Breath of the Sea

Fri, 02/19/2016 - 2:30pm

Sunday, I got out my heaviest wool sweater, scratchy and brown, and officially gave in to winter. It was a from-the-ground-up process, starting with the bulky Baffins, the big blue boots have sat in my bedroom since spring, never making it to the box in the closet — as if they could on their own! — reminding me that we live in a place of seasons. I have had them for several years, but it was only last winter I wore them enough that they no longer felt like those “boxes without topses” that were sandals for "My Darlin' Clementine." I became accustomed to them, no longer having to measure my steps carefully, especially on stairs or driving.

There are heavy black mittens, awkward, stiff, gotten for a pittance in a ski shop years ago. The slashed price I soon understood; they are the only things that truly keep my hands warm but they are too hot on all but the coldest days. More importantly, it is impossible to do anything, including getting the other on or off, while wearing them. Headed to the beach, I thought of myself first as Charlie Brown, the comic strip character, bundled in his overcoat and hat, spinning on a frozen puddle, wondering how he would ever get back on his feet.

Then I realized, no, I was a character from a child's book of the world, a woman of Mongolia or Lapland or some cold, cold region. The materials were mostly wrong but for the hand-knitted sweater and hat and endless loop of a scarf, but I still had the big boots, the leggings, the coverall skirt, all of the things that make walking down the road the short distance to the beach an odd exercise.

The morning had been cold, the deepest of cold combined with the brightest of suns, a morning when that layer of moisture that lies on the surface of the sea cannot be contained. It rises not in wispy trails, or even the thickening fog from a witch's active caldron, but in great billows, blindingly white in the early sun. It happens most winters to some degree and I usually find myself recalling that frigid cold time when I could see from my kitchen window the cold vapor rising beyond the Southeast Lighthouse. 

Sunday I opened my eyes, looked over my toes, and saw a wall of that illuminated white rising from the ocean beyond my neighbor's farmhouse. It was pouring off open water to the east and I adjusted the alarm and pulled the covers tighter. The wind was carrying it, and in the far distance the frozen breath of the sea was floating up from below the bluffs.

It was cold, stunningly cold, although I did not yet know it was the unusual-for-Block-Island truly below zero, before the dreaded wind chill was added. The sun was shining, flooding in these south-facing windows that are my salvation in winter.

There had been a fishing boat offshore all night, its lights even brighter than usual, so strong they were not just casting shadows of curtains on my walls but reflecting in the heavy plastic storm shutters of one of the houses on the road to the beach. Its rigging barely showed through the cold vapor, two of the night's complement of lights still shining through, the eyes of an other-worldly beast. 

I had thought the night before, as the temperature dropped, that it would be wise to move my car out to the front yard where it would be warmed by the forecast morning sun, but it was cold and sort of snowing and even the dog was not interested in staying out for long, so I did not bother. 

Sunday morning the car refused to start. Luckily, the neighbor was about and came over and after some adjusting of cables and admonishments of “don't do that” and applications of WD40 to get the hood securely closed, when the temperature was up three degrees, and still below zero, I was on my way and he was off to check on... who knows what.

I really did have to go, I'd told people we were not canceling church, biting my tongue and stopping short of “We're New Englanders!” And we had a guest speaker flying over, we'd better show up, at least a few of us! 

It was brutally cold and the wind was blasting out of the west. The Harbor Church is big and old and on a hill next to the ocean and such buildings are not easy to heat under the best of circumstances. Maybe when it is cold we should host bake-a-thons or chili cook-offs, which leads to the “secret” of these big kitchens in these old houses — they didn't freeze because they were in constant use.

Later, it got worse.

Suffice it to say you know it is deep winter on Block Island when the early morning “Hallelujah!” email carries news of plumbers on their way. 

Today it was an improbable 55 degrees warmer than it was Sunday morning, when “smoke on the water” was so often evoked there seemed to be a following chorus of “a fire in the sky” that guitar riff so famous it is known even by those of us with no idea what a “riff” is.

The forecast is for the rollercoaster we often ride in February, that makes me long for a steady but calm cold, the perfect winter of soft snow and cardinals, of steady cool weather without the terrible cutting wind that is our life, that season that likely exists only in my imagination.

Last year I thought it a fluke, an oddity, when on March 1 there was light in the sky and snow on the ground, when I decided I did not want winter to end. I think it has happened two weeks earlier this year.