This was to be the year I finally embraced the frosty outdoors – or so I told myself

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Emma Brockes

All my family’s good intentions crumble when we remember just how cold it is outside in New York at this time of year

Central Park in the snow, January 2019.
‘New York has the advantage over London of many more bright winter days.’ Central Park in the snow, January 2019. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
‘New York has the advantage over London of many more bright winter days.’ Central Park in the snow, January 2019. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 09.25 EST

“I want to go straight home.” This is the first thing my children say to me when I collect them from school or the learning centre where they go on the days school is closed. Nothing will move them; not the promise of a cake pop from Starbucks, nor the lure of the playground, nor the odd jumbo falsehood I throw in their path. “I bet the ice-cream truck is there!” I say, walking down the hill while trying to steer them off route in the direction of the park. It is -1C (30F) outside and the sky is lightning white. Twenty minutes later we are all on the sofa and don’t move for two hours, until dinner.

This is not how it was supposed to be. All summer and autumn we talked about how, with the pandemic cutting off indoor venues for socialising, we were going to do winter outdoors. We discussed how people did it in Norway, how prolonged exposure to cold weather was not only a necessity but a spiritual advance. This would be good for us! Bundling up, learning some endurance, on top of all the other endurance we’d learned, taking great gulps of frosty air. I imagined myself in winter guise, going on brisk, self-improving walks while enjoying the latest in quilted-jacket technology.

That was September. Three months later, a couple of overlooked things have emerged. First, wind-chill. I live one block from the Hudson River, and on certain corners, while waiting for the lights to change, you would be forgiven for thinking you were on the deck of the Titanic, face so cold it might have been plunged into water. This condition might act as a refreshing spritz to my brain, were the brain not fully engaged in yelling at me to get home.

Then there’s the light. New York has the advantage over London of many more bright winter days, when the cold exists in thrilling juxtaposition with blue skies. This is the winter of my imaginings, in which, no matter how low the temperature, it is hard not to go outside and feel cheerful. But this city also has its share of days of dismal low cloud cover, when going out at all feels unwise. So far this season, those types of days have been unusually plentiful.

Perhaps, like doing exercise or reading political memoirs, it’s a just question of pushing through the discomfort. After all, my whole life as a British person has been lived in preparation for this moment. I’ve shivered under towels on the beach at Ventnor. I’ve done Duke of Edinburgh award weekends in the Malvern Hills, an endless campaign of trudging through mud and trying to traverse stiles without the rucksack pitching me headfirst over the crossbar. I’ve enjoyed picnics while pretending we’re not bathed in light rain, and played tennis in a woolly hat and gloves.

And I know that, whatever shape it takes, being out in nature is good for me. All the studies say so; people who spend time among green things are happier than those who don’t. Amazing things happen in nature, even in the city, a fact I can testify to with some authority after an owl nearly flew into my head in Central Park last week. (This is true. It was a stormy day, not the kind I like to go out in, but one of my children had become obsessed with finding “a big leaf”. Suspending her reluctance to be out in the cold, off we went to Central Park, where on the way back, I had to duck when a large owl apparently mistook me for someone it knew.)

That outing was remarkable in other ways too. A blanket of acorns lay beneath the huge trees off the path, and more birds than any of us had ever seen in one place carpeted the ground to eat them. There were blackbirds, and blue jays, and the odd mourning dove, and at the sound of a sharp noise, up they flew as one, into sky the colour of sheet metal. On we went to climb a big rock, where we sat eating snacks and looking down on a man trying to have a discreet wee behind a conifer. It was a magical afternoon.

There is still an enormous gravitational pull towards staying inside. The other day, it snowed and people on social media in New York got very excited. I bundled up, and plunging out to fetch my kids felt the brief, childish thrill of unusual weather, before calling a friend to bitterly complain about it. Twenty minutes later, the three of us fell through the door, shedding coats and backpacks and enjoying the best thing about being out: coming in.

  • Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist

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