Wednesday, January 25, 2012

This is it; this is winter

Just as the summer season has its own singular flavor to it, so too does winter have a unique feel. And although the dead of winter does not always inspire the same euphoria that a mid-summer evening might, it still merits a few words of tribute. Growing up in Denver, I was somehow under the impression that it snowed a lot there and I found the snow and cold to be somewhat limiting to my ability to enjoy life. I guess I should point out, I was not a skier. So I thought going to college in Los Angeles seemed like a fabulous solution for my snow aversion. Then of course, my mom moved to Minnesota, and eventually I would move here, too. Only then did I discover the true meaning of winter.

The Minnesota winter is like nothing I have ever experienced. Other cities I've called home, like Denver or Boston, get snow and cold weather, it’s true, but nothing arctic like the North Star state. And it’s not just the cold that makes it winter. It’s the duration, the gray, the bitterness of a sub-zero night that really sinks into your heart and reminds you, this is it, this is winter.

This winter has been funny in that it almost seems like it has been completely snow-free up until a few days ago. There have been a few passing storms but it seems they’ve all been followed up by warm weather that actually melts all the snow. That, in itself, is highly unusual. Many winters I’ve spent here seem to start in November with a big snow storm and I swear I can still recognize the same snow in March that I first saw in November. I spray paint a small patch after the first snowfall to be sure I’ll still recognize the same snowflakes 4 months later. But even without the snow this year, I find that many of the same emotional elements of winter persist in spite of the difference in scenery.

Many days pass without any appearance of the sun but defy the simple description of merely “cloudy.” The atmosphere and the landscape seem to meld in a misty nether region between sky and earth that acts as a vacuum for any stray light or color that finds its way outside. It often feels depressing but sometimes you welcome it as an opportunity to stop all activity, as if your mind regenerates during these days in the same way the dormant plant life is storing up new energy for spring.

After an evening out in the middle of winter, the return to one’s car in the cold is like the dark, mind-numbing opposite of a summer night spent outside, enjoying a breeze and a cold drink. In June, when dusk holds off until later, it almost lets you believe you are more alive during the summer. But in the winter, the challenge is to feel alive in spite of the temperature. Even with layers of fleece and thinsulate and your hands, neck and face wrapped up against the wind, you can still feel the cold deep inside you, stiffening your limbs. The car holds no comfort as even the skin on your head seems to be frozen with goosebumps and you huddle in front of the useless heating vents. Midway home, the car’s heat kicks in and you briefly know a little comfort but your windows are frosted over, encasing you in the chill. My favorite is when there is a full moon on a night of sub-zero temperatures and its icy white glow freezes even the light shining down on you. The coldness is absolute.

Last winter, my daughter entertained a brief obsession with The Decembrists’ album The King is Dead. Her favorite song was Dear Avery and she’d ask to play it repeatedly during dinner time. It’s got a fairly melancholy feel to it anyway, but listening to it over and over again while staring at the grayness outside would often threaten to send me over some ambiguous edge, making me want to just lay sprawled on the ground, staring out the window at the sky until some shred of sunshine and color returned to the world.

It’s easy to succumb to this kind of desolation during the winter here, but the weird thing is that spring just wouldn’t be spring unless you endured the cold and darkness. And even though December 21st is the shortest day of the year with the fewest hours of daylight, it seems to me that it’s not until the bone-chilling days of late January that you really start to realize… winter is here. Winter is finally, undeniably here. Once we get some sledding in, the year will be complete.

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