Wintering is almost over

Here in the Mid-Atlantic winter is wrapping up, coming to a close. While it is mid-February and we still see frozen precipitation of every kind (and least of all snow, sadly), there are signs that longer and warmer days are coming.

We have been walking the dog in the dark for what seems like months now, both morning and night. However, in the mornings we can sometimes see the inky twilight to the east and slowly spreading north and south. The river changes colors with the budding twilight. On weekends, we might even walk the dog in the daylight since we get up later. But not much later – we’re getting older and messed up sleep schedules aren’t good for anyone.

Nightly we comment, “Look how much light is left in the sky, and it’s [insert time here].” Every year, the earth completes its revolution around the sun. Every year as spring approaches, the Northern Hemisphere bows with a curtsy towards the sun, allowing our daily bath in sunlight to be a little warmer each day.

Next year at this time I don’t want to be blindsided by what seems like a yearly audit, or check in.

in my journal, January 28, 2021

Despite the excitement of a new season on the way, I will miss winter. And this year more than ever. The pandemic has brought my go-go-go to a halt in the best way. I’m learning how to regulate my erratic nervous system. I’ve been listening to my body and finally it doesn’t need to scream at me for me to meet its needs. Weekends have become a weekly staycation of sorts, where my to-do list involves a book, a fuzzy blanket, dog cuddles, and a couple good hearty meals that take longer than 15 minutes to cook. I view naps as a restorative exercise instead of a waste of time that showcases my laziness.

Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on.

Katherine May in Wintering

I think if the weather allowed, I would want to winter forever. At least that’s what I feel right now. Endless rounds of coffee and reading, or coffee and writing, watching the snow (or ice) fall, bundling up in sweatshirts and blankets. At some point, we have to emerge from hibernation. Our skin and souls needs the sunlight, especially those final rays later and later in the evening. Our retinas need more input than gray, gray, gray.

I would say that winter will always be there for us, as a meteorological season. But will it? Climate change poses a real threat to this yearly probability. We will have to take the practices that allow us to conserve energy and appreciate nature into the future.

If anything, we can still find a place to winter deep in our souls. The cold and snow and lack of light, and not to mention the pandemic, are external drivers to help us find that place: nature demonstrates its practice to us. It’s a place we must return to if we are to grow and change as human beings. Recently I wrote in my journal, “I want my default setting to be positive and optimistic, to be able to be content but also curious.” Winter is a time of curiosity, of delving deep and doing some seeking. I equate the positivity and optimism with spring – the trees and flowers and grasses share that with me. That is when we do the finding – just as the leaves on the trees find their shape and reach east towards the sunlight.

The calm in the winter storm

It’s Sunday and the sight of the fluffy flakes calling outside is enough to bring tears to my eyes with the anticipation of rogue, anarchic mid-afternoon caffeine soon to hit my veins. As I wait for the coffee to brew, I lean against the doorjamb and observe that the shade of the heavy clouds matches the shades of the mighty river and the sidewalk in my immediate view, the only slightly melted snow – just a different sheen. Flat to eggshell to satin. Sky to water to ground.

I am absolutely giddy with the experience of the winter storm – forecasted but not always realized here in the mild Mid-Atlantic. I yearn sometimes for the snowstorms of my youth, the sheer joy of seeing my school district’s name scroll lazily across across the screen to indicate a day off. Very little responsibility lay in wait for me as a child on a snow day, except for maybe a few mundane chores – no shoveling, no driving, no cooking. Maybe that’s one reason I lean into winter. However, I do realize that memory is a strange animal and cannot always be trusted not to be hyperbolic in nature.

I have often heard talk of the nostalgia of snow, the way that we always imagine our childhoods to have been snowier than they actually were.

Katherine May

I fully embrace Mother Nature’s soft whisper that sweeps across buildings and streets and lampposts – a quiet directive to calm down, settle down, take a break. Tomorrow I know that because of the wonders (and annoyances) of the Internet and modern technology, I will have to teach anyway, but today I savor. I relish. I spend time keeping up with completely regular household chores like laundry and cooking and sweeping the floor, but only so that I can relax even more fully.

In the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, author Katherine May talks about how she welcomes a bad cold. Not because she likes feeling poorly, but because it gives her a concrete reason to take time off: “I love the inconvenience [of snow] in the same way that I sneakingly love a bad cold: the irresistible disruption to mundane life, forcing you to stop for a while and step outside your normal habits.” Society these days has a hard time giving people the space they need to take a break, and instead labels them weak.

I think the yearly sinus infections I suffered throughout adolescence was probably allergies gone neglected and awry, but I remember welcoming them. Obviously not because I liked feeling like my head was going to explode, or because I felt the occasional feverish chill, but because it was a good reason to not be active for at least a couple of days. I remember setting up my daytime camp on the couch in the living room, collecting a box of Kleenex, liquids like Sprite, and the pillow from my bed. At night I would make my way upstairs to my bed, and for those nights my bed felt so much cozier, like a warm hug. I was, and still am, someone who really was go-go-go and had a hard time relaxing, but those sinus infections would knock me down off my high-energy high-horse. And I relished in the relaxation it brought.

As an adult, I am learning how to recognize the “wintering” times – the seasons of life that could last years, months, or even just a few days, like a sinus infection. But beyond a concrete sickness, I’m learning how to take myself seriously and just say no, emphatically. To release myself from the pressure to perform perform perform, and go go go, despite what my body and mind are telling me – Stop. Relax. Recharge. Find a new normal. Find what’s next.

For the past several years, I’ve been on a journey to find what’s next for me. Biological children were obviously not the next step, and while parenthood could have been my path, I chose not to pursue it. How will I know what’s next if I keep clouding my vision with activity after activity, waking up and zooming through my day (or at this point, literally Zooming) and then crashing into bed at night, so tired and delirious because of being so busy?

I can’t. And I won’t. I need to create some space that I don’t end up filling with yet another obligation or hobby. A part of me is scared of what creating space will do. That maybe I’ll be lazy. Or heaven forbid, bored. I’m not sure I’m scared enough of boredom to say I have a phobia, but sometimes my actions speak otherwise. Boredom is good. Wintering is good. Contemplation and meditation can bring forth some of the most prolific work of our lives. What will mine be?

BONUS POST: Narratives we tell ourselves

One of the most important things we are able to do as humans that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is reflect. We can look into the past and remember in order to make the present or future different. It’s how we learn about ourselves and the world around us.

These days, it’s all too easy to look back; in fact, there are apps like Timehop and Google Photos that do this for us. However, the narratives that are told again are not necessarily the important ones, the ones that inform our thinking. Often when I get a notification from Google Photos to “look back at this day,” it’s random pictures I took of my homemade dinner. Or a cute picture of the dog. Or a beautiful sunrise. But these aren’t the most important things we need to remember, to reflect on.

Oh man, was it that much better then? | We were left alone, we were proud of our pain

Fleet Foxes, “A Long Way Past the Past”

I’ve kept journals off and on since I was about 7. Unfortunately, the ones I still have in my possession that have somehow made it through two cross-country moves don’t begin until when I was in junior high. I came across my journal from when Aaron and I were dating and trying to decide when to get married, about fifteen years ago. We were young and it was a busy time. A confusing time. I literally felt like my whole life banked on a decision about something like whether to major in Spanish, or whether we got married in December or in June.

At that time in my life, I let myself receive narratives from others, and my own narrative was buried. However, at the time, I didn’t realize that my own desires and needs were nearly indiscernible. I told myself that because I was so young and inexperienced, I should rely on older adults to make decisions for me. So I took people’s suggestions and prayers and ideas and wove them into my own tapestry so I didn’t know where theirs began and mine ended, and in the end, I gave them credit for my life decisions. It was a relinquishing of precious autonomy and agency that I’m just now wielding back into my possession all these years later.

One the narratives I have told myself since going through infertility is that “I really wanted to be a mom my whole life. That’s all I wanted – to be a wife and mother.”

It’s not true. I’ve realized while fumbling through my memory that this narrative isn’t true. Not 100 percent. I think when infertility was fresh and raw, this was a comforting thing that I told myself. It helped me feel close to the only community that I had access to at the time: the infertility community, where people go to great lengths (and into great debt) to have a child.

However, as I was thumbing through an old journal, not sure what I was looking for but hoping to find something poignant to cling to, I found:

I definitely could be happy being just a mother and a housewife, but I feel like there’s this other part of me wanting to be unleashed to go fight in the world.

2006

For some context, I was in the middle of my undergrad studies, Aaron and I had basically decided we were “it” for each other, and I was really struggling with my decision to pursue teaching Spanish over teaching math. This was also before all parts of people’s private lives and thoughts were made public, so I had no audience for my writing, outside of the things I would post on my Xanga (take that one to Google!). There were some years when I didn’t journal, no doubt because of the shitstorm of honesty it would have released. But that’s a topic for another time.

At that time in my life, getting pregnant was not something I wanted: “Pregnancy would be the least logical thing to do… to amount to.” I think that maybe I had been influenced by my mom who wanted me to graduate college before getting married and having babies. It’s something she didn’t do, so when we were all 10 and under and finally in school, she decided to go to college full-time. And the hits “Get Married After College” and “You Don’t Need a Man” was the song she sang all throughout my formative years.

Even when Aaron and I got married two years from the date on that journal entry, I remember pushing off all the people at church and elsewhere who were clamoring to know when we’d start trying for a baby. We’d only just been married! Our answer was five years from getting married. And, kind of like clockwork, we started trying about six years into our marriage. We waited for a lot of circumstances to line up – no more deployments or long separations, stable jobs, having paid off a lot of debt, et cetera.

So now that I work through all of that, it’s possible that the narrative I told myself as a salve was partly true. But only partly.

I have to trust 20-year-old Elizabeth who was writing for no one but herself, to chronicle her life and feelings. And damn, did finding that journal entry bring some perspective and remind me of the logical, sane, conscientious person I can be who has a part of her that needs to “go fight in the world.”

Some years down the line, I will remember saying things like these to myself, sentiments that are far from one another on the spectrum, and realize that I met myself in the middle. Both narratives and perspectives have a place. Which begs the question, How do you know where the middle is if you don’t know where you’ve been?