Hibernation: Winter is here

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I am in full hibernation mode. Winter does this to me. It’s a time to retreat, reflect and restore. A time to sleep in and draw the covers tighter to your chin, linger over cups of coffee and tea, read a book on the couch by the warmth of a fire.

I’ve grown fonder of winter over the last few years. I loved it as a kid. Hot chocolate with pillows of whipped cream, scarves and boots, sledding and snowsuits, mom’s creamy casserole, snowflakes and blankets, hours of movies and mid-afternoon naps, early dismissal and snow days.

Winter makes me feel alive—its crisp, cold air fills my lungs and wakes up my body. I like walking in the woods this time of year, where it’s quieter than other seasons. Just me, my dog, the creak of the pine trees and the crunch of layers of frozen leaves under my boots.

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Since December 1, my last official day of the semester, I have pretty much done nothing, at least it feels like nothing. This “doing nothing” is difficult for me to do. I struggle with being still, not producing, not in motion. Doing. Doing. Doing. Before December, I spent four months just “doing”, more accurately, overdoing. I stretched and squeezed in as many tasks, errands, emails, pages in a book, dinners, and coffee dates. This is what grad school looks like: eat, sleep, read, study, go to class, go to work, repeat. (Notice how showering wasn’t part of that cycle.) This is what grad school looks like in a counseling program: eat, sleep, read, study, go to work, go to class, cry, reflect, cry some more, feel, feel, feel, cry some more, think, think, think, cry, grow, grow, grow, cry, reflect, repeat.

December 1 arrived and I slipped into my December coma. I haven’t felt like writing. I haven’t felt much like doing anything really. My counselor says I am in recovery from this year. This is human. … This year and all of its challenges, surprises, turbulence, and layer upon layer of traumas. On my first official day of my semester break, I stayed in bed and watched movies. All. Day. Long. Flannel jammies, tea, muffins, naps, white twinkle string lights. Repeat.

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Day of Nothing. Otherwise known as best day ever.

 

I have been out of it since the middle of December and don’t feel like going back to work.

I overhear someone say this to a friend in the tea shop where I often come to write. I haven’t written here since August, but this place still feels like home and it’s where I tend to do my best writing. I warm my hands wrapped around my cup of spiced orange tea. It was five degrees earlier. I think it’s 15 now. Progress. The South cannot cope with cold. Me? I am leaning into it. Wool socks, boots, plaid scarf layered around my neck, my favorite grey, bulky, wool sweater. In the afternoon I’ll go for a walk in the woods with my four-legged companion and then we’ll take a nap on the couch. This is what you’re supposed to do in winter. Isn’t it?

It doesn’t feel like a new year. On Sunday, I lit every candle in the house, made a special dinner of lobster tail and clam chowder for my husband and me, and we watched movies until midnight approached. I held my flute of Prosecco in my hands as my husband and I cuddled under blankets and watched the ball drop in Times Square. As the countdown to 2018 began, I felt nothing. No excitement. No pang of hope. No giddiness of anticipation. It just was. We clinked glasses, kissed, and I took a sip of my bubbles. I poured the rest down the drain and stumbled sleepy-eyed into bed.

Have no expectations and you won’t be disappointed, I keep telling myself.

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A book of Jane Kenyon poems and Rumi are near me today. Before you know kindness, you must lose things. Isn’t that what Jane Kenyon said? I keep re-reading Rumi’s “The Guest House.”

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

2017 was a year of unexpected visitors—literally and figuratively. Chronic illness, a diagnosis, and then another and another. A car accident that almost took my life. Trips to the ER. A fatigue that entered my body and settled there for months. A fall and back surgery. And then there were the visitors I welcomed. My acceptance letter to grad school. My job working with assault survivors. Claiming and declaring my identity as a survivor. Marching with my best friend and 5 million others around the world. The summer, the beach, the bliss before I knew what fall would bring. My mother flying 2,000 miles and showing up at my door to take care of me. Our late-night talk, the tears, the understanding, the forgiveness, and the ice cream sundaes we made after. A home-cooked meal from a dear friend, hand-delivered with gooey, fudge brownies. The community I found among my classmates, a balm during the toughest months of this year. My family. My husband. My village. My sweet, comforting dog. And love, love, love. … Always love. This is the joy. This is the pain.

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Unexpected visitors are just that: visitors, temporary passersby. All things must pass.  The good, the bad, the bittersweet, I am thankful for it all. They cannot exist without each other. They are both needed, necessary for living. There lie the lessons.

This year I learned I am resilient. I learned I am a workaholic and what stress can do to the mind, body and spirit. I learned that a mother’s love is like no other—unconditional, unwavering, steady, reliable, constant, whole. I learned to ask for help, to stop trying to prove to myself and to others that I can do this alone. This. What is the this? All of it. I learned that community can be cultivated in the most unexpected places, and how that community will help hold you up when you collapse into tears in the public restroom, deliver homemade meals to your door, send you loving texts and snippets of videos declaring how much they miss you.

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Equipped by pain.

I heard someone say this recently and how they feel their painful experiences have equipped them to step into the New Year, maybe like wearing their pain like a suit of armor or a scarlet letter, as if to say, I’ve been through some shit. Approach carefully. Tread lightly.

I used to look forward to each New Year, but now there is a part of me that fears it, the unknown, whatever is lurking around the corner, the next unexpected visitor. But I am equipped by pain, this pain, like a familiar highway. I know each way it bends and curves, where it ends, where it begins, the stops in between. It’s taught me how to navigate this life. I remember my counselor asking me in 2016: How will you carry your grief? It took me a year before I learned that to carry it, I needed to accept it.

Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?

Rumi, again.

On New Year’s Eve, I read aloud the moments I scribbled on slips of paper and kept in a jar marked “Good Things.” The idea was to capture the bright spots throughout the year, the simple moments of daily gratitude. I vowed to fill up the jar, but only made it halfway. Maybe this year.

Always look for the beauty; that’s me. But I slipped up quite a few times this year and lost sight of it. Pain can do that. Still, when I look back on 2017, love outshines the pain. During this difficult year, love was present; I felt it in my chest, expanding and stretching, taking up space. It never left me. It was there the whole time. And it’s love that what will carry me into the new year. Steady, unconditional, constant.

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Finding solace among the trees

I do my best thinking in the woods. They’ve become my haven, especially lately.

The woods have always felt like home to me, a place to let my mind wander, to feel the wind on my face, the sun warming my shoulders. The moment I step onto the trail, a soft bed of pine needles beneath my feet, the world around me quiets, and I can just be. Even on my worst days, the second I’m surrounded by towering trees, I can always come back to center, find my footing.

Today was one of those days. I needed solace, and I found it among the pine trees. I come here to think. I also come here not to.

There’s a beautiful forest not far from our house that I’ve grown to love. Few people know about it, so much so that most of the time I have the woods all to myself, and other times, I run into the same familiar faces and their blissful Labs and hound dogs with tired tongues hanging from their mouths.

As I’ve weathered through these past few seasons, so have these hundreds of acres of forest. Together we’ve morphed and changed, parts of us died but new growth came. I was thinking about this today as I walked beneath the trees which seemed to have bloomed over night. The bare branches of winter have been replaced with lush, green. I remember in February, deep in my grief, wondering if spring would ever come.

Walk in the woods from Carla Kucinski on Vimeo.

Growing up, my backyard consisted of hundreds of acres of forest in rural Pennsylvania. Those woods provided the perfect hills for sledding in the winter and produced the most delicious blueberries in the summer that still felt warm from the sun when you popped them in your mouth. I remember going for walks sometimes with my father and getting lost with my sister, and watching the sun set behind the tree line, casting hues of pink and orange across the sky. I suppose that’s where my love of nature began and why it always felt like home to me – and still does.

My appreciation for nature grew deeper in my early 20s when I adopted my first dog as an adult. I’ve been fortunate that both dogs I’ve adopted over the years are both lovers of the woods. When my first dog Yoshi passed away four years ago this month, I sprinkled some of his ashes along one of his favorite trails by a lake and among the creaking, swaying pine trees. Even in his old age with his shaky knees and deteriorating hips, he came to life in those woods, hopping over logs. It was his medicine. When he died, it seemed fitting to return him to the earth, to his favorite place. I remember the day I sprinkled his ashes, the wind kicked up suddenly, and I could feel his spirit there with me. Some days, like today, I can still feel him in the breeze in the middle of the woods. He’s never left me.

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Yoshi and me hanging out on his favorite trail. He died less than a month after this photo was taken.

I have a new doggie companion now, a black Lab and Border collie mix who also has a deep love for woods and hopping logs. When she’s in the woods, she’s at home, too. It’s a magical place for her. She completely loses herself in the experience, chasing squirrels and running after deer. But often times I catch her pausing for moment on the trail, looking up to the sky, scanning the scenery around her. Most of the time she’s listening for squirrel movements, but sometimes I think she’s intentionally stopping to take it all in. She constantly reminds me to rest, to linger, let go and be in the present. Everything is temporary. Tomorrow will be different.

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Molly among the pine trees circa March 2016. Photo by Carla Kucinski.