It is that-time-of-the-year once again: flu-jab time; our-world-wrapped-in-frost time and a see-through-layer-of-ice-that-coats-the-air time.
Where just the other day Autumn leaves were blown about like scattered leaflets – post-its filled with notes and memories of clear Fall days – now these same leaves, like fine boned skeletons, clutch at our feet and ankles and suck onto soles in a slippery slush. It feels like only a little while ago that the fiery leaves of Autumn swirled inside and came to land like small, outstretched hands on floors. But now, suddenly, muddy puddles stain thresholds and in doorways coats and hats and scarves assemble, huddled together in drooping human shapes waiting motionless for someone to breathe life into their limp forms.
And so it is with a start that us earthlings realise that that-time-of-the-year had once again caught us almost unawares…
According to Greek mythology, this-time-of-the-year was born out of desperation and intense sadness. Hades, that infamous god of the underworld and all things dead and gloomy, kidnapped Persephone to be his wife. When Zeus ordered Hades to return Persephone to Demeter, her mother and the goddess of the Earth, Hades tricked Persephone into eating the food of the dead. The outcome was a difficult one: Zeus decreed that Persephone would have to spend nine months with Demeter and three months with Hades. Demeter became extremely depressed during Persephone’s continuous absence, so depressed that her sorrow caused a global upset: Winter. A cycle to be continued over and over again for as long as the Earth would spin on its axis.
A myth it is, but I am not surprised at all that one goddess’s mournfulness and woe (the intensity of her sadness much the same as the vehemence of a woman scorned) could cause such a universal commotion.
Nevertheless, as the Northern Hemisphere tilts away from the Sun and the Earth progresses through its slow-travelling loop around the warmth of the Sun, Winter and its elements shove us indoors every year while outside It reigns supreme. While It rears its powerful tail – as if having lain dormant for months under the crust of the Earth – slashing the world into ribbons of short, grey days and long nights, the world seems to shrink.
Like the lenses of a camera closing in ever so slightly, the demarcated edges of the procession of time seem to close in on itself. Somewhat blurred become the day and the night. And inside this optical view, we are drawn together around warmth – be it a fire, a candle, the heat of another’s body, the charity of others that spark warmth like a flame. Like moths we move ever closer together, enfolded not only by layers of clothing, but also flanked by the comfort of others. And even those who like crouching on their own ever closer to a fire, enter once again the warmth of their inner sanctuaries. As Ruth Stout said, “There is a privacy about it which no other season gives you…. In spring, summer and fall people sort of have an open season on each other; only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself.”
Those of us who have lived in Europe for a long time, but were raised on long Southern Hemisphere Summers and short Winters and who had long run out of Vitamin D reserves, wade through this season cold to the bone. We watch with wondrous alarm how our breath crystallises like vaporous winter shadows and genies escaping from bodies like lamps gone cold as we rub our gloved hands together in chilly consternation.
As the desolation and dolefulness of a mother’s cry from a long time ago echo through this frosty season, its days are drenched in misty half-light. Its edges dipped in ink bleeding into the day. Workdays start and end in its darkness and few hours of light become a narrow window shining from its dim frame. Winter leaves its fingerprints in icy layers on surfaces during early mornings and late nights.
And yet: time and time again we abandon the food of the dead, eaten by Persephone all those centuries ago: we rebel against the cold, still heart of the underworld and its bleakness; stark, bare branches like thriller scarecrows chasing away the birds and their nests; its inhospitable nature and relentless breath, biting and raw like that of the Buran wind, the Williwaw and the Mistral.
The merciless elements make us aware of our own gasping breath; fingertips numb with recognition; cheeks the colour of tomato soup and occasional pink, blooming Winter morning skies; noses cubed icicles inhaling a world so fresh as if it’s been re-born; the chill that comes to rest inside our bones with blood pumping with even more rapidity through the multiple veined life lines underneath skin, dry and chapped like paper from ancient volumes. We get to know our own fragility and the light and warmth of togetherness. Closeness with others and also with selves.
People get together and jazz up Winter with lights and bonfires and markets and frozen smiles and mulled wine and wreaths and poinsettias and ice skates that cut through its ruthlessness like the tenable, redeemable thread of hope.
Because even underneath the ferocity of Winter, of course, something always lies in waiting: for one it was the return of a daughter; for others, the warmth of the sun on chapped winter hands; for some the simple joy of only wearing one layer of clothing – light like the birds that once again fill the sky – the end of hibernation; the hope that lies inside the human spirit that not even the underworld or a goddesses’ gloom can put out; a travelling on and an ever returning.
In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.
I realized, through it all, that…
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.