My brother and step-dad do what our family calls the Cold Walk. When the temperature drops and the wind picks up, their shoulders rise to their ears until their necks disappear. Hunched over and frowning, they trudge like upright turtles into the bitter air. The Cold Walk. Ohio winter tends to be equal parts windy, cold and damp, so everyone practices their grumbling Cold Walk at one point or another. After moving back here this past summer, I was surprised at how quickly we became unaccustomed to the weather extremes of Ohio. Let’s just say I do the Cold Walk much more now than I did in winters past.
My husband and I spent four years living in the remarkably cold (but friendly!) tundra that is North Dakota. As they say there, “40◦F below keeps out the riff-raff.” Rightly so. Forty below also freezes animals mid-step, eerily preserved in the snow, and basically causes you to hibernate and carbo-load all winter. A dear North Dakotan friend told me before my first winter there that everyone gains 10 pounds every winter and no one cares. When it’s that cold, WHY WOULD THEY?! No one can tell under the multiple layers of fancy cold-weather gear anyway. (Thermals, duck down, and fleece, oh my!) Our cars had to have engine block heaters installed so we could plug them in and keep them warm enough to re-start on the coldest days. I was teaching at the time, and our kids would still have outdoor recess as long as the wind chill didn’t drop below -10◦F; call it crazy, because yeah, it basically is, but if they didn’t send them out those poor kids would never see the sun during the winter months. North Dakotans don’t just hibernate and bake though, they also venture out into those temperatures. On purpose. Common winter pastimes are ice fishing, snowmobiling, snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, and trying to find a hill big enough to ski, sled or snowboard down. One clear, beautiful winter day, we went cross-country skiing for the first time with a group of friends at a local park. We could rent the gear for a great price, and we had heard it was a fun way to get a winter workout. Let’s just say that by the end of our outing – which coincided with temperatures waayyyyy below zero and a blizzard warning, unfortunately – we were sore, snot-nosed, exhausted, and yes, FREEZING. I think I’ll stick to hibernating, thanks though.
Excluding that adventure, I’d still say the most surprising thing about the cold weather there is how quickly we adapted to it. We are Ohioans, born and raised, so we are used to winter, but nothing close to that extreme. But, by the end of our first winter (and possibly because of the hundreds of recess duties I had to perform), my internal thermostat adjusted. What we would have before considered “pretty freakin’ cold” (say, 20◦), we now thought of as balmy. Numbers that large on the positive side of zero meant we could run into a store without a coat on, or dash to the car after a workout at the Y without even changing out of damp, sweaty clothes. When the temperature finally rose above freezing again, you could feel the excitement in the air… the whole city would turn giddy. Even as we drove through days of ugly, melting grey slush, we’d roll down our car windows and breathe in the first delicious smells of spring. I promise I’m not exaggerating. If it’s 40◦, people fling open windows and air out their stuffy houses. One of our neighbors used to drag out the lawn chairs into the driveway and just watch the Spring thaw.
Then, after years of adjusting to cold temperatures and learning to appreciate the beauty and clean slate of winter, we moved to England. We lived in Suffolk, East Anglia, where there really is no “winter” as I had come to know. Their autumn just gets slightly colder and wetter and then hey there, look, it’s spring. In the four years we lived in England, we saw snowflakes less than 5 times. (I know this number is fairly accurate, because I would get so excited every time it did snow that I would post about it on social media because FINALLY SNOW OMG OMG.) Not once did it accumulate enough to last more than a day. Quite the contrast when compared to the feet of snow we’d receive in North Dakota and the frequent dustings we get here in Ohio. Temperatures in Suffolk hovered around the freezing point for most of the winter, with the temperatures dropping below every now and then, only to warm back up after a few days of collective whinging. It was a different cold, a damp cold, but it was tolerable.
So now, we find ourselves back in our heartland home of Ohio for our first winter in 8 years. My motto has always been that if it’s cold, it might as well be pretty (read: SNOW). But guys, I fear we’ve become cold weather wimps and our Cold Walks are getting pretty darn good. The long nights, freezing temps and their harsh, damp winds are slowly getting to me. It’s not even February and the cabin fever has set in. England may have been wet, but we still had plenty of opportunities for winter walks without the fear of frostbite. Here, I often feel stuck inside with a similarly stir-crazy toddler, except he has muuuuch more energy than I do. Fun stuff.
Thankfully, we have had a few of those rare, warm January days lately. The snow melts, roots and branches drip melodically, yards and fields suddenly polka-dotted with puddles, and the air again smells of soil, earth, and the tiniest promise of spring. Most of the rare warm days have been accompanied by rain. Last week we even had a sudden, surprising thunderstorm; we flung open winter windows to hear the almost forgotten sounds of thunder and hail on our tin porch roof. But, twice this month we’ve had 50°F weather paired with the clearest, brightest blue sky and sunshine warm on our faces. One of those days, I stretched tall in our soggy backyard, neck tilted back, staring at spidery bare branches splayed out above me. The looming golden hour lit the tallest tips of branches orange, reminding me to cherish these scarce sunny moments and lung-fulls of crisp air.
Winter is long; always longer – harsher – colder – darker than I remember. In the words of the wonderfully talented Carole King, “Snow is cold, rain is wet; chills my soul right to the marrow.” These cherished sunny sabbaticals allow my soul to thaw a little; to rest in the reminder that winter is temporary, and that winters serve a purpose.
Winter reminds me that “we don’t have to be blooming to be growing,” as Ruth Chow Simons (from GraceLaced.com) eloquently describes. We can still grow, learn, rest, and prepare even without new visible fruit, even as snow blankets and insulates fertile soil. I’m trying to match my attitude to that promise. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). This winter, I will try to lean in to my present season, to continue growing below the soil, to prepare for future blooms, because winters, though harsh, are necessary, purposeful, and – thank the Lord – temporary.