One winter, a friend told us that there was smooth, black ice on Dublin Lake. Black ice, which is clear all the way through, is pretty rare. We grabbed our ice skates. There was only one other person there that morning, a lanky man in his 70s. Putting on your ice skates is the bad part of skating—you have to find a place to sit. He had brought out on the ice with him an antique, yellow Windsor chair—the yellow paint fading, a worn object that had served, unseen, for generations. It made such a fine picture: This tall, thin man and the yellow chair on the black ice.
The surface of the ice was highly polished, like precision-machined optics. And the cracks in the ice—seams, really—went down a foot or more. I stopped after I skated out a little ways, fearful of falling. It felt like you were in mid-air, cartoon-like. We could see fish below.
That man skated with ease. I was in my mid-30s then and I thought, “That’s the man I want to be when I grow old.” The next day it snowed, covering the ice, ending skating for the winter. The weather changed and changed again. Each winter is a tale of many winters: First snow; bitter cold; sudden thaws; punishing ice storms; repeated big snowfalls that seem to be stuck on the wash-rinse-and-repeat cycle; long pauses; bright blue days; “open winters” with no snow, just hard, blonde earth; and that recent phrase “wintry mix”—ice, rain and snow all at once. Winter is now all mixed up.
Sometimes the weather cracks open our routines and demands we pay attention: ice falls from the sky, tree limbs snap, the power goes out. Or big snowfalls have us out raking the roof, shoveling, carving paths with the snowblower, cancelling trips. Winter makes all activity more deliberate, requiring us to focus on the task at hand, whether it’s bringing water to the animals in the barn or driving. We have to slow down, question the necessity of each trip or step. There is a resistance to our actions, like water against the hand.
A routine-busting storm is the best of winter. There, if we accept it, is the gift of time freed from daily obligations. A winter storm that stops a city, and sends out adults skiing or sledding with their children is a free space. The winters of our childhood are restored to us, and we feel a rightness to the world. On those rare winter days when we accept winter on its terms, we are right with the flow of time, as if we were gliding along on ice so hard and smooth it’s almost invisible.
We never again saw that lanky old man and his yellow chair. Winters are changing, all mixed up, and we’ve gotten too busy to answer the brief arrival of black ice. Our ice skates have sat in the closet so long that a mouse nested in one. This is what I don’t like about the rough ride of our new winters; as the climate changes, we turn away and try to push our way through these days of wintry mix. We have upended the old maxim: The more things change, the more we ignore the changes.