This Thinning Ice

Let’s be clear. The ice is thinning, and we are all out on it.

Today on our frozen wetland, Stella leads the way, feeling confident because the kids explored here yesterday with Andrew. She ducks under branches, encouraging me to hold onto them and move slowly. She knows I fall down easily.

Yesterday was colder, though, and things seemed more solid than they do today. Now a crack snaps at my right foot as if beamed by imaginary lasers from my toe and heel. I jerk my feet sideways. “So if the ice cracks under you, lie down on your belly.” I tell the kids, “Spread out your weight, and squirm along to safety.” Sam spread-eagles onto the ice, trying it out. Laughing.

We are out on the ice, and although the water is only a couple of feet deep, my fear threatens to paralyze all of us. Up ahead of me, I hear loud cracks under Stella’s feet. “Ok, sweetie, come back this way!” She doesn’t move. “Stella, when you hear those cracks you need to come back! Quickly. Come away from there!”

As my voice rises, I arrive beside her. I realize the ice is fine. Her boots were cracking frozen bubbles at the surface. Stella crumples to her knees in tears because now I have shared my fear with her. We redeem ourselves, though, by holding hands and making some jokes and noticing again the beautiful way the light plays on the textured ice and how the barn cat has followed us bravely.

We are out on the ice that thins and cracks in the warming temperatures of today. I struggle with finding our course across it. I want the kids to know the truth without scaring them. And truth is, these kids and I have a luxury of not actually being in real, immediate danger here—the water would not swallow us.

Elsewhere, there are families on thinner ice, over deep water. And many families cannot choose safer ground. Even imagining this kind of fear—trapped, moment-to-moment fear for the lives of my children—feels blue hot, searing my insides.

It appears that the white men at this country’s helm cannot imagine that fear, or they simply do not care about other human beings. In rapid-fire, hate-filled executive orders, they discard people—parents, children—and the planet that sustains all of us. There are no traditional politics, or even facts, that can combat such depravity. All of us with intact empathy are trembling.

But we do not cower. So many people are transforming that blue-hot searing feeling into something visible—un-ignorable—in streets and airports, with words and wallets, with friends, neighbors, and strangers. Truth is, safer ground is changing, and we will all find ourselves on the thin ice over deep water, together.

These days, Pete Seeger’s words keep singing in my head:

Old devil fear, you with your icy hands. Old devil fear, you’d like to freeze me cold. When I’m sore afraid, my lovers gather round, and help me rise to fight you one more time.

Old devil hate, I knew you long ago, before I learned the poison in your breath. Now when I hear your lies, my lovers gather round, and help me rise to fight you one more time.

Out on this ice where things look bleak, something keeps surging in me, as irrepressible as the marching crowds. Thank you, everyone raising your voices, placing yourselves physically and otherwise in front of this administration’s barreling train of destruction. I will join you as we gather round, and help each other rise.

Back To My Senses

As I write at the kitchen table, oblivious to my tense shoulders and cooling coffee, a strange popping sound filters into my awareness like distant fireworks. Probably the cat sharpening claws, I think, until she wanders past me. And the dog is nearby. Is it ice cracking on the roof? Squirrels in the attic? Finally, I have to check and climb the stairs, baffled.

Two steps into our guest room, I burst out laughing. I forgot about the chicken.

One of our Polish hens had ended up indoors on Saturday evening. The other hens had plucked her tail raw and naked—chickens can be as mean as people—and she stood with her head hanging. We considered culling her, but between my feelings and dinner guests arriving within the hour, she got a reprieve and a dog kennel in the guest room. This morning, she spilled her food and is pecking vigorously at the newspaper-bottomed cage.

I forgot the chicken because I woke up bleary, roused reluctant kids, herded them through breakfast and into backpacks while zigzagging the kitchen being distracted by other thoughts, ushered them to the car without wearing a coat, hurried back indoors and fumbled for coffee, then opened my laptop and left half my senses behind until the popping started above the ceiling.

Laughing brings me back to my senses. I sink to the floor beside the cat, who has devoted herself to sitting with her very own indoor chicken. I notice the hen’s beak curving slightly to the right out of face feathers so thick I cannot see her eyes. The damp, sharp smell of chicken poop on newspaper. Low crooning of the hen. Purring cat.

Later, with my toes clipped into cross-country skis, I shuffle forward awkwardly out of our yard behind Andrew. Again, I forget my body, thinking that these skis are not working with me, probably because they are both left skis, and I should not even be out on them, risking a fall that could be debilitating, but I should get exercise and back into shape while I have the privilege of being healthy and access to skiing, which is not to be taken for granted, especially in this changing world. My shoulders have tensed and crept towards my locked jaw, and I am white-knuckling the ski poles. Even my toes are curled.

I breathe, sink into my feet, wiggle my toes, drop shoulders, unclench hands. My center of gravity shifts from my neck down into my pelvis—stability. Skiing becomes calming. I notice the woods around us. The smell of my breath in the scarf. Swish-crunch of Andrew skiing ahead of me. Jingle of dog tags as she wriggles past, focused only on how good it feels to move through snowy woods with people you love.








This Year’s Work

The biggest tree in our woods has split apart, and it is squashing its neighbors. Its trunk crosses our uphill trail, so I walk underneath it, trusting those smaller trees to keep it from falling on me. These neighboring trees must be strong, might be suffering, and bend low under the intrusion of the tree that should have held itself upright—it had soaked up the resources and grown large enough.

This summer, we found the keeled-over bitternut hickory tree while hiking. Sam shimmied up the angled trunk, and Andrew followed, scheming about the chainsaw acrobatics required to deal with it. A tree that has fallen, but still hovers at least partly in the air, is known to foresters as a widowmaker. Liberating the smaller trees from the weight of this giant will be risky work, as it often is when tackling a bully.

Later, Andrew hiked out with his chainsaw and trimmed the tree’s branches, making all but the final, riskiest cuts (to my relief). But the tree remains. I stare at it, wondering about the work ahead of us. What personal risk will any of us take to lift some weight from the shoulders of others?

I think of the tree as Stella and I play a board game in which we are engineering ants. The game is cooperative—we win or lose together—requiring us to build gadgets to get past obstacles and free other ants. At the piranha river, I am thinking of a boat or plane, but Stella decides to drain the river and walk across. Faced with the giant spider, I am lifting the rope to suggest tying it up, when Stella whispers, “Let’s make the spider very sleepy.” As we tiptoe past the “snoring” spider, I thrill at her solutions that never occur to me. Together, we win the game.

Although the obstacles are huge, and the little guys are trapped under the big guys, Stella reminds me about creativity and cooperation. Our work on the farm this year—if we do it well—will foster different thinking and working together.

This year, some things will need to be dismantled. One corner of our side barn is caving dangerously, so we will take it apart—saving the beautiful and useful pieces, then gouge out its cracked concrete floor. This work seems easier than dismantling the hatred that appeared as swastikas painted all over a nearby town, hatred given permission by the guy we’ll inaugurate as president in 17 days, a man comfortably crushing his neighbors with his entire weight.

This year promises some risky work. I’m finding hope in creativity and cooperation, readiness to dismantle big obstacles or to devise new ways around them. In my better moments, I trust that the strength of compassion is greater than the power of oppression. When we take down the side barn, the farm will be safer, and the pieces will build other beautiful structures. When we figure out how to remove the broken, heavy tree, its neighbors can be free to straighten and thrive.