Overnight, the temperature had dropped so quickly that rivulets of thawed snow stopped in their tracks. Gray mounds of thick ice fused to the sidewalks like a cold version of molten lead.
The fun of ice-skating in shoes wore off quickly that first day, and maneuvering seemed more treacherous at night, when the balance-defying curves were hidden in the shadows.
I had to walk only a block-and-a-half from the subway to my apartment, but it seemed like so many steps. When I wasn't sliding, each step brought the sound of cracking sheets of ice or crunching crystals.
Except one. All of a sudden, my foot landed solidly on a completely clear patch of sidewalk. It absorbed the sound of my stepping, reminding me to listen to the wind chimes softly clanging on a balcony across the street. I felt calm and happy, no longer afraid of losing my balance, and I even looked up and saw the stars.
In that moment, I realized that I wanted to be to my friends and neighbors, to those I love and those I don't even know, what that patch of sidewalk was to me: slip-proof. That which gives exactly what is needed, keeps compassionately clear of obstacles, amplifies the wind chimes gentling the night.
The metaphor kept me warm, found its way into a few drafts of a poem, and then stagnated ... until it insisted on coming to life again in a way I couldn't have planned.
On a day that looked temptingly like spring, I rushed to change out of work clothes and go for a walk before the sun's rays angled past my view. I walked a familiar route, through the park where the bank of willow trees had maintained its furry yellow hue all through the mild winter. Dogs romped in the muddy field, oblivious to the barely discernable delicate new grass.
While I was going up a small paved hill that leads out of the park, a man was coming down the hill. I smiled and said ''hi'' when we passed, and as I continued up I could hear him turning his electric wheelchair around. By the time I reached the top of the hill, he had caught up to me, and I realized he wanted to say something. He formed his words slowly.
''Can ... you ... get ... my ... ca,'' he said.
''Your car?'' I asked, not thinking that was right but just trying to understand. As he repeated himself, I realized he was saying ''cat,'' and I began to look around, asking him where it was.
I followed him up the block a bit, until we saw a black cat near the front door of a house.
''It looks like the cat lives here,'' I said. I had seen this cat at this house on many of my walks.
His next request was just to pet the cat, so I called to it. It darted under a bush and watched us from its safety zone. I tried a few more times to coax it, but finally gave up and said I was sorry that the cat didn't want to be petted. His face drooped a bit with disappointment, but despite my failure he still wanted to know my name. I told him and asked for his. ''Michael,'' he said. Michael and I exchanged a few more pleasantries and then went off in separate directions.
Within a block, I had remembered that patch of sidewalk. Within another block, I had begun to understand that through our choices we can make these patches for one another.
I had simply chosen to stop, be patient, and oblige when, as a city dweller, my tendency might have been to keep on walking, hoping this person wasn't going to ask me for money, judging him more by a small plastic bag of bottles and cans hanging off the handle of his wheelchair than by his shirt and tie or by any attempt to get to know him.
I arrived home vibrantly humbled. That solid place for both of us to meet and hear the wind chimes was created more by Michael's willingness to trust a stranger not to judge than by my willingness to stop.