Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Dark Side

As a young woman, I spent 7 glorious years in California's Bay Area. Not in foggy, windy San Francisco, but in sunny, blithe Palo Alto, where 10 months of the year are a cloudless 75 degrees. The "winter" season, when it was chillier, and it rained more than usual, was also the season of green--grass grew on the hills, the air was moist and fragrant; often, after a rain, the sun came out and created spectacular double rainbows. I came to think of myself as a normal, energetic, happy person.

In 2001, we moved back east, to be nearer our families. We lived in Providence, Rhode Island, a city with many fine qualities, but a decidedly gritty texture compared to California. I hadn't lived though a real winter in 7 years, and I hadn't lived in a coastal climate for even longer--I had forgotten about the relentless cloud cover of the New England seacoast, having left it behind in Maine when I went off to college.

I found myself stuck indoors in an unfamiliar city with an energetic three-year-old, no friends, no sunshine, and no entertainment. I hadn't watched television for 7 years. Now suddenly I felt that I needed something to fill the dark hours, and the windswept hole that had appeared in my soul. I told my husband it was either cable tv, or crack. I've slogged through 8 New England winters since, with the help of, at various times, cable tv, caffeine, video games, antidepressants, carbohydrates, whining, light boxes, alcohol (the old European standby), wool socks, and this New Yorker cover, taped to my kitchen cabinet:

Still, I find the dark days bleak and empty--I eat, I isolate myself, I crave only warmth, comfort, solitude, and sleep.

Either I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or everybody does, and there is really no such thing. I lean toward the latter. Wikipedia says:

In many species, activity is diminished during the winter months in response to the reduction in available food and the difficulties of surviving in cold weather. Hibernation is an extreme example, but even species that do not hibernate often exhibit changes in behavior during the winter. It has been argued that SAD is an evolved adaptation in humans that is a variant or remnant of a hibernation response in some remote ancestor.... If these interpretations are correct, SAD would not be a dysfunction or disorder as most psychiatrists assume, but rather a normal and expected response to seasonal changes.

If this is the correct explanation, my particular disorder is more correctly characterized by a tendency to whine a lot more than everybody else while in the exact same situation. In fact, I was going to save this subject for a blog post later in the season, only because I often have very little else to say during the winter months. As it turns out, that has already happened.

My older son has recently become interested in Greek myths. Yesterday, I had him read me the story of Persephone, one of my favorites as a kid. You remember it: Hades, in a typical
dickhead Greek God move, kidnaps the lovely young Persephone, Demeter's daughter, and takes her down the the underworld to be his bride. Demeter searches everywhere for her daughter, but can't find her. In her grief, she neglects her usual job of making the earth warm and green and fertile. Mortals are miserable, and beginning to starve, so Zeus allows a deal to be made, wherein Persephone can return to earth most of the year, but has to return to the underworld four months out of each year--one month for each pomegranate seed she ate, in the worst pre-nuptial loophole ever. This is why the winter comes every year: spring is born with Persephone's return to her mother.

I love this story because I take winter so personally, it makes sense to me to personify it. When I walk out the door and the cold wind slaps me, and a big cold blob of ice slides down the back of my neck, it feels like an assault, as if the earth is spiting me in particular. I resent the hell out of the endless struggle with the snow and cold--the bundling and unbundling, the insulating of window and door cracks, the shoveling, the scraping, the salting, just in order to move about one tiny corner of the world without freezing, falling down, or having the car get stuck.

And Persephone's listless sulk in the colorless, lifeless underworld is the perfect description of life in Boston in the winter months: you might as well be describing the parking lot of the Dunkin Donuts on Mass Ave. in February: cold, gray, and barren, populated only by wandering, dejected, hopeless souls in workboots and checkered jackets. People grow pale and wan, they do not smile, or chat.

See? Same.

As I said, I feel all this very personally, and cast about for someone to blame. Not Demeter, she is too sympathetic, plus she is pretend. Nope, you know who we actually have to blame for this mess?
The goddamn Pilgrims, that's who.

Only the Puritan Pilgrims, with their bleak view of life as penance and suffering, could have looked around the bleak Plymouth landscape, and said to each other: "Awesome! What a terrible climate! This place will force us to be miserable, as God wants us to be! God will test and mock and punish us for months longer here than in Virginia, where we were actually headed! Let's stay! Our ancestors will be so grateful to us, for they too can live half the year in misery and pain"! Yes, only the grim, ascetic, cowering, intolerant, fanatical, buckle-shoed, witch-hunting, masochistic, joy-averse, turkey-eating PILGRIMS would decide to settle in such an inhospitable climate.

Don't try and defend them--religious freedom, persecution, blah, blah, blah. They didn't really want religious freedom, they just wanted to go somewhere where THEY could be the persecutors. I promise you, the more you find out about the pilgrims, the less there is to like. These are some of my ancestors, and I can't stand the uptight sons of bitches.

This is traditionally the point in my rambling where I should soften the message, offer a glimmer of positivity or hope or perspective--"But it's not all bad...we still have the warm love in our hearts", something like that. But I've got nothing. The days are dark and cold, and will stay that way for many months. I have a firm policy of No Hoping 'Til May, having been burned by too many late April snowstorms. If before then there happens to be a thaw, I will certainly enjoy it, bask in the sun and warmth, even maybe plant some seedlings indoors, but I won't be fooled. Winter is long, colorless, and brutal in New England.

Thanks a lot, Pilgrims.


Amy. said...

Yeah... whenever Mom and Dad pressure me and Mike to move to New England, Imma show them this.

Anonymous said...

stinkin pilgrims.