Here in Iowa City, we haven’t had the historic cold and snow this winter as we’ve had in recent years. But the early January snowstorm and cold snap brought out the predictable grumblings and the inevitable question: “Why, again, do we live here?”
I embrace winter fundamentally because it is part of the nature and experience of our home here in Iowa and the Midwest. I’m also a believer in storytelling, that stories shape our lives and help us understand truths of our existence. The story of our life in our place is one of the most important.
Winter plays a crucial role in that story. The story of our annual journey around the sun—a story with a distinct beginning and ending—is marked by the four unique seasons here in Iowa. Our flora and fauna depend on and are made distinctive by these ever-returning climatic dramas and comedies—including the time of dark and cold.
Even beyond being a chapter in the story of our place, winter tells perhaps the most dramatic story of all the seasons, and we are privileged to be part of that tale. A good story brings us into an experience: We encounter intensity, conflict, sometimes danger and, if the story is worth its salt, beauty, before we are brought back out of it wiser and, hopefully, changed.
Of all the seasons, I always think of winter as something we journey into and out of, and I am most satisfied when I am able to feel all the dimensions of this story deeply. The more cold and snow we have, the more that we know we are in deep, that we are in something very different that does not resemble where we entered and where we will exit. In Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero’s journey, the hero must enter the abyss, the cave, the place like nothing else in the story, in order to transform and to return.
Even the most ardent winter lover has to admit that Midwestern winters can challenge us. As human animals, we cannot survive the cold temperatures without artificial means. Snow and ice can put up roadblocks to our easy navigation of even daily life. Sometimes, a monumental blizzard, ice storm or subzero Arctic blast can bring our movement and progress to a standstill, and we may wonder if we’ll ever be able to do what we had planned or wanted to do while nature’s fury overwhelms us. These are all manifestations of the types of narrative twists and turns that characters face in a good story.
When we reach the end of a good story, even when it has been harrowing or even frightening, we are satisfied, wiser and perhaps even a little triumphant along with our protagonist. A good winter should make us feel the same way come April.
Winter is a beautiful and frightening abyss that is right here with us, not leagues away in geography or imagination—it is central to the meaning of how we know our home. We will emerge at the denouement, perhaps blinking our eyes a bit after the darkness or raising our arms toward the warmth, with a deepened understanding of home.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 170.