There are several things about Missouri that are quite predictable: for one, politics — almost always conservative — for another, brilliant fall colors. As for the weather around here, it is as unpredictable as life itself. Take me, for example. Who would predict that a timid girl from Moscow would land in the American Midwest? Or that I — a person whose ancestry goes back to the Diaspora Jews and, more recently, to the Ukrainian small farmers who were sent to exile by the Stalin regime and died of hunger — would marry an American man whose great-great-great uncle was Henry Clay, a US senator, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State who ran for president four times? (No, my husband is not in politics, he’s in linguistics; no family can withstand the tide of time :).
Going back to Missouri weather. The worst thing about it is that summers here are hot and humid and winters are completely useless. What I mean by that is that if it snows, the snow doesn’t stick around long enough for cross-country skiing or sledging. And if the temperature falls below freezing without snow, it seldom stays cold long enough, so we (my husband and I, and several more transplants from Michigan and Minnesota) can skate on the pond of our nearby wetland area. So, as a result, we have a lot of luke-cold days with no practical value whatsoever. (We do say “lukewarm”, so, I believe, the term “luke-cold” has the right to exist, too :).)
Here’s a recent example. A couple of days before New Year’s the temperature dropped below freezing, and on New Year’s eve it was in single digits. Yet when I got up on January 1, the weather forecast was already showing a warming trend.
“Two more cold days would’ve made our wetlands skatable,” I said to my husband.
“I think it may be good even now,” he said.
“Well, there is only one way to find out. Let’s go and test the ice! If it’s good, we’ll come back and grab our skates. If not, we’ll just walk around the wetlands.”
“No, let’s take our skates with us, so if the ice is good, we won’t have to come back. I’ll carry them,” my husband said and headed to the basement to get our skates.
When he returned, a large blue bag with the skates was slung over his shoulder, making him look like Santa Claus. In his left hand he carried a lounge chair.
“What’s that chair for?” I said. “There are benches all around the pond. We can change our shoes there, if we need to.”
“I don’t want to scratch my skates,” my husband said sternly.
“You mean that if the ice is not thick, you’ll be walking with a large bag and a lounge char for two miles?” I said. “People will think we’re nuts!”
But he was already putting on his jacket.
“Whatever,” I said. “But I’ll walk behind you, like I don’t even know who you are!”
It was a typical winter day in Missouri, gray and windy, and not promising any fun. In 10 minutes or so, we reached the wetlands and carefully walked to their edge — the ice crackling noticeably under my husband’s feet and not so much under mine.
“The ice is too thin for me,” my husband said, putting his bag down on a bench several feet away from the ice.
“Too bad,” I said. “But I’ll try.”
I put my skates on and walked onto the ice. It seemed fine. Making small uncertain steps, I half-slid, half-walked farther from the edge. No crackling sounds. Getting bolder, I made the first sliding movement, then the second, and soon I was gliding along — at first somewhat awkwardly but more confident by the minute.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” I heard behind me. “Yes,” I waved in response.
It was still grim and windy, but I no longer cared. The air was fresh, the ice smooth, and although I did, sometimes, hear light crackling underneath, by the time my mind registered it, I was already safely away from the dangerous spot, enjoying the freedom of movement and the sounds of my skates cutting the ice.
To tell the truth, it was never really dangerous. The wetlands are shallow. The worst that can happen to a skater falling through its icy surface is wetting her feet and, possibly, catching a cold.
In 30 minutes of so, the pleasure of defying my weight and almost flying over the frozen water began wearing off, and I started paying attention to my surroundings: wilted grasses, bare trees and bushes, people taking their dogs (or children) for a walk, and joggers in colorful Nikes — all staring at me as if I were a rare species released from some northern zoo.
Also, I suddenly noticed a round object lying on the bottom underneath the ice. “There’s a dead turtle down there!” I shouted to my husband who, while waiting for me, patiently walked around in circles. But as I was finishing my phrase, the turtle sprouted its head and short little legs and began moving.
“It’s not dead!” I shouted again. “It’s moving!” And I skated after the disappearing animal — only to notice another one nearby. In fact, there were quite a few of them there, all trying to get away from my unwanted attention.
How did they survive down there without oxygen? While it was true that the ice was not very thick, it had covered the wetlands for several days. The turtles, however, are air-breathing creatures, that is why we see them sitting on logs in the summer. Also, what will happen to them if the ice doesn’t melt soon? Will they die and be drowned in their icy prison?
We talked about the turtles all the way back to the house. When we got there, we Googled: “turtles under ice” and found our answer (try that, too :)). No, the turtles are not going to drown. They will survive the winter and continue going about their business in the spring. Still, I couldn’t get the image of the animals crawling under my feet, confined by the ice and their slowing metabolism, but still alive nevertheless.
Is that how we live, too? — I kept thinking to myself. Believing that, as the Greek philosopher Protagoras put it a long time ago: “Man is the measure of all all things,” but, in fact, are we scurrying around in endless pursuits while trying to escape our inevitable end? Maybe we are even observed by some bigger — and more sophisticated — creatures for whom our struggles make no sense and have no meaning.
I spent some time ruminating on that, but it was the first day of a new year, and it didn’t seem right to start it on such a gloomy note. So, I curtailed my contemplations and went on with my regular duties. After all, that small incident may not have been a sign of our falsehood and frailty but just an indication of a multitude of things we still do not know. A reminder that we should keep our eyes open and our minds active, because it is an act of learning that makes us human. And if you think about it, it was great to start a new year by solving a new — to me, anyway — mystery of life. Let’s hope that 2015 will bring us many more mysteries to solve :).
Happy New Year, everybody!
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