Winter’s Thaw: Warming up to a strange new city

On Jan. 3, 2014, the air temperature in Minneapolis—without wind chill—was 10 degrees below zero—“good sleeping weather,” as we hardy Minnesotans like to say. Indeed, it was. I was thoroughly enjoying each night I spent burrowed under down feathers and fleece, warmed by the sounds and smells of home. This winter confinement helped me, halfway through my sophomore year of college and back home for Christmas break, appreciate even more the house I grew up in and the people with whom I grew up.

Those things in my family’s house that I had brushed past in my teenage years suddenly stood out, and I was struck by how much these things, and the people associated with them, evoked an emotional response. Why, for example, had I never before noticed the clay crucifix over the door to the kitchen, the scene of so many dinners, homework sessions, fights and joyous reunions? And the clock in the dining room—which, in my youth, would blurt out a rather monotonous tone every hour until someone “forgot” to replace the batteries—beckoned to me with a gushing familiarity. With no social obligations (during break my iPhone sat largely unused on my desk), I enjoyed simply being in the presence of my family, trapped in the comforts of our familiar house.

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Upon my return to Saint Louis University in mid-January, the campus was bathed in sunlight, the snow was melting, and the temperature hovered at 50 degrees. And I, in a move of course-scheduling genius, had allowed myself ample time to enjoy the unusually warm winter climate. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I didn’t start class until noon. So, waking up on Wednesday morning, I decided—while sipping coffee in the sunny confines of my apartment—that it looked spring-like enough to merit a jaunt to morning Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. While I could have gone to Mass on campus, I was itching for the opportunity to use my bike, which had been locked up outside my dorm, unused, for several months. So, in a chipper, caffeine-fueled mood, I slipped out of the apartment at 7:30 a.m. and readied my Schwinn for its winter voyage.

This Schwinn, a top-of-the-line mountain bike from Target, creaked and groaned as I pedaled it through the melting ice, its gears shedding the dirt and rust accumulated over many idle weeks. Things were going smoothly until I biked off the campus pathways and onto the street, where a blast of wind tore through my thin windbreaker and clawed at my exposed fingers. St. Louis is a strange place; while the day before had been a sunny respite from the winter gloom, I was riding my bike under a deceptively sunny sky that belied a winter fury. Cursing under my breath, I pedaled on; it was too late to turn back. But despite my gung-ho attitude, waves of anger swelled within me. These modest complaints—Why didn’t I wear gloves? Stupid, icy roads!—furiously swirled in my mind like the polar winds and began to resemble the all-encompassing vortex of anger that I had tried so hard to suppress since coming back to school. Why am I here? I hissed under my breath. I hate St. Louis, and I don’t feel comfortable in a strange city! Why didn’t I just go to school close to home?

Flipping my bike up onto the curb outside the cathedral, my anger and resentment were in full swing. It took me four tries to get the correct combination to open the bike’s padlock—my fingers numb with cold and slowed by intense frustration. As I walked toward the cathedral door, the Schwinn slid down the stop sign pole and crashed with a resounding thud onto the pavement and lay in a heap of jumbled lock-cable and chain on the snowy sidewalk. Turning away from this scene, I stomped through the double doors and into the nave.

Still steaming with anger, I adjusted my position in the pew and looked around. There were maybe 20 people scattered throughout the massive church, and this congregation consisted of the usual daily Mass crowd: the elderly, nuns and stay-at-home mothers and fathers with restless toddlers in tow. Turning back toward the lectern, I tried my best to focus on the homily.

“Despair is when forgiveness and the love of God is doubted,” the priest said. The Gospel had been about the young rich man and his possessions. “Now, doubt is a natural part of the faith,” he continued, “but the doubt I’m talking about here is not of doctrinal issues, but of the underlying truth: that God loves you. Having despair can mean an absence of hope, and this is dangerous.” He paused and coughed before continuing, “As Emily Dickinson wrote: ‘Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune—without words—and never stops at all.’” And he finished, “God will never stop loving you.”

As I was walking out of the cathedral after Mass, I passed a group of elderly women talking to one another as they stood outside their idling cars.

“Are you a student at S.L.U.?” one of them asked. College kids are not so hard to spot in this town; unkempt hair and scraggly facial whiskers no doubt gave me away.

“Yes, I am. I’m just going back there now, actually,” I said, pointing to my bike, still clinging to the stop sign in a tangled mess of cable.

“Wow, cold day to bike!” she said. “Excellent though, that’s just great. I wish that I could still bike. Someday you’ll be as old as me, so watch out,” the woman warned, and laughed. “But you have time. Have a happy day now.”

“Thanks,” I said.

It took a while to get the bike upright, and I pushed off the curb in a high gear. Straining against the pedals, I took off down the street, and the birds—stragglers that had missed the autumn migration, or perhaps had returned a bit early—sang their tune, which sounded a lot like hope, perched nearby.

I, like countless other students, was experiencing both the excitement and bewilderment of leaving the nest and forging my way in an often cold and biting world. But the strain of this academic life also presents an opportunity for spiritual growth. Through both bitter cold and cloaking warmth, God remains: always. I pedaled on. Yes, I thought, a happy day.

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