Saturday, February 1, 2014

Walking Through Winter

I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future - the timelessness of the rocks and the hills - all the people who have existed there. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show. – Andrew Wyeth 
Winter arrived early this year and, six weeks in, refuses to yield. Lately it has brought sub-freezing temperatures and arctic winds to the northern suburbs of Philadelphia. Snow has been a constant companion since late November, testing our spirits and the durability of my plastic blue, discount-drug-store snow shovel. When I step outside each morning, the cold dry winds burn my face and frozen air penetrates my bones. Patches of ice crack under my shoes with every step. Never have I so longed for the warmth of summer. 

On certain days, when the sky is ocean blue and the sun shines brightly on the earth below, my thoughts revert to spring; to walks in the park, day baseball, and a quiet book under a shaded tree. And yet, writes poet Edith Sitwell, “[w]inter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.” I encounter a sense of calm when I look out the window of my house on a snow-filled morning, a cup of hot coffee resting between my palms, the warmth of the ceramic comforting my fingers. Winter brings us together and forces us to reflect on what is essential.

Winter snow lands perfectly on the untarnished earth. I stare from my window and admire the simplicity, brightness, and beauty of it all. It will not be long before snowplows and shovels scrape away its purity, before footsteps and squirrels in search of hidden acorns violate the virginal look of untouched whiteness. Then a cold wind blows in from the north and the snow-covered bushes bristle. The bare limbs of the sycamores, which line the streets of Jenkintown Manor, stand at attention as snow descends from their branches onto the passing cars and icy pavement below. 

*    *    *    *

When Hannah returned home from college on the first day of winter, I cherished her added company. At night, we occasionally sat by the fire and admired the soft glow of the Christmas tree in the corner as we talked of college life, her coursework and future plans. When older daughter Jen joined us for a week in North Carolina to visit my parents, the closeness of family added the dimension of relaxed comfort rarely mastered in one’s adult years. Walking beside Andrea and my daughters, we explored the quaint shops of Hendersonville and artist-inspired nooks of Asheville, allowing for rare moments of relaxed togetherness that so eludes our everyday lives. When we dropped Jen off in Washington, DC, at the end of December, I was forced to acknowledge that here now is where her home lies. It is a difficult truth for a parent to embrace, but like the harsh winds of winter, necessary to accept.

Our return to Jenkintown allowed for two more weeks with Hannah. Despite the challenges of cooking a lactose- and gluten-free (Andrea) pescatarian (Hannah) meal that remains edible (if one of us decides to become kosher vegan we may give up food entirely), we gathered in the kitchen and talked about the day, current events, or whatever was on our minds. On some mornings, Hannah and I walked through the tree-lined, bird-filled sanctuary of Alverthorpe Park, fleeting moments that can never be relived in their exact perfection again. But Hannah would return soon to college, her absence felt more with each passing day. 

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant,” wrote English poet Anne Bradstreet. “If we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.” I am less able these days to impart mind-opening words of wisdom to my children. I listen and offer instead only a sense of perspective when Hannah’s self-confidence wanes and she expresses worry over her upcoming semester, or when Jen relays the stresses of work and office politics and the things that make life complicated and messy. I am blessed to have two children who are kind, loving, compassionate and bright. But as a father, it is a burden knowing I do not possess the equivalent of Dumbledore’s wand; that I cannot easily, with words, advice or magical potions, make things safe and perfect. 

Life and time, like the seasons, quickly pass us by. I take less for granted each passing day and cherish more the moments with my children. I appreciate the gift of life bestowed still upon my parents and to Andrea’s parents; the majestic glory of their collective memories and historical insights valued relics of a rich existence. Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in The Little Prince: “To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter. To become presence, means accepting the risk of absence.” Time is ever in short supply these days. The darkness of winter forces one to appreciate the inner light within us all. 

“Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well,” wrote author George R.R. Martin. Is the reverse true in winter? The rawness of a dark, cold winter awakens us to life’s harder edges, to the struggles confronted by most people to keep warm and safe, sheltered and healthy. A homeless man at 18th and Market Streets sells copies of One Step Away to help support his kids and someday regain his financial independence. His is an inspired tale of redemption and second chances. I worry on mornings he is not there and I miss the yellow safety vest he proudly displays to passers-by, most of whom ignore him or evade his friendly glance. Lately, he has been absent, no doubt escaping the frigid conditions of his unsheltered street corner. 

But winter, too, will pass. The ice will melt as the spring thaw arrives and we gradually shed our heavy jackets, wool scarves, and knit hats. When I was a young boy, I looked forward to snow, the playful delight of sliding and sledding and molding snow into perfectly shaped balls that I tossed against fences and tree trunks. I learned to make the best of each season’s offerings. But always I longed for spring, for the warm glow of the sun, the liberating capacity of the sky and grass, the fullness of the trees, and the fresh scent of blooming flowers. 

The changing seasons and fluctuating weather conditions teach us to make the best of what life grants us, and to understand that some things are not controllable. Winter is a time to take stock, to appreciate home and family and the simple pleasures of hot chocolate by the fireplace. In the end, my children, like me, will continue to grow and learn and make mistakes. The sun will continue to shine, the rain and snow will fall, the seasons will change, and the grass will appear. Winter will end soon enough, and life will go on.


  1. Mark, this spoke to me. With my only child living hours away, ensconced in work and the vagaries of everyday life and soon to be married, it seems growing older means learning to relinquish control: Lao Tzu reminds us, "He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still."

  2. Ken - I am glad the piece was meaningful to you. I think that as fathers we find it especially difficult to relinquish control over our children's lives because we want to do everything in our power to see that things turn out well for them. But life teaches us that we have to let our children find their own way in life, just as we did when we were younger (and still do). As Hodding Carter Jr. wrote, "There are two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots. The other is wings."