Today, I drove to the coffee shop. Nothing particularly exceptional in many parts of the world, and especially, perhaps, in the burbs, where everyone drives to the nearest Starbucks. But in my town and my life, to drive to the coffee shop is a big deal for a trip that’s usually a pleasant walk. I did it because I was afraid I would lose various body parts to frostbite if I were on foot. Even waiting for my car to warm up, my fingers began to hurt.
I am not overly fond of winter, and this one has been particularly unpleasant. I couldn’t articulate quite what it is that’s so hard about winter until today, when after driving to the coffee shop, I drove back home along the river. Lo and behold, I discovered, the river is frozen.
Not completely frozen. You can’t walk across it. But there is ice on the river. Whole flows of it zooming along until it reaches some place farther south where it will melt away. Maybe in New Orleans?
I’d seen pictures posted on Facebook of the river frozen, but seeing it for yourself is a whole other thing. My grandfather told stories of the river freezing in his lifetime–of watching deer walk across from Kentucky to Ohio. But it’s never happened in my lifetime, and I’ve never seen chunks of ice flowing downstream.
A major event, and I might have missed it. This, I realized, is what I dislike about winter. It is a narrowing down of life to its barest elements. Can you get to your car? Will your car start? Will you get to work? Do you have enough to eat if it doesn’t get warm enough outside to leave the house for days? Will the cat who dashed outside while your husband was shoveling the sidewalk survive for more than a few moments? It’s very hard to think much farther beyond these basic needs in winter. The world becomes a sequence of things that are usually quite easy made increasingly difficult.
Life becomes confined to your house and work, unless you are one of those much hardier individuals capable of walking to the coffee shop in 4 degree weather. I confess, I am not. Winter is like the scene transitions in old silent movies, where the camera lens closes, and the little circle of action becomes smaller and smaller. Eventually, the circle is so small, it barely seems to reach beyond the warm confines of your bed.
In winter, it is easy to believe the river has stopped flowing altogether. The town is quiet. All your friends are trapped inside their own tiny battles with the cold and the ice. Life hibernates.
In brief moments, I can see where this could have a kind of appeal. Did Thoreau love winter? All the extraneous bits of life stripped away. Too cold to socialize. Your focus, in theory, turns inward. Sleep. Eat. Drink. Sleep. Too cold to walk as far as the river. As an introvert, this should be ideal.
But I miss my friends. I miss the world outside my house. I miss the epic movie shot that pans across the multitude. I miss the river.
I feel certain in the places where winter is always as hard as it has been in Indiana this year, people fight this shrinkage of their world. They gather together. They get out of bed. They walk to the coffee shop. With time, probably I could learn to walk the river in the cold. But I’ll confess, I’m sincerely hoping I don’t have to.