This is how I survive winter:
I run on the treadmill in the basement until the sweat runs down my face and the endorphins kick into my slogging bloodstream and make me feel temporarily euphoric. I make kale smoothies and put heavy lotion on my hands and binge-watch Hallmark movies and, if it’s not too cold, walk the dog around the block.
I survive the winter with extra Vitamin D pills prescribed by my doctor, which I pick up at the pharmacy along with my antidepressants. I use a special light box for a half hour every morning. I cut back on Diet Coke in case aspartame really does contribute to depression like they say. I try to drink more water.
I know that this time of year is dangerous for me. I am prone here, more than any other time, to give in to the pull of depression. So instead, I listen to the thump of my feet against the treadmill and feel the end of my ponytail brush against my shoulder blades. I hold my two beautiful sons close and look long at their faces…and this is how I survive the winter.
Today we rode the bus up into the mountains of Amasia where it is still very much winter. I wore two pairs of socks and my snow boots, and still my toes went cold as I walked with our group up steep slopes toward small homes there.
I could not stop staring at the mothers. They were my age. Had we grown up in the same town, we would have gone to high school together. I suppose I should have expected this, but the last time I was on a trip like this, I was seventeen. The last time I stood in front of families like these, motherhood was worlds away, and the women seemed positively old. Today they seem young, young, young. Too young for the hard life they are living.
The second woman we met, Margarita, had fire in her eyes and a missing front tooth and two boys almost the same ages as my own. When we walked into the house, a nature program was showing on the tiny box-television in the corner, and it almost took my breath away, because this is what my boys would be watching too, if they were here. On the wall, there were flash cards carefully arranged in a row, and I thought instantly of the Word Bird full of “sight words” stuck to the wall of my own house in Minnesota.
This is how she survives the winter:
She shovels wood or cow chips into the furnace to warm the room, and then she hunkers down in it with her family. She hauls in the water and warms it on the stove. Then she rolls dough and flips it onto the oven one piece at a time until she has ninety pieces of traditional Armenian bread, which she’ll keep in the back room in a large green pot and use sparingly throughout the week. She’ll holler at her boys to stay out of that room, because the snow is growing wet and heavy on the roof and the whole thing could cave at any moment.
The lambs in the pen outside her house — these will help her survive, as will the work her husband did last summer, collecting grass from the nearby hills for hay. She hangs the wash on the line to dry in the cold; she rations out the last of the canned fruit and vegetables, refuses to cry over the ones that have gone sour. She hangs lace curtains over the cracked window panes and watches as they brush up against the crumbling concrete, letting in the light.
She holds her two beautiful sons close and looks long at their faces, and this is how she survives the winter.
Here is the temptation of the cross-cultural experience. Here is the cliched, obvious, immediate response:
Look how small my problems are in light of their BIG GIGANTIC PROBLEMS! Look how much I have! I should feel lucky! I should be more grateful!
“Real” hardships versus “first world problems.”
Them and us and guilt, guilt, guilt.
And while it’s an understandable response, I don’t think it’s a helpful one. Not for the strong, beautiful woman in the house with the lace curtains. Not for the strong suburban woman who keeps getting on that treadmill every long winter day.
Instead of comparing, let’s just admit it out loud to ourselves and each other: winter is hard.
The snow stretches into the distance and your toes grow numb in your boots, and we’re all just trying to keep walking. Just trying to make it through.
In the middle room of Margarita’s house, her oldest son, Tigran sits down to do his homework. She reaches across the table to help as we watch. She lets us take photos of her son as he bends over his words, a deep scar on his head visible just above his ear. She lets us see the broken windows, the laundry hanging, the sheep in the pen, the places they sleep. She takes us to the back room with the caving roof and shows us her last two cans of wild pears.
And I think as we follow her that this is how we survive winter: we let each other in.
We choose to open up the rooms of our hearts with all of their struggles and issues and to allow ourselves to be seen. And also, we choose to take a step into the unfamiliar rooms of others’ lives and to sit quietly, listen, take it all in, bear witness.
We huddle together around the stove, surrounded by the endless hills of white. We pass the bread, slice the cheese, wait it out together.
Today, two of the members of our team were so moved by the stories of these families, that they chose to sponsor a child right there, on the spot. (My family sponsored a child before I came, and I’ll get to meet him tomorrow.)
If you’re on the fence, I can tell you right now — it makes a difference. And there is so much need. I’ll tell you more about it as the week goes on, but in the meantime, click here to learn more or to find a child to sponsor.