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In Winter, Keeping Warm With Beloved Books


For many of us, winter is a time for turning inward, for quelling fears, for resolving to stay warm and alive, or just for remembering that there is so much ahead to wonder over. And though at times it can just feel bleak and bloody awful, the season can be an invitation of sorts, a call to take heart.

Nothing helps us do that quite like the books and poems we love so well. It happens like clockwork, at least for me, that I long for what I know and have come to memorize over the years. A book I often turn to during this time is The Cloister Walk, by poet and author Kathleen Norris. Part meditation, part personal account of her 18-month immersion at St. John's Abbey in Minnesota, it is a fully absorbing and lyrical work.

Centered on the ritual and discipline of monastic life, The Cloister Walk delves into the inner lives of those at the monastery. Norris, a married woman who grew up Protestant, made a vow to follow the Benedictine Rule and to attach herself to the community for a set period. "Once I became an oblate," she writes, "I found that I'd gained an enormous family."

There, she learned to adhere to a strict diet of prayer, work, and reading scripture. While this approach to daily living has long baffled laypeople, monastic rhythms have much to teach us about what the monks call "the sanctification of time" — the idea that time is a gift which affords us the opportunity to practice humility and to function in the service of others. It also reminds me why reading is so wonderful, and why, at its very core, it's about putting our time to good use and not allowing it to "spit us out with appalling ease," as Norris puts it.

But winter is also for lovers, because in the cold few things are better than having someone to hold. And so I think of Frank O'Hara's poem "To You" in which he says,

What is more beautiful than night
and someone in your arms

Renaissance lyricist Thomas Campion offers his take in "Now Winter Nights Enlarge:"

The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights.

Fact is, winter metaphors abound. So as some poets dream of things like love and nostalgia and transformation, others take a more critical approach. In "A Severe Lack of Holiday Spirit," the poet Amy Gerstler thinks it humorless business, all this cold and darkness that drives us to drinking.

... People hit
the sauce in a big way all winter.
Amidst blizzards they wrestle
unsuccessfully with the dark comedy
of their lives, laughter trapped
in their frigid gizzards.

Another favorite that I devour with great joy during these frigid months is Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. To this day, his tell-all of 1920s Paris remains for me his most endearing work. You get the feeling he was happy writing it — recalling those poor, early days when "it was very cold and I knew how much it would cost for a bundle of small twigs, three wire-wrapped pockets of short, half-pencil length pieces of split pine to catch fire from the twigs, and then the bundle of half-dried lengths of hard wood that I must buy to make a fire that would warm the room."

As readers, we have those texts we revisit yearly with anticipation. Whatever sparks that longing for the familiar cannot be known: The sub-zero temperatures, the trees outside our windows bare and lifeless; these things seem to provoke us all in different ways. I choose, like Longfellow, to consider the falling snow a "poem of the air." It's the only way to face winter's ploy to keep me indoors with a book and a fire going.

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.