In the Dead of Winter

There is no drearier day on the calendar than today. Christmas and its cheerful spirit have come and gone, the New Year’s revelries have been completed and the resolutions already forsaken, and all that remains of a seemingly eternal winter is the cold and the dark and the back to business as usual.
Holiday lights are still flashing around the neighborhood, but at this point they only represent a chilly chore that remains undone. No one can rouse himself to spend New Year’s Day taking down all those decorations, but the more industrious neighbors will get around to it on the weekend, most of the others will take care of it within another week or so, and after that only the worst procrastinators will leave any lingering trace of festivity. An older couple down the street who decorate for every holiday will come up with something for Valentine’s Day in another month or so, but otherwise our block will be unadorned for the remainder of the winter.
The sub-freezing temperatures that have prevailed the past couple of weeks and are expected to continue forever discourage our daily walks around the neighborhood, but the forays into the world that necessity requires us to make will be less aesthetically pleasing. Although our prairie city is surprisingly picturesque through three seasons, this is an ugly time of year around here. Dingy brown and depressing gray is the basic color scheme, with the occasional snows being wind-blown to leave brown patches on every lawn and the drifts soon turning the color of automotive exhaust. All the cars are dirty, too, and even the most meticulously tended lawns are strewn with the last of the leaves from the skeletal trees and the piles of fast food litter tossed by the increasingly inconsiderate citizenry. The pretty girls are so well hidden beneath layers of bulky clothing that they seem to have vanished altogether, leaving nothing to pleasantly distract us as we go about our business.
We have a good friend who claims to love the winter, and he drives around on even the coldest nights with his car windows rolled down to prove it, but he’s a fair-skinned fellow of arctic origin who starts to gripe about the heat on the first warm day of spring. He’s also a stickler for old-fashioned protocol who still observes the prohibition against sipping cocktails before sundown, so he regards the scant amounts of daylight as more of a blessing than a bother. Being of more tropic stock and teetotaling lineage we are tormented by the cold from the time we crawl out from under our massive pile of blankets until we return to their warm embrace, no matter how many sweaters we don or how far we push the thermostat, and no amount of alcohol can compensate for the nearly constant darkness.
Washington’s newsmakers usually oblige us by making little news at this time of year, and they are almost always kind and shrewd enough to take the holidays off altogether, but this time around the “fiscal cliff” crisis intruded on our determinedly apolitical holidays. Some sort of agreement to avert a catastrophic cliff-diving was apparently reached at the twelfth or thirteenth hour, but we could not rouse ourselves to the chore of reading about it at length any more than we could bring ourselves to store our very modest amount of Christmas decorations. A cursory glance at the headlines suggests that it’s a disaster, perhaps not as bad as the worst possible outcomes but a disaster nonetheless, but a more considered judgment will have to await the post-New Year’s Day routine.
Until then, we will gird ourselves with a final holiday libation and the certainty that God will always bring a spring. Although we haven’t the slightest bit of paganism in us we’ve been counting off the days since the winter solstice, which this year was supposed to bring the Mayan apocalypse but apparently didn’t, and we note with some satisfaction that already the day will stretch twelve minutes further into the night. Just a few short months from now the irises will begin to bloom, and snow and ice can mean a good year for irises. In a good year for irises our old neighborhood on the prairie is a most beautiful place.

— Bud Norman