I am beginning to understand hats and gloves, the critical difference between gloves and mittens. I am beginning to speak the language of humidifiers and forced heat, of radiators and space heaters. I know not to stand too close to the window, to keep the far bathroom door shut. I know, for the first time, the value of a really good pair of socks, and why jacket hoods are lined with that showy, faux fur.
I have felt the special pinch of grocery bags digging into the creased joints of cold fingers, of jiggling frozen key into unyielding lock as the bags stretch and threaten to give way, and baby refuses to walk, refuses to do anything but sit on my hip and shout, pulling her mittens off in search of raisins.
I am beginning to understand why Californians are so often the objects of disdain: undeserving inhabitants of the land of fair weather, land under-appreciated by those who did not endure a hard winter, did not come out into the sun squinting and warming their hands in air that hours earlier left them frost-bitten and numb.
I’m still cold, actually, as I type these words. My feet, despite the wool socks, are slowly being drained of blood, which science tells me is prioritizing circulation around my core and vital organs. My fingers, too, are steadily turning white. I type faster, hoping to regain feeling, but I’m not fast enough to keep up with the cold coming in from our sunroom, with floor to ceiling windows designed, it seems, to bring in maximum chill.
When I moved to Chicago last fall, people kept asking how I—Indian by descent; Californian, born and raised—was preparing to deal with the punishing weather, specifically the winter, in the era of the Polar Vortex. My Midwestern in-laws outfitted me with winter socks and scarves; friends sent recommendations for down jackets in three styles. My grandmother sitting in Chennai companionably reassured me that it was unseasonably frigid there, too, and then stopped, as if she realized we were speaking different languages of cold.
At time of writing, the temperature has yet to dip into the negatives (Fahrenheit), but I walked to the University of Chicago yesterday in four degrees (-15 Celsius), the wind whipping my dripping nostrils, alpaca scarf stuck to my face by my tangible breath, and I had a sense then of what poet Rita Dove meant when she wrote, “Snow would be the easy / way out—that softening / sky like a sigh of relief.” So far, we haven’t had any snow to speak of, only light dusts and flurries, unless you count that odd hailstorm we had on Halloween, which blew cobwebs from bushes onto the sidewalks, and left little children shivering in their superhero tights.
Is it self-indulgent to write about the weather, when there are so many other, more urgent issues to attend to? Police brutality, state-sponsored torture, infectious diseases, the Academy Awards? I’m being facetious, of course. But whenever I start chastising myself for dwelling on the weather I try to remember that climate change is arguably the most significant challenge of our shared lifetime, and that if we are to effect mass action in response to that “inconvenient truth” we should probably start by acknowledging our intimate relation to changes in climate. We are human beings with bodies that get hot and cold, that shiver and sweat. Our spirits can only take so much rain before they, too, are dampened. Our soles can only take so much snow.
V.S. Naipaul once commented on how strange it is that although M.K. Gandhi spent three years in England, “there is nothing in his autobiography [Story of My Experiments with Truth] about the climate or the seasons, so unlike the heat and monsoon of Gujarat and Bombay.” To Naipaul, this lack of attention was revelatory of the author’s complete “self-absorption.” Not commenting on the weather is like refusing to acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the room. It’s right in front of you, all around you and, literally, inside you with every breath you take.
For his part, Naipaul frequently observes the weather in his travelogues, whether the “real and disagreeable” heat of Bombay in the early 1960s, or the mid-August heat of Dallas in 1984, heat that was “a revelation,” that “made one think of the old days … gave another idea of the lives of the early settlers.” That’s the irony of the weather: At once, it forces you into a radical present, the unavoidable reality of your chapped lips or sweating back, and takes you out of yourself into other times and places.
The first big snow I saw in Princeton took me back to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of growing up in that “little house in the big woods” in Wisconsin, where she and her sister Mary poured molasses onto snow and ate it as candy once it hardened. That Halloween hailstorm—so fundamentally indifferent to the occasion it disrupted—gave me another idea of the lives lived in these parts.
I thought about fashion, cuisine, alcohol, recreation, exercise, pedestrianism: things that become cultural markers and stamps of identity but are really just contingent on the weather. So much of who we think we are has little really to do with us, and more than we might admit to do with the elements. Google tells me that the Chicago climate is basically the same as in Moscow: humid continental. My ancestors in south India were formed in the tropical monsoon and trade-wind littoral climate, so should I really be expected to deal with sub-zero winter?
I am beginning to understand why they drink so much in Russia. Well, bring on the toddy. I’m going out to taste the snow.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.