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Over the surface

The sky above a frozen lake is the same color as it is above a road, a soccer field, a housing development, on the same day. I know that, but I don’t feel it. There is that clouded over slate blue-grey that has the feel of reaching perfection from the middle of a frozen lake, on a windy day, alone.

The winter I was twelve cooperated in my liminal state. It was cold enough for the lakes to freeze solidly and stay that way, no worries of open water or even thin ice, but not cold enough that anyone would worry about a newly-grown girl-child bundling herself into scarf, mittens, boots, coat, and heading off on her own for hours.

Twelve is big enough–at least, it was for me–that you can watch smaller kids, that no one needs to be deputized to watch you. Twelve is small enough–again, at least it was for me–that no one needs to worry that you’re sneaking off to do something worrying on an adult scale. I was adult sized at twelve, this height, very nearly this body shape that I have twenty-seven years later. I was very recognizably myself. I had been street harassed already, at twelve. I had started to grasp the edges of what so worried my mother about me growing up. But while I’ve been harassed in parkas that come down to my knees and hoods up over my head, winter is safer: fewer people on the street means less street harassment.

And I wasn’t going on the street.

My mother and I had been spending the last year and a half in what I then thought was a companionable understanding, which I now recognize as a productive misunderstanding. I thought that we mutually understood that I was too big for playgrounds (although I have never lost my fondness for swings), that I would stay safe and not do anything stupid but of course would not be going to a playground for hours. What would I do at a playground for hours? I was twelve, for heaven’s sake. I was big.

(Now that my goddaughter is eleven, now that her mother and I repeat to each other, “she’s so big now!” on at least a weekly basis, I understand how it was that my mother could have missed the fact of my bigness.)

So I thought that we understood that I was going to hike and not do anything worrying. My mother, on the other hand, thought that being away from the main road and out of shouting distance of the rest of humanity was something worrying and naturally I would not be doing that. This misunderstanding between us turned out to be formative for me, and I stand by it. I was immensely safer–I am safer now–in the woods than on the road. Twenty-seven years of experience tells me over and over again that the rest of humanity is the problem.

But I was speaking of the year I was twelve. In the summer, this had meant hours in the woods, sometimes up a tree, sometimes with my sneakers tied to each other hanging around my neck so I could walk down the rocks in a shallow brook. It was green and quiet and peaceful, and I was competent there. One of my best friends got a rampaging case of poison ivy to start the seventh grade. I had told her not to touch it, it most certainly was not Virginia creeper. I was the one who knew the difference.

My new longer legs were useful in the woods, and my new curves were…not absent, exactly. But they had room to just be part of me, just present, neutral. Nobody told me to do anything like a lady. Nobody shouted that I was a cunt. If I set off at a fast lope through the trees, I bounced a little more, and it didn’t have to matter.

In the winter, the bare trees didn’t provide as much cover. But my clothes did, and the cold. When it’s cold enough, you can escape a crowded, smoky house full of relatives and no one will wander out after you. The outdoors will be quiet and still and empty. The ice is its own protection.

There are only a handful of other walkers on frozen lakes. You are almost guaranteed you will not run into them. If you are very careful, you can avoid all human companionship. If you’re not feeling that antisocial, you will walk past the ice fishers. The ice fishers will not make you talk. The protocol with ice fishers is simple: you can nod, or you can say, “Ayeh.” And they will do one of those two things back.

They will not say, “Awfully cold for you to be out, isn’t it?” They will not ask if you aren’t very young to be on your own. The ice fishers do not want to talk. They want to fish. And you want to walk. This works out well for everyone. The ice fishers may well be escaping a loud, smoky house full of relatives as well. Fishing is the thing that they are allowed to say they are doing, not “getting away from you all.” I had an aunt who would say she was doing both, but she was widely regarded as eccentric.

I loved her for it.

She was not in the house I was walking away from.

You pass the ice fishers, then, and you keep walking. You fall into a rhythm. If there’s a good crust of snow, or if there was wind when the lake was freezing, you can walk like you can on any land. The wind matters because it pebbles the ice, gives it a texture, your feet can find purchase. If it was a still day, you shuffle along like a purposeful penguin, not lifting your feet too far, moving straight from the hips.

(What about skating? they will ask. Well, no. Skating ice takes maintenance. It has to be a really still day, or more likely water that is carefully sprayed and smoothed, to get really good skating ice. You can’t skate on just random ice, mostly it’s far too rough for quality skating. Random lake ice is much better for just walking.)

The cold seeps into your legs. Your coat comes down over your upper thighs, your socks up over your calves, so it’s the middle, your lower thighs, where you really start to feel the cold first. Everything else is too well bundled, but the wind will hit your knees and start to numb them. But you keep walking. You’re going to go all the way across the lake to the trees on the other side. No one can take this from you. The cold can’t. So you walk, and the blood flows back into you with exercise, and gradually you get warm again, the warmth of exertion.

With the rhythm of walking, you regain the ability to notice things. Clouds. Cars on the distant road, the noises they make. Your own crunchy footfalls, whether there’s a difference in their sound. That difference is important.

In the present day, as an adult, I had gone on the assumption that everyone knows how to gauge ice thickness visually, that while you hear stories of people falling through, you also hear stories of people setting their microwaves on fire. Sensible people, ordinary people–certainly everyone you would socialize with–know you need at least two inches of ice to bear human weight. Sensible people know what that looks like.

But when I went to talk to my friends about it now, as a grown-up, other perfectly competent grown-ups had no idea. They worried about this. How would you know. That doesn’t sound safe. What are you doing. This is not sensible, stop it, come inside, surely this is not something you do.

It is. It’s something I do. Every chance I get.

And even as a twelve-year-old, I knew what good ice sounded like, even if it was snow-covered and I couldn’t look at it. I knew what it felt like to have a run of days cold enough to freeze the lake solid enough to hold me. I knew what patches to avoid until it had been good and cold long enough–rushes and ducks would be near open water, don’t go poking at the rushes and ducks, just keep walking.

These things were so intuitive that more than twenty-five years later, when my friends, my southern friends, my coastal friends, my city friends, balked at the notion of walking out on frozen things, I had to interrogate my own mind: I know this, but how do I know this. What does good ice look like. Good ice is milky, good ice shuts you out from the waters below. Clear ice that holds you up and lets you watch the fish below is a cinematic dream. Good ice, firm ice, is opaque enough that you know that it is doing some serious ice business below your feet. It does not creak or crack. Some parts of it might crunch, but that’s different.

And yet you know you are not walking on the ground. You know that you are walking on ice. How do you know? You know. The sky is not a different color, the air does not taste different…rationally. Notionally, liminally? It might. It does.

Twenty-five years later, walking out on Lake Superior was not the same as a small lake. It is full of many jagged points and miniature cliffs–its limnology has structure and nearly seismic activity in a way that a smaller lake never could. And of course, walking all the way across, walking the whole lake, is impossible for any human. There is always the wall of spiky mist at the horizon where the giant body of water is subliming even when the temperatures are below zero Fahrenheit.

And yet. And yet the crunch and slide of ice, the penguin slip beneath my feet was the same. The feel of walking away from shore, out on the ice, squaring my shoulders and knowing that everything beneath me was water, everything above me was steely sky, and around was…nothing. No one and nothing. The perfect silence and wind is the same, exactly the same, always the same.

And getting warm after is the same, the excessive feeling of blood rushing into cheeks and fingers and thighs, burning and tingling, gulping hot tea too fast and burning my tongue. Not wanting to talk. Not wanting to speak a word. Wanting to keep the frozen lake wind in my ears.

I have never let myself collapse to my knees in the snow, upon attaining land again. Someday perhaps I will. I have always made myself keep moving, onward to warmth and the rest of humanity and its noise and hum and frustrations. I have never let myself kneel and feel the difference between snow on ice and snow on dirt in my hands, not just through my boots.

Someday I will. For now, I let myself be quiet when I come off a frozen lake. I don’t have to go into the hubbub of a family gathering. I can reenter the world of humans gradually, warmth first, light second, then tea and noise. And so I do.

Because of how geology works, frozen things are lower than their surroundings. Water, down in a hollow. So you find yourself looking up, up at the trees, up at the buildings, even up at the roads. Up at the clouds, and suddenly up at the clouds isn’t as different from looking at the manmade things as it usually is. Everything is at least a little up, and you are down, set apart, set aside, protected.

My friends who are not from the frozen north will find that feeling of protection strange, I think, but ice is like the poison ivy/Virginia creeper problem in the summer woods: safety comes from knowledge. You know how to walk, you know where and when to go, you’re fine, you’re much safer than you are on the street. And the quality of silence alone on the ice is impossible to replicate any other way.

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In a good cause: NoDAPL and other Native Rights

Sometimes the obvious thing is the right thing. The NoDAPL movement–opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline–is something a lot of my friends are thinking about, talking about, wondering how to help with. So it may seem a little obvious. But obvious is sometimes right. And I think that–for example–the difficulties of reservation law enforcement in dealing with white people who commit crimes on the reservation are not necessarily obvious to people who don’t want to think about it. They’re only well-known in certain circles. So: Native rights, justice for Native people both at Standing Rock and elsewhere: generally a good cause.

Let’s start with Native American Rights Fund. They support a broad range of causes–government accountability, preservation of resources, individual rights and justice–with an ongoing umbrella organization that will not only help the people at Standing Rock, they’ll help the people at the next Standing Rock. And try to prevent the next one from happening in the first place.

Last week for Thanksgiving there were several round-up posts about what you can do, if you don’t want to go from site to site. Here’s one. And another. Please remember that if you’re going to go participate in the protests yourself, you want it to be about what the people there need, not about your own spiritual journey. (Actually that’s a good focus for any charitable/volunteer work.)

There are also individual camps taking donations, so you can take your pick: Oceti Sakowin camp; Sacred Stone Camp; Standing Rock Rosebud Camp; Red Warrior Camp. And hey. This pipeline was judged not safe enough to go through the predominantly white areas–that is, not safe enough for my cousins. So why is it safe enough for someone else’s? It isn’t. This pipeline is being built by people with some of the worst oil pipeline leak records in the country. The other question to ask is: what have I done, actively, to be a good neighbor to my Indian/Native American/First Nations neighbors? Because we are long past the point where “I didn’t personally go kick them in the shins” is enough.

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In a Good Cause: Alliance for the Great Lakes

Every week between now and the election–thankfully not that many weeks left–I’m posting about a charity. This week’s is Alliance for the Great Lakes. (WordPress has been weird about dropping my links when I publish posts, so I’m going to write out the URL here even though it’s awkward:

Those of you who know me know what a major spot Lake Superior has in my heart, but they’re all pretty great. (It says so right in the name!) And they’re also really significant for the water health of North America. Alliance for the Great Lakes scores very high on all the charity raters for how much of their money goes to their mission instead of overhead and gladhanding. The eastern Great Lakes are a stellar example of a place where making an effort to clean up our act as a species has made a significant difference in my lifetime, and we want to keep Lake Superior awesome rather than letting it get awful and having to clean it back up again. Safe swimming in Lake Michigan for fish and nieces! Support our Great Lakes!

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In a Good Cause: 360 Communities

Remember last week, when I said I was going to post weekly about charities between now and the election? Yep, that was last week.

This week’s charity is 360 Communities, formerly known as the Community Action Council. They have multiple sites in the south Minneapolis metro, providing shelters for people who are fleeing domestic violence, food shelves, school success programs, and assistance toward self-sufficiency. They also run a hotline and assistance for those who have been sexually assaulted. They work toward affordable, available, high quality child care. Basically the more you learn about this group, the more good stuff you’ll find they’re doing.

They are local to me. But there are groups trying to do similar work local to you. If you live in an area with food shelves and shelters, they always, always need support–volunteers as well as donations. And if you live in an area without those institutions, I guarantee that there are other people in your broader community looking around to say, “this is wrong, we need these resources, what can we do in the meantime?” “Domestic violence shelters in [your area]” will give you a first pass search on what’s out there. Same deal for “food shelves in [your area].”

One of the things I really like about 360 Communities is that they’re trying to address people’s whole set of needs, not just one piece or another piece. But getting at the pieces is still useful when you can do it. Better some than none.

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Cultural translation, part 375

This is in response to a locked post a friend made about how hard it can be to talk about things when you’re doing badly, without minimizing or feeling like you’re whining. I wrote most of the post and then realized that people might think I was being subtle about myself instead of reacting to a friend. But: locked post, cannot link. Sorry.

Some years ago, a friend of mine lost her partner (also a friend of mine). In addition to his death–as if that wouldn’t have been enough–my friend also lost her voice for quite some time, and there was an incident with a falling piano, and…yeah. It was not a good scene for my friend. Everyone who knew her knew of the string of bad things, but those of us in town had more opportunity to actually spend time with her.

Then I went to World Fantasy, and I ran into some people I know by name but do not know well. They were friends with my friend. And when I mentioned her name, they immediately said, “Oh yes, how is [friend]?” And I said, very firmly, “She’s doing just great.” They reared back and stared at me as though I had grown a second head. Doing great?, they asked incredulously. I, in turn, stared at them as though they had grown additional heads and said, “I don’t know how much better anyone could expect her to do under the circumstances!” Well, no, they agreed. Under the circumstances. Really one could not. But we sort of looked at each other funny for the rest of the conversation.

And it is hard to find the balance between informing people of bad stuff that’s going on and feeling like you’re whining. It really is. But this is also complicated by the fact that friends and other people of goodwill can’t rely on coming from the same cultural perspective on this. Even when one is speaking on behalf of someone else and not worrying about whining–and Lord knows if anyone had earned a whine that fall it would have been my friend–what message is conveyed by what level of response is highly, highly culturally determined. I would have felt disloyal if I’d said something that, in retrospect, was more like they seemed to expect, more along the lines of, “Poor dear, with all she’s been through it’s a wonder she can put one foot in front of the other to get from bed to bathroom.” It was a wonder. But she was doing it, and I didn’t want to give the impression that she was not. They already knew the practical details–I knew this was not a situation where I was going to be called upon to say, “Oh, had you not heard the terrible news?”

And I think one of the major cultural obstacles to overcome in achieving actual communication is how much people are expected to state the emotionally obvious. Sometimes it’s a relief to turn to someone and say, “I’m really sad right now,” or, “This has been very stressful for me.” But sometimes it’s also a great relief not to have to. Sometimes it’s a very great relief for the person or people you’re with to think, “Hmm, gee, Friend’s partner died, maybe Friend is REALLY SAD, I’ll do something nice,” without having to spell out every moment: “Still sad. Yep, still devastated. Life still in chaos due to very sad thing, yep yep.”

Sometimes you have to do that. Sometimes that’s just how it works out. But wow, is it another layer of difficult just when people don’t need more difficult. And it’s a thing to keep an eye out for a) when writing people from different cultures and b) in trying to be compassionate in, y’know, real life.

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Rikki-tikki-tavi endorses this message

So I was reading Slacktivist today, and I found out that the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins was telling people that some parts of Minneapolis are no-go zones for non-Muslims. I just wanted to reassure you: stand down, friends and family! We are fine here!

(I was going to say “there’s nowhere in this city you can’t go on the basis of religion,” but that’s not true. The inner parts of Mormon temples are just for Mormons, for example. But that’s, like, certain rooms in a handful of buildings. Not even the whole building. Much less a whole neighborhood.)

Rep. Keith Ellison invited Perkins to Minneapolis to see for himself, which seems like a terrible idea to me, because then we’d have Perkins in my metro. But still, he’s a politician, it’s his job to score points off idiots be welcoming for his city. But the thing that got me is: I have literally no idea where Perkins thinks he might be talking about. This is not the “figuratively” use of literally. This is just, really, like: huh? Where’s that, exactly? Or even roughly–we don’t have to be exact. I can think of neighborhoods with lots of Somalis in them–we have Somali neighbors ourselves, and they pet my dog–but that’s so very far from the same thing as to not be worth discussing. There are some places Christians (and Jews and atheists and pagans and…) can buy halal meat more easily than others, but I wouldn’t think that would stop anybody from going there. If you don’t want halal meat, don’t buy it; problem solved.

I asked Mark and Tim, and they had no idea either. Seriously none. And what I really don’t get is that this kind of lie is so easily disprovable. Lots of people have friends and family here in the Twin Cities–many of them in Minneapolis proper, even–and so if they hear this and call up Aunt Ethel to say, “OMG Aunt Ethel, I heard about your neighborhoods with sharia law there in Minneapolis,” Aunt Ethel will say, “Are you high?” And then Aunt Ethel will call your mother to talk about maybe having an intervention for the drugs you are apparently on. Minneapolis: it is not the moon. I do not live on a satellite of the moon, people. If someone says something about Minneapolis, we can find out whether or not it is true. It doesn’t even take a Large Hadron Collider. We can just, like…wander out and look.

It’s a good plan, wandering out and looking. I endorse it in general.

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Dialect nerding with Mris

Okay, another dialect question. Haven’t done one in awhile. Does your home dialect contain the phrase “a goin’ concern,” usually applied to small children? And if not, would you still have some sense of what “that child is a goin’ concern” might mean if someone else used it, or would you be completely in the dark?

(Sometimes when I’m talking to my grandmother things come out of my mouth that I never, ever say to my friends, and then I stop and realize that I have no idea if I don’t say them because it’s an old-fashioned phrase we just don’t really use or if I don’t say them because my friends would find me incomprehensible. And this is what the internet is for! Someone might have told you it was for porn. Someone nicer might have told you it was for kitten pictures. They were wrong, or rather, they were right but in the broader sense. It is for assuaging random curiosity. And I do have a most ‘satiable curtiosity.)

Also: if you are a person who says “a goin’ concern,” at what age does a person stop being a goin’ concern? Because I am now a little worried.

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Public service announcement from the frozen north

Did you know–I did not, which is why I am telling you–that they sell little compressor dealies that will plug into the cell phone charger slot in your car? (It is not either the cigarette lighter. Ours never once came with a thing that would light cigarettes. It is the cell phone charger.) So that if you regularly go places that are so cold that a) your tires will deflate somewhat and b) the air hoses at gas stations will freeze, then you can just carry this solution along with you in the car, and it is a very small box and reads out the pressure for you so you can tell how long to run it?

Obviously this is not a solution if you have shredded a tire so badly that it is more of a tire fringe than a tire. Very few things are a solution to that, and you probably already know what they are. But if you have a slow leak, or if you are just in the cold conditions described above and your tires are fine, then you can have this lovely little gadget that will set your mind at ease about being stranded somewhere with mildly flat tires. Or if you worry about someone else you know who goes places where this might apply, then you can stop worrying about them. The nice-ish ones are $30. They sell even less-nice ones for less than that. It is a thing that should be known. So now you know it.