Is there life in the dead of winter? Pierced by the inimitable icicle of despair, we often anguish in such an antagonistic suspension, I’d ordinarily think not.
With such rigid frigidity, this time of year forces us to turn inward, warding off words of warmth and endearment. The glacial gluttony of winter and its gall whisks us into a beguiling batch of behavioral belligerence. In this season, we’re seasoned with a touch of tepid trepidation, a spice of despicable disgust, a flavoring of fear and fright. I feel myself swerving towards abstraction, as if I’m meandering off to the side of a slippery road. Getting back on the right route, what I’m entreating us to recruit for the remainder of this winter, is not a rejection of the darkness — the death that winter wields and yields — yet an acceptance of the downfalls of this season and all they have to offer.
For what reason do we have to welcome winter with open arms? In inviting the inclement into our lives we can learn to love the cold, the darkness and death that is so climacteric to our conscious existence. Acknowledging the cyclical nature of all things, we can understand death not as a mere end but a re-birth and beginning of a new phase of our existence. Notwithstanding, in their immense interconnectedness, our attitude toward death shapes our attitude towards life.
Keeping with the symbolism of every season, the dead of winter is easily on everlasting display literally and figuratively. Plans and plants die, their progress put on hold. What was the eternal youth of summer has now simmered down into decay. For this fulgent past, we mourn, declaring ourselves sworn enemies with the darkest night(s) of the year. In the doom and gloom of darkness, the persistence of poverty, disease and illness becomes illuminated. We lament. The light burns with freezing fervor, a testament to winter’s unremitting contradictions.
Ironically, it’s in the cold twelve weeks of winter that, for those of us who can afford its costly accouterments, find ourselves the most cozy. Wrapped in the bountiful warmth of bed covers and blankets, wool sweaters and socks, puff jackets and parkas, fur coats and toasty cars, we match the demands of these malicious three months. During last week’s blizzard, I felt a blissful relief at the evanescent opportunity of stealing away to my own asylum for several days. The juxtaposition of the perilous yet paradisiacal winter wonderland outside with the calm and controlled inside allows me to embrace the undulating multitudes of myself. It’s here, in this heightened state of hybridity in which we can discover the divinity within the disruption.
German theologian Nicholas of Cusa recognizes a holiness in the “coincidence of opposites.” In winter especially, we realize how fundamentally interlinked death is with life. Prehistoric societies, whose sustainment rested upon their understanding of the many meteorological changes within the calendar year, saw the winter solstice as a sacral signification of rebirth and the promise of life after death as seen with the gradual shifts in sunlight henceforth. It is no coincidence that many of our winter holidays are centered around the solstice — a time of revival and renewal. Our cyclical seasons are not arbitrarily existent for any random reason. Instead, they’re imbued with deep poetics in their planetary positioning which transcends spatio-temporal confines.
In this vein, it seems our fates can be as frozen as the sidewalks. On a Sunday in January, I recall wandering through Nichols Arboretum on a sunny yet weary winter day with two of my friends. On the first day of sun after a cluster of cloudy ones, I couldn’t quite tell whether the weather was my source of sudden serenity or not. One of my friends remarked that the unpredictability of Michigan weather is a regular reminder of the illusion of free will. The dictates of the deities have much more of a hold on us than we’d typically like to think.
This brings me back to the elusive snow day and its deranged implications for joy and jubilance in the face of frightful circumstances. Perhaps, this is in part because the respite received indoors during inclement weather remains some of the only times when we’re temporarily granted refuge from the sadistic demands of the capitalist system. Many of us can remember the wonders of waking up to a snow day as a child — the all-encompassing delight of being delivered just once from the daily demands of our mechanistic and demoralizing academic apparatus. We’ve created a culture in which we rejoice in the name of unsafe conditions. Meanwhile, many suffer while we sit in solace.
We grieve the plight of others, grappling with our own privileges in the comfort of our heated homes. Our distaste for physical discomfort further prevents us from empathizing with those afflicted and keeps us anxiously adverse to undergoing any affliction of our own. We crank up the heat, hastily walk from building to building, forever in fear of the slightest instance of suffering. German theater practitioner Uta Hagen asserts that we “feel something mostly strongly when trying to overcome it.” She implores actors (and non-actors) to open up our senses, regardless of what pain they may bring. A significant amount of suffering is generated by the mind. “Thought is the real action” and sometimes our own rumination on our plight only increases our pain, especially considering the crucial role our brain plays in regulating our bodily functions. Yet our materialistic culture indoctrinates us with an indignant dualism, always desiring differentiation between bodymind (namarupa) and spirit. As author Rick Heller contends, “Physical pain, the Buddha taught, is like being shot with one arrow. The person who does not resist physical pain feels only that arrow.” Once we begin to acknowledge the interconnectedness between our physical and mental suffering, we can better sympathize, acknowledge and reconcile with the suffering of our own (collective) spirit, which is just as conjoined.
In a society so apathetic towards the after-life, so adverse to discourse on death, it makes sense to me why we’re so deterred from enduring the dead of winter’s physical hardships. And perhaps this is why, when American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau uttered, “The day is an epitome of a year. The night is winter, the morning and evening are the spring and fall, and the noon is the summer,” it showed and continues to show in the sensational extravagances of modern nightlife. In the dead, of the night, of the winter, of our short-lived lives, we dwell in the shadows, in the darkness, transgressing and trespassing the liminal space between the days and weeks, the seasons and between incarnations. Parties are particularly purgatorial. In the liminality of Friday and Saturday night, we linger restlessly in the nether regions of doubt and uncertainty. The dread of days past and yet to come to the beat of a drum. On weekends of winter, the glacial gluttony enters its glory days — we dangerously drink, smoke, indulge in over-eating, beating ourselves senselessly with sensuous, ephemeral pleasures and poisons. The nightlife is as neurotic as it erotic, rife with one-night-stands, last-minute plans, hook-ups and let-downs. Yet, no one can deny that these deaths are indeed imperatives of a complex, contradictory consciousness in need of thrusting itself into thrills, into the abyss of untapped potential and possibility. The night is young, yet it is so closely associated with old age, wisdom and knowledge, as is winter. It seems to me that in reflecting on our actions of the night, we might be wise fools.
Jungian psychotherapist Thomas Moore describes the dark nights of our soul as an initiatory, alchemical process in which we are transformed via turmoil. He claims that these dark nights “are full of contradictions, and the main paradox is that as much as they seem to plague you, they are your salvation. They can heal in a way nothing else can. They can erase the false logic by which you have lived your life.” In the dark nights and days of winter we can take time to ponder the cyclicity of our existence and in doing so recognize the outstanding divinity within ourselves.
In reflecting upon my own depressive states during this season, I’ve grasped the profound contradictions and cyclicity of my youth. Tragically, my winters have always been rife with trauma. In the winter of 2015, my grandmother suffered a stroke which she so valiantly endured in the last year of her life. Winter has exuberantly highlighted the parallels of my high school and college experiences. During the winter of my freshman year of high school, I struggled with my sexuality while incessantly suffering a constant slew of homophobic slurs and attacks. I was additionally deterred by the overwhelming whiteness of the theatrical spaces in my community and fueled by a desire to find diversity in my creative endeavors. Similarly, in the winter of my freshman year of college, I battled with my own bisexuality, reeling in the rampant pre-COVID conditions of carnal excess on this campus. I, again, as a college freshman felt flustered by the immense lack of authenticity and diversity in my drama program. In the winter of sophomore year of high school and college, I was on the precipice of transferring, schools in the former and areas of study in the latter, all the while feeling extremely isolated, alone, and otherized. January of my junior year was both marked by an increasing missing and mourning for my family. In high school, my mom had to move away for six months to support our family in a job in Albany, NY. And in college, just last month, I mourned the loss of my late aunt who passed away in December. And in both respects of junior year, I dealt and continue to currently deal with the anxiety of post-graduation prospects. I anticipate that next winter, I will, as I did senior year of high school, reconcile with the life I had lived in the bygone era of before, whilst looking forward to the new age ahead with ambivalence.
So, I am no stranger to the struggles of winter. But in the midst of all these hardships has been an abundance of triumph and success concurrent with the calamity. Creativity flourishes in the complexities of adversity. The winters of my middle school and high school experience were marked by musicals, communal singing and dancing. Winter of my junior year of high school was full of Forensics speech competitions, Model United Nations conferences, Improv practices and shows, the school play, mentoring youth around my hometown and forming plans to create an after-school youth program and curriculum of my own. Similarly and cyclically, in the winter of my current junior year, I’ve continued to be involved in theatrical and improvisational spaces and have now officially embarked in my formal education journey to become an educator. Every year, even in the most wretched moments of the wintertime, it’s deathly brumal breath respires within me a profound intimacy and understanding, abundant visceral experiences, overwhelming joy and jubilation. Regardless of how hostile the season may be, I always know that without fail, the advent of spring will usher in a bounty of restoration and rejuvenation.
Unfortunately, as we’ve been elusively deluded by the dictates of our secular society, we are quick to kid and kill ourselves in the cold — in the warped crises of desolation — boldly denouncing and designating death to our being, with no hope of future resurrection. Our apathy towards the after-life is wholly exemplified in our hopelessness toward the dying we endure in winter. Yet just as we can take heed to how the rebirth and revival of spring brings us back to warmth, to youthfulness, to life, we can understand the after-life of our own biological death as what Japanese author Hiroshi Ōbayashi refers to as an “effective departure [of the soul] from this corporeal world and return to its proper home of eternal bliss in the world of the Good.”
Ultimately, there is a profound sustainment in this season to be found every year. There’s something in the name of winter which remains the same, much unlike its rapidly evolving analogues of autumn and spring. In these wintry months, we do die. But this death is a death full of beauty. Winter begets creativity, introspection, the presence and presents of depression, reflection on meaning and ultimately a deepening of our ever-changing existence all in the crisp stillness of the frozen frenzy. And if that’s not life, then I don’t know what is.
MIC Columnist Karis Clark can be reached at email@example.com.