Insulating to and from

(Originally published in the Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reprinted by permission.)

It’s 22 degrees outside at 6:15 am, but Jackson doesn’t care. He’s 23 months old, weighs 98 pounds, and wants to be outside, no matter if it’s cold, wet, hot, anything.

Fortunately, I’m a believer in polar explorer Eric Larsen’s motto: “There is no cold – only bad base layers.” (A variation on the saying goes, “There is no bad weather, only insufficient gear.”)

So: fleece-lined khaki pants, three layers on top, gloves, Sherpa hat with the braided earflaps. Jackson chooses his all-weather chocolate-colored fur.

Early sun is highlighting, not warming, the landscape. Jackson chases squirrels and deer, drags big sticks down the trail, lags behind to sniff something and then gallops past for no discernible reason. A pileated woodpecker does its crazy jungle cry and swoops across my line of vision. 

Although it probably wouldn’t have happened without Jackson’s urging, I’m glad to be outside. Because I can take advantage of the technology that’s been created for working and playing in cold temperatures, I am relatively comfortable as Jackson and I explore the rocks, trees, moss and running water of our beautiful home territory. It occurs to me that I have insulated myself “to” – made it possible to have fun outside by adding physical insulation from the cold.

But like anyone else, I also insulate myself “from.” There are times when I crank up the thermostat, TVA coal-burning plants be damned. There are times when I drive my car to Sewanee Market, even though I can almost see the building from my house. I use technology for my comfort, even when it’s pretty hard to justify.

And, if you think about it, there’s insulation that’s neither goose down, nor Gore-Tex. There are those actions we take, or choose not to take, that shut us off from our fellow humans: the painful phone calls not made, the difficult emails not answered, the situations we avoid because we don’t know exactly how to respond. “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done,” the Prayer Book says.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be comfortable; we don’t all need to join the Polar Bear Club, those hardy souls who put on bathing suits and dive into icy water around New Year’s Day. But we can, and probably should, be more intentional about the uses to which we put those layers of insulation that modern life makes it so easy to reach for.

If insulating ourselves “from” is our goal – if we’re determined to keep discomfort at bay, whether it’s cold weather, stressful challenges or new possibilities – then we will probably be that much the poorer.

But if we insulate “to” – if we layer up our bodies, our psyches or our emotions in order to get outside, to take risks and to get on with living, we can expose ourselves to more and deeper experiences, and enrich our lives in ways we might not even foresee.

Jackson is belly-flopped in an icy stream, panting from his exertions. I take off my glove and feel a shock of cold as I swirl the moving water with my fingertips.