The heat was off. The furnace had shut down. And it was below-zero outside—apparently way below zero. The previous day, weather advisories had flowed in: lots of snow, cold as hell. And now here I was, naked in a house that had lost its heat. Uh... now what?
He left me with a space heater, which was capable of heating up about a foot of space in the house, and I spent the rest of Christmas Eve wedged next to it and covered with a blanket, staring at my computer.
Step one, of course, was to complete my intended task: go to the bathroom, which I did. But at 2:00 am, I couldn't envision any further productive action. I crawled back into bed, pulling the covers around me. I fell back to sleep, returned to the coziness of dreaming, at least for a while. But eventually I got up for real. Getting dressed didn't stop with putting my clothes on. I also wrapped myself in a winter jacket. Then I called the furnace guys. Problem solved, right?
Well, not exactly. This was Christmas Eve, after all: aka, Saturday, December 24. Turns out people throughout the Chicago area were having furnace problems and initially the person I talked to said she couldn't schedule an appointment for me till... good God, Monday. But she said she could also put me on a waiting list—if there's a cancellation or whatever, a technician might be able to work me in.
That was the best I could do, and I was left—winter-bundled in my own house—to ponder with awe how fully I take warmth and comfort for granted. Without warmth and comfort, I'm not free to be bored! I'm not free to be self-indulgent, annoyed, or even depressed, much less opinionated and politically angry. I just stood there shivering and staring into the unknown. Finally (warning: I'm about to reveal how complex my life is, at age 76) I decided that I might as well drive over to Walgreens and pick up the prescription they have waiting for me. I had nothing else to do.
It was on this brief journey, a mile and a half from my house, that I first felt a penetration of awareness—or something. Life amounts to more than just me.
Come on! I already know this. Nonetheless...
I parked my car in the lot, walked 20 feet through the frigid weather to the drugstore, and there was a guy... there was a guy... just sitting on the sidewalk next to the revolving door, a Styrofoam cup in his hand. He needed money on this below-zero day and he was sitting on the sidewalk. My brain swirled in confused empathy. I put a dollar in his cup.
Somehow I felt... what? Connected to his plight? I had been shivering that morning as well. We're all one? I picked up my prescription and, as l left the store, I dug into my empathy and gave him another five dollars.
That was it. I headed home, beset with a sense of collective guilt. Something big is wrong here, right? Even though I already knew this, my awareness in this moment felt, for God's sake, different: not merely abstract, but physical.
And shortly after I got home I was informed that a technician was on the way. Wow! Now I felt great. And all that collective guilt vanished as I prepared to reclaim "normalcy." Alas, it didn't happen quite that easily. Since this was Christmas Eve, the technician did not have access to the new motor that my furnace needed, and he shrugged: He'd have to come back on Tuesday. And suddenly I was catapulted back into a sense of shivering victimhood.
He left me with a space heater, which was capable of heating up about a foot of space in the house, and I spent the rest of Christmas Eve wedged next to it and covered with a blanket, staring at my computer. Ah, life! That night I stacked about 10 blankets on the bed and crawled in without removing anything except my shoes. The house temperature by then was in the low 40s, but the blankets and multi-layers of clothing kept me warm enough to sleep.
The next day was Christmas. Ta-da! "We wish you an ironic Christmas," ran the song in my noggin. Because of unusual circumstances, I had no particular plans that day. I had already celebrated an early Christmas in Wisconsin, with my sister and her family, and I was just planning to hang out, surf the Internet, ponder life, and (maybe) write something profound and change the world. I did have one actual plan: to call my daughter, Alison, the artist who lives in Paris. We talked, via FaceTime, and she saw her dad dressed as though he were calling from Antarctica. I tried to make it seem funny—I simply didn't want anyone to be concerned. But for some reason she was concerned.
And so she called her aunt—my sister-in-law—who a short while later called me and invited me over. Uh... I was momentarily hesitant as I sat wedged next to the space heater, but quickly felt the lure of warmth and normalcy. "Gosh, thanks! I'll be there." I packed my toothbrush, some socks, and underwear, whatever, and headed off to Skokie, to the home of my sister-in-law and brother-in-law. Apparently, I'm not quite the lone wolf I think of myself as. Their invite began warming me before I felt the heat of their house. And suddenly the irony disappeared from Christmas.
I spent the rest of Christmas and all day Monday being happily part of their lives, then returned home on Tuesday. The technician came a little after 9:00 am, installed the new motor—which was under warranty, so it cost me nothing—and for the rest of the day the house began warming up from 40°F. End of story.
Except... no way is it the end of the story. For instance:
"As people across the country brace for upcoming cold weather, many of those set to suffer the most are incarcerated in prisons and jails," writes Katie Rose Quandt at Truthout. "Each winter, people in old, drafty facilities shiver for months in their cells, struggling to function and fearing for their health. They have no control over cell temperature, and often little access to warm clothes or extra blankets. Inevitably, some outdated heating systems across the country will fail, leaving people in dangerously frigid temperatures."
And that's just one piece of it—men, women, children caught in the lethal cold, caught well beyond their own control, without hope, without space heaters, across the country, at our borders, around the world. I sigh into my own private warmth.