Surprising Lessons From My First Winter in Chicago

Feb 19, 2019

Life Lessons Perspective Chicago Seasons
gloomy winter day with tree and building

[Foreword: I must preface this post by saying that I understand this is my first winter here and I may certainly not feel this way after 10 or 20 or even 5 years from now. Additionally, I do not have a car at the moment and so don’t drive around, which I know can change one’s experience of Chicago winters drastically. But I do want to acknowledge and express my initial reactions as I still find them valuable.]

Note: all photos are my own.

Cold. That’s really the only thing I ever thought of when thinking about Chicago. The only thing that came to mind when I pictured the winters. Freezing may be more accurate. When it comes to certain states and their corresponding weather, we tend to have pretty well-established preconceived notions and judgments. Whether or not they are accurate is not the point; it’s having them that inevitably leads to a narrow perspective of that state and what living there overall will be like.

I refused to move to Chicago for years because of the weather, despite my husband’s lovable pleading. It was just not an option I would consider. Chicago = cold, that’s it. And cold = unhappy, forever. Why make myself miserable on purpose?

Now, having moved here and experienced my first winter, my perspective is slowly beginning to shift, something I did not expect. What have I learned? There is more to winter than merely the notion of cold…

See past your preconceived notions

Easier said than done, I know. But any time we engage in “growth work,” it will not be easy. And a perspective shift certainly falls under that category.

I had to learn to look past the judgments I held about what winter would be like, which was basically a long stretch of cold, rainy, and snowy days, with freezing temperatures to boot. I pictured everyone pretty much locked inside their homes for at least three months, not able to live life normally during the winter season. Images of cars sliding around, people tripping on black ice, and snow storms passing through on the daily were part of my preconceived notions. Not to mention the emotional effect of being in a semi-constant crummy state of depressed mood. Pretty dark notions.

No one is locked inside, I’m happy to report. People go about their normal routines and schedules, living life no differently, minus the change in wardrobe and the periodic shoveling of snow. I don’t see people with sullen faces walking around, with fists raised, cursing at the sky. And thankfully no tripping sightings as of yet, though I have witnessed large chunks of ice falling off of buildings a few feet away from me. unamused face emoji

Let life surprise you

Life will surprise us, that’s a given. Whether it’s a surprise we like or one that causes us to come undone is not so predictable. But every now and then we can choose to say yes, to be open to what life wants to show us. We have become far too jaded, and possibly hurt from past wounds, to allow room for life’s spontaneity. Or maybe there just isn’t much left that surprises us. We’ve “seen it all,” as they say.

But what if we haven’t? What if there is so much more? What if we looked at the world through a child’s eyes again? Would that be so bad?

This winter surprised me in ways I didn’t anticipate. I saw variety in weather like I’ve never seen before. Things I had never experienced were suddenly part of my weekly weather forecast — sleet, ice storm, -10. Where before barren winter trees were simply barren to me, I now saw what they looked like post-blizzard. Even the cold itself surprised me, with its kaleidoscopic conditions and how it shifted depending on other factors, like the sun or wind.

Find the hidden beauty

Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.

— Confucius

Finding beauty in winter was definitely not on my “things to do in Chicago” list when we moved here. Or on any list, for that matter. Avoid being outside during winter if at all possible was more on my mind. But thanks to our dog, that wasn’t doable.

On one particularly gloomy day, during one of our walks in a nearby park, I came upon a dried-out flower bush. It had snowed a few days before, followed by rain and icy temperatures. The forecast warned of an ice storm. But something about the long stems of these flowers caught my eye. I drew closer and noticed they were covered in ice, making the stem see-through. I felt drawn to touch it. Suddenly, I saw more stems covered in ice, and then tree branches, and pine needles. Soon I found myself on a hunt for icicles, little drops of frozen diamonds encasing the foliage around me.




On this day, I saw the beauty of winter. Things I would never see in any other season. I developed a deeper appreciation for something I used to resent. Even the gloominess had a soft air of beauty. It reminded me of the photographs in Dawoud Bey’s latest exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute, collectively titled “Night Coming Tenderly, Black.” Bey says of his work, he “wanted to hold darkness itself in a tender embrace.” If I can learn to hold the winters here in a tender embrace, it would make for a much more pleasant experience than protesting and bemoaning my way through it.

There is beauty hidden in the “everydayness” of life, if we’re willing to look and find it. We won’t get far with complaining, or resenting. Believe me, I’ve tried. Finding the hidden beauty around us forces us to put aside our brooding and our dejected attitudes and see things from a different lens. This is as honorable (and difficult) a practice as meditation, or gratefulness, or generosity. And just as rewarding.

Learn to accept what you cannot control

There are many things that fall under the category of “things I cannot control.” Weather is certainly one of them. It is futile of me to fight it, or yell profanities at the sky until it stops snowing. The only thing I can control is my attitude during the long winters, and what I choose to wear before stepping outside.

As humans we have a deep need to control our environment so that it suits us and our needs. If we could only tweak things around us just so, we would be happier. But what if sometimes what is called for is not domination but rather submission? Recognizing that in this situation I am better off accepting what is versus trying forcefully to change it. When we really stop and think about it, there honestly isn’t very much we do have control over in this world. So why bother trying?

Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don’t.

— Steve Maraboli

You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.

— Chinese Proverb

Embrace all of life’s seasons

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the four seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter often reflect the seasons of life we go through, even in that order. How many of us can name that brutal winter season, metaphorically speaking, where we faced hardship and struggles, but then felt the light at the end of that tunnel and a new thing blossoming in the spring of our life? There is a naturally cyclic element to it all — birth, death, and rebirth. Holding on and letting go. Blooming and withering. One cannot exist without the other, it seems. And consequently, one cannot be appreciated fully without the other.

There is something we can learn in each season of our life, yes even the winter season… perhaps especially the winter season. Embracing all of life’s seasons means knowing that no single one will last forever. They will all come and go, with their ups and downs. And their promises and disappointments. And oh, all their shattered illusions. We can embrace it all.

You are stronger than you think

My hatred of the cold was in part due to the fact that I didn’t think I could handle it. Having lived in California for more than 20 years, I figured my body would not adjust to the brutal winters of Chicago. What has surprised me the most is finding that I am stronger than I thought, and more capable of living in a cold climate than originally anticipated.

We do not give ourselves enough credit. We do not believe in ourselves enough. I am convinced that we are stronger and more capable than we think. And that we just need to give ourselves a chance to discover that truth.

As I write this, the snow keeps piling up outside the window in the street below. The temperature is dropping as dusk arrives. People begin to nestle inside their homes for the evening. Our neighbor’s Christmas lights that she still has up shine brightly on her balcony railing. I make myself a hot cup of cocoa and put on my lavender velvety robe I recently got as a gift. I think to myself — I wouldn’t enjoy any of these simple pleasures as much if it wasn’t winter. Maybe someday soon I will be cursing at the sky and praying for the cold to never visit us again. I’m sure there will come a time when I’ll be sick of it all and want to move. But for now, I am choosing to embrace it, black ice and all.