Bali Ha’i will whisper in the wind of the sea: “Here am I, your special island! Come to me, come to me!”

Winter in New England is full of unforeseen challenges. The New Hampshire farmhouse furnace, which is about three decades old and has been limping along for the past five or more years on replacement belts and magic, has been officially pronounced dead today, or rather, it’s cracked, and the carbon monoxide it’s probably giving off would be dangerous, if the house were better insulated, or insulated at all.

And our house in Portland is home to four humans, two dogs, a cat, and an indeterminate number of squirrels. These past few weeks, according to our tenants, who live upstairs, the squirrel population has exploded and expanded. Before, according to Abby, they could hear a family of squirrels talking, fighting, having sex, giving birth, celebrating, and dying, leaving their excretions and carcasses within the walls of the house, and that was bad enough. But this winter, the squirrels seem to have quadrupled in number and expanded from the walls into the ceiling. And now, she and Tom can also hear their vigorous chewing, of the house itself.

A dangerous, dead furnace, a rapacious infestation of squirrels: both are problematic, potentially expensive, and time-consuming to deal with. A new furnace costs a small fortune. Exterminators charge as much as $75 per squirrel; who knows how many are up there? More are born every day, evidently.

The guy from White Mountain Oil & Propane is downstairs in the cellar right now, testing the carbon monoxide levels. By law, he had to shut the furnace off, which leaves us completely without heat in the middle of February. There is a Yotul woodstove in the middle downstairs room, but we’re low on wood; we weren’t here this fall to buy another cord, so we’ve only got a few sticks left. It’s a balmy 35 degrees today, but next week is going to bring another polar blast. We won’t be here, fortunately, so we can shut off the pipes and skedaddle out of here, but we’re coming back in mid-March, and it will still be full-on winter then. So we’ll have to figure something out, soon.

When we go back to Portland, we’ve got the squirrel problem. I’d consider camping out in a lawn chair with my .22 (I do not own a .22 but would happily buy one for this purpose) and picking the squirrels off one by one as they came down the fire escape. I have no ethical problem with this, because I would then dress, cook, and eat them. Friends who’ve done so assure me that aside from having to pick buckshot out of your teeth, they’re delicious. Squirrel pot pie, braised squirrel stew, deep-fried squirrels with cream gravy, we could eat free-range, organic meat for weeks…. But too bad, it’s illegal to shoot a gun within city limits. And catch-and-release in the dead of winter is cruel; they would freeze and starve to death. So we’ll have to have them killed somehow.

Ah, the joys of life in the far north! At least we have plenty of water and food. At least this house is nicely porous, so we didn’t die from carbon monoxide poisoning while the old furnace was exhaling its toxic last breaths. And at least those squirrels haven’t chewed through any electrical wiring and set our Portland house on fire. Yet.

My older sister Caddie is the one who pointed out that the oil smell from the furnace was probably not all that healthy. She lives over in Vermont, and she had a week’s vacation, so she motored across northern New England on Monday afternoon and parked her Subaru next to ours in front of the barn. She brought a big bag filled with delicacies from her part of the world: apple butter, cider jelly, a round of soft, mild goat cheese, boiled cider, apple cider syrup, two bottles of French wine, butternut squash seed oil, tea, and a tin of almond thumbprint cookies she’d baked for us.

Caddie and I sat by the fire while the sky got dark, talking away, while Brendan made dinner: a leg of lamb, roasted with rosemary and garlic, with his grandmother’s Italian curry – two each of yellow onions, green peppers, and peeled red apples, minced and sautéed in plenty of olive oil, then simmered in 2 1/2 cups whole milk, with 2 heaping teaspoons of curry powder and 2 tablespoons of flour, whisked in until it thickens – along with broccoli rabe and Arborio rice. This meal, one of my top three death-row choices, is always served with Major Grey’s chutney. This time, it was perfect: the lamb was tender and perfectly flavored; the curry was delicate and sweet and luscious with the soft rice and vinegary chutney; and the broccoli rabe was bitter and garlicky. We sat at the candlelit table and feasted, talking and drinking wine.

Afterwards, we watched the Olympics, suffering and kvetching through the bobsled races to get to the ice dancing, which we all three loved. While we watched, the furnace blew its evil oil smell upstairs. It’s been doing that for a while, and we’ve just sort of ignored it, since we don’t have any of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, headaches or nausea or dizziness, and Dingo is fine, too. But there’s something about an older sister. She is indeed the boss of me. When Caddie pointed out the potential dangers of this situation and told a story about her own long-ago brush with carbon monoxide poisoning, driving a rusted-out car that she finally fell out of, unconscious, all my denial disappeared.

So we’re without heat for now. And when we go back to town, we’ll see those squirrels sitting outside the kitchen window, staring in at us. They look like they’d taste delicious in écureuil au vin.

Caddie’s Almond Meal Thumbprint Cookies

Those cookies were so good, the entire tin was gone by the next afternoon. We’re not sweets eaters, but these were sublime, so I made her give us the recipe, and here it is.

2 c. almond meal (Bob’s Red Mill can be kept in the freezer for quite awhile)

¼ tsp. baking soda

¼ tsp salt

2-3 Tbsp. date, maple, or brown sugar

(mix these dry ingredients together)

¼ cup honey  (or honey/maple syrup)

¼ cup coconut or organic corn oil or melted butter

2-3 T. whole or almond milk

½ tsp. vanilla

(mix these ingredients into dry ingredients…should be gooey…)

Roll into lovely little balls, dip the tops of balls into an extra bit of almond meal, place on greased baking sheet (thick one if possible…and/or line with parchment paper – these guys brown on the bottom easily)

Press down in middle with a thumb or the back of a coffee scoop.

Can be filled with jam before or after baking… I filled with plum jam…but the imagination can take over here… (chestnut spread?  chestnut/chocolate?  fig jam?  ooh, ooh.)

Anyway, I digress… Bake for about 10 minutes in a 375 degree oven.

Let them cool a little before taking off the rack… They’re very crumbly when hot, and stay together nicely when cooled off a bit.

Bring it on home to me

By the second week of January, most of my resolutions for the Year of No seemed to have fallen by the proverbial wayside, which I envision as a grimy urban curb strewn with cigarette butts, used condoms, and good intentions, like the road to hell. I had kept exactly two of the many, and they happened to be the easiest: I had said no to blurbing books, and I hadn’t spent any unnecessary money. Also, I reminded myself, I had kept up my daily fast hard 4-mile walk, thanks to Dingo, who demands it; that hadn’t been a resolution, but it was something, at least. I reminded myself of this to keep from feeling like an abject slug. It helped, but only a little.

I’d embarked on my plan for 2014 with the sense that if I were going to give so much money to environmental causes, sign so many petitions, write so many letters, I should take care of myself as if I were the planet. Corny, I know, but “change begins at home” always sounded good to me, if only because “at home” is where I live, and I have no control over anywhere else.

The other self-care resolutions I promised myself I’d keep this year included brushing and flossing my teeth with stringent discipline, drinking less red wine and more green and nettle tea and water, eating less food, less meat, less often, doing Pilates again, starting my novel, and spending less time on the computer and more time reading, ideally great novels.

As of mid-January, these were all failures.

Oh well, I thought. Then I went to the dentist with dread and loathing borne of many prior traumatic dental experiences; this past semester of teaching took all my concentration, apparently, so I had none left over for flossing. I braced myself for a root canal, or a stern lecture at best. But the hygienist and dentist gave me heartening news: things weren’t so bad in there. I left with spanking-fresh teeth, tartar-free, no cavities. A fresh start is inspiring and symbolic. Good news can spur change better than bad sometimes, or maybe I just buy into the deal-with-the-devil cliché. Whatever the reason, I’ve brushed and flossed every day since, just about. Close enough for me.

A few days later, on a surge of inspiration perhaps borne of my dental triumph, I started my new novel. Wow, I thought, a novel again, how exciting, I have no idea what I’m doing, let’s go. I remember this. It’s the best feeling in the world. The novel is my true home, and it’s always good to be back, even though I always have to force myself to go there, stay there, face it.

I have always loved to make a pot of tea before I begin my writing day, usually at 3:00 in the afternoon, after my correspondence, errands, 4-mile walk. I reinstated this ritual, and then, maybe as a result, I found myself eating less food and drinking less wine as a matter of course, without trying. When I’m writing, I don’t want to cloud my brain with excess and indulgence.

Then February came around with its midwinter doldrums and cabin fever, but I didn’t lose heart: my head was clear, my novel was underway. In the first week of the month, I found myself hungry for books and bored by the Internet. A hot bath is my favorite place to read in the wintertime anyway, and this is a very cold winter.  When my writing was done for the day, I ran a hot bath, got in, and picked something from my stack of unread books. And thus, I spent hours away from my computer every day, not missing it at all.

Now it’s almost mid-February, and I have one more resolution to keep.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, I heard from my Pilates teacher yesterday. She asked where I’ve been. I told her I’m in and out of town and working and distracted. I told her, also, how woefully depleted my core strength is these days. She wrote back to tell me about an online 31-day challenge she’s going to run, starting March 1st.

And then it hit me, with the simple beauty of an algorithm or a koan: not everything has to happen all at once.

Typing this, I have to laugh at the obviousness, but it’s nothing I’ve ever learned in any deep way. Does everyone else know this already except me? I’ve always been so impatient. Once I decide something, it’s got to be done NOW.  If it takes longer, I’m a failure. If I skip one thing, it’s all worthless. For as long as I can remember, I’ve gone into frenzies of reform, attacking my decisions with the rabidity of a zealot. Gradual, thoughtful change is nothing I understand.

This extends to my tooth-gnashing, wee-hour fretting about climate change and the planet: we have to stop using oil NOW, stop fracking NOW, right NOW, everything has to come to a screeching halt and CHANGE, presto, otherwise we’re lost. I know I sound like a five-year-old, but in many ways, I am a five-year-old. I don’t care how it sounds, if I can start doing Pilates on March 1st without being a failure, then maybe there’s hope.

Chinese-ish Japanese-ish Soup

The other night, after a good afternoon of writing and reading, I simmered two 6-inch sheets of kombu, dried seaweed, for 20 minutes in about 2 quarts of water, then removed them and cut them into strips and put them back into the water along with a sweet potato and 2 carrots cut up into tiny cubes, a big handful of chopped shiitake mushrooms, a chopped jalapeno, plenty of minced ginger and garlic, 4 star anise, a hefty shot of Bragg’s liquid amino acids (use soy sauce instead if you like) and another of hot chili sesame oil. After 7 minutes, I added one cubed chicken breast and a chopped bunch or two of scallions.

Separately, I made half a package of Maifun, those delicate little rice noodles, according to the package directions.

When it was all done, I put a handful of noodles into 2 bowls and ladled scoops of soup on top plus extra broth. I served it with hot chili sauce. We devoured this supper, finished it with mint tea, and slept deeply and well.

There was enough soup, with noodles, left over for the next night’s evening meal, as well.

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