Winter has come
On easing in
Today we had our first proper snow in Toronto. There were ephemeral flurries now and then in the last few weeks, brief whirlwinds that vanished before they could touch the ground, but nothing that could build up. I kept wondering, uneasy, where the snow was.
It’s not that I love the cold. When I lived in Canada I couldn’t wait for the winter to end, something it always seemed unwilling to do. None of the five cities I have lived in since then could hold an icicle to Canadian winter, and until recently, I did not mind. But the lack of snow has seemed ominous in recent years, the most obvious sign of the catastrophe to come. I came back to Canada looking forward to snow. Completely unprepared for it, but eager.
This afternoon I took a long walk in the neighborhood in my sneakers (I said I was unprepared), looking around me as long as I could without losing my footing. I started thinking about a book I half-read recently, Katherine May’s Wintering. I bought it for a friend who had a rough fall, who wanted to be back in the thick of things after a year and a half of isolation and didn’t get that wish. Before giving it to my friend, I read the first few chapters, just to make sure it was on point. Carefully, not bending the pages too much.
Wintering is about the fallow times in life, the periods when we are sick, when we are uncreative, when we are frustrated or tired. I love what I think of as “acceptance self help,” books that aim to help you make your peace with reality as it is, rather than encouraging you to change everything about yourself and your surroundings. Let’s face it, most people are not going to vision board their way into a worry-free life. I suspect even the people who manifest their dreams, or think they do, find themselves facing a host of other problems as a result.
How hard it is, though, to resist the pressure to keep moving, keep working, keep succeeding, keep making progress. It does seem to have quite a bit to do with how we perceive time. The people I know who seem most balanced to me hold on to their rituals. This past week my review of Lauren Groff’s novel, Matrix, came out. One of the things I thought Groff did well in the novel was conveying the comfort that comes from living in circular time, from settling into the sustaining pattern of holidays, seasons, the hours of a single day. The beginnings of Hannukah and Advent coinciding today made the first snow even more resonant, filled with the promise of old time.
The tricky thing is that sometimes we are ready to change from one season to another, to shift from repose to action, from inward focus to an energy that moves outwards, but something stops us. I think of the way I came to Toronto eager to meet everyone, to experience everything, so bored of looking at the walls and at a screen filled with people trapped in squares. For various reasons, including a city that was gingerly finding its way outdoors, that was a slow process. I think, also, of the many people I know (including myself), whose bodies rebelled against an unaccustomed level of activity. Slowly I had to learn that you cannot go from a state of exception to a busy, normal life without a substantial period of adjustment.
I don’t like it, but I accept it.
I want to share another first snow with you, the last one I experienced in Canada, back when I was in my final year of undergrad. My friend Andrew and I were putting on a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at Trinity College that fall. Boldly, we had decided to try staging it in the main courtyard, a perfect academic backdrop for a play imbued with learning. Our opening night was scheduled for early November, and we knew we were playing with ice, but we at least had a theatre as backup if the weather should turn.
The first show was, as planned, outdoors. It was a cold night, and I still think of all the people who sat through it and strained to listen to the lines without the acoustics of a theatre to help them. As you may know, Love’s Labour’s Lost is light, often downright ridiculous, until the final scene, when the Princess of France learns that her father has died. The mood changes. Instead of the typical happy ending of a comedy, with lovers paired off and a celebratory dance, the Princess and her ladies ask their beaux to live as hermits for a twelvemonth and a day. They assent, forced to withdraw from their lives for a year instead of moving forward with their plans, their games, their lusts. The final songs belong to Spring and Winter, the latter recalling the familiar days “when coughing drowns the parson’s saw… and Marian’s nose looks red and raw.”
It was during that final scene, as the Princess began to mourn, that the first snow of the year started to fall. The snowflakes were a better closing curtain than I could ever have asked for. The next day, I came down with one of the worst colds of my life, and we moved the production indoors.
Friends, thank you for reading on this wintry day. If you like, tell me about your seasons, and how you mark them.
A few updates
Longreads published my essay, “The Professor,” about difficult relationships with a father and a teacher. I’ve been so heartened by the response to this piece, especially given how many people read it just as I’d hoped it would be read.
I often write about the same topic in wildly different genres. I have an essay on why universities should address toxic behaviour at Times Higher Education, inspired by some of the same events as “The Professor.”
The final episode in Mary Wellesley and my London Review of Books podcast miniseries on medieval women is now up, this time on Margery Kempe.
The New York Review of Books ran a profile of me to go with my newest essay for them. I might have been a little more honest than I intended.
And as part of my work in the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto, I’ll be teaching a workshop on public writing for scholars who do not have tenured positions in January 2022. It will be online and, due to the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the Humanities, free. More info on eligibility and how to apply is here. It’s a brief application, and not meant to be onerous.