Another solstice

I had a long conversation on the phone with Allen today. Remember Allen? He was the friend who accompanied me to Patagonia to spend the months of winter in a rather remote place. He’s feeling a bit nostalgic for the winter solstice we observed down there last June. He had found some discarded wooden pallets in the storage facility and broke them down to make a fire. It was quite a fire — and we used the leftover wood for a fire on July Fourth.

Allen has spent much of December rehanging Christmas lights that got blown down in recent storms at various family homes. He has found that if he keeps busy with strings of lights, he is less likely to get dragged to a mall — although one year, his wife forgot he was working up on the roof, and absent-mindedly took down the ladder and put it away before she drove off to the mall to do Christmas shopping. This was before he had a cell phone, and he couldn’t get any of the neighbors to hear him — so he was stuck up on the roof for five hours, unable to find any way to get down.

He has been busy with his chainsaw and has plenty of wood to take to another house for a fire on Christmas Eve, which is a HUGE occasion in his large extended family.

He’s very happy to hear that Alene is writing Zanda’s story — but disappointed that we still can’t find a way to be together. Allen is our one mutual friend — the only person who has known both me and Alene in Seattle. At times, he has been extremely sad for both of us. He wishes so much that we could be together for Christmas.

I joked that perhaps one day, we will end up on the same bus by accident — all three of us! He liked that — and added that we could then all go to the same bar!

These last six months went by far too fast….

Seasonal dislocation

Our winter solstice bonfire got us in a rather festive mood. But, this is the southern hemisphere — and it’s June — so Christmas won’t immediately follow. 

Now Allen is wishing we had thought to bring some simple Christmas decorations. We have Christmas weather. We have Christmas darkness. And we’re eating winter goodies washed down with rum-spiked cocoa. Might as well make the place look Christmassy.

So, we took sheets of notepaper, screwed them up into little balls, and threaded then onto string to hang from the ceiling. We also cut out snowflakes to decorate the windows. Martha Stewart would have been proud. And then when it got dark, we broke out a couple of emergency candles. 

Allen is now wondering about Halloween. I reminded him we may well have left here by then. But he wonders how that goes down under. It has always been a big deal in his family, and he enjoys decorating his house, including making several jack-o-lanterns for the porch. But if Halloween happens in spring, where does one get a pumpkin? 

It’s a good question. I suppose you can always buy a plastic one. Folks down under are probably well accustomed to making concessions in order to celebrate holidays aligned with the northern hemisphere. Perhaps Starbucks customers in Australia and New Zealand are served pumpkin spice lattes in spring.

Not that it really makes any difference to us. Or Alene. In Seattle, people are ordering iced coffee drinks and smoothies — but Alene still wants an Americano steaming hot!

A perfect fire

Our winter solstice fire was modest — but rather perfect. Allen broke down three pallets, but wanted to save some wood for another fire sometime. We were also a bit worried that a major fire might get noticed from afar and bring unwanted visitors to investigate.

There are no trees here, just small shrubs and krummolz vegetation, so gathering material for kindling took some time. And what we did find was soggy from weeks of rain and wet snow, but it dried out enough for Allen to get the fire going without resorting to lighter fluid.

We built the fire immediately in front of our cabin where there was enough shelter from the wind. The place was shrouded in thick fog with the temperature hovering around freezing. We waited until dusk to start the fire and by the time it was fully dark, Allen had got a nice blaze going. I fixed us hot cocoa spiked with rum.

Meanwhile, in Seattle, Alene was contending with bright sunshine. She retired to the relative shade of her east-facing bedroom and lazed on her bed listening to a podcast of a BBC radio drama about a couple who fell in love writing each other letters during World War II while he was stationed in northern Africa. It was based on a true story and had a happy ending. After the war ended, the man returned to England and they were married. And after his army discharge, they enjoyed fifty-eight years of happy marriage.

On the morning of the summer solstice in 2002, I went over to West Seattle and walked along the waterfront. A couple of hours later, Alene walked the same path — and laughed with delight when she came across the miniature Stonehenge I had built from beach stones. 

It seems such a long time ago. Ah, well. Bumblebee.

In the dark

It’s definitely winter now. I’m spending much of my time huddled up with a hot drink — and feeling a bit guilty that I get to loaf around while Alene has to go to work. It’s been reminding me of another winter I spent this way.

In October of 1999, a few weeks after Alene and I were connected, a business trip took me to meetings in Vienna and Paris. After wrapping things up in Paris, I went out to my house in the country. I hadn’t been there since the end of May — and I knew I would be returning to something of a “crime scene”. That long weekend in May had been one of non-stop wine drinking — all by myself. I had gone down there in the happiest of moods after a few dazzlingly successful weeks at work — but had quickly fallen into a dark hole of a depression — not good when there is a cellar full of wine on hand. I was late returning to London — and not in the best of moods. But in October, I was the happiest I had been in years — and I hadn’t been drinking since being connected with Alene — so I felt that I could face the house again.

When I entered the kitchen, it was like time had stood still there. On the large table were at least a dozen dead soldiers (empty bottles) — and a few that I had opened and somehow not finished. There was broken glass on the floor from dropped bottles and wineglasses – and dried up wine spills all over the place. I had half a mind to just go back to Paris and forget the whole thing — but I really wanted to share this house with Alene, even though she couldn’t see it. If I spent some time here, she would get to know the place. So as soon as she left for work, I got busy cleaning up and tried to forget what was going through my head that weekend in May — and by the time she was home for work, I had got the place looking reasonably presentable. There was no food in the pantry or fridge, and it was too late to go out to buy anything, so for dinner I had to make do with the bread and cheese I had brought with me from Paris. It was a warm autumn evening and I enjoyed a picnic in the garden.

I was now six hours ahead of Alene, but I didn’t need to be up early the next morning, so I stayed up very late to spend time with her. When I was finally lying in bed with the light off, I marveled at the quiet — and I realized it was the first time I had ever gone to bed sober in that house. Wow. I slept really well but did not sleep late. The morning sunshine flooded the bedroom. I was also very hungry. I decided to get up and drive into the village to get provisions — milk, bread and crepes. By crepes, I don’t mean the ones with fancy fillings, just the plain article that you spread jam on, or even eat just plain. After breakfast, I sat out in the garden and read a book while I waited for Alene to wake up and join me.

I was there with for five rather blissful days — and returned to London most reluctantly. Without the background energy of London, I had enjoyed Alene’s company more readily — and I was better able to be there for her. So, over the next few months, I decided to negotiate a leave of absence as part of a transition into early retirement — and in early January of 2000, I headed back to the French countryside to spend the winter.

It was a rather rainy, chilly winter, as I recall. And the house was neither well insulated nor well heated. I had had the plumbing updated and a modern bathroom built out in the old scullery off the kitchen, so I could have a hot shower — although the hot water only lasted for around five minutes. The darkness and the rain and the lack of any time commitments made it easy for me to keep hours that more closely matched Alene’s. I got up at around noon and enjoyed a quick shower. Then while Alene was getting ready for work, I went into the village to do my shopping. On my return, I would enjoy a leisurely breakfast while watching her start work. I had a little plug-in electric heater that I could move from room to room, and during hours of daylight I liked to be at the kitchen table with the heater at my feet. Then as darkness fell, I would relocate to the sitting room.

There was a TV set in the house, but reception was very poor, so I’d only ever watched videos there. But I now watched Alene’s TV, so it was hardly a problem. I was often up until around 4am my local time, but with nowhere to have to be during the day, that was no problem either. Saturday was the best. Alene got up early and made crepes for herself (at my suggestion she had looked up a recipe that she could handle) and we enjoyed a very long breakfast with the TV. Outside my window it was usually raining. Outside her window, it was often snowing.

Alene did indeed get to know the place. She quickly learned the layout of the house — and especially the kitchen, where I spent so much of the daylight hours. I was rather chagrined one day when she nagged me to do the dishes. I had been letting them pile up for several days in the sink — and in her mind she had formed an image of a sink filled with tea mugs and plates! She could also describe the rather ratty gray cardigan I slouched around in (another piece of clothing I had rescued after my wife tried to throw it out with the garbage.) And she recognized the little old lady who served up the crepes at the creperie. Even though Alene could not see through me, she had managed to form images and link them together into a coherent space — just as a blind person would.

One of the happier features of Alene’s terrifying summer of 1999 was a photography class. She had no difficulties at all in the dark room — finding that if you closed your eyes it made everything easier. And then as she developed prints, she marveled as she watched images gradually appear, one little piece at a time. In hindsight, it seemed to be a heads-up for what would be coming her way.

I must admit I’m rather disappointed that Alene has been less perceptive of my surroundings down here near Cape Horn. The distance is greater, although the time difference is less. She quickly grasped the layout of the cabin and the view as we walk along the path to the storage facility. And she somehow knows that Allen is going to break down some pallets that are taking up space in the storage facility so that we can have a winter solstice bonfire. But she doesn’t seem to have “taken up residence” here the way she did at my house in France.

Perhaps it because I’m not alone — so there are concerns of privacy. Or it could be that she has more distractions at her end this time: in 2000, she was living alone in a house way out in the woods instead of in a small apartment in Seattle — and we were both experiencing winter, spending a lot of time alone indoors. She has also come to feel less personally and financially secure in recent years — and so less inclined to allow herself to indulge “the world inside her head.”

I just managed to get a smile from her though. Allen is getting ready to head out for a bit of exercise and he has on a rather amusing black-and-red knit hat that he surely wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in Seattle — unless he wanted to make someone laugh. He’s taking my mittens too! I’d better get them back! The temperature has been hovering around freezing of late and it seems to snow frequently, but the constant wind prevents much accumulation other than small drifts. Right now, we’re enjoying what’s known in Britain as a “bright interval.”

It’s rather beautiful down here. I need to draw Alene further in.

Hair, hats and shade

Allen is having hair issues. Obviously, there’s no barber shop where we are, and he hasn’t had a haircut since we left Seattle over two months ago. His barber probably misses him! Anyway, he’s looking a little shaggy — and unlike me, he finds the crumpled look a little disquieting. I keep telling him that there’s no one here to impress other than lots of birds. And as it gets longer, he’ll be able to pull his hair back into a ponytail like I am already doing (having not had a preemptive haircut before coming down here.) That doesn’t console him a whole lot. He says he has no intention of going home looking like a better-fed version of one of Ernest Shackleton’s men.

He’s not much of a hat person either. Alene and I both love hats — and there’s not much of the year when we feel OK to leave the house hatless in Seattle. From October through April, you need a hat to keep the rain off. And it also helps to wear a coat with a hood that can be snugged up over the hat to keep the wind from blowing it away. On sunny summer days, you need a hat to keep the sun off, especially during the high-sun season around the solstice. As a former sun-worshipper who has sunned himself the world over, I still can’t believe how strong Seattle sunshine can be at the end of June, when I’ve had some of my worst sunburns — and as I have a receded hairline, I have to wear a hat to protect my head.

Allen still has a full head of hair (the bastard!) and he’s rather vain with it — so unless the occasion calls for his beloved Stetson, he considers it a travesty to hide his hair. He’s especially particular with the right side of his head (from his perspective.) Most of us joke about having a “best side”, but he means it in all seriousness. When you drive a bus, your right side is the one the passengers see as they board — so it needs to make a good impression. (He likes to think women swoon as they get on his bus!!)

Allen and I were enjoying some winter sunshine today in advance of some rainy/snowy weather we’re expecting over the next few days. But Alene was out and about in one of those high-sun summer Seattle days — although she was thankful it wasn’t too hot — as long as you didn’t stay in one spot too long!

On her way home, she passed a park where a wedding ceremony was just getting underway. The guests were seated on folding chairs, and the bridesmaids and groomsmen were gathered to start marching down the aisle. Now, if you’re planning an outside wedding for the last weekend in May in Seattle, your main weather worry is obviously going to be rain, as Seattle is really not out of the woods as far as rain is concerned until after July fourth. But when the day arrives and turns out to be dazzlingly sunny, you have to wonder why the organizers don’t set up the chairs in one of shady spots. The guests were seated in the direct early afternoon sun — just a few yards away from the shade of a huge tree that would have been a far more comfortable spot.

Alki Beach Park in West Seattle is hugely popular on summer days — but there’s hardly any shade to be found its entire length. Anywhere a tree, shrub, sculpture, or lamppost even, casts a shadow on the ground, you’ll find someone sitting in it. Serious beachgoers, intent on staying all day, take canopy tents to shelter under, but the glare of the sun is hard to escape — what with the water, the sand, and the reflective surfaces of all the cars, both parked and stuck in traffic.

A common sight on Saturday afternoons at this time of the year is part of a wedding party (usually the bride, maid of honor and bridesmaids) flocking into a Starbucks for iced lattes. We suspect it’s less about needing a caffeine fix and more about getting into a cool, shady place after baking in the bright sunshine in tight, uncomfortable dresses.