The New Year begins on January 1, but, from a homeowner’s perspective, the old year ends long before that turning point — somewhere in November, I’d say. That’s when the true deadline for the year comes ’round, when hoses must be drained, storm windows fastened, driveways sealed, cordwood stacked and gardens tucked in for their long winter naps.
After that, we take a couple of months to celebrate and reflect over holidays and family gatherings. It’s a strange time to feel joy, amidst the gray wake of the atmospheric undertow. The warm ocean of air has been sucked into the southern hemisphere, leaving New Hampshire as hard and bleak as a frozen stretch of Hampton Beach flecked with flotsam and dried sea grass.
Then, snow comes, as it always does eventually, and we feel refreshed, but also aware of the finality. The old year is really over and what lies ahead is full of potential, sure, but also challenge — even a touch of danger. Just as old age reminds a person of mortality, so winter reminds everyone of their tentative status in the world. All that protects northern communities from drying up like leaves and returning to the soil (or nomadically following the sun to warmer climes) are the walls and shingles and cellars we have fashioned, the rooms and quilts and beds in which we huddle.
Fellow New Englander and author John Updike wrote a curious essay, “The Cold,” for a Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo (reprinted in a wonderful book titled “Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season”). He notes that the irony of winter cold is that what feels like a “vigorously active hostile presence” is actually merely an absence of heat, but that winter, nonetheless, works wonders in the world.
This work extends from nature to people. “The cold generates a whole code of shelter and warmth,” he writes. “The fireplace hearth was, before central heating, the center of the house, the place where all the family members gathered. The burning, crackling log fire still signals hospitality and festivity, and ancient ceremonies of alcohol and caffeine consumption revolve about the notion of ‘warming up.’”
Without so much necessary time indoors, would we have ever dreamt up the unneccesary, but comforting, furnishings and decorations and distractions that are so much a part of our lives? Without the occasional snowbound day, would I ever find myself with nothing to do but write and dream and talk to my family?
In short, the absence felt in winter may be just the thing to draw us out of ourselves and into a new relationship with our surroundings. In the chilly days of the New Year our hearts can open anew to the natural world, our communities, our homes and, of course, the people in our lives. NH