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Winter’s wonder

Wed, Jan 1, 2014

Featured, Twenty Something

Just when you think you’ve seen everything – every lion hugging human, every shark-eluding seal – the World Wide Web churns out a picture that makes you stare.

We process a barrage of images so glibly that it takes something special to keep us from skipping and scrolling right by. And yet here it was: a Twitter link that led to a Flickr page of super-magnified snowflakes dripping and fluttering in remarkable intricacy.

Despite their commonality as symmetrical, six-pointed crystals, their diversity is staggering, no two even close to alike: a boxy hexagon, a dainty doily, a set of arrows, a regal crown ready to enshrine emeralds.

Elizabeth Scalia, a Benedictine Oblate I follow on Twitter, had already responded to the snowflakes. “When I first saw these pictures, all I could think was, ‘Look! Pictures of Christ!’” she had blogged. “The snowflakes are ordered. They are visibly, perfectly ordered, like Christ. And as with Christ, you can see the whole world in them. Butterflies and flowers, dragonflies and stingers and crescents, stars, arrows and feathers and leaves, sand dollars, beetles and tents and cathedrals and even people.”

I emailed the link to my friend Sister Mary, a Dominican sister from San Francisco who recently moved to St. Paul, Minn., and seemed alarmed by our recent cold snap. Perhaps their beauty would soften their bite. “It is incredible that every snowflake and every grain of sand is unique,” she wrote back. “What an awesome God we have!”

We are in the midst of a white winter here, Sister Mary can attest, and for me, the snowfall never gets old, filling me with childlike glee and recalling the magic of a snow day, one fell swoop that could wipe away 12 hours of well-set plans. You were going to put on jeans and sit through social studies and then hustle through basketball practice? Nah, let’s keep you in those nice, warm pajamas a few more hours and then send you outside to build a snow fort!

Each time I spot flurries, I step away from my desk and entertain the urge to grab my camera and photograph the old oak out back that somehow looks new again. The other day I discovered an Anne Sexton quote that conveys it well: “I am younger each year at the first snow. When I see it, suddenly, in the air, all little and white and moving, then I am in love again and very young and I believe everything.”

Beauty leads to belief, and the foot bridge is a youthful sense of wonder, inviting us to pause from the day’s demands and simply delight. As young adults distancing ourselves from college, we can be consumed by practicalities – rent, insurance, a 401k – and we barrel toward the future with our heads down and elbows pumping. We mistake growing more serious for growing wiser. We starve our imaginations. It’s all made worse by the fact that we, as a species, now largely live indoors, glued to tiny electronics and oversized TVs, stuck in a kind of second-hand existence.

This winter I am compelled to venture outside, to feel cold, alert and alive. Last week I almost succumbed to an impulse buy of snow shoes beckoning from a Sam’s Club endcap. And I’m framing the Dec. 30, 2013, New Yorker cover, an illustration of Pope Francis making a snow angel, as a symbol of levity in the great outdoors. My mom is celebrating her retirement on a dog-sledding trip near the Canadian border. I’ll be content to stand below a full moon and let its cloudy light drip down.

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