It strikes me as privilege to begin again. For a door to open when before there were only walls. There is no doubt my life has unfolded with tremendous privilege from the get-go. My first memorable do-over happened at 16 when living at home with my parents no longer suited any of us in that scenario. The whys are a whole other story, but after a short search, my parents landed me in a New England boarding school for my last two years of high school. Standing in a dorm room with my mother, my trunk and suitcase unpacked next to my unmade extra-long single, she told me, in no uncertain terms, to break from my childhood nickname, from all the troubles incurred in my childhood home, and leave behind everything that still tied me down. This is your chance, she whispered before leaving me in that unknown landscape. Needless to say, I stumbled, only to find myself lost in the dark, unprepared for such broad horizons. I was raised in the dust-storm of a large household not sure what part of me was me; I found myself hesitant what to choose when the whole palette of decisions was there for me to pick from. So confused, I fell into the blackness of night for many years. As Katherine May so artfully described, “Winter had begun.”
“By winter, she means not just the cold season, but “a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider“” (Mcalpin).
Eight years later I had the chance to begin again once again. After the birth of my first child I felt as newly born as he. Together we braved each day, me in my fumbling of common mother-sense and he in his vocal demand for it. I have told him many times that he saved my life. About a year ago I realized that must sound more like a burden to another person so I stopped voicing it, but it is a fact all the same. There is no knowing where my dark and dangerous trajectory was rocketing me to before his quickening, but due to his arrival, my feet hit a safety net and a kinder world than I had thought possible embraced me. The door that opened in those first years lead to a golden place where I felt wholly me. I was Mother: a role as warm as the breeze rippling across the desert and into my Los Angeles apartment.
Another set of years passed and brought another child, yet the old familiar season returned. This baby brought 7 complete days of ponderous rain from heavy dark clouds, with no lift along the horizon and a hint of sadness I did not welcome: it was November after all. In the between-babies-years, we had not only moved East, but north too. I found myself living in a drafty farmhouse surrounded by an icy wind and iron sky. Even more problematic, I found myself lacking the tools needed to navigate the rawness that comes from a bitter taste of old hurts. Swelling inside was the urge to begin again, but poverty, or fear, or just the business of motherhood kept me from pushing through to find that door. I sat dormant.
There is no question, that even in this dismal state, I was a lucky one, buoyed by friends and family, and in a blink came another baby who knit us to joy with his very arrival. I found one small door and opened it to start college, now on my own with the three. Most of those years are melded into a blurred stretch, me snatching every second to keep us fed and housed and warm and even happy. The kitchen table in the evenings was a place where we all worked, me on literary essays, and down the line to the littlest one who did his make believe writing, filling notebooks with dreams. Together, with my small tribe we pulled through yet another wintering, digging through the drifts to build our snow forts and hopeful angels.
There are so many days this past month when I just can’t believe my good fortune to have this winter wonderland right out my door, each branch holding on to layers of precious snowy adornment, a frozen tableau. I stand in the stillness and hear nothing but glacial trees swaying. I breathe and feel the chill. Sometimes I crave even more of an arctic blast to slap me awake. I can get lulled by heat, lulled straight into a compliance that in winter would be dangerous. In summer I can wander into unknown woods and get lost without panic. Not true in January. Before leaving the house, I discuss the route, note the time, watch for markers along the way. There is an acute sense that death would be one easy mistake. In summer I walk with headphones, EDM music blaring, but in winter I walk to hear the silence.
Although one can’t blame the high suicide numbers or issues of alcoholism on the length of winter in a particular region, there certainly is a correlation. Perhaps there is nothing harder for most of us than living when there is little light or warmth. My father joked on his first visit to Vermont in November, now I know what you do up here, you survive. He was not wrong: our winter lasts five months. On the days when the grey clouds lift and the sapphire sky equals the Indian Ocean I stand in the open field and let Vitamin D enter whatever part of my face is exposed. There is always a shadow following me across on those days too, making the solo walks feel less separate from the world. Sunshine in winter acts as a reminder that we will come back to the fold, that in a measurable amount of time, we will reunite and break our quarantine from the world we remember. Not today or tomorrow, but the thaw will come, along with the crocus and daffodils, and this snowy path with be a grassy one. Impatient, I remind myself to absorb all I can from these intervals of sunshine, and accept, for today, this prolonged winter retreat.
As this pandemic brought another opportunity for me to begin again, I did resist it for quite some time. Yes, the lockdown crashed me down into turmoil that felt that a splintering. But it got me walking more. Painting in my garage. Feeling emotions I shied away from. Katherine May writes, “If happiness is a skill, then sadness is, too. Perhaps through all those years at school, or perhaps through other terrors, we are taught to ignore sadness, to stuff it down into our satchels and pretend it isn’t there. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife” (May, Wintering).
I remind myself that I don’t know who I’ll be after this pandemic. Will I want all the same things from the past, the hustle and bustle of a busy life, the always saying yes to on the go, and less time wandering without purpose? Changing course, being adaptable, loosening my mindset, making room to own sadness or loss: all the nuances of this year-long wintering feels like the true needs May writes about.
Once grown and out of college, my three children migrated west, winding their way back to where I once lived. Their days spent without thought of ice storms or power outages. Happily too, I might add. But this week, each spoke of missing the snow. All their childhood winter months spent carving through the steep white woods on snowboards, fondly tugging at them now, as they bike or run along the forever coast of California. They are grateful for any semblance of weather, as intermittent as the rain comes, but they say they will never return to a January in Vermont. I wonder if anyone can truly come to terms with who they really are living in the Golden State. “That’s what you learn in winter: there is a past, a present, and a future. There is a time after the aftermath” (May). But metaphor aside, winter follows us even into the sunshine, and I have witnessed each of them curl into retreat to sort out as they must.
After each sojourn into the frigid outdoors, I find my way home. A warm fire, a cup of tea, and a tender heart awaits me. Privilege abounds. Spring will surely follow this winter, and the opportunity to begin again will be as possible as a friendly hello between strangers passing along their way.
** Katherine May’s recent book, Wintering: the Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, a powerful inspiration for this particular post, allowed me to acknowledge my own relationship with winter. I’d suggest you pick up a copy if you too long for a dip back into the frigid and scary places.