This, the final installment of How to Survive a Maine Winter, deals with something less tangible than clothes, food or activities; it deals with what’s in your head.
Part three of a four-part series. Read them all: How to survive a Maine Winter
I will be the first to say that cold weather, as a concept, appears to suck. It is difficult to enjoy the sharp pain of fumbling for keys with cold, dry hands. It is also not easy to grin while being buffeted by Mother Nature’s relentless icy toots. And let us stay mute on the subject of getting snow not only inside your boot, but inside the sock inside that boot.
Yes, winter can be tormenting. I still love it.
Am I a man with fundamental brain flaws? Probably. Is there a way I can convince you to have similar brain problems as me (i.e., a mindset that leads to you loving winter)? I would hazard that the answer is actually yes.
Maintaining happiness in the face of father frost’s abusive parenting requires an understanding of two key concepts. Don’t run away just yet, I’m not talking about distilling your chakra or nourishing your inner child with karma nectar. I’m talking simple realizations in real situations.
Here’s concept one: juxtaposition, or the act of placing two or more things side by side.
For example, stepping into a normal, pleasant, warm-but-not-scalding shower — the birthright of almost every American in the 21st century — is nice. Stepping into that exact same warm-but-not-scalding shower after coming in from an extended, bone-chilling skiing session is heaven on earth. These two showers are ostensibly the same, but the second is immensely better. It’s only what happened before the second shower (namely: dat ski sesh, bra) that makes it more glorious. That’s juxtaposition.
And that’s what winter is: constantly placing something difficult next to something enjoyable, boosting the enjoyability — if you will — of the latter activity because of the former.
Thanks to cold weather, every home transmutes from a place where nakedness is allowed by law into a bastion of life-giving heat (where nakedness is allowed by law). Restaurants become not just places of nourishment but bulwarks of nest-like warmth against a chilling onslaught (that also give nourishment). And sitting in a hot tub while it’s snowing? Heaven on earth.
I can hear you “warmies” out there, saying nonsense like, “but why not just stay where it’s warm all the time, dumdum?”
Because constancy is boring, that’s why. Warm, nice weather is simply that: nice. And all those nice, warm days add up to one 72-degree vanilla custard of a life. No character, no variation, no interest. Oh, it’s warm outside. Let’s all just go for a nice warm stroll. Let’s all have a pleasant warm sit on this warm bench and gaze silently into each other’s smug faces. No thank you. I, for one, enjoy life’s unexpected turns. Unceasing pleasant weather is, to me, like limbo. Winter is real life.
Which leads to the pith of the point: Life itself is filled with juxtaposition. Every person’s journey is filled with peaks and valleys, great moments and devastating losses. The less-than-stellar parts make the triumphs that much sweeter, just like the cold makes us appreciate warmth all the more.
Juxtaposition is your winter ally.
Now we move to concept 2.
The following statement is meant to pre-empt the following inevitable response from all winter haterzzz. “Sure,” they’ll say. “I like the fact that warm things are nice after being out in the cold, but I hate the whole ‘being out in the cold,’ aspect of the situation.” This is a valid point.
Surprised though you may be, I will not tell you to grin and bear it. I will not tell you to suck it up. What I will tell you is a bit trickier to put into practice, but ultimately more useful and effective than either of the previous statements.
How you learn to enjoy the cold of winter is to start enjoying traffic.
“Impossible!” you chuff. “Everybody hates traffic! What hideous, deranged husk of a lizardman could enjoy traffic?
I do. Or, at least, I make a conscious effort to.
Why traffic? A: because it is as inevitable as winter chill (we have established that life in warm places is untenable) and B: like winter — and life — it is yet another hindrance to our perceived destination. Meaning, nobody really heads out the door thinking, “Man, can’t wait to get to that traffic! Oh boy, it’s time to hit some traffic!” No. Traffic is a meaningless impediment to some other goal, just like cold weather.
Or is it?
SIDENOTE: Not to get too into the weeds with this whole traffic metaphor, but I’m not describing the kind where you’re rushing an enormously pregnant woman to the closest hospital or are careening half on/half off the median because you’re five minutes away from missing your flight to Maui. I’m talking about the normal traffic we hit every day, when going to the grocery store or driving to a friend’s house for the weekend or sojourning home for the holidays.
It sucks that I sound like a luxury car commercial when I say, “life is about the journey, not the destination.” But, in reality, behind every bromide is often vital truth. The reason that the previous statement sounds so phony is that we’ve all simply been forced to construct B.S.-proof mental riot gear thanks to a commercial culture that wants us to conflate buying stuff with happiness.
So let’s just agree for now that life is indeed about the journey. And that no matter how objectively good or bad a situation may appear at first glance, it is better to live in the moment than to be constantly waiting for something else to arrive. In short, traffic — like most of life — is not about enjoying yourself because of the situation you’re in; it’s about enjoying yourself despite the situation you’re in.
So how do you start enjoying traffic? You start living in the moment.
Instead of being stuck, you have been given the opportunity to savor the anticipation of reaching your destination. You are allowed to hang out in your temperature-controlled vehicular habitat. Listen to music you like. Call up a friend (with your legal, wireless headset). Are your kids in the car? Talk to them; you never know what might bubble up. You’re going to be there whether you like it or not, so enjoy it. This isn’t simply traffic; this is your life. Take a break from thinking about where you wish you were and focus on attempting to relish where you actually are.
And that’s where this protracted metaphor has led us: You can embrace any moment. Yeah that sounds gooey and spiritual, but in actuality, winter already does half the work for us. Check it.
When I’m blowing on my chilly hands, I’m being thrust into the present. Meaning, instead of worrying about work or bills or what form of public transportation the germ colonies on my dirty dishes have developed I’m simply thinking, gum and junipers my claws are chilly. Mmmm, love the smell o’ frost! Or when I’m shoveling snow, my brain isn’t involuntarily harping on how little writing I’ve done that day. Instead I’m just thinking, “Cheese and whiskers, look at all this purdy whiteness!”
SIDENOTE: My thoughts are that of a prospector circa 1895.
Winter creates involuntary Zen moments, forcing us back to ourselves to focus on what’s happening right now. After that, it’s simply up to us to be mindful of what’s good, like the intricate patterns ice forms on a window or the crispness of the air in our lungs rather than the fact that our toes are freezing off. With enough practice, just like in traffic, you might actually start to enjoy yourself.
Luckily, that’s as heady as it’ll get, because that’s it. You are now equipped to survive a Maine winter. As long as you remember the subtle power of juxtaposition and embrace the moment with the help of the cold’s mind-focusing effects, you’ll knock these frigid months out.
Wow, thank you for sticking with me through this four-part saga. It’s been my pleasure. Since I can, I’ll leave you with this one last thought: Remember that as the mercury plummets and the crystalized H2O piles up, we’ll all be out braving the winter together. And, like nothing else can, that cold connects us, winterkin, as we each endeavor to fully appreciate our brief, unpredictable and lively lives.