The past month has been challenging here, so a more meditative post today: a retreat into relative quiet after what has felt like too much noise.
Wally has been sick since I travelled to New England for a grade school class reunion more than a month ago, and multiple trips to the vet weren’t getting to the bottom of it.
It’s a constant burden when a pet or a child who’s living with you is ailing. They tell you how sick they are by how little they seem like themselves, or by how worried they look when they see your worry. Sick family members are also a lot of work.
“He looks pale to me,” said Dr. Niggemaier even though I’d never heard that said about a dog. Well the treatments (a lot of mine and several of hers) seem to be working—the burden of prior weeks released like a sigh—and I want to write about the break that I feel like having now that my insides are freed up again.
I want to pay attention to something that makes no demands for a change, that begins with relief and flows from there into a wider current that has been moving along-side the whole time but whose unfolding had become little more than a backdrop. What I mean is how week-by-week the Fall, this season we’re in had been slowly sliding into Winter without my even noticing.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Quiet, seasonal steps have weekly features, like the different expressions of a familiar face, their “right now” smells and sounds too, but I’d missed all of this (I wonder, did Wally miss them too?) and all I want to do right now is drift along in the inner-tube of that parallel flow. To advance the scenes that came just before today, and remember from prior years what might be coming up next. To feel the reboot of a deeper movement carrying me through to the end of the year.
It took me until February last winter, to write my first post of the year about rebooting and recharging. Today, I want to revisit that post (A Time for Repair, for Wintering), to consider whether “a Japanese calendar” that breaks the seasons into weeks can help with that kind of restoration, and finally, to take a stab at re-constructing the five weeks I just “missed” along with the three that are coming up before the new year in a bid to slow things down and return to better health.
Nestled in sod.
For insulation or because they like the way it looks or maybe because it’s so deeply rooted in the ways they’ve always done it, Norwegians love their sod roofs—some so much that they’ve created their own human+natural landscapes.
Both like and unlike them, English writer Katherine May has brought a variation on that composite landscape inside. She discusses what the seasons have to tell us about the need to stop and recuperate from all the usual challenges. Her 2020 book, and the springboard for last Feburary’s post, is called “Wintering: the Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.”
For May, “to winter” is to learn how to flourish when times are lean, when we no longer have the spring’s freshness, the summer’s warmth, or the autumn’s harvest to fall back on—when we’ve been stripped down to the basics and our batteries have been drained of their juice. As she tells it:
“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.
“It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting….”
Too bad then that we seem to lack the evolutionary roadmaps to make ourselves stronger and more resilient by “wintering” in ways that the rest of Nature does. Perhaps that’s why her accumulated wisdom about time for rest and repair came not from preference but from necessity.
“‘However it arrives,’ May writes, ‘wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.’ In her own life, she needed to learn how to cope and then recover after waves of disruption roiled the core of her existence. (Her husband fell ill and nearly died. Her own health declined to the point that she could no longer work. Her 6-year old son became too anxious to go to school. Many of the things that May had counted on as a partner, as a professional and as a mother now felt “provisional and unsettled.”) In this ‘fallow season’ for her, May had to learn to admit the extent of her disorientation and unhappiness, and that validating these feelings neither encouraged them nor made them worse. Instead, by making a place for her desolation she began to learn how ‘to winter’ through it, something that the natural world already knows instinctively.”
For me, it’s not just Wally’s challenges that call for wintering. It’s the barrage of “bad news,” economic uncertainties, an annihilating 24/7 war, alarming politics, how much it sometimes seems that “the good times” are behind us. And as all of it has sanded me down, new demands arrive.
So when do I admit that it’s time for the repair shop?
When will I accept that my batteries only work intermittently, and one day may not work at al?
When do I: Stop, look, listen, (smell, taste, absorb and reboot) before crossing the tracks again?
My favorite thing about this picture: the two inward facing chairs.
As a mindful reset to what can feel “like the fury of everyday life,” the Japanese (and the Chinese before them) thought they could slow the rush of time in a beneficial way if they broke down their annual calendars into microseasons. During the 16th Century, some Japanese contemplatives broke the year down into 72 of these “5-day long seasons” in order (as they described it) to “soothe your passage” through the calendar “in a journey that draws your focus to subtle shifts of the natural world.”
They called these microseasons kō and instead of having names, each is described “in a mellifluous phrase” that aims to capture what is happening on the ground or in the sky outside in each 5-day stretch. “Bush Warblers Start Singing in the Mountains.” “Damp earth, Humid Heat.” “The Maple and the Ivy Turn Yellow.” “Dew Glistens White on Grass.” You get the idea. As described in a short (4-minute long) video, these mindfulness masters “found patterns in the cycles” within the seasons and “ways to recall them” so that when you finally slow down, life becomes a more satisfying journey “taken with much smaller steps.”
If this journey seems to have your name on it, you can take it exactly the way that the Japanese do via a free mobile app (for both iOS and Android devices). But just like the Japanese adapted what the Chinese had done before them, I’ve been thinking about my own house-in-nature adaptation this weekend, starting with the 5 weeks in November and December that I just “missed” and the 3 that are left before New Years—thinking that someday I might be able to conjure the mental images for all 52 of them.
Because I do a lot of my work from home, a place where my senses could be filled with the seasons (both outside and in) if I bothered to pay attention, I began with the role that its doors and windows play in this “slower parade of time.” With light pouring in from the East and the West as each day comes and goes, my work and living spaces function a bit like sundials, particularly as the leaves fall from the trees and new blades of light can angle in when clouds don’t get in their way.
Moreover, without the dampening effect of the leaves, sounds are different too—sometimes more grating (I get to hear a surprising amount of bad music blaring from passing cars) but not always. Sometimes it’s bird song, a distant dog, or gust of wind.
There are also environment changes inside when the heat comes on. Cooking smells linger a bit longer. Winter holidays bring visitors, with their new smells, sounds and feelings, and year-end transitions beckon.
So here’s what I’m “contemplating” today as I go back in time (to those “missed” weeks) and then try to recall what it was like here in prior years for those weeks just ahead of me. In doing so, I won’t even attempt to be as “mellifluous” in my phrasing as they are in Japan, except for that one week where their words instead of mine seemed like the perfect fit.
V’s of Canadian guess honk their ways through the mottled gray sky and, once in awhile, through the blinding sunshine as they depart the reservoir nearby, always aiming north by north-west.
This is the first week where the sun comes up on the same axis as our driveway, making the experience of walking down it (for Wally’s walk each morning) a little like being at Stonehenge. Fewer leaves interrupt the light at this point in the calendar, lengthening the shadows that seem to stretch behind us for 20 feet or more. I often close my eyes and let the sun warm my face when it’s damp and cold while trying not to trip as he pulls me along.
Dew Glistens White on Grass. (The first frost date in Philadelphia this year was on November 17.) We also don’t get much fog here, but when we do, this is when it first shrouds everything outside in a cloud before burning off later in the day.
The air inside is softened by small tubs of evaporating water that we put out to counter the drying effects when the heat “comes on.” At this time every year, our noses breathe easier with more moisture in the air.
November 28-December 4
The house next door has a ground crew regularly cleaning the leaves from their lawn, which makes it a verdant base for the golds and rusts of almost everything else. The walkway to their front door is flanked by two, twenty-foot, ornamental trees that are shaped a bit like tulip vases. This is the week that their leaves always fall down in a rush (like our gingko did after the first frost) leaving round skirts of yellow and red on a sea of impossible green.
Sun’s rising fills the top floor with light that glows so brightly that it bounces down the staircase, lighting the family pictures, certificates and pictures of friends lining the walls. It’s their week to shine down on the still sleepy floor.
With wreaths up inside, the house smells like pine—something that can last for weeks by misting them with water every once in awhile. It’s also when a little Christmas tree I made as a kid, our tin ornaments from Mexico, and the lights that look like chili peppers come back out like old friends.
One of the best things about living in these few blocks is that the bell tower of the school near-by tolls, sonorously, every hour, like it would in a small village before watches and phones told you “the time.” I listen for these bells all year long, but this is the week that another bell tower, in a neighborhood that’s somewhere to the east of us, plays short phrases that remind me of Christmas with its 5 or 6 church bells. Somebody in that tower keeps this over-heard tradition every year and I realize that I always look forward to hearing from them in this particular week of it.
So see how the light is streaming through your front door in a way it couldn’t manage for the past 42 weeks, or how the shadows play across your office at 3 p.m., or how chestnuts fill your house with fragrance when you roast them each year during the week of Thanksgiving.
They’re sensations that can return for as long as you want them to: details to mark the passing of time and to maybe “get lost in” as everything slows and has the space to repair.
This post was adapted from my December 11, 2022 newsletter. Newsletters are delivered to subscribers’ in-boxes every Sunday morning, and sometimes I post the content from one of them here. You can subscribe (and not miss any) by leaving your email address in the column to the right.