It's about as gray as it get can in the daytime up here today, a storm anchored down on the Kenai Peninsula, dropping rain on top of the snow. And it's less than three weeks from the shortest day of the year. For the last month, I've been trying not to look at the four packages of tulip and crocus bulbs on the bench seat in my entry way, because they've begun to sprout little white nubs, and they remind me of my neglectful ways, buying them way back in September, handing them out to my students for a writing assignment, then abandoning them behind the dog food bag. The reproach on their faces is just too much. But today, in the gloom of this early December afternoon, I took a little clam shovel and tapped the frozen earth along the basement as though searching for a bearing wall, and finally found a place, under a window, where the ground was still soft. I dug in, sprinkled on bone meal, and arranged the bulbs close together, in a cluster, then buried them, top-dressed with decaying plant matter. And while I was out there, I repaired the netting fence around the raspberries to keep the snowshoe hares out, on my knees in the snow, my fingers aching from the 40-degree cold. And then I carried a few sad dead plants down to the greenhouse. In the trees, a sound like bells startled me, calls more like southern swamp songs than like hearty Alaskan winter caws, buzzes or cackles. A flock of tall lean gabardine birds chimed in the alders. I think they were grosbeaks.
Now I'm back in the house after stoking up the woodstove, listening to the logs catch, crackle and snap, listening to the metal tick, and in the background, to the dripping of melting snow off the roof. Thinking about those bulbs I stuck into the ground. The thing about bulbs is they have this chestnut-colored sheath of skin, a thin, papery protection. That's all. Me, I've got this sturdy warm house, thick insulated walls, the heat radiating from the woodstove. Solitude is my sheath of protective skin. And when I go out among people, I wear various furs (metaphorical ones, that is).
I'm here alone at home today (Craig already left for the yearly pilgrimage to Hawaii, not for him this dark time) after a sociable evening and morning. Last night, I wandered over to my favorite gallery for a first Friday opening: a series of portraits by a beloved local painter. The portraits were of various Homer artists of all stripes, musicians, painters, potters, sculptors. It was one of those cozy small-town winter gatherings; this town grows more intimate in winter; people band together. Homer's built at the end of a peninsula, the end of the road, people call it, and under this cover of long nights, at times (like now, the rain pelting the windows of the house), it does feel like we've come unmoored and are adrift in the North Pacific, cut off from the rest of the world. So people come together more. There are potlucks, Scrabble games, movies.
But I've found lately that I feel socially retarded in public these days. My skin feels excessively thin. Voices bang and clang around me, my nerves jangle. As I circled the gallery, moving form portrait to portrait, I bumped into a woman I know, S. I hadn't seen her in a few weeks, and she asked how I was feeling in that sincere, concerned tone I've grown so familiar with these last several months. It sets my nerves to prickling and kindles a hot flare of rage. But S, she is a sincere person. S is made of warm light, let me tell you, about as compassionate and kind a person as you'd want to know. So why my sudden donning of porcupine skin? My inner self scrunched in and flared my tail at her. This is what I said. I said I felt great. But then I said, "I have to ask, because another person in town thought I had metastatic cancer, and asked me about my prognosis, and you seemed so concerned when you asked me how I was, that I wanted to make sure that you knew that wasn't the case." Poor S. There we were in this crowded, brightly lit, loud, public space, me babbling on in this weird way out of nowhere, her just asking "how are you feeling?" and I think I scared her, because she said she hadn't heard anything like that, and then she was gone.
When people ask me how I feel, how I'm doing, I just get crazy sometimes. The question frightens me, triggers this irrational response. It feels as though a person is speaking to me from across a divide, a turnstile, and I don't have a token to get to the other side of that question, to where they stand, drink in hand, in the land of women who've never had cancer. To the place where "How are you doing?" is an utterly mundane, benign question. But there, on my side of the turnstile, my inner porcupine wanted to say: Don't look at me that way. I don't have terminal cancer, I'm okay, I'm cancer-free, I'm well, please don't reflect that fear and concern at me because it scares me, it makes me wonder if there's something you know that I don't. And of course it's unfair on my part. The intention behind the question, in every case, is nothing but loving.
So it was time to leave, flee the crowd, as I so often do these days. But first two women friends and I made a plan, to meet at my house after the opening, to have dinner and a sleep-over. With these friends I can shed my porcupine skin, my public skin. After dinner, we put pillows down in front of the woodstove, lit candle lanterns, and laid bananagram tiles on the warm floor. I heated a pot of nettle tea on the stove top, and we ate walnuts and dried blueberries. Then we went to sleep. In the morning I heard my friend Asia walking around in the dark, so I called her name and she came in and asked if she could get under the covers with me. Her partner's away, too, in graduate school. So we lay there side-by-side for over an hour as the dark got just a wee bit less dark and we talked. First she told me about the dream she'd had. Then I told her of my difficulty in public settings like the gallery opening, as though I'm being bombarded with arrows. Asia said that in deep winter, in a venue like that, celebrating the work of a fellow artist, we come together to mirror the light in one another. That's what the artist's portrait's had done. Asia suggested I prepare myself for such encounters with people, put on more clothes, put on an outfit, another skin, and answer such questions purely from the moment: "I'm feeling great tonight. It's great to see you. How are you doing?" Then I could be a mirror to someone's caring soul, their inner light. Or, if necessary, to another's probing soul, their fear. Instead I see only a projection of my own greatest fear in another's eyes. And fear is what I mirror.
It's been over a year now since cancer treatment ended, and I'm still getting to know the shape of this bulb, this body, this somewhat shell-shocked soul under its papery skin. I'm still trying on different skins, deciding which is mine. Last weekend, another friend helped me purge my closet, casting off the clothes that no longer fit me, finally letting go of the last "cancer clothes." Those were once favorites I wore after surgery, during chemo treatment, but memories clung to them like a scent. They'd served me well, but it was time to let them go. Perhaps for awhile, the porcupine skin served me well too. Perhaps I'll need it again someday. But wouldn't something soft and supple, holding the spirit of an animal that's balanced, brave and centered -- the skin of a lynx, perhaps -- be nicer?
Perhaps right now, out in the yard, in another kind of December gardening, a lynx creeps along the forest edge, hunting for the snowshoe hares that, in their fearful hunger, would mow down my raspberry patch. Perhaps tomorrow I'll find a tuft of lynx hair caught on an alder branch. And with it, I'll start to sew my new winter coat.