It was Saturday. Before I even opened my eyes, I knew the grass was covered in a blanket of shimmering, silver dew. Not frost yet, but cold and wet, just the same. The window panes beside my bed seemed suddenly thinner. A chill filled the bedroom. I heard a few lone, brave birds squawking, but their calls seemed to echo instead of clamor, as they do in the spring, when it sounds like there is a bird party in the backyard. Indeed, the squawks seemed only to come from crows.
Also, it was dark.
I opened my eyes and sat up in bed. I knew: winter is coming. I’m not exaggerating when I say a cold sweat broke out on my forehead and my heart began to pound. Don’t get me wrong, I love winter. And I especially love fall. But there seems to be an almost chemical reaction that happens when the sunlight moves sideways, casting long, cool shadows across the street, and the crows take over the landscape again.
It’s like my body just knows.
Adjusting to climates and time changes can be considered an occupational hazard for military families. But the “risks,” so to speak, become even greater when you live in the farthest northern corners of the country. Here, it’s not just the clocks on the wall that get messed up, it’s the internal ones as well.
When the military first moved us to Maine, I didn’t understand the seasonal changes yet. Neither did my body, which leads me to believe that the process is at least as mental as it is biological. Back then, I grew more sluggish in October, and eight months later, I had trouble falling asleep in sun-filled June, but my brain didn’t understand the differences. There was no logical component.
Now that I’ve been through several winters — now that I’ve learned what happens when you don’t rake your roof or water gets inside the keyhole in your car door — a new dimension takes hold in the anticipation of snow: I don’t want to be caught unprepared. Also: I don’t want to be left behind.
I used to think it was just the shortened days (by November, it will be dark by 4:15 p.m.) that affected me. When the shadows grew long and the sunlight more cool, my heart would quicken. But now I know that the squirrels and crows — and even my forward-thinking friends — are to blame.
Beginning in September, the squirrels that live in the large tree in our front yard, start getting fat. Literally. Those animals that look almost rat-like in spring grow pudgy and hefty in the fall. They dig holes in the yard, and they suck on acorns, driving our dog, Sparky, insane. I liken this to the crowd mentality I experienced in Florida just before a hurricane. When jugs of water start flying off the shelf, you can’t help but buy one (or 20) yourself. I mean, you’re not going to be the schmuck who’s caught without water. Even if the shelves seem emptied of prunes (which you hate), a clear sign that the crowd knows something you do not, you’ll feel compelled to drive to another store to find some.
This is how I feel when I see the squirrels getting ready for winter. As their rounded pre-winter bodies scurry across the yard and dig in the flowerbeds, I wonder, Should I maybe be digging for acorns, too? Acorns are legitimate food, right? Can you burn acorns as firewood if the heater breaks? Would it work to use an acorn to break the ice on my windshield?
When it comes to winter preparedness, everyone probably has a better plan that I do. Especially my neighbors with the reflective sticks to show the plow guy where the edge of the yard is buried, or the A-frame protective tents for their shrubs.
This feeling of being left behind and caught unprepared, I’m convinced, leads to the feeling of panic and despair of fall. I’ve heard that light therapy boxes can help. I’m giving it a try this year. My box arrived last week, and so far, what I’ve learned is this: when the instructions say “don’t stare directly into the light” they mean “don’t stare directly into the light.”
The light box hasn’t yet shown me miracles (like feeling less tired at 6 a.m.), and, in fact, if I wasn’t depressed before, I am now after putting on my make up with 10,000 lux of light illuminating every pore and blemish on my face. But I have great hopes for the box. Also, I’m not above taunting those over-achieving squirrels with my preparedness. I wonder if they’ve thought of a light box yet? Maybe I should show it to them through the glass front door: “Hey, squirrels, can your acorns do this?”
Just knowing that I have something the squirrels don’t makes me rest a little easier this winter.
Sarah Smiley is a Navy spouse and author of “Shore Leave,” a nationally syndicated column.