch me.” No way, I say. Easy is good, but great should be hard.
We both sit in the snow, just starting to feel the chill, thinking about how easy it is to fall into a perfect snow seat on a hill in the midst of a Maine snowstorm. But there is something extraordinary about us sitting here. We could be warm, next to the fire or standing by a window watching the snowfall or even sitting behind the wheel of a big truck, driving slowly to some place we have to be. We could be at a desk, in an office, at a cubicle, in the trenches, out to lunch. We could be anywhere but here.
Instead, we are sitting in perfect seats in the snow, on a hill, surrounded by swirling crystal mist. The icy flakes and frigid air sting, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be than right here, on this hill, surrounded by woods, in the midst of a Maine winter snowstorm. Paul’s upturned face tells me he agrees. We sit for awhile, talking and thinking of art and perfection, inspiration and frustration. Off to the west, to our left, the sun is setting. For a few brief moments the weak rays brighten the ever-moving crystal mist, making it glitter and then everything drops into dusk. In these moments we are the only people on earth.
Soon we’re truly cold and if we don’t start back we’ll be racing darkness home. Paul struggles to get up from his snow seat, so perfect he can barely get out of it. I laugh at him and with him and the flakes swirling between us swirl faster.
Once up, we stand a moment longer, letting our laughter fade. “Out here I can hear it,” Paul says. “Perfect music.” Me too, I say, already composing a perfect essay about sitting on a hill with my brother surrounded by woods and crystal mist on a peninsula in a Maine snowstorm.
If I could write this place, if I could describe it exactly so that the rest of the world, stuck in their cabins and cars and cubicles, could see it as clearly as I see it, if Paul could play music as clearly as he hears it, what a wonderful piece of work that would be. But of course, back in my warm cabin, reading this essay, the words don’t sound as perfect as they did in my head on that hill. Someday, I will find just the right words to describe those perfect moments of a Maine winter, but not today.
Epilogue: It’s now August and I’m far from snowy Maine. My brother Paul was just here visiting me on his way west to San Francisco, where he’ll soon be starting that master’s program in classical guitar at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, on a scholarship, no less. I’m still not sure this essay is as perfect as that snowfield, but when I revisit it, even here in hot dry New Mexico, I can see that field, feel those icy flakes on my face, and hear Paul’s perfect music.
Click here to see more of my sister’s paintings.
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