Cold is an absence, an absence of heat, and yet it feels like a presence–a vigorous, hostilely active presence in the air that presses upon your naked face and that makes your fingers and toes ache within their mittens and boots. Cold is always working, it seems– busy freezing water in the ponds and rivers, knitting intricate six-sided snowflakes by the billions, finding cracks around the walls and windows of your house, forcing furnaces in the cellar to roar away.
I like winter because it locks me indoors with my books, my word processor, and my clear and brittle thoughts. There is a visual poetry that goes with the cold. Ferns and stars of frost mysteriously appear on the windows and take their place in a child’s mythology.
The cold has the philosophical value of reminding men that the universe does not love us…cold is our ancient companion. To return back indoors after exposure to the bitter, inimical, implacable cold is to experience gratitude for the shelters of civilization, for the islands of warmth that life creates.
~John Updike from “The Cold”
Today, a goodly portion of the eastern seaboard of the United States is bracing for a mammoth blizzard immobilizing travelers and rendering folks home-bound. Meanwhile, here in the Pacific Northwest, our temperature reached an unseasonably balmy 60 degrees yesterday.
Even in our relative warmth here, we’ve already endured our string of sub-freezing temperature nights and days with crystal clear skies once the frozen fog abates. Several feet of snow are back on our summer drought-bared hills and mountains. During our cold snaps, everything shimmers with diamonds of frosty glitter all day long. It is the kind of cold this Pacific Northwest native can actually enjoy. It is not the cold of the midwest plains, or the Alaskan frontier. This is civilized, “kill the bugs and the allergens” cold that helps balance out the ecosystem as well as our internal thermostats. It is just not natural or seemly to live at 70 degrees year round, toasted by the stove in the winter, soothed by conditioned air in the summer.
We are not always so lucky here. The cold that sometimes descends in northeast winds from the Arctic can blast through the strongest Carhartt clothing, sneak through drafty doors and windows, and freeze pipes not left dripping. It leaves no one untouched and unbitten with universal freezer burn.
Bitter cold or a heavy snow storm ensures even independent fair-weather individualists must become companionable when the going gets rugged, mandating shelter with others for survival. It can even mean forced companionship with those we ordinarily avoid, with whom we have little in common, with whom we disagree and even quarrel, with whom sharing a hug or snuggling for warmth would be unimaginable.
Our whole nation is in just such a bitter, inimical, implacable political cold snap today, terribly divided as we suffer through one of the most hostile and regrettable presidential election cycles in memory.
If we don’t come in out of the societal deep freeze that is afflicting us all, we each will perish alone. It is time to be thankful we have each other, such as we are. At least we can generate heat, even if we can’t manage to lighten up.