When the first chill comes – even when, like this year, it was long overdue, when we were on delightful late-summer borrowed time for weeks, when we know we cannot in good conscience complain, even then, when it comes – some of us get a little weird.
It doesn’t help that Daylight Savings Time is a bandit, stealing our beloved long afternoons, darkening our golden evenings into night. It always takes longer than I think it should to both figure it out and to adjust, the sudden disruption bringing both a vague upset and a constant yearning for light, for warmth, for comfort. And when the first chill does settle in, and the days get short and cold, there is an unease, a grief even, that also seems to settle in like a too-heavy blanket. Sometimes it even covers our faces, making it hard to breathe.
The stone farmhouse where we live was built in the 18th century (by British citizens, incidentally, who worried a lot about what their crazy King was thinking, and what was ever going to happen, and how it could ever again be ok). The whole house was just a single room then, built of stones mudded together by hand to keep out the cold. Below the room was a cellar kitchen built into the ground, with wide pine planks laid side by side above it, spaces between them allowing the warmth of the cooking fire to seep through. A primitive dumbwaiter in the wall allowed the busy cook to send up the warm meal on a pulley system when it was ready, while she scurried up the cellar steps to the outside, wiping her empty hands on her apron, and hurried around to the front door. There, as far as I can tell, she likely entered to find her family doing absolutely nothing save waiting for her to finish getting the meal on. Did no one think to at least set the table?? Can you not see that I am [quite literally, in her case] running around??
Just beyond that old front door, still today, are little stone buildings built into the hill on the way down to the river. They’re mostly hidden from view, but you can find them if you know where to look. They’re empty and obsolete now, their wood doors nailed on tight to keep the raccoons out, but once they served as cool storehouses for kitchen stock: cellars for roots, meat to cure, spots where a frigid and sparkling spring could keep the cow’s milk cold.
The women who lived here long before me felt the first chill, too; my 18th century counterpart also woke up one morning to see fog rising up from the river and frost settled gently on the field out back. She didn’t turn her clock back, of course, but she felt the days get shorter and her daily routines shift. And even as her husband returned a little early, from the field, expecting dinner – Just a moment, it’s nearly ready now, I’ll send it up – and her children unwittingly, mercifully bedded down a bit earlier – Good night! – even as she shuddered with the chill in the old stone house, and wrapped herself with an extra layer that she had or wished she had, she was adjusting. She was taking stock. She was thinking ahead, as women do, to the long winter ahead, on her farm on the banks of the Gunpowder River. Of what was still stored in the cold little cellars in the hill and what would need to be replaced before the winter really settled in. Of the work that had been done and still needed to be. Of what she needed to make sure happened, so that they would all survive.
So I’m thinking today, now that we’re feeling the first chill, now that we’ve turned the clocks back and all of a sudden it’s dark so early, about that feeling, all of us who might find themselves privately “off”. Maybe even sad and struggling.
Because you were sure that by fall, certainly by then, you would be settled, done with school, done with treatment. That you would know by now what to do, or that by now it would surely be over. Because you’re still afraid or sad and yet another season of afraid or sad makes you worry that all the seasons will be this way, forever, and you will never, ever feel any better than you feel now. Because only you know how and that you’ve lost the money, the job, the house, the marriage. Or how completely you have lost your way.
Because there’s a friend that you still miss desperately. Because your body has let you down so completely that you would leave it at the curb if that were an option, and you know that it is not. Because you love someone who is addicted, in jail, or in some way absent from your family, from your holidays, from your affection. Because it has been so very long that you have been hopeless or your husband has been discouraged or your son has been anxious or your daughter has been depressed that you almost cannot remember when it was any different but you have made damn sure that nobody knows how bad it really is. And since that makes the blanket even heavier with suffocating shame and secrecy, you often wake up in the night, alone, grabbing at it to get it off of your face, gasping for air. Wondering how many times you’re going to get it off in the nick of time.
I think that maybe the shudder we feel with the first chill, the weight of that heavy blanket, the disruption of our rhythmic ease are the products of generations of wise women before us. Maybe it is the work of our ancestor women, waking us up in the nick of time, making sure what needs to happen happens.
Take stock, they tell us; it is time. We know this – we have always known this – not through heady scientific weather predictions, or elaborate man-made traditions of time adjustment. We know this in our bones, by the visceral way our bodies respond to the most primitive of measures: the angle of the sun, the chill in the air, the rhythm of our beings as part of the perfect rhythm of nature.
Now is the time, they advise us kindly, to pay attention. Go and see what remains in the dark corners of hidden little houses built into hills; only you know where to look. See what is still there from last season, and what is gone forever. Acknowledge what has been stolen by nighttime bandits. Account for what is good and nourishes you and what is rotten and will not help you survive the coming season. What needs to be replaced with new stock. There is a long winter ahead and there is much work still to be done. But neither the shudder nor the cold will kill you, unless you do not pay attention to it. We are here to be sure that you do.
We are here to make sure that you, sister, survive.