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I immediately started missing winter in spring. I missed the clean white and the long blue shadows. I crave the short days, homes lit up like dollhouses in the dark. I crave the work the winter season requires, the time it takes to gather everyone into enough warm layers, to shovel the steps and leave the house. Time is ordered by this work. I look forward each year to the sense of subtraction fall brings. In the summer, I camp to get a taste of that winter feeling: building a little home and life in the elements, the excess stripped away.
Winter is almost on us again. I miss it every year for another reason: the drama of the season helps preserve my memories. When it leaves each year, winter seals them up, names and dates them. Freezes them solid – not to make too direct a point of it. The past has passed.
I told a friend from California once that I could never live without winter and she brusquely replied that was “just because I grew up with it.” In other words, winter can’t be likeable on its own, it is only because it enwraps the memories of my childhood. Although I would have been happy to debate her on the objective beauty, enchantment and valuable challenge of living through an annual deep freeze, I was more interested in responding to the connection she had made between memory and weather. “What weather do you associate with your childhood?” I asked. She described fog and the ocean, driving with her arm stretched out a car window, her hand disappearing into a cloud.
But that didn’t seem like a fair comparison. Our nostalgia seemed different. To remember winter isn’t to remember a variation in weather, but to remember an entirely other world. Winter is less of a season and more of a planet. It is topographically different. The snow and ice can be so deep and thick that it’s impossible to imagine them melting. Every year, it is everlasting. Unlike the San Diego fog, which dissipates within the hour.
Further, my homesickness is recurring. I wasn’t thinking about my childhood when I romanticized winter for my Californian friend – telling her how we used our front porch as a freezer, how narrow the sidewalks became between walls of snow – I was thinking about last year. My nostalgia is an annual occurrence.
There is another thing about winter. As I understand it, our brains are triggered by new stimuli on one hand, while seeking safety on the other. Thus, we bond to the people with whom we experience something wild. Well, winter is wild. Just as travellers experience new sides to one another, we know the people with whom we live in dramatically different contexts.
I made what has become a very dear friend four winters ago. She and I spent a lot of time shepherding our small children through the snow from warm place to warm place. She would push a stroller and I would pull a sled, and this way, we could walk almost side by side through the paths between the drifts. A main ingredient of any new friendship was there: an intense getting-to-know-each-other period filled with hours of conversation. Much of this conversation happened on these walks. I remember my friend’s gesturing mittens as she talked with her hands. I remember her foggy breath and red cheeks. I remember days we wouldn’t talk while we walked, holding our breath against almost unbearable cold. Our new friendship was a highlight of that winter for me. I admired her resilient response to winter: She blasted through it.
My friend and I are now, of course, friends year round. But we share something deep – having been to planet winter and back together. We even raised our kids there.
I never feel so patriotic as I do standing in the hallway of my son’s elementary school among a bunch of kids that look like half-astronauts, limbs emerging from puffy snowsuits, the national anthem playing over the loudspeaker. The ritual is fixed: The children know to pause wherever they are in their morning commute and listen to the song. The brave ones even sing. (This is admittedly a hallway ritual for the tardy, the prompt children are already deposited in their classrooms, singing there, parents gone.) And although the school year stretches from summer to summer and there are days we repeat this liturgical experience in T-shirts, it feels more honest somehow, in winter. We have accomplished something both ordinary and triumphant by making it to school.
We are deep in the culture of where we live, accustomed to things that would, to my Californian friend, be foreign: boots that come up to our knees, ice on our eyelashes, the tingle of thawing extremities. “With glowing hearts we see thee rise, the true north strong and free.” In that moment at least, I believe in winter and in my country and I feel committed to both.
Nikaela Peters lives in Winnipeg.