The Winter of My Discontent or, On the First Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me the Plague

I write this on the shortest day and the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, celebrated and observed for 170,000 years, on cave and canyon walls, at Stonehenge in England, Woodhenge at Cahokia Mounds, and hundreds of other places around the world (including my friend Jerry’s white-painted tracks on his west- and river-facing window). Early humans figured out relatively quickly, about solstice and equinox, and devised ingenious ways to mark same, one of the earliest examples of science.

I hearten myself by thinking that tomorrow will be longer, if by seconds, and so on until June 21, when splendid, sapid summer begins to darken. I need light, yet I am often found in the dark, in lights-out Genehouse and out in the woods, where I think and watch and never, but never interfere.

(I once inadvertently had lunch with a rattlesnake on a bluff top, coiled but a foot away from me as I ate a sandwich then saw the snake, my bladder all aflutter, me praying to God in multiple languages, but the snake could have cared less.)

I have been sick for weeks. It started with double ear infections, sinusitis, conjunctivitis and bronchitis—I had all the itises except hepatitis and laryngitis, which I was expecting to hear from momentarily. I spent an hour a day taking pills. I cancelled doctor appointments because I was too sick to go. I wasn’t hungry. Kale, my precious green vegetable of vegetables—I won the 2014 Kale Consumer of the Year Award from the American Kale Institute—tasted bitter.

My neighbor Irene showed up with breakfasts, lunches, dinners, juices, teas, fruits, and soups. (So as to not hurt her feelings, I ate all of the above.) I drank a gallon of water a day. I even tried chai tea—eeew. I slept three naps and all night long. I did not step out of the house for fourteen days. Right on time, laryngitis set in and I was finally shut up, literally and figuratively.

And, of course, I could not take my daily Genehouse walk, the four to six miles of communing with the elements. The time did not fly. And even now, I am not fit enough to walk in the cold.

I devised a Genehouse walk of the mind. My three viewing windows became a movie screen, no plot, just whatever passed by. I looped my binoculars around my neck, set a water bottle at each station, put out Cheez-it crackers and nuts and pumpkin seeds, and watched:

A mother and two does, the girls having been born dappled and tiny last spring, stepping into the front yard and grazing, now gorgeous young women; a great horned owl diving like a jet fighter and blowing up a squirrel in the south yard; the Lone Coyote walking my fence line, usually at sunrise, plowing his nose through fallen leaves, searching for food; a beautiful bobcat sitting on the road below my office window and bathing itself with saucer-sized paws; red-headed woodpeckers and pileated woodpeckers and northern flickers hammering their stiletto beaks into the cold ground under the fir tree in the front yard; a hapless Tom turkey chasing a lady turkey across the back yard, fanning out his feathers, to no avail (been there, done that).

Mostly, “nothing” happened. But my imagination and I are easily entertained. I “saw” ancient Indians walking the bluffs, and several times the lovely Jennifer Lawrence passed by and blew me kisses. Hey: I was fever-ridden—okay?

Friday, I ventured out to my close-by haunts. I hadn’t seen the river for days, so I parked at Clifton Park and watched the barges and the trailing gulls. And I finally made it to Farmer Orville’s house, for coffee and homemade cookies (peanut butter and chocolate chip). Reba the farm dog, a talented mutt who catches mice, flips them in the air and swallows them whole, jumped in my lap and licked me clean of bacteria. Orville was bemoaning his “cookie weight,” a syndrome I shall have to fight all winter long.

And I began listening again, a skill I have tried to teach at DePaul University—tried. I overheard a stranger, a meth-addicted woman holding two Styrofoam cups of Mountain Dew, telling her life story to a group of folks standing outside a store and smoking; an old man in the emergency room at Alton Memorial relate his long courtship with his wife of sixty years, and now she has dementia and cannot live at home, and his heart is broken; a high school girl who had been kicked out of school for refusing to be vaccinated, living alone because her parents surrendered to drugs.

And then I met Ruthie, the Spirit of Solstice, right out of A Charles Dickens story. This tiny, cute as the dickens dynamo, a five-year-old African American cherub, stopped me in the produce aisle at Schnucks and, in front of her bemused parents, sang “Wrinkle Bells,” and told me her world view—something to do with hope and candy canes—and that her greatest Christmas wish was for peace. Or maybe she said “peas.” “Ruthie talk a leg off,” her father said.

Tonight I will bundle up and sit in the west meadow, sip my medicine (J. Beam-icillin) and watch stars and wait. Having read the great Tennessee writer William Gay’s prose about night and the wraiths we invent, I will be ready for anything. One of my best friends, now sailing on the River Styx—but her ashes reside at Genehouse—was fond of saying, “Live without expectations.” She died at 93. I would listen to her when I was a callow youth and think, yeah, right. I was full of expectations then. Now I observe and take what comes.

“Ruthie talk a leg off.”

Please.

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