The Way of Wintering

It will be some weeks until my birthday, my dead of winter birthday, but I think about it differently than I used to. I never liked my February birthday, but something a friend said this time last year intrigued me and I have been mulling it over since.  

She, too, has a winter birthday, and she also hated it as a kid.  I thought my February celebration in Kentucky was drab and cold and overcast.  She grew up in a northern clime so she has me beat, with snow and ice and slush, and bare branches against the sky.   No cookouts for her, either, or swim parties or park picnics.  

Perhaps my siblings didn’t have swim parties, either, what with their summer birthdays, but there were cookouts, there were picnics. I know because I ate the hotdogs.  I licked the salt from my fingers before and after scrounging around in a big bag of Lay’s.  And I never forgot, and nursed the resentment, that in seven months we will gather inside and after dark on a cold day for my birthday and presents, but it will be over in a twinkling because tomorrow is  a school day. 

My friend likes her winter birthday now, likes the dormant world, the cold, the early nightfall that wraps around her, creating the space for contemplation, quiet, and simple pleasures:  warmth on a frigid night, good bread, a book, rest.

Well, put like that, I began to see the merits.  It changed my whole attitude. I use the weeks after the holidays to do things there is never time for in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  I go to bed early, not to sleep, necessarily, but to read and dream, and check my phone for pictures of the new babies in the family. 

At first I thought I would celebrate Old Christmas, Epiphany, as a way to keep the Christmas spirit going, but let’s face it.  Except for a few pockets of people holding on to the old ways, and except for the Anglicans among us, there isn’t much to recommend it.  Now, the Tudors knew how to throw a twelve-day party, but even they were exhausted at the end of it and their neighbors didn’t see them again until the streams ran high.

I think my friend was talking about the idea of wintering. It should occur after the New Year and last until just before the birds begin to wake us up.  Here in the Ohio River Valley, that should be sometime in mid-March.  Wintering should include sleep, quality sleep with a favorite blankie, something I have only just discovered.  It may take some doing to find your perfect wrap, but it is important, and I don’t recommend you rush it.  Wintering requires soups, and something in the oven, and coffee brewed in fancy ways.  A French press, perhaps, or a Chemex, an item so beautiful it is displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.  

The Chemex coffee pot—can we call it a pot?—was designed in 1941 by chemist and inventor, Peter Schlumbohm, and it is part Bauhaus chic, part chemistry lab gear, and the coffee it renders is as clean and glorious as its design. 

Like the French press, it takes some time to get your brew, and on a gray winter morning it is reassuring, the tiny tinkerings that engage us, the waiting.  It cracks the world, just a little bit, takes us to that soft place in the middle distance where we float for a while as we wait, never reeling too far out, but far enough to slow our breathing.  Such resting and waking, the symmetry of that. 

My time is my own now, and I have the luxury of letting a day take me where it will. This isn’t the way for everyone.  Or myself, for a long long time.  Then I was always thinking months ahead, begrudging the boredom of the cold, the damp, the snow that came or didn’t come, messing with every plan I had made.  I spent chunks of my year in suspended animation, waiting for the clearing of the weather, the clearing of my calendar, for the arrival of spring and birds, the pale greening that signaled the true new year. 

Now I think of late winter, of January, February, as the quiet quickening of all newness. The gray a blanket to crawl under and keep warm until I can warm myself. The snow, the rain and a roof, an invitation to sit still and wonder. And to rest.

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