Monday, December 24, 2012

Lessons from The Long Winter

For Christmas, a passage from one of my favorite American storytellers:

"There's nothing like good hot bean soup on a cold day," said Pa. He looked down at Grace, pulling at his hand. "Well, Blue-Eyes, what do you want?"

"A tory," Grace said.

"Tell us the one about Grandpa and the pig and the sled," Carrie begged. So, taking Grace and Carrie on his knees, Pa began again the stories that he used to tell Mary and Laura in the Big Woods when they were little girls. Ma and Mary knitted busily, in quilt-covered rockers drawn close to the oven, and Laura stood wrapped in her shawl, between the stove and the wall.

The cold crept in from the corners of the shanty, closer and closer to the stove. Icy-cold breeze sucked and fluttered the curtains around the beds. The little shanty quivered in the storm. But the steamy smell of boiling beans was good and it seemed to make the air warmer.

At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove. They all drank cups of strong, hot tea. Ma even gave Grace a cup of cambric tea. Cambric tea was hot water and milk, with only a taste of tea in it, but little girls felt grown-up when their mothers let them drink cambric tea." - from the "October Blizzard" chapter of Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter.

Storytime. Hearty soup and hot tea. The smell and warmth of a fire. These are some of my favorite simple delights in winter that Laura describes. What are yours? I thought of this passage when this past cold December weekend I savored a bowl of homemade vegetable soup my mother made like her mother used to make. I dreamt of days indoors with a pot of tea, the candles on, entertained by a story. I know many people don't enjoy winter, but I love it, as I enjoy all four seasons.

What strikes me about Laura's books are the universal appeal of what she delights in as a girl on the prairie, and how they are as relevant in 2012 as they were in the 1880s setting The Long Winter takes place during. Television is filled with commercials this time of year with fare like a mother getting satisfaction over giving her kids some footware (made in China, I'd guess) or two young boys trying to convince their parents to get some fancy gizmo (next scene: the parents are playing with the device themselves). I'd rather live in the Laura world of simple pleasures. I feel like this maddening retail push for Christmas earlier and earlier has sucked at times the joy out of the season for me.

The past few years I've been participating in a local library's annual holiday program to buy a clothing item for an anonymous resident in need. I picked a card from 10-year-old girl off of the tree who wanted a winter coat. Along with the coat and a scarf/hat/glove set, I packed a copy of The Long Winter from my local book shop, with a nifty kitten bookmark (I love a fun bookmark, don't you?) I hope she likes it. I loved the book, which I read recently for the first time. The "Little House" series also puts into perspective my own perceived struggles. When I think about not wanting to eat leftovers another day, I remember the Ingalls family surviving on brown bread for months. When I turn up the thermometer, I'm grateful I don't have to spend my days twisting wheat to burn for fuel.

On my way to the bus from New Jersey into New York City, I often pass a man in his 30s or 40s, who is walking slowly and looking down at his device. I've never seen him without it. Laura's description of the prairie reminds me to look around the world regularly. I hope our society stops and looks around more often, and it's a little depressing seeing the number of young children gazing down at phones and gadgets and not looking at the world. One of my favorite things to do when looking out from the 11th floor of my New York City office building: watching the birds in flight, in a sort of ballet in the sky, or those perched high in snug nests, far from the harried life below passing by them. I wonder what the birds think of us?

"Winter is the season of the imagination more than any other for me. Landscapes are magically transformed by snow," the sonic storyteller Sting tells us in an interview promoting his album, If on a Winter's Night.

Of the song Soul Cake he says, "Souls cakes were there to appease ghosts of the past...It kind of ties in with the record of treating the spirits of the past so that you can move forward." I like that idea too.

Winter, he says, is " a dark time. It's a cold time. It's also a time of warmth and family and love and tenderness." After the news events as of late, what could be more important? Happy Christmas and season's greetings to you all.


  1. I love that book---I read it many times as a child, and last year I read it to my son. It certainly does make you stop and think about the ease of our everyday lives. I love winter and I like to watch the tiny birds flutter around the bare trees. We rarely get snow here in the Pacific Northwest, but some parts are getting a little bit for Christmas today. Our family celebrates Hanukkah, which is already over. But we still enjoy spending Christmas together, having a nice quiet day with just the three of us.
    Best wishes to you, and a happy and healthy New Year!

  2. Thank you! Hope you had a happy Hanukkah celebrations, and Happy New Year to your family too, Lilypad! We had a quiet Christmas, our usual fondue celebration in Christmas Eve, a nod to our Swiss heritage.

    Glad to know another Little House fan. Even though I've long considered myself an environmentalist, Laura brings me closer to the environment in her own way. I love looking at the bare trees reaching toward the sky in the morning and at dusk. There's something so beautiful about it to me.

  3. Winter is the season of imagination, I agree. A blank canvas of sorts with the long dark nights. I find a good book most comforting in the winter, especially new poetry or short stories. Thanks for sharing this great post!

  4. Thanks for the comment! I'm eagerly anticipating my storytellers (some new, some familiar) to entertain me this winter. I have a little home library of books to pick from, mostly secondhand. I left the house this morning in a rush without a book, and raced back in declaring to my husband, "I cannot be without a book!"

    The landscape this weekend was magically transformed by snow here in New Jersey.

    Happy New Year and happy reading!