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Opinion

My journey to find comfort in the cold

My husband knows that a big oil bill beats roses.

By Diane Cameron / December 12, 2008



Guilderland, N.Y.

I wake in the night and listen. The reassuring rumble tells me that the furnace is still on. It's good news and bad. It means we have heat and there's still oil, but it might just as well be dollar bills that I'm burning.

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I don't fall back to sleep easily. My fear of cold has an ancient echo. I listen for the furnace at night the way my Polish ancestors woke in their huts to check on the fire. We're told that global warming is a threat, but it's a danger I'd settle for on days like this.

In many wedding albums, there is a picture of the groom carrying the bride over the threshold. That odd custom is also about staying warm. In ancient times, when a woman left her father's home and was set down on the hearth in her new house she was in the most important spot in any ancient home. She literally kept the home fires burning.

Temperature is part of my own married romance. Coming to New York from Baltimore – where there is just one decent snowstorm each year – I, too, was set down on a new hearth.

My husband, Peter, comes from northern Ontario, where winter runs from September to May and wind chill is scoffed at. "When Canadians have 30 below, they mean it," he says. "Wind chill is for wimps."

So to marry this tundra man I had to learn to dress for serious cold. To get me from Baltimore's Inner Harbor to Albany's frozen Hudson, Peter plied me with jackets and sweaters, scarves and gloves, even a hat with earflaps. The gift of Sorel boots – toasty at Canada's 30 below, was a sign we were getting serious.

That first winter together, living in upstate New York, I thought I'd die. My boots were good below freezing, but my fingers could barely tie them. Physical acclimation is real, but it came slowly. Each year gets a bit easier. Now I complain about the cold, but no longer imagine myself as part of the Donner party.

But there is also emotional acclimation to cold. A quote of French author Albert Camus is taped inside the cabinet where I get my coffee mug each morning. It says: "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." Some days that tells me that I have enough beach memories to cling to on freezing days and other days it is the word "invincible" that reminds me that living cold does indeed build character.

But having a warm house is important. I can't swear that my first marriage ended solely over the thermostat setting, but for years I never went on a second date with a man whose response to my "I'm cold," was, "Put on a sweater." Now I'm married to a man who knows that cold hands do not mean a warm heart, and that a big oil bill is better than roses. But surprisingly, I've grown, too. I am willing, in this new life and climate, to go look for that cost-saving sweater.

The word comfortable did not originally refer to being contented. Its Latin root, confortare, means to strengthen. Hence its use in theology: The Holy Spirit is Comforter; not to make us comfy, but to make us strong. This then is our task. We may not be warm but we are indeed comforted; we are strong and we are looking for the sweaters.

Diane Cameron is a freelance writer.

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