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Provisions for the soul on a winter’s day

Washington was the only state to vote for third-party candidate Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.

Washington was the only Northwest state to vote for third-party candidate Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. (Social Security Administration)

In Seattle there is actual snow and there is talking about snow. We tend to do more of the latter. But every now and again we do in fact get some serious, deep snow. I recall the two huge back-to-back storms of 1996, between Christmas and New Year’s. On a Sunday then, when lots of churches cancelled services, I stubbornly decided to go ahead. This proved a good call, not because my sermon was so great, but because we discovered the wet snow had caused a rupture in the sanctuary’s flat roof. Water cascaded down one wall adding an interesting special effect. But two folks got up there and shoveled the wet snow over the side, saving a worse disaster.  

While the talk about snow can be overblown, it’s also understandable. We don’t get it regularly enough to really become proficient at its removal, like say Toronto, where I’ve also lived. When you add in Seattle’s hills, a couple inches followed by a good freeze can bring things pretty much to a halt. What to do then? Brew up a good cup of coffee or tea, bake bread and make a good soup. Go for walks or cross-country skiing in the neighborhood. Get acquainted with the neighbors. Heck, get re-acquainted with your family! Snow days are a kind of grace (so long as they don’t go on too long).

To help the enjoyment of winter and snow along, I’ve gathered some winter provisions. First, five quotations about winter from great writers or artists, which I selected from Nika Knight’s Winter’s Tales. Then five movie suggestions, great films you may have missed, which will be good viewing on a winter’s night.

Artist Andrew Wyeth on his preference for winter: “I prefer winter and fall, when you can feel the bone structure in the landscape — the loneliness of it — the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it — the whole story doesn’t show.”

Its true. Especially enjoy the trees.

Turkish novelist Oran Pamuk on the transformative effect of snowfall from his haunting novel Snow: “The sight of snow made her think how beautiful and short life is and how, in spite of all their enmities, people have so very much in common; measured against eternity and the greatness of creation, the world in which they lived was narrow. That’s why snow drew people together. It was as if snow cast a veil over hatreds, greed, and wrath and made everyone feel close to one another.”

Historian David McCullough shares a remarkable vignette from the life of Theodore Roosevelt: “Once upon a time in the dead of winter in the Dakota Territory, Theodore Roosevelt took off in a makeshift boat down the Little Missouri River in pursuit of a couple of thieves who had stolen his prized rowboat. After several days on the river, he caught up and got the draw on them with his trusty Winchester, at which point they surrendered. Then Roosevelt set off in a borrowed wagon to haul the thieves cross-country to justice. They headed across the snow-covered wastes of the Badlands to the railhead at Dickinson, and Roosevelt walked the whole way, the entire 40 miles. It was an astonishing feat, what might be called a defining moment in Roosevelt’s eventful life. But what makes it especially memorable is that during that time, he managed to read all of Anna Karenina. I often think of that when I hear people say they haven’t time to read.”

Mark Twain suggests a special treat for a winter’s evening: “I know the look of an apple that is roasting and sizzling on the hearth on a winter’s evening, and I know the comfort that comes of eating it hot, along with some sugar and a drench of cream… I know how the nuts taken in conjunction with winter apples, cider, and doughnuts, make old people’s tales and old jokes sound fresh and crisp and enchanting.”

Try it yourself. Core an apple, fill it with raisins, cinnamon, and brown suger, wrap it in foil and put it on a baking sheet in the oven. Mmmm.

Finally, Henry David Thoreau in his essay, “A Winter’s Walk,” suggests why introverts may fare better in winter than extroverts: “In winter we lead a more inward life. Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends.”

While reading a good book is still the go-to option at our home, we also enjoy movies. When winter gives way to a bit of cabin fever, a good movie can take you away. Notice that only two of the five films I recommend have snowy scenes (that may be a plus). The common denominator here is not winter, but great movies which you may, like me, have missed. Let’s start, however, with the two set in winter.

Frozen River: A 2008 movie from director Courtney Hunt. Two working class women, one white and one Native American, stumble into a plot to smuggle illegal aliens across the U.S. border from Canada in upstate New York. The film is a powerful story of desperation, sacrifice and surprising friendship that explores the continuing recession and how it has hammered working people. 

Let the Right One In: This is the first (and so far only) vampire film I’ve seen. If I’d known it was that I probably wouldn’t have rented it, but I’m glad I did. It is also a story of about loneliness, bullying, relationships, and young love. The 2008 film is the work of the Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, the director of the new and well-reviewed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Gary Oldham, now in theaters.

Butterfly: A Spanish movie, Butterfly is not set in winter, but in spring or summer (mostly at least). In 1936 Spain, where tensions are building toward the Spanish Civil War, a boy, Moncho, is taken under the wing of his progressive, elderly teacher, Don Gregorio. Gregorio opens Moncho’s eyes to the beauty and intricacy of nature. But when the Civil War erupts, the town’s citizens, including Moncho and his family, are pressured to denounce their beloved teacher for his Republican sympathies. Made in 1999 by Jose Luis Cuerda.

I’ve Loved You So Long: Kristin Scott Thomas stars in this 2008 film by director Philippe Claudel, in French with subtitles. Thomas’ character, Juliette, comes to live with her sister (played by Elsa Zylberstein) and middle class family after spending 15 years in prison. Juliette was jailed for murdering her own son, but as the film unfolds we learn why she did it and are forced to ask, “Was it murder?” Thomas’ performance is powerful as she communicates what it means to have moved socially beyond the pale.

In a Better World: Winner of the 2011 Golden Globe for “Best Foreign Language Film,” In a Better World is the work of Danish director, Susanne Bier. The film explores the role of men and the relationships of sons and fathers, and struggles with questions of how to deal with evil. The story unfolds in two locations, Denmark and Africa, where a father and son separated by a thousand miles face similar evils that push them to the edge.

While winter’s cold may lead you to cooking, baking and eating (and that’s great), it remains true that “Man does not live by bread alone.” The intellectual food for our hearts and imaginations provided by these ten writers and film directors may make winter not only endurable but delightful.

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