Two days before the storms that gave us a foot of snow and then 2 inches of ice, the three of us walked for hours across windless fields where mud and grasses were beginning to show through. I let my coat fall open. We crossed a rivulet ripe with flowing water and stones covered with layers of flamboyant green moss. We did not have to fight the elements. The dogs were able to run, not creep over jagged ice. For the first time in six weeks, I could walk without a snow hat. We could sense the new season in the height and warmth of the sun, a February sun that had heat to it.
Then the snow and ice fell upon the whole region, and damp cold returned, and the power snapped off, and most of us raised our heads above our blankets and coats and watched the temperature drop degree by degree within our homes. Big limbs dropped onto the roof and cracked upon the ice-covered snow. In the early morning, trying to avoid hanging trees, we walked down the center of the road, and off to the side. Two sounds vibrated up from all points of the compass – whining generators and the fracturing of thick branches separating from trees.
The night before rain had fallen for hours and had molded itself to every branch, twig, seed pod, blade of long grass, corn stubble, long limb and shrub. Pennsylvania’s depthless winter-blue sky rested above all that light, as if the world had been turned into polished Swarovski crystal. Our yard looked as if cannon fire had shredded a silver forest. My wife called the landscape a “beautiful mayhem.”
Our neighborhood, without power for three days, looked after itself. We checked on our friends. They made sure we were in one piece. We were taken in by one old friend, dogs and all, and for three very cold nights we ate stew and chicken and meat loaf together and drank our share of red wine. One afternoon we sat with a Russian emigrant in her home in a big window facing south and drank sweet tea and snacked on zucchini bread and then walked into the yard and ran the 5 border collies who were so excited to see all of us together they must have thought a holiday had come. They ran back to us again and again, jumping and looking for our faces, so happy to be in one companionable group. That night I stood in a field with the dogs far above a road and watched single cars race after their headlights, seeming to devour them and immediately create them anew.
When the electricity stopped, I had to slow down, and beautiful things revealed themselves. When the electricity stopped, we found once more, in a timeworn surprise made continually new, that kindness comes most alive in difficult moments.
Returning home on Saturday, the furnace purring, our white house more welcoming than ever, settling down to catch-up on mail, I encountered an image far removed from the indifference of the ice-world. I discovered a cloud in a room.
Perfectly balanced, seemingly lit from within, it rests inside what could be a Church. The contrast between the cloud and the space gives it a hallowed authority. It upsets our expectations. The Israelites followed a cloud across Sinai. Both Yahweh and the New Testament God spoke out of clouds. One anticipates that a voice will emerge from it.
He assures us that the photo has not been manipulated, that this is not a CGI experience. A Dutch artist found a way to balance humidity, air pressure and air currents within a room. He chose the space, set the scene, arranged the lights, made the cloud, took the photo. He composed this exquisite, transitory, perfectly serene moment. How long would he have been able to balance the elements and preserve the cloud? After these long weeks of cold and gloom and the annihilation of green, who would not like to sit quietly in that room and simply watch the cloud hover before them?
We all need a dose of wonder right now. More storms will bear down upon us, but they too will end, and the Sun will continue its ascension, and all these winter nights will be banished by the inexorable tilting of the Earth toward Spring. Won’t it be fine to bathe in the warm air again, and to sit quietly under trees, face turned to the sky and watch endless clouds drift and drift above everything turned green?