I felt last night that something interesting was brewing as the sun was setting. The radiant orange sky was adorned with a mock bas relief: towering clouds that spread like a fiery blanket over woods and then distant mountains. And the weather forecast also had me sniffing the air for any hint of snowfall. I usually stay on the fence about our changeable weather, and Willamette Valley weather folks are on the fence about snow showers actually showing up at any time. But I live higher than most Portlanders at 800 feet above sea level–it is colder here and lasts longer. Even my car’s temperature indicator pinged at me, indicating freezing temps. It was within grasp on the edge of the breeze, that sharp sweetness of a coming snow.
After all, snow was something to get excited about–we had had none here this winter. The Cascade and Coast Mountain ranges get plenty but I have wishes far greater than reality. My twin granddaughters had already gotten to play in the superior mountain snow, even sled down with their parents and tasted a bunch. Two other (teenaged) grandkids are used to winter’s plentiful fluff in their city, at a higher elevation of much colder central Oregon. But here I was with face to the windows, opening the balcony doors–waiting, waiting.
It took until the next day but it came. Yes, I know, it is clearly nowhere close to being a white-out snow…but it was still a pleasant thrill. It was drifty and soft and bright–it was not, thank goodness, more rain.
That was about it, yet it felt so good, a relief to stand outside and have wispy, sometimes globby flakes land on my face, feel sharper wind as it pressed against more weighted pine branches; they swayed a bit to and fro as if in welcome. There were many grey-on-white foot prints. My hands cupped chilled softness to shape a snowball–it was good packing snow despite the limited amount. I stood on the balcony that overlooks many pines and absorbed a breath-giving freshness of air, the taste of it almost a wintery dessert. For a few minutes I leaned against the house, coatless, arms held close about myself. I wanted to feel the slightest elegant power of snowfall, take deep its lingering quietude.
I shared my hasty snaps of the snow with my five adult kids because they know of the variety of more relentless winter events, the voluptuous kinds that coat everything with its generous displays. They lived many years in the Great Lakes State as did their parents. We traded pictures of their snow levels and mine along with a few memories. It was an immediate reconnection to a different space emotionally. Anyone who lives with snow for months every winter knows how this is, how it shapes your internalized landscape of life.
Today my youngest, Alexandra–one who lives in the metro area–checked in on me. She had earlier sent photos of her 20 month old little girls frolicking in a lot of snow on Mt. Hood a week ago, tasting quite a bit as they played. She asked how I was doing, meaning: how is it going with weather/virus statistics/vaccine roll out pushed back farther for too many/political changes/restlessness, as I like freedom to move a lot/life with her dad being yet unemployed. I answered, “Fair to Midland”, a dumb old gag that originated who knows where. In fact, I grew up in Midland, Michigan (she with her four siblings lived in that city awhile, as well; they’d often visited my parents/their grandparents). So it slipped out, innocuous if truthful. Maybe it was triggered by the snow the night before..ah, yes, Michigan snow…So a “Midland” designation could be pretty good or it might be a slight bit better than fair. I was feeling more the second. Life in itself can be fatiguing.
However, I also had been considering experiences to write about for this nonfiction blog post today. Since we were chatting, I asked my daughter to throw out a random idea or phrase (she writes a lot, too).
She said, “Melting snow–or fingernail painting.”
“Not fingernail stuff, I’d get three lines out of that one today. But snow….snow sledding, snow people and snow houses, heavy pants and coats and wet mittens and snowballs fights, giant snow drifts….”
“Wait, are you writing about snow? It has to be snow melting.”
“Oh,” I said. “Okay then, snow melting right before spring with green shoots underneath, or the demise of snow in the greater world, or watery snow in ditches that become creek beds and mountain rivers rushing from snow melt. That crappy moment the sled won’t budge because the runners are gunked up with mud taking over the once-snowy spots. But–a bit sad?”
She quickly responded: “The snowperson feels her own face slowly disappear. Her eyes first, an escape from the stare of an angry sun. Her nose, a frozen lump receding, and with it scents of earth and wet. Too late to yell out, to petition the clouds to dispense more of the clay that builds her bones: snow…” She paused. “But, anyway, mud sledding sounds sort of fun.”
I was quite taken with her melting snow lady scene; it was an entire story in a few sentences. I was hoping for more. “Oh boy! Can I quote you on that?” Meaning: can I use this for today’s post or better yet, will you write it for me?
“Sure–but I’m kinda depressed so not the best storyline.”
“We all have been kinda depressed off and on. Fatigued, worn out by it all. Anyway, I love you.”
She gave me her love with hugs and got back to her now-virtual work duties. I got my hiking boots on–I had to get outdoors. Rain–for months now–or snow, daylight or dusk: moving beyond my front door and into the world and nature’s domain is a ritual I well keep. A routine, an opportunity for discovery and more good moments. It’s praying on two feet moving, with all senses attuned. And maybe I’d still find a bit of snow.
So I went on a trek in search of snow, up and down hills, pinpointing evidence of yesterday’s flurry of frozen rain. There was pitiful little. The air held a steely edge as I wove in and out of treed areas, the sky grey and weighted as pewter, damp breezes sliding over hair and face. The temperature had risen overnight to 43 degrees Fahrenheit; snow had about all melted. My thick sweater and LLBean jacket with a hood encouraged heat and sweat as I tramped winding walkways. But there was a whisper of it, tiny clues here and there that snow had landed and stayed long enough to entice, to make me remember the lavish and treacherous, the magical snows of my youth.
The creeks were burbling and rushing downhill, pleased with increased wet volume. But trees and earth looked a little forlorn, not dressed with leaves nor with snow, caught at an in-between stage. I know they wait patiently for all that comes, live on in anticipation of matters and happenings they know far better than do I, and so I bid them a good day and kept on.
But as for the snow of my childhood and youth that is not here today…That kind of snowfall provided an entry into a differently populated, newly designed world. Everything lost its edges, was rounded, gave off a bright sheen. The earth with its plant kingdom and humanly created structures were refashioned into ghostly or gaudy versions of themselves, depending on laydown of any light. Before the snowfall, all that was ordinary and reliable transformed into magical and mysterious.
How many routes were carved through heavy snow? Year after year. Around our two story yellow house, forging the deep path with my heavy boots– into the front, side and back yards, about the juniper (and sleeping forsythia) bushes, back to the big maple and circling the bloomless cherry tree, then turning finally toward Stark’s Nursery that went on forever behind our bushes and pines. Each venture was a new exploration. I felt brave and hearty as I trudged into the howling center of winter, dragging my wooden sled behind me, face to snow’s kisses. I’d gather small branches and pine cones to be settled on the sled for delivery elsewhere, or carry a pyramid of snowballs for surprise battle with my sister if she roused herself (or any other who dared challenge). Or, too, my doll–dear Lady Jane, a beautiful walking doll, my favorite–warmly protected and wrapped in Mother’s dress fabric remnants or an old woolen scarf. It was the elements and us.
I could have headed to a good sledding hill with my sister and brother, as often I did. I might have gone to City Forest to enjoy gargantuan toboggan ice runs constructed high up, the rides down a fast rattle and flash with a sprawling crash into packed hard snow. I might have skated more often than anything; it was a passion. Good ice (shiny smooth if possible, free of snow) or bad ice, it made no difference. (Figure skating required and provided other things–the best clean ice, hours of hard, happy work with thrilling small successes.) I occasionally went skiing with a friend whose family did that sort of thing–mine did not–and when I made it down “bunny hills” without falling, I fell in love with its speed and athletic delight.
But in childhood and into my teens I just had to go forth into that driving snow. Especially the first few snows. It swirled about and stung my cheeks, tweaked my nose, crusted lashes and eyebrows crystalline. I was never lonely; I was fully alive and free. There were cardinals, blue jays, other winter birds and squirrels scampering about. And the tree nursery was a wilderness of loveliness any direction I looked, snow a glittering veil, trees and bushe ands small creatures adorned in beauty. If I got thirsty I found and broke off an icicle to slurp as it melted in heat of my mouth. Some were long enough to be a sword, three feet long or more, sharp as a big needle point on the end. Just in case. Just because I was on an exploration and nothing must stop me.
There were fortresses, cabins or castles out there somewhere, weren’t there?– I would find them and make a fire, warm fingers and toes of Lady Jane in my palms, make a porridge of melted snow and pine needles and old moss. I was never afraid of darkness gathering, the shadows lengthening, then widening upon undulating stretches of creamy whiteness. Like satin bordered with lace, like a huge blankets speckled with earth.
Back around the house, a streetlight swung in the wind as more snow blew in, lifted and drifted. Light and dark chased one another as I began packing snow blocks one against another in tall drifts left by the snowplows. I could crawl inside if I scrunched myself into a tidy ball. The snow blew across the yard in waves so high that freezing flakes slipped over my boot tops and under the legs of my snow pants–then warmed and trickled down my ankles. But a snow house was in the making and unless my family called me in, I was out for the duration.
When all was completed and I finally wearied of the cold, the cold, wet garments would come off, then I’d warm up and dry off by the hot air register (the burning sensation making me aware how cold my hands had gotten). One was positioned right behind a big chair and I could hide there a bit, rest and be happy. Nose ran, cheeks flamed, eyes were wide and bright. Soon scents of dinner would overcome me, simple pork chops or roast beef, potatoes, brussel sprouts, beets with salad. I was home again. All was well in those fine moments.
In Michigan when the snow began to melt, I felt little by little a welling up of sadness. I was not a springtime girl despite being born in April. It was the passage of winter to spring that I least loved. The slipping away of winter’s wonderment seemed a slow counting of tender losses: the enrapt silence of snow fallen, and its soft sifting and clicking against plant life and human bodies; cars cruising through slush, houses made friendlier. The odd emptiness of the world when blizzard conditions occurred and snow fell down as a heavy curtain, insulating the world from itself. The mystery of reaching into snowy depths, stiff grasses like sharp reminders of secret hibernations and ground hard as granite and stones like bitter cold gems ready to crack open to reveal something more.
My body and mind cushioned against any slight or large harm, any misgivings or errors, or reach of words and deeds that might lead me to something that might hurt, or someone I could not interpret correctly. This I knew for sure: snow was a bestowing of nature’s blessing; it was a perfect performance of beauty and power, another gift from from God’s own hands. And I had a place in that embrace.
In time, I came to admire and respect all the seasons in equal measure, for different reasons. The fantastical designs of nature held me early in their thrall. As any child who has the chance to explore such worlds feels, if they are lucky, right away. There were moments I was certain I was given the keys to all I ever needed to know. That was, of course, not quite the case. I had to better learn how to step into the other realm–to move into and about the world of people and their doings. Into the life I had a responsibility to create each step of the way, even when with disastrous results, even when there came success beyond expectations. But oh, what a teacher I had as each winter came with its wildness and gentleness, to offer both respite and adventure. What good fortune it was. And shortly after the spring, the summer, the autumn. Michigan has, as I learned four entire seasons, and all are their own sort of thing. And each had signs and gateways into their secrets.
Oregon has its own surprises and gifts galore. Even if snow here does arrive like a dashing figure and then is too soon called elsewhere. It melts so fast yet I always greet it as a friend to a friend. I can go to the mountains to find much more. That may be a trek I take soon– to nudge out the 2020-21 blues and make way for more satisfying and energizing moments.
Below, a couple of poor pictures–my apologies– of old photos of my childhood home in winter. You might note those icicles and also the long handled shovel on the porch. I did my share of shovelling along with the others!