Standing in my ice-cold garage, next to the water-softener unit, hair-dryer in hand, I reminded myself of the personal mantra I had adopted just days before:
“Embrace the winter,” I had told myself. “Embrace it.”
This was not a flippant decision on my part. Winter might be the highpoint of the year for deer hunters, snowmobile enthusiasts, and would-be college hockey forwards, but these barren months between Christmas and Memorial Day often leave me feeling as if I’m walking through some of the most woebegone settings from the darkest pages of the Old Testament. Sure, winter begins with that cozy sense of novelty. The silencing effect of the first snow. The nestled coziness that hits you when you swaddle yourself next to your loved one in a thick, fuzzy blanket. A little Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra crooning about Bethlehem and pine branches. It’s great at first.
But something happens to the snow after we put away the tree and shove the holiday tubs back into their dank corners in the garage. Abruptly, that blanket of religious joy becomes a harbinger of the long slog which awaits us. In 2011 winter covered us in a three-and-a-half inch sheet of solid ice. Footnote Three years later the heavens visited upon us the heaviest snowfall since the blizzard of ’78, and the year after that we dug out of another foot of snow. Even when the skies hold off on the precipitation—as they did for the next two winters—daily life transitioned into a routine obstacle course.
Taking the dogs out meant finding pants, hunting for shoes, trundling on a coat, knocking the ice out of the frozen tether clasps, latching them onto Fido’s collar while a stout north breeze tears a layer of flaky, dead skin off my cheek. Every doorknob, the edge of the trashcan, even the lip of my computer promised that sharp static shock of pain which always—always—elicited an exaggerated flailing of the hands and muttered profanity. Driving to the store requires a pre-mission checklist rivaling a space-walk. After spending the summer washing, waxing, and detailing your car, you surrender it to the ice and salt and filth which coats it forming the scaly hide it wears until the spring. Everything is harder in the winter. Everything is a chore. Winter is work.
I remember when winters were even worse. When I was younger and poorer I burned firewood and spent many a frozen weekend lugging a chainsaw down the side of a ravine, hacking away at a fallen ash tree, and shouldering the rounds back up the hillside to the bed of my pickup. I spent many more hours outside the back door, forcing a splitting wedge into the crack I’d made across a red oak or cherry round, throwing my body out of joint as I dropped the blunt end of my maul onto the wedge’s top. There were the frequent battles with the mouth of my wood stove, as it rejected the piece of hickory I doggedly forced inside it. I still bear the half-moon scar from the bloodiest battle, when the top of my hand settled into the white hot edge of the stove.
My 21st century woes pale, however, compared to what my late grandparents endured. They were sharecroppers, until they finally bought the land they tilled in the early ‘60’s. Consider that, for most of their lives, they got along without running water. A late night “call of nature” meant bundling up for a trip to a freezing, putrid outhouse (or a night breathing that odor wafting out of a chamber pot). The simple things…a pot of coffee…a bath…all came at an enormous expense of labor and time. And they lived through those longs months without any of the electronic and digital creature-comforts we turn to in our boredom. By the time the spring thaw opened the pores of the earth, they must have welcomed the suffocating load of hard work ahead of them with raised hands and deep gratitude.
To what degree human beings and winter are symbiotic and natural is a debate beyond my pay-grade. Obviously plenty of cultures both North American and European have proven for centuries that human beings can adapt to brutal conditions the dark months throw at them. But adapting and thriving are not the same thing. That becomes the fundamental question to this notion of “embracing” something as alien as the winter: how does one thrive?
I could move, of course. It’s not impossible. Moving is also not practical…at least not now. I could also pick up ski-jumping as a hobby, but something tells me that the ensuing medical bills would savage my credit score. I could study the ways of Inuit, perhaps spending weekends in my back yard igloo. Or I can just accept winter for what it is: the four month stretch where the northern half of the world averts its eyes from the sun like a red-head on a Caribbean beach.
Winter is hard…yes. But when those spring breezes come, I’ll be all the more appreciative. And when that thick layer of steaming humidity sets upon us in June and July, when the heat and moisture makes breathing a high-impact workout routine, I will draw in that scorching air with long, happy, and pleasantly defiant breaths.
For now, however, winter rages on. More snow will come, I think. I get the sense we’re in for one of those seasons. But when I trudge those two goldendoodles out to the porch and pick another fight with the sharp winds, the biting temperatures, the fidgeting dogs, and frozen clasps…I will find it within me to embrace it. I am a Hoosier, after all, and all the headaches of winter come with the pedigree.
Everything is harder in the winter. Everything is a chore. Winter is work.
[author title=”About Donovan Wheeler” image=”http://nationalroadmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Me-Profile-150×150.jpg”]Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.[/author]
That winter seven of us hunkered down in the house like vassals waiting out a barbarian siege. On the sixth day—low on supplies (especially beer)—we ventured into town. Upon returning, the power had gone out. One of those pathetically American “garage door” families, we found ourselves locked out of our house. Hoping the garage door was somehow not connected to the lift motor, I got out of the SUV and tried to throw the door open. While I never moved the door, I did flop onto the ice repeatedly, trying all the while to still the anger inside me while all the kids howled from inside the car. Hoping again that the back door the garage would be unlocked, I tried to work my around the south side of the house. Every third step came with a complementary face-plant onto the ice. When—after the fourth of fifth fall—I felt myself sliding away from the house, down the gentle hillside to our neighbor’s low grounds, I grunted in a panicked death grunt, terrified that I would spend the next eight weeks living among the rabbits eating rotten walnuts until the thaw let me come home. After crawling back to the car, I sat in the driver’s seat staring at our impenetrable home, dreaming of the warmth inside those walls. On a whim, I pushed the garage door button. The door lifted. The entire episode spanned maybe twenty minutes.
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