As We Descend toward Winter…

Today, June 20, 2021, at 11:31 PM, we will begin the long descent into winter by reaching the summer solstice. The longest day—actually the longest period of sunlight—will end, and the days will grow shorter.

While this extended period of sunlight and our position riding on this earth in the northern hemisphere will bring us warmer, sometimes scorching days of summer heat, the inevitable progression of the earth’s axis tilting away from the sun will drive us inexorably toward winter darkness.

For those of us in New England, our weather within each season is as variable as it is throughout the year. The first hints of Fall coolness are often interspersed with almost summer-like warmth. Still, they inevitably yield to frosty nights, cold-desiccated gardens, and falling leaves—a sort of technicolor version of a snowstorm.

The progression toward howling blizzards, bone-chilling wind, and the palette of summer color replaced by the white- gray hazy shade of winter soon dominates the scene outside our windows.

Sitting outside, fishing in a stream, walking on a beach, or hiking a mountain path bathed in the summer’s warmth are such pleasurable, if fleeting, moments. It would serve us well to embrace them.

Seasons change with the scenery;
Weaving time in a tapestry.
Won’t you stop and remember me
Look around,
Leaves are brown,
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter.

Hazy Shade of Winter, Paul Simon

The progression of the sun through the seasons has always fascinated me, even as a young boy. In winter, I always noticed the sun would be far to the left of a large tree in the woods behind my house. Magically it would seem to the six-year-old me, I would see it move first behind the tree, as winter faded and spring arrived, then appear again to the right of the tree, marking the start of summer.

Through the fortunes of birth and my growing up in Cumberland, RI, the window of my room always caught the first rays of the summer solstice and the last rays of the autumn equinox—when the day and night were of equal length.

In the summer, the sun’s rays would wake me in the morning, inviting me to another day of freedom. As summer faded, the sun would disappear from the window, first hidden behind the tree through the first days of autumn, then move, so I had to look out the window to see it.

While the two solstices and equinoxes mark the passing of time—each event deducting from whatever allocation we might have—they are also comforting. I may complain about the winter, yet truth be told, I think I would miss never seeing it again. While living in a winter-free part of the world has its attractions, I sometimes enjoy sitting in a warm house looking out on a blustery New England winter storm. Knowing, even if I cannot see it, the sun is working its way back toward summer while I look forward to seeing it.

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Dark with a Chance of Old Temperatures

What is it about the gloomy dark of winter that makes me cold even when I am inside? As time’s moved on, I do things I never would have dreamed of as a kid.

I wear gloves.

I have a lifesaving supply of long underwear—left over from my days as a Ramp Supervisor for Southwest Airlines and many a night spent in frigid temperatures deicing planes—but now necessary for my mere survival.

My religious practices consist of wearing many layers of clothing, both inside and outside.

I zipper my jackets, once considered heresy in my youth.

Winter days follow a common pattern. Beginning with the clothing ritual, I prepare myself for the cold. And for most of the day, it works fine. Even on days when clouds mask the sun, the diffused light still brings a sense of comforting warmth.

But then, at the first hint of sunset, the cold permeates my body to its core. Now I’m not talking about being outside in some howling, wind-chilling blizzard or Arctic freeze. I’m talking about standing inside my house, where the temperature remains a constant 65 degrees until 10:00 P.M., long after I’ve crawled into bed and buried myself in the warmest of blankets.

Inside, out of the weather, something changes. Something unseen. Something unsettling grips me with an irresistible force.

I’m talking about a phenomenon that has grown more pronounced as I’ve added years to my age. The darkness overtakes the light and the chilling specter envelopes my very core.

I get cold despite any efforts to ward it off.

There is no scientific explanation for this.

My religiously applied layers of clothing remain.

The temperature in the house holds steady.

No insidious windchill permeates our hermetically sealed home.

Yet darkness falls and the cold sets in.

Like the cold grip of death, it chills the body.

Which each passing moment of life, the darkness grows colder.

But there is hope, the morning light dawns, and the cold demon recedes once more.

A Whiff of Memories

As we grow through the various stages of our lives, we develop a memory of aromas.  Over time, our experiences accumulate and a familiar fragrance or aroma causes a reaction in our minds, invoking a memory or making us aware of something with which we are acquainted.

Those of us from New England are intimately familiar with the smell of snow, a certain aromatic essence in the air, predicting its imminent arrival.  It may be true in other areas of the world but certainly familiar to us here.

Soon, we all hope, we will be able to enjoy the smell of spring.  The emerging buds of the trees, early blooming flowers, grass returning to a vibrant growing green, the aroma of a warm sun.

Human beings are visual creatures; we rely on our vision more than any other sense.  Those among us that are blind need to rely more on the other senses.  Yet, we all have the ability to use them; we often do it without realizing it.

For me, the smell of approaching snow brings mixed feelings.  As a native New Englander, I think we suffer if we are too long separated from four seasons, no matter how much we may complain.

I am guilty of fleeing winter more frequently as I have grown older, my tolerance for cold weather diminishing with age.  Nevertheless, there is something integrated deep within my psyche that needs a little of each season and the associated smells differentiating them.

The smells of a recent rain, freshly mowed grass, flowers in bloom, the ocean mist, all of these enhancing our experiences here in this world.

Just the hint of any of them, brings forth memories of other days, other storms, other walks in the rain, other moments of rolling in fallen leaves, riding waves, sliding sleds down snow covered hills.

Like most of you, I am ready for the smells of winter to fade away for now. Let the new, yet familiar, aromas of spring take over.  I look forward to that first feeling of a warm sun on my face, as I smell the emerging new growth pushing out of the ground.

I know that the pattern will remain; the one I have come to know so well.  The rains of spring, followed by the grass and beaches of summer, the changing leaves of fall, and the return of those first hints of snow repeating itself once again.

While we may be tired of the hazy shade of winter, to borrow a line from Paul Simon, ready to move on to spring, keep in mind those aromas of the seasons. I hope we all have any more winters to complain about, many more aromas of approaching storms.  Inhale them, savor them, and hold their memories because the winter of our human life marks a real end without the chance of a following spring.