We woke up at our friend’s cozy cabin in Ely, Minnesota to -35 degrees outside. My nearly 3-year-old extracted himself from the warm space between his dad and I to express, “I am just a big boy. You are a big gorl. You are HUGE,” then disappeared under five layers of blankets, pillows, and brothers. I got up and wrapped my body in animal, plant and petroleum products; wool, feathers, leather, silk, rubber, polyester and vaseline. I am huge. I step outside into the crystalized, silent cold. Squeak, squeak; very cold snow is loud under foot and too frozen for footprints. My eye lashes freeze together. Half my breath catches in my throat; the part that makes it out freezes on contact with my scarf. I am in my element.
This act of exposure suggests a hearty commitment to my continued, or rather, reinvigorated practice of daily outdoor meditation. November was amazing. I gave up on December at 3 or 4 days in. The contrast in my state of mind between December and November has me clawing my way back. January 1, 2014, seemed a poetic day to begin again. Going outside today, January 5, is not the extraordinary effort it appears. I love the vice-grip of negative temperatures under dazzling blue skies. Light fractures off every crystal of snow like a zillion tiny disco balls. The humbling cold squeezes my head thoughtless. It takes skill to be out in cold like this, and I love the challenge.
I can’t sit; my toes won’t make it through 15 minutes of inactivity. I watch for animal tracks in the fresh snow and in contrast to the balmy 15 degree morning yesterday, I see none. Not one snowshoe hare, squirrel, mouse, pine martin, deer. None. It’s time to stay covered, hidden, warm. I am gloriously alone; a spectacle for smarter bunnies as I squeak, steam, and grin down the road. The northern winter’s temperature, wind, snow, ice and glare; none of it is gentle upon its inhabitants. But with enough preparation, protection, togetherness and patience, it is a more peaceful, beautiful, serene and affirming habitat than I have known from Chile to the Yukon.
At dinner on New Year’s Day I told my kids that a friend recently asked me to describe each of them in one word. I chose, from oldest to youngest: inventive, creative, and delightful. Tenny decided each boy should do the same for me. From youngest to oldest, I was: poopy pants, author and busy. “Poopy pants” I accepted from the youngest of 3 boys. As to be expected. “Author” made me feel good, though it’s a stretch. Other than grad school research, newsletters, birthday cards, my journal, some op eds, and this blog, I have never published anything. Apparently I now have a goal for 2014, presented to me by my precocious and puzzling middle child. “Busy,” for all of its accuracy, however, made me very sad. I know that little look. I know his inner wisdom. I know he found his moment to say what he needed to say.
This year has been nuts, and being with my children has not been enough of what made it busy and challenging. I already see the climate of the coming year and it looks a lot like January. I have three aging loved ones. My Uncle will leave us much too soon and it already hurts. My parents will need more support than ever and I already feel at capacity. I’m attempting to return to work and apparently, to publish something. THEN there are these very important boys. Their paperwork alone makes me manic. Add in some potty training and glimmers of puberty and I am what my children see. Most of friends would say the same of themselves; we wear huge, busy pants.
I recently asked my dad, a psychiatrist, how to slow down time and feel less busy. He said in 40 years of practice, he’s only seen one thing that appeared to work, and it wasn’t eliminating obligations, or balancing schedules, saying “no” more, or working less. He simply said, “notice more details in your everyday life.”
I cannot change the climate of the year to come. Like so many of you, I long for more ease in 2014. The fact is that every year, no matter where you live, there will be a January, a deep freeze, a record low. But in the love of winter there is also a lesson about endurance if we have the skills, support and protection to survive, or better yet, enjoy it. It’s hard and it’s beautiful. It’s audacious and it’s exquisite. It’s challenging and it’s invigorating. Step outside in the woods and you will hear…nothing. You will need layers and tea and baths and snuggles. Neighbors will shovel each others’ walks. Friends will bring soup. Strangers will assist each other over snowbanks. Someone will give their mailman a gift card for hot coffee. Snowmen will dot the tundra. The beautiful details of a long, cold winter are infinite.
I want a better word to describe me in 2014. Ideally my word would reflect, like a zillion snow crystals, the light that is essential to get us through the darkest days. But I would take something more mundane, like “warm.” In the middle of January, I can wrap my kids up in all that earth offers. If I carefully eliminate thermal aperture at wrists, ankles, and earlobes, they will make snow angels. They will sled gleefully. We can toss a cup of boiling water to the sky, freeze an egg in snow and watch our spit freeze midair. And for heaven’s sake, there will be a thaw; a day that everything drips and we expose our collective skin again. I can show them we will also have: Spring.