Friday 17 November 2023

In the Bleak November

Prima facie, I seem like the sort of person who would find the bleak November landscape depressing. The dead leaves, the darkness, the cold, are all reminders that life and light and warmth are only temporary. Since I cannot bear the thought of mortality, I avoid reminders of death and dying. 

November bridges the glorious fall foliage season and the festive holidays. From Thanksgiving onward, I cherish the holiday season with its bright lights, cheerful decorations, uplifting music, indulgent food, and celebrations that hold the dark and cold of winter at bay. To my way of thinking, the holiday season occurs too early in the winter. When it ends at the beginning of January, we still have to get through the rest of that long, dark, cold month, as well as February and March, my least favourite months of the year, before we begin to see signs of life, light, and warmth towards the end of April. To protect myself against seasonal affective disorder, I stretch out the holiday season until the beginning of February, following the Queen's practice of taking down the tree on Candlemas. Last year, I had the foresight to plan a trip to visit my best friend in February, so I would have something to look forward to that month besides eating too much Valentine's candy. We had an intimate, relaxed visit, walking around her city, familiar and dear to me as a second hometown, and visiting museums and cafes in the absence of the usual tourist crush. We enjoyed the thermal baths in an Art Deco spa in the city centre on a weekday afternoon and walked home in crisp cold air in the early dark past windows filled with candles and fairy lights to create a cosy atmosphere, almost a religion in Sweden in winter. We cooked dinners and talked late into the night over glasses of red wine, catching up in a way that has been difficult to find the time to do since we were in the same dormitory in graduate school decades ago. But absent such highlights, I struggle to keep my spirits up through the winter months after the holiday season ends.

Winter has its moments: the childlike release of snow days, with mulled wine and hot chocolate, baking and knitting and hibernating as the snow piles up outside. Watching snowflakes fall, seeing the joyful red of a cardinal or winterberries against the bare black branches and white ground, and experiencing the profound peace of a snow-clad forest are some of life's greatest treasures. I recently tried snowshoeing and it gave me an opportunity to spend some time outdoors in winter, something I had always lacked due to my intolerance for cold, and relieved some of my severe cabin fever.

Early spring, with its dirty snow, melting to reveal last fall's not-yet-decomposed dead leaves, grey sunless days, and that damp cold that goes right through you, is my least favourite season. I cannot get warm in that weather nor does the weak sunlight have the power to lift my mood out of the mud.

Late spring, with its warmer sunlight, soft green buds on the trees, and the brief blooming of lilacs, my favourite flower, is a separate season to me. It often surprises people when I say spring is my least favourite season because this part of spring is what they are thinking of when they picture spring. Mud season and cold rain are blocked out, perhaps as a coping mechanism. I divide spring in two and have to explain this parsing of the season to people shocked by my forceful denunciation of it.

Summer I never want to end because the extended daylight and warmth give me energy and hope. I achieve 9/10 of what I accomplish all year in summer as my motivation and mood go up with each additional minute of daylight and each degree above 70F (within reason: my comfortable temperature range is about 80-85).

Yet despite lamenting the departure of the energising heat and light of summer, autumn is my favourite season. Specifically, autumn in New England: I love the fall colours and the festivals celebrating the harvest. As a kid, I loved school, and, as an adult, I remained a student as long as I could, then worked as a teacher, so I could stay on a schedule where September was a new beginning, the start of a new school year. Rather than buy planners that start on January 1, which feels like the middle of the holiday season to me and not the start of a new anything, I have always bought academic year planners because this is how I conceptualise the year. I see it as an annual fresh start, a clean slate that always gives me hope and motivation to work towards my goals.

So you could not be faulted for assuming that the grim interval between Halloween and Thanksgiving, after the leaves have fallen and the farmers' markets have closed, after Daylight Saving Time has ended and the days and chill close in, would depress me. I would assume that myself, so I was intrigued to discover that I do not find the starkness of the bare trees depressing. 

Yes, I love the awe-inspiring autumn sunsets and I do miss them come November when the sun just seems to disappear in the early afternoon, skiving off early to slip beneath the horizon before the workday ends. Those first weeks after the clocks fall back, you glance up from your computer in mid afternoon to see the darkened windows and mistakenly think it must be quitting time. Quickly disabused of that brief elation, you become resigned to commuting in darkness, blinded by oncoming headlights. Evening activities feel later because of the darkness and tiredness hits earlier. An after work run is now impossible and a pre-work run not much more feasible given the later sunrise and morning chill. Indian summer in October lets you put off donning the heavy boots and down coat but November gives you no such reprieve. Suddenly, it is 22F in the morning and, even if it occasionally gets into the 50s by afternoon, there is no pretending it is still iced coffee weather.

I do not like any of those aspects of November and yet they somehow do not drag me down as one would expect. When I look at the bare trees and fields, I see not an unbearable stark reminder of death but a pause, as if nature is taking a short rest between the magnificent, spectacular colour and abundance of autumn and the festivity of the holiday season. Winter is considered to be nature's resting season, her long nap before her great efforts at birth and growth begin again in spring. But without that cleansing of the palate between the foliage and the holidays, the transition from autumn into winter would be too decadent, like going from party to party without going home to sleep and work in between. We would not appreciate the foliage and the harvest as much without this breather before Thanksgiving ushers in the Xmas season. We need the darkness before the light, trite by true. At least, I do; I cannot speak for anyone else. I know the time after the clocks change is hard on a lot of people, especially the earlier sunset. They may not notice the sliver of moon now visible hanging low in the sky behind the trees that have shed the shielding modesty of their leaves, nor appreciate the frost that has transformed the morning dew into jewels as if by magic.

When I look at the silhouette of the bare trees against the waning November light, I think of poetry. This is about the only time I think of poetry, to be honest. Although I have some old favourites, it is not a genre that usually draws my attention and emotions. But the November landscape is a poetic backdrop more than a prose one. Its empty spaces where plants grew and light shone and animals roamed beg to be filled in with human words to express their existential feel.

From Emily Dickinson:

How happy I was if I could forget
To remember how sad I am
Would be an easy adversity
But the recollecting of Bloom

Keeps making November difficult
Till I who was almost bold
Lose my way like a little Child
And perish of the cold.

From Robert Frost:

My 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.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.

She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted grady
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so ryly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Next week is Thanksgiving and the harried start of the all-too-brief holiday season. Until then, pause and breathe, take some days to appreciate this intermission when nature has drawn the curtains on one show and readies for another.