How We Spend Our Days: On Wintering and the Value of Giving and Taking Care
Amanda Parrish Morgan Considers the Lessons of a Long Pandemic Season
Though she wrote it before the pandemic, Katherine May’s Wintering is very much about the way that a season—a literal or figurative winter—often requires from us a kind of intensified awareness of our connection to the elements in the world around us as time passes. Wintering requires care of ourselves, of the world around us, of one another. It is dangerous and lonely and restorative and essential. In the first pandemic winter, her book resonated with me deeply.
May’s winter begins before the weather actually forces a change of habit, and it is an unwelcome shift. First her husband and then she becomes ill. She leaves her job not because she wants to, but because she needs to. Her attention necessarily shifts to the intimate and mundane business of renewal and healing in the long, cold, dark days of winter. She finds herself at home, sleeping more, preserving fruit, making soup, but she also commits to swimming in the sea with a friend, she vistis Stonehenge for the Winter Solstice, attends a Santa Lucia church service.
After a visit to the city of Tromsø, Norway she sees that winter, especially a winter so harsh and even dangerous, renders inhabitants both more isolated and more reliant on one another with the simultaneous need to keep the outside world at bay and to let it in. Keeping the roof clear of snow, ensuring there’s enough to eat or that the house is warm enough, not professional progress, is the work of life in such a season.
Sometimes it feels like the only things that I accomplished during the long, frightening early pandemic months when we stayed close to home were insignificant—just the business of managing schedules and remembering masks and logging on to Zoom calls and meeting an occasional deadline.
I’ve thought often of Annie Dillard’s famous observation from The Writing Life that “[h]ow we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” What I have been doing is caring—both in the immediate, physical way that young children require and about the world immediately around me that became the year’s sole landscape.
When my children went to back to school in the fall of 2020, it was just for a half a day each, and with Simon in the morning and Thea in the afternoon, never simultaneously. I ended many days feeling that all I’d done was escort them back and forth. We walked all together to Simon’s school and then just Thea and I walked home. I tried to work in short bursts while she logged in and out of virtual first grade activities and then the two of us walked back to preschool to get Simon. From there the three of us walked to elementary school.
Once we’d dropped off Thea, Simon and I walked home or to watch excavators work or to look for shells at the beach and then back to pick her up until, just before four, the three of us arrived home again. I became obsessive about my running in a way that I hadn’t been in a long time. That hour of predawn time alone and out of the house was often the only thing it seemed I could control in the day. I returned from my runs in time for my husband to go off to his job teaching high school and using a website to retrace my route, I carefully measured and recorded precisely how far I’d gone. Then I made breakfast and lunches and cleaned the kitchen and we began our elaborate schedule of back-and-forthing once again.What I have been doing is caring—both in the immediate, physical way that young children require and about the world immediately around me that became the year’s sole landscape.
Dillard writes that a ”schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.”
Perhaps the scaffolding has been, not the training plans and regimented weekend writing hours I clung to, but instead care itself. It seems that giving and taking care has been providing the blurred and powerful pattern of my life, even before I had children. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.
Nick and I often get into an argument on Christmas Eve. This is embarrassing, and even painful to admit, but it keeps happening. Even in a normal year, the holidays and their attendant expectations feel like a pressure-cooker for all the minor differences in how Nick and I see the world. But, in 2020, I worried and feared I’d done lasting damage to our family in my pent-up anger and resentment.
In the days of healing after the argument, I felt desperate for the year to end. I knew, logically, that nothing would really be different in a practical sense when the calendar changed to 2021. No one in my family would be vaccinated, school still wouldn’t meet full-time, I still wouldn’t get on a plane to see my brother or meet my college roommate’s new baby in California.
In the days between Christmas and New Year’s, I took down the Christmas tree and packed away the ornaments. I donated clothes the kids had outgrown and threw out random toy pieces that had been gathering in various bags and bins throughout the house. It felt good to purge.
On New Year’s Eve, my friend invited us to do a group run a loop in her neighborhood—she called it “Running Away from 2020.” Thea and I ran holding hands and Nick and Simon ran side-by-side behind us. On an uphill Thea overtook an older boy who’d started running in front of her as we rounded a corner she took off sprinting for the chalk finish line my friend had marked on the road.
In the afternoon, my kids and I met my parents and their corgi for walk at a state park where, in another lifetime, I once worked as a lifeguard. We read a plaque about the success of local initiatives to protect osprey and counted disc golf nets and my mom pointed out the spot, on high flat ground, where a farmhouse had once stood. I’d never known any of this—not the osprey, not that there had ever been a farm at all—when I worked there years earlier.
Though the morning had been warm and misty, by our afternoon walk the day was crisp and clear. From the park’s most promontory point we could see my childhood hometown to the south and our current town to the north, both looking picturesque and quaint against the winter blue sky and steely water.
We got home just as it was getting dark and I saw some of our neighbors walking in small groups toward the town’s beach where they planned to set off lanterns to bid farewell to the year. I could hear the sound of Nick’s table-saw whirring above the garage.
“Do you guys want to go to the beach with the neighbors?” I asked.
“That’s too much beach,” Thea said.
Simon said, “I’m cold.”
I wanted to be home, too.
Earlier in the day, I’d sat with my journal and done an inventory of the year. I tallied how many miles I’d run and how many books I’d read. I noted how many were fiction and how many were nonfiction, which ones I’d listened to and which I’d read in print. I wrote down the titles of all the pieces I’d published and how much I was paid for them. I wrote down the names of the workshops and seminars I taught and how many sessions they ran. I wrote down how many essays I’d submitted and how many of those were still awaiting a response.
I considered trying to record how many words I’d written, but this would have been impossible—I’d deleted and re-written so much that there would be no clear way to measure that. The numbers I could record were only reassuring in a very limited way. They were evidence of concrete things I’d done or produced, serving as a proxy for all kinds of care (teaching and writing and reading and running), but there was no way to quantify the way I’d spent my days and in turn spent my year. No way to reassure myself that Nick and I would get past the way we’d hurt each other or that Thea and Simon had been protected from the rough year that had spun around them.
In January of 2021, Thea went back to school full time, and for the first time since the March before, I was alone in the house for few hours at a time. The week before her return to school, Simon and I took the last of our long, wandering walks. I felt acutely aware that something was ending, as though the past months had been a microcosm of the years of raising young children.
On the last walk, the last afternoon when we’d be just the two of us left to wander after we dropped Thea off at her classroom door (an intimacy limited to the days when children were prevented from even passing one another in the hallway to limit viral spread), we walked a long way, past the marina, through nature trails not really designed for the stroller I was pushing him in (and that he was too big for, really, but that made it possible to go for these long, meandering walks). As we made our way back toward home, he fell asleep. I tucked his fleece blanket more tightly around him and put in my headphones to listen to the end of an audiobook book while he slept.
Earlier that morning, while Simon was at preschool, I’d sat on the couch with Thea, reading while she read, newly patient with dropped crumbs and low-productivity work days now that I knew they were numbered, now that I could see clearly a morning in the near future when I’d instead come home and empty the dishwasher and sit down to write in a silent room.
Even on gray, cold New England mornings when I’d have loved, with some part of my heart at least, to sit with a cup of tea and write or edit without interruption, I felt a biting sadness over the end I could sense coming, and I considered the ways in which the pandemic had postponed that end.I see now that even in the years when I barely taught or wrote—at least in the public way I’d been long conditioned to see as the only way that mattered—I hadn’t been a diminished version of myself at all.
For more than six years, I’d had my children with me, or at least one of them, with me, nearly all the time, often just the three of us on a boat sailing (sometimes ill-advisedly, aimlessly, dangerously) off on an adventure. I’d found ways to do the things I cared most about while also caring for them. I had felt, hyperbolically self-sufficient on days when I ran with the double stroller and made lunch and put them down to nap at the same time and sent off an essay to an editor and then rounded everyone up for an adventure outside.
Now, Thea is nine and Simon will be seven next week. On the days I don’t go to the campus of a local college to teach writing, I am often able to drink tea and write or edit without interruption and in the afternoons and on the weekends, we are at Nutcracker rehearsals and choir concerts and book club and guitar lessons and holiday parties and quaint small-town tree-lightings.
We’ve resumed the kind of busy winter season I’ve known for almost all of my life, and the world that for a while contained just us has broken open again. It’s not a loss—of course—to be on the other side of school closures and dread at every sniffle, but I’ve thought increasingly that in all the turning inward of 2020, I was able to hold on to the waning days of early childhood, and in my most optimistic moments, I let myself believe that long pandemic winter might have provided some extra fortification for the seasons ahead.
One thing I’d feared so much about becoming a mother was that the things I cared about would be subsumed by rote or trivial tasks involved in caring for other people which I mistook for a fear that I would become trivial myself. I had not understood that giving and taking care, living carefully and caring fully could make me more myself, that in all the particulars that can unfold in the day-to-day of care is an ambition more essential (and at times, not without the danger and loneliness that May ascribes to winter) than the quantifiable accomplishments and progress I once felt so defined my worth.
But, I see now that even in the years when I barely taught or wrote—at least in the public way I’d been long conditioned to see as the only way that mattered—I hadn’t been a diminished version of myself at all. What is diminished about bending a day to make room for essential work and moments of and around that, showing the world and its ordinary backyard beauty to the people we love?