The Beauty of Cold

The last two weeks have been intensely cold by Maine standards. By Minnesota and South Dakota standards (where I lived most of my life before Maine) it’s just typical winter weather. Having a nice taste of constant, cold weather reminds me that I love winter, and I love cold. Back when I was a child/teen I’d make a point to bundle up and go for long walks whenever the temperature dipped below minus 30 (it hardly ever gets that cold in Maine, unfortunately).

Cold is beautiful on a variety of levels. First, from inside a nice cozy house, one feels especially warm and comfortable knowing that outside there are harsh conditions. The hot cocoa tastes better, the sofa softer, and the atmosphere cozier when it’s below zero outside. From that comfort, the outside appears simply fantastic. Deep blue skies, white snow covering the yard, the stark winter landscape. Out in the winter there is little as beautiful as cross country ski trails twisting through the woods. Sure, in summer you have trees, flowers, and streams, but there is something supremely beautiful about starkness of winter.

Downhill skiing is as close to a religious experience as one can have doing sports, in my opinion. Moving in control yet with speed, surrounded by beauty on a mountain, hearing the skis glide on the snow is exhilarating. Yet while winter landscapes offer an unparalleled beauty, I mean it when I say cold is beautiful. For my entire life, I’ve had an aversion to hats and gloves. Sure, while skiing, shoveling, or spending long times in the cold one has to wear them, but I’ve always liked feeling that cold on my face and my head, I even enjoy feeling my hands chill to a point where it nears painful (growing up in this kind of climate, I know when the cold actually becomes dangerous — none of what I’m saying refers to conditions that threaten frost bite). The Bud Grant quote (he was the coach of the Minnesota Vikings back when they played outdoors) “cold is a state of mind” comes to me a lot. You can be in the cold and let it take you over, feeling miserable, wanting desperately to get inside, or you can embrace the experience of cold, and how it makes you feel.

Cold is a painless way to really feel alive and connected to nature. Cold is a sensation that seems to bring clarity to thought and vision, the world feels different. More than anything else, though, cold is a metaphor for life. Cold can be taken as dangerous (and indeed it can be), something to be avoided, something causing discomfort, something one flees. One can look at cold as limiting, making cars harder to start, requiring more effort to go out, and potentially freezing pipes and creating ice dams on roofs which can do damage. There are many reasons one can look at cold as a pain, something nature gives us out of ill will, which we have to tolerate.

But if one simply accepts that there are tasks, risks, and problems with every aspect of life and deals with them as they come, one can truly embrace and enjoy cold. Oh, the beauty and experience one would lose if one were to get so encumbered by the problems cold weather brings that they can’t experience it joyfully! And that is true about almost all of life; one can let the problems and difficulties of daily tasks, stressful changes, the dull routine, or sudden crises and problems bring one down. And, of course, sometimes tragedy strikes and sadness is inevitable. But most of the time we hold ourselves back from a truly joyful experience with life by being so taken by all the little difficulties and inconveniences, or the precautions and tasks, that we lose sight of the joy of everyday life. Learning to love cold is learning to live.

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  1. #1 by Lee on January 17, 2009 - 20:21

    I am working at embracing the cold! I have Reynauds Syndrome so my extremities become painfully cold around September (I am not really joking!) and thaw sometime around April. However I have 4 kids and i want them to enjoy all the seasons so we hike and snowshoe etc. I used to downhill ski as a kid. Wrecked my knee as a teen and it has never really felt good on downhill since. I might like to learn x country skiing though. That way I could pull a tired child behind me (youngest is 2) Today though the most I could make myself do to embrace the cold was bundle everyone up to go to the library. Then it was home to make soup and bread and do crafts in our warm kitchen.

    I do love the simple beauty of winter. Looking out the window is often like looking at Ansel Adams photographic art. Also, sometimes reminds me of the minimalist beauty of Japanese art.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on January 19, 2009 - 15:19

    Yikes, painful extremities would certainly make it harder to enjoy cold! I agree that the beauty of winter is its simplicity. I look at the woods sometimes and create a mental image of how it looks in summer, full of life and vibrant. A very different kind of beauty. And who can argue against soup and bread on a winter day!

    Kids do inspire one to go out and make sure they learn to enjoy it (rather than getting hooked on video games or TV). Our youngest just turned 3 and we’ve already taken him skiing, holding him between the legs just so he gets a feel for it. Luckily we have a really good inexpensive family ski place nearby which makes it easier. Keep warm!

  3. #3 by Shirley on January 20, 2009 - 23:31

    I am so happy to read this post, for I too enjoy the cold, and have come in contact with few people who feel the same. Now the cold I have experienced is nothing like the cold you describe; yet I relate to your emotions and descriptions around the subject.

    I grew up in Springfield, Mo. where (just now checked) the average low in January is 22; the high 42. I recall lots of snow and ice storms. For most of my adult life, though, I have lived in Southern California where the weather is quite moderate. I’ve always longed for cold, though, and through the years we often rented weekend places in the mountains.

    Eight years ago after my husband retired, we bought a place in Crestline, CA. It sets at 5000 feet and has moderately cold weather in the winter…mild summers: our home doesn’t even have an air conditioner. Average low in January is 29; high 40 something.

    I love it here, love the challenge of snow and ice, the trees, the scenery, the wildlife. My friends though roll their eyes when I try to tell them how great such living is. My small grandchildren love it here, though. At Christmas time we had four feet of snow on the ground–a definite white Christmas.

    Thanks for your post–loved it.

  4. #4 by henitsirk on January 23, 2009 - 22:58

    I grew up in Southern California, where 40F is “freezing!!!”. We would get usually one or two “frosts” a year, meaning the overnight temp hit 32F.

    When I was first married, my husband and I moved to the Sierra Nevadas above Sacramento. The year we lived there, they had a very mild winter, but it was still my first experience (literally, the first!) of snow and cold weather. He had lived in New Hampshire and Montana and had some understanding of winter, but really we were woefully unprepared. I eventually dislocated my shoulder hanging on to the railing when I slipped on our icy steps.

    Then about 10 years later we moved to New York. There, we had snow, ice, freezing rain, the whole schmear. Still relatively mild when compared to the upper Midwest, of course. But there I finally learned to really love winter. Even in So Cal, I always loved autumn and winter best. In New York I learned about the sounds snow makes underfoot, and the ineffable peace I feel watching it fall. I learned to pay attention to weather reports, and to shop for groceries accordingly.

    After leaving So Cal I realized that there, you don’t necessarily feel like nature is bigger or stronger than you are. Sure, earthquakes and wild fires happen regularly, but they’re not necessarily something you have to deal with every single year, like winter. In New York and now in Idaho, I like that human beings have to make accommodations to nature on a regular basis. I suppose it was similar in Sacramento, where the summer heat (and smog) could be deadly. But somehow it never felt the same as a cold and snowy day. It also seems like people in cold climates are more practical — I clearly remember wearing a wool sweater and hat to the grocery store in Sacto and seeing people in shorts and flip-flops. Maybe we were both at extremes, but somehow shorts in winter, even in California, seems dumb.

    (And of course just as I typed that, my next-door neighbor sauntered by in shorts. Sigh.)

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on January 24, 2009 - 01:54

    Cold is definitely relative! I studied a year in Bologna, Italy when I was 23, just out of college, used to very cold winters. I was amused when it got down to 45 or 50, and I went out with a sweat shirt, while the Italians were already in heavy parkas! I also remember once in college after a week when the temperature didn’t get above 20 below (as a high!) we suddenly got a warm front that brought the temperature to about 30. It literally felt balmy. Maine isn’t quite so cold, here we usually stay above 0. I didn’t like Washington DC, which is probably like what you had in New York — if it is too warm there is a lot of ice and freezing rain. If it stays reasonably cold, it’s not as messy or dangerous. But what I really like here in Maine is the snow. Our house is covered with snow, tall mountains of it by the driveway. We have an inexpensive family oriented ski area (family pass less than $300 a year) where the kids can learn to ski and enjoy winter. But I need summer too!

  6. #6 by henitsirk on January 28, 2009 - 16:46

    Yes, NY was a bit too warm in the winter for me. Usually no snow until Christmas, and then not that much. (Though we were told that the years we were there were unusually mild.) But many icy days. My husband always says that once it gets close enough to zero, it doesn’t really matter how much colder it gets. You can feel it, but it’s just cold, and then colder.

    I suppose the Alpine Italians know about cold, but otherwise…just like So. Cal.

    Ho studiato l’Italiano all’università per tre anni e sono gelosa che si viveva in Italia!

  7. #7 by Scott Erb on January 28, 2009 - 16:51

    In just about two weeks I’m leaving for Italy — taking students on a travel course there, Feb. 12 to 23rd. I plan to blog from there…I can taste the gelato already…

    I think your husband is right, but I think the border line is about 10 below. I can feel the changes and usually guess the temperature until that point, but then it’s just cold!

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