“All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
round every living thing.”
from The Winter of Listening
by David Whyte
Has anyone else had kind of a hard year? Mine wasn’t bad — in fact it was very good in many ways — but there were a lot of hard things. Migraines were worse this summer and fall than they had been in a long time. Our housemate that we really liked moved to California and Mark and I had to put a lot of time and energy into finding and adjusting to a new one. My nanny job ended and it took several months to find a new one. And my dad, who has a degenerative muscle disease, transitioned this year from using a walker to a wheelchair. And the election was, and continues to be, hard.
One of the lessons that my forties has taught me is that hard things are not necessarily a tragedy, but a part of life. If you spent all your energy trying to make life easy and good you would have very little time left to actually live. Pain and struggle is as much a part of life as joy and happiness, and in some ways are much better teachers. Living in New England teaches me this, as the ebb and swell of the seasons bring such joy and beauty along with pain and difficulty. The heat of the summer worsens the migraines, and the darkness and cold of the winter brings the emotional struggle of seasonal affective disorder as well as the physical challenge of shoveling snow, negotiating parking and driving in the narrowed city streets, dealing with my own colds and viruses as well as those of the children I nanny, and having limited options for activities with the kids.
If I could invent the perfect climate for myself it would have five months of spring, five of autumn, and one each of winter and summer. Just enough heat and cold to get a taste: We would have the month of summer and the month of winter off of work for intensive barbecuing, beach-going / skiing, Christmas and Hanukkah celebration, snowman-making, etc., and then the days would revert back into my sweet spot: 60-70 degrees during the day and just chilly enough at night to snuggle under a warm blanket.
But in real life here in Boston, winter seems to stretch out for five months. The days start getting dramatically shorter in November, and for many people the associated seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, starts even earlier. The end of daylight savings time plunges us into darkness at four o’clock. December doesn’t usually have much snow, but the cold and dark set in for real. And then January and February hit, with their frigid temperatures and the possibility of several feet of snow. Some years are colder and snowier than others, but you never really know what you are in for till you’re in it. March is called the beginning of meteorological spring, but every New Englander knows that, though you may get a day or two of warmish weather — a day or two of lambishness — March is really much more of a lion like its wild, sister winter months.
But the winter days are part of life just like those in the spring. I want to live those days, too, and not just count them down till my preferred days arrive. I don’t want to spend half my year watching the clock. At the same time, the coming spring is part of the winter. The joy to come is part of the sorrow, just as the sorrow flavors the joy. Just like life. And one of the most wonderful things about winter to me is that on its very second day the light begins to return. With the coldest months of the year still ahead of us the days are already lengthening, giving back the morning and evening light that the summer and autumn took from us. (And the bittersweet opposite is also true: On the second day of summer the days are already shortening.)
So one way I survive the winter is by marking my calendar for the light’s return. Since I’m not always awake for the sunrises I focus on the sunsets. The earliest is in mid-December, 4:12pm. By the winter solstice, December 21st, it has already inched back to 4:15, and we only have to wait till January 9th for a 4:30 sunset. 5pm is February 2nd, 5:30 is February 26th, and by the time we go back to Daylight Savings on March 12th we are already at 5:47 which then becomes 6:47, and even those who have to work till six have the light for their commute home.
Another way I survive the winter is by attentiveness. I have limited light so I try to pay attention to it more. I try to go to bed early and wake up to watch the sunrise. I try to get ready for the early sunset by going outside around 3:30, enjoying the slant of the winter sun and the sharp outline of the bare tree branches against the winter sky. If I can’t go outside I at least look out the window. And when I am home for the sunset I light a candle to acknowledge the transition. I can’t keep the sun from setting, but it feels good to be a part of the process. It isn’t just happening to me, I am allowing it, even welcoming it. And I celebrate the fact that I can recreate the light and warmth of the sun inside my home.
The winter has barely started. It may be another mild one like last year, or it may be brutal like the year before. It’s not going to be easy. But it is a part of life, just the same. And the joy that comes with the first thaw of spring would not be as pure and full if the winter were not so dark and cold.