Today was filled with small victories. I woke up, and the sun was beaming through our windows. (Score!) I finished work by noon, and put in contacts instead of wearing glasses. (Heeeey, eyeballs! I’d missed ya.) And as I walked toward my door to venture into the outside world voluntarily, for the first time in months, I breezed right past my floor-length down coat and reached for my late-fall jacket.
Ignoring the fact that I live in place where people own varying degrees of outerwear for every stage of every season, this was an indescribable high. This feeling of utter satisfaction that washed over me is one that every Chicagoan knows well. It’s that first glimmer of the sense that winter might be on its way out, that we won’t always be oppressed by cold darkness, and that yes, Virginia, there is a reason we live here.
“Late-fall jacket” donned, I stepped outside my apartment building, my body in what’s become my standard clenched position, bracing myself for the rush of insta-frost I’d come to expect. But there was no icy, biting wind. No gust of snowflakes smacking my face, punishing me for daring to leave the four walls I call home. It was—dare I utter it?—a tolerable temperature. Bright. Sunny. Pleasant, even. The air was warm enough that exposed skin wasn’t given to immediate hypothermia before ever feeling the incomparable pleasure of being heated by the sun. Hell, I wasn’t even wearing a hat! I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, other pedestrians who dared to be on the same sidewalk as me didn’t send me to an instant rage-spiral, and all activities I had planned for the next hour or so involved being outdoors. After I finished my brunch at the little Parisian themed café down the street, I spent the next hour and a half wandering around my neighborhood—for no reason other than I wanted to be outside.
Today wasn’t even the first day of Spring; today barely broke 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
This is life in the midwest. We are battered down and beaten into the ground for so many weeks on end, and it becomes difficult to explain why we stay here. I spent a solid 45 minutes at work a few weeks back googling pictures of San Jose, in the classic masochistic style of someone who lives in a cold-winter climate, so clearly I know that there are more temperate places I could go. And I could drone on for days and pages about why I love this city like a member of my family, so I won’t pretend that today’s feeling is the chief motivator keeping me here. Truly, short of a sudden glacial freezing-over of the entire Great Lakes region, there really isn’t much that could drive me away. But there’s just something about that feeling that comes with a day like today, so I also won’t pretend that it’s a non-factor in my love-hate relationship with life in this difficult (to say the least) environment. This feeling is what we’re all working towards in the 11 and 1/2 months of Siberian winter that lead up to it, and I’d argue that not even the actual beginning of true summer can top it.
Winter is how we prove ourselves. We know what it’s like to spend an hour digging our cars out of parking spaces, to argue endlessly over the merits of dibs, to trudge to and from work like intrepid explorers, to waste our lives on delayed trains and buses, to wear 5 different pairs of base-pants under our actual pair of pants, to shovel, and trip, and slip, and fall, and bruise, and curse, and wake up the next day to do it all over again. And these moments create a camaraderie among strangers. There are knowing looks shared between us as we pass in the ice-caked streets, narrowly avoiding the slush mountains that threaten to suck us down like lightning sand in the Fire Swamp. We nod empathetically on the L, peeling off snowy layers to handle the 100-degree shift in body temperature upon entering the sweaty train car. We all know, we all understand, we’re all in this together.
And then after we think we’ve eaten all the chili and soup we can stand; when “spending a night in” no longer sounds like novel, low-key fun, but instead becomes the maximum security prison it truly is; when we’ve exhausted all the binge-watchable Netflix shows; when we’ve nearly committed to going in on a timeshare in a retirement village in Boca Raton with 27 of our closest friends just to remember what it’s like to not be crushed by seasonal depression, we get a day like today.
Now, I have no doubt that most people—even those who routinely bask in average temperatures in the mid-70’s—understand why we Chicagoans feel so passionately about our summer months. Anyone can grasp why we all soak up every possible outdoor moment from June – September and lose our ever-loving minds when we finally enter this magical period in time.
But can anyone but a Chicagoan fully appreciate what a day like today means to our ever increasingly fragile psyches? Reminder: today narrowly broke the 40-degree mark. It wasn’t weather that allowed for sundresses, baseball games, or patio drinking. But it turned me into a blithering, toothy-grinned idiot nonetheless. This feeling is what gets us winter soldiers through the worst of it. Winter is how we earn our magical summers that practically burst with street festivals, firework shows, and farmers’ markets. No one spends their summers like Chicagoans do, because we know what it’s like to go without. But more than that, no one spends their first sunny-days-barely-above-freezing like we do, because we know more than anyone how precious they are and what they truly mean.
There are many reasons I love my Chicago, my family. (Trust me, I’m saving those for a post all their own.) But few are as affirming, encouraging, and unique as watching my city collectively enjoy this first peek at the light at the end of the polar vortex. We come together to struggle through the worst that weather has to offer and we do gratitude right, Sweet Home. Thanks for the reminder.
I’ll see you all on the other side.