Meditation on the Cold

Rock Island, IL

The season of snows was preferred, that I might experience the pleasures of suffering, and the novelty of danger.

—Estwick Evans

Although the sky was clear and pale this morning, I had the sensation as I walked to work that snow was falling. By my guess there are about fourteen inches of snow on the ground already, and the air temperature, according to reports from the airport, is minus twenty-nine Fahrenheit: warm enough for Ivan Denisovich to walk to work and therefore warm enough for me.

I had the sensation that snow was falling because I felt what I thought were snowflakes on my nose and eyelashes, like in the song. But in fact steam was rising from beneath my scarf, lighting on my lashes in the form of little droplets and freezing there. When at last I arrived at my building I resembled one of those insane arctic explorers in the photographs whose eyes are frozen nearly shut by the polar slush.

My legs also felt the cold—at the knees, where my coat stopped. And the tip of my left index finger, which I sliced one morning in sixth grade, attempting to repair a model Chevy I had glued wrong the night before—this, too, registered the cold. It is usually the first to do so. And my feet, of course, felt the cold. But I was otherwise very comfortable. As I walked the streets between my house and my office I saw neighbors and strangers sprinting out to start their cars and warm them up, a practice that is good for the private combustion chamber, no doubt, but bad for the public air.

Keep moving, and an extra layer of wool does just as much good as an already-warm car—and far less harm.

And even now, as my students write in this frigid classroom, the pad of my own hand feels the bite of the cold table-top it rests on. Our room in this old building—the Humanities are always relegated to the oldest buildings—cannot be warmer than fifty-five or sixty.

Many people tell me that I should not walk to work on such days because doing so “isn’t good for you.” When I confess that I sometimes do not eat until dinner time, or sometimes not at all, I am told the same thing. But these gentle reprimands have no purchase on me. Deprivation is good for the soul—and also for the body.

When I climb out of bed at five o’clock in morning and slalom down the stairs to the kitchen to start the coffee, I am firm in my resolve to walk the mile and a half to work, on this frigid morning as on others. I am firm because, for starters, I have given my word on the matter, if only to myself.

And by now this walking has become habitual enough that, if for pressing reasons I do not or cannot walk, I feel that an important part of my day is either missing or has been denied me. I feel, intellectually, the loss of walking the way I would feel, physically, the absence of caffeine, life’s most pleasant addictive substance. Deprived of my walk I am deprived of time to be alone, of time to think, to be reminded that I live in the world regardless of how sedentary and abstract my life might otherwise be—in it rather than over or across it. Without my walk I feel bereft of time and occasion to see the built and natural landscapes at human speed, from man’s eye-view.

But, more fundamentally, I am firm in my resolve to walk the mile and a half because it matters to me that I know both how the cold feels and what it means, neither of which can be known by my walking eight steps into an already warm car, driving a very short distance, and then walking a few dozen steps from my warm car to my (usually) heated building. To know what the cold feels like I must have the chance to be cold, and then the resolve to be cold, for how the cold feels is known by observation, and observation (as John Muir knew well) is impossible without a willing subjection of the self. I must feel the regions of the skin tighten, the mysterious surfaces harden. I must feel the burn of exposed flesh in the stinging wind. I must feel the hardening even of the soles of my boots, which in such weather as this lose their cushion. I must feel the many ways in which life itself becomes hard.

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