Coming back from a mountain bike ride with temps in the low 30s, I knew what to expect when stepping into the shower. My toes were going to hurt.
When your toes hurt from the cold, it’s a sign that your extremities are paying the price to keep your core temperatures warm. The body looks at cold from an “outside in” perspective. It would rather lose a few digits than risk having the heart go stiff and freeze.
That’s an interesting evolutionary adaptation. We don’t tell our bodies to act like that. And that said, I’m always amazed at what the human face can take relative to the rest of the body. Yes, we should protect our face in cold temperatures where there is risk of frostbite. But on a typical ten degree day without sharp winds to heighten the chill, we can run miles and miles and the skin on our face will be fine. A bit chapped perhaps. And red. But fine.
Still, it’s a cold reminder that we should not take these risks for granted. When you get back to the shower after a cold ride or run and the water feels like fire on your cold toes, it’s good to take stock of how close you came to really having problems. Can you dress warmer? Wear booties? Our instincts aren’t always honest with us.
I recall playing in an icy puddle with my best friend as a child. I don’t know why we were doing that. Probably just interested in the ice floating around in the clear water. After a while I I turned to him and said, “Isn’t it funny how your fingers feel hot after getting so cold in the ice water?” That was a revelation to both of us. We explored many such moments together over our elementary years.
But when my father decided to move our family west to Illinois, I spent our last afternoon together talking with him about friendship and how much it had meant to me. We both lived next to a golf course in Pennsylvania, so we sat on our favorite golf tee above an elevated hole. We talked a while and then turned to me and said, “Why does everything I love have to leave me?”
His parents had divorced years before. During our friendship he’d even moved south for a period to live with his dad. His father was a harsh man as I recall, and my friend seemed changed, not for the better, when he returned home to live with his mom. He’d grown more cynical, prone to moodiness, and suspicious even of our friendship. But the hot or cold nature of one’s relationship with a parent doesn’t always define the love one feels at the core of one’s being. Eventually he relaxed again, and our deep friendship continued.
But the sense of loss in life had hurt us both in ways that we didn’t anticipate. The extremities of our character had felt the chill of life surround us. My own father could be harsh as well, and our friendship was likely an insulator against what we could not understand at our young age. Our sensitivities either get left out there on behalf of the self, or we pull them back and learn how to protect ourselves from the cold world around us.
The hope is that people burned by painful relationships in this world ultimately find the love they need to heal in this lifetime. Some put faith in a greater power for that source of healing because the world can be so unreliable. Others warm their souls through an eternal search for connection and kinship.
Some find salvation that in nature. Others in human communities. In pets. The arts. Even a favorite piece of music can heal the soul at the right moment.
In one way or another, we all have to deal with the strange contradictions of cold and heat in this world. I’m grateful for how our bodies respond when our toes are so cold they feel like fire in the shower. It shows that we’re not afraid to try new things. Yet it also tells us that our perceptions are neither perfect or absolute.
We’re also reminded that the spirit within us often desires to come out. Which is some of the reason why we all go running, riding and swimming. With every effort, we release a bit spirit into the world. If we’re lucky or wise, some element of spirit comes back to restore us as well. It might burn like fire. Or sting like ice. But they’re all reminders that we’re alive.