By Norbert Blei
Working in a converted chicken coop north of Ellison Bay, for 40+ years writer Norbert Blei (8/23/1935 – 4/23/2013) chronicled Door County through the lives of its inhabitants. A newly-revised edition of DOOR WAY: The People in the Landscape, the first book in Blei’s “Door Series,” was published August 2010 and is available at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik in Sister Bay. If you are a first-time visitor and have come to wonder about the true nature of the Door Peninsula, be sure to take a deeper dive into Norbert Blei’s writing. “January Notebook” is an excerpt from a larger writing project, covering each of the 12 calendar months, that Blei developed in the early 2000s.
THIS FIRST SNOW on this first day in January of a new year. I walk outdoors early in the morning to welcome it as it welcomes me in soft kisses on the face, gathering on my shoulders, hat, mittens. I look backward, following the trail of my first fresh footsteps for the year. I look across the field to the quiet burst of ravens like exclamation marks against the changing white world. The child in me thrusts his head back, dizzily into the descending flakes, opening a warm mouth like the Catholic communion of hosts from my childhood…Gloria in Excellus Deo. Snow flakes tickle my eyeballs. I am drunk in white, caught in a swoon of silence, of memories of winter past. Old year, New Year, years gone by. Returning to the kitchen, I put on the radio and listen to Mozart on the state station. I mix oatmeal on the stove with Grandma’s old, worn wooden spoon. I brew fresh, strong, black coffee. I think of my father back in the old neighborhood. I open the paper at the kitchen nook and watch the birds through the window drop from the bushes and trees, gather at the feeding platform, to resurrect seed in a race with the falling snow. On mornings like this I want only winter peace.
THIS IS THE DARK TIME, IN THIS BRIGHT FALLING SNOW, gathering, mounting, forever building and reshaping itself through the blustery night, the Prussian blue mornings of no light but the hidden snow. There is no hope left. You are abandoned. Alone.
LIVING IN THE DEEP FREEZE (Jan. 14 & 15) -14 degrees below zero, -50 degrees with the wind chill factor…
TEMPERATURE, January l9… -26 below zero. The coldest temperature I have ever recorded here, in my neck of the woods. Cold air drifts along the floor of the coop. I wrap my legs and feet in a blanket at the desk. I cannot seem to raise the temperature to 60 degrees. Cold, cold, bitterly cold. There are drafts everywhere. I throw down a small rug at the bottom of the coop’s door. Too much cold air seeping in from there. Back in the house…warmer, but still cold. Patches of cold air hover in the kitchen, living room, dining room despite central heating. Some of the windows are marked with large and small roses of frost. One bluejay appears at the front feeder, huddled within his feathers. Ever vigilant, even in zero weather, for whatever enemy may lurk nearby. He flips almost invisibly into the feeder, gathers sunflower seeds in his beak, and disappears into the whiteness of the pine trees bordering the house. Inside, furnace has difficulty achieving, coming even close, to the 70 degrees I have set on the thermostat. Thank goodness for the sun. Just the flush of bright light pouring through the living and dining room windows adds a feeling of warmth to the inhabitants drying to decipher the language of cold that awaits them beyond the structure of the home. A cup of hot coffee helps to ease the inevitable coming together, outdoors, of body temperature and cold air. I postpone the next engagement (my second, since walking the dog earlier) for as long as possible, reading the newspapers, watching the vacuum of morning TV. Finally, by 9 A.M. it is time to face the day, the inevitable walk toward the cold coop where my work awaits me. I brave the day with head bowed, hand clenched about my collar. The words will be slow in coming today. Overnight the imagination has turned to ice.
THE MORNING SOUNDS, temperatures hovering in the minus twenties, of trees literally cracking in the wind like fine china or crystal. Moving dreamily down the road, wind chill factor 50 below zero…the legs and thighs are raw bone, splinters of ice. The dog loses first one leg, recovers, then loses the other hind leg to the freezing cold…as he limps down the icy roadway, suddenly stops dead in his tracks, begins to totter just as come to his rescue, lift him momentarily, warm his paw in my mittened hand, the begin running. And with the running how the motion itself generates immediate warmth to temporarily thaw the numbness of the frozen paw. And the mad dance sets in. Running for the pure joy of running. It tastes like spring in his open mouth, white teeth, lolling pink tongue. The dog, bouncing, sliding, running safely toward home in the cutting wind, leaving a trail of sound: tinkling breath, cracking branches, my boots in the crunchy snow, squeaking, squeaking as if I were stepping upon something preciously, delicately alive and in pain.
THE JANUARY THAW has set in, finally. Temperatures yesterday and today in the mid-twenties to thirties. The brittle, crystal quality of the snow has given way to a porous softness once again. A wet heaviness…a melt down. Even the shrill noise of frozen snow has given way to a sluggish sloppiness which sticks to one’s boots and is easily carried into the house, laving small wet and dirty trails across the kitchen floor.
BLOWING, DRIFTING, DREAMING SNOW…the surrealism of snow shaped by wind
I WILL MAKE IT TO TOWN TODAY DESPITE THE BLIZZARD…event hough the roads remain unplowed an drifts and snow-packed hills await me. I will persevere. There is no urgency in my decision to drive in such unpredictable weather. There is food enough. Fuel enough.
Nothing is wanting. But I persist. BECAUSE the snow keep coming. BECAUSE it threatens to keep me home, warm inside the house, looking out. I insist. I dare the elements to put a 24 hour hold on my meanderings. I struggle to open the garage door, drifted shut with snow. I turn the engine over. I back through the growing accumulation in a fast and whining reverse gear. Once on the road, I engage the wipers, trying to clear the windshield covered with salt spray, encrusted with ice–and now, new snow.
Vision is zero. I get out of the car to wipe a spot clean. Vision is improved, somewhat. All I see is falling snow. I proceed in first gear down the road, making fresh tracks. There is nothing to see, nowhere to go, but I am free.
SOMETIMES IT COMES ON A DAY LIKE THIS IN JANUARY…a day, finally, when it wasn’t supposed to snow, but it’s snowing.
CABIN FEVER. You look out the same window at the same landscape covered with snow since December and the snow is falling again. There is no escape. It will snow all day, all afternoon, all night. And you don’t care. Those who have gotten out of here for sunnier climes…fine. Good riddance. Don’t send me any postcards of Florida beaches or Arizona cactus. You know what you can with that cactus. I’m doing just fine. I’ve lost my identity in this winter wonderland landscape. I’m all white and cold and ice. My life is over. You can’t see or even hear me. The snow keeps falling and falling. Cabin fever is not a fever. Cabin Unconsciousness is more like it. A backward slide into the white depth of invisibility. The next sound you hear will be that of a snowflake coming to rest upon another snowflake…and another…and another…
AFTER THE STORM…THE CLEARING…THE EXHILARATION OF FULL YELLOW MOON rolling through the black heavens, spreading a buttery light over farms fast asleep, the warmth of cattle huddled in Wisconsin red barns, the lakes transformed to the gods of ice, snowy fields aglow in darkest light, and woods–maple, beech, and birch–etching their nocturnal stories on the blank pages of snow.
THIS FIRST SNOW on the this first day in January of a new year. I walk outdoors early in the morning to welcome it as it welcomes me in soft kisses on the face, gathering on my shoulders, hat, mittens. I look backward, following the trail of my first fresh footsteps for the year. I look across the field to the quiet burst of ravens like exclamation marks against the changing white world. The child in me thrusts his head back, dizzily into the descending flakes, opening a warm mouth like the Catholic communion of hosts from my childhood…Gloria in Excellus Deo. Snow flakes tickle my eyeballs. I am drunk in white, caught in a swoon of silence, of memories of winter past. Old year, New Year, years gone by. Returning to the kitchen, I put on the radio and listen to Mozart on the state station. I mix oatmeal on the stove with Grandma’s old, worn wooden spoon. I brew fresh, strong, black coffee. I think of my father back in the old neighborhood. I open the paper at the kitchen nook and watch the birds through the window drop from the bushes and trees, gather at the feeding platform, to resurrect seed in a race with the falling snow. On mornings like this I want only winter peace.
BITTER COLD THIS MORNING, BUT NO MATTER TO ME…how much I love my morning walk down the road. Especially pretty and `different’ this morning, covered in new fallen snow. Just a minute or two of silence on my road often makes the whole morning for me. I feast on it like a river, a mountain, a valley.
THIS IS A DAY, A JANUARY WINTER DAY, snow falling all morning, all afternoon, when the thoughts turn inward. Then landscape folds upon itself once, twice, and folds again. And still the snow falls, the sky, the trees, the fields are all the same color. A day the color of the inside of one’s pocket. I think of a piece of sculpture I may have seen once or only imagined: two male figures (plaster?) standing next to or sitting on the edge of metal bunkbeds striped down to thin, bare mattresses. Their figures (clothed? nude?) are detailed down to the finger nails. But instead of heads, each has a round fish bowl on his shoulders with two or three silver angelfish swimming aimlessly around. (Kienholtz?)
THE MONTH MISUNDERSTANDS THE SEASON, the time being…thick layers of March-like fog dismember the branches of trees, reduce the woods, separate the earth from a man’s foothold, his very vision as he blindly prowls the paramters of the road, disembodied, skin of hands, skin of face touch to an invisible moistness neither cold nor warm, only whispered there like liquid breath.
ECSTASY…”Greek, ekstasis < existanai, to drive out of one’s senses.” In that light just before daybreak, rain mixed with light snow…falling, falling. Light rain changing into heavy snow, building as they turns both brighter and grayer. The roads snow-packed. Driving, dangerous. But a pioneer sense of rugged individualism in the self, challenging the weather, the road, the vehicle to stop one’s journey in the falling white, the bad visibility, the snowpacked roads. By late afternoon the snow finally retreat to the heavens from whence it came. The late afternoon darkness already descending, but not before the first real glimpse of the world about oneself so utterly transformed.
Darkness and the night sky, falling temperatures…on the road again. But this time, a little less dangerous, less exciting, since the plows have already been through. On the late return home…how strange the light in the sky, on the earth, rolling through such a void. Somewhere above the moon is trying to establish it’s presence amidst the swift running clouds. By daybreak the next morning…I step into the white word recreated in the past 24 hours. Nothing but silence. Nothing but purity. I am the only man living, the only man alive. The snow has absolved me. There is nothing to do but breathe peacefully with the snow.
SHOVELING, SNOW BLOWING, MAKING A PATH TO THE ROAD…Is still the same, yet varies in purpose, direction, passion and concern each year. The snows were deeper twenty-some years ago when I first moved to this old farmhouse, deep in the isolation of the north end, not far from Death’s Door. And the isolation was keener. There was an edge of fear about `getting out”…making it from the house to the road…making it down the back roads to the main highway…making it down the highway, up the hill, to town. Driving was a distinct worry. Gloved though the hands were, underneath, white-knuckles grasped the steering wheel. You might not be going anywhere today. One lived with the thread of white extinction. Which made the quality of daily life…just breathing the cold brittle air…that much more livable.
A SUNRISE THIS MORNING LIKE A RED SMUDGE against a foreboding gray sky. Heavy, heaviness, heavier. The day grew draker as it grew lighter. Everything one had to do today was not worth doing. There was no where to go, nothing to accomplish. The day was ominous and getting darker. The red smudge thinned, dissipated, turned to gray. Birch bark, stone fence, chimney smoke. Gravestones in the church cemetery smooth as marble, without names.
THE SUNRISE THIS WINTER MORNING: taking a round piece of fruit in two hands, digging both thumbs deep into the center, opening it like a ripe orange, light spilling everywhere.