How’s the weather


Fallen

It’s been a weird autumn. Right before Halloween, we had a storm that dumped five inches of snow, and this week, we’ve had a string of 70-degree days. The Japanese maple in our front yard went straight from reddish to brown: we won’t have a red-letter day this year when one corner of our yard ignites in fiery red glory. And today, the trees in our backyard cast off their leaves en masse: just like that, there is a crunchy, ankle-deep blanket of oak, cherry, and Norway maple leaves underfoot, many of the latter still partly green.

February gray

It’s the fourth week of the semester, and we are deep in the throes of February gray. Whenever I check my email, there is another message from a student who is sick and can’t come to class. I have papers to grade but pause to dissolve an Airborne tablet in my water bottle, a blithely optimistic attempt to stop a sore and scratchy throat from developing into a full-blown cold, or worse.

Hummingbird window clings

It sorta-snowed overnight, so we awoke to a thin layer of sleet and sludgy slush that is more mess than menace. Schools don’t cancel classes for sorta-snow, and they don’t cancel classes for the winter blues that arise from February gray. Instead, we trudge on, cheering ourselves with whatever winter coping strategies we’ve learned will get us through.

My office at Framingham State has three windows, including one right next to my desk, and I’ve decorated that one with colorful hummingbird decals. These window clings are designed to stop birds from flying into reflective surfaces, but I put them there as an act of faith: a reminder that February gray will someday, eventually, turn into the colorful flutter of spring.

Lyman Conservatory

Both today and yesterday have been unseasonably warm: well above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which is all but unheard of in Massachusetts in January. Yesterday I met Leslee and A (not her real initial) at the Smith College botanic garden in Northampton for a belated holiday celebration, and it was warm enough I could sit comfortably on a bench outside the Lyman Plant House before the two of them arrived.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

It was strange–unsettling–to go inside the plant house on a mild day: usually, the whole point of going to a greenhouse in winter is to experience a moment of tropical weather as a respite from the cold outside. These days, however, the world itself is a hothouse: Australia is burning, Indonesia is flooding, and everywhere denial and indifference rage rampant.

Lyman Conservatory

When the world is on fire, you save what you can, starting with your sanity. Every year, Leslee, A, and I meet for conversation and cocktails at, after, or around Christmas, New Year’s, or my birthday: a chance to catch up, exchange gifts, and feed our psychic fires.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

On yesterday’s drive to Northampton, I listened to Paula Cole’s This Fire, a CD that invariably takes me back to the rage and restlessness I felt in the 1990s, when I felt trapped in my first marriage:

Where do I put this fire
This bright red feeling
This tiger lily down my mouth
It wants to grow to twenty feet tall.

These days, I feel rage and restlessness for different, more global reasons. Right now the earth herself is raging through an unsettled spell. At the inaugural Women’s March several years ago, I overheard one woman compare global warming to the Earth experiencing hot flashes, and a half-dozen women of post- and perimenopausal age perked and turned at the comment: you talkin’ to me?

Inside Lyman Conservatory

When the world is on fire, you save what you can. Spending time with friends is one thing that soothes my spirit; spending time with plants is another. Those of us of post- and perimenopausal age have weathered our share of literal and figurative fires, and our hard-fought wisdom is tempered by flame.

Lyman Conservatory

As Leslee, A, and I looked at a chart of the various evolutionary epochs up to the present day, Leslee mentioned Rebecca Solnit’s “Letter to a Young Climate Activist on the First Day of the New Decade,” an essay that describes hope and rage as complementary sides of the same coin:

We need to love the earth as it is now and to see how worthy it is, now, of our greatest efforts. To look for that beauty and to treasure it is perhaps a crucial part of the work we have to do. This is what reminds us that the world is still full of things we love and want to protect and the effort is worth it. Galicia, the fury you feel is the hard outer shell of love: if you’re angry it’s because something you love is threatened and you want to defend it.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

Rebecca Solnit is a woman of a certain age; not accidentally, the various activist groups I’ve joined since the 2016 election largely consist of middle-aged, post- and perimenopausal women who like me are mad as hell at the state of the world these days. Where do we put this fire, this bright red feeling? We pour it back into our friendships, our passions, and our determination, again and again without fail.

Hillary above radiator

Because she is queen, Hillary has claimed the warmest spot in the house for herself. And on a cold and blustery day like today, with temperatures that feel more like January than mid-November, I can’t say I blame her.

Lenten rose

Yesterday morning, I heard the first phoebe of spring, and as I write these words, I have one window open to let in fresh air and the sound of soft rains.

Glory of the snow

This is how spring arrives in New England. One wet day you decide your rain shoes will suffice instead of rubber boots, you shed your coat then your jacket in turn, and you realize all of a sudden that long sleeves are too warm and short sleeves are just right. I haven’t worn sandals yet this year; so far, the weather has been too indecisive. Yesterday was almost warm enough but a bit too breezy; today was briefly sunny until the rains came.

Red maple flower buds. #signsofspring

But the phoebes know which way the earth has tilted. The song of the Eastern phoebe is unremarkable–nothing more than their name repeated, incessantly–so it is easy to overlook among the whistling cardinals and warbling house finches. But when you hear the first phoebe of spring calling in the distance–like a rainbow, the first phoebe always seems far off, its actual location hidden in a shrubby suburban tangle–your heart thrills, not because it is a beautiful song but because it comes only when winter is almost over and spring has almost come.

Skull

It’s a cold, rainy day–what started as sleet overnight has transitioned to rain, with strong winds. I brought my reverse umbrella with me when I went to the Zen Center this morning: not only does its inside-out design make it perfect for stepping into and out of cars, it holds up nicely against the wind, and its C-shaped handle hooks over one’s wrist, leaving one’s hands free.

The other side

On rainy days, there are far fewer pedestrians out and about. Before meditating at the Zen Center, I parked in Central and walked to Graffiti Alley and back, and there was hardly anyone on the streets: no panhandlers, cyclists, or passersby bustling with shopping bags. Many people stay home when it’s rainy, but if you own a good umbrella and a solid pair of boots, rain needn’t be an impediment. Instead, your umbrella gives you a heightened sense of privacy, like a superhero’s cloak. Stepping through and around puddles, you can peer from beneath your quiet canopy, seeing without being seen.

Teddy bear

Umbrellas are often characterized as the domain of the old and odd, which is perhaps why I am so fond of mine. According to wilderness magazines and the ads that fill them, truly outdoorsy types venture forth in parkas and ponchos made from high-tech synthetics. When is the last time you saw an intrepid weather reporter facing a snowstorm or blizzard with an umbrella?

Sonik

But Henry David Thoreau walked with an umbrella, and this points to the real reason for my own appreciation. You can’t climb a mountain or scale a cliff-face while holding an umbrella, and it’s all but impossible to run with one. But naturalists and flaneurs alike walk more deliberately than that: an umbrella, it turns out, is a perfect implement for saunterers. Forget about marching to the beat of a different drummer; strive to stride within the circle of your own umbrella.

Plowed

We got a few dense inches of snow overnight, topped by intermittent freezing rain throughout the day. Weather forecasters measure snow by depth, but that is misleading: deep snow is typically light and fluffy, and even a few inches of wet snow is much more bothersome.

Sleet on burdock

Weight would be the most helpful measure of any given snowfall: how much does a bucket left out overnight weight by morning’s light? Over time, heavy snow settles into a shallow sludge that is difficult to shovel. Throughout the day today, I could hear snowblowers in all directions as J and various neighbors worked to clear as much as they could before tonight’s plunging temperatures. Any of today’s slop not cleared away will freeze brick-hard overnight.

Sleet on sleek

This morning after walking Toivo, I finished Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink, a thick brick of a novel. After initially enjoying the book, I faltered in the middle, getting bogged down in the history of Sephardic Jews in seventeenth century London, and at times I lost patience with the two modern scholars–one at career’s end, the other in graduate school–who gradually piece together the story of Ester Velasquez, a Jewish scribe whose story is hidden in a trove of old manuscripts found in a mansion.

Sleet on snow

Scholarship can be a tedious slog, like walking in ankle-deep snow, and the academy is an often-toxic place, full of backstabbing and politicking. The Weight of Ink captures all of that, but ultimately it was Ester’s story–her curious mind and her rebellious spirit, both dangerous in an era when women weren’t encouraged to be scholars and free-thinking was denounced as heresy–that pulled me through the book to its moving conclusion, where life and the desire for continuance prove stronger than the presumed virtues of martyrdom.

Nowadays, women like me are free to write and study as much as we’d like–no societal scorn or hidden inquisitions can silence us–and there is nothing weightier on my mind today than the sizzle of sleet falling on winter window panes.

Dog walk shadows

After more than a quarter century living in New England, I’ve realized some inexorable truths. The day after a snowstorm is almost always sunny, and the most bitterly cold days often have the clearest, bluest skies.

Dog walk shadows

This morning when I walked Toivo, it was seventeen degrees: a temperature that felt brutally cold at the time, but I’ve lived in New England long enough to know there will be days when temperatures in the double-digits will feel warm. But today felt colder than usual, so I wore my longest, fluffiest down coat, and the dog and I kept moving.

It was bright and brisk, and I didn’t wear a ballcap or sunglasses: I just squinted into the glare, knowing that light more than warmth is the thing I crave in midwinter. Even the most bitterly cold days are bearable if the sun is beaming from a turquoise-blue sky; the winter days that crush your soul aren’t the cold ones but the gray ones.

Meteorological terms

For Christmas, A (not her real initial) got me a weather observer’s notebook. A knows I love both nature and notebooks, so something that combines those two loves is a perfect present. And because I can’t let a blank notebook go unfilled, I’ve been trying since the New Year to write a short description of the weather after each day’s dog-walk, along with an account of birds I saw.

Kinds of clouds

Writing about the weather is nothing new for me: meteorological conditions are a frequent theme in both my blog and handwritten journal. Weather is, after all, both ephemeral and omnipresent, so if you have nothing to write about on a given day, you can always describe what’s going on outside. But having an entire, separate notebook devoted to The Weather is something new. It’s one thing to describe the quality of light falling upon your journal page and another to chronicle each day’s temperature and precipitation.

Snowflakes

So far this year, we’ve had weird weather: we’ve fluctuated between warm, cold, and wet without any snow (currently) on the ground. Today has alternated between rain and drizzle, the sky a monochrome shade of gray; earlier in the week, we had partly cloudy days that were glaring-bright with the harsh, low-angled light of winter. Tomorrow and Monday are supposed to be dry and partly cloudy; on Tuesday, we’re expecting either rain, snow, or both.

Writing the weather

I don’t know how long into the New Year I’ll remain faithful to this new habit of writing down the weather: once I’m back to teaching, I’ll have much less time to write, and even less time to maintain multiple notebooks. But for now, it’s been fun to chronicle each day’s meteorological mood swings, New England’s ever-changing weather inevitably giving me something to write about.

Orange and gold

On rainy mornings, Toivo and I have the neighborhood to ourselves. I don’t mind dog-walking in the rain, especially when the rain is light enough I don’t need an umbrella. This morning a hooded windbreaker, waterproof pants, and rain shoes kept me dry enough, and Toivo and I walked briskly, settling into a long, smooth stride that felt as effortless as my heartbeat.

Maple on maple

Today’s been a windy day, so the streets and sidewalks are plastered with wet, still-colorful leaves, like confetti after a parade. These days the Norway maples glow golden, complemented by fiery red and orange Japanese maples. The oaks, which are always the first to leaf and the last to lose, have begun to burnish bronze. These are the colors of late autumn, and they glean even brighter on rainy days, without the mitigation of sunlight.

As above, so below

November days are golden, and it’s true that nothing gold can stay. I’ve lived in New England long enough to know in my bones how gray and dismal the winter will be, so I fuel my inner fires with autumn light, a remembered warmth I’ll sorely need in future months.

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