My aging mental life fascinates me a whole lot. I thought that by studying life transitions and aging I would be prepared – but I’m surprised at what is taking place between my two ears in my 80th decade. I am intrigued by the work of transitioning to a meaningful life in my aging body.
I have been watching a lot of episodes of “The Last Alaskans” on the cable channel Animal Planet. Maybe its more accurate, and more telling, that I’ve been watching a few episodes repeatedly. This show is about a few families living in cabins in the north-eastern corner of Alaska whose lives are centered around winter – preparing for and surviving the 9 months of deep, cold (-40 degrees) winter. All of their activities seem to revolve around making sure they have enough meat, wood, clothing and water to survive. They are isolated and living on the edge.
As I watch these episodes, the beauty of the snow covered landscape excites me. My soul is touched by the Alaskans’ excitement and thrill of living in this wilderness. It triggers memories of when I was drawn to dreaming about making curtains for a mud hut on the American Plains. Of making a home in the wilderness for my husband and future children. And as I watch each episode, I smile at the thought of living in their small log cabins in that winter landscape.
You have probably observed the disconnect of my spirit longing for the challenge of surviving winter landscapes at -40 degrees while my body enjoys the subtropic southern Florida winter. It wasn’t lost on me for even a second. Instead of it being a problem, I bridged this integrity gap with mind travel. The advantage of having a healthy brain that has processed 75 years of living is that we have memories – lots of them.
Jim and I talked (or I talked to him) about our memories of snow and cold. How exciting it was as a young adult to bundle up and brave the elements. I thought about the fun of taking my small children sledding and being a teen skating with friends on small neighborhood ponds that the boys shoveled clean. Most of all I remember the excitement and anticipation of knowing a big winter storm was close, looking out the window as we headed for bed to see if it had started to snow, waking a little earlier than normal to see how much snow had fallen and turning on the radio to listen for school closings. Along with the excitement came the calm of knowing we had food to eat and were freed of all commitments. My world slowed down when twelve inches of snow fell.
When the people living in northern Alaska talk about the quiet of walking trapping trails through the snow, I knew what they mean. I remember the quiet of snow-covered neighborhoods. I know the cold that freezes nose hairs and eye balls. I know the blue-purple drifts of snow from the sun being low on the horizon at dusk, but also know the brilliant sparkle of snow crystals at noontime when the sun is higher in the southern sky. Does anyone else believe that snow has a special smell, can we smell cold?
No, I don’t want to experience the cold and snow of winter at this stage in my life. Winter in the north makes life too painful and precarious. I no longer have the energy to dress for the cold, and my body isn’t made for shoveling snow. Once it was and once upon a long-ago time I enjoyed it. I have the memory of catching big flakes of snow on my tongue and feeling the comforting warmth of being inside a snow fort. I remember lying in the snow and listening to the silence. And I am thankful for these memories. Yes, I am thankful.