When my family moved to Minneapolis in August 2018, we found our new city to be warm and welcoming. Neighbors dropped off wine, flowers and Sweet Martha’s cookies from the State Fair. My children made friends quickly, and other writers reached out to me to introduce themselves. My husband and I are Midwesterners by birth and we’d spent the last 11 years in St. Louis, so we’d prepared ourselves for that superficially-friendly-but-really-kind-of-aloof stance for which Midwestern cities are notorious. But people here didn’t seem Minnesota nice; they just seemed nice.
With one exception: In those early weeks and months, people routinely asked how I liked the Twin Cities. I’d reply with some variation on “It’s great here.”
And the person would then smirk and say in a tone that seemed at best mocking and at worst sadistic, “Just wait until winter.”
I was never sure how to respond. Yes, it was accurate that I had not yet lived through a Minnesota winter. And yes, I pulled out my heaviest coat from St. Louis in late September. But this mockery seemed akin to making fun of a 12-year-old for never having driven a car. At times, life has to be lived in a particular sequence; you can’t experience something before you experience it.
I approached the winter as a person might train for a marathon, recognizing the importance of being focused, realistic and strategic. Perhaps this is the place to mention that, unlike many a Minneapolitan in a Mill City Running shirt, I’ve never actually run a marathon? In any case, I got a neighbor to give me snow-driving lessons (in St. Louis, I didn’t drive in the snow — I just waited a day, or an hour, for it to melt). Knowing I needed the right equipment, I acquired snow pants and boots, my first balaclava and upgraded long underwear.
As the days got colder, I went outside often, on purpose, because I like fresh air. If embracing the winter didn’t come naturally to me, I respected Minnesotans’ zest for it, including holding festivals atop frozen lakes and frolicking among massive LED-lit ice castles. That first winter, I participated in these activities, albeit more as an anthropologically curious observer than a local.
As it happened, the winter of 2018-2019 was exceptionally intense — or, as countless Minnesotans told me, “It’s not usually this bad.” At times, I did find the sustained cold and wind shocking. I’d experienced extreme weather, but not day after day and week after week. And yet my family and I got through it. By late March, we’d made it to the other side, give or take an April blizzard.
That first winter didn’t change my perspective on the conversations I’d had shortly after arriving; the next two summers did. They were so glorious, the grass and trees so lush, the sunlight so perfect, the lakes so glittery. Routinely, I’d look around and feel as if I were inside a postcard. I realized that when people had declared that winter was coming, they hadn’t been warning me; they’d been warning themselves. What I’d initially perceived as mockery now seemed like an expression of their own dread, or at least ambivalence, about the change of seasons.
That Minnesotans are hearty about the cold is both stereotype and truth, as I’m reminded whenever I see someone not wearing a coat (or better yet, wearing shorts) outside in December. But being able to withstand brutal temperatures and wanting to aren’t the same. The seasonal transition is at some primal level devastating; I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say it reminds us of our mortality.
This year, everything that makes winter difficult is likely to be exacerbated. As quarantine isolated us, I treasured outside visits with friends and other families, in parks or yards. I suspect that this year, even in winter, I’ll continue to socialize this way. But it already is harder and colder. The nights are long now, and none of us knows what lies ahead. I hope that, as with my first harsh Minnesota winter, we all get through what’s coming next.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s recent works are “Rodham” and the story collection “You Think It, I’ll Say It.”