There was snow, and there was ice, and there were days where the icicles hung from every surface, growing longer hour after hour. And then it all disappeared. Slowly, at first, and then in a rush. The freeze unfrozen, puddles thawed, ground damp.
In my mind, February is gray, flat, shallow. The clouds impossibly thick, light and contrast muzzled for 28 straight days. But on this February day , I was proven wrong. The sun twinkled on islands of ice floating in murky ponds. Twin tree skeletons swayed overhead and deep in the underworld reflected in every sidewalk puddle.
The angles were sharp, the shapes were bold, and the colors crash-banged in winter’s quiet, gray echo chamber. Orange marcescent leaves, gold witch hazel blooms, bright green moss in tree trunk crevices, cranberry and chartreuse dogwood stems. The catkins rattled, and dead leaves rustled in the wind. The slosh of boot soles settled in fresh, wet mud. Hiding among the tangle of twigs, a mob of bright red cardinals perched and pecked at abandoned clusters of seeds.
By the end of our wander, my socks were soaked. My disdain for February, however, was drained and dry. And in its place, the hopeful smile recognized by spring only.
I’ve had my eye on Gompers Park for a while now, but finally had time to take a long walk around it.
The park is absolutely lovely in winter, and I can only imagine it getting better as the seasons change. The 39-acre park butts right up against the LaBagh Woods, and is a pathway for the north branch of the Chicago River. It’s very easy to get to on public transportation – the #92 Foster bus runs right through it.
The day before Christmas, the sideways snow beckoned me. We rushed to pull on our thickest boots and layers of wool. People were out on the streets, no doubt in search of last minute gifts. We, however, were on the hunt for something different, quieter.
The forest was silent, save for the shifting snow beneath our feet, and the howl of the late December wind. We spotted a few pairs of footsteps, both human and non. All hardy pioneers who must have walked these paths just before us, curving the trails slowly, in wonder.
The snow made a new home of every surface, on ridges in the tiniest leaves, deep in creases in desiccated inflorescence, nestled in the elbows of stems and branches. Each a perfect container for the icy white flecks. The whole world, a bowl, filling slowly, steadily.
We shuffled across an old concrete bridge, sprayed with decades of graffiti, and peered over the edge. The Chicago River below, weaving between wedged white rocks, holding afloat a family of ducks unfazed by the cold. The morning’s accumulation on my coat’s hood and shoulders had begun to melt, and my hands were icy and hard. But I was mesmerized by the slow swirl of the water, the endless fall of the tiniest snowflakes, the arches and shapes left behind in winter’s wake. My feet held firm to the spot.
The cold, and the ache of hunger, eventually shook us awake from our forest dream. Before heading home, we ambled east to the lakefront. We weren’t alone. A bulk of families, careening down and trudging back up the sledding hill. A handful of men, heavy with gear, photographing a flock of stubborn seabirds. And us, steeling ourselves against the beach’s swift winds, hoods pulled tight, eyes wide open to the perfect beauty of a snowy day.
The LaBagh Woods is an incredible forest preserve right in Chicago. When you’re in the middle of the park, you’ll barely have any recollection that you’re still in the city. It’s easy to get to on bus, either the 54A Cicero, or the 92 Foster. For some winter beach time, we went to Montrose Beach and swung past Cricket Hill, a great place to sled or just feed your yearning for a change in elevation. In the winter, where you go outside doesn’t really matter. It’s going outside at all that makes the difference. So even though it’s freezing, I promise you’ll be happy you went.
The other night, I met a good friend at the Garfield Park Conservatory. What is usually a mid-winter daytime pilgrimage turned into a late night walk through the deep forest, just a few miles away from our homes. The Conservatory is open every day of the year until 5pm, but on Wednesdays, they turn on the lights and let wanderers stroll until 8.
A part of me worried that the rooms of the conservatory, glorious to behold in the daytime, would look stark and unwelcoming at night, with bright fluorescents beating down from overhead. But it was quite the opposite. Bold spotlights gelled in brilliant colors lit up the undersides of ferns, bounced off the bark of tropical trees, dribbled down rocky waterfalls and into rippling, bottomless pools. The sounds of rushing water mixed with the echoes of children laughing in the Sugar from the Sun room. Our footsteps fell on damp stone and shuffled beside leaves rustling in the fan-fed breeze.
There, that night, the air somehow felt more humid. Our ears perked at the chorus of crickets, our noses caught wind of the peat and loam stuffed in crevices at our toes. Some walkways sat in total darkness, and our brains rushed to fill the gaps. In the Desert room, tall columns of cactus masqueraded as men standing perfectly still. Neon colors got caught on succulent leaves and sharp spines, throwing strange shadows on the walls and windows surrounding us. All our senses sharpened to make up for what we couldn’t see in the dark.
I love the sun, and crave the light. Here, on the winter solstice, the precipice of the coldest season, I feel myself falling deeper into the darkness. On the other side of today, the days begin the get longer, minute by minute, but what might I learn by sitting in these shadows, unbothered, unmoved?
As I wandered through the Conservatory that night, I walked past a young woman sitting on a wooden bench in a barely lit room. Her face was calm, her eyes closed, breathing even. I can’t know what she was thinking about, if she was meditating or considering some hidden train of thought, but the sight of her reminded me of what’s special about this season. Now is the time to sit in the shadows, to explore the darkness, wade in it, and get lost in what could be. These dark days hold lessons for us all. And what more perfect place than this to open our eyes wide and wait for them to adjust.
Winter’s first layer is white glitter. The thinnest sheen of barely solidified water. The flecks of snow are just visible, silhouetted against the nearest streetlight. The dots dust the sidewalk, echoing in a cold breeze like scattered grains of sand.
The first layer usually comes and goes a few times before making the decision to really stick. That first real snowfall is magic. The kind of snow that feels almost imaginary, the kind that only exists in fiction, or theater, or in our memories. Accumulation comes next. It raises car roofs several inches and expands the girth of spindly bare tree branches. The individual particles float to the ground and collect in soft mounds, drifts, miniature mountains.
The days pass and the snow accumulation eventually turns to ice. The dream of that first flurry dulls and hardens. The layers of winter grow, burying the concrete sidewalk under months of city dirt and ragged black crystal. Psychedelic bursts of neon rock salt encircle doorways and slippery porch steps. Dried and dirty dust puddles stay splashed up on the sides of buses, caking the windows and obscuring views of steel building skeletons half-dressed in wind-ripped tyvek.
The months pass and the layers of winter become so thick, so unmoving, that nothing seems possible but ice cold. The memories of spring, or warmth, or soft grass underfoot, or hot red sun glowing through closed eyelids become sandwiched between the crust of slush and sleet. But not this winter.
This winter, snow last fell and stuck in early December, ice was last seen on the ground the day after Christmas, and since then, the weather’s been tolerable, mild, at times legitimately warm. Despite the groundhog’s best guess, spring appears to have come early. Last weekend I saw trees beginning to bud and bloom. Yesterday I noticed my tulip bulbs and strawberry plants sprouting on the back porch. Birds chirp and chatter from every old tree. Neighbors run slow errands in track shorts. Friends ride bikes for leisure, not necessity.
It’s a strange feeling — the pull to enjoy the weather, take a long stroll, drink lemonade on a park bench — all while the date on the calendar still appears to suggest that it’s February. I feel the familiar Warm Weather Impulse, the now premature push to go outside and take advantage of the high temperatures. But meanwhile, my body still feels sluggish and tired, still in need of a long winter’s rest, despite the fact that winter may already passed.
Having lived here in Chicago for as long as I have, I thought I understood the cycles of winter, its shades and layers. I could anticipate the turns and stalls of the weather, I had memorized the patterns of steps drawn in fresh snow fields, and could envision how they’d sully over time. This winter, the layers have all melted away, and my memory alone is what gives the season its shape.
No, I’m not immune to the fear. It follows me throughout the day and it’s one of the last things I think about at night. I struggle to identify what to do, how to act, who to reach out to, when to protest, what to say when I do speak up. I worry, hunched over a twitter feed, mind racing through what possibilities remain. But in the moments in between, I seek out the small stuff. It builds me up. It restores me with power I thought had disappeared for good.
These are the things that helped calm my mind, refocus it, sharpen and soothe it, strengthen my resolve to do good, reenergize my will for change. Now, just reminding myself about what’s good in this world isn’t the thing that will make progress imminent. But I definitely believe it could be part of the equation.
So I’m grateful for the small, feathery seed that made its way onto my city bus; catching the wind from the heat vents and the back door swinging, floating down the center aisle past stainless steel grab bars and leathery hang loops, looking for a spot to sit like the rest of us evening travelers. I’m grateful for people are who aren’t afraid to ask questions, even if it may reveal a lack of knowledge or experience within them. People who aren’t afraid to start over, and hold themselves and their neighbors to a higher standard of shared responsibility. I’m grateful for unexpected messages of love and support, the recall of old memories, the observance of the past, and the celebration of the possibilities of the future. I’m grateful for the giant, twisting flock of pigeons that live at the intersection where I catch my ride every morning. Their synchronized turns and dips, the organization and spontaneity of it. The endless iterations of their flight and landing and disappearance and relaunch into the thick, gray sky.
I’m grateful for two unknown neighbors, walking hand in hand down the street. Watching them shuffle up their front stoop, and into their home. Quiet and graceful in care and movement. And I’m grateful for a roomful of now known neighbors, standing together to let themselves and each other be heard, speaking up against the erasure of their needs and rights as citizens. I’m grateful for information being dispersed, books being lent, passages being copied and pasted, power and resistance being split up and passed around between households and generations, like a sourdough starter, or a packet of heirloom tomato seeds. I’m grateful for a most well known voice, a perfect and specific range of tones that wake up with mine every morning. A voice that drifts down the hallway from the back room, finding my ears and filling me with the gentle realization that I’m not alone.
I’m grateful for hard frozen ground, and still green grass, peeking out from between flattened piles of leaves and crosshatched mats of fallen twigs. I’m grateful for flowers, growing on cacti and floating in bowls of hot, shared soup. I’m grateful for the briefest patch of sun, and the perfectly placed leaf that rose to catch it. I’m grateful for new roots, and old growth, low lying clouds, and hot, dry air. I’m grateful for fog, dense and wet; the all-encompassing haze, and holding tight to my faith that soon enough, it will lift.
I can’t remember the last winter when it rained this much. The weather’s been swinging wildly from deep, sub-zero freezes to nearly-mild and reminiscent of early spring. But mostly, these past few weeks have brought a lot of winter rain. Usually, I don’t open my arms wide to freezing cold precipitation, the kind that leaves the hand gripping your umbrella frozen in an ice-wet fist. But I realized that, while still cold and mostly uncomfortable, wet weather makes everything look beautiful.
In this stage of winter, the city usually looks crusted over with a thin layer of soot and salt. Colors are dull, energy levels are low, the plants (and the people, for that matter) are hibernating in plain sight. Snow piles up, covering everything in white and eventually, in a range of tints of gritty gray. But rain and water, wet and flowing, bring the colors back to the city. Everything looks alive again: dark, rich, saturated. Even if the sun stays hidden behind the clouds, light feels reflected off of every surface.
I didn’t have to wander far to find shapes and forms that caught my eye again. Blocks I’d walked a thousand times before looked new. I stumbled down misty alleyways with fencing soaked in long and changing patterns. Evergreen blades and weather-cured petals turned to mirrors poised to catch every falling drop. Last summer’s hostas pressed snug against black, water-logged mulch, their puddle-drunk leaves rendered lithe like tea-stained paper.
The rain, collecting in the uneven asphalt, dribbling down drains and through miles of lakebound pipeline, breathes life back into the air, the ground. The possibility of spring feels nearer when the water falling from the sky looks and smells and sounds more like the stuff we drink, the stuff we’re made of. The possibility tickles our brains that this rain might be just what those underground flower bulbs need, the ones waiting down below for the annual cue to start growing.
It was refreshing, all of it. The sights, the soft thudding rhythm, the ability to walk outside again without risk of frostbite. But most entrancing were the raindrops themselves. The way they collected in branches overhead, their low-hanging bellies sloping toward the rising river below. The way the rain adorned each common twig with a necklace of jewels. The way the perfectly formed droplets magnified the muted light of winter, turning the skeletal tree canopies into earthbound translations of the starry night sky.
The day after Christmas, we heard it was going to be 50 degrees outside, a continuation of the extreme weather swings of the past few weeks. So we put on our fall boots and rode a bus all the way out East. We walked to Lake Michigan, and through Lincoln Park, and into the Conservatory. The wind along the lakefront threatened to push us over, but we bristled ourselves against the gusts and set our eyes out over the horizon.
We joined the steady flow of folks from out of town, folks visiting family, folks venturing out of their homes and pajamas for the first time in days. It was busy, the walkways were stuffed edge to edge with selfie-takers and cousins and new couples meeting parents for the first time. Children pointed out scavenger hunt finds and captured holiday trains on their tiny cellphones.
For the day, we had spring, a momentary break from the hostile weather of early December. At the end of the month, we were welcome outside again. We knew it wouldn’t last, but it felt good to get out, to get some fresh air, to walk along well worn paths and see some color.
At one of my previous jobs, when I needed to escape I would cross the street and go to the bookstore. My boss and I would sometimes claim we went there to do research, or tell each other we were going to refresh and be inspired. More often than not, we were just going there to get away. When the cubicle walls felt too close, the fluorescent lights too harsh, the coworkers too demanding or out of touch, there was the bookstore.
I eventually left that job and, soon after, that bookstore went out of business. But the need to escape remains. So I walk through the park. I usually do it in the morning, when I’m feeling hopeful and there’s still some brightness in the sky. Some days I do it in the late afternoon when the minutes are moving at half their usual speed and the sun, hidden behind thick cloud cover, speeds toward the horizon. I do the walk everyday, and I let the shadows and colors and textures distract me. It’s not always pretty, but it’s always there, and it’s always changing.
On the coldest days, the ground is as hard as pavement, indistinguishable from sidewalk or igneous rock. It’s a quiet trek, occasionally sprinkled with the darting eyes and hurried hellos of passing strangers. The abrasive rhythm of snow crunching underfoot crowds out the motorized whizz of cars and the hiss of the kneeling Montrose bus. Cloudy rings of bright blue ice gleam, surrounded by thinned patches of yellowing grass.
When a thaw moves in, solid ground that’s pitched and angled from last week’s frozen footsteps starts to give again. Tiny chunks of dirt and slush clump and creak beneath heavy steps. Bunches of shredded leaves huddle near wide tree trunks, the weak brown shards crushed flat under the speckled sun. The great green gazebo spreads wide its shadow over broad drifts of snow.
As the weather turns briefly, blindly toward spring, the field becomes an obstacle course. The rain comes, the ground swells with water, and the dirt puffs up into mud. Animals return to drink, and search for food. I tread lightly over rooted sod, careful not to step too hard and twist it clean from the earth. Floor-bound nests of fallen twigs support my weight and keep me from sinking ankle deep into black sludge, my rubber soles sucking against the wet earth with each step.
And the next day, the freeze returns. The melt, once again, hardened into solid crystal.
Instead of thinking about the cubicle walls or the fluorescent lights, these walks keep me in real time, reacting with and against the landscape. I’m learning why some people hike the same trails year after year, this small stretch of public park as my teacher. Even near a tangle of busy intersections, among the roar of traffic and constant construction, I can hear the earth breathe. I can see it sigh.
One day soon, we’ll turn toward the sun and the land will open up to welcome a new season. It will push up new sprouts and nurture them on their way to becoming great trees. It will embrace the eager picnickers who rest in new grass and pull corks from chilled green bottles of white. But the park, even in winter, shows me something new. It shows me that change doesn’t have to wait until spring. I walk by it everyday.
Welles Park is a big, beautiful park located in Lincoln Square on the northwest side of the city. Summer brings giant, lush fields (often filled with hundreds of summer camp kids). In winter, it’s much emptier and the perfect place for quiet and contemplation. It’s well worth a visit any time of year.
A Midwestern snowstorm is the closest I’ve ever come to living in a black and white photograph. Depending on the severity of the weather system, I feel like I’m inside the grainy halftone photo that accompanies an appropriately dramatic headline. I’m the tiny figure, hooded and huddled in a blindingly lit bus shelter, surrounded by swirls of white dust, back to the wind. I’m the speck of black in the whiteout.
There’s very little color in this world. The sky, once vibrant and blue, is now dull and completely white. Contrast has faded and shadows that were strong and rich have all lost their depth. Weeks or sometimes months pass before we realize we’ve forgotten what sunlight looks like, or that it was a thing we once enjoyed in abundance. We’re in the midrange now, gray and flat. This is winter.
I know there’s beauty in this season, just as there is in all the others, but here in the middle of the city, it’s harder to find. Here snow blows like a strong gust of wind, sideways, and often mixed with icy sleet and aggressive hail. As green as Chicago is in the summer, winter’s overwhelming lack of green is always a cruel surprise that I never feel quite ready for.
I try to look around with different eyes. I stare deeply at the angled geometry of bare tree branches, finding the tops and bottoms of every split and fork. I keep an eye open to the marbling of crunchy snow on sidewalk, the sandy and silty mix of shades underfoot. I watch as car tires kick up thick pancakes of snow, and as puffs of breath float into the air, little clouds released by those of us who are unlucky enough to be stuck outside.
In the street, the fallen snow is hardening into solid drifts, and the trees are sinking deeper into their annual slumber. Squirrels are digging frantically for the morsels they hid away just a few short weeks ago and crows stand sentinel, squawking wildly and pushing a sharp rhythm into the cold silence. Giant opaque icicles are forming, slowly, steadily growing longer and wider with every successive freeze and thaw.
I know there’s a beauty to it. I just have to look closer to find it.
The day after the winter solstice — the shortest day of the year and the official start to winter — we watched a torrential downpour gush from our roof and splash soil and last summer’s coriander seeds all over our porch. An hour later, sunshowers. And an hour after that, a brilliant blue-orange sunset lit up all the west-facing greystones. That night, great gusts of wind shoved against our rickety double-paned windows and bowed huddles of basswood trunks. After midnight, when the winds died down, a heavy gray mass of clouds settled over the pitch navy sky, the ordered shades of flint, smoke, and blue slate hovering in their places.
The transitions from season to season are typically manic here, except for winter. It grabs hold of fall, strangling its leaves and burying them in feet of sooty snow and black ice. It announces its arrival loudly, and then marches on through the months, bleeding deep into spring, delaying the bulb sprouts and the return of sun and warmth. It’s the season that’s the most reliable. The most real.
But this year, it’s in hiding. It snowed twice, and melted twice. And now the mercury can’t even drop below freezing. It’s been damp and gray, and then bright and dry. The magnolias have started to bud and a bright red cardinal has taken up residence in the tree behind our house. Why fly all the way south? Chicago is the new Baton Rouge.
This false spring has got us all confused. What will happen to the plants that have been lulled from their dormancy by the increasingly moody climate? When — and I never imagined myself asking this question — will winter get here? While I may not think I particularly benefit from the cooling and slowing of this season, the plants definitely need it. They need the pause, the deep sleep before they can grow again, with renewed vigor below a strengthened sun.
So we’ll continue to wait for winter. We’ll continue to look for it behind every temperature drop and howl of wind. And we’ll continue to festoon our homes with evergreen boughs and reminisce the days long ago when snow stuck and daffodils didn’t bloom in November.