Shackleton Was An Old Maid Like Me

There was a winter when it was so cold that the air hurt to breath and made the hair in adult noses crackle. Power lines snapped under the weight of accumulated snow, which completely buried our car, and which we melted in pots on our wood-burning stove because the plumbing was frozen. It took real guts to venture out on the icy roads. Starving coyotes would sit outside the house at night, punctuating the stillness with their delirious howls, while our Border Collie slept fitfully indoors by the fire. My sisters and I curled up together, spoon-style, beneath a mountain of quilts, more like one body than three. To ward off the doldrums, we played a sadistic little game in which we dared one another to go outside and run all the way around the house barefooted. We were always the kind of children who were easily entertained, and so it was no hardship when fog settled in like a nebulaerasing the world around us. I browsed through a whole shelf of World Book encyclopedias from A to Z. I ate instant oatmeal and learned the importance of ritualthose little habits and routines that lubricate the machinery of life and maintain our sanity.

So it must be nostalgia or femininity or some combination of both that when I think of “adventure” I automatically think about Gontran de Poncin’s description of hibernating–snug as a bug–at a Hudson Bay Company outpost in his book, Kabloona.

Enjoy this long excerpt:

“Paddy had done wonders with his living room. It was warm and intimate and was the frame within which our life was lived. Here within a hundred miles of the Magnetic Pole there was a kind of bourgeois* coziness that was unbelievable. I used to say to myself that there were no bourgeois* places, there were only domesticated souls. One could be an adventurer in New York, and one could also be an old maid in the polar regions… Nothing would have been present to remind one of the Arctic if a few white foxes, the ‘money’ that paid for my excursions on the trail, had not been hanging from the ceiling… There was even a vase of artificial flowers—which I would hide from time to time and Gibson would bring out again almost immediately…

Adventure has two faces—one showing men at grips with the elements, the other showing them darning their socks. It was in Gibson’s living room that I saw a remarkable photograph of three members of an Antarctic expedition. They were sitting in a hut, one of them mending his pants, another smoking with a far-away look in his eyes, the third writing a letter. Had they the same peace in their own homes, I wondered? … I felt as snug as a bacillus in a cheese…

It was a curious thing that however long these long evenings might be, we could not tear ourselves away from them. We would sit on indefinitely in that room while the hands of the clock turned, showing that it was one in the morning, then two, then after two. And still we would not go to bed. In the end, Gibson would stir out of his torpor, and it was as if something very heavy had budged. He would half rise out of his chair, put his finger on the perpetual calendar, and the click that would sound in that silence was something almost fateful, made one truly conscious that another day had been released into eternity… I who had come from Outside had first been enclosed by the Arctic. Then my horizon had contracted to the limits of Gjoa Haven; from Gjoa Haven the circle had been reduced to the dimensions of the Post; and now, in the dead of the polar winter, the line I hesitated to cross was drawn in a radius of five feet round the stove. It seemed to me to be true as much of Gibson as of me, that we were forced more and more to retire into ourselves, to live spiritually upon our own resources… 

But as winter closed in around us, and week after week our world narrowed until it was reduced—in my mind, at any rate—to the dimensions of a trap, I went from impatience to restlessness, and from restlessness finally to monomania… Naturally, it was the little things that exasperated me: it always is. Vice and virtue have no part in the irritation we feel against those with whom we live in intimate contact. I cannot tell you what a melodramatic object the stovepipe key represented for me...

Then there was the teapot. The teapot stood on a shelf. We drank tea in prodigious quantity and were always reaching for that pot. Now, as it stood habitually behind a tin of lard, I used to change the places of the two objects, putting the teapot in front and the lard behind. And each time, Paddy would put them back in their customary and inefficient order. Whether it was stubbornness or force of habit I couldn’t tell; for when I ventured a word he would say merely, Oh, well. . .’

If you set down the saltcellar in the wrong place on the table, it threw his whole existence out of gear and sent him into a panic… In all of this there was something extremely important that I now blame myself for not seeing. I should have recognized that order, even automatism, was a necessary defence for survival, both mental and physical, at that Post. It was an essential  adaptation to environment that Gibson had achieved and without which he might have gone mad. I say to myself now that Gibson was a methodical man, the contrary of a maniacal old maid; and that if he had not been, his exasperation with me might—from his length of stay in those parts—have been so much greater than mine with him, that he might actually have been a dangerous man to live with.”

I don’t have a dog sled or a sled dog, and I can’t see the aurora borealis, but I can definitely relate to Monsieur de Poncins in the more mundane and ubiquitous aspects of his adventure. Especially when my younger sister (the medical nerd in our family), upon crawling into bed, closes the day with one of her predictably random remarkslike “I’m having an attack of comfort,” or “Does your body ever spaz when you’re going to sleep? Like a shock? Do you know why that happens? Because your brain thinks you’re dying, so it gives you a shot of adrenalin to bring you back to life.” (If this is true then, judging by the frequency of these so-called “hypnic jerks,” my brain must think I’m dying often. There’s a spiritual application in this, I’m sure.)

I guess my definition of adventure is really quite “bourgeois.”* Maybe adventure is overrated, anyway. Maybe it’s more illusion than substance.

Maybe Shackleton was just an old maid like me.

*civilized, normal, comfortable, or domestic

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