Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December 16: Cold

With wind chill right now it's about 10 degrees outside. As we say here in Maine, it's colder than a witch's tit in January. From the comfort of my desk, I'm watching the wind whip bare branches into a frenzy. The darkened sky is sharp and clear, with a cutting edge of blue steel.

Yes, I'll freely admit it, I'm a wimp about the cold. Despite being a Maine native, I always have been, and I've gotten worse since I've gotten older. In college I used to ski frequently. I'd backpack in the winter, sleep in the snow, and not think anything of it. It was fun! Now, not so much. Now, I sit as close to the nearest heat source as possible, even co-opting the cat from my husband's lap if necessary. (She prefers his lap because, unlike me, he radiates heat like an oven.)

At work I have a space heater under my desk, the miraculous Vornado. And as I basked in its heat earlier today, I thought about what it must have been like in "the old days" in Maine when people lived in big drafty farm houses with a fireplace in every room and burned through 15 cords of wood every winter. I think about Laura Ingalls Wilder's book "The Long Winter," in which she describes running out of wood before winter's end and twisting hay into sticks to keep the fire going. They went to bed with hot potatoes and woke up with snow drifted on top of their quilts, nail heads frosty white in the walls next to their beds.

In Heian Era Japan, over 1,000 years ago, things were even worse, especially for women (isn't it always the case?) Their houses were open-plan wood structures divided into rooms by screens, with flimsy blinds over window and door openings. Aristocratic women were stuck in their rooms, ensconced behind screens; it was not proper to show your face or be seen by a male who was not your husband, father, or a child. For heat, all they had were charcoal braziers. Is it any wonder that the clothing fad was layers? Women would wear up to twelve layers of robes, the aesthetic appeal of which was judged--by other women, at least--on how well they matched the colors of their layers. Women of that era also blackened their teeth as part of their maquillage. And did I mention that they never cut their hair? So I picture a woman of that era behind her screen, dressed in so many robes that she can't move--which doesn't matter because she can't go anywhere anyway--long black hair trailing behind her onto the bare floor and her black teeth a contrast to her pale face, huddled over something looking like a patio hibachi with a few faintly glowing coals... Surely I need to stop whining about the cold and consider myself fortunate to live in this era of furnaces, air-tight wood stoves, Monitors, and Vornado space heaters.

Branches clack with cold,
chilly window panes shiver.
Curl up closer, cat.

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