The Cold

"Cold snap" is one of those particularly right-minded bits of language, like "heat wave". Cold does snap, fastening on like a swift pinch, while heat does undulate slowly and langorously, at least around here; I couldn't swear for anywhere else. Cold has indeed snapped in the last few days; the temperatures are more like High Winter than the usual Mud Season/Winter transition. And we are left scrambling for gloves, scarves, tuques, and lined boots, and trying to find ways to drive without actually touching the steering wheel, at least any more than necessary.

That being said, we in Eastern Ontario know that we are, by Canadian standards, not quite in the wuss-weather department. We do have our backs set to the great Shield and the huge expanse of Hudson's Bay, and truly cold weather comes rolling down over that way, just as, to our south, snow rolls over the Lakes and dumps itself with gay abandon all over western New York. Ottawa in February can give Moscow a run for its money.

Still, this is not the Great Cold, the sort of Real Cold they have in Winnipeg, say, or Cambridge Bay or Tuktoyaktuk. On High Days and Holidays, instead of doing regional weather reports, the CBC unites this country by doing an across-the-nation weather report, starting with the High Arctic and fetching up with St. John, Newfoundland. They let us know what the temperatures are like in Rankin Inlet, Grise Fiord, Iqaluit; and the readings there would make your teeth ache in sympathy. There's cold and there's *cold*.

So we wussy southern aesthetes can't feel sorry for ourselves just because (in Celsius) it's about -17 with a windchill of -22. In Fahrenheit terms, it's still above zero out there, if not very much above. And besides, this is Canada and it's early winter and you expected maybe feathers?

I have to say, though, that there's a sense of normalcy returning as I recollect how to gear down so as not to brake on winter streets. If you actually count up the days and weeks, most of the year here is actually Mud Season, but High Winter feels like the default state. Already the familiar omens are back: pigeons collecting en masse on the under-insulated roof of the old hotel, where the warmth is, and bursting up in their great synchronized flock, wheeling over the middle of town before fluttering unanimously down again. There's that tough cheerfulness; the sense that taking a deep breath is something like sucking on a strong-minded mint. We recollect the grandmotherly shuffle needed to get safely across an iced-over parking lot. We bid adieu to dignity, doing a wild impromptu gavotte when boot his black ice. It's winter. It's like that. Barring global warming or moving south, this is simply the way the world is going to be for a few months.

Given some of the less well-thought-out evangelical sales campaigns, it's too easy for us to expect that when we've accepted our need for God and given God permission to get on running our lives, there will be that immediate payoff: Lo, Lord, you have lifted me bodily and set me down in Bermuda with an adequate income and no cares, so that I may spend my days worthily worshipping you. As Daffy Duck said, Ha. It is to laugh. With or without God, we still have to live in our ordinary landscapes, with slush underfoot and heating bills and all our old impulses.

Expecting grace to overcome our own human nature is like expecting Canada to be winter-free; it just ain't on. Maybe others have it easier, but for most of us, normalcy means struggling, being pulled two ways, Godward some of the time, and some of the time in the other direction. The more we warm toward God, the more we are aware of this push-pull--that's what the "knowledge of Good and Evil" is about. We become more, not less, conscious, of the ways in which we are tempted and succumb.

But having God in our lives gives us the wherewithal to do something more than just barely cope. I can look out at this early dose of High Winter and see what never fails to astonish me: the strange electric blue at twilight; or the extraordinary clarity of a pure winter sky. I can appreciate the shaking-out power of real winter, how it slaps your cheek with a brisk almost friendly buffet, how it makes you alive, alert. Winter makes you look actively for beauty, instead of beauty's being delivered without any effort on your part, as summer does. Winter may be more of a struggle, but it has a vividness to it, a sort of bass-ackward aliveness.

God puts the joy into things, even into the most improbable things, the things that look from outside like inconveniences or even agonies. God has the power, if we'll let him do this, of transforming suffering into something useable or positive or even, God help us, outright beautiful. God as ice sculptor?

I keep circling this belief, coming back to it time and time again: it isn't what life gives us that matters, it's what we and God together make of it, and what it and God together make make of us, if only we'll allow that to happen. Canadian winter can be a long, cold, lonely, miserable state of affairs, or it can be a time of rare bursts of beauty, a rough refreshment--and in any case, normal and necessary to this place at this season.

The ground has frozen hard enough that what little snow we have is sticking. Now we need about another 3-4 inches for the kids to get out there with their sleds.

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 09 Dec 2000
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