I stood in the barn; the baby lama cranked it’s head to one side, offering it’s long neck and curly fur to my touch. He stood on thin awkward legs. A diagonal line divided the solid, dark brown across his abdomen and rear, and creamy white on the front of his body. He made a “heHeHEEhe” sound as I petted him.
I nicknamed him “Baby Llama for Obama.” His mother stood a few feet back, clearly watching us while munching on hay. She became “Mama Llama for Obama.” I thought about making t-shirts to sell with their image on the front. This was the bottom of my unemployment spiral—my next home after the house-sitting ended.
I was living in a 10 by 14 cottage, that was meant to be an artist’s studio. It had not bathroom, no kitchen, only electric and heat. This was pretty much what I had pictured months ago, when I had my log cabin fantasy and thought, “I don’t care if I don’t have running water, that’s fine.” The bathroom was in the barn, hence my visit with Baby Llama.
Having left my job as a tenured professor, I was now ensconced in a tiny New England town, one so small that the postmistress, a woman of approx. 5, 2”, was also the police chief! Having grown up in tenements on the edge of the South Bronx, I felt safe in a town that could employ a petite, middle-aged woman to keep the peace.
Before the Witch left me as caretaker, she explained that it’s good to keep filled bottles of water in case of a power outage. I was told to harvest and eat all the kale I could from her garden—the sticker on her car said Eat Kale.
She had several requirements: I was not to leave the house overnight, ever. Two, I was to keep a candle burning at all times on her altar, and upon lighting a new one, say “thank you, thank you, thank you.” She was not worried that my hyperactive cat Schmidt would jump up onto the surface pulling down the fabric, bric-a-brac and lit candle.
“Leave it lit even when I go out?“ I asked.
“Yes, even when you go out,” she said, “leave it burning.”
I knew no one in the town. My Jamaican family lived about 4 hours away in NYC. They did not understand what I was doing—all they knew was that “Vivinne quit her job, yu no, she ah stay at some woman house in Massachusetts, near BosTON.” Repeatedly I told them that I was hours from Boston, but it was the only place they could use to locate me mentally.
Daily I took my Zoloft. Twice a day I gave my dying cat, Basho, his medicine, and once a week I drove into a nearby town to teach yoga. I spent hours online; strangely, we had high-speed access, yet no cell phone coverage. Time was spent sitting on the sofa staring straight ahead. Most days, I’d roll out my yoga mat over the thin carpet and practice. There was wood to haul and stack for the voracious wood stove—the primary form of heat. I’d shovel snow.
The Witch’s cottage was quirky, in a Helena Bonham Carter kind of way. It was about 1,000 square feet for two floors. It had too many tall windows for the small rooms. They made it drafty and me edgy. She did not believe in curtains. At night surrounded by black woods, by myself with the lights on, I felt completely exposed and images of a lone crazy in the woods haunted me. I hung blankets over doors and windows. A broken TV sat in the corner. I listened to music mostly, and NPR.
If you move to a small town, the first thing to do is befriend the town librarian. He or she is the center of literacy and social life. Folks were extremely friendly and at the library would approach me and strike up a conversation. I’d tell them that I was house-sitting, “a friend of ….so and so,” and they would of course know her and say “oh great” and offer me any help I needed. I loved it, “why hadn’t I moved to the country sooner?” I thought. Armed with a bag full of books I’d head back home.
Outside the library is where I met my new friend “Beth”, having seen her inside a few times. She seemed like a nice person, and I felt drawn to her. That day, I nearly ran over her child who was on the loose in the street. She yanked her away to safety; embarrassed, I tried to busy myself in my car. She waited. She seemed to want to talk to me. Unlike a city parent, she apologized and invited me for dinner.
Strangely, “Beth”, her family, and I were part of some energetically connected tribe.
Beth’s husband “Mark” was on the other side of the state, in Boston on business, and in conversation with his friend, an old college buddy and the friend’s wife.
“I mean your little town is bucolic,” they said, “but…there’s like no diversity.”
To which, Beth’s husband replied, “Oh you know that’s not true, we just met a woman who was a professor from Town X in another state, she’s African-American.”
To which, his friends said, “A black woman professor from… We know a … Her name’s not Vivinne is it?”
“Yeah that’s her name, you know her too?”
“We’re really good friends, I went to school with her!” the would wife reply.
“What is she doing out in the middle of nowhere? She’s not teaching anymore?”
This of course created a bond via a sense of weird serendipity. Luckily I was able to draw on that new friendship when God got angry.
I was just beginning to relax and realize just how exhausted I was, after having my self-esteem shredded by my academic colleagues. I had just fired my lawyer. I’d hired him at the urging of friends, family and anyone who heard my story. After my repeated attempts to contact him, I was utterly frustrated. He had my money. When he finally returned my calls it was in the evening, on a weekend, around nine.
“Hallo! Yah this is the time I can call clients, when I’ve put my daughter to bed. I can catch up with all the stuff I’m behind on!” he announced.
My primary question was why my case was taking so long. His assistant had reluctantly told me that the delay was caused by him filing to present my case in the wrong district, within the state. This bit of info could have been found via a simple web search. I realized he was incompetent. He was indignant and angry—it was my fault.
He said, “You have a weak case. You don’t remember all the dates and exactly what was said. I mean…I think we can still develop it but…” I would’ve needed to keep a notebook. Instead the little hurts were all internally scribed. Tired and with visions of retribution fading along with my strength, I gave up.
I had felt the ice storm coming; I felt angry and irritated as if the air pressure and wind were brewing inside my body. It started that night with rain and wind, a loud crash that immediately brought me to the front door. Switching on the outdoor light, I leaned out of the vestibule doorway and saw my car. The entire rear windshield was gone—cleanly to the edges, the glass was gone.
I stood there for a few moments. This was so striking that I ran to get my camera. It was just the start. The papers would later trumpet the “once in a lifetime event,” the pages filled with quotes from elderly residents who couldn’t “remember anything like it.”
I could clearly see what looks like a glaring apparition in the sky between the tree branches. I quickly filled more plastic jugs and dug out the candles, matches and even an old-fashioned oil lamp. The wind became more violent. Then power went out.
My candle created only a small circle of light—the rest was darkness. I decided to go to bed. Climbing in, I could hear wind begin snapping trees. I covered my head. The cats ran to hide. The trees began to snap, a sharp cracking sound, then swoosh, the sound of tree limbs falling-they crashed onto the roof of the cottage. The falling sound was the scariest few seconds in anticipation of impact. It was now completely dark. I was terrified that I would die, in this house, in the woods.
After a few hours, I got out of bed, put on my down coat, unsure if I’d have to run outside or be exposed by damage to the house. Setting a quilt down, I lie on the floor, in a narrow gap between the high bed and an even higher oak dresser. If the roof collapsed, at least they would brace any timber from crushing me—I hoped.
I began to pray. I began to bargain, yes if I lived I would help people, I would give, I promised, I would make my life worthwhile. For hours, I lie there in a state of intense vigilant agitation. This is how a soldier must feel—I thought, that sense that you can die at any moment, imminent danger and fear. I finally fell asleep close to morning.
I awoke to a world that was like a stage set—so surreal the pictures can’t capture the complexity. Everything was monochromatic, everything coated in ice, and topsy-turvy. Pine tree branches hung like gigantic limp broccoli encased in ice. Tall trees pitched dangerously. The black power cords to the house were ripped down and were the only contrast to the glittering whiteness. The driveway was completely blocked.
And most strangely, as I stepped outside, there was the intense overwhelming smell of fresh pine! The snapped limbs had released their scent. As I stood gaping at the damage to my car a frozen clump of pine the size of person, crashed a few feet from me. There were so many things to be fearful of. It was cold, 14 degrees or so outside, I wanted to restart the wood stove—but I was terrified that the chimney may have been damaged and would start a fire. This was not a good time for a fire in a small town.
There is a moment when you fully realize the situation. I had no phone, cell phones didn’t work anyway and no power, no toilet or water, but the sunlight. Sunlight felt so good, so pure. Things weren’t phantoms anymore, there was clarity.
I packed a duffel bag, “I have to get out,” I thought. I’ll cut through the woods, just a thin screen between me and the road. But it was all tangled-I was terrified that moving through a limb would be loosed and fall on me. Strangely, as soon as I made it to the road, a car turned the corner and stopped. The driver, a young woman proclaimed, “I have to get to a wedding in New Hampshire,” as she maneuvered the car into little gaps in the cobweb of trees in front of us.
Beth was just awakening to what had happened and was walking towards me on their long rocky driveway. We hugged. Their newly built house was constructed “green”and extremely tight. They had heard nothing the entire night—they had gone to bed early. They awoke completely surprised at the scene. Their property was flat and wide open, it looked like the huge stage set of a ballet or opera the Snow Queen or something.
I stayed there one night. They had no power either, but the comfort of mutual suffering shored me up and that next morning she drove me back home. Her husband seemed happy to get a real chance to use his chainsaw and spent hours cutting through the trees to free my driveway. Amazingly my roof appeared intact and no windows were broken. Piles of trees encircled the house, apparently they had hit and rolled of the pitched roof.
There were so many things to do when one has no power. One becomes acutely aware of daylight-how many hours till dark descends. Luckily the gas stove could be lit with a match, so I could cook. I hauled more wood, piling it just outside the cottage door, inside the vestibule, and near the wood stove. I opened the fridge as little as possible. And then my creativity kicked in. I had an outdoor fridge!
I got one of the plastic tubs that lay around and packed it with meat and frozen items, closed it and put it outside. It was so cold there were no smells and no animals disturbed by stash. That night by eight with only the candlelight I began to yawn. I thought it was just boredom, I was alone, exhausted and it was too dim to read comfortably. Over the days, I realized that with little light my body reset, and I naturally became sleepy much earlier. I also would awaken with the first light.
Beth checked on me the next day for the last time. A Red Cross shelter had been set up in the center of town. My formerly cosmopolitan friend morphed into a woman wearing a Siberia hat with fur flaps that engulfed her face, we collected water at the shelter. I draped my art canvas over my missing hatchback window, it flapped wildly in the wind as we drove crazy commando style, to the mechanic in the woods.
At first trapped with no car, I felt tough, resilient. I’m from the Bronx! I told myself. Conserving water, I first used it to wash dishes from clean to dirtiest. Then to wipe off a counter and finally collected to flush the toilet. Boiling a huge pot of water produced about an inch in a bathtub in an unheated bathroom. Note to self: bathe less. You don’t realize how much water you need for daily living. I began to run out again, and with no way to contact my friend to get me to the Red Cross. Then I realized: there’s lots of water outside! It’s just frozen. So gathering up snow and ice into buckets to melt, produced the tiniest supply of water for all that bulk! By day six, I began to get angry—when will you fix my power!
Outside on the road, multiple huge trucks with lifts and crews from other states and Canada were trying to restore power. For some reason, even though I was relatively close to the center of town, they had a pattern of repair that left me with out power for a week. Feeling stir-crazy a few days in, I went for a walk.
A massive National Guard tank rolled by me. It was terrifying rather than comforting. I think it brought back memories of 9/11, when I was living in NYC. How did pioneer women do it? Then I realized if you are born into this, you have systems in place, it’s normal and you have no comparison. I felt as if I had been thrown back 200 years suddenly with no preparation.
The phone came on before the other power, the Witch called. She was in Canada and had seen the news and heard from friends that our area was among the hardest hit and that her plot looked bad. She told me she loved me; I had not abandoned her house. Without the wood stove going, the pipes would have surely frozen and burst. She praised me and hung up.
I was at the end of my stamina when the lights and radio powered on. I sank into the sofa. As we regained normalcy in the town, people gathered to share stories, I confessed how scared I had been, that I thought I would die that night. Everyone I told said that they too had huddled and thought they might die. The rest of the winter was uneventful. I didn’t immediately feel stronger. But now with time, I realize the resiliency that got built into me the only way possible—by experience.
Kala Viv Williams, left a blistering, tenured career in academia. She eventually returned to her original loves and now blogs here. A graduate of the “Mindfulness Yoga & Meditation Training” program at Spirit Rock, she is a certified yoga teacher, educator, and intuitive mentor with 17 years of experience. She is currently working on a book about her experiences tentatively titled “Meditations on Unemployment,” or “The Zen of Unemployment”—vote on best title choice please! This article is an excerpt. Find her on Twitter or Facebook.
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