On Keeping Winter

Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friend, and for a talk beside the fire. It is the time for home.
--Edith Sitwell (English poet, 1887-1964)


Photo © Rob McDougall

Photo © Rob McDougall

Last night it snowed all over the world. Not here in Los Angeles, where it’s raining, but pretty much all over the known world or as my Irish Nana used to say, “Anywhere you’d want to be going, child.”  The east, mid-west and the southern States are in a severe choke-hold of below freezing temperatures and wintry weather, snow and sleet.  Europe is virtually shut down, icicles on Roman fountains and forecasters in England are predicting historic blizzards this week. It’s about time the Shetland ponies Fivla of Finnister and Millhouse Vitamin were buttoned up in their beautiful and custom designed Fair Isle “jumpers” that Mrs. Doreen Brown of the Shetland Collection knitted for them using wool from Shetland sheep.  However, if they were my ponies, they’d not only be wearing beautiful winter sweaters but they’d be dozing by the fire, safe indoors from the “lashing cold wet” with the pregnant ewes, which probably goes a good long way towards explaining why my career as a rare breed sheep farmer has not been a roaring success.  But I have plans, Babe, I still have grand plans.  

Well, that’s it for the weather report.  For what holds our interest today is not only the external weather but our internal meteorological conditions.  Because even when it doesn’t snow, a woman’s emotional barometer needs to register “dormant” one way or another.  Of course, there’s the unpleasant association between illness and the holidays.  There isn’t a woman I know who doesn’t have at least one Christmas or New Year’s sick story in her arsenal because by the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one, Babe, we’re worn to a raveling. So winter will get you in the sweaty flannel pants, one way or another, especially if you try to ignore her.  But curiously enough, if we honor winter by “Keeping” her, the season brings gifts.

Photo by Caleb George 

Photo by Caleb George 

When I hear of the snow blanketing England, I recall with gratitude, wistfulness and a deep sigh of contentment the lessons I learned living for a decade in the deep English countryside. Particular among these lovely memories, is the 18th century English expression of “Keeping” a season or holiday, which refers to the traditional ways people in the countryside restored their bodies and nurtured their souls by honoring in their daily rounds, the rhythm of the natural world.  Sowing, reaping, sitting still, gathering in, honoring and when you could, which was not often, luxuriating in rest.  Actually the Commandments instruct us to do it every six days but I don’t know many women who actually do. But that as they say, is another musing for another day, probably a Sunday.

Back to Winter Idylls. How marvelous it was to wake up to a magical silence in the middle of the night, with the moon streaming dazzling light through the arched windows above my bed. When I looked outside, a hushed white world was bathed in iridescence, all opal and mother-of-pearl tinged hues.  Mother Nature had pulled a soft, muffling comforter up to the countryside’s chin and tucked us in for a wintry reverie.  I have always adored snow days—as a child, as a mother of a child and as a grown woman living without a child at home—for the recognition of an “official” snow day and the sanctioned slipping back under the covers in celebration of a much needed respite from crises, which triggers grateful glee in all her glory.

When it snows in the back of the beyond, there are no plows to dig you out or trucks to salt the narrow, icy, hilly lanes.  In the winter, in the country, you “keep” in one place, which for me was in front of the fireplace with several pots of tea, ginger shortbread biscuits and a large stack of books.  In a few days when the sun shines and the temperature climbs above freezing, the snow will melt—your hint that the hiatus is over.  Surprisingly, you’re refreshed and invigorated in a way that a planned vacation never seems to provide and you pick up with interest what was ever set down.  Once again, happy with your lot in life, you dispatch your obligations with good humor, efficiency and satisfaction.  What is this unusual state of grace? You have “kept” winter, and winter has “kept” you from losing your mind.

Now that I live where it doesn’t snow, winter brings the “rainy season” and I’m parched until it arrives and these last few years we’d had a dreadful drought. It’s the closest thing I can get to honoring my soul’s need for hibernation and becoming dormant.  It’s taken me a  l o n g time to learn, recognize, even appreciate that what seems like uncreative moments or episodes in my life are actually the opposite.  Yes, we want to plant seeds for the future, but the ground of our imagination is hard, frozen, dead, not only to the rest of the world but ourselves.  The biggest part of any creative project mirrors the natural world.  I know that sometimes I’m shocked when I’ll read that an author or film director worked for more than a decade on a project (the celebrated Martin Scorsese took 28 years to make his new movie Silence) but then with wonderment I’ll be astonished at the depth and breadth of its scope.  It makes such sublime common sense to me and is a comfort as an artist.  People ask me why I don’t write another Simple Abundance?  I respond, secretly gasping: “It took me five years to do it.”  Now there are so many creative projects I want to do, I don’t know how to begin any of them so they’re piling up in the Perhaps This basket while I keep my day job. For those of you dear hearts who have enquired, I actually have been writing a new book for over the last year, showing up for work every day and have more drafts that I can literally count, but it’s taken me this long just to truly understand Her and the story She Who Must Be Obeyed wants to tell and quite frankly, it bears no resemblance to the book I began writing last year.  But then when I started Simple Abundance I thought it was about clearing out clutter.   What I truly need is a seasonally sanctioned time out—so I can hear myself think, preferably to the rhythm of the raindrops.

I’m not one of those people who believes that God sends us disasters and heartaches to “test” us, but I do believe that Providence will use any situation we find ourselves in—especially those long, dark nights, months and seasons of the soul—to help us break through to the other side with unexpected blessings which is spiritual growth.  Think of how a GPS in your car will automatically adjust whenever you miss the right turn you were supposed to take. Seamlessly, it seems to me, the route is changed and altered and we hear a pleasant woman’s voice telling us that in 500 yards we’re to take a left to continue on our way.  I think that honoring the seasons of the year and in life, offers us the same rerouting option.  However, I know now that if we’re not living in accord with Mother Nature or the Great Creator, one way or another Spirit knows how to get our attention.  I’ve gone to bed with a cold and gotten up six weeks later after a bout with pleurisy and the first few pages of a new book—which, by the way, no doubt will not be in the published version.  It’s happened 14 times before, and finally I'm beginning to recognize a pattern here. 

So Babe, if you’re snowed in (or rained out for my West Coast beauties) or snowed under, accept or better yet, let the hibernation be a creative and spiritual time out.  What could your January 2017 Gratitude Journal note?  Well, here some much appreciated Joyful Simplicities and happy Well-Spent Moments from mine:  A fireplace; a cord of dry wood; fire-starters that really work; long matches; ice-skating without breaking any bones; Sonja Henie movies; period dramas set in winter; slowly simmering stews; a new soup recipe; the perfect snow-scraper; great winter boots; perfect rain boots; warm socks; having the walk shoveled by someone else; Welsh rarebit on toast; feeding the squirrels and birds; not losing one of my favorite gloves before the month is over, having two pairs of my favorite gloves in case I do; getting the electricity back on; knowing where to find the candles, matches and flashlights in the dark; hot running water; the reassuring sound, scent and warmth of heat coming through an old radiator; a winter hat I look good in; getting home before the snow or rain starts; a stocked pantry of staples; and a wealth of warm things to eat and drink—hot porridge with warm maple syrup; pancakes with orange flavored sugar; hot cinnamon buns from the oven; strong café au lait, spiced cocoa; pre-lunch consommé; lemon verbena tisane, glass tumblers of glogg; hot buttered rum or hot whiskey toddies resplendent with lemon and cloves…

“It is winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is has come to stay,” the incomparable Annie Dillard advises us.  “I bloom indoors in the winter like forced forsythia; I come in to come out…”  And my beloved Babe, so can we.

Sending dearest love and prayers that you and yours will stay safe, dry and warm and always sheltered from the storm and of course,  

Blessings on our courage,


PS - For those of you who will ask, Doreen Brown’s marvelous website is:                http://www.shetland-knitwear.co.uk