I just spent a few days back home. I think I’ll always consider Wisconsin home, even though I’ve lived away longer than I ever lived there. It’s been almost twenty years since I officially left home, almost 17 here in the Bay Area, and although I love the way the Northern California climate spoils me, there’s something reassuring about the cold of a Wisconsin winter. It reminds me who I am, though my ability to capture what that means is rather like watching my breath freeze and disappear every time I exhale in the frozen air.
As I was leaving California, I couldn’t believe how bad my timing was – we were about to have a heat wave here, and the temperatures were going to be in the 70s, while I boarded a flight to the frozen tundra, bracing myself for the deep cold. Turns out, though, there was a bit of a heat wave in Wisconsin, too. It was in the 40s almost the entire time I was there. The first day, though, the temperature hovered around 20.
While I’ve lived through many days significantly colder than that, 20 degrees is just cold enough to make you stiffen, to feel sharp pinpricks on exposed skin when the wind blows, and to curse the fact that you don’t have gloves or a hat to help fight back the advance of invisible frozen fingers that grip you and hold you stiff as a board until you find some relief in the heat of a car or a warm living room. Living through that kind of cold, day in and day out, breeds a sort of toughness, and comes with a warped sense of pride – it has something to do with survival, I think. Or maybe I only see it that way because of the distance I now have.
I called my dad to wish him a Happy Birthday after I got home today, and I mentioned our Northern California heat wave. He lives in Northern Illinois, and I wasn’t home long enough to visit him. He said, “Well, we’re having a heat wave here, too, really. It’s been in the 40s and we haven’t even had two inches of snow this year.” ”That’s nuts,” I replied. ”Well, it doesn’t hurt my feelings any,” he said, to which I began to laugh. He joined me, both of us chuckling at the words he had chosen. ”I”m getting too old for snowmobiles, I sure as hell don’t want to shovel it, and I damn well hate to drive in it,” he continued. ”So it can stay this way as far as I’m concerned,” he finished. And he’s lived in it all of his 59 years.
I often wonder why people stay in the harsher parts of the world when there are places more temperate, where Mother Nature is more accommodating, less of an adversary. Then I go back to the cold. I breathe it in deeply, very deliberately feeling the way it freezes the passageways it follows into my lungs, and a sense of familiarity settles in. It’s that very cold comfort that reminds me of my roots, my family, my heritage, and I realize again that it’s home, and though I wasn’t meant to stay there, not everyone likes to leave home.