The birdhouse, which came with the big tree on our property when we bought it in 1999, has no function. There has never been a bird in it. Once I saw a squirrel in it and another time a full triangle of pizza! I put the two together and deduced that the squirrel had stolen it from garbage and set it aside for later eating.
It seems banal to take a picture of a snowy birdhouse among snowy branches, but often the everyday items of our lives gain in resonance and beauty when they stand out, visually emphasized by the snow, which obliterates the background.
So much was blanked out in this Blizzard of ’13. Even my neighbors’ yard, which abuts ours, became softer and more lovely to look at in the snow. The dying cypress hedge punctuates the view, indicates where we end and they begin. Last summer, the dying cypress hedge, dried and brittle looking, was only an eyesore and the topic of repetitive unresolved conversations with the neighbors, who own the hedge and don’t want to cut the shrubs down. Isaac and Olga want to leave the hedge there and plant other things in front. Bamboo, for example. In the meantime, to get privacy from us, they have leaned old wooden pallets against the dying hedge and planted junk vines that they have draped on the dying branches. On our side, I have done no more than keep it clean and trimmed. A fence is called for, but expensive.
I imagine standing in their yard and looking past the dried, thinning cypress into my yard: big Japanese maple, recently painted house, no debris in yard. I feel proud — too proud — and resentful. Why do they get my work as a view and I have to look at their clutter as mine?
At one time, when the children were small and we had a swing set and less time for gardening, no doubt there were days of our clutter that they had to look at. Maybe they are more generous, or more clutter-loving, and could look past what was then our stuff and appreciate the activity.
When we meet them in the summer at the property line, they do comment on the children and reminisce about the times they watched them play. “What a nice family,” they say. We have been spied on kindly, I gather.
It’s not them I don’t like. In fact, on days when they set up all their white tables and borrowed chairs, I know their many friends are coming and that the yard will be filled with people visiting, talking, eating, and that the lovely sound of a chorus of voices in the outdoors dark will comfort me as I go to bed.
It’s like the sound of being a child and going to bed while one’s parents and their friends are in the living room or finished basement, playing cards and drinking cocktails and laughing. The sound of both mystery and safety.
As long as we are inside, the storm may give us this feeling too. Something is happening that we cannot directly observe (although we study the weather channels, trying to) or fully grasp the scope of, and yet the signals bewitch us: the wind gusting past the windows, snowflakes slanting under the street light, rumble of plows waking us periodically from deep sleep into light, and blanket of white appearing in the morning. At the same time, our heat, beds, food, and presence of the infrastructure that takes care of the storm so we don’t have to reassures us.
On other days — days without snow — as adults we feel exposed. There is no layer between us and everything we must do. We cannot be tucked in our beds, nodding off, while the adults do adult things we don’t have to know about yet. The problems we must confront, at home or work or with our bodies or in our child’s school, are right in front of us, visible and touchable. Sure, it’s possible to ignore them, to willfully put our hands in front of our eyes or over our ears. Some adults do. But that would be retreating back into childhood. Here we are on the front lines of responsibility.
If we are lucky and live in a warm enough house, the snow hides the world. News of conflicts and famine and economic indices drop out of our field of attention. The headlines are all snow, snow, snow. The drifts outside the door keep us inside for a while. There is no way to solve the problem of the dying cypress hedge or even any urgency to. Deadlines seem suspended. Like babies, we eat when we’re hungry and nap on the couch when sleepy.
We are held in place by the snow, while it lasts.