We stand and shiver in the northern latitudes of a tilted planet. It is February in Pennsylvania, and we are huddled as close together as is decent and comfortable for adult acquaintances. The wind whips over us, then through us, finding every uncovered inch of skin. “Where are they, now?” someone asks, “Do they bring ‘em out a minute later for every degree the temperature drops?” I nod mutely and smirk with my mouth closed, commiserating but not willing to expose my teeth to this wind. Together we stare intently at the school doors, waiting to walk our children home.
When the kids come, we push up and out of our shells, greeting our children after eight hours apart. The kids are, predictably, half-zipped, with gloves in their coat pockets and scarves trailing behind. The younger ones hone in on icicles hanging from the iron fence and break them off quickly, trying to suck the cool liquid before their grown-ups scold, “Put that down! That’s dirty! And put your gloves on!”
No matter. They are off, like puppies in snow, and now we break our huddle. “See ya tomorrow.” “Have a good night.” “Stay warm.” We are trying to stay warm, but our kids are far ahead, so we trade our protective shuffle for purposeful strides and call out, “Wait up!”
Don’t they know how cold it is out here? It seems not, and even I forget-for a moment or two-when I finally catch up with my daughter. She veers off the cleared sidewalk for the icy crust of snow. Crunch. Crunch. She finds a pile of salt and stomps her pink boots into it. “Listen, Mama!” she exclaims, “It sounds like Pop Rocks when they’re popping in your mouth!”
She’s right. I find my own pile and grind it under my heel. Crunch. Pop. Who knew?
As any good third-grade science textbook can tell you, the earth’s relationship to the sun has two aspects. One, we spin on an axis, making one rotation every 24 hours, and this is why Pennsylvanians are just waking up when the Brits are having their midday meal. Spinning on an axis creates time zones and jet lag, romantic sunsets and the possibility of standard clocks.
However, we do more than spin. We move, in a great not-quite-circular orbit around the sun that drags us (by gravity, apparently) 584 million miles every 365.256 days. And all this motion plus the fact that we’re tilted in space (at a 23.4 degree angle, if you were wondering) means we open up a can of worms called “The Four Seasons.”
Third-graders understand this much better than you do because some enthusiastic science teacher just showed them what this looks like with a lamp and a Styrofoam ball. The students sat in a big circle, and the teacher stuck a lamp in the middle. “Imagine that this is the sun, in the middle, like the hub of a bicycle wheel.” Then she stuck a chopstick into the earth, tilted it, and began spinning the ball while walking around the lamp. If she was really good, she may have even taken out a sharpie and marked the students’ current Styrofoam location. “Here. This black dot is Pennsylvania. Watch it as I walk around the circle, and tell me when we are having winter and summer.”
In other words: Life as a black dot on a spinning, tilted, orbiting planet is a seasonal event, most especially for those on the top and bottom of the ball. And the current show for the Northern Hemisphere, running sometime through late March, is called winter.
Inspired by my kids’ enthusiasm, I try to not have a grass-is-always-greener attitude about summer in the middle of winter (though it is), but my longing for warm months persists.
This morning I went running, buried in layers of fleece and synthetic wicking material, and passed the spot where we set up lawn chairs for an outdoor jazz concert last August. As I avoided the icy patches, I remembered face-painting, warm grass, and finding a spot in the shade. The outside world is just so darn hospitable in the summertime, as if you trade ceilings for sky and living rooms for lawns.
“Appreciate today,” I chided myself, trying to enjoy the brisk air as it burned my lungs. I tried to recall the discomforts of running in the summer, of over-heating and being forced to run in the early morning. As I pulled down my hat to cover my stinging ears, I tried to remember the longing for air-conditioning, hot car seats that stick to the back of your thighs, and the high-pitched drone of mosquitoes, closing in. Life was not all roses when my little black dot leaned in to the sun.
Still, as I took in the familiar outlines of a world that once was green, I felt homesick for a place that was under my feet, and realized that distance can be measured in months as well as miles. The salt crunched as I ran and I thought it like a hopeful mantra, “Pop rocks, pop rocks, pop rocks.” It didn’t do much good.
Later, when I stopped running, I took a few photos. And as I walked and looked at the way the snow dimpled, some spark sidled up to my homesickness and burned there. In that moment I did not come to love winter, but maybe my perception just became a bit more nuanced–instead of bitter and frigid, I saw quiet and clean.
It was time to go back inside. Carefully placing each step, so as not to slip, I noticed footprints pressed into the crunchy snow. Their icy edges gleamed in the sunlight; I took another picture. “Maybe I will remember these,” I thought, “when I sit and sweat on the lawn.” Maybe.
We’ll see. Sometimes, when you live on a whirling, tilted planet, you just have to hold on for the ride.
Photo from space by NASA; Photos of playground not by NASA