Surviving the solstice

Erie, Pennsylvania, captured our attention yesterday when a storm buried it under more than five feet of snow. Five feet. Think about that for a moment. The snowfall broke a 59-year record, beating a storm in 1958 that dumped 44 inches on this city of about 100,000 souls on the shores of Lake Erie. Americans from Maine to the Midwest also found themselves digging out from mountains of the cold white stuff.

We who live in the sunny South simply shiver. Today’s high temperature where I live is 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Overnight lows for the next several days will be in the teens and low 20s, forecasters tell us. National weather maps on television display rich purple oozing south from Canada, ever southward, enveloping most of the continental U.S. Winter, the season, we are told, arrived a week ago.

Not that the official starting date means much. Customarily we consider winter to begin at the winter solstice, Dec. 21 or 22, the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. But the weather cheats sometimes. At my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a storm in 2002 delivered an inch of freezing rain on Dec. 4 and 5, killing 24 and leaving 1.8 million people in the area without electrical power, for a long time. I mean really long. Our house waited in the dark and cold for 11 days before our lights, and blessed heat, came back on.

We spent our nights spent shivering under all the blankets we could find. Loud cracks punctuated the darkness through the night, announcing the shattering and falling of tree limbs. After a week of this, friends from our church invited us to camp out at their home 20 miles south. Miraculously, the massive power outage had spared their neighborhood. We won’t ever forget their kindness, and we certainly won’t forget that ice storm.

I moved to Chapel Hill after living for 20 years in South Florida, so you can imagine how I feel about this kind of weather. But when I start feeling sorry for myself, I remember those who spend their nights in shelters, provided they can find one, and many others who try to sleep under highway overpasses, wrapped in pieces of cardboard.

And I send a prayer of thanks to electrical workers and others who labor to protect us from the vicissitudes of a bleak midwinter. Meanwhile, I will look forward eagerly to March Madness.

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