After donning our snowsuits and lacing up our boots, Pema and I stepped outside. The snow had finally stopped. The earth was soft and white, and above, amongst the thick gray clouds, mingled the small drifts of feathery white clouds that gave way to patches of blue. Hidden behind dense clouds in the west, the sun shed an ambient light over everything, the fresh white snow, making the transition from day to evening barely noticeable. We grabbed the sled, a blue plastic toboggan, and walked to the backside of the property, our breath escaping in plumes of smoke.
We passed the chickens, and then Bob, who was clearing the snow off his maroon Prius. We stopped to say a quick hello and then continued, walking past the workshop, past the clothes line that held tiny strands of snow along its wires, past the abandoned cistern and the abandoned truck. The snow crumbled softly underfoot, and the nylon sleeves of our snowsuits zipped keenly. We walked past piles of scrap wood and wire fencing, broken windows and cement mixers, and old rubber tires; the sort of miscellany that one becomes accustomed to in New Mexico. Everything was covered in clean, white snow. Finally, just beyond the woodshed, we left the crumpled path and leaned into the thick, untrammeled snow in the rear of the property. In summer, this hillside was a utopia of sage, purple aster, sweet clover and juniper. We stepped carefully to avoid tripping over the sage, and plowed brusquely through the husks of clover and aster, whose skeletal frames made intricate patterns on which the snow clung like lattice.
“Dada, can I ride in the sled now?” Pema asked. It was hard work, climbing this hill. The hidden nooks and tree boughs, which in the summer were magical groves, now formed a field of obstacles, and the acequia, which winds down the hill through a series of switchbacks, bringing water to the property, was covered in snow. We had to be careful not to trip and fall in the ditches. “No pup,” I said, “I can’t carry you up this hill. You can ride once we get to the top.” After a brief pause, “I can hold your hand though.” “Okay,” she said, reaching up with her pink mitten, plowing through drifts up to her knees.
We scooted under a juniper branch, heavy with snow, and I cursed good-humoredly as snow rained down into my collar. Pema laughed. Finally, we popped out up top, on the high road that snakes along the acequia madre and eventually veers up a long hill to the mesa, where the windswept houses and escarpments of ancient rock overlook the Rio Grande Gorge. Silke’s house, our presumptive destination, jut queerly above the flat table land, its steep green roof less than half a mile as the crow flies, but our journey would be circuitous.
“Now can I ride in the sled?” Pema asked. She wasn’t tired. She just wanted the simple joy of riding in the sled. Me too. “Yeah, pup,” I said, setting the blue toboggan on the ground, “but I’m going to ask you to walk again when we get to the hill.” Smiling, she stepped into the sled and handed me the rope. “Okay,” she answered.
Eight hours earlier, the car was running. As I helped Pema into her snowsuit, beads of sweat were forming on my face and neck. Dressed for a long day outside in the snow with nine children, I was sweltering inside. I had scraped and cleared the windshield and stuffed our things in the car - breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, water, tea, extra clothes, laptop, wallet, phone, blanket, a change of shoes. We would be gone all day, first meeting Ada, Pema’s close friend, and then joining forest school till mid-afternoon. After that, we’d run some town errands, and then we had a Christmas potluck with all the children, and their parents, at six. We wouldn’t be back till bedtime. Most of our things I had gotten together the day before, even, thank God, putting the snow tires on our car. I was ready. We had presents, a day’s worth of food, and even something for the potluck. Ten bunches of kale. I smiled when I thought of that. No one ever brings vegetables to a potluck.
As I helped Pema get the pants of her snowsuit over her boots, we watched the snow falling, now quite rapidly, from the sky. I would have to clear the car windows again. I’m infamous for not using the telephone, but while I was excited, not everyone likes to test their driving skills on snow covered streets. So, at the last possible minute, I picked up the phone to call Silke. Might as well make sure I wasn’t going through all this for nothing.
Pema looked at me expectantly as I dialed and put the phone to my ear. “Hello,” came Silke’s voice, matter-of-factly. It dawned on me that she’d probably had dozens of these calls by now. “Hey Silke,” I said, trying to sound confident and excited. “Oh Joe, I’m so glad you called,” she answered. Pema rubbed her pink mitten anxiously over the knee of my snowsuit, making that zip-zip sound. “What’d she say?” She asked. I held up a finger. “What’d she say?” she asked again, and I mouthed the words, “Hold on…”
As I hung up the phone, Pema started to cry. She could read my face. I was disappointed too. We had done everything, made all the plans and contingencies. It’s just, well, you can’t make everyone else do it too. We sat, dejected, for a minute or two as Pema wailed through tears, “But why, Dada? What will we do?”
I’m terrible at changing plans. My whole life is about setting things up and then seeing them through. It makes me useful, respected, trustworthy. A model citizen. But spontaneity is not my skill. I hate admitting defeat, and I will usually mope around awkwardly till eventually I just get tired of myself. Here we were, after all, ready to charge into the snowstorm and ravage the hillside with a passel of children, when suddenly the whole world stopped. There wouldn’t even be a Christmas potluck. What was I going to do with ten bunches of kale?
Two years ago, I realized that if I was going to be a good father I had to find opportunities for Pema to play and interact with other children. Before that, it had seemed perfectly normal for her to spend all her time with Mom and Dad. That transition was a big challenge for me. It was not natural for me to care for two or more children. It was intimidating, and the give and take of other parents’ needs was equally confounding. Eventually, I took advantage of the easiest solution I could find. I just made myself available, and I tried to learn. Who doesn’t want free childcare, after all? Now, two years later, I spend twenty hours a week, sometimes more, with two, three, sometimes ten kids roaming loosely under my care. I am stunned to find myself here. This wasn’t the obvious direction of my life.
I’ve gotten so good at filling our time with other children and activities that in the last few months I’ve found myself missing the boredom and loping uncertainty that sometimes accompanied Pema and my travels. We used to spend much more time together, just she and I, exploring the landscape and the creativity of our minds. Once, having found frozen plums on a neighbor’s tree, we hurried to pick them stealthily and then retreated to the river, laughing. Our fingers were cold and clumsy, but those frozen plums made the best meal of my life. Of course, it’s wonderful to do these things with other kids too, but I miss the intimacy of that one-on-one time, which now usually only comes with errands in town, stories before bed, or feeding the chickens on frosty mornings. We even have another child in our community now, Francis, so that even our transition moments at breakfast or afternoon lulls are often filled with the excitement and attraction, the needs and distractions, of another child.
Shortly after I hung up the phone with Silke, Pema and I paraded dejectedly back through the kitchen and into the Buffalo Room, the large central room at New Buffalo, the community where we live. Everyone could tell our day was canceled, and I could read their expressions of sympathy and condolence. Everyone except Francis, of course, who saw Pema and immediately lit up. “You’re here?” he asked. Pema still had tears on her cheeks. “Yes, Francis, we’re here,” I answered straightforwardly. “You’re here?” he asked again, looking into Pema’s face.
We made the best of it. After peeling off several layers of clothing, we took out the train set and made a large track and village. Eventually, I left Pema to it and emptied out the car and started sorting things away. Finally, after a couple hours indoors, and some good snacks, I was ready to head back outside. We suited back up, along with Francis, and went out to find a sled. I knew Ruby and her dad had one, so we walked next door to look for it, Pema and Francis sort of groaning and complaining at first, finding it hard to walk in their thick snowsuits. Francis, at two and half, had a full Carhartt suit on, which made him essentially a solid piece of cardboard.
We didn’t find the sled. As we walked back, scanning my mind for something that would work, we heard the distinctive rumble of a diesel engine. Lo and behold, there was Ruby, coming down the drive in her dad’s truck. They had the sled. Everyone cheered up. We walked back to New Buffalo, me, Pema, Francis and Ruby, and spent the next two hours riding up and down the long sloping driveway, making snowmen and knocking them over, throwing snowballs, and generally rolling and giggling till we were soaked and freezing.
But now, as Pema and I crested on top of the long road to the mesa, all that was behind us. Ruby had gone home to her mother. Francis was down for a nap. After eating some hot soup quietly in our room and drawing Christmas fairy postcards, we had snuck back out to the fireplace and retrieved our almost dry snowsuits. No one was around. Earlier that morning, as a sort of consolation, Silke had invited Pema and I to her house, about a mile and half away, but I had waffled throughout the day whether we’d go or not, and if so, whether we might drive or walk.
It had continued to snow all day, and by now there was a good six inches of snow on the ground. It was nearing four o’clock when we stepped outside, Pema and me. After climbing the sagebrush hill and stepping out onto the high road, we had a massive view of the snow covered valley and mountains. One of the magical things about snow is that it never gets dark. Even though the sun was nearly down, the whiteness of the landscape would make it so that we could see well into the night. The clouds overhead, like a thick wool blanket, kept the air temperature quite reasonable, and after dragging Pema for a little while in the sled, I even took off my hat.
“Hey Pema,” I said, as we ambled along, the sled scraping the snow in a continuous motion of sound.
“In just a moment, we’re going to reach the hill and I’m going to ask you to walk, okay?”
The only sound, the crunch of my boots and the coarse growl of the sled as we drifted into the night.