The House You Live In

Brutally cold air—currently in the neighborhood of 1°F—surrounds my warm, cozy house. The wind chill value is and will continue to be considerably lower than that, between -15°F and -30°F, according to hyper-local weather reports and forecasts. So far, water pipes seem to have survived the plunge in temperature from a balmy 42°F around 2 p.m. yesterday. I do not recall a time when temperatures dropped so far so fast. Last night, when we finished watching the final episode of season 3 of Borgen, the temperature had plunged to 4°F.

Thanks to my efforts last Spring to clear my closets of clothes that no longer (that is, never did) fit, I have just one coat to protect me against the cold when I leave the house in a few hours. I sometimes question my intelligence or lack thereof. I suppose it’s not entirely a lack of intelligence. My over-abundance of procrastination is what left me without more clothes suited to cold weather. I put off shopping for clothes far longer than is healthy; my distaste for clothes-shopping is almost a sickness. “Almost” is inappropriate, I suppose. I should attend meetings: “Hello, I’m John. I struggle with an aversion to fashion…any clothing, actually. If left to my own devices, I might either be a nudist or a…what’s the opposite of clothes horse?” My aversion to shopping for new clothes is not so much a distaste for fashion as it is a loathing of the realization that off-the-shelf clothes do not fit. Ever. Only in fairy tales could I expect to find a shirt or a pair of slacks or a jacket or even a pair of socks perfectly tailored to fit my body.

Somehow, I managed to deviate from musings about weather to a semi-rant about clothes that do not fit because they were created for imaginary beings whose bodies differ radically from mine.


How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold?

~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ~


Seriously, I worry that the bitterly cold weather will gnaw at the harnesses of comfort. I worry that the cold might be too much for the walls and windows and doors to keep it at bay. Shivering in the dark, hoping for the miracle of electricity, is an eerie experience; yet one I have rarely encountered. I am extremely fortunate. I live in comfort. I have more than enough to eat. Even in the cold, I can rely on blankets to warm me.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

~ Dwight D. Eisenhower ~


How decent are we? We are willing to share a bit of our money with unfortunate people, but are we willing to share our homes with them? Do we invite strangers to come in out of the cold? Often, I see generosity as an attempt to replace guilt with something more palatable. We share a portion of our wealth, but we keep a more than adequate store for ourselves. We are willing to share, but only to a point far distant from risking luxury in the name of compassion. When I think of such stuff, I often think of lyrics from a song by Gordon Lightfoot:

And the house you live in will never fall downIf you pity the stranger who stands at the gate.

For some reason, those words and the rest of the lyrics to the song are more meaningful to me than I can justify or explain. They are more inspirational and more thought-provoking—every time I hear them or read them or sing them to myself when I am alone—than I expect them to be.

If only the longing for justice and decency and compassion was enough to cause people to behave differently. But it’s only enough to summon guilt; to motivate us to relieve that discomfort with temporary kindness and grace and sympathy.


Somehow, a bit more than two hours have passed since I made my first cup of coffee this morning. I can see the world outside my window; it does not look as cold as it is, but there is evidence that the air is frigid. Thin patches of snow on the ground. And the bark on the trees looks like it could shatter if barely tapped with a hammer. But that’s strictly my imagination at work; I cannot see how brittle and delicate the trees are in this beastly cold. I can only imagine it. And avoid it to the extent I can.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to The House You Live In

  1. Thanks, Meg.

  2. Meg Koziar says:

    Tanks John. You are right about generosity. Thoughtful words for today.

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