By Amanda Cleary Eastep
I have two memories of snow.
They stick like individual snowflakes to window glass, their intricacies blatantly announcing God’s mathematical genius…his ability to condense the universe into a melting, faceted jewel (or the savior into a newborn)…
I am nine and caroling with my parents and their friends and children. The sky is the usual pitch black you find above small towns surrounded by hundreds of acres of cornfield, and our group is marching down the middle of the street like it is the first Christmas after an apocalypse, and this is our street. There is no need to look both ways as the snow begins to fall.
The flakes are pieces of exploded ancient star making their way to earth,
heavenly hosts placed gently upon our stuck-out tongues.
When I look up, the flakes are backlit by the solitary street light so that they seem to be falling from right above us, maybe only six feet above, maybe from the black palm of God.
The sight isn’t magical, as in the semblance of magic, it is magic. Pure and inexplicable.
I could have stood in the middle of that quiet, neighborhood street with my head tilted back all night long, the Christmas lights strung below the gutters blinking at me, blinking against the brilliance of the sparkling gifts bestowed upon my puffy green coat, the fur-trimmed hood, my black lashes.
During my first year of college I hated January. With a wide-tipped marker, I marked off each day on a large calendar page taped to my dorm room door. The joy of blink-of-an-eye December became a mocking contrast to the desolation of the first month of the new year.
But when my children were very young, January was a refuge. The upheaval and uncertainty of the holiday had passed with its carols and cookies with sprinkles and gifts exchanged among familial turmoil.
The longest, coldest month now offered solitary days with my children and me hunkered down in our nest of laundry and crayons and occasional naps, secure in the arms of the mundane.
The world quieted in January, hushed by a long cold finger pressed to blue lips.
Shhhhhhhhh, use your winter voices, don’t wake the squirrels, don’t break the ice. Make snow angels and pot roast.
One night, I pull the kids on the sled to the local park and slide down the hills with them until we are caked in cold and can’t feel our toes. Then I tuck them into bed, and while my first husband works his second job, I work my tenth of the day. I sit at the desk that was my little brother’s when we were growing up. I have painted it white to cover the rustic 70s finish and have set it in the corner of the spare room by the window. There I make up stories as the snow, like a cascading beam, pours directly from the corner street light. It’s magic.
In the Midwest, we anticipate winter as if navigating the moods of an abusive spouse. Will winter fall upon me like a velvety blanket or with ice fangs?
Some of us love the cold and snow. Many dread it but stay anyway, year after year bemoaning the ache it brings to a left hip, like the weight of a child who insists on being carried as we go about our daily tasks.
We complain about shoveling and about the state’s lack of money to adequately plow and salt the roads while we also complain about our spreading middles and high taxes.
We dread the shorter days with their darkness when, in truth, that’s where our sinful natures are most at home.
Yesterday, my husband, my elder daughter, and I walked into the woods. My husband had planned it when he heard the forecast for 3-5 inches of snow, the first of the season. He said it had been years since he jogged on a snowy day, and although it had only been last winter since I had taken a walk on a snowy night, I couldn’t recall the last time I had hiked through trees covered in bits of falling winter sky.
As my husband set off on his path, my daughter and I set off in the opposite direction. The ground creaked and crunched beneath our boots, and for a while we followed what we thought were the fresh tracks of a raccoon. But wild animals don’t stay long on a people’s path; it’s just not safe…there is no cover of limbs and grasses bowed over and shingled with ice.
The trees were black lines scratched through titanium white by an artist’s palette knife, and we had to keep stopping to lean over and brush the piles of snow from the tops of our hoods.
We hiked in black and white until our gloves were soaked and the fronts of our thighs felt exposed. We touched our tongues to small piles of snow settled atop the heads of dried burrs.
With the metallic cold fresh in our mouths, we talked about our memories of snow.
This morning in the dark, I made my way to the kitchen, bare feet across cold floors. A puff of natural gas, and the blue flame beneath the tea kettle matches the albedo of the snow-covered world outside the window.
I nearly said aloud that, This year, I will welcome winter as a sabbath.
I will be thankful for short days, because there are now far less of them ahead than when my children were all snowsuits and red cheeks.
I will not be so arrogant and wasteful, crossing off days with black X’s like they aren’t precious, no matter how full of snow and empty of warmth.
I will rest in the silence of this season, patient as the leafless tree and full of trust and potential.
I will, as Thomas Merton wrote, “love winter when the plant says nothing.”