Thoughts on a winter day in Portland

Snow in Portland, a strange and wondrous thing.

I have been two years in a city now after 25 in the deep, lightless country, and I have gotten used to it. There is much to be said for urban life, but much is lost, as well.

This odd and infrequent snow and the subsequent ice have been both a reminder and a revelation.

Silence takes many shapes. In the deep Minnesota north it was a noisy silence, alive with the great sweep of winds across great distances and the almost subaudible response of the forests as they moved in response. When snow came, all was muffled, and it became a soft silence, as it does everywhere, city or country, when heavy snow falls.

Portland is in the American northwest, a swath of rainforest in America’s upper left corner, and it is rich and verdant — a jungle in a minor key. In the winter here it is not distance that speaks, but closeness — tangles and varieties of foliage responding to the incessant patter and occasional wash of rain, closing down on you and turning you inward. You move inside yourself; you are not drawn outward. And it is a city, and in a city, except for those few moments when snow falls heavily, there is no silence.

But here something different has happened. The snow was followed by rain, and all has turned to glaze ice. Where we are, miles from major arteries where the traffic still attempts to flow, all is frozen into a sharp and brittle silence. Nothing is moving. You cannot drive; you can barely walk. The few vehicles that try to move slide off the road like a plate on a slippery, canted counter, and soon enough give up or lie helpless in a ditch. It is not prudence that has stopped the people; it is nature herself. This is an urban stillness like I have never heard.

The simple difference from the sharp edged silence of a northern winter day, or the deep, soft silence of the world in heavy snowfall, is enough to make this icebound world a source of fascination. But it is the quality of the silence, and its unlikely presence in an urban setting, that makes it so delicious and irresistible.

Snow in an urban setting muffles sound, but it does not stop all movement. The underlying urban hum still remains, hidden from our ears but present on a level far beneath hearing. This silence of the ice has frozen the city in place. There are no services to attack the immobility – plows, sanding trucks, snowblowers. The grim faced and insistent cannot defy the physical reality of this ice and drive off against all reason, cutting through the silence with a swath of sound. We, too, are frozen here, and we listen to a silence we seldom hear.

I am used to a world where winter brings a fine attention. This is a different world, where winter fosters inward meditation. To awake to a day where the city, and its very purpose for being, is defeated by the forces of nature and opens outward to a great and empty silence is a wondrous thing. It reminds me of why I live here and of what I have lost. Cities, by and large, are beehives of the human, filled with the richness of human creation, and this is one of the best I have known. But holy silence is a gift that cannot be measured, and one that we too quickly forget in an urban setting.

It is a good day to be alive.

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