Annals of literature associate winter with hardship, depression and even fear. It’s a time to stock up, grit our teeth and hold out against the difficult season. It’s our melancholy spirit, muted like laughter against the snow.
We see winter as something to be tolerated until that first burst of spring. (I’ve already written about my love of spring, it’s no secret.) Winter is an annual fight against our worse self in what is widely considered as the worst season. I tend to agree: I’ve never understood people who like winter.
In poetry and literature winter is depicted as a season that tests our character among darkness and isolation. One of the most well known winter poems is Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
It’s a poem referencing sensibility and irrationality, the harsh requirements of society and an individual’s decision to live in it, or, you can just take it as a story of a snowy evening. Whichever you prefer. In either case, the imagery is clear: the darkest evening, a forest buried by snow. Dark. Deep. Isolation. Mystery.
Once upon a time winter meant snowmen, sledding and the holidays, but the memory is flimsy, already drifted out of my mind like the words of a fairytale. Instead, I remember chipping ice from the windshield of my little car, my hair freezing into icicles after swim team practice. I remember ice storms ruining my plans and too many hours spent inside.
And I’m not the only one who feels this way.
“I remember three- and four-week-long snow days, and drifts so deep a small child, namely me, could get lost in them. No such winter exists in the record, but that’s how Ohio winters seemed to me when I was little – silent, silver, endless, and dreamy,” Susan Orlean said.
Midwest winters can be brutal, both literally and metaphorically.
In northern Italy, however, I notice that winter comes with nearly as much fanfare as summer. Nestled right below the Alps, winter runs through the region with electricity. It’s a season filled with festivities, carnevale and a settimana bianca on the snow. It’s ski season!
Two years ago I realized with awe that all those people who went on their daily passeggiata to window shop and gossip in the summer continued to do that into the winter despite the cold.
It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that in Ohio, we simply don’t go outside during the winter. For those already objecting, tell me, how often do you do something outside for an extended period in the winter months? I know that I didn’t do anything besides enter and exit my car, and I didn’t see many people doing otherwise.
Winter in Italy is definitely less daunting than the Midwest, but here in Milan it’s rather similar. The temperature is comparable, the humidity higher and the snowfall only slightly lower, yet every day people jog up and down my street, cyclists and commuters pedal by my car on their way to work and friends fill their social media with weekends in the mountains skiing or sunbathing or walking up and down snow-filled streets.
People go outside in the winter, and it changes everything.
Perhaps the Italians were able to construct a different literature than ours in the Midwest: a winter filled with the knowledge of spring. Their narrative tells a story other than the harsh, melancholy winter. It’s a story of the importance of being outside, of life, and of a persistent joie de vivre in the face of the cold. Their narrative tells of a winter not just to be tolerated until the spring, but a season to flourish in like any other.
“In the depth of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.” — Albert Camus
Through indoor gardening, hiking, snowshoeing and the possibility to go snowboarding, I’m working to change my attitude toward winter. In the meantime, I’ll let my invincible summer take care of the winter darkness.
Now let’s #GetOutside!