Thursday, May 22, 2014

R is for Ruts

The street near our driveway in Canada, high and dry (thank goodness)
and in the peak of repair
©Kristin Lord 2014

Rural dwellers in northeastern North America know that we have a fifth season: “mud season,” which usually occurs between the end of winter and the beginning of spring, although a late December or January thaw can cause the same effect. Mud season often coincides with maple sugaring season, as the sap runs when the weather goes above freezing during the day but plummets below it at night.

To all accounts, this was the nastiest winter in this quadrant of the continent in at least a generation, and for many people there were spring floods and axle-gripping mud baths as well. That said, the single “muddiest” episode, at least in my mind, occurred about 20 or 25 years ago. My husband and I were driving up from Bristol, Vermont to my parents’ house in Ripton on the Ripton-Lincoln Road, a dirt road with spectacular daytime views, which is real estate jargon for precipitous dips and inclines. It was about 8 p.m. and misting rain. My parents had insisted that the road was passible. They were so rarely wrong about highway conditions that we kept going even after we started slipping on that first hill. I was driving a Dodge Colt; between its standard transmission and new winter tires it had passable traction. Unfortunately, traction was not the issue. The size of the wheelbase was. When one of the tires got stuck up to the axle in mud, I had no choice but to get out and make my way to the only place with lights on, a winterized cabin in the distance on the left. (Almost no one had cell phones then, and in any case the area is still in a dead zone.)

My husband stayed with the car since he wasn’t as familiar with the area. About four feet into my trek, the mud sucked my left shoe off my foot. Wearing only a sock, I managed to get to the cabin. The owners let me in to phone my father. Since my father has that kind of alchemy with cars that will allow him pull a mid-sized Mercedes or an SUV out of a ditch with a small Toyota pickup, he had no trouble with the Colt. We didn’t even have any problems retrieving my shoe.

When we got to my parents’ house in Ripton, my mother greeted us at the door. The dining room rug was white with blue trim and she wanted to keep it that way, so she thrust an old towel at my feet. “Oh, I am sorry I forgot to tell you.” She pulled a strand of hair back around her ear. “Your uncle phoned yesterday and said that he had trouble on the Lincoln-Ripton Road.” My uncle owned a large domestic pickup.

So that’s what Vermonters mean by ruts. We don’t mean bad jokes about Rutland City, Rutland County, or Rutland Town. (“Rutland” is an English place name that apparently has nothing to do with bad roads.) Ruts are different from the kind of dry spells we Quakers are told about in Faith and Practice. A physical rut typically yields to a truck with a chain; at the worst, maybe we need some cement blocks in the back for ballast. It’s similar with a rut in one’s mind. The psychological equivalent for the chain is usually a deadline. The chief difference between the different types of ruts, however, is that while a rutted road usually becomes somewhat more passible in a dry spell, a mental rut can lead to a dry spell.

This year, the winter of 2013-14, was a nasty winter for ruts of all kinds. Before the first half of winter term was over, we had to replace the hot water heater and the furnace (both in weather that was well below zero Fahrenheit) and have the oven looked at, all the while fielding calls over departmental and family matters. Most spectacularly, like millions of others, we had damage from an ice storm at 6 a.m. on the Sunday morning a few days before Christmas. A downed tree limb tore off the electrical line to our house from the street, arcing perilously close to the neighbor’s car, and also destroyed the “stack,” the fixture connecting the line to the meter and the house. We were lucky, though, as the power company employee who removed the line from the road told us to phone an electrician before anyone else got up or we might spend Christmas in the dark. Others didn’t receive such prompt advice and were not reconnected until Christmas eve, when the thermometer had plunged to near-record cold.  We were deeply grateful to the three wise men who sorted us out.

Our two cats (both indoor cats) were quick to weigh in on the ice storm. Since we were uncertain how long we would be without heat and power, we booked a room at a pet-friendly hotel in town and tucked them into their cat carriers. As we stomped out the back door, trying to keep from slipping on the ice-encrusted snow and dodging branches that were still collapsing in the darkened neighborhood, it occurred to our feline contingent that their annual physicals might have been less stressful. The older, more introverted one became “haired out,” shall we say, although the younger thought it was a great adventure. Over the winter, I related to the older cat more and more but kept thinking of the younger as more worthy of emulation.
For some cats life is just an adventure which one can then sleep off.
©Kristin Lord 2014
Mud season brought a record season of potholes and flooding, and even city dwellers who drive those “very-un-Quakerly-cars-that-dare-not-speak-their-names” were worried about losing their mufflers. Those vehicles are actually the best ones to have for such conditions, as galling as it may be to people who own the more economical ones, but I digress. Was I going to be punished by the automotive gods for buying a “relatively-Quakerly-car-to-the-extent-that-one-exists?” SO... WHAT WAS that rumbling in the exhaust system? It kept deteriorating for the three weeks I had to wait for an appointment. The mechanic was thoughtful, but, like everyone else, he needed to be paid. “Just wheel bearings. They sometimes sound like a holey muffler. You can drive to work and back just fine, but, no, I wouldn’t go off to Vermont with the car acting like that.”

Then came the miracles: when the spring rains hit, the repairs that we had made last year after a sink hole opened up in the back yard managed to forestall basement flooding. Then the grades got done in the nick of time, and some other issues were resolved. I was grateful, or so I thought...

A week after the car was repaired, I was at my desk with two stacks of library books, thinking that this would be the most productive summer in years ....  and then I got bogged down in updating a petty bibliography. The gears in my mind had become completely gummed up with some unknown ooze. On Sunday I fidgeted at Meeting. On most days I practiced the piano for the requisite daily hour, to no avail, becoming more nervous about the adult “performance class” in June. I was staring past the ruts and thinking about a dry spell ahead.

I turned to Howard Brinton’s advice in The Guide to Quaker Practice about ruts (although he does not use such vocabulary) and dry spells. His advice about dry spells was not what I had hoped to read:

            The autobiographies of Friends nearly all report intervening periods of dryness when God seems far away and the very meeting for worship is formal and unfruitful. Almost everyone passes through such stages which should not become times of too deep discouragement. Drought is eventually followed by refreshing rain... Growth should not be hurried. (1993 edition, p. 19, emphasis mine)

Rain? Thanks a lot, Friend Howard. Rain is what they need in California and Australia. Maybe my problem is a simpler one of self-examination: “an obstacle may be ... merely a mind too busy with routine affairs.” (p. 17) Let’s hope that this is the impediment; it looks more straightforward and is certainly plausible. (He also cites “selfish or degrading desire,” which I cannot entirely rule out.) But Howard Brinton is right that some problems do come to an end. I remember that after retrieving my shoe from the mud all of those years ago, I somehow cleaned it up along with its mate and wore them for the next year. The socks came out of the wash unscathed. I think I finally got rid of them last week when I cleaned out my dresser drawers.
Stockbridge, Vermont in the summer of 1997.
This area was cut off in the flooding that occurred
during post-hurricane Irene in 2011.

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