Beyond What We Know

‘I have learned to observe the little things, to look for the light,’ writes Nazrene Hanif, in an ode to winter wandering and wondering. What might we find?

In 2020, I moved three times. Lockdown living with friends, a summer short-term let, then eventually, thankfully, somewhere more permanent. A year later, the new flat is finally feeling like home. I’ve noticed this most in the front room, one of my favourite rooms in which to sit and spend time, to read and to write. On one side, a sofa by the fireplace, with bookshelves in the eaves, and an armchair next to the record player; on the other, the dining table, our friends’ artwork on the walls, and the window seat where our cat sleeps when it’s warm.

Over the past few months, I have watched the light in this room change, filtering through the slats in the window shutters, casting white rectangles in myriad tones across the walls and wooden floors. In summer, the space seemed to sing with the sunshine – yellow and golden, full of optimism. Our cat would bask, flat on his back, while the plants would appear to dance, performing a kind of surya namaskar, following the light’s journey from one corner of the room at dawn to the other just before dusk. In autumn, I noticed this journey change, become shorter, the white rectangles greyer, the sun so often struggling through clouds, heavy with London rain.

When December comes, the room changes again. Last year, our first winter here, we lit candles, turned on all the lamps, tried to defend ourselves against the dark. Our cat retreated from the window seat to his cold-weather spot beneath the radiator. I wore layers, thick socks. Nothing helped. After so many seasons lost to staying inside, one of the lucky few still working from home, the passage of time had become imperceptible. I felt anxious, isolated, stifled by the weight of things ending before they had even begun. Where had the past twelve months gone? Spring, summer, autumn – fleeting, forgotten. Only winter seemed to linger.

The Anglo-Saxons counted years in ‘winters’; in Old English, ænetre means ‘one-year-old’. They described deep, dark sorrow as wintercearig, meaning ‘winter sadness’ or ‘sad with years’, as though there was no grief as bitter as the bleak midwinter, the passing of another year.

I know this December will bring more of the same, the sense of an ending, but this year, I feel different. In spring, we worked on our garden, planting small pines beside sanguisorba and sweet woodruff. Summer is still a blur, but I remember watching the waves break on Whitstable beach, so many weddings and long picnics in the park. This autumn, we carved pumpkins, drank mulled wine with friends at the pub. Things are still uncertain, but in these small moments, I have learned to observe the little things, to look for the light.

Recently, I have read that interaction, maintaining or making new connections, changes of scene, departing and returning home, seeing the sun rise and set, the seasonal shifts, from new buds to falling leaves, impacts our sense of time. It’s no wonder that 2020, with so little to mark its progression other than the pandemic, seemed to disappear, drag and drift, felt short and long all at the same time. 

Throughout history, we have observed time through rituals, patterns in nature, like the seasons, which change depending on where you are in the world. The polar year is split into light and dark. In Singapore, where my family lives, the months of the year are either wet or dry – or, as my mother would say, month of monsoon or no monsoon.

When I lived in California, I was taken by the myths and misconceptions around El Niño and La Niña – two climate phenomena so often seen in opposition, the boy and the girl, even though they are of equal importance and influence. El Niño is said to bring much-needed rain to the dry US West Coast, while La Niña improves nutrient levels for fish in the waters off Peru. Both have their negative impacts, too, from floods to famine. Across the globe, communities watch and wait for the forecast, holding out hope. What will happen in the New Year? What will nature do next?

Rebecca Solnit once wrote: ‘Hope is an embrace of the unknown and knowable.’ Her words have guided me through the unpredictability of the last few years. ‘Hope is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine,’ explains Solnit. ‘[It] locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.’

This winter, in this room, this space, the uncertainty and stillness, I am looking forward. On New Year’s Eve, we bid farewell to the past and set resolutions – actions – for the future. The Roman Emperor Julius Caesar instituted 1 January as the first day of the year, in honour of Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, transitions and time. He is also the god of motion, guardian of passages, causing doors to open or close. In our celebration of the New Year, we invite possibility, bring about change.

In her 2014 essay for The New Yorker, Solnit connects two winter walks – one taken by John Keats in 1817, the other by Virginia Woolf in 1930. Both found creativity under the cover of dusk. ‘How beautiful a street is in winter!’ wrote Woolf. ‘It is at once revealed and obscured.’ To wander (and, indeed, wonder) in winter is to voyage into the dark, to go beyond what we know. What might we find?

Called ‘New Year’s Gift’ in English folklore, the Winter Aconite is a yellow woodland flower, one of the first to appear in early January – its name comes from its willingness to flower before anyone else. According to 16th-century herbalist John Gerard: ‘the colder the weather is, and the deeper that the snow is, the fairer and larger is the flower.’ It’s a rare sight in the UK, usually hidden by snow, but one that reminds us that hope can be found in the most-unexpected places. This winter, I will look for it in the forests where I go to think, take the meandering paths, get lost, find my way again.

Embracing the season of stillness does not mean staying still or surrendering ourselves to sadness. We must search within and without for inspiration, begin again. In the words of Rebecca Solnit: we live in a world that remains ‘wilder than our imaginations.’ Together, we hope, we dream, we act, we watch and wait for the light.