EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY: Welcome dark and cold

Virginia Buckingham
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A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.” 

If I controlled the universe there’d be no such thing as turning the clocks back, and we’d wing through January and February as if through the portal of a tesseract, wrinkling time. Alas, I do not.

What I can control is my attitude in these dark, cold months. Curse or embrace? This year I choose the latter.

In the past couple of years, the darkness descending ever earlier made the late afternoon and early evening feel suffocating, impenetrable, imprisoning. I don’t remember being as affected in past years as in the last couple and, no doubt, the darkness had a pile-on effect with COVID isolation and anxiety.

This year, though, I am determined to think differently. My husband likes to say, “Thoughts are things.”

I always want to soothingly reply, with a meditator’s mien, “Thoughts are just thoughts; they flit in and out like clouds.”

However, when it comes to the dark of winter, he is on to something. Think that the early darkness offers respite and retreat, and it might become so.

I was telling a friend about my “embracing” plan, and she immediately recommended the book, “Wintering, the Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times” by Katherine May. I have just started it and while, for May, “wintering” is also metaphor for healing darkness within, her thoughts, when applied to the season, resonate deeply. 

“We must learn to invite the winter in,” she writes. “We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how.”

And this, “Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season in which the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements sparkle. It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order.”

If you Google “winter wellness,” you will come across dozens of articles and tips on how to winter well. I won’t repeat them here–nor, honestly, will I do most of them myself. The vitamins, the artificial light, the skiing. (I started skiing at age 40 and quit at 43, the subject perhaps of a future column, if not recurring stress dream.)

I do light candles, start a fire, put soup on the stove, read. Mostly, though, I am trying, this season, this year, to just be. To be inside literally. To be inside figuratively. To welcome the respite. The quiet. The dark.

Ah, but the cold. A different matter entirely. As a woman of a certain age, I am rarely cold. Fights with the aforementioned husband revolve around the setting of the thermostat here, a sly attempt to hope an open window isn’t noticed there.

That’s inside the house. Outside, where the pup must be walked, and the ocean’s gray surface is simultaneously forbidding and spectacular, I feel cold to my core.

Curiously, the winter cold didn’t prevent me from completing an annual dunk at Devereux Beach each New Year’s Day for a decade. I dreaded then embraced (often in the same hour) the annual feat, a ritual borne of my own desire to heal unseen wounds of the heart.

Once a year is a different feat to accomplish than to do the same frigid dip twice a week. Yet, that’s what I recently learned goes on two-tenths of a mile down the street from me.

A dip, a swim, 30 people, sometimes more. Women. Men. Ages separated by decades. Each with their own reasons for the unreasonable decision to GO WILLINGLY INTO THE ATLANTIC OCEAN IN WINTER. Twice a week.

The group, dubbed the Wolfpack, was borne partly of the pandemic’s isolation as well as a commitment to healthy living.

KyAnn Anderson-McKernan, a cancer survivor, her husband Brendan McKernan and their personal trainer Nathan Irizarry started the dipping practice after Brendan learned of the health benefits of cold exposure from reading the book, “What Doesn’t Kill Us” by Scott Carney. It’s about what we can learn from the evolutionary adaptations of the body to environmental conditions. 

One dipping day, they bumped into two women emerging from their own swim, and a ritual began. Organically, word spread, and today the group has a text thread of 85 people, an Instagram page and a regular showing on Wednesday and Friday mornings of 30 to 40 people. 

I watched the spectacle last week when the water was 47 degrees, the wind was whipping, and the gray sky mirrored the water. Cars streamed into the Devereux Beach parking lot like it was the middle of July rather than almost the start of December.

As the Wolfpack gathered to slip on cold water shoes and shed parkas, I was struck by this–the evident joy, the mutual support, the sense of community.

I also learned that there is something called a “Beanie Season,” in which you can earn a Wolfpack-branded blue beanie for dipping three times for two minutes on a Wednesday or Friday at 8 a.m. sharp between the day after Thanksgiving and the first week of March.

To a person, those who answered my “why do you do it?” question cited the health benefits of the dip–reduced inflammation, energy lift. Still others cited a feeling of accountability, a centering, a pause during life’s passages.

Two final offerings from May’s “Wintering” seem fitting in answer to why: “Every one of us is a lit candle,” she writes, quoting from a Scandinavian ritual of light she attended leading up to Christmas. 

And this, conscious of the fleeting nature of time, “No doubt the winter will still have plenty of remaining bite; the coldest days are yet to come. Still, there will be snowdrops peeking up within weeks, and then the first crocuses. It won’t be long. The year begins again.” 

In other words, “Beanie Season,” like every season, turns to another. The dark and cold lift. It’s worth exploring whether, by embracing them now, we can, before spring, lift ourselves. 

Virginia Buckingham is a regular columnist for the Marblehead Current and a member of its board of directors.

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