Originally published Jan. 30, 2000.
In this frozen season I find myself remembering the cold and stillness of a winter spent in a rough cabin at the woods’ edge when I was in my 20s, alone and aimless, still undecided about what work I cared to do.
The lady in the farmhouse a half-mile up the road kept hens, and sold the eggs for a penny each. Flour and salt and powdered milk, apples, onions and other provisions could be gotten at a little country store, four miles away by foot.
In the timber were squirrels and rabbits in dependable supply. Stove wood I cut with a handsaw and ax. Rationed out carefully, one good-sized bottle of spirits lasted the winter through.
My expenses averaged $4 and change a month, and I lacked nothing, really. I’d have lived comfortably enough, had it not been for the bitter nights. That winter was uncommonly raw. It’s possible there’ve been worse ones since, but none I remember quite so vividly.
For what seemed weeks at a time, the daytime temperatures never got above the teens. At night, the mercury in the thermometer on an outside wall sank away to 7 degrees below zero, sometimes to 10 below.
Always, in a small, dark hour, the fire in my drafty stove would burn away to ash. The cold would come seeping through my sleeping bag. And by morning there would be a skim of ice on the water bucket.
That was only creature discomfort, though, and bearable enough. Worse by far was the lack of any sort of companionship.
I had no neighbors, really. And friends from the city only rarely came to visit. Sometimes whole weeks would pass without my hearing a word spoken.
Then two stray beagle pups joined me, and my situation greatly improved. They slept warm on my feet at night, and were good company in the woods, or on the floor beside the table where I worked at trying to be a writer.
The spareness of that lifestyle had reduced the need for money almost to nothing. I remember thinking that if I somehow managed to sell even one story, it would buy another year there.
Maybe I’d have been there still. Except that every story I sent off to editors came back rejected, sometimes without even a note. Then the season turned.
Spring peepers sang from the creek below the pond, and bird’s-foot violets bloomed. In the soft night, I was awakened not by cold but by the cries of geese returning northward.
All that was 40 years ago this winter. In short, things did not work out as I’d imagined.
It was necessary, then, to find a regular job. So I came back to the city. And took up this work that has given me such satisfaction. And met the woman who’s shared with me the laughter and struggles and joys that our years together have contained, and who bore the two daughters who are our pride and great happiness.
Curious, isn’t it, the odd turns a life can take? Looking back now, it’s clear that every important piece of luck I’ve had — everything I care most about in this world — I owe to having failed.