It’s 12°F. in Georgia this morning, and the Lazy Boy chair that has been my bed for the last few nights since a recent surgery puts me close to the back door, the unused fireplace, and the cold air that seeps in through both of them. I’m having trouble keeping warm.
Cold is an extremely uncomfortable and vulnerable feeling. I’ve heard people remark through the years that they’d prefer being too cold to being too hot, but having experienced both extremes I’m not certain I’d agree. They say you can fall asleep in the bitter cold; unlike being too warm . . . there is an escape. But that has never reassured me. I have experienced Arizona heat in the 100-teens, and I have experienced bitter cold well below zero in both the Montana mountains and the Arizona mountains (not to mention the wet cold of Ohio).
I spent the night at the foot of Mt. Haggin (near Anaconda, MT) around 1972, sleeping in a cloth sleeping bag that was soaked overnight, thereby introducing me to the early stages of hypothermia. And I sunk a pants leg thigh deep in the snow while climbing Mt. Baboquivari (southwest of Tucson, AZ) on New Year’s Day 1969. Your stories of the cold you’ve endured may, indeed, be worse but . . . these are some of mine.
When the ball dropped at Time’s Square ushering in 2018 it was 10° F. in New York City. In spite of the cold, streets were packed, singers sang, and musicians played. We can weather almost any weather for a time, can’t we?
Ivan Doig gives an unforgettable portrayal of the brutal Montana winter of 1919 in his book, Dancing At The Rascal Fair. And similar stories from around the globe describe the exploits of various human beings who have endured unimaginable levels of suffering from the cold. [We humans do love our stories of extremes, don’t we?]
As a boy I used to imagine what my worst fears might be. One that always stood out was imagining being naked, left out in the bitter cold, shivering, unable to get warm. I am not frigophobic or cheimatophobic, just “cautious” (as Barney Fife would say); I don’t wear lots more clothing than I need.
Bitter cold weather around New Year’s reminds me that change is “in the wind” (so to speak). Cold is like a flood, or an earthquake: there is no clear escape. It is like a blanket that covers everything in its path. You may endure it, but you do not outrun it. It holds you in its grasp until it decides to let you go.
Our insulated society misses much of this. Our HVAC systems make us feel protected, separated from the bitter cold and its effects. That is, until a water pipe bursts, a heating element burns out, electricity fails, or a car won’t start. Then visions of frontier life loom large before our eyes.
Cold gets our attention; we are its puppets. A frozen shiver can cause your shoulders to hunch up suddenly and touch the sides of your neck. You can be in conversation with someone else and suddenly blurt out an unintelligible syllable prompted by your body’s lurching attempt to warm itself. Or you can just shake. I’m telling you, at that moment you are a marionette in the hands of an icy puppeteer. [And you can’t even see the strings!]
You may make your list of resolutions in the New Year, and I suppose we all should (if we truly mean them). But the cold that has ushered in the year 2018 is a reminder to me that I am not really in control of all that much. I am at the mercy of the elements. My job is not so much to chart out how my life will go this year; rather, it is to man the rudder in a ship that sails on a sea so vast I cannot even see it all at once.
Wave by wave I will set, then reset, my course. I will glide along on the glassy waters at times, then hold tight when the torrents assail. Knowing this: the warmth of pleasant days is for my enjoyment, and the cold of bitter days is to test my resolve. Together . . . they make a life.
I am ready for the cold.