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Thursday
Jan302014

A Mind for Winter

Photograph by Katie Noah Gibson

Loving winter can seem, in the very long perspective of history, perverse. . . . The oldest metaphors for winter are all metaphors of loss. . . . 

 But a taste for winter, a love for winter vistas a belief that they are as beautiful and seductive in their own way, and as essential to the human spirit and the human soul as any summer scene is part of the modern condition. . . . A mind of winter, a mind for winter, not sensing the season as a loss of warmth and light, and with them hope of life and divinity, but ready to respond to it as a positive, and even purifying, presence . . . is a modern taste.
Adam Gopnik, from Romantic Winter,in Winter: Five Windows on the Season

Growing up in West Texas, I did not have a mind for winter.

To be fair, I didnt need to. In the dusty oil town where I spent my childhood, the years balance is weighted heavily toward summer. Spring and fall make cameo appearances each year, but summer starts in mid-March and can last until the beginning of November. Winter arrives late and leaves early, making snow a welcome novelty and sandals on Christmas Day a distinct possibility. 

Not surprisingly, since I moved to Boston almost four years ago, my experience of winter has changed.

My husband and I arrived in Boston in August, when the evenings stretched long and golden and the hint of crispness in the air provided welcome relief from the 100-degree temps we had left. We relished the long New England fall that followed, reveling in red leaves and indigo skies, visiting an orchard to pick apples off real trees for the first time in our lives. Until nearly the end of November, the days remained mild and sunny, though the nights held the promise of cold to come.

After a too-brief Christmas visit to Texas, we flew back to Boston to find a city transformed: buildings, trees, sidewalks and cars coated in more than a foot of snow. My husband had to work the next morning, so despite the lateness of the hour, we lugged our suitcases upstairs and headed back outside, armed with brand-new snow shovels, to dig out our vehicles.

That storm, severe as it was, was just the beginning. For the next six weeks, regular snowstorms pounded New England, usually hitting midweek, snarling up the morning commute and blanketing the streets with white drifts that got churned into gray sludge by passing cars. My husband, intrepid, shoveled his car out and drove to work, while I holed up in our apartment to sip tea, make soup, and send out job applications, finally beginning a morning commute of my own in late February. The short, dark days and the frigid air did nothing to improve my mood: I was convinced we had made a huge mistake in leaving our warm, hospitable Texas college town for this frozen wasteland. 

Three years later, we are deep into our fourth Northeastern winter. Ive learned a few tricks, physical and mental, to survive the days when both the mercury and the Vitamin D hover at disturbingly low levels. And even though I dread the first chill days every year, I am trying to develop a mind for winter, even as I marshal my defenses against it. 

Last year, I bought a light box, a square plastic device that emits bright, artificial light charged with ions, promising to balance your body clockand alleviate the nagging symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.I wasnt sure the light would actually make a difference, and $70 seemed a lot to pay for a placebo effect, but I needed a weapon, so I hit the buybutton. Now, every morning, the bright white light keeps me company as I go about my morning routine. It doesnt eliminate the heavy, sad feeling I get on gray days, but it does take the edge off. The Vitamin D pills in my medicine cabinet and the crate of bright orange clementines on my kitchen counter also help stave off the winter blues. 

My next line of defense is the right gear. I now own a knee-length down coat with a fur-edged hood, proper snow boots, and fleece-lined tights. The hand-knit accessories — hats, scarves, gloves — that never got enough wear in Texas are in regular rotation now. My husband and I check the forecast obsessively, calibrating our wardrobes to the exact level of cold and precipitation outside. Then — because we have to, because life goes on even in the winter — we bundle up, zip up our jackets, and head out into it.

In his essay on “Romantic Winter,” Adam Gopnik notes that our perspective on winter changes when we’re insulated from it. “The romance of winter is possible only when we have a warm, secure indoors to retreat to,” he points out, recalling the first serious snowstorm he ever witnessed as a child in Montreal. As one watches winter from the window, he says, the season takes on a magical quality: “winter becomes a season to look at as much as one to live through.”

While I agree with Gopnik that it’s lovely to watch falling snow through a window as you sip a warm drink, while the fireplace or the oil furnace burns steadily, that indoor view of winter has limited use for those of us who live in colder climates. The romance of snow-dusted rooftops and tree branches limned with white becomes much less lovely when bitter winds whip down your street, or clumps of grime-encrusted slush collect at the corners of city streets. For those of us who have to live through winter, going to work and the gym and the grocery store as usual, “a mind for winter” must be developed when we’re outside as well as inside.

How does one develop such a mind? That is, in fact, the question. 

I’ve found part of the answer by carrying my camera everywhere with me. Snowy vistas, even in the city, can yield lovely photographs, and the brave blue sky that sometimes arches overhead on frigid days can lift me right out of the midwinter doldrums. Every day on my lunch break from work, even when the air is below freezing, I bundle up and head outside, taking in the age-old remedy of fresh air. I make a conscious effort to see winter, to name it and experience it, even when I’d rather ignore it. And that goes a long way toward helping me survive it, as Gopnik notes: 

“There is a humane purpose to watching winter that is found simply in the acts of naming and describing. Winter is hard; the cold does chill; Demeter is mourning. And we oppose that threat with the quiet heroism of comfort. Central heating, double-paned windows, down coats, heated cars. But we also oppose the threatening blank bitterness of winter just by looking at it, and by saying what it’s like.”

As with most things we fear or dislike, naming winter and facing up to its bitter winds and myriad inconveniences can help us survive it. A bit of honesty never goes amiss (though I do have friends who genuinely adore winter, and I have to refrain from telling them that I honestly think they’re crazy).

When all else fails — when I’m cold and tired and it seems winter will never end — well, I employ the time-honored method of retreat. I curl up on the couch with a blanket, a book, and a cup of tea. I book a flight to Texas each spring, to visit my family and savor the warmth of the sun while it’s still freezing in Boston. I practice yoga, stretching and moving my body in an effort to create warmth. And I look at the calendar and remember: no winter lasts forever. Even if it seems to take years, spring will eventually come. And that first spring day, when the air turns suddenly soft and the buds on the trees begin to open, is truly glorious. 

I may never learn to love the northeastern winters. But with my arsenal of cold-survival weapons and my efforts to recognize the season’s beauty and its bitterness, perhaps I can develop a mind for winter — even while I wait, hope, and pray for spring.


Katie Noah Gibson is a writer, editor, knitter, and compulsive tea-drinker based in Boston. Born in Texas, shes a lifelong Anglophile but loves to travel just about anywhere. She blogs at Cakes, Tea and Dreams and tweets regularly.

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Reader Comments (3)

I really enjoyed reading this, Katie. In Memphis, this winter has been, to borrow from Narnia, "always cold, but never any snow." I'm ready, too, for a southern spring.

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Bernardini

I hear you about the cold, depressing weight of winter but, having lived in a winter-less environment (SoCal) for the last dozen years, I can't help but envy you and your beautiful winter skies and cozy winter nights. The sun is relentless here in California--I wish it away sometimes and often think of the Rolling Stones lyric: "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me". I like a good, dramatic change of season. With each season there are different rituals and different things to look forward to. As a New Yorker, I relished the time away in winter, the time to cover up and hunker down and go within. I allowed myself to indulge in things that the summer weather made me feel guilty about doing--reading for hours and hours on end, watching tv or movie marathons, and fortifying myself with lots of food. Every year, Spring was all the sweeter for the winter we had survived. I miss the color of winter skies, the chill of the air, new snow, clothes with real weight to them, and I miss the joyful end of it too. I hope the winters get easier for you and you still manage to find light and warmth during them.

February 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

A thoughtful meditation on a subject which invites strong emotions from those who experience winter as either friendly beast or mythic monster. As I write this, we're getting a record snowfall in our normally rain-soaked valley, so for the moment it's a delight. But I wouldn't want five months of this. Thanks, too, for the Adam Gopnick reference.Sounds like a great read.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMary Van Denend

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