Essential Elements: When the seasons change – Idaho State Journal

Out on the trail at the Nordic Center the day after Thanksgiving.
Sarah May Clarkson

Sarah May Clarkson
Out on the trail at the Nordic Center the day after Thanksgiving.
I watched the full moon rise last week over the hills to the northeast. It was bright and clear and the night was cold; and the moonrise was beautiful. It brought to mind the words of monk/poet/mystic Thomas Merton, who wrote, “I will not easily forget the thin sickle of the old moon rising this morning just before dawn. … Cold sky, hard brightness of stars through the pines, snow and frost, exaltation on the bright darkness of morning” (“A Year With Thomas Merton,” 2004, p. 355). When I got up today to get ready for work, we’d had snow (again). No garage at the house o’ Clarkson, so I occasionally get whiny about brushing the elements off the car, but that is such a first-world problem.
The change of seasons never fails to amaze me, and though many people dread the winter, I am not sad that it’s here. My body definitely misses the daylight and my walks with the dog after work now require a headlamp for me, an illuminated collar for Edgar (that would be the dog), proper boots and gloves, and a sometimes ridiculous number of layers. The cold air (temperatures between about 15 and 40 degrees F) is bracing and even, I dare say, refreshing. A big deep breath of winter air seems to fill my lungs to a greater capacity and has a different (better) cardiovascular feel than the heat, even though I know my body is working hard to maintain an ideal internal temperature. I’ll count on the human biologists and health professionals out there to explain this sensation to me. I am not, however, the kind of person who has any interest in a polar plunge or spending 10 minutes in a snowdrift in my swimsuit because of the perceived health benefits. I’m Irish, not Scandinavian (though my husband’s grandmother was right off the boat from Norway).
We are coming on to the winter solstice. It seems appropriate that it is both darker and colder. I just looked up sunrise and sunset times for today (thank you, and the sun rose today at 7:52 a.m. and will set at 4:56 p.m. That is a whole lot of darkness — except that the snow is brightening. This is a time of cocooning, of stoking up the wood / pellet stove, of reading that hardback book you don’t want to schlep to the beach or the lake, or of acquiring a skill or learning a craft that will help the winter nights to pass. My brother Peter wrote to me this week and in Vermont (where he lives) there hasn’t been much precipitation yet. He said, “The shortest days of the year have an A. Wyeth look to them.” Do you know the American artist and illustrator Andrew Wyeth? Go to to look at a gallery of his artwork. It’s true that the months of November and early December tend to have a Wyeth-type palette. The poem by Christina Rossetti and carol by Gustav Holst describe this as “bleak midwinter,” but I disagree. There is less sunlight, but holiday lights abound everywhere, and just like a kid, I love to see the lights in parks, on homes and in windows, which are particularly magical covered with snow. It may be artificial light, but it’s bright and multi-colored and festive and fun.
I am a sucker for Christmas music. Vast numbers of people celebrate other holidays at the end of the calendar year — Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, Las Posadas, Boxing Day, Pongal, and many others — and all of them have rituals and music and traditions that correspond to the occasion. After writing this, I am going to do some research on the music associated with such holidays, but here I’ll say, unashamedly, that I am a sucker for Christmas music. I have favorite albums and artists and a modest collection of CDs. On Dec. 3 I attended the Idaho State-Civic Symphony holiday concert at the Stephens Performing Arts Center. We had great seats on one of the balconies overlooking the orchestra, so we could actually watch them work the music. In my next life, I am definitely playing an instrument. The musicians were accompanied by what had to be 200 voices drawn from ISU’s music department and the Pocatello community. It. Was. Outstanding. The program was far-ranging and participatory (the audience sang along to “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World”), and there were traditional and contemporary pieces performed. I had never heard Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” before (in Yiddish!) and my companion and I really enjoyed Duke Ellington’s re-interpretation of “The Nutcracker Suite.” The concert was early enough to put me in the spirit of the season and give me a balanced zen. I am such a cheap date: a little Christmas music and holiday lights and I’m as happy as a clam.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. Folks reading this are cursing me right now. I get it. But if it’s going to be cold, I want there to be snow. True, I wish we had a garage, and true, I wish the thought of wiping out in the snow didn’t terrify me, but snow is a beautiful, miraculous thing. One year, many years ago, I was skiing with my dear dad and it was snowing. We looked down at our parkas and could see each individual snowflake. It was — it is — gob-smacking. He said to me, “How can you look at that and not believe in God?” Amen. Last night I was fiddling around all over the house and it had snowed all day. Even though it was late, late, late at night, it was bright outside from the snow that had fallen. A nice walk in the snow with the dog or a cross-country ski makes winter sublime. I went to the Nordic Center the day after Thanksgiving and had a glorious ski: it was a beautiful clear day, the snow sparkled all around, and it was the kind of quiet that you can actually hear. I had a great workout, enjoyed the great outdoors, took a couple of epic diggers. Felt great and slept like a drugged person that night (good workout combined with winter air worked its magic). As a bonus, I hadn’t pulled out my Merlin (bird watching / calling app) for fully three months, but heard a bird call and it was identified as a Townsend’s Solitaire — gadzooks. The description said it is found in the northern boreal forests. Who knew?
We do well to remember that the particular Christian holiday that happens in December is a fairly recent phenomenon in human history. Ancient agricultural societies had a brief window of winter respite from the grueling work of bringing in the harvest. The food stores were abundant with fruit and produce and there was fresh meat from the early-winter hunts. Beverages prepared from grains and fruit were, literally, fermented and intoxicating. Celebrations of a pagan and boisterous variety were the order of the day when daylight was diminished and the weather forbidding. Peasants and serfs who provided labor to landholders and landed gentry institutionalized winter festivities with wassailing (from the Anglo-Saxon “waes hael,” which means good health) and mumming. Mumming was a kind of Mardi Gras cum drag show cum blow-out that involved costumes, cross dressing, and a visit to the lord’s or lady’s manor house with an expectation that the gift of money or goods would definitely be forthcoming. And so a relationship was established between those who worked the land and those to whom the profits of that labor went — a kind of mutual benefit in seeing each other satisfied at the end of the season. Satisfied and celebratory.
Before I close, I want to recommend a newly discovered author: Claire Keegan. I just read her “Foster” and “Small Things Like These” — novellas, really, you could finish them in a sitting. Startlingly perceptive and insightful. Brilliant.
I couldn’t live somewhere weatherless. I was born and raised in the northern climes (though far east of here) and I expect and anticipate a change of seasons. It is a phenomenon that offers an appreciation for, and/or awareness of, the new season when it arrives or emerges. Winter is here. It makes me stronger, heightens my awareness of feelings and sensations that lay dormant, and reminds me that change is constant. In adapting to it, we demonstrate our great human ability to be flexible, to solve problems when they arise, to persist and even thrive, no matter what the elements throw at us. Happy sledding!
Sarah May Clarkson is a committed walker (with her dog), a hopeless bibliophile and a lifelong educator. Back in the day, she was an editor and writer for the Manchester (Vermont) Journal and its sister paper, the Bennington (Vermont) Banner. She and her husband have lived in Pocatello since 2015.
Sarah May Clarkson
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