The polar vortex (what a marvelous term! When I was a kid we just referred to it as a winter storm or “cold weather”) comes again and again. Snow piles past the height of our mailbox, buries shrubs and half-buries small trees. In between freezing spells the ice thaws; mud and slush puddle in the streets. Sun teases us with longer daylight hours; we hear robins in the trees. And then it all freezes again, hard and glistening. Snow swirls outside my window, and I feel I could just stare out the window all day, hypnotized by its falling patterns.
Polar temperatures have kept us housebound; snow days have taken off a week of the kids’ school year. I let them watch too much TV. There’s paid work to do; there’s the struggle to find time (and will!) for personal writing; there’s always laundry to do, unrelenting as the snow.
Last week we returned from a trip to Chicago, where my family had gathered to celebrate my father’s birthday. There was great excitement as young cousins reunited: my kids and my sister’s kids. There was good food and company and cuddles with babies and small children running up and down stairs and spinning through the house and laughing in games comprehensible only to themselves.
My kids’ first visit to a Thai Buddhist temple, where we went for my father’s birthday blessing. My niece and youngest daughter crawling and sliding under the pews as a jolly monk lectured us—in English, for the benefit of us second-generationers--on Buddhism, seemingly unperturbed by the childrens’ antics. (“Do not try to control your children,” he offered as parenting advice at one point). Thank god he (and Thais in general) are so laidback with small children.
Then the long drive back home. We stopped off at a small resort town on Lake Michigan for dinner. Husband parked on the beach by the lighthouse. The sun was beginning to set, and the lake was frozen past the pier, frozen for as far as we could see. People were roaming the lake tundra, this strange new landscape that we knew as a place of blue waves and sun. I hesitated—should we really go out there?—but my children and husband took off. The girls were delighted, stomping and climbing over blocks of snow, arctic explorers along with other puffy-coated sightseers on the ice. There were strange tumbled piles and bluffs of ice; a now smooth and now broken, rippling surface underfoot; a spot where someone had cleared away snow to reveal the opaque black ice, impenetrable, beneath. Out in the distance I saw frozen undulations. “Are those really frozen waves?” I said. “I don’t think so,” my husband replied. (They were not).* “How did these things form?” I said, staring at an isolated ice-bluff higher than my head, rising abruptly from a flat surface.*
We climbed from the lake’s surface up to the pier. Back to the car, as the setting sun glowed red on the ice behind us and the lighthouse flickered on. Dinner in a warm restaurant. Onion rings and sandwiches and fries. And then, as we started on the last leg home, we saw an eerie blood-red moon low on the horizon. Look, I told the kids, and we watched the moon follow us home.
*The ice formations along northern Lake Michigan's shoreline are even more spectacular than the formations we saw on its southern shores. I've seen friends' photos, and pictures of the"ice caves" near Traverse City are now Internet-famous. As this news site explains, such ice caves and formations" ... are formed by the wind and wave action. Westerly winds push slushy ice up along the shoreline. Layer after layer freezes on top of each other and forms the caves up to 30 feet high."