Quitting Winter

Winter, I’m giving notice. I’m quitting. I’m out. I’m done-zo. No need to bring in HR for an exit interview. I barely have anything in my desk anyway—a packet of tissues, a pair of mittens, a small box of festering despair. You can burn my file. I was about to do that for warmth anyway.

This is the time of the season that breaks me. I think if you conducted an informal poll of New Englanders, the non-skiers, non-snowboarders, non-cold-weather-activity-enthusiasts, and I’m including the people who think it’s perfectly fine to jump into the ocean in the middle of January all in the name of charity (I see what you really are: equal parts decent and Vulcan), you’d find that many of us start to come apart at the seams right around now.

It’s the cold, the cold, the savaging cold. The raw, icy, forever damp, splits your skin, freezes your lungs shut like a vault, fuses to your goddamn bones, cold. There’s a lyric from a Patty Griffin song that comes to mind: “Where I come from/winter’s long, gets into your boots.” I hear that line and instinctively my toes curl to escape the swampy chill. Griffin knows what she’s talking about. She grew up in Old Town Maine, a small, rural town located about 3 hours from the Canadian border. Single digits make for a balmy October. In January and beyond, the thermometer plunges and stays well below zero. It comes as a shock to no one from around here that Griffin ended up settling in Austin, Texas.

It’s also the weather, the weather, the unforgiving weather! The wonder and novelty of the early snowfalls in December and January have faded, or as B.B. King sang, “the thrill is gone.” Those storms made us all briefly entranced. Like Dorothy stepping out of her house and past the unfortunate remains of the witch she just smoshed, into the glorious landscape of technicolor OZ, we marveled at the world transformed. We gawked at how the snow turned the gnarliest, sickly-looking house on the block into an iced gingerbread castle. We blinked at this newly made place in astonishment even though it happens every year; it’s remarkable how the first snow of the season manages to feel like the first discovery of snow itself. If only all of life held even a thimbleful of that kind of mojo.

But now: the cold air turns stubborn, refuses to give us more than a few degrees in either direction. The snow, the beautiful, sparkling stuff that looks like it belongs in a diamond engagement ring commercial, turns mean, unyielding. It gathers itself into small icebergs that squat on street corners. Sometimes they marshal themselves in a chain along the edge of a sidewalk like security guards standing at the apron of a stage at a Taylor Swift concert. The snow becomes leaden and dense; it fuses into a special type of hardpack with a polymer make-up of cement and Gorilla glue. In the city, streets shrink to half their width. Cars parked on the street become ensnared. Up and down the block, they look like insects wrapped neatly in spider webbing. Some are tilted uncomfortably on banks, as if The Hulk was in mid-lift when he got a phone call that his wife was going into labor and he dropped everything and ran. Driving is a dicey situation. These are the days that try men’s souls and side mirrors.

Why do I live here? This is also a question that circulates among us on Facebook and in text messages, accompanied by crying emojis and images of places like Bali and Costa Rica. It’s like we’ve collectively given birth and forgotten the pain and hardship of the experience, cheerfully signing up for the next one. It’s seasonal amnesia. Because prior to this period of winter slog, we are chirpy assholes about how lucky we are to live short distances in nearly any direction from the coastline and mountains and lakes and national parks and big cities along with small, historic towns. We’re eager to brag about the seasons—like, we have all four, you guys—as a selling point: #leafpeeping, #NewEnglandFall, #NewEnglandblossoms, #beachday, #ShutUpNewEngland. If there ever is another civil war, New England will get preemptively kicked out of the union for our unsufferable elitism alone.

I know there are plenty of other states with a love/murderous rage relationship with winter. Minnesota, Nebraska, Alaska, both Dakotas—you win a prize for hardest seasonal pounding. I’m not unsympathetic. I just think you know what you signed up for moving to places where the wind doesn’t just come sweeping down the plains, it wrecks them and everything in its path. You clicked “agree” after not reading the terms of service. New Englanders are both gold-medal level whiners and stubborn old goats. You’ll never get us to admit you have it harder than us.

But this year I mean it; I’m not playing around. That’s it—khattam-shud, the end. I pile on my padding to take my usual morning walk and consider my options. I could live on a houseboat in the Aegean sea. I could become one of those RV people who rove the nation, their homes on their backs like diesel-fueled turtles, visiting places to get enough of my season on before splitting. A few more far-fetched ideas come into view: join Space Force, learn to hibernate like a grizzly, grow gills and take to the ocean.

My mind is so busy sketching my escape that I hardly notice coming to the fork in the bike path. Most days I veer left, a little on autopilot, following the natural continuation of the route. For some reason, that morning my feet turn me right. I cross over a busy road to pick up this other branch of path that I’ve never been on before. There’s a sign at the edge of a wooden fence telling me I’m at the edge of a wetlands preservation and restoration area.

This might not be startling if it weren’t for the fact that the bike path bisects city territory, only slightly insulated from the urban junkscape—highways, apartment complexes, shopping centers. But here I am, suddenly transplanted to Narnia. Wooden footbridges snake over marshy inlets serviced by the nearby river. Snow covers much of the landscape, but stalks of tall, tan reedy things and bushes palming bright red berries growing all over the perimeters create a painterly scene. Stone markers announce the habitats of animals, insects, and native plants. As if to give it all the touch of an attraction at a Disney park, I encounter a stoic blue heron, a squadron of ducks and geese, more cardinals than I’ve ever seen in one place, and a burly hawk perched in a tree.

I visually gobble up all of it, but it’s the hawk that makes me stop and really ogle. She literally doesn’t have to do anything but sit there to be fearsome, awe-inspiring, totally badass. She indulges me anyway. Arching her wings she drifts a few feet away to settle on a nearby utility pole. She swivels her head in a way that feels like a challenge, as if to say: “Yeah, I can make this thing my tree if I want to. You got a problem with that?” No ma’am, I do not. I’m standing off to one side as joggers and people out walking dogs breeze past me. Are they getting any of this? I take what feels like a million photos of this majestic bird, not registering that my hands are freezing. I’m too busy marveling at this incredible landscape, that should not even exist, but has been hiding in plain sight all this time, right where I live! And there is nowhere else I’d rather be than in this sublime, wild place, here, in the middle of winter.

Timing Is Everything

The heron glided silently along the river’s surface like a heat seeking missile. The snow had been falling softly for hours. The landscape blanched like an over-exposed negative. Street signs, trees turning black against the blank canvas, the occasional fearful, red flare of break lights were the only distinguishing markers. It was a not unpleasant disorientation. These days, variety in any form is welcome.

I almost didn’t go down to the river. I had gotten about half-way, slipping and sliding along what I assumed to be sidewalks, wading into snowbanks to avoid getting clipped by the plows out roving like East German gestapos. My camera thudded against my coat, already warped with layers. I cradled it awkwardly. I had it wrapped in a thin, waterproof covering that came with my camera bag. It worked similarly to one of those flies that go over tents and about just as effective.

It was beautiful to be out in the snowstorm. It was work to be out in the snowstorm. Both things can have equal weight. As I trudged, halting every so often when something caught my eye, my mind picked up its own badminton game. The volley:

Haven’t you been out here long enough? It’s kinda cold (whine). You still have to walk back home, you know. Not like you can just pop into a café to get warm. What do you think this is? 2018?

The response:

(Eye-roll) It’s not that cold, c’mon. And it’s gorgeous out here! You’re lucky to even be out here! And haven’t you had enough of the couch and the blanket and the bag of salty chemicals and the book you’re not even pretending to read anymore and the vague sense that your brain is slowly turning into some kind of viscous molasses-like substance that any day now will just start to ooze out of your ear and pool in a puddle of sap that you’ll notice with only the smallest register of astonishment but mostly disinterest because really this seemed like a foregone conclusion after months of festering existential ennui?

Point. Set. Match. I kept moving.

And so it was that I put myself on the trail that runs along the river, which had become one of my favorite and reliable walking destinations in these past months of restriction and caution. It’s not a spectacular route. There are no rocky outcrops singing with the crush and crunch of roiling waters. No bends delivering a stunning vista of hills and fields. No tire swings dangling over irresistible drops into deep kettles of water. The river is an urban waterway—functional, hearty, modest, a sports bra, a metal thermos, a well-oiled baseball glove passed down from parent to kid. Boston’s lumbering Charles River can have the pizazz and the tourons that come with it.

The seemingly unremarkable nature of this stretch feels like a challenge to me. I return and return and return and I always find something that not just catches my gaze, but holds it. I keep expecting the well to run dry and then KERBLAM! I’m 25 feet from the shoreline and just happen to glance to my left, the snow raining down harder now, and I’m gifted with the spectacle of this ethereal creature that seems like she belongs in Jurassic Park than in a suburb of Boston in 2021. And it feels staged. It feels very Disney theme park, cue the animatronic bird to give the tourons a thrill. It works. I’m standing stock still as if breathing too heavy will make it all disappear. I see a couple about fifteen feet ahead of me, a little closer to the edge of the river in the same pose. Witnesses to this strange and beautiful synchronicity of things—the snow, the river, the bird generous enough to give us a viewing, and the astonishing ballet of moments divided into what appears on the surface as random decisions, arbitrary maneuvers, orchestrated by something unseen, but not unfelt, bringing us all to this spot at the exact right time.  

Snow Down

Winter has finally arrived in Boston just in time for spring. The seasons have been steadily migrating for quite a while now, which is totally nothing to worry about if you’re psyched about the prospect of taking an evolutionary leap and growing gills or think you might be able to harvest soybeans in your bathtub. The cold settled into New England right on time in December. The white stuff failed to make a real appearance until just recently, dousing us with enough snow pack for sledding and plowing and shoveling and swearing and the ceremonial lugging out of your ironing board to use as a precious parking space saver. We took our whole damn country back from England, you think we’re going to let some yahoo swoop in with his freaking Yaris and take our parking space we spent two hours clearing? Think again, pal.

The upside about our bizarro winter is that when the snow shows up relatively late in the game, at that point you’re only driven to fits of rage and despair from the unrelenting cold and not necessarily from a combination of arctic freeze and merciless snowfall. Which is to say you might actually find the occasional snowy day a bit enjoyable. To be sure, that joy will sour when you’re hiding Easter eggs under six inches of fresh powder, but the first couple of snowstorms can be something worth embracing.

I took myself into the city during one of our recent storms. The snow fell mostly overnight, but lingered throughout the following day in the form of that softly spitting type of precipitation, the kind that forces you to turn on your windshield wipers every few minutes to wipe the view clean. It happened to be a holiday weekend so the city already had a lazy, sleepy feel to it. The storm added to the stilled atmosphere with less cars and buses on the street and fewer people scuttling to work and appointments. Walking around the sparsely populated streets, I felt like the city was showing off just for me. I could tell from the other people I encountered—photographers, couples and families strolling, runners, and dog walkers—we shared the same sense of sweet insulation, of pleasant transportation out of what was familiar and typical to what was suddenly changed.  

I adore my gritty, funky, uptight, ball busting city in every season, with all its warts, weird angles, eyesores, and staggering beauty. The snow made everything in town look different; everything from brownstone steps coated in white drifts to statues appearing particularly stark against the snow to the walking paths along the river blanketed over like an urban tundra, became majestic, astonishing, and artful. The snow also made the entire city feel different, as if Boston were a big rig suddenly downshifting from 75mph to a crawl, inviting you along for the ride.  

I let myself become aimless, tracing familiar routes made unfamiliar from the storm. I stopped often and just stood, not reaching for my camera, but planted, breathing in the sharp, cold air without the metallic tinge that usually laces the city atmosphere. I released whatever sense of urgency I had to make the most of my time in town and instead let the time make the most of itself.

Be quiet, just look, the city sighed between the thin strands of falling snow. Slow down, spend time, spend your attention here, right where you are, which is all there is any day, rain, snow, locusts, or shine. It was the kind of imperative you feel hiking in the woods or exploring a sandy coastline; it was a startling directive from a place built on centuries of industrial churn and a voracious demand for action, growth, biggah, tallah. It was something to be ignored at your own loss—the chance to glimpse and savor the city’s sister self before it receded into the memory of just one more snowy day in winter.

How to Survive January

Curse a lot, freely, especially in public places, and particularly around children. They’re going to need to know how to cope at some point, right? Invent some new curse words just to keep things interesting. Blame it on the kid if need be.  

Reward yourself for staying in your “big girl” clothes until the respectable hour of “lunchtime” before changing into lounge/athleisure wear/worn out pajama bottoms of choice. Bear in mind that for many people like farmers, night shift security guards, and vampires “lunchtime” could be as early as 10 AM.

Carb load. Dairy load. Sugar load. Consume everything in mass quantities except responsibility and dignity.

Scroll through images of people on Instagram, “living their best #FOMO lives” in warm places like Bali, Costa Rica, or Maui. Copy the images you like best, but instead of putting them on your vision board (tucked in your closet for the last two years anyway), photoshop yourself into those photos. Think of them as you’re opening weeping  stoplights.

Openly weep at stoplights.

Make plans to have coffee with a friend. Cancel plans almost immediately, but reward yourself for trying.

Pretend January simply isn’t happening as if you’re in an episode of Black Mirror. Binge Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Allow yourself to be soothed by the dulcet, lilting tones of her lovely voice. Do not bother to follow the show or tell yourself after the next episode you’re going to KonMarie the crap out of the shame closet—the one in the upstairs guest room where well intentioned gifts and gadgets go to die. Simply focus on her bird-song intonation. Later, go to her website and order one of each of her tidying, space-saving products. Store them in the shame closet.

Grow everything out.

Trim everything up.

Pile every blanket you own on your bed. Burrow underneath it as deep as you possibly can. Deeper. No, deeper still. There you are! Now: stay. Periodically extract a pale, scaly appendage that passes for a hand or arm through the womb-like opening to nibble on a strategically placed plate of cookies or fruit and cheese.  

Shop.

Return.

Watch every Hallmark Channel “winter romance” movie. Email the producers helpful notes. For instance: “While I appreciated that Malory ultimately fell for the stoic, yet emotionally available ski instructor, Tad, in Sweet Chalet, you do realize that you’re contributing to the unrealistic expectations that romance flourishes even in the coldest months of the year and not, as is the reality, were it goes to die a gruesome death under yards of body hair and chili-encrusted soup bowls?!”

Buy a state of the art, super high-tech, blue-tooth, voice activated, smart, Oprah-endorsed light therapy lamp. Realize that you could have booked yourself a great trip to sunny Tahiti with the money you would have saved from the lamp. Consider this when you are openly weeping at stoplights.  

Give yourself a project, something that you can really put a lot of time and effort into, something that you’ve been dying to tackle for years like tracing your family’s ancestry, building ornate birdhouses, or wondering where it all went wrong.

Move.

Zen and the Art of Cross Country Skiing

We booked a short getaway at the historic Mount Washington Hotel a couple of days after the new year. There was holiday season stress to shake and a lukewarm agreement to give cross country skiing a try. As a general rule, I am pretty terrible at anything requiring even a hint of athleticism. Even mini-golf feels too daunting with all those angles and whatever it is that you’re supposed to do with your wrists. Strap a couple of strips of thin metal to my feet and put me out on a field of icy snow and it’s a guaranteed bad situation. But New England winters are long and notoriously punishing on your skin, your psyche, and your diet. I indulge in a bit too much hibernating that turns from restorative to Miss Havisham bleakness in the time it takes a banana to brown. Perhaps a tolerable winter-centric activity might help. A quick survey of available options–snowboarding (aka death on a shingle); ice skating (aka death on two blades); or snowmobiling (aka death in a supped up go-cart)—made cross country skiing seemed almost doable.

Built in 1902, the hotel squares its shoulders against the massive peaks of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeast (aka death at six thousand feet, like, for real). It’s a beautiful beast of a place, bearing an unsettling resemblance to the murderous hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. The long, white wings of the hotel stretch outward as if to embrace visitors, or if you’re still stuck on The Shining comparison, as if to smother them in some kind of supernatural rage.

Stepping inside the hotel is like falling back in time. Enormous white columns march down the length of the impossibly wide, grand lobby. Glittering chandeliers cluster overhead in bunches of exotic, glass fruit. Lush couches and chairs cluster around the towering brick fireplaces that look like they could have easily powered the Titanic. Standing out on any one of its expansive verandas overlooking the mountain range, you can almost see the procession of Model T’s snaking up the long, curving drive to the hotel, packed with steamer trunks and families eager to spend the summer months in the bracing fresh air and magisterial landscape of New Hampshire.

What is idyllic in June turns moody and foreboding cloaked in the snow and early gloaming of January, which is where we found ourselves, along with our instructor, Jim, an affable 60-something ski instructor with a sinewy body of a CGI Spiderman and the patience of a Buddha.

In the course of our lesson I have not managed to connect any of the dots to this practice.  I have slid and skidded, my feet rebelling underneath me, arms pinwheeling like Wile E. Coyote in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I have wrestled with my ski poles—“Okay, looks like you’ve got the straps a bit tangled,” says Jim smiling the entire time, his tone laced with Mayberry conviviality. I have failed to master the basic motor coordination that, off skis, powers me through my day as an advanced biped. The call to give in to hibernation mode becomes a siren’s wail.

After the basics of “staying mostly upright on skis” have been covered, there really isn’t much else you can do with someone other than deposit them at the edge of a trail with a wave and jaunty, albeit slightly dubious, “have fun!,” which is just what Jim did as he turned and deftly glided out of sight.

I am torn between wanting to already declare, “Well, I tried! I guess this just isn’t for me,” dislodge my boots, clomp back to the ski lodge to medicate with a mug of hot chocolate, and giving it a genuine chance. A loophole in the adulthood contract most of us don’t want to talk about out loud is giving yourself permission to quit, to bail, to take a pass on things without losing too much sleep over it. Few of us live a reality where we have someone like the coach from Rocky hurling spit-filled, caustic encouragement in our faces to not give up, to want it bad, and to pummel the bastard (metaphorically speaking, hopefully). We rise and fall on every decision we make with on one else to blame or motivate but ourselves. I do the math and decide it’s worth trying to shift my “give it a shot” numbers into the black.

The trail ascended in a gentle incline, and I was pretty skeptical that I could make it very far. However, a few paces along and suddenly it was as if my body and muscles put my brain in the infant seat in the back and took the wheel. Everything that Jim had tried to each me segment by segment (and which I mucked up piece by piece) almost effortlessly gelled into one, cohesive, self-propelling engine.

I skimmed along the silky snow barely registering what my body was doing, which left me free to enjoy my surroundings. Thick stacks of towering pines flanked the trail, the view broken periodically by expanses of clearing—prairies in miniature, the “happy little” provinces of a Bob Ross world. An ice-encrusted river chased us from about twenty feet below the steady incline. It burst open at intervals in riotous pools of water rushing so fast it appeared green with churn. Every so often bird call sounded, but otherwise there was nothing but the rhythmic slivering of our skis.

Each time I tried to unstrap my brain from its car seat to focus on bending my legs or swinging my arms the way Jim showed me, I would skid out of step. Each time I let my mind wander to think about anything related to the daily regular—obligations, responsibilities, return anxieties about the general, dismal state of political affairs—I lost the cadence and fumbled enough so that I was forced to slow down and begin again. It was if the entire enterprise gently, but firmly, requested my inattention.

After a while it became easier to shift into the interior white space that mirrored the exterior one. I felt the lift that comes with getting a vacation from the constant and somewhat pointless vigilance we bring to a thousand different parts of our daily lives. This is trapeze artists’ trick of catch and release without question or hesitation—raw faith, blind trust that there is something apart from and more primal than you with its hands on the wheel. I relaxed into all of it, happy to bail after all.