Post Your Opinion
A Stubborn Seam of Light
by Steven Heighton

Set inconspicuously about a third of the way through The Ice Storm, a small photograph shows a highway sign encased in verglas and hung with icicles:



The caption reads, in part, "Kingston under ice". It's one of just a few photographs of the city. What is likely to strike a Kingston reader of The Ice Storm-or a reader from Brockville or Cornwall or any number of other communities in Eastern Ontario and Quebec-is that somehow their part in the ordeal has been downplayed or passed over. This likelihood doesn't point to any deficiency in the book itself, nor is my observation made in a spirit of parochial complaint. Instead it reflects the way the world contracted during the ice storm to the point where one's own community seemed to lie at the frozen heart of it, ground zero. Could Montreal really have been harder hit than Kingston? It was. But for many of us here during the storm, Montreal and hundreds of other struggling communities hardly seemed to exist-a perception naturally heightened by our difficulties in getting the regular fix of news we're all used to in a wired environment that had suddenly come unplugged.

As Mark Abley writes in The Ice Storm, "Life became not just colder but also simpler, more sharply focused." To give that observation a geographical turn, life in Kingston became focused on a thin, stubborn seam of light running down the main drag, Princess Street, so that to the helicopters I heard passing overhead a few nights after the storm started, the downtown must have looked like some village straggling along a highway in subarctic wilderness. Evenings many of us would drift in from the increasingly cold, dark peripheries to warm up in the coffee shops and pubs, eat hot meals, refill thermoses, make telephone calls and try to top the ice storm stories of friends or perfect strangers. The surest social adhesive is always a common cause, or enemy, and in this case it was the storm and its aftermath.

By the night of Wednesday, January 7 enough freezing rain had fallen that large boughs and wires started coming down. Periodically one of the old high maples beside our house, weighted to capacity, would shake off a huge load of verglas; it sounded as if a ton of gravel were being dumped on the sloped roof and avalanching off. Through the back window I could see other trees doing the same-writhing, convulsing as if consciously trying to free themselves of an unbearable weight, then discharging payloads onto neighbouring houses, garages, sheds. Their efforts weren't enough. They were dropping limbs fast, and two fences away a large oak bowed over past the point of no return and snapped. The thunder-cracks of breaking wood and the rumble of falling ice were accompanied by blue flashes like sheet-lightning filling the low skies over the downtown as transformers blew, their lines ripped out by the ice. I thought of the blue-grey footage of Baghdad under bombardment almost exactly seven years before. From all directions came the howling of sirens. The night was terrible, unreal, and exhilarating; the excitement as much as the noise made it hard to get to sleep, and morning with its scenes of wreckage came quickly.

Of necessity the photographers whose work forms the basis of The Ice Storm were unable to capture what struck many as the essence of the storm's aftermath: utter darkness in a place where no one is used to it. Out in the woods at night, starlight seems enough, darkness feels natural. In a city when most sources of artificial light are lost, the darkness is uncanny and troubling and the cold seems that much sharper. Uncannier still is the experience of unlocking a door and entering a house not to the reprieve of synthetic warmth but to a cold coextensive with the outer cold. So that the walls and door are revealed, from nature's patient perspective, as provisional in the short run and illusory in the long run, like all artificial barriers.

This was the situation in our neighbourhood five days after power was lost. Two days before, in a car with dented roof and cracked windshield, I'd driven my wife and baby daughter (so bundled up that it seemed a self-inflating life-vest must have puffed open under her sweaters) to the bus station where they'd departed with hordes of others for Toronto. Now I was returning from an overheated pub where I'd spent the evening. Like a curler I shuffled over glazed streets barricaded with branches, criss-crossed by yellow police tape, littered with abandoned cars and sinuous fallen wires I avoided as though they were sluggish pythons or copperheads. As I came through the door, the cold and the darkness-which till now I'd experienced as a kind of dramatic novelty-struck me for the first time as not merely inconvenient but violational, personally aggressive, as if pursuing some covert, implacable vendetta. A house comes to feel like an extension or version of its residents, a solo or group portrait in material possessions; to find it reduced to a dark cold shell is troubling, like seeing a gravestone with your name on it in the winter churchyard of a dream. Or so I translate the feeling of unease I had then.

Essentially the telephone had been dead for days, though now and then, the lines inscrutably reviving, a caller would get through and it would ring shockingly in the dark. Several times it was dead again by the time I picked it up-and what silence can match the silence of a dead receiver? Once it cut out in mid-conversation, like a field-telephone at a crucial moment in a war film.

In the ice-vault of the bedroom I slept under quilts and blankets layered so heavily that it was an effort to roll over. Sheepishly I kept a pitchfork by the door in case of break-ins, a house around the corner having just been vandalized. Around me wafted the festive odours of coconut rum and sweet sherry, as if the house had been reduced to this freezing hulk in the course of some manic frat party; in fact I'd run out of antifreeze, and it was sold out everwhere, so I'd had to ice-proof the toilets and the traps of the sink and bathtub with Christmas party leftovers. The downstairs toilet was now a ghastly punchbowl containing a toxic, effervescing melange the colour of Windex-three parts antifreeze, two parts Blue Sapphire gin, one part Henkell Tröcken. The bathroom sink had gargled down half a mickey of Yukon Jack and a little dry red wine. With vermouth (only 16 % alcohol, a fact that would eventually prove a bonanza for Hall Plumbing and disastrous for Mutual Assurance Inc. of Kingston) I tried to safeguard the kitchen traps.

Next morning on opening the refrigerator I found it to be the warmest place in the house. Already on the verge of freezing, the milk-as I poured it over cereal of an uncommon crispiness-thickened to a kind of crystalline slush. It was time to flee. Wild rumours were abroad and the most attractive was that insurance companies were going to pay for hotel rooms. I packed a bag and checked into a relatively cheap Victorian hotel on the waterfront, above a prefab but comfortable `Irish' cigar-bar. I hadn't expected to find a room so easily, but by now, it turned out, much of the population had decamped for points west. Each night I would return to check on the house where I lit candles in the front room and sat at the table in two sweaters and a greatcoat and fingerless gloves trying to rewrite the poems of Dr Zhivago. At midnight I would leave, aiming the beam of a flashlight loaded with fresh batteries out an upstairs window-a canny expedient sure to ward off those thieves dim enough to believe that anyone but a frozen corpse could be up there reading in the small hours. As I walked back towards Princess Street I looked around for signs of similar precautions in other houses, but most were utterly dark-deserted, or tended by less neurotic residents. Above the black silhouettes of old gabled houses the cold had honed the stars, and the Milky Way was a mist on the sky, an escarpment of dark pines dusted with snow.

Among photos like the one showing bundled commuters trudging along railway tracks like a routed army on a winter retreat, and the poignant shot of an exhausted old woman in a shelter supporting her head with her hand, eyes clamped shut as if she has a migraine, there are others-like one of a ruddy, jovial octagenarian couple sporting tartan tams-which prove the experience of the storm could also be a good one. After all there was that sense of community I mentioned before; the multifarious beauty of the storm in all its phases; its spectacular pie in the face to high-tech hubris; its anarchic disruption of rote and routine; the proliferation of impromptu poker parties by neighbourhood fireplaces; the feeling it gave of radical usefulness, whether you were pitching in with strangers to free cars from under tree limbs, draining rads and thus learning how a heating system actually works, tending a house that seemed under siege, working physically instead of just pushing paper or buttons to access flickering precincts of a virtual realm. So everything was suddenly real and concrete. So each frustration was more serious, each hope more deeply felt-and the return of light and heat ten days later a moment of disproportionate joy.

By intensifying moods in both directions, the ice storm granted an inkling of how things must have been not so long ago when life was both more basic and less secure-the mortal lows more frequent and thus the joys, set off against them, sharper.

A confession. On the whole, although I knew people were struggling (including neighbours too strapped to send their children to grandparents in other cities), although I realized that most sensible people hated the crisis, although I saw that Kingston's stately old urban forest would suffer, I loved the storm. Several friends-all poets, come to think of it-felt the same way. Others seemed to find my assertion disquieting, perhaps vaguely treacherous, as if I'd been sleeping with the enemy.

It was a cold bed, but I felt inspired there.

It could be that modern amenities, providing us with a kind of elemental, existential insulation, have an effect on our psyches comparable to that of lithium on the moods of manic depressives, snipping off the extremes of low and high. I'm as fond of central heating, home videos and word processors as anyone, but the ice storm proved to me that intensity of feeling and immediacy of experience do diminish as convenience and comfort grow. The heart thrives on challenge, yet human nature seeks security. We can have that security now, many of us, much of the time, and the price may be the loss of tragic vision.

A year later-browsing through the photos and fine text of The Ice Storm in a warm room in front of a humming laptop computer-what I want to know is this: Is it possible to feel, to write, to live as intensely as the people of less mediated times while embracing technologies that sequester us ever further from nature? Every benefit has its price; the technologies that facilitate postmodern life also sever us from primal sources of inspiration, elemental parts of ourselves. So we live lives ever more removed from the real. Not that I can pose as an expert on the unmediated life, or on ice or fire storms in the soul. No. I embrace those other things, as you do. And there lies the paradox. I loved the intensity and immediacy of the ice storm, but I do not want it to come again. 

Steven Heighton's short story collection, On earth as it is (Porcupine's Quill), recently appeared with Granta Books in Britain. A first novel, The Shadow Boxer, is forthcoming from Granta and Knopf Canada.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us