“the beauty of the world […] has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” ~Virginia Woolf
November. Autumn rolls over and clocks fall back. Our scarves and collars creep up to our ears while our eyes squint in the dying light. November. Readings have swamped us in earnest, and writings have made us half mad with the mire. November. The steel sky creaks while clamping shut before the promise of flurries to brighten the deep dark of a seemingly forever winter.
November is the chugchug of a long train ride when you realise the only thing left to do is sink back in your seat and watch the passing landscape.
I’m at my desk, with piles of books cramped in around me, lights turned on even at this midday hour. Every November (and let’s face it, through to April), I am reminded to search for what the Danish cherish so much they have applied to UNESCO to give it intangible cultural heritage status: hygge. Now, although I have a family tree laden with æbler in names like Kai, Aage, and Ingrid, I grew up without any knowledge of hygge. Not in the Danish lifestyle sense, anyway.
But in our own ways we all yearn for it, seek it out, and discover its pleasing warmth. In Canada we may call it a sense of peace. Or quietude. Or calm. That heart-eased sensation when the firelight dances in the room, when all the candles are lit, when a glass of merlot satiates both the eye with its glow and the blood with its warmth. In Canada, we can find it in our vast wilderness and the protections from it.
In the summertime we ‘bathe’ in our pine-and-mud-scented forests, cycle along bejewelled serpentine rivers, and pitch tents under Tom Thomson-like renderings of leafy canopy. We hike or climb or swim. We canoe. And in that moment, when the water laps against the hull, the paddle hovers in drips, the sun glints off the lake, and the loon cries out one lonely call, we breathe deeply, filling our whole being, and remind ourselves to hold onto this moment for the day when November lumbers fat and heavy into our lives.
At this onset of a brief whisper of winter, I am reminded of Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s painting Return from the Inn, which is housed in our very own musée des beaux-arts. It is absolutely bereft of hygge.
The image presents the peasant life often depicted by Pieter’s father, the Elder. There is backbreaking labour in a doubled-over figure carrying a heavy bundle on his shoulders. There is a drunken, weapon-ready brawl at the door to the inn. There is a wife berating her drink-sodden husband as he leans on her while wistfully glancing back at the brawl. The museum’s interpretive label promises us that “the foreground abounds in sexual symbolism […] and the slit tree trunk with a pole running through it would all have been readily interpreted by Bruegel’s contemporaries.”
Because even as November can wound us with immense fatalist beauty, the cold does rouse our animal ignobility. Art and public transit teach us this little fact.
But do not forget that hygge is not a luxury reserved for those outside a Bruegel depiction. It is for all of us. It is a moment to savour the biscotti and espresso with a companion in a sun-soaked café. To walk aimlessly around campus in the darkening evening with a gaggle of our closest friends. To linger on a rain-carpeted street in the fog with an almond sliver of a moon overhead. To put on Nina Simone and curl up to finish that article in today’s newspaper with a brimming cup of Earl Grey. To go to the gallery and ponder the symbolism in the foreground of a Bruegel painting.
Take a moment for hygge, for it will help you to sit for longer periods of reading, concentrate for lengthier bouts of writing, and survive even the coldest sky over November.
If nothing else, it will give you the patience to stitch together the heart that has been cut asunder.