March 2011 Archives

The Big Thaw

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People say it is harder to write about happiness than it is to write about despair. But as our dear friend Alice used to say, "What do people know?"

Still, in this case people may have gotten it right. It's tough to appear both sophisticated and enthusiastic, and my generation has perennially chosen cool and clever over chirpy and cheerful. But recently I have decided I prefer cheerful, so I'm going to blow my cover.

Two weeks ago, on a gray Friday afternoon, I was writing a few desultory sentences when I got an email message from my husband, who was supposed to be reading at the library: I'm not getting ($*%&^^& done. Want to go over and have lunch in Walpole?

Walpole is a small town across the Connecticut River, in New Hampshire, with three big draws, the first being an Agway store. If you can't find something you want at Agway, you need to get your desire buttons reset. Walpole is also the home of the famed chocolatier Burdick's, and of the Walpole Creamery. In winter, Agway and hot chocolate, made from steamed milk and shaved milk chocolate; in summer, Agway and homemade peppermint ice cream on a sugar cone.

To say this has been a tough winter is a laugh riot understatement. At that point, the temperature had not climbed out of the teens for weeks, ice dams hung like impending doom, and banks of plowed road slush sealed off our mailbox. Plus, the rest of my world seemed just as frozen as the six-foot snow banks. I had four different writing projects out on the desks of nine different editors, and had heard nothing for weeks. But most difficult for our family was a heartbreaking situation with a young relative, which had been dragging on for months with no light of hope or salvation or change of any sort.

When I got my husband's email, I wrote back, yes.

After lunch at the tavern, we headed to the Agway, stocked with tightly-budded hyacinths, colorful watering cans, dog beds, wheelbarrows, rubber boots, birdfeeders, welcome mats, knitted hats, work gloves, fertilizer, grass seed, ice melt, mulch, cat treats, buckets, shovels, spades, rakes, and what we actually came to get--feed hay and traction sand. On the way out, I saw a poster stuck on the wall by the door, with a picture of a litter of leggy, lab-mix puppies. I took the attached phone number and stuffed it into my back pocket.

I had wanted a lab-mix puppy for a long time. In fact, one of the reasons I had wanted to move back to Vermont was so that I could at last have some animals--goats, retired horses, maybe a goose or two. But over the endless winter I'd become convinced the whole animal thing was a bad idea. We were all getting old--my husband, our beloved mutt, and me. Who wanted to trudge out through ice-crusted snow at 6 in the morning to check on a pregnant ewe? I needed to write every day. I needed to make money. I needed to get a grip on all the good stuff that all the other folks my age seemed to have already staked out for themselves while I was raising my children and wrestling my demons. I couldn't go around pandering to half-baked dreams until I made some headway in the fame and fortune department.

Our footloose adventure across the river had a warming effect on my spirits. When we got home, I acted on impulse and phoned the woman with the puppies. As it turned out, there was one female left --black with a wiry coat. The next day we drove to New Hampshire to see her, fell in love, paid for her, and agreed to pick her up the following week. One day later, our neighbors down the road called and offered me their goats. The day after that, I met the goats, fell in love again, and agreed to take them. The day after that, I noticed a strange sensation of lightness in my chest. I thought maybe I was dying. But as it turned out, I was starting to thaw.

At the end of that week, the temperature shot up to 51* and I took our old rescue dog on a long walk. The ice dam slid off the roof with a stunning rumble, and I was able to dig out the mailbox. A week later, we brought home the puppy. There's little time for numb contemplation of theodicy when you're teaching a 12-week-old Labrador the difference between your favorite socks and a dead quail. Everything around me seemed to be sliding and shifting. The warming trend continued.

Supposedly, people tend to get happier as they get older. Here's what I've learned in the happy aging process: when I fixate on what is not available--fame, fortune, a kind word from an editor, youth-- I make myself miserable. But when I open my eyes and look around at what the universe has on offer--long-legged lab puppies, tight-budded hyacinths, brook water flowing beneath slabs of ice--I lighten up. I thaw.

You can't always get what you want, sang one of the great prophets of our age. But if you try sometime, you can, it appears, get what you need. And getting what you need can make you really really happy. Even at the end of a very very long winter.

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