The Great Wait
Across from me, there is an expanse of windowpanes that stretch floor-to-ceiling. The bright paper-white glow from outside and the lack of ability to discern topographical features beyond the back deck scream one thing to my subconscious – SNOW. SNOWSNOWSNOWSNOWSNOWSNOW.
A community like Steamboat Springs builds a livelihood and a collective consciousness around the quantity of snow we do or do not receive throughout the winter. This is most marked in the early season, when a dark crust of earth still shows between frozen clumps of brown late-fall snow that hangs in shadows and on north-facing hillsides. Steamboat is Ski Town, U.S.A. – if it’s not snowing, what is it doing? Ski instructors wait for the tourists to arrive in droves, the news of fresh powder to scurry them from Dallas to Denver in a fervor. Plow drivers and snowmobile tour operators do another round of maintenance on vehicles and equipment, nothing but dirt outside their shop. Meeting with acquaintances in the supermarket or during a 5-minute chairlift ride, our chatter loops the conversational bullwheel of what snow is coming – and when.
There is a very human tendency to wait for the next big thing in our lives, whether this is tied to the seasons of nature or not. We set goals and make plans and write “to-do” lists. We count down the days. We anticipate. Some of this we started doing very young – imagine yourself as a child, plucking ornaments on and off the Christmas tree, counting the days until you’d pull an all-nighter trying to hear Santa on the rooftop. Watching the last 5 minutes of class tick down until the screech of the bell for recess. Rolling your eyes in the back seat of the family minivan, yelling up to the front of the cab – “ARE WE THERE YET?!” There is (and has always been) anticipation.
When we anticipate a change in weather or in seasons, we are powerless in the face of something (someone?) so fickle and unpredictable as Mother Nature. In our frustration, we pull skis out of the closet in a premature and stubborn way, dragging the heels of our ski boots along a backcountry trail in pursuit of higher ground, where the first couple of snows may have stuck. And yet there is a certain sweetness in this impatience. As it was for the kid who waits for the bell to recess, it is for us as we constantly click “refresh” on the weather report. There is pleasure in the wait. If there were no wait, there would be no great relief in an arrival.
A week ago I sat in a crusty snowbank (40 centimeters in depth to the ground, we measured this meager sum) with a couple of girlfriends who felt a similar excitement at snowier times to come. In the backcountry surrounding Hahn’s Peak, we built a tiny stick fire and sipped a hot thermos of black tea and bourbon. We wrote offerings and musings on pieces of scrap paper and announced them to Ullr (the Norse god of winter) before tossing them into the flames that kept sizzling out in the snow beneath. One of my friends pulled out a tiny, crumpled copy of the Tao and read a few passages aloud. The Tao contains this resounding and comforting philosophy of yin and yang, which states that two complementary halves or sentiments come together in a way that creates wholeness. Stated simply, it is obvious. But dig beyond 40 centimeters and you can start to apply this to much of the discomfort and impatience you feel when you’re waiting, with bated breath, for the next thing to arrive.
There is no light without darkness. There is no pleasure without pain against which to measure it. There is no greatest joy without past heartbreak to open fully. There is no sweet arrival at a wind-scoured summit without the burn of your legs each step of the way. As my dad used to say ad nauseum, “the journey IS the reward”.
For those of us who live close to nature, we anticipate with our entire body. We tap feet and stare out windows. We lose sleep and toss and turn and chew on pen caps. The dry December air cracks our fingertips and we slip on sheets of ice that we had forgotten would be there. Days go by, weeks even....and then it hits. One morning, there is a headache and a heaviness in the air. A friend complains of joint pain acting up. A stroll down the potato chip aisle in the supermarket reveals bags swollen by a sudden pressure change. Everything encourages hibernation.
Without the weeks leading up to it, this next moment would not feel so sweet. The early morning moment, the one where you have not yet gotten out of bed, but there is a deeper silence in the room than normal. Whatever outdoor noises may have existed on previous mornings are now muted, muffled, softened or padded. Before you open the curtains, you already know what’s there. Tiny glittering snowflakes. Fluffy stellar dendrites. Chunks and clumps of snowflakes stuck together in big pieces that got too excited when exiting the cloud and clung to each other in a frenzy. Your breath makes a fog on the windowpane in front of you as you silently thank Ullr. Or maybe it’s Mother Nature.
With a smile on your face, you pulse the coffee beans in the grinder, boil the water, watch the steam rise and position the French press on top. And then…..you wait.