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Schwartz: Learning to live within the weather, not against it

Alex Schwartz, Opinion Editor

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I’ve rarely had my privilege checked so intensely as I have this past week. I’m referring, of course, to the weather.

I wore a winter coat last Sunday, and within a mere six days I was basking on the lakefill in shorts and a T-shirt. Chicago’s climate is underratedly erratic, and last week it was on display in full force. But it made me step back and think about how I conceptualize the weather and nature in general.

I was born and raised in Central Florida where seasons are stretched out and compressed beyond recognition. What passes for “winter” amounts to about a week in either January or February, when the temperature dips below 50 degrees and drivers realize they’ve forgotten how to use their defrost vents. Coats, thermal socks and snow boots are virtually unheard of in daily outfits, instead displayed like museum artifacts in a select few outdoor stores.

I remember my mom dressing me for the “cold” when I was little. There was that one sweater, that one pair of gloves and that one beanie I never wanted to wear. Nevertheless, it was exciting to sit in a chilly car (normally stifling from the heat) and see my breath materialize like smoke in the still air. It was a change, and a few days later, it would be more or less over.

Last winter was my first at Northwestern (or, for that matter, above the Mason-Dixon Line). From what I gather, it wasn’t a doozy. The temperature fluctuated so much that I experienced only two snow days, as well as several days when it climbed above 60 degrees. I had been warned time and time again about how stark of a change it would be, and I honestly felt a little let down.

This year was a different story. Still not the worst, I’ve heard, but snow in November and April sure was a departure from what I had been used to. And Winter Quarter was an almost uninterrupted progression of gray, frigid days. What I had thought of as winter lasted much longer than a week, and it got old very fast.

And then came last weekend, when it seemed as if the transition from April to May flicked a switch that turned on the heat. It was, again, a change. Almost everyone I knew was outside this past Saturday, darty-hopping, listening to live music on the lakefill or sunbathing at the still-technically-closed Evanston public beaches. I wore sandals and sunglasses the whole day, and by the time I came back to my room, my neck was sore from all the times I had turned my head back to face the sun, just to bathe in heat and light.

As poetic as it sounds, the day was nothing short of idyllic. Many of us jokingly say, “This weather cured my depression/anxiety,” and — while it may be problematic to say that mental illness can be so easily remedied — it was baffling to me that I actually felt that way after a total of maybe three days in sunny weather. I thought to myself: What does that say about me, that my mood is so dependent on the weather?

I thought back to my winter excitement growing up, and I realized that it was essentially the same thing: I derived happiness not so much from the weather as I did from how it changed. Humans secretly love change, despite our collective resistance to it socially and politically. The more dramatic the change, the better. We don’t do well sitting for too long in the same place or under the same sky. That’s why we arrange our years into seasons, structuring our lives around different customs and traditions compartmentalized into different times of the year. We build snowmen and drink hot chocolate in winter, plant flowers in spring, vacation in summer and pick apples in fall because we want to give ourselves something to look forward to, something to add more variety into our lives.

But at the same time, our love for seasonal change is at odds with how we live our lives. We avoid slowing down the pace of work or school when the weather gets tough and our bodies become sluggish. And we don’t give ourselves time to enjoy nature when it’s beckoning us outside.

Partly to blame is our economic system that demands that we give 100 percent of ourselves to the creation of goods and the rendering of services, ignores our humanity and our need to be stimulated by the natural world. Also to blame is our perception of nature: the idea that we should primarily live our lives separated from it, only to interact with it at predetermined, even timed intervals. That’s not to say we should give up our heating and indoor plumbing or even our walls, but we need to at least start conceptualizing ourselves as part of nature instead of trying to blockade it.

Yes, Seasonal Affective Disorder is real and can be caused by a number of winter’s physiological effects, such as lack of light and vitamin D production. But I think what really makes winter such a depressing time of year for all of us, whether or not we struggle with our mental health, is how we try to fight against it instead of live within it. Winter can be beautiful when we’re not hurriedly rushing through snowfall to get to class, when we instead choose to watch that snow collect on tree branches or listen to the crunch our boots make when we step through it.

So, for next year, I’ve decided I’m going to try to dissociate the ugliness from a cold, gray winter’s day, instead learning to appreciate how it was different from the day before or how it will be different from the next. I’ve decided to try to treat each day as a new season, a new change. I’ve decided to take comfort in knowing that the weather changes, that there will be nice days and not-so-nice ones and that each of those days will be different.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at alexschwartz@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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