For two weeks the city was paved in packed snow and peopled with cross-country skiers and cookie-sheet sledders, everyone else was trapped inside. The busses went nowhere, slowly, the insides hardly warm and bleakly lit. I opted for walking, setting out each day at the break of noon on my good two feet, with a orange-spotted dog, practically hairless, what hair he did have a dull yellow against the pure white snowdrifts.
Everything was closed. The busy thoroughfares were empty, save for a man on skis, pulling a sled laden with Christmas groceries. Night fell and the world seemed a sort of fantasy, the kind of place where you’d find pints of ice-cream in the snow.
I said this to a friend as we walked in the road, after leaving a solstice puppet-show. The puppet show had been unbelievably elaborate and tremendously awesome, and all for free, for nothing. The audience was packed. People had walked for miles, through the glittering snowdrifts. The curtain was made of hundreds of small squares of red fabric all sewn together- some of them sparkling, some of them spotted, some of them velvet. The curtain was pulled back on ropes. Fantastical creatures told strange, incomprehensible stories. A bumblebee sang a rock song with a live band about gay plants. Heart-shaped balloons fell from the sky. There was free popcorn in newspaper cones.
Afterward we walked north, a whole group of us, spread out in the snow like an expedition. Adrienne and I decided that Portland had gone through a portal- somehow the whole city had gone through a portal. To Narnia. The portal-hole was in a bureau, we decided, that someone had found at the goodwill.
“And what,” I said, “if there were pints of ice-cream in the snow banks?” We arrived, at last, at the Florida Room, a warm, smoky place rife with snowpocalypse refugees. I’m not a drinker, so I ordered a plate of deviled eggs with the four dollars left in my wallet. A heat-lamp fought with mysterious drafts in the black-painted, windowless room, and I got a bag of scrabble tiles from the bar, which no-one played. I left at last to walk the rest of the way home, marveling at my shoes’ ability to cover so much ground. The leather, it seemed, was immortal, if not waterproof.
It was Toby who found the ice-cream. Across the street from her gigham bungalow housesit. Two pints in the snowbank. One was Hagen-das Strawberry, the other was Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Graham Cracker Marshmallow Peanut Butter Brownie Caramel Swirl Cookie Dough Cappuccino, or some disgusting crap. She’d been walking home with L, and there they were, waiting. She plucked them from the snowbank and put them in the freezer, where I ate half of each, over a period of several hours, without meaning to. During this time I felt excited and then hot and then thirsty and then anxious and then, all of a sudden, I felt great, which is not usually the case when I eat obscene amounts of sugar. Usually, I feel exhausted and mildly pre-diabetic. But this was magic ice-cream, come through the portal into narnia. I felt wonderful for the rest of the day, sort of endlessly excited that I was alive.
In the days before Christmas, the city was still covered. There were no plows, and salt is bad for the environment. The light-rail had stopped running, and faceless opportunists with terrible grammar put ads on craigslist, offering rides to the airport for one hundred and fifty dollars. The people had no shovels, and I wished that I had one, so that I might make my fortune. Instead I didn’t bother to kick the snow off the front steps, and I threw myself into a snowbank, knocking my wind out on its frozen core. I had forgotten how to interact with real winter. I dared a friend to lick a metal pole.
The people at the house where I was dog-sitting for a friend left one by one for Christmas with their families. At last it was just me in the drafty, quiet house, with its thin old windows and doors that stick, and Pearl the whippet-beagle, most gentlest in all the lands.
Thursday came and I felt nothing, Just An Ordinary Thursday, and I patted myself on the back, pleased. I used to get sad this time of year, since I don’t have parents and all. I have a mother living in a group home for the mentally ill in Alaska, I haven’t seen her in twelve years. I have a father who was sad to learn that I even existed. I have a pair of grandparents who took me in for three years in highschool, but did more harm than good and we’re not really friends. I used to say- woe is me! Since I’d been socialized to want all these things during the holidays. But then I got over it. No-one calls me, no-one writes. I don’t get any ugly, wasteful cards. I don’t have to trample anyone at wal-mart to get anyone anything they don’t want.
What I do get, is solitude. A house to myself. Every year, my housemates leave one by one, and I get this. This year, I turned the music up louder than I ever had, and danced with my reflection in the dark windows, overcome with joy. I assembled the most elaborate breakfasts I could, and set out with Pearl to hunt for life in the snow. I toasted hazelnuts and made split-pea soup. I put on my fox-fur hat and cowl-neck sweater with the wooden button at the neck and went to a potluck, where I ate (crustless) pumpkin pie and got drunk on a teaspoon of rum. I stayed up late and slept in late and dreamt of gold-encrusted mansions and dry fields of grass and pine. I woke up singing Christmas carols, loudly and off-key. I felt so happy I could burst.
On Saturday the snow finally melted. At night I went out dancing, to a hot and crowded club packed with khaki-wearing lesbians who come from the suburbs and are a joy. They just want to dance, get drunk and dance. I got a ride home afterwards from a pair of lesbians who’d gotten married at the forest center where I’d worked in the summer, east of Salem in the lowest-elevation old-growth left in Oregon. They’d held hands in the meadow between two cabins and handed out wedding cake to the whole staff. I can’t remember what we cooked while they were there, but I think it was lasagna.
The rains returned. The skies were leaden, the concrete was leaden, the air was leaden. The sun never rose in the mornings. The world was a garden hose turned on you, but at least the packed snow was gone and you could bike again. I rode my bike, chain a bit rusted, and it felt like I was traveling at the speed of light. I covered the whole city, over the bridges and through the neighborhoods, and remembered how everything was not very far away from anything else. The stores re-opened and gave out samples of cinnamon almonds and peanut brittle, and the people poured from the busses to shop, clutching folded canvas bags.
Today I met up with AM to eat dolmas and dates, and bike downtown together. Then I went looking for pants, pushing aside shoppers in slouch-boots to face the shelves of folded jeans, a cornucopia of narrow-legged denim, gathering up armloads and yet, in the dressing room, finding myself to be perplexingly under-represented. I wasn’t sure how other humans were shaped, but I wasn’t shaped like any of the pants I found. Some were too big, some were too small. Some were too tight, some were too loose. There was nothing in between. I finally settled on a pair that were just right if I squinted my eyes and pulled at the waistband and left the store in a hurry, feeling hollowed out inside. I went to visit AM at the IPRC, where she was cutting up pieces of paper to glue to other pieces of paper, as if there weren’t already enough pieces of printed paper in the world. I admired her bravery and push-forth-itude, and read her the first chapter of Farley Mowat’s The People of the Deer, which is a very old book that has been out for a very long time, and is currently available in small, yellowed paperback, at your local used bookstore. It is a very good book that, like I said, has been out for a very long time, and has yet to be read by most people, and for this reason alone, I question the whole idea of the creation of new printed matter. And yet AM cut pages of print as I read, and glued them together, to make a zine for photocopying, a whole new arrangement of adjectives and nouns, fresh.
Maybe stories must be made new every day, like bread, and printed on priceless trees, because there is no other way.
I’d gotten this small and yellowed book, People of the Deer, from Powell’s, the labyrinthine bookstore across the street that people come from all over the world to see. If any place can make you feel like nothing more should be written, ever, Powell’s is that place. From what I could tell this afternoon as I wandered its crowded stacks, everything that could be printed has already been printed, and is for sale. There are so many books that people make craft projects from them, hollow them out to make boxes, rip off their spines and sew them to recycled paper to make journals. We don’t want to read, we’re full.
In this small and yellowed book, Farley Mowat goes to the remote tundra of arctic Canada with only a case of white flour and three bottles of rum. The year is 1947. He is dropped off by a pilot friend at a small cabin he sees from the air. The cabin is all but buried in snow. There is no sign of life. By and by spring comes and a man with a dog team, whose cabin it is. The man is part of the group of Inuit people who live in this land-locked tundra, subsisting off the twice-yearly caribou migration. They have been a steadfast people for untold years, but now the caribou are dwindling and it’s all because of white man’s fur trade and white man’s rifles and wheat flour. When Farley Mowat meets them, there are only forty of them left. He lives with them for two years, and tells their story. In the end, of course, everybody dies. (Even Farley Mowat, many, many years later.)
There’s a Sea Shepherd boat called the Farley Mowat. The Sea Shepherd conservation society rams Japanese wailing ships in the ocean around Antarctica, and has been getting a lot of press lately. The society is headed by Captain Paul Watson, a tyrannical and small-minded man who quit greenpeace in the eighties to circle the globe on refurbished commercial fishing vessels, freeing dolphins from nets and throwing stink-bombs at those who would poach sea-turtles. Once, years ago, the Farley Mowat was docked in Seattle, and some friends of mine joined up, working for free for the sake of the whales. The boat needed a lot of work before it could leave port, and they rolled up their sleeves and merrily scrubbed the fuel tanks, painted the hull and ate bread with bread sauce for dinner. I tried to get on the crew too, riding the freight train to Seattle for two weeks in a row, but the first mate sat me down and gave me a talk about how hard it was to wash your hair at sea, and besides, they already had two women on their 19 person crew, and wasn’t that enough? I gave up and went to Guatemala instead, riding freight trains to Texas along the way. The boat finally left Seattle after eight months in dry dock, and headed south. Everyone I knew got off in the Galapagos, fed up, and traveled north- a few of them riding freight trains in Mexico, just to see if they could, and watching, horrified, as dozens of train riders flung themselves from the train and ran at top speed through fields of agave, flinging themselves over tall, barbed fences, immigration police with batons in hot pursuit. It turns out they were Central American immigrants, making the trek north across Mexico. If you are trying to get north into the US, Crossing Mexico, it turns out, is actually the most dangerous part.
That was before I had ever read anything by Farley Mowat, indeed I had no idea who he was. I discovered him eventually, and his books on the people of Arctic Canada, and became obsessed with the people of Arctic Canada, and with him. Oh, to be a biologist in 1940! Oh, to drop from a plane with a crate full of bacon fat! To live in the wilderness and hear the people tell you of the monster who lives in snowstorms, a giant woman with only one leg, which comes out of her vagina!
I read his books the second winter I lived in North Carolina, and ended up skipping town in February to ride freight trains west and then fly up to Alaska, where the last summer I had adopted a dog, gotten caught shoplifting, and looked for work. The dog and I had found work, ridden freight trains together, and in the fall she had run away. I hear they made a movie out of it.
This time in Alaska I only stayed for six weeks. I wanted to love it, but I had no friends there. I gave up and settled for the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, where Toby was living on some land and soon, so was I. There were ducks and chickens and we ate a lot of nettles, and drank organic milk from the food-bank. But that is another story and this post is getting long, and I’m not sure where I’m going with it.
Good night, friends and strangers. I hope your dreams are full of magic.