Monet’s “The Magpie” is a lovely work hanging in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I’ve never seen this painting in person, but it’s my favorite Impressionist work because it provides me a vicarious relationship with winter, which I’m into these days. The sunny painting depicts a fresh snowfall in the deep shadows of a rural late afternoon; the eponymous magpie perches on a wooden gate. Aside from the magpie, the exquisite Impressionist imagery evokes memories of countless wintry days in the Iowa countryside of my childhood.
My relationship with winter has changed over time. Until my early 20s, I’d never been out of the Midwest; winter was part of life. Then, after college, for two years I lived in the tropics of Southeast Asia. Besides culture shock, there was climate shock. The two seasons were hot and rainy. Hot was hot; rainy was daily rain and an occasional raging typhoon. I confess that in a romantic, abstract way I missed the changing seasons of the Midwest, and my first snowless Christmas was tough.
Now, since late January, I’ve been staying in Oaxaca, the beautiful colonial city in Mexico’s southern Sierra Madres. Here, daytime temps are in the 80s, dipping into the 50s at night. Lately I’ve been thinking about winter in a dreamy, Monet-esque kind of way, thinking of its effects, from my early boyhood to late middle age. (Such artsy meditations are a luxury, I note, indulged in only when winter’s not in your face for months on end.)
These days I visualize my — and that of fellow temperate-climate dwellers everywhere — relationship to winter as these dual arcs, micro and macro. The micro arc is like this: The first real snow of winter arrives, and people are ooo-ing and ahhh-ing over how beautiful it is, all Christmas-cardy, Currier and Ives and such. What fun! On Facebook (that international album of all that can be photographed — or ever has been, it seems), there overnight appear countless, enchanted landscapes filled with romping pooches, adorable snow-angel-making children, winter sports freaks loping around parks and lakes — you name it. Then, the holidays (Look at our tree! Our kids! Our lights!) come and go, and we slide into heartless January.
Winter gloom persists; disenchantment sets in. Fewer pictures now of trees hung with snow. Instead, folks post scenes of past vacations in which sunshine and lush vegetation figure prominently: that summer in the British Isles; a honeymoon trip to Tahiti in the 1970s; a nightmare Caribbean cruise, even — anything other than what appears out the living room window.
The macro arc spans years, beginning with gauzy recollections of childhood winters filled with the boundless fun of snowmen, sledding, days off from school. Adulthood brings the responsibilities of living in winter’s harshness: Keeping the car running, the walks clean, endless survival tasks. Fun might come from bracing (indeed!) walks around the park, ski vacations up north, building a snow fort with the kids. Then, at some point, there comes the time when the first snow — especially when delivered by a paralyzing blizzard — arrives, its chilling beauty leaving you with a deep ache, an ache you know is going to persist for long, dismal months. You start to feel like a character in “Giants in the Earth,” O.E Rölvaag’s Norwegian pioneer tale, most especially like the doomed Per Hansa, sent off by his crazed wife on an errand in a blizzard, only to be found, Popsicle-like, in a haystack in the spring.
The alternative to this mode of thinking for many of us is to hover over computer keyboards deep into the wee hours of abysmal winter nights, checking Expedia, Kayak, TripAdvisor. We need to get the hell out of Dodge, the sooner the better. Hawaii, the Caribbean, Mexico, Florida — they look pretty fabulous, and those package deals look reasonable, too. Put it on plastic and deal with it later.
This is where it starts, believe me. Later, thoughts come to you that you never thought you’d be thinking: I’m semiretired. What if I were to stay in a warm place for a few weeks, say in January or February? Could that happen? How about until the end of March? Then you find yourself making arrangements: Finding someone to check on the house, to drive the car around now and then, to check on those ice dams. It happens. It happened to me.
I’m returning in early April. I can deal with the piles of melting, dirty snow. I can deal with spring’s dampness and rainy days. I can deal with the potholes and ice patches. In the meantime, I know folks will keep posting those photos of snowy parks; magical, tree-lined avenues on a winter’s night; strange icicle formations. I’m secure in my relationship with winter — it’s very good, thank you very much. It’s gone from resignation to acceptance to avoidance. What could be healthier?
L.K. Hanson is a Minneapolis artist and writer and former staff member of the Star Tribune.