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  • cassieebrown

When the Temperature Drops.

I recall hoping for snow days as a child with fingers crossed. Wishing on the stars that sparkled clearer and sharper in the cold of winter for rest.


I woke up this morning in a western Missouri blanked with ice and snow. The world is frosted and hardened by a cold that’s plunged beyond bitter straight into life-threatening. When I rose, it was negative ten degrees. It felt like negative twenty-seven, with the considerable windchill.


I am blessed to be so warm.


Last night, I snuggled on the couch and watched my Chiefs advance in the playoffs. The fog of the players’ breath rising from their mouths reminded me of our horses feeling their oats when it was frigid when I was a child.


The sense memory was strong—sweet feed on the ponies’ breath, heads tossing, bodies thick with winter coats. I recall watching the horses leaning into the big round bales of hay they used as windbreaks when the harshest of the prairie winds would hit them. A horse-crazy girl, how I loved to warm myself with them, leaning into their big bodies, breathing in the scent of life in their breath, burying my face in the crest of their necks.


But when the winter sun hit just so, after my father broke the ice across their watering troughs with an axe and fed them molasses-rich sweet feed and some flakes of alfalfa, something inside of them responded to the cold like a dare.


They tossed their heads, blowing blasts of mist from their nostrils. They trotted, knee-deep in snow-day snow, shattering the icy crust with their kicks and bucks. Even my ancient, shaggy palomino pony would be inspired to toss her head. Perhaps they needed the warmth of the exercise. Perhaps they felt playful. Perhaps they just wanted to reassure themselves that they were alive.


Winter is harsher now that I am grown.


I have no shaggy palomino pony neck to bury my face in. My fingers ache and burn stiff in the wind. I no longer look forward with delight to building a snowman or sledding down the wickedly steep hill of our farm.


But a snow day is still a respite.


When I was young, I was not as frightened of snow and ice as I am now, because I never had to drive on Missouri roads, white and gray and treacherous and slick. I had never felt tires become useless beneath me while my hands gripped the wheel. Where despite all of the best advice you get from your dad, your best friend, your neighbor, you realize, “I’m not in control here.” You know you can only make things worse, but not really better. Not for a bit.


The legislature dismisses early when the weather looks truly dreadful. I still feel that snow day with all the same glee. But, as with any snow day, homework sits insistent, despite all of the moments that I stick my tongue out at it.


This afternoon, I gave in and opened my computer. I looked at what my week will bring me. All of the carefully tended warmth went out of my body in a whoosh and left me shivering in the cold.


There is a certain sensation of breathing in air when it is cold. Cold like your breath turns to a ghost and disappears. Cold like your eyes ache. Cold like your lungs burn inside of you and you can feel the size of them.


Cold like fear.


Because fear like I feel now is cold.


Heading back to the Capitol, I crave warmth. I need the nurturing warmth that comes with a smile. A friend. Holding someone’s hand. Words of comfort. The sensation of holding someone so close you feel the heart of them, your face in the safety of the curve of their neck.


I have no shaggy pony now.


Instead, I am gripping tight to the wheel. I am spending this long weekend that honors Martin Luther King, Jr.—a dreamer, a pastor, a radical, an activist—covertly checking my email for further missives of disaster and staring out a frosty window at roads that look better equipped for ice skating than driving.


I grip the wheel harder. God how I choke it.


Without noticing, without choosing, I slip-slide into research. I find myself combing through databases, downloading articles, and making notes as if I could convince people not to pander to their base through scholarship. As if I could change the course of a vote, a moment, a movement.


My fingers ache on my keyboard, and I wonder, in a kitchen blessed with perfectly good heat, “If I cry now, will my tears burn my face?”


(They don’t.)


I recall the horses in their hay bale windbreaks. I recall the crunch of snow under my child’s snow boots. I recall my father in his big, tan work coveralls, the same color he liked his coffee rich with cream, so thick and lined. I recall him slipping into them and chore boots on our back porch. He broke the ice for the horses, fed them their sweet feed and hay flakes.


I remember him being so tired during winter. The pain of his work, the ache of the cold settling into his bones.


But he never quit. Somehow, he never quit. He had too much riding on his willingness to work, his commitment to sacrifice in the cold.


I breathe deep at my keyboard. I set aside the project for a moment. I turn on music—country, with a sound like my father’s voice. I sing a little, my feet tapping along with my fingers at the keyboard.


These are the smallest movements I take towards warmth right now.


And then, I think of those I will advocate for, the young, the old, the queer, the poor. I think of the empty curve of my neck, and I smile. It is so small.


I do these things to reassure myself that I am still alive.

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