Where Sadness Makes Sense

If you should ever move to Minnesota, the only thing people will ask you about is how you survive the winter. After all, they may not be able to find the state on a map, but they know it’s cold. Is it true that the University of Minnesota’s buildings are all connected via tunnel? (Yes.) How cold does it get? (This winter, I believe the lowest it’s been in Minneapolis is -20˚F. The lowest recorded temperature in Minnesota was -60˚F, recorded in Tower, MN in 1996). Is your coat warm enough? (Yes, I promise). And so on.

Actually, I love winter. On this warming planet, the snow and the cold feel like gifts from a distant world, one I once took for granted. Snow softens the edges of even the harshest of the Midwest’s industrial landscapes, if only for a little while. Once the lakes freeze, the cold literally changes the land itself, opening up walking routes that are traversable in the summer only by canoe. One of my favorite Saturday activities in the winter is to go to one of said lakes and watch Minnesota wildlife in action: the hockey players and the figure skaters, the skiers, and (my favorite) the bikers, all zooming around the ice with remarkably low collision rates. When the light hits just right, the scene looks like something out of a Hallmark Christmas puzzle, a frozen world so alive and cheerful that you can hardly believe it’s real.

There are also terrible dangers, of course. Once the temperature dips into the double digits below freezing, frostbite can occur in less than half an hour. Winter is a terrible time for the city’s homeless population, who must seek shelter in whatever indoor place will have them or risk freezing to death. The few hours of daylight and the long stretches without sunlight trigger seasonal depression for many and worsen existing depression for others. But watching those who venture out to brave the cold anyway, I have developed a theory.

Up here, you must love the winter. That is the only way to survive it.

Such a love is not made up entirely of afternoons spent ice fishing or wandering residential neighborhoods breathing in the wood smoke from their fires, though that is certainly the more cheerful part of it. It requires the patience to put on your three sweaters and two pairs of socks and all your other gear, and the willingness to go outside for a little bit every day no matter how cold it is. (Pro tip: quite apart from keeping you from getting COVID, a face mask will help keep your face warm, but if you, like me, wear glasses, they will probably freeze over. However, if you take the mask off to try and help your glasses clear, the mask will have frozen by the time you put it back on. Dealer’s choice.) It requires leaving your phone and any other electronic devices untouched while you’re outside, because most can’t hold a charge in extreme cold. Often it includes long conversations about the best ways to deal with ice (salt, cat little, sand, and cherry pits are all options I’ve heard floated) or what to keep in your car in case it gets snowed in (a shovel, cat litter again, food, etc.).

In other words, loving winter looks like most kinds of love, in that it creates a space for the good and the bad, the beautiful and the terrible. Winter here can start as early as October and end as late as May. If you don’t want to spend half your life wishing for the next season, you might as well embrace the one that Minnesota does best.

 It’s simple, unsympathetic advice, and yet recently I was thinking about this as I slipped and skidded my way home from school and I realized: I haven’t been following it at all. Or at least, not when it comes to the larger picture.

Life has moved on since March 2020, perhaps for the people in my age group more than most. My friends have moved, started new jobs, gotten married, had children – and they have gotten sick, lost family members, and died. Your twenties are supposed to be a time of transition and growing into yourself, and even the pandemic has not been able to stop that, not entirely. I, too, am moving forward, starting school and getting to know the Twin Cities and generally shaping the track I want to follow for the rest of my life.

And yet when I picture the future, it is not like this. My memory of the world in February 2020 is increasingly hazy, but I remember enough to imagine someday, for example, attending a conference or teaching a course where everyone is packed into a small space and I don’t feel uneasy. Enough to imagine a world, in other words, where I exist as I did before and the past two years have been someone else’s story, where I can keep the parts I like and absent the rest of it. As if maybe, when this ends, I will be twenty-five again, and not twenty-seven or thirty or whatever the count might be. As if that lost world is still going somewhere, parallel to this one, and if I look hard enough, one day I might find it.

My grief for that other world manifests in the oddest of places and the most mundane of times. On an airplane, perhaps, when they play the new safety videos where everyone is masked. On the bus home, watching a masked child board with their mother and wondering how much of that world they can remember. Whenever I travel to a new town or store and see the safety regulations pinned to a bulletin board, I feel a small twinge in my chest. Oh, I think helplessly, it has reached you, too.

Then there is the problem that even if the world outside was restored to its exact state before COVID-19 had come into it, we are not the same people we were then. When the Omicron surge began, I thought gloomily that I was not very well-prepared for this potential lockdown, either, but in a completely different way than the last time. This time, the challenge was that I’d already done all the fun activities I listed for myself in the first go-around – I have a good bread recipe already, I’ve read the books on my shelves that I want to have read, I know some songs on to play on the guitar that sits in the corner of my apartment. The sense of innovation that kept us all ticking inside our homes in those first months has gone. Whatever politicians might say about ‘back to normal,’ the loss of the people we were before the pandemic is irreparable.

This shift in perspective is not a bad thing. The slogan ‘normal wasn’t working’ nicely sums up the point that perhaps the world that made the current situation possible is not a world we really want to replicate. In our better moments, we might admit that the pandemic has reminded us that life is precious and frail and that it has reorganized our priorities. Regardless of whether or not that angle wins out over the narratives of grief, anger, or sheer banality, it points us in the same direction as the Minnesota winter does: if you don’t wish to spend half your life pining for the sun to rise in the west and set in the east, you might as well embrace the options you have.

There is nothing to love about COVID itself, of course. But I know myself better than I used to, which parts need extra care and which parts are made of steel. These days I carve out time for sadness and for grief, and I love them as best I can because they remind me that I have not numbed to this reality yet, and that I don’t want to. I love the lockdown-ready space I have built for myself in my Minneapolis apartment, and I love all the weird niche TV shows and dog-eared paperbacks and backroad hiking trails I’ve found to help me pass the time. I love my stupid bread recipe and my books and my guitar. And I even love the masks I see stretched across face after face, because they remind me that we are capable of caring for each other in ways that feel at once hopelessly inadequate and like the most important thing in the world. Winter is here. We must love it in order to survive it.

Perhaps the most beloved commentary on winter in Minnesota is Danez Smith’s breathtaking 2015 poem, “I’m Going Back to Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense.” The poem in full reads:

O California, don’t you know the sun is only a god
if you learn to starve for him? I’m bored with the ocean

I stood at the lip of it, dressed in down, praying for snow
I know, I’m strange, too much light makes me nervous

at least in this land where the trees always bear green.
I know something that doesn’t die can’t be beautiful.

Have you ever stood on a frozen lake, California?
The sun above you, the snow & stalled sea—a field of mirror

all demanding to be the sun too, everything around you
is light & it’s gorgeous & if you stay too long it will kill you

& it’s so sad, you know? You’re the only warm thing for miles
& the only thing that can’t shine.

The winter always passes eventually, and by midsummer it is hard to imagine that the sparkling lakes were ever pathways that you could cut across on an afternoon walk. Sometimes in the summer I stare up at the top shelf of my closet and the rows of wool sweaters, almost unable to imagine a world where I need to wear not one but two or three of them at a time to go outside. But as pretty as the spring and the fall are here, as nice as the summer’s open trails and endless green can be, every time someone asks me about Minnesota, they ask me about the winter, and every time I answer that it’s the best part of the year.

I know something that doesn’t die can’t be beautiful. One day, the world we know now will die, too, to be replaced not by the world of 2019 but by some brave new one. The world we have now is broken, but it is the one we have, and it is beautiful. We must love it in order to survive it.

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