Walking in winter

“Winter then in its early and clear stages, was a purifying engine that ran unhindered over city and country, alerting the stars to sparkle violently and shower their silver light into the arms of bare upreaching trees. It was a mad and beautiful thing that scoured raw the souls of animals and man, driving them before it until they loved to run.”

―Mark Helprin

I like walking in winter because you can see the structure of things.

Spring is new life and growth and freshness. Summer is shimmery heat and play and exhaustion. Fall is sensory overload and delight.

Winter is quiet, a dance without music.

There are no distractions. You watch the movement and the form or you watch nothing at all.

Winter is the poetry of seasons. Minimal, lean, honest, a little sideways, unyielding, and not everyone’s cup of tea.

On weekends I hike in nearby woods, on trails and paths, through nature reserves, around city lakes, beside a muddy river.

I go to the small wild places.

They don’t look very wild but you can feel it pulsing. And it’s good to be surrounded by trees.

I feel friendly in the woods. Trees stretch their branches like arms, like a ladder I could climb. Sometimes there is symmetry. Always there is balance.

On weekdays I walk or run through town.

Each day is a variation on the same theme. Asphalt, concrete, crosswalks.

The sidewalks are neat. Clouds move behind a grid of power lines.

The trees are still wild but they’re holding it together. You have to plant in smaller groups to keep them tame.

There’s a row of sycamores along one street. That’s a mistake. They’re always laughing. Conspiring.

Their roots merge underneath that smooth asphalt and concrete veneer. They drip bark onto winter-clipped lawns. Their bare witchy fingers scrape the sky, pull it down. A little too close. They’re stirring up trouble.

I’m not in on the joke but I wink at them as I walk by.

I think about waking up in Puerto Rico to run a few slow miles before the sun swelled into the sky. The air dripped with sound and moisture.

I think about running with my dog, and running with my friends, and running alone under gray dawn stars.

I think about J, how his feet bounced off the road, how his long strides made it look easy to put miles between us. I didn’t know we were running away from each other.

I think about the hill leading to our driveway.

I think about the wandering chickens and the creek choked with bamboo. The red dirt of a construction site and the giant mango tree they left standing. The small trembling plants that would shudder and close when you touched them.

Now I walk down clean wide sidewalks and admire hydrangeas, their dried winter forms, sturdier than they should be, color faded to brown, faded blossoms big as my fist.

There are no words for the feeling that rises up in some moments. It’s like choking on fresh air.

There was no winter in Puerto Rico, not the winter I know, not the stripped bare kind of winter. Not the cold that hurts kind of winter.

Month after month, I waded into warm overgrowth, stood behind big leaves, layered grass and flowers over myself, over everything.

I cowered inside that lushness.

I hid and I prayed to an island that didn’t know me but took me in anyway. 

Let these vines bind together what is breaking apart, I prayed. Let these roots break open the hard, dried-up soil. Let this green unstoppable growth transform the dying parts of my life.

The fairy tales ring with warning. Transformation is never what you expect it to be.

But every foolish little child ignores the advice and plunges in.

Otherwise, there would be no story.

We came back to the mainland in hot summer and I settled into a new kind of daze. Keep moving, keep moving. There are many ways to stay asleep.

It was the first chill of winter that woke me.

I came to in a parking lot, breath hanging white, shoulders chilled, fingers numb. The winter air was quiet. The soil froze and cracked. 

I can’t do this anymore, I said.

And for the first time in a long time, I heard my own voice.