"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives" -- Annie Dillard
I woke up last Saturday morning from the 10th floor condo of a well-windowed high-rise in the middle of downtown Chicago. Outside, snow was blowing in every direction and cars crept carefully along the slippery white streets. Even with the thermostat set to a warm 71, I could feel the frosty bite of early December in my bones.
I grabbed an extra blanket from the couch, drank two cups of coffee in bed, and from underneath the warmth of the heavy down comforter, plotted how I would make my way to the gym before noon. My main goal for the day was to move from one heated space to the next as quickly as possible. I would take a cab to the gym and back, six blocks round trip.
Then I got a phone call from one of the only people who knows me better than I usually know myself. "Snow is swirling everywhere, the streets are covered," he said. "Liz, go outside. You will love it."
Of course, he was right.
I pulled on a pair of thermal tights, my old Swix hat from my high school cross-country days, left my gym bag by the door, and headed out for a run in the fresh snow.
Growing up in Northern Michigan, you got really good at doing winter. Lake effect snow and single digit temps meant that even our mild winters were full-blown. The first snow of each season usually came before Thanksgiving and we celebrated with hot chocolate, homemade cookies, and the bringing out of the winter bins. Our ritual was the same each year and it set the tone for how we would approach the cold coming months -- with open, fleece-clad arms, well-lined snow pants, mugs of cocoa and a healthy dose of wonder and appreciation.
When your winter lasts almost half of the year, the option of half-assing it doesn't really exist. Instead, we went all in: soccer cleats were traded for skis; sneakers were replaced with heavy Sorel boots; bikes were hung up in the garage; and sleds of all shapes and speeds were brought down from the attic. The flat part of our front yard that served as a badminton court in the summer was transformed into a 15-foot by 30-foot skating rink, filled by well water and maintained by dad. When winter hit, you better believe we were ready.
At school, our three short outdoor recess periods were consolidated into two longer ones, giving everyone adequate time for recess sledding and the clothing changes that accompanied it. In high school we brought our ice skates for twice-a-week gym class at the local rink. The season was never a hassle, it was just worked into the plan to maximize fun.
When the snow became too much for the well-equipped plows to handle, school was cancelled. Magic! A true gift! Because extra snow meant bigger forts and all day to build them with our neighbor friends. (As the ultimate winter builder, I have to give my brother some credit here. Forts and sledding jumps were his staple. But at his best, he built a luge course through the hills of our backyard. I remember him working on it everyday after school for an entire week, carrying buckets of water out from the house to ensure his course elicited maximum speed. It was epic.)
We played outside on our way to the bus stop in the morning, all day long on weekends, and with the help of spotlights from the house, we'd usually get a few more sled runs in after dinner. No one ever froze, no one ever came down with pneumonia. But by the end of each season, our snow pants had holes in the knees, our skates needed sharpening, and our stock of hot chocolate had run dry -- tangible proof that our days had been well spent.
As I ran along the snow-covered sidewalks last weekend, reveling in the crunch of each slippery step, I considered my recently adopted habit of dramatic weather whining: "My cheeks are cold." "My fingers are frozen." "My toes are definitely about to fall off." "I want to stay inside all weekend." I thought about how ashamed my parents would be to know that somewhere along the way I had lost my seasonal toughness. I could hear their voices loud and clear: "Getting sick from the cold is a myth! Put on an extra pair of socks! The cold air is good for your lungs! Sledding is good for your soul!"
Of course, they were right.
So I made a pact with myself: to live in this winter, not just through it. I decided to buy more gloves, to keep hats handy, to add extra layers. To skip the gym in favor of the snowy lakefront path. To walk home instead of moving from heated building to heated cab and straight back into a heated apartment. To play more and complain less. To welcome these cold months with as much excitement as I did when I was a kid (even if the official snow days no longer exist). And to appreciate each white winter day for how peacefully alive it can make you feel if you get outside long enough to really feel it.