Down East 2013 ©
Sometimes in winter I look at the frozen moonscape outside my window and wonder where on earth I am. Where did this snowbound, Siberian city come from? Where is the leafy, smiling, sophisticated Portland that at certain other seasons of the year makes an appearance in this identical location? Or is this brutal Portland the real Portland? Is winter the truest season, the one that reveals us to ourselves?
We certainly think about it enough, anticipate it. Winter is always hovering over us; even in summer, we can’t shake the thought of it. Some even argue that winter makes us appreciate summer more, makes autumn more poignant, in case it wasn’t poignant enough. Then there are those who actually look forward to winter. Or so I hear. I have never actually met these people. I don’t think they can live in Portland, or if they do, they never have to shovel a sidewalk and they certainly don’t own a car. They’re not like the rest of us, who wake up on winter mornings in a total panic at the roar of a snowplow grinding its way up our block, intent on depositing a ton of ice-boulders in our driveways so we can’t get our cars out without struggling for an hour or more with our puny shovels in arctic winds, only to have the plow return just when we’ve finished and plow us back in again.
I’m convinced that snowplow phobia is the reason both my children now live in San Francisco and refuse to set foot in Portland between November and April. True, I sometimes detect a little nostalgia in their voices when they talk about our snowfalls, a little bravado when they recount to their Californian friends their tales of youthful shoveling exploits, but evidently these are feats of strength they never wish to repeat. Like so many parents, we have lost our children to temperate climes. I blame winter.
With our vehicles plowed in or otherwise indisposed, Portlanders do a lot of walking in winter. I must say I enjoy slipping and sliding into old friends on the romantically ice-encrusted streets of the city.
Many times I barely recognize them, all snow-covered, dressed in so many layers they waddle, and often sport funny fur hats with earflaps so they resemble the Finnish army on maneuvers in Lapland. Some even have Laplandish dogs with them. Once we identify each other, we stop to catch up on the last year or two or ten, unless the wind is too strong and threatens to blow us into the path of an oncoming plow, which do in fact, as the signs warn us, often move up streets in the wrong direction. Remarkable reunions like this are yet another reason why Portlanders are often late for work in winter, but in winter, everything, every little thing — finding your gloves and hat and boots and putting them all on, for example — takes much, much longer than you expect. It’s amazing, really, that any of us get out of the house at all.
Of course, for me, the best part of winter involves intense encounters with nature. I love walking through Deering Oaks in the dark — since in winter it’s always dark and one must get used to it — when the branches of the trees are black with a murder of crows. Often when the crows see me trudging through the snow, trying not to fall into a ten-foot drift, they play a little game with me called Scare Her to Death that involves them all cawing at once in a great cacophony, or cacawphony. Still, the crows and the gulls do stick it out with us, and one must admit that is admirable of them. The ducks, too. Though I always worry about the ducks. Why don’t they migrate to Florida? Do they really think Back Cove is Miami Beach? Or are they secretly employed all winter by L.L. Bean to remind us that there’s nothing so insulating and toasty warm as a down jacket?
Winter is terrible, true, but sometimes also beautiful, and might even be bearable if it only knew when to quit. Two months of winter would be fine. We could anticipate with a certain delight the first flurries, those herald angels of winter, and enjoy the first snowfall, when the city is covered in pure white and the trees look like creations made by Steuben glass, and allow ourselves to be awed by the first blizzard, when everything is so quiet and still because the cars are all stuck in snowbanks, and maybe even tolerate the first parking ban. We could wear all our nice winter clothes, our wool jackets and lambswool sweaters and our new winter boots. We could even engage in some winter sports, if we were so inclined. It would be delightful to go ice skating in Deering Oaks under the fabulous Christmas lights the city benevolently hangs up in the trees and have hot chocolate afterwards. How lovely! Yes, we’d be willing to take two months of winter. Possibly even two and a half, say, from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day. But this refusal of winter to leave by even the official start of spring, this boorish rudeness on winter’s part, is just a little too much.
Endlessly, the winter months drag on and on. We urge each other out to hear lectures about the challenges facing the Maine lobster industry. We dress up festively on First Fridays and schlepp through snowdrifts to look at art. We fantasize over seed catalogues. Some of us, in desperation, start playing canasta. Yes, the siege is long, and wearying, but one day, pale, wan, and bleary-eyed, we’ll look out our windows and see bare brick sidewalks again and little crocuses popping out of the ground.
We are Portlanders. We live in hope.