Two degrees Fahrenheit, even in the dead of winter, is unusual for East Tennessee. In fact, our city’s school system has closed out of concern for the safety of the children at least twice this winter because of extreme cold, with mornings beginning somewhere near zero. But today, the school is on a two-hour delay, and my eleven-year-old son is indignant that we are walking to the bus stop, given that the precedent has been set for closure just days before. Today is proof that people adapt, and no doubt the school board has finally succumbed to the suspicion that the cold has settled in, and we should simply accept it and get back to work.
My son and I are bundled up: layered pants, shirts, two coats each, balaclavas and scarves, gloves. He has grocery bags over his tennis shoes to protect them from the snow and we walk arm-in-arm so he doesn’t slip in the grass beside my steep, icy driveway. I’m wearing the shearling boots and fleece mittens I bought when I lived in Ohio. There I had learned about cold and snow beyond what Tennesseans normally experience. There I had learned that during a “Level 3,” a driver might be arrested if found on the roads for anything other than an emergency. In Ohio, I made my first snow tunnel after the 2003 President’s Day blizzard left us with five-feet-high snowdrifts. In Ohio I saw frozen grass, and pavement glazed with half an inch of ice in January of 1999. And since then, I’ve also seen balmy Decembers, unseasonable sixty-degree January days, and heard thunder cracks in February. Weather events like these remind me to take nothing for granted.
I muse to my son that ours might be an everyday walk to the bus stop for kids in Minnesota, and that we should be glad for the experience, to appreciate our mild winters better. My son isn’t convinced, and merely grumbles, “My face is cold.” He doesn’t remember the Chicago winter, but then, he was five when we left. He doesn’t remember subzero afternoon walks (with windchills of twenty below), to the grocery store after days of being shut inside, or stepping into university buildings to warm up every ten minutes before moving on. After I relocated home to Tennessee, whenever I heard anyone say “it’s cold,” I rolled my eyes dramatically. Eventually I learned to bite my tongue before saying, “When I was in Chicago . . .” and accepted that everyone has his or her superlative account.
Even so, and no doubt because of its proximity to Lake Michigan’s winds, Chicago offers its residents a Biblical experience of winter. Biblical like a curse to painful childbirth; like razed cities and plagues taking firstborns. Biblical like deluges and apocalypses of sundry sorts. The first time I traveled to Boston, I experienced something similar. Walking to the subway with blistering gusts throwing snow into my face, I turned to look at a bareheaded student with what looked like frozen tears on his wind-scalded cheeks. My students and I were walking into the wind at an angle, and one arctic blast made us retreat for a moment of cover, as if we were being shelled. I could see the rail station when I peeked around the corner, so we readjusted our hoods if we had them and soldiered on.
Poet Robert Frost, who lived across the river in Cambridge but died in Boston, knew “enough of hate” to write “that for destruction ice/ Is also great/ And would suffice.” When Frost was my son’s age, his family moved from San Francisco to New England after the death of his father. Frost took a turn in Michigan too. I’m sure for him all winters were Biblical: a literary metaphor for the ways that human beings lose their memory of safety, security, or warmth, and yet trudge on, with only their faith to guide them. It’s no surprise that in 1940 he bought a house in Miami and spent the rest of his winters there.
Though I like “ice music,” and have claimed that I’d like to attend the annual Ice Music Festival in Geilo, Norway, I doubt I ever will. Watching the instrument makers craft the ice into cellos, horns, or xylophones inspires me, but then the idea of ice is much easier to consider than the reality. How do they play the instruments without shivering? How can anyone listen attentively? Truthfully, I would rather listen to a recording or watch a performance on video. Taking the art of ice further, I realize that “ice hotels” in Scandinavia or Canada–though magical–will never be more than a hoped-for day trip, my nights booked in a brick-and-mortar inn with a fireplace. For most of my adult life, I’ve been fascinated with Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, but I can’t actually imagine booking a trip to any of these places in the winter. I blame so much on my cold nature, my sometimes anemia, my fear of enduring another attack of chilblains. I feel old in the winter, soaking my feet to warm them.
Despite all of this, I’ll admit to enjoying the cold some. When I’m armored against it with wool, or sheltered in a tidy, tea-rich kitchen, I can appreciate the stillness and the solitary beauty that snow brings. I don’t think I could ever live somewhere without a winter, but I used to believe that I could live somewhere without hot, muggy summers. Since then I’ve made my trades. Extremes of temperature and humidity (or its opposite) do nothing but keep me inside all day, a sad animal. Whether I dream of the vernal garden trowel, or the deepening shadows and blue sky hikes of autumn, the transitional seasons still strike me best. To inhabit the climate that calls to one’s nature, and to remain as long as the season welcomes–this seems the very mantra of writers and migratory birds. I look at my weather monitor on my desk and find that in the span of five hours, the temperature has risen thirty degrees to the edge of freezing. I ponder a walk, just before pulling my blanket tighter around my legs and settling in.