I can remember a time when the heat in my house was something I thought about as much as I did the air in my lungs. It was there. It came from an unending source. Natural gas – was that the magic substance that gave us warmth and cooked our food? I’d heard somewhere it that was. Who supplied it? I don’t know, it was just there when I needed it. I didn’t order it, I didn’t choose my quantity. I didn’t pay up front. And whatever form this resource took, whether liquid or gas, smelly or pure, it was magically delivered by an invisible system. Was there a main pipe through which it entered our home? I surely didn’t know. There must have been, and truly as a homeowner I should have known that very pipe’s location. But I didn’t. I simply turned up the thermostat when the house got chilly. I turned a knob on my stove when it was time to make supper. This precious and invisible substance was as silently dependable as the air I breathed.
Now I know better. This is my third winter in the country’s northeast. While folks might like to romanticize the cold we experience here, in truth there are other parts of the country that also endure winters like ours. The difference for me is not so much the location, as the amenities with which I now live. I am in the country. There is no subterranean infrastructure delivering a constant stream of much-needed fuel for the home. No. Here, you’re on your own. You are responsible for you. You must know your needs, and prepare your household accordingly. As with any new situation, it took some time for me to fully understand how to negotiate the routines. Winter one: I paid someone with some money I had left over after my move to come by and ‘deliver some fuel’. I guess he filled up the tank. With exactly what, I wasn’t sure. Word was here it wasn’t gas, but oil. The delivery guy must have come while I was out, for I never saw how or where he deposited his load, nor did I experience any lapse in comfort. That was then. This is now.
The money I’d carefully nested away for my move here was quickly used up in not-so-glamorous tasks such as replacing the 1970s Angie Dickinsonesque carpet and linoleum with modest laminate flooring, and installing pipes and pumps in the cellar (yes, here it’s a cellar, not a basement) to expunge the stinky and stagnant seepage from the house. By the time those important tasks were done and the oil tank was filled, I was out of cash. Now it was onto the business of discovering just what sort of life I would have here in this tiny house in the country with my young son. It was all before us that winter; we did not yet know what it was to go without heat, to dig chickens out from under two feet of snow, to count the days until the food stamps account was refreshed and we could once again buy milk. Now we know about those things.
A long time ago – it must have been shortly after I’d met my husband and it became apparent that he was the one and that this was my life – I wondered, if left on my own, could I make it? Without the financial support of my parents or my then boyfriend – could I actually pull off that incredibly ‘grown up’ achievement of actually paying for all of the bills by myself? It troubled me, I felt in some way I was not earning my keep in life. But as the years went by, and my partner began to make good money supplemented by my teaching and gig income, the question became unimportant. For the time being at any rate. Yet the question was always there, lingering in the back of my mind, dusky and vague, gently gnawing at me, quietly threatening my personal sense of worth.
It is nearly a quarter century later, and I am only just beginning to test the waters of this ‘making it on my own’ territory. While I may find it rather pointedly ironic that I’m now down to less than two week’s supply of heating oil while my almost ex husband is leaving tomorrow morning to play a concert in Dubai, I nonetheless carry on towards my goal. Once nameless, fear and guilt-inducing, it has now become something I have dared to utter aloud. I mean to create a new life, and a life above poverty, under my own steam. I still dare not declare how far above that stressful line I intend to lift myself, but for now I’ll aim just far enough above it to experience that first personal victory. From there I will go to the next rung. I must at least try. I’m not saying that I won’t hold my world-traveling partner of the past 23 years accountable to a little more support (such that his son doesn’t have to resort to drinking powdered milk at the end of each month) because his contribution is our current lifeline. But what I am saying is that I’m going to give it my all. I mean to provide for my son the things he should have, and I mean to do it with the skills and talents I have. Surviving is what we are doing now, but it won’t always be thus. I’ve begun my new life; teaching, creating an arts center, managing a summer concert series, writing, even selling eggs… In time I will find my way, my income, my own true value. While we are conserving our assistance money and going without haircuts and new clothes above ground, I am building the invisible conduits far beneath the surface that will one day deliver us the comfort and ease of a life we once knew.
I have a wooden stick, feet and inches marked in sharpie along its length. It’s attached to a long string. It sits beside the pipe that descends into my oil tank. When I need to check our fuel level, I must wade through knee deep snow drifts to the far end of the house, dust off the stick, uncap the pipe and insert the measuring device into the unseen contents of the buried tank. When I ascertain how many inches of oil I have in the tank, I then go inside and consult my chart. I can see how many gallons I have left. Then I begin to plan out our heat diet until the next time our lifeline comes in. Will we be able to keep the house at 55? Can we afford a window of 65 degree comfort for a few hours after school? Or shut down one half of the house and use the electric heaters when needed? If we choose the band aid assistance of electrically supplied heat, that means a much higher electric bill, and in this part of the world someone must know we need it, because electricity is a whole lot more expensive here.
I checked my tank yesterday. It was down to 6”. That means we have roughly 40 gallons. That should last us about 13 days. That means 50 degree nights and 60 degree days. Ok. That wouldn’t have been acceptable in my ‘last’ life, but here and now it is. What to do in 13 days? I check my calendar. The lifeline should be here by then. It can be a little scary to live like this, yet I do derive from it the clarity of conscience that comes with addressing the unknown and making it known. At least I know what I have and what I haven’t got. I know I haven’t got money nor heating oil to spare. And I know the true value of the simple necessities. Years ago, as my husband and I went to the new restaurants, as he brought me gifts, and as we traveled the world, I ignored my secret concerns that I had no idea just how much it all cost. He was an only child of wealthy parents. We had no children. We were free and easy apartment dwellers. There were many things that helped to put it out of my mind. I buried my conscience. Now the only thing I’ve got buried below the surface is my oil tank. And even still, I know exactly what’s in it.
To know is to be empowered. And I can say from recent experience, being empowered feels good. I know things today that I didn’t know before. I know what chickens need to thrive. I know how to fix things in my house. I know systems – both physical and non physical – aren’t perfect, and rules are flexible. I know that life eventually gives you what you spend your time thinking about. I know that what lies unseen and goes unspoken is just as important as what lives in full view and can be heard. I also know where my heat comes from. I didn’t know that before. And it’s good to know.