A warmth that cannot be contained

Thirty-two degrees below zero here in Anchorage, Alaska, at 5 a.m. under a sterling moon. Our pipes are freezing, the old furnace can't keep up, and we're violating walls to find the plumbing. No heat to the bedrooms. Our washing machine is ice-bound. And now my wife hollers that the bathroom downstairs is backing up, whatever that means. This ridiculous house wasn't designed for an Alaskan winter.

An owner-built affair, our current home was shuffled up 24 years ago by a family of oil-boomers from Down Below accustomed to an Oklahoma climate and not intending to stay for long. This morning it shows. I'd give five carpeted rooms and my garage-door opener for a stout little cabin with a good woodstove and a stone chimney. But construction shortcomings alone do not explain all the magic being performed here.

Yesterday, the temperatures fell toward record lows for this seaside town, and I discovered that my telephone doesn't ring when it's 21 below outside. It rang at minus 18, but not at minus 21. At 29 below, my fax entered hibernation. The wires are too cold, my wife explained. But my wires hit 40 below back in New Hampshire, and we could still phone each other and talk about it, I said. Sure, she said, but this is Alaskan cold.

I'd forgotten: Things are different up here.

Drier, for one thing. Which leads to more static electricity. I walk from the bedroom to my office and become a charged particle. This morning, I reached out toward my fax, and a one-inch lightning bolt of magnificent voltage preceded me, causing total systemic shutdown (all lights went dark) and a 10-second electronic wail of pain. When that stopped, I heard music. A radio station was playing through its speaker. I didn't care for the tune.

My desk is awash with partly written essays and technical papers running further past deadline (my printer blurs its characters under the heavy static charge), while I run around, breaking and entering sheetrock facades, aiming space heaters, deploying buckets, mopping floors.

Then, just as I sit down to consider which emergency to attend to next and whether to attempt a phone call (our Yellow Pages carry a long list of businesses dedicated to steam-thawing frozen pipes), I hear a thin voice from the deep silence beyond my window.

Ch'ka-DEE-DEE.... Ch'ka-DEE-DEE....

A chickadee is singing.

Less than half an ounce of muscle, pluck, and spirit out there in the gelid darkness, maintaining a body temperature of 102 degrees F. in an environment 134 degrees colder. No warmth at all but from a tiny bellyful of spruce kernels, and his own fierce heart. No shelter but a spray of spruce under the cold and naked stars.

Yet from inside a ruff of feathers that weighs less than my thumbnail, this little creature, resolute with life, offers up a song. Out of the sheer power and exuberance of living in such an extreme and resistant world, he delivers not just a message, but a music, into the morning bleakness.

Ch'ka-DEE-DEE.... Ch'ka-DEE-DEE....

For the moment I forget the plumbing and remember my joy in living this far north.

Ch'ka-DEE-DEE.... Ch'ka-DEE-DEE....

It is this life, this very spark of life so vividly evident in the dim, frigid void this morning that I endeavor to celebrate. This life. The chickadee's, and mine.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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