—The White Witch C.S. Lewis, Narnia series
One incredible January, Winton Woods Lake froze solid. Some fathers made fires on the ice and kids played crack the whip. Mr. Nassauer had given me a kitchen chair to push on the ice but this afternoon I let go and took off across the vast empty lake. The ice was grey blue, perfect and unmarked. I was wobbly and my ankles turned in, but I was also first and the only one with this idea.
I kept going, under the highway and headed up into the little creeks. I wanted to find the places where I had played, preserved now in ice. But I couldn’t find them. The fallen logs were all wrong. I couldn’t find any of the shoreline trees or the big log bridges. I stumbled in some leaves and fell hard on a rock. When I sat up, I heard maybe for the first time, Silence. The pure full sound of an entire state of being. I could feel how this cold wasn’t like the freezer at home. No number degrees could describe it. No box could contain it. This cold didn’t preserve. It transformed. The shattered bits of thin ice scattered over these embedded leaves, weren’t like glass, they were crystal stars, blades and needles. The bare tree branches were sculptures, impossibly ornate and alive with invisible intension. Everything around me was actually enchanted and strange in its beauty. But I was just me. Alone and getting pretty cold.
I would remember this moment when I read Laura Ingalls’ Long Winter, and again in eighth grade, To Build a Fire. The teacher told us there are three great themes in literature: man against himself, man against man, and man against nature.
Nowadays, having lost to winter far more than was ever mine to lose, I find myself seeking out the coldest snowiest places. I have spent three winters in Iceland and one in a small cottage on the Bay of Fundy. This summer I glimpsed a corner of the winter in Greenland. These are places that stir the deepest part of me, resonating with what Nietzsche called ‘the dark winter nights living in my bones.” My whole body and soul feels the beauty and light inside any darkness, the warmth inside of cold. I think of it as lessons from the White Witch. She tells me, Find the winter. Enter it as best you can. Experience You alone with your Self. “You truly with Others. You with Nature, belonging and becoming.
That afternoon on the lake, I was grateful to skate toward the voices of all the kids, glad to know that I had another pair of mittens and socks. When I got close enough to see the fires, I stopped and oriented myself with the highway stop sign and a certain tree. I skated my name into the hard ice, promising myself I would return in summer. I would row a boat over that very spot where nothing would remain.