I love to go into my sons' and daughters' classrooms and speak about China, where I once lived. I tell the students how perhaps when they were young they poked fun at Asian eyes by drawing their own up by the corners and talking in a nasal, singsong voice. I tell them how in China, children called me Big Nose and vendors occasionally made fun of my (to the Chinese) squashed American forehead. I tell of 10-foot-long amber dragons made by an artistic candymaker in the middle of the street.
When invited to speak of Africa, I drag in the stools that warriors carry. I let the class wear the colorful cloths Kenyan women do. I pass around the gourd that smells exactly how maziwa lala (milk soured in the gourd then sweetened with crushed charcoal) tastes. My children and I sometimes dance to vallenatoes, Samba, and Argentinean music I have from living in the Andes - before children, before marriage.
I often think it was very good that I traveled and lived in curious places before marriage. It appeased some kind of restlessness I still possess that would, I assume, be far worse if I had never roamed so far and sat by fires in huts, climbed volcanoes, and swam among crocodiles.
My days now on an island Downeast are predictable, centered around the animals and gardens we keep, and my four children's schedules. We chose to live far from cities, so my social life is limited to basketball games in the winter. Any curiosities I glean from the world arrive either in my own backyard, from inter-library loan books that can take weeks to arrive, or from my nightly session with National Public Radio while cooking supper for six or taxiing children to and fro.
NPR surprises me, the way I used to be surprised while traveling. Recently, a man was interviewed about some mystical snowballs he discovered on a lake. He knew enough to call an expert, who told him that the snowballs usually form only in the Arctic and only when the wind and weather are just right. The wind gathers the snow as a child does for a snowman, and, invisibly rolls the snow into a ball of spun layers so delicate that light passes through and they collapse at a touch.
The snowballs had blown as long as the wind could push them and were huge yet woven as fine as spider's threads into perfect spheres. Their tracks from where they began to where they stopped crisscrossed the lake. The man, smitten by the eight-foot-wide snow forms, knew they were unusual -so different that the expert he called relied on him to describe what she herself had heard of but never seen.
NPR is the only way I still explore a world I used to travel. Now - and for the last eight years, with the exception of well-organized mini-trips - I predictably ferry children, cheer at four ballgames, cook, clean, day after day empty the compost, and fall into bed. I am beginning to feel slightly foolish talking of China or South America, experiences I had 20 years ago when I taught English in foreign lands.
But I go into the classes, invited, and tell them of my adventures, of seeing elephants and warriors bathing in the same river, and of lions roaring outside my tent once upon a time. Then I come home and feed the chickens who look so nice - black and white hens walking around in the new snow.
My 13-year-old daughter and I are walking the gloom of a late-winter afternoon. Our island feels completely closed-off from the rest of the world and will remain so until spring. It startles me to think how long I have walked the road to the pond and how far into the future I most likely shall continue to do so.
That is the biggest difference between me and the people who live here: Their mothers' mothers grew up here, their great-grandfathers and fathers, and now them. The seniors at the high school choose colleges not too far away and come home quickly to marry and take over their grandparents' and fathers' businesses. Very settled and well-planned.
Growing up in southern Maine, I knew the shore from Higgins beach to Camp Ellis as I did the palm of my hand. But once I left, I got used to moving as soon as I felt settled: the Caribbean, Africa, Colombia, China, Arizona, Mexico, Alaska....
Then it was time to stop moving. The perennials come up each year, but in the long heart of winter I am never sure if I can do this, staying put in one place this long. I am not always able to see miracles in the daily. I like change; it opens my eyes. I miss the possibility of heading where I do not speak the language and must learn in order to buy vegetables. I like going down a street and being flabbergasted by what is there.
As an ordinary housewife in this stage of my children's lives, this just does not happen. I have grown used to it, except when I grow restless with the length of winter and a bit put off about creating - as we all do up here without movie theaters, restaurants, museums - any excitement in my life on my own.
The sky in winter carries a poignant tinge of pastel, the spruce-pasted silhouettes, as my daughter and I walk. She wants to see if the ice has come to the beaver pond, how thick it is, and if we can skate.
A dusting of snow covers the ice, blued with twilight. Dark trees fringe the white, white surface, and in the last light of the day I notice - I cannot help but notice - snowballs flecking the powdery pond as if small boys had had a war.
New snow lies like hoods over their laced interiors, but I know it is them. I am compelled to greet them, as if they can hear me, as if they are a surprise someone was hoping someone would find, and that someone is me.
"They are here!" I cry. "They're here, oh hiii, hi, hi," I croon, stooping to examine the intricate weave of the snowballs that have trailed lightly, magically across the pond.
My daughter looks slightly appalled at my wonder. "Someone probably threw them," she says.
"That far?" I point to the ones rolled near the distant shore. Explaining, I gently scoop up one ball, and it is not hard but light as the first snow, as snowflakes in midair, as memory. I can blow it away, these snowballs made by no one, that are not found around here, only in the Arctic or Antarctic. But here they are, dozens of them, pale and fine, rounded and still, on the island I cannot leave.
I go carefully from one to the other, the paths they've plowed vague but traceable. I do not break them, I do not muss the soft maps of their beginning and what the wind did to them, my daughter following.
She looks at me, quizzically still, as I tell the rest of our family later and even the neighbors and later, too, my mother, that snowballs made by the wind and found only in the Arctic were here on our pond.
I tell everyone just as if I had been somewhere beyond and seen something equal to amber dragons in the middle of a winter market in China. But I haven't at all.
I simply stay here on this cold Maine Island where sometimes I feel I belong and sometimes, in the long heart of winter, I do not. Winter makes me still, my circle and search narrower, less frenetic than in the old days when I moved every two years in search of novelty.
Staying in one place, particularly an island Downeast, I hear what the wind wanted to say in the snow forms. They're here! They're here, as if they know I am not leaving. I live here, and they gather soft and blue and curious as if they knew that, because I am not going to the Arctic, they had to come to me.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor