My wife and I recently moved from suburban New Jersey back to the heart of New York’s Catskill Mountains: the town of Phoenicia. It’s difficult returning here in winter. Everyone we meet has a lost, distracted look, as if they’ve already watched their entire video collection twice and now spend their evenings staring up at the spot where two walls meet the ceiling.
To prevent seasonal affective disorder I force myself to take a short walk every hour. (Actually I skip most of these walks and generally complete about three a day.) As I walk our road, I talk to myself: “It’s as cold as a barber pole in Patagonia!”
When I was a child, everyone said, “It’s as cold as a witch’s tit.” I suspect that phrase is leaving the language. For a brief time in the early seventies my hippie friends would declare, “It’s as cold as Nixon’s heart.”
When we first moved to Phoenicia in 1998, wise friends advised me to find a winter sport I enjoyed. I never found one, unless you count complaining.
Snow is falling on snow that fell on snow. God is like an artist who paints over one painting with another.
After several years of living in Phoenicia, I began to wave at every car — because every driver was waving at me. People in the deep country wave at everyone. It’s the rural-U.S. version of a Buddhist practice: “I honor each being who passes.”
One of the benefits of having facial hair is that I always know when the temperature falls below fifteen degrees, because my mustache hairs freeze immediately.
God attempted to destroy the world with rain but never with snow. Why? Because the Bible was written in the Middle East.
Is it possible, by an act of imagination, to see winter as a physical-fitness regimen, like joining a gym or the Marines? “Winter is my personal trainer!” one might boast.
Snow, when it gently wafts, makes rain look positively militaristic. Today the snowflakes are falling in seventeen directions at once.
One of my fears is that I will be murdered by a snowplow. These massive machines cruise the back roads with impunity, oblivious to pedestrians, ungoverned by law. If they knock over a mailbox, everyone grins.
The snow in the driveway melted and refroze, becoming a sheet of ice. No matter how carefully you stand on it, you almost fall over. Walking down our driveway is like taking an African-dance lesson.
Today I am traveling to New York City to celebrate my father’s ninety-second birthday. Riding the subway to my parents’ apartment in Brooklyn, I’m ecstatic to be surrounded by people rather than frozen water. This is what I love: hurtling through darkness with a crowd of strangers. It feels sexy and courageous.
I want to kiss the floor of the F train.
There are no antisnow songs. All lyrics about wintry weather are highly sentimental: “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”; “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” No one ever writes “I Wish This Fucking Snowstorm Would Stop!”
During winter you find out who’s really poor. A woman I know who works seventeen hours a week in a health-food store moves to Hawaii every January and February. Perhaps a trust fund is involved? The people who remain in Phoenicia are impoverished, like me.
Driveways are the true dangers of winter. Roads are scrupulously plowed and salted, but a driveway easily transforms into a sheet of ice. The greatest threat is three feet from your house!
I grew up in a housing project in Manhattan where winters were hot because you couldn’t turn down the radiators. Only in my forties did I realize that the poor are warmer than the rich.
With a winter like this it’s hard to be frightened of hell. I don’t crave eternal damnation, but it does sound wonderfully warm.
Few people build snowmen anymore. The children are all inside playing World of Warcraft.
It’s March, the month containing the propitious first day of spring. The gods of winter are relenting. Over the last two days the snow has begun to liquefy. On my walk I notice that the side of the road is glorious mud. Perhaps each day this month will be gentler, until the heroic equinox.
My friend Rachel gives me a ride to New York City. She once lived two doors down from me in Phoenicia but now has moved back to Manhattan.
“Winter is a lot easier in the city,” I remark.
“Yeah,” Rachel says. “Winter is something you walk through on the way to the subway.”
In an ATM vestibule I see an ant — the first ant of spring! We are delivered!
For the first time in weeks I can venture into the backyard without falling into a snowdrift. I stand by the foot of the mountain and stretch. I raise my arms out to my sides, lift one leg, then the other, and twist my hips. Suddenly I realize: I’m dancing! All winter I walk outdoors but forget to dance.
It snowed this morning, long and wearily. “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” growls Winter.
Phoenicians speak of winter as if it were an illness. “It’s been a hard one,” they say quietly. “I’m just waiting for it to end.”
When the Buddha was a child, according to the texts, his parents withheld from him the knowledge of disease, old age, and death. Had the scriptures been written in upstate New York, they would have added winter.
It’s a warmly cold day. The sun shines, but not enough to dissolve the lingering patches of snow. My wife rakes the leaves off the garden. She’s already ordered seeds for the coming season: Kentucky wonder beans, Persian broadleaf cress, national pickling cucumber.
“Can you believe we’re supposed to get fourteen inches of snow tomorrow?” my friend Laura asks me at lunch.
Yes, I can believe it.