5 January

The Community Of Cold: Who Gets To Shovel?

by Jon Katz
The Community Of Cold

Maria and I have been sparing over who should go outside and for how long. I keep agreeing that I should not go out in frigid temperatures because of my heart disease and the medications I take, which make the cold more dangerous. Then, she complains, I go out anyway and shovel and walk the dogs and bring water to the animals, or some other chore.

This frustrates her. First, because she does not believe I should be going outside and doing chores when it’s well below zero, and secondly, because it is confusing to her that I keep agreeing not to go out, and then I do go out.

She also thinks I am sometimes questioning her ability to do all of this work by herself.

For my part, it is not a question of doubting her.

I don’t. It is just hard – impossible, actually – to see her shovel and shovel, and haul hay, and exercise the dogs and scrape off cars while I am sitting inside by a warm fire. It just triggers something inside of me and I have go out and so something to help. It just kills me to accept the idea of me as a grown man who can’t help clean up after a snowstorm while his wife does all the hard work.

I suppose vanity is at work, and other things. When I came to the country more than a decade ago, I wanted to find out who I was, and seek out my rightful place in the world. I spent six years mostly alone on the first Bedlam Farm in Hebron, and it meant the world to me to run the place mostly by myself. I shoveled, scraped away ice, lambed cleaned out the barns, hauled hay, managed my life without much help or interference or unwanted advice.

It was one of the great experiences of my life. To not be able to do that any longer is inevitable, but very difficult for me to accept. I think it is a kind of death for me. I don’t care for watching other people do work that is in many ways, my work also.

I do see the sexist implications of this, and I also understand that I am woefully conflicted about it. But I know the strength of Maria, and her competence. I just don’t worry about her in that way. It’s a selfish thing, really. I just want to be able to do it all, and I can’t.

But I suppose it is a good problem to have when I think of the homeless, the elderly, farmers,  plow drivers, police officers, the poor,  firemen and women, EMS workers who face the cold and snow in a very different way.

I am too lucky and too healthy to simply not go out in a storm and care for my farm, our animals. I think I can never really accept that completely, I would perhaps rather keel over than see myself in that way.

So small steps, one day at a time. I will do the best I can for as long as I can.


Jennifer Ciulla Van Ort wrote something on my Facebook Page that I liked a lot, she wrote about what she calls “The Community Of Cold,” responding to a blog post I wrote about how this vast system of cold unites much of our divided country. The storm called Grayson is not a left or right thing, or a red and blue thing, or a black and white thing.

She coined this term when she went to a local convenience store in her town and saw all of the plow drivers, police officers and EMS crews gathering before the storm. A Community of Cold.

We all feel this unnerving cold, it is not winter as usual, it is not normal. We all wish one another good luck, we all commiserate and think ahead to some relief, we all worry about our homes, our dogs and cats and donkeys and horses, our plumbing and water pipes.

Our politicians seem very disconnected from our Community of Cold, they quarrel with one another, hide out in palaces, play golf.

They don’t seem concerned with what so many tens of millions of Americans are feeling now. I never feel they are thinking of me, or the people I care about.

But I think we are concerned for one another. Everywhere I go here, people tell me to “be safe,” or “take care” or “stay warm,” they say they hope our pipes hold out and don’t freeze. Friends and neighbors call me to ask if we need anything, if the house is okay, and I call neighbors – especially elderly ones – and ask if them are okay.

Do they need groceries? Help cleaning off the car? A drive to the doctor? I go to the Mansion every day and ask “what do you need?” I ask Ali the same thing about the refugee kids. More communities.

I like this feeling of being part of one compassionate and strong country, I haven’t felt it for a year or so, I sometimes feel like a refugee in my own land, perhaps this is why I identify so closely with them.

Communities are all about caring, and caring promotes empathy and compassion. We all suffer when community is torn and divided, I was sorry to see so many people suffer, but also hopeful to see so many people in the same place, each of us standing in the other’s cold shoes, scanning the weather, fussing about our plumbing, waiting for a break from the cold.

This winter reminds us that we are all human beings, there are things we all understand and don’t need to argue about..


So I see this storm, this winter, as creating a new community, the Community Of Cold.

We live in communities large and small, all of us, and this morning, Maria and I took a few minutes to sort out this storm conflict, it flared up yesterday and this morning. She is tired from all the work. I said I thought it is natural for two people who love one another to worry about each other.

It is  hard for me to see her work so hard – and quite competently – in such harsh conditions, I see how tired she sometimes is.

I know she can handle it, I just am struggling to come to grips with what i can’t handle. She is generous and giving, it would please her if I didn’t come out for a minute in this weather, and she would do all of the work herself without complaint.

That might be a wise thing for me to do.

But the truth is, I just can’t do it.

I told her I meant it when I said I wouldn’t go out, but then when I see her out there shoveling the walks again and hauling water, I just get dressed and come out to help. In my defense, I don’t stay out for long, and this weekend, I  won’t stay out for more than five minutes. I know frostbite, I don’t take it lightly, and my heart protests when I’m taking in that kind of freezing air.

So we worked it out. It just took us a few minutes, we’ve dealt with harder things.

This morning, she went to shovel a path, I went to brush off the cars and clean up after the dogs. I shoveled the cars out, shoveled the back porch and went inside. That was quite comfortable for me, and I left her to do what she needed to do, without my hovering around and trying to help out.

It is a good compromise, and a realistic one.  I am grateful for the storm, because it brought back the sense that we are all  connected to one another, despite what we see in the news, despite what the politicians do to us,  in more ways than we acknowledge.

Nobody refuses to stop to help a neighbor shovel out their walk because they voted for somebody else.

And no loving spouse can watch their partner work and work without wishing they could help more. That is the nature of life, I think, the pulse of the true humanity.


  1. “It just kills me to accept the fact that Im a grown man who cant help” As always jon, you will make your own choices, and i am very aware after many years of reading you, that we, the social media riff raff will have next to no effect on that. However, as these are your own words i will ask you to consider them carefully. Cuz it just might. And what of your love Maria then? Clearly she prefers you for the part you can play
    in your lives together. Is the potential cost of this difficult reality worth that picture of her all alone? Clearly to maria it is not. Much love to you both. And now Jon, i will return to minding my own damn business.

  2. This was a lovely column. My husband is in a similar situation to you– recovering from 3 brutal back surgeries in the past 6 months, feeling weak, and unable to do what he considers “his” work. And feeling sad that I “have to do everything” (his words.) It is, as you said, a difficult adjustment. I try to be supportive but it’s not always easy to say the right thing.

    I saw someone using this cool shovel yesterday, clearing the snow around his car, and immediately thought of your photos showing a traditional shovel. He seemed to be using it almost effortlessly. I thought perhaps this large single wheel would be functional in your pasture and places where the ground is not level. Stay warm!


  3. I understand the conflict Jon, or at least have something simliar. My wife has taken very naturally to doing things I might have at least helped with without even asking and often shunting me aside since I have develop a bad back problem. It is difficult. I suppose it is part pride, but also what you mention of feeling the need to help, to be at least part of the effort. It does not seem that you come naturally to sitting by – which is good for you, but hard then to sit by. I think that we will both do what we can and as much as I can, sometime to the surprise and/or disapproval of our respective spouses, and some times we may manage to sit by. This is probably also the nature of life.

    The weather – and many personal difficulties – do seem to bring out the best in community. It is good that people can see this and be part of it. Even as you speak of the constraints you face around the farm, you are already speaking of the errands you need to run and the things to be done for the Mansion and your work with Ali and the kids and RISSE. You’re right – its not red or blue, left or right, or black or white.

    Thank you.

    1. First of all, Jeanne, Maria is a big girl, if she wants a snowblower, she would get one. So would I. We don’t Secondly, snow blowers are not always easy. They must be stored, maintained, purchased, loaded with gas and oil. They are noisy and intrusive, and most are not simple to handle. We don’t have a huge amount to shovel and a neighbor gets paid to come and plow the driveway for the cars. One reason we got this farm is that there is not too much space to shovel. It would be absurd to get a snowblower to deal with the small and thin paths we have. And beyond that, we handle them ourselves pretty comfortably except in monster storms, which are rare. This is the downside of giving advice to people who don’t need it. But I find it odd that you are asking why I don’t buy Maria one. She knows what they are and would hate having one.

  4. The deep cold is a difficult struggle on the farm. While it is warmer here than it is there, it is still below freezing every day and single digits at night. Since this is not usual for here for any extended period of time, I don’t have heaters for water, hoses freeze and I must carry water to the animals in five gallon buckets. I loaded 30 bales of hay on the truck as the hay fellow never is present when I go to get hay. I load and leave money on his desk. Then unloaded and stacked in the barn before the weather hit. I have no help and in a few days I’ll be 69, however I’m stronger than dirt and the hard work keeps me that way.

    It is taking 3 to 4 hours a day to care for the animals. Not much else gets done. It got me thinking perhaps at my age I should plant more fruit trees instead of keeping so many animals.

    Sheep, goats, deer use hay to create a fermentation in their guts that helps them stay warm. You are doing all the right things for them. I worry about mine too. It isn’t the super cold as much as the drastic changes we have here. 40 f one day and 22 f the next is hard on them.

    I noticed the wild deer were grazing in the dawn and the littlest one was all hunched up roached back from cold. I started putting out a little corn for the deer scattered around on the ground where they come to graze. After just one day the little one looked better. I like seeing them. It is magical.

    Stay warm. Stay safe. This too shall pass.

    PS Minnesota set a new record low but nearly as I can tell no one else has yet. Not much comfort as we deal with now.

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