The Primitive Life

It’s fifteen degrees outside, but the sun is shining, and for the first morning since last Thursday when our furnace went out, it is actually colder outside than it is inside. We can still see our breath, of course, and we are still sleeping in triple layers of clothing, piling as many people as possible into the down sleeping bags at night for warmth–and still, we are never warm. But this morning, it occurred to me to thank God that our furnace died, and that we are wiping out our savings to replace it, because this is the world as he created it; this is the world that people have been living and dying in since the beginning of time. There is something novel about living the winter stripped down, without the steady hum of fabricated comfort flowing through the ducts. I feel a little more exposed to the world, more of a piece with it, and hence I’m thinking more about other people who are also uncomfortable.

At the same time, I am also metaphorically spitting on the former inhabitants of this house for investing in modernity and walling up the fire place. How long would we live like this before taking an axe to that one hollow spot in the wall where the brick and plaster give way to drywall? I know there’s an old fireplace under there somewhere. Fortunately, tomorrow is the day when the furnace man cometh, our comfort is renewed, and I can go back to warmth, complacency and finding new, less significant things to fret about.

Being the month before Christmas, the catalogs have been coming in droves: LL. Bean, Lands End, Hannah Anderson, Eddie Bauer–I don’t know how I got on their mailing lists because I don’t order from them, but it’s as if I were sending them radar, and they knew to inundate me with pictures of their finest long underwear and down coats, their flannel sheets and balsam greens delighting festive tables set with crystal and a hearty stew. I can’t afford any of it; I’m buying a furnace, but I lie in bed, under layers of bedding that seem ridiculously inadequate, and I turn the pages and imagine charging off thousands of dollars on the credit card.

A few things are easier in a freeze:

1. Putting away the milk. Why bother? The kitchen is a refrigerator.
2. Picking up the dog mess in the yard. It’s frozen. Even if you step on it, it doesn’t stick to you.
3. Putting kids to bed. They actually want to be under covers, and it’s getting darker earlier. Everyone sort of wants these days without heat to pass faster so we put ourselves to bed. And then the body goes into energy conserve mode, and you get tired sooner and sleep heavier like hibernating bears.
4. Bathing kids. This is another ‘why bother’ issue. No one wants to undress, so unless you really stink–which few people can discern underneath your many layers of clothes–I don’t recommend it, though the shower is one of the few places in the house that can deliver real warmth since we still have a water heater. Of course you have to pass through two stages of freezing nudity to enjoy it, both on your way in and on your way out. It’s hardly worth it.

During the day, I have been looking for ways to get warm. Would it be really wasteful, for instance to just sit in my car all day? To turn on the oven and leave the door open for extended periods of time? Shall we go to the public library? And thank God the kids can go to school.

Yesterday I decided to drive my dad’s trailer that we borrowed several weeks ago back to him. It would be an all-day event in a warm pick-up truck, three kids in the back seat, heat-radiating puppy as my co-pilot. I couldn’t back up the truck with the trailer on it though, so I decided just to drive it through the grass, where naturally, I got stuck in the mud and ice, dug some deep holes in the yard while spinning the tires, and finally put the truck into low gear, four-wheel drive and burst forward, very nearly taking out our own mailbox.

I signaled onto the interstate and was just starting to feel cool, noticing myself with all the other truck drivers and workers who pull lawn-mowers and cargo on trailers attached to their pick-ups, when I realized that my truck wouldn’t accelerate–I had accidentally left the truck in 4-low gear, which is a great way to destroy it. So I pulled onto the shoulder of the highway, and one of my kids began verbally re-living every close call we’ve ever had in our cars over the course of his lifetime–the time a semi-truck lost its load just as it passed us, and the time we had to swerve off the highway because a truck pulled into our lane when it didn’t see us in its blind spot.

He had been uptight about me bringing the dog too, because he was certain the dog would jump on the gas pedal and send us all veering off into oblivion. “This is awful!” he kept saying. “We’re going to die.”

“Happens to everyone,” I comforted him.

“But is this the closest we’ve come?”

“I don’t think so.”

When I tried switching the truck back into two-wheel drive, nothing happened, so I called my husband, who was in the middle of an appointment and couldn’t answer his phone. I finally got ahold of my dad, who let me know that you usually have to put the truck into reverse to get it out of four-low, which I tried, and the truck made a terrible noise, but it worked.

The rest of the drive was smooth sailing. I took the access road that runs parallel to the interstate, and I took my turns wide through town, and never once ran into anyone or anything. The puppy also slept the whole way there. I’d call the trip a perilous success.

Several weeks ago I lost my credit card, and it took almost a month to receive our replacement. We also went without our internet for about a week when the cable company was having technical difficulties. And now, no furnace. I realize in the big scheme of things that these are not grave sacrifices, but they are the weak scaffolding on which we’ve sort of built our lives. It’s easy to trick yourself into believing that these things are some sort of safety net–that even if we have no TV or radio, the internet will inform us of disaster, and even if we run out of cash, the credit card will pay for us, and that purchasing the most energy efficient, money saving heating and cooling system will ensure our future comfort for as long as we shall live in this place. But truly, they are illusions. Almost every aspect of modern American life rests on a framework that is fragile at best. All of these things can fail in the blink of an eye.

I guess I just want to be aware of that, and also take note of the fact that we’ve made it through these short trials without much panic. Surely, we can work on greater self-sufficiency and preparedness, but I want to be wary of forming a bunker mentality, because bunker mentality is off-putting and usually doesn’t pay off what it costs in worry and neurosis. Humanity is resilient. You make do. You find solutions. You innovate with what you’ve got. And when possibilities run out, well… shit.


Little Siberian Baby–looks much cozier than she is.

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