“Now is the winter of our discontent…”
-Richard III, Act 1 Scene 1
Our last summer in St John’s, my husband and I lost the baby we’d been longing for. Years of trying had led to this, my most complicated experience of ‘going home empty-handed.’ I boarded the ferry I did not want to board, to leave a cultural home I had just started rebuilding, and gradually put five thousand kilometers between myself and the spot where I’d laid wildflowers in lieu of a body.
Pregnancy loss is a grief famously robbed of tangibles, defined more by significant absences than anything else. Winter, says Adam Gopnik in his so-titled study of the season, is much the same: a “season defined by absences (of warmth, leaf, blossom) that can be imagined as stranger presences (of secrets, roots, hearths).”
Growing up, I hated winter. It was a loathing I inherited from my mother, who stamped and scurried and cursed her way through five months of every year, living in her coat. She and my Dad had initially emigrated from Corner Brook to accept his first RCMP posting. In Vancouver. Practically tropical. But just a few years later Dad accepted another transfer, to Winnipeg. The move was supposed to be temporary—just a stepping-stone home, and for a young family, a dodged-bullet compared to ‘Up North.’ But after setting up house in a tiny bible-belt commuter town half an hour from the city, things changed.
Our new semi-rural neighbourhood was full of young families, so it was easy for Mom, with her three children under five, to make friends. Everybody in town knew everybody else plus their grandparents. Nobody locked their doors at night. The block-parent attitude was alive and strong: if you hadn’t seen the kids somebody else definitely had and they were probably feeding them. Or they were in the park, which backed on to four other mothers’ back-yards and kitchen windows. To Mom, it was all unexpectedly like home—here folks played “the Mennonite game,” back home they asked “who knit’ya?” But Manitoba had more opportunities than Newfoundland, no arguing that.
So we stayed, forever to be our town’s equivalent of ‘come-from-aways.’ And Winter, it seemed to me growing up, was the chief price Mom paid for her choice.
Most of my life I treated winter as she did. We had fun, we went tobogganing in minus twenty just like the other families. (There are a total of two knolls within 50 kilometers steep enough for sliding, though as kids we hardly knew the difference.) But I did hate, and later as an adult almost feared the weeks and weeks lived entirely indoors, just running to and from the car, shoulders hunched, face scrunched, eyes squinting against the cold. I hated the way blowing snow turned an already flat landscape into a great waste of blank and bleak. And I don’t care what anybody says about damp cold versus dry cold, or the regular inundations of thirty centimeters overnight: give me a Newfoundland winter any day. Hand me the shovel! At least I won’t have to put on a gee-dee diving bell to use it.
In rehearsing this, my litany of complaint (as for years I was fond of doing), I must also admit the critical caveat: I owe my husband to this place. Prince among men. The winter I fell in love with him I got my first taste of a subsequently elusive nirvana: total imperviousness to cold. We discovered the truth while skating down the Forks river trail, mittened hand-in-hand, and joined forces under a blue moon on New Years Eve. By mid-January I was walking to his house in thirty-below, wearing citrus hand lotion and singing “Here Comes the Sun.”
That was 2010. By 2019, we were long married, living in St John’s while I completed a master’s degree, each of us with very different feelings about the place—and facing down the very real threat of lifelong childlessness. ‘Now,’ I thought, ‘now is the winter of our discontent.’ Period.
The miscarriage, while devastating, had done one very important thing for us. It had given us something to share. Infertility, as perhaps you may know (and I’m sorry if you do), can be especially difficult for couples due to the fundamentally distinct ways they experience it. Most men don’t experience monthly physical disappointment. Most women do. For years my husband and I had fought continental drift, but increasingly I had come to feel that I was alone in the depth of my pain. When we lost our baby, we lost it together; and while I would have gone to great lengths to spare him that pain, it changed everything to finally have him with me. Suddenly, shared healing seemed possible for us, even if we never got our hearts’ desire. Suddenly I knew that, when I was ready, I could pursue my own healing without increasing the division between us. Loss had pressed us together in the wounded place: healing now would be grafture.
Come November, I had reached the point where I knew I needed to find a way to live again, to be married again. Even if it was permanently damaged, as I really believed it might be, I needed my heart back. In the same way, I recognized that if my husband and I were going to make our primary home in Manitoba from now on—which we were, le sigh—then I needed to make friends with winter. Hating your life five months of every year is simply no way to get on.
Richard III gave me the cypher to both problems: ekphrasis. Or a version of it anyway. If true ekphrasis consists in literary or musical art contemplating and ‘describing’ a piece of visual art in depth, in order to make a point (or a collection of points), then I wondered: could a spiritual ‘ekphrastic’ practice consist in ruminating on the living art that surrounded me—in landscapes, weather, creatures and creaturely habitude—in order to strike at some new insight? Specifically, could adopting an ekphrastic attitude towards winter help me make peace, not just with the season, but with grief?
This seemed as plausible a course to me as any. I decided to use the winter outside as tracing paper—the venue for a new mental icon of renewal and reinvestment that I would write, letting the forms, colors, gestures I found flow through me, giving shape to a kind of liturgy for living—living not just through winter, but in winter. Winter would no longer be a euphemism for heartache, emblem of discontent, desolation, confinement. Winter would be the very sign and substance of defiant joy, of hearty endurance and clear-sightedness. Winter for me would be a time to glide, to breathe deep, to contemplate and burrow—into blankets, family, spirit, and self.
So I gathered allies, thinking partners to help me. Most essential was Adam Gopnik, not least because he introduced me to so many others. From his work I wrestled out perspective on my dual terra nullius. In the words of Robert MacFarlane, “…extensive natural landscapes—desert, ice cap, prairie, tundra—” and to his list I would add pain, “confront us with difficulties of purchase (how to anchor perception in a context of immensity) and evaluation (how to structure significance in a context of uniformity).” These were exactly the problems I had discovered in myself, and which Robert Frost expresses in his dirge qua winterscape, “Desert Places”: Snow falling and night falling fast, oh fast/ …And lonely as it is, that loneliness/ will be more lonely ere it will be less/ a blanker whiteness of benighted snow/ with no expression, nothing to express.
Against such dimness of regard, Gopnik musters a nuanced, insightful survey of the true variety in Winter’s domain—variety both physical and spiritual. Under Gopnik’s eye winter “races from the Gothic landscapes of the German Romantics to the lyrical snowfalls of the Impressionists, and from the city Christmas parables of Charles Dickens to the iceberg visions of Lawren Harris, right on to Nat King Cole singing ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside.’” He is the kind of tour guide who can make one see “the mystique, the romance of winter…with [R. F.] Scott at the Pole as he eats his last ‘whoosh’ and with Charlie Chaplin in the Yukon as he eats his own shoe.” The worth of winter grew so much clearer with Gopnik around, I felt a strange new pride inside me begin to rouse and reach.
Many an army throughout history has been cowed by the unexpected ferocities of cold and ice. Gopnik notes that, for the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, snowscapes were patriotic, metaphors for resistance against Napoleonic assault. It is extremely difficult to besiege a winter people—and Gopnik numbers Canadians among this cadre—because winter itself is a kind of perennial siege. What, this? We do this every year. They are conditioned. Snow falls on the invaded like allied cavalry, like the Red Sea swallowing up Pharoah’s chariots. (Indeed, Napoleon would later be bested by the snows of that other great winter nation: Russia.)
This, I realized, was the perspective I needed to adopt. Pride, to this point, was a huge part of what had kept me going, but it was a calcified, locked down kind of pride—the pride that says I will not crack. That kind of pride cannot move, and in winter what doesn’t move dies. Plain and simple. I needed mobile resilience. I needed to gird up my loins, plunder my country’s national genius, and join the snowy fray. So I resolved: literally and metaphorically, I would become one of those unsiegeable ‘winter people.’ But where to begin?
Gopnik’s book articulates two primary categories of winter vision: the picturesque and the sublime, or “sweet winter” and “scary winter” respectively. (“Scary,” I will say, rather oversimplifies the dominant emotion of the sublime—better called awe—but greater crimes have been committed to preserve a useful alliteration.) Sublime or ‘scary’ winter, for Gopnik, means “winter as a mysterious magnetic season that the wanderer is expelled into for [her] own good, for the purification and improvement of [her] soul.” That was comforting, for I did indeed feel I had landed involuntarily, both in this pathless place of grief, and to a certain extent, as I’ve said, in Winterpeg. The idea that engagement with sublime winter would consist chiefly in submission, in self-opening and self-emptying as I waited for the still small voice of God in the wilderness…that felt doable.
The picturesque, or “sweet winter,” is basically what communities and individuals deploy to manage scary winter. As Gopnik writes, “winter is hard; the cold does chill; Demeter is mourning. And we oppose that threat with the quiet heroism of comfort.” (Yes, the hobbits are cheering.) We do this through the innovation of reliable bulwarks—“central heating, double-paned windows, down coats, heated cars”—and reliable beauty—“the decision to embrace [winter], to embroider it...” say with candles, or figure skating, or the pretty edibles and extraordinary knitwork that no homemaker would have historically had time for in the high-labor seasons of sowing, tending, and reaping.
For comparison, the church calendar moves Christian congregations through the alternating disciplines of fast and feast in a similar way. (Yes, feasting is a discipline.) As Jesus said, “In this world you will have troubles,” gird up your loins, “but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” Amen and so be it. Embroider I would!
In summary, Gopnik’s way of engaging Winter showed me a kind of road map perfectly suited to the journey I wished to undertake. Or to engage my previous metaphor, he showed me the window I should tape my tracing paper to, guided my gaze around the frame, and helped me grasp all there was to contemplate, as I began to draft my winter icon and learn my winter liturgy. In the words of American Talmudic scholar Jon Levensen, “geography is simply a visible form of theology.” Searching out a theology of winter would press me to engage with the sublime; thence would I glean the mantras and meditations, the language for my new liturgy. Concurrently, my efforts to build habitude—to master the pragmatics of living at peace with winter—would engage me with the picturesque; thence would I glean movements, postures, rituals, the kinesis of the liturgy.
“Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say,
“This is no flattery. These are counselors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.
Sweet are the uses of adversity.”
-As You Like It, Act 2 Scene 1
Assuming that if I only presented myself, the sublime (that is God) would come to me, I decided to tackle the picturesque first. That is, I decided to gear up and present myself (as in present tense) to winter. When the enemy in battle is Enmity, conventional weapons are useless. To gain victory one must make peace. Thus, one must wield the opposite of weapons: seductions. Specifically, in this case, self-seductions. The Nordic contingent of winter peoples understand this well, so I took a leaf out of their book and made myself an apprentice of hygge, or coziness.
First thing, I took stock of my closet and made two lists—one for Christmas, and one for the local Thrift Shop. All new items would have to meet three criteria: one, they would have to be versatile and durable, in order to be few; two, they would have to keep me absolutely warm; and three, I had to love them. This last was essential. I had to love them for their looks, how they felt on the body, and for their compatibility with my moral concerns.
It was the beginning of a true conversion. I am a devoted skirt woman, but had previously believed this to be an untenable affectation in Winterpeg. If one wants to be warm, that is. (The local bare-legged machisma is not to be underestimated.) But as I familiarized myself with the stay-warm wisdom of bygone generations of women, I soon realized this was pure tone-deafness: all a dyed-in-the-wool skirt woman needs to stay warm in the snow, is skirts (and tights, and socks) made of wool. I searched high and low and now cherish three, all-vintage treasures emancipated from the Thrift: an over-the-knee Anderson tartan with leather fastenings, a heather grey A-line number, and a black, floor-length, high-waisted mermaid affair that practically stops clocks.
Heartened, I expanded the campaign. I found a downright princely wool fisherman’s sweater secondhand—versatile, warm, and rugged. But coarse. So I dug up a silk scarf I’d received for a birthday and learned to tie it in an ascot under the collar. Silk, I have learned, is an oft overlooked winter warrior: it holds heat like a champ, feels superb, and biodegrades. The effect was pure Cary Grant. Drunk on success, like a sartorial squirrel, I pilfered handmade gems from forgotten closets and drawers in my parents’ house: beautiful mittens, thick leg-warmers, a jaunty pair of crocheted berets. Christmas brought fleece-lined leggings, heavy stockings, and a cunning pair of cableknit wrist-warmers also fleece-lined. I felt like a walking Maud Lewis painting. Never had I so looked forward to dressing for a walk in the cold!
But there was more. Paying more attention to the manifold virtues of natural-fibre clothing quickly brought the picturesque and the sublime of winter cheek to cheek for me, as my consciousness of being in the world with animal neighbours was touched every time I got dressed. Being daily aware of our shared deep-time fight against the elements fostered gratitude in me, a sense of company and solidarity with other creatures that do not wish to shrink or scurry. I took comfort in the passive presence of meaningful others, linked to me as I was to them by nature’s insistence that death shall nurture life. And again I felt a coal of pride begin to glow inside me, as more and more often I walked calmly upright in temperatures that made many around me hunch: ‘unsiegeable’ was slowly taking shape on the horizon.
At the same time that I was rebuilding my wardrobe, I was building and immersing myself in an extensive playlist of classical music either inspired-by, or expressive-of winter: Vivaldi, Schubert, Pärt, Satie, Debussy, Mozart, Liszt, Vaughn Williams, Fanny Mendelssohn, and all the Russians. I listened while I read, while I cooked, on the commute to work, even at my desk. Where clothing was a physical and emotional self-seduction—out of the doldrums, into the snow—music was a self-seduction of the mind. I steeped myself in these artists’ visions, their hearing, that I might be (as it were) transformed by the renewing of my mind. First and foremost, the music gave me an appreciation for the aesthetics of scale transpiring all around me. Slowly, I began to see the gifts and wonders, the metamorphoses, modulations, marvels and minutiae of the winterscape. For instance, if you’ve never listened to Speigel im Speigel as a winter hymn in softly falling snow, I’m telling you, you have never heard the piece.
Third, and concurrently with all I have described above, I had committed myself to one more seduction: ice-skating.
“At the beginning of the Sema, by holding his arms crosswise, the semazen1 appears to represent the number one, thus testifying to God's unity. While whirling, his arms are open: his right arm is directed to the sky, ready to receive God's beneficence; his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, is turned toward the earth. The semazen conveys God's spiritual gift to those who are witnessing the Sema. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the semazen embraces all humanity with love. The human being has been created with love in order to love. [Rumi] says, ‘All loves are a bridge to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know!’”
-The Whirling Dervishes of Rumi2
I had always enjoyed skating, but that winter, in the wake of all we had endured and lost, it became an almost religious experience. There is something about being constantly in pain that can make a person feel terribly ugly, such that the company of others is almost a hairshirt. Whether I realized it or not, I needed a way to cope with that feeling while it lasted, and to heal myself of it as well. Skating was the perfect medicine. Trips to the rink got me out of the house, and put me in a crowd of other skaters with whom I could simply share space—no need to be anything for anyone besides spatially polite, no need to talk. Skating gave me room to breathe, time to think, but in a way that kept be bodily grounded, and always gliding.
I am not a very accomplished skater in the scheme of things, but I have skill enough to move with some freedom, to please myself, improvise a little. I can choose one foot or the other, forward motion or backward. I love to feast myself on speed or practice balance through spinning. Week by week skating put me back into myself, not just because it was healthy exercise, or a mental break, but because it was beautiful. It was a regular practice of making myself present in and through my body, despite the cold, in order to create beauty, which became an occasion of joy. For the state I was in, it was a radical thing to choose. This, for me, was ice-dancing over the frozen face of my own personal hell. This was rebellion in furs.
Everything I have told you began in November. By late January I was deep in the spiritual work of learning Winter, of singing its virtues down into my heart and bones and muscles. Through my studies I was beginning to distill the winter liturgy I had set out in search of, the liturgy of love lost and found. I was beginning to return to myself, and by extension to my husband who was now joining me at the rink most weeks, to hold hands. I was expecting this learning to be a long-haul discipline, as more months and more years of childlessness came on. I have never been so happy to have been wrong.
Barely two months into my campaign, I became pregnant. We got pregnant. The winter of our discontent was indeed, instantly, made glorious summer. And suddenly I had no need of the liturgy, the metaphors, the physical outlet, the beauty, the grit…. Nonsense. Of course I needed them. I needed them all as much as ever, and our son would need them too. So I carried on just as I’d begun, gratefully tracing with one hand the shapes of my winter icon, and with the other, the cracks in my heart where it had broken for our first child—surprised to find each fissure now a matrix of silver eis blumen. Winter’s own kintsugi.
Nine months later our son was born, on October seventeenth at ten thirty at night. The following day, snow enveloped our house, the first of the year. From the nursery window I watched as heavy flurries spun like dervishes, touching heaven, touching earth, touching us.
- Turkish, from Persian “samazan:” “sama” meaning ‘listening,’ and “zan” meaning ‘doer.’