These shriveled fingers
These shriveled fingers are red with cold, engagement ring loosening, threatening to fall. We are getting our photos taken, standing on the ice with no snow. We wanted snow, but we got cold instead. It’s January in Wisconsin, so what did we expect? Our hands rub each other’s hands for warmth until there is no warmth left in either. Our noses feel like pencil erasers. Our jackets are on the ground nearby, along with our emergency hot coffees, for when it becomes too much. We are wearing nice clothing in the middle of a frozen lake, like we’ve dressed up for a party with the only people in the world: ourselves. Even the birds are gone, huddling in their nests for warmth. But we’re not alone. Behind the camera is a photographer. Offscreen an ice fisherman walks by, settles in and digs. Theoretically there are a hundred fish beneath our feet.
The ice at the edge of the lake was not all the way frozen. It was thin and broken and gave underfoot. Lake ice usually begins at the edges, though. Where the water is calmer and closer to surface. It freezes at the edges then the ice moves in and then the center becomes frozen thick. It freezes at the edges and then it melts at the edges before it reaches the middle, which is where we stood. Physics told us we’d be safe. Still, it’s alarming stepping into a wet edged lake in winter. The body does not stand the cold. Hypothermia sets in below 95 degrees. The ice fisherman had not yet come. He waited for us to test the ice.
So we are standing in a frozen lake, freezing our fingers off, as a very kind engagement photographer tells us to get closer. We’re standing nose to nose. “Closer!” she yells. We’re standing cheek to cheek. “Closer!” How close can we get? Will our skin fuse together? I hope it does. His body temperature is usually warmer than mine, but today, somehow, I’m the warm one. Underneath a thin cotton dress, my neck is a heater. It’s all going to my empty stomach; breakfast-less, I dare not expend precious energy on metabolism this morning. I expend it now, breathing into my raw fingers, hiding them underneath my scarf—until I need to remove them again, to show the world I still have hands, I still have a ring, it matters.
There is an industry built around “capturing the moment” when it comes to weddings, and I’m not a big wedding person, but some things I understand. You all know I love my moments. I’ll take a free engagement photo session, with the wedding photos, sure. You’ll make me rearrange my fingers? That’s fine, you’re the boss. There are some things that don’t matter, but there is this time in our life that feels worth commemorating. We are freezing our frozen faces that are smushed too closely together. We are spinning in circles to warm up, but not too fast, so we don’t slip and fall.
I need to tell you a secret: these photos are not candids. Seth and I were not on the ice in our nice clothing squashing cheeks by choice. And nearby there was that ice fisherman, who you’ll never see. The photos are posed in many ways: we posed our hands, our faces, our outfits, our time. We shuffled around our schedules and surrounded these photos with chores. But still. There is something nice, I think, about the effort behind them. Our poor deadening fingers, suffering for our future selves to look back on. And in the moment, all the planning falls away. There are no more choices to be made. No future to worry over. We submit to the will of the photographer’s commands. The only decision is how long we can survive before we run back to shore and don our warm weather gear.
Life is a combination of the planned and unexpected. I feel like there’s a grid stretching over everything, like a piece of graph paper, with lines intersecting and creating boxes. The lines in this grid aren’t straight—they branch out in various directions, some stopping, some curving around—but either way, there is space between the lines, and in fact, most of the paper is space between the lines. These are the things we plan and the way we crawl our plans around the things we don’t. In those white spaces, life happens. We planned one day of wedding chores and did thing after thing after thing, efficiently and successfully, with extra time to boot. But we wanted snow, we got cold instead. We didn’t plan to walk onto a frozen lake, but we did, and we survived. We hope to have nice photos, but maybe our fingers will look like crabs. Maybe we’ll be hunched and shivering. But we’ll remember that instead.
PS: The Creative Independent recently published a new interview between me and the poet Devin Kelly, who writes an amazing newsletter about poetry called Ordinary Plots. Check out the interview here and his Substack here!
PPS: The cats are starting to understand that the big backpacks presage our departure. The cats are displeased about this.