Ahlin: Of hoar frost and third-graders

As my husband and I found out this past week, sometimes the unexpected really is best.

It didn’t begin that way when we were trying to get out of town and things kept interfering. The upshot was we didn’t arrive at the lake until early evening, and it took a roaring fire in the fireplace to warm the cabin. Even then the sheets felt as if they’d been pulled from the freezer and we had to pile on blankets to be able to sleep. The sunrise in the morning was glorious—vibrant shades of pink with a smattering of gold, lighting up the frozen lake like a great flat sparkling platter—promising a wonderful day.

But we had to leave. Quoting the beloved poet Robert Frost, we had “promises to keep.” In this case, we’d promised to visit our 8-yr-old grandson’s classroom in the Twin Cities to show pictures and souvenirs from China. Evidently, his teacher planned for a series of presentations on countries from around the world. And as we learned, our grandson volunteered our services. (What grandparent could say no to that?) Some souvenirs were at our lake place, hence our overnight.

Anyway, after breakfast—a wee bit regretfully—off we went with the sun shining brightly. Within 30 minutes, however, clouds and a slight fog set in. What had been bright and clear turned otherworldly, almost ethereal. Suddenly, everywhere we looked, trees and fences were thick with hoar frost.

I love hoar frost. The word “hoar” comes from Old English and means “showing signs of old age.” In other words, trees and bushes appear to have “white hair.” In actuality nothing more than winter dew displayed in white feathery plumes, hoar frost lends a mysterious, magical quality to landscape, as if Mother Nature gets carried away with her artistry and can’t stop until every pine needle and every twig is graced. The result is enchanting.

Rather quickly our drive through barren countryside became an expedition into a fairy tale. Plain old windshield time crossed into the World of Narnia. (Would the White Witch appear?) We found ourselves quiet, unwilling to break our shared feeling of awe with conversation.

Later, a classroom of third-graders—eyes wide-open, eagerness palpable, zest for something new; excitement for learning and sharing—gave us a glimpse into another kind of wonderment.

In fact, from the beautiful drive to the time in the classroom to the drive back home (surprisingly including more scenes of hoar frost) it occurred to me many times how completely adulthood strips away our inclination—our capacity—to experience wonder.

It seems especially true this week before Christmas, when we’re overwhelmed and depressed by too much to do. The irony is that Christmas is the time most adults are willing to admit they need a little wonder in their lives.

The Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “Caress the detail, the divine detail.” How nice to unexpectedly discover again, plain old everyday life is full of them.