When you move to Chicago, here is what people say to you: “Oh, whoa! Did you know it’s cold there?” They don’t usually phrase it as a question, but they say it like you have overlooked this fact. It’s as though they think they are announcing something particularly newsworthy that you, in your blind lust for a big city, have overlooked.
In July, when I was sorting my things into boxes and taping them up with pink duck tape, I responded to this announcement/question thusly: “Yes, I do know it will be cold.” And then the person who had started the whole cold conversation in the first place would say, “No you don’t. You don’t really know."
I hate when people tell me I don’t really know something. I mean, obviously I did know it was going to be cold. That was literally the only thing anyone had told me about moving to Chicago, and I felt like I understood it pretty quickly. I Googled, “What is the coldest it has ever been in Chicago?” and learned that in 1985 the temperature dropped to 27 below zero. That didn’t really sound that cold to me. And also, it hadn’t happened since 1985.
In late October, when the weather started to turn, I was a kid who was “definitely absolutely sure” that she was going to love the raisin pudding she ordered at the restaurant, even though her mom told her repeatedly she would not like it. I was not going to be deterred by the cold. It did not matter how cold it got.
Every day I went to school and said, “I don’t know what everyone was talking about; it’s not that cold.” In response, everyone told me that Chicago was having an “unseasonably warm winter.” And so this whole argument about cold weather (and my ability to handle it) had reached a standstill.
One night in January, Luke and I were invited to a birthday party that would require riding two buses. We roasted root vegetables in the orange ceramic dutch oven my mother had given us for Christmas to bring as a contribution, and checked the temperature outside: six below. Six below meant down coats and balaclavas; double gloves and double wool socks. This kind of layering gave me the shape of an outermost Russian nesting doll. Outside, the snow from the previous week had frozen over, so you kind of had to stab your boot into it or slip awkwardly along it like a five-year-old pretend-skating in tennis shoes on an ice rink. We left our apartment carrying the hot dutch oven on a quilted potholder. “At least this pot is going to keep us warm,” Luke said.
This pot did not keep us warm. The five-minute walk to the first bus stop sucked. Waiting for the bus (standing still) was significantly worse than walking. Riding the bus was ok, but waiting for the next bus (the second one took a lot longer to show up than the first one) was terrible. And then we missed our stop, so we had to walk half a mile to the birthday party. Luke’s eyelashes frosted over; they quietly clicked when he blinked.
When the birthday party ended, I Russian-dolled back up, and Luke called a Lyft. We’d acquiesced. It was cold in Chicago.
It was cold in Chicago for all of January and all of February. Everything died. I couldn’t believe the magnitude with which everything died. We walked to the bird sanctuary on the lakeside a few times and saw only the few fat sparrows and chickadees that stayed through the winter because people like us came to feed them handfuls of seed. Parts of the lake were solid ice, white-blue and light-green, like sea glass. There were no plants. The parts of the trees that remained seemed to shrink and jutted out of the ground ominously, like vertical corpses.
I started to refuse to leave the apartment unless it was required of me. I receded into myself. The most annoying thing about this was that all those stupid people who had insisted to me when I was moving that “Chicago was cold” were right. They hadn’t phrased it right, I think: they maybe should have said, “You are going to struggle to make it through the winter because the cold will isolate you from most of the places and people you really love.” That comes off sounding a little dire, I guess; and besides, if they had put it that way it’s not like I would have believed them.
The sadness that comes with winter is beastly. Inside yourself, sort of like the awful winter trees, this sadness can seem a little like a kind of death; it is rigid and unchangeable. No matter how good the TV show is that you binge on, or how much vegan Thai food you get delivered, the sadness sits inside your stomach stubbornly, sticking to your ribs.
Worst of all, the landscape inside and outside shows no indication that it could possibly change.
But two weeks ago, talking on the phone with someone I missed very much in balmy New Orleans (“It’s so warm here today; I went to the coffee shop to read outside”; ugh), I saw something that completely shocked me. In fact, I could not believe that the thing was what I thought it was. I had to put my nose up to it to make sure.
And then I became sure. It was the swollen pinky of some dense, sprouting plant. Seeing something green push through the black soil was such a defiant surprise that I practically choked up.
The next day I saw a whole blanket of these little pinkies in the park behind our apartment. Two days later, they breathed out a net of white bell flowers. Two days after that there were so many things coming out of the ground that it no longer made sense to try to count them.
In high school, I went to a Sunday youth group at a Unitarian Universalist church. I looked forward to it all week long; I liked everyone in the group and I was fairly anti-social so this was pretty much the way in which I bonded with people my age. Also, there was this unbelievably hot woman who co-advised the group; she was in her early twenties, wore her hair cropped short, and was always effortlessly chipper. I don’t remember this woman’s name, or what she did as a day job, but I’ll never forget this one day when we were going around the circle sharing our joys and concerns, and she said, “I only have joy today, because green things are coming up!” She actually said it in italics. Her voice carried the quiet elation of someone who had seen God.
Since then, whenever I’ve seen green things coming up, I can hear her voice echoing sweetly in some back corner of my brain. “Green things are coming up!” The earth is adjusting, as it always does. “Green things are coming up!” Under the frozen everything, living things have been dutifully re-learninghow to stir. “Green things are coming up!” Even when you think nothing will ever change; even when you are sure of it; it does. It always, always does.