We are not having winter in California this year, although it’s very clear the rest of you are. In regards to that, we’re sorry. Really, we are. The high-pressure system locked into place over our state is pushing the weather north and east of us and dumping it all over you. This is not our choice; we really do want our rain. We need our rain. We are speaking to Those In Charge to see if this situation can be remedied. In the meantime, to show you I understand inclement weather, and struggle with the winter blues (believe it or not, one is not immune even out here in sunny California), I present to you an essay of mine, published in 2004. It’s in a Travelers’ Tales book called A Woman’s Europe. The essay’s a fun yet thoughtful read. Those of you on the journey of self-discovery, who are brave enough to explore—and indeed, embrace—the seasonal dark that rises in our souls, whether we live in England, Kansas or California, might particularly appreciate it.
“Embracing the Dark”
I never expected California weather on my January trip to Brighton, but neither did I expect hurricane conditions. There I sat, in my ocean-front room as the wind shrieked and the rain smashed against my window. Okay, not hurricane conditions. But far from a civilized London drizzle. The irony was that this trip was supposed to help take away the winter blues I was caught up in, make me feel less lonely while my husband Peter was out of the country.
I’d needed to get away, do something special for myself. Something in me felt broken and I wasn’t sure how to fix it. Winter was affecting me, the monotony of the dark, grey days that followed the excitement of the holidays. It was most decidedly winter in London, where Peter and I were living as expatriates, and the short dark days and drizzly weather made me feel draggy and sad. Slogging down the Putney high street past Boots Chemists, BHS clothing store and Marks and Spencer, I’d numbly make my daily purchases. Faces of the people in dark coats hurrying past me were drawn, unsmiling, grey, reflecting the weather. The raucous noise of the red double-decker buses that boomed and heaved down the streets, battling with the ear-piercing squeal of taxis breaks made me cringe, retreating further inside myself, grieving something I couldn’t name.
When Peter went back to San Francisco on business for two weeks, I decided to take a weekend escape to spoil myself. I settled on Brighton, a seaside resort town that for centuries had been a tiny fishing village. The brochures and travel guides showed sunshine, happy people, arcades and amusement rides—the Londoner’s Atlantic City or Santa Cruz. I splurged and booked a pricy ocean-view room in a posh Georgian-style mansion hotel. Perusing the brochure in the afternoons prior to my departure, I felt my spirits lift.
Arriving in Brighton, I checked into my mansion hotel and promptly headed out. I passed through the narrow, winding, pedestrian-only streets of The Lanes that positively oozed charm, ignored the eccentric Indian-style Royal Pavilion, and instead found my way to the epicenter of cheer and happiness: the Palace Pier, where the boardwalk attractions were shoved onto a pier that jutted over 1500 feet out into the water. Tourists milled about as music blared from the loudspeakers. I strolled up and down the pier, checked out rides that elicited happy shrieks from passengers, and arcades that blasted out bells, clangs, electronic shrieks and testosterone of the fevered teenage boys inside. Shivering in the chilly, damp wind, I worked my way through some sickly-sweet candy floss (that turned out to be plain old cotton-candy) and tried to feel euphoric. But the loneliness, the numb, trapped feeling had followed me from London. I could see people around me laughing and having fun, but something wasn’t letting me in.
After an hour of wandering around in the drizzle, worsening weather forced me back to my hotel. Fortunately, I had a pretty room, spacious, with high ceilings, a sumptuous bed topped with a nest of pillows and a duvet of tasteful pastels that matched the room’s chintz armchairs. The chairs and a mahogany table set between them were angled for maximum enjoyment of the room’s crowning glory: an enormous picture window facing the ocean just across the street, a window that now rattled and shook as the wind picked up and rain started pounding horizontally against the pane.
I curled up with a cup of tea, studied the gilt-framed paintings adorning the walls, then tried to read as the wind shrieked. The storm worsened as night fell. As hunger pangs began to gnaw at my stomach, I considered staying in the hotel for dinner, but the thought of English hotel food (could there be a worse combination?) depressed me unutterably. I’d picked out a cozy restaurant in The Lanes, tucked amid the picturesque shops, sure to cheer me up. Reluctantly, I picked up my raincoat and umbrella and headed out.
The rain was a brutal slap against my face. It became immediately evident that the umbrella was going to be more of a liability than help. The battering wind turned it inside out within minutes and practically wrested it from my hand. After five minutes of continued tug of war, I finally gave up and closed the umbrella. A block later, still far from my destination, I was drenched. To hell with The Lanes, I decided. I saw an Indian restaurant a few steps away and dove into it.
The owner of the restaurant seemed startled, as if he weren’t planning on seeing anyone that evening. He shook my hand vigorously, his eyes brimming with gratitude, and showed me to a table. I took off my sopping London Fog, handed the dripping bundle and vanquished umbrella to the waiter, and sat.
The room had red leatherette booths, red tablecloths on the center tables and dim lighting. Portraits of dancing Hindu goddesses graced the rose-colored, gold-trimmed walls. It felt like a womb. It wasn’t what I’d planned. But it was warm and comforting, the air fragrant with cumin, cardamom and baking bread. I was the only customer. A busboy hovered in the corner, watching me sip my water. After every third sip, he’d rush over and fill it up. “Thank you,” he’d say.
“Oh, thank you,” I’d reply. I quickly caught on that this thank you business was crucial. My food arrived. “Thank you,” the waiter said, set down my chicken tikka masala.
“Thank you,” I replied.
He returned with rice and naan bread. “Thank you,” he said, before placing them alongside the chicken.
“Thank you,” I parroted. This continued as he brought out the raita, the heated plate, the bread plate, the chutney, until finally he disappeared behind the red kitchen door and I was free to eat. The owner stood near the front door, hands clasped behind his back. He stared out the window and periodically turned to me, smiled and asked how my dinner was. At my enthusiastic response, he would give a little bow before resuming his gaze out the front window. I felt the sadness hovering in the shadows, like a leering gremlin. As long as I stayed in the light however, it would leave me alone.
I ate my dinner slowly, dreading my eventual departure back out into the storm. The wind continued to shriek. “Is the wind often this bad?” I asked the next time the owner turned back toward me to check if my food was still excellent.
He nodded sadly. “Winters are the worst. The bad weather is terrible for business.” This I’d already surmised. He gave a philosophical shrug. “But it is a fact of life here. It is simply the season for these storms.”
After lingering over a steaming cup of masala chai and paying, I pulled myself up with reluctance. The waiter fetched my soggy raincoat and umbrella and I bundled back up for the walk home. The owner shook my hand and the three of us regarded each other for a wistful moment, knowing the evening was only headed downhill from here.
My room back at the hotel was freezing. I called down to the front desk to complain. “So sorry,” the clerk apologized, “it’s the wind from this wretched storm.” He sent a bellboy up with a space heater to augment the heating system. When it arrived ten minutes later, I studied the narrow, white, three-foot panel shaped like a wall radiator.
“This will heat the room?” I asked, and the bellboy hastened to reassure me.
“Oh, these are brilliant. But,” he added with less confidence, “if it doesn’t work, call back down and I’ll bring up another. We keep a lot of them in storage.”
As expected, the panel’s weak source of heat did little to offset the chill, emanating from the oversized windows. An hour later, the tip of my nose felt as cold and damp as a dog’s. I called back down the reception desk. Fifteen minutes later, I had twin white-panel space heaters standing sentry by my bed. Thus protected, I went to bed.
I was having a dream. I was all alone in some frozen landscape that seemed to resemble my native Kansas. It was growing colder, darker, and I only had a nightshirt on. I was walking on and on, past the glacial hills and glittery trees. Snow animals, a cross between cats and wolves, sat off the side of the road, and howled at me as I passed. As I passed too close to one of them, he let out a yowl that made me jump away in fear.
I kept walking, and they kept howling, until I woke with a start. It was daylight and the howling noise was the wind. The room was even colder than the previous night. I called back down to the reception desk. “Perhaps another space heater?” the clerk proposed, and soon, another space heater joined the party. “We’re having quite a storm,” the new bellboy offered as he turned on the heater. “Not a very good weekend to be out.”
No kidding. And to think I’d left my comfortable home, driven two hours and was shelling out a considerable sum to be stuck inside a howling room that felt like a refrigerator. A wave of self-pity engulfed me.
After breakfast, I returned to my room, which was, if anything, colder. I peered outside. Rain slapped at the windows; there was no way I was going outside. The gloominess that had been flirting with me all weekend settled in my heart for good. I dropped in an armchair to read, but was soon distracted by a burbling noise. Looking up, I discovered the rain was coming in through the cracks of the side windows. Then I heard a distinct splat. I glanced up higher—water was leaking from the corner of the ceiling. Within five minutes, a second leak sprouted and began to drip onto the television. I called down to my good friends at the reception desk. “Another space heater?” the clerk inquired.
“Uh, no. Buckets.”
When the bellboy arrived, we planted one bucket on the TV and one next to the wall. “I don’t believe it’s any warmer in here, is it?” he asked hesitantly. I shook my head. “I’ll bring you another space heater,” he said, his face brightening. He scurried off and returned ten minutes later with yet another white paneled heater. Hunting down an available plug in the corner of the room, he got the heater going, and beamed at me. Clearly my problems were solved.
After he departed, I went to the window to look out. Through the fog of rain and sea spray on my window, I could make out angry, white-capped waves plowing into shore. I turned around and regarded at my deluxe, ocean-view hotel room, my supposed escape from the real world. Three buckets and four space heaters looked mournfully back at me. The gloom, the lurking sadness, the loneliness, the dark muck all came to the surface in a burst of cleansing rage. Screw this, I thought, I’m facing this storm full-on.
Zipping up my still-damp London Fog raincoat, I stomped out into the storm, the wind and fury. The numb feeling had disappeared, replaced by wild grief, coming from a dark place inside me that didn’t want to calm down. Rain and cold slapped at me as I headed down to the beach.
Like monsters full of fury, the frothy blue-white waves thundered down and attacked the sand. The little beach was devoured time and time again. With a hiss, the angry water would pull away, clattering on the pebbled sand. Attack and retreat, ebb and flow—the waves were alive and utterly indifferent to the people who scurried along their periphery.
I stood and watched, mesmerized. The ocean was me, it was the way winter was making me feel. And the storm was life, just as the dark, gloomy days of rain were. I thought of the restaurant owner’s words last night: It is fact of life, it is simply the season for these storms.
I knew all about inner storms; they’d terrorized me in my adolescence during the long, cold Kansas winters. As an adult, I’d polished the art of running from the winter blues. Keeping busy with work and social life had helped, as had California’s sunny and mild winters. Now, however, I had the time, space, solitude and increased darkness of the northern latitude to dwell inside the soul, to observe the murky depth, the grief-like yearning for something intensely primal, that weighed heavily on me each winter.
Standing there on the Brighton beach, watching the ocean batter and get battered, it dawned on me that this dark, frightening feeling was natural, organic, something I should embrace, not shun. Life, I sensed, wasn’t about always running from the turbulence, rain and gloom. In pausing to mull over this, the dark feelings caught up with me and suddenly I was sobbing, unearthing what felt like an endless supply of tears and emotions. The ocean was roaring so loudly, none of the equally foolish people out walking the beach one could hear me, so I howled (never really sure why), shuddered and snuffled. Finally the tears subsided, leaving me still sad, but paradoxically, better. “It’s okay, honey,” I could almost hear my mom say, the way she did when I was a kid. “Go ahead and cry. It gets the cobwebs out.” I thought of the other sayings she used to throw out, like, “this too shall pass” or “into each life some rain must fall.” They were always folksy, timeless and true. The latter seemed particularly fitting this weekend.
And the rain did fall. And fall. There was no clearing of the clouds and triumphant burst of the sun’s rays after my moment of enlightenment. Calmer, I trudged back in the wind and rain to the hotel for a cup of hot tea with my buckets and space heaters. The winds died, the storm abated, but it rained all night and the next day on my way back to London. In fact, it rained for the next seven days. And every evening, still alone in London, I’d curl up in a blanket in the dimly-lit living room and read soppy romance novels. I’d cry and cry before reading more, emitting little hiccups of grief. But it was all okay, because something inside me now recognized the importance of this darkness my psyche seemed to crave. Accepting this, my sadness became lighter, almost soothing.
I told my sisters later about embracing the dark, about acknowledging and honoring the grief that creeps over me every winter. One told me that she’d pray for me, that it was such a sad, lonely state. Another suggested trying out the antidepressants she used and swore by. Only one understood that this downward pilgrimage of sorts was what we were all intended to do. She could appreciate how right it felt to stop fighting and simply settle into that soothing darkness, the soul’s form of hibernating. And when the season passes, just like in Brighton, the sun comes out, the ocean sparkles and life once again blooms and thrives. Such are the seasons.