I am a cold climate lifer, born in the teeth of a howling Minnesota blizzard. Winter slapped on the icy cuffs at birth, no hope of parole to some gentle tropic where a poinsettia can survive outside a greenhouse. But then my father was a florist here, who actually kept holiday poinsettias safe in his greenhouse. A mild man saying mildly, “I like a change of the seasons,” as he tossed on his unbuttoned London Fog at 10 below. I was well into my forties before I experienced winter outside the snowbelt. I found Florida iffy. I missed shivering. Cold, I decided, made me feel — well, more alive. Winter seemed to expose the truth of life — and the truth was tough. A strangely impersonal moral business, this chill of ours. If we make it to December without snow, an urgent fretfulness takes hold of me. Where is it? I wonder, looking reproachfully at the wan boulevards plastered with pallid leaves.
A mild winter, even before I knew the term “climate change,” felt all wrong, a denial of reality, faintly disreputable.
What’s this perverse loyalty about? It’s about beauty, to start with. Winter has a lunar loveliness that, done correctly, stops the heart: snow, please, in billowing big-flaked drifting, swirling dumps, a day’s worth, followed by gripping frigid air for a couple more days to keep the gorgeous ivory illusion pristine, before the grimy fact of slush takes over, before the dog winces, lifting her poor paw not because the snow is cold, but because the salt crystals the city trucks sift onto the street sting as they melt the white beauty into grit.
F. Scott Fitzgerald used the majestic Midwestern snows to bring “The Great Gatsby,” that New York story, to its grand finale. In the final pages, after all the novel’s mayhem is played out, Nick Carraway muses about coming home from boarding school. He’s remembering the train pulling out of the Chicago station, headed north into the winter night where “the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us … and a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back … through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour….”
That sharp wild brace was — is — America itself, innocent and rapacious, both. The beauty and peril of the heartland twined together, revealed.
And then there’s the silence, especially after a great urban snow. It’s a relief, that silence, a reassurance, a long, patient sigh. Much seems to be forgiven or blessedly forgotten in that silence.
People sometimes say after a blizzard, “Well, that sure was an old-fashioned snowstorm,” as of something retrieved that has been lost to history. But these great snowfalls, stopping us, slowing us, silencing us, aren’t old-fashioned. They’re ancient. This is “the real snow, our snow” that reaches beyond us, back into myth, past religion into the inchoate blizzard of the imagination. Our ordinary lives and Time itself are stunned, even altered, by such snow. Think of that wonderful wintry phrase — I was stopped cold. Fierce weather touches a spiritual pulse, vibrates.
But the greatest paradox of winter: All that silent beauty, the weight of the real snow, our snow that stops us cold — it doesn’t separate us. It links us. It ignites, if only for the slim space of the storm, the unlikely chance of solidarity. It’s that rare moment when we know we’re all in this together.
Patricia Hampl’s latest book, published this year, is “The Art of the Wasted Day.”