Wintering
A Calendar for Those Who Struggle through Long Winter Nights
Jessica Kantrowitz

“The birds they sang at the break of day.
“Start again,” I heard them say.”
~Leonard Cohen

February 26th: Boston sunset 5:30 pm
March 1st: First day of meteorological spring
March 10th: Boston sunset 5:45 pm
March 14th: Boston sunset 6:49 pm

Hi friends! I’ve missed posting on three of my winter milestones, so I thought I’d round up and do four at once. This is the part of the winter when everything speeds up. We’ve plowed right through the Boston sunset hitting 5:30 and 5:45, and, one of my favorite milestones, March 1st, the first day of meteorological spring. And in two days it’ll be time here to turn the clocks forward again, and lose an hour of sleep, but gain, suddenly, an hour of evening light. This year that happens on March 14th, one day before the Ides of March. Here are some interesting facts about Ides:

  • The Roman calendar actually had three named dates each month, Kalends, the first day, from which we get the word calendar, Nones, the fifth or seventh day of the month, and Ides, the 13th or 15th day of the month.
  • In the original lunar calendar, the Ides represented the day of the full moon, and the Ides of March the first full moon of the year
  • The Ides are only on the 15th of March, May, July, and October; they’re on the 13th of every other month.
  • Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BC, famously commemorated in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, in which a soothsayer proclaims “Beware the Ides of March.”
  • If you’re not Julius Caesar there’s no particular reason to worry about the Ides of March. They’re not portentous in and of themselves, though there is an old Roman custom that debts needed to be paid by the Ides of each month.

Over here in Boston, in my little non-Caesarean life, there have been signs of hope and signs of spring for the past couple of weeks. We had several days above freezing that melted the huge piles of snow hemming in the street parking spots, which made me feel like I could leave the house without being scared about finding a place to park when I returned. That, thankfully, coincided with me finally getting in to start physical therapy for my knees. I’ve had four appointments now, and have gotten a parking spot on my street all four times when I returned. I haven’t left the house for any other reason, though. But there is a Starbucks next to my physical therapist’s office, so it feels like a fun outing. My parents and brother have all had the COVID vaccine, which is such a relief I can’t really even process it. It’s not my turn yet, but the Johnson and Johnson vaccine has given me hope that it may be soon.

And then there are the light and the birdsong.

Honestly, though, I’ve been having trouble processing the joy and hope. Things are still so hard, in so many ways. But yesterday the temperature reached 70 here, and I opened all my windows and did my pt exercises in shorts and a t-shirt, and the fresh air spoke to me through my skin of warmth and hope and healing, and I did feel joy. Just for a couple of hours, but I did. I hope you do, too.

Love,
Jessica

Only two milestones left!! March 20th, which is the Spring Equinox, and March 23rd, when sunset will hit 7 pm in Boston. The light is returning!

February 2nd: Boston sunset 5 pm & February 14th: Boston sunset 5:15 pm

(I’m so late in doing the Feb 2nd reflection that I’m just going to do two at once.)

Valentine’s Day Forecast
Jessica Faith Kantrowitz

The cold will be as bitter
As unrequited love.
Biting, piercing
Hopeless.

But.

The sun,
Oh, the sun,
Though its rays seem to
Freeze and crumble into ice crystals
Before they touch your skin,

Still, it will stretch its arms and legs
Like a just-waking child,
Pushing back the night
On both ends of the day.

If you go out, despite
Your heartache
You won’t be able to
Feel the skin on your face.

But if you stay in,
Wear a sweater,
And put the kettle on,
The sun will fill your house —
The living room at coffee time,
And the kitchen for your
Late afternoon tea —
With such a promise of
Love and warmth
That the thermometer
Will be helpless
To deny.

Hello! Guess what? It’s February 14th, and that means there are only two weeks left in meteorological winter! (I’ve written more about the difference between meteorological winter and astronomical winter in previous reflections, which you can find by scrolling down.) And sunset here in Boston has clawed its way back to 5:15 pm. We haven’t seen sun after 5 pm, or indeed after 4:36 since the clocks were turned back on November 1st.

I’ve been learning about a few religious winter holidays I never knew about before. One of them is the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, which was January 27th to 29th this year, and apparently is considered to be the birthday of all trees! Happy belated birthday, trees.

February 1st was Imbolc, or St. Brigid’s Day, celebrating the first signs of spring. As Maireid Sullivan writes, “The word Imbolc means literally “in the belly” in the old Irish Neolithic language, referring to the pregnancy of ewes.” My friend, Dr. Kellyann Wolfe, wrote a beautiful Twitter thread for Brigid’s Day, noting some of the signs in nature, even on February 1st, that spring is returning. These include the song of the chickadee, the birth of black bear cubs, and the mating song of coyotes. Read her thread here.

We can feel the returning of spring in the evening light, too, obviously. I find myself confused around five in the evening now, because it’s still light out and I was expecting the dark. But it’s not just more light, the angle of the sun is different now, similar to how it was in late October. This means that even though Boston is getting significant snow for the first time since December, it is melting faster than it would have if it had come in January. I can’t help but think of that joyful passage in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when Edmund noticed signs of spring for the first time in the sound of the melting snow:

And soon Edmund noticed that the snow which splashed against them as they rushed through it was much wetter than it had been all last night. At the same time he noticed that he was feeling much less cold. It was also becoming foggy. In fact every minute it grew foggier and warmer. And the sledge was not running nearly as well as it had been running up till now. At first he thought this was because the reindeer were tired, but soon he saw that that couldn’t be the real reason. The sledge jerked, and skidded and kept on jolting as if it had struck against stones. And however the dwarf whipped the poor reindeer the sledge went slower and slower. There also seemed to be a curious noise all round them, but the noise of their driving and jolting and the dwarf’s shouting at the reindeer prevented Edmund from hearing what it was, until suddenly the sledge stuck so fast that it wouldn’t go on at all. When that happened there was a moment’s silence. And in that silence Edmund could at last listen to the other noise properly. A strange, sweet, rustling, chattering noise—and yet not so strange, for he’d heard it before—if only he could remember where! Then all at once he did remember. It was the noise of running water. All round them though out of sight, there were streams, chattering, murmuring, bubbling, splashing and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realized that the frost was over. And much nearer there was a drip-drip-drip from the branches of all the trees. And then, as he looked at one tree he saw a great load of snow slide off it and for the first time since he had entered Narnia he saw the dark green of a fir tree.

Here in New England, that joyous murmuring doesn’t usually appear until March or April. But it is somehow encouraging to know that in Israel and Ireland, trees are beginning to bud, and sheep are with child. And that even here, the animals are noticing the subtle changes that bring us closer to the end of another winter.

In love and hope,
Jessica

Further resources:

More about Tu B’Shevat: https://www.shiva.com/learning-center/commemorate/jewish-holidays/tu-bshevat/

More about Imbolc, or Saint Brigid’s Day: https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/st-brigids-day-traditions

My friend Clare sent me one of these tiny paper plants from Hippie Houseplants on Etsy, and it is adorable, if anyone does not have a green thumb but still wants the feeling of plants around your house: https://www.etsy.com/shop/HippieHouseplants?ref=sim_anchor

January 22nd: Boston sunset 4:45 pm

Deepening and Widening

Two days ago, on January 22nd, sunset hit 4:45 pm in Boston. I was sick, and then playing catch-up from everything I missed when I was sick, and so I didn’t get to write an update here. Tonight sunset will be at 4:47. Because of the way we were taught to round up, or maybe just the way our minds naturally work, 4:45 seems like what it is, a sturdy halfway point between 4:30 and 5:00, but 4:47 seems like almost five o’clock. And five o’clock is a big one. But that’s for next week, for February 2nd. Today I’m supposed to be writing about the 4:45 sunset, a solid but uninspiring milestone.

Honestly it’s been difficult for me to write these meditations this year. Partly because working from home has cut out the hardest parts of early sunsets for me, the sudden drop of energy and light while I’m still at work with two hours left to go, along with the dreary drive or walk home in the dark. And partly because instead of that heaviness from the early sunsets, the heaviness of the pandemic has settled in. And there’s not yet a chart I can use to say when that will lift.

Still, the increasing light is something, and I notice it. We have gained more than half an hour in the evenings, and, I think, the same amount in the mornings. We are gaining, overall, two minutes of light a day now. May the light bring healing to our nation and our world as well.

May the new light mean new glimmers of hope this year.
May each new minute of light mean new vaccines in our arms.
May we awake with a sliver more of energy
& enter the evening with a handful more of peace & grace.
May the wise, long nights still teach us how to deepen
in our faith, our love, & our empathy
& may the brave, lengthening days teach us how to widen
our faith, our love, & our compassion.

In love and hope,
Jessica

January 9th: Boston sunset 4:30 pm

For Now We Stumble: Soon We Will Stride

“There was a mountain that I was high up on,
way high up on it ’til I came back down.
There was a sun sliding down the horizon
where late shadows grew on the ground.

“Here in the city harder than iron
Lost children gather like bottles in bars.
There is a pain that awaits us, unchanging.
It hangs in our breasts and our stars.

“Light inaccessible where are you shining?
Where do you burn and whose face do you warm?
Out in the fields we are ready for finding —
smoldering stars waiting to be reborn.”

~Jason Harrod, Out in the Fields

Road to Giverny in Winter, by Claude Monet

Today I mark the return of the Boston sunset to 4:30 pm. The last time we had a sunset so late was on November 6th, 2020, and it will not be this late again until November 2021. Four-thirty still seems so early, but it is nineteen minutes past the earliest sunset one month ago. The month between December 8th and January 9th was a long one, for me personally, for my country, and for the world. So much has happened, and yet it feels like each day is the same, plodding through from sunrise to sunset, and into the long winter evenings. But there is a difference in our afternoons now. Nineteen minutes seems like such small progress to report. But it is progress.

I’m moving slowly, myself, recovering from foot surgery on one foot and trying to coax the other leg’s kneecap back into its track through physical therapy. Each day comes with its dozen tasks to care for my body: Lotions to rub in, gentle massaging to break down scar tissue, strengthening and stretching exercises, vitamins, hydration, proper posture, rest. In between I try to get some writing done. The progress is so slow as to be almost unnoticeable day to day, like the slow advance of the sunset. There seems like such small progress to report. But there is progress.

Tonight as you watch the sun set upon another hard, strange day in this hard, strange year, think of your body and your spirit as part of the swift, slow progression of the earth and the sun, following a rhythm that is both utterly wild and totally predictable. Think of the winter and the darkness as a time of building strength, of gathering resources. Think of yourself, though you stumble forward day by day, as preparing for greater steps, for a longer stride. The winter is long, but it will not last forever. The light is returning.

Love,
Jessica

Further resources and reading
If you want to look up the sunset times for your own town, this is the site that I use.
Jason Harrod, quoted above, is a singer-songwriter whose music means a lot to me, especially in the winter. You can find his music here. Another singer-songwriter team that has been getting me through is Over the Rhine. You can find their music here.
I write more about both the winter and depression in my book, The Long Night: Readings and Stories to Help You through Depression.

***

Previous dates

December 8th: Sunset dips to its earliest in Boston at 4:11PM

“A mist rises as the sun goes down
And the light that’s left forms a kind of crown
The earth is bread, the sun is wine
It’s the sign of a hope that’s ours for all time.”

~Bruce Cockburn, Gavin’s Woodpile

Even though the winter solstice isn’t for another two weeks, the earliest sunsets of the year in the Northern Hemisphere start now. In Boston that means the sun sets at 4:11 for a few days before it creeps forward again. If you are inside you start to notice the falling dark around 3 PM. Some people seem to adjust to this fairly easily, while others, myself included, struggle to function normally when nighttime begins in the middle of the afternoon.

The past several years I’ve put together a calendar for myself and my friends, to help mark the days, the darkness, and the light. It’s a combination of making it through this hard time and being open to the wisdom and lessons that we can only learn in the dark. This time will not last forever, but these days are part of our beautiful, sorrowful, joyful, hard lives as well, and I want to live in the present as well as in hope for the future.

Further resources and reading
You can listen to the Bruce Cockburn song I quote above here. The album that it’s from, In The Falling Dark, is one of my favorites of his.

December 21st: Winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Boston sunset 4:14 pm

The Light is Returning, and Winter is Already Almost a Third Over (Depending on How You Look at It)

“Q: What’s the difference between meteorological and astronomical winter?

“A: Meteorologists define “winter” as the three coldest months of the year: December, January, and February. So to them, winter begins on December 1st and ends at the end of February (February 29th in 2020). And the first day of meteorological spring is considered March 1st, with the three months of spring being March, April, and May.

“Astronomers, on the other hand, define “winter” in the Northern Hemisphere by when the noontime Sun reaches its farthest point south in the sky; or when the Sun’s rays shine down from a point directly overhead as seen from the tropic of Capricorn (latitude 23.5 degrees south), known as the winter solstice. That happens on December 21 (or 22, depending on the year). And it continues as such until the direct solar rays shine down on the equator at the vernal or Spring Equinox on March 19th (in 2020 — the date and time of spring changes from year to year).

“In short, the seasons you are familiar with, by the calendar, are “astronomical,” and the seasons that your meteorologist chats about on the evening news are “meteorological.” So to them, spring begins March 1st!”

~From the online Farmer’s Almanac

It’s the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, but here in Boston the sunset has already inched back up to 4:14PM, three minutes later than its earliest on December 8th. In astronomical measurement, this is also the first day of winter. I’ve always found it encouraging that every day of winter is longer than the day before. The cold and snow, icy salty streets, too-packed Boston parking has just begun, but the descent into darkness has ended. The return to light has already begun.

I also find it encouraging that to meteorologists winter started on December 1st, and will end on March 1st. March isn’t so far away. I can make it. We can make it. You are not alone, and this will not last forever.

If you have a candle, light it at sunset tonight, and acknowledge the longest night of the year. If you don’t have a candle, maybe just stand near the window and nod a greeting to the night. If you want, you can use these words:

Welcome, darkness, and the coming cold.
Welcome, lamplight, candlelight, and firelight
Welcome, long, dark evenings and late dawns
Welcome, slower pace and slower energy
Welcome to every feeling in my heart, my spirit, and my body
whether pleasant, painful, or complicated
I make room for you
I make room for myself
In gentleness
And in hope

See you back here on January 9th, when the sunset has inched its way back to 4:30PM in Boston.

Love,
Jessica

Further resources and reading
If you want to look up the sunset times for your own town, this is the site that I use.
This is the online Farmer’s Almanac — I’ll let you judge for yourself how accurate its predictions are!
If you are a Christian or appreciate liturgy, you might like Phyllis Tickle’s Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime.
I write more about both the winter and depression in my book, The Long Night: Readings and Stories to Help You through Depression.