The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
Seattle’s 1998 winter was record-breaking in its wetness. It rained 90 days out of 120 and Mount Baker Ski Area received over 1,000 inches of snow, a world record. That winter made quite an impression on me as a new arrival and I remember thinking that Seattle’s reputation was well earned.
While it’s true that Seattle and the pacific northwest are wet in the winter, the rain isn’t much of a burden. It’s typically a light and misty kind of rain that never seems to soak into clothes. What is burdensome is the persistent darkness. The sun hides behind clouds and the horizon, only peeking out in what local meteorologists call “sun breaks”.
Today, December 10th, the sun sets at 4:17 on Orcas Island and it’s the earliest sunset of the year. This isn’t that remarkable, as most people in the northern part of the U.S. experience short winter days. What’s different is the combination of short days and cloud cover that can last for weeks and seem to seal the moisture into the atmosphere. Even without rain, there is a feeling of dankness that lingers. Every surface, given enough time, becomes covered in moss. Yards, vehicles, and houses, if left alone, will eventually be eaten by it. There’s even a name for pacific northwest old-timers: mossbacks.
The rainy winters are a constant subject of conversation and commiseration in our area. People love to moan about the rain, but not me. From the moment I arrived, I began looking forward to the end of summer and the arrival of rain, which begins reliably in mid-October. As I wrote in an essay called Ready for Rain that is the namesake for this newsletter:
It’s not simply the arrival of rain, but the transition to a different environment and way of life. The drear has a certain dark beauty; a low-contrast softness. There’s no need to squint or close the blinds. Even the sound of the rain on our house is music to my ears, a lullaby.
I think this attitude is, in part, a coping mechanism. Without intention, I found happiness and hope in the darkness. I find the rain soothing and want to see forecasts with days of rain and wind. I want to be in it; to feel the weather and to breathe it in.
When the days are short and wet, home plays a different role and our goal becomes to make it a place that’s built for hunkering down and creating a contrast to the outdoors. Again, from my essay:
The best way to describe the feeling is “coziness”. Home feels like a refuge from the elements; a place to relax and live life more slowly. Coffee seems to taste better when it’s raining.
I always loved this feeling and a few years ago, I heard a name for it that comes from Denmark. They call it Hygge (Hue-GUH). The Danes, who are often listed as the most content people in the world, must be doing something right in the cold dark winter months and many point to their spirit of hygge as a prime example. For them, winter is a cozy time to build fires, light candles, pull on wool socks, eat buttery food, drink warm drinks, and spend time with family and friends. That sounds pretty good to me.
Once we learned more about hygge, we started practicing it with intention. In Seattle, we spent many nights with blankets spread out on the floor in front of the gas fire and along with candles, wine, and dogs. When we moved to the Yurt on Orcas, we built fires in the woodstove and got cozy as the storms rolled through the San Juans. I have fond memories of opening the door at night and hearing the frightening roar of wind in the tall trees. It was a sound I never heard in Seattle and it made me want to curl up in a blanket and appreciate the toasty interior of the house, which smelled like burning wood.
This year is different. The guest house is cozy but has no fireplace or wood stove. There’s not much room to spread a blanket on the floor and even less to entertain friends. We have candles and wool socks and dogs, but it’s just not the same. Even if we turn up the heat and drink wine as the rain beats the roof, it doesn’t feel quite right, perhaps because we are just visitors in this place and not invested in making it feel more like home. Thankfully that homey feeling has a way of appearing almost anywhere we find ourselves. Even if there’s not a fireplace, the guest house is still a nice place to be.
By this time next year, we’ll have moved into the new house and this multi-year adventure will be over. I’m sure we’ll enjoy the long, warm days of summer. But even in July, I’ll be looking forward to October when the weather and our house become something different. Our outdoor lifestyle will transition to focus on an interior hideaway that’s built for taking the full brunt of storms that hit our side of the island. When they do, we’ll be inside, warm and cozy, living a little more slowly.