First Frost: A Peregrination

Frosty morning fog

Greta and I crunch out into the driveway, down to the street, and we gaze at a changed world. Each leaf, in the waiting pile, is finely limned, dusted and glazed. They are not what they were yesterday. A cold fog hovers over Sandi and Colleen’s houses, over the Helen Purcell home up on its hill. And the lawns are white, each blade of grass carefully picked out, Crayola greenness muted on this cold, cold morning.

My valiant marigolds have thrown up their petals in defeat. The last seven blooms are choked and crispy. Today, I’ll pull them out, throw them on the leaf pile.

It’s over, the season of outdoor growth.

First frost has come.

The Impala is warming up when we sidle back through the carport, and Mark is bundled into his winter coat. We wave him goodbye. The furnace chugs in the morning house, and I grab my cell phone and go out to take pictures, to try to record the magic the night has wrought on the neighborhood. I try to capture the immensity in my forlorn little shots, the transformation and the message. Because the season turned a corner last night, irrefutable, irrevocable.

First frost brings, of course, the possibility of Indian Summer, which can only happen after temperatures have plummeted. But there is no doubt now: winter surges toward us.

Leaves on grass

In the dining room, I stare out the clear, insulated glass in the bay window. I remember waking to lacy, intricate tracery on my bedroom windows long ago. It was art that grew and moved, climbing upward, rolling forward. I could make it stop, make it disappear, with the heat of my fingers.

“Jack Frost has been here,” my mother said. I pictured a fox-faced, blue-tinged boy ordering frothy designs to appear on the cold glass of my windows, and I shivered. That impish sprite felt like no friend of mine.

But now I find we are fascinated, as a culture, by Jack Frost. I look him up on Wikipedia and find that every culture that has winter also has some sort of Jack Frost figure. He may be old (Grandfather Frost in Russia) or female (Mother Holle in Germany). The Hindus believed that a giant from the arctic regions ruled the highest, permanently snow-covered areas of the Hindu Kush; this giant waited, malevolently, for all passersby, and one had to be canny and fast to elude him.

The Jack I know comes to us from England; he may have traveled there with his Anglo-Saxon ancestors or on a Viking ship.

He has appeared in books and poems and films and television–impish, sly, a little destructive. He slows things down. He stops them, mid-growth. He makes things end. He seduces us with the power of his pretty art—art that draws one closer to explore the detail, to gasp a bit over the never-ending variety of pattern. And all the while we are drawn further and further into the cold.

Wikipedia notes that Elizabeth Bishop mentions Jack Frost in a poem, “First Death in Nova Scotia,” and I pull my Complete Poems from the shelf and look it up. The poem tells the story of the death of a cousin, little Arthur, who is laid out in the narrator’s childhood living room. Her mother gives the girl a sprig of lily of the valley and bids her put it into the baby’s hand.

Jack Frost had started to paint him [Bishop writes]
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush
and left him white, forever. 

Bishop’s work makes me think of another Frost, of Robert Frost; the anthology of his collected works sat on my parents’ bookshelf. It was a gift, I think, from my brother Dennis, who focused on the poet in his undergrad days. Dennis came of age as John F. Kennedy was sworn in, with Frost as his accessible, inaugural poet, worn and craggy voice of a hopeful people.

We read in school, of course, about the two roads diverging; I fixated on that patient little horse. And I explored the book of poems and was caught by “Out, Out—” Another child dead, this one from the leaping, malignant, laughing saw (it shared a little of Jack Frost’s horrible mischievousness, I thought–a blank-walled lack of care about who might be hurt). The suddenness, the horror, the raw, untempered grief…and then the return of the family to the things that every day must bring. The boy, buried and gone.

I went back to that poem time and again, worrying it like an aching loose tooth, feeling the frost.

Now, wondering about the history of the word itself, I go to and find that ‘frost’ has not changed much over hundreds and thousands of years. Hard, cold, crystallized, the word fell through time, from the Old Norse, the Old High German, the Old Saxon: a shared word, it seems.  It tumbled untouched, hard and brittle, through the Middle Ages, and landed in this modern age, self-contained, essential. Frost, akin to freeze. It means what it means, now as it did then.

Frost is “a degree or a state of coldness sufficient to cause the freezing of water.” It is the forming of tiny needles of ice in the night, “when they have cooled,” the website says, “by radiation below the dew point.” This is called hoarfrost, a lovely, harsh romantic word, evoking flint-eyed battling giants in my mind.

We are in the time of the hoar frost, I think, and the days begin to wear a kind of frozen splendor.


There are many other ways the word ‘frost’ can be used. Relations, once warm, can become frosty. Enthusiastic planners can find their proposals stopped by frost. Plays and movies, songs and stories, may meet a frosty reception. Frostiness is not what we want to encounter at, say, a job interview.

We frost cakes. We frost glass. We frost people, as in, He was so nasty that the whole staff was frosted at him. We frost our hair.

My hair is frosted, not by design, but by nature, a consequence of retired life: I decided to stop coloring when I decided to stop working in higher ed. I waited, tentative and nervous, to see what would emerge. The last time I’d seen my real hair, there were occasional sproinging grays that stood straight up, like periscopes sent skyward by a spying scalp. A random pure white strand would wiggle out to breathe, brittle and tough. But most of it , seven years ago, was my own reddish color.

First I decided to add blonde highlights, Then, I said, let’s make them all the same color–MY color.

Now I want to know, in these latter days, what ‘my color,’ means.

We cut my hair as short as it’s ever been, and then wait. Each month, Don, the master hair cutter, trims off the colored ends. They fall like brassy auburn leaves to his immaculate shining floor; he rakes them up and tosses them away.

By November, he says, you should be completely YOU.

My hair frost coincides with the hoar frost.  That’s something I need to ponder.


The growing season is over, but that does not eliminate the chance of growth.. In fact, I think, with the tumult and lavish energy expended, now is the time to employ the fruits. The frost has come, the crops are bundled into their silos, the potatoes are in their cellar bins, and the tomatoes glow in rows and rows of Mason jars. Now we think about what we can make from those harvested treasures.

Growing time over, it’s time to create.

Time, too, to celebrate: to gather in, to roast gifts of field and flock and give thanks for another year’s bounty. Time, maybe, to mark down the costs the year brought us, and render their meaning into mindfulness. The frost has come, and we are called to be grateful.

The time of frost deepens into winter, and our lights spring up as the darkness enfolds. We become makers: cooking and knitting, painting and rearranging. Labor of the growing time done, we can bring order and thought and care to the living of our daily lives. We can rest, and we can prepare for the swing back into spring.

First frost–it seems, at first, like a mischievous, ill-meaning, taunting time, but as I explore more deeply, I find comfort and possibility. There is beauty here, and there is potential. There is the chance to bundle up against the chill, to walk on crisp, leathery leaves in the small remaining sunlit hours…to wave at neighbors, to savor the sight of pumpkins and corn stalks. There are the evening hours that open up to literature and films and the writing of letters. There are naps in front of a crackling fire, wrapped in a warm afghan.  There is the impulse to create.

Every season has its depth and its meaning and its purpose. I settle, as if drawn by Jack Frost’s fern-like artwork, deeper into the time of frost. I hunker down, tentative and a little fearful, but I see more clearly now: this time can be so good.

Leaf on leaf.JPG




The Hardest Part

…I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth   
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
        –from “I am Waiting,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, retrieved from

“I am waiting,” writes poet Ferlinghetti, and years ago, I, an awkward, impatient college student, read those words and realized something: everyone is waiting. Waiting for payday, waiting for the diagnosis, waiting for the message or the phone call; waiting to hear about the job; waiting to settle into the job; waiting for real life to commence.

They’re waiting for baby to arrive, for the results of the election, for the next joyful day. They’re waiting for the next bruising thing.

Waiting, my 19-year-old self realized, though dimly, through distorting smoky lenses, is the human condition.

And, oh. How I hated waiting.


As a child, it seemed that every good thing involved a protracted wait, a rigorous preparation time,—and I was not, I quickly learned, a graceful wait-er. Before we put the Christmas tree up [on the day before Christmas Eve, and why did we have to wait so long? Everyone else’s tree had been up for a week or more. I had a friend whose family put their tree up on THANKSGIVING WEEKEND] the house had to be painstakingly cleaned. This involved scouring all surfaces and, sometimes, even painting them. It involved crawling on the floor with a bucket that contained water sudged up with a glomp of Murphy’s Oil Soap, a viscous substance which needed much flailing of hand in the bucket to become one with the water.

“God forbid,” I would mutter, “we should march into Christmas with unwashed woodwork.”

That sentiment earned me a rap on the head, but it did not get me out of cleaning. Christmas was coming; Advent was its season of waiting. Of preparation. We washed woodwork. And I could feel the coming of joy, of that moment on Christmas morning when it was finally time! When everyone piled in and tore off the wrappings and wonderful, unthought-of things were mine, mine without asking, mine without sharing, mine, because someone had considered what I might like. Thank you, Jesus, for your birthday treasure, thought the child.

I did not sleep the night before Christmas; I thrashed and whined and lay, eyes wide open, feeling all the angst and wonder of major joy imminent.

It didn’t help that my father worked for the power company and that he always had to work on Christmas. If he was scheduled for later arrival– 8 a.m., perhaps, we’d all get up at 6 and pile in. But if he had to go in early–say, from 6 until 2–we would have to wait. Those hours, after a sleepless night, and with the presents stacked enticingly below the tree, were murderous.

“Take a NAP,” my mother would snarl, when I whined about how long it was taking.

A NAP? Was she kidding?

The hours ticked away, moment by sluggish moment.

Good things are worth waiting for, my mother opined.

Waiting, I thought (but did not say), is highly over-rated.


It was hard enough waiting for good things. Waiting for bad, awful things was even worse. When I committed some childhood crime and was told we would talk about it later, I thrashed and moaned. Oh, let’s just get it over with! I thought; let’s be on the other side of the spanking and the yelling.

But timing wasn’t MY choice; if they said wait, then wait I must.

We had an egg-shaped dentist, bald of head, round of belly, garbed in white, who had powdery clean hands and lashless eyes behind rimless glasses. He did not believe in Novocaine–Novocaine was for SISSIES! he said,–and he would crook my head firmly in the pit of his elbow and drill for gold.

No matter how I brushed, it seemed there was always gold for which to drill. In those memory-tinted days, we did not go to the dentist every six months; we went every toothache instead. So there was never a, “No cavities this time!” visit; every visit involved the whirring, smelly, smoky dental drill. And there was always a wait of at least a week before we could go.

So I waited with an aching tooth, and I waited with the knowledge of pain to come, and the waiting seeped in and flavored–tainted–every single day.

I tried to tell myself that I was letting one anticipated moment ruin hundreds of others.

I tried to tell myself that the time before and after the dreaded moment was GOOD time, happy time, time to draw pictures and play kickball and read wonderful books. But that one looming moment soaked into everything I enjoyed, spoiling the fun.

I would leave the dental office with the memory of that ache ground into my teeth, knowing a next time was coming.


When I grow up, I thought, contemplating waiting, things are gonna change.

And so I waited to grow up.


And I discovered, having at least nominally completed that growing, that I finally had some control.

So our Christmas tree went up the second or third week of December, and quite often, the woodwork had not been scrubbed on hands and knees. We enjoyed the glow and the greenery and the warmth through the depth of that darkest month. The wait for Christmas morn, and the tearing into presents, became an enjoyable anticipation. If I still couldn’t sleep the night before, as a grown-up, there was plenty to keep me busy–presents to assemble and wrap, coffee cakes to shape and bake and frost, thank you notes from Santa to write for plates of home-made cookies.

And then living with an autistic child taught me something about waiting, too–taught me that if waiting for the good thing is exquisite and challenging for US, it can be true agony for THEM. And so we had to change the shape of much-anticipated holidays, doling out delights along the paths, lessening the pressure-cooker of stressful anticipation.

It wasn’t just being a grown-up. The people who are dear to me changed the way I wait.


But. I controlled what I could.


I found a better dentist, of course; I went for regular checkups. The need for the drill lessened dramatically…and when it did come ’round, I forcefully advocated for Novocaine.

I found that planning made the waiting times flow; that tasks to be done and milestones along the way created a pace and a paving to the anticipated event.

Time taught me that there are some waits I cannot control, as we navigated such things as closings for houses and celebrated the nine month preparation for a baby.

And I learned that, sometimes, waiting involves vigil.  I learned that at the bedsides of my parents; they taught me deep-planted lessons about the grace of dying well.


Lent is a waiting season, a vigil itself–waiting for the tragedy to happen, trusting in the miracle to follow. And this Lent, the theme of waiting is especially present.

This year, I can count on one hand the months left in my academic life: I am waiting to retire.

This year, I walk by my little dog, melded into the couch cushions, snoring deeply, and I think about her milky eyes and at least twelve years, and I ratchet down my annoyance at her pleadings and ratchet up my love of her silky head.

This year, my bold friend Kim, who was told seven years ago to get her affairs in order–told then that her hour was at hand,–is well and truly entered into that last days tunnel.

And I’m realizing that waiting times are sometimes grace times–times of doing the necessary work, ordering the papers; times of being mindful and joyful of what we know we’re losing; times of celebrating connection before the necessity of letting go: preparing the house for the event I know is coming.

I have learned this: that life, no matter what, brings pain. I can insulate myself to minimize that, to keep the pain at its very minimum–but the isolation itself is painful consequence. So…with every dog we’ve ever had, when the parting time comes, we have wept and we have muttered, “Never again. Never again. I cannot say goodbye like this one more time.”

And the car stops, it seems, of its own volition, at the Humane Society, and the wet-eyed pup pokes its nose through the chain links, and we know: we will adopt this dog, and we will love each age and stage.

And we will say goodbye.

And if I throw myself out into the torrent–if I take chances and forge connections and braid myself into others’ lives, and weave those others into mine–then loss becomes an inevitable part of joy. But on the way–what wonders. What growth and sharing and learning accrue, the gifts of deep friendships and family relationships and community commitments,–accomplishments forged together; fun, unimagined beforehand; perfect, complete, and nurturing times–what things I would have missed.


I am waiting, writes Ferlinghetti, and oh, he’s right: I am waiting.

I am waiting for the flowers to bud, for the paperwork for the pension to arrive, for the four-legged step to falter, for the days of a wonderful friend to ebb and wane. I am waiting for that end to come, and I am waiting to learn how that end is also a beginning.

I am waiting because I must; I am waiting without grace; but I am waiting. And I am discovering the value that lurks within.