Thursday, March 05, 2009

I May Be Some Time ....

from Jacqueline

Those of you familiar with stories of the frozen wastes of Antarctica, will know those words, apparently uttered by Captain Lawrence Oates (who obviously could have done with a bowl of same), when he gallantly left the tent in which he and his fellow explorers on Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole in 1912 had taken refuge. He hoped that by leaving, most certainly to his death, his rations would help save the other men.

Sweeping aside the tent-flap (or at least, he did in the film), he said, “I’m just going outside, and I may be some time.” I felt a bit like that in Chicago on Monday.

It was so cold my ears almost became fused to the side of my head, and the gloves I had brought with me weren’t at all up to the job (so said goodbye to another hundred bucks at Macy’s for warm gloves, warm scarf – the full ensemble in thermal microfleece). You see, I really don’t like the cold. I don’t like the really hot either – I’m just a temperate kind of gal from temperate climes - though it's been pretty cold, over in the old country recently.

The house we moved into when I was three years old, and which my parents left almost twenty-five years later, did not have any kind of central heating until I turned fifteen. I remember the day the builders turned up to do the remodeling work and put in the heating – I was the one waiting on the doorstep, shooing them into the house and keeping an eye on them to make sure the job was done in double-quick time. I was a girl on a mission – because I had spent too many winter nights scrunched up in my bed clutching a hot water bottle that had lost all heating capacity hours earlier. I knew that when I scrambled from my bed in the morning – always at the last minute so I didn’t have to face the cold, cold room – I would have to scrape ice from inside the window to see outside. Yep, it was that bad. I’d jump downstairs three or four steps at a time to get into the kitchen where the big coal stove was punching out the only heat in the house. Until I was thirteen, the “loo” was outside – I remember the cistern would overflow sometimes in winter, seeping water onto the toilet seat, so if you weren’t careful, you’d plunk yourself down onto a sheet of ice and end up on the cold stone floor. Nothing if not rustic, my mum and dad.

There’s no photo I would use for that image ....

As soon as we had the heating installed, I ramped up the gauge on my bedroom radiator as far as it would go. I even learned pretty quickly how to bleed the radiators when necessary, so they always worked at maximum output. As soon as autumn began to simper its way into winter, I’d move my bed next to the radiator and tuck the sheets and blankets in such a way that the radiator was in bed with me. Made my dad a bit mad. “The heating's supposed to circulate around the house, not up through your body!” he’d yell. My mother predicted I would get early varicose veins. I don’t know where she got that one from, but guess what – I did get early varicose veins. I should do something about them, I suppose.

Since then, no matter how broke I’ve been, or how humble my abode, I have always made sure I was warm – if and when I wanted to be. Luckily, my husband is the same, a chilly mortal. If we’re going out to the movies, even in summer, he’ll ask if I have a wrap with me – that air conditioning can get nippy you know. And we go to other people’s houses well prepared for them to be warm-running folk who rarely touch the thermostat.  We are likely to walk in sweatered and Ugged up to the gills, with layers to remove if they’re like us.

So, here I am in Boston, in my hotel room, waiting for a call from someone who wants to interview me.  I'm looking out at a snow-drenched Boston Common backlit by a bright winter sun, and it's quite stunning.

This morning I wrapped up warm and went for a walk across the common to Beacon Hill, where I was taking in the atmosphere and making notes for the book I am writing at the moment, which features a character from this part of Boston (not giving away too much there, am I?). After wandering up and down the streets, stepping aside nippily to avoid the odd lump of ice falling from a roof, I made my way across the Common again to (I think) Boylston Street – and as soon as I saw the magnificent library, it called to me, and not only because I couldn’t feel my fingertips.

Now, this is a library-goers library, a place with thousands of books that seem to scream, “Come in, read, research, study, learn, travel to far places, meander back in time, stretch the gray matter, pull me off the shelves and have your way with me.” And as I was sitting at my desk, surrounded by a pile of books on the social history of Beacon Hill, I thought, “Why would anyone want a Kindle?” (Or something similar). Well, having slogged a couple of hefty books off and on one ‘plane or another, I can see why, however, there is something about those older tomes, something about a place so steeped in intellectual curiosity, that underlines the importance of the book. And later, as I braced myself and went out into the cold air, I realized that it had to do with what we are really tapping into when we open a book, whether we are immersed in study or reading for pleasure. We are accessing a direct line to a vein of storytelling that goes back centuries, and the fact that we can pick up a book – old technology, if ever I saw it – speaks to that legacy. I was using books that will never be available on a Kindle, and to turn their weary but still-up-to-the-job pages made me ache with pleasure. We are so lucky to have libraries, so fortunate to have bookshops, and we have been blessed with books. I just wish more people would come in from the cold and seek the warmth of they offer to the very soul of a person. I've always felt a sense of belonging, in a library - a belonging that warms the cockles of my heart.

Well, I guess that’s me for this week – more ramblings from the road. I’m going home on Saturday – first time in three weeks, and I am so looking forward to it. I think it's due to rain this weekend. But that's OK, my people come from damp.

Have a terrific weekend. Haunt your local bookstore, or meander around your local library – go on, I dare you!

Addendum: Written later ... have just arrived back at my hotel following an event in a church, organized by the Harvard Bookstore (about 90-100 people turned up - and with snow drifts on the sidewalk!). I was a few minutes early, so was taken to a back room to wait, and given a cup of tea. The yoga class was upstairs (the downward facing dog must have been romping around the floor – you should have heard the noise up there!), and the choir was belting out a series of hymns in another room. The place was warm, cozy, and reminded me of my childhood, when I came to almost identical church halls for my choir practice, or some other such thing. I began browsing the bookshelves, head tilted to read the titles, and pulled down the odd dusty tome to read. Among the writings of the founding fathers was more contemporary work – Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies to name one – and then there, on the shelf, between a treatise on the faith of the founding fathers, and a book of hymns, was a copy of the Qur’an. Interesting, that. I wonder if they keep a copy of the Bible at the local mosque, to keep the lines of theological inquiry and the heart open.

Saw Marianne at the event – so lovely to put a face to the name at last, and to meet one of our regular contributors of comments. Thank you for coming along, Our Marianne.


  1. Hi Jacqueline,
    It was a wonderful talk you gave. :-D Even with all the snow and ice. We ended up having a wicked rich hot chocolate at Burdicks down the street just to keep warm. :-D

    We enjoyed our wander around Harvard Square - we finally ran away from work for a day and relaxed. The Museum of Science was pretty darn good too.

    Oh, we want a warm holiday somewhere!

    Let me know if you want any extra research stuff sent to you, Our J. - it's easy enough to track down. We go to Boston every now and then for the day, and we have many friends who live there as well. :-D

    Safe trip home to warm California!

  2. The warmth of your writing exceeds even the heat of that blessed radiator from long ago.

    Re: Captain Oates. I greatly admire your sturdy stock of English explorers. The story of Ernest Shackleton -- born in Ireland, so I don't know who claims him -- and the voyage of the Endurance is positively haunting.

  3. Let me add something else. Today's post belongs in a literary anthology of something or other. Or should win a blogging award for excellence, if there is such a thing.

  4. Marianne, thanks for your wonderful support in coming along to the event yesterday evening. Am now in Pittsburg, which - believe it or not - is really rather balmy.

    Paul, literary anthology for my innermost thoughts on brass monkey weather? I can't imagine that! (and you're probably wondering what the heck brass monkey weather is). I can just see "Winspear falling off frozen loo seat" in the Paris Review!

    One of the best books I ever read on Antarctica is "Terra Incognita" by Sara Wheeler, who managed to procure for herself the role of "artist in residence" at the British station there. It's a terrific memoir, bringing together Wheeler's regard for Shackleton and his ilk, with the spiritual experience of being in such a place - and she laces it with great humor. Apparently she was one of two women on the base nicknamed "the Antarc-chicks." Reading the book made me want to go there, then of course I realized there probably wasn't anything in the North Face or Patagonia catalogs to keep me warm enough!

  5. Brilliant post, Jackie. You make me feel warm all over.

    70 degrees in Iowa yesterday, 55 right now. Must admit that I wasn't really all that cold before...

  6. isn't this weather weird. I arrived in Spring-like Pittsburg, and apparently it was freezing here a couple of days ago - same in Chicago and Boston, there's snow in piles along the sidewalk, and it's really quite warm. Funny old world, eh? Lovely to hear from you, Jeff!

  7. We had an oil floor furnace in the middle of the hall that was supposed to heat the whole house. It didn't do a very good job of it. My mother used to warm my bathrobe over the heat and then run into my bedroom so I could jump out of bed into a warm robe. Have a good trip home!

  8. Marianne rocks!

    Jim B

  9. Hah! Thanks, Jim. :-D

    I'm afraid I babbled a bit incoherently at poor Our J. I claim exhaustion and self-consciousness. There was a line of about fifty people behind me; no wonder I was nervous about taking up time. :-D

    This year has been unexpectedly taken up with overseas family travel, so I may not meet up with some of you until Bouchercon in San Francisco next year. Sigh. But it's a damn good excuse to go. :-D


  10. We had a little gas fire in our first house. It remains memorable in that my brother burnt his bum whilst bending over to put his underpants on. He was about five years old at the time. :-D The horizontal stripes on his poor little butt were a sight to see...


  11. We had a coal-burning furnace in the basement. It was my job to tie a bandana over my nose and mouth, climb into the bin, and shovel a pile of coal over the opening where a rotating shaft carried the stuff into the furnace. I would spit coal dust for two days.

    And Jackie, I dated a couple Antarc-chicks who'd never been south of Scranton, PA.

  12. oh marianne,i set fire to my hair once at my aunts house on christmas eve. luckily my brother came to the rescue and it all grew back, blond and curly as ever.
    wonderful post, jackie. makes me want to go to boston and sit in that library for days - weeks.......
    have a lovely time at home.
    tata, sybille

  13. We could definitely come up with a new spin on "Fireside Stories" couldn't we?

    I would sit so close to the fire that my dad always said, "I'm going to build up that blaze so high that you won't want to sit there, my girl." And no matter how many logs he threw on, I would be almost glued to the spot, my left side sizzling and my right side cold as ever. Funny thing, my hotel room in Boston (the one they gave me before the heating packed up - lost no time in getting myself a new room), had an open fireplace, and you just had to call down for the "fire waiter" to come up and light you a fire. This guy walked in with a tiny basket of logs, and I thought, "That'll last me all of half an hour." I could have done a better job myself - one thing I am really good at is lighting fires!

    Thanks for your comments, all. Just talking about a fire brings people together ....

  14. Hi Jacqueline,
    My husband Rodger and I really enjoyed meeting you and hearing you talk about your writing Thursday night in Harvard Square. It was also interesting to share our experiences in the coaching courses with Julio Olalla. I grew up in Cambridge and went to the First Parish Church until I was 10, and so have many memories - especially Christmas parties - that took place in that very room.
    I have been enjoying the Naked Truth Blog and the reflections from your group of authors. What a great idea!
    Rodger is well into the Maisie Dobbs book and enjoying it very much. Congratulations on making the NY Times Best Sellers List.
    Stay warm,
    Carolyn Kingston
    P.S. It is not unusual to find a Quran in the library of a Unitarian-Universalist Church.

  15. Carolyn,
    Were you sitting in front of myself and my husband. I had the foreign accent and he had long hair and a black leather jacket. I think we sat behind you?

    If it was you, it was lovely chatting with you. :-D