Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Memories of Winter.

It's snowing outside again.

Earlier this autumn someone, I think my father, told me they were predicting a snowy winter this year. Because I don't drive, I never developed the automatic dislike of snow that many people seem to have. To me, snow still means a Lancaster county winter from my childhood: two-hour school delays, matching scarves and knit hats, plastic trash can lids transformed into make-shift sleds, the creek down the block from my parents' house freezing over, the crunch of boots on packed-down ice crystals, the thin shovel-scraped paths struggling over uneven sidewalks. It means vast landscapes of farm lands and scraggly wooded hills frosted over as if by a fine dust, as if finally left alone to settle into a good old silence.

Winter in college seems hardly memorable, except for the long, cold walks to the grocery store, rain trickling and pooling overtop the dangerous icy surface of walkways where afternoon sun had turned snow to slush and evening shadows had refrozen it into hard, slippery terrain. Though I remember walking to the bridge once and watching the snow--huge flakes hovering in air just above freezing, almost like soft down shook free from an old blanket--disappear into the dark, shimmering, moving waters of the river fifty feet below. And the time I went to Hunsberger Woods alone, snow several inches thick on the ground already and still falling, the sky low, layered and gray, suddenly broken by hundreds of geese crisscrossing in v-shaped flocks in every direction at once, the noise of their wings and harsh calls echoing confused in the quiet and, just as suddenly, gone again. I stood there staring up with the vertigo of watching snow fall towards me from an invisible height, feeling like the bare limbs of the trees everywhere had just exploded into feathers and beaks, feeling like a god had just slipped by above me.

Winter here... has always been tough. Several years ago, something painful happened to me at the end of October, and since then autumn has always slunk by, dulled and fractured by memories of grief and anxiety, dropping off without color or passion into a dull, slinking winter season. The first year, back when I still had television, I spent the darkest days of the year barely out of my pajamas (except when forced to go to work), curled up under blankets watching reruns of X-Files. On Imbolc, I went into the woods in Schenley Park and lit a small blue candle in the snow, sat with it as it guttered and smoked and rekindled and guttered again each time the wind turned. I was embarrassed, afraid of being caught by some jogger or a woman walking her dog. I was still new to Druidry then, still feeling exotic and strange. But no one was out, and I sat on the stone footbridge listening to the water of the stream shiver along under stiff dead leaves and frozen underbrush.

Snow-Dusted Dead Flowers in AutumnThis year may be different. Usually, I'm so eager to leave autumn behind I fling myself headlong into the Christmas season, decorating my apartment with all the old ornaments and garlands inherited from my mother, lighting dozens of candles and enjoying the Christmas music on the radio. This year, fall was almost a relief. I didn't write much in this blog about it, finding it hard to put into words, but for the first time in years, autumn seemed to have color again, and shape and life to it. I dreamt often of brilliant mountainsides spattered with the reds, oranges and yellows of foliage. My dreams were suffused with autumn. I noticed the subtle shifts as the season moved which I had never noticed before. The blushing rouge at the beginning, like wounds or lips opening up here and there among the worn summer green, just beginning to spread from tree to tree. The quaking yellows and golds at the height of the season, the whole woods cut through by low, bright sunlight and seeming to glow, the limbs of trees dark like veins starting to show through a papery sky, reflected in the surface of half-hidden streams gliding through layers of yellow leaves that had already fallen. And then, even towards the end, how beautiful and subtle the browns became, some deep like wet bark, some light and feathery like sheaves of wheat or rustling like straw, the ochre, russet, everything in sepia tones. There was a stand of sycamores outside the library in Oakland that everyday seemed to have life, each day different, moods that shifted and changed. Sometimes they were bright against the backdrop of concrete buildings and city skyline, sometimes faded and gentle, hardly distinguishable, but quiet and present. I can't tell you how these sycamores alone seemed to be, for the first time, so real to me, so very much alive.

I find myself, now, uninterested in making myself "feel Christmasy." A week ago, I walked home from work through a light snow, glancing up past the top of an evergreen at a tiny winter sun obscured by clouds. And what I felt was not a surge of "Christmas spirit" or "Yuletide cheer." Instead, I was struck by a sense of fragile, frigid rebirth, the sun gasping for breath in the cold and working its way back towards the warmth still lurking, sleeping in the earth--for the first time, I felt the coming of the solstice, Alban Arthan, "the light of winter." It was not the gaudy reds and greens, the tinsel and bells, the singing or crackling fire, it was not Christmas. It was something so much quieter, darker, farther away--yet everywhere, fine dust on the trees and frost inching up the window.

It was winter, a hush and lightness moving slowly through the deep.


  1. Beautiful.

    The circle turns and keeps on turning and moves us slowly forward; seeing the same things with new eyes and new things with the vision granted by experience.

    The winter solstice has always been the most powerful time of the year for me. That silent dark filled with so much potential; the hard colours in a hard world; the withdrawal into contemplation of what has been, what might have been, and what will never be (this time round, at least). It suits my melancholic disposition, I guess.

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. this was really lovely, Ali - thank you!

  3. Hi Ali. I've never commented here before, but I've been reading for quite awhile, and I just wanted to say I love the beauty in your writing. You capture things with words in such a way that they are tangible to me.

    I, too, feel that sense of rebirth this time of year. There is something in the naked trees and low waning sun that gives life to me. It wasn't always that way, I used to have such severe depression in the winter, but it has changed in recent years. Now there is something hopeful in the darkness.

    Anyhow, thanks for letting me comment.

  4. Ali, I was inspired to write on my own blog titled "Envy" after reading this. I don't envy many people of many things but when it comes to your amazing talent and ability to craft such beauty out of words... that I envy greatly.

    Truly a beautifully written piece.