A Winter Soul

The essay “A Winter Soul” was published in “Elemental: A Collection of Michigan Creative Nonfiction” in 2018. This excerpt from that essay is reprinted here with permission from Jessica Mesman and Wayne State University Press.
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The first time I saw snow I was twenty-six years old. I’d moved to Pittsburgh for graduate school after a lifetime in southern Louisiana, where I’d never owned a coat, hat, scarf, or mittens. I remember I walked outside the coffee shop where I was studying there, turning circles in wonder like some alien fallen to earth, looking every bit the yokel I was, overpowered by the beauty of the fat, white flakes, by the sudden hushed silence that seemed to descend upon the city, by the way it actually sparkled. I remember thinking in complete earnestness, “This is magic.”

But Pittsburgh’s winters were mild and short compared to the winters in South Bend, Indiana, where I moved after my wedding. After three years of bone-crushing cold and life under the “permacloud,” which rolls in sometime in November and doesn’t budge until May, I threatened my husband that I would never again live above the Mason-Dixon Line. He got a job in Virginia, and I swore we’d never leave. I said, many times, he’d have to dig my bony fingers out of the red clay. He did.

When I looked at the map to see where Traverse City, Michigan, was before he left for his job interview, I cried. It is Up North (they capitalize that here). Way Up North: forty-fifth parallel north, three hundred inches of snow last winter north, subzero temperatures north, winter for nine months north.

I made the best of it last year. Really, I did. It pricked my pride to have so many people warn me about how awful the winters would be, and I adopted a mantra: “You won’t break me.” I’m a fast learner and a die-hard romantic. I would study northernness. I would write us into a winter story. We would not just survive; we would thrive. We would snowshoe.

Snow Illustration G. OdmarkI read Norse myths and Norwegian novels and got a (temporary) tattoo of Thor. I told myself I had a winter soul, made for sitting by the fire and reading epic novels. (When we couldn’t find a rental with a fireplace, I bought a fire pit and parked it outside the living room window so I could at least watch the sparks in the darkness.) I was determined to emerge from my first Northern Michigan winter victorious, sporting Viking horns and braids and a breastplate of bones and feathers.

I learned a lot. I learned to stop washing my face and hands with soap and water to prevent my skin from cracking and bleeding. I learned to wear makeup every day, not for beautification but as an extra protective layer. I learned to avoid cotton and denim and to invest in a down coat and the most expensive boots I could afford. I learned the terms polar vortex and Alberta Clipper. I learned, sort of, to drive in snow (I’m the one crawling along, holding up traffic into Traverse City — sorry). I learned several different ways to tie a scarf. I learned to make a hot toddy and to drink fish oil with breakfast.

When we lit our spring equinox bonfire in snow up to our waists on March 21, I was a little discouraged. On Easter Sunday, we hunted eggs in the gloomy snow piles and walked in gale-force winds on Sleeping Bear Dunes. Admittedly, the temperature was starting to rise, and we were grateful to be outdoors at all, but the gloom was unrelenting. 

All I could think of was the dogwoods in full bloom back in Virginia, the daffodils long since up and withered. We drove twenty minutes back to our gray ranch house in the gray Northwoods, and I crawled back into bed and cried.

By the time I woke up to snow on my son’s birthday in May, I was well beyond broken.

In hindsight, my naivete seems cute. Now that I’m a hardened northerner, I know that winter isn’t a time to thrive. It’s a time to buy a light therapy box, take massive amounts of Vitamin D, and get on antidepressants. In the worst months of January through April, anyone who can afford to leave for a while does. But most people just put their heads down, feed their fires, and press on. Or they ski. A lot. As my neighbor says, “There’s no way out but through.” And sometimes going through just isn’t pretty. 

Sometimes you crawl to the finish. Sometimes winter breaks us. And maybe that’s okay. 

… Fallow is too gentle a word for this kind of winter. This is not a season of quiet melancholy, a few weeks at a slower pace to be savored over a cup of tea. This is months trapped inside with small children. This is influenza and whooping cough. This is getting stuck halfway into the bank parking lot and blocking traffic. This is black ice and zero visibility. This is breaking bones in a fall. This is holes in the roof from the weight of the snow and the holes in the road that swallow your tires. This is what comes before the fallow time. This is harrowing.

A harrow is a horrible-looking farm tool with wheels and spikes and teeth. It breaks up the earth, crushes, pulverizes, plunders. Sound too extreme? Then I’ve captured it perfectly.

New year, new mantra: As this winter gets underway in earnest, I say, “Go ahead and break me. Plunder me, take me down, so I can be made new.” Maybe that is exactly what I need — not merely a rest, but a reinvention.

If I can’t be a Viking, Lord, make me the Darkling Thrush of Thomas Hardy’s poem, who though “frail, gaunt, and small, in blast-beruffled plume” flings his soul upon the growing gloom and sings.

… If I survive another polar vortex, it might not be by my own schemes and strengths and romantic fantasies but by grace (and a nice long hiatus in New Orleans). My soul might be the only thing that can grow in this weather.

Jessica Mesman, MFA, is the author of four books, including co-author of the memoir, “Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters,” winner of the 2014 Christopher Award. She currently is working on a second memoir, Eden Isles, on growing up Catholic in southern Louisiana.

*Illustrations by G. Odmark

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