Monday, December 23, 2013

Darkening of the Days & Our Little Lights

I'm really fond of a Christmas tradition hearkens back to pre-Christian cultures: the bringing of lights into the home until the sun returns and the days lengthen.

When I was a child, I read about the ancient customs of kindling bonfires and putting lights on trees, in an act of sympathetic magic until the light in the sky increased. For Christians and European pagans alike, that light is the Light of the World, the hope that comes amid darkness. The season of the Winter Solstice must have been both a fearful and hopeful time: the families and animals they brought indoors in the much deeper winters of those times, the sharing of scarce food put up in the harvest months, the act of celebration under many faiths--Jewish, Christian, Pagan--to hold up a few lights in the dark.

That's a time we forget, as we tend to get nostalgic--thank you, Charles Dickens--about the Victorian traditions we trot out with every school play of "A Christmas Carol."

I played Scrooge in 6th grade, incidentally: both my acting debut and finale.

Today, I'm feeling more like Bob Cratchit: Yuletide is more about family and the warmth of the hearth than about fancy gifts and conspicuous consumption.

As our first full year here in the countryside ended ended, we stop where we began: with the annual Christmas-Eve celebration. We have been trimming our trees and putting up lights, late in the season when compared to most folks. As a child I helped with the tree every Christmas Eve; my family lacked spending money but the tree lots offered good bargains the night before Christmas; we'd get a tree that remained, often too tall or too short, then bring it home to decorate before midnight.  It came down barely a week later; in our one room fit for a tree, the same room that our whole-home gas stove occupied, a cut tree dried out fast.

I hated to see the tree go down, but the very brevity of its time in our house made me look forward to its next arrival as much as Santa's. It was part of that suspension of disbelief, combined with a child's belief in magic. Never mind that our single heat source meant Santa would have to squeeze through a metal pipe and into a burning gas stove before entering our house.

A child can believe in such miracles. Perhaps other miracles of a minor variety remain all around us whenever plants germinate or we get a good harvest. It's a miracle when an ancient tractor starts up while my new one gets repairs. It's a miracle to find just the right disc-harrows in the woods, abandoned and overgrown, to pull out and use that very day. It's a miracle to have enough firewood for winter. Thus it's been a good year learning about rural life first-hand and full-time, in spite of a wet summer and the promise of another see-saw winter as Virginia's climate continues to warm.

I hope, as bad things happen in the years to come, we all, individually, hold up a light and share it with others against the darkening of the days. There's been enough rage and hatred. One friend told of a Christmas party at which everyone made a wish. The guests were all wealthy, yet they all, to a person, wished for "abundance." Let me wish differently.

How about "may everyone be free from fear and suffering. May everyone have what they need"?

That's my 2013 Christmas wish. Light your own candle. I suspect that we will kindle a collective fire one day. I'll keep putting up my lights until then, and try not to say "Humbug" too often.

Here's to a Blessed Solstice, a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a Joyous New Year!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Out Go the Lights

It had to happen sooner or later: a reality of country life involves hooking up a generator.

I just wish it had not been a thirty-something day, with very cold rain coming down, for me to bring current back to a dark house. At 6am, the icy power lines must have sagged just so, and the transformer up the road exploded in three large blasts that sounded like a raid by WW II fighter-bombers.

At least we have heat, I thought, considering our well stocked woodpile and warm stove.

Even with surge protectors, once the power begins to flicker, it's time to race around and unplug all the electronics. Then it's time to get some power running through the wires again.  We never planned on an expensive whole-house unit, figuring that well-pump, refrigerator, and lights were first priorities, hot water second. Our generator is a wheeled unit I was push or pull up a slope with some huffing and puffing, and I opted for propane because it can be stored almost indefinitely.

Those without generators need to understand that they can't operate indoors and can't be left uncovered in wet weather. That means 20 minutes to erect a canopy we've used for camping, then tucking the generator under it. After 30 minutes of trial-and-error, and tripping the generator's breaker a few times in the process, I had lights and a working refrigerator. Then I took careful notes about which of our labeled, but not exactly informative, breakers controlled which banks of lights.

Within an hour the power company phoned: the transformer had been replaced. With a little reluctance I shut down the generator and brought the outside world back in.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Before the Next Storm

Ever since climate change began to show its effects locally by ever-warmer winters, we have spells of very warm weather followed by a crash. This year, however, the temperatures have been closer to seasonal normals, and that means we may actually get some snow and ice. We only had a little here last winter, enough to coat the old oak out back.

Right now, in late Autumn, we're seeing the sorts of weather I call "Wimpy Richmond Winter": it snows north and west and we get "sleeze": a mix of winter goop that coats things with a little ice, then turns to rain. While the next storm looks like mostly a rain-maker here, with temperatures just above freezing, hard experience has taught me that one nudge by the system could mean an inch of ice or several inches of snow (I hope I hope!).

That is when I find myself stacking wood on a freakishly 70-degree December day, checking the generator, and watching the sky.

I guess city people do these things. I did keep a woodpile in town, but with Krogers at the end of the street, there was no urgency to stock up. Here, however, we already have enough non-perishable food for a storm and after.

Let's see what the weather brings. It always brings something.