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Circle up


Spring came back around as it always does, not a milestone but an inevitability. We celebrated not just the longer and warmer days, but also the end of a winter that five months prior we weren't quite sure how we'd endure with our spirits intact. Outdoor circles saved us.


In November, with vaccines neither approved nor available and COVID raging through communities, our social circles narrowed. The pods and bubbles that had buoyed us through outdoor gatherings throughout the summer and fall suddenly seemed vast, a thorny Venn diagram of too many overlapping germ pool circles.


So we tightened the circumference, shrinking the numbers to an essential core. Circled around outdoor fire pits, we sat cocooned in down parka layers, our legs like the spokes of a bicycle stretching chilly toes to the coals.

The first COVID winter made outdoor dinners not a novelty but a necessity. If we wanted to host a dinner party, it needed to happen outside. The decision was easy. Pillows, fleece blankets, hot drinks, slippers were de rigueur. Notably, one dinner took place--quite comfortably--at 3° F. Stepping away from the fire, we realized that the temperature within the circle was noticeably warmer than outside it. Like an igloo or a quinzee, the snow walls surrounding the fire captured heat, effectively making our gathering sites into warm spaces.


Viewed from above, the winter fire pit is one of concentric circles: the outer snow wall, the ring of chairs, the fire pit's steel outer and inner loops, the bowls of soup cupped in our palms. Conversation flows around the fire effortlessly, the circular structure creating an environment of intimate unity that echoes the intimacy we've developed over years of sharing (and, the foundation of many a solid friendship: over-sharing).

Until our COVID winter, I'd had only a couple of dozen truly outdoor winter dinners, almost all of them out in the backcountry with Outward Bound in Maine near the winter solstice. When it got dark at 4:30pm, we'd sculpt a fire pit with snow benches, let them harden while we set up sleeping tarps, and then cozy up to the blaze to eat some sort of one-pot meal, forcing ourselves to stay up until 7:30 or 8pm. We'd retire to our down bags, so loft-filled that it was often hard to tell whether or not a person was inside. On extraordinarily cold nights we'd keep snacks in stuff sacks in our sleeping bags. If we awoke in the night shivering, we'd grab a handful of trail mix: "eat for heat."


{Once, a fellow instructor had a student come to her in the morning and ask for a private conversation. "I'm embarrassed to say this," the college-aged student told my friend, "but I think I've pooped my pants. I don't know how it happened, but I can feel it in my underwear." My friend heated a pot of water and sent the student off to clean himself behind a tree. The student soon returned, more sheepish than before. Apparently a bite-sized Snickers bar from the midnight snack bag had made its way inside his long underwear and, through body heat, melted inside its wrapper, creating a soft, warm, squishy log.}

Like those Outward Bound dinners in the Maine woods, our COVID winter dinners distilled hostess details down to their bare essence. Freed from the expectations of a clean house and a gourmet meal, we were at liberty to focus on the true purpose of the meal: connecting with the people who matter to us.


And then suddenly the snow was gone; the sculpted wintery walls growing thinner until only a damp ring remained, until even that, too, disappeared, eclipsed by the promise of another cycle of the seasons.






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