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I have to stop pretending that I like winter. I have to stop pretending I don’t hate it just like everybody else does, that it doesn’t make me as sad and exhausted as it makes everyone, that all the obvious and general shittiness of winter doesn’t apply to me. But every year I think it will be something else; every year I wipe my memory of the past winters. I don’t just think it will be fine, that maybe it will be ok this time. I look forward to it, I think - every year! every time! I do this! - that it’s going to be the best thing, a long hibernation, something to crave, something to miss when its gone. Jezebel published a wonderful piece earlier this year in praise of “Bad Winter” that summed up everything I love about this unloving and unlovable part of the year. I adore Bad Winter, I wait excitedly for it, and then when it arrives, it turns out I hate it just as much as everybody else does.
There’s a song by The National (I know, I know, I’m sorry) about this long stretch of winter and its idealization, called “Apartment Story.” It’s a song in praise of - as much as a song by The National can be in praise of anything - about the small inward days inside apartments in New York in winter. tired and wired we ruin too easy / sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave, goes the lead up to the chorus, which then bursts sleepily into its repeated offer, we’ll stay inside til somebody finds us / do whatever the tv tells us. The lyrics read like a complaint, but the music is lush like an old couch, like the burst of musty heat from an apartment where the radiator is turned up too high. The song feels like something to sink into, kind and welcoming and sweetly poisonous. Its an achingly recognizable description for anyone who has ever lived through a winter in a big city, an experience that, even after sixteen years of winters here, I am still not able to square with itself. It is exactly like that, it is exactly good in exactly that way, and that it is like that does not alleviate at all what is awful about it, which is just as awful every time.
When I was a child this comforting warmth was largely my impression of New York, a place where my parents and I no longer lived, but which we visited more often in the winter than in any other season. It seemed to be a dark and frightening and cold place broken up by warm rooms that blossomed, unlikely, out of the inhospitable landscape. Walking on the streets, it was all hard edges, steel-grey and ash-grey, places to buy things and people in states of desperate need. And then we would turn a corner and press a button and a door would open and the cold street would transform into a warm room. Every interior seemed too small, too cluttered, even the places that I now understand as being large or fancy. It was all rabbit warrens, little tunnels disappearing further backward, caves that might contain Minotaurs if you ventured far enough in. Everyone was always angry in the exterior city, and cold, and wanting, and no one had enough of anything. Everyone in the interior city was welcoming and loving - unaccountably and unrealistically loving - because we were only visiting, because my parents were that best-loved category of friend, Friends Who Have Moved Away, whose presence is always welcome because it is finite, because it has a limit set on it. We were a celebration when we arrived, and so I thought all interior rooms were celebrations, these little hideouts carved out of the larger, colder place.
The hibernation described in “Apartment Story,” and the interior celebrations that first defined this city to me as a child, are what I still long for as I anticipate the real winter at the end of the holidays. The holidays aren’t winter, they’re something else - an open bar, a handful of salt tossed over your shoulder, a conversation about love in a room where everyone is yelling. The difficulty of the holidays is how easy they are supposed to be, the obligated celebration, lights and noise, love and family and presence. Counter to that, winter drags and curdles and turns in on itself, disappearing back under the covers. It is un-social and undecorated; all the lights have been taken down, the trees thrown away. The open bars are closed; no one expects to be invited anywhere, no one expects to have to declare their love or to have love declared to them. After the exhaustion of holiday performances, the nothing-dullness of January and February can seem like an oasis, like the long exhale beyond the finish line or the first hour home after the workday: oh this is when I’m done and I get to lie down.
Winter makes the apartment a haven; we know that we are inside as much because it is warm inside as because it is cold outside. Summer is the time when the barriers and meanings of inside and outside begin to dissolve, grow frustratingly permeable; the world calls to you, but also it won’t leave you alone. In winter, the world does not have anything to say to you. Perhaps one’s life is never so much imaginary as in winter, when everything is a dream of the warmer future, when everything occurs at a remove, viewed through the cold glass pane of a window over the street, in the middle of the night when the snow plows come and the city wobbles between present and future, between the world in which I am actually living, and the stories of someone else’s past that got me here. We insulate ourselves in coats and scurry from work to home and back again, often in the dark. We cancel plans or don’t make them at all, worn out from the holidays, drained from the cold. Everyone is happy to hear an excuse, to stay inside. Everything that will ever happen is in the future, anyway, or in the past. This part of winter has no present tense; a trapdoor opens under where the present tense should be.
I write about the weather a lot, which can sometimes feel like small talk, like maybe this is what I have to say because I have nothing else to say. In a way, that’s true. Small talk is often about the weather because the weather is a safe form of confession, an experience so wholly shared as to erase the individuals within it. The weather is a larger force that we all can agree on; no one is going to suggest that the weather might be your own fault, that you haven’t examined your own culpability in it. But if we cannot be forced into accountability for it, then we also are powerless to change it. Weather is often the subject of small talk, but it has also often been the material of religion. The weather shapes our lives no matter what choices we make, no matter what else we decorate on top of it. It is the thing left after all the other furniture has been taken out of the room. We make narratives out of it - rebirth in spring, warmth and hibernating ambition in winter- because there is nothing else to do, as once again we bundle up and press our faces to the unkind air on the long block toward the damp subway. I talk about the weather because I have nothing else left to say, because it remains the same no matter what else has been said, intruding into every other more malleable experience.
Blaming oneself for things is exhausting precisely because it is so accurate so much of the time, because so often when you dig down to it, there isn’t any further to go. This, too, might be why we talk about the weather all time - what a relief to not circle back to oneself, to care about something that cares not for a second about you. The difficulty of winter, as it drags on, is to pull it stickily apart from one’s own culpability, to separate out dullness and cold of the weather from the state of one’s own bad brain and sinking ship body: If you were better, this would be better. If you weren’t always so tired, it wouldn’t always be so cold. Blaming oneself emerges in part from the desire to wrest control away from the world, to not feel so small and wingless and empty-handed all the time.
The thing is, all the good things are also true. Winter’s interiors are a celebration. They are warm, and welcoming, these small spaces to which we affix our lives. It is such an unbelievable luxury to have a place to go inside, every single day to get to be warm after being cold, to know being cold is temporary. It is such a privilege to complain about the radiator, to throw off the sheets in the middle of the night because it is too warm, to come back to the same room, to become sick of the same apartment, to come home again and again enough times that home feels obligated, exhausted, cramped and itchy. What a privilege to be loved enough that you can get sick of someone, and wait it out until you are no longer sick of them. All the things in the song are true: The world shrinks down to the space between two people inside one small room inside a large cold city. Everything feels private and therefore safe. We tell each other secrets; we stay up and wait for snow. We wake up late on the weekends and make coffee; we stay inside for days on end and it feels halfway awful and halfway like marriage is just a better version of a long teenage sleepover. We wear sweaters indoors. We buy blankets. The cats sleep on our feet. If blue hour at the edge of the evening comes earlier, it lasts longer, drawing out the light on the edges of buildings into a graceful apology. Everything is on hold and no one has to know what I look like; it is such a privilege, to be tired all the time, to be cranky about my winter coat, to stomp slush off my shoes in a hallway before I come home indoors, to be annoyed, to be relieved, to be home.
And it is also, despite the luxury, the interiors, the warmth, just very, very hard. The thing I forget each year when I think that the things that wear down everybody else will not bother me, when I hungrily anticipate the bad winter, is that it very quickly becomes difficult to distinguish between one’s interior self, and the exterior world. Even in the most stay-inside of seasons, the most closed-room months, one soon seeps in at the cracks of the other. The difference between reaction and feeling grows thin and frays, and matters very little at all. There are so few distractions, in the undecorated cold, in the sameness of the days, the repeated walks back to the same small rooms. Eventually the cabin fever that seemed so cozy from outside means standing in front of all the old unchangeable things, whatever we have been carrying so long that it seem likely we will always be carrying it. We arrive empty-handed at the bottom of the year, once again confronting what cannot be changed. It is not a time to harvest, but a time to conjure hope out of nothing, to snap one’s fingers against the cold until they make a flame. Magic is exhausting, and cheap, and wears thin faster than it should. We go home tired from the day; it is easier to wait for the next thing than to find the spark in the thing that is here, now, in all its difficult and ungenerous blessings.