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Letter from Portland: Winter's Glory

11/12/2018

By Gibson Fay-LeBlanc

Letter from Portland: Winter’s Glory first appeared in Islandport Magazine, Winter 2018

Most of Maine sees Portland as the big city, and, having spent my first eighteen years in Chicago, that makes me smile. But even here, in this small city that has some big city problems, the woods are not far. I can walk or drive a few minutes and find some decent quiet, and there is nothing like the woods in the winter. Snow and ice crunch under my boots; bare trees skitter in the wind. The various trails of animal tracks are like secret languages written between the trees.
    I’ll admit it: I’m one of those people who love winter. Sure, snowstorms in April are tough, but I love to bundle up and get out into it: walking, running, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, skating. I need the fresh air and the winter sun to keep my head straight. One of my favorite winter days is one after a heavy storm, maybe even when snow’s still coming down in the morning, and the city plows have only cleared the major roads. There’s nothing like skiing down city streets in early light.
    The way the city transforms after a storm reminds me of a scene from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, which takes place in Pittsburgh. After an ice storm, a girl figure skates in the middle of the road under the streetlights. Dillard, a young girl at the time, is transfixed. We had one such storm last year, and a neighbor told me that he and his sons played ice hockey on an iced-over side street. I wished I’d thought of that. That’s winter magic.  
    Winter magic can also be found on less unusual forms of outdoor ice: Capisic Pond, the pond in Deering Oaks, the Royal River, and Massacre Pond out near Scarborough Beach are some of my favorite spots for outdoor skating if the conditions are right.
    There’s also the small outdoor rink I’ve made in my backyard for the last seven years—it’s bounded by two trees on one side, a garage, and a tree house and a line of bushes in the back. We put up lights so that we can play into the evening on those short winter days. The sounds of winter on our block are the scratches of steel blades on ice and the thwack of pucks hitting the wooden boards. Last winter, even on several days when the temperature dipped into the negatives with ridiculous wind chills, my sons and I covered every inch of exposed skin and went out into it.
    But winter also means staying inside, hibernating a bit. It means soup on the stove, and more reading, more writing. It means slow snow days when it’s too nasty to go anywhere, so you stay inside with your family and play cards or board games. Winter is the season when things go dormant, and dormancy implies that something important is being prepared for behind the scenes.
    And that reminds me of one more winter phenomenon: the community event—say, a reading or musical performance made all the more intimate by terrible weather. I’ve had the pleasure of being in a few such rooms. I remember one recent example when a small group showed up in a storm to hear two writers share their work. Folks sat around sipping tea and other things, and the writers held forth with ease and honesty. Looking at the rapt faces around the room that night with the wind and snow whipping around outside, I thought about how much words mattered to all those people, enough to show up to hear them in a storm. Winter makes us work a little harder for such moments, which just gives them more magic. 

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc’s first collection of poems, Death of a Ventriloquist (UNT Press, 2012), won the Vassar Miller Prize and was featured by Poets & Writers as one of a dozen debut collections to watch. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Tin House, Slice, and many other magazines and journals.