It’s not that I’m a contrarian — well, of course I am (there, I just proved it) — but I love winter.
I’m not talking about winter when it’s showing off with sunsets on snowfields or Fifth Avenue alive with lights and bundled people bustling to cozy spots. No, I actually like the short days, the weak sun, and the gray, wet mornings when dawn doesn’t make a series of dramatic gestures, but slowly seeps in from the night.
Or those afternoons late or early in the year when the light at times is highly polished, scoured clean and hallucinogenic, providing fragility to things as rooted and ancient as stone.
Any damn fool can love a perfect summer day.
I lived way out in the country one winter in the northern latitudes, a place even the locals would call “the back of beyond.” The place is identified in my memory with a treasured image: a treeless landscape of moor and bog and patches of light gleaming on a wet black road. This happened nearly every day near dusk when the lopsided sun evaporated in a sky the color of porridge. When I’m travelling along a bleak stretch here and catch a glimpse of sheen on the road, it reminds me of that distant place, and also that I’m home here.
Call me crazy.
But voicing the c-word is no laughing matter when it comes to the six out of 100 Americans who are afflicted with severe depression brought on by Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the up to 20 percent who have milder symptoms of SAD. Those stats are from the American Academy of Family Physicians, who recommend eating right, knocking off booze, getting your rest and avoiding the dark to stay whole through the cold months.
The U.S. Library of Medicine has published research showing SAD begins during teen years or young adulthood. Like most forms of depression, it occurs more frequently in women than men, and starts slowly in autumn and then escalates through the winter. It’s important to understand the affliction and know the warning signs to help yourself and others.
But SAD, or depression in general, should not be confused with melancholy, although many Americans believe if you have that emotion, something is very wrong with you. Melancholy is an unhealthy condition or symptom, the thinking goes, since the best we should be is jolly, or striving to be. It’s interesting that people in this camp are blind to the fact that an endless appetite for cheeriness is itself a form of madness.
Melancholy is not a symptom of anything. It’s a gift, a state of sweetened sorrow, a reflection on things that haunt but don’t frighten us.
Melancholy isn’t grumpiness. It may even be the opposite of misanthropy, since it’s usually a case of loving the world not wisely but too well.
New York Times columnist Timothy Egan lives in Seattle, so he knows something about short days, cold wet weather and long winter nights. Egan recently looked at winter as a spur “that forces creative types to the far interior — the soul, the heart, the meditative marrow.” He interviewed writers who all testified they did their best work when day looked suspiciously close to night for months on end.
There’s no doubt winter does tend to drive you inside, searching for physical and emotional comforts. The season provides, if you’re lucky enough to have the wherewithal, a sense of security no other season can offer. In summer, for example, it’s always good to come home. But how much better is it to be travelling home on a wild winter day of rushing winds, the mercury dying in the thermometer, the day hurrying toward night, knowing you’ll soon be at the place not only where the heart is but, as Robert Frost pointed out, where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
On Shelter Island winter means privacy and silence, not only walking in the bare woods but even on a street of shops. I stepped out of the warm, hospitable buzz of Stars Café one day last week and was suddenly alone – no one in sight and no sound except the wind along the street. It was like stepping onto a stage set, waiting for other actors to appear.
A stroll through an empty village on a cold day, or travelling through a winter landscape along a road gleaming in wet fog, can remind you of an old Northeastern truth: The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.