It starts as a tingle, a sort of buzzing in the center of my chest. Then spreading across my chest slowly, then more quickly, creating the feeling of something heavy permanently placed there. My breathing is now shallow, as I try to take a full breath around what feels like a rock between my breasts. I yawn, sometimes too loudly, trying to force the air past it and feel the relief of my lungs finally filling with oxygen. My fingers tingle as though numb with sleep needles and I shake my arms out trying to rid myself of the sensation. Sleep evades me and I often wake up sore from the fact that I slept all night with my fists clenched. Worry. Anxiety. Panic. Call it what you will. During the winter it stalks me in the form of alarmist weather reports, icy roads, slippery steps, mountains of snow, bracing cold and the utter despairing soul-crushing lack of light and warmth. My ability to focus is shot, and with a ritual bordering on the obsessive, I shovel, sand, check batteries, place flashlights, chip at ice, and worry.
My worry creates a wall, imprisoning me in a fortress inescapable and impenetrable. From behind its’ walls I watch the rest of the world handling winter in completely normal ways, staying home when it’s prudent to do so, driving safely in storms and managing to get where they are supposed to be on any given day no matter the conditions. I know my fear, while rooted in reality, lacks any rationality. I can drive in snow. I have a jeep with four-wheel drive. I am a New England native. It shouldn’t be this hard. But the minute the first flakes of the holiday season fall the anxiety tickles me to let me know it’s there — waiting. This year a storm on Thanksgiving Eve it self brought power outages and the insult of heavy wet snow blanketing the leaves that should still be heralding autumn’s last days. Everything has always seemed harder in winter, but it’s the unpredictable nature of winter days that taunts and torments me. The way my carpets were thick with water while my window frames dripped melting ice dams into the house. The way my power steering hose froze and burst at a busy intersection one morning. The way my Jeep, four-wheel drive powerless against ice, began sliding sideways down my condo road barely two weeks ago when a routine grocery-shopping trip turned into a white- knuckle ride home on black ice. The way I felt as a new single mom rushing to clear my jeep, move to the road, let the plows clear the parking lot, all while leaving a five year old inside on her own because it was easier than bundling her up for outside. For years it has seemed as though winter was stalking me, mocking me, laughing at my inability to cope, and leaving me feeling like a fool on the side of the road while the rest of the world posts photos of ski trips, snowshoe excursions and “winter hikes.” Dear God, how is there is such a thing as a winter hike?
“Embrace the winter!” Cry these outdoor enthusiasts. So we explore the possibility of renting show shoes, until we find that to be properly fitted for a good snowshoe requires choosing said shoe on its ability to support your weight. Let me repeat that. Support your weight. So before we can join the legions of smiling bundled snowshoers we have to submit to the indignity of confessing how much we weigh. Online shopping didn’t yield much encouragement when I realized that I probably stray outside the upper limits of any “woman’s” snowshoe, my Amazonian frame more suited to sturdy men’s snowshoes. I should just take the plunge, find a place that rents them, try them out, but the thought of submitting to the indignity of telling some hapless snow shoe fitter how much I weigh is paralyzing, so for now my “winter-embracing” waits.
“Escape the winter!” Cry others. This year for the first time we shall, fleeing to Orlando later this winter for a much-needed break. But that comes with its own anxiety-provoking baggage. What if snowstorms scuttle our flights? What If there’s so much snow while we’re gone that the ice dams come back? What if our car doesn’t start after its stint in the long-term parking lot? What if my expansive hips don’t fit into the seats on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train or prevent me from sitting side by side with my family in the Haunted Mansion? What if I’m too heavy for the flying boats of the Peter Pan ride? What if my shorts don’t fit? A well meaning friend ads me to one of those horrible 30 Days of Fitness challenge groups on Facebook and I want to cry. “First day down! Zumba! Planking! Core! Cardio!” the posts scream at me. A colleague who probably barely tops the scales at 100 proudly shows off one of those step-counting Fit Bit while making an off-hand comment about a mutual acquaintance she thought looked as though had ‘been enjoying a good meal or two” while I smile nervously and pull my sweater further down across my belly and hips. All around me people are renouncing sugar, running in place during Super Bowl commercials, cutting out carbs, juicing, lifting, cleansing. They chant, breathe, pound, lift, woo! And exhale. They post about eating kale and renouncing wine. I make jokes about eating chocolate only to have one friend tell me ‘well, pictures don’t lie,” as if I’m unaware of my belly, hips, the fat that overtakes my face. As if it never occurred to me to ‘try’ to be thin. As if I don’t hate that my fashion choices are limited to the plus size department And every day I am more keenly aware of the space I take up and I feel too big, too clumsy for the world around me. The buzzing in my chest comes back and my breath becomes shallow and I burrow further under my ever-present fleece blanket and pour another bowl of cinnamon covered pecans from Target (my new winter obsession) and try to block it all out.
The snow rages, he winds blow, and my depression and anxiety grow worse. My wife listens, counsels, understands, holds, hugs. I hesitate to confess the level of my anxiety, gun shy from the time I unburdened about my ice dams to a friend only to be told with a shrug “it happens.” My panic won’t be understood of that I am sure. My friends urge me to see a doctor, get a physical, push past the fear of the dreaded lecture about weight and fitness. The memory of an OB/GYN on call telling me to ‘put down the cookies’ sixteen years ago when I was pregnant still rings in my ear, but I luck out and get a nice nurse who schedules blood work and reassures me all will be well. In the meantime I watch the skies, obsessively check hour-by-hour weather forecasts, shovel, chip, brush, worry. And pray for sun.
“Take the high road,” was a particular favorite expression of my mother’s. This was often followed by her other favorite expression: “Rise above it. “Don’t give them the satisfaction of letting them see they’ve gotten to you,” she would say when I would come home crying about the kids who called me Elephant, the girls who laughed at my clothes, or the friends who had ditched me because I wasn’t ‘popular’ material.
My mother was the world-class reigning champ in ‘rising above it.” When my father’s good name was under attack, when our family suffered the losses of my grandfather, father, and sister, when friends let her down, when her work as a teacher ran into administrative red tape and bureaucratic changes, she took a road so high it seemed to end in the clouds. Someone who signed from the age of four, my mother was incapable of talking without using her hands. She used to tell me that when things got too tough and she was afraid she would “let loose,” she would literally sit on her hands to keep her from talking. She relied on a steely gaze, a firmly set chin, and an unrelenting ability to hold her head high no matter what. I admired her, but a part of me always wished that just once she would have let it all go, let loose on the people who had hurt her or our family, put a few folks in their well-deserved place. Would it have righted any wrongs? Of course not, but it sure would have been satisfying. The closest she ever came was years after my father’s death when an acquaintance apologized for some particularly damaging things he had said about my father’s reputation. She fixed him with her inimitable gaze and said “I forgive but I never ever forget.” I imagine he quaked a bit inside.
My mother’s advice has guided me through my adult years. I’ve “high-road”-ed myself in the face of friends who felt compelled to provide me (in writing!) with a laundry list of all my short-comings, professional acquaintances who threw me under bus after bus, of people who walked away from obligations leaving me holding the bag, and donors who reneged on pledges without thinking how it felt for the underpaid staffers left scrambling to fill the shortfall in expected revenue. I’ve “risen above” jabs about my parenting, passive aggressive remarks about my ‘lifestyle,” comments about my weight, and being dumped by friends who have ‘moved on’ to greener pastures without telling me. I’ve swallowed my hurt and nodded and smiled in the face of situations that made me want to scream, cry, run away or all three. I know the high road so well I could write a TripAdvisor review.
But often I wonder: why do people like my mother and I cling to this high-road ideal? Why do other people get to indulge when we rise above? Sometimes the suppressed anger and frustration are so great they bubble to the surface in my dreams and I wake up crying from a dream about telling someone off, yelling at someone ‘til my throat hurts, of the satisfaction of making my voice and my feelings finally known. I fantasize about how good it would feel the way dieters fantasize about hot fudge sundaes or enormous pizzas. But just as the overindulgence of sweets and carbs can backfire and leave one feeling sick to the stomach, I know that to indulge in this romanticized notion of payback would leave me feeling sick to my soul. It is not me, nor shall it ever be.
So, on the cusp of a New Year, as I contemplate the ups and downs of the year just finished and wonder what will be in store over the next twelve months, I gently say no to the voice in my head begging that I resolve to “speak my mind” in the coming year. For I am my mother’s daughter and one thing Mary Youngs taught her baby girl was that there is power in a steady gaze, a well timed raised eyebrow, and the inner peace that comes with ‘rising above.” The high road may take longer to travel, but what you gain is worth the journey. Happy New Year wherever you are, momma. I’ll be thinking of you along the way.
And so the shortest Day came and the year died*
Dark morning, dark afternoon, snow falling on the deck on this, the darkest shortest day of the year. Solstice, my new age friends claim, is necessary. One must retreat to the darkness to restore in order to fully appreciate the lengthening days of late winter, the cold light of early spring and the sunshine of a July morning. Those of them with advanced new age degrees might wax at length about mother earth and holding her children close or something. But my eyes yearn for light and my skin longs for warmth and my heart wishes for summer lightness. My soul is weary of anxiety, of the worries that come with me wherever I go: of not being good enough at work; of not being good enough at motherhood; of navigating slippery roads on dark afternoons; of lack of money, lack of time; of the looming prospect of college bills with no way to pay them; of aging and the fear and reality of loss; of health and weight and clothes that don’t fit and backs that ache without cease and unsettling patches of darkening skin from too many days on the beach; of friendships once so solid now fragile or even broken without explanation; of being forgotten; of being alone. The shortest day has dawned dark and cold to match my mood and in spite of my Yankee resolve, frustrated tears fall into my coffee cup as fast as the snowflakes fall on our deck outside the window.
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees
And so in the face of darkness we string the lights – on trees and bushes inside and out – webs of extension cords working overtime to keep the bulbs burning brightly. I fight the darkness with light and the creeping cold with fleece blankets and space heaters. But that doesn’t still the voices of anxiety whispering in my ears — whispering that it’s my fault. My fault that I lack the discipline to be thin, to be fit. My fault my poor financial management leaves the college fund coffers bare. My fault that I’m too sarcastic, too brittle, too self involved for the friends who have made it clear I’m not a part of their lives anymore. And on this shortest day, even in what is supposed to be the Season of Light, the darkness seems impenetrable and the temptation to sink into it and not emerge until the light of spring is great indeed.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
But the Shortest Day brings with it a promise as well as the darkness – a promise of light. For tomorrow, the daylight minutes will begin inch ever upward, even though the winter winds of January, February and March have yet to blow. But in the meantime, the holiday beckons so I do my best. Kelly patiently navigates my stress, rubbing my head at night, and reassuring me that my doomsday scenarios may be just a little exaggerated. Rather than the scratchy holiday albums of my youth, she fires up a Songza “Sixties Holiday Party Mix’ on our iPads to set the mood and we wrap gifts, decorate the tree, address the cards. We make Christmas happen. And as we do the anxiety releases its grip on my chest and I remind myself of all the good that is. That I am not alone. Won’t be forgotten. That there are movies to watch, popcorn to eat, naps to take, and games to play. There are phone call dates with my oldest, dearest friend, and lunches and cocktail parties with new ones. There is family and there is food and there is laughter and music.
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
A few weeks of holiday lights and Christmas cookies won’t make everything magically better, this I know. I’ll still cringe at my fat reflection and my thin bank account. I’ll still miss the friends I used to see and worry that my career path is a dead end. I’ll still go to great lengths to avoid driving on snowy roads and I’ll still curse at the ice on the steps. But maybe my New Age friends are right. Maybe we need this day to retreat inward a bit before turning once again into the breach. And so, on this, the Shortest Day, I’ll remind myself that I am loved, and I love and that on the edge of the darkness there is the promise of light and for now that promise is enough. Happy Solstice.
*All quotes are taken from the poem ‘the Shortest Day’ by Susan Cooper.