Living in the North around St. Paul, Minn., is like living on two planets. There is Summer Planet, a place of soft grass and shimmering lakes, trees filled with birds. Then there is Winter Planet, frosted thick with snow, a place where people either hibernate inside or huddle in fishing shacks on the ice, muscling their way through the long, dark days.
It’s this time of year, this chasm time between February and March, when winter begins to seem endless. The sleds are cracking. Our arsenal of winter mittens is depleted to dangerously low numbers. Even the snow seems tired, old and grey, pooling in black sheets on the road. We bump into each other in our shrinking houses like pinballs, trying to find a way out.
And I love it.
Don’t get me wrong. Choosing between a day where I can pick tomatoes in the garden or shovel the driveway again, I’d pick tomatoes. But it’s the dark days of winter, the layers of sweaters and slush, that make summer so precious. We don’t waste those days for a minute. The moment we spot the tips of the tulips, working their way toward the sun, we become revelers of warmth. Jackets and snow boots are shoved deep into the closet. Shoes become optional. So does coming inside the house. I don’t clean much on the Summer Planet. That’s what winter is for.
In late winter, summer sounds like a delicious treat just out of reach. The freedom of tree climbing and swinging, of bonfires and road trips, the summer salads of melon and fresh basil — these images taunt us. Even a sunburn across the forehead seems a grand luxury.
Yet I actually enjoy the days of hibernation. It’s a time to gather my family around me. Good discussion happens over soup and cups of herbal tea. We read a lot of good books and play oodles of board games. Winter is an enormously productive time for writers, crafters and the working folk. It’s easier to face a blank page when it’s 10 degrees below and there’s nothing luring you outside.
These are the things I remind myself of during the limbo days of winter. Humans have such a short attention span. We’re always looking for the next big thing. In March, when I ask my kids their favorite season, they chant, “Summer! Summer!” By August they’re begging to pull out the skates and sleds.
It’s during these final weeks of winter that you pull together the best of yourself in order to survive, like the last stretch of a marathon. You must become a treasure seeker. There is treasure to be found, you just have to dig deeper to find it. It may be a slice of blue sky, the glimpse of geese back from their long journey down south or the shining tip of an icicle. It is, as Emily Dickinson wrote, a thing of hope and feathers:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —
And sweetest — in the gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm —
I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest sea —
Yet — never— in extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.
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