Winter is coming

Dear Willow:

Winter is coming.

When that phrase was used over and over on Game of Thrones, it just seemed like doom-chic. Now, it’s resonating a little more personally.

In a certain sense, the timing of the pandemic was fortunate (if you can say anything good about this situation). In the beginning, at its scariest, it was March. You live in South Carolina now, John, but you remember what early Spring is like in Chicago: nasty, brutish, and long. I was not entirely sorry to have a necessary reason not to leave my house.

Then Summer arrived, right as we started to figure out that being distanced outdoors seemed to be pretty safe. Just when we would really want to, we could eat outside, on restaurant patios. We could sit in parks. We could go on runs and hikes and bike rides. Many of us felt it was ok to meet up with a couple friends for the first time in months, possibly for a very small BBQ with some distancing and a few precautions.

I have been lucky not to have been directly affected by the virus, and I don’t have elderly family that I’m constantly missing. I’m sure if I did, I would feel very differently, but personally, the loosening up was just enough to make dealing with this virus over a longer haul bearable.

It was a little breathing room. It was escape from tight living quarters that were starting to feel tighter. It was a touch of normalcy, a comforting reminder that while some things had changed (masks), life was going on and it might not be like this forever.

At least, that’s how it felt to me.

Of course, we’re seeing that maybe it wasn’t so safe after all, especially the small gatherings with loved ones, but for a moment it seemed to be working.

But now we’re facing a change in season.

I have a group of friends who get together once a year and rent a house with a large hot tub and an even larger kitchen. We’re not going to be doing that this year, of course, but we’re in close contact via the Marco Polo app, and one of the women recently brought up the holidays.

Granted, they’re still three months away, but this is when planning starts to happen. Now is when many families begin answering the normal questions: Who is going to host? How many people will be there? Who is handling what? Are we doing presents for everyone or just the kids? Should we chuck the whole thing and take a vacation somewhere warm this year instead?

Now there are new questions the women in the group were asking. Can we have Thanksgiving safely? How can we include grandma and grandpa without risking their lives? Will we have to do a Zoom conference to open gifts? And the big question at the heart of them all: Will the holidays still feel like the holidays?

We’ll all have to find those answers for ourselves, and our individual decisions will eventually aggregate to make up the narrative of “Holidays in America 2020.” The researcher in me is interested and eager to see what will happen. The daughter, the sister, the girlfriend — if she’s being honest, she isn’t really looking forward to it.

The conversation on Marco Polo quickly broadened to winter in general, and that brought a wave of…well, gloom. All too soon, camping and hiking and porch-sitting will become uncomfortable at first and then untenable as temperatures drop. No more socially-distanced picnics. No more backyard cocktails. No more restaurant patios.

What happens when we have to go back into our caves to wait out the winter?

When it comes to restaurants, at least, Chicago is promoting a Winter Dining Challenge: a $5,000 prize for promising ideas that would encourage winter restaurant-going while keeping diners and staff safe. Maybe great innovation will come from that. Necessity is a mother, after all.

And more generally, there’s the fact that millions of us simply won’t go back in our caves. There are already many places in this country, including my hometown in Indiana, where most people go about their lives as normal, as if America hadn’t lost more than 200,000 people to this pandemic, by the most recent estimates. I have a hard time comprehending this, but they seem to have an equally hard time understanding my fear and caution.

Two different realities.

For me and my family, and for the women in the Marco Polo group, this winter looks like it’s going to be a hard one. We were half-joking that we would have to treat this year as if we lived in 1820 rather than 2020. We would write letters, and send packages, and sing songs in our cabins, and long for those we can’t be near. And we would get out our mittens and hats and snow boots and go tromping through woods, or at least on sidewalks. I have visions of sleigh bells and horses, slightly wry fantasies that are helping keep despair at bay.

The Farmer’s Almanac prediction for Chicago this year is “more wet than white.” Maybe instead of snow boots, I should invest in a good pair of galoshes.

For now, it’s late August. It’s sunny and hot and very sticky. I went for a run this morning in a tank top. I am enjoying the warmth and the open air and the little bits of company here and there.

But the angle of the sun has tilted toward the south, and I know cold days are marching slowly but inexorably closer.

Winter is coming.


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