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Winter’s bracing embrace

Despite it, people persist up in Maine. I know why.

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    A snowboarder builds a ramp in Portland, Maine.
    Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File
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Up here in Maine it has been a winter to beat the band. In the first half of the season alone we had four blizzards. After one of these, getting outside was a matter of putting my shoulder to the door and ramming my way through the barricading snowdrift. Yes, I had to break out of my house.

These days, there is almost nothing one can accomplish without snow being part of the calculus. Want to walk somewhere? First shovel a path to the street. Then it’s a matter of walking in the street because the sidewalks are buried.

Driving home? When you get there, the plows have walled up the driveway, so you have to park in the street and shovel your way back to the garage.

What about driving itself? You’re at the mercy of the snow that covers the road. One slip of the wheel and you can only hope for the best, as happened when I lost control and came to rest in the embrace of a magnificent snowbank, which cradled the car almost lovingly, preventing me from careening into the woods.

I want to note that none of these are complaints. They are simply observations. And I would like to add one more to the batch: Despite the challenges of sometimes inordinate degrees of snow, wind, and cold, people persist here. I understand why. It has to do with the measured way Mainers live life in general.

I look out my kitchen window at the Penobscot River, frozen from bank to bank, the snow forming a common carpet as it passes from my backyard, out over the ice, and into the woods on the other side. I stare until I can take it no longer. Despite the comfort of my being on the warm side of the window, I am winter’s least willing prisoner. 

I grab my coat, hat, gloves, and scarf, and pull on my boots. I tramp outside, plod through the drifts, cross my yard, descend the bank, and continue out onto the river. I stop for a moment of respite. Lifting a boot, I set it down on unbroken snow. Then I admire my handiwork: a perfect boot print, its edges sharp, as if done with a cookie cutter. I step forward and make another, then another. For a moment I wonder: What would someone think upon seeing a dark figure out on the river’s snow, staring down at such length?

I have been here before. This is how one learns to love winter. My California and Florida friends would laugh if they heard me say such a thing, but this doesn’t make it less true for me. (I am mindful of what Emerson wrote in his essay “Self-Reliance”: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, – that is genius.”) 

Well, I’m no genius, but I do know what Emerson meant – that we as humans do hold certain basic truths in common – and it applies in spades to my solo moments in the snow as I make tracks with deliberate care. Winter in Maine is long, hard, and, this year, unrelenting. But I and my fellow Mainers approach it the way we would anything that needs to be done: We take it day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Managing one’s way through a Maine winter is akin to stacking wood – an impossible task if one imagines he can hoist the pile, but a warming experience when handled one stick at a time. One can do anything if it is tackled in such small pieces.

I finally look up from my handiwork – or should I say “footi-work”? Winter, like any guest, is here for only a while. In a short time it will depart and yield to another season’s knock at the door. And so I turn and gaze back at my home, perched in the distance, on raised ground overlooking the frozen river. Smoke curls from the chimney as if signaling, “You’ve had your share of winter for the day. Come home now.”

I do so, knowing that every step I take is a profession of love for an unloved season, and a gesture in the direction of spring.

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