By Zoe Zolbrod.
I woke up this March morning to another four or five inches of snow. It was still coming down when I peered through the frost-free porthole in the center of my bedroom window. There was no question it had to be shoveled promptly, from the sidewalk and front steps at least. It was a heavy snow, and I had to heave it high to get it atop the piles we’ve been building since December.
We live in the Chicago area and as in much of the Midwest and Northeast, the winter has been brutal—a record number of inches of precipitation, a slew of record-breaking low-temperature days. In early January we were hit with a blizzard and then immediately after the temperature plunged to under ten degrees below zero. Work and school were cancelled. On the second day at home I took my daughter a couple doors down to stave off her cabin fever with a visit to a neighbor boy, bundling us both up in layer upon layer until all that was exposed were our eyes. After I dropped her off I decided to take the long way home in order to experience this unprecedented environment. My boots crunched on snow frozen so hard the texture was that of crushed seashells. Cocooned as I was, the sound was as much an internal vibration as it was an external noise, as if I were listening through a stethoscope. I didn’t feel cold, exactly. I didn’t even feel gravity in the same way I was accustomed to. I felt like an astronaut—tethered to civilization by technology, but a speck in an uncharted vastness. It’s a sensation I’m going to carry with me. As I trotted that day, I recalled the time someone asked me to picture outer space and then told me that was how I felt about death. Walking around my neighborhood post-blizzard with the wind chill at minus thirty degrees seemed to me to be a closer approximation of what I imagine might wait for us when our hearts stop beating, when our bodies are burnt or buried to await decay. I had never experienced anything quite like it. And yet this winter has made me nostalgic for all of the winters that have come before, for all the ways I’ve kept warm in them, or haven’t. For all they’ve taught me about patience, and stasis, and change.
I grew up in Northwestern Pennsylvania, and the winter of 2013-2014 has brought me back to those of my youth, the memories of which used to make the Chicago season look unimpressive, if still tedious and ugly. The icicles that poured down from the gutter above the kitchen window in the home in which I was raised could grow thick as tree limbs, stab the entire height of the window so that we looked out through their bars. We had a long skinny driveway that my father had to shovel incessantly to keep passable, scraping away rhythmically in the dark of early morning, or the gloom of late afternoon, or the black of night with the snowflakes glittering in the glow from our light post. The piles quickly grew above my head and then, as the thawless weeks went by, up to my dad’s, the snow spilling over into the yard where the blanket of it was already deep enough for my brother and me to make tunnels through. The door to our house opened right into our small kitchen, no foyer, where we’d stand stomping and huffing like horses when we came in. There were four of us who lived there plus a dog to be walked, and we didn’t slow down for the fact of life that was winter, we were constantly in and out, letting in cold bursts and chunks of snow that would melt messily. The house was always chilly—a combination of thrifty parents and old windows and not helped by the frequent door openings—and my corner room especially so, with its two exterior walls. I shivered near the heat vent while I dressed. I slept under a featherbed that seemed almost as round as it was long. My fingers and toes were always cold, often painfully so. I hated the winter.
And yet there are warm memories—the family deciding despite the weather to drive to a basketball game at the college where my father worked, wondering if the car would make it up the hill, cheering when it did so, the steam from the hot breath of the players and crowd fogging the windows of the gymnasium. And I have warm memories of the snow itself, how the igloos we made could be really snug. And we lived in a place that could highlight the beauty of winter, with a woods across the street from our house that offered up its bare black branches to catch the snow and make a Narnia-like fairyland. Do we ever describe memories of summer as warm? Perhaps that’s why despite my antipathy to the season I never entertained the thought of choosing a college located somewhere it could be avoided.
I was always studying college possibilities, though. From the time I was about twelve I was actively plotting to get out of my hometown. I had good friends there, a solid family, but even as I made-out and partied and learned, part of me believed my real life wouldn’t start until I left, that the real me couldn’t emerge where I was. But here’s a winter memory that proves me wrong. One evening as a teenager on my way to meet friends at a basketball game already underway, I parked my car in the student lot and started walking across the snow-covered field that separated it from the high school, believing I was taking a short cut. My boots sank in the heavy snow, making each step difficult, and I was bitterly cold in the trendy thin coat I refused to button. It soon became clear I’d have been better off walking on the sidewalk. I paused for a moment and looked at the smooth, white expanse separating me from my destination. I ran cross-country in high school, and in the fall the field was part of our course. “It’s the same field,” I thought to myself. And I had the sensation of seeing—of being— at once both the green grass beneath my swift-moving feet and the moon-lit swath of unbroken snow that lay before me. I knew with a surety that made me less cold that spring would come, that it was coming even in the deadest part of winter, that—although I wouldn’t have used this imagery at the time— the very frozen stillness was the pause at the bottom of the exhale that makes the full inhale possible. I knew that in some way spring was as good as here.
It’s a clichéd insight, really—by that point in my life I’m sure I’d already been passed a roach clip with a ying-yang symbol dangling from it—but finding that ancient knowledge within myself felt huge. It’s a moment I’ve held close all the years since—only one of which was spent anywhere warm, and a few of which passed in an apartment without central heat where I’d sometimes wake up to see frost furring my bedroom wall. But no matter the quality of my outerwear or furnace, every winter there’s that month or so when the world is crusted with a layer of gray salt, and the snow banks are black and not going anywhere, and everyone’s puffy coat is deflated and filthy, and it only warms long enough to make a more miserable soup, and when I think: I can’t stand this! Why do I live here! Why does anyone! And then I’ll be visited by my self standing on that field outside the high school, the same self who emerges occasionally during moments of travel, or in a great yoga class, or on a walk, the one lodged most deeply within me but also who sees furthest outside myself, and I feel joyful, and calm, and sure. I picture the real me as a copper wire of energy that’s been pulsing through my core since the dawn of my consciousness, maybe even before that. Maybe it will even go on afterward.
A couple weeks ago a colleague died from the cancer that ravaged her within eight months of her diagnosis. She’s the fourth friend roughly my age who has died in the last three years. How early this inevitable falling off begins is not something that’s been encompassed by the worldview of my dawn-of-consciousness core self. In my life, the proximity of death has come as a mid-life shock. Living as I have always in places with four distinct seasons, the markers of winter, spring, summer, and fall have been reliable signposts for me, symbols of continuity amidst change, but there is a different quality to their coming now. They’re also beads on an abacus, ways to count years without these other people in them, ways to count off my own.
We’ve had a thaw already this March, and we’re due for another later this week before the temperatures plunge again. My weather app shows more snowflakes in the near future. But even in this fearsome and dramatic winter, one of these days the last snow of the season will come. And then will come spring, for those of us here. I think often of my friends who have died, turning over their absence like a stone in my mind. How can they be gone when I sense them so firmly? It brings me up short. The first flowers that come up in my yard are the crocuses. After the morning snowfall the sky cleared today, and the sun’s staying up longer. Green shoots might be visible even before the full melt.
Zoe Zolbrod’s first novel, Currency, received a Nobbie Award and was a Friends of American Writers prize finalist. Her writing can be found online at The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Weeklings. She lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband and two children, where she works as a senior editor for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and recently finished a memoir that explores how child sexual abuse reverberates throughout generations of a family.
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She has been featured on Good Morning America, NY Magazine, Oprah.com. Her writing has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, and more. Jen leads her signature Manifestation Retreats & Workshops all over the world. The next retreat is to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day/New Years. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Seattle, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Miami, Tucson & The Berkshires (guest speaker Canyon Ranch.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.