The coldest month

I have to remind myself that in January no matter what I’m doing I wish I were doing something else. Is there any way to make January easier? Or is it a matter of pulling through the cold and darkness, the lack of motivation, that feeling of what’s the point? January comes every year, and every year it passes. The days will get longer. The light is returning. Slowly, week by week the cold will pass.

I’ve been getting out for a walk by myself every day this week, sometimes twice. These days of windchills in the -20s and no snow are the bleakest of winter days. But I need to be out, to walk. It’s one of the consistent threads in my life, something that I fall back on when I need to figure things out (when do I ever not need to figure things out?). Walking and reading and writing are the bones of my life.

The cold doesn’t bother me once I’m out. And even on a grey morning like today, when the garbage bins are cluttering the sidewalks, and it’s hard to see the beauty of anything at all, there are the stark silhouettes of trees, frost patterns on windows, bare skeletons of tall plants with deep roots stretching down underground.

This week I walked with a full moon one evening, clouds moving across the sky, a surprisingly slim raccoon trotting on the sidewalk opposite, keeping pace. That squeaky crunch of the thin layer of snow on the sidewalk under my boots. The pain of the wind against the bones of my face, carving me out.

I’m trying to use the time that I have efficiently, but I’m slow. I’d rather be reading a novel, curled up under a blanket with a cup of tea, soaking in a hot bath, sleeping. One of my deep fears about myself is of my innate laziness. How much of what I do is to fight against that fear?

But winter is the time for dreaming. I hardly remember more than the haze of my dreams, but each morning I wake up from another life: sprawling many-chambered buildings, dark hallways, underground passages. In my dreams, I’m passing through hotels, wandering through forests, trying to get somewhere that I can never seem to reach. And people, so many people: coming and going, talking, embracing, falling in love again and again. Like an enchantment.

There is the ordinariness of everything that January makes stark. You either learn to love it, savour that there is such a life, that you’re alive and able to feel everything that you feel. You put your hand on your child’s small chest and feel the heart beating there steadily, and marvel at how this is possible. Or perhaps you try to escape, try to find somewhere else to go that is brighter, newer, more surprising, more enchanted. But, as you know, you’re still there, wherever you are. Wandering or staying – it’s those same dark hallways and underground passages in your dreams. You always come back to yourself.

There’s a fairy tale I’ve read to the kids many times, about a princess who rebels against her father and goes out into the woods on the night of the full moon. She meets a handsome knight enchanted by the Queen of the Elves; she dances with him all night, and in the morning returns home. Month after month she lives for the full moon nights and in her daily life she fades, withers, loses all interest, is almost lost to Life. But one night, she meets an old woman who tells her how to free her prince and herself from the enchantment. The woman tells her to hold on to him, no matter what happens, no matter what form the Elf Queen gives him. So she does: he turns into ice, a clawing bear, a snake, a fire, and she runs to the lake and dips him in the water. And she’s held on long enough, it’s dawn, the Queen of the Elves has lost both of them. They return home and live happily in their ordinary non-enchanted life, inside a fairy tale nonetheless.

I love fairy tales. They’re so much more true than facts sometimes. What is this story about, I wonder, why does it entrance me so with the ring of a deep truth? When I read this to my kids, I think of all the adult possibilities: obsession, addiction, delusion, depression, mental illness. I keep coming back to it, pulled into the shadowy realms of its enchantment myself.

I wonder often, as a person who has vivid daydreams that sometimes feel like visions, what is the difference between vision and delusion? Where is the line?

What is the Elf Queen enchanting me into, you into? When do you hold on and when do you let go? What brings you closer to Life and what drains it out of you? How do you hold on to magic, to dreams without being consumed by them? Are these questions about fairy tales or life? I don’t know for certain.

About a year ago I sat in a café, briefly, while my kids were in a class; I sat and read a book that made my mind spin with wonder; I wrote in my notebook, drank a cup of tea. I looked up and saw myself five years ago, ten, twenty, sitting in cafés, reading, writing, drinking hot tea. My selves met and embraced; we saw and recognized and understood each other. It was a moment of homecoming. And then I walked out into the cold again.

One thought on “The coldest month

  1. Thank you for writing this. It captures some of how I’ve been feeling too. Last winter, I realized that morning walks helped to keep January and February more bearable and, indeed, enjoyable, so I’m doing it again this year. Heading out soon (6 am) for a morning walk – third one this week. Happy there’s snow on the ground. Happy I have the time to walk.

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