The Utility of Winter

For as long as I can remember, I’ve hated winter.

There are moments of love…early January…the first good snowfall that obscures the boundaries of our neighbors’ yards and the walking trail behind our home, creating a vast and pristine field of white…crystalline trees glistening in the soft light of the winter sun.

December, too, is more than bearable, with the anticipation of Christmas and all that extra time with family.

I even look forward to winter in late fall: the wrapping up, folding in, cozy warmth that the idea of winter inspires in me.

But that’s the problem. I love the idea of winter, but in actual practice, I feel empty, cold, too tired, and engulfed in a saddish haze.  I am seized by a deep desire to escape, somehow, everything

It’s as though the preceding three seasons erase my memory of what winter truly is. By mid-February, I feel the walls closing in and am genuinely bewildered as to how I still live in western Pennsylvania, after all these winters of my life. I should know by now.

I’m on Craigslist at 2 am, browsing apartments that I could never afford in Key West. Crazy, yes. I’m cursing the paltry, gray light that only brightens a quarter of my bedroom.  I’m craving (and eating) entirely too many carbs, all the while indignantly reminding myself that if I lived somewhere warmer I would be a healthier person.

A cold nose, while wrapped snuggly in my bed with the furnace running, shouldn’t make me this angry.   

But for me, winter feels like one, long, personal insult. It’s not very attractive, me in winter, and more than one person has suggested I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which, of course, I’m sure I do.

But today, something new happened.  

I was driving back down the winding country road that takes me to the nearest Starbucks, when I passed an historic house I often admire and noticed new wire fencing covering a freshly dug strip of earth. The man who lives there is very old.  If he has a wife, I’ve never seen her. What he does have is an incredible garden in the summer that he is forever tending, alone. It seems much too big for one old man, but he does it.  

I have no idea what he was doing with that long, narrow strip, as I’m sure nothing could possibly be planted in January, and yet, there was very clearly the beginning of that marvelous garden getting underway. It’s so easy to miss what he’s doing when it’s warm out and there are people everywhere, freely taking what the sunshine affords, but this man has been out in his yard, digging in the dirt, in the dead of winter, and I find this nothing short of stunning, because it feels so far beyond what I could manage.

I suddenly felt privy to a secret I couldn’t fully appreciate or understand.

Maybe winter is useful, somehow? Or at the least, able to be engaged?

Maybe it isn’t necessary that I simply lay down and die around the end of January.

Maybe, winter isn’t the problem at all.

Here is an eighty-year-old man fully engaged with the season, and clearly with his life, in a way that I haven’t been able to muster, honestly, in all my thirty-four years. Perhaps if I opened my eyes a bit, made more of an effort to see things that are more elusive than the warm embrace of springtime, I could find happiness in spite of the weather.

In spite of myself.

I might stop living as though I’m subject to everything, as if my life is happening to me, around me, but never because of me.

I need to make a concerted effort to find beauty in winter.

Or, if necessary, winter in something beautiful.

I want to feel the continuity of life and the seasons. I want to be fearless like the gardener, digging into earth and beginning something against all odds.

It’s a start for someone who is always half-frozen, regardless of the season, but who, until now, was unable to own it.

“Winter then in its early and clear stages, was a purifying engine that ran unhindered over city and country, alerting the stars to sparkle violently and shower their silver light into the arms of bare upreaching trees. It was a mad and beautiful thing that scoured raw the souls of animals and man, driving them before it until they loved to run. And what it did to Northern forests can hardly be described, considering that it iced the branches of the sycamores on Chrystie Street and swept them back and forth until they rang like ranks of bells.”

~Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale