Do you think much about winter? And whether or not this year will be a hard winter? Maybe where you live you don’t have winter, let alone a hard winter.
Here in Canada, we think about winter a lot. We talk about it, we anticipate it, and we dread it in equal measure. We can’t wait for it to come, especially when we’re kids. Even when we’re big kids. Every, every year when I was teaching teenagers, they would gasp and shout out in class when they saw the first flakes of the first snowfall of the year fall past the classroom window. “It’s snowing!” As if they were six years old, as if they’d never actually seen snow before. Ha. I still do the same thing at my age. So yeah, we love to see winter come. And several long dark winter months later, we celebrate when it’s over. Man do we celebrate when it’s over!
And while winter is here, it’s a big topic of conversation. Every day. How much snow we’ve had, or will have, or how little. If there will be freezing rain. What the low temperature will be tonight. What to do if we travel so our pipes don’t freeze and burst. Whether we should plug the car in so it will start in the morning. What the wind chill is. How bad the roads are. If the plow’s been by yet. Snow banks, slush and salt, black ice. Shovelling. Snow days. I could go on.
Some Canadians hate winter so much they leave home in November, head south, and don’t return until spring. Others stay put. Like us. I can’t blame the snow birds who desert us for warmer climes. Winter is not an easy season. Much as we like to think we’re hardy Canadians surviving the hard winter, maybe bragging a little about how cold it is and how much snow we’ve had, we still find it difficult. When I was a kid you’d hear people musing if maybe this year we’d have a “hard winter.” In the old days a hard winter meant lots of really cold weather, maybe a couple of weeks of -30°C temperatures, and a slow spring so that crops would be planted late. Now it’s something quite different, at least for most of us. Especially this year.
This year we’ll all have a hard winter, I think. Even if the temperatures are relatively mild. Most of those snow birds are staying put. Stuck here with the rest of us year-rounders. And they’re not happy. Some have flown south anyway. And shipped their vehicles to Florida or Palm Springs or wherever they are accustomed to wintering. Travel advisories be damned. Their rationale is that they can stay safe as easily there as at home. I’m not so sure about that, but I guess it’s their call.
Here in Ontario, we’re all back in lockdown this week. COVID numbers are rising alarmingly. All those Christmas gatherings, I guess. Or maybe all those government ministers who flouted their own rules and jetted off to somewhere lovely. Ha. That’s a rueful laugh, by the way.
You know, despite the tone of this post so far, I don’t hate winter. I actually love hunkering down in front of the fire on a cold night, with a glass of full-bodied red and a hearty stew for supper, and a movie on TV. Or hunkering down in front of the fire with my book while Hubby naps on the couch. Or just hunkering period. I am a fan of hunkering. Hunkering by the fire with a nice meal after a long ski is how Hubby and I spent most of our courtship. And our marriage.
I’ve always loved the feeling of being cut off from the world during a winter storm. I remember the winter of 1984, when I lived back home, my stepfather Lloyd worked on the government snowplow. During particularly bad storms, the phone might ring when everyone was in bed and Doug, Lloyd’s boss, would ask if Lloyd could come. While he dressed, Mum would make him a lunch and a thermos of tea. Then we’d see the headlights of the old Dodge piercing the darkness and the driving snow as he maneuvered the car down the long driveway. He might be out on the roads the rest of the night and all the next day. There was a room with a cot at the government garage where the drivers could grab a nap, and eat their lunch.
I remember during one bad storm that winter he was gone for two days. Mum and I hunkered down with our knitting, the woodstove in the old kitchen pumping out heat, and that lovely smell. We weren’t going anywhere.
That winter, if Lloyd didn’t make it home in the evening, I’d haul on my boots and Mum’s ancient muskrat jacket to go feed the cows. We laughed so hard at that. Me wearing the boots I bought when I lived in the city, beautiful burgundy leather, knee-high, high-heeled boots, and Mum’s fur jacket, the warmest coat in the closet, pitchforking hay down to the cows. The swankiest farmer in the neighbourhood, and the only one in high heels, Mum said. But the feeling of warmth and security in the barn, the wind whipping the snow outside, the cows moving softly about in their stalls, stanchions clanking, the smell of hay and, let’s be honest, cow manure, has never left me. Can one be nostalgic for the smell of cow manure, do you think?
That was a hard winter by old-fashioned standards. But not for me and mum. Companionably stranded at home, while poor Lloyd worked hard to keep the roads clear, we knitted and yakked and knitted and read.
I had borrowed my sister Connie’s complete set of James Herriot books including All Creatures Great and Small. Gosh I loved those books. They were the perfect companion for a snowy winter. Just sweet and gentle enough to fix what ailed me. And well written enough to make me laugh out loud. Sometimes at night when Mum and Lloyd were tucked up in bed reading in their room, and me in mine, I’d shout out lines to them. “Listen to this one,” I’d yell. And then I’d read the excerpt, my words carrying down the hallway to their room from mine. I remember one day asking Lloyd over breakfast if he thought maybe the problem he was having with a cow might be caused by such and such. Something I’d read in Herriot’s book. That makes me laugh now. It seems that I thought books could solve everyone’s problems.
And this month Hubby and I have been enjoying the recent remake of All Creatures Great and Small on Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. Seriously, it’s just what the doctor ordered this winter. Our hard winter by 2021 standards. Not because of the snow and cold but because of COVID-19.
Generally skiing can lift my winter moodiness. The fresh air. Hopefully some sunshine. Feeling my legs and arms move. Cross-country skiing is simply the best exercise ever. But it doesn’t always work for my mood. Books are better for that.
I just finished reading Hamnet and Judith (or just plain Hamnet depending on where you live) by Maggie O’Farrell. What a wonderfully dense, luscious, beautifully written book. I adored it. How O’Farrell reimagined Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, their lives, and their love is brilliant.
The plot moves back and forth from the day daughter Judith and, later, her twin Hamnet fall ill to the early days of the lives of Agnes/Anne and Shakespeare. Then later their meeting, their marriage, Shakespeare’s career, and how they cope with the tragedy that strikes their family. O’Farrell even imagines how the pestilence that affects the children arrives in England and Stratford from Alexandria via Murano, Italy. And even though I knew what would happen in the end, well, not quite the end, but I knew that Hamnet is the one who will die, even knowing what will happen, I was captivated by O’Farrell’s plot.
The long detailed passages about the forest, and the plants, and herbs that Agnes/Anne loves and with which she works her magic are fascinating, and lovely to read. O’Farrell masterfully puts the reader inside the head of a sixteenth century person, with all their prejudices, and knowledge, all their fears, and superstitions. The scene when Judith is ill and the physician arrives in his “featureless, hideous mask, pointed like the beak of a gigantic bird”, worn to protect himself from the pestilence, is so fraught with emotion, Hamnet’s fear, Agnes’ desperate calm. This was brilliantly rendered, I thought. In fact I thought the whole book was beautifully rendered.
And I wish she would write a sequel. All about Agnes/Anne and Shakespeare and what happened after Hamlet. Wouldn’t that be wonderful reading for a cold winter’s night?
This winter Hubby and I have been reading up a storm. Winter pun intended. Although Hubby is far outpacing me in the reading race. Not that it is a race. Just that he is powering through books, and I am uncharacteristically struggling. I’ve picked up and abandoned many books since the fall. I’m restless and cranky if I don’t fall in love with a book right away. I was so happy that Hamnet and Judith captivated me from page one.
Despite my struggle with some other books, I hurtled my way through The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. So good. So mood enhancing. I smiled and laughed, and loved it all the way through. Humourous mystery novels are often too silly, too contrived, and not that well written. Osman’s book is none of those things.
Hubby just finished, and really loved, The Searcher, the new Tana French. He kept wanting to tell me about it, and I had to plug my ears. I’m listening to the audio book which is much slower going than reading it myself. But still wonderful. Plus it keeps me on my exercise bike when I’m not walking or skiing. The Searcher is classic Tana French, even though she deviates from her Dublin Murder Squad series in this one. French’s work is always a delight to us both.
I just finished Anthony Horowitz’s Moonflower Murders. It’s the follow-up to Magpie Murders. I enjoyed them both. Particularly the character of Susan Ryeland, the book editor. And Horowitz’s book within a book is an interesting plot device. These books are not what I would call great literature, but are nevertheless entertaining.
Now Hubby and I are sharing Peter Lovesey’s newest Peter Diamond mystery The Finisher. He reads it on one iPad and I read on the other. I do like a good Peter Lovesey mystery. His books are funny, and I like the continuing characters and the fact that they are set in Bath in the UK. I love Bath.
Plus I am belatedly reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. I’ve had the book for ages but have never read it. We will be discussing it in one of my book club meetings in a few weeks. I won’t say that I’m enjoying it because non-fiction reading is never my fav. But it is really interesting. And definitely helpful. An important and necessary book, I think.
You know, part of my struggle has always been that I’m impatient with books which aren’t well written. Especially when it comes to style. They don’t have to be literary, but they must be competently written. That sounds snobby, doesn’t it? As if I somehow consider myself the arbiter of literary style. Ha. I don’t.
But there are often too many bits and pieces in books these days that a good editor could have pared away, or counselled the writer to eliminate, or reduce, or rewrite. There are too many books which make me long for a word-stylist like P.D. James. And which make me thank my lucky stars for writers like Tana French, and Kate Atkinson, and their ilk. Especially on those days when my mood won’t let me sink into a literary novel. When I cannot bear to dive into tragedy or angst. And when I just want a really good, well written murder mystery.
And this winter I am particularly impatient with books. Well, with everything, if I’m honest. I guess we all are. Impatient, I mean. That impatience is what will really make this winter a hard winter. That chafing against continued isolation. When we should be turning inward, toward hearth and home, enjoying slow days in front of the fire, we’re sick to death of slow days.
So what are we going to do about it?
Search me. I’m just taking it one day at a time. Like everyone. Reading when I can. Exercising every day. Writing my blog. Finding new things to talk to Hubby about. Digging deep.
The other day, as I stood in the bathroom applying my make-up before I went off to my doctor’s appointment, I listened to the December podcast from Slightly Foxed called A Winter’s Tale. Oh, I know I have waxed lyrical about the ladies that put this podcast together before, but seriously, my friends if you haven’t tried it you should.
The episode notes describe this podcast as a “snowstorm of winter writing over twelve centuries”, a tour guided by the literary critic, and author of the book Weatherland, Alexandra Harris. Harris talks about how through the centuries winter has been viewed as a time for us to draw inwards, to shut out the world, a time of contemplation, and a time to cherish home and hearth. I felt restored after hearing this. And I thought, once again, that to be able to listen to these erudite and totally charming women talk about books is such a privilege.
After hearing Alexandra Harris talk about winter from a historical perspective, I’ve been thinking of all those homesteading ancestors of mine. Who endured long winters in the wilds of New Brunswick. No internet. No telephone. And probably few books. My Burpee ancestors settled in New Brunswick in the 1760’s. I try to imagine what winter in the Saint John River valley was like back then. A few small settlements. The frozen river. And miles and miles of snow.
Then I feel a bit sheepish for thinking that this winter is a hard winter. And I promise to do my best to recapture the best parts of winter which I have always loved. The fireside. A good book. A nice meal. Safety. The big bad world spinning somewhere out there, but not encroaching on our peace.
I’ve ordered Harris’ book, Weatherland, for myself. It’s one I think I will love to dip into this winter. I’ve also ordered the Ali Smith book Winter that Harris suggests, and which I have not read. Maybe the two of them will help me get back to cherishing winter. Hard or otherwise.
How’s winter been going for you, my friends?
P.S. The links to books in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link I will make a small commission at not extra cost to you.