It was a warm April Fool’s Day in Pensacola, Fla., last year — the kind of day when a blanket of hissing bugs rises up from the grass as you step in it — when I first heard the news that our family was being transferred to Bangor. I immediately got online and searched message boards and forums to find people who lived there.
“Is it really as cold as people say?” I asked.
“I have 2 feet of snow in my yard right now,” someone wrote back.
Our neighbor across the street, also a Navy pilot who had just finished a tour in Brunswick, chuckled when I told him about our new orders. He was washing his boat after a day of fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. When he stopped to reminisce about his time in Maine, he had that faraway look in his eyes that people often get when they think back to another time or expeditions in foreign countries, things that only make sense if you’ve been there, too.
“Tell me what it’s like,” I said to him.
My anxiety rose. And yet, there was a part deep inside of me, as yet unrecognized and inexplicable, that was ready for the challenge. In fact, I yearned for it, and I didn’t know just how much until that moment.
If you’ve never lived in an area of the country where the seasons change very little, you might be able to gain an appreciation for the experience if you go down to your basement, wipe off the old treadmill and walk on it for about an hour. When you are finished, nothing will have changed. You will stand right where you began. And because you’re in the basement, you may not even know if it has begun to rain or not. Left down there all day with no clock and not much daylight, you’d begin to have no idea if it was morning or night.
This is what living in a tropical climate sometimes feels like, minus the basement and the lack of sunshine, of course. If I woke from a coma in the middle of Florida, I would not be able to tell you, based on surroundings alone, what time of year it was. No, I take that back. If stores were decorated with cut-out Santa Clauses holding surfboards and wearing leis, I might know that it was December. But the other 11 months are anyone’s guess.
After a decade in Florida, I began to feel like my senses were stunted. Colors were muted. Smells were flat and my ears were plugged. I didn’t even hear the birds chirping any more. Why should I? They were always there. They had become part of the background noise, mixed with the sound of passing cars and children playing outside (because children can always play outside in Florida). The sky was always blue; the sun hot. And I failed to appreciate either delight anymore.
One day, when Owen (now 6) was about 2 years old, I read a book to him about kids making a pile of leaves and jumping in them. “Mommy, why would leaves fall off the trees?” he asked. I looked outside his bedroom window. Although it was technically fall, pine trees stood like soldiers with the blazing sun beating down on their bark. The grass was as green as it was in June. That’s when I realized that my son had been deprived of one of life’s greatest treasures: the passing of seasons. How can you appreciate a forest full of leafy green trees if they have been that way 365 days a year? How can you appreciate the sunshine when you’ve never gone without it? What does spring really mean if the flowers and plants have been blooming all along?
People thought my feelings about Maine would change after experiencing my first winter. And they did change — for the better.
Winters are hard, but without them, spring means very little. Waiting for spring after three months of snow feels like waiting for a good sneeze. Never have I longed for flowers and warmth so much. Already, I have come to understand that it is one of life’s miracles to see the first green leaves of a hosta poking through the holes of melted snow. (Chinese proverb: Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men.) Each time I go outside, I’m like a child experiencing the world for the first time. I suspect my boys have grown tired of me pointing out each new bud on the trees, every squirrel digging up nuts in the front yard. Except, it’s been hard getting the boys off their bicycles at dinnertime, and they wrestle in the newly uncovered backyard as if they’ve never seen it before. I suppose we all feel more awake.
I am reminded of Maine’s own E.B. White reflecting on daily life at a saltwater farm in Maine in the foreword to his collection of essays “One Man’s Meat”: “Once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep … I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels, and listens.”
Lucky for those of us in Maine, this rebirth happens again and again, each year when the chill of winter gives way to the warmth of spring.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her new book, “I’M JUST SAYING …” is available at bookstores. You can contact Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org.