Earning Spring (or Enduring Winter)

It's fair to say that before moving to New England, where I have lived–other than a year and a half sojourn to London–since 1981, when I started Hampshire College, I didn't appreciate spring. Okay, I was barely eighteen. I could argue that there was a lot I didn't appreciate as much as I do now. But, spring.

I grew up in Philadelphia. Although everything is warmer now than it was then, it was–even then–a more temperate climate by just enough to feel different than here. In Philadelphia, we had snow, sometimes even a huge storm, like the big dump in '78 when I got stranded downtown with my best friend, Ally, and we had an amazing time wandering through snowdrifts along the empty streets. Mostly, though, we had slush. It wasn't uncommon for precipitation in winter to be cold, large drops of rain, physically heavy rain. Temperatures were more like thirties and forties, not teens and twenties. The first year I came to Hampshire, when I returned on the train from Thanksgiving break, I was greeted by a blanket of snow over the Valley that didn't disappear all winter long (in fact, there was snow on the ground till April). Not every winter has been so snowy or so cold; a few in recent years have scared me by being so… pleasant (for one who dislikes being cold). However, those warm and barren winters scared me enough to finally accept that to live here is to embrace living with winter.

A couple of things have helped me. One, a down jacket with a hood. The hood is key; mine has velcro and wraps around my head so well that my face is barely visible (I purchased my jacket, by the way, quite a few years ago and I got it not for its color, which is paler than lilac–lavendar?–rather than the black I would have probably opted for, but for its warmth and perfect fit). And I've got good mittens, real boots. Gearing up helps. The other thing that really helps me is going outside. I walk right through winter (this year, a gift from my mother-in-law of Yaktrax provided security on the icy days). The elementary school kids–Lucien and Remy–and I walk every day, to and from school. It's not far–just half a mile–but we are amongst the only people from the school to stick to our pedestrian ways through winter. Once we stopped trying to decide which was a walking day and which was a driving one, in fact, the whole endeavor–frigid as three degrees really, truly is–got better and easier. Sure, I get cold. I don't get SAD (seasonal affect disorder) because I do get air, including what vitamin D there is.

Once you spend time outside, you get to notice so much: the squirrels, who stay busy year-round; the stark silhouettes of trees; the way snow falls, melts, freezes, melts; and of course, the incredible light. You really appreciate the difference between eight degrees and eighteen or twenty and thirty. You notice–big time–the days starting to lengthen, those minutes garnered between winter solstice and the middle of January, how the light is craning toward us. As a person and, I guess, a New Englander, I really have come to cherish the chance to become an observer. While my kids are great sighters of hawks and my friend Carol Duke–photographer, gardener, Bed and Breakfast owner, blogger–is an observer of the natural world extraordinaire, I am glad to note what I do.

Obviously, in New England, spring erupts: a burst of joy, an explosion of growth, a development worth celebrating. Personally, I don't think you can really appreciate spring until you've lived through an authentic winter. Here, spring is earned. I liked spring before, sure. I noticed the azeleas, forsythia, tulips, and violets. I enjoyed grass becoming a lush carpet. But did I really get it? No, I did not. It wasn't even my favorite season (what was wrong with me? Spring is THE best season, hands down). I liked fall. When I was starting seventh grade, I remember a friend's father saying he hated fall because winter followed and he hated winter. I thought he was nuts. Who cared about winter? I didn't even use a coat. i wore an old heavy sweater of my mother's–a blue between cornflower and sky with an involved cable patterns and silver buttons–as my coat. My refusal of a coat drove her crazy. In honor of my first New England winter, my stepfather bought me a heavy down jacket at Eddie Bauer–a green between forest and Kelly–that I did indeed wear for many years; it stayed in the closet for many more years and this winter, I turned it over to my upstairs housemate and babysitter, Kathryn. I doubt I'd have savored my two London springs nearly so much without all those New England winters to my name. The quick awakening to spring–February (!)–was so astonishing and pleasant, the way flowers bloomed and then stayed for a long time, because the temperatures didn't tend to rise high enough to burn them. My walks through the city's stately parks and gardens were magical. I spent so much time engrossed in the leisurely springtime.

if New England has honed my endurance and powers of observation, so, too, has parenting. The amount of patience required: infinite. The amount to be seen: infinite. While I filled out the baby books for Ezekiel and Lucien, my first and second children (more details for the first, unsurprisingly; no book for the third), and I filled notebooks for each with early sounds and words and cute phrases (I started to do so for the third, but there are far fewer entries); no such book–at least not yet–for the fourth, Saskia, but she does have a baby book), it was really with the third, Remy, that I started to articulate to myself that milestones could be seen by ME, not a book or a doctor or whoever else. It was really my introduction to Body-Mind Centering work (which we did with Lenore Grubinger)–developmental movement, in a nutshell–that helped me acknowledge nuance more seriously. Rather than stick to sit, crawl, walk, she encourages parents to see lifting head up, roll, find the path from tummy to sitting and sitting to standing. And from there, I could see more: when I realized I didn't have to fasten a child's seatbelt any longer or when someone started to feel comfortable walking home solo from school. For my two middle children, who come into our bed most every night, the nights one or both stays put in their (shared) bed, I remind myself those nights without us are minute milestones. It's as if the noticing and the enduring become entwined in ways that lift endurance from grit-your-teeth associations to successful marathoner status. Without observing my surroundings carefully, those twenty-six-point-two miles of step affter step would likely get awfully tedious.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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