It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it. John Burroughs
Winter in the country is very white. There is black grit on all the shoulders of the roads and on the big mounds from the plows, and all the cars are filthy, but the fields are dazzling and untouched and pristine. Susan Orlean
It is a bold statement for someone like me to make, someone not born here, a transplant from Maine in early adulthood to this Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But, after thirty-eight years, thirty-eight winters, I’m going for it, proclaiming it out loud and to the world. I am a Yooper. And we Yoopers are a hardy lot. And this winter, this winter of weather, our Yooper hardiness has been tested to the max. The Finns who have lived in this Yooper country for centuries have a word for it, Sisu. Call upon your Sisu, they say, your tenacity, grit, resilience, hardiness. And a winter like this will do that to you, Finn or non-Finn, force you to dive deep into your own bones and find that Yooper strength, that resilience, your Sisu.
I come from a family of weather-lovers, New England-born folk living along the coast of Maine, in the mountains of New Hampshire, in the wooded lots of Massachusetts. My mother, queen of the weather-lovers, from her cottage home at the head of a cove in Maine, had a front row seat to calm blue-sky off-shore breeze days, to the windy ones, too, and the rousing nor’easters of autumn and the snow squalls of winter. She observed and obsessed about weather and it was a favorite for us, in our frequent phone conversations, to exchange weather reports, mine from the Upper Peninsula, hers from the cove. And this winter, if she were still living in her body, the phone conversations between the two of us would be filled with the drama of weather and she would be thrilled with vicarious pleasure as I relayed the details to her, not needing to embellish a bit. First there was the early snow, I would say, feet of it before Christmas, then the cold, the bitter cold, plunging into a two-week sub-zero Polar Vortex, then, the one-day thaw and the rain that pounded down all night long and froze as temperatures once again plummeted into single digits. And the ice. I would tell my mother about the ice that clung to the trees in early February and is still clinging to the branches along the high ground a month later, how the trees snapped and broke, how the branches fell and the birches bent down low over the roads, and then, I would say the snow, it kept on falling, all month long, nothing melting as the storms, one after another, piled up. And then, there was the storm of storms, late in the month, the one that blew the snow with its fifty mile an hour winds into drifts so high we can’t see out onto our deck. That is the weather report that I would tell my mother, the weather report we Yoopers have been living for the past few months.
Yooper-winter-living isn’t for the faint-hearted and the word hardy contains the word hard and I’m not saying that there hasn’t been hardship in this winter of winters. Up close and personal my husband Cam and I have felt it along with our Yooper neighbors. There are the pine branches that have fallen in our backyards and onto our decks, the never-ending shoveling and snow-blowing, the bitter cold biting our faces and stunning our breath, the ice damns clinging to our roofs and the water leaking into our houses, the trails we love to ski and bike along covered with miles of debris, the car rides on icy roads and in blinding white-outs. Yes, there have been challenges. But Sisu is a word that also contains joy, the joy of meeting those challenges with a shovel, a chainsaw, an all-wheel drive vehicle, a down coat and a warm hat, the joy of rising above them and finding the fun in it all.
And that’s what I want to tell you, what I would have told my mother, that we have had fun, my husband and I, as we’ve plowed and plodded through this Yooper winter. And the gifts, there have been gifts to behold. There are the outside gifts, how every day, every single day, we both have found ways to meet the weather head-on. In the bitter cold, I remembered the hat my cousin Abby, the milliner in New York made for me years ago, a wonderful faux fur hat with fabrics and buttons that are family heirlooms, and this magnificent hat warmed my head and my heart on the coldest of the cold days as I marched my way through the snowy woods. And the trees, the trees coated with ice, glistened and sparkled on the days the sun shined and the world became a dazzling fairy-land, a magical kingdom that defies description. And one night, under a half-moon sky and Orion shining down on us, Cam and I snowshoed on his bike trails, panking them down in preparation for an upcoming race. As we wound our way along the narrow paths with snow up to our waists on either side, the trees sparkled in the light of Cam’s headlamp and the quiet snow sang to us and the cold nestled into our bones and we felt it, our joyous Sisu.
And the gifts of this winter of weather have crept into the inside of our houses as well. After the cold and the snow and the vigor of exercise, the warmth of a furnace, a fireplace, brilliantly-painted walls has been as welcoming as the coziest of hugs. The Finns know how to warm up those cold bones after the outside play. And I remembered this too, during the Polar Vortex. How could we have forgotten it, that like our Yooper neighbors, we have a sauna, in our basement, barely used since the boys grew up? This winter, it has been our saving grace, our nightly ritual, to heat up that cedar-lined room, to fling water onto the Lake Superior stones, to breathe in the heat, the steam and the sizzle, to lie there and relax and let it all seep in, the warmth, the knowing that we are resilient and hardy, that we have grit, that we can sleep well on this night and that tomorrow, we will face it, whatever the weather brings, with Sisu and spunk. We are Yoopers.