February 11, 2020 // Perspective
What I learned on the pond: Reckoning with winter
The snow has begun. It is expected to last 18 hours, piling 9 inches high and crippling weekend plans. The streets are emptying, the collective dash to the grocery store completed.
But here in our cul-de-sac, the party is about to begin.
One of the dads will start shoveling. Another will join in, and soon the pond will be packed. Kids will skate. Adults will hover around the fire pit. And our neighborhood will hum, knit together in a timeless winter scene.
By virtue of being a journalist in Minnesota, I’ve picked up the cold-weather beat. It’s a simple story that never gets old. Year after year, on the most frigid days, editors call from New York asking how people here are coping. How are the mail carriers? The homeless shelters? The commuters waiting at the bus stop? The babies shuttled off to daycare?
I bundle up and head out, removing my mittens just long enough to scribble in my legal pad. I look for new angles: the priest who still celebrated morning Mass at the cathedral, the frozen holy water.
I cover the cold for parenting magazines, offering “25 winter activities for toddlers” and “5 mama-tested hats.” Reviews of outdoor gear (hand warmers, neck gaiters, Yaktrax, Gore-Tex) are interspersed with survival tips for weary parents (the easiest boots for preschoolers, mittens connected by a string).
There is, however, a winter story I’ve never before written, and it’s my favorite one: the tale of our neighborhood pond.
Most of the year, the small pond at the foot of our cul-de-sac goes unnoticed. Rimmed by poplars and coated by algae, it is unremarkable, beyond our scope. Turtles sunbathe on the edge. Mallards dive down the middle. We drive on by, distracted, to get the mail, to get home, to get on with the day.
But when winter arrives and the temperature plunges, the pond freezes over, creating a communal gathering space. Tending to our hockey rink becomes a joint endeavor. Matt hooks up the lights, and Curt, in the closest house, covers the tab. John carries down his hose, spraying hot water to smooth the ice. We all take turns shoveling.
Hockey nets, benches and a fire pit emerge. It is shared property, with hockey sticks and shovels left on the snow, at the ready. Multiple toddlers have learned to skate in the same pair of size 6 skates. They climb snow mounds, making potions out of berries.
As the sun drops, it casts long purple shadows through barren branches. Some nights we turn on a movie projector and cook hot dogs. Once, a sled turned into a platter for Cheetos, gobbled up by young skaters.
The pond smells like bonfire and sounds like Nick Drake’s song “Northern Sky,” and it feels good. Together, we have learned to not just endure the winter but embrace it. We have discovered what happens when everyone comes out to pitch in, that the sum is greater than the parts.
Our rink operates only on the darkest, coldest days, when we most need community. We gather not in spite of the chill but because of it. The ice connects us.
There is a metaphor here for Christian fellowship. God introduces us to others when we are in the greatest need. We bond in places we do not want to be: a long line at the DMV, a hospital waiting room, a support group.
Together we find a way to make do, to keep moving while others freeze. And we trust that winter has its purpose, that beneath the snow, God is doing big and mighty things.
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