Back in the days of yore when Ontario high schools still had grade 13, one of my senior-year English teachers taught us the Anglo-Saxon poem “Sumer Is Icumen In” and even read it in her best accent and pronunciation. The poem is a celebration of summer, but without my teacher’s explanation, I couldn’t make sense of any of it. This poem was capital-“O” OLDE.
But despite what my classmates seemed to think, Mrs. Barker had a sense of humour and followed it up with a spoof of that medieval gem. “Ancient Music” humorously expounds on the tribulations of winter in the modern world. Apparently, this poem amused me enough that I remembered it for two decades without having seen or heard it since that class. The line “Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us” still makes me giggle, as does the refrain of “goddamm”. I was never what you’d call a “winter person”.
But as the days grow dark and short, I feel a fondness for the season even before it begins. The gradual turn from summer into autumn is a refreshing change from the relentless steamy heat of a Toronto summer. The breeze off the lake turns cool and the city’s green canopy begins to show hints of crimson and gold. The rain feels sharper, the air smells sweeter. Scarves and hats and mitts come out of storage. Winter is coming.
Then there are the grey days after the leaves have fallen but before it’s cold enough for snow. The world outside my window seems dull and lifeless even on sunny days, but this, too, shall pass.
Eventually, the snow makes an earnest attempt to stay. I love watching snowflakes drift down from the clouds to dust sidewalks and rooftops, or waking up to a world covered in a pristine, shimmering blanket. Knowing that this snow will be transmuted into dirty slush by 10 AM doesn’t spoil the magic for me, although trudging through the salty, melty mess inevitably does. Nothing lasts forever.
That is what I love so much about winter—not the season itself but the dramatic change in the world around me and the shifts they inspire within me. Winter is my annual reset button.
Winter is a time to slow down. The corporate world marches on, deadlines come and go, but I begin moving to a slower rhythm. Staying in, lighting some candles, and huddling in a blanket to read or write or watch a movie—this is the way to spend a winter’s evening. The lack of light always darkens my moods, but the psychological hibernation is a sort of blessing.
No, I don’t enjoy being in darkness fifteen or sixteen hours a day, but I love the way the city sparkles at night and the hypnotic dance of snowflakes spotlighted in the glow of streetlamps. I can enjoy lighting up my little year-round “festive” trees in time for dinner. The warm glow of candlelight comforts me.
Over time, however, the significance of the season has changed for me. When I was a kid, I lived for those country snow days when we could toboggan down the gentle slope of our front yard while trying not to run into a tree or crash through the ditch. I used to run through the fields to demolish ice-coated weeds. Christmas was my favourite holiday. I loved the festive colours and twinkling lights; we always decorated the tree early in December and often kept it up until it was almost New Year’s Eve. (Well, except for the year our tree died before Christmas and rained down needles every time someone so much as breathed on it. We took that sucker down right after the big day.) We enjoyed holiday gatherings full of noise and family.
Life is very different now. Snow days don’t happen for me anymore, and there are no more big family gatherings. I tried to celebrate the holiday season last year, but after yet another personal disaster only days before Christmas, I took down all of my decorations and let December 25 be just another day. That sparkly Christmas magic is now tainted with the sad nostalgia of all the personal losses I’ve dealt with in recent years. Nothing feels the same. I’m not sure that I even want to decorate the apartment this year. So much of the joy has been sucked out of the holiday that any reminders of how things used to be have become focal points for grief. So instead, I will listen to carols when I feel like celebrating, and I will dim the lights and curl up in a blanket when the sadness comes. Life will go on in any case.
Some famous person or other once said that every beginning is just some other beginning’s end. Winter reminds me of that. For me, it is a time to grieve what was lost, remember what I have, and to start over when the days grow longer.