I want to wrap myself in a blanket of snow.
The weekend before we left New York, it rained. Sunday morning was gray and a little warm, no wind. My winter jacket was too heavy, so I walked the dog in a sweater. By afternoon, I noticed a light mist beading into puddles on the fire escape outside the window. Then, as dark fell, the mist thickened into rain. It drummed steadily over the cars making their wet paths and poured off the plywood edges of the scaffolding over the Mediterranean restaurant across the street. I looked out the window before dinner and, under the scaffolding, two of the neighborhood dog walkers huddled in raincoats with their dogs. Behind them, the shadows of a few pedestrians shivering together against the building. When I looked again, a couple hours later, the street was indecipherable through the rain. Occasional beads of light from a car passing below.
The next day was dry, but colder. Cold enough for a coat and hat and gloves. Cold enough that I breathed in sharply, walking out the door, and pulled my scarf to my mouth. I bent my head and wrapped my coat a little tighter as I walked past the Mediterranean restaurant, across the little threadbare pocket park, and down the avenue toward the subway to catch my train to work. There were puddles along the curbs in which the season’s last ginkgo leaves floated and collected into thick yellow clumps. Seventh Avenue still smelled like rain from the night before, and musky from the wet, decaying piles of leaves. It felt like the last days of fall, even though this was now indisputably winter. A little woodsmoke in the air from the remaining working fireplaces in the neighborhood.
It hasn’t snowed in New York for two years. I haven’t been there long enough to know, but I saw the headline in the Post—six hundred and… I can’t remember how many. Quite a few days more than six hundred days, or maybe it’s seven hundred days, since the last accumulated inch of snow in Central Park. And people have been chatting about it since September in the checkout lines at the grocery store. They discuss it over the counter in the French bakery where I buy croissants and standing with cups of coffee outside the little shop with Christmas tree ornaments still hanging in the window.
What do you think, will there be a winter this year?
Surely it will snow soon. It has to.
What if winter is never the same as it used to be?
I want to see snow in the city. I like to imagine stillness falling over those streets. And I’ve been thinking a lot about my early winters in the Black Hills, which often began in October. Before the first frost, even. A thick wallop of snow just as the colors were fading in the canyon.
Most years, the first snow melted quickly. Fall was brown and dry, with frozen air. Frost on the limbs of trees. Frost on the ground. Walking from the front door to the car, the grass snapped under my feet. In late December, or sometimes later, into January, the snow fell again, and then it would stick around. The late-winter snows layered over each other—a partial melt and then a freeze, and then another few inches would fall. Some years I didn’t see the ground again until May.
It was such an inconvenience, the South Dakota winter. Black ice on the pavement. That sharp stinging air. If the sidewalks were shoveled, I picked up a fringe of salt on my winter boots and the hemlines of my blue jeans. When they weren’t shoveled, I walked through snow up to my knees. Months of red noses. Red cheeks. Aching fingers. I remember standing in the schoolyard at the Catholic school in the winter in my plaid skirt and thick tights and knee socks and loafers. Throughout first period each day, my feet throbbed as they regained sensation. Each day, the same. They still hurt me now when it gets cold. My fingers and my toes. I wonder if I didn’t damage all the nerve endings in those early years, waiting outside in the school yard.
Do I miss those South Dakota winters? In a distant way, yes. I do. I wouldn’t want to live there for another one, but the memories soothe me.
Paul and I left New York on a Wednesday. He drove us through the thick band of commuter traffic in New Jersey. I drove us through Pennsylvania. We were headed southwest, aiming toward Louisiana, and we developed a rhythm of 100-mile shifts, stopping to walk the dog and switch seats at gas stations and rest areas. These are the negotiations of new relationships. Who is the passenger? Who drives? We each like to drive, so we split it down the middle.
The second day, in Virginia, along the Appalachians, we found winter.
Silverish skies that morning and then flurries in the air. We’d woken up a little south of Roanoke. As I drove the car onto Interstate 81, the roads were clear, but the fields along either side grew newly, softly white as we gained in elevation. We passed a frosted sign for the Museum of the Middle Appalachians and a few houses with white roofs at the turnoff. A frozen mud raceway. Off to the left, the snowy slant of a decaying wooden roof over an abandoned brick schoolhouse.
The Appalachians were a charcoal drawing, thick strokes where one hill overlay the next. The snow left a white frosting on the manicured bushes outside a Pentecostal church. All the playgrounds were empty. The towns seemed to be asleep.
I was transfixed by the pinpricks of flakes against the windshield as we rolled down the highway at 60 mph. The soot from the smoking tailpipes of semi-trucks beginning their daily journey.
I realized that the last time I saw snow, I was someone else. There was no snow in California after I left Kansas. None in Miami last year. None to greet me when I reached New York. Snow wasn’t particularly common in Kansas for the decade I lived there, but it did fall sometimes, even if it usually melted within a day. I remember the last time. The deep freeze of February 2021. Even with the furnace running, I was bundled under blankets in a chair in the living room. That morning, the water froze in the trap under the kitchen sink. All day, the loud snapping of tree branches around the house. And all night too. It was impossible to sleep, waiting for the cracked limb that might fall through the roof or into a window. But that feels like a long time ago, back when I was living another life.
We reached New Orleans in time for a wicked overnight storm. I woke up in the dark to the pounding of rain and the heart-stopping repetition of thunder and lightning strikes, seemingly right over the roof. I couldn’t possibly sleep, so I lay awake and listened.
Weather still astounds me. The swiftness of its devastation. Tornadoes. Hurricanes. The remorselessness with which it sweeps in and cancels plans, steals dreams, makes a wreck of everything. The weather reminds me that I am small. No matter how much I overrate my own power, my abilities are still limited. The weather forces me to stop. I desperately need reminders to stop.
When I think of winter in the Black Hills, I think of the thick, dayslong blizzards. Sitting on the carpet, wrapped in a blanket, watching the clouds of snow out the full-length windows of the living room. Those days when the snow fell too heavy and too quickly for anyone to plow the roads, and the power would be out until the electric company could get its truck to the snapped lines, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day. We had cans of soup. We had water for coffee and tea. We were safe inside. I sat on the carpet and read my books by the thin, snow-refracted light through the windows while my parents fed the wood stove.
That’s the quiet I long for. The stillness that comes from surrendering to an irresistible force. The days when nothing can be done and so nothing is asked of me. Even the sparse snow in Virginia, along the interstate, felt like a small release. Those flurries as light as dandelion seeds, brushing over the windshield. Even that reminder was enough to slow my anxious stream of thoughts. I felt a slight pause in the drumbeat of my mind.
I have thrown myself face-first, eyes open, into my new life in New York. It’s been exciting. A new relationship with Paul. An unexpectedly great job at an art gallery in Brooklyn. New people to care about and new streets to explore and a new understanding of what my life might become. It isn’t overstating to say that 2023 was the most exhilarating year of my life so far.
I spent months walking around in a happy stupor, amazed at the miracles that had befallen me. But then, lately, something shifted. What happened? Why am I wishing I could wrap myself in a blanket of snow and sleep? I am on this brief vacation to New Orleans, putting my faith in those slow-talking southern saints to bring me some wisdom.
Over the past year, my new life has solidified into a daily rhythm, miracles included. I have a grasp on them now. I have no illusion that I’ve earned everything that’s happened. I don’t believe it’s possible to earn such things. I know how the rain falls on the just and unjust; it’s the same for mercy. I’ve been given an incredible gift, but I’ve been walking around for the past month with a racing heartbeat, my lips bit, and my brow line furrowed.
When you’re given a gift, you’re supposed to prove yourself worthy of it. You’re meant to rise to the occasion. Or that’s how it feels. My footing is still shaky in this world where anything can be dreamed of. And I can’t help thinking, if any dream can come true, it follows that any failure is my own fault. I have to work harder. I can’t fall short. Maybe life was easier when I didn’t believe any of this was possible. Now I have to figure out how to keep it. How to grow from it.
I thought maybe I had changed, but I haven’t. No miracle has cured the habit of stealing my own joy. In the midst of all my wonders, I have begun to feel frightened. Honestly, I have been feeling terrified.
Because, what if I fuck it all up?
If only I could close my eyes and find an inner winter. A tiny refuge in a snow globe of the mind, with a white cloud all around me. I want a winter in which nothing has to be cultivated, in which there are no checklists, no impetus toward the future, no dread of my own mortality. Only silence.
I know what it feels like—I can touch a finger to my winter occasionally. Unpredictably. While sitting on the 6 train, watching a woman across from me crocheting a scarf, her needles tapping lightly against each other. Or while standing slightly apart at the top level of the Guggenheim Museum, staring down at the crowd. The weekend before we left New York, while it was raining, I spent an hour stitching up a hole in the pocket of my wool coat. Everyone I loved in the City was safe inside and accounted for, and I wasn’t writing any emails in my mind. For that hour, I felt utterly at peace. There was nothing in the world I wanted.
A snowstorm could hold me in that timeless place, if only I could have a snowstorm. A blizzard to wipe me clean from both the past and the future. Is it possible I could be my own weather? Of all the miracles of the past year, the greatest may have been the miracle of learning my own strength. I do believe I have the ability to live as though I’m not frightened. To allow myself joy. If only I can be as rigorous in my joy as I am now in my fear.
Weather won’t fix it. Snow melts and the drumbeat starts again. Geography isn’t enough to shake me up, to shift my mind. I can’t keep leaning on the meditation of driving in order to feel better, and I can’t hope for another miracle to fall from the sky to make everything easy. It’s on me this time, not the universe.
The sun is shining on the streets of New Orleans this morning. This is my one and only life.
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