Imagine a winter night in northern Delaware, no wind, just quiet, with the snow-covered land sparkling in the glow from the stars. The temperature is in the teens—cold for the mid-Atlantic, but not unusual. Six young people are climbing a hill, a steep, open slope, struggling upward and sliding halfway down, laughing, helping each other up but also grabbing at coats to pull back those in front. Me, my three best girlfriends, and a couple of boys. We were 17.
I breathed in the cold, exhilarated, filled with a sense of wanting to be exactly where I was, brought alive by the snow, and the company, and the feel of belonging. I vowed I would always live somewhere with real winter. Cold was part of me. I was part of it.
Which is why, six years later, I was so utterly stunned to find myself huddled miserably beneath blankets in my bedroom in Oregon, unable to get warm. Outside, the rains of the Pacific Northwest fell and fell. I had four quilts piled atop me, thick socks on my feet and my freezing hands between my knees. A fire sputtered in the living room wood stove, which I couldn’t get to draw.
It was 45 degrees.
I’d worked hard to get a job in the Northwest, land of wilderness and rain forest. Oregon was paradise—unless for some odd reason, maybe a misalignment of energies, you happened not to belong there. Which seemed to be the case with me. The mountains, so grand and gorgeous in sun, became imposing and impenetrable in fog and rain. Watching the blue Pacific surf crash against rocks made me lonely. It wasn’t just my body that was cold in Oregon. It was my spirit.
Fast forward through another half dozen years and carry me back across the continent, to a beach that curls far out into the Atlantic. I’m walking face into the March wind, bundled up tight and laughing with joy. My only companions are the sleek seabirds called gannets that hurl themselves into the sea like flung knives. The ocean is dark blue and stormy; the waves rise up and collapse. And for reasons I can’t begin to describe, I feel like I’ve found the one place I belong.
We stayed on the Outer Banks for more than 30 years, and I always woke ecstatic to be there. On gale-filled nights when the temperatures would dip into the 30s—ah, but the wind and damp made it seem so much colder!—I’d sit by the wood stove, warm and happy, and listen to the pines creak overhead.
It wasn’t until very late in my time there that something hit me: The same humid, penetrating cold that had so defeated me in Oregon brought me alive on the Outer Banks. How could that be?
We are so much more than our physical bodies. Our landscapes, the places through which we move, the terrain we traverse and the skies above us shape us in ways that aboriginal peoples knew very well, but that are given scant thought in our culture. For whatever reason, the ingredients that make up who I am clashed with the landscape of Oregon. When I reached the Outer Banks, though, I knew very quickly I belonged there.
But through the decades things changed. The once-tiny island towns were discovered. The modest cottages on the ocean were torn down and replaced with mansions. Driving past rows of closed-up rental properties one winter day, I had the sudden feeling that I’d stepped into an apocalypse: lots of pretty houses, no people. And in a community where folks had always cared for each other and helped their neighbors, the newly poor were sleeping in cardboard boxes in the woods.
As I looked at all those huge, empty houses with their darkened windows, I felt the first tendrils of cold creep around my heart.
Another leap in time, and now we’ve reached a January night just last year, on the midcoast of Maine. A community concert has ended; people spill out of the barn, carried into the cold by the fine music we’ve heard. Snow crunches underfoot. I tip back my head and marvel at the star-strewn sky. I embrace the frigid air. And for the first time in many decades, I feel the way I felt on that midwinter night in Delaware.
Could this wintry place become home? Could I learn to love it as I loved the Outer Banks?
As I write this, I sit in a cozy room in a house built in 1804, or thereabouts. Sunlight bounces through the window, reflected from the snow in the yard. I’m cold, yes, but it’s the kind that can be remedied with down comforters and wool socks. It radiates from outside, not from within.
Most of the time we’re cozy and content here in Maine. We walk the wooded trails outside our door (in boots or crampons or even snowshoes, depending what’s on the ground), taking in the unfamiliar trees and the rise and fall of the land, wanting to learn everything we can about this new place. Once in a while, though, we sit paralyzed in our little house, hiding beneath blankets, not quite knowing how to make a life here. The bad days come no more than once a week, but they do come. This is not an easy path we’ve chosen.
We have bet our happiness that the flame kindled within us by the landscape and people of the Outer Banks will carry us through as we find our footing here. On nights when the snow swirls and the frigid wind blows, we feel a deep glow that lingers from all we’ve left behind, and it sustains us.
This first post from our new home in Maine is written with deep thanks to all those I love on the Outer Banks.
Apologies for not posting a new blog entry in January. Things got a little crazy during our move north.