The wind and its friends - #67
Preparing for hoping.
If you can, get some headphones, and play this audio clip with your eyes closed. I’d like to take you somewhere. I’d like to take you here.
Those are the winds of this high alpine valley, recorded from inside next to the fire, and they’re not atypical. They howl and snarl like they’re mad at the house for staking a claim on a land where they once swept clean. Whistles stream through the rafters, banshees of the winter wind dancing on the rooftops, hoping to seduce and overwhelm the plumes of fire-smoke so they might slink into a chimney to see what’s inside.
This year, we were ready. When these winds shook the house, I held still with my palms open and my eyes closed, feeling for them. I felt nothing. No more snowing inside, no more leaky windows. Every operable door and window frame either caulked or taped, the logs are sealed, floors have been insulated, the wood delivered, and the hot tub full.
But the winds still call. In the dead of night, they’ll bend your door to push the bottom in, strangling the lock as it clings to its chamber, rattling and shivering with fear. It will topple things long standing, steal things from the quietest corners, and deliver gifts to neighbors many houses away. It will do as it pleases and you will do what it says. I love the wind for what it frightens in me, something deep and lost long ago, and yet, I bemoan it for what it takes.
This season, though, it takes less. The house is awash in warmth. It is wrapped in garland and sprinkled with lights. The candles are lit and the records spin. And the squalls outside cannot hinder the calls to joy inside. Maybe that’s what I always loved about this season, death balanced by mischief. The year and years spinning faster and faster into one another, as we fling novelty from every plastic bin attempting to thwart the onslaught of time.
However dismal that may seem, there are candles in the window. The fire spits and crackles in its cage, and tiny would-be hunters curl up in front of it, bellies full and eyes shut. They turn an ear when the wind beckons with her unmitigated rage, but like me, they’ve grown accustomed to safety. Only their ancestors creep to the sill.
Earlier this week, Ben and I went to the corner of Colorado to ride the narrow-gauge railway out of Durango for their seasonal “Polar Express” trip. The train is from another time, and so it takes you there. The wooden windows and iron benches, the billowing smoke from the engine, and the boxcars with peeling paint. You sway in your seat as the train rattles forward, the railings above wrapped in lights and pine, adorned with faux presents. And above it all: the sound of children coughing.
The Polar Express train ride is based on the book and movie of the same name. It’s not a story I’m familiar with, but the premise is about belief, in this case of Santa Claus. The children in our railcar believed, and one might be inclined to think they believed so much that their desperate parents thought an airy, old train would be the best way to get their ever-ill children out of the house to experience at least some joy. And they did. Through the snot and hacking, a beleaguered Santa posed with them all. But I am not kidding when I say every single child in that car was sick.
Each bench was aligned with an old wooden window, and I had ours open to the bitter night air, to the air we were warned about as children. You’ll catch a cold, you’ll get pneumonia, but now all I get is a reprieve from the most frightening place to be: inside. Ben could see the hypochondria crawl out of the crevasse between my lungs and nestle into the blacks of my eyes, the tightness of my lips.
“You still want to make one of these?” He gestured toward the child at the front of the car, slumped dead-eyed against his grandmother after another painful coughing fit.
I shot him the look my mother reminds me hides in my blood: the malocchio, a glare built purely on darkness.
“I am ready to be sick for my own, but not for someone else’s.” I stuck my face out the window breathing in the night air.
Taking the train was an attempt to be normal, to inject some of the charm that had been sucked out of the ether nearing three years ago. We’d set our plan in motion to move to the mountains in 2019, but spent the first year and a half of the pandemic in our 600-square-foot hunting cabin in LA, hunting for a cabin somewhere else.
In 2019, I was still working in therapy on deep and distracting health anxiety. I was treading water in a pool everyone else could stand in, wondering why no one else was exhausted with fear. Then, 2020 flooded the world with the same anxiety I felt. It felt good to not be alone, to hear people screaming about how we needed to drain the pool, build boats, and offer life preservers. As the better half of humanity washed and masked and stayed home, my health anxiety retreated. Fear exposure worked, it turned out, as my worst nightmare had come true: a virus no one understood was sinking its teeth into whoever it could find. Suddenly, everyone was as careful about their health as I was.
We were practical. We started a bubble early. We masked quickly. We hadn’t been too social to begin with, and yet we became less so. And then, a year and a half in, we moved. To a cabin. In the mountains. In a town of 200 people. You know the story.
My health anxiety, greatly resolved in therapy, faded to the background. It had nowhere to lurk. Every gathering was outside, whether it be summer bonfires or winter ski days. But three years in, as the CDC has all but given up, we are back to doing the things the way we did before. Am I supposed to go to the movies without a mask? What about dinner during tourist season? What about winter, as the neighbors’ children are perennially ill?
A few weeks back, I received my second booster along with my flu shot. It buckled me for 30 some hours, a play sickness. I have not been sick for at least three years. In January 2020, when covid was an emerging news story to keep an eye on, Ben and I went to a wedding in Washington, DC. The night after the wedding, around 2am, I heard Ben in the bathroom. He was throwing up, and I was amused. All that mezcal had done a quick number… until I went to the bathroom and felt his forehead. It was, without question, a fever. We had a flight at 8am, and we took it. In my memory, Ben wore a mask, but I can’t be sure if my memory is simply a hope. We flew across the country, Ben slumped on my shoulder, for him only to get worse at home. It was the worst flu he’s ever had, the worst flu I’ve seen, and the best flu I ever dodged.
While he suffered either one of the earliest Covid cases or just the worst flu possible, I slept on the couch. I kept all the windows cracked. I wouldn’t let him touch anything without me immediately cleaning it after. I wouldn’t get within six feet of him unless I was dropping off medication or meals. I was very serious about not getting sick, and it worked. Ben hated it, knowing full well that if I was that sick, he’d be there holding me, but it worked.
And so, it’s been years since I was sick. Decades since the repeated cases of strep and croup. A decade plus since I was ill for a month, eventually diagnosed with walking pneumonia the same month a friend of mine died of meningitis, a decade since the tumor, a decade since my roommate rushed me into urgent care in New York with dueling ear infections, almost eight years since an Uber driver had to carry me into an urgent care in Santa Monica where they transferred me to the emergency room. Four years since the chronic nausea abated. And nearly three years of incredibly effective hiding and caretaking.
In this way, I enjoy getting booster shots and falling into the throes of a mock illness for a day, to remember what it really feels like, and not to wonder if that sore back or that allergy attack is anything other than that. But after moments like the train ride, I hold my breath. After driving 2000+ miles to Thanksgiving and back, even testing before and during, after a friendsgiving on a farm under the moonlight, running into the pasture under the stars to the bonfire, after library basements for ski swaps, after the grocery and the grocery and the hardware and the grocery, I am waiting.
In moments like this, when I am in a log cabin in a windy valley scraping the sky, worrying about the moment when my body will succumb to the world, the body I took skiing and dancing and cycling in the same day, feeding it fries and salad and wine and chai and decaf, I think of my therapist and I wonder what she thought of me. It took a year before a doctor could accurately diagnose the tumor I knew was burrowing in my neck. My perseverance should have vindicated my intuition. Should have. That therapist, a decade after my intuition had proved true, she looked at me and said, “I know you think you’re still fighting everyone else, but imagine what you could do if you acknowledged you’re just fighting yourself.”
December isn’t only the month I try to capture joy like there’s a bounty on it; December is the month I try to capture myself. As work settles into some melee of drawn-out tasks saved for the next year, I work on myself. I am reading the syllabus in the summer. I am training for January, for when the lights are unstrung and the joy is packed away so I might have fortified myself in such a way that I can endure. What exactly it is I am enduring is up for debate.
But I know this much: I imagine it as the wind.
The wind will always be there. She will operate on her schedule and her schedule alone. She will come when it is convenient and especially when it is not. She will not spare a party, she will not bear with you as you plead. She’s always been there, but so have we — making kites and sails, building turbines and windmills.
When seeking a place to call home, one of the things on my list was “not windy.” I hate the wind — to such a degree that its absence made it on the top ten attributes of a home. And it isn’t windy here. That’s not a fair moniker. You can walk outside in the utter peace of the wilderness. Others days, though. Other days you can wake in the middle of the night to the song of the earth trying to ruin your life.
Wind is a breezy summer day. It is a life-altering hurricane. It is a bad hair day and, if you’re walking in the right direction, a good one. Wind is only what she decides, when she decides it. All any of us can do is prepare.
Wishing you and yours good health as we head into winter in this hemisphere.
I fell short of my goal for this newsletter this year, but you can assume I’ll be spending December working on that. If you enjoy this project, consider sharing it on your social channels so I can keep it going without pulling my receding hair out. Here are some of the pieces readers loved most this year. Why not share one? Or hell, gift a whole subscription?
I wrote this whole piece listening to songs 18-21 on this playlist, updated every week.
You wrote that you fell short of your goal for this newsletter. What was the goal? I’ve been reading every week, and enjoying your writing. For me you’ve nailed it.
Like so many things, the wind is a multiple of things. Without wind, our environment would collapse. Too much, and we're all blown away. Perhaps anxiety is a bit like that. Without that "wind" you might have caught Ben's awful flu or not known about the tumor. But too much of the kind of wind can also paralyze. You seem to have come close to the balance.