November. The first frost on the last leaves, the shelves full of bulbous root vegetables you can only sprinkle liberally with salt and roast, the beginning of a long time of nakedness. Those long afternoons like ink spills, those low-hanging skies. I have been thinking, lately, of how I have always seen autumn as an ending and how, all this time, I may have been wrong. It felt so neat – the leaves fall, the year ends, we shiver and huddle and wait for spring, the beginning. But nothing is that neat and, besides, it doesn’t end, does it. We remain, as does the grass, as do the trees. Perhaps summer, my beloved summer, is the death, if indeed there is one. Its heat, its frantic growth, its rush. The brightest blaze, a cycle’s peak, before the yellow and red drop to the earth and she prepares to start again. She starts again in winter. In the slowness of the cold and the dark, she rests and as she rests, things begin to happen. It is invisible to us and that, of course, has been my biggest, most childish mistake. We never do see the biggest changes as they happen, do we? We only notice a flower when it’s there.
We went back into lockdown at the beginning of November, albeit a lighter version that almost felt too light. After a summer that felt foolishly optimistic, hell called for its handbasket. Cafes and restaurants closed again, museums and theatres and cinemas. The kids’ swimming lessons were scuppered, a birthday party didn’t happen, the group horse-riding lessons were put on hold. We won’t bake Plätzchen with friends for the first time since 2014, when our first babies were born, the Kindergarten cancelled its Lichterfest and Weihnachtenfeier. They’re all little things in the grand scheme of things, small disappointments that join the colourful cotton masks in the wash and the demarcated playgrounds, heads of state who never seem to agree, the cancelled Christmas markets, the ghostly quiet Halloween. The kids talk of Corona with a casualness I find sad. Abstand halten, Maske auf! Wann ist Corona vorbei? When can we fly to Australia? When can we see Nanny and Pa? When they play, I always hear them say ‘wegen Corona’ – because of Corona. Wegen Corona, kann nur eine Familie mit! All of these bits and pieces aren’t, in and of themselves, terrible. They’re annoying and uncomfortable and, sometimes, on the harder days, yes, they’re a little bit sad. But mostly they have come to characterise a year of boneless, almost purgatorial, strangeness.
And so begins a long winter without many of the things that usually make it bearable, or at least give it some momentum. Winter here is always long, it’s always slow, it’s always grey and wet – but rituals scattered about help propel it forward. The fairy lights come out in November, the Christmas tree farms open, strangers wish you a Schönen Advent. People bake and make Glühwein dates, the markets open, December rolls by in a rush of wet air and felt-hatted elf ornaments and kindergarten crafts. November is bettered by December and December fuels us for January, when the slate is cold and clean. But, and here comes the refrain, not this year. And here comes the list, all the things we won’t do, all the people we won’t see, all the moments we have missed and will miss: the new babies, the old Nanas slowing down, the weddings rejigged to fit the ever-changing rules, the faces at the Christmas table. I wondered, briefly, if, in the quiet of Abstand and Eingeschränkungen, in this usually busy season pared down both inside and out, we will see it this year, this growth, this starting again, that happens underfoot and out of sight in winter. If this is our chance to be better, somehow, with one another, with a tired, tired world.
I put Vanille Kipferl in the oven and played a Christmas album the other day, opening the most wonderful time of the year floodgates. We went to the cemetery and remembered the ones we have lost, on a crisp and sunny Totensonntag. There was another meeting, seven hours long, and the sixteen states hashed out a plan for Christmas, something people seem irrationally dogged about celebrating this year, even as two thousand people have died within the last week. I can’t help but feel crotchety, deeply irritated by the whole thing at this point, nine months in. Irritated at the disconnect, the insistence we can all travel and gather, as the very same numbers we watched in horror happen to other countries earlier this year, happen to us. Irritated at the connection between it all, the obvious fatigue and desire to be with friends and family at a time of utter bleakness. Irritated much of it makes sense at the same time as being so completely counterproductive, so the arguing continues and the shouting gets louder and nothing seems resolvable. This boneless, purgatorial, strangeness.
When the first flowers come at the end of January, reminding us with their drooping white heads, of all the work the earth had been doing during those months in which she appeared to sleep, what will we have done? In any other year, I suppose I’d say something like, I hope to have read more, cooked more, written more, done fun things with the kids more, slept more. In any other year, I wouldn’t see the snowdrops and their drooping white heads anyway, we’d be listening to the cicadas and feeding the kookaburras. (I will spare you the refrain this time.) But, isn’t it funny, that still, even after all these months, all the words and noise, the opinions, the reassurance we needn’t be productive, we needn’t achieve, we need only survive this strange year – I still want something out of this season. I still want the chance to start again, to shed a skin, to work invisibly under the surface. I still want to cast my beginning in the cold quiet of winter. Or at the very least, I want to acknowledge there is a beginning in winter, whether we see it or not, whether we hear it or not. Perhaps that is it. I won’t make promises to myself that I will do this and learn that and tick off all of those items. But I will take comfort to be found in the push and pull of the seasons because this winter, this particular winter, that might well turn out to be the greatest comfort of them all.