Grate

February is hard. Years ago, I repeated Jo(e)’s claim that February is the longest month, and she is exactly right. Come February, the novelty of winter has long worn off. The snow is cleared from streets and sidewalks after each storm, but it piles and ossifies in yards and corners. Our dog pen is as slick as a rink, with weeks of snow trampled and saturated with last week’s sleet, then frozen hard: snow covering ice layered atop treachery.

The daily winter drill is now familiar and mundane. The piling on of coats and hats and gloves, then the pulling on of boots: it takes so much effort to take the trash to the curb, the dog to the pen, one’s own self to the car. Along with any obligation, there are these extra intervening steps: almost inconceivable are those summer days when stepping outside was as simple as slipping on sandals.

By February, winter has grown old, a tired routine that wears thin. And this year, we are in the February of the pandemic: a crisis that has lingered so long, it seems almost unremarkable. Last March, the governor declared a state of emergency, back when the pandemic was newly emergent. Nearly a year later, I no longer know if any given day is an emergency or merely life as we now know it. After nearly a year of being vigilant for viruses, our perpetual state of high alert is almost mind-numbing: an old ordinary that dulls more than sharpens.

In the early days of the pandemic, J and I kept a calendar count of our stay-at-home days. A quarantine is defined as forty days of isolation, but now we’re approaching a full year of deprivation: not socializing in-person with friends, not eating in restaurants, not shopping inside stores, not traveling or attending events. J and I no longer count our stay-at-home days; instead, we’re counting down until late April, when we hope to be eligible for the COVID vaccine–the closest thing to Spring we can hope for in these interminable pandemic days.

Twirling

Back in December, dancers from the India Society of Worcester performed before a Boston Celtics game J and I attended. There were several troupes of dancers, each dressed in colorful, flowing skirts or loose-fitting, spangled pants. As the dancers twirled to uptempo music, I shot photo after photo, knowing there would come a point later in the winter when I’d be so tired of a monochromatic palette of Overcast and Snow, I’d cherish any spot of light and color.

All a-swirl

We’ve officially reached that point. As I type these words, both darkness and snowflakes are falling, with a blizzard forecast for tonight into tomorrow. For the fourth time in so many weeks, J and I are hunkering down, hoping we don’t lose power and knowing we’ll have to dig out once again when the storm is over. The snow in our yard is waist-deep, and I wonder when we’ll see our buried lawn again: sometime in April?

Strike a pose

Every winter, I find myself relying upon a tried-and-true handful of coping strategies to stoke the inner fires: anything to get myself through these doldrum days. I wear a bright pink coat because the color cheers me, and I like to imagine myself as a bright beacon in a season when most folks wear black or other shades of dark drab. I don’t scrimp on footwear, knowing I’m far happier when my feet are warm and dry: the pricy Huntress Wellies I’ve been clomping around in most of the winter have been worth every penny.

On the Jumbotron

And I know to use music as a kind of medicine, listening (and dancing) to salsa on Pandora as I do my morning chores and pulling out the big guns–not one but two Bellydance Superstars CDs–on my dreary, gridlocked drives to and from work, the grocery store, or other errands. Such upbeat and exotic music helps me imagine I’m someplace warm and colorful, and I can imagine myself barefoot and shimmying in a bright, jingling outfit rather than waddling flat-footed in boots and a bulky coat.

Sewer grate

Years ago, Jo(e) mentioned that February is the longest month, and every winter I remember her remark right about now, at the beginning of another interminable February, when it seems like spring and warmth and sandal season will never come. April might be the cruelest month, but right now, anything seems better than February.

Snow on planetree fruit

Today is a tolerable February day: sunny and above freezing, with a couple inches of fresh snow brightening the ground. Compared to last week’s bitter single-digit temperatures, this week feels almost balmy, with temperatures where you can breathe without the air feeling like razor blades lacerating your lungs.

Tomorrow, we’re expecting up to a foot of new snow; this weekend, the forecast calls for even more. In February, it almost doesn’t matter what the forecast says—sunny or snowy, cold or even colder—because in February, you’re basically bored by it all. You’ve seen fresh snow become old snow, old snow become snow-melt, and snow-melt become ice. In February, you’ve weathered cold days, gray days, and bleak and barren glare-days, so any meteorologic condition the heavens can conspire feels like a tired rehash of something you’ve already weathered, repeatedly.

Lost key

In February, the novelty of winter has worn off, and even the winter doldrums—a condition I described last January as consisting of “that sluggish, sorry space where you’re unmotivated to do much of anything other than idly browsing online for spring sandals and sighing”—seems old, old, old: something you’ve experienced so long and so many times that you can’t even rouse yourself to hate it.

So, yes, Jo(e), you’re right: February is indeed the longest month, regardless of what the calendar might say. In February, we’ve run through time and again the same old coping strategies: we’ve kept active, taken our vitamins, and tried to inoculate ourselves with plenty of light and color. In February, we discover at long last that no matter what we do to hurry along the days until spring, the month we’re in nevertheless insists on being approximately 90 days long.

Real estate

Yesterday was a quintessentially gray, February day. This year we’ve had a good share of sharply sunny days alternating with heavy leaden ones: days when the sun barely has energy to haul herself over the horizon. Yesterday was a motley mix of dark and light—neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring—with the faded gray sky seeming incongruously bright: all the glare of a sunny day without any of the warmth.

Crossing

Some winters I feel in my ankles, the cumulative ache from months of clomping in heavy boots, but this year, I feel the winter in my eyes, which ache under the onslaught of so much light streaming through bare, twiggy trees. There are fewer hours of light in the winter, and many people feel that paucity in their soul, but the light we see in winter is more intense, slashing the ground with long, low-angled shadows. Winter light is as harsh and unremitting as winter’s cold, a force that buffets you with white-harsh brightness. I’m not sure I could stand many more hours of it.

Both sides of the tracks

Yesterday I walked before writing: an attempt to shake some of the February gray from my bones. This winter has been strangely mild, with very little snow, but I still feel the heavy impress of the season. February is a cruel month: the days have begun to lengthen, but human patience grows shorter. Most years, February is an unremitting assault of one snow storm after another, the sheer volume of snow, ice, and wintry mix giving us something tangible to fight against: Sisyphus against the snow piles. At the moment, though, there are no snow piles, just a sheltered dusting of white in shady areas. Without much snow to struggle against, complaining about the season seems senseless: what is there to complain about? The sensation of these gray days is diffuse: the experience of feeling vaguely discontent without quite knowing why.

Roadside detritus

I walked yesterday mainly in search of the day’s picture: as good a motivation as any. Aesthetically, a relatively snow-free winter seems strange. How can my eyes make sense of a season with the harsh, low-angling light of winter but the dirty brown palette of late autumn: stick season, the awkward time of year after the leaves have fallen, but before the first snows? In summer, sunlight filters through leaves and looks golden, complementing the green grass; in winter, unadulterated sunlight streams bright and white. What aesthetic sense does one make of sharp white light falling on a frozen earth, leaf-denuded trees, and salt-bleached streets and sidewalks, a world where everything is cut into unnaturally sharp contrast?

Leaf buds

Last night after a full day of teaching, I went to the Cambridge Zen Center to lead Tuesday night’s long-sitting. I was tired when I left campus and struggled to stay awake while I crawled in stop-and-go traffic on my way from Framingham; surely meditating when you’re tired and uninspired is futile, I thought to myself. But once I settled on my cushion, I felt alert and energized, as if I’d plugged into an unseen outlet or received an invisible transfusion. Meditation for me is like coming home, a chance to gather and re-focus my energies. For me, meditation is like attaching a nozzle at the end of a garden hose: suddenly a dribbling trickle gets focused into a targeted jet.

Snow after sitting

Most of my days are random and scattershot, with a far-flung constellation of demands; the descent of February gray only exacerbates the futility I feel after a day spent working on a handful of projects without finishing one. Last night at the Zen Center, it was a welcome relief to do just one thing as I sat in the shadow of the Dharma room Buddha, a light that gleamed warmly golden, just like summer. While I was at the Zen Center, a dusting of snow fell, covering the cars, street, and sidewalks with a thin inch of dry, fluffy flakes. It felt a bit magical to emerge from the Zen Center to the quiet, snowy street, the lamplights shining through a veil of flakes. There’s nothing like a sudden snowfall—or the simple act of stopping—to make everything look like new again.