I read “Wintering” by Katherine May this winter. She has a name like spring, which is funny. The book’s subtitle (which must be the work of a publishing-house bureaucrat) is the misleadingly self-helpy “The Power of Rest and Retreat In Difficult Times.”

It’s not a self-help book. It’s a memoir about getting through hard times, as the trees do yearly. Even as humans, sometimes our leaves fall off because that’s the only way to stay alive. Then things get better.

There are a lot of anecdotes about the cold and the dark and the weather. A lot of visions about how time is cyclical and so is life. Katherine May wants us to remember that a modern insistence on 24/7 going and doing and improving is a lie. “Life meanders like a path through the woods,” May writes. “We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.” And: “Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”

I dutifully agree with her points about time, and stopping. But I can’t help it: winter drives me batty. I love the woods, and I love the idea of four seasons (we had only two and a half in California when I was growing up). But the actual reality of the brownness of March gets me down. Leafless trees in large numbers look like austerity itself.

It’s not just winter. Like me, Katherine May suffers from nighttime anxiety: “I’ve come to call it the “terrible threes”: the dark insomniac hours when my mind declares itself, fully fired, in the middle of the night. It always happens at three a.m.: a long way past late, but too early to surrender and start the day. There, in the truest night, I lie in the dark and catastrophise.” She invites us to treat night differently than day, just as we must learn to treat winter differently from summer: crawl out into the living room and read the kind of book that one’s mind refuses to focus on by daylight. Welcome the weird quiet.

This works for her, at least.

I’ve spent a lot of time and effort over the last few years trying to rid myself of anxious insomnia. I have partly succeeded. Largely, my success is down to actually resolving the problems that were keeping me up, whether through making tough decisions or by allowing time to pass to heal wounds. 

But I’m still prone to the occasional night, or series of nights, wherein I lie awake simultaneously too hot and too cold to sleep, somehow too hungry and too full to get comfortable, dying for a large glass of cold water but also too tired to get up to go to the bathroom, and dreading having to go to the bathroom again if I give in to the water craving. 

In these circumstances, I try to give in and enjoy the timeless time that is the middle of the night. Let the dark be dark, and the hours be long and quiet. But I have a terror of time during those hours. The way it ticks on, faster and faster. If I watch it, I feel that I’m choking on it all. If I don’t, it speeds on without my say-so. 

That last paragraph—those are 1am thoughts, the kinds of thoughts I wrote down in a frustrated rant one night when I was struggling, just before I decided to call it and watch the Britney Spears documentary. Then I had to do a deep dive on Britney’s Instagram, which I imagine is unsettling at the best of times, and is a truly upsetting place at 3am. 

Intellectually, I understand all the things we’re supposed to believe about nighttime and insomnia, just like I know the meaning we’re supposed to seek in wintertime. The unbroken eight hour sleep is only a myth. Humans are prone to changing rhythms. We should welcome them. Appreciate the dark, just like we appreciate the rhythms of scarcity and resilience and all that the natural world does to save its life when we’re tipped away from the sun.

But winter is so full of dark, and dark is menacing to a diurnal mammal like me. Winter, and night, are not my friends, and will not be. So, bah, humbug, says the worst part of me, in my most daytime, summer, macho voice. I’m going to eradicate insomnia from my life if it’s the last thing I do. And the winter, and the night.

all along I’ve been new like this

how am I not myself?

“I’m not myself,” I said to him for many weeks while I was not myself. I meant I was unhappy.

“Maybe you’ve changed,” he said. That’s when I should have known.

I had changed, because change is life, but I had also not changed. And since then I’ve changed a lot, but I’m also resolutely me. There is something gobsmacking about thinking I’ve come so far and learned so much and then finding something—a picture, a memory, a scrap of a journal—that reminds me I’ve always been this way, and I’ve always struggled with what I struggle with.

It’s liberating and hilarious, seen in the right light. It’s human.

I’ve always been insecure, prone to solo wandering and wishing things were slightly different. Uncertain of quite what I want and how to be someone with a niche, because niche-people are people who know they are themselves.

But how am I not myself?

Here’s something I found that I wrote more than seven years ago:

“I’ll be John Grisham if I have to. I’ll be the John Grisham of environmental and administrative law…Someday I’ll find what makes me tick…As I get more in touch with what I’m feeling, I notice it’s all anger. Ablaze at all times, and I feed it with my schizophrenic chats to myself as I bike down the road, scowling at those who watch me, like how dare you interrupt us, we are clearly busy.”

I would have thought the great awakening to anger didn’t happen until 2019 or so. But I guess I’ve always been angry, and I’ve always been surprised that I’m always angry, and now I’m surprised that I’m surprised.

But how am I not myself?

Dirigibles, erotica, military strategy & theory

It’s unbearably cheesy when writers say things like “My characters always surprise me!”

Or, as the constantly problematic Diana Gabaldon (author of the Outlander novels) once said: “When [the protagonist] walked into the scene, I had no idea who she was or what she’d do. All of the men in the room were staring at her, but I didn’t know why. Then she opened her mouth and started talking like a modern woman. I fought with her for several pages, trying to make her talk like an 18th century woman, but she just kept talking like a smart-alecky modern woman. It’s all [her] fault there’s time travel in ‘Outlander.'”

Stuff and nonsense, say I!

I don’t hold to this theory of character at all, ostensibly because it’s really corny but actually because it makes me jealous.

Characters mystify me. I have to plan them with a lot of help from the Enneagram and outlines and research and preparation. I spend a lot of time fighting to imagine what these non-me people might do or feel in the plot’s circumstances. I resent these authors who pretend to have a whole dramatis personae volunteering to live comfortably inside their head.

But just the other day I learned that one of my characters has the hots for another one, and I don’t know how else to say it but that. She was on stage to do one thing, and she started staring at him on a horse and having feelings about it.

I guess it’s like playing piano: there’s more going on when you write than what is conscious. And whatever small part of me is that character—well, she just wanted me to know how she felt. She felt that he looks damn good.


The last time

When you move a lot, like I used to, life is a slide show. Next. Next. Places were little bursts of experience, flashing by for a moment, and then I was gone. I craved stasis. Ten years ago I wrote this:

“It’s the difference between staying for years so that you notice it’s time for the echium to bloom, then for the naked ladies to bloom, then for the birds to fly through, then for the kids to put on their shouting sidewalk car washes—and just passing through to see ‘it,’ as if there ever is a single experience to be had. In July Mendocino was green and purple, and in August it was golden and pink. How could I know a place in just one moment? It cannot present itself to you in fullness at once. But I’m drawn to conquering landscapes. I pull out the map—I want to see those place-names, and know what it’s like to be there or there. I want to mark it like a cartographer and catalog it.”

And that’s what I did for many years when I had the chance. That’s how I saw places, usually. I went once, and then never again. I filed the experience away in my catalog and had another.

But as I get older, I’m growing stationary. The pandemic has helped, if taking a person firmly by the shoulders and shoving them into their seat is “helping.”

Early in the pandemic, I took long walks every day for sanity and novelty. I wrote: “I love going to the same locations, but differently. I need to see the forest changing, which requires seeing the forest every day, but I also need to take side roads to see a new row of play tents in the front yard of quiet houses.” I couldn’t see the forest if I didn’t change the route. I had to be constantly surprised to be attentive enough to be surprised.

I grew in love with change. To grow in love with change, you have to stay put.

Sometimes it’s the last time. I didn’t know that the last time I said goodbye to my parents’ little backyard oasis that it was the last time altogether. But that last time was with him. Now we’re looking for our own little stand of trees.

Rarely, it’s the last time and you know it. I high-fived the tansy out the car window on our last drive ever up that lane, when I knew it was goodbye. “Good game, chaps,” I said to them, after twenty years. “Good game.”