On Winter

Winter is commonly used as a metaphor to describe the final stages of life; in physical terms alone, the white hair of the elderly makes an easy parallel to snow, while arthritic limbs conjure thoughts of knotted tree branches, laid bare by autumn winds.  As obvious as these comparisons are, however, they are, at best, purely cosmetic.

The reality is that winter is the time of year when you should feel the most alive.  Each day affords you the opportunity to emerge anew from the womb, as it were.  You are challenged to exit the comfort and familiarity of the warm bed and meet the challenges, not just of your everyday life, but of the cold and the discomfort it brings.  In addition, because of the cold and the shortness of the days, your mind must be focused to maximize the daylight.  Contrast this with summer, when the warmth of seemingly endless days allows you to be lackadaisical and procrastinating.

In my own experience, the starkest individual memories I have are of the winter:  being without electricity for days after an ice storm; shoveling through an expanse of frozen snow to liberate the vehicles of my invalid parents; running long distance routes through the falling snow, amazed at just how quiet the winter can be.  Compared to these moments, the summers of my life play back as almost a continuous stream, or as a giant blur.  Summer is an enjoyable time, to be sure, but I can never escape the feeling that summer is just an exception in life, and winter the rule.  By the time August comes, a part of me yearns for the challenges of the cold, wind, and snow.

As writer Mark Helprin wrote a few years ago in the Wall Street Journal:

The world changes as snow and cold test one’s ingenuity, something that brings far more satisfaction than just living easily.  You come both more contemplative and alert.  The fire you make and tend against winter is one of the great things in life only because it stands for life itself opposing the forces that someday will end it.

There may come a time when I surrender to comfort and run only indoors while outside temperatures are less than zero, and I may grow so housebroken as to park my car in the garage where frost will not blanket the windows.  But that time is not yet.  There is an impulse within, however irrational and inexplicable, that enjoys winter, and embraces the struggle it presents.  Indeed, the winter is no metaphor for death.  It is essential.