One of my favorite short stories is “The Sleep” by Caitlin Horrocks (http://www.caitlinhorrocks.com). In it, a family going through a hard time–the sudden and tragic loss of the mother–decides to take the winter off and hibernate. Before long, the concept of human hibernation starts to take off in their small, northern community and others decide to sleep their way through the cold winter months, as well, waking to the warmth of spring. There are, of course, ill consequences for such an action, but there are benefits, too, and, in the end, the first family to hibernate and many of their neighbors find a much needed healing in their rest. They wake to a world in which forgiveness of both the self and others is possible, to a world of warmth and light and life. It is as our mothers always told us, that there is little that a good sleep can’t cure. Everything will be better in the morning…or maybe somewhere around the end of March.
“The Sleep” is, of course, a perfect story to read in winter, one that reminds me why winter is such a necessary season in my life. I used to hate winter. Where I grew up, it was something that seemed to catch us by surprise, punching us in the face with wind more bitterly cold than the year before (we were certain of that), and ice and drifting snow that brought our world to a frozen stop. Winter was a season of isolation. A good snowfall meant school cancellations not just for a day, but quite possibly for weeks, the buses unable to pass over the narrow, gravel roads of the backwoods. Once things were moving again, there was the new misery of air so dry it cracked our hands and lips, the cold seeping through the windows of the bus, of the school, of our bedrooms at night. The best, warmest place in the house was the bathroom where my mother, like all the mothers I knew, kept the door closed during the winter to keep the tiny room warm for showers and baths. On those long, boring days when there was no school, I often took a book or a stack of magazines into the bathroom and happily plopped down on the floor in the tight space between the toilet and the vanity and spent the afternoon reading there next to the vent. I even napped there, my head propped up on a make-shift pillow of stacked towels, and I didn’t feel weird about it at all. Other times, my sisters and I would pretend that we lived in a place where it never got cold and we spread our giant beach towels out on the living room floor, put on our swimsuits and smeared our legs and arms with Coppertone, closing our eyes and letting the coconutty scent trick us into believing summer had come. Winter can be a long season in southern Missouri, the cold often setting in in November and lingering past Easter, and a good imagination is a necessity to one’s mental survival.
But I don’t hate winter anymore. Learning to love winter was helped by my three years living in New Orleans. South Louisiana has winter (many don’t realize that) and you still need a light coat, but it is nothing like a southern Missouri winter. Mostly, it is wet and gray, the daily rain simply cold instead of steamy as it is in the summer. But in the midst of that chill is Mardi Gras and the weeks that lead up to it, so there’s no festivity drop-off after Christmas has passed, no long, solemn march to spring. After New Orleans, I moved back to Arkansas, to Fayetteville. I love Fayetteville, but it’s a town on a hill and, as such, the wind never stops, especially in winter. I often felt the wind would cut me in two and it was in Fayetteville that I discovered the wisdom of the very long, wool coat and the knitted hat. But Fayetteville is a town that passes winter at basketball games and concerts, with gatherings at warm, Tex-Mex restaurants and dark bars, the college kids racing across campus in their duck-boots and wool mittens. It is a boisterous town that doesn’t have much tolerance for the winter blues. Life–and the party–must go on, ice storm or not.
Here in St. Louis, my relationship with winter changed again. When I stopped working, I also stopped worrying about the troubles of getting to the office in winter weather. Both of my children were born in winter, both during snowstorms, and the weather kept visitors away from the hospital and then from the house, allowing us time alone to rest and for me to figure out the mysteries of breastfeeding and diaper changing and sleeping with a child in my arms. Winter (and childbirth) was teaching me to slow down, to rest. There’s time enough to be busy, but it’s no good if you’re utterly exhausted when it comes. St. Louis is a city far enough north that winter storms shouldn’t phase anyone and, yet, it is a city, too, that is just far enough south that no one seems to know quite what to do when such a thing actually strikes. Our solution? Cancel. Cancel everything. Cancel school, meetings, church services; cancel shopping, cancel movies, cancel games. We shut it all down and feel little remorse…until that moment when someone brings up the unpleasant business of making up our lengthy absences. And it is then, as we scramble to find ways to make up for lost time, that I wonder about the wisdom of trying to keep to “business as usual” when winter so clearly seems to be telling us that this is our time to slow down. Enjoy. Rest. Hold that sleeping child in your arms. Savor that king cake and Solo cup of beer. Put on your warm clothes and stay close to the fire. This season will pass and the seasons of planting and harvesting (real or metaphorical, depending on how you make your living) will come again.
And sleep, winter tells us. Sleep until you can sleep no more. Sleep and dream. You’ll feel better in the morning.
*You can find Ms. Horrocks’ fantastic story here: http://www.amazon.com/Sleep-short-story-Atlantic-Archives-ebook/dp/B008874026, and also in The Best American Short Stories, 2011.