This past week up here at 4000 feet in the Sierra and under the tall pines, the weather has turned cold. It’s in the high 30s and mid-40s. Now, I know better than most people that these are not freezing temperatures. Nonetheless, I am wearing my down parka, furry hood up, snow pants (without the snow), and warm gloves. For someone raised in Minnesota (International Falls, Minn., is often the coldest place in the continental U.S.) I have remarkably little tolerance for the cold. I have to wear multiple layers and cover up every square inch of skin to be warm. I wonder how I made it through childhood.
Life in the upper Midwest produces hardy people because I believe our survival instincts were carefully honed. It’s a fact that it’s quite easy to die in a Minnesota winter - freeze to death, break through the ice on a lake and drown, any number of grim scenarios that are drilled into little heads by parents who respect the power of winter.
As a child, I used to ice skate in the gutters around the neighborhood. The streets were thick with packed snow that prevented cars from speeding, and it was a relatively safe activity. There also was skating on the wicked Mississippi and placid Lake Winona. Winter temperatures were generally somewhere between zero and 20 degrees unless there was a wind chill, in which case it would be 20 to 30 below zero. And now I’m cold when it’s a mere 32 degrees? Something is wrong here!
Of course, most favorite winter activities took place indoors. Bowling was big back then; beating up my kid brother was also amusing. But, I think the bitter cold also fostered creativity. There was always some art project – like paint-by-number, or gluing one’s fingers together making models, or painting mustaches on your little brother. Most importantly, winter was the season for the voracious reading of books. In those days, it wasn’t common to go to a bookstore and purchase books – I don’t think there even was a bookstore in my hometown. But we did have a library – and a grand one it was.
The Winona Public Library was a granite edifice three-stories tall. Many of the floors in the upper level were made of solid glass blocks that let light filter through from below. There was a big common room with grand leather chairs and long, ornate wood tables. This room held reference books and multi-volume collections. Altogether, it was a place of mystery with a tinge of dangerous. This room was carefully monitored by librarians dedicated to total silence. This was not one of my skills.
I liked the stacks on the upper floors the best. I would hide there during the junior high school experience of being tormented by the ‘cool’ clique of girls and boys. It was a sure bet they would not go near the library, and I was safe among the books.
It was also the beginning of my life with words. Had I not been chased into the sanctuary of the library, I may have been off giggling with the girls and flirting with boys. But no, I was with thousands of books that held secrets from places I’d never been, a world far beyond little Winona where bullies and cheerleaders reigned.
Like so many victims of bullies, I still bear some scars from that experience. But when I consider their cruel behavior helped me flee toward books, writing, and art, I feel gratitude. My children’s mystery book – Meow.org, The Cat-Napping Caper, has echoes of that experience. Four youngsters, each of whom is 'different' in a way that attracts bullying, ban together to solve the mystery dozens of cats disappearing from their homes. The book has been used in a number of special education schools and mainstream classes. My intention was two-fold - help bullied kids recognize their own self-worth and, at the same time, let potential bullies know that all people have value and talents. It's been fun to hear what young readers have to say - they always 'get it!'
Up here in the Sierra, I am as cold outdoors as I ever was in sub-zero Minnesota winters. But inside but I am warm and comfortable, doing things that I was born to do. In a odd twist I think I owe those bullies some gratitude for chasing me to the shelter of that library. After all, they brought me to today.
Wishing you a healthy, optimistic, and hopeful New Year.
Darby Lee Patterson