Surviving Winter

When I woke up one morning last winter, it was five degrees. The cold was paralyzing. At 6:30 am, an early gloom draped my window. I couldn’t drag my feet out from under the quilt. Some wise person wrote that the greatest pleasures in life are to see, to eat, and to sleep undisturbed. Having a thick quilt rates high, too.

The window was blanketed with frost from the humidity of many people breathing in one bedroom. I watched the pattern of frost emerge outside the windowpane. An opaque haze turned to beauty as the sun bounced and sparkled off the frozen water. The curves of crystals on the pane looked like a geothermal map covering an ancient river shoreline. Individual crystal drops, some as big as a fingernail, stopped my breath. My mattress squeaked as my elbow cranked my head to get a better view. Did you ever see how similar an ice crystal is to the twinkling rays of Venus in the evening sky?

Beauty surpasses even cold weather; but 20 years ago I told my parents I was moving to Boston, not Siberia. I’m scared at the extremes of weather we have, and so unpredictable. How can scientists convince me that this temperature is due to global warming? I’m angry that it’s too cold for my son to go skating on Frog Pond. I’m upset that a hot drink from the bakery only stays warm about five minutes and ten minutes later it’s starting to congeal. I worry about frail adults, parents with toddlers, the elderly who can’t shop or can’t get out to see a doctor. I’m furious that people with no home, people who prefer their freedom to the shelter regimen, are liable to freeze to death.

As I rolled over in bed, I remembered Patti. Patti is a diabetic who braved the cold last week to come to the health clinic. She is a homeless woman whose total possessions fit into two shopping carts. She is overweight and solemn. She used to only come to the health clinic every other Friday to have Clara, her nurse practitioner, check her insulin. Patti would wheel one cart up the street, park it on the corner, then scuffle back down the block for the second cart. She wore layers and layers of shirts and sweaters and an Andes wool hat with a pompom hanging down. Her thin hair was shiny, anchored in place by the striped hat.

After Patti parked her shopping carts behind a dumpster, she waited patiently to see her trusted Clara. Once I watched Patti carefully brush the dirt off her shoes with a Zoloft brochure. Clara politely accompanied Patti into her office. Clara has been at this health center for 15 years. Clara gave Patti complete attention, as much interest as she gives any patient in a coat and tie. Over the years, Clara has listened to Patti’s complaints and disjointed stories. She has adjusted Patti’s medication, given her encouragement, and sometimes ushered her to the lab for blood tests. That day Patti left with her medicine in hand and Clara opened her window to clear out the smell.

Early last February nurses saw these same two shopping carts parked outside the clinic on Tuesdays. This was odd—Tuesday is a day Clara doesn’t even come to work. Soon they saw Patti sitting in the waiting room, not expecting an appointment. Puzzled, the staff asked Patti why she came. Patti didn’t need a doctor, but she asked if she could return to Clara’s consultation room. Patti approached the room slowly and stood a minute in the doorway with her head cocked. Then she heaved a deep breath and turned away. That was enough. Patti had wanted to be in the room where she was listened to, and where she felt hope. Clara had offered her a well of care and respect, until all Patti needed was to touch that place of hope. Patti found a calmness in what seemed to be a chaotic, wintry life. Then she left without a fuss. The perplexed nurses shrugged and called the next patient.

Winter is a temporary shell. But it claims a stiff price. You can’t escape the power of its steely grip: Earth unforgiving as iron, gurgling water arrested by the fingers of ice. Trees hibernate; mammals bury deep in dens. Insects go into suspended animation. Teens lean against storefront doorways, their steamy breath fogging the glass.

In winter, death hovers closely around our shoulders. I listen to friends’ stories: someone falls and breaks a hip, mothers use an open oven to heat the room while kids do homework, an aggressive cancer recurs after unsuccessful surgery. What can I do? Hiding from winter is like hiding from bankruptcy; it doesn’t work in the long run.

My joints are stiff, for sure; but to feel cold does not register high on the body’s pain scale. Cold is only a sensation on the skin. Do you want to know the truth?—I tremble more because of fear than because of cold. The cold doesn’t touch my spiritual life. As I shiver, I am aware how great it is to be alive.

My mind is alert, racing against the inevitable waves of cold outside my quilt. The sun pierces the window ice with a strong gleam. I can stay hidden in bed. I have a choice; I can decide to call in sick at work. People like Patti haven’t the ability to control their time or warmth. Lying in a warm bed is a privilege for which I rarely thank God.

I’m anticipating those blasts of cold shaking my body. Arctic weather is debilitating. Some are afraid of slipping on ice, or of catching the flu, both of which are health risks. But you and I also know it’s more dangerous to drive down Interstate 95. Have you ever heard someone say: "Nope, there’s too many fatal car accidents; I’m not going out to drive today"? Few of us stay inside because it’s dangerous outdoors. We stay inside because it’s uncomfortable to be cold, but maybe a little bit also because winter is laced with the knowledge of death.

I know God’s Creation includes death. Maybe others aren’t intimidated by that, but I’m too squeamish to appreciate death. The pain of dying fills me with dread. With so many scales on my eyes, I only can accept death in theory. Like the idea of intelligent life on Mars, life after death sounds good; but I, personally, am not up for the side effects.

Winter brings out bodily quaking. I shiver and stamp my feet—my muscles tensed, my chin tucked. This quaking is from cold, but also from fear—a fear that gives homage to death and allows pain to overtake my body and rule supreme.

Winter quaking isn’t the only kind, of course. Another kind happens when I’m taken aback by an extraordinary event. I shiver when I’m in awe of a magnitude I don’t understand; some call it the Power of the Lord. It has the outward appearance of fear, but awe has a totally magnificent quality that’s different. When I first saw a humpback whale breach, I was mesmerized and then quaking in wonder. "Did you see that?" I repeated over and over to my kids; "Did you see SEE that?" Pigeons circling in a flock around Boston skyscrapers give me the same thrill. Have you ever quivered after hearing a recording of Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech? This is a power that commands respect with its tones of beauty and truth. It makes my skin jump and the back of my neck tingle. But it doesn’t make me weak in the knees; nor does it make me want to run for warmth. It’s quaking in the best sense. As a Friend, I do not find quaking just in worship.

Winter is a tough season. It may bring brittleness, crankiness, and loneliness. When these fears rack my mind, I shiver with death at my side. I remain under the bedcovers. My arm tentatively stretches over my head, then I snap it back under the quilt again.

As I squirmed under the covers that morning, I was still thinking of Patti. Her survival has caused me to shudder in wonder; do I appreciate how much of a miracle her life is? I don’t pity her, but I’m trying to learn the lesson often blinded by my privilege. At the clinic Patti finds an island of healing. Yes, she needs medicine and she needs protection from the vicious winds, but she finds healing with just the knowledge of someone’s past caring. After Clara carved the way, Patti discovered God’s presence even without her. Pain is temporary; Love is ever-present.

I hopped out of bed, slapped on layers of clothes, and started scavenging for breakfast. I reached on the shelf for some oatmeal and raisins. And I wondered: can I reach for seeds of Love and Hope and yet not deny the truth of winter?

Elizabeth Claggett-Borne

Elizabeth Claggett-Borne, a member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, Mass., works with patients at Boston Medical Center.