I know we have several weeks of autumn left on the calendar, but winter arrived here this week. Wild winds tore the last leaves from the trees and sharp air bit our cheeks (when we stepped outside, which we did as little as possible).
I’ve largely made my peace with winter, with this winter, particularly, and what it promises to be. I don’t mind the dark. There’s something about it I crave, actually–the way it reveals so much by stripping life down to its essentials: heat, food, drink, touch, sleep.
After taking the holiday weekend completely off, I hurtled into the work week, all spinning wheels and pumping cylinders. By Tuesday night I was tetchy and taut; nothing but take-out pizza could be a reasonable response to the interminable question of dinner. Wednesday was no better–worse, actually, because Wednesday my primary task was bearing witness to hardship and trauma I felt powerless to affect–and when I woke Thursday to the familiar tightening at the top of my head and the stiffness in my neck and the shadow of nausea that means migraine is descending, I almost cried with frustration and fury at…everything. (No need to spell it all out, is there?)
Migraine arriving on Thursday is typical for me, usually the herald of a weekend mostly lost to lethargy and pain, a cloud that drifts away sometime on Sunday, returning me to my best self just in time to give it away to another week of work.
“Screw that, ” I said to no one but myself this past Thursday morning, still close enough to the restorative powers of the previous weekend to be unwilling to let them go. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose yet another weekend to this shit.” (No need to spell out what “this shit” is, either, I suppose.)
And so I took first a pill (eschewing the mental dance in which I pretend/hope the migraine isn’t coming or hem and haw about whether or not I really need it) and then a sick day. I called in for leave because I wanted a day entirely off screens, and there is literally no part of my job I can do now that doesn’t involve being in front of a screen. I often take my meds and then go ahead and work because, well, I can, and it feels necessary. Thursday I decided it wasn’t. Thursday I decided it was most necessary to give my body what it was telling me it needed.
I made a mental list of all the things I could do that were possible while on meds and didn’t require screens: decorate the Christmas tree, sweep and mop the floor, clean the kitchen, sew Christmas stockings, take a walk, bake cookies, read a print book.
After registering my absence, I made a cup of tea and settled in with Daisy and Katherine May’s Wintering, so we could be quiet while Cane continued to sleep. After breakfast I swept and mopped the floor, and that wore me out so I decided to lie down on my bed for just a minute. I listened to an audiobook, then turned it off and drifted in and out of consciousness for a while. Then it was time for lunch, and after lunch we went for a walk and picked up some groceries and then it was time to make dinner. And that was the day.
Other than cleaning the floor and grocery shopping, I didn’t do any of the productive things on my list. I only did being things. I did not sew or decorate or clean or bake. After dinner I just sat on the sofa for a bit, listening to music and appreciating the warmth and soft lights of the living room. Just being felt strange, as unusual things do, but also good.
It was a very winterish kind of day, and it restored me. It broke my usual migraine pattern; I woke up Friday with no sign of illness and had a productive day. I moved slowly and steadily through it. No spinning, pumping grind. Did I accomplish everything I “needed” to? No. Would I have if I’d pushed in the usual way–gutting through both Thursday and Friday, overdosing on meds and feeling sick and wrecking myself for the next two days? No. So what, really, was lost? Nothing of value, I think. What I gained was my health and my weekend.
In Wintering, May reminds me that humans sleep more in the winter, and that in earlier times, when artificial light (among other things) didn’t shape our days in the ways it does now, we commonly experienced periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night–a time for drinking water, peeing, contemplating, wakeful dreaming, lovemaking, quiet talking–before returning to more sleep.
I’m wondering now how life might be if we viewed the winter season as a metaphor for sleep, and our winter days as those periods of middle-of-the-night waking. How might we spend them, then, these hours of scant light, if we could view them this way?
I know it’s not possible to live such a vision completely. I did work all day Friday–because I have to work–and I could work as I did because I had no pressing external deadlines that day. But I moved through the day differently than I have been, and I realized that the pressing deadlines are often finish lines of my own making. Friday, I chose to move some ribbons further down the track. Friday, recognizing both the arbitrary nature of perceived needs and my actual physical need to work and live differently, I ran my race at a different pace. I took time for conversations with colleagues. I got up periodically and moved my body. I took a full lunch break, reading a book while I ate at the kitchen table. I did what I could and accepted what I couldn’t, and I let all of it go at the end of the day when I closed my office door and turned fully to my family and the rest of my home.
What I felt the most, in those two days of stripped down living, was a kind of abundance. It’s not the abundance of spring or summer, days lush with fresh leaves and vibrant grass and birdsong. It’s an abundance of space, the kind you feel standing in front of a fallow field or at the top of a mountain.
Not everything that comes in to fill winter’s emptiness feels wonderful, despite what some carols would have you believe about this time of the year. This past week tears rose in response to the scent of my great-grandmother’s spaghetti, the sound of Elton John’s “Levon,” and the sight of a nearly 20-year-old Dollar Store tree topper. But there’s a gift in those moments, those tears: clear sight.
Oh, the things we can see when we’re not rushing through chock-filled moments of our lives, when there is white space enough to highlight what’s at the center of our pages. Written on mine are nourishment, history, connection, tradition, love.
One morning this week, I stepped out my back door and realized that the vine I planted two springs ago had shed most of its leaves. We built a fence and planted the vine to obscure the view of the rest of the yard, which turns to a field of scorched grass by mid-July. This past year, it did just what we hoped it would, creating a cozy backdrop for summer visits with friends and family.
Part of me longs for those days right now, but another part of me is just fine with where I am, in this season and in my life, which, like the year, is also on the cusp of its winter. Part of me misses the season of supple blooming, but another is grateful to look out the door to see the vine’s tangle of naked sticks weaving in and out of the fence slats, its exposed network of branches clinging to what supports it, and to know that the vine, like my life, is still here, still alive, still growing.