braving the elements

The single-most miraculous phenomenon that's taken place since I've moved to Chicagoland from Los Angeles - besides the birth of my daughter, of course - is the fact that I now regularly deem 50s and sunny as summer, basically. Mid-to-high 40s is springtime. For reference, on campus at USC it'd be 70 and sunny, but students could be seen walking around in skirts and Uggs (what?!), or just straight-up sweatpants and North Face jackets, freezing from the blistering "cold." Growing up in Houston was pretty much the same, except without all of the West Coast dramatics. Point is, my blood was made for warm weather. But over the past five years it's toughened up thanks to a bit of heartless exposure to the elements and some dumb moves on my part. (Note: When in Chicagoland, ALWAYS check the forecast for unpredictable wind/sleet/hail/snow/rain between the months of September and May.)

Thanks to lowered expectations and a higher tolerance when it comes to the definition of good weather, Praise Jesus, we're all pulling out our shorts and sandals, just waiting for a drop of warm sun on a snowless street to invite us out for a jog, a picnic, a city stroll. "Spring is here!" we shout as the weather(wo)man all but twerks over the good news held in this weekend's forecast. No more snow. No more ice. No more winter. As we switch out closets and wash our cars, we stow away the menacing gloom of winter for good. If you ask me, sun and warmth beat snow and cold any day.

A couple of years ago I received a gift from my beautiful and talented friend, Alissa, of Feast Fine Art & Calligraphy. It was a calligraphed print of author John Steinbeck's words:

What good is the warmth of summer,
without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

Those words have always been meaningful to me, but this week I called them to mind and saw them in a new light, entirely. Maybe they mean more now because I just spent a couple of days in Houston with Mema, my 92-year-old grandmother, who's going blind. Maybe they mean more because of that awful, racist chant courtesy of Oklahoma University's SAE fraternity. Maybe they mean more because, as I pull into my driveway, I can see Spring flirting with me in the soaked blades of grass peeking up from underneath a few stubborn patches of snow. Spring and summer will come eventually, but their sweetness is only welcomed and appreciated because of the hard winter we've had to endure. 

In many ways, I've checked myself for being too excited to move past the winter moments in my life. It saddens me greatly to know that Mema is losing her sight, and that this past weekend may very well have been the one and only time she'll be able to fully her new great-granddaughter. It also struck me that it very well may have been the last time she'll see me, too. "What's wrong with you?" she asked, as I sat with her in her recliner and hugged her shoulders, fighting back sniffles as I buried my head in her neck. "Nothing," I lied convincingly through a forced smile. I've mastered the forced smile. It takes a lot in me to allow the muscles in my face stay relaxed as I come face-to-face with winter moments. This time, though, the forced smile won, and I temporarily numbed the reality of her condition, thanks to a high tolerance for winter. 

And then that Monday Delwin informed me of the chant heard across social media. I checked the clock to make sure we'd actually sprung ahead an hour, but wondered why it felt like the year was all of a sudden turned back one hundred times. I recalled the words of my Aunt Ruthie, who just the day before had said something along the lines of: "Saying we haven't made progress as a people undermines the work and lives of those who have gone before us." I agreed wholeheartedly and still do. But running a marathon sure takes a whole lot longer when you have to do it facing backwards. I was overwhelmed and upset, but remained numb in my reaction, thanks to lowered expectations and a high tolerance for winter.

And then this week, seeing the snow melt from our yard. "It's spring!" I hear. And yes, spring is coming. But if you saw our yard you'd see that it's far from flourishing. The grass is brown. The plants are dead. The huge tree in our front yard that was once teeming with yellows and oranges is a vacant lot of lifeless branches. The mail lady still has to dodge patches of ice to keep from slipping. Winter, in many ways, is still here, but no worries. I have a high tolerance. My blood has thickened.

Truth is, life doesn't work like the seasons do. In the ways in which the seasons follow predictably one after another, life in its unorganized beauty and chaos goes from winter one day to autumn the next, to summer, then to spring. A few days of spring then it's back to winter again, and you stay there for a few months, and then wow! it's hot. You can't put away your winter clothes for good. You have to keep them out with your shorts and sandals, fully prepared to face the unknown forecast of the day. Because one day, you may need your coat for the sadness and the injustice, but the next day you may need your sandals for the joy and the progress and the breakthrough. Some days you may need the entire wardrobe for the bittersweet goodbyes and the days where nothing went wrong, per se, but nothing awesome happened, either.

Where my high tolerance and thick blood get me in trouble, though, is where I try and convince myself that it's warmer than it really is: I wear the shorts and sandals when it's freezing outside, hoping that it'll warm up soon. I tell myself I'm not that sad or upset, and in doing so, my life becomes overcome with a cold. I hide behind my inauthentic self, rushing to block out the bad, to get to the good parts instead of putting on the coat and facing the snow, the sadness, the hurt, with truth and grace and patience. And then sometimes I overcompensate and I wear a coat when it's warm outside, waiting for the other shoe to drop instead of being grateful for the joy and the life and the goodness. I can't feel the warmth on my skin - I can't bask in anything.

In the ways that my blood thickened and my tolerance for cold weather increased, I at one point assumed my spirit could operate in the same way: the more disappointment I experienced, the more resilient I would become, the better I'd be at forcing smiles and seeming ok. But there's a fine line between a resilient spirit and a numbed heart, between a snowball fight in freezing temperatures and staying inside, choosing to feel nothing. A resilient spirit still feels sadness and anger in the face of injustice but can function and appropriately move forward in truth. A numbed heart stubbornly pushes through and feels nothing, neither the cool kiss of the winter wind on one's cheeks or icy snowflakes on one's tongue; nor the warm bed of sand beneath one's feet or the cozy springtime breeze through one's hair . . . all in the name of self-preservation.

I'm looking forward to shorts and sandals, I really am. But as much as I love sun and warmth, I don't necessarily want to wish winter away forever. I want to feel it all. I want to be able to feel sad when I think of my grandmother, and angry when I think of the racial injustices that still plague this country. I want to cry tears of joy when Brooklyn smiles at me after waking up from a nap, and giddy with excitement as I anticipate another small group of friends gathering to do life together. I want to laugh so hard my eyes water, to feel tenderness towards a friend who is suffering. I want to be able to walk in the truth of my forecast while fully feeling its weight. Because when I'm outside, braving my winter moments, I also tend to be more grateful for the warmth and the flowers and the sunshine. Staying inside with the curtains closed is a horrible way to die.

So whatever the forecast, engage. Put on your coat, slip on your sandals, and go outside, ready to brave the elements. Life is meant to be fully felt. Life is meant to be fully lived.
Ashlee EilandComment