Lessons from my 13th winter

Shakira Sison
'Through the years, I learned the beauty of seasons in that they always gave me something to look forward to'

When I first arrived in New York in the fall of 2002, one of the first things I did was to buy a winter coat. My then-partner fitted me with a large, thick down jacket with a nylon shell. I zipped it up, put the hood on, looked at the store mirror, and laughed. 

“It can’t possibly get cold enough for this,” I told her, thinking that my walking comforter of a jacket was a joke. I looked like Kenny from South Park and had only seen that kind of outerwear in National Geographic specials on Siberia or Antarctica.

“It will definitely get that cold, and we’re definitely getting that coat,” she said. I was skeptical but had enough sense to trust her judgment, even if I was simmering underneath those layers of nylon, fabric, and goose feathers.

Allergic to the cold

Illustration by Kanako Shimura

Within days of my arrival, my tropical skin that had rarely worn a sweater in Manila broke out into large itchy hives that I scratched every night until they were raw. My partner lathered some aloe on my arms and back until I got used to the layers of clothing, the chemicals in the detergent, or the dry, brisk air that did turn colder as weeks turned fall into my first winter.

From then it was trial and error, where I wondered why the cold pierced through my bones and made my teeth chatter despite my multiple garment layers (answer: my jacket was not closed). Visiting a Pinoy friend at his job in Carnegie Hall, he noticed I was sniffling so he said: “That means you’re cold because your head is not covered. Twenty percent of your body heat escapes through your head. Wear a hat.”

I discovered that a sunny day did not mean a warm one – something I painfully learned when I left home when it was bright and shivered within the hour because I was only wearing a denim jacket.  I developed the East Coast habit of gripping the ends of my sweater sleeves so they didn’t bunch up around my elbows when I would put jackets on.

A beautiful day!

I finally understood what people meant when they said, “It’s a beautiful day!” because there were actually horrible days (dark, dreary, windy, wet or icy ones) as opposed to mostly warm and sunny days back home where sometimes even the rain would be welcome.

I also learned that my concept of “cold weather” was actually still pleasant compared to an actual winter. I appreciated the importance of thermals, longjohns, zipping up jackets, and creating a seal using one’s wrist cuffs and gloves. I stopped feeling stifled (and instead became comforted) by the dozen pieces of clothing I needed to just step outside to walk the dog.

I learned that one must fall hard on his or her butt from a total wipeout on ice before they learned how to maneuver in snow. I learned that all days must begin by checking the weather forecast dutifully before heading out for the day. That or be surprised by a sudden drop in temps, freezing rain, or heavy snow.

I did not understand snow other than its powdery appearance on TV. I didn’t know that it was just like finely shaved ice that turned into cold water when it hit warm surfaces. As a result, I soaked a number of shoes, suffered through cold wet socks and frozen toes, and learned the difference between semi-frozen puddles, black ice, and the impossibility of an iced-over unshoveled sidewalk.

The comfort of seasons

Unusually colder temperatures this winter are causing the water around Manhattan to freeze.

Through the years I learned the beauty of seasons in that they always gave me something to look forward to. There would be entire wardrobes stored in and unearthed from storage to keep up with the changes in the seasons. The summers actually got hot enough to take brave dips in Atlantic waters. Wool coats and pretty sweaters were always a welcome change from a few months in sweaty tank tops. High boots were nice to wear and kept at least half of my legs warm. The colors of the light, tree leaves, and seasonable outfits were always sights that changed often throughout the year.

In the beginning, I spent excessive amounts of time in the snow – photographing it, tasting it, kicking it around and having it melt in my hand. After blizzards, I volunteered to do the heavy work of shoveling just because I was so intrigued about the solid nature of this condensation. I’d compete with local children for space on park hills for sledding. I played in the snow with the dog in a way that no one my age ever did. Whenever I’m alone now a decade later, I still step on frozen chunks of snow to feel their distinct crunch on the sole of my shoe. I still kick blocks of ice along sidewalks as I’m walking, and I made my first snow angel only last year.

A winter manual

By the tenth year I was so well-versed in the ways of winter that I was able to write a manual for a recent NY transplant friend from Manila.  I even rounded up cold weather clothes and shoes from friends to save her the cost of keeping warm through her first cold season.

“Hat, gloves, layers, zip up my jacket,” she would say to repeat my lecture. I was in my twenties with her in Manila so I knew that just like me, she needed lessons on suitable fabrics for keeping warm. “I finally fell on my butt,” she said proudly by the end of the season. “I’m officially winterized.” 

Still, there are no better lessons than being caught off guard, like when my wife (that 2002 partner and I had since married) and I didn’t anticipate the coldness of an Eastern European winter during a trip. Our lips were blue because we didn’t bring the right coats, hats, and gloves. We would duck into stores just to thaw our fingers, otherwise warming them on consecutive cups of mulled wine.

“Just accept it, just accept it!” we urged each other so we wouldn’t spend entire days with hunched backs and crumpled faces. Accepting the cold meant to admit the futility in fighting it, to take a deep breath instead and treat it as a welcome chill on our necks and chests. It helped a little bit, but mostly for our outlook for the rest of that trip.

Familiarity breeds contempt?

I’ve always been told that once I’ve lived in the Northeast long enough, I’ll start to hate winter – the bitter cold, the cumbersome snow. Thirteen years later, I still stop to admire the beauty of it all. I’m not saying I’ll never get tired of it. After all, I also promised I’d never leave my tropical homeland, yet I did it so quickly just to follow my heart.

But to me, the cold weather is still a force whose presence I can control. With the right clothes, any winter is completely manageable. Like being thrust into a foreign country after being uprooted from the Philippines, I can choose to zip up or allow a little bit of my surroundings to cool my neck or brush my face. I can either wrap my face with a scarf or breathe in the scents of crisp white snow, burning firewood, or a spiced hot chocolate.

And the snow. It’s still magical to me and inescapable in its solid nature. Its arrival requires preparation, management, and a means to move or remove it once it’s on the ground. By February, people here are tired of the snow and treat it as a nuisance they can’t wait to get rid of.

The way I see it, winter is a whole season’s reminder of how sometimes we just have to grin and bear it, to face what the world has to offer. After all, nature has been doing this for a million years. We’re the ones who are in its way.

Just accept it, I’d tell a frustrated winter dweller. Let some cool air brush your neck and breathe. – 

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