Weather, Death, and Denial: my 60th birthday insight

By Michelle Blake on February 7, 2011 1:14 PM

This morning I stumbled onto a major insight, which forced me to reassess my relationship with every state and climate in which I've ever lived. As well as my relationships with my neighbors, myself, death, and denial.

I grew up in Texas, where people like to brag about the sulfurous summer heat. Down there, it is okay to fry an egg on the sidewalk and ask, on a regular basis, "Hot enough for you?" It is not okay to answer, "In fact, it is way too f*&^ing hot for me and I have decided to get a job in a meat-locker." The appropriate answer is a wry chuckle and something along the lines of, "Nope. I was hoping for a real summer this year."

For reasons I have never figured out, I've also lived a good portion of my life in the San Francisco Bay area. I am one of the few people I know who does not like the San Francisco Bay area, but I spent my undergraduate years there, then later got a teaching job there, then many years later watched my oldest child head off to graduate school there.

When I taught in California twenty-six years ago, this same child was an infant. I have a vivid memory of bracing myself in a doorway, my baby in my arms, while the earth turned to viscous liquid beneath my feet. I had never before experienced an earthquake, and after it was over I knew one thing--I never wanted to experience another one. Actually, I sort of enjoyed the physical sensation. What I didn't like was the fear of dying in a doorway. But when I tried talking with Bay area residents about this concern, I got blank stares.

"Don't you worry about another earthquake?" I would ask a group of mothers in the nearby kiddy park.

Wan smiles, averted glances. It was as if I had started sharing some of my favorite sexual positions.

Plus, there is no summer in San Francisco. The instant the air retains a hint of warmth, a dense blanket of cold fog rolls in from the bay. This does not stop hard-core San Franciscans from wearing shorts and tank-tops on mid-July evenings, when the temperature is hovering in the fifties--a topic also not up for discussion with the natives.


Eventually, my husband and daughter and I escaped back to the East Coast, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Because Cambridge is such a hodge-podge of drifters, professors, and quacks, I never located any uniform topic on which everyone seemed to be in denial--at least in terms of weather and natural disaster. I did regularly have moments in the aisles of Whole Foods during which I rethought my position on gun control; I wouldn't have wanted to hurt anyone, but it would have been satisfying to fire off a few rounds in the air and remind folks that they were in a public place where many people other than themselves and their precocious children were trying to shop for food.

But, in general, complaining counted as a competitive sport in Cambridge, and I never lacked for an attentive audience when mouthing off about what wasn't working for me. There was not a lot of loyalty to the land there, or to the climate, and few had staked fierce claims on local identity.

Then, two years ago, we moved, at last, back to Vermont. I'd lived in Vermont throughout my 20's, and had wanted to return ever since, but demands of work and income and children's happiness had conspired to keep our family in the city. Our first two winters here were relatively mild--though I didn't understand that at the time. 

This winter has not been mild. It's been a record breaker. I feel as if I have a piece of ice taped permanently to the small of my back.

And yet, when I meet people on our dirt road, the conversation often goes something like this:
Me: Whoa. It is cold out here.
Neighbor: Is it?
Is it?
It can be hard to hear under two hats and a parka hood. And, indeed, I don't always know to whom I'm speaking, because the person's face is covered by one of those masks that bank robbers wear. So I can't be certain what my neighbor has said, but it sounds a lot like, "Is it?"

Finally, this morning, I began to consider this recurring phenomenon in my life: my need to point out what's perennially unlivable about a locale, versus the inhabitants' collective need to play down that information.

And I finally got it: if you're committed to a place--or a person or a dog--the healthiest response is to focus on what works. This does not count as a breakthrough in the world of psycho-truth, but I had never before fully appreciated the function of denial.

Pointing out unfixable problems is not fundamentally adaptive. It's a lot like forcing other human beings to talk about death, frequently. "This is a drag man. I feel like I just got here, and now I'm, like, dying. And a lot of other people are dying, too. I know like four people who have died in the last couple of years. We need to go someplace where this stuff isn't happening."

I can imagine my own response to this comment--blank stare, averted glance, mumbled question.

There's a reason people play down the downside. It makes more room for the upside.

If you want to live in the Jumbo State, under wide-open skies, among friendly folks, you've got to take the heat.

If you call San Francisco home, forget the earthquakes. Focus on the glistening sweep of the bay.

If you want to hear Renaissance music played on original instruments pretty much any day of the week, welcome to Cambridge, where folks are too intent on buying the right cous-cous to notice other human beings in their lines of vision.

If I want to live in the most beautiful place on earth, where silence comes wrapped in drifts of snow, I need to welcome all four seasons--or, actually, five, if you count mud season, which, on our road, we do.

Of course, without a downside, there would be no upside. Spring wouldn't get nearly as much press if it didn't follow winter. How would we recognize contentment, beauty, fulfillment, if we hadn't known their opposites? Death is the mother of beauty, writes Stevens. We love places and people and animals so fiercely because we will one day lose them. All of which leads me to suspect that life is working just as it should. And it's only taken me 60 years to figure that out.