Thursday, October 14, 2010

Turning on the Furnace

We have come to the scary time of year, one that separates the men from the boys, the hedonists from the economists, and sometimes the husbands from the wives. Soon we’ll hear creaking sounds in our houses and rumblings from the basement.

No, not Halloween. I’m talking about the really scary time of year for grown-up homeowners: It’s time to turn on the furnace.

The coming of cold weather is humbling to humans. It reminds us how fragile we are compared to other creatures. Unlike a frog or fish, our body temperature does not rise or fall with that of our surroundings and without fur or feathers we must be vigilant to stay within the three-degree range required for human health.

Warmth is not simply a line etched on the thermometer; it’s also a sensation of comfort, a feeling that we are safe, that all is well. It’s why home and hearth go together. “Cozy” is the preferred adjective of this season. It’s used to sell everything from windows and slippers to hot chocolate. We seek comfort, but physical ease is just one part. Our homes are also where we are emotionally safe, where we close the door.

Turning on the furnace might seem as simple as responding to the weather with a binary flip of “heat on” or “heat off”, but this decision is not just about the weather report or how cold the bathroom floor feels in the morning. There is a weight to the moment when we decide to heat up the house that goes beyond the price of oil. Starting the furnace connects us with our ancestors who—in late fall --brought their precious fires inside.

In the old house that I grew up in, late October began a battle against cold air. The simple comment, “I feel a draft” would send either parent scrambling. It seemed quite normal to see my mother or father rise from dinner table or living room couch in mid-conversation to perform what seemed a dance-like ritual in front of nearby doorjambs and window frames. They moved their hands slowly and rhythmically as if performing household Tai Chi, divining the path of escaping heat and exorcising drafts of cool air.

It was a seasonal campaign, and the old house usually won, but we gave good fight: Little rugs were pushed against every door sill and we even got out the caulking gun and sheets of plastic to seal offending windows. We were sealed in for the season. And what a season. As the furnace warms up, the schedule heats up. Our lives are the kindling being consumed.

Winters are long in the Northeast. As you turn on your furnace now you’ll be warm and very much at home. But home with whom? That is the interior question of the season. Who will you settle down with for the next four months? Is it someone whose company you enjoy? A companion you respect? Is there anything you need to change inside before the fire comes in?

The trees remind us. Change your colors and let old things drift away. This is the season with yourself. This is your one and precious life.

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