Sunday, March 17, 2013
by Karen Shafer
Although it’s cold here on the New England lake where I’m staying with my family — in the thirties — the weather has not stopped my ten-year-old grandson, Louis, from organizing family rowing parties on the lake the past two days. It goes without saying that he’s the ship’s captain, which is almost certainly a motivating factor for any ten-year-old. He’s enthusiastic about being in charge and even got his mother to go out rowing this morning when it was 29 degrees!
As a family, we’ve rowed across the lake twice this weekend and staked our claim, like settlers, on the shore of an island or promontory, which my grandson has dubbed ‘New Louis.’ (Please don’t tell the people in the waterside mansions up the hill from where we landed that new settlers have arrived: they no doubt think they own the land.) Today when he, his eight-year-old sister, Anna, his father and I made ‘the crossing’, it was 37 degrees and also quite windy — and we were rowing into the cold wind and against the waves. At times, it seemed seemed to me that we were either going backwards or sitting still in the middle of the lake, paddling our hardest, and I thought, “Hmm, making this crossing yesterday was really fun, but this is starting to feel a little like actual work.”
Eventually, though, we gained the coast of New Louis and clambered ashore — or rather, they leaped, and I crawled. While the other three first scrambled up a pine tree that had been blown over and uprooted to a 45-degree angle by a recent storm, then went off hiking, I sat on a wall, regretting the fact that I’d left my winter boots in Boston. My feet in tennis shoes and cotton socks had gotten damp from water in the bottom of the boat, and how cold they now felt became the full focus of my attention, delighted though I was with the outing and with our newly conquered territory.
I soon figured out that, though the temperature was in the mid-thirties, if I took off my damp socks and shoes and sat barefoot with my feet under a pile of dry leaves and grass, my feet were warmer and I was more comfortable than I was sitting in wet shoes. I hung my damp socks on a branch to ‘dry’ and piled more dry pine needles over the ‘nest’ into which I’d pushed my feet. Chastising myself for being a wimp and a whiner did nothing to erase the fact that nothing seemed more important to me than how cold my feet felt. And I had only been out in the wind and damp for about forty-five minutes… an hour max.
As I sat on the wall pondering what a softie I’ve become in middle age, I began to think of our homeless brothers and sisters, out on the street in similar weather and that which is much more severe. I remembered how, in times past when I’ve been around homeless people in the winter, there’s nothing they’ve seemed to need more — and nothing which is more often lacking — than clean dry socks and shoes, and I recalled how charities serving the homeless population often emphasize this. Being in New England, I thought of sock drives sponsored by the Boston Red Sox. I vowed that the next time I show up at a service provider which helps homeless people, I’ll do so with at least a pack if not an armload of white athletic socks… and I wistfully and pitifully imagined borrowing one of those pairs of socks for myself at that moment, just until we got back to the house.
My family came back from their hike, and we rowed back across the lake… with the wind this time, and in a quarter of the time, thank goodness. I did more reflecting as we paddled; the rhythm of the oars moving through the water was conducive to it. I thought about how comfort-dependent I am, especially as I get older — and, indeed, what comfortable lives most of us middle-class Americans live. How pampered we are, and how miserable it must be to be homeless, living on the street, and know that you are facing hours, days of cold, wet feet. How does one cope with that?
We reached the small sandy beach in front of the house where we are staying, pulled the rowboat onto shore, traversed the yard and entered the lovely, warm, dry house. I rushed straight to my slippers and greeted them with a sense of appreciation and affection I’d forgotten I could feel for shoes.