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By Erin Hemme Froslie, Published January 11 2003

The winter of our content: Book of essays and poems examines spirit of the season

Snuggled deep in the arms of winter, January brings with it a paradox.

After gorging on holiday celebrations for almost a month, we are content to hibernate and wait out the isolating cold. But as the month progresses, the darkest day of December creeps further from memory -- a sign that dreams of sunny warmth are not in vain.

Regardless, winter signifies a time to slow down, a time to reflect.

"Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season" (SkyLight Paths, $21.95) is a collection of more than 30 reflective essays, stories and poems that celebrate winter as a spiritual gift. Edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan Felch, the book includes selections by Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, John Updike and E.B. White, among others.

"All too often we miss the opportunities that come with winter," says Jon M. Sweeney, editor in chief of SkyLight Paths.

"It is a season that graces us with the opportunity to look at the world, and ourselves, in entirely new ways."

In five sections, the collection examines the wide personalities of the season: from those times of sorrow and barrenness to the playtime delight of throwing a snowball.

Living in the upper Midwest, we know winter intimately. We curse its wind chill, welcome its cups of hot chocolate and glorify the memories of blizzards gone by.

Yet we identify with people such as Jamaica Kincaid, who was born on a tropical island. In her essay, "A Fire by Ice," she writes about winter in New England. For her, even the barest introduction of the season is a personal assault.

As the temperature drops and her bountiful garden turns to lifeless vegetation, she writes: "I think frost is something someone is doing to me -- only to me. And this is how winter in the garden begins -- with another tentativeness, a curtsy to the actual cold to come, a gentle form of it. … How can it be that after a frost the entire garden looks as if it had been to a party in Hell?"

Like Barry Lopez in "Ice and Light," we know that even as light reflects the snow crystals that winter darkness brings winter depression. A depression the Polar Eskimo call perleronrneq, the weight of life.

In the deep muck of January and February, we mourn for summer evenings at the lake and dream of retirement in Arizona as sleet slams a steady beat on the windshield as we drive home from work.

We wonder what it is like to go outside without what John Updike calls "a padded, furry armor." Although only a few months removed, we forget what it's like to leave the comfort of home without the burden of a winter climate wrapped around our shoulders.

But winter brings with it quiet and introspection.

In "The Cold," Updike points out that statistics for readership go down as the latitude becomes southerly. "A warm climate invites citizens outdoors, to the sidewalk café, the promenade, the brain-lulling beach. I like winter," he writes, "because it locks me indoors with my books, my word processor, and my clear and brittle thoughts."

In "Winter," Annie Dillard writes: "I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year's planting."

When the wind howls and the temperature drops, we tell our friends to the south that it keeps out the riffraff. As if winter were a naughty sibling, we defend it while secretly cursing it under our breath.

As much as we praise the "mild" winter, there's a sense of disappointment when the end of winter finds the snow blower untouched in the garage and the snowmobile with too few miles on it. We shake our heads in amazement when our hands sweat -- too warm, mind you -- in Thermolite gloves.

In "A Romantic Education," poet Patricial Hampl of St. Paul-Minneapolis writes: "Our supremacy came from our weather, and the history of our weather … in my family we were not to speak against the winter. Our cold was our pride."

In so many ways, winter defines who we are.

So we ice fish and cross-country ski and slide down the only hills we can find on this flat plain.

We read and watch movies and flip through seed catalogs with tantalizing photos of pink peonies.

And secretly pray for the first sign of spring.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534