George Gardner Symons River in Winter

More light, less heat. This inside-out relationship is the paradox of winter solstice. The days lengthen, and the temperatures plummet. Winter is a tricky business.

The cold and dark unsettle me, and the bitter-edged wind can slice open old wounds beneath the skin. In the dull gray of a North Carolina winter, inertia slips in on each shiver. It’s not a bad thing to settle into for a while, this existential emptiness that rides in on winter’s chill, this minimalist moment for the senses and the will. Let there be no point, no reason to rise. Sit, breathe, be. Grieve if grief is there, remember, forgive, rest. Stay a little while.

And when I know I’m staying too long, that reflection is turning into rumination, it is time to return to the senses. A winter landscape looks lifeless, except for the skitter of a few birds. Much is happening beneath snowy drifts, in frozen ponds, and in the insulated crevices of trees and rock.  Buds wait, fully formed, in bell jars of ice. Snapping turtles lie under layers of ice, extracting just enough oxygen to survive. Deer mice sleep in a state of torpor during the early morning and hunt in the afternoon. Bees huddle and shiver, rotating from outer to inner layers of the hive, surrounding the queen to assure her survival. In New England, ruffed grouse will burrow into snow to keep warm for the night. Bernd Heinrich says, “Life is reduced to its elegant essentials.”

And even though heat, electricity, and our year round work flattens the contours of  each season, we respond to  them nonetheless. When life outside our windows slows, we settle into the dark and, at the same time, push it back with rituals of family and friends. We read the morning paper sharing news and crossword clues; we snuggle with our cats. We gather for cribbage with 3 generations of family, and join with dear friends for an annual waffle/solstice celebration. We walk on sunny crisp days. We pull out the kayaks during the thaw that always breaks winter’s hold for a few days in late January.

In our house and outside, people, plants animals slow down, take long naps, huddle together, stay warm together. Inside and outside life rests, organizes, and gathers itself for another round of growth in the spring.


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