Winter survival guide

img_1948 “All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
and intense
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.

img_1738Another 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.

***

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On monsters and stars

Walden Pond

Walden Pond

I spent the day at Walden Pond yesterday. It was beautiful and peaceful, and even there I found myself thinking about terrorists and bombings, wondering what I would do, in which direction I would run. When I started thinking about the babies I made myself stop. Psychiatrists have descriptors of this kind of thinking: psychotic depression, or delusional depression. I think these are are inaccurate terms. If I had been in Nice, my thoughts wouldn’t have been wouldn’t have been delusions. They would have been prophetic.

Madeleine L’Engle said that we tell our children there are no monsters, that they are safe, but that is a lie. There are monsters, and we know it, and what we really mean is that the monsters will likely pick some other place to wreak havoc today. We mean we are safe-ish, probably, for now, and that the only way to stay sane is to live in denial about the ish. Some of us are just bad at living in denial. If I were in charge I would call it non-delusional depression. I’d call it paying attention.

But we do have to live our lives, and one thing about depression is that it makes it very hard to keep moving, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Just being aware of all the pain in your own life, and your friends’ and family’s, and the world tends to make you just want to curl up into a ball and cry. And the problem with that, besides the fact that you are not really enjoying your one wild and precious life, is that you may actually be one of the people who can *do* something about someone else’s pain and suffering. Your awareness of it may not be, or may not only be, a mental illness, a descriptor penned in your chart in the sharp, quick script of an over-scheduled psychiatrist. It may be a call to action. Because you have to be able to see the monsters in order to fight them.

But you have to see something else, too. You have to see the beauty. You have to see the angels, the good, the God. Because in fact you are at Walden Pond, where the green of the trees and the blue of the sky swirl together in the water your body is moving through. You are — rather against your will, but still — sharing that particular cove with a large turtle, who has poked its head out of the water in a little triangle, and is assessing which way you are likely to go so it can go another. You are sitting on your towel, letting the breeze air-dry you, feeling that breeze with every tiny hair that it raises on your arms. You are walking further down the beach, coming around a bend, and finding a cairn in the shallow water, a miracle of architecture, made of stones, balanced on sand, rising out of the water.

S30A09781The monsters are real, but all of this is real, too. In A Wrinkle in Time the angel-like characters, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit, take the children to space to show them the Darkness, a Thing that is threatening the universe, encroaching upon the earth and many other worlds as well. It is huge and horrible and terrifying. But then they show them something else:

The Darkness seemed to seethe and writhe. Was this meant to comfort them?

Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure. Then, slowly, the shining dwindled until it, too, was gone, and there was nothing but stars and starlight. No shadows. No fear. Only the stars and the clear darkness of space, quite different from the fearful darkness of the Thing…

“It was a star,” Mrs. Whatsit said sadly. “A star giving up its life in battle with the Thing.”

The monsters are real, but the stars are real, too. There is great evil and sadness in the world, but there are also the stars and the clear, good darkness of space. The star that gave its life in the book was fiction, of course, but there are real acts of love and healing every day. My swim through the glacier-dug pond was one. My prayer for my friend as we texted each other that we were struggling was one, and so was hers for me. The act of building the cairn was one, too. Any creative act is.  And I did not think of it yesterday, but a cairn is a memorial, too. Perhaps its maker was a prophet. Perhaps she was carrying the weight of the world’s grief, past and future, and shaped it into the best thing she could, a piece of art. Or perhaps she didn’t know what was going to happen in France today, but just knew that the monsters are real, and she flung her art out against them, a star into the night.

I can’t think of the babies. I have to stop myself. I’m not going to watch the news tonight, or listen to stories. But I am going to pray. And I am going to create. I’m going to write. And I’m going to hold the beauty in my heart, along with the pain. Let this be my prayer for anyone who reads this: Lord, let them see the beauty, too. Let them be it.

Love,
Jessica