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From Boise

Winter is coming

Published 5 months ago • 8 min read

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Today's story is by Amanda Patchin. Enjoy!

The maple tree outside my bedroom window is turning scarlet and warning me that Autumn is here, and Winter is coming. I do need to be warned. Yes, winter comes every year, and I should be quite ready for it, but I am often unprepared for the grayness, the coldness, and the descending sadness that it often brings. If you are new to the valley, you may need a little warning too, whether you come from someplace warmer or someplace colder. Expectations shape our experiences in dramatic ways.

Boise winters aren’t particularly harsh compared to those in Canada, in Maine, or around the Great Lakes. While we enjoy a full four seasons, and our summers are hot, and winter is cold, we do not have to deal with excessive snowfall or long periods of extreme temperatures. Our winters are hard enough though. The dark, the cold, the gray are all enough to leave us longing for sunshine, warmth, and the rebirth of spring.

Given that we have a semi-arid climate, a lot of the winter concerns that our friends in the East experience are just not an issue for Boise. In fact, Idaho has a huge range of winter weather given that it is such a tall state with widely varying climates. Up north they may have ten feet of snow. In Riggins, they might not ever bundle up. In Stanley, they take pride in being one of the coldest place in the lower 48. In Idaho Falls, it's the ice cold wind that will get you as it blows the snow and ice and dust horizontally.

In Boise, snowfall is usually pretty light even though we do have stories of 2017’s year of “Snowpocalypse” or “Snowmageddon” when we had more than three feet of snow, schools closed for almost two weeks, and buildings collapsed. But typically we only have a handful of snowfalls, they are usually an inch or two, and by afternoon the roads are clear because it melted off when the sun came out.

This is of course, a little disappointing to the inner child who would like to see more sledding, more snow days off school, and more of the light and joy of snow-covered lawns and buildings. The outer adult is usually quite happy that snow tires are generally unnecessary (unless you’re planning to head to the mountains a lot), cars don’t tend to accumulate salt damage, and sidewalks need to be swept more than shoveled.

The lack of snow actually makes Boise winters a bit harder for me. Even though Boise sits in the southern part of the state, we are still quite far north – above the 43rd parallel – which means that our winter solstice is six and a half hours shorter of a day than the summer! Certainly I enjoy the long summer evenings when we can sit on the porch until 10pm and enjoy the fading heat and light, but the necessary exchange is the darkness that descends before I’ve even gotten dinner started on a January night. When we do have snow, the white reflectivity makes the most of whatever little sun we get and helps the days feel brighter and longer.

The cold is, of course, the other major winter factor to consider. While the average temperature hovers around freezing, there are plenty of days of below-freezing cold to contend with. I love to walk on the Greenbelt winter or summer, and it gets much harder as the temperature dips. Even a walk from my car to a coffee shop is a bit unpleasant when the thermometer is down and the wind is up.

A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of Wintering by Katherine May at Rediscovered Bookshop downtown off the self-improvement shelf. The cover, a pale orange with white dots, is appealing and the subtitle also caught my eye “The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.”

I have been having a difficult year and, I think, handling it pretty well, but the importance of rest is not the usual cultural message and certainly not what we think of as "self-improvement." Typically those kinds of books are all about maximizing productivity via a variety of tips and tricks to force yourself to work faster and more efficiently. Not Wintering.

Katherine May explores the concept of winter as well as the physical reality of it. Psychologically, she finds it useful to think of hard seasons, times when we are derailed or frustrated by life circumstances, as personal winters. The parallel is natural: just like our climate needs a cold period to activate certain seeds, store up moisture in the soil, and complete the life cycle of certain animals and bugs, we individually need periods of time where we rest, think bigger thoughts, and wait out the mental or emotional cold.


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Reading Wintering gave me new perspective on some of the challenges I’ve been facing, but it also prompted me to think about actual Winter and how I manage it and my response to it each year. And so, here are my idiosyncratic and personal strategies for wintering in Boise Idaho.

Be excited about any snow we actually get. If I know it's coming I will even get up early to watch it fall while I drink my coffee. Obviously there are difficulties and imperatives that we can’t escape, but before I engage with the disrupted schedule, the bad traffic, the slippery front step, I take a little while to just attend to it. Incidentally, I absolutely loved Snowmageddon in 2017. My sons were young, I was a teacher and therefore incredibly lucky to be out of work just as they were out of school, and so we baked cookies and bread, drank gallons of cocoa, and I read a book a day for the first twelve days of the year. When the boys were too squirrely, I sent them around the neighborhood to shovel everyone’s driveways.

Get outside in the middle of the day. I try to go for a walk midday all winter long. A lunch break is good but really anywhere between 10am and 2pm is good walking weather. Sun exposure is absolutely necessary for physical and mental health. Getting enough sunlight helps the brain maintain our sleep cycles and, of course, exercise is good for everything. We don’t need serious snow gear most of the time but warm boots with grippy tread are good and warm clothes are necessary. I have plenty of coats and my husband has more so I’m never without a cozy top half, but it took me a few years to figure out the pants situation. I’ve layered leggings under jeans before, but that’s usually a little bunchy and uncomfortable. The magical solution is the insulated work pants you can get at D&B Supply. They have a couple of brands and styles but I love my black Carhartt’s with gray flannel lining. I’m also a huge fan of wool socks and excited this year to try out my new zero-drop walking boots (good for the back and feet!)

Sauna. This one may be just me, but in addition to feeling the cold during a midday walk I like to feel the heat in a sauna. Cold exposure has lots of health benefits. It is supposed to help our metabolisms as well as cultivate mental resilience that applies to other difficulties in life. And I highly recommend it. I keep my thermostat low (65 during the day and 60 at night) and go outside a lot. However, I love the dry sauna at my gym. It’s dim in there, quiet, and so very warm! After a workout I will catch my breath, chug a bottle of water, and then go in and sit in the quiet, staring at the wall, and let my thoughts sort themselves out a bit. Obviously be careful if you’re not used to it, but the massaging heat of a dry sauna can be incredibly energizing and clarifying. Sauna is practically mandatory in Finland and they survive much harsher winters than we could imagine.

Cozy up. Speaking of the Scandinavians, the Danish concept of hygge had quite a cultural moment in the last decade or so. Generally the idea of hygge is to cultivate the mood of comfort and coziness through our homes and habits. When I first read about hygge, I found the idea a little too precious to make sense to me. Sure, comfy blankets are nice, and who doesn’t love shortbread cookies and tea in the afternoon. But what about real life, where I have work and chores and a sprawling web of responsibilities. I’d love to enjoy an eternal winter afternoon with a good book, a sheepskin rug to nap on, and a belly full of sweets. But I have a body to keep in health, a family to maintain, and a creative drive to explore.

It is here that Katherine May’s Wintering offered a richer and more helpful set of concepts for how to get through the long dark of winter or the long dark of life’s other hard times.

“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.” - Katherine May

She later uses the dormouse, a tiny little rodent that hibernates for up to six months to illustrate her point. Hibernation isn’t so much about being cozy to be comfortable, it is about conserving our energy for the absolutely necessary until conditions improve. A hibernating dormouse certainly looks cozy. They have tiny nests full of softness and sealed against the cold. They are softly furred and curl up like little eggs of fluff. But what they are doing is conserving their tiny stores of energy so they can stay alive until there is something to eat again.

When it goes gray here in the valley, when the sky is low and it’s cold, when the branches are bare and when I’m feeling lower than the inversion, I just have to accept that this is a natural and necessary part of life in the world. Even if I lived on Hawaii, with sunshine everywhere and green life bursting from every patch of dirt, I would still have winters of a sort and I would still need to acknowledge the hardness of a mental or emotional season. I would still need to choose the things that nourish and help me when I’m tired or discouraged or otherwise in “winter.”

And this, of course, is one of the things that I love about living here. Boise does not have a perfect climate and I like that. Sometimes it’s too cold and often it’s too hot but the seasonality is enriching. I don’t know if I will be feeling low this winter, but contemplating the coming winter has helped me deal with all the deaths, divorces, hospitalizations, and trauma that swirled around me this summer. I love the Greenbelt in Summer with its green trees, and squawking ducks, and diving hawks. But I also love it in Winter when I can see through the bare branches to the water and catch sight of a mink or a still blue heron. In between the colors of Autumn or the budding green of Spring, it keeps me grounded in the ever changing, always becoming movement of life.

But do get yourself some insulated Carhartts. Winter is coming.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Marissa

This story was written by Amanda Patchin. Amanda has a monthly-ish newsletter where she shares her booklist, selections from her fiction, and updates on what books she has for sale in the Zed Bookshop.

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From Boise

by Marissa Lovell

A weekly newsletter & podcast about what's going on in Boise, Idaho. Every week we share stories about people, places, history, and happenings in Boise.

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