The night’s drifts Pile up below me and behind my back, Slide down the hill, rise again, and build Eerie little dunes on the roof of the house.
The moon and the stars Suddenly flicker out, and the whole mountain Appears, pale as a shell.
Look, the sea has not fallen and broken Our heads. How can I feel so warm Here in the dead center of January? I can Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is The only life I have. I get up from the stone. My body mumbles something unseemly And follows me. Now we are all sitting here strangely On top of the sunlight. ~James Wright, “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose.
This is our fourth day of house arrest with roads icy and drifted and temperatures sub-freezing – a windchill below zero. What sun has appeared is ineffective, as if it were fake news on a winter day.
The prediction is for a dramatic turn-around in the next couple hours with temperatures rising 16 degrees with the advent of southerly “pineapple express” breezes.
I’ll believe it when I feel it. In the past, the drama of a south wind breaking the curse of the icy cold happens so rapidly, we could hear it before we felt it. The sound of ice and snow falling, taking branches with them in the woods was like the rat-a-tat of target shooting. None of us were ready for it and the trees were literally breaking in response to the warming winds.
We can grumble and mumble (and do) but this is the only life we have in the dead center of a January snow and wind storm. We’ll just sit tight braced against the cold, like the hungry birds that flock by the dozens at our feeders, waiting for the warming winds to carry us right into February, preferably unbroken.
I like these cold, gray winter days. Days like these let you savor a bad mood. ~Bill Wattersonfrom “Calvin and Hobbes”
The wind is keen coming over the ice; it carries the sound of breaking glass. And the sun, bright but not warm, has gone behind the hill. Chill, or the fear of chill, sends me hurrying home. ~Jane Kenyon from “Walking Alone in Late Winter”
Roused by faint glow at midnight peering between slats of window blinds closed tight to a chill wind-
Bedroom becomes suffused in ethereal light from a moonless sky~ a million stars fall silent as
Snow light covers all, settling gently while tucking the downy corners of the snowflake comforter
of heaven, plumping the pillows, cushioning the landscape, lightening and illuminating a fearfully chilled and grumpy heart.
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary It rains, and the wind is never weary; The vine still clings to the mouldering wall, But at every gust the dead leaves fall, And the day is dark and dreary.
My life is cold, and dark, and dreary; It rains, and the wind is never weary; My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past, But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast, And the days are dark and dreary.
Be still, sad heart! and cease repining; Behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, Into each life some rain must fall, Some days must be dark and dreary. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “The Rainy Day”
People who grow up in the Pacific Northwest suffer from peculiar climate-related disorders unique to only to us. This deserves a page in the next version of the DSM — the diagnostic psychiatric manual: we in the PNW don’t feel 100% normal unless it is raining. We love weather like we’re having right now – full on gray and full on wet with threats of northeast winds and snow.
In fact, we born and bred web-footers can feel downright depressed when it is sunny all the time. We groan inwardly when yet another day dawns bright instead of gray, we start to look longingly at accumulating clouds, and we get positively giddy when morning starts with a drizzly mist.
It’s difficult to say what exactly is at work in brain chemistry in cases like this. It is the opposite effect of classically described Seasonal Affective Disorder diagnosed especially in those transplants from more southerly climates who get sadder and slowed down with darker days and longer nights. In people like me, born a stone’s throw from Puget Sound, the more sunlight there is, the more doldrums I feel: desolaration (desolation from too much solar exposure). The grayer the day, the wetter the sky–> a lightening of the heart and the spirit: precipilicity (felicity arising from precipitation).
Like most northwesterners, I have low Vitamin D levels even in the summer. It just isn’t seemly to expose all that skin to UV light.
So I celebrate the profound relief of a rainy day, thank you. There would be no internal conflict about feeling compelled to go outside to work up a sweat and soak up the elusive sun rays. There would only be the cozy invitation to stay inside to read and write and sleep.
I know I’m not alone in this disorder. Many of us are closet sufferers but would never admit it in polite company. To complain about sunny days is perceived as meteorologically, spiritually and poetically incorrect. It is time to acknowledge that many of us are in this wet boat rowing together.
Robert Frost (definitely not a northwesterner) confessed his own case of desolaration in the first stanza of his poem November Guest:
My Sorrow, when she’s here with me, Thinks these dark days of autumn rain Are beautiful as days can be; She loves the bare, the withered tree; She walks the sodden pasture lane.
And Jack Handey, the satirist, summarizes the real reason for the guilty pleasure of the northwest native in liking rain:
“If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is ‘God is crying.’ And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is ‘Probably because of something you did.”
Okay, okay, I guess we’ve been really naughty to have so much rainfall in the last month. We should repent for our misbehavior and eventually God’s tears will dry up and the sun would shine again.
Then again, maybe God likes a good rain and a good cry as much as we do.
After the keen still days of September, the October sun filled the world with mellow warmth… The maple tree in front of the doorstep burned like a gigantic red torch. The oaks along the roadway glowed yellow and bronze. The fields stretched like a carpet of jewels, emerald and topaz and garnet. Everywhere she walked the color shouted and sang around her… In October any wonderful unexpected thing might be possible. ~Elizabeth George Speare The Witch of Blackbird Pond
As we enter a week of storm fronts carrying wind and rain and gray, we know we may not really surface under the sun for another 5 months.
The unexpected may happen and we can expect that it will. I’ll be ready.
…Then how his muffled armies move in all night And we wake and every road is blockaded Every hill taken and every farm occupied And the white glare of his tents is on the ceiling. And all that dull blue day and on into the gloaming We have to watch more coming.
Then everything in the rubbish-heaped world Is a bridesmaid at her miracle. Dunghills and crumbly dark old barns are bowed in the chapel of her sparkle. The gruesome boggy cellars of the wood Are a wedding of lace Now taking place. ~Ted Hughes from “Snow and Snow”
I wish one could press snowflakes in a book like flowers. ~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975”
It’s true that three snow days in a row is unprecedented in our part of the world. Being snowbound by driveway-blocking drifts has its advantages until it isn’t fun any longer and means even more work to be done both on and off the farm, especially for a physician stranded from her closed clinic.
I’ve been doing my best taking care of our clinic’s patients via messaging, text and other media, but there is a limit to my virtual reach: I can’t palpate a tender belly, or feel swollen lymph nodes or listen to someone’s palpitations, though it is a little easier to discern despair, anticipate anxiety and work out someone’s worries from afar.
But I do have a view of the wedding lace of our woods and the sparkling chapels made of our tired old barns and buildings on the farm. I’m reminded that even I can be dressed up with a covering as white as snow. So lovely to look at, if only to be preserved for the long summer days that lie ahead — a wilting snowflake pressed into a book like a flower remembered, its fragrance still attached.
“Why, what’s the matter, That you have such a February face, So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?” – William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
February never fails to be seductive, teasing of spring on a bright sunny day and the next day all hope is dashed by a frosty wind cutting through layers of clothing. There is a hint of green in the pastures but the deepening mud is sucking at our boots. The snowdrops and crocus are up and blooming, but the brown leaves from last summer still cling tenaciously to oak branches, appearing as if they will never ever let go to make room for a new leaf crop.
A February face is tear-streaked and weepy, winter weary and spring hungry. Thank goodness it is a short month or we’d never survive the glumminess of a month that can’t quite decide whether it is done with us or not.
So much ado. So much nothing. So much anything that becomes everything.