The cat meows pointedly at me, after I place the can of food in his bowl. My pomegranate tea is brewing in the thermal mug. I add a little stevia, some grapefruit bitters. I’ve already drunk two cups of coffee and caffeine is not helping me this morning, after a late night of grading. I woke too early, finding Scott still at home, asking for necessary money tasks before the caffeine could set in. An hour had passed by the time I moved cash from one account to another, checked the PayPal balance, emailed the woman selling an Amish yarn-skein device, emailed the other woman who sells me yarn. Scott is at work now, and Madeleine sleeps after her own late night working on one of her finals for the semester.
I translate the cat, talking to him as I do when there’s time to breathe, when I’m not hurrying. “Grateful to be alive? Sort of?” He meows again, firmly. “Me too. Sort of.” Another meow with direct eye contact. “Disappointed, maybe? Low mouse count this winter? I get that. I really do. But I know you work hard.” He meows again, looking over his shoulder as he walks to the sunbeam and flops himself on the floor to wash his feet. Vain and handsome creature.
Today is the day for the pom-pom hat with its extra layer of mohair fuzz for insulation. Mittens—I never wear mittens and in seconds I’ve caught the car keys in the tender yarn at the thumb. Alpaca yarn, hand-dyed, not good in wet conditions but perfect for a crisp day. I take off the snagged mitten and slowly circle the key fob until the snag is released. These were the first mittens knit on my machine, and I’ll experiment more with this pattern before next winter. Down puffer coat, Blunnie waterproof boots over wool socks.
Out the front door at a stalking pace.
I haven’t walked at speed since shorts weather in October, twenty pounds ago. The steam rises when I pop open the mug. I wonder why the compost pickup folks left all the grossness in the green bin this morning—then I see that the compost is frozen to the bin. Too late now. I wheel the bin to the porch: maybe next week I’ll solve that. My neighbor Diane and her husband frown at jumper cables between two cars. I round the corner on the busy causeway for just a minute before turning onto a trail through conservation land, open and rolling greenish fields. Just last week I nearly sank above my boot tops, but today I stalk over the frozen landscape, sticking to the sharp grassy tufts so I don’t slip.
I pull up the down hood—I hate the slippery sound near my face, but the wind sharpens and bites. With one mitten off, I pull my turtleneck over my nose for just a few minutes before it slides back down so I can sip my tea. Hamstrings tight, hips stiff. I reach up to tap each of the low limbs of a tree over the path, hello, hello, hello, too cold to stop and offer a proper greeting. At the rise I turn right down a shaded tunnel of brush and cold wind, the path to the island in the middle of the marsh. There are two islands, and the other is called Bakers Island, but this one is My Island, whose name always scatters. A rotted board is frozen in place to cross the mud in fairer weather. The path opens to scouring wind and bright light. The two windmills tower above the landscape, one elegantly turning, turning in the sun, and the other frozen. Like me, I think. I pull the edge of the hood across half of my face, reminding myself not to keep my hands in my pockets, wind cutting through my mittens.
Strange, after six weeks of working so hard, day after day, my exhaustion transforms itself to a shame that is not normal for me, not reasonable. I feel as though my soul has been removed from me, so profoundly empty. I remind myself it’s December, mid-December, and I’ve been pushing harder than ever at all the jobs. Last week, saying “I won’t have your research essays graded until the semester is done,” then sitting up grading them, knowing some students will panic over points and scores, and my next few days will be ruined. But I want the grades done. I want the stakes for final essays to be clear. Last week, saying “No I absolutely cannot take another college application client. I can’t.” Then thinking about the money, and the reason why I coach these students, which is love and hope. I texted back to say, “get back to me after December 17th, okay? Okay.” Last week, leaving the knitting machine packed up in its rolling case so I won’t be tempted to just keep knitting through the stress and weariness. Then the weekend, fourteen hours of driving until I saw hallucinations about two hours from home. I know I drove safely in those last two hours, but I remember none of it.
There is no reason to feel ashamed of what is undone, except that I want to do everything—more than everything. I’m not afraid of doing nothing: I just don’t remember how it works, right now. And I’m eager to recall it. Soon.
A flock of birds startles from the crabapple tree as I walk by—hundreds fly and my head lifts to follow them, tossing back the hood. Four wise birds stay in the branches, eating. They can see I’m no threat, or they don’t care.
As I walk to the island—someone’s pet island with a well-mown clearing and a new bench overlooking the river-- I forget to look for the tall asparagus fronds—that is work for April, though I mark them most times of the year like a treasure map. This year the spring was cold, and the asparagus didn’t show until June, late and sparse. Next walk I will remember that the world exists beyond this nadir of cold.
I haven’t been to the island for months—the path has been underwater for much of November, the mud clay-filled and still clumped to Madeleine’s waterproof boots in the mud room entry. To the west, a man stands ankle deep in the river mud, digging clams without a heavy coat, his small boat moored nearby. Working, working—like the windmill, working, working. Me, hamstrings still tight, hips still stiff, punching my heels out and pulling my toes up as I walk, hoping to stretch something loose.
I can choose the long way to return home, with more sunny fields, or the short way that cuts through the riverbed—my nose is running and I’ve brought no tissues, and I choose the short way, thinking I might see a neighbor, even though it’s not dog-walking hours, but I only meet a fat squirrel scurrying through the riverbed. They’ll be hibernating soon—the solstice, I think, so a fat squirrel is a squirrel who might live through the winter. I drink the last of the tea and pop open the front door. The mud room gathers the sunlight directly onto the new wreath of dried flowers—red sumac and lavender—atop the brass pineapple door knocker. Not a Christmas wreath, but a welcome. Inside the furnace warms all. Put aside the mittens, the hat, the down puffer, the boots, take the thermal mug to the kitchen sink (overflowing) and march past the work-couch (overstuffed with stacks of papers), and find the last rays of sunlight in the reading chair.
The year is 2018, nearly 2019, and this is my home—in my name as well as Scott’s, regardless of whose paycheck is larger.
It is five years after the first hint of Madeleine’s health scare, three years after the peak of her migraine season, two years after I knew she would be okay.
It is five years after the home-buying scare, five months after the re-fi allowed me to settle into home ownership without a nagging sense that it could all fall to hell.
It is my ninth year of teaching part-time, with a contract that still moves from year to year, now, rather than semester to semester. My department head says she will keep asking for a permanent half-time position each year—she swears she will copy and paste the same request until the budget relents, but still there is no real hope of full-time employment. It is my fifth year of college application essay tutoring, at a school for international high school students and from my home. My checking account reminds me I’ve tutored more than 30 hours over the past six weeks. It is my third year as a small business owner with Stockingfoot Knits—my second profitable year after the initial crowdfunding campaign. I could be winding that special hand-dyed yarn right now, for my family’s Christmas presents: at any moment, I know the next step, and the next, for producing more socks.
This is the first year in which I have not been job-hunting, at all, because there has been no time. Last summer, a retired headhunter said to me, “it’s not impossible to think you might find the right fit at a college, but you need to know the path is far from certain.” I nodded. It would need to be special. It would need to be timely. I am good at my work, but colleges choose younger people, ambitious people with PhDs. They would have to meet me, and so far, my resume has not charmed anyone into meeting me.
[I added a friend's story of job-hunting, here, in my earlier draft-- and a demand to create an entirely new curriculum as a part of an interview process. That is his story-- not mine, and I may come back to that later, but I think about the audacity of a request that explosive, at THIS time of year. How I might burst into flames if anyone asked anything of me, right now.] That is where I am right now, empty after six weeks of hyper-dedication to my three jobs—and I am relieved NOT to think about what is next. I am sick with something akin to self-loathing that is only related to self-neglect, and it’s no different from every December, when the Christmas music and tin-foil decorations mock me with a cheeriness that is trying too hard. Even my own tradition includes Advent, a time of preparation, and I remain unprepared, overstretched, near breaking. I am more like the squirrel, still gathering nuts and preparing for a week-long nap to reset and rekindle some sort of life. Much to do, much to do, much to do, SLEEP. That is what I want: knitting and sleep.
Meanwhile the boy finishes his semester and plans his own ride home. The girl wakes and begs to make gingerbread houses with her girlfriends (yes, the kitchen is free—yes). Scott plans a special birthday extravaganza on Broadway with our best friend Hank, and I decline the invitation, with a bit of envy. Deadlines. Must meet deadlines. And the quiet weekend will do me good. Perhaps I can finish some work then clean the house, before we return to a four-person family, and some stews in the slow-cooker, and baked stuff.
The sun shines. That one windmill keeps turning. The clam-digger is gone, making chowder by now. The cold wind whips. And I have stuff to do.