Yes, it’s still cold and everyone is sick and tired of the cold and the shoveling of snow and the icy streets, and now the awful pockmarked black snow full of plastic bags, gum wrappers, cigarette butts, dog pee and sometimes even poop. And the wind blowing when it’s twenty below and it feels like someone slapping your face.
That’s good we all deserve a slap in the face. It is winter after all and in winter there is snow and cold and ice and wind. And in February that is nothing new. Sometimes when I walk out in the morning it is so frigid and windy it feels like a dozen slaps in the face and it’s good, it wakes me right up and I walk faster and faster and get to the bus stop on time. So we should stop complaining and instead worry about why the snow is black and full of pee and gum wrappers and dog poop.
Back went out the other day and also my knee. I never had back problems before, no pain, no headaches, or stomach aches or bad knees. I was always fast, energetic could dance the night away. I remember how impatient I once was when my mother couldn’t walk fast enough with me down the street.. I think her feet hurt, or when Jay had such a bad back he had to lay in bed for days. I thought she was exaggerating; I thought he was faking. Now I know.
Last week suddenly one morning, I couldn’t get out of bed. Literally. Felt like a knife in my back. Couldn’t move even an inch. I had to move! I had to go downstairs, make coffee, get dressed, walk to the bus stop, get to work…
Could not move one inch without feeling excruciating pain. It took twenty minutes or so to move inch by inch over to the edge of the bed and then to lower myself down to the floor and crawl to the banister, then crawl down the stairs to the kitchen. It took several minutes to get the milk out of the fridge. Just bending down a few inches was searing pain. Holding something in my hand, the weight of it set my back on fire. Coughing hurt so much I’d rather be getting all my teeth pulled. So, now I know, back pain is very very painful and you don’t want to wish it on anyone. Well almost anyone.
This has been going on for seven days now with just a little bit of relief. I can’t call in sick, I can’t go to the hospital I have to get to work. And unbelievably I have managed and haven’t died yet. Though I might still and frankly it would be a relief.
What this has taught me or maybe reinforced very strongly is that the human body can take a lot of pain. A lot. What a revelation! I suppose that is why people get tortured and that is why it is such a powerful tool to get people to talk, divulge secrets, give up their families and friends, even admit to horrible things they have not done. It truly never sunk in my head like it has these past few days. You can take lots and lots of pain before you finally die.
After awhile all you know is pain, and one or two minutes sometimes when it doesn’t hurt feels like a vacation. I suppose you could take a lot of painkillers but I can’t for various reasons. There is just the pain and you can use it a little to get through the day, to get to some deep part of you that will supersede the pain and work through it. Or be enlightened
by it somehow, feel transcendence to another level of existence, if only another level of your own puny existence. You understand something really simple, like oh, today I was able to bend down and get the milk out of the refrigerator and not feel like someone was pushing a ten inch screw into my back. This is good and my life is good and it is a miracle. My life is a true miracle. And this is not facetiousness or irony this is real simple sweet life.
That feels really good bending down without pain. The higher levels are being able to stand for two minutes without support and put on your boots. Or walk down a step and not feel knives.
Then it snows one night and you feel so sorry for yourself. Your little miserable self because you can’t go out walking and pick up your medicine at the drugstore, you can’t go to the store and buy some fruit, you can’t take a walk to the mailbox and mail the letter, you can’t even sit up and watch TV.
One evening you notice it’s snowing and snowing and everything is getting very white and deep again.
You simply cannot move and you sit in the chair and you realize the Christmas tree is still up! The rule is the tree must come down February 7 the latest. My God it is still up in all its red and gold glory. It is still beautiful and has a very faint sweet piny smell. It does look a bit strange too, and for some reason I feel rather ashamed that it is still there. If my plumber or handyman had to come by for some reason and saw the tree they would be really taken aback. But now it has to stay up because my back hurts so much I can’t take it down.
No one has really understood why I keep my Christmas trees up for so long. I keep it up all during the Christmas season until January 13 or 14 at least which marks the New Year for many eastern Europeans who celebrate the old calendar. Then I think, why not keep it up a few days longer until the 18th or the 19th which is just a few days past the New Year, really like keeping it up until Jan 2 or 3. It feels more like Christmas in January than it does in December, why not indeed keep it up? And I don’t usually put the tree up until the second or third week in December so by Christmas it is hardly a toddler by Christmas tree standards. I find myself thinking that I have to justify keeping this tree up as though it is some sin to keep it.
I read a story by Lillian Christensen Anderson a while back. She was one of “Gourmet” magazine’s most accomplished and beloved writers. She studied design with Josef Hoffman and before writing travel and food articles was a professional set designer working for major opera houses. The last twenty years of her life she lived about 80 miles from Vienna. Her snowy beloved Austria where she lived an idyllic life in the countryside. She often wrote about Vienna, the Sacher cake from Hotel Sacher, being snowbound some winters and just enjoying the warmth and coziness of her home and her quiet life there. She once wrote about Christmas in Vienna and in that story quoted a child, who when she was asked what she wanted for Christmas, said “I want Christmas for Christmas”. Christensen-Andersen said that she understood this child completely. Christmas in Salzburg was what she wanted and in a marvelous story told about the wonders of Christmas in that city. The beguiling shops on twisted ancient streets, the delicate little lights that didn’t sear the night sky with gaudiness. The aromatic coffee in the old wood paneled coffee houses, the chestnut vendors in the streets, the Christkindle markets with toy nutcrackers, dazzling hand painted ornaments and freshly baked strudel, hot cinnamon roasted almonds. The long hot wursts from red cheeked vendors, the people rushing home from the markets carrying their fresh ducks and geese, pates, and marzipans….
When it snowed Sunday it suddenly got so white and peaceful out and the snow seemed to be raining down purity and freshness, a new purity, a new snow, all white again. Snow falling on all the black snow, and plastic bags and candy wrappers, and dog pee and dog poop– covering it all up again. You have to walk out in it and just go. The physical act of just being in it, in the falling snow in the city especially, your own ugly soul seems purified, or at least calmed for awhile, given a chance to renew.
So I got dressed and put on the boots and ignored my back and walked and walked until I didn’t even feel the pain. A few people were out and they seemed to want to be there, some were shoveling quietly and some talking about the new houses going up. Big ones big as hotels. I kept walking until there was no one else around. The snow was starting to cover all the icy patches and it was still very slippery out and you had to watch your step, but a fall in the snow was nothing at all and with enough snow it’s soft and doesn’t hurt.
I got to Ocean Park and there were cars but not as many and I pushed the button and the walk sign came on and the cars halted magically. I walked on and climbed over the snow onto the sidewalk and on to the park that was all snow and trees and silence. The benches all white. I felt sorry for the people in the cars who had to rush to be somewhere.
Almost at the drugstore I crossed the parking lot and heard it again — the huge twitter of birds. There are five or six cropped trees about the size of small apricot trees, against the brick wall next to the cleaners. The birds were singing at the top of their little bird lungs. A genuine chorus. I stood still and looked up and saw maybe twenty to thirty birds in each tree. Five or six birds on each branch and as I watched they were flying in and out of the various trees sitting, singing and then flying again. There were large nests in all the trees. I wondered if there was anything in the nests or if some of the birds slept in them.
Suddenly I heard noise behind me and realized it was a large group of teenage boys walking about ten feet behind me. I decided to walk away though I could have stared at those birds and listened to them for a long time. I walked on but then panicked for a bit wondering if the boys upon hearing the vast music of the birds might investigate and do the birds some harm. Teenage boys can be so mean sometimes. I flashed back to my condo days in the City and hearing screams very early in the morning. It was a young girl and her mother waking past my window. A robin had built a nest in one of the lower branches of some shrubs along the condominium building. Many of us watched the robin building the nest and taking care of her eggs all spring– flying in and out and watching over them. Some of the birds had hatched already. Sometime during the previous evening or night some horrible, evil jerk had walked by and smashed the nest and left his or her beer bottle in it. That is why the little girl and mother screamed. That whole spring and summer everyone in our building was sad.
That is why I like walking alone often at night, always in the winter, in freezing cold or blowing snow, in a blizzard, or pouring rain, or a thunderstorm. Alone, walking, the snow falling, a night star here and there, prehistoric whiteness and suddenly like someone calling you, finally to rest, to a place of beauty and peace, you hear the vast twittering of birds, the music of a snowy night, the Balm of Gilead where nothing hurts or is sorrowful or bad, how can it be, just look at the little birds still in their little trees next to the cleaners happy as can be.