Owning Up to Beauty

Good morning, Carolee.

So far-into December now that it is nearly over. This is how the winters go by, with me lagging behind every year. And every year, I tell myself I will begin early: make an arsty little Christmas calendar, write cards, and take time to enjoy music and cooking. Around the 20th, I realize it’s December.

We put the tree up last night. That is, E. got it up and strung the lights, and I hung the bulbs and decorations while he was at his weekly hockey game. We have no rituals. Not yet.

I will play Pete Seeger’s Christmas album on Spotify on my phone, on the train to work this morning. That will help with my mood. I’m ready now.

Already I’m thinking: next year, I will do it right – the whole holiday thing.

I shouldn’t lie to myself.

Christmas was always my ex’s domain. He would head out early to get birch branches to flavor the steamed lamb. He would cook all day, preparing the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. We would sing, and walk around the Christmas tree. His country, his holiday, his rituals. Of course, our children, but I always felt like a guest this time of year. The Norwegian hymns and carols are still awkward in my mouth.

Every Christmas morning was (is) a dull ache, waking at six with anticipation (is there a word for a feeling of nostalgia for something that never was?) – but my children had already celebrated their Christmas the evening before, too tired and sated to care about the toothbrushes and Pokémon-shaped erasers left in Christmas stockings.

Since the divorce, there has never been a question in anyone’s mind: Christmas, they’d spend with their father. To be honest, it eases my feelings of guilt a bit.

That is terrible to admit, isn’t it? Seems I’m courting martyrdom to ease my conscience.  Though sometimes I convince myself it’s just an emotional compromise.

img_0038-1You asked what winter is like here. I’m on the south-west edge of the bowl of Norway’s spoon. The gulf stream flows up here and keeps the coastline at a moderate temperature. Most years I see more snow in June, hiking in the mountains, than I do all winter here on Jæren. This is the farming heartland of Norway, the fertile pastures, and the moors. In late October, the hills turn purple and orange: heather and grass tussocks. In the low light, the sky is often a slate color, which makes the autumn-thinned forests where I run appear all the more vibrant. The mosses are brighter, nearly iridescent, against the rich browns of the pine trunks. The fallen leaves from the birches stay bright orange and red on the ground, partially covered with patches of hail or snow. And it is quiet.

I first notice winter when I notice that the pastures are empty. The few songbirds that winter here sing solos in the dark. It’s like the parts of the world are outlined with solitude. Only in the summers, are Norwegians friendly. But in the winters, if you’re invited in, you’ll find  an entirely different kind of intimacy.

I’m surprised to discover that I feel at home during the dark winters here: most at home between the brief spells of snow that light up even the pre-dawn runs. The sun turns much sooner than the season, and January often stretches out black and inky, quiet and cold. There is a thickness to the dark. Sometimes the lake will freeze over and in the early morning I can hear the ice churn, as though some invisible hand has thumbed the string of a huge instrument. Cold can catch the wind itself along the shore. There’s no way to take a good photo of the ice-encased  shining in the dark, but it’s a haunting image.

There is also something oddly reassuring about it. Here the temperature fluctuates around 0 Celsius all winter, so the earth freezes, thaws, freezes. All that death, and yet the flowers come every spring: not as delicate little fronds, but as the thick, knife-like leaves of the daffodils, jutting out of the ground.

Still, every morning at 5, when I pull on my gloves and hat, I nearly forget how I love this time of year. Now that I have no course but to forgive myself for what I didn’t get done, to surrender any kind of expectation. It takes effort to love sometimes.

You write:

Why do we stop doing things we love? Why don’t we notice at first?

Isn’t it true? All things. Poetry. Walking in nature. Writing letters. And drawing, and dancing, and singing, and loving itself.

We stop. And we wake up one day, and we miss ourselves.

Last year a former student wrote me and told me, “I miss myself”. The phrase has stuck with me. What a lucky young man, to learn so early what it is to grow up (grow old) consciously. That is, to be open to change, but also to observing what we can lose if we aren’t careful. What needs to be tended, or what needs to be brought back to life when necessary.

You write:

Interesting, as we approach the winter solstice, right? Straddling our despair about darkness. Are we mired in it or coming out of it? Do we have one foot frozen in it and one foot stepping toward what comes after it? Or can we say this is the episode in which neither is true? In which there is a place/moment in between where there is nothing?

I do feel these months as liminal. In the quiet, I notice time passing, and have have to push away the anxiety surrounding the fear that I’m not doing enough. Not accomplishing enough. And then I stop. And breathe. Breath’s visibility might be the best thing about winter.

Soon enough the sun will return – from 4 am to 2 am – and with it, a season of manic-like activity. When one has to remember to breathe.

I’m thinking seasons are like the episodes you describe. And I’m thinking about an interview I listened to with a 90 year-old woman who said that when she was sixty, she could see for the first time how the little chapters of her life came together to make her, her.

I am nowhere near the place of seeing anything “come together”. Nowhere near your ability to be curious and beautiful – and know it.

I’m okay with that – with working toward that. I’m even okay right now, with this feeling of being riddled with fears. It’s not the election, it is the ugliness that’s been uncovered. The venomous discourse in the public arena. It makes me long for a hard winter. A freeze. Nothing heals in a freeze, but it can be a time to gather strength. I need a stretch of silence.

I heard this morning that our brains shrink at night while we sleep, because it’s easier for the brain then to flush out its toxins. I am in need of “a long winter’s nap”.

I hope you are able to make time for yourself now. And discover there’s no need to want what others (think) they want? What do you really want? I hope your Christmas is glitter-free and wonderful. That you write something that will help teach the rest of us to find our beauty: to own up to it.



Carolee’s Reply

This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.

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