I don’t know why we think summer months are the time to cruise along and take it easy. Isn’t summer the season when we have to keep the house clean for guests; we’re packing and unpacking for vacation; working out in the yard; organizing the family reunion or barbecue; and planning that wedding? Isn’t that when the days stretch out into long windows of activities, meetings to calendar, sports events, and several last tasks to squeeze in before leaving work or making dinner? Isn’t it the time when we’re either arguing about who gets the car, or mom and dad become taxi drivers for the kids?
I believe we’ve got it all wrong. It’s winter when the living is easy — that’s the time to sit by the fire with a stack of good books: a time to catch up on our reading, make a pot of soup and call old friends, gather ‘round the Scrabble board, start up a night of Mexican Train, or get out that 2,500-piece puzzle.
This weekend I sat in my rocker in front of the big east-facing windows of my house, watching the rain stream down and the big branches of the plum tree dance wildly in a 25 mph wind. There’s not much else one can do on a stormy day; though earlier I did catch a very brief non-downpour window to walk on the beach. But even that was restful. Aside from the frantic and comical sandpipers — either bobbing in the surf on one leg or dashing off away from the approaching waves — there were maybe three other live beings on the beach, and two of them were dogs. So I didn’t even have to talk to anyone. I just bundled-up, zipped-up, buttoned-up, Velcroed-up my five layers, slapped on a hat and a raincoat, and leaned into the wind, entertaining my own thoughts in a special kind of wintertime meditation bubble.
Shorter days, longer nights
The trees know that winter is the time for peace and dormancy, the time when ABA (abscisic acid) builds up at their terminal buds and abscission cells (sharing the same root as “scissors”!) start convincing their leaves to fall. The metabolism of the tree slows down to conserve energy, and the shape and composition of their internal cells change. I propose that we humans do a similar thing in the winter, in that we drop our pretenses; we figure out or remember who our best friends are; we fall back into our essential selves. Our metabolisms slow too; winter is the season to gain a little weight. We can always work it off in those busy summer months. (Hope springs eternal!)
Winter is the time to enjoy shorter days; to think about going to bed earlier and adjusting one’s schedule to the rhythm of the sun — maybe rising a little earlier and, at the other end of the day, eating a little earlier too. We can sleep longer; rest through a longer night; we have more time for dreaming.
In the summer, reading is short stories at the beach — maybe Eudora Welty, Grace Paly, Shirley Jackson; or a tasty but not too trying Willa Cather novel (yes, I’m old-school). But winter reading is Karl Ove Knausgard, Herman Melville, or the Bronte sisters. Something weighty, darker and chewier.
This year, the book I picked up for winter reading is James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” As an English major , I’m embarrassed to say I’d only ever read excerpts; but for some reason it seemed the perfect book to fall into during this long, wet winter season. And “fall into” it is exactly the right verb.
“Ulysses,” weighing in at 800 or so pages, is dense with language, descriptive details about Dublin, and OMG so so many words that I have not the slightest glimmer of understanding. I’m pretty good with Latin and Greek etymologies, so usually I can guess at a word’s meaning; but early in “Ulysses,” I was convinced that Joyce was just making up words as he went along in order to torture us readers. Here is just a sampling I took from two facing pages: coistrel, archon, sippets, caubeen, caudlecture, lollard, chyle and costard.
Lo and behold, I have discovered that Joyce is the English word genius of all time. Every single word I’ve had to look up (and thank goodness for online dictionaries) has two qualities: 1) I had never heard of or seen it before, and 2) it is exactly and precisely the correct word for the situation Joyce is describing. I sent a sampling of these inscrutable, unheard-of words to one of my all-time best friends — an illustrious editor for several university presses — and even she admired how clever Joyce was at making up likely-sounding words. Not! Every single one fit its sense into Joyce’s unique sentence-niche perfectly.
The English language is one of the most robust languages on earth with nearly 200,000 words, though an average adult knows only between 20,000 and 35,000 of them.
I’m convinced Joyce would have won, hands down, any “How Many Words Do You Know?” contest, perhaps even competing against Shakespeare.
But, no worries, since speed reading is not a winter activity. Reading Ulysses — feet up by the fire — with a dictionary at my side has been the equivalent of moseying along a country road admiring the daffodils, or, more to the point, stopping in the woods on a snowy evening.
4x4x8 = a cord
I think the most effort I have expended in these last winter weeks has been stacking a cord of wood with a friend in the rain. Though we came in wet to the bone, it was comforting to know that there was a good big pile of split and stacked spruce, alder and pine just outside the door.
However, I never want to forget that winter is only a time to enjoy if one is dry and warm, has a roof over one’s head and food in the fridge.
So though I hope all of you are safely tucked in for our winter months and, like our wild friends, are all stocked up with your nuts in a pile, please don’t forget folks who may need a little extra help with these necessities now (especially our Coasties who are furloughed).
Our local food banks are always needing either donations or volunteer help or both. And thank goodness for the Peninsula organizations and efforts that give people places to sleep on these cold, wet nights. I can only hope that they may also have a good book to stash under their pillows.