When you take away the twinkling lights and beloved carols, the bustle of family underfoot, and the sweet anticipation, winter can seem just…cold. Maybe the feeling is held at bay until after the last of the wadded up wrapping paper finds its way to the trash bin, or perhaps it creeps in not long after the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. But it comes. It always comes.
The frightful weather outside no longer seems delightful, instead of throwing another log on the fire and shouting for the storm clouds to do their worst you wonder just how much firewood there is left, and worry how the roof is holding up, and if your pipes might freeze.
Laundry piles up as you put off the wash until the temperature can fight its way back above freezing, and suddenly the same four walls that seemed so cozy and inviting now seem to close in around you. The family you love seems to get on your nerves, and you spend an inordinate of time hiding in the bathroom just for a moment’s peace.
You start to notice the gaps . . . Those dark spaces that used to be filled by someone you loved. You are reminded of the traditions that fell away this year, since the one who carried them out is no longer around to do so. Perhaps there were angry words before the absence, or maybe there was no time for words at all. The were just . . . gone. Or maybe they lingered until there was nothing left to remind you of the person that once was, and you wished you could recall something more than the weakened shadow with which you were left.
For all the joy the holidays bring, too often they also bring sorrow. Maybe this is why I read so much around the holidays. It isn’t because there is more time (because there isn’t), or because the cold keeps me nestled indoors (because I tend to get cabin fever), but maybe it does have something to do with the fact that books remind us that we are not alone.
Books remind us what adventure feels like, the joy of possibilities, and the intimate pleasure of a story well told. They give us a taste of love when our own life might be lacking it, and a sense of justice of which the world too often seems sadly devoid. Books remind us what honor looks like, and loyalty. They can show us joy, and peace, and light.
But some books, daring books, also remind us what darkness is . . . and how to find our way out of it.
Harry Potter reminds us what true friendship looks like. Friendship with all of its faults and flaws. Friendship that acknowledges both selflessness . . . and jealousy. Friendship that has room for shortcomings, for missteps, and that still finds its way to forgiveness and loyalty. The series shows us love in all of its myriad of forms: the love of true friends, yes, but also the love of brothers, of parent and child, and of mentor and protégé.
But, in these dark days of winter, sometimes love and joy can seem as scarce as the fleeting daylight. Sometimes the emotions more easily identified with are those that mirror the steely grey sky.
J. K. Rowling gave the dark emotions form in the Dementors. These creatures sucked the joy out of those around them, just as depression can steal away whatever joy we try to embrace. If only chocolate could stave off the effects of depression as well as it did the after-effects of a Dementor attack . . .
While Harry Potter may have personified depression with its Dementors (and while a dear friend and I often refer to ourselves during inexplicably cranky/depressive moods as feeling rather “Harry Potter Book Five”), few stories summon forth the darker side of humanity better than the Outlander series.
Diana Gabaldon allows us unimaginable intimacy with her characters. We bear witness to violation, to self-loathing, and to grief. But, more importantly, she leads us through to the other side of the dark journey.
From the beginning, we know that Jamie has had to endure Dark Days. His mother died in childbirth, he believed his sister to be in ruin, his father died of a stroke during Jamie’s flogging, he believed his uncle to have tried to kill him, his wife is nearly burned at the stake, and he tried to return her to her rightful time even though such a move would mean losing his true love. Later, he endures unimaginable brutality to try to save his beloved Claire. And that’s all just in the first book!
The end of Dragonfly in Amber always results in an ugly cry. (Yet I keep reading it, again and again.) Whatever joy he found is ripped from him as he is separated from Claire for twenty long years. In her absence, he fully expects to die and does nothing to try to avoid death. Instead, he embraces the relief he expects it will bring.
Slowly, his life finds purpose again. First, as a de facto chief of the prisoners at Ardsmuir. later as provider for Laoghaire and her daughters. He is uncle to Young Jamie and surrogate father to Fergus. Sometimes, we are reminded, it is enough to keep going for the sake of others until you can find your own reason to continue.
Claire’s strength is one of her defining characteristics. When ripped from her husband and the life she knew, she did not fall apart or expect to be rescued somehow. Other that one brief moment of tears while perched on the lap of a certain highlander, the woman was unwaveringly strong. But even Claire has her limits.
In Dragonfly in Amber, when Claire lost her Faith, her beloved first child, she did in fact seem to have a crisis of faith. The darkness surrounded her and she found little reason to go on. As angry as she was with Jamie, she felt ungrounded and without direction or purpose. Only after she realized that she was needed, that he needed her (what with being imprisoned and all), did she start to regain her sense of action.
In a later book, even when Claire was brutalized at the hands of kidnappers, she did not succumb to the darker emotions that might easily have drowned her. Although there was still much to be dealt with and worked through, she did not give up. As long as Jamie was by her side, she seems able to withstand nearly everything. He is her strength, as she is his. In fact, it seems that Claire is most vulnerable when Jamie, her emotional bulwark, is absent.
Undoubtedly the lowest point for Claire was when she feared that Jamie was lost at sea. Without Brianna to care for, there seemed little reason to continue. She contemplated suicide and found what solace she could at the bottom of a bottle. And the readers bear witness to her nearly ruinous grief. We want to shout to her that Jamie is alive! We want to tell her to hang on, that things get better, and that there are still so many others to live for . . . just as, in real life, when we wish to whisper these same consolations to our own real-life friends and family members who suffer from depression or who are struggling with grief. Hang on. Just hang on . . . it gets better.
YOUNG IAN ~
Young Ian suffers from his own grief. The pain of being separated from his family time and time again has to weigh on him. He also confronts the nearly unbearable struggle of trying to do the “right thing,” and of trying to put others first as he offers himself as a substitute for Roger and, in doing so, must turn his back on his family, his faith, and his heritage. Then, when he finally builds up a life with Emily and they try to start a family, to then suffer the loss of child after child until finally his own wife turns from him. And the aching loneliness he quietly endures as he tries to make peace with his loss . . . only to see in his Uncle Jamie and Auntie Claire the kind of love that he longs for. Remarkably, the constant reminder of their joy doesn’t call forth bitterness, but rather hope. Hope that if they can find their way back to one another, that perhaps he, too, can find his way back to happiness. Young Ian still has the soul of a poet and there remains in him the young lad that, on that day long ago in a brothel, when confronted with his Auntie Claire, long since presumed dead, finds the whole thing to be incredibly romantic. Although he faces his own torments, Young Ian meets them like the poet-warrior that he is.
Not everyone is as lucky.
Perhaps that is why, for me, the character whose struggle with his own internal demons touches me most is that of Fergus. Fergus, who in his youth made light of his missing hand and joked about finally being a gentleman of leisure, who never complained about his motherless childhood, who always seemed confident and jovial . . . that this is the character who tried to take his own life, that we didn’t see it coming, THIS is the character, the moment, the desperation that I feel sharpest. Because sometimes you DON’T see it coming. Sometimes, no matter how well loved they are, no matter how many people care, sometimes we just don’t see it.
That is why, in these dark days of winter, as we take down the tinsel and tuck away the garland, it is well to take stock of ourselves and those around us. Depression can set in like winter’s chill, and sometimes you don’t realize how cold you are until you can no longer feel.
A new year approaches. Perhaps instead of resolving to fit into a size four dress or buy something bigger, better, or more expensive, we could resolve to take better care of ourselves . . . and of those around us
My wish for the new year is simple: May your home be filled with books that speak to you, friends who care for you . . . and time enough to enjoy both.