This essay was written in winter of 2018.
I never knew that lake ice sings in winter.
Let me back up. I think I knew this once, when I was young. I have distant memories of skating lake ice as a child: The endless white-gray expanse, silence for miles around, the drab brown fingers of the naked trees. Nothing but the feeling of a cold nose and wind whipping at your face as you move fast, too fast, gliding in a way that betrays all your other experiences of locomotion.
The Winter Olympics is on now, another thing that reminds me of my childhood. We used to gather around the TV in my parents’ bedroom, mugs of hot cocoa in hand, to ooh and ahh at the figure skaters, especially. It’s fun to giggle at ice dancers—look at this! It’s a waltz! Only fast!—but the figure skaters are some other kind of magic. They’re like birds taking flight. The best moments in sport are when you can’t help but hold your breath because you’re watching someone move so close to catastrophe, but somehow they don’t fall. Ice skating on lakes, and watching the figure skaters, reminds my mother of her own childhood, I think. She gets teary-eyed watching a great triple axel, and always surprises me herself by skating backwards on one leg—a tiny woman approaching 60 performing an act of magic she learned when she was a girl.
I haven’t been able to catch any of the Olympics this year, except in 30-second bits as I tend bar and wander by other establishments’ televisions on my way to get glassware or spare rolls of quarters. The figure skating is as breathtaking as I remember, but now I have money to make and cable is an aging luxury; I sigh and get back to my bar. All of us here in Baltimore have become pale and squinty-eyed, extra rolls of wobbly flesh sticking to our ribs. It is a drinking city, and we deal with our deep winter woes the same way we deal with happiness in summertime: liquor as early as noon. I try not to partake too much, but the business sure does keep me in rent and plentiful friendships. It’s cold, man, the slush fills the potholes and makes them invisible this time of year, you could fall right into the sewers. We do what we can. There is so much comfort in people feeling sunless and sad the same as you, and so much odd love to be found in a cocktail someone made for you because they know what you like.
But my mother and I have a Winter Olympics ritual: We go skiing at the tiny mountain near my childhood home, and loudly pretend we’re going for gold. A few weeks ago I made the four hour drive North to find the house just where I left it, my parents just where I left them, in the forest peacefully encased in ice and snow. No potholes and slush here; in the forest of my childhood you are far more likely to see a red fox darting through the trees, than a sewer rat scampering up a wet gutter. (Though frankly I’ll take whatever wildlife I can get—rats have their own charm.)
We went skiiing for the first time in eight years, which provided me with an uncomfortable lens onto the ways I have changed. Eight years ago I think I was a person much more comfortable with laughter. We howled, We’re the best skiers ever! We’re going to the Olympics! I hadn’t yet left college; under my ski pants, I wore a t shirt emblazoned with the logo of the peer relationships counseling organization I was part of at school (the one that my mom helped start when she was a student at the same school in the 70s). I was getting my degree, I had scads of friends, more riches than I knew what to do with, such an unbelievable wealth of love that I think I woke up every day smiling. That was before I graduated, before I moved through two states, two cities and two handfuls-worth of households, before I knew what depression felt like, before I knew what loneliness felt like. I am still very loved. But this decade, for me, has been much more about heartbreak than I ever expected. I’ve covered so many miles, left so many loved ones behind. I handled winter better back then. Mom and I skied down this little hill wearing boots and skis several decades old. I am quieter and more serious now, but some things never change: The fierce love I feel for my family; the pure goodness of the hot chocolate she made me when we went home for lunch; that I will always, always be my mother’s daughter, for better or worse, before I am any other thing; and the way it feels to lean into the downhill on a pair of skis like falling off a cliff, flying like people should never be able to fly, so close to catastrophe but faster, go faster, as the bitter wind stings your cheeks.
Later we went to the lake to skate, and this is how I know that ice sings. The snow is silent. The skinny, boney trees are silent. The lake is an expanse, far as the eye can see, gray and gripped by a thick layer of ice flat as a mirror. And the ice sings. The only way I can describe it: It sounds like the laser-shots of X-wing fighters in Star Wars. It sounds like the unearthly calls of bearded seals trilling to each other in the dark Antarctic sea. It sounds like nothing else. The ice, four feet thick and miles across, is a behemoth of its own making that shifts and breathes; and as it cracks and expands and contracts the pings echo through its entire structure, filling the air all around.
We skated on ice that sang about cracking. My mother and I split up to explore the lake on our skates, wary of the sound and what it meant: The frigid black water below our feet. From afar, I marveled at my mother, a little black bundle gliding across the gray ice, singing a John Denver song to herself and to the gray sky. She used to skate like this when she was young; her brother even fell through the ice once; her brother who died when he was my age now; and it is so tempting never to put on ice skates or skis or to make hot chocolate or sing. I don’t usually bother, I barely know how. But she does. All these years later, my mother is still showing me how to be happy. Go faster, sing back to the ice, lean into whatever catastrophe is happening around your ears. Even when the water is black and cold beneath your feet, even though it’s winter. Even though people you love may be dying.
The ice will still be singing when you go.