The Fifth Winter

The killer arrived just after The Three Wise Men had departed. He slipped in through the barred second floor window with his toolkit and chloroform in hand, stuffed the rag into my mouth, then went to work dismantling my time. 

I learned later that the killer’s name was Winter, and that he had already visited me four times before. Somehow, I had survived his last four attempts at my life. The fifth time round, though, things were different. I had chosen to become vulnerable, to open myself up. He saw the opportunity and struck, freezing me to the core.

The First Winter: A view of Riga’s frozen river, Latvia, January 2016

By stepping into February (as if I really had the choice), I have entered my fifth month away from Adelaide, home and Hills. I’ve entered my third month away from Can Serrat and the family of artists I lived among there. Shockingly, by crossing this border, I’ve also entered my second year post-exchange.

It’s also the fifth winter I’ve experienced in two years.

It’s weird what perpetual winter does to you. Unbroken except for a few weeks, here and there, of hot weather, I’ve seen more rain than any Australian ever should and forgotten what it feels like to wear shorts and t-shirts outside. I’ve grown a hard carapace on my shoulders from hunching against the wind. Worst of all, is that I’ve seen two Adelaide summers, with their stifling heat, comfortable nights under the verandah and dappled green light, pass by without feeling the full force of that warmth. Something inside me has grown hard and cold. Tough is probably a good word for it. Tough in the sense of strength, but also in the sense of preserved meat too hard to bite into, devoid of blood and dried.

Of course, having spent the last three months in Murcia, a city close to Europe’s only desert climate zone, I can’t complain too much about bitter winter. I’ve only exclaimed “fuck, it’s cold” once or twice, and one of those times is probably just because I could see snow on the Sierra Espuña far to the east and made up the bitterness in my mind.

But still, winter as a period of stagnation and stasis rests uneasily on my mind. By making the choice to be brave and move across hemispheres I have upset the natural flow of the seasons. At times, this has left me in a physical limbo, and a mentally cloudy space. There have been times, especially during this recent period of grueling job hunting, that I’ve felt stunted and grey, without leaves or my normal internal strength.

But I just have to remind myself that there are many plants that flower in winter. And that they’re all the more prized and beautiful for having done so in difficult circumstances.

The Second Winter: Trees in the morning mist, Dandenong Ranges, Australia, July 2016

My last two years of recurring winter have been marked by incredible change and incredible challenge. I returned from exchange all the way back in 2016 to complete my university course work and begin writing for a local paper, fulfilling a dream of being paid to write. After that year, and a winter visit from Bonica, I returned to Spain at the beginning of 2017, just slipping in before winter had finished having its way with the Northern Hemisphere. After this, I flew back to Australia to find another winter already in full force. I landed in Adelaide, after a month or so of Spanish sun, to find the world sodden and dreary. In this wet world I worked retail to refill bank accounts, kept writing for my paper and spent that fourth winter facing a tough choice. Move and grow despite the fear? Or remain and wallow in the the summer glow?

And so, here I am, in my fifth winter. A winter by choice. Outside, as I write, the sky above Murcia is spitting its unusually huge globs of rain and the orange trees below the window have been painted dark and over saturated. This winter has been a surreal experience. One day, it rained blue balloons. A hundred or more of the plastic globes floated across the nearby park, silently like little azure ghosts voyaging to the after life (actually, more likely, the litter-lined banks of the Rio Segura). On other days it has reached the mid 20s and smelled like Spring. It’s hardly been the brutal, solid winter, of Mannheim or the endless gloom of the Adelaide Hills’.

In this unstable super-season of mine, I’ve found time slipping away in strangely intangible lumps, as if days have disappeared without me ever having taken part in them. The only proof I have of these lost winter days are the photos, stories and memories of the brightest times, often told via this blog.

Writing has been the one thing that has well and truly kept me grounded over this period of flux. My time at Can Serrat was as solid of a time as I could have possibly hoped for, and writing last years’ retrospective post helped make 2017 feel real, despite the fact that I spent half the year in Adelaide and the other half in Murcia. I’ve even started writing a daily journal in 2018, an experience that has taught me to keep track of my valuable time and given me a tangible object on which to reflect and learn from later. Sure, it takes time and energy to write daily and it is sometimes difficult to fit in everything important that happens within 24 hours, but the exercise is a valuable one. Only problem is, I need a new notebook every month! My word splurging may get a little expensive.

The act of writing by hand is also important to this. Before I wrote this post on WordPress, I wrote a long, stream of consciousness in my general note-keeping book. I’ve written so much by hand recently (something I think we’ve forgotten how to do) that the muscle in the top of my right arm has been aching. Still, writing through my own fingers, putting physical ink on physical paper, has been a totally mindful process. I find myself better able to remember and to think through the physical act. So much of ourselves has been lost to digital devices, to thumbs on screens, that it’s easy to lose track of what’s really been said, and what’s really behind it. At least, through the movement of muscles and firing of moto-neurons I have been able to return to a pre-blog space of truly personal writing.

The interesting thing about this, though, is that by writing in personal diaries I’ve found myself writing more truthfully about pains and worries, sometimes leading me down the rabbit hole of pessimism in the same way that writing for publication on this blog helps me climb up into optimism. Perhaps I need to do both to level this out, to reach a happy medium in which my pains leave the body through ink and my life is elevated through the digital word. I mustn’t ignore the truth of my pen and paper journal, though. As much as I love writing Electric Holy Road as a psychosomatic happiness aid, I need to acknowledge and deal with the pain of the day to day trudge, especially those cloud-induced pains of the two-and-a-half year winter.

The Third Winter: The plains of Murcia under thick clouds, February, 2017

It’s been a hard winter. Unlike previous seasons, I’ve hardly been moving. In fact, I’ve been in the Region of Murcia ever since leaving Can Serrat. It’s not a bad thing, of course, to plant one’s feet in the soil. That’s just life. But the pressure from back home, from Instagram and from “success culture” in general has made the stasis here more uncomfortable than it should be. I’ve had friends back home ask me how the travels are going, keen to hear about adventures across countries like I wrote about in the 2015/16 winter, but the truth is that I’m still just living an every-day life. I’m writing, trying to step forward into the next stage of my career, washing dishes, grocery shopping, suffering headaches, binging Netflix, painting miniatures, running along the riverside and drinking several cups of tea a day just like I was back home, just this time in a very different location.

What makes this new chapter of my life so special though is the challenge of language and cultural barriers. I’ve been forced to learn rapidly, to follow conversations and to even enter and leave shops in the correct, polite way. Estoy aprendiendo mas español, y hablando más, todos los días, to the point that I have even spent days playing games like Dungeons & Dragons with Spanish speaking friends. Sure, I leave the table absolutely exhausted and craving the ease of communicating in English, but again, writing has been my escape. Cultural imperialism and the proliferation of English helps as well, of course, but I want to do my best not to Anglicise Spain any more.

Prelude to The Fourth Winter: Autumnal Stirling, Australia, May 2017

Communication is paramount to relationships and, so, culture. I’ve found that, at times when I’ve felt my Spanish slipping or my mind wondering around Spanish speakers, I’ve felt withdrawn and isolated. I’ve felt left out in the cold with only my English media to warm me. I’ve felt like a bottle, full of feeling and knowledge, but unable to pour because of a rusted over funnel. I have had to develop other means of communication, to write and draw and shake my fists to make myself heard. Part of the dread of this fifth winter has been an extended vow of silence (or at least, a vow of quietude). So, I guess you’ll forgive my sentimentality in this post. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to be so vocal.

One more winter won’t kill me. In fact, it’s making me stronger. But still, months of job hunting in a foreign continent, communicating in a language that I wasn’t born into, loving and leaving friends, facing illnesses and the brutal truths of adulthood and career climbing have taken their toll, I can’t deny. I’ve suffered a hell of a lot to get to where I am now, even if where I am now is only the middle of the road to somewhere else. Where I am now is another winter period of stasis. Perhaps, after the clouds have cleared, I’ll finally get a chance to experience a full period of growth again. Bring on Spring.

The Fifth Winter: Out in the badlands near Mula

I am thankful for words, for writing, for love and for respect. I am thankful that I have gotten a lot of the difficult residency stuff out of the way and that now I’m fighting to thrive, not just survive. I’m proud of how far I’ve come, despite the challenges and the attacks aimed towards me by five consecutive winters (six if you count the period before leaving for exchange in October 2015). Let this be a reminder that, even in seeming stasis and stagnation, that flowers bloom. Life thrives even in the face of winter. Let this be a reminder that time is not disappearing into the grey, but being used and transformed into new and beautiful seeds, just waiting to bloom. Let his post give weight to the day, so that I can go forward, make different mistakes, and learn a bit more every time.

Let this post be thanks to the fifth winter for all its tough lessons.

The Fifth Winter: A typical winter morning in Murcia

Feature photo: Latifa Echakhch ‘À chaque stencil une révolution‘, MACBA Barcelona

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