This year, as I write this in December, there is no snow on our still fairly green grass in the western suburbs of Chicago. For a couple of years, when my son was 10 and 11 or so, he would look up at the winter sky with a worried countenance: no snow. He’d ask us to check the weather and there’d be no snow in the ten-day forecast. I would try to reassure Justice, saying that even when I was a child, there’d be winters that didn’t snow as much but it felt like wishful thinking, like an empty excuse, to both of us. As I write this, our winter feels and looks much more like early spring.
My son is 21 now. He is young but old enough to have distinct memories of true winters, the frustration of needing to get his snow pants and boots on but then the sweet reward of sledding, pink-cheeked and hollering with excitement, down the popular neighborhood hill, his little mittened hands ready to grab the rope and pull the sled back up to the top to do it all over again. And again and again. From my office today as I write this, I can see beyond the grass of our yard into the soccer field of the park behind our house, filled with players taking advantage of yet another “nice” day. My son no longer looks at the sky with anxiety. That ship has sailed. He’s now in a place of sad acceptance with climate change: It is happening and he will find his way in this new normal. He is wistful for something he barely knew. Just like the last time I carried him as a child, maybe our last real winter has happened without us even knowing it.
I was born in a true Chicago snowstorm, the likes of which we don’t see much anymore, the infamous blizzard of ’67. I’ve heard it described as like the sky was a giant pillow stuffed with feathers that did not stop spilling out, a year’s worth of snow falling in a couple of days. I was among the newborns socked into Weiss Hospital, healthy but unable to be released with my mother for two weeks due to the almost two feet of snow that fell over 29 hours, making the streets unnavigable. It wasn’t just the snow, of course. The northeast wind gusts, more than 50-mph, jumped in with an assist to create snow drifts as high as 15 feet, forcing people on the streets to abandon their cars, and creating a wonderland where kids, unable to get to school, could practically sled out their bedroom windows to the snowscape that blanketed everywhere around them.
I know that weather has ups and downs — two days before the blizzard I was born in, it was an uncommonly warm 65 degrees for late January — but after eight years of the warmest temperatures recorded, 2023 is expected to be the hottest year in recorded history. Unlike that random warm day back in 1967, this is not a fluke.
I don’t want to talk about that, though. I’m too sad. Instead, I feel compelled to write a love letter to the earth, not an apology letter.
First off, I love your clouds. The other day, I was in a fair amount of anxiety and uncertainty at a difficult moment so I just sat and committed to watching your clouds moving and my racing heart calmed right down. I forgot that I was even scared. Why don’t I do this more often? In, out, quick or slow. Beautiful white, gray, blueish tufts, some puffy, some more like ribcage bones. I think if I were plopped down on earth and saw it with fresh eyes, the first thing I would notice would be the clouds. I would want to feel one, to run my fingers through it. Can you feel it?
Speaking of clouds: the sky, wow, what is it, like really? No wonder people around the world decided that only the highest, most unknowable, powerful and holy beings reside in it. Many years ago, a dear friend of ours died unexpectedly. A week or two later, we watched a protest sign (long story) get picked up by itself in what was like a very localized airstream of some sort on a mild summer day and we watched the sign turn and turn until it was just a dot in the sky and then it disappeared. We thought our friend, an activist, took it up to show his new friends. The sky is so vast and incomprehensible, it kind of scares me, just like the idea of eternity does so I tend not to think about it too much. But thank you, sky. You are just lovely, even when you drop loads of snow on us, even when you steal our signs.
It seems like now is a good time to send the sun and evening sunsets a little love because, well, we wouldn’t be alive without the sun and life would be a lot less worth living without sunsets. I am one of those people who likes the occasional cloudy day (See: Clouds) but I appreciate the gray days more with big, bombastic sunny days shuffled in the deck of life. You know how it’s like you can almost feel your lungs dry out on a sunny day outside after a bunch of wet and rainy days in a row, how you can understand why tuberculosis patients were prescribed sunlight? (I know it was the vitamin D they were after, but that is inseparable from the sun.) When my son was a baby, he had a stubborn diaper rash once, and his doctor suggested that I let him “air out” au naturale on a blanket in our yard in the sunshine and, lo and behold, it cleared right up. Son meet sun. Speaking of, every time I refer to Justice as “my son,” I imagine him as an embodiment of radiant, golden sun, just as he is to me. Sun, you 15,000,000-degrees Celsius ball of plasma, you literal superstar at the center of our solar system, you make life possible. Also, you may have cleared up my son’s diaper rash. What else can I say? If I’ve got a sunhat on, I’m content with your brightness. Sunsets? More often than not, you take my breath away.
So, a little story: I had my eyesight fixed in 2022 and the trees, the leaves and needles, the branches and roots, the silhouettes against the sky (even naked, they are organic modern sculptures, stunning in their starkness) have never been more beautiful and entrancing, except maybe when I was a child and could climb your limbs without fear and everything felt a little magical. I could not believe the colors of this last autumn with my new eyesight, the sugar maples and the gingkos, the buckeyes and the scarlet oaks — oh, and discovering the fringed acorns of the bur oaks well into my fifth decade — not to mention springtime and the magnificent magnolias and crab apple trees. (The autumn sycamores with your rolls of crisp, curled bark, so satisfying to crunch under my feet, but I’ll get to that.) Every step this fall seemed to be swoon-worthy, so many gasps from me this year alone. The trees against the sky have become like a life-force nectar for me, shockingly indulgent, enlivening and free for the enjoyment. Seeing one of your kind makes me feel instantly better in a way that feels like relief, that feels like an exhale, and there are very few I can say that about. I know this sounds simplistic but that’s where I’m at: Trees, I love you. The older I get, the more your beauty makes me cry.
I’ve got a little side note for you, trees. Back when my son was two, we would take the train to a wonderful, hippie-dippy preschool in the Rogers Park neighborhood, which has always been like Sesame Street to me. Anyway, we were walking one day in the fall and you pointed with your little dimpled fingers at some vibrant red maple leaves that were on the sidewalk. “That’s sad,” my son said. I struggled for something to say, landing on that they would come back in the spring. Justice very quietly said with a little catch in his voice, “Not those ones, though.” I never could pull one over my son. This school was supposed to instill sensitivity and love for the natural world in him. John and I decided that he was born with an ample supply of both.
Shall we take it down a notch? It’s time for puddles! Puddles to stomp through, splash on, jump with both feet in, kick and send sprinkles out, watch reflections in, draw lazy little ripples in with sticks. Puddle is kind of an onomatopoeia, which I never realized until now. They are an invitation to playfulness and an immediate antidote to too much adulting. Thank you, puddles. I see you.
Speaking of puddles, I am definitely a pluviophile, a lover of rain, whether it’s a fine mist or a spectacular thunderstorm, the kind people who no longer live in the Great Lakes region tell me that they miss the most. What a show they are. Too much rain for too long will definitely get me down but a nice period of slate gray skies that would get Morticia and Gomez all up in their sketchy pen-and-ink feels is a definite mood in my inner-landscape I have staked a claim on since childhood. Purr… If I’m outside and have an umbrella or indoors and the basement isn’t flooding, I’m happy with you. If you cancel events, more than likely, I’m good with it because I’d almost always rather be home. The sound of you is heaven even if you make me have to pee and the scent that first rain creates after a time of warm, dry weather — a fragrance so specific, it has its own word (petrichor) — is luxurious beyond description. There is no perfume that comes close to capturing your essence.
“April showers bring May flowers.” My mom was a flower person; not only did she have an enviable green thumb but she just adored flowers and could identify them effortlessly, even when I pushed her in her wheelchair past gardens and she retained almost no other memories. Despite my surname, this connection to flowers did not pass down to me. It’s not at all that I am opposed to flowers, I just never was ga-ga over them. (I think maybe I associated them with the kind of femininity that felt like a forced, heavy burden, like enjoying the color pink, but now I have gotten over both of those biases to enjoy what I enjoy.)
The giant sunflowers that unexpectedly started growing under our bird feeder at our first house were a gateway to appreciating them in a new way (and noticing that goldfinches were attracted to the bold yellow flowers made me envy their self-regard) but ever since, I have just kind of noticed flowers more and more. I am still not a flower enthusiast on the level of my mother — few are — but, wow, they can be intoxicating if you succeed in seeing them with fresh eyes. Isn’t it wild that we get to live in a world with gerbera daisies and dahlias, love-in-a-mist and chrysanthemums? Speaking of, those whose job it is to name flowers and birds have to be some of the most creative and expressive people around. The earth laughs in flowers, is what Emerson said, but I think it sings, it mourns, it hiccups, it giggles, it runs, it skips, it delights and plays in flowers, too.
You may notice now that I mentioned birds, that I am not going to give shout-outs to the many species of the world because they are their own sovereign nations and beings, or they should be, not nature, though many live in it. They are our earthly cohabitants.
Getting back to things that grow: okay, so there’s this thing where if you put seeds in soil, actual food grows from that spot? I mean, it’s a little more complicated than that (not much, though) and there are a few other factors (not many, though) but if you put some seeds in the soil, you could have fabulous salsa, marinara and pesto for the whole year without a ton of effort or much expense. It is also embarrassingly true how proud I can be of what I manage to coax out of the earth. Dirt means that ineffable, sweet scent when it rains, not to mention memories of showing my son how to make mudpies and providing a place for our dog to dig, and, well, that whole life sustaining thing. My husband has worked hard at getting the soil in our yard to an ideal state of loaminess, raking in compost, planting cover crops, making everything as hospitable as possible for pollinators. Did you know that the phrase “dirt poor” does not mean so lacking in funds you only have dirt, but was a way to describe someone who has land that is worthless, that can’t grow food? They are poor in dirt. One of the things I’ve been doing over the past year is noting the things I am rich in to foster a sense of abundance. For example, I am rich in tea; I am rich in spices. Well, we are rich in dirt. That’s something else, I’ll tell you.
I am not a superfan of intentional grass growing because I’d rather see biodiversity and pollinator wellbeing, not so much perfect lawns and all the chemicals they require, but I will say this: That first nice day after winter where I can be comfortably barefoot and the grass feels soft and cool under my feet? Oh, there is nothing like it. I think one day I will probably be old and all I’ll want to do is feel grass under my feet and between my toes again.
Speaking of feeling, when my perfect dog Romeo suddenly died and my grief was so all-encompassing, I desperately wanted to hear the waves of Lake Michigan and sink my hips into the sand on one of the quiet beaches, seagulls crying distantly. I knew it would be healing. I needed to immerse myself in this. The beaches were closed, though, because of it being the first summer of Covid and my husband couldn’t get out much because he was recovering from leukemia and a transplant. (Oh, it was a year.) So I would just imagine the beach, the beautiful water and waves and soft, welcoming sand that somehow would help to wash away this colossal pain. The bathtub and beach ambient sounds in my earbuds didn’t quite cut it. Water has always filled my needs in such a specific way, from tea parties at the bottom of Centennial Pool with my friends (yes, I’m down with domesticated water, too, judge if you must) to gliding between strokes in a quiet kayak, from tossing rocks and watching it ripple out to listening to waves when I was drowning in grief. Water is the ultimate immersive experience, whether I’m in it or just observing it. It always soothes me where I need it. No, I am not a Pisces. Water makes me happy, though.
Now that I mentioned astrology, whether you hate it or love it or couldn’t care less, my moon is in Cancer and I have always been pulled to her lunar phases: just like the satellite she is, my eyes have to seek the moon out. Do you know something really embarrassing? I was well into my thirties when I noticed I could see you sometimes during the daytime. I love when you wax, I love when you wane, I love when you’re full, I love when you’re the merest of fingernails in the sky. When it’s cloudy at night, I am a little sad because you are the North Star that my eyes seek out for a feeling of relief, of peace, of normalcy, of connection to wash over me. You know what, though? I can see you better with my new eyesight, like actual craters sometimes. How fabulous you are.
Then there are the general scents — the woods, pine trees, the beach in July — and the tactility — smooth acorns in my hands, sycamore bark rolls under my feet with the perfect potato chip crunch (I told you I’d be back), the gently brushing the middle of a sunflower with my fingertips — and sounds — the rustling of trees, a distant woodpecker or a nearby bluejay carried by the wind to my hungry ears, the rushing river near our house — that make me stop and be in that moment.
This was the year I became obsessed with finding the perfect sticks to run along fences, especially along chain link fences, and I call this practice fence thwacking. The perfect stick is not too bendy, not too rigid, about medium-length, flat at the end, and it can be peeled with my thumb nail as I walk. I tried to get my husband into enjoying fence thwacking as well but it’s just not his thing. He will point out good fences for me to thwack as we walk, though, and be diverted with me so I can do my stick thing. That is love. I guess this is to say that I noticed well into my 50s that sticks are damn cool and unique from each other. There’s always time.
I should be closing this up soon because attention spans are short, including my own, but not because I’ve run out of things to say.
I’m back to snow. I curse you out and I miss you with my whole being. I miss the look of the sky that natives know means that snow is impending; it is more a sense of things than anything I could explain or describe.
The loudness in the road.
And laughs away from me.
It laughs a lovely whiteness,
And whitely whirls away,
Still white as milk or shirts,
So beautiful it hurts.
So beautiful it hurts. Is that not the perfect description of a certain kind of snow, a tree in autumn, fat raindrops, warm sand? I miss you, snow. I miss winter. I never thought I would say that. This isn’t a take-me-back letter, either, though. This is a love letter.
In the end, we will only feel pulled to protect what we love and I love you.
Forever blizzard baby