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March 20, 2017

Farewell, Winter, my new friend

Posted in: Main Page,The Writing Life,Works

Something’s different about this winter. Perhaps it is our discontent. We are a nation broken and unwise. Or maybe it’s the weather, obviously straining to process our disquiet.

But it’s probably just me.

A winter scene of a non-frozen creek and snow-covered wood

A regular hike I take with the dog

For over 100 days in a row, awash with the day’s stresses and a lifetime’s angst, I’ve been sitting on the floor of my laundry room atop a purple pillow. For ten minutes each day I sit and breathe. “Monkey mind” is what the Buddhists call racing thoughts during meditation. I find this analogy quaint. One monkey! Imagine! Try barrels full of monkeys.

I’ve been eating less and walking more despite the cold weather. I can safely say my yoga mat and I are no longer strangers. We even have outings to the Y for formal dates. “Look,” I say to Mr. Mat, as I point to the full class. “Other people do this too.” He doesn’t seem as fascinated.black dog in a snowy wood

Back to the odd season. Winter and I –unlike Mr. Mat and myself– were never friends. I am winter’s child, being born within its months, but being from a non-celebratory family, a forgotten birthday hardly would save the season. Winter was always that jealous witch who froze me while waiting for the school bus. Winter, with the lightest of dustings, gave my mother an excuse to cancel rare plans to do something fun. Winter would laugh when she would see me tossed outside of our warm apartment and told to “go play.”

Once, with a cough so serious I could barely breathe, I heard that witch cackle as a hacking fit took hold of my body. When my lungs seized when they took in what they could of her freezing air. Bronchitis and I were quite familiar with each other, having introduced itself to my insides as a newborn. Note to young people: primary and secondary cigarette smoke swirled around the 1970s like baby boa constrictors in a Guatemalan tree. Many of us were born with lung problems.

When the coughing started, I ran around a corner to hide. I didn’t want to be scolded for “being dramatic.” I’d only run a few steps but my lungs would have none of it. I began hacking up globs of mucus so large they blew my mouth up like a balloon. I had no choice but to spit them out. The mean yellow clumps collected on the snow in front of me. Swirling through them were  small lines of blood, looking just like those tree snakes, thin and camouflaged but definitely, eerily present.

a candy cane pile and a christmas candleJust as I was gaining control of the fit and spitting out the last of its wares, a resident in one of the apartments above me opened her window to peer down at me, surely a pathetic, almost Dickensian sight: a little white waif literally spewing blood in the white snow. I was mortified. But I didn’t go home. I sat down right there, in the snow, and tried not to move. I sat and breathed. I breathed as slowly as I could into my wet mittens, concentrating only on my breath and warming the air before it hit my lungs.

I hated Winter, and she could not have cared less about me.

Fast forward to adulthood. Through the wonders of the internet I was recently introduced to a concept called Hygge (pronounced hue-gah). Many Dutch people cite winter as their favorite season because of hygge. The Netherlands gets plunged into more literal darkness than any of us. It’s dark and it’s cold. And yet they love winter. Imagine!

Hygge is a tradition that celebrates the cold and dark season. Wikipedia defines hygge as “a form of everyday togetherness; a pleasant and highly valued everyday experience of safety, equality, personal wholeness and a spontaneous social flow.”  To celebrate hygge, the Dutch spend time cozying up with friends and family. Hygge is filled with spontaneous group dinners, candles, piles of warm blankets, roaring fireplaces, and tons of yummy, steaming drinks. It’s like they turn their homes into private bed and breakfasts for the season.

a set table with one candle and paper hearts spread across it

Bread and soup for Valentine’s Day

Here in Philadelphia, each snow storm brings with it a singular state of panic. We call this panic a French Toast Emergency (FTE). Milk, bread and eggs fly off the shelves in the 24 hours before the storm. Checkout lines snake around the aisles and reach all the way back to the dairy case. An FTE is truly an odd phenomenon, because, as a friend mentioned on Facebook recently, we are never really snowed in for more than 2 days, ever, and most of us live within walking distance of a Wawa, our beloved convenience store chain. Perhaps Philadelphians are required to eat nothing but french toast when it snows? my view

I grew up in the mountains where we were quite accustomed to being snowed in, yet my bad winter experiences had me nodding my head at the FTE. It seemed like an appropriate response. After all, the FTE fits with images of winter in literature. The Dutch are all cozy, but in the stories I read as a kid, a little matchstick girl dies in the snow, as does, I think, the entire cast of La Boheme. Dying in the snow is quite a common form of death, apparently. If characters weren’t dying, they were losing fingers and toes to frostbite (a malady I’ve barely escaped at least a dozen times). So I totally got the FTE.

But I’m warming up to hygge. The concept was revolutionary: one can like and even cherish, that witch Winter. After all: no mosquitos; fewer allergy symptoms; the school year (I’m a work-at-home mom); crackling fires and roasting marshmallows; fresh air. And really, any excuse to buy more candles is OK by me.

I’ll never like the snow or the sub-freezing temps, but I can embrace hygge. I can look forward to a season full of comforts instead of dreading one full of coughs. Perhaps this is what growing older, or just growing up, means. I can not only change my mind, I can calm it. Imagine that.wintery wood


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