I love to put color on toenails and fingernails. It’s one of my mishigas from many years ago, continuing well into my early Zen years. I still remember the sneer of a student at the Zen Community of New York when she saw me taking orders at the Greyston Bakery, everyone else in black or brown, perfect images of sparse living, while I had bright red varnish on fingernails and toenails: “This is the wrong place for you,” she said, walking out of the office disgustedly.
Boy, was she ever right!
But this winter I have let go of bright polish. It’ll come back, I have no doubt, matching pace with that of the buds on the trees.
Here’s a secret: I love winter. I mean the New England winter. Not for me Florida or California, not even as I feel the chill first thing in the morning and fuel bills climb. Not even as I relentlessly walk with Aussie daily, treading gingerly on the ice. Not even as I sit down to pull up the heavy boots with Yak-Trax, then the ancient burgundy jacket that’s only kept for winter dog-walking and the heavy black gloves, all while she’s walking back and forth mewling: “Why are you taking so long!”
“I don’t have your double coat of fur,” I mutter. I’ll watch her sliding over an ice-covered pond and even splashing in frigid water while I hunch up my collar and cover my mouth with a woolen scarf.
But I love winter. Even while others point to the sun that’s closer now and say: “Look, spring is coming!” there’s a part of me that mourns the beginning of the end of winter.
Here’s the thing: Follow the trees in winter. By late fall trees have to fend for themselves. It’s bare-barked survival out there, and the sun isn’t helping the manufacture of chlorophyll, so they let go of the leaves.
I, too, am tempted by a barebones life. Take the opportunity to let go of anything extraneous or secondary. If nothing comes to mind, ask yourself: If I had to live such a life, what would I let go of? You’ll find things.
Winter is the time for Zen intensives, for more meditation, for feeling the deep center of things. The snow and ice in back make it a challenge to walk, there’s no temptation to go out in short sleeves and get the sun.
There’s a seasonality to all this. In summer you do outdoors activities; in winter stay in, maybe review the year. Maybe listen over and over to the guitar of Marcel Dadi, maybe catch up with feelings you’d tried to banish over the year. Maybe look at the results of past thoughts and actions and remember the long run of things.
Appreciate the gorgeous gray of winter afternoons, the example of hardy birds that made it through another frigid night, and remind yourself how precious, how superb, this life is. How so few people have seen squirrels hanging upside down against feeders and a dog lying in ambush in the shadow of the house. That you were given one more undeniable chance at winter, at long dark nights discouraging you from going out and encouraging introspection.
So many big and small gifts: a closed garage for the car so you don’t have to wipe it clean from snow and frost each morning, the yellow lights of plows sweeping along the snowy roads so that the roads are clear when you get up in the morning—people did this for you! People worked all night to clean for you, to make life and transport possible.
And so much gets done without human hands. The earth swallows up the leaves from last year, the snow changes into water that flows into the Connecticut River and out to sea, the trees breathe sap and pray with upturned limbs towards the blue sky above them.
We lost people these past months, or else they lie in hospital beds and look out, knowing it’s their last winter.
Covid feels like winter. I got my fist vaccine in early March and my spirits soared—a light at the end of the tunnel. But what this tunnel has this been? It wasn’t just a dark tunnel; no tunnel is just dark. It has texture and spirit, just like the New York city subways I used to take as a kid, looking out front from the front car and watching the tunnel speeding by, electric flashes along the tracks, the rushing noise, other tracks coming alongside then parting. Those weren’t just tunnels; even as a girl I knew without understanding that they were an important part of my life.
Covid, too, though I still don’t get it, have no story about its seasons. The doctors promise spring and renewal, in fact I felt it when I had that vaccine. But I’m already looking back: What has this tunnel been really about? I understand some of the human part, the mistakes, the uncertainty, the fear, the loss. But step back for a moment, give the camera a wider angle, and now ask: What is it about?
Zen is paradox. So even as we still try to shelter from the covid storm, get the right vaccines, follow guidelines, see it as the pandemic it was defined, there’s another face to it, and what is that? What am I bearing witness to day in day out? And why do I secretly feel that I will look back on this sequestered time and wonder if I made the most of it, if I felt what had to be felt and reflected on what should be reflected on. If I realized that under all the loss and illness and loneliness, there was something sharp and bright, like the ice, that flashed in the sunlight asking to be seen, felt, and intimately known.
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