the weather ski

It is not winter anymore, but I think this essay is more about hope and heart than snow, and maybe even in June we have things to learn about the cold.

When I was in high school, my family went on a ski trip to a town a few hours drive east of our home. It was a once-each-winter trip. Most years we’d drive there in the morning and drive home after they closed, unpacking the ski boots and snow pants on sore feet at midnight. This year, some friends who lived nearer the slopes were out of town, and offered us the use of their home. We accepted gladly.

In the morning, when we were cooking a big breakfast and slowly stretching out our legs, we noticed a single cross country ski standing straight up out of a drift in front of the kitchen window. It was blowing slightly in the wind. Mom chuckles at the kitchen sink, and points it out to Dad when he joins her. They laugh together, and the sound draws all five of us kids, pushing and crowding around their shoulders. 

“Maybe it’s a Weather Ski,” Dad jokes, and puts on a radio announcer voice, “Yes, the weather ski is bent at just a ten degree angle, so light winds today. Keep a watch out for black ice.”

My brother chimes in: “Friends, the weather ski is at a forty-five degree angle; looks like a real blizzard out there!” We laughed together companionably and then scattered again, leaving Mom still washing dishes and the curved, colorful ski bobbing in the intermittent breeze.

Now it is springtime in 2020. I never planned to check the weather as part of my morning routine. Usually I just dress for whatever the day might bring. Jeans, a t-shirt, a jacket, a down vest over it all if it’s cold. But this year, almost the entire nation is under a quarantine. We’re fighting a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. And since I’m not getting dressed in a hurry to take my toddler to play dates and library programs, I’m slowing down to check the weather. That single app on my phone with its prediction of sunshine and temperatures is the indicator of whether we’ll even get outside. My mood seems to rise and fall with the weekly highs and lows. 

Some weeks are warm and sunny. The highs reach for the 70’s for days in a row. I put on shorts and dig out 3T shorts for a toddler who still calls them pants and we find sun hats for him and his sister. We wrangle out the double stroller and head for the grassy spaces in the park. The weather has smiled on us. In weather ski talk, maybe the ski is fading and peeling in the heat – a warm one today folks! 

But intermittently, cold days come. Back in Minnesota, the ski is probably bobbing lightly in the wind while its snowdrift takes on a new layer of white. Here, our red-brick patio slowly disappears under a steady film of flakes. So does my energy. The two-year-old runs from one part of our tiny home to another until he feels the cooped atmosphere too. Then he lags and droops like a wind-bent ski-tip, clinging to me when I let him and sliding to the floor in despondency when I try to get up, do the dishes, finish the laundry – anything to spur us into motion. 

Sometimes it is cold for so many days that I stop checking. I don’t open the curtains in the morning. There doesn’t seem to be much point. Who wants to look at the tired, frozen pile of snow on the patio anyway? The little blue toddler truck that he pushes with his feet is as deeply buried as the real vehicles that we’re not using – that’s what happens when you stay at home for a full month I suppose. I take one look at the picket fence and see the snow in delicate heaps on its ridged top, and I lose hope for the day. The sudden mischief of a black squirrel brushing snow off in bursts, left and right, as he scampers along the rails is lost on me. I’ve already turned back inside to wonder what will become of our day, stretched long and white until the distant evening.

I forced myself out for a walk one cold day. “Won’t I need a coat?” I wondered out loud. “No, just a vest,” my husband reassured me. He gave me a searching look, as if he knew I’d already resigned myself to all the warm layers I’d wear to fend off the cold. “Well then I’m wearing a hat,” I replied in defiance of his optimism. 

I felt like a stranger to the sunshine, walking down the sidewalk towards the park. The air was cool, but not as cold as I had anticipated. The snow had stopped. The sun was lowering towards dusk but miraculously still held some warmth. I let myself take big breaths of the air I hadn’t smelled in days. It was cold and unscented in the dust and impossibly fresh. It tasted like morning air, spring air. My soul seemed to tiptoe forward with cupped hands and shining eyes, like a shy child. I smiled at the masked strangers as we gave each other wide berths – walking off the sidewalk around each other when we passed. 

I have never been the first one out into the snow on a cold day. Not when I lived in Minnesota and adored the “snow globe” days of large flakes coming down slow in the still world. Not when the pines were lightly adorned with picture-worthy white on their branches. Not when the neighbor plowed the drifts from our driveway into one large, snow-fort-worthy heap. But I was once more resilient. I remembered how to see past the cold to the beauty. Snow may be frozen but it sparkles in the light. Winter may be cold but laughter in the outdoors is warm. The weather ski anchored in a drift outside the kitchen window may be bending and dipping in the wind but it’s not waving a frantic warning – it’s just an indicator, like the snow on the patio tells me nothing more than that it is snowy outside. Snow can’t tell me if I’ll find joy when I go out, or whether the work of bundling two children two-and-under into thick snow pants for a short walk will be worth it or not. The weather can only tell me if I need a vest or a coat, not if I’ll find hope in the too-bright sun and air that’s still somehow fresh as a mountain morning. 

It turns out we DO have fun outside, even if some days it’s just poking our heads out to see how cold it really feels. But at least I’m learning not to rely on how far out of the shade the patio snow drift is lying. The weather ski has been reduced again to just that – an old, slightly faded cross country ski nodding along to the wind and the drifted snow – not a needle on the gauge of hope that bends closer to zero as the wind speed increases. I check the app on my phone and plan which part of the day is best for a walk – when will the wind die down, when will the stroller find the least resistance in the snow? When can we get outside in the cool air and carve hope out of the sunshine? I check the weather and I think of the old weather ski, and I smile. 

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