Thursday, January 11, 2018

January Thaw

For about three years running when I was a kid, I wanted to have an ice-skating party for my birthday, which falls this month. Each year, winter would start off all frosty and lovely. The ice would freeze smooth on the pond just down the road. The invitations would go out. And then the January Thaw would arrive, just in time to turn the pond to slush and ruin my plans.

This year, winter has started off with a combination of lots of fluffy snow and brutally cold days. Several days over the holiday vacation week, I felt as if I were wearing a corset as I zipped into my coach’s jacket, so tightly packed were the layers of polypro and down beneath.

So when I snuck out for a few runs early this week, it was blissful to ski without being hunched up against the cold and wearing so many layers that I could barely move. Those runs were beautiful. A bit of fresh, soft snow, great cover on all the trails, and a temperature right around freezing.

That moment of bliss, I’m afraid, preceded this year’s January Thaw.

As I write this column, it is still solidly winter. The trees are dressed in lacy white. The field is fully covered. The mountain peaks at the edge of my view are snowy. But the forecast looks warm and wet for the end of the week. By the time anyone reads this column, we’ll know how bad it is. I won’t even utter that four-letter word that begins with R; it’s dirtier than the mud it causes. Alas, I’m afraid it’s coming.

The January Thaw is a bit of an ambiguous concept. There’s no exact date for the dreaded phenomenon, and some years it doesn’t even happen – or it comes in December or February or, the worst, multiple times over the course of a winter. The Farmer’s Almanac, that bastion of long-range weather prediction that meteorologists urge us not to believe because the science is vague, or, perhaps, non-existent, describes The Thaw thusly:

“Small ‘blips’ in the overall pattern reveal noticeable fluctuations that can be observed from year to year. These blips are called singularities in weather lingo. Indian Summer, a period of unseasonably warm weather that usually appears in mid-October, is one such blip. The January Thaw is another.”

I will say that I much prefer the other singularity – Indian Summer – to this one. The Almanac goes on to say the January Thaw typically sees temperatures an average of 10 degrees higher than the previous week. Well, this is one heck of a thaw. By week’s end, temps are forecast to be in the mid-40s – above zero. That’s about a 70-degree change from a week prior!

If I can find any solace in this weather “blip,” it is that it will be brief – and in the fact that it has been happening (though perhaps not as dramatically) for far longer than I have been lamenting it.

Some years ago, my mother gave the kids a book called “Ollie’s Ski Trip,” written in 1907 by Swedish author Elsa Beskow. Young Ollie loves winter – and snow, skating, sledding, skiing – and is thrilled to meet Jack Frost, but dismayed by the occasional early arrival of winter’s “cleaning lady,” Mrs. Thaw, who forgets when she is supposed to set to work and sometimes tries to melt Jack Frost’s handiwork before spring arrives.

Whenever Ollie noticed hints that Mrs. Thaw was at work, he’d chant, “Mrs. Thaw, Mrs. Thaw, Please don’t sweep our snow away! Come again some other day!”

If only it were so easy to control the weather. Here’s hoping Jack Frost follows close on Mrs. Thaw’s heals this January, and there’s plenty of winter still to come.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the January 12, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Snow Magic

Last week the landscape turned solidly to white. It was good for the winter-lover’s soul. The timing even works for the folks (you know who you are) who only like snow for Christmas. Like holiday magic, snow in December covers the starkness of November with glittering brightness.

Trees that dropped their leaves months ago and had seemed simply bare became graceful, the twists and spread of their limbs outlined in a layer of crisp white. Evergreens, their branches drooping gently under a perfect layer of snow, now resemble the frosted trees of a gingerbread house village. The field that before looked cold and dull sparkles white in winter sunlight, a glimmering sea of tiny crystal reflections.

Snow makes the mountains glow. It magnifies moonlight. It amplifies quiet. It inspires joy and creativity in children – and the young at heart. (Trust me, snow-haters, it’s much more fun to go play in the snow than to grumble about it.)

The day it snowed the most last week I had two kids home sick from school. All day they lay on the couch, not wanting to move or eat. Outside, the snow sifted steadily from a gray sky, the white piling up to six inches or more. Late in the afternoon, they could bear it no longer. When the boy child arrived home from school, the girls pulled on snow pants and boots, left the coziness of inside for the chill of out. They rolled snow into huge balls and started forming a snow fort. They shoveled and piled and tossed snowballs toward the dog when her wild antics threatened to ruin the rising frozen fortress.

Over the weekend, after a full day of skiing through new snow, back out the kids went, over to the big hill at their grandparents’ house around the corner. They sledded until it was dark, and then kept going. They shaped snow into start ramps at the top of the hill and, further down, built jumps to fly off. They made endless trudging trips up the hill for the repeat joy of flying back down.

Partly, I know, this full-on love of snow is because it’s early in the winter. Snow in December seems a bit like a novelty in this new season. It’s like the first flower blooming in spring, the first hot day and cool dip in the river of summer, the first perfectly crisp morning of autumn.

“Nothing gold can stay,” the sage Robert Frost once wrote. And nothing white, either. We are embracing the season, wrapped up in the magic of snow while it lasts, twinkling in the moonlight and sparkling in the sun and lining the paths through the woods in perfect, delicate white. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the December 22, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

'Tis the Season - of Calm AND Crazy

The winter holiday season is, to me, a bit like summer vacation. Let me explain. Every June, as the last day of school arrives, I get giddy with summertime excitement. This began, of course, when I was a kid, but persisted through my college years of working summers, when I moved on to the workforce and no longer had a summer break, and now – when my own kids anticipate that delicious freedom of warm, unscheduled days – although summer often means more complicated juggling of various tasks for me.

Ditto with Christmas. In my mind, I picture calm evenings curled up by the fireplace with a good book, the lights of the Christmas tree twinkling peacefully nearby, everything tidy and cozy, and – of course – sprinkled with a good dose of holiday magic. Because that’s what Christmastime should be, right? Cocoa and cookies, peace and joy, everything wonderfully exciting while simultaneously calm and bright.

In reality, this is crazy time in our household, further magnified these next few weeks by all the hustle and bustle associated with the holidays.

Because much of my writing work focuses on skiing and winter recreation, I am – thankfully – extra busy on that front this time of year. The kids jumped into their ski racing program the day after Thanksgiving, and that occupies – happily, I will point out, but also exhaustingly – most of every weekend from now until April. I also coach in that program, which means there is little downtime for any of us. Throw in a lengthy list of home improvement projects and the related upheaval those bring, and I often feel as if I’m barely afloat in a sea of household chaos.

But here’s the thing… I love it. Yes, the decorations we shoved partly in haste back into the storage closet last January cause me some consternation as we try to figure out where to fit all our favorites – the ones that make it feel like Christmas, like OUR Christmas. And we have to move the living room furniture around to find space for the tree, then trim said tree with lights that actually work and our assorted plethora of ornaments that seem each year like they’ll never all fit on the tree.

The extra stuff can seem overwhelming in an already sometimes cluttered house, and the added tasks can be challenging to shuffle into an already overflowing calendar. But this is a good kind of crazy.

It’s fun – and amazing – to pull ornaments from the bin and remember what each one means. There are decades-old ones from my childhood and my husband’s, handmade ornaments the children created in their earlier years, and others from places we’ve visited. Likewise, there are homemade and school-made decorations that join store-bought ones on the mantle and windowsills. There’s no color coordination or underlying theme – just a hodgepodge of holiday treasures that maybe look good only to us.

This week, we have pulled out the bins of decorations and cleared the mantel of its non-holiday d├ęcor to make room for Christmas. Some evening this week, I hope, we will get our tree from a local tree farm, stand it in its regular place by the front windows, and string it with lights. This tree – with its woodsy fragrance and twinkling decorations – will be the centerpiece of our living room for the next few weeks. 

The very sight – and scent – of it inspires a bit of calm in me, calls me to take a breath and focus on the bright rather than the crazy.

On Christmas eve – when the children are tucked all snug in their beds, when the presents have been selected and wrapped, when I have prepped as much of Christmas dinner as I can and set the table to festive, when the stockings have been hung hopefully by the chimney – I will sit by the tree. I will pause and take it all in and thank my lucky stars – and those twinkling Christmas tree lights – for holiday magic, and for the moments of calm and bright amid the wild and crazy of the season. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the December 8, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.