Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Finding a little heaven in winter's frozen hell

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T.S. Eliot was wrong -- April isn't the cruellest month, as he suggested in his epic poem, The Waste Land. In Manitoba, that dubious honour surely goes to January.

For me, at least, January is always the bleakest time of year; Christmas is over, with its festive lights and trees and presents and family gatherings. Ahead lies nothing but a seemingly endless number of long, wintry weeks until March comes along, bringing with it the promise of a springtime that might -- if we are lucky -- be close at hand.

When I think of January, I'm reminded of how C.S. Lewis described the land of Narnia when it was under the rule of the evil witch: Always winter, but never Christmas.

And if that isn't bad enough, there's no escaping January's hellish cold. Which seems like a mixed metaphor, until you learn that the ancient Norse found the two to be quite synonymous. For them, the worst possible eternal torment in the afterlife wasn't fire and heat, but the same thing they dreaded in this life -- the cold. That's why hell for them was a place of freezing temperatures, while heaven was a place where huge fires blazed and crackled while the mead cup was passed and tales were told.

Contrast this with the idea of hell for the Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions, which originated in the hot and arid Middle East. For adherents of those groups, the worst fate in the afterlife would be to spend eternity where the sun blazes. Heaven, on the other hand, would be cool and comfortable, which may be why Muslims imagine it to be like a garden paradise. In fact, the word "paradise" comes from an old Iranian word which means an enclosed, or walled-in, garden. Muslims in ages past gave this heavenly ideal earthly expression by building elaborate gardens with enclosed courts, fountains, ponds, trees and shrubs, all surrounded by shady and cool arcades.

But maybe I'm being too hard on January, and on winter in general. In some ways, it is an excellent religious metaphor. For one thing, it's a great equalizer. We all look the same under our big winter coats, hats and scarves -- rich, poor, old, young, male and female. Before God, as before the chilling wind, we are all the same.

Winter reminds us of our place in the universe. We may like to think we are in charge, but once a stationary cold front -- a dreaded phrase, if ever there was one -- settles over the province, there's nothing anyone can do to move it. We can only endure its power.

Winter reminds us of how much we need each other. Your car might break down in July, but what's the worst that could happen? A sunburn is nothing compared to frostbite or even death. When a car breaks down in winter, or gets stuck in a snowdrift, people who might cruise on by in summer will stop whatever they are doing to help.

Finally, winter can be a time for reflection. With many activities curtailed by cold and snow, we have time to sit and think about our life and its meaning -- something best done with a cup of hot chocolate and maybe a cat or dog on your lap. As Rev. Louise Westfall of Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, puts it, winter is a time when "we humans are forced to go inside, literally because of the cold, but also metaphorically, so we can use it as a time of renewal and rest."

American humourist Garrison Keillor thinks that winter is good for the soul. Once it gets going, he says, people can pick up their shovels "and recover a sense of focus and purpose and balance," leaving behind "all of that emotional turmoil of balmy days, the romantic longings, the quest for individual identity and so forth."

Keillor's words about his home state of Minnesota in winter could apply equally to Manitoba. "Winter is what we were meant for and we welcome it," he says. "We thrive on adversity and that's just the truth. The snow shovel is the secret of happiness."

OK, that might be taking it too far. But there's no denying the satisfaction that comes from a well-shovelled driveway. Or, better yet, the satisfaction that arises from shovelling your neighbour's driveway -- and maybe even the sidewalk, too.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2009 B4

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