Marking Myself ‘Happy’ During the Polar Vortex

It’s 3 degrees outside and dropping. They’re calling this the Polar Vortex, the Arctic Blast, or maybe it’s just Hell Freezing Over. News reports say that Midwest temperatures will be the lowest they’ve been in a generation, that it will be colder in Chicago than in Antarctica.

To think I could be in Florida right now.

I was in Florida until a few days ago. I could have stayed an extra week. But I chose to drive home before the Big Freeze.

I chose this?! I willingly came back to Iowa when the forecast is for 20 below zero with a wind chill of minus 50? I have been suffering from a severe case of S.A.D. and still I chose to come back?

The Weather Channel is scarier than a horror movie.

I knew it was going to be cold if I came back to Iowa. But I also knew I had survived New Year’s Eve of 2018, when Doug, my boyfriend, had his annual bonfire party outside in the woods—even though it was 14 below! (I had also survived waking up the following morning, starting off 2018 with a thermometer reading of negative 19. Happy F**king New Year!)

Doug’s wood pile. That’s going
 to be one big-ass bonfire.

Doug’s bonfire party tradition spans more than three decades, and he and his farmer friends and family members carry on with it regardless of the weather, such hardy folk are they. That brutal year as 2017 gave way to 2018 everyone joked about how in all the times they’d been to this gathering they had never stood this close to the flames, an inferno so towering it could melt your boots along with your brains. The blaze was so big it could have been used as a funeral pyre, a description that isn’t far off as Doug, in the early years of the party, used to build Burning Man-esque effigies and set them alight.

On that oh-so-festive occasion, our group—there were a dozen of us—huddled precariously close to the fire, holding out our mittened hands toward the heat, continuously rotating our bodies like chickens on a rotisserie to warm all sides evenly. We roasted hot dogs (using 10-foot-long branches Doug had whittled) and drank beer and wine out of thermoses so our drinks wouldn’t freeze. We nibbled on homemade cookies so hardened by the cold they could chip your teeth.

This is what Iowa farmers do for fun?!

Can you feel the heat?

I was only there because my boyfriend hosts the soirée. I would prefer to spend New Year’s Eve—or any long winter’s night—in my bathtub reading a book or under my down comforter watching Netflix. I tried to be a good and dutiful girlfriend, but I bailed on the party before midnight. Sometime before 11, my friend Carolyn and I announced we were walking home, a distance of a quarter mile away from the fire site, even though there was a fleet of pickup trucks parked nearby and we probably could have taken one. We were tough women. We would brave the elements.

Carolyn and I cinched our coats tighter and wrapped our scarves higher around our faces. We tore ourselves away from the pull of the fire’s seductive heat, turned on a flashlight, and set off across the soybean field toward the house. We trudged over the plowed black soil and ice, taking care not to trip on the dirt clods and snow drifts.

Carolyn and me

As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we could see more of the sky. It was so black and wide, the air so chilled it was crystalline, the stars appeared both closer and more infinite, millions of them illuminated like the dust of crushed diamonds. The night was so serene and surreal it begged the question “Is this heaven?” Carolyn and I, like a pair of baseball players stepping out of the past onto a frozen farm, had to remind ourselves, “It’s Iowa.” We walked in silence, with reverence, as if this were a religious experience or the rapture, as if we were not just communing with the Universe but we were the Universe. No, we weren’t drunk. More importantly, we weren’t cold! And those 20 minutes—outdoors in Ice Age conditions that could kill you—turned out to be the highlight of my holiday.

I wasn’t thinking about this when I left Florida and returned to Iowa of my own volition. Nor was I thinking about my boyfriend and how much I missed him, along with my dogs and cats and goats. Sadly, selfishly, my motivation to go north was based on Florida’s forecast. The Gulf States were going to get a whiff of this Arctic Blast too. If I stayed in the South there would be no dips in the sea or barefoot walks on the beach or margaritas sipped at outdoor cafes because Florida, the Weather Channel declared, might even get snow! Still, I checked my Weather Underground app and Google maps obsessively, toggling back and forth between the two, to see if there was somewhere, anywhere I could go within a day’s driving distance that was warm, or at least warmer. Alas, I wouldn’t be able to reach anyplace summery without getting on an airplane.

This isn’t snow, but it felt like it! It’s a white sugar sand in Navarre Beach,
Florida, and the wind chill was about 28 degrees when I took this photo.

In the midst of agonizing over a tempting invitation to South Carolina (unseasonably cold, but warmer than the Heartland), I had a phone consultation with my friend Kee Kee. After confessing to her that I already had a trip booked to Arizona for 10 days in February, I came to the conclusion that home is where I needed to be. No matter how low the temperatures would go.

And they will be dangerously low. According to media reports, it will be so cold they are advising you should not talk, let alone breathe when you’re outside.

Is this the Arctic? No, it’s Iowa.

Oh, Florida…why did I ever leave you?!

No matter how cold, how uncomfortable, how life-threatening, I promised myself I would not complain about the weather when I got back to Iowa. (Doug—or anyone who knows me—will confirm that my proclivity to grumble increases by 99 percent in winter.) And as the temps continue to plummet—it has already dropped to 6 below in the past hour—and the winds howl, their speeds gaining force, I have yet to utter one negative word about Mother Nature’s deadly assault. Because the forecast indicates it will be in the mid-40s by Saturday. In other words, this too shall pass.

In the meantime, I have the means to endure as I am heavily armed with the essential tools. I have a thick suit of armor, created out of multiple layers of fleece, wool, and down. I have a warm house with a trustworthy furnace, a deep soaking bathtub, and an on-demand water heater to fill it. I have cupboards well-stocked with hot chocolate and red wine. I have flannel sheets on my bed, a down comforter and, best of all, a steaming hot potato of a farmer I can snuggle with underneath it.

I consider my return home something like The Hero’s Journey, because avoidable as coming back may have been, there is something that feels noble and right about joining in the battle of survival, not running from it but facing it head on, and going through the test of endurance together. It’s like Tea Leoni’s character in Deep Impact (the doomsday film about a killer meteor on a collision course with Earth that will wipe out humanity) when she sacrifices her spot in the shelter, giving up her chance to live, to be with her dad, her family. Doug and our animals are my family. And whether it’s a meteor hurling toward the earth or, as is the case, a dangerous but far-less life-threatening winter storm blowing across the Great Plains, I wouldn’t want to be alone in a Florida motel room. I would want to be—and am—with family.

So, yes, I may be in Iowa in this torturous, record-shattering weather, yet I’m feeling triumphant. Because whether this is heaven—or hell—freezing over, no matter how bad this Polar Vortex gets, I am safe, I am warm, I am home—and I’m very happy to be here.

Stay safe and warm, everyone!

Could Today Get Any Better?

Today has been surreal. I woke up to discover that the story I wrote for the New York Times about living in the American Gothic House was placed on the front page of the Arts section.

Early this morning, a friend sent me a picture of the print version of the newspaper —since we don’t get it delivered here on the farm. Taking up almost the entire page was a photo of me, dressed in overalls and braids, posing with a pitchfork in front of my beloved old house in Eldon, Iowa.

It was exciting enough to get a piece published at all in the mother of all newspapers, but to get a feature this big? Seriously, I am still in shock.

Read the article online here

The article is even bigger inside the section!

But the day just got stranger. In a good way.

I had been putting off a trip to the grocery store for days now, until—NYT excitement or not—buying groceries was imperative. I had been so busy, ahem, self-promoting my story on social media all morning, I forgot to eat, so I stopped at McDonald’s on my way to the store. (I was going to go to Cottage Cafe, but their parking lot was crowded and I figured I would be more anonymous at McD’s.  Besides, I like their pancakes, plus they have lattes.)

I waited for the three people in front of me to order and then it was my turn.

“Do you still serve pancakes?” It was just before noon.

“Yes,” the counter person said.

Phew! Adding an all-day breakfast is the best decision McD’s has ever made.

“Great. I’ll have the pancakes and a small latte, no flavor.”

A petite, redheaded woman was standing next to me quite close, and as I reached for my money to pay she moved in even closer.

“I’ll get that,” she said.

I didn’t know what she meant. She was holding a receipt so I knew she had paid and was waiting for her order. As I dug into my wallet, she pushed her hand in front of me, handing a ten-dollar bill to the cashier.

I was so confused. What was going on? Why was she paying–for me? 

“I’ve got this,” she repeated.

While she paid I just stood there, immobilized with disbelief for the second time today—and it wasn’t even noon!

We moved to the side to wait for our food. She looked straight ahead at the counter, not showing any further interest in me, nor in any desire for conversation.

“What made you buy my breakfast?” I finally asked.

“Just think of it as a random act of kindness,” she said. “Like paying it forward.”

I looked into her eyes for a moment, searching for the reason she had singled me out. There were other customers who looked like they needed a free meal more than I did. Surely, in Fort Madison, Iowa, she hadn’t read the New York Times, so I ruled that out. Did she recognize me as “the Pie Lady of Eldon?” Or had she read my recent blog posts about my despair with the world (as well as the recent loss of a friend to cancer) and bought me breakfast because she felt bad for me?

But she wasn’t going to say anymore or give me any specifics.

“I’m just so….” I started, choking back tears. “I’m so touched.”

She still didn’t say anything. She wasn’t asking anything of me. She just wanted to do something nice, and I needed to be nice in return by simply accepting her gesture without demanding an explanation. Making a bigger fuss was only going to make her–make both of us–uncomfortable.

“Thank you,” I said. “I will just accept your gift graciously.”

The lump in my throat was so big it took me another minute before I could speak again. “I write about kindness in my blog,” I said, wiping my tears. “I’m going to write about you.”

She smiled shyly, but didn’t say anything.

After another awkward pause, I added, “Funny enough, I was just thinking about that paying it forward idea on my way here. A friend of mine just did a huge favor for me and there is no way I can do enough to repay her. So I was going to tell her that I would pay it forward.”

I did not tell her that the friend is a staff writer at the New York Times who was responsible for connecting me with the Arts editor—not just connecting me, but pitching my story to her, the story that was on the front page of today’s Arts section!!!

“How are the pancakes here?” she asked, changing the subject. “I always get the Egg McMuffin.”

Man, she was not going to explain anything more!

“They’re good,” I said. “But I almost always get the Egg McMuffin.”

“I like the lattes, too” she continued, “but not with any flavoring. That makes them too sweet. No whipped cream either.” 

“Same here,” I said. “I drink the iced lattes in the summer. I like those a lot.”

“I’ll have to try one,” she said.

“Sometimes they’re too milky, so ask for extra espresso. That’s what I do.”

The counter person handed her a brown sack—presumably containing an Egg McMuffin.

“Have a nice day,” she said as she left.

 “You too. And thank you again.”

And that was it.

Breakfast with a view.
McDonald’s in Fort Madison, Iowa 

I took my tray and found a table by the window. I sat there looking down at my food — tears landing on the plastic lid that covered the pancakes — too emotional to eat.

This stuff isn’t supposed to happen to me. I’m the one who is always preaching about kindness, sharing, giving of yourself, building community, contributing something valuable to society, blah, blah, blah…you know how I go on about world peace (and world piece.) I expect to be the one to give, not to receive. And here, in the span of a few hours, I had received an overabundance of riches.

It was too much to handle.

I couldn’t stop crying. But the tears were not of grief or despair, or even tears of joy. They were tears of gratitude. Because today, surreal as it was, I was reminded —in newsprint and in pancakes— that I have so very much to be grateful for.

Never has a McDonald’s breakfast been so delicious.